Tuesday, 13 September 2011

An education in life and times as well as family

There is no doubt that ancestry research is educational and not just about one's own family. In trawling through the past one ends up researching general as well as personal history.

It is in fact an important part of the process in terms of understanding the material which is uncovered and gaining greater understanding of the lives our ancestors have lived.It can also be quite sobering if not depressing which is why I have chosen the image of a flower to head my post, to balance the images of death which come later.

Kylie and Luke are far more seasoned researchers than I am and have a wealth of knowledge to offer to the process, but, as with many things, we see the world differently and don't always agree. And that's a good thing because it means the focus of research covers a variety of bases instead of just one or two. 

Having more than one person involved in this process is absolutely invaluable and I am sure increases the chances of making progress just because there is more minds and more time involved. 

Our latest discussion has been about the death notice for the Edward Atkins who died at Whyte Park. My sense, and that is sourced in common sense and gut feeling, is that the wording should be taken seriously, absolutely seriously, but Kylie is not so sure and neither is the researcher who has been doing some work for us. 

Kylie writes:

.....they seemed to make up the lists including dead and alive, sometimes a rough estimate, sometimes an exaggeration, and then seemed to choose any form of wording to go with it. She  (the researcher) laughed at the idea of taking it too seriously.

Think about how it would actually happen. Someone would write up the list, most probably one of the daughters in this case. They would do a rough draft of what they wanted to say but they may not know how many words or how the words were counted. They would give it to someone to take to town when they were next there, maybe a week or two later.

This would probably have been one of the men or even a neighbour. The wording was chosen in consultation with the newspapers agent, often the owner of the local paper, or the general store, using one of a selection of currently used ‘phrases’, to fit to size allowed. The person approving the final wording may not remember the list includes dead or alive, so the wording was entirely appropriate to them. 

They may have to reduce the wording of the original they were given or have words to spare. The ‘to mourn their loss” looks like such words, as do the “Gloucestershire papers please copy” (even more so when you see the “English papers please copy”). Some people take these things seriously, some don’t.

Luke is right about how there are different conventions at the time too, and these are very hard to pin down, even today, but I also think that even in Victorian times these things varied greatly from family to family. Some families never complied with the forms of the day, others were horrified by the smallest variance.

If you read the etiquette books of the day you would get a very different view of behaviour from the actual behaviour of the day, just as if anyone followed some of the modern etiquette books today we would think them pompous and unnatural. Things change with each decade, each generation and vary from area to area, from one social set to another, from family to family, even between two people in a marriage. Some people always talk about their dead as if they are still alive and others never mention them.

The Victorians were no more homogenous that we are. I think this notice is more about being proud of taking part in and surviving the settlement of South Australia, noting the mark their father had left on such a project, his part in building the Empire.

That is the thing I find strangest about this notice, it is saying look what a difference Edward made, he was 84, a pioneer of over 50 years and “leaving one son, 5 daughters, 47 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren” in SA, a significant contribution. 

The leaving could have merely referred to leaving that many children, grandchildren, making their mark on South Australia, even if that mark was a small grave. They were there, they were South Australian, they counted.

The real question, when advertising your contribution, is why not include all the children, your total contribution? It was when I realised that the total in this death notice was only the first family and almost certainly did not include Elizabeth’s children, that I started questioning what links we did have between the two families. Even if we find Hannah died before 1857, we are still left without a definite link. Cherrie’s comment that she has seen this sort of separate notice before is interesting, a rift is another explanation, but we are still left with a question mark.

Luke, the reason I doubt that James is the “1 son” is that his children are not included in the grandchildren, I can’t think of why they would miss them. Unless we find Henry lived past 4 or 5 years, I would assume it was Joseph, he would be remembered by the oldest girls, Henry may not have been remembered even if he lived to four or five.

I don’t think these people were of a social class who could afford too great a degree of mourning.  Anyway our rituals never reached the heights of Victorian England. 
In Australia, funerals were less extravagant and mourning rituals less strict - especially in rural areas. From the 1870s, funeral reforms in both Britain and Australia resulted in a move toward more modest and cheaper funerals, and encouraged recycling or adapting old clothing for the mourning period rather than purchasing new outfits

We’ll have to wait and see if (the historian) can find any mention of him. There is certainly no marriage or death in the indexes for him.

Anyway, we’ll just keep chipping away at it and we may end up with an answer, one day.

I think Kylie's position is sound in general but I still have misgivings about not taking the wording of the death notice too seriously.

I agree with Kylie that I doubt James would have been included and my guess is that Henry lived to adulthood. I do think it is a bit of a stretch to have younger sisters in adulthood, including brothers who have died as very young children, in a death notice.

As to how seriously one takes the death notice, I am not sure that differences of opinion matter too much at this stage because the only thing which needs to be pursued at this point is a death record for Hannah. Finding more children or a death record for Henry would help but at this stage of the game the Whyte Park family does not include our ancestors and the most important thing about linking our Edward to Hannah's Edward is the link to his place of origin.

However, I think it is certainly highly likely at this stage that Hannah's Edward is our Edward and there was a rift between his first and second families... there are enough clues so far to make that a likely possibility. I also feel it is a bit of a stretch to make things 'fit' better by not taking the death notice seriously.

In terms of 'not taking it too seriously,'  this runs counter to every instinct and all of the knowledge that I have about human nature. Death in those times was taken very, very seriously indeed, partly for religious reasons and partly because there was so much of it.

In eras past, people were actually more homogenous because they were bound by religious and social tradition in ways we are not. This applied to everything from how they dressed, how they wrote, how they talked etc., but it applied to death more than anything.

They took death so seriously that I actually found myself trawling through photographs of the dead, many of them children, which were sourced in Victorian funeral traditions. There was and is something very, very sad, if not traumatic about looking at the face of a dead child.

In many cases these children were propped up next to a living sibling; lying on a bed or couch behind living siblings, 'sitting' on the lap of a parent or in their agonisingly small coffins. Needless to say the parents looked utterly traumatised and no doubt they were. 

I wonder if it comforted them to have an image of their dead child or baby? Somehow it seems so much worse than just a tombstone but that is a modern view of death and I am projecting my own values onto it.
Death, in Victorian England, was a grand and complicated business. There were many social rules in the classes who could afford it about mourning clothes, degrees of mourning, and the length of time for which different mourning colours were to be worn.

In fact, if anything they were obsessed with death which makes it more likely that death notices, even if they had to save words to save money, said exactly what they were meant to say. There are so many ways of writing a death notice without using the words 'leaving to mourn.'

In fact the notice would have been cheaper if it had said: One son, five daughters etc. in mourning. There is in fact no need for 'leaving' and if it was a penny a word, the less words the better. These families would also have had to count every penny and that suggests greater, not lesser attention to such things.

The 'death' industry of Victorian times was massive. The death notice was one of the most serious things anyone ever did. People in the colonies travelled hundreds of miles to send letters and to register deaths and notices, when they could.The Victorians had quite rigid rules regarding death and I find it hard to believe that at this time, those living in the colonies were much different.

Ridiculous as it sounds and as it was, even my parents generation, born in Australia in the 1920's and often to parents who had also been born in Australia, would talk about England as home. Immigrants often hold more tightly to the traditions of 'home' than those they have left behind ever do. 

there is no doubt that the poorer classes  in England and Australia could not afford to take part in this commercialized notion of death, although they continuously desired to replicate the mourning etiquette of their social superiors. As such, during times of hardship they would often dye their own clothes black to create a similar effect.

In the  Victorian age, however,  death was more likely to be embraced rather than feared. No doubt there was an aspect of the, 'if you can't fight it, join it,' at work.  In comparison to today's secular society, Victorians held stronger convictions to the teachings of the Bible - the doctrine of the eternal soul and an eventual bodily resurrection. With so much death, particularly of children, no doubt they needed such comfort even more.

I suspect this is why religion tends to have a far more powerful hold in the Third World than the First. When death is ever-present you are going to be looking for answers or comfort of some kind. In these times the working classes in particular had a very short life expectancy mainly because of poor nutrition and poor sanitation. The prevelance of syphilis also caused high numbers of deaths of babies and children.

I suppose it is a given that when one is doing ancestry research you are dealing with the dead most of the time. It just makes their lives more real when one sees images such as those above.  

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