I remember standing in the warm Brittany sunshine beside my caravan agonising over an empty sheet of paper that contained almost everything I knew about my family history. Even the names of my grandparents were unknown, and the most basic details of their lives a complete mystery.
In the back of my mind were faint recollections of distant family yarns which I intermittently tuned into whilst my attention was fixed on the nearby tin of biscuits. But thirty odd years later, there was no longer a way of bringing this information back to my adult attention where I could understand it properly. It would take just one hour with my Grandparents to learn about an ancestor that was hung at Tyburn for sheep rustling or how another made front page news after a passing tram shook her war damaged house to the ground whilst she was still inside. According to one source , the last hanging at Tyburn was in 1783, which helps to explain why I have been unable to establish whether there was any truth in this particular story – or indeed whether it was just a figment of my imagination. And despite spending hours trawling through old newspapers at Birmingham library, I never did find the article about the unfortunate incident with the tram. But these were just some of the big stories and, even if true, would not tell me the full story of my family. And so, in 2004, I decided to make a big effort to learn more about my family history, even though by this time all my grandparents and my father had sadly passed away.
It is difficult to talk about the history of my family without talking about the history of Birmingham. From my research, it is clear that my family lived in Birmingham for at least one hundred years, and for some sections of my family, even longer. As Birmingham moved through the industrial revolution, it grew rapidly, fuelled by the availability of labour, iron ore, coal and its proximity to London and the River Severn. As Britain moved towards being the world’s first industrial nation, Birmingham was at the heart of this mighty transition giving the world its jewellery, guns, pens, buckles, bolts, nails, screws, railway carriages, bicycles and toys. Even the Napoleonic wars that swept across Europe in the early 1800s were fought using the guns and bullets of Birmingham. By the mid-1800’s it was claimed that Birmingham was the world’s greatest supplier of arms  supplying a large proportion of those used in the Crimean War and The Kaffir War. Whilst technology was advancing, Birmingham remained throughout the early nineteenth Century a town based on ‘workshops’ rather than automated factories. Many of its inhabitants became skilled tradesmen, operating the Lathe, the press, the stamp and various hand-held tools. And so, as our nation moved from an economy based on agriculture to one based on manufacture and agriculture, people flooded into cities like Birmingham. I have traced my Brummie ancestors back to the rural shires of Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Norfolk, Yorkshire and Shropshire. And after moving into the big city, they worked as pearl button makers, Smith’s strikers, Carters, Labourers, Coal Miners (in nearby Staffordshire), silver polishers, Navvies, Boatmen, washerwomen and Ivory Bone workers. Many of them worked in some of Birmingham’s famous companies, such as Cadbury’s, Morris and Vicars. But as my ancestors and their fellow countrymen moved in, the infrastructure was unable to cope. There were squalid conditions at home and work – lack of water, lack of sewage, no social welfare system and large families squashed into tiny houses. Sadly, I’ve discovered cases of infant mortality, disease and poverty within my family. It’s perhaps not surprising that in the same way my ancestors flocked into the city during the industrial revolution, so too did their descendants flock out of the city a century later in search of a better quality life. The family migration from Birmingham lasted several decades – to begin with this might have been to escape Victorian deprivation, and then in later years maybe to find a quieter life in the countryside. I’ve traced family who moved from Birmingham to Wiltshire, Canada, India, and more recently, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Buckinghamshire. Consequently, I no longer have so many opportunities to return to my favourite city!
My family research has slowed downed considerably for the last few years whilst I have lived abroad. But since I started to write my blog this year, I decided that this could be a good way to share the results of my research with my family. I have already written one post called Grandad, Dad, Trains and me and I have recently been given lots of help by my Uncle Joe and Aunty Pat who have shared photos, videos and stories with me. I have bought a Family Tree Builder by Ancestry.com so that I can organise all my information, pictures and documents. All of this has helped to reignite my interest in this fascinating topic and I hope that during the course of the next twelve months, I will be able to share a few interesting stories with you.
In 2014, I returned to France to visit the site where my great-grandfather fought in the First World War (see picture below). I hope to make his story my next family history blog post…
© Chris Robinson 2014. All rights reserved.
 Dunham, K., The Gun Trade of Birmingham (1955), 16.
 Hopkins, E., Birmingham The Making of the Second City 1850-1939 (2001), 12
 Hopkins, E., Birmingham The Making of the Second City 1850-1939 (2001), 13
 The Tyburn Tree, Hyde Park, London, UK, http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-london/A988833 %5B9th April 2003]