Saturday, February 14, 2009

This is where I get it from

Grandma, reminiscing about her days working in the payroll department of British Jeffrey Diamond 65 years ago: "Old Sammy Wainwright, 7505 his number was..." Seriously, her recall of every detail of her life is uncanny, and the way she tells it is captivating. I'm going to have to get myself a video camera and capture some of her stories on film.

The occasion for the four-hour non-stop recounting of Grandma's life story I enjoyed today was of course those 1911 census returns featuring her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. It's great to hear the stories of the people behind that snapshot of households on April 2nd 1911 - how Grandma's Uncle Ronald did well for himself (or at any rate had a good job and bought his own house, which was good work in the Depression), while Uncle Colin spent some time in the nick (but we don't talk about that). Uncle Jack, four years old in 1911, grew up to be quaite refained and wore a bowler hat, but the best part was that mystery 'boarder' I mentioned in my post here.

It turns out that nine-month-old Ethel Gough, living in my great-great-grandparents' household, was the result of an indiscretion between my great-great-granddad and another woman, and ended up coming to live with him rather than her unmarried mother, and having the subject of her parentage resolutely ignored by the family from that moment on. Not that Grandma found out about this until long after the fact, of course - she recalled "I came home one day and told my mam 'Auntie Ethel looks just like me!'... And she hit me."

I can just imagine the difficult decision process of how to record little Ethel's "relationship to head of family" on the census form. The instructions say to 'State whether "Head," or "Wife," "Son," "Daughter," or other Relative, "Visitor," "Boarder," or "Servant."' and they went for "Boarder" in the end.

All shame and scandal in the family is long gone and forgotten now, of course. It's the kind of thing that makes you think - all these names on the census were real people at one point, before they became names on a page and half-remembered stories. Poor great-great-granddad on the Batty branch of the family died in a coal-mine accident only a few years after filling in his census form. There need to be more books, documentaries, websites, whatevers about the ordinary people of history. I should make one...

No comments: