17 May 2009

Objects or Subjects - You and Your Ancestors Observed

I find there is something rather unsettling about the work of historians, journalists and social scientists when my own ancestors are a topic of their interest.


My husband and I both come from backgrounds of a lower socioeconomic level than many of the people who attempt to unravel the life experiences of the poor. It is as though our families have come from a different species than those who wish to observe them.

It is always important to see people as subjects of study rather than objects, even if they lived in the past. Statistics can often turn people into objects of study, too.



Poverty and human worth

My relatives came mainly from poor areas of London, Belfast and the English Midlands. My husband's father's family, on their arrival in Australia from Italy, lived in the Little Lon area of Melbourne from the 1880s onwards.

There were a lot of little alleyways off Little Lonsdale Street in Melbourne for many years. Poor migrants from a variety of non-English speaking backgrounds were the characteristic population. The newspapers of the time described the area as one of dangerous low-life, criminality and the most unpleasant aspects of humanity. In reality, there were many family groups leading fairly 'ordinary' lives, albeit on low incomes in many instances.

Making comparisons

I am especially interested in comparing the lives of the various people who have lived in similar circumstances in different parts of the world, and how they are observed by those who have more power. Like my father-in-law's Italian family members in Little Lon, my Belgian relatives who went to Soho in London in the late 1870s may have had similar experiences of a new language and culture, and the prejudices of mainstream society.

The side streets off the Shankill Road in Belfast, before the First World War, are also of interest to me as that is where my grandfather George was born. His family was protestant. His future wife's relatives in Soho were Catholic. George's father was a yarn dresser in the linen industry. I am yet to find out what the job involved.

Perhaps you know about Little Lon or Soho. Do let me know if you can assist my research in any way.

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I especially appreciate historical insights.