How did our an­ces­tors per­ceive ‘fam­ily’, and what did it mean to them? Doreen Hop­wood looks at how events in the wider world, as well as at home, have shaped fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ences

Your Family History - - Contents -

Doreen Hop­wood in­ves­ti­gates how fam­ily life and struc­ture has changed over time, and what‘ fam­ily’ has meant to dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions.

In the cen­turies be­tween the Restora­tion of the monar­chy in 1660, and the out­break of World War 1 in 1914, there were many changes to fam­ily life – but there were also sim­i­lar­i­ties. The fam­ily has re­mained the dom­i­nant in­sti­tu­tion for re­pro­duc­tion and the of rear­ing chil­dren, but as it’s or­gan­ised

around the hu­man life cy­cle, the com­po­si­tion and dy­nam­ics change as new mem­bers join through birth and mar­riage and oth­ers leave through death or to start their own fam­i­lies.

Fam­ily re­la­tion­ships are es­tab­lished by blood (an­ces­tors, de­scen­dants, sib­lings) or by law (spouse, in-laws and step-rel­a­tives), so peo­ple can be de­scribed in many fa­mil­ial terms. But who else was con­sid­ered as ‘fam­ily’ in the past? Spon­sors, god­par­ents, ‘hon­orary’ aunts and un­cles could be in­cluded, and in the 1890s, Mary Lu­tyens de­scribed her nanny as ‘the per­fect mother’. Many or­gan­i­sa­tions, such as the church, trade unions and the nurs­ing pro­fes­sion, still re­fer to mem­bers as ‘brother’ and ‘sis­ter’.

Rank, wealth and oc­cu­pa­tion are the main de­ter­mi­nants of fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence, so where did your fam­ily fit in their con­tem­po­rary so­cial hi­er­ar­chy? At the same mo­ment in time, mem­bers of same fam­ily could be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing very dif­fer­ent lives. One might have been liv­ing in a back-to-back with one bread­win­ner, ruled by the fac­tory shift sys­tem, whilst another worked the land as a fam­ily unit, liv­ing in a

ru­ral cot­tage and gov­erned by the sea­sons.

This pe­riod saw the tran­si­tion from a ru­ral, agri­cul­tural-based so­ci­ety to an ur­ban in­dus­trial one based on man­u­fac­ture. In the 1600s, only one in 12 peo­ple lived in towns with a pop­u­la­tion of 5000+, but by 1901, there were more than 6.5 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in Greater London. In the 19th cen­tury, the ex­pand­ing pop­u­la­tion and shift from ru­ral to ur­ban liv­ing meant that wider kin of­ten lived un­der the same roof. De­mand for af­ford­able houses in towns ex­ceeded sup­ply, so fam­i­lies might take in lodgers or pro­vided tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion for newly-ar­rived rel­a­tives. This pro­vided ad­di­tional in­come to help pay the rent but could also cause over­crowd­ing. In 1871, for ex­am­ple, Her­bert Old­field lived in a Birm­ing­ham back-to-back shared with his wife and five chil­dren (aged be­tween eight and 23), plus a lodger and the lodger’s girl­friend.

To al­le­vi­ate over­crowd­ing in the parental home, grand­chil­dren lived with grand­par­ents, and daugh­ters left to be­come live-in do­mes­tic ser­vants. Fos­ter­ing, or the in­for­mal adop­tion of chil­dren by child­less aunts and un­cles, was a com­mon oc­cur­rence un­til adop­tion was for­malised in Eng­land and Wales in 1927. Kin­ship net­works could pro­vide an in­for­mal so­cial se­cu­rity sys­tem by tak­ing in fam­ily mem­bers in times of need, even if it meant con­sid­er­able sac­ri­fice on their part. One lady who was forced to en­ter the Go­van work­house in 1909, through dis­abil­ity, begged her sis­ter-in­law to take in her two chil­dren, writ­ing ‘I know if they are with you they will be all right… my heart is broke’.

What were the dif­fer­ences be­tween ‘house­hold’ and ‘fam­ily’? Fam­i­lies usu­ally make up a house­hold, but a house­hold can also com­prise in­di­vid­u­als who aren’t re­lated liv­ing un­der the same roof and shar­ing some do­mes­tic ar­range­ments. In wealthy house­holds, staff could heav­ily out­num­ber fam­ily mem­bers, and in 1684, Sir Richard Newdi­gate of War­wick­shire lived with his wife and seven daugh­ters – and 27 res­i­dent ser­vants.

A fa­ther reads to his fam­ily, 1783

Chil­dren out­side back-to-back hous­ing in Birm­ing­ham in 1925

This un­usual im­age shows Sir Thomas Rem­ing­ton and his wife with their 15 liv­ing chil­dren and five de­ceased, c1647

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