The historic appointment by President Obama of the first woman to head the U.S. Federal Reserve spurred a fascinating opinion piece by Noel Terry published in the Sydney Morning Herald under the title Why women should run the post-GFC world. He reported that, in these nervous times following the Global Financial Crisis, research showing a strong link between testosterone and excessive risk-taking activity was being taken more seriously in the business world, that consultation, communication and collaboration had become the new business buzz-words, and that women’s right-brain skills were being recognised as of great value to business rather than still being dismissed as ‘soft’. Businesses were starting to recruit more graduates with humanities degrees (considered more the domain of women than men) and economists were predicting that, within a decade or two, women’s average income would surpass that of men.
Terry’s opinion piece provided a refreshing change from the spoutings of right-wing shock-jocks and other conservative mouth-pieces who regularly proclaim that ‘women are destroying the joint’ (seriously?) and that society is collapsing because men are being emasculated (yawn!).
History shows that societies fluctuate in power and prosperity as do customs, fashions, religions, businesses, indeed almost everything involving humans. One dichotomous arena that should also have seen power fluctuations—but hasn’t—is that of human gender. While some claim that matriarchal societies have existed, anthropologists and archaeologists have been unable to find any genuinely egalitarian societies let alone matriarchal ones. However times are a-changing and one political leader who recognises this is President Obama. He recently told a women’s college: ‘You are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and of this world.’
So what led to the situation where the twenty-first century might indeed become the Century of the Woman?
While major social change involves incremental developments in many different areas, two important developments in the area of women’s rights—those of particular relevance to family historians, at least—are the Married Women’s Property Act (discussed in Volume 1, Issue 5) and female enfranchisement.
Prior to the passage of these political acts, most women make few appearances in historical records. That they existed at all is often documented only in their own birth, marriage and death records and those of their children—if any. And sometimes they failed to receive even the most basic recognition they deserved; I’ve seen baptism entries that merely recorded: ‘James, son of John Smith, labourer’ (nine long months and a very painful delivery: how dare they!!!).
The women we are most likely to ‘hear’ are those who broke ‘the rules’: that is, those who came before the courts on criminal charges and those who demanded that their voices be heard in the social and political domain rather than remaining silent as the dominant social, political and religious institutions demanded. Unless they were doing charity work, all were chastised by society as being ‘unfeminine’—or worse. Indeed, here are some examples of male attitudes towards women in Australia in 1888; these comments were made by parliamentarians during parliamentary discussions as recorded in the official record of the NSW Parliament: Hansards.
Sir Henry Parkes, then Premier of NSW and an advocate for voting rights for women, said in 1888: ‘We know that woman, when she yields to crime, is stayed by no consideration. The worse of crimes in the worst of times have been perpetrated by women. At all times, and under all circumstances, when woman once forgets the character of her sex, there is no barrier to the lengths she will go in crime.’
Political radical Thomas Walker had the same view: ‘There was no character more sublimely terrible than that of Lucrezia Borgia. Though her relatives were villains, they could not compare with her in her atrocities.’ Of course, history now recognises that Lucrezia has been horribly maligned, that her male relations were the villains and she herself another victim.
Walker continued, ‘Women might be compared in many respects to hothouse flowers, which are protected from the violence of tempests and very carefully watched and sheltered, but when they find themselves suddenly exposed to the outbursts of passion they are carried away by temptation to crime and ill-doing. They have not the power of self-restraint and of self-correction which is possessed by the other sex.’ Walker continued by stating that this was ‘fact’.
It’s extraordinary, when you think about it. The Eve mythology—which depicted women as corruptible and corrupting—continued to underpin the normal political and social discourse about women. Considering that these were the views of the social progressives, it is astonishing that women succeeded in gaining the right to vote at all, let alone a mere fourteen years later.
So when were your female ancestors granted the right to vote? And have you wondered what they might have thought about it—whether they found it a nuisance or recognised the historic importance of this newly granted entitlement? In Australia, women were enfranchised at the federal level in 1902 although, at state level, the right to vote varied: South Australia (1894), Western Australia (1899), NSW (1902), Tasmania (1903), Queensland (1905) and Victoria (1908). I discuss Australian Electoral Rolls in Volume 1, Issue 3. In New Zealand, the critical date was 1893. In the U.K., women received limited voting rights in 1918: they had to be over 30 and to meet the minimum property requirements. The universal voting franchise was not extended to all women aged over 21 until 1928. The year 1918 saw the franchise extended to women in Canada, except for Quebec (1940). In 1920, women gained federal voting rights in U.S.A. although voting rights at state levels varied. In Switzerland, women were not granted voting rights until 1971.
The subject of women’s rights, responsibilities and recognition is of particular interest to me at the moment courtesy of working on The Lucretia Borgia of Botany Bay, which tells the story of Louisa Collins, the last woman executed in New South Wales. In my books, I explore the social dynamics of the time and, in 1888, ‘the women question’—as it was called—was of great social interest. After Louisa was sentenced to death, many asked in horror: ‘Should women be executed at all?’ This led progressives to frame the question in political terms: ‘Should women be executed for committing a crime when they have no voice in voting for death-sentence legislation?’ Countering this was a philosophically-sound argument; however it was often spouted by conservatives as a ‘Nah! Nah! Got you!’ dismissal of the views of suffragists and their supporters: ‘If women want to be treated as equal to men, then female criminals should be punished in the same way as male criminals.’ The female vote was of greater social importance than merely their right to choose a representative at the ballot box.
The historic importance of female enfranchisement is seen in Time magazine’s choice of British suffragette Emily Pankhurst as one of the 100 most influential people of the twentieth century. The flow-on effects of voting rights can be seen most particularly in Sydney in latter 2010 when the city was totally under the governance of women: Queen Elizabeth, the ruling monarch; Quentin Bryce, Governor General of Australia; Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia; Tanya Plibersek, Federal Member for Sydney; Marie Bashir, Governor of NSW; Kristina Keneally, Premier of NSW; and Clover Moore, State Member for Sydney and also Lord Mayor of Sydney. Clearly, it was the ‘Year of the Woman’. Will the twenty first century be the ‘Century of the Woman?’ Who knows.
NB. After just publishing this blog, I came across the following article in the Guardian: "African women are blazing a feminist trail
". How fascinating.
In my book Writing Interesting Family Histories, I ask the question: how did an illiterate person living in an illiterate society know what the date was? In this article, I ask essentially the same question but with respect to time. The answer seems simple: the sun … then sundials … then clocks on the town hall façade that boomed or chimed the hour. Or constables walking their beat and calling out ‘It’s midnight and all is well’. Or cocks crowing at the crack of dawn (with a warning to the cocks themselves that, if they are over-eager to greet the dawn, they might find themselves eaten for breakfast!). It was good enough for the local community—for centuries at least. But what happened when the local community became part of a broader community. What happened when technology arrived on its doorstep?
When railway tracks began criss-crossing the country, time suddenly mattered in a way it never had before. Trains travelled long distances and required precise timetables. People needed to know when exactly a train was arriving, but more importantly, when a train was departing. If they missed a train, they might be stuck for hours—or days. Railway safety also relied upon timetable precision. It became essential to establish a ‘railway time’, with the same clock used all along the line.
Many railways had their terminus in a capital city so they set their clocks by that city’s time. ‘City time’ in a capital city like Sydney, Australia, was determined by an observatory that had been established to provide the exact time for shipping. As mentioned in my Rave Review about Dava Sobel’s Longitude (Volume 1, Issue 3), ships’ captains needed accurate clocks so they could set their chronometers and thereby calculate longitude—without which they were sailing blind, often with disastrous results.
Today, the four capital cities in the eastern states of Australia are set at the same time—in winter at least. Noon in Sydney (NSW) is also noon in Brisbane (Queensland), Melbourne (Victoria), and Hobart (Tasmania). But, prior to the adoption of the Australian standard times zones in 1895, noon in Sydney was 11.35am in Melbourne, 11.44am in Hobart and 12.07pm in Brisbane.
Confusingly, Bourke in Western NSW managed the extraordinary achievement of having three ‘times’ in operation at the same time. The railways kept Adelaide time (which was originally one hour behind Sydney); the post office kept Sydney time; and the mines kept local time. At what time should the pubs close? Who cared? Easier to leave them open!
So next time you see an historical reference to a ‘time’, think about what it meant. We tend to take ‘time’ for granted but it is a more complex subject than most of us have previously recognised.
It rarely happens now but, in the past, when people noticed that I had a different surname to my husband, they often asked, ‘Why do you use your maiden name rather than your married name?’ Tactfully, I would begin my answer by rephrasing their question to ‘You mean, why do I use my own surname rather than that of my husband?’ That simple rephrasing provided one answer. From there I would head in different directions depending upon the type of person asking the question and the context of the situation. Sometimes I would say bluntly (and perhaps tactlessly), ‘Well, I married him, I didn’t become him.’ Sometimes I would remind the questioner that the divorce rate has passed 50%, which has produced a sort of ‘musical surnames’ situation for women; when the music stops, which surname-chair do they end up sitting in? Their first husband’s? Their second husband’s? Or do they decide to go back to the surname of their youth? Generally, at some point in the conversation, I would explain why women ‘lost’ their surnames in the first place—and that’s where the subject of the Married Women’s Property Act comes in.
Under the English law of yesteryear, married women had no rights to property and progeny. For that reason, impecunious male members of the gentry would keep their eyes peeled for heiresses they could woo into marriage, while others, like the convict Sir Henry Browne Hayes (transported to NSW in the Atlas in 1802), kidnapped them and forced them into marriage. Marriage gave a man ownership of his wife’s money, which he could use to save his estate or set up a mistress or gamble or do anything else he wanted.
Upon marriage, a woman’s separate legal identity ceased to exist. Women became complicit in ensuring their own invisibility by abandoning their surnames upon marriage and adopting those of their husbands, even though there was no legal requirement to do so then or now (it is merely tradition). To make matters worse, it became customary for women to ‘abandon’ their given names as well. They became ‘Mrs John Smith’ that is, ‘the mistress of John Smith’, a possession like his cows and his chooks. It was almost impossible for a woman to escape the marital knot. Divorce required an Act of Parliament, which women had no money to finance. Moreover, when a woman endeavoured to leave a bad husband through divorce or otherwise, her rights to her children were at her husband’s whim, and he often kept them just to spite her.
Liberal thinkers saw the dreadful situation many women found themselves in. If a woman was tied to a lazy drunk, she would be forced to work during the day without any right to the money she earned, to feed and care for her family in the evening with the little money he would give her, and to suffer his brutality and sexual advances at night. When the Anglican marriage service made a woman vow to ‘submit’ to her husband, it meant it in every sense of that demeaning word. Some ‘feminists’ were so horrified at what they saw of marriage that they chose to remain single.
Social reformers realised that if women were granted the legal right to their own income and property they would at least have some autonomy in a difficult marriage. The social conservatives were horrified at the idea. They believed that their homes would be riven by discord, and that women would fritter away their money or invest it foolishly. Worse, such rights would put women on an almost equal footing with their husbands, which was an appalling idea, a barbarous, semi-civilised notion. A happy home required a subservient wife. The man must be lord and master of his wife and children. Blah, blah. In Tennessee, the legislature said that married women lacked ‘independent souls’ so should not be allowed any property rights.
The social reformers won the day. Married Women’s Property Acts were passed in England in 1870 (and improved in 1882) and Scotland in 1881, in the Australian States of Victoria in 1870 and New South Wales in 1879. The United States of America began earlier with legislation passing in some states as early as 1839. Google ‘Married Women’s Property Act’ for your place of interest and you should be able to find specific legislation dates, or at least start the search for more information.
For family historians, the significance of this social situation and the consequences of these acts can be seen in probate records. Lists of surviving English or Australian wills rarely include married women prior to the mid-1800s, whereas the names of widows and spinsters can often be found. With the passage of these acts, the legal situation changed. Married women not only retained the right to their own income and property, they could bequeath it to whomever they chose.
Interestingly, Scottish married women retained rights to property—and, historically, also retained their surnames. Married women are regularly named in lists of Scottish wills from the time these lists began, and most references note their maiden as well as married surname. For example, land dealings in the 1700s involving my female ancestor listed her as ‘Christian Clark or Watson’, Clark being her maiden surname and Watson her married surname. Scottish baptism records almost always list the mother under her maiden name, making her ancestry easier to determine than in England. English baptisms rarely do so. Accordingly, if an English marriage entry is not found, it is extremely difficult to determine an English wife’s maiden name and to trace her ancestry back any further.
So, that’s the long answer as to why I didn’t change my surname upon marriage. Needless to say, I didn’t inflict it on my questioners!
No doubt most of your have a ‘hobby’ of some sort, perhaps common or esoteric or simply odd. I’ve had a few hobbies in my time, including one that most people thought bizarre. When I was ten or eleven, I began collecting girls’ names.
‘How does one “collect” girls’ names?’ you perhaps ask politely, while thinking, ‘Hmmm! It’s not like collecting stamps or coins!’ Well, initially I would borrow or buy ‘given name’ books, and also extract names from birth, marriage and death notices. By the age of 13, I was going into the State Library by myself and looking up name books from all over the world. I was only interested in girls’ names because surnames could be used as boys’ names. Ultimately I had a list of 22,000 girls’ names. In those pre-computer days, it became unmanageable and I was forced to give up. Yet I always retained a fascination for names, indeed for words and sounds generally, which probably explains why I majored in linguistics at university.
Names are intriguing. You have almost certainly looked in a ‘names’ book to see what your name means. ‘Carol’, for example, is pretty obvious. It means ‘song of joy’. Whenever people ask me how to spell it, I say ‘as in Christmas’! (Just as an aside, following the last few months’ History Hints, Christmas carolling also had its origins in pagan rituals: during the winter solstice celebrations, the Roman Mummers would dress up in costume and travel from house to house, singing and dancing to entertain their neighbours.) The name Carol itself first became popular in America in the twentieth century, probably from the influence of cinema, and was a shorter form of the older Caroline.
Names, names, names. Imagine how I felt when I acquired a job in my ‘new’ hobby, family history research, and had access to lists and lists of genuine names. I temporarily sated my passion when I edited the General Musters of NSW, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land 1811 (Australian Biographical and Genealogical Record, Sydney, 1987—sample below) by including lists of all the male and female given names noted in the musters, sorted both alphabetically and by frequency. As a family historian, I have since found these lists useful in indicating commonness or rarity.
The muster listed all the adults resident in the colony except Aboriginals, government officials, and soldiers and their wives. Most residents were serving or emancipated convicts who came primarily from England and Ireland, but also from other parts of the world. The lists provided some fascinating statistics. The four most common male names were: John (19%), William (14%), Thomas (11%) and James (9%). This means that one in every two adult males living at that time in New South Wales—and, by extension, England in the late 1700s and early 1800s—carried one of these four names (imagine being a schoolteacher!). While these names were also used in Ireland, the Irish influence was particularly seen in the eighth name: Patrick (3%). The top 15 names were carried by 83% of males. Clearly ‘common names’ in those days were truly common, which means that an ‘uncommon’ given name might actually have been rare.
Only 0.7% of the male population and 0.7% of the female population had a ‘middle’ name (fascinating that the percentages were the same). Multiple given names didn’t become common for the working classes until after 1850. Later in the century, families went overboard and began giving their offspring two, three and four middle names. Today, it has settled down to a customary single middle name.
Families were even less original in naming their daughters. One in every two girls had the name Mary (24%), Elizabeth (14%) or Ann(e) (14%). The top fifteen girls’ names were carried by 87% of the women.
Next year I will write a book about given names. It will discuss how certain names became popular and provide detailed statistics on frequency (both from the 1811 Muster and a broader cross-section of years), as well as other interesting and useful information for family historians. This should finally sate my passion for names!
An email from a reader reminded me that I hadn’t mentioned the names of our calendar months: January through to December. As mentioned last month, pagan beliefs and celebrations have had a powerful influence on western history and religion. In terms of the months of the year:
January celebrated Janus, the Roman god of fences and doorways, who is depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions, hence Janus, a ‘two-faced person’.
February: day of purification, a Roman celebration in that month.
March: from Mars, the Roman god of war.
April: from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. My birthday month. Rather lovely.
May: from the Greek goddess Maia associated with spring and fertility.
June: from Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage and the well-being of women.
July: From Julius Caesar, who named this month after himself. Such arrogance!
August: From Augustus Caesar, who tweaked the Julian calendar, and had to stick his nose in it as well. Seriously?!
September, October, November and December: obviously by this time they were having troubling thinking up a name (or were bored) as these stand for the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months of the March-beginning calendar year.
Some British people were unhappy about the continuing influence of the pagan gods. The Quakers (John Tawell, the subject of The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable, was a Quaker) were so affronted by the link between the month names and the pagan gods that they refused to use the names, instead saying ’first month, second month …’. They also refused to use the days of the week for the same reason (Thursday, for example, celebrates the Norse god of thunder, Thor, and Sunday the mighty Sun God—which is why Sunday came to be treated as a special day). Accordingly, the Quakers called the days of the week ’first day, second day’.
When I was researching Tawell through the Quaker records, I had to mentally ‘translate’ these dates. Very confusing. No wonder the custom did not spread more broadly. Yet, in some ways it has: we often write dates in the form 2/1/2013. It’s still confusing though. To some this represents 2 January and to others 1 February. I made the most of this ‘loophole’ when holidaying in America when aged 20. A bar served me a drink and congratulated me on turning 21—a month before my actual birthday. In fact, I think they gave me a free drink. I didn’t correct them. Calendar confusion—sometimes very handy!
Has anyone who has lived in England wondered why their tax year begins on the odd date of 6 April? It was one of those passing thoughts I had when I worked there many years ago (so I could undertake family history research, of course!). The answer lies in the date chosen for Christmas Day.
The date 25 December, which falls three or four days after the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice, has been important since ancient times. In Ancient Babylon it celebrated the birth of the Son of Isis, with lots of partying and gift-giving. In Rome, the winter solstice celebrations ended with the feast of Brumalia on 25 December. Many Romans followed the cult of the Sun God, Mithra; they reportedly believed that Mithra was born of a virgin on 25 December and came to earth to save men from their sins, and that, as he ‘grew’, the days would become longer and warmer.
In the fourth century, the Romans made the political decision to officially deify Jesus Christ (some Christian sects didn’t believe in his divinity), and to impose Christianity on their pagan majority so as to ease social unrest. Pope Julius I decided that the pagans would convert to Christianity more readily if Christian celebrations were held on the same days as pagan celebrations. So, although theologians say that Christ was born in any one of a number of months other than December, the Christians chose to celebrate the birth of their ‘Son of God’ on the same day many pagans celebrated the birth of their ‘Sun God’.
The day nine months before that, 25 March, became the Feast of the Annunciation when, according to Christian belief, the angel Gabriel announced the Virgin Mary’s conception of Christ. This date became known as ‘Lady Day’.
In England, Lady Day became the first day of both the calendar year and the financial year. That being the case, the date 24 March 1750 was followed by 25 March 1751. But in 1752, England not only dumped eleven days from its calendar (see Newsletter 1 and picture below), it also dumped Lady Day as the beginning of the calendar year, and changed to the calendar we use today. So 31 December 1751 was followed by 1 January 1752—which means that, in the English calendar at least, the dates 1 January to 24 March 1751 never existed! How bizarre is that. Which also explains why George Washington’s birthday was officially changed from 11 February 1731 to 22 February 1732 as mentioned in the previous newsletter.
This explains why the International Genealogical Index, for example, can list two entries for the same person with the year of the event differing by one year, one generally being from the official church register transcription and the other from a contributor. To solve this problem, historians and genealogists should use a notation like ‘1731/32’ for the pre-1752 dates between 1 January and 24 March. Or to be even more accurate (or pedantic): 11/22 February 1731/32!
But back to Lady Day. What were the Brits to do about their financial year? Rents were paid on ‘quarter days’, that is, Lady Day, Midsummer’s Day (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas Day. Fiddling with the nation’s finances would be a nightmare. So the days deleted from the calendar for September 1752 were added to 25 March with the result that the new financial year began, thereafter, on 6 April.
[Thank you to Clare Shiels for the picture.]
The history/family history hint in my first History Detective
newsletter is covered below. You can access the full newsletter by clicking here
.History hint: Calendar confusionIn February 2013, I was one of the speakers on the Unlock the Past genealogy cruise and in one of my talks I happened to mention the changeover from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. I was surprised to find that a lot of the attendees didn’t know about this important historical event so I thought I would discuss it here. It’s an interesting bit of trivia for non-historians, but helpful for family historians. In 45 BCE, Julius Caesar implemented what became known as the Julian calendar, the system of date-keeping used thereafter in the “Judeo-Christian” countries (and others). Without our handy computers, his astronomers managed the extraordinary achievement of devising a civil calendar that diverged from the solar calendar by only eleven minutes per year. Unfortunately, by 1582, the compounding effect of that divergence meant that the civil and solar calendars differed by eight days. In that year Pope Gregory XIII decreed that the Gregorian calendar should replace the Julian calendar, with “leap year” rules to help keep the calendars in alignment. Protestant England, however, refused to follow such a decree. As a consequence, in 1752, when England at last took action, the civil and solar calendars deviated by eleven days. The authorities decided to delete eleven days from a single year to bring the two calendars into alignment. Accordingly, 2 September 1752 was followed by 14 September 1752. This meant that the year 1752 wasn’t the normal 365 days, but only 354 days. Imagine the community’s reaction: the masses were outraged because they thought they were losing eleven days from their lives. Imagine trying to make such a change today – particularly in our current political climate where the two sides of politics refuse to agree on … pretty much everything! For family historians, think about the impact on your ancestors’ lives. After I discussed this subject in a seminar, an attendee came up to me and mentioned that this change had impacted upon her mother’s life. No, her mother was not born before 1752. She was born in the USSR prior to 1918, the year Russia changed to the Gregorian calendar. In old age, her mother ended up in a nursing home suffering from dementia. She told the staff that she had two birthdays – and they, naturally, thought this was the dementia speaking. But it wasn’t. She truly did have two days on which she could celebrate her birth. If she had been born on 11 February 1731 (like American President George Washington), under the legal provisions of the new calendar her new birth-date became 22 February 1731. Actually, it became 22 February 1732, but I’ll explain that year change in my next newsletter. So, if you had the “choice” of two birthdays, which would you choose? It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?
Writing INTERESTING Family Histories
is now available as an ebook on the ebook publisher Smashwords.com under the title How to Write INTERESTING Family Histories
. My heartfelt thanks to John Porter for his assistance in publishing the book. It's been a steep learning curve! I am now busy preparing a version for publication on Amazon.com as well (which is an even steeper learning curve as I have to work in XHTML coding!!).
My eyes have been opened to "indie publishing" - as it is called. All those "how to" books that I have been thinking about can now come to fruition as ebooks. I will keep you posted regarding my endeavours.
Yesterday, I was a member of a Writing Family History panel at a seminar, It's All Relative: Sharing Family Stories
, hosted by the Australian National Library, Canberra. As I prepared my talk, I had an epiphany. I realised that there was a simple way to remember the three ingredients necessary for writing a Family HiStory (capitalisation intended):1.
History3. Story1. Family: We all talk about our relevant family when writing a family history, but many family writers merely recount names and dates. Their "family histories" read like encyclopaedia entries ... yet how many people read a complete encyclopaedia entry for pleasure? To write a family history that others want to read, we need to explore ...2. History: Our ancestors were not suspended in space. Their feet were firmly grounded on the earth on which they walked. They were the embodiment of their times. Understanding and communicating this historical context is a critical component of any family history. It is only w
hen the family's story is set against the historical backdrop and is used to explore and illuminate that particular backdrop that the family history becomes interesting and relevant. But it is still boring if it reads like an encyclopaedia entry. Which brings us to the third point ...3. Story. Tell your family history as a story, a narrative. We all love a good story and we remember good stories. Don't merely recite the facts. They slip over our (the readers') heads and are instantly forgotten. But how do you tell your family history as a story if you don't have any family stories passed down through the family, or letters or diaries? If you are not sure, then read books about writing family histories (like my own Writing Interesting Family Histories). And deconstruct what other authors do. I recently suggested to someone who had written a fact-laden, largely story-less family history to read one of my popular histories and deconstruct what I do. The writer apparently took some offence and said that they would not write in another person's style. Deconstructing another's writing does not mean writing in another's person's style or "authorial voice". In the same way that it takes an incredibly talented painter to forge a painting, it takes an incredibly talented writer to write in another's authorial voice. In fact, some argue that it can't be done, that authorial voice is as distinctive as finger prints, and they use as evidence the fact that they caught the Unibomber by having a computer programme analyse the Unibomber's writing and compare it with the writings of known anarchists. By saying that you should deconstruct another's writing, I am suggesting that you look at how the author creates sentences and paragraphs and chapters using similar material to the type of material you hold, and how the authors weaves this evidence together and sets it against the historical backdrop. I write "non-fiction thrillers" (as some describe them) yet I use exactly the same sources as family historians use. In fact, my own writing skills were honed writing family histories and my publisher at Allen & Unwin says that I came to
professional writing at a very high level.
So for those thinking about writing their family history, whether it is only for yourself, for your family or for the broader market, remember the three critical ingredients: family, history and story. Your readers will be grateful.
I was tracing a Jennings family from Atherstone in Warwickshire and it was clear from the parish registers that the family settled in the town in the 1500s. But I was stuck in the mid-late 1700s. The initial Jennings family had produced lots of descendants and William, the name of my ancestor, was a common name (I’ll discuss given name popularity in a later post). Naming patterns were of little help because he had only three children (I’ll discuss naming patterns in another post). The names of the witnesses to his own marriage were no help at all. The possibility of tracing the family back a further 200 years was tantalisingly close if I could only determine which Jennings family he came from. But how?
Again the marriage witnesses came in useful but in a different way again. In desperation, I went through the marriage register from 1754 onwards taking a photocopy of every entry in which a Jennings signed their name, either as one of the happy couple or as a witness. Having already prepared family group sheets for all the Jennings families in the parish (see my post “Parish Registers – II”), I was able to add literacy details. Then I used literacy/illiteracy and the signatures themselves to work out which Jennings witnesses belonged to which Jennings families.
I was even able to determine the literacy or illiteracy of some of the Jennings married before 1754 from their signatures (or marks) when they witnessed the marriages of siblings, in-laws and children. I discovered patterns of literacy in certain families which helped the process (in those days literate parents tended to have literate children). My William Jennings was literate so I had an actual signature to work with. Eventually, by a process of elimination, I was able to determine his ancestry. Eureka!