Family History – the Kernel of All History

My mother as a child with her family in a handmade boat -  country Victoria at the end of WWII.

My mother as a child with her family in the boat her father made – country Victoria at the end of WWII.

“The kernel of all history is family history.” I wrote that comment this morning in response to a thought-provoking post by Emeritus Professor David Carment about the importance of historians exploring and writing about their own family histories. The post picks up on a theme from a conference held in honour of highly regarded historian, Alan Atkinson.

Every one of us is part of a family. Hence all history in its essence is family history. Stumbling Through the Past is a history blog. It is also a family history blog. The blog header which I created when I started this blog back in August 2010 includes pictures of members of my family from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It reflects the fact that it was the way my family retold and researched our own history which attracted me to further study of history.

When I was a child I enjoyed visits from older relations who retold family stories. I enjoyed the knowledge that I was part of a big family even though we had no relations in the state in which we lived. My mother wrote to a researcher in England when I was young and we received a fascinating letter from him. In my late teenage years I spent some time in archives at the behest of relations who wanted to know more. It was this experience, first with my mother and then by myself which gave me a good foundation in archival research. I owe family history a lot.

It was the wonderful book made freely available online by ANU Press, Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective, which convinced me that it was the time to do the history degree I had always hoped to do. When I read it, probably shortly after it was published in 2006, I felt that historians had developed the tools to properly explore the histories of thousands of families like mine – global wanderers created by the era of empires.

Family history is not an indulgence. It is important that everyone understands how they fit in. We know this from the profound distress experienced by the Stolen Generations and the Forgotten Australians and Child Migrants. It is the fact that these children were excised from their family histories and culture that has caused trauma that has crippled  communities and reverberated through the following generations.

My last post explores another aspect of our family histories, one which is very difficult for us to acknowledge. It is easy to celebrate the successes of our ancestors. We need to also approach family history with humility and recognise that our ancestors were like us – flawed. Sometimes they did not behave well, but it may be a step worse than that. They may have contributed to appalling abuses and crimes or failed to prevent or report them. My last post refers to crimes made in the name of empire. I’m still pondering this difficult issue. I leave it to you to read and reflect on it.

Kitty’s War and the recently published history, Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright, demonstrate the importance of family history to historians. In both books the historians have worked with the descendants of the people who featured in their books whether through interviews of family members or drawing on documents and artefacts held by the families. Family archives held in private homes throughout Australia are an important historical source, the family members can hold interesting insights into the lives of their forebears. Likewise the work of the professional or academic historian can give families a deeper understanding of where their family story fits into the bigger picture. The partnership can be mutually beneficial.

I have been re-reading Kitty’s War by Janet Butler in preparation for a panel discussion of this book in which I am participating at the State Library of NSW tomorrow night. I’m reading it for the third time and am still enjoying the read and learning from it. Last night the issues raised by David Carment in his post kept popping up when I was reading the book. As my mother’s side of the family has been so competent and assiduous with their work on our family history I have left them to work on it. Carment has made me realise that I have a contribution to make and I need to do more in this area.

David Carment’s post demonstrates that historians recognise that they are part of the history they research and they value what family histories have to offer. Take the time to read the post and the response to it from historians in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Family History – the Kernel of All History

  1. I agree with you completely about how important family history is….when I researched my grandfather’s history I learnt how politics, poverty and illness (TB) affected his young life. The pity of it is, I will never know much about my grandmother’s history because she, like so many women of that time, was not educated, and died in childbirth.


    • That sounds like interesting research you have done about your grandfather Gerrie. A mother, father and children we are related to all died of TB. My mother has the school exercise book of one of the children. It is great that you took the time and interest to research the story behind your grandfather. It is when family history moves beyond a catalogue of dtes that it becomes fascinating.

      Women are difficult to research. I have written about this in my post .


  2. I very much appreciate your statement, that “Family history is not an indulgence.” I believe that can be very true. However, it is also the challenge to the industry that has grown up around family history. As scholars, we know there is no reason for a competitiveness that makes one sub-discipline over the cost of another. And yet local history groups have gone in decline since its heyday in its 1990s — this is our Queensland experience — as family history organisations have boomed.

    I am keen to seek out collaborations between local history and family history, as I am to connect local and family history to the historical investigations of state, national, and global histories. The problem is getting the history enthusiast to be prepared to extend themselves out of their comfort zone. Yes, I think pretty much most of us come to a history with a personal motivation, but I know in my own learning patterns of forty years — going back to my undergraduate days — I have had to question my egotistic prejudices to comprehend larger historical interpretations and see the way many things do or do not fit in the accounting for the past.

    I fear the fragmentation that the post-modernists were once keen to promote has only led to disempowerment for historians working at different levels. Connecting the stories to larger themes and events is greatly needed. Its like the old adage that “to study beyond one’s culture to understand one’s own culture.” (thanks to my colleague, Lyndon Megarrity, for reminding me).

    What proves that family history is not an indulgence is for family historians to get along to their local history group and have the conversation on how their family history is located on the local landscape. Equally I challenge our members of the local history groups to prove that they are not just indulging a parochial outlook, and start seeking local history as a microcosm of a larger society.

    In Victoria and New South Wales, I am sure that this is understood and practised. I am not sure what went wrong in Queensland.


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