Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Family History in the Recession

Mushy Peas and Family Trees

(Written 2009)

Ruth A. Symes asks why, in a recession, family history is gaining in popularity

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Like mushy peas and custard, sales of family history magazines and related services are currently rising. What are we to make of this apparently growing fascination with the past (and particularly with the lives of our own forebears) at a time of significant economic crisis? Is the credit crunch in any way responsible? Or is the family tree simply one of those items – like good moisturiser-  that is, quite simply, recession-proof.

True, the growing interest in family history is not as spectacular as the return of the mushy pea (the Sunday Telegraph recently reported a 340% growth in sales of this previously unfashionable vegetable last year), but the rise has been steady  - a cheering fact given the downturn in sales of some other special interest magazines and local newspapers. Certainly all the major family history titles including Ancestors, Family Tree, Practical Family History, Your Family Tree and Family History Monthly report a solid growth in sales with subscriptions, in particular, also on the up. The BBC magazine Who Do You Think You Are? has also experienced a continuing increase in sales since its launch, though this may be due to its relatively new appearance on the family history market. Less ambiguously, its much better established sister, the BBC History magazine, has also shown an upturn in sales. Such figures across the board surely tell a clear story of a reinvigorated popular interest in the past.

And the fascination in our forebears can be calibrated in other ways too. Online commercial family history services are undergoing a boon with  - the major gateway to census information and many other online historical records - experiencing more traffic than anticipated. This increase is despite its yearly subscription fee of over £80 for its basic service. Entries to family history competitions are up and even visits to archives seem to be on the ascendant. The Who Do You Think You Are? television series reports stronger viewing figures than ever for its last series which featured celebrities such as Zoe Wanamaker and Kevin Whately. The current series seems set to do the same. And attendance at the Who Do You Think You Are Live? Family History Fair held at Kensington Olympia in March certainly surpassed that at previous years’ events. In a climate of economic depression, genealogy is certainly – and somewhat surprisingly -  holding its own.

The renewed popularity of custard and the mushy pea, we are told, can be put down to the depressed economic climate and the transformed psychology that goes with it. After all, it’s far cheaper to eat in than eat out these days and these old favourites – along with such blasts-from-the-past as Arctic Roll and Mellow Bird’s Coffee -  have  the comfort factor that we all crave in a recession - reminding us of secure times in childhood when we weren’t worried about either our incomes or our waistlines. David Kershaw, chief executive of M&C Saatchi, the advertising agency, has recently commented that, ‘When times are hard nostalgia becomes more attractive’. But is the appeal of family history really of the same simple sort?

The business of doing your family tree, it’s true, does allow enthusiasts to retreat temporarily out of the ebb and flow of modern life into a world of old-fashioned concerns and values where even the destitute – if they are your proven forebears – take on a romantic aspect. In addition, family history is, on the whole is a hobby that can be pursued quietly and in isolation, either at home online or in an archive.It doesn’t bother anybody else. In a world where nothing – even solid old institutions like high street banks – seem safe anymore, occasionally adding a few names to your family tree seems a gloriously unthreatening pastime, something over which you can assert a degree of control.

Such psychological speculation is fascinating, of course, but, the continuing appeal of family history magazines and websites probably has less to do with these motivations and far more to do with something more mundane – the sociological make-up of their readership. Most enthusiasts are 50 plus and either retired or semi-retired. Not usually in the highest income brackets where falling share prices and interest rates may have drastically affected their income, these readers probably, however, have reasonable and secure pensions and are outside downward-spiralling economic trends. Sarah Warwick, editor of Family History Monthly, comments that ‘the industry reflects a slower paced attitude to life and […] has always encouraged people to do things in a thrifty way.’

Avid family history researchers are relatively laid-back about the recession. These punters have seen slumps before and are perhaps, therefore, less inclined to panic and withdraw their subscriptions to magazines and pay-to-view sites. Add to this the fact that over half of all family history enthusiasts are female  - and either non-working or second earners - and you have the recipe for a hobby likely to withstand the recession.

More particularly, of course, family history is a relatively inexpensive hobby. The internet has revolutionised the speed with which information can be discovered cheaply or for free – in many cases absolving the need for expensive visits to archives possibly at the other end of the county. Most of the family history magazines have recently included articles on how to go about research on a shoestring budget. Ancestors Magazine, for example, ran a ‘Family History for Free’ supplement in May. The American family history magazine Family Tree even included practical advice on what to stock in your hotel fridge whilst on a research trip, to enable you to save money! For some enthusiasts, indeed, the active pursuit of family history has begun (or has taken off properly) since they have been made redundant or unemployed and had the time (if not the money) to do something different.

If anything was set to test the mettle of family historians in the recession it was the recent arrival of the 1911 census online. This can currently be viewed only at and it comes at a price. To view the records you need to buy units. 60 credits can be purchased for £6.95, 280 credits for £24.95 and 600 credits for £49.95. This looks reasonable until you realise that 10 credits will buy you a view of a transcript of the record of just one household, and it will cost you 30 credits to see the original. Mistakenly clicking on just a few records that don’t actually relate to your family, could set you back quite a few pounds.

Unsurprisingly there has been some vigorous debate about the cost of this service in the letters pages and online forums of family history magazines. ‘I think this is very expensive and I will not be buying any until the price is reduced,’ moaned one reader in the March issue of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ But the editorial response to this was to remind readers of the initial cost of the mammoth project to transcribe the 1911 data and to suggest that in the light of the cost of other family history expenses (e.g. ordering birth, marriage and death certificates from the General Register Office at a cost of £7 per item), it was not unreasonable. Other grumbles have concerned the fact that the 1911 census can be viewed for free at the National Archives in Kew but not elsewhere, thus leading to complaints of favouritism towards family historians lucky enough to live in the capital. But, interestingly, despite the moans, the usage of this census has been significantly greater than anticipated – another fact attesting to the increasing popularity of the subject.

In a nod to contemporary concerns, family history magazines are including more items on economic decline and financial failure of all sorts. Ancestors magazine, for example, is showcasing bankruptcy records and looking in more detail at books on the decade of the depression  - the 1930s. Who Do You Think You Are? magazine has recently focused on the decline of the big high street shopping chains such as Woolworths. Family History Monthly has looked at Means Testing, the Jarrow Hunger Marches, rationing and ‘make do and mend.’

All of this could, of course, make the magazines a bit of a depressing read - surely something to be avoided if flourishing sales figures are to be maintained? Helen Tovey, editor of Family Tree Magazine, reports,  ‘We’ve had quite a lot of authors contacting us with tales of family debt in past times. We’re publishing some of them, but [we] don’t want to get totally immersed in debt. We want the mag to be a cheering and inspiring read.’ Likewise Karen Clare, editor of Practical Family History, suggests that readers are really more interested in ‘how to’ articles than contemporary issues. We are back, it seems, to the point that genealogy is booming because it really is a refuge from – rather than a reflector of - current troubles.

Perhaps, however, family history is a refuge with a difference. The relief it provides is not quite the same as that of a jam sandwich, or a Fray Bentos pie. Whilst our ancestors can’t exactly provide practical advice on today’s demons - credit card debt, house repossessions or the threat of redundancy - their uncovered life histories do remind us of the importance of developing mental stamina in difficult times. Browse through just a few pages of the online nineteenth-century censuses, and you will inevitably be struck by the fortitude of those that came before us – the Scottish peasants forced to emigrate after the Highland clearances, the rural folk forced to live and work in slum conditions in Britain’s industrial cities, the immigrants arriving here to escape the Irish famine.  It is to this spirit in the face of adversity that family history buffs themselves pay tribute. Certainly their letters to the magazines are full of the sentiment that the country today needs more ‘backbone’ and greater ‘sticking power.’ As Helen Tovey (Family Tree Magazine) comments, “‘Most of our ancestors had a pretty dreadful time…. Researching family history seems to give a greater sense of perspective – i.e. ‘What are we complaining about anyway?’”

And it’s possible that family history has an added appeal in these troubled financial times in that it is manifestly and unashamedly to do with money  - the making and losing of it. Like it or not, most family narratives are built around cash. Zoe Wanamaker’s family history charted the long journey of her ancestors from poverty in the Ukraine to a life of plenty in America in the early twentieth century. Kevin Whately, on the other hand, was somewhat embarrassed by the enormous wealth his forebears – The Thomson brothers - accumulated from colonial interests in America and the West Indies in the seventeenth century and seemed quite relieved to find himself leading a far more modest life here in the twenty-first century. Whatever your background, money will have been accumulated, spent or frittered away in your family at some point with some degree of significance. Does the cash nexus that underpins all our histories perhaps have a particular attraction during a recession?

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

The nostalgia factor; the demographics of its audience; the internet; the obsession with money – the buoyancy of the family history market may have something to do with all or none of these factors. And those working in the industry beg to include another  - perhaps the most important – dynamic: the addiction factor. For many, the search for ancestors has become an irresistible daily fix. Some ‘addicts,’ it is reported, visit family history websites tens of times a week and try to sort out other people’s genealogical problems as well as their own. And of course, in a recession, as with all addictions, junkies will cut down on all other extras rather than give up on their own particular fix. Sarah Williams (editor of Who Do You Think You Are Magazine) is unequivocal, ‘I think the addictive quality of family history will cushion it from the recession.’

So far so good in an era that is generally seeing an erosion of the magazine market by the internet. But what of the longer term future of the family history magazine? Editors of family history magazines are generally sanguine about the future of their craft. Simon Fowler (Ancestors) suggests that economics is not the most important factor. More significant is the increase in working age, which will mean that there will soon be fewer active retired or semi-retired people with time to spare. Also significant is the fact that so much information will be online in the future that the ‘challenge’ will no longer be there and the need for specialist magazines will decline.

Even now, the recession has had some negative effects on the family history market as on virtually everything else. Those people for whom family history is just a passing hobby will inevitably cancel their subscriptions. Some magazines report that advertising revenue is down because there are fewer businesses specialising in family history and there has been some consolidation across the industry.

For the time being, however, the market is booming. Whilst other fads may disappear as we all tighten our belts, this one, it seems, will see the recession out. As Sarah Warwick (departing editor of Family History Monthly) puts it: ‘People will still want to find their roots, even in a recession.’ Our ancestors really have nowhere to hide.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, language, immigrants, immigration, regions, regional, British Isles, UK, England, English, recession

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