Research and Responsibility

No, not a review of one of Jane Austen’s lesser-known offerings, just some thoughts on family history and similar research.

It can all be summed up by the case of my great-great-great uncle Moses. According to the Blackburn Standard of Saturday 16th February 1884 one Moses Gregson, a stone mason, was up in the Borough Police Court for using threatening language to his wife Margaret the previous day.

It may very well be a tale of domestic violence, but on the other hand it may be the story of a family man (or lovable rogue) who took an uncharacteristic drink and ended up in deep water. He was also finedΒ 5 shillings for appearing drunk in court the previous day, so I suspect that he’d been hauled into court by the police whilst still full of the drink that had caused the original problem.

The question is whether to tell people or not.

To modern day members of the family it’s an historical curiosity, but if you tell outsiders it could be a bit embarrassing. It depends on your sensitivity to such things, and though I’m no shrinking violet I do feel a twinge when discussing the story.

The embarrassment would rise, I feel, as you go back in the generations. My mother would have been very unhappy with me revealing it, and my grandmother would have been quite upset. My great-grandmother, who may well have known Moses as a child, is an unknown quantity.

She was born in 1879 and is the oldest member of the family that I knew personally. I really don’t have a clue how she would have reacted to me telling the world her uncle had been in court for drinking and using threatening language to his wife.

If she was still alive I may have been too embarrassed to even mention it to her. She in turn may not have worried about it at all as she had grown up with many things and taken them all in her stride.

This leads on to another example.

I have a small silver medal issued in 1919 to thank a railwayman for his service in the Great War, where he had served in Mesopotamia.Β  He had two spells in hospital – once with fever and once with syphilis, which seems to have brought his service to an abrupt end. This article discusses venereal disease in the Great War if you are interested.

It’s slightly different to the case of Moses Gregson, as he isn’t a member of the family and I feel no embarrassment about it. I do, however, feel that family members who knew him may still be alive and it’s for them to talk about it (if they want to) rather than me. He was still alive into the 1980s and some of his old neighbours might still be around too.

It’s quite a can of worms when you start looking at it, and the choices are even harder when you’re trying to think of someone else and their reaction.

If something was mentioned in the newspapers in 1884, or in army records in 1918 should we talk about it openly, or should we worry about the possible sensitivity of other people?





18 thoughts on “Research and Responsibility

  1. janeflynnsenseandsentimentality


    A quandary indeed. In my line of work, the rule seems to be that if the source is publically available (in a museum, archive, memoir, published diary etc.) it is okay to use it. However, personal recollections, unpublished diaries and so on head into ethics territory and start requiring permission. I’d say, proceed with caution.

  2. tootlepedal

    There’s a difference between being a blogger and a historian. If you are writing a history you have to put it in, if you are writing a blog, you can choose.

      1. quercuscommunity

        That’s a good point. Maybe I lack the moral fibre to make a good writer/researcher.

        I’ve often thought about what happened to my grandmother and her sisters after her father was killed and her mother died. It’s a story that would fit well in in the misery memoir section of any bookshop. If I were writing an autobiography I would feel obliged to cover it all. But I’m writing a blog and the people I remember were remarkably jolly old ladies who packed a lot into life, which is what I prefer to write about.

  3. Laurie Graves

    Great opening! You raise an interesting point, and one that certainly applies to bloggers. How much truth do we tell? Some bloggers spill the beans indiscriminately. Others, including me, use more discretion. Sometimes it’s a tricky dance.

    1. quercuscommunity

      Thank you. It’s a tricky thing knowing how much to tell. Not everyone likes the internet, and one of the Men in Sheds refuses to be photographed. Over the years I had to waste a lot of interesting anecdotes because of considerations of good taste, fairness, defamation and privacy. πŸ™‚

      1. Laurie Graves

        I know just what you mean. As I am not an investigative journalist, I always respect a person’s desire for privacy. My eldest daughter does not want to be photographed for my blog, and I always ask permission from my friends. Good taste, fairness, defamation, and privacy are excellent guidelines.

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