I spent much of last weekend flicking through old family papers and photographs. I enjoy genealogy. Finding out where I came from, what my ancestors did and what happened to them is fascinating but on this occasion I wasn’t really looking for anything new just re-treading old ground.

Most of the pictures I was looking at were from the first half of the twentieth century; largely pre first world war. We were one of those relatively fortunate families for whom the ravages of that war brought no immediate losses with the menfolk all being too old, too young or down a coal mine. That said the photographs tell a tale of what by the standards of the day was a fairly middle class family. They weren’t rich but they weren’t poor either. Those in mining were mostly pit deputies and overmen; joiners or other skilled workers. Chapel was big. The women wore beautiful long skirts and elaborate blouses with their hair in tight buns. The men wore suits with stiff collars and most sported bushy moustaches; those that didn’t had mischievous smirks and “reputations” within the family. A stifled laugh here and a twinkle in the eye there lend a beautiful humanity to long dead relatives in otherwise formal poses.

When these pictures were taken, the extended family seemed to be concentrated in a very limited geographical area. All lived within a few miles of each other and the families were large. As the century progressed some of those Edwardian children dispersed right round the country moving out to other areas to explore opportunities away from the mines and making use of readily available transport. Those sailor-suited boys and the girls with their smocks, boots and plaits went on to work in chemicals, aerospace, nursing, teaching and engineering. They were the people who created the world we have now.

I met a few of these people when I was very young. They were extremely elderly and quite scary to a small child. Their first names and those of their generational peers were a byword for geriatric frailty. Yet here they were in their childhood or in their physical prime; proud and vital; smiling at the camera. What were they thinking? What jokes were they cracking? What were their hopes and dreams? So much is hinted at by a look in the eye frozen for posterity. The grey haired veterans bent double with their sticks are trapped in my own memory; to my nephews they’ll be happy, healthy and sepia framed forever in the prime of life.

Of course for many of these the prime of life is as far as they ever got. A shocking amount didn’t live beyond my age, failing to survive their twenties and thirties. Why? They didn’t look sickly. They didn’t go to war. What happened? Were they taken by the sort of random conditions which still claim lives today or were they victims of relatively trivial illnesses which in our own time would have merely resulted in a couple of weeks off work? Were they victims of injuries and illnesses that are now routinely repaired by the NHS, or prevented by health and safety culture? How many of those women died in childbirth? In my experience these are usually recorded as such along with the child but not in these cases.

Infant death and death in childbirth were givens. But what causes a healthy 23 year old to die in peacetime? What causes several healthy twenty and thirty something’s from the same extended family to die over a twenty year period?

At the other end of the spectrum we look at the man who died at 51 and think he had a good life. Fifty-one. The “elderly” were dropping off in their 50’s. A hundred years ago 60 was considered a good age. When you imagine all the illnesses and conditions that we routinely treat nowadays is it any wonder?

Had I been born a hundred years previously I would almost certainly have fallen in my thirties when my gender dysphoria reached its climax untreated, assuming I had survived my childhood which in my case was fairly unlikely. How many of my contemporaries would have expired through various conditions and injuries? How many of us would have succumbed to illnesses we never even had due to vaccination and preventative treatment? What free healthcare was available was generally limited to wage earners in a few selected industries, but not their spouses or dependants, or by friendly societies where they existed.

This was only a hundred years ago. Two or three generations. It wasn’t a backward society by any means. I would have met some of these people had they survived to a modern life expectancy. This is the value of genealogy. It makes us understand how lucky we really are.

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