So what is a ‘family archive’?

By Laura King, Co-Investigator, University of Leeds


Is it objects, documents or memories? For some wealthier and/or aristocratic families – such as the Devonshires, owners of the grand Chatsworth estate – this might mean an actual archive that resembles the collections at the local record office. But our research project is about ‘ordinary’ people, and for those of us who don’t have a library or large collection of papers, a ‘family archive’ can be something quite different. In this project, we’re thinking about how people have used objects and other possessions to create and preserve memories and stories about their own families, and in particular I’ll be thinking about what this meant in the first half of the twentieth century.

Laura's blog imageWhilst families faced a wide range of circumstances in the early twentieth century, many of them dealt with long-term grinding poverty, often caused or exacerbated by the economic depression that hit in 1929. Nearly 3 million workers were out of work in 1932-3. Holding onto lots of objects was unlikely and unfeasible. This was a time when a large proportion of working-class families relied on the weekly income they received from handing over their goods, down to their ‘Sunday best’ clothes, to the pawnbroker, not so affectionately known as ‘Uncle’s’.

Of course, most families held on to one or two treasured items – in her autobiography of growing up in Gorbals, Glasgow, Evelyn Cowan remembered her mother, an Jewish immigrant from a Latvian family, wearing a treasured cameo brooch that had belonged to her own mother for certain special occasions like family weddings. But for families like Evelyn’s their way of remembering could, and perhaps had to, be quite different.

Looking at autobiographies is a fascinating way to think about how people remembered family stories and memories, and the role that personal possessions played in this. Using these documents can tell us both about which objects people kept and treasured and used to remember by, but also their reflections about this matter in older age, at the time in which they were writing. Ted Walker, for example, who was born in 1934 grew up in Shoreham, published his autobiography in 1982. He used the term ‘family archive’:

The food cupboard door was a family archive. Every so often I would be made to stand in stocking feet against the door, and I would feel the cold blade of the fish-slice (never used but for this) against my scalp. Pencil scraped on wood; I would try to move before my mother had done, and I would feel the small pain as a hair or two got snatched from my head. All visitors, young and old, were similarly measured, and the ritual was to continue for another thirty years. From that door, should I ever need to know, I could ascertain how tall I was on my fourth birthday and whether, at the same age, my brother or my children outstripped me.

Ted’s family were working-class and by no means wealthy; Ted described how his parents could afford to throw nothing away, and his enjoyment at exploring the drawers full of small pieces of textiles and threads, old letters and stationery, followed by the ultimate treasure of his father’s precious gold half-sovereign, kept to protect against the hardest times. For Ted, a family archive was part of their home in which was literally embedded a record of the family.

The spaces in which people lived were as much a way of remembering as the objects within them, even if the family had since moved from the childhood home. Evelyn Cowan’s autobiography starts with vivid descriptions of their flat, their building and the streets beyond. For example, she described how she recalled memories of her family in later life, many of whom had since died. Walking round the streets of Gorbals, under redevelopment at the time, she described:

The dampness and the cold penetrated my substantial middle-aged female body. I felt as dreich and gloomy as the November evening in which I walked. Yet sometimes I was skipping along in the wake of my eight-year-old shadow.

For Evelyn, space, as much as possessions, were the way of remembering, and that process of remembering was something she felt very tangibly. George A. Cook’s published memoir is similar; containing little information about the possessions his family kept, perhaps because they didn’t do so or perhaps because keeping things wasn’t important to them, the memoir itself serves as a family archive, with its evocative title A Hackney Memory Chest.

The relative affluence of families necessarily has an effect on the way in which families remembered. Keeping precious objects for sentimental reasons was not possible for those in dire poverty. But what we hope to investigate in this project is the variety of ways in which families preserved memories, from the keeping of small items, to the recording of particular details about children growing up, to the publishing of memoirs to record a particular way of life.


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