Family Heirlooms – A Wonderful Present

Another family member's property at Mannus

Another family member’s property at Mannus

My family contains equal portions of two types of people – pack rats and clean freaks.  Two extremes.  Some of our pack rats would these days be correctly diagnosed as hoarders and this is not healthy.  Others in my family feel somehow threatened by the weight of family past and don’t even have photographs on their walls.  They don’t want to remember anything earlier than the present day.  I’m sure this is a psychiatric condition too, and one which has proven devastating to our family heritage.

When I was a child, I saw three family bibles, a working 1860’s pocket watch, a grandfather clock, a set of hand-made lace tablecloths, a suitcase full of photographs from World War One, two treadle sewing machines, a bridle brought to Australia by an emigrating great great grandfather, a photo album with photographs of my grandmother’s great aunts and uncles taken in the 1880s .. and many more items.

They are all gone now – sent to the tip – not a second hand shop, actually the rubbish tip – while I was away at boarding school or busy interstate with babies and not around to save them.  We can’t go back, but sometimes I remember and my recent road trip brought it all back to me.  Hence my last few blogs as I work through a technique to stop the tragic loss.

The oddest thing is that my own research is so extraordinarily popular in my family.  They all love it.  They threw out valuable records but now they get in touch with me and say “Uncle’s neighbour says our ancestor did this.  Do you know about it?  Do you have any pictures?’

No, I can’t help but think.  You got rid of all that.  But I don’t say it.  I used to but it’s over.  Now, I’m educating my family to prevent further losses.  I’m teaching them what family is about because they are fifth or sixth generation victims of poverty and limited opportunity and they simply don’t know.  I didn’t properly understand it myself until I married and saw how beautifully my mother in law cares for her special family items.

Now, I’m taking stock of what I have and this is an extremely pleasant task.  I was given a wonderful present while at Mannus and I’ve been looking forward to writing about it.  A clock.

Dining room at Mannus circa 1950

Dining room at Mannus circa 1950

My mother has a set of photographs from Mannus taken around 1949 or 1950.  A family friend took them, we don’t know their name.  We have deduced the year from the pictures of children who are little more than toddlers.  The house was in good condition in those days and my grandmother (actual great aunt) was a careful housekeeper.

This is the room in which the ceiling has collapsed. You can see the clock on the mantle piece.

I have always admired the clock.  It’s a Winchester clock of unknown model and used to chime every fifteen minutes, half hour and full hour.  As children we loved it, although my mother felt she did not need to know when each fifteen minutes had passed. The family usually left it unwound but would wind it up whenever visitors arrived, so the ticking and chiming of the clock were a ‘special occasion’ sound to everyone.   It was a wedding present to my grandparents Peard.  On every visit, as child and adult, I went to look at it, dusted it and cleaned the glass just because it was a symbol of family.  It stopped working about twenty years ago and the family sent it off to be fixed.  It took months to get it back and even then it only worked for two days.

It sat on that mantle shelf for its whole life with only the one exception for repairs, and after the roof fell in it received water damage.  Possums climbed over it.  Then, the family realised – after two weeks – that the roof had caved in and they tied up the door.  First of all, they rescued the clock, solely because my interest and care of it had given them the idea that it was worth saving.

Here it is now:

Clock from Mannus now at my house

Clock from Mannus now at my house

I didn’t even ask for it.  When I heard about the roof collapse I asked “Was the clock destroyed?”.  My relative said they’d saved it for me and I could take it with me if I wanted.  I said yes with great enthusiasm.

In the plastic bag are the side piece and the pendulum.  The clock has water damage (in the left of the picture) and I suspect has been under a leak for some time.  It doesn’t look so big in this picture, but it is a fair sized clock and I’m going to take expert advice before attempting anything with it.

The clock has a new symbolic role now.  It’s a sign that the family can change their ways, and start preserving their memories.  Even if it never goes again as a clock, it is something which will always be on display in my home and encourage me to persevere as a family historian.

Family Heirlooms – Keeping the Story with the Item

Trash or Treasure?  Without the story it's hard to know.

Trash or Treasure? Without the story it’s hard to know.

In my family, irreplaceable family objects are still being lost with each year that passes, though the rate has slowed I hope. My recent road trip showed me how much has vanished in the last fifteen years. This is very much on my mind and after talking to neighbours I have realised it’s an all too common story.

I have also discovered that I am solely responsible for the survival of a few objects.  This is encouraging and has given me a strategy for saving more.  The trick is for each object to have its own story.

Ten years ago I became a member of a historical society which ran a museum.  The museum underwent a process of accreditation while I was there and I learned a huge amount from it.

It was a challenging process for some of our members who had done things the same way for several decades, and couldn’t believe their way was less than ideal. It was challenging simply to relinquish control and allow the self-important Sydney upstarts to lay down the rules.  Little country towns are like this.

The accreditation ran through every fascinating aspect of museum life, but the one which is of use here is the part about deciding which exhibits to keep and display. A lot of the process also applies to family heirlooms.

Small town museums are popular repositories for unwanted household items.  Not so much in the last twenty years as antiques have become more valuable, but it still happens.  Someone downsizes and into the local museum they go with their carton of things – teapots, picture frames, old irons, butter trays, perhaps a brown newspaper or two from the 1950s, a small collection of books.  “They belonged to my father.”  They’ll say.  “He’s passed away now, and we don’t need them, but he was the first schoolteacher at the new school, you know, and it would be a shame to send them to the tip.”

A museum is a building of finite size.  If it takes every single item at face value, there’ll soon be no room to move.  The museum staff need a uniform method to pick the items of use to them from the items which are not of use.  Otherwise, at some point there’ll be a fire, or an infestation of silverfish, or just a mammoth cleanout by new management, and everything will be lost.

Our homes are equally finite. Too much stuff and one day someone will send it all to the tip.  They won’t see a collection of interesting objects.  They’ll see wall to wall writhing dirty rubbish.  I have never managed this viewpoint myself, but I’ve become aware that at least half my family do, and will act swiftly and irrevocably.

I was very excited to find a tin full of cards dating back to the 1960s at an 80 year old aunt's house recently, and was even more pleased when she said I could have it.  But they are not even cards for our family!  It turns out she bought the tin at a  fleamarket and found it full.

I was very excited to find a tin full of greeting cards dating back to the 1960s at an 80 year old aunt’s house recently, and was even more pleased when she said I could have it. But they are not even cards for our family! It turns out she bought the tin at a fleamarket and found it full.  She had not kept her own cards so decided to keep these instead.

In the 2000’s, we were told as a museum to pick a theme which was relevant to our region and made sense based on our exhibits.  We could be a transport museum, for instance, or an agricultural museum or a culinary museum – but we couldn’t be a folk museum.  The state was overloaded with folk museums which were random and lacked a pulling factor for tourists.  Museums are not storehouses of old things, they are participants in an active tourism trade and have a role in bringing trade to their local area.   Once you know what sort of museum you are, you know what to accept and what to reject.

1916 Padded birthday card.

1916 Padded birthday card given to one of my paternal grandmother’s sisters.

In a way, a family has the same task. Of course our theme is clear: what we keep is what pertains to the family. Just like a museum, most families are not simply storehouses of old things.  The average non-genealogist will have some objective or objectives in mind when keeping family heirlooms. Perhaps to remember and respect their forbears, or to remind the family of its place in society, or maintain a link with a geographically distant culture.  No need to be too clinical about this.  Anyone who is thinking about their family history already doesn’t need to spell out the reason, but we do have a role to play in anticipating the more sceptical.  In a lot of families there are sentimental dreamers and the more prosaic doers.  Clearing out an old house is usually the task of a doer.  They need to be well versed in what has value and ought to be kept even if no longer usable or needed.

The next thing we were told in the museum, was that an object, however old, however interesting, is really of no historic merit without its story.  I tend to push this point in my blog entries because it makes so much sense to me.  This is of exceptional importance when considering our family heirlooms.  Some of us have an innate sense which tells us that this object is part of us and no reason is required.  I love people like that.  But many many people, who at some point will be faced with the decision to keep or throw, need a very compelling argument to keep.

Chair, for illustrative purposes only.  I don't know the story of this chair.

Chair, for illustrative purposes only.

Now, being able to say “That chair belonged to my grandmother’ is in fact a story.  That’s all you really need for someone else to attach that value to that item in their own mind.  They’ll remember that it was Grandma’s chair and think twice before throwing it away.

What about “That chair was a wedding gift to Grandma, made for her by her father who emigrated to Australia in 1875.  It is a replica of the dining chairs his parents had in their home in Somerset. He even made the nails himself.”

With a story like that, the chair is even safer in the family.  If there is a photograph of the chair with the grandmother or great grandfather, it is probably guaranteed to be passed down to someone who appreciates it.

Documentation makes a great difference as it proves a story, a fact well understood by genealogists. It holds equally true for family heirlooms.  If you have a family heirloom, it’s worth taking a photograph of it with a family member.  It helps to confirm its place with the family, it might keep that item from the tip in another fifty years time.  You might not have a photograph with the original member, but young Lucy sitting on her Grandma’s chair in 2014 will still be a very valuable family item to Lucy’s own grandchildren, one which bridges the gap of eight generations if the full story is known – from the family in Somerset to Lucy’s grandchild viewing the photograph.

This is where a family differs from a museum.  We can – personally I think we should – add our generation’s chapter to the story of each item.  Its importance and its interest grows with each new event.

Family Tree Files - A good place to store a list of family heirlooms and their stories

Family Tree Files – A good place to store a list of family heirlooms and their stories

How we ensure the story passes along with the object is trickier.  A book about the family helps.  The story could be written on the back of a photograph, placed in a photo album, written into a will, explained in a family newsletter, entered into a family tree accessible to all which continues to be accessible after the tree’s creator has passed on.   We could simply tell the story so many times that it is never forgotten.

How it’s done doesn’t matter, just so that when an old house is to be emptied of stuff, there’s someone to say “Make sure you don’t throw out Grandma’s chair.  I’ll take it if no one else wants it”.

If this happens, the job has been done well.

Finding the Family Heirlooms – Recognising What We Have

Family Bible - one type of family heirloom

Family Bible – one type of family heirloom. First entry is in 1848.

A family heirloom is a wonderful thing for a family.  It provides a sense of long-term establishment, being a link to previous connected generations.  Often it becomes an object of value, an antique in its own right. Every family historian dreams of locating an heirloom because of all it tells us about our ancestors and their generation.

Very few heirlooms have survived the 20th Century in my family.  In fact, the hardest time has been the second half of the 20th century.  We truly did become a throwaway society and this is still the case.

I can easily see how families end up with no relics from their past.  For a start, there are the more devastating events such as natural disasters and war.  A few of our family relics went up in bushfires.  Some families have to flee their home and leave everything behind.  It happens and is entirely beyond their control.

Then there are severed families.  Orphans and step-children rarely have any clues about the non-present parent.  We have a lot of this in my family too.  In one line, I have Annie McLeod an orphan who emigrated to Australia, Herbert Dunstall her son who became an orphan at age fourteen, Kenneth Dunstall his son who lost his father at age seven, and his daughter my mother who was raised in a foster home without knowledge of her paternal family.  How could any trace of Annie McLeod have come down to us?  It didn’t, except luckily in the DNA which has enabled me to piece together her life.

My family’s history is full of such events.  Transported convicts, early deaths, alcoholism, cancer, post-partum haemorrhage and war trauma, all resulting in the temporary or sometimes permanent fracturing of the family unit.  I expect this holds true for every family.  The closer, stronger family units manage to overcome the obstacle and carry on united.  The less supported family caves under the pressure.

Chest used by Thomas and Elizabeth Maitland to bring their belongings from England to Australia in 1908. It was probably an old item then belonging to the parent of one of them.

Chest used by Thomas and Elizabeth Maitland to bring their belongings from England to Australia in 1906. It was an old item then belonging to the parent of one of them.

The other event which poses danger to a family heirloom is the long, slow onslaught of poverty and illness.  This is where most of our family items have been lost.  We have houses in our family where an elderly member lived alone and often unvisited for a long period.  In later years their health was failing and along with it their ability to perform maintenance and housework tasks.  Eventually, they were removed into a nursing home or hospital and their house was either closed up or rented out.  Each has proven disastrous for the relics.

In my last post I mentioned the house which is falling into ruin.  It’s not the only one, even in my family.  There is a lot of space in country Australia and house values only began increasing in the last couple of decades.  It has long been a common practice for an elderly couple to reside in their original house and for an adult child to build a new house on the property.  In time, the old house is abandoned, sometimes full of furniture which will be got to ‘one day’.  Often, no one notices the slow decay because they are with it all the time.  It takes an infrequent visitor to spot the changes.  After a while, the items are considered beyond salvaging.

We have also had a situation where a house full of important family items was rented furnished to a group of young persons who in a wild party destroyed everything.  My family is awfully trusting.  Trusting others worked for them in the past, but lately it has had disastrous results.

What chance does an heirloom have if it is buried deep in a roomful of junk which is about to be cleaned out by someone with no interest in family history or in history of any kind?  Someone only distantly connected to a family, perhaps, who may even be a little resentful that the job has fallen to them.  Or even worse, someone who has longed for years to show this branch of the family how they should be living?

The reason so many families lose their heirlooms

The reason so many families lose their heirlooms

This post is something of a call to arms.  Everyone cares about family heirlooms and everyone loves the medals in a box, the family bible kept in a special desk, the beautifully polished dining table which belonged to Grandma and Great Grandma before that.  They are a symbol of unity and belonging and longevity. But what happens to an heirloom after fifty years of isolation and family illness?  How do you recognise it amongst surrounding clutter?  Only a family historian can do this.

Crista Cowan, who has a series of Youtube videos for under the title ‘The Barefoot Genealogist’, suggested that there is a family historian in every family.  It’s a lovely idea.  Some families may have two or three.  It’s definitely fun to collect family stories, confirm them via primary sources, and identify all our distant cousins. But to my mind, there is some responsibility along with the fun.  If the stories have been forgotten, how will we recognise the artifacts which belong to those stories?  If we have uncovered a detail from the past, and we have located an item which belongs to that event, surely it is down to us to ensure that item is recognised for what it is?

The picture above is from one of our family’s unoccupied and decaying houses.  I hesitated before posting it because it feels somehow dishonest to the family members who lived here, even though they are now deceased and the worst of the clutter has come after that, in using the house as a storage area.  But really, my hesitation is a good example of part of the issue.  Clearing out a deceased person’s house should be a family affair, but who wants to call in the family to show everyone that their revered progenitor was living like this?  Better, we think, to quietly clean it out, remove the evidence of dysfunction.

I’d like to make clear that this is NORMAL.  Horribly, sadly so, but absolutely normal.  I used to work in aged care.  I used to do home visits and make recommendations that elderly persons be reassessed for possible higher level care.  We bury the evidence thinking the decay is unnaturally bad, but we are burying our heritage with it.

Our heritage is very important, but often we only realise this once we have lost it.

Our heritage is very important, but often we only realise this once we have lost it.  Photographs covered by cobwebs on a mantle piece in an empty house.

One of the empty family houses which I have recently checked is in a small town some 400km from the nearest family member.  A local resident runs his sheep in the grounds to keep the grass down (and the garden beds too). He tells me he has sheep at three other houses in the same small town, all of them full of stuff, unoccupied and now falling down.  “There’s a piano in one of them.” he told me, “and an antique desk, but the roof is starting to leak over that”.

In that picture of the room above are several objects which I did not even notice while I was there but which I actually know a lot about. I took a high resolution photograph which I have studied since returning home.  The chairs to the left of the bed, for instance.  One was part of the dining set and was taken out of the dining room in the 1980’s when they finally decided to make it a loungeroom, pushing the dining table into the far corner.  The rest of that set is probably under the collapsed roof.  That chair was then placed in my grandparents’ bedroom, and came into this room after their death.  Under the window, with a cardboard carton on it, is a leather suitcase which the family used on their annual jaunt to Sydney to visit relatives, it first came to Mannus in the 1930’s.   I could go on and on.

Boer War medals

Boer War medals pinned to an old suit top in a crowded cupboard.  When the present owner dies, will anyone but me know they are there?

For any of us, the instant reaction on entering a room like this will be a sinking feeling, perhaps a feeling of futility.  I’d like to reassure everyone who is suddenly faced with cleaning out such a house.  It’s the same for many of us.  Your cluttered house is no worse than the others.   There’s a very good chance those valuable relics are still there, safely nestled in the mess.  It really is worth sifting through and you will never have another chance.  Also, if you think something might be significant but you are not sure, don’t just throw it away. Ask the rest of the family first, you never know who might know its story.

You’ll never regret saving your heirlooms.