“Why rake up events that occurred so long ago?”
Else Churchill wonders why some people fail to see the importance of their family history, and looks at a conference that aims to highlight different histories
Watching Clare Balding’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? a while back, I was struck by the secrets the researchers had unearthed for her. One line took her back to a successful entrepreneur – Joseph Christoffel Hoagland (1841-1899) – who founded the Royal Baking Powder Company, once the largest manufacturer of baking powder in America. The Hoaglands descended from a Dutch immigrant, Christoffel Hoaglandt, who entered what was then New Amsterdam (later New York) in 1634, and died in 1684. He was related to Sarah Rapelje, the first white European Christian woman to be born on New York soil.
One television reviewer I read wondered how it was that Clare didn’t already know about this connection, given that early settler ancestry in America is akin to aristocracy. If Clare had read the blog of one of our members, Roy Stockdill, who looked at this story four years ago, she might well have done. However, it seems the wealthy Hoaglands weren’t that impressed with one of their daughters marrying the buccaneering champion polo player Gerald Matthews Balding – who was Clare’s grandfather – and the families certainly didn’t seem to have stayed close. I’ve read elsewhere that Clare’s father (whose paternal line descends through a line of horse breeders and dealers) was more inclined to talk dogs and horses than discuss personal matters with her, and knew little about his mother’s family. I feel this is the typical feeling of many people who aren’t interested in the past, and who are, in fact, puzzled by an interest in family history. Why rake up events that occurred so long ago - what’s the point?
Secrets and stories will linger, but can become clouded within just a short time. Clare, who is connected to the Earls of Derby through her mother, was curious about her maternal great-grandparents’ relationship, wondering if it was love match. Alternatively, was it a marriage of convenience, given that after being widowed, Clare’s great-grandfather appeared to become part of a closeted gay political world in the 1930s, and was suspected of an affair with the artist Rex Whistler? She was lucky to find an insight into their story through amazing personal archives of letters, calendars and scrapbooks. To be gay or bisexual then was a crime, and clearly, many relationships at this time were complicated by the need for secrecy. There is much focus at the moment on life before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality. The National Archives has a series of fascinating podcasts on gender and diversity, along with a research guide on LGBT history to be found in the records.
These are the kind of stories we hope to spotlight at the joint AGRA/GOONS/HALSTED/ SoG genealogy conference in 2018 – Secret Lives: Hidden Voices of our Ancestors. The conference lectures will be aimed at family historians interested in tracing ancestors who may be less represented in mainstream records, whose voices are difficult to hear, or who might be overlooked or indeed elusive.
We’ve been thinking about talks on bigamy, divorce, marriage breakdown from the 18th to 20th centuries; LGBTQIA Lives, social history, records and current research; the criminal underclass; bagnios and bawdy houses; prostitution in 18th century London; fallen women ( Victorian prostitution and reform); Victorian detectives, police and crime; transportation; social deprivation in London and other urban areas; social deprivation and life in rural areas; and researching female ancestors. For more information, see the website www.secretlives.org.uk.
Secrets and lies will linger, but can become clouded within just a short time
Clare Balding’s ancestor Joseph Hoagland