Genealogy is no longer the preserve of a small group of professionals. It has become a popular leisure activity for anyone interested in exploring their family histories and the increasing availability of records online, ranging from census data to shipping manifests, newspapers, wills and organisational records, has enabled many enthusiasts to confirm or refute the stories about their past handed down to them through the generations. It has also uncovered many individual histories that would have otherwise remain hidden as family historians extend their lens to branches of the family that have emerged from their research. Occupations, marriages, offspring, mobility and so on are all identified and logged to build a picture of this ancestor and to provide the skeleton of a biography but, of course, this can never fully convey the living of a life in a social world.
Part of that social world was, and will probably always be, leisure activities, such as travel, art, music, drinking, gambling, and sport. In the course of their research many family historians find snippets of evidence that hint at how their ancestor spent their time (maybe through convictions for drunkenness in the court records or newspaper accounts of horticultural shows, for example) and, not surprisingly, often uncover accounts of their involvement in sport. Sometimes this was as a peripheral activity, playing maybe for a local team once a week for a couple of years, but, in other cases, where individuals made careers out of sport as players, coaches, and entrepreneurs, their involvement was part of who they were. Having had their interest piqued by the fragmentary evidence, many family historians want to extend their study of these sporting lives but are not sure where to go or what to look at and it is here that the expertise and experience of the Playing Pasts team, editor Margaret Roberts in particular, can help.
The case studies presented here in articles on Bertha Crowther Lizzie Beckwith, and Walter Brickett are classic examples of how Playing Pasts researchers and family members joining together can enable sporting biographies to emerge from the historical record. Working with descendants of Bertha, Margaret has been able to help them understand Bertha’s importance in the athletic world at a time when women were only just achieving a degree of recognition for their efforts. Co-operating with Beckwith family members has enabled Margaret to uncover much about the career of Lizzie Beckwith, a previously unrecorded member of the renowned Beckwith swimming family, while the collaboration between descendants of swimming coach Walter Brickett, Margaret and Prof Dave Day has highlighted his importance as a professional coach in a world dominated by the amateur sportsman. Not only has this work enabled the compilation of comprehensive biographies of these individuals, but it has also added to the body of knowledge surrounding women’s athletics, women’s swimming, and sports coaching, making the collaboration a win-win for all concerned.
Margaret and Dave are keen to extend this work and would like to hear from any family researcher who wants to extend their understanding of an ancestor’s sporting life. They can give advice on where to go for further material, help explore difficult to access archives, put the life into the sporting context of their time and assist in developing biographical texts. For the Playing Pasts research team, the significance of this free to access service is that it will inevitably uncover the hidden histories of some of the many individuals who have been the life blood of sport in Britain and whose stories are just as important as those of the national administrators and prominent participants that dominate the current narrative.