Revealing Lives—Hiram and Me

My grandfather returned from the First World War in 1919. He worked ferociously for 18 years to build a family, a career, a community, a nation. And then he died.

I never knew him.

Getting to know you

I’m reaching an age where family history beckons me. I have time to ask questions now. Who were the people who came before me, what shaped their lives, how have their lives shaped mine? Today, it’s easy to answer basic questions about living people. Our lives are documented and captured ad nauseum, often unwittingly and unknowingly. My brother-in-law, for example, doesn’t own any electronic devices and he’s never used a computer. He might be surprised at the extent of his online presence—news articles, photographs, community records—none of it intentionally generated by him. Even without Twitter or Instagram or Facebook accounts, he’s easy to ‘find’.

Compare that with my grandfather’s life a century ago. No internet, no mobile phones, even cameras are a novelty. How do I come to know this man? His name is Hiram.

The curated life

I have an assortment of physical items that once belonged to my grandfather. Among them, a certificate verifying his membership of the Juvenile Order of Rechabites and a card outlining the rules for his local Harriers club. There’s the receipt from the hotel where he and my grandmother spent their first night as a married couple, and a business card for the real estate agency he set up with his brother-in-law. There are pictures of the town carnival he helped establish and his handwritten notes for speeches delivered at political rallies. Most numerous of all is the memorabilia from his war service: colour patches, medallions, poems, photographs, postcards, international currency, leave passes.

What strikes me is how intentional this collection is. It has already been carefully curated (and censored?) to provide a version of his life; each item deliberately retained by my grandfather, then by his wife and, later, by their daughter—my mother. It’s private and personal.

The subject in the frame—changing perspectives

Through the objects in the curated collection, I can discover what my grandfather considered important. I can see how he chose to be seen—a teetotaller, an amateur athlete, a husband, a businessman, a community leader, a political activist, a serviceman. But there are other sources of information, too. Does the material they hold align with the image he preserved?

There is the public record—family notices in newspapers, published obituaries, cemetery listings and the like, and there are official sources—certificates from Births, Deaths and Marriages; military service records; repatriation files.

In both the public and official sources, Hiram loses agency. Another person or organisation takes charge of his life narrative, and their intentions differ from his. It’s like changing the lens in a camera—the subject in the frame remains the same, but the perspective shifts.

Let me give you an example. There is a whispered story in my family, gleaned from relatives long dead. The story goes that my grandfather died from the effects of mustard gas poisoning, sustained during the war. My understanding is that the longer-term health effects of mustard gas inhalation are respiratory disease and, potentially, lung cancer. Hiram’s death certificate—an official source—records his cause of death as kidney cirrhosis, hyperpiesia (persistent high blood pressure) and heart failure. His lungs were fine. So what is the story behind the bare facts? Is the family’s mustard gas tale a furphy and, if it is, why was it told?

 Change the lens again and yet another perspective is revealed.

Hiram’s Repatriation Commission files detail his medical condition over a period of 20 years. His reported symptoms include headaches, insomnia, ‘nerve trouble’ and a ‘feeling of depression’. The symptoms are attributed to the ‘strain of active service’. (His treatment comprised tonics, sedatives and liniments.) Am I now looking at a man diminished by shell shock, or what, today, I would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? No hint of this possibility exists in the brief obituary published in the Melbourne Age. Lauded in this source for his community engagement, Hiram is quintessentially a ‘well known member of the 59th Battalion’.

The privately collated collection, the whispered family folklore, the public record, and the official sources offer variant versions of one life.

The revelations of time travel

Cover image courtesy of Black Inc.

In his book The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft, Tom Griffiths writes: ‘History … is a powerful disciplinary tool in the search for truth. But its greatest virtue is uncompromising complexity. As we study the past it changes before our eyes, affected by our gaze and eluding definitive capture … The art of time travel is to maintain a critical poise and grace in this dizzy space. There is a further hazard: we never return to exactly the same present from which we left, for time cycles on remorselessly even when we seek to defy it. And in the course of our quest we find that we, too, have changed’ (p. 321).

The question I posed initially about my grandfather was: ‘How do I come to know this man?’ One answer is, ‘I can’t’. I can know about him, using the historian’s tools. I can glean something of what he thought significant in his own life, and I can see how he is rendered by others. The essential Hiram may be undiscoverable.

But perhaps there is another question worth asking.

As I seek to rediscover an ancestral life, how might that quest change me?

There may be hazards, as Griffiths warns, in time travel. There could also be gifts.

Links and sources

Useful starting points for information on the lives of 19th and 20th century Australians include:

  • Trove: a gathering of content from ‘libraries, museums, archives, repositories and other research and collecting organisations big and small’
  • Family History’, National Library of Australia: a research guide that includes links to directories; almanacs; electoral rolls; Births, Deaths and Marriages registers; and answers to ‘Frequently Asked Questions’
  • Ryerson Index: an ‘index to death notices appearing in Australian newspapers’ from 1803 onwards
  • National Archives of Australia
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography
  • And, for information on returned services personnel, the Australian War Memorial

Mustard Gas’, World Health Organisation, 2011

Tom Griffiths. The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft. Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc., 2016

Researching London’s Frost Fairs

Frost Fair, Luke Clenell, 1814

Frost Fair, Luke Clenell, 1814

I have a new-found respect for authors of historical fiction. Well, perhaps not entirely new, but significantly heightened, deepened and broadened.

I have just begun my own research into London’s Frost Fairs; more particularly, the Frost Fair of 1814. If I step back in time, records show that, for many centuries, sections of the River Thames froze over during winter, sometimes for two or three months at a stretch. In 1410, for instance, The Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London states:

And thys yere was the grete frost and ise, and most sharpest wenter that ever man sawe, and it duryd fourteen wekes, so that men myght in dyvers places both goo and ryde over the Temse.

The Frost Fair of 168384

As the centuries passed, Londoners decided that the frozen river was a good opportunity for fun and frolicking—and for profit. By the seventeenth century, a tradition of Frost Fairs was underway. Possibly the mightiest one took place from early December 1683 to the beginning of February 1684. William Andrews’ Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs in Great Britain describes ‘another city’ that grew on the Thames at that time. There were, he says, a ‘great number of streets and shops with their rich furniture’, a variety of carriages, and ‘near Whitehall a whole ox was roasted on the ice’.

Wonders on the Deep, 1684

Wonders on the Deep, 1684

A 1684 broadside titled Wonders on the Deep; or, The Most Exact Description of the Frozen River Thames indicates the range of businesses and activities that flourished on the ice. As well as the horse racing and bull baiting, and the ninepins and skating, the broadside shows rows of shops stretching from Temple Stairs on the Thames’ north bank to the barge house in Southwark—there are coffee houses and beer gardens, toy shops and taverns, and booths selling knives and combs and hot gingerbread. (Hopefully, only empty vessels were available at the booth selling its wares under a flying chamber pot banner.)

The Frost Fair of 1814

Skip forward 130 years. London’s last Frost Fair was held in 1814. (The combined effects of the embankment of the Thames and the design of the ‘new’—and now replaced—1831 London Bridge put paid to further freezing of the river.) The British Museum holds a marvellous engraving, ‘taken on the Spot at bankside’, that shows the activity on the ice on 4 February 1814. Looking north, you can see St Paul’s, the Monument and St Magnus’s overseeing the revelry:

A view on the River Thames_1814

A View on the River Thames between London and Blackfriars Bridges (British Museum)

Frost Fair Keepsake_Jack Frost_1814

Frost Fair Keepsake (Museum of London)

As the frost that had settled in December 1813 rolled into January and then February of 1814, some Londoners’ ardour for their frozen river waned. In response to this disgruntlement, one witty soul printed a directive to Jack Frost (at right):

Historical Fiction

But, I digress. I started this post by acknowledging my growing respect for authors of historical fiction. As a reader, I started my foray into historical novels when I plundered my mother’s Jean Plaidy collection. My Intermediate (Year 10) History teacher allowed her students to bring history texts of their own choosing into class for ‘private reading’ at the end of the school year. I’m fairly sure that Plaidy’s Stuart Saga, beginning with The Royal Road to Fotheringhay, is not what she had in mind, but she indulged me nonetheless. Over the years, I’ve developed a real yen for fictionalised history—especially stories set in the UK. From Edward Rutherford’s London and Sarum to Rosemary Sutcliff’s tales of Roman occupation, from C. J. Sansom’s intriguing Shardlake series to Hilary Mantel’s absorbing Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I have roamed across the centuries of England’s changing landscape. Seeing it built, layer upon layer.

My own research into the Frost Fair of 1814 may or may not lead to a work of fiction. It might depend as much on my stamina as my imagination. Although books and documents on the era abound (and they are increasingly accessible due to digitisation), I have at least one new question arising from every piece of information I discover. For example, the Frost Fairs took place in the area just west of London Bridge. I can visually position myself at the base of the bridge, looking south-west. Southwark Cathedral is on my right with Borough Market immediately behind it. But now I learn that the current location of London Bridge is about 55 metres west of the bridge’s 1814 location. (The 1814 bridge had stood since 1209. It was replaced in 1831 and again in 1973.) I need to find out where, exactly, the bridge met the north and south banks of the Thames in 1814. Did it abut the grounds of Southwark Cathedral (then known as St Saviour’s) or did it end closer to St Olaf’s Stairs? Fortunately, there are maps. I’ve even found one that seems purpose-drawn for me: Stranger’s Guide through London and Westminster 1814. At least I can be sure of one thing; Borough Market was not selling llama burgers and ostrich steaks in 1814, as it was on my visit two centuries later. It wasn’t, was it? … Perhaps I’d better check that, too.

Borough Market_1

Borough Market, with the Shard in the background, 2013

Links and Sources:

And for enough source material to last several lifetimes, visit British History Online.

The River Thames

The River Thames