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Introduction to English Roots - a family history

The quest which led to the writing of this book originally started on a Welsh beach, when, as a boy, I asked my parents how I was related to some distant cousins. My parents drew a rough family tree in the sand. My subsequent visits to local record offices initially concentrated on solving the genealogical puzzle of who begat whom and when each person died. As the many, many thousands of people, who have researched their own families can testify, this was an intriguing, not to say obsessive, exercise in detective work. It was however a personal and relatively (in two senses of the word) limited activity.

It proved though to be only the starting point in discovering far more about the way in which ordinary people lived their lives. As I traced back the families of several grandparents and great-grandparents, I found masses of fascinating information, particularly about the Ashtons, my mother's family. English record offices are full of literally tons of documents which, when put together, portray the day to day life of the average English man and woman during the last few centuries. Some of it is very personal information, like the list of cooking implements in the inventory prepared in 1703 and attached to Mary Ashton's will or the threat of a manorial court to fine Robert Ashton in 1706 if he did not remove the midden or dung-hill which he had heaped against the wall of a neighbour's cottage. Other documents, like the Militia Muster Roll prepared in 1639 listing "all the able men for warre" in Derbyshire, or the taxation returns from the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, showed more obviously how the family fitted into society as a whole.

For me the most interesting aspects of history are the way in which ordinary people went about their day to day lives, and the way in which the lot of the common people has changed as the years have gone by. Despite the increase of interest in social history, these are subjects about which only a small proportion of authors have written. Historical biographers have understandably written about the famous. Most of the family histories which have been published have described the landed gentry or nobility. There are accounts of poverty and the operation of the Poor Laws, particularly in the nineteenth century, but the mass of the population, who were neither rich nor poor, have largely slipped through the net.

The aim which I set myself in writing English Roots was to recount the social and economic history of the last three hundred and fifty years, as seen through the eyes of one family, who could be taken as being representative of the population as a whole. I wanted to describe the changes in their lives, and the reasons for them, against the background of the transformation which society in general was undergoing. The Ashtons happen to have been my mother's family, but they were typical of the vast majority of English people. In the 1640s the way of life in the English countryside was in many ways far closer to that of medieval times than to that of the modern day. Four-fifths of the English population were tilling the land. The Ashtons were no exception. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they were "husbandmen", farming a few acres of land which they rented from the Lord of the Manor, making their own bread and brewing their own beer and living as a largely self-sufficient family unit. In the early nineteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, there was widespread migration from the countryside to the new industrial cities. The Ashtons followed the national trend, moving to Manchester in the late 1820s or early 1830s, and then to the suburbs in the 1920s. Their story is not just a journey though time. It is a journey from a rural hamlet to a vast industrial city. It is also an account of the transformation from a simple self-sufficient way of life to a complex urban economy.

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