Episode 2 – Family Heirlooms

Family heirlooms are a great gift to receive, and they can shape a story about your ancestors. Heirlooms allow family historians to add dimension to our ancestors and bring them to life, instead of just names, dates and places. A family heirloom is something of special value that is handed down from one family generation to the next family generation. A family heirloom holds either sentimental, monetary, antique, or cultural value.

On today’s show, we will be learning what family heirlooms others have received, and how these items have enhanced their knowledge of their family history. Our guest today is:

Paul Chiddicks – Paul has been researching his family history for 20+ years. He is a regular host of “Ancestry Hour” on Twitter, and the face behind Family Tree Magazine’s “Dear Paul” column. Paul also has a blog, “The Chiddicks Family Tree,” where he wrote two posts regarding family heirlooms in August 2021.

We will also hear from:
• Tom Kaechelin, about a military sword he inherited;
• Janet Few, about an heirloom patchwork quilt;
• Karen Wyatt, about a Hungarian Family Prayer Book;
• Hope Callan-Beck, about a crystal Loving Cup that her ancestor received at a family reunion

Also joining us by way of email is author Helen Parker-Drabble, who wrote ‘Who Do I Think You Were?’ A Victorian’s Inheritance®. Please find her submission in full below:

My heirloom is a character reference given to my Victorian working-class grandfather, Walter Parker, (1885-1975) just before he emigrated to Canada in 1907 aged 21 years old. It appears to be a simple document, but behind these formal words was a story of courage in the face of authority.

It was signed by Arthur Forest, agent to Hastings William Sackville Russell, His Grace the 12th Duke of Bedford.

The reference is dated 5 March 1907.

The reference was given despite young Walter’s refusal to take off his cap in respect to one of the most important man in the Duke of Bedford’s village of Thorney, Cambridgeshire, England. 

The language used in the reference gives us a peek into the formality of the period in a ‘model’ agricultural village of England. The reference made it possible for Walter a shy 21-year-old man to leave behind his disgrace, protect his father’s position and the family home, and begin an adventure on the Canadian Prairies which would last twenty-five years.

The reference shed light on how Walter was able to move out of the closed agricultural village. It also confirmed Walter’s father was the Estate Foreman, the highest status a working-class man could achieve in Thorney. The role was described in detail by the duke’s in his book, A Great Agricultural Estate, Being the Story of the Origin and Administration of Woburn and Thorney, published in 1897.

Walter fascinated me as a child. I wanted him to share his life with me, to illuminate a  time of profound social and political change, when a  working-class Englishman could become a  landowner in Canada. But in the face of my naïve compulsion to connect with him, Walter remained mostly inaccessible.

As an 11-year-old, I was delighted when he came to live with my family in 1974. At last, I would hear the longed-for stories of his Victorian childhood and his adventures as a  bachelor homesteader on the Canadian Prairies. Yet no matter how hard I searched for a  key to unlock his silence, the door to his past remained firmly shut. I desperately wanted to attach, to feel close to him, but his emotional distance defeated me. 

My Victorian grandfather Walter Parker was born in Upwell, Norfolk, England, but the family left in 1892 for Thorney an estate owned by the 12th Duke of Bedford. The purpose of the Thorney estate was to provide food for the staff and family at the larger estate of Woburn.

In the summer of 2013, I unexpectedly found myself near Thorney. Imagine my delight to find that the house in the Tank Yard where Walter had grown up was now the Thorney Museum. Incredibly, the volunteer steward, Jeremy Culpin, overheard my interest in the Parker family. He asked if I wanted an introduction to my mother’s first cousin. Walter’s niece Mary was born in 1918, had grown up in the village and lived nearby. At our first meeting, I discovered the cap incident was significant enough to be passed

down our two estranged branches of the family. Mary added a  new and dark twist to the family tale by telling me that Walter had not doffed his cap because of the man’s ‘evil ways with young girls’. According to Mary, although this was apparently well known in the village, it was not openly acknowledged.

During my family research, a transgenerational legacy of loss, trauma, anxiety, and depression unravelled. It revealed repeated patterns of behaviour that I too had unwittingly passed on. This discovery helped me understand my work’s focus. As a geneatherapist my mission is to share historical and current theories around mental health, psychology, and neuroscience to help family historians answer their question, ‘Who Do I Think You Were?’

In granddad’s refusal to take off his cap, I  like to think Walter acted truthfully, in a  way the adults felt unable to do. Whatever happened, it feels as if Walter’s principled stance created an ethical inheritance whereby people were encouraged ‘to do the right thing’ whatever the cost.

To read an extract from the book ‘Who Do I Think You Were?®‘ A Victorian’s Inheritance? please see below:

Why did Walter Parker refuse to doff his cap to the Duke of Bedford’s estate manager? This was uncharacteristic behaviour for the quiet and shy lad, given that the man was one of the most powerful men in Thorney. Walter’s disrespect put at risk his future, his pa’s job, and the house in which they lived.

I was a  child when my mother first told me the story of my grandfather’s refusal to doff his cap. I imagined the manager in his carriage on his way to church. I visualised Walter and the other villagers waiting outside the entrance to the Abbey for their ‘better’ to enter and assume his seat. In my mind’s eye, women and girls bobbed as the men and boys took off their hats and caps. All except Walter, who stood resolute with his hands buried in his pockets. According to the story my mother told me it was a  lack of respect for the duke’s man that had stayed Walter’s hand over a  century ago. As a  result, he had to leave the village to safeguard his family’s future. My mum explained Granddad was a  Victorian fossil, and that his decades on an isolated homestead had interrupted his growth.

However, I set out to discover what had most shaped my Victorian grandfather, Victorian values, life in a village owned by the Duke of Bedford, or his mother’s alcoholism and the psychological inheritance passed down to Walter.

Understanding our psychological inheritance can illuminate our ancestors, but it can also give us the language to consider our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviour. It can add to the narrative we construct to make sense of ourselves and our family. The good news for my grandfather Walter and his siblings is good news for all of us: our psychological inheritance need not define how we lead our lives. We can become more aware, live positively in our communities, thrive, and pass on a  different legacy. Family historians cannot know their ancestors’ psychological inheritance. But using historical and current theories, we can examine the records and speculate in an informed way.

You can also visit https://www.helenparkerdrabble.com/. If visitors scroll to the bottom of the page they can get the first two chapters, the contents, index, and references for free. Just click on the button ‘Your two FREE chapters are waiting.’

Connect with Helen on social media:

Twitter: @HelenPDrabble 

Facebook: @FactualTales 

Pinterest: @HelenPDrabble

LinkedIn: Helen Parker-Drabble 

To learn more about preserving your family heirlooms, please visit the National Archives website. Use acid-free and lignin-free paper, UV-resistant glass for framed pictures or documents, acid free boxes, tissue, and/or polyester sleeves as well as archival spray.

Additionally, you can reference the book “Creating Family Archives: A Step-by-Step Guide to Saving Your Memories for Future Generations” by Margot Note.

Old Barracks Telethon 2021

Join us on Saturday, December 11 at 1 pm for a virtual telethon fundraiser to support the educational programming of the Old Barracks Museum, including the new Connecting to the Revolution virtual field trips! It’s free to tune in, and donations will be accepted from now through the end of the event!

The telethon will be streamed via Facebook Live and Zoom on December 11 at 1 PM.

The content will range from historical to hysterical, and be performed by staff, volunteers, and friends of the Old Barracks. Throughout the telethon, donations will be solicited and collected via Facebook donations and PayPal to help support the educational programming of the Old Barracks Museum.

Connecting to the Revolution is a live virtual program for schools with 7 program options. Classes will be able to take this field trip from school, home, or a hybrid of the two. The program is a mix of live and pre-recorded video, and students will be able to ask questions and interact with Historical Interpreters.

Sponsored by:

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, LLR

John O’Sullivan

For additional information, please visit www.barracks.org.


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Be sure to check out my podcast, Heritage Hunters, available on Apple iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and YouTube!

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