Defining Moments


At a recent church service we were asked as members of the congregation to think about national and international  ‘defining moments’.  I suppose for me I tend to think about where I was when particular events occurred:  the release of Nelson Mandela, the knocking down of the Berlin Wall, the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11, the death of Princess Diana and now, of course, Brexit.  We’ve seen plenty of defining moments during the Olympics this summer, too:  Usain Bolt’s ‘triple triple’; Laura Trott’s four gold medals,  Nick Skelton’s gold medal at the age of 58, the first British olympic gold for gymnastics, and perhaps the biggest surprise of all – Britain actually coming second in the medal table!

Have you ever wondered what the defining moments were for our ancestors?  I have been appreciating the series of centre pull-outs over the last few months in Family Tree, a magazine I have subscribed to since 1990 and which I avidly read from cover to cover.  This month the pull-out is a family history timeline, which is a great way of seeing what national and international events our ancestors might have been aware of or been affected by.  Nowadays, of course, we can be aware of international events almost instantly thanks to social media.  Those ancestors at the top of my various trees in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries may not have known about events thousands of miles away until some days after the event, and then perhaps only because someone down at the pub had a newspaper and read excerpts aloud.

Looking at my Norfolk George tree, David George at the top of the tree was 20 before Britain decided to ban involvement in the slave trade.  His second son John, my great great grandfather, was born a month before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and married just three years after civil registration began. His first son James was a few months old when the 1841 census was taken (the first one of real use to family historians), and compulsory elementary education was still in its infancy when my own grandfather was born in 1878.  This summer’s commemorations of the start of the Battle of the Somme remind us of the huge impact of the First World War on our more recent ancestors’ lives.  Quite apart from the huge loss of life, it meant that many of our female ancestors struggled to find husbands, at a time when that was a really important thing to do.  My grandmother was almost 36 by the time of her marriage, but astoundingly was 40 before she was able to vote!  The Second World War had a big impact on the lives of my parents:  evacuation and disrupted education.  I see that the World Wide Web was created in the same year that I was married, although I’m sure I wasn’t aware of it until many years after that!

We’ve had a number of personal ‘defining moments’ this summer within the family:  a 21st birthday, a graduation, an engagement and two new jobs as well as the less happy diagnosis of a serious medical condition.  My George ancestors will have experienced all of these, too, with the exception of the graduation (since the early males were ag labs almost without exception!).  It helps to feel connected to know that they experienced similar joys and sorrows and were affected to a greater or lesser extent by national and international events.

The 26th August 2015 was a defining moment for me personally as it was when I published my first ever family history blog post!  I am pleased with my achievement of having published a regular blog for a whole year, first weekly and now fortnightly since the spring’s added pressures of elderly parent care.  I have found that I very much enjoy the process and creativity of writing, and I hope that you, my readers, have enjoyed with me the journey so far.   Thank you for reading  and please do continue to post your comments!

John George born 1815
John George, born a month before the Battle of Waterloo

Flora Thompson

I recently picked up a biography of Flora Thompson at a National Trust second hand bookshop.  Many properties seem to have these now and they must generate some useful extra income.  The biography is by Gillian Lindsay, published by Hale in 1990.

It is many years since I first read the ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ trilogy, very much enjoying the description of nineteenth century rural life in Oxfordshire.  Since then, of course, we have had the very popular TV series of the same name, starring Julia Sawalha as Dorcas Lane, the Postmistress.  Many of those storylines were complete fabrication, but the series broadly conveyed the flavour of the books, and I for one enjoyed it for the costumes and settings if nothing else.

At the end of her biography Gillian Lindsay quotes from Flora’s last book ‘Still Glides the Stream’:

“We come, we go, and, as individuals, we are forgotten.  But the stream of human life goes on, ever changing, but ever the same, and as the stream is fed by well-springs hoarded by Nature, so the stream of humanity is fed by the accumulated wisdom, effort and hard-won experience of past generations.”

This quotation certainly struck a chord with me.  In a sense, is this not what family history is about?  Is it not at least partly about acknowledging that wisdom, effort and experience of our ancestors?  Of course, what we do strive to do as family historians is to ensure that those individuals are not forgotten, as Flora Thompson suggested.

I have been fascinated to read of her life beyond rural Oxfordshire.  I had no idea that she had worked in Post Offices in Essex and then in Graysott, Hampshire, before moving once married to Bournemouth and then to Liphook.  I have found a link to a walk on the commons near Grayshott and Liphook, taking in the places where she loved to walk and which fed her nature writing.  I hope it will be possible to follow this trail sometime.

Flora loved her family:  her daughter Winifred trained as a nurse, her eldest son Basil emigrated to Australia and her youngest son Peter, who was in the Merchant Navy, was tragically killed in WW2 when his ship The Jedmoor, was topedoed in September 1941.

Although Flora Thompson was a prolific writer, it was not until 1986 that her nature essays ‘The Peverel Papers’ (which were originally published in the ‘Catholic Fireside’ in the 1920s) were published in book form.  I was also ignorant of another book, ‘Heatherley’, which is an account of her time in Grayshott.  Today I managed to find a copy on the shelves of my local library, so I am looking forward to reading it.

Flora Thompson died on 21 May 1947 and is buried in Dartmouth.

Bramshott Common by  Robin Webster, on
Bramshott Common by Robin Webster, on