Monday, 27 January 2020

Family History from the Left - John Charlton (1999)

Family History from the Left
Written By: John Charlton
Date: April 1999
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 6: summer 1999 

In February, John Charlton presented a paper to the New Socialist Approached to History seminar on “Marxist family History”. This is an account of his work, and what he is hoping to achieve.

I have recently been working on a history of my wife's family, which has caused me to reflect on the area as a suitable one for a committed socialist. Of course I would defend just doing it out of interest in the family to which I belong. This was where I started, moving on from tackling my own antecedents a decade ago. However this enquiry has taken on a different slant. Due to two pieces of rare good fortune it has opened the possibility of making a contribution to a broader social history. The first break was to discover this family's (Mitchison) 'origins' unexpectedly in the city where I live (Newcastle) in the 18th Century craft trades. The second was to discover a previously unknown archive of family material deposited in the 1920's in the London Metropolitan Archives. The two discoveries have made it possible to trace, through primary materials, one of the routes in the making of the Victorian middle class. That is from craft guilds, through speculative activities (corn in Newcastle, silk, building and property development in London).

A limitation on most family history is the dearth of material especially for families not exceptionally rich. It usually produces an inevitable lapse into genealogy and family trees. The body of material in these two sources enables the historian to go much further though there is still a shortage of really personal material on which to base a supported discussion of motivations. However on the early part the guilds have left a most impressive body of material and on the latter the family archive has over 500 items, though largely of a legal nature.

The family came from Northumbrian border agriculture in the early 18th century. They bought apprenticeships in glove making, house carpentry and goldsmithing, ensconcing themselves in the surviving medieval guild system of Newcastle and Gateshead. (A very common pathway for farmers' children as shown by the guild records) Their story almost mirrors the dissolution of that system in the face of growing laissez faire capitalism. Shifting, probably via advantageous marriage, into the corn trade in the 1790's at the height of the War with France, one branch launched itself into speculation at a time of dearth, accumulating enough capital, in a short time, to buy into land and property. Another branch stayed with the guilds and probably became skilled craftsmen after the guilds shrivelled. (The family name is lightly scattered through the 19th century Census Returns for Newcastle in crafts and petit bourgeois activities) The former branch went off to London, speculated in building and silk manufacture and merchanting before moving out of the City to the Western suburbs to become rentier gentlemen. Eton, Oxford and the Temple beckoned a future generation, and their families, caught up in the Great War and declining land prices, shifted again into the professions and Labour politics.

Hopefully my study can throw further light on the peculiarities of social transition with its mixture of ruthless determination and the embracing of old and new value systems and manners. The following issues/themes are among those being pursued:

  • The dissolution of the guild system (pressures from within and without)
  • Speculative activity in three areas: corn, silk and property.
  • Where the money came from: speculation, accumulation, buying and selling property, borrowing, marriage.
  • The role of women: daughters, wives, charity work.
  • The building of a culture: school, church, 'society', counting house.
  • Impact of the Great War.

I would be grateful for any discussion, comments or references.

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