‘Umbra Sumus – We are but shadows’ (or, Down Brick Lane)

I started writing this last summer, not long after a visit to Spitalfields in the East End of London but since it was no more than a record of a day out it seemed a bit pointless. However, it was a very intense and stimulating day that’s stuck in the back of my mind, and since the visit last year some intriguing information about my own and my partner’s family histories has emerged that is closely, and unexpectedly in my case, tied to the locations we visited.

sundialClearly ours are not the only families to have relatives whose circumstances have sucked them in to London in search of work in difficult times; ours followed the Rivers Lee and various tributaries of the Colne in the late 19th Century from the city’s rural fringes 20 miles away during an agricultural depression, but others came to this London village from 17th century France, 18th century Ireland, 19th century Russia, and 20th century Bangladesh.

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A small sample of a dress panel belonging to my great, great grandmother

I’ve reached that phase of life where family history seems to become remarkably engaging and despite paying scant attention for decades to stories held by my mother, a single snippet of unexpected information has taken root and grown in my head leading to fervent online archive searches to feed the growing tree of relationships.

Once statistical details of two or three closely related family members were established, those family stories came into their own by providing more specific identification and the stories began to fit together with the data – migration from rural Hampshire to London, hasty marriages and untimely deaths. This developing, and often poignant narrative fertilises the imagination until people who have just been names begin somehow to inflate into something more plausible, like the process of fleshing out characters in a book. Then with online access to archives of old maps, photographs and present day ‘travels’ on Google Street view, images merge to recreate Continue reading