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Blogging about things that matter to me. Photographing things I love - Instagram @debcyork. Writing about both. Only wine and chocolate can save us… You can also find me on Twitter (@debcyork) and Facebook. If you like four-legged views, try @missbonniedog on Twitter

Saturday, 28 March 2015

It's Live!

Who Do You Think You Are? Live

Much excitement here at Piece of String HQ.  My husband has managed to wangle his work diary to enable me to go to Who Do You Think You Are? Live!
I suspect that I am going to be quite underwhelmed when I actually get there - such events are often quite frustrating due to the crowds.  However, I will not let that spoil the anticipation.  [He works away and it is usually impossible to pin down a whole day when he can take over dog, children, children's social lives, etc.  Trying not to think about the number of times he has changed his plans at the last minute...]
I am highly amused by the use of the term Live for the show, I must say.  I mean, it is a show about, mostly, searching for people who are anything but live.  However, it appears that this title is justified by the celebrity visits - people who have had their family trees done for the television shows.
And one of my main reasons for going is, in fact, to try to see the interview with Alistair McGowan on the Friday.  It was his episode of WDYTYA? back in 2007 which gave me the first real leads into my Anglo Indian ancestors.  I had had a lifelong interest in my family tree and as a child, had interviewed grandparents and others.  But despite some cursory searches online, I had not got very far with my dad's family.  It all felt a bit needle in a haystack and I had abandoned those lines for a quite a while.
The McGowan episode was a real turning point though, as mentioned before on this blog.  I had watched so many previous WDYTYA? programmes just out of interest.  I watched that one with a pen and paper in my hand.  McGowan genuinely had no idea that he had any Anglo Indian blood from his father.  It was fascinating. (Look on YouTube and you can see his reactions if you have not seen his show.)  As soon as the programme ended, my dad called to ask if I had seen it.  He couldn't quite believe it either.  I was already online at that point!
Being so inexperienced in genealogy then, that was my first foray into British Library India Office records!  (http://indiafamily.bl.uk/ui/home.aspx).  I only found one or two mentions of the surname Shaller but it was enough to give my search fresh impetus and spur me on to look for new online resources (Family Search, Families In British India Society, etc) which had not really existed when last I had attempted that particular line.  Strangely, my brickwalls on Shaller are now mostly back in the UK as they are pre-1837.  The Indian bit is as complete as I could have ever hoped.  Always looking though and open to new sources.  Plus I obviously have a number of other Anglo Indian surnames to work on and they are proving harder to crack.
I am not really sure what seeing Alistair McGowan Live is going to contribute to my research, come to that, but it feels important to hear what he has to say - if only because he was lucky enough to go to India to see his dad's home and meet some relations.  So, a day of mooching around family history exhibits, and hopefully attending the interview and some workshops, awaits me.  Well, got to get your genealogy kicks where you find them...

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Read All About It

Today I will be mostly scrambling to finish the book which I am supposed to have read for Book Group this month.  They are meeting at my house too, this time.  So no excuse.  But as I was walking the dog this morning, I was thinking that I really could think of much better things to read.  I do not like the book and with limited time available for reading, I am resenting having to persevere. 

I did also muse about the fact that we are so lucky to be able to read whatever we want, wherever we want, here in First World countries.  Imagine living in a place where learning and reading was restricted.  Many of the recent films for Comic Relief showed African children desperate to get to school, guarding the few books in their possession.  It is terrifying that our world is so unequal.

But how could I link this thought process to a genealogical blog post?  How did my ancestors go about learning to read?  What did they read?  Who taught them?  Of course, the history of education is a huge subject.  Most of us have a vague idea of the increase in child schooling which took place in the Victorian period.  We know that people used to leave school at much younger ages.  We have some idea of the rise of public libraries and we know that books used to be the preserve of the rich.

To narrow it down for this post though, I wondered about the schooling arrangements made for the Anglo Indian children.  The English soldier of the 30th Foot, Joseph Shaller, who took my family line to India, had four children with his Indian partner [the children are all listed as illegitimate].  Three of them were still alive when he himself died in 1822.  And thanks to the work of historian Carole Divall, I have, as previously discussed, managed to find original documents in the National Archives which contain those children's signatures.  Their handwriting was neat and legible.  They were clearly educated.  An assumption born out by the two boys' subsequent forays into teaching and the church as professions.

In the regimental diaries examined by Ms Divall, the number of "wives" and children with the battalion are shown for most months' entries.  In 1811, the Duke of York started a regimental school system and over the following century, teachers were recruited by the Army and sent all over the globe to teach both British soldiers and their children.  Apparently, it was quite usual for the sons of soldiers to end up joining the same regiment as their father so it was a good reason for spending money on their education, be they white or otherwise. 

Interestingly, although I do have other ancestors for whom this was the case, on this particular line it appears that their father's premature death [from illness rather than army action] led them to be taken up by a missionary society rather than joining the army.  So their reading matter was more than likely of a religious theme.  However, they had definitely taken advantage of the army education offered prior this and actually, the arrival of an education officer is mentioned in the diary. 

For Anglo Indian children, education also set them above full blood Indians to an extent.  Not in terms of colour discrimination socially but in terms of their usefulness to the British.  By the height of the Raj, Anglo Indian descendants populated the majority of the posts in civil service, the railways, the telegraph office and so on.  Positions of a certain responsibility but rarely allowed to be full in charge.  Relied on by the British because of their Christian, beholden upbringings yet not fully treated as equals.  Certainly, my grandparents received brilliant educations, at schools still well regarded.

Of course, this is a very minor happening in thousands of years of human education history.  Yet as can be seen now in Africa and other underdeveloped areas or in deprived areas of the First World countries, education is key to moving onwards and upwards for any person or for society as a whole.  Look at India now - the gaps between the educated castes and the others.

So I am going to try to be grateful for my excellent education, for my many life chances and for my easily-fed love of reading, even if it means reading The Geography of Bliss by tomorrow.  However, I do not recommend it....

Note:  Nor do I recommend falling asleep whilst lying in bed reading a Kindle.  Woke with a start to a fat lip as it fell on my face.....

Saturday, 21 March 2015

The State of the Union

Today is the climax to the Six Nations Rugby Championship of course and I find myself a rugby widow for the day.  To be fair, this is a rare event.  It takes quite some important rugby event to persuade my husband to change his football habits.  [The lure of beer all day definitely helped his decision, I believe.]
However, when he does switch, he always supports Ireland.  He was born in the UK but, as whittered about in previous posts, he has Irish parents.  He will support England ahead of the others in a championship though if Ireland are not in the running.  There is a table of precedence, you understand...
And as I listened to the coverage on Chris Evans' Radio 2 show yesterday on the various points combinations needed to establish a winner today, I did wonder how these competitions work in other families.  In my family alone, I have an Anglo-Indian father who supports England with every fibre, a Scottish stepfather and a Scottish sister in law who are both highly patriotic but also mad keen Celtic fans for the football which links to their Catholic heritage.  This is a loyalty shared by my Irish Catholic husband.  He supports Middlesbrough as well, for his sins.  Are you keeping up with this? 
My nephew was born in England but, at three, for the sake of diplomacy, has to be dressed alternately in Scottish and England outfits in order to keep all grandparents happy.  His Scottish grandfather, my brother's father in law, is as Scottish as they make them for sporting loyalties.  Yet he voted against Scottish independence.  My brother continually treads a fine line of popularity with his in-laws due to his Englishness.  My step sister of course has a Scottish father but has an English mother.  I really must ask her where her loyalties lie on these occasions! 
And the thing is, I don't think we are that unusual these days.  A good friend has set off for Murrayfield today with her seven year old.  She is Scottish through and through but her son remembers only England.  And her husband is Northern Irish...  I could give many other examples.
The first rugby international took place in 1871 between Scotland (see picture above) and England.  And presumably, in ordinary families, this was an event only mentioned in the newspapers.  Not something to be thinking about and cheering or arguing about. 
It took around a hundred years, with the advent of the 1970s television coverage, for the Six Nations to gain huge popularity, although as far as I can work out, some matches were televised from as early as 1948 - whether rugby league or union.  As a child of the 1970s with a rugby mad father, I have vivid memories of him settling himself down for a good old shout at the TV, be it for the Six Nations or England v New Zealand All Blacks or whatever.
As our families have fractured with the increase in geographical and social mobility over the last 150 years, maybe the improvement in communications has allowed us to reinforce our sense of belonging to something wider via sporting loyalty.  (For rugby at least, it seems quite good natured.  I may be wrong.)  We can feel part of a wider picture, wherever we are in the world.  As for me, I do support England - it is what I was brought up on.  However, for the sake of Anglo Irish peace in our house, I will refrain from any match analysis, whatever the result today!

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Timing is Everything

This week I have met with two old friends, for dinner or for walking.  But our conversations have been remarkably similar.  It appears that my generation are reaching the sandwich time so often spoken of in magazines and Sunday supplements.
We had our children later, although not as late as many these days.  We have elderly parents and other relatives who are ailing or worse.  And we are trying to hold together households which are increasingly chaotic with work and child arrangements/activities.  To say nothing of the social lives of the family, the pressure to help with community stuff and the maintenance of gardens and property.
Our time is at a premium.  But this is the one thing which we cannot increase or reinvent.  Since, say, a hundred years ago, most human lives in the West have changed beyond recognition.  Labour saving devices, phones, internet, transport and travel, the homes we live in, the list is literally endless.
One of my favourite sets of books is about a Napoleonic British spy called Roger Brook.  The author, Dennis Wheatley, was unbelievably skilful at weaving Roger into historical events.  (Even now, I sometimes have to remind myself, when reading history from that period, that certain  events were not actually brought about with the help of Roger Brook, the character was so believable.)
However, an element of the books which has always struck me is the amount of time it takes for Roger to do anything.  Be it travel or post or getting clothes made or whatever, his time is so much more stretched than ours.  In order to prevent himself from being unmasked, in one book he rides flat out for three or four days from Moscow to Paris.  Three or four days!  And that was a mad feat of horsemanship to save his own neck - it should have taken over a week.  In another, he takes months to sail from England to the Caribbean.  His dispatches take weeks to get to his masters.
Would our modern mindsets cope if we had to return to these times?  We think we are time poor these days.  Imagine if we had to allow days at a time for a business journey.  Jolting along in a carriage, twiddling our thumbs.  No phones or laptops to amuse us or allow us to work.
Progress is great but maybe we should value time a bit more.  Instead of wishing for more hours in the day, I for one need to get better at doing what is important.  None of us know truly how much time we have.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Pinky Glee

Tomorrow is Mothers Day.  When I was a child, this day was mainly about a card for my mother, made at school or at Brownies and a silver foil wrapped bunch of daffodils given during the church service for me to pass, with clammy hands, down the pew to my mother.
Today, nearly forty years later, I entered a supermarket and was confronted with a full commercial "buy this stuff now or it is landfill tomorrow" sales push.  Never seen so many pink and yellow chrysanthemum bouquets, so much cheap pink champagne.  It was literally a bank of pastel, blocking entry to the main shopping area.  In John Lewis yesterday, they were pushing the slogan "make her day special" or some similar thing - and most of the posters seemed to be grouped around sickly coloured sewing accessories and slippers.  Next was pushing slogan-laden homewares - all in pastel colours.
How did this happen?  I do not in any way object to the sentiment behind Mothers Day.  But since when did it become pastel and 1950s style?  I do wonder what our near ancestors would make of it.  All the women who pushed for the vote, for job opportunities, for equal education.  They could be forgiven for wondering if anything had changed at all if they materialised in some of the shops today.
One could argue that no-one is obliged to buy pastel stuff.  But what does it say about our society as a whole, that this is assumed to be what is wanted by the masses?  Bit chicken and egg, I think.  Do supermarkets and others force people down this route or are they stocked to the gills because their research tells them it is what their customers want?
Of course, I am slightly bah humbug here.  My husband is as likely as many to be in that customer base.  Dashing to get a supermarket bouquet for fear of me feeling left out.  So probably therein lies another whole debate - is this pastel vision of motherhood aimed at the male customer base?  And if so, what does that say about men's true views?  Is the traditional (and pastel!) thing just very comforting or is it just easy?
Of course, it is lovely to receive gifts and, pastel or not, it is the thought that counts.  I can't help thinking it might be nice to have a less commercialised vision of Mothers Day though.  Personally, I am hoping for breakfast in bed and children who don't argue for the duration.  That's not much to ask, is it?! 

Friday, 13 March 2015

Racist Superiority

I have been trying for a few days now to write a post about Indian Summers, the new Channel Four drama series, based in 1930s British India.  I felt somehow that I ought to, given my family interest.

But there has been a great deal of comment already though.  Be it travelogues on Shimla where the series is set, travelogues on the places in Malaysia which actually doubled for vintage Shimla, pieces about the cast, the missionaries, the administration of British India.  Many British India chat rooms have been buzzing with the why's and where's, the authenticity and so on.
And you know, despite my many posts about adding colour and "feeling" to your family tree, somehow Indian Summers has felt far too close to home for me.  A step to far in seeing how things really were, seeing the segregation of British India up close and personal. 

My Anglo Indian grandmother and great aunt had referred occasionally to stories which showed the casual racism with which they had lived in British India.  Disturbing stories like going to a British club and being turned away because of the skin colour line on the sides of their hands, which were checked at the door.  Or because their voices "gave them away" as Anglo Indian.

Indian Summers puts this racism right out there for all to see.  The Royal Shimla Club was shown with a sign saying "No Dogs, No Indians", British characters casually refer to "blacky whites" for the Anglo Indian children of the nearby orphanage, the awful humiliation of an Indian civil servant invited to a British evening party.  Just a few examples. 
Then, today, I was listening to Desert Island Discs and the guest was Bryan Stevenson, an African American law professor and civil rights campaigner.  He was discussing the lack of "truth and reconciliation" in the US, after slavery ended, after the white supremacist terrorist activities or even after the civil rights battles of his own lifetime.  He talked eloquently of what he is up against but one story which struck me was of Stevenson was sitting, waiting, dressed in a suit, at the counsel table in a courtroom.  The judge and prosecutor came into the courtroom and immediately told him to get out, saying he had no right to be at counsel table without his lawyer.  Bryan Stevenson said that he told them who he was and they both laughed but offering no apology.  Stevenson forced himself to laugh along because he did not want to prejudice his client's case.  The client he was waiting to defend was white...  He said that it really made him think about the state of the nation - that it should be so completely assumed that the lawyer could not be the black man.
It could be a story straight out of Indian Summers, straight from the heart of British India.  And yet it is 21st century America.  One in three African American boy babies is now likely to go to jail at some time in their lives.  This statistic is the worst it has ever been.
In South Africa, the "truth and reconciliation" process referred to by Bryan Stevenson was aimed at allowing the two sides of apartheid to come together and talk and hopefully to move on and live in some kind of harmony.  By simply packing up and leaving, the British avoided the need for this in India.  To them, they were at the top of the heap and everyone "beneath" was one and the same.  All Indians, all as bad as each other, despite the Anglo Indians' attempts to "be British" and despite the many religious differences in the nation.  Indian Summers has, I think, done a fair job of showing this endemic feeling of superiority, shocking though it is to watch.  But what is more shocking is that in so many places in the world, the same attitudes still prevail. 
Do listen to Bryan Stevenson if  you have a chance.  It is a fantastic programmeAnd incidentally, take care when Googling.. Turns out there is a US porn star called India Summers.....!

Friday, 6 March 2015


This week, I finally got to see The Theory of Everything.  As ever, I will say that I am no way qualified to comment in  professional manner on the film and this blog is not a critique of film or television.  However, I did greatly enjoy the film and  Eddie Redmayne's Oscar for portraying Professor Stephen Hawking was thoroughly deserved.  I did feel, though, that Felicity Jones as his first wife Jane Wilde Hawking was outstanding.  Maybe the subtleties of her performance have been overshadowed, in the media at least, by Redmayne's very physical transformation.
Particularly interesting in the context of the story as well.  Because the story is based on Jane Hawking's own memoir of living with Stephen Hawking as he deteriorated.  She must have felt constantly overshadowed, unnoticed.   That struggle is really the basis of the film.
Looking at the horrendous physical changes wrought in Hawking by Motor Neurone Disease, it did make me think about how lightly we take the definitions that we come across on our ancestors' death records.  You become slightly immune to the "reasons for death" unless something really unusual like a gunshot wound or a rail accident or "plague" (I have seen this on one of my Indian relations' certificates!) shows up.
In reality, nearly every one of those "reasons" has a story of struggle and  obviously sadness behind it.  Whether it be years of nursing someone with "Consumption" (TB) or dealing with the all too common effects of alcoholism - often hidden to us on certificates because of old fashioned names for it.
If we are truly to understand our ancestors' lives rather than just make a note of their birth and death dates on a diagram, it is important to look at these details.  We are unlikely to have access to a memoir like Jane Hawking's to bring such situations into sharp relief but just finding out what a "reason" actually meant can add a great deal to our feel for family history.
As a postscript though, I must say that three of us went to see the film and we all three agreed that Stephen Hawking would not have been an easy person to live with - even if he had kept his health!  He is a highly unusual personality to say the least.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) that level of observation and detail about our ancestors will always elude the average family historian!

Monday, 2 March 2015

Colouring In

My children have recently been asking quite a lot of questions about life and death.  They have just lost their grandad but actually many of the questions have been more about life than death.  Despite having visited their great grandparents' grave in Ireland, both seem puzzled as to whether their ninety one year old grandfather could every have had a mother and father. 
Eldest has more of an idea about "where babies come" from but still seems to have difficulty processing the idea that everybody - even the elderly, the homeless, the criminals, their favourite popstars - must have been spawned by a male/female liaison of some kind.  Youngest is quite keen on family history and particularly likes the fan style of chart about which I have previously posted.  It appeals to her sense of order.  She can see herself and see the preceding generations spreading behind her.  She is always slightly disbelieving of their place in her family though.
For myself, I am always looking for evidence of detail and colour in order to reinforce my hard found records.  On a recent post, I spoke about the candle lit scenes in the TV Wolf Hall.  I strongly felt that they added to the immersive experience of that adaptation.  In a post series interview, the director said that he tried hard to get across the sense, that you feel when you read Hilary Mantel's novels, of being in Cromwell's head, seeing things how he saw them and thinking his private thoughts.  I thought that this was achieved very successfully and the scene settings greatly contributed.
But how to get a sense of feeling and detail for our own ancestors, if we are not lucky enough to have rich and/or famous ancestors, with caches of letters and portraits and contemporary accounts?
The Family History Writing Challenge, which finished on 28 February, was not as successful for me as I had hoped. Been too busy to stick to its schedule of writing every day for a month.  It has, though, led me to really consider the colours, sights, smells, tastes experienced by my ancestors.  To make a story of my ancestors' lives, I have had to imagine what it was like to be them.  An eighteenth century Londoner joining the army; a Victorian girl going into service; a train driver travelling across India....
I believe that this is an important part of family history.  A black and white diagram should be the basis for other research.  Looking at the details of a person's life can bring them into a far more colourful view.
So the next time you find an immigration record giving a ship's name or a military record for an ancestor's regiment, try researching the ship or regiment's history.  It may seem like a tangent but by taking a leaf out of the historical novelist's book (!), we can make our basic diagrams far more three dimensional.  Then the lists of birth and death dates might seem more relatable.