Black sheep & bunk

Recently a friend sent me a link to a Spectator piece by Leo McKinstry, “Sorry, but family history really is bunk.” This little rant decries the current surge of interest in family history as an unhealthy “mixture of snobbery and prolier-than-thou”.

It oozes condescension. For those unfamiliar with McKinstry, he writes staunchly “little England” columns for various right-wing media and on sports.

The current “craze”, as McKinstry would have it, is huge. A poll in the UK found that around 30% of the population is not interested in their family history. The runaway popularity of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and Oprah Winfrey’s personal family history research have boosted interest.

But mostly the boom has been fuelled by the explosion of readily accessible data on the internet. Today, anyone with an internet connection and who is prepared to part with a relatively small sum of money has almost instant access to an immense and growing collection of information on their ancestors that was unthinkable even 10 years ago.

I’ve been researching my own family’s history for some years now, sometimes to the detriment of more important things. My excuse is that it is an inherited condition. You see, my great-great-great grandfather sat down and wrote about his great grandfather, and the bug has been handed down generation by generation ever since.

What’s McKinstry’s beef with family history? First, it’s boring he claims. “The belief that there is something intrinsically interesting about a family’s origins is badly mistaken”, he says. “Most people’s ancestry is as dull as their holiday snaps.”

I’d say it’s a matter of taste. I find military history boring. McKinstry probably revels in it.

Furthermore, some of my ancestors are interesting. The one mentioned before served with the East India Company marine for 30 years. He was shipwrecked off the coast of Brazil on his second voyage out. When the merchant fleet was disbanded, he was paid out as a Commander and plied the Mediterranean in his own ship, eventually sailing it to Tasmania with his family in 1840. The ship’s logs in the British Library make for fascinating reading and so do his diaries.

Various other ancestors were non-conforming clerics ejected under the Act of Uniformity in 1662 or Test Act of 1681, and forced to hold clandestine services, or settled in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. Interesting enough?

McKinstry also asserts that, “The tragedy is that the family history boom has not led to a greater understanding of our nation’s past.”

Well, I have learnt an enormous amount about British social history in particular. One branch of my forebears were Suffolk Quakers from the mid-17th century, when to be one invited persecution. I now know much more about the militant beliefs of early Friends than I ever would have otherwise.

And about Somerset small farming in the sixteenth century. Tracing the slow but steady rise of that branch of ancestors through the social classes by means of judicious land dealing and marriage over two centuries was most educational. So was learning about the communal conditions in which my Isle of Arran tenant farming ancestors lived before emigrating in the late 19th century.

There are limitations to family history as a study of social history. Chiefly, it tends to follow the contours of the extant record, and is therefore largely male and middle/upper class. But even poorly researched family history reveals a great deal about our social and economic history.

I think that McKinstry has confused genealogy — constructing family trees — with family history. Or perhaps he means the history he was taught at school. Important as it is, there is more to our history than the Treaty of Westphalia, I would argue.

Sorry, but Leo McKinstry’s views on family history really are bunk.

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