Sunday, 13 March 2011

Genealogical reasons (written January 2000)

This week we are looking at reasons why people undertake genealogical research. As some of you may know I am doing a PhD thesis on the Great War [Ed – this had to be abandoned in 2002]. Last week I visited the Birmingham University Library where I looked at the papers of Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940). From his diary it seems that Neville was in his spare time a bit of a genealogist. Was he the only family historian ever to become prime minister?
At the time of the outbreak of the First World War he seems to have been actively tracing his family roots. This may possibly be as the result of a feeling of inferiority resulting from mixing amongst the aristocratic politicians of the day.
The family background was in trade. His father, the statesman Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), although of impeccable middle class background, made his fortune as a screw manufacturer in Birmingham. Joseph's entry in the Dictionary of National Biography notes that his father 'was the master of the Cordwainers' Company with which his family had been connected with for four generations, carrying on the business of wholesale boot and show manufacturers in the same house and under the same name for 125 years.'
Neville himself became a successful businessman in Birmingham before turning to politics. His diary for the winter of 1914/15 records a family visit to Bradford-upon-Avon, where the family originated in the sixteenth century, to look for the ancestral home.
They knock on the door of the cottage which is opened by one Daniel Chamberlain, who Neville notes was a typical 'rustic' wearing a smock. A few minutes stiff conversation before the visitors from Birmingham depart. Neville reflects that his ancestor three hundred years previously must have looked the same.
If the Chamberlain family were on the way up the next Victorian genealogist I want to write about, the Lucas', were on their way down. Perhaps the most attractive collection held by the Society are two beautifully illustrated albums compiled by Miss Louise Cecilia Bazalgette Lucas Lucas. She deposited them with the Society in July 1945, together with related paperwork. The albums however were compiled sixty years earlier.
The genealogy in the albums is by modern standards undoubtedly dubious. Any doubt however about the quality of the research however is immediately overwhelmed by the visual feast: page after page of hand-coloured coats of arms or gold leaf marginalia take the breath away.
The whole point of the album however was to commemorate a family however which Miss Lucas felt had suffered generations of decline. In the introduction she wrote 'We used to be big people once, but have gone done in the world. People at who a hundred years ago we turned up our noses, now turn up their noses at us... We had married heiresses had gone mounting up to the top of fortune's wheel, and it had been well with us - But alack, in these later days we had been too well known at Epsom and Newmarket. We had been very much at home at Crockford's [gambling club]... [and] had generally misbehaved ourselves, and in consequences, our many acres had passed into the hands of Manchester gents, with fat snug faces, who wage war of extermination against the letter h and use big words when little ones would have done better.'
Men, in fact, like the Chamberlains. 

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