Stories of Family and Class in Modern Britain – Jon Lawrence, Alison Light, and Julie-Marie Strange

Stef Eastoe is a third year PhD student in the department of History at Birkbeck, researching the social history of idiots and imbeciles in the long nineteenth century, using Caterham Imbecile Asylum as a case study to explore the voice and experiences of the patients and staff. Alongside Janet Weston, Hazel Croft and Susanna Shapland (fellow PhD students at Birkbeck) Stef is organizing a conference exploring Alternative Psychiatric Narratives, supported by Birkbeck, Society for the Social History of Medicine, and the Wellcome Trust.

Movement, migration and fluidity were common themes than ran through the ‘Stories of Family and Class in Modern Britain’ panel. The session began with Dr Jon Lawrence (Cambridge) revisiting the 1950s Bethnal Green families presented in Willmott and Young’s Family and Kin, followed by Professor Alison Light’s (Newcastle) investigations into her family history, ending with Dr Julie-Marie Strange’s (Manchester) use of working class auto-biography to explore working class fathers. All three provided a different methodological lens to reassess traditional sources to investigate experience of working class life, and the construction, composition and meaning of family.

Each of the papers were actively myth busting in their reassessment of sources, as well as paradoxically using the myths and assumptions that surround the notion of the working class family to interrogate the meaning of the category and definition of the term. All three offered a way of talking about class by using a different language, one that was constructed, used, and deployed by the very individuals they were researching. For Dr Lawrence it was in the return to the original interviews, for Light it was looking at the people behind the occupational registers, and for Strange it was in the minutia of everyday life and the use of humour in working-class autobiography.

family-and-kinship-in-east-london-book-coverThrough careful re-reading of established sources, be it going behind the published text, looking at familial composition, or familial relations and interactions, each of the three speakers was able to show that family was far from linear, and was experienced in many ways. Dr Lawrence stated that part of his organizing idea behind his work re-analysing Willmott and Young was to see how people escaped Young’s categories, and to some degree each of the panellists did this. Light saw the practice of family history as a way of democratizing and opening up a number of categories surrounding class, industry and occupation in modern Britain, through the experiences of her family members. Strange was able to show in her close reading of working class auto-biography that far from being absent figures, fathers were an integral part of the family, present in the home, and a major part of the birth story.

In his introduction to the conference Birkbeck’s own Professor John Arnold asked us to keep in mind Hobsbawm’s view and approach to history, an important theme being the ability to use history and approaching history in order to ‘dream forward’. Dr Lawrence, Professor Light and Dr Strange’s reanalysis of the sources certainly provided current and future scholars a number of opportunities to indeed dream forward. Strange stated that she was interested in the small things in the autobiographies, namely the recounting of birth stories and the use of humour, the padding as such that was often overlooked by other scholars, to ask big questions.

Professor Light made an excellent case for the usefulness of the family history lens to more fully understand the experience of working-class people in the eighteen and nineteenth century, highlighting the liberating working style of family historians who trace numerous multi-layered narratives and lives side-by-side, in non-linear ways. Professor Light found this frenetic approach exciting, and provided a number of opportunities for crossing generational, periodic and temporal boundaries which gave rise to rich links, discussions and findings. These interwoven lives, spreading back from her grandparents to the 1750s, provided Professor Light with a unique analytical lens that was informed by stories, experiences and the notion of family that provided a useful context in understanding the development of the working classes in modern Britain, one that went beyond the names of occupations.

Professor Light was able to express and show in a compelling manner the various ways in which individuals escaped the categories placed upon them. They were members of someone’s family, part of a bigger network of historical actors who had myths, stories, and narratives told about them, tales which allowed Professor Light a richer view of their experiences, which in turn has allowed her access to voices of the working classes which was not available to her prior to her family history tracing. It was this moving beyond the definitions that made Professor Light’s paper so invigorating and exciting, how connections and meanings, however personal, can enrich research and give another layer of meaning to social categories that we have become somewhat inured to over the years.

In a similar fashion Dr Julie-Marie Strange’s paper drew on reanalysis and alternative reading and engagement with sources to show how they can be used to extricate voice and experience. Concentrating on the use of humour and comedy in working class autobiography, Dr Strange highlighted the usefulness of these texts to the social historian, and how they shed light on the creation, composition and maintenance of the family. Significantly for Dr Strange, by reading the whole text, not just the meaty and juicy bits, she was able to see that far from being absent entities, fathers were central figures to the family, and specifically to the male authors.

Using three reports of birth stories as case studies of the specific use of humour, Dr Strange illustrated the interactions of men engaged in ‘baby talk’, and that this was evidence of male presence in the home, in the family, and in childhood. These were all important features in the creation of an individual’s self and social identity, as family is the prime socializing agent. Using the small things in the autobiographies to ask big questions, Dr Strange’s use of the texts showed how the working-class family in late Victorian Britain could operate as a unit and in conjunction with wider society. In one account of his birth, a writer stated that his father was teased about the paternity of his child by a male friend. Upon being told that his new born son was the ‘spit of him’ his father replied that he had better be. This exchanged showed not only men engaging with one another in what has generally been viewed as a female topic, namely baby talk, but also the centrality of men and fathers to this story for other men, for as Dr Strange pointed out across all three stories the mothers were absent, with the fathers cast as the central characters.

To sum up the panel, all three papers reconsidered not only the use and nature of traditional social, familial, and class sources, they also provided three very different but complimentary lenses to re-analyse texts, from the querying eye of the social investigator, the inquiring eye of the family historian, and the revealing eye of the auto-biographer. I think Hobsbawm would have found the findings of the session, and the discussion that followed, stimulating, vibrant, and excitingly challenging, not least the inventive use of the everyday experiences of working class individuals, but also their expressions, anticipations and the frames of reference employed.