In the last post I outlined the uses of what Arthur Marwick called “documents of record”, something that I covered in a recent degree class on the History with English programme at University Centre South Devon. In the weeks ahead I intend on covering other issues and uses of sources, such as the utilisation of statistics and visual sources. Whilst collating material for a session relating to literary sources I was reminded of a post on a different blog (relating to family history) and thought I would resurrect the material here, due to archiving the old posts.

This relates to family history research I completed on the Forrests in my family tree, who are relations on my father’s side of the family. A quick, potted link is my gran (a Bailey by birth who married into the Wildman line) was the daughter of Mary Ann Donohoe, whose mother was Elizabeth Forrest (which makes Elizabeth Forrest my great-great gran). My search is stunted when looking at Elizabeth’s Forrest’s mum: I cannot find her maiden name. All I know is that she was also called Elizabeth and that she lived, roughly, from 1788-1851, and that she is present in Plymouth at the time of the 1841 and 1851 census returns.

This leaves a rather large gap in Elizabeth’s life: I do not know her parents, and I’m not entirely sure of her birth year (although the census returns do note her birthplace as Northam, in North Devon). With such considerable missing portions, I’ve long wondered how to do her justice when writing about this branch of the family tree. This is where the use of literary sources can help illuminate.

I’m open to the use of the contemporary experiences of others to help shed light and understanding on those I’m researching. I recently used the statement of an drafted soldier from the First World War to provide greater context for the situation of George Edward Donohoe. Similarly, I’ve been considering the use of fiction and literature to help provide colour.

This train of thought started on reading Elizabeth’s census return for 1851. By this time her young son (John Thomas Forrest) had started his own family, and Elizabeth was living in a house of other occupants in 5 Castle Street, Plymouth. Her financial situation was not in a great state: others living with her are noted as being ‘paupers’. Elizabeth’s occupation is listed as ‘Dealer in Marine Stores’, although I needed to ask three work colleagues to help me decipher this writing! Then, I was faced with another problem: I didn’t know what this job description actually meant

A Google search revealed a definition: a dealer would refer to someone who bought and sold items, similar to rag and bone merchants. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s specific focus would have been on ‘marine’ (relating to boats, etc); this makes perfect sense considering her living location on the Barbican and the connection of the Forrests to the fishing industry.

More investigation revealed an interesting forum conversation in which one poster included an extract from Dickens’ Bleak House, wherein the narrator looks inside a dealer’s shop:

‘She had stopped at a shop over which was written KROOK, RAG AND BOTTLE WAREHOUSE. Also, in long thin letters, KROOK, DEALER IN MARINE STORES. In one part of the window was a picture of a red paper mill at which a cart was unloading a quantity of sacks of old rags. In another was the inscription BONES BOUGHT. In another, KITCHEN-STUFF BOUGHT. In another, OLD IRON BOUGHT. In another, WASTE-PAPER BOUGHT. In another, LADIES’ AND GENTLEMEN’S WARDROBES BOUGHT. Everything seemed to be bought and nothing to be sold there. In all parts of the window were quantities of dirty bottles – blacking bottles, medicine bottles, ginger-beer and soda-water bottles, pickle bottles, wine bottles, ink bottles . . . There was a little tottering bench of shabby old volumes outside the door, labelled “Law Books, at at 9d.” . . . several second-hand bags, blue and red, hanging up . . . heaps of old crackled parchment scrolls . . . rusty keys, of which there must have been hundreds huddled together as old iron . . . litter of rags tumbled partly into and partly out of a one-legged wooden scale . . . bones in a corner, piled together and picked very clean . . .’

The words of Dickens – a contemporary of Elizabeth’s from the middle of the nineteenth century – helps illuminate Elizabeth’s profession. This provides much needed colour, and more importantly context, than what the simple census provides. Such an approach of a literary source – even one snippet – helps the historian reach a deeper, more meaningful understanding.

Of course, there are limitations with this approach. An over-reliance could jeopardise my research and could fail to to give Elizabeth proper respect. No, Dickens was not writing about my Elizabeth. However, Dickens had a clear idea in mind about this type of profession, which to me helps create a more substantial image of my ancestor.

Like any source – oral, written, visual – its uses comes with great value but also limitations. The literary source cannot speak directly for ancestors like my – ready for it? – great-great-great-grandmother, but I’m strong believer that when used appropriately these sources can help give a voice to the past.