The study of history can put our own experiences into a fresh context and provide greater understanding of ourselves. The bird’s eye view of society, through time, that history can give us, reminds us that pain, suffering and death are inevitable. We may feel part of legacies that have, at times, courageously struggled to overcome challenges. The bravery and inventiveness of forbears can, somehow, encourage us to renew our own battles, with fresh awareness of the unpredictability and brevity of life.
Watching a BBC social history show, available in the UK, called, A House Through Time, which investigates the lives of people, through the ages, who lived in a particular house, inspired me. The current series delves into the inhabitants of a single house in a suburb of the northern English city of Leeds, which was built in the early 1850s. Using archival records, the show reveals the stories of successive families who occupied the home, sometimes uncovering drawings or images of early occupants and, later, interviewing living individuals to reflect on their memories of the house. Personal lives are often connected to wider stories, as newspaper and legal archive records reveal individuals’ connections to industry, crime, religion and politics.
The show’s research looks for interesting stories including from marginalised groups such as the working class, including working children, people of colour and women, more generally. Being a house built for affluent families seeking to escape the industrial pollution of Leeds city centre, the occupants tend to be middle class families. Affluent males who owned property tend to have left the most records in archives and are, therefore, easier to research. However, the show looks into humble origins of some individuals and their connections to the working class, be it through birth, politics or industry. In one episode, a census record shows that a “monthly nurse” is living with a family at the house, alongside other employees. Whilst the woman’s personal life is lost to history, a segment of the show is dedicated to the role of these nurses who were recruited by wealthy Victorian families to care for an expectant mother and then, nurse her and her baby for, perhaps, a month or two. There was no birth record, in this case, which the show’s researchers suggest means that a still-birth occurred.
The show has to be selective as to which stories it focuses on and can feel a little disjointed, but, overall, it resembles to me, a mosaic, which highlights the inherent connections in society. The most obvious, is the connection between past and present. The connection is more than between an event or a series of events but history as a continuum. One of the parts of the show that I enjoy the most, even though it tends to be rather brief and occurs at the very end of the series, is when the presenter and producer of the show, David Olusoga, presents a summary of the research to the current occupants of the house. In the first series, I found it particularly poignant to discover that the current occupants were selling the house and that a new chapter in its and their history awaited.
Society is a tangle of connections, ordered by hierarchies and individuals that struggle and/or shift between and the show presents a mosaic which highlights the relationship between industry owners and workers, families and servants, husband and wife and so on. It often dedicates as much time to the life of a business owner whose successes earned him fame and fortune, as it does to one whose business fails, or a worker, who, for example, in one case, leaves the family home in Leeds to spend his whole life working in waiter roles on luxury ships travelling between Europe and America and who, aged over 60, dies at sea.
Social history that connects the personal with work and economic activity and government decisions provides a truer picture of society. It is a far cry from much of what I remember of my history education at school. That history often started with the political actions of states or governments and focused on notable individuals and events, omitting the rest of society, which just happens be the most numerous and the group that most of us can most identify with.
When the lives, particularly, the working lives, of individuals, rich and poor, male and female, white and black or other ethnicities, are presented, dispassionately and in dedicated detail, alongside one another, we see society beyond just individual personalities and as a structure within which people struggle for survival and thriving. The stories shared show great fortunes, changing fortunes and tragedy being experienced by all, though, the greatest tragedies and struggles are concentrated, mostly, amongst working class men and women and marginalised groups, such as women, more generally, for whom, often, the least personal records are available.
Watching recent episodes shifted my personal perspective and made me see much more value to my life, however difficult, being, as it is, part of history. I felt new urgency and courage to think about challenges and making big changes. However, the micro personal perspective of my life which is my dominant experience, with all its smallness, difficulties and isolation, is, also, part of reality. Somehow, macro and micro go together to tell a truer story about ourselves.
16 Sept, 2021