Primogeniture hangs heavy over the female genealogist, which is probably why there aren’t more of us in the field. For length of service, my grandfather (a man of index cards, clan tartans and a handsome volume in purple) takes some beating; for sheer sleuthing, the mother who found two aunts after fifty years demands respect. And now my grandmother is in on the act, demonstrating a laudable optimism as she scours Welsh BMD records for ancestors with such memorable Welsh surnames as Williams, Phillips and Morgan. Three shiny needles in an enormous Welsh needle shop.
I have a family tree drawn for me by my grandfather when I was about six or seven (the absence of my younger cousins gives the game away). Although one side of his family ran pretty quickly to yeoman farmers and conjecture, the family from which I take my surname included a whaling captain and an Anglo-Indian millionaire with a confusing will. I decided he’d been bumped off and circled him in red crayon to this effect, adding MURDERED?? in Penny Dreadful capitals in case anyone missed The Symbolism. My mum’s research was characterised by endless certificates and fits of hysteria in Bromsgrove Records Office, where we stopped just short of finding Quasimodo Crow but discovered all his Old-Testament-named, born-and-died-in-the-same-square-mile Black Country brethren. And my grandmother’s search? Well – photos.
Last week I scanned 130 for her as backups at her Cheshire home. Her aunt and uncle having been moderately famous photography pioneers, there’s a practical imperative: a biography for Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, or, er, the National Library of Wales. It’s also true that the joys of SCANNING and CATALOGUING and MAKING NICE LISTS satisfy the bit of my soul that genuinely enjoyed an academic term spent freezing in Magdalen Archives tallying the different ways in which Oscar Wilde wrote ‘A’. Most of all, though, I am a vintage photography junkie. I buy those depressing old pictures found by the tills in antiques shops. I turn to the picture pages in biographies before I’ve even read the title, my fingers rifling pages to find where the glossy paper begins. My interest in women’s education is analogous to my interest in genealogy – part self-obsession, part storytelling, part a historian’s belief in archives for archives’ sake. One of my few bits of hagia sophia is the belief that everything you do, read, visit or think will be useful to you at some point. There’s no such thing as trash literature, or as time wasted (except, perhaps, on the internet). So I’m putting this picture out there in the hopes it’ll be interesting to someone other than me (and my gene pool).
So: above. University College, Cardiff (now Cardiff University), 1916. Education Class. My great-grandmother lies second from the right. She’s got brown hair, sunburned skin and many teeth, but it might be easier to tell you she’s the happiest one in the photo. Her name was Madge, and she moved into Aberdare Hall, the first women’s hall of residence in Wales, and the second in Britain. She became a teacher and rode a motorcycle and moved to Croydon and married a Welshman and had two children. Her father was a choirmaster and candidate for Most Welsh-Named Welshman of All Time: Evan Williams. Several sisters followed Madge to Cardiff, including a younger sister who’d die of tuberculosis before she could graduate in Maths.
The quad in the picture looks so like Oriel that it gave me pause (for those who know it — third quad, looking towards the war memorial). I didn’t overlap with my great-grandmother at all; she died when my father was little, having had a stroke within days of moving in with her daughter and son-in-law. At my grandfather’s funeral, my dad’s godfather gave me a different image of her: Madge, leaning against the fireplace, gin-and-tonic in hand, always laughing. It’s easier for me to reconcile that Madge with the sunny student than with the the invalid who died in the room where – eventually – her great-grandchildren learned to sing Sosban Fach.
If you have any old family photographs to hand, please do think about blogging them! I can’t be the only person who finds them fascinating, right?
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.