Four nation families and emotional legacies

Four nation families and emotional legacies

This week, Richard Hall (University of Cambridge) examines the emotional and social lives of English fathers and sons through a four nations lens.

Generations Son Great-grandparents Family FatherMy first, slightly unsettling, thought upon writing a blog for the Four Nations History Network was how conspicuously English my doctoral project looked. In using oral history to explore the social and emotional lives of fathers and sons in Britain between 1945 and 1970, I have searched for sources from each of the devolved nations; however, this has nevertheless produced a predominantly English sample, which includes no Northern Irish, and only a minority of Scottish and Welsh men. But on closer inspection, Four Nations History in fact weaves through my research: through ancestry; the relocation of families over generations; and via legacies of values, beliefs and behaviours.

In a period during which rising affluence saw an increase in geographic, as well as social, mobility in Britain, family histories tell of cross-border, as well as cross-class encounters. As kinship networks dispersed, family ties were stretched; but connections endured in memory, and via cultural and emotional inheritances, which were often infused with ideas of national identity.

The Winns exemplified such cross-border movement across generations. Edward was brought up in 1920s Yorkshire, England, to a wealthy English father and Scottish mother. Electing not to succeed his father in banking, he instead acquired a farm in rural Scotland, where he and his wife had two boys. Hampered by the limited options for private education where they lived, they resorted to sending the eldest, Arthur, to boarding school in Brecon, South Wales. Edward’s wife lamented the rupture this created between Arthur and his maternal grandmother, to whom he had previously been intimately attached. Arthur had been particularly upset to miss her death, which had happened during term-time.[i]

Like many of their affluent peers, the Winns benefitted from easy movement across Britain’s soft borders. Having boarded himself as a child, and moving to Scotland in his late teens, Edward was used to the idea of geographic mobility within the family. But as the reflections of his wife and son illustrate, the prizing of private education over familial closeness was not without its emotional consequences.

For many second and third generation children of mobilised families, however, the presence of older relatives in different parts of Britain also had pleasurable connotations. The post-war period saw the heyday of domestic holidays, and it was common to travel between the devolved nations, to stay with, or near relatives. Indeed the journeys were often events in themselves, as fathers would make temporary adjustments to family cars, vans or motorcycles, to accommodate excited children for their big trips.

Journeys to, and time with, these geographically distant family members may have been relatively short, but their impact was long lasting. For Peter Coverley, a Scot living in north-west England, visits to see his parents’ relatives in Ulster had a particular resonance: ‘Oh, we used to have great nights. They knew all about the Orange Lodges and stuff. They could imitate the Revd. Ian Paisley – they could imitate all these Ulstermen… My Uncle James, he was one of the best story-tellers… it was really something.’[ii] Such legacies of oral cultures provided rich sources of meaning for later generations. In the Coverleys’ case, they were also infused with national, as well as religious significance.

Indeed, Christianity is a prominent theme in these cross-border narratives. In 1963, the aforementioned Arthur Winn moved to Manchester, England, where he married his Catholic wife, Pat. Although Arthur’s mother, who was Church of Scotland, claims she struggled to get on with Pat at first because of their contrasting rural and city backgrounds, Arthur maintains it had more to do with her disapproval of Pat’s going to Confession. It was not uncommon for post-war English fathers – who had invariably lost their faith – to report on such negotiations of parents’ and grandparents’ religious beliefs, to which a national label was nearly always attached: typically Scottish Presbyterianism, Irish Catholicism, or Northern Irish Protestantism. Though these transmissions of values and moral bases for parenting were variously assimilated, tolerated or wholly rejected, they remained for many children a primary source of association with ancestors’ national identities.

Such connections provided important resources for these men when reflecting on their own social and familial identities. Whether negotiating deeply entrenched Christian practices and values, feeling dislocated at far away schools, or fondly remembering holidays with relatives, whose strange but familiar cultures informed their own sense of self; each experience reflects a peculiarly British family story. Strikingly, however, stories of Britishness, or Englishness, are conspicuous only by their absence – a noteworthy silence in a study concerned chiefly with the period immediately after the Second World War. Such dynamics are brought into focus when viewed through the lens of ‘Four Nations History’, which has proved productive in critically reflecting on the predominantly English subjects of my study.


[i] Edward and Arthur Winn interviews (1986), Paul Thompson (UK Data Archive, University of Essex, accessed 2016)

[ii] Peter Coverley interview (1986), Paul Thompson (UK Data Archive, University of Essex, accessed 2016)

Richard Hall is a third year PhD student at the University of Cambridge. His thesis is titled A Social and Emotional History of Fathers and Sons in Britain, 1945-1970. His publications include Being a Man, Being a Member: Masculinity and Community in Britain’s Working Men’s Clubs, 1945-1960, published in Cultural and Social History (October 2016). He has also taught subjects including oral history, gender and masculinity, and history and memory. You can find him on twitter @rrichhistorian.

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