Every now and then I try and have a good clear out at home, as over the years I seem to have accumulated all sorts of well… ‘stuff’. I especially like to have a clear out at this time of year with Christmas and family birthday’s looming when I expect to gain more ‘stuff’ to fill my ever expanding cupboards and loft.
So, recently I have done just that. I’ve looked in boxes, in cupboards, on bookshelves and even under the bed to see what I could possibly get rid of to ease the congestion. I did despair because some of the ‘stuff’ I just cannot bear to part with. I have books, photographs, postcards, certificates, sheet music, pottery, jewellery, clothing, and more books to name just some of the ‘stuff’ I possess. I even have somewhat bizarrely a fan made out of black ostrich (?) feathers. Now how could I possibly dispose of that! It was then, the light went on, and I realised – that somehow I had become the family archivist. That all this ‘stuff’ wasn’t just ‘stuff’ gathering dust but was indeed the accumulation of generations, a family archive. These objects have managed to survive through many events the most momentous being the London Blitz in World War 2. I cannot even contemplate how many house moves these objects have endured even moving across a continent – twice! The collection helps to fill in the gaps, moments in time between the birth, marriage and death certificates, military and parish records all carefully gathered during my family history research. They humanise the family, bring it to life and help to define individuals.
For example, my grandfather, a distant figure from my childhood, came to life again in a brief inscription penned into the front cover of a book given to my mother. A book quite frankly I’ve never looked at twice.
“To Anne from Daddy
with Love, July, 1943” reads the inscription.
I noticed immediately that the book is signed only by my grandfather and does not include my grandmother. My grandfather, a man who had a difficult relationship with his children by all accounts had gone to the personal effort of selecting and buying a book for his youngest daughter. Why? It was not her birthday or a Christmas present. So just what book was my Grandfather giving my 12 year old mother when Britain was in the grip of World War 2? It was a copy of The Sermon on the Mount, an interesting choice I thought. This book contains a collection of sayings and teachings of Jesus which emphasizes his moral teaching in the Gospel of Matthew.
So, just what did she do that was so deserving of a book from her father? I think, but am not sure it was because she passed the 11+. I do know that she did obtain a hard won place at a County Grammar school. Her father, a strict disciplinarian who had a great thirst for education himself, must have been most pleased with her efforts. Was my grandfather by his gift trying to pass on some moral guidance for her to lead her life by? However, it is only purely a guess and I will never really know for sure. What I do know is that this a tangible object and allows us to see an acknowledgement of achievement from a father to a daughter.
In the re-discovery of my archive and further examination of the other books I have in the family collection, many appear to have a biblical theme. I do not come from a particularly religious family, so what was the reason for this? A product of the time maybe? When giving a book, a keepsake was this the kind of gift that one was expected to give? Or was the intention some deeper rooted message from the gift giver?
A more personal find in my Archive includes a small battered box containing my mother’s Brownie badge, a Girl Guide badge, three badges from the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Arts (one engraved with honours!), a BEA staff badge, a Poetry Society medal, oriental motif cuff links and a lucky coin from the Hollywood Studio Club.
It’s funny what WE consider to be precious, valuable, memorable and worthy of keeping and what is considered as precious, valuable, memorable and worthy of keeping by another. Although I knew my mother well, what these items have shown me are another chapter of her life, a part I have no knowledge of but encapsulates something about her and which she cherished throughout her life.
I wish I could tell you that since I have re-discovered my archive, that I have found out fascinating stories behind all these wonderful things, especially the ostrich feather fan – but I would be lying. But it has focused my thinking about this collection of objects and kindled a desire to find out more. In what circumstances did I get a particular item, where did it come from, is it part of a bigger story? These things have been kept for a reason. They are not just ‘stuff’ gathering dust but have substance.
I would urge you to rediscover your ‘stuff’. Look, identify and discover the person behind the object. Fill in the gaps and add that human element to your research.
So, just what is in your archive?