Monthly Archives: June 2012

Why study everyday life in the recent past?

(Or, in the convoluted phraseology of social theory: structure, practice, and ideology)

As the investigations have begun with Dec20 project (which has the same aims and objectives as LIP, and adopts the same methodologies, the previous Dec20 post will be used as an example of why studying everyday life in the recent past might be a worthwhile pursuit. If more localised projects develop within LIP, information will be likewise tailored to their needs. 

Public interest in the recent past: photos, Memoirs, and oral history

Dec20 aims to collaborate with local households and communities to discover more about everyday life in Derby during the early 20th century. Many in and from Derby show an interest in local history – whether by sharing memories (e.g. Derby Telegraph’s Bygones website and forum); photographs (e.g. Old Derby Photos, Pictures of Derby, and Derby Photos); or investigating and sharing information on family and social history (e.g. ‘Granddad’s War‘).[i] These sources all make a valuable contribution, both in exploring the recent past, and in developing and sustaining a sense of community.

Written and visual sources

Though useful (and often fascinating), this information is only partial; other historical evidence also needs to be consulted to gain a broader understanding of day-to-day life in the early 20th century. For anyone interested in this topic, a good place to start is the Local Studies Library, which houses a vast archive of written, photographic, and cartographical evidence, as well as numerous books written by local historians (e.g. Maxwell Craven’s Illustrated History of Derby). And having investigated these archives, countless popular and academic general histories of the recent past have been written, which might be used to place local histories within their wider context.

the limits of the evidence

Considering this range of sources, it might be assumed that everything there is to know about the recent past is already known. But on endeavouring to analyse this evidence, it’s limits soon become clear. The evidence either consists of disparate and idiosyncratic memories and photographs – both of which have received little systematic investigation; or of photographs and documents (including maps) that primarily relate to public contexts and events, and thus, whilst informing the writing of general histories, rarely relate to (or relates) everyday or domestic life. The census return and similar records (such as those created through the public health and educational system) of course do provide very particular information; but again, such material is not often examined in the light of other sources – though some notable exceptions exist.[ii] These exceptions demonstrate the value of examining in conjunction the breadth of evidence, in order to build a picture of life in the past.

Don’t we know everything there is to know with all this evidence?

Despite the benefits of comprehensive studies, with regard to many of the activities and attitudes surrounding everyday life there is still a dearth of evidence, when it comes to particular topics – especially ‘hidden histories’ (the stories of those excluded from the record, or that are excluded by the subjects, due to being taken for granted – and obvious to everyone, or sometimes ‘shameful’, according to contemporaneous views, that may be subject to transformation in and by subsequent generations). The mundane tasks that are rarely recorded are of interest, as in being a frequent part of life through routine, they often act to reinforce and influence both outlooks (including communal and gender identities, and political affiliation) and social interactions (including the development of relationships within and outside the home). The very notion that much of what we do, say, and think is too commonplace to be shared (assumed – at the time, and often in retrospect – to be of little relevance, interest, or importance), and to be so familiar to those we encounter that it need not be repeated, whether verbally or in writing, often ensures its absence in the historical record. However substantial, archives of written, photographic, and oral records will therefore never be sufficiently complete to answer with absolute certainty the questions that might be raised. The following post will consider how archaeology might, in conjunction with this evidence, tell us more.

Why do the Experiences of the ‘ordinary’ person in the past matter?

Of course, histories of ‘big’ people and ‘the nation’ are important – the actions of those who rule hold the capacity to affect the lives of many. But (even if only interested in those in power), without studying the everyday lives of the ‘ordinary’ people under their control, it is not possible to judge the effects and extents of their influence. But beyond this, to see history only as the province of the powerful is to neglect the notions of agency, and unintended consequence (see diagram and Case Study below). The myriad of different conditions, and the different people that inhabit them, ensure that, even with a rigid framework to inform thoughts and behaviour (the regulations and ideologies of those in power, alongside economic constraints and opportunities), there will be a range of outcomes, when compared to the anticipated ideals of social conformity that drive the implementation of laws and other forms of social control. That is to say, people may react in different ways when faced with a set of rules and particular environments, which means that  – even when attempting to follow the guidelines imposed from above (which are often created and enforced to maintain the status quo) – ‘traditions’ may have to change to both remain workable and meaningful, as political, technological, economic, social, and cultural conditions change over time. History is therefore made by all of us – whether we are compliant (and accept the regulations and institutions imposed by those who rule – the ‘elites’), or resistant (challenging these rules and ‘structures’ – at times changing the nature of society). In addition, for many, History is meaningless if it does not ‘speak’ to them – relevance is not only more interesting: it ensures that history can provide the individual with a background, which is particularly important at times of instability.

The study of the ‘ordinary’ person is commonly known as Social History, which has been a growing field since the late 20th century – perhaps to some extent due to a ‘democratisation’ of not only ‘History’, but of ‘study’ in general, as more and more resources have been available to the individual (particularly the Internet). But we must come full circle and return to the question of histories that encompass the actions of those in power, at the level of the state, or ‘nation’. The numerous Social and Local Histories may be most useful when considered in conjunction, and placed within their wider contexts. By examining the local and specific in relation to broader forces for and of social change, exploring Economic History, Political History, History of Science and TechnologyHistory of Art and Design,  etc., it might be possible to both avoid inappropriate generalisations, by considering inter-relationships between the general and particular, exploring both the impact of the individual, household, and community upon wider society, and the institutions of society upon these units of analysis.

But why is ‘history’ important Anyway – and why should we investigate everyday life in the recent past?

In order to consider how life in the future might be improved (or a ‘comfortable’ life might be maintained), it is necessary to reflect upon our place within the world today; but it must be recognised that such a view is not only inevitably coloured by history: it is also influenced by our understanding of the past. The experiences and attitudes of our families (especially primary care-givers) and communities (of all their different types – not only local, but also gender, age, etc.) to a large extent inform our outlook, and structure what we see as ‘appropriate’ behaviour, within given circumstances. As hinted in the section above, to some extent, we live by the structures provided by those in power – at a local, regional, and national level; however, we often have to adapt these ideas and guidelines, according to our particular conditions of existence; furthermore, some actively reject these structures, and try to change them. Though much of our behaviour, and many of our thoughts (as well as our social relationships), are influenced by a range of structures, we are not always aware of this. We see particular ‘ways of doing’ and thinking as ‘natural’, because they are often shared by those around us (our families and communities). This is particularly the case if we remain within (apparently) unchanging communities, and we might easily assume that those outside our community, but that we see as similar to ourselves,  also share our way of life. In many ways, they might indeed do so, but there may also be many differences (for the reasons outlined above regarding the frequent need for environmental adaptation).

The structures by and through which we live may face rapid transformation if the existence or composition of communities change. For example, a scheme of urban renewal might remove part or all of the community (through demolition); or legislative changes – such as reductions or expansions in welfare provision – may mean that some people will no longer be able to remain in particular neighbourhoods and are forced to relocate, or might lead to an influx of those who would have previously been seen as ‘outsiders’. Such changes may given rise to reflection over the often-habitual practices that make up (are derived from) our ‘background’, as we are faced with different ‘ways of doing’; but if the majority continue to share our behaviour and attitudes, we may still see our habits and ‘traditions’ as the ‘right’ and ‘correct’ way to act. Sometimes we move outside our communities, and enter unfamiliar situations: at these times, we might become aware of different ‘ways of doing’. If, due to our ‘background’, we are in a minority, in this ‘other world’ our ‘ways’ might be irrelevant or not work, making us feel uncomfortable and ‘lost’ – and we may experience ‘culture shock’.

One major benefit in studying history is that it provides insights into ‘other ways of doing’; and it demonstrates that what we often see as ‘traditional’ is rather just one link in a long chain of human adaptation. In exploring how the individual, household, and community inhabited changing conditions, we may be able to consider the effects of local, regional, and national structures upon daily life. As noted above, such reflections can help us gain a deeper understanding of interrelationships between the general and particular – how all the different ideological frameworks that influence the ways we behave and think (for example, as mediated through state and local legislation, religion, education, employment, forms of entertainment, and so on) both constrain and enable thought and deed.

In particular, it might be difficult to accept that others influence not only our behaviour, but also our thoughts and beliefs. But history demonstrates a very close relationship between attitudes, and the combined conditions that make up our life – any or all of which are subject to change. We can see the evolution of, or transformations to, the views that we now take for granted, or see as ‘common sense’ – such as attitudes surrounding family, age, ‘race’ and gender, as well as, for example, criminality, ambition, and privacy.

In some cases, such changes may be due to unintended consequences, with developments in one area of life (for example, technological innovations – such as the vacuum cleaner, or the contraceptive pill) having more far reaching effects – in other areas of life – than may have been initially anticipated. In other cases, change is more intentional, and is the result of challenges made to dominant structures (and their associated belief systems) – such as the contestation of legislation informed by religious ideologies that imposed particular  moralities (which history can show us are liable to change over time). For example, it is evident that attitudes towards class, gender, age, and sexuality changed in Britain during and after the late 19th century.[iii]

Various social theories have developed over the 20th century to explain  interactions between individual action, and the structures (‘tradition’, ‘rules’, ‘institutions’) that govern society. The use of such theories within archaeology will form the subject of a subsequent post; but as these ideas (which have developed within the field of Sociology) are relevant – not only to historical studies in general, but with regard to the lives we live today – one theoretical framework that many archaeologists have found particularly useful will now be briefly introduced, through a (very simplified and fictional but plausible) case study (which is perhaps somewhat old fashioned, so that older readers who are as old as the author might find some relevance). This is accompanied by diagram, which attempts to schematically illustrate the process by which repetition of particular practices may reinforce the structures within which they are situation, and how agency might effect change, using Anthony Giddens‘  Structuration Theory. For further information of the Social Theory that informs this and the following case study, see Giddens 19791986; other, similar, sociological approaches have also been used within archaeological studies to pose questions related to social relationships and identities, particularly Pierre Bourdieu‘s Practice Theory.

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Case study:

A very simple example to consider the interaction of social structures and practices might be found in the (fictional) case of a young woman (for the sake of argument, let’s call her ‘Shirley’).  Seventeen-year-old Shirley is about to leave for her first day at work: she has little or no knowledge of the ‘correct’ way to behave in this new situation. Therefore, Shirley is a little nervous – for many reasons, but above all, she wants to ‘fit in’ (she sees this as the beginning of a ‘new life’, as she no longer has the company of her school friends – so she would like to develop new relationships). Shirley has to think about how best to enter this new situation; with regard to preparing for work, she sees getting her appearance ‘right’ as very important: she’s heard that people go by first impressions. So she watches (or remembers) her mother preparing to leave for work, hoping to pick up some of the unspoken, unwritten ‘rules’ that need to be known, but that may be hard to explain when seeing answers from those ‘in the know’.

Shirley remembers that her mother always puts on make-up in the morning before going to work; so she considers whether she should do the same. (Maybe Shirley always wears make-up, and therefore feels comfortable doing so – to her, it’s ‘only natural’; but she’s unsure whether it’s appropriate to do so at work – whether she’d suffer adverse effects, such as losing her job. She thinks of her previous experiences, recollecting that make-up wasn’t allowed at school, and wonders whether, perhaps, the same ‘rules’ apply. Or perhaps she’s never worn make-up, and wonders if, now that she’s entering the domain of adults, she should do so – whether it is expected of her. Effectively, she’s now ‘risk-assessing’.) She considers that, as her mother is to some extent ‘successful’ in the work-place (she’s kept her job for a while, is happy at work, and has many work friends), wearing make-up is after-all appropriate in this situation – which is what she does (see diagram: ‘repetition of practice’).

On reaching work, Shirley was relieved to find that nearly all of the other women were also wearing make-up: the practice is a ‘success’, as it enables her to ‘fit in’ to that particular situation. From now on, she puts on make-up every morning, no longer thinking about this task: it becomes a habit (‘routine’). In doing so, Shirley is replicating a structuring principle (‘reproduction of structure’) that has for some time informed behaviour and attitudes in relation to women within Britain.

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Here’s where we leave Shirley for a short time, to consider this historically:

By taking an objective, historical, view, it is evident that such ideas developed during the early 20th century ideas, when younger women started to wear more make-up; by WWII, the notion of ‘beauty as duty’ had taken root, demonstrating how quickly attitudes towards cosmetics (for all but elderly women) had changed, and had become entrenched within social (particularly gender) identities.[iv] As the advertising industry continued to develop during and after the middle of the century, the value of women within society was increasingly portrayed in terms of conformity to a particular physical ideal.[v] The power of these ideas might be seen in the extent to which particular concepts of physical attraction have been internalised by many women as being as, or more important than, other attributes, such as intelligence, or personal achievements. But also how notions of attractiveness, often deeply embedded within female (gender) identity, affect the self-confidence of many women within a multitude of social contexts.

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We return to Shirley a few years later. it’s quite possible that she’d have continued to apply make-up every morning before work for the rest of her life; but certain conditional changes might cause her to end this practice. For example, on returning home one night, she might discover a lapse in attention by the child-minder: Shirley’s three-year-old daughter Megan has destroyed her [Shirley’s] spare lipstick (a colour and brand she’s worn everyday since we first met her), and her ‘work’ one has, unfortunately, just ‘run out’ (she was counting on the spare, intending to pick up another tomorrow night – the earliest opportunity that’ll she’ll have to get a replacement). So Shirley now faces a dilemma, which causes her to reflect upon her daily application of cosmetics (‘monitoring of practice’). She thinks what a nuisance it all is, and maybe she’s feeling quite thoughtful, and questions not only whether or how make-up is important to her, but why. Her thoughts may go in any number of ways, but we’ll consider two alternatives.

To Shirley, make-up may be so important that she must take measures to continue the practice; so she phones her mother, who drops round with a new ‘lippy’. The colour is different to Shirley’s usual dark red, but she wears it anyway (feeling a little uncomfortable from stepping outside routine), and gets compliments the next day, on how much it suits her. From then on, she changes her routine so that she can purchase this particular colour and brand of lipstick (‘transformation of practice’). So starts Shirley’s life of internet shopping (and the local shop stops stocking her previous brand) (both ‘unintended consequences’).

However, other thoughts – and  unintended consequences – might have ensued. Perhaps after a few years in her job, having gained a promotion to a position of relative power, Shirley’s confidence and self-assurance has significantly increased since her first days of employment. On reflecting over her next move – whether she needs to secure replacement lipstick – she might question her need for the product, and decide to try out the next day at work without lipstick (instead, she decides to wear the earrings given to her by her sister). Again, she a little uncomfortable from stepping out of routine, but, although she gets a few side-ways looks from her co-workers (who at first can’t quite work out ‘what’s different about Shirley today?’), it’s absence doesn’t really have an adverse affect upon her life. On the contrary, in not having to keep re-applying it, she finds she has a few spare moments, which she uses to take a breath of fresh air. This causes her to think more about make-up in the office, and to consider why she has worn it all these years; from that day on, she no longer wears it, but puts the money she would’ve spent to different use (‘transformation of practice’).

We jump 15 year, to see Megan preparing for work, considering whether to wear cosmetics to her first day…

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It was noted above that sometimes we see particular ideas and behaviour as ‘natural’ and ‘right’, because the structures that have guided and informed our actions and attitudes are often deeply embedded within the fabric of our existence. We replicate these structures through habitual practices, rather than thinking about them – until we encounter difference, which may cause us to reflect upon what we – and often, others – do and think.

So as we generally perceive much of what we do as ‘normal’, it may be useful  to return to the evidence relating to the recent past, in order to more objectively (re)consider relationships between ideological schemes, and our everyday routines. (In addition, we may not always be aware of our reactions against such structures in order to affect change; or of the unintended consequences for which we are directly or indirectly responsible.) Studying recent history can be one way by which we might understand how and why we (or our forebears) interacted with the social and cultural frameworks that may have informed our thoughts and actions.

After this over-view, it may be useful to restate the comments made at the beginning of this section, but in slightly different terms. Greater knowledge of relationships between structures and practices in the past is beneficial for several reasons – not least, to achieve a degree of self-awareness. It enables us to consider how individual ‘agency’ (the capacity to effect change) influenced the formation and experiences of a range of communities (from the local, through the regional, to the national – alongside other communities of interest, such as religion or gender). And in doing so, we might more effectively explore our own roles in the development of society in the future.

A subsequent post will ask the question: ‘Why use archaeology to study the recent past?’


[i] If you’d like your website to be listed here, please contact LIP, as a list of relevant and interesting online resources is currently under development.

[ii] For example, Chris Upton’s 2005 Living Back to Back places very detailed local information within its wider social and historical contexts, and consequently provides both an excellent overview, and a meaningful study of the changing significance of and relationships between working-class housing, individuals and families, and place.

[iii] A very interesting summary on late 18th – 19th century transformations to notions of class, age and gender, in relationship to industrialisation and consumerism, is provided by this University of Berkely webcast.

[iv] During and after the late 19th century – particularly after WWII and in the 1920s, ‘fashionable’ young women began to more frequently wear cosmetics; for further information is available here. This reflects a change from Victorian attitudes, which incorporated notions of modesty disdained make-up – it became associated with the stage, and prostitution; yet cosmetics had been worn in earlier periods; for further information, see here, here, and here. Victorian values were indirectly related to technological and economic changes, which transformed the role of women within society: see note iii. This article  discusses American attitudes to cosmetics in WWII, which share some similarities with the notion of beauty as a duty’ in Britain.

[v] A useful article on this topic can be found here.

No. 8: census returns and the families who lived here

The census records for No. 8 (Dec20 case study) and the street are still being processed, but here are a few preliminary snippets – for now, only regarding the families that occupied No. 8 (information on the families that occupied other houses in the street will be posted another time).

Although the 1891 record for the street records No. 1 as situated in the Parish of Little Chester, Derby, the other houses are recorded as falling within the Parish of St. Alkmund’s – a large area, containing many poorer houses, many of which were demolished during the 20th century.

1891: The Wildsmiths’

Name Relation Condition Sex Age Occupation / Disability
Wildsmith, Fred P. Head Married M 38
Eliza Wife Married F 36 Millwright
Joseph Son M 13 Scholar
Ernest Son M 12 Scholar
Phoebe Daughter F 11 Scholar
Fred Son M 7 Scholar
Albert Son M 4 Scholar
Sarah Daughter F 1

Work and leisure

Although no occupation is recorded for Mr. Wildsmith in the 1891 census, in the previous census he was recorded as a mechanic, and in the following census he is recorded as an engine fitter. It can be seen from the other census returns that, though built by Haslam for his workers (see an earlier post), not all occupants necessarily worked in his factory, it might be conjectured that the Wildsmith family gained the first tenancy due to Mr Wildsmith’s employment as a mechanic. It may not be possible to push the evidence so far (and more research into employment at this time is necessary), but it might be anticipated that Mr W was more likely out of work due to illness, rather than unemployment.

It appears that Mrs. Wildsmith was in 1891 working as a Millwright (probably in one of the many local industries – see the earlier post on the Historic Environment of No. 8) to support the family. Even in working class households at this time, this was not very common: with six children to look after, including a baby, she might supplement the income through some form of work from home; it might therefore be presumed that she was working through necessity, due to the absence of Mr. Wildsmith’s wage; it would be interesting to know something of the childcare arrangements.

Although not at first glance saying much about leisure, census returns can sometimes provide insights into daily life. From this census, we might anticipate that Mrs Wildsmith had very little time to spare. Regarding the children, it’s interesting to see from the census that both 13-year-old Joseph and 12-year-old Ernest are recorded as scholars (perhaps attending St Paul’s Primary school in nearby Mansfield Street, although more research is needed into this school). The Elementary Education Act of 1870 (Forster’s Education Act)and enhanced by the Elementary Education Act of 1880 (Mundella’s Act) – made education compulsory for children aged 5-10 (though there was some degree of flexibility if they were required to take part in certain types of work). Children between the age of 10 and 13 had to have attained a reasonable level of education if they were to work.

Street No. Age M/F Scholar Child’sWork Father’s Work Mother’s Work
Seale Street

1

12

F y   Servant waiter  

1

10

M y

2

13

F y   Signal-man Deceased

2

11

F y

3

13

M N Errand boy Railway Checker  

3

11

F Y

4

13

F U   Railway Goods Porter Part Deaf & Blind

5

12

F Y   Railway Porter  

5

10

F Y

8

13

M Y None Millwright

8

12

M Y

8

11

F Y

9

13

M N Gimper’s Assistant Iron Moulder  

9

11

F Y
St Paul’s Road

2

12

F Y   Engine Fitter  

2

11

M Y

4

14

F Y   Iron Turner  

4

11

M Y

5

11

M Y   Steam Engine Fitter  

7

11

M Y   Blacksmith  

8

13

F U   General Labourer  

8

11

M Y

11

12

F Y   Wheelwright  

11

10

M Y

17

11

M Y   Engine Fitter  

19

12

F Y   Boiler Maker  

19

11

F Y

20

12

M Y   Iron Moulder  

20

10

M Y

21

13

M Y   Iron Moulder  

21

11

M Y
Mansfield Street

7

11

F Y   Labourer Iron Works  

8

10

F Y   Cast Iron Dresser  

10

13

F U   Labourer Chemical Works  

13

11

M Y   Dressmaker  

17

10

M Y   Iron Dresser  

23

13

F N General Servant Domestic Joiner  

23

11

M Y

26

13

M Y   Certificated Teacher  

26

11

M Y

31

15

F Y     Licensed Victualler

31

13

F Y

32

12

M Y   Caretaker  

33

13

F U   Boiler Maker  

33

11

M Y

34

12

F Y   Circular Sawyer  

34

10

M Y

35

13

M Y   Blacksmith  

35

11

M Y

37

11

M Y   Iron Moulder  

39

12

G Y   Labourer Railway  

39

10

M Y

Education for over 10s in the street and neighbouring streets, 1891 (from census records)

On the evidence of No. 8 alone, it might be conjectured from this that Ernest remained in school as he had not having reached this level; however (unless both Joseph and Ernest had not reached the required standard), considering the continued presence of his older brother at school, this seems unlikely. It was not until 1899 that the school leaving age was raised to 13, and to 14, perhaps suggesting Mr. and Mrs. Wildsmith had hopes for their boys regarding future employment.[i] We can see from the subsequent census returns (see below: ‘Moving on’) that the family was upwardly mobile. However, by examining the census returns for other houses – of nearby St Paul’s Rd. (perhaps marginally higher status), and Mansfield Street (perhaps marginally lower status) – it can be seen that most 13 year olds within the immediate neighbourhood remained in school, though by the age of 14 were in employment. The exceptions include two 13-year-old boys within the same street (son’s of an Iron Moulder and a Railway Checker, respectively), and a girl of the same age in Mansfield Street, which were by this age in work. In addition, a 14 year old girl in St Paul’s Road (daughter of an Iron Turner), and a 15 year old girl in Mansfield Street (granddaughter of a pub landlady), were both still in education.

How did they all fit in? Sleeping arrangements

Sleeping arrangements are important with regard to a number of topics surrounding domestic life in the past, and will be discussed in greater detail in a subsequent post (with examples from written and oral sources), but a few aspects will be introduced now, to contextualise the census records in relation to No. 8. It was common practice for several girls, or several boys to share a bed; sometimes this would include mixed sleeping. Concerns over whether this was acceptable practice seem to become most prominent when children reached 14 years. But not every family was able to arrange separate bedrooms:  rooms were sometimes partitioned by curtains, blankets, sheets, or clothes; this arrangement might also be adopted to separate adult lodgers or boarders from the children (of occasionally adults) of the resident family. Sometimes even room partitions were not possible, and teenage girls and boys had no alternative but to share beds, which was often seen as ‘shameful’. Different ways of avoiding this were put into practice: often there would only be two beds in a house, so the father would sleep in one bed with the boys, and the mother with the girls; in tenement housing (where many families had only one or two rooms), sometimes children slept in utility spaces (e.g. the scullery).

In this case, perhaps Joseph, Ernest, Fred, and Albert slept in the front or (perhaps more likely considering the decor, which will be discussed in a subsequent post) back bedroom, with Pheobe in the annex bedroom, and Sarah in with her parents; however, it’s possible that the boys and girls may not have yet been separated at this point. The provision of the room above the scullery at No. 8 provided relatively spacious accommodation in comparison to many nearby houses.

Moving on…

Cock Clod Street, Lancs. – previous home of the Wildsmiths’

It seems that this family, at the time of the previous census, lived in Radcliff, Lancs. – in the unusually named ‘Cock Clod’ Street (though had previously lived in the Derby area, and as it can be seen were born in nearby Little Eaton). The following (1901) census suggests that the family were a little better off financially (and had perhaps risen in status), as by this time they had moved around the corner to a house facing the Green – from a ‘street’, to a slightly higher status ‘road’. It’s possible that the move to a larger house (with attic accommodation) may relate to a pressing need to provide more private sleeping space for the children as they became teenagers.

The next house of the Wildsmiths’ – more Haslam houses

However, the apparent limited privacy at No. 8 – as the annex room had to be accessed through the back bedroom – may more reflect modern notions of privacy, than those of the past. (Personal experience indicates that some at least saw this arrangement as satisfactory in the 1950s; but by the 1980s – and perhaps before – some felt less comfortable in having to approach the third room – whether still a bedroom, or by now a bathroom – through the back bedroom. In some cases, this led the installation of permanent partitions. It might be speculated that the partition in the neighbouring house, No. 9, was fitted at some point during or after the 1960s. Although making the back bedroom much smaller – which was less important for the smaller families of the late 20th century family – this provided a corridor to reach the third room, which remained a bedroom at least into 2001). By 1911, it appears that the family were running a pub on Nottingham Road.

1901: the Eley family

The next census records a new family in No. 8:

Name Relation Condition Sex Age Occupation / Disability
Eley, Thomas Head Married M 35 Engine [Black-] Smiths Striker
Jane Wife Married F 33
Harry Son M 9
Selina Daughter F 8
Lily Daughter F 5
Jenny Daughter F 3
Rippin, William Step-son M 9

Work, leisure, and sleeping arrangements

Graffiti from the back yard

Again, it can be seen from the census that Mrs Eley had several children to care for (one of pre-school age), and it seems did not (at least regularly) work outside the home. The 1901 census neglects to mention which children were in education. It is interesting to note that the name of one child is ‘Jenny’. Although it is not possible to be certain, it might be questioned whether this girl is the graffiti artist responsible for the drawing of a house, in the back yard on the wall beside the window to the original kitchen. Beneath the drawing is the name ‘JE**Y’; however, the drawing and names may not be contemporaneous, and even if the name does read ‘Jenny’, this may not correlate with the child recorded within the census. The style of the house that’s been drawn is similar to the late 18th – 19th mill workers houses that fill the neighbouring areas. With regard to sleeping arrangements, it’s again possible that Harry and William slept apart (in the annex) from their sisters (perhaps in the back bedroom), but this isn’t certain.

Names beneath the graffiti

Moving on…

The family appear from the previous (1891) census to have moved from No. 5, 3 Court, Liversage Street, Derby (demolished during ‘slum clearances’ in the 1970s) – photos of the houses on this street prior to demolition can be seen here and here. At this time (1891) Thomas was married to a different woman (Lilly). It will be seen below that Lily is likely to be the mother of Harry and Selina. Birth, Marriage and Death records indicate that Thomas remarried to Mary Jane Rippen (or Rippin) in 1896; as daughter Lily was born in this year, she may be the daughter of either Lily or Mary Jane. However, the evidence given in the following and final census (1911) suggests that she was the daughter of Lily. It might be speculated that Thomas’ first wife died during the birth of this child (which perhaps accounts for her name, after her mother). Again considering the 1911 evidence (see below) – which provides years of marriage – it is probable that Mary Jane is the same person as the ‘Jane’ named as Thomas’ wife in the 1901 census. Her marriage to Thomas was also perhaps not her first, considering the presence of ‘step son’ William in No. 8.

1911

Name Relation Condition Sex Age Occupation / Disability
ELEY, Thomas Head Married M 45 Smith Striker(at Railway Loco. Dept.)
Maria Jane Wife Married F 43
RIPPIN, William Step-son Single M 19 Cotton Winder at Lace Manufacturer
Harry Son Single M 19 Fruiterer’s Salesman
Selina Daughter Single F 18 Cotton Winder (at Lace Works)
Lily Daughter F 14 Tent Maker Canvass (at Tent Works)
Jane Daughter F 3
Eva Daughter F 9
Mabel Daughter F 7
Doris Daughter F 1

The house is more crowded now, despite one daughter (Jenny) having left; her whereabouts of Jenny at this point in 1911 is unknown. (She does not appear within another census, and no certain records of her death have so far been found; investigation into this possibility, and into the possibility of her emigrations, will continue); she probably appears in the records again, marrying the boy next door – Arthur Braines, from No. 9 – in 1921, in Mansfield St. Methodist Chapel.) This census records that Mrs Eley had by 1911 given birth to 5 children (from this and the previous census, it can be seen were all girls: Jenny, Jane, Eva, Mabel, and Doris), all of which had survived. There is therefore a possibility that, for some time at least prior to the 1911 census No. 8 housed 11 people. This included the parents, two boys, and seven girls; considering the ages of the older children, the annex bedroom was perhaps very useful space (it might be supposed acting as the boys’ room, or less likely, the parents’ room) – with 5 or 6 girls sharing one bed.Work, leisure, and sleeping arrangements

Moving on…

Again, it is difficult to be certain whether the ‘Maria Jane’ is the same person as the ‘Jane’ of the 1901 census, and the ‘Mary Jane’ of the previous (1891) census. The 1911 census records more information than the previous records, and it is noted that she and Thomas had been married for 15 years duration, which (if they were not mistaken) would suggest they came together in 1896.

The value of the census

The census evidence clearly provides significant opportunities to further explore the ‘biography’ of No. 8, in conjunction with the range of historical evidence (archaeological data, other written sources, and social memories). By examining transformations in household composition at various points in time, and by tracing the changing situations of the families that lived in No.8, specific histories can be developed in relationship to general understandings of domestic life at this time.

Notes

Secret History of Midland Streets

Live in an old house or street in the Midlands / South Yorkshire and enjoy BBC’s ‘Secret History of Our Street‘? Why not find out more about your house and street with the LIP Project?! 

Archaeology: post-excavation analysis

This post, which briefly outlines processes of archaeological investigation that take place after excavation, follows on from the previous post on the excavation process, in order to answer a few of the questions that archaeologists frequently receive from those with no knowledge or experiences of the subject. Subsequent (but not necessarily following) posts will continue by providing more information on the ideas that often influence the ways in which archaeologists study the past, and on the use of archaeological evidence alongside other sources.

Post-excavation analysis – ‘post-ex

After excavations have concluded, all the material must be examined, (in most cases of pre-construction archaeology) primarily in order to create a record of what’s been found, but also to attempt to understand this material, particularly what is may tell us about the ‘history’ of the site. Whilst ‘diggers’ sometimes continue their investigations in the office by proceeding with post-excavation analysis after they have finished on site, depending on the size and composition of excavation ‘units’, those who excavate sites may otherwise move on to new sites, with other staff continuing with the post-ex. Information on post-ex undertaken by the author can be found here.

Previous posts mention the importance of accurately recording the discoveries made on site. This is not only to enable interpretation during post-ex analysis, but is also to provide a record that will be available for use in future research. Contexts and finds are catalogued from the data records that were created on site, such as context sheets (often using familiar database programmes, such as MS Access, but in a museum environment, artefacts may be recorded by using more specialised software, such as MODES); and diagnostic artefacts are photographed and drawn. The site, contexts, and features plans are hand-drawn and digitised (using software such as ArcGis and AutoCAD to draft plans in relation to their geographical location), and along with any digital survey data (see previous post) developed in a format that is suitable for publication. This information, the context database, and site notes, are used to interpret stratigraphic relationships (which are discussed in a previous post) – commonly diagrammatically recorded using a system known as the Harris Matrix. The Sometimes unit archaeologists will have the necessary knowledge and skills to investigate and interpret features, artefacts and other material (such as environmental data: see previous post); at other times, the relevant experts will be commissioned.

 

Dating methods

 

As already noted, the spatial and temporal relationships between the traces of human activity that have been found are very important to the archaeologist, as they allow more to be said about historical development, by making comparison with similar material and sites elsewhere – both to help date material, and to place particular contexts into their wider historic setting. Such comparisons are fundamental to archaeology, as most of the material derived from excavations is dated by using ‘relative dating’ techniques.

Relative dating depends upon the location of material in relation to other material (the ‘stratigraphy’: see the previous post), which may be determined during post-excavation analysis by consulting the excavation records, and by undertaking research on similar sites and material to make comparisons. In some cases, an artefact (such as a coin) is known to have been made at a particular time. This is often thought to readily provide a close date for the deposit with which such material is associated (e.g. if a coin or newspaper dating to 1910 is found on a floor, the other things beside the coin on the floor might be presumed to have been put on the floor in 1910). However, the situation is not quite as straightforward as might at first be thought. Despite such finds being attributed definite dates, they can rarely be used to determine the exact date at which the object, or the associated material, was deposited: instead, they can usually only provide certainty of the date after which (in archaeology known as a terminus post quem – sometimes shortened to t.p.q, and more accurately translating as ‘limit after which’) the deposit was formed. This is because many objects are kept and used for some time before they are discarded and replaced – as can be seen by examining money contained in purses and wallets today: (unless just having received newly minted coins, perhaps after a trip to the bank), the coins are likely to have various dates, and may sometimes be several decades old. But comparisons with other contexts, and the investigation of other forms of evidence in conjunction with the material evidence, can sometimes reveal patterns in behaviour, that may enable dates to be narrowed down. For example, if a newspaper is found in the bottom of a birdcage, there is likely to be more time between the manufacture and deposition of this object, than a newspaper found on a chair, alongside a pair of reading glasses. The condition of an object may also be of use – for example, a worn coin is likely to have been in circulation for a while. The notion of terminus ante quem  – effectively but not literally ‘time before which’ – is useful, but is less regularly adopted, as requires certain knowledge of when the context above the context in question was deposited. For example, there may be certain evidence to indicate that a car park was laid in 1975, so anything sealed beneath this deposit should date before 1975. However, as with the t.a.q., this is where the limits of the evidence can be seen, as the exact time and date of deposition is rarely known. The clay pipe beneath the 1901 house wall was not necessarily dropped before 1901, just as the rubbish bin placed on the car park surface need have been placed there after 1975: these separate events may have only occurred within a short time before and after the construction of the wall and car park, respectively. As only broad dates can usually be obtained, the possibility within some situations of temporal proximity requires caution in providing t.p.q.s as ‘at/to or after’, or t.a.q.s as ‘at/to or before’.

Similar caution must also be applied when considering technological and stylistic change as an indicator of date, but the context of a deposit is again very important. A common misunderstanding encountered when discussing the history and archaeology of standing buildings is the assumption ‘old’ fittings and fixtures necessarily date to the original phase of a house: an example might be a cooking range found within the room that originally functioned as the kitchen of a Victorian terraced house. Although we perhaps modernise and redecorate properties more often that occupants in the past (enabled by lower costs for materials, and reflecting an increased interest in ‘DIY’ during and after the second half of the 20th century), phases of modernisation during and after the early 20th century are commonly evident. With regard to the previous example, technological developments during the early decades of the century encouraged many tenants (and in some cases landlords, as well as the relatively small group of owner-occupiers) to replaced the cast iron Victorian range with a more efficient (and consequently cheaper to run), often enamelled (and therefore demanding less time for cleaning), newer model.

Conversely, whilst a wealthy household may be fitted with more up-to-date objects, it might be many years before a low-income household comes to afford even the least expensive technological or stylistic developments found in other homes. With regard to archaeology of the recent past, this is further complicated by the development of mass manufacturing techniques (particularly during the early 20th century) that brought down costs, so enabling often enable poorer households to purchase objects reflecting quite new designs; in these circumstances, the quality of the materials used was usually poor. It can be very difficult to determine the quality of objects, as such a criterion is open to a good deal of subjectivity, although the systematic and objective analysis of quality has been attempted by some archaeologists of the recent past, and attempts to develop new approaches are underway (this topic will be returned to at a later date). But problems remain: there were (and are) other mechanisms in place by which some poorer houses might obtain quality consumables. This includes trade in second-hand goods, and distribution of quality material as gifts – for example from ‘mistresses’ to those employed in domestic service, and of course; in these instances, analysis of condition might be one way to investigate the socio-economic conditions of households in the past. There may be additional, non-economic, reasons why ‘old fashioned’ objects are retained and continue to be used – the ‘heirloom’ is a case in point. Another is the continued use of objects from previous phases of activity, in which case the earlier material might be described as ‘residual’.

However, dating a context from the material within it, and in relationship to other layers, is problematic is the deposit is not ‘sealed’ (i.e. if there are signs of later disturbance). A number of circumstances may result in later material might finding its way into earlier deposits: e.g. through the action of burrowing animals. In these situations, it may be difficult to differentiate between the material that belongs to the original deposit, and that which is intrusive.

One of the most important ‘rules’ in dating undisturbed contexts is that they – and the deposits that lie above them – must date to or after the latest (i.e. ‘newest’) object. Going back to the example of coins, if a purse containing coins dating to 1898, 1911, and 1923, is found within a particular context, then it cannot have been deposited before 1923, because coins bearing this date were not manufactured before this date: 1923 provides a t.p.q for the context. If the coin is very fresh, it might not have been deposited too long after this date (though certainty is still not possible – the coin could have been stored for sometime before being placed within the purse). If very worn, it was probably deposited sometime after (unless the wear does not correspond to what might be expected – by comparisons to other coins – from the coin being in circulation for many years).

In some cases, more accurate – ‘absolute’ – dating techniques may be used: such as Archaeomagnetic datingradiocarbon dating, and dendrochronology; these techniques can now obtain quite close dates for the deposition of certain materials. But absolute dating techniques are not applicable to all circumstances, are usually expensive, and can sometimes take a while, so they are primarily used to date contexts that are seen as being of particular special interest.

When all of the information has been analysed, a report is created to describe the historic background of the site, the approaches that were adopted for investigation, what was found, and interpretations of the material. Sometimes the report is published as a monograph; often it is published within an academic journal, or a local archaeological society journal. But due to limited budgets, most pre-construction excavations are recorded in a format often referred to as ‘grey literature’ (an example from the Hungate excavations can be found here). These documents are accessible through the excavation unit, sometimes local museums and local studies libraries, and increasingly through internet storage systems, such as Oasis.

The intention is to create a future post to consider how archaeological evidence might be studied in conjunction with other historical sources; but the next few posts will return to the case studies that are being investigated through LIP (as part of the Dec20 project). This will begin by an appraisal of the census evidence for No. 8…

Archaeological excavations: one way that archaeologists investigate the past

This post follows on from the previous post that considered what archaeology ‘is’ and ‘does’, by providing a brief overview of the excavations process; it will be followed by a post on post-excavation processes. These posts have been written in response to the questions often received regarding ‘how’ and ‘why’ archaeologists investigate the past, and to hopefully clarify a few points regarding what archaeology is ‘not’. There are lots of other more comprehensive sources of information around, and a page with links to useful reading is under construction; in the mean time, these posts provide links to other online resources, should the reader wish to find out more about particular topics.

How is excavation ‘done’?

It is often assumed that archaeological evidence is only obtained by excavating buried ‘deposits’; and that excavation is the primary activity of archaeologists. However, excavation is only part of the archaeological process – and some archaeological investigations do not involve ‘digs’. Other ways that archaeologists investigate the past will be considered after this brief overview of the excavation process.

Preparing for excavation

Excavations take much planning – whether undertaken purely for research purposes, or the more frequently carried out excavations to record investigate and record historical evidence ahead of construction work (as part of the planning process). Before beginning to dig, archaeologists usually examine a range of evidence to tell them as much as possible about the prospective excavation site. This may be to determine whether an excavation is necessary or worthwhile, and to provide a historic context for the site, and if excavations proceed will give some idea of what to expect, and so how best to approach the task. Historic environment records, old maps and documents, aerial photographs (see photo above and illustration below) and sometimes photos taken from the air (which may clearly show the extents of some ancient sites) are consulted, to see what historic features may lie within the area, which will guide the aims of the excavation.

These combined investigations are commonly referred to as a ‘desk based assessment’ – an example of which can be found here. Preparations often include a visit to the site to examine conditions (and see whether special equipment might need to be brought in), and to consider whether there are any obstacles that may need to be accommodated.

Storage for the records and discoveries that are made by archaeologists before, during, and after excavations must be arranged; in the short-term, this archive will usually be stored at the excavation unit (or research facility), and subsequently moved to a (commonly local) museum for long-term storage. Certain environmental conditions (such as stable humidity) are usually required to ensure preservation of the archive, and excavated objects often require special treatment and conservation; buried objects may have deteriorated, due to soil conditions and other ‘post-depositional processes’ (e.g. acid soil often erodes human bone), and when removed from the ground, some objects (such as those made of iron) deteriorate further.

The site must be surveyed, and accurate plans created, which will be used to record the excavations; the usual process of excavation is to strip back layers of material (these are in many cases separated by periods of inactivity), so that the different phases of human activity might be examined. Layers may consist of, for example, the floor of a factory overlying its foundations, which may have been built on top of (and cut into) an earlier surface, such as the floor of a Victorian house – which may on another part of the site lie over an 18th century building.

Small ‘test pits’ are often dug into the site at particular points to check what lies beneath the modern surface, and to assess how to proceed with more substantial excavations (further guiding both the methods and aims of the investigation). Most excavations consist of ‘cuttings’ – often rectangular trenches, placed in specific locations across the site, where it is anticipated the most historically useful information might be found (such as a gateway, or across a wall). Sometimes the whole area is of the site is subjected to ‘open area excavation’, and stripped, layer by layer; though pre-construction excavations do use this approach at times, due to cost and time, it is more commonly seen during research digs. The sides of the excavation trench reveal how the layers lie on top of one another; the relationship between these layers is known as ‘stratigraphy’.

Undertaking excavations

Layers build up, and are deposited, over previously buried material in a number of ways. For example, in an urban environment buildings are usually cleared to make way for other buildings, or other forms of land use. A house may be abandoned ahead of a ‘regeneration’ scheme, and subsequently demolished, often after useful material has been salvaged; the remaining rubble might then be spread over the area to level the ground surface; other buildings may be built on top of this demolition layer, or it may be concreted over to be used as a car park. These pattern of reuse is typical for urban sites, which commonly have many phases of use, consisting of partial, and frequently overlapping and cut, ‘features’ – the material traces of activity, such as pits, or heaths – and layers, which can make the interpretation of, remains difficult. In a rural area, particular sites (due to their convenient location near to essential resources, such as water), may too have many phases of activity, although there are also sites which only consist of one or two layers. In these instances, a building may collapse and natural forces subsequently lead to its burial – e.g. the wind might blow material over the tumbled stones or bricks, and vegetation may grow over this – animals and worms often also have a role to play in burying sites, by moving material about, and redistributing soil.

The features revealed by excavations may have been created through several separate activities – which are commonly referred to as archaeological contexts. For example, a shaft is cut into soil for a well – which is one context; this shaft may then be lined with bricks – another context; and later filled with rubbish – creating another context; if this happens at different times, or several layers of deposition are evident, each will correspond to a different context). Some features may be more obvious than others: whilst the remains of a stonewall might be easily visible to most people, it may it take a skilled archaeologist to notice the stains in the soil that suggest the position of a posthole, or to recognise that an arrangement of worn stones represent a floor-surface.

It is important to record the discoveries made on site, which is undertaken in a number of ways. Many notes are made during excavation, to ensure that any important information is accessible when subsequently interpreting the archive; forms record the contexts and finds as they are discovered (which are allocated numbers, and given short descriptions); stratigraphy, features, contexts, and finds are measured, drawn, and photographed, and plans of the site and its component parts must be made.

Whilst many measurements (e.g. of the position and size of particular features discovered within trenches) continue to be taken by using the trusty tape measure, and drawings continue to be done using the traditional pencil, technological developments increasingly provide new ways to record in the field. It may be some time before innovations such as the iPad – which has been used within some projects – are widely used for such purposes (and it is doubtful whether there are sufficient benefits in warranting the expense of such new tools). But other devices and technologies, such as the ‘Total Station‘ / ‘EDM’ (electronic distance meter) and GPS (global positioning systems) have advanced the speed (and to some extent accuracy) of field survey, including in situ recording of material. 

Much interpretation takes place on site – it is necessary to have some understanding of the significance of the material that is found, so as to ensure the record is as comprehensive as possible. For example, many excavations will have facilities for washing, labelling (and therefore to some degree interpreting) finds on site, and preparing them for transportation. However, recording – and interpretation – continues once the excavations have finished, which will be considered in the next post – on post-excavation analysis

Not quite sure what archaeology ‘is’ or ‘does’, and were afraid to ask?! What do archaeologists study?

This post has been put together in response to the questions that I often receive regarding what archaeology ‘is’ and ‘does’, and to address some of the common misunderstandings; a general background to archaeological methods and ideas is presented informally and basically, with links so that this simplified information can be followed-up, if desired. This post explores these questions by outlining the types of evidence that archaeologists examine, and briefly considering the different types of archaeologist.

The post that follows this post will provide a basic overview of the excavation process; this is followed by a post outlining post-excavation analysis. A post considering the benefits and drawbacks of the different forms of evidence used to investigate the history of the recent past, and how they might be used together, will follow this.

What is archaeology?

Archaeology is essentially the study of the human past through material culture; this not only consists of objects – ‘artefacts’ – made or used by people, such as pots. It includes any trace of human activity, encompassing monuments (such as burial mounds), and their landscapes (considering a range of ‘sites‘ in conjunction), and buildings. This last category may include standing buildings – sometimes those that remain in use today (which this project largely draws upon). There is an interesting article here, which discusses how archaeologists may contribute towards architectural histories and conservation. Sites include settlements (whether single houses, streets – see the Hungate photo above, hamlets, villages, towns, or cities), cemeteries, and evidence for technological activity, such as kilns (see photo below) and metalworking hearths.

Material culture also includes the study of human remains; and of faunal remains – animal bones and shells – associated with human activity: this association may be determined by the contexts in which the remains are found (see photo below), or by other evidence for human interaction, such as burning or butchery marks.

Natural objects likewise associated with human activity may also be investigated – even sometimes when found in ‘natural’ places for example: this might include, for instance, piles of rocks that indicate prehistoric field clearance. Furthermore, organic deposits – such as grain and pollen – are often examined  to determine diet, and consider food processing. This evidence (and the study of ancient snail shells found on sites) also helps archaeologists to understand the natural environment within which human activity took place (i.e. whether a particular site in the past had deep ground cover, or was surrounded by woodland).

The breadth of material studied is perhaps one of the main ways in which archaeologists differ to practitioners of other disciplines; but perhaps what most distinguishes archaeology is the analysis of material with particular regard to its spatial and temporal context(s). This last criterion is essential: the ability to link material to people and place enables the archaeologist to examine consider social, cultural, technological, political, economic, and environmental change and continuity over time, and is considered in the following posts on excavation and post-excavation analysis.

What do archaeologists do?

As noted above, archaeology does not always incorporate ‘digging’, and some archaeologists rarely or never undertake excavations. Whilst some archaeologists are excellent ‘all-rounder’s, there are many specialist fields: for example, some may concentrate upon particular types of object, such as pottery, categories of material (see above), or traces of human activity, such as inscriptions. Some may focus upon specific historical periods; types of site (such as castles); or particular localities or regions; often a combination of different approaches are adopted and skills used. Some archaeologists concentrate on particular methodologies, adopting special analytical or dating techniques (such as analyses of the composition of metal; for dating, see the following post on post-excavation). Others may primarily undertake ‘post excavation’ analysis (‘postex’), examining and interpreting all or part of the material retrieved from excavations, and preparing information for dissemination. Archaeologists may specialise in surveying remains (whether monuments, sites, buildings); studies of how different sites and places related to one another is often known as landscape archaeology.

The next post will follow this general overview by looking at the most well-known form of archaeological investigation: excavation