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Preface to English Roots - a family history, written by Professor David Hey

An interest in one's ancestors is a natural human concern, shared by people all over the world and throughout time. Until recently, however, only the pedigrees of the great and the mighty appeared in print. The family histories of ordinary people were passed down orally, and like the published histories of noble and gentry families these accounts were often romanticised without strict regard to the truth.

A great change has occurred during the last quarter of the twentieth century. The establishment of record offices throughout the country, the availability of printed records or transcripts on microfiche or microfilm, the foundation of numerous family history societies, and the chance to join taught courses on how to trace a family tree have made it possible for everyone who is interested to do his or her own research. The romantic myths are soon stripped away as the enquiry proceeds. Instead, a much more satisfying and accurate picture emerges. 

Another welcome change is that family historians are no longer content with constructing a family tree. That is merely the starting point of an enquiry into how the various members of one's family lived: what their homes were like, how they earned their living, what their spiritual concerns were, and so on. Such questions naturally lead on to an interest in the local history of the places where they settled. The family historian then wants to know how the story that has been unravelled fits into the general patterns of British social and economic history.

How typical, or how unusual, was the family's experience? Such a progression of interest is not simply a one-way process, however, for the findings of family historians, when placed together, are beginning to add a great deal to our knowledge of the past and are influencing the ways that professional historians pursue their research. Family history is part of a movement that approaches history from the viewpoint of ordinary people, rather than from that of those in power.

A few years ago, I expressed the hope that, 'One day we shall have a number of substantial family histories on our shelves, not just the histories of aristocratic and gentry families but of the ordinary men and women who were far more numerous and whose stories are often just as interesting as anyone else's. When that day arrives we shall have a much better understanding of the social and economic history of England .' Nic Madge's book is an important step in that direction. It is concerned with the Ashton family who in the seventeenth century were small farmers in the Peak District of Derbyshire. They first appear in local records at the time of the Civil War, when they were tenants of the Eyres, an ancient and prolific gentry family who were much involved in the lead trade. The family were living in a simple, one-hearth cottage when the hearth tax was levied after the Restoration. One can hardly get more 'ordinary' than that!

Nic Madge makes good use of the sources that are available to family and local historians in the early modern period - parish registers, probate records, tax returns, accounts of the overseers of the poor, etc. He uses these not only to trace his own family, but to place them firmly in an historical context, both locally and nationally. For a few generations the Ashtons moved from one farmhouse or cottage to another within a few miles radius of the place where they were first recorded. In this, they were entirely typical of country-folk in the Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian periods. 

The decision made by a member of the family to move to a large industrial town in the first half of the nineteenth century was one taken by many other people at that time. Sometime during the 1820s or 30s Robert Ashton left for Manchester , where he found employment as a house servant. His children were to do better as Manchester 's economy flourished. By this time, the records are fuller and photography had been invented, so much more information can be found about working-class families. Nic Madge uses a wide range of sources to good effect. He carries his story into the twentieth century, up to the time of his own memories of his grandparents and their children. He ends with a brief account of the records he has used, with the aim of persuading others to trace the histories of their own 'ordinary families' in this way, against the background of national social history. 

The story of the Ashtons is therefore of wider interest than might be supposed, for it demonstrates how a family that for generations had lived in the countryside became urbanised.Life in Victorian Manchester was very different indeed from that in a seventeenth century hamlet, remotely sited in the Peak District.

David Hey

Professor of Local and Family History

University of Sheffield

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