Common People

Written by Alison Light
Review by Marina Oliver

Researching her own family history, Alison Light soon came to realise she was doing “family history as a public history”. Her initial searches expanded so that she compiled nine simplified family trees to accommodate various branches of the family. As well as normal searches of registers and census records, she consulted numerous other sources, giving fifty pages of the most important references.

This copious research has resulted in a book which deals not just with the family, but goes into great detail about occupations, from needle-making to bricklaying to sailing, woven into philosophical reflections on social conditions of the past few centuries. We move around the country, from small villages to towns such as Alcester, Birmingham, Cheltenham and Portsmouth. Workhouses and asylums are there, and common burial plots.

While this is a fascinating account, with tips for other family historians on what to look for, I found it frustrating as the author meandered up, down and sideways through the branches, so that I needed constant reference to the family trees in order to be sure of which ancestor’s life was being described. But it is well worth persevering; the style is lucid and vivid.