Exploring Social History Through Family History

At the members’ meeting on 17th November 2015, we shared aspects of our family histories to see what insight this gave into social history. We looked mostly at our own generation and those of our parents & grandparents, so that members who had not formally researched their family history could take part more easily. Focusing on generations rather than specific ranges of dates made it easier for members to contribute, though a clear timescale is lost. As a very rough guide, probably most of us were born between 1930 and 1950, our parents between 1900 and 1920, and our grandparents in the last decades of the 19C.

We began by examining whether some common beliefs were truth or myth. Were families much larger in the past? Were people more likely to remain in the same area throughout their lives? Was the family a more stable institution in an age before divorce was common? Were fewer children born outside marriage, and how did families respond when they were?

We also looked at how people’s working lives had changed, collecting examples of employment that no longer exists or is rare, and noting when women began to undertake new kinds of work.

Family size

16 members provided figures on this. Not all were able to supply details of their grandparents’ generation. The data give these results:

Our generation33
Our parents’ generation56
Our grandparents’ generation54

Because the sample was so small, the figures for mode, suggesting family size was larger in the early 20C than the late 19C, are misleading. Scrutiny of data for the earlier period shows proportionately more very large families (9 or more children).

Average family sizes changed little in the two older generations. High rates of infant mortality and the lack of reliable contraception both kept family size relatively large. Better medical provision meant our parents were more confident that their children would reach adulthood, and families were smaller in our generation, with only 3 containing more than 3 siblings.

Geographical mobility

20 members provided details of where they, their parents and grandparents were born. Unfortunately a number of those with several generations of family from the area were not at the meeting. For those born locally, the specific town or village was recorded, for others the county or country.

In our generation, 13 (65%) were born within roughly a 10 mile radius of Grenoside. This figure may not represent the local community as a whole: a local history group is likely to attract those with local roots. Of the others, 2 (10%) were from adjacent counties, 5 (25%) from further afield.

More than half the members responding (11, 55%) were born in the same general locality as their parents & grandparents. Most marriages in our parents’ generation were with someone living in the same area. Only 5 (25%) involved a husband and wife from clearly different parts of the country. The corresponding figure for our grandparents’ generation was higher, at 13 (35%) of the 37 marriages recorded. In 4 families, each of the 4 grandparents came from a different region. It is risky to draw conclusions from such a small sample, but it seems that geographical mobility was at least as high in the period around 1900 as in later years.

Only one member born in this district had parents born in a different region. One instance cannot prove a general pattern, but the economic situation in the 1930s would be unlikely to draw people to this area, and scope for movement was limited during WW2.


Obsolete jobs

  • Reflecting the national decline of an industry: in the cotton and woollen mills of Lancashire & West Yorkshire; in coal mining.
  • Resulting from social change: domestic service.
  • Relating to crafts & skills, perhaps home-based, formerly practised on a small scale: table-blade striker, milliner, cordwainer, shoemaker, clogger, paper bag maker, muslin flowerer, butcher’s steel maker, shuttle tip maker, framework knitter, stone grinder.
  • Replaced by new technology/forms of transport: drover, carter, horse-drawn mailcoach driver, milkman with horse & cart, canal boatman.
  • The slightly bizarre: trapeze artist, domino dot painter…..

Women’s work

  • Large-scale industries: cotton mills, continuing from the 19C
  • “Crafts” or small businesses: baker (early 20C), shop assistant, bookbinder.
  • Professions: nursing, teaching
  • Traditional unofficial roles: midwife/laying out the dead.
  • New roles. A number of women gave these up & returned to more traditional women’s work. It is not always clear whether this was voluntary.
    • Telegraphist (1890s) – then housekeeper for an unmarried brother
    • Munitions work (WW1) – then back into service as a cook
    • Bus conductress (1920s)

Family life & moral standards

Marriage breakdown

 With divorce rare (& costly) and public record-keeping less stringent, there were unofficial ways to end a failing marriage. When his wife was admitted to a mental hospital, one husband simply married again. Walking out was the simplest course of action. Some wives & children went to the workhouse as a result; others coped financially, but never discovered what the husband had done: emigrated, joined the army, remarried bigamously, or committed suicide.

Adoption was less regulated. One father’s response to his family becoming too large was to sell the latest addition – for £5.


 Members recalled that this was still regarded as a disgrace in the mid 20C, commenting that a birth less than 9 months after a wedding set tongues wagging.

Earlier attitudes varied. Some born outside marriage were passed off as a child rather than grandchild, or son rather than nephew. Other siblings were often unaware of their true relationship. Sometimes they were brought up by their mother in the family home, retaining her maiden name when she married. One family continued to house the child & her mother, but clearly resented her existence, entering her place of birth on the census as “nowhere”.

The impact of universal education

It was pointed out that the introduction of universal education in 1870 and of scholarships enabling access to grammar schools from 1902 was a crucial factor in fostering both social & geographical mobility.

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