Common People: In Pursuit of My Ancestors

Common People: In Pursuit of My Ancestors

by Alison Light


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226420851
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/23/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,161,081
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Alison Light is the author of the acclaimed Mrs. Woolf and the Servants. She is a contributor to the London Review of Books and writes regularly for the British press. Common People was shortlisted for the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize in Non-fiction and was a Book of the Year in the Times, Telegraph, Financial Times, Spectator, History Today, and the Scottish Herald.

Read an Excerpt

Common People

In Pursuit of My Ancestors

By Alison Light

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 Alison Light
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-33113-3


Evelyn's Grave

When my father was very ill with cancer, I went in search of his mother's grave. It was an odd, possibly morbid thing to do. Family history begins with missing persons — missed in both senses of the word. But when do we register an absence as a loss? The absence, not of mothers and fathers, brothers or sisters, close and intimate relations whose deaths or disappearances are felt on the pulses, but of older connections — grandparents, great-grandparents —'ancestors', who might only linger in the memory and conversation of one's elders. One obvious answer is when mortality is borne in on us, comes home to us in the form of a generation dying, or when, Janus-faced in our own middle age, every disconnection reminds us of our own future. Faced with the death of a parent, only then can we begin to understand what our parents themselves have been through. In my mid-fifties, I was appalled by the prospect of my father dying, despite his being a man in his eighties. But his mother had died of tuberculosis when he was an infant. Now I began to wonder what he had lost and what I, through him, had missed. I thought that by visiting the grave I could make it up to him somehow — an absurdly grandiose but understandable desire.

Of course my father's mother, Evelyn Light, had been a comfortable absence long before I decided she was missing. Like most children, I looked into the past for my own reflection, and my father's story only mattered to me because it explained why I was born so far from his own birthplace in Birmingham, Britain's second-largest city. As a child I looked for inheritance by reading faces and finding shared traits — the shape of a nose, colour of hair and eyes, the roundness of a face. With my broad nose and the pouches under my eyes, I 'took after' the Lights. This suited me. Evelyn was a romantic figure, the good mother who had died young, part of a lost childhood. My other grandmother, my mother's mother, was anything but mysterious; she was 'Nan', a constant presence if not a known quantity. But for most of my life I was happy not to know anything more about this missing person.

After his wife Evelyn's death, my grandfather had brought his four children to Portsmouth on the south coast. My father had never returned to Birmingham, a place we thought as remote and exotic as Timbuctoo. We knew no one from that side of the family — the Whitlocks. Dad could not remember his mother; she was called 'Evie' by his father, he thought, in later years. There were only a couple of photos of her, undated, but no letters or keepsakes, bits of jewellery, souvenirs or household goods; my sister Sandra had inherited 'Evelyn' as a middle name, but she thought it horribly old-fashioned. Dad had not been taken to his mother's funeral but a tiny remembrance card had survived, bordered in silver and black, with 'In Memoriam' and a spray of snowdrops draped over a cross on its cover. Inside it gave notice that she was interred at Brandwood End Cemetery, the funeral 'furnished' by N. Wheatley and Sons of Station Street, Birmingham. This was my lead.

I suppose I imagined a quest of sorts, and saw myself in a foggy graveyard, searching alone among the tombs, until I came across a weather-beaten stone with a barely legible inscription: name and dates —'Evelyn Prudence Light, 1891–1930'— and perhaps a flourish or two. I would photograph the memorial and take it to show my father; there might be a few tears. This pilgrimage would end in reunion. Dad had been cut off from his early childhood, his mother and his antecedents, and I hoped to give him pleasure by restoring some of that — a tall order, and one I could have followed at any time in the previous thirty years. What was I thinking of? But I was in the grip of grief and I didn't see that it was my own need that drove me, not his. Perhaps it was a way of staving off death: I couldn't save my father but I could resurrect his mother. Perhaps I wanted to give him something my mother couldn't, she who was looking after him every day as he grew weaker. I was living at the other end of the country, and this was a way of 'mothering' him and of relieving my guilt too for not being there more often. My father was fond of John Donne's much-quoted meditation on the tolling of the bell for the dead: 'Anyman's death diminishes me'. With his dying, memory and history seemed to be ebbing away; like all sorrow, mine contained the loss of many things, not least the fading of my own childhood, which is kept fresh and green as long as parents and siblings are living.

Whatever my fantasies, there was to be no solitary quest. It was a bright, sunny day when I arrived at Brandwood End. My friend Erica drove us both to the cemetery and accompanied me, so there was to be no lonely catharsis. Thanks to the cemetery's staff and the Internet, there was no anxious searching either. I had the location of the burial plot, I knew exactly where we were going, and what we would find there. Which was precisely nothing. Evelyn was buried in a common grave. Her family had not been able to purchase a grave plot, so the local authorities had buried her. There was no epitaph or memorial, nothing much for me to photograph. We walked briskly down the tree-lined central avenue and found the place in a matter of minutes.

* * *

C.1. F/C is a large grassy area, worn and mossy in patches, scattered with branches and twigs. There are no headstones, no monuments or even burial mounds. The rough, scruffy ground looks like a bizarrely misplaced picnic spot or an area awaiting development. Off to one side an old, abandoned concrete slab designates it 'Unconsecrated ground'. Two newish-looking boulders, part of the restoration work of the 'Friends of Brandwood End', are more forthcoming: 'Public Graves: Grave Numbers 1A — 527', but what is public about them is not clear. Evelyn's grave is recorded in the cemetery's register as number 227, but it's anyone's guess which patch of earth contains her bones. There is another identical zone on the other side of the avenue, 'Grave Numbers 1–502. One thousand and twenty-nine unnamed dead in one cemetery in one city in Britain.

Though I knew what to expect I was shocked, though mostly by my own ignorance. Evelyn died in 1930. I had imagined common graves were a feature of Victorian Britain, not of a modern city like Birmingham. This was not a pauper's grave, where the body was taken from a public institution to be buried without ceremony 'on the parish'. Nor was it a mass grave, where bodies were mingled indiscriminately. These graves, the Assistant Bereavement Officer told me, were unlikely to hold more than five people buried on top of one another in a depth of at least thirteen feet, though this sounds pretty snug; more often three bodies shared a nine-foot grave. The grave would usually — but not always — be filled in between occupants rather than left open, before other, unrelated people of either sex and any age were buried in a 'second-hand' grave. Certainly the cost of lying six feet under, alone, was beyond the pocket of many people, and some of the occupants would have come from public institutions and been interred at the expense of the local authorities. Others, like Evelyn's family, did not purchase the burial right for an individual plot and could not therefore put up a headstone. Whoever owns the cemetery owns her grave and that of the other 1,028. The term 'public' graves, though seemingly less derogatory than 'common', shields us from the fact that they are shared with strangers while reminding us whose property they are.

Brandwood End Cemetery opened in 1899 as a public burial ground. Anglicans, Catholics, Dissenters and Jews (and, more recently, Muslims) would be buried in strictly symmetrical plots following a grid pattern laid out behind the matching mortuary chapels (western chapel for Anglicans; eastern for Catholics and Nonconformists). The 'Free Church' area, like 'unconsecrated ground', was meant to reassure Dissenters that the land had not been blessed by the Established Church and that those without affiliations or whose religion was not known would receive the same treatment. Though no one was refused, the fine gradations in grave plots, their size and placement, and the furnishings of a funeral, betrayed rank and status. As elsewhere in Britain's Victorian cemeteries, the more affluent purchased plots nearer the entrance and the chapels, and put up costly and imposing monuments; the cheapest plots might be on the lowest ground, and therefore liable to flooding, or further from the chapels. The cemetery was a meritocracy, not a democracy. In Leeds at the Beckett Street Cemetery the deserving poor could purchase 'guinea graves', which included the humane novelty of writing names on each headstone, though they were set so close together they resemble the terraced rows of housing from which their occupants had come. Parish paupers, the unwanted or unclaimed, were stowed away in 'Free Church' areas amid common graves. But even these were divided by caste and on a sliding scale of costs; the most expensive were the first and deepest dug; lowest of the low were the shallowest and nearest to the surface.

The stark stretch of bare grass over the common graves is the only spot not landscaped among the carefully designed avenues and paths. Brandwood End was influenced by the 'gardenesque' style of John Claudius Loudon, himself a disciple of the great landscape gardener of the eighteenth century Humphrey Repton. Entering the gates, passing under the bell tower which unites the Gothic mortuary chapels, the bereaved crossed the threshold into another world, the city of the dead, their procession repeating the idea of the journey, as if death to which the soul has 'departed' was truly a destination. Wandering down shady walks, or pausing to grieve under the luxuriant foliage of redwoods, cedars and pines, they would be comforted by nature, evergreen, while the stone angels pointing heavenwards with their wings outspread would elevate their thoughts. But the common graves have no sense of place. No wonder I feel dislocated: I do not know where to put my feet; I might be standing on someone's remains.

Near the public graves the Friends have erected a noticeboard where relatives can leave a temporary memorial of some kind. A couple of dog-eared postcards were pinned there, when I visited, edged with black; one tree had a ribbon tied to it; another had a withered bouquet at its roots. I felt it would be presumptuous, theatrical, to leave a note. I never knew my grandmother, so who was I to claim ownership? I could not mourn someone I knew nothing about. Apart from feeling a weak, generalized pity for my grandfather as I imagined him leaving his wife there, I was more concerned that I might try to trump up an emotion; feeling blank in this non-place seemed a more appropriate response.

So much for my pilgrimage. My first foray into family history was literally a dead end. It had yielded nothing. No echo came back from Evelyn's grave. It was as if I had thrown a stone into a bottomless well, or, worse, that her grave was a pit into which the past had poured, a black hole which swallowed up people like her, flattened out their lives and personalities so that they became faceless, charmless wraiths; undistinguished. She was a nobody, just like millions of others, her death banal. I should have realized, I thought angrily, that people like us, common people, would be in common graves. Far from resurrecting her or paying her the tribute of an epitaph, I had sent her back to the underworld to be lost among the anonymous shades crowding the Styx.

A week after my visit my father died. When, eventually, I told my mother what I'd found, she was more pragmatic. It was sad, she said, but perhaps the family were grateful that the corporation had taken care of the body; such burials were two a penny and the funeral might have been a relief, and not a matter of shame. At least Evelyn had been properly buried and in a proper cemetery. There were plenty who were worse off. This was a different perspective. I could not imagine this level of gratitude or of poverty: to be that beholden. The poor, I knew, went to enormous lengths to avoid a pauper funeral, saving up their pennies to pay weekly contributions to funeral clubs. My grandfather had mustered enough for a funeral cortège and service, and to print a funeral card, but not for an individual grave which would entitle his wife to a headstone. Were they just keeping up appearances? And for whose sake? Evelyn's nonexistent grave cast a long shadow and the visit nagged at me. I wanted a context for her life; for her to be more than someone missing, one of history's disappeared.


Family historians are history's speed-freaks. Other historians usually begin their stories from a point in the past, advancing gradually forward, covering a few decades, perhaps half a century at most. Some are content with covering even less ground, inching their way into the future, month by month, slowly accumulating a chronology like moss. Family historians, by contrast, work backwards, accelerating wildly across the generations, cutting a swathe through time, like the Grim Reaper himself. In the course of an hour's research, surfing the Web at home or scanning the records in a local Family History Centre, they watch individuals die, marry and be born in series, a dizzying sequence of families falling away and rising up, eras going and coming, wars fizzling out and flaring, cities turning back to fields. The past looks like a hectic, crowded business. At the very least, following a person over time as the censuses unroll soon dispels the sense of isolation that hangs over the grave. With its listing of the inhabitants of house after house, street after street, farm after farm, the census is a record of connection and kinship, both deep and temporary; of who lived next to whom, who lodged and who took in lodgers, who cared for elderly family members, who shared with whom. Even the solitary is a neighbour, a life in the midst of social relations.

Evelyn's early life thronged with family. At the end of March 1911, the last census available, she was nineteen and living at home in King's Norton, a district about five miles south of Birmingham's centre. Trelliswork Place, Lifford Lane, sounds pleasantly rural, but Evelyn's father, William, is a 'metal scraper' and her brother Albert is a labourer at the metal works. 'Eveline'— as her name is spelt sometimes, like the purple flowering shrub — is a paper sorter in a local paper mill; another brother, Arthur, at seventeen, works at a rubber mill, as does Ernie, his junior by two years, employed in the mysterious occupation of 'tube turner'; the youngest, Daisy, is still a schoolgirl. William and Louisa have been married thirty years; ten children have survived. This is the family, my father's uncles and aunts, whose children would be his cousins, who were left behind when his own father left Birmingham.

Roll back another decade and Evie is a little girl surrounded by her full complement of nine siblings, living at number 64 Frances Road, still in King's Norton, in an area called Cotteridge. Like King's Norton, it's unknown territory to me, but at first sight looks disappointingly familiar. I grew up in a mesh of similar streets, close to the railway line, and ran errands to corner shops like the one in Frances Road. This is an urban environment made instantly recognizable from the memoirs of growing up poor, especially of life in the East End of London, from black-and-white photography like that of Bill Brandt or Bert Hardy, and those random images of poverty now blurred into the timeless features of 'the classic slum':peeling wallpaper, newspapers for a tablecloth, dirty children without shoes, half an uncut loaf on the table, the 'God Bless Our Home' print framed over the mantelpiece — the generic landscape of a 'traditional' working class, replete with its pub and pawnshop. But I am disoriented by the industrial occupations of Evelyn's other siblings: George, a 'metal roller', Rose, a 'press worker' at a needle works; metal works, needle-making, rubber mills — this is a world unlike any I knew in the south of England.


Excerpted from Common People by Alison Light. Copyright © 2014 Alison Light. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Credits
Family Trees
Prologue: A Child’s Sense of the Past
Part One: Missing Persons
1. Evelyn’s Grave
2. Hope Place
Part Two: Tall Stories
3. The Road to Netherne
5. Albion Street

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Common People: In Pursuit of My Ancestors 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
LinNC More than 1 year ago
Finished this one tonight. If you are working on your family tree or think you may want to someday, I highly recommend this book. It is NOT a 'how to' but rather a rich telling of the author's journey following the winding branches of her family's past. So many lines caught my attention and begged to be reread. I may purchase the ebook as well since there are locations described that are places my ancestors lived and references I want to search and review again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago