History and Historiography

Rapists, Slavers, Mass-Murderers: Welcome to the Family

By Alan Bickley, Free Life

Though I will avoid mentioning him by name, one of my friends has a fine aristocratic title, if nowadays a somewhat less splendid estate. Many years ago, having nothing better to discuss, we took opposite sides in the class war. “Oh, it’s all right for some,” I said in my bitterest man-of-the-people voice. “While your people were living it up in those castles, mine were scratching in the dirt. Do you feel no shame at twenty generations of shiny leather boots, all polished with the sweat of my ancestors?” His reply was that twenty generation of experience had shown beeswax to give a better shine to boots than the sweat of smelly peasants. He had a point. But, had I taken the trouble to bore him with the facts of my own ancestry, he might have had a better point.

In or about 1909, one of my great grandmothers was a parlour maid in a big house in Donegal. She seems to have been a pretty girl – or at least an available girl. The young man of the house took a fancy to her, and things took their usual Catherine Cookson course. As soon as her belly grew too big to be disguised, the young man’s father kicked her out. What happened next is one among many blank entries in my family tree. But the mists clear in the early 1930s, when her son took a job as a coal miner in Kent. He was something of a trouble-maker there, and was soon in search of new employment. He found this as a sailor on one of the Channel ferries, where his own fancy settled on the daughter of the manager of the rope-making factory in Chatham Dockyard. Their romance proceeded through a drink-sodden party somewhere between Ramsgate and Dieppe, where the captain presided over a grossly invalid marriage ceremony, followed, just under nine months later, by a hurried shuffle through the Chatham Registry Office. From this emerged my mother, followed in due course by me.

Now, when she explained all this to me, my grandmother took an aggrieved view of her late husband’s origins. Never trust the upper classes, she assured me – they were all wicked people. If she may have been right, I have no reasonable choice but to take a more balanced view of the matter. It was my great grandmother who was got into trouble, and, for all I can tell, was kicked out into the winter snow. All the same, it was my great grandfather who got her into trouble, and my great-great grandfather who kicked her into the snow. I have no more reason to feel bitter about how that girl was treated than I have to exult in the pleasure that young man of the house took in her, or to join in the self-righteous curses his father heaped on her. For all the lawyers and priests may disagree, blood is indifferent to what side of the blanket it flows.

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