A Point of View: A convert to family history

Celie and Abram in London in 1906

The discovery of a tape recording shed light on a puzzling family photograph which was taken in 1906 - and changed historian Lisa Jardine's views about the genealogy boom.

The campaign to promote more history in the school curriculum has been doing rather well lately. Historians and politicians seem to be agreed that more history will connect us all more closely to our island's past.

Recently, Prof David Cannadine published the results of a two-year research project investigating the place of history teaching in secondary schools, entitled The Right Kind of History.

Cannadine makes a strong case for compulsory history in the curriculum to the age of 16 - long enough for students to absorb the broad range of knowledge of the past always intended when the current syllabus was introduced under Sir Keith Joseph in the 1980s.

Two days later, Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, addressing a conference on history in education in London, pronounced himself "an unashamed and unapologetic advocate for the central role of history in our curriculum".

As an historian myself, I am all for good history teaching at all levels, as part of an essential understanding of where we have come from and who we are.

But I have recently become converted to a more humble part of the exploration of the past, which is largely conducted beyond the boundaries of the academy.

Family history is an activity that has always had its passionate advocates, and has been stimulated further by the television series Who Do You Think You Are?, in which celebrities are helped by trained historians and archivists to trace their roots.

In recent years The National Archives at Kew has been dealing with increasing numbers of ordinary people looking for records relating to their own lives. Many archives now devote special resources to these users

Find out more

Lisa Jardine
  • A Point of View is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST
  • Lisa Jardine is is Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary,
  • University of London

For several years, my sister Judith has been researching the family history of the Flattos - my father's mother's family - inspired by the boxes of faded family photographs discovered among my parents' possessions, dating from the beginning of the 20th Century, and inscribed with locations ranging from Lodz in Poland to Kyverdale Road in London.

Her attempts to identify and connect the sitters in the photographs has led her deep into genealogy, and obliged her to learn about European history in the early decades of the 20th Century. She has journeyed intrepidly to the ends of the District and Metropolitan Tube lines, to Jewish cemeteries at East Ham, Rainham and Bushey, to read genealogical data off the family gravestones.

I confess that, as a professional historian, I did not always take her efforts seriously - in genealogy, so much depends on guesswork and surmise, so many of the documents defy interpretation. The outcome, I have tended to feel, is bound to be part romance, part sentimentality, the tale of impecunious wanderers, driven from their homes by persecution, then working their way up to respectability in Britain.

In one of our family boxes, for example, is a formal wedding photograph of my grandmother, Celie Flatto, barely in her 20s, with her new husband Abram Bronowski. Taken in 1906, it is stamped with the address of the photographer's studio: 436 Whitechapel Road, London.

But her eldest son, my father, was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1908. He did not arrive in London with his parents and two siblings until 1920. Nothing in the records explains why the couple were in London earlier nor why they had returned to Poland.

Tea and tales

Judith had scoured the census data, and called up all the relevant documents in The National Archives. Although all the other members of the family - her parents and siblings, her husband and children - had been naturalised some time in the 1920s and 30s, there was no naturalisation document for Grandma Celie. The marriage certificate Judith unearthed listed Abram's occupation as "professional singer" - we knew nothing about any singing.

Start Quote

Ada told the story as if it were yesterday - her mother's panic, the palpable relief when they boarded another train”

End Quote

Then, last summer, Judith telephoned me. She had discovered that two nieces of Grandma Celie were still alive and happy to meet us.

So in early October we went to tea with Ruth and Dorothy, sharp-as-mustard octogenarian daughters of Celie's much-younger sisters, Ada and Mary. Over biscuits and cups of tea they studied Judith's cache of photographs, casually identifying people she would never have been able to match to her family tree. "Oh look, that's me with my mother and Auntie Rose," and "There are my aunts, all dressed up to go out dancing."

I study the period 1500-1800. All those who play a part in the stories I endeavour to reconstruct are long dead. What a thrill, then, to encounter the miracle of oral history - of having a person in front of you who was actually there.

And then, out of the blue, Ruth recalled that 30 years ago, when her mother Ada - born in 1895, so then in her 90s - was living with her, she had sat her down and recorded several hours of reminiscences about her family. Perhaps she might be able to locate the cassette tapes and we might be interested in hearing them?

Train trouble

A week later, she emailed to say that she had located the tapes, and we were welcome to borrow them.

So it was that I was able to listen to four hours of a voice from the past recounting, with absolute clarity and lucidity, events of more than 100 years ago. Daughter Ruth is there too, firmly steering her mother back to the point, whenever she tends to digress - a tour-de-force in gentle interviewing guidance.

The tapes begin with the Flatto family - Ada (our narrator), her mother and three of her siblings, setting off in 1902 on the train from Lodz to join their brother Max in London. Max had left Poland to avoid conscription, and set up in haberdashery in Commercial Street.

The Flatto family in 1902 The Flattos in 1902 (from left): Jack, Dvora, Celie, Ada and Mary

Somewhere in Germany, the seven-year-old Ada needed the toilet. She and her mother got down from the train at the next station. When they returned the train had gone. They waited for hours in the cold until finally the stationmaster put them on a train that took them to rejoin their family. Ada told the story as if it were yesterday - her mother's panic, the palpable relief when they boarded another train.

And here was the story of Celie and Abram, my paternal grandparents. The teenaged Celie had fallen for a handsome young cantor - singer in the synagogue - in Lodz and become engaged against her father's wishes.

The family had hoped that by taking her to London they would prevent the marriage. But Abram followed them, married Celie and, because he had no right to remain in Britain, returned with her to Lodz. Ada remembered visiting them and their new baby as a 13-year-old, with her mother, in 1908, the year my father was born.

We also learned why Celie and Abram had moved, first from Lodz to Plauen in Germany, and then to London.

"Mother found out," recounts Ada, "that Celie and Abram and their baby were struggling. Singing was all that Abram knew - he had a marvellous voice - but they could barely make ends meet."

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Like anyone else who has begun to explore their roots, I am, of course, determined to find out more”

End Quote

In London, the Flattos were doing well in the lace and embroidery business. So Ada's mother made up a big bundle of lace and sent it to Celie and Abram to set up in haberdashery in Poland.

Then in 1910, great-grandfather decided to start importing machine lace from Plauen, which had become its centre of production. My grandparents became the German end of the Flattos' import-export business, and there their two younger children were born.

World War I put an end to Anglo-German import-export. On the tapes, Great-Aunt Ada explains that the London family had no communication with my grandparents until the Armistice, by which time Germany was in revolutionary turmoil and my father's family was living in poverty.

My father recalled soldiers in the streets, and in a poem written in the 1930s describes himself as "starving in Sudetenland".

Thus it was that he and his family arrived in London with little more than the clothes they stood up in in 1920. The absence of naturalisation records for Celie is probably explained by the fact that one set of authorities assumed she had been naturalised with her parents, the other that she had been naturalised with her husband and children.

The strong voice of Great-Aunt Ada has completely converted me to family history. She has put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and given me a real sense of inhabiting my own history as British.

We did not wash up on England's shores by chance. In dangerous, prejudiced times, Britain welcomed my family not once but twice as economic migrants.

Like anyone else who has begun to explore their roots, I am, of course, determined to find out more. I will certainly never be disparaging about family history again.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    36. lumilumi I agree with teaching current period history first. Perhaps backward by decade - including local events and technical advances so students can ask about their parents etc. experiences and memories.

    Always took History as a blurring of HIS STORY. So My Story and Her Story and Their story are just as important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I was 'clever' at school but had not the slightest interest in history (although I was good at it) and gave it up at the first opportunity - for science. My (mid 20's) son missed most of senior school with illness and gained no qualifications. The only books he read were history books and now he is well and at University as a mature student studying the subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    A couple of years ago I took a keen interest in researching my family history. I was fortunate enough to trace a distant living relative who had researched one line of the family back to 1530, some 16 generations. However, to paraphrase an old saying - It's a wise man who knows his own forefathers....

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    How jealous this tale makes me. My ancestors have been traced back to the 18thC and not a single one appears to have had an interesting life. Most of them were working in service, housemaids etc or agricultural labourers. Several clerks. All English. One went off to Canada but came back again. What a hero he must have been. Only a couple of photos before 1920, blurred and over-exposed.

  • Comment number 38.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    @AAPrescott #35
    Bryan Sykes's books inspired my extended family to do DNA tests. The maternal line comes from south-western Europe, the paternal line comes from Siberia! We're Finns, a small people who've been genetically isolated for long times in prehistory but apparently we're a mix and mash nevertheless. ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    As to teaching history in schools, having kids interview their grandparents, finding out about their great-grandparents etc. might make history more relevant to the kids. Somebody in their family was there! Or even recent history. Ask parents where were you on 9/11? And kids have witnessed historic moments themselves, like the Wills&Kate wedding. They, we all, are part of history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Family History and Genealogy led me to an interest in DNA studies related to this. Bryan Sykes has various books of interest. It is interesting that most of the inhabitants of the British Isles share a common heritage. The various waves of invasions and immigrants (Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxon, Vikings/Danes, Norman) did not displace the original inhabitants simply added a spice to the mix.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Family history might seem trivial but it's a gateway to history in general. I heard a family story of how my grandfathers, teenagers and unknown to each other, both witnessed a grenade attack in a railway station during the Finnish Civil War in 1918. The story intrigued me and led me to find out more about Finnish history, and history in general to understand what was happening around that time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    How interesting, unfortunately it is often not until it is too late that we realise the opportunities missed by not asking questions of Grandparents and parents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Im a jewish anglo saxon then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    As something of a foreigner myself I thought I'd enjoy the article more. Some of my family were from Vyshedskaya (Belarus), and I can relate to the author to some extent, re for example absent naturalisation records, but it turns out the author is interested mainly in her Jewish heritage and what she terms 'dangerous, prejudiced times'. This is not what most people's family history consists of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.


    Actually that in itself is quite unlikely to be true in quantities large enough to matter. The entire population of Britain is very, very genetically mixed, so attempting to claim descent from one particular group or another is problematic at best...

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Those that believe this article was too trivial to comment on can always take a day off. Please!

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Instead of recognising the wonderful history of these islands as something to be exalted and celebrated in its own right, Jardine twists the question into one of justification of her immigrant ancestry and by implication more recent mass immigration in general.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Well i am aPict & Celt,thats all i need to know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    @ Little_Old_Me

    The Celts weren't the original people, they were one of many, many waves of people to inhabit the island, with evidence of man going back for 500,000 years.

    also 'Celt' is far too generalised a term, and it is shunned by most academics these days, as it suggests too great a unity in culture between people throughout Europe who would have identified themselves as separate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Yawn, we have just been force fed the writers family geneology masked as something interesting.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    @21 Yes you are correct Normandy actually comes from the land of the north men (Vikings)

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    21.perkinwellbeck - and the original settlers in Britain (who we now call the Celts) came from the Basque country on the boarder between Spain/France, which why parties like UKIP/the BNP make me laugh so much.....they've no idea about Britain's real history as nation founded on & sustained down the years by immigration.....


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