Homes, pets, and places: how Georgian family members stayed in touch through ‘things’

In the past, just as now, family relationships sometimes needed to be maintained across distances. Today Facebook does the job well, with family members staying in touch by posting short comments, and very often sharing photographs of the activities and the loved ones’ material world. These statuses root people in their familiar (sometimes unfamiliar) surroundings, acting as both reminder and reassurance for family members and sustaining and sometimes forging familial contact.

In the past, for those lucky enough to be literate, leisured, and wealthy enough, correspondence served a similar purpose. Historians have done some imaginative work on the bonds sustained across often vast distances, such as Sarah Pearsall’s book Atlantic Families in which she describes the ‘familial’ work of letter writers who adopted ‘familiarity’: ‘a mode of interaction that stemmed from the family setting and that implied degrees of knowledge and easy affability. It was both a tone, and a space for relations’ (pp. 56-7).

Given the changing technologies of creating the ‘familiar’ links, I wonder if the medium is less the key to the ‘familiarity’ – not so much Facebook or letters – but the materialising of connections that does the work.

In the Georgian family letters I read for my book people bridged the gaps between home and family members in order to keep children, parents, and relations integrated. This was not only through abstract statements of affection, or factual reports of family and local news. Frequently, familiarity was shaped between parents, children, siblings, and grandparents through the evocation of material things. For parents writing to children at school, pets, home, garden, and locality were vital in drawing the offspring back into the family circle.

For instance, Joseph Munby senior wrote to his son at school in Scarborough:

Your Rabbits and Pigeons are all vastly well, and your Brothers and Sisters each sent you a kiss with their best love to you, Johnny says you will bring him a new whip from Scarbro. (no date, early 19th century)

People also used place and memory to fix the family member in the emotional nexus of home. Ruth Courtauld did just this in 1813 when she told George junior, away at school:

I sat a long time in your Summer house today and thought of you—not uncomfortably tho’ it will be a long time until I see you, but with pleasure, for I hope you are improving more than if you were here, and I know not any gratification I would not give up for your good—Anna Taylor, Catherine and Eliza often sit there and work and read, they have got a nice bench there, they all desire their Love [meaning they all sent their love to him].

Of course, things seen and experienced on holidays and visits also served well to solidify relationships (as well as interest recipients of letters). On 17 July 1809 William Gray, a York lawyer, wrote from Bath to his daughter-in-law, Mary, describing his holiday perambulations in the West Country (which included a fascinating visit to Hannah More and her sisters at Barley Wood). He ended:

Tell your W[ilia]m [William senior’s grandson, at that point 18 months old], that at Wells Minster I saw two fine grand clocks. On one of them was the face of a man. It was not a man, but with a great hammer it struck against a bell “one, two, three, four, five – just as a man would if alive”. The other clock had a top upon it like a table, & upon that table there were figures like little men & horses, but they were not really men & horses: yet they galloped round ye table one after another as fast as ever they would go. Grandmother & I said – oh that little William was here to see.

Wells Cathedral Clock

This self-made wealthy lawyer, now late in life, and rather ‘serious’ in the most pious Evangelical sense, used this delightful description of the famous Wells Minster clock to sustain his close relationship with his small grandson while away from his home in Gray’s Court in York.

William’s tone had developed eight years later to suit the age of his grandson, when he wrote directly to him on 14 October 1817, on another visit to the south-west. The earnest Methodist was far more to the fore in this letter, imparting news of visits to a Bible Society and Church Mission, and advising William junior to study and pray. Yet, the familiar (in both senses) structure of the letter persists. William gave his namesake news of his parents, grandmother, and various uncles and aunts. He described visits to Oxford colleges, the Roman baths and fine new buildings of Bath, and his celebration of his fortieth wedding anniversary.

Once again William senior used place to connect him with his grandson and their native city of York:

In our journey home, we saw the Cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester, & Litchfield, & a fine old Church at Tewksbury, equal to many Cathedrals. Each of these had its beauties, and all of them except Litchfield, ousted York in elegant antient tombs & shrines of Princes & eminent persons: but in magnificence, size, and sublimity, York, when we arrived at it, eclipsed them all, & appeared to us more interesting than ever. So much for your native City!

This was no doubt more meaningful because William junior was away at school, so this pride in York Minster would serve to remind him of home and family –  after all the beautiful family home nestled under the Minster and its inhabitants would have seen it every day they resided there.

Grandfather William then moved into instructive mode, guiding his grandson on how to live piously and decently, before ending by locating himself in place and time (almost a selfie!), as he concluded his side of the conversation:

You will think this a long letter & so it is: but you must consider it a favour; as I am debarring myself of a walk on this beautiful Terrace by staying within doors to write it.

Thus this affectionate Grandfather (as he signed himself) bid goodbye to his grandson reminding him of his continuing important place in his family nexus:

How I shall be glad of a letter from you at any time, & not grudge the postage; but do not harass yourself about writing me, nor neglect the epistolary claims of your own family which are the first to be preferred. If you have not time this half year, you may probably in the next, to remember in that way.

This web of familiarity was successful, for the Gray family network was a powerful and long-lasting one. Indeed William senior’s son Jonathan and daughter-in-law Mary (William junior’s parents), moved in to Gray’s Court to live with him sometime around 1830, when William junior married his first wife Lucy. Sadly Lucy died of consumption at 26 in 1838 and Gray’s Court then became the home of William junior’s three small children who were cared for by their grandmother Mary. As William senior himself said, these great-grandchildren added to the blessings of their great-grandfather who died in 1845 aged 94.

It may be my romantic approach to history (when I’m free from academic conventions), but I would suggest that material things, places and spaces continued to forge the Gray family’s links and connections across generations and centuries into the twentieth century, when a descendant by marriage lovingly evoked ‘the voice of the house’ as the heart of the family’s life and history.

‘the voice of the house’: telling the intertwined story of material culture and emotions

As a historian of family and gender, I often write in my blog about different emotions. How were various emotions expressed in the past by spouses, parents, and children? How did families forge a sense of lineage and continuity through emotions and memories? And how do my own emotions shape my responses to the lives and events I read? Very often in the process I’m drawn to material culture and its relationship with emotional life.

The intersections between emotions and materiality are in the process of being investigated much more widely in history (see the Emotional Objects website) and though I do some reading in the area I’m still uncertain about the methodology of this kind of analysis. In short, I can see links between objects and emotions (like anger, fear, joy, sadness, love) but find it more difficult to explain the mechanism for these sometimes invisible, often nebulous links. Let me give an example from the papers of a York family whose parental relationships I investigated across a couple of generations: the Grays.

The three generations I focused upon were lawyers in the city of York. William Gray (1751-1845) came from rather humble origins and worked his way up through immense toil, piety, good works and determination to become a major figure in the city. This social rise is embodied in his purchase of Gray’s Court in 1788. This important property is still nestled in the shadow of York Minster, and its foundations were part of the old Treasurers’ House, which was the official residence of Treasurers of York Minster. The Gray family lived in Gray’s Court for several generations and the family papers show that it clearly shaped the lives led under its roof.

“Grays Court” by failing_angel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

This seems to have taken on a profound emotional attachment for some of the family. One of its members by marriage, Mrs Edwin Gray (Almira Gray, married 1882), published a biography in 1927 of the family from its time in the house to her own residence: Papers and diaries of a York family 1764-1839, The Sheldon Press, London. The volume surveys the family papers and uses them to write a lively account of the Grays, another rather appealing family who spanned the later Georgian and Victorian periods. What particularly interests me is that it is the house that seems to have inspired Almira Gray to write about the family rather than her husband’s ancestors.

The first chapter is titled: ‘The voice of the house’ and in it she demonstrates how Grays’ Court’s very fabric drives her feelings and identity. She says:

It is not given to many to live as I have done in a beautiful, historic, and romantically situated house, and from so early an age, before my twentieth birthday, that I seem to have become a very part of the house. To me the long Gallery lined with oak speaks with no uncertain voice of the past, of the many different people who have worked, played, and suffered there since the middle of the seventeenth century, when it was built on top of the ancient thirteenth-century walls and pillars of the old official house of the Treasurer of York Minster, situated to the north-east of that great Cathedral. It is not that there are ghosts in the House – ghosts imply something terrifying, something unhappy; but there is, at any rate to me, some atmosphere, some impelling force which cannot be particularly described, but which nevertheless suggests something very near, very akin to personal life.

The House inspires love, admiration, respect. It breathes harmony and quiet, and speaks to those who know how to hear, of goodness, of duty, and of discipline. The noble proportions of its rooms, the beauties pertaining to so many different styles and tastes, and the general comfort and convenience, the simplicity and dignity of its furnishings, tell of people who have had ideas and culture, who have been industrious, and careful and simple in their lives. The rooms all lined with books placed there by forebears of the man who brought me to the House filled me with awe and pride when I was twenty, and today are even more a source of happiness and interest.

The house is indeed wonderful: I’ve visited it myself and I can see that the lucky resident would feel romantically attached to it, especially if s/he had a historical interest. But isn’t this more meaningful? For Mrs Edwin Gray (and is it more than convention which makes her jettison her own first name and take on the identity of the house itself?) the house is a living being that shapes its inhabitants. They love, admire, respect it and it in turn speaks to them of goodness, duty and discipline. Clearly, for Mrs Edwin Gray, her emotional attachment to her husband’s forebears was primarily driven by her feelings for the house. And it was only the Grays. For instance, she offers a potted history of its years directly before William Gray purchased it when Dr Jacques Sterne (uncle of Laurence Sterne and one of the north’s clerics being investigated by my PhD student Daniel Reed) owned it from 1742, citing William’s letter on Sterne’s residency, dated Nov 14 1840 to Canon Dixon, Vicar of Bishopthorpe:

The house I live in was Dr. Sterne’s, who in 1757 sold off to Dr. Topham the part now enjoyed by Dr. Simpson. His part came to me by purchase in 1788 when the Gallery was 80 feet long. In it the York Corporation met and supped with the Duke of Cumberland on his return from Culloden … Now concerning Dr. Sterne for whose exemplary conduct you say nothing can be said, for he was not only extravagant but vicious; he had, as a servant I suppose, a married woman with whom he lived immorally.

Given the notorious Butcher Cumberland’s visit and Jacques’ alleged bad behaviour with his mistress (in all senses of the term), for Almira the House must only have acquired its beneficent power after William Gray took it on!

So what can a historian make of this personification of a building, its space and objects into positive emotions? What accounts for the process and how does one trace it other than through Mrs Edwin Gray’s charming description? Was it simply a mode of writing, following a specific genre of the early 20th century when people penned such material-familial biographies? Was it another form of establishing personal identity through parentage or ancestry? Auto-biographers often used emotions to establish their personal links (of character and behaviour) with key ancestors, and material culture seems to have been one way to make this manifest – often through portraits and prized family possessions. As an incomer to the Gray family, did Almira try to forge her identity and self through the very house itself? Did knowing it, loving it, (writing its history as she did elsewhere) provide her with a meaningful place in the Gray lineage?