Leicestershire Yeoman Families and their Pedigrees
W G Hoskins, MSc (Econ), PhD
Tracing the pedigree of an ordinary yeoman family, and more people now alive in England are descended from the yeomen than from any other class, is one of the most fascinating pursuits conceivable. The old motives which led people to enquire into the past history of their families, and to trace their descent, are mostly gone: the desire to acquire a better descent than one really had, to go back to some noble ancestor of the same name; or the desire "to attach new names to old acres" as it has been to aptly described. Both these motives led searchers, or those who were employed by them, to make unjustifiable assumptions at critical points in the descent, to guess where one could not know, and (at the worst, though this was rare) to invent new data or to distort existing facts in order to establish a distinguished but false pedigree. But all this pretentious activity has disappeared, or nearly so, and has been replaced by a pure interest in the origin of one's family whatever it may have been. This being so, genealogy has become a much more scientific pursuit, in which every single statement is, or should be, supported by a verifiable reference to a record of some description, and in which assumptions are made only with the greatest reluctance and where the circumstantial evidence is very strong.
Apart from the pure genealogy of a family, which usually means the tracing of its descent through the male line, and which is usually a subject of interest only to the family immediately concerned and its kindred, the social history of ordinary families has been almost totally neglected in England. By ordinary families I mean those who did not own manors or large landed estates but those who owned only a small farm or two, if that, and called themselves by the proud title of "yeomen" and were called on occasion by the even prouder title of "the Commons of England". The history of such families has hardly been noticed by any historian: even though history has long since moved away from being the chronicle of royal feuds, marriages, and alliances, of the wars and bloody intrigues of a handful of noble families who governed the country, the social historian has not yet come down to the history of the ordinary family upon whose energy and toil and skill the whole great superstructure rested. The old county historians, who produced their monumental volumes between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, were almost exclusively concerned with "the landed class" and the history of parishes and villages within the county became in their hands almost exclusively the history of the descent of the manor. Local history was conceived as manorial history and that in its turn was only the history of the various lords of the manor, with nothing said of the tenants and their modest chronicles and vicissitudes through the generations. Even the best of local histories to this day suffer from this inheritance from the old county historians, and it is rare to see a village history which gives more than passing mention to the great majority of village families outside the manor house and the rectory. The histories of towns have not suffered to anything like the same extent from this exclusive outlook, for the simple reason that, in the main, land is not the main source of power and wealth in the town and the landed class is therefore relatively unimportant in its history. Here trade and industry have been the sources of wealth and the historian has scarcely been able to avoid dealing to some extent with the rise of the trading families. Even so, little enough is known of the history of ordinary families and too much is made of those merchant families who acquired fortunes in local trade and thence graduated into the landed class in the neighbouring countryside.
The man who writes the modest history of his own family can, then, render a great service to the economic and social historian whose knowledge is necessarily imperfect in this field. There is no lack of material for such a task, though it is not easy to search it out. ..... Above all, however, he must not fail to make his results available to others, for work that goes on for years and never gets published is all too often completely wasted effort in the end, when industrious relatives come in and "clear up" the masses of notes in which they themselves have no interest, and probably burn the lot.
The great majority of English people now live in towns: a hundred and fifty years ago the great majority still lived in the country, or in little towns that were an integral part of the countryside. During the course of the nineteenth century therefore there was a great migration from country to town, especially between the 1830's and the 1860's and in this process a sharp break was made with the past for the hundreds of thousands of ordinary families concerned. Most families now living in English towns have been there only two or three generations, but in that time they have effectively forgotten where they came from and everything about the ancestral countryside. A surprising number of townspeople to-day do not know for certain where their own grandfathers were born, and as for their great-grandfathers they have forgotten their very names. At the best there is a vague family tradition that they came "from Cosby way" or some such place, a tradition based upon "I heard my father tell .... ". Rarely do memories go any further back than that: the immemorial continuity of English family life was completely shattered a hundred years ago or less, and what happened before that is for most people wrapped in total darkness.
Not until the nineteenth century is there any real break with the past: the wholesale migration to the towns (especially to Leicester, the central point of the whole county), to the new homes in dull, brick-built streets, the new kind of work, no longer in the home or in the fields but in the factory, the new way of living. Work and home were separated, and home was no longer the house and the village where one belonged with all one's ancestors but a nondescript little house in a large amorphous town; all knowledge of the past was gradually forgotten and lost, and the long continuity of life was irretrievably shattered for the great majority of English people who now know nothing of the fathers that begat them in past centuries.