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

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Family Records: Memoirs and Autobiographies

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They Wrote Their Life Stories

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[This article first appeared in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2009]
If your great-grandfather was a commander in the Royal Navy,  or your great-great  aunt was a suffragette, if he or she did anything noteworthy or of importance during their lifetimes, (and even sometimes when they didn’t) it’s just possible that they wrote and published a memoir or autobiography. Certainly, thousands of such books were produced  - and often by the most unlikely of people - in the late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and many now lie forgotten on the shelves of libraries or second-hand book shops.

Born Mary Anne Hearn (1834-1909), Farningham took the name of her local village. She was a Sunday school teacher, editor and journalist and published her autobiography in 1907.  From A Working Woman's Life: An Autobiography  Marianne Farningham, London: James Clarke, 1907

Memoir or autobiography ? 
Memoirs (from the Latin ‘memoria’ meaning ‘memories’) are characteristically fairly short and focus on part of a life – often the public part.

Autobiographies (from the Greek autos 'self', bios, 'life' and graphein, 'write') tend to be long, well-structured and formal accounts of a whole life.

Who wrote memoirs and autobiographies?

Memoirs and autobiographies were written by all kinds of people from the early nineteenth century onwards. What they had in common was literacy, the time and inclination to write and access to a publisher. That said, some autobiographers were illiterate and dictated their experiences to others; and other books remained in manuscript form until they were discovered in family papers or archives and published posthumously by interested historians.

 ‘I like to write about myself; in fact, there are few things which I like better; it is so delightful to call up old reminiscences.’ James Hogg, ‘ Memoir of the Author’s Life,’ in The Mountain Bard (1807)

Lords, ladies and bishops often wrote their life histories for publication. So too did politicians, ministers, missionaries, school inspectors and headmistresses, doctors, scientists and social reformers – people who felt that they had contributed something to public life or who had something interesting to say about one aspect of their experience. The novelist Winifred Peck stated in her autobiography, that ‘I have never travelled with rod or gun in the far reaches of the Amazon, nor hob-nobbed with head hunters or the vanished courts of the Continent.’ Nevertheless, she thought that readers might benefit from a description of her own schooling and university education and her book is entitled A Little Learning in recognition of that.

And don’t assume that people further down the social scale didn’t write their autobiographies. There are examples by nurses, cabinet makers and railway signalmen - to name but a few. These were people who had - at some point or other – come to the attention of those in the publishing world. Newly literate working class people occasionally ended up practising their new skills by writing down the stories of their lives - sometimes with the help of a middle-class patron. In his book

Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, the historian David Vincent looks at 142 working-class autobiographies written between 1790 and 1850. The majority of these were by men living in London or the Northern industrial towns, but there are also rural examples.

Bear in mind too that some memoirs in the nineteenth-century were written by close relatives of the main subject. There are numerous examples of memoirs of daughters written by fathers and memoirs of wives written by husbands, for example.

How can I find out if my ancestor published his/her life story?

You can search for free through the titles of all the memoirs and autobiographies ever published in Britain at the website (the academic and national libraries’ catalogue). There are over 63,000 entries under the keyword ‘autobiography’! Many of them have titles which use the words ‘Recollections,’ ‘Reminiscences,’ ‘Adventures of..’ or ‘Life of…’ You can can narrow your search down by including the name of your ancestor. You just never know! This site will tell you which libraries in Britain have  a copy of the book in question. Alternatively, if you find something that interests you here, type the details into one of the commerical book sites such as or Cheap second-hand copies may then be ordered online.

If your ancestor worked in a particular trade or profession it might be worth searching under those keywords to see if you can find an autobiography by someone else who worked in that profession at a similar time. John Smith’s The Autobiography of a Chimney Sweep Past and Present By One of the Trade (1877) and The Autobiography of William Farish: The Struggles of a Handloom Weaver (1890) are two such examples. The Copac website is so extensive that you are almost bound to find something relevant there. Such books can give you invaluable first-hand information about what working life was really like for your family member.

The autobiography of James Chalmers (1841-1901), Scottish missionary and explorer of the Cook islands and New Guinea. Lovett, Richard, ed.James Chalmers: His Autobiography and Letters (The Religious Tract Society, fourth edit., 1903).

Don’t forget that even if your ancestor didn’t publish his or her own life story, he or she might be mentioned in somebody else’s memoir. One of my great uncles, Dick Tyldesley (who was a pretty well-known cricketer playing for Lancashire and England until the 1940s), is mentioned in the autobiography of the journalist and cricket writer, Neville Cardus (Autobiography, 1947). Some nineteenth-century autobiographies mention the name of the town from which the writer came in the title, for example,. The Autobiography of Thomas Wright of Birkenshaw, in the County of York, 1736-1797 (1864). If you find such a volume with the name of your ancestral town – it’s worth having a look at it, just to see if your family is mentioned).

Uses of Autobiography in your Family History Research

·       New information

Memoirs and autobiographies may alert you to all sorts of other information about your family members, anything from the schools they attended to the names of their cousins and grandparents, from their yearly income to the property they owned, from their public duties to their personal prejudices.

  • Photographs, Sketches and Signatures
The frontispieces of nineteenth- and early twentieth- century autobiographies often include a portrait photograph or drawing of the author and his or her signature.

·       Opening Pages

Look closely at the opening pages of your family memoir or autobiography – this is usually the place to find the most cogent genealogical information. It was customary for authors to begin their life histories by describing where their own ancestors (on both sides) originated. This is how the nineteenth-century writer Harriet Martineau began her autobiography: 

Our French name indicates our origins. The first Martineaus that we know of were expatriated Huguenots who came over from Normandy on the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

This sort of information can be invaluable since it often involves a record of the distant movements of a family from one part of the country to another (or indeed – as here - from one country to another). Information from so far back in the family tree would be difficult to locate from any other source. Look carefully at the way in which the author tries to draw conclusions from these genealogical pathways. He will often tell you that the fact that his grandfather was Scottish, his great-grandmother a Catholic or his uncle a wayward soldier, has had a bearing on his own progress through life. 

·       Turning Points

Autobiographies are often structured around one or two important moments in the writer’s life:  - the time when they fell in love, for example, or the sudden acquisition of a fortune or the death of another family member.  Of course, these are also the moments in which you -  as a family historian - are likely to be most interested. You may already have the date at which your ancestor emigrated to America or converted to Catholicism, but an autobiography can explain the reasons why your ancestors made these decisions and their consequences.

But be careful….

Try to take what you read in autobiographies and memoirs with a pinch of salt.

Remember that

  • autobiographers may have a tendency to exaggerate and over-inflate their family connections. Claiming a relationship with royalty or the aristocracy was commonplace in nineteenth-century autobiographies.
  • the writer’s memory may be faulty
  • memoirists and autobiographers are not – on the whole - interested in drawing up comprehensive family trees, rather they like to give the reader a flavour of their family history by picking out significant ancestors in the past and extrapolating something significant. Their conclusions may not always be correct
  • writers may have deliberately chosen to gloss over episodes in their family life that are disagreeable or which show them in a bad light – failed marriages or periods in prison, for example 
  • the facts may be somewhat distorted.  Details of education, for example, may be described in such a way as to emphasise the writer’s social status, intellectual capacity or moral worth. In their memoirs, people try to make themselves look respectable and useful. Be careful of taking statements at face value
  • memoirs can be distorted because they are emotionally intense. They were often written as a method of consolation after the loss of a family member and had a therapeutic purpose 
  • All memoirs and autobiographies will have been edited before publication. Try to bear in mind what might have been left out or altered to suit the needs of the audience
With these reservations in mind, enjoy your family autobiographies, they are the nearest you will ever get to knowing the whole story of your ancestors’ time here on earth.

Useful Websites  The academic and national library catalogue - American second hand and antiquarian booksite - Online book site

Useful Books

John Burnett, ed Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s  (Penguin, 1974)

Valerie Sanders, The Private Lives of Victorian Women: Autobiography in Nineteenth-Century England, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989

David Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography.  Methuen, rpt, 1982.

Keywords: European ancestors, family history, memoir, autobiography

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