Finding the Family Heirlooms – Recognising What We Have

Family Bible - one type of family heirloom
Family Bible – one type of family heirloom. First entry is in 1848.

A family heirloom is a wonderful thing for a family.  It provides a sense of long-term establishment, being a link to previous connected generations.  Often it becomes an object of value, an antique in its own right. Every family historian dreams of locating an heirloom because of all it tells us about our ancestors and their generation.

Very few heirlooms have survived the 20th Century in my family.  In fact, the hardest time has been the second half of the 20th century.  We truly did become a throwaway society and this is still the case.

I can easily see how families end up with no relics from their past.  For a start, there are the more devastating events such as natural disasters and war.  A few of our family relics went up in bushfires.  Some families have to flee their home and leave everything behind.  It happens and is entirely beyond their control.

Then there are severed families.  Orphans and step-children rarely have any clues about the non-present parent.  We have a lot of this in my family too.  In one line, I have Annie McLeod an orphan who emigrated to Australia, Herbert Dunstall her son who became an orphan at age fourteen, Kenneth Dunstall his son who lost his father at age seven, and his daughter my mother who was raised in a foster home without knowledge of her paternal family.  How could any trace of Annie McLeod have come down to us?  It didn’t, except luckily in the DNA which has enabled me to piece together her life.

My family’s history is full of such events.  Transported convicts, early deaths, alcoholism, cancer, post-partum haemorrhage and war trauma, all resulting in the temporary or sometimes permanent fracturing of the family unit.  I expect this holds true for every family.  The closer, stronger family units manage to overcome the obstacle and carry on united.  The less supported family caves under the pressure.

Chest used by Thomas and Elizabeth Maitland to bring their belongings from England to Australia in 1908. It was probably an old item then belonging to the parent of one of them.
Chest used by Thomas and Elizabeth Maitland to bring their belongings from England to Australia in 1906. It was an old item then belonging to the parent of one of them.

The other event which poses danger to a family heirloom is the long, slow onslaught of poverty and illness.  This is where most of our family items have been lost.  We have houses in our family where an elderly member lived alone and often unvisited for a long period.  In later years their health was failing and along with it their ability to perform maintenance and housework tasks.  Eventually, they were removed into a nursing home or hospital and their house was either closed up or rented out.  Each has proven disastrous for the relics.

In my last post I mentioned the house which is falling into ruin.  It’s not the only one, even in my family.  There is a lot of space in country Australia and house values only began increasing in the last couple of decades.  It has long been a common practice for an elderly couple to reside in their original house and for an adult child to build a new house on the property.  In time, the old house is abandoned, sometimes full of furniture which will be got to ‘one day’.  Often, no one notices the slow decay because they are with it all the time.  It takes an infrequent visitor to spot the changes.  After a while, the items are considered beyond salvaging.

We have also had a situation where a house full of important family items was rented furnished to a group of young persons who in a wild party destroyed everything.  My family is awfully trusting.  Trusting others worked for them in the past, but lately it has had disastrous results.

What chance does an heirloom have if it is buried deep in a roomful of junk which is about to be cleaned out by someone with no interest in family history or in history of any kind?  Someone only distantly connected to a family, perhaps, who may even be a little resentful that the job has fallen to them.  Or even worse, someone who has longed for years to show this branch of the family how they should be living?

The reason so many families lose their heirlooms
The reason so many families lose their heirlooms

This post is something of a call to arms.  Everyone cares about family heirlooms and everyone loves the medals in a box, the family bible kept in a special desk, the beautifully polished dining table which belonged to Grandma and Great Grandma before that.  They are a symbol of unity and belonging and longevity. But what happens to an heirloom after fifty years of isolation and family illness?  How do you recognise it amongst surrounding clutter?  Only a family historian can do this.

Crista Cowan, who has a series of Youtube videos for Ancestry.com under the title ‘The Barefoot Genealogist’, suggested that there is a family historian in every family.  It’s a lovely idea.  Some families may have two or three.  It’s definitely fun to collect family stories, confirm them via primary sources, and identify all our distant cousins. But to my mind, there is some responsibility along with the fun.  If the stories have been forgotten, how will we recognise the artifacts which belong to those stories?  If we have uncovered a detail from the past, and we have located an item which belongs to that event, surely it is down to us to ensure that item is recognised for what it is?

The picture above is from one of our family’s unoccupied and decaying houses.  I hesitated before posting it because it feels somehow dishonest to the family members who lived here, even though they are now deceased and the worst of the clutter has come after that, in using the house as a storage area.  But really, my hesitation is a good example of part of the issue.  Clearing out a deceased person’s house should be a family affair, but who wants to call in the family to show everyone that their revered progenitor was living like this?  Better, we think, to quietly clean it out, remove the evidence of dysfunction.

I’d like to make clear that this is NORMAL.  Horribly, sadly so, but absolutely normal.  I used to work in aged care.  I used to do home visits and make recommendations that elderly persons be reassessed for possible higher level care.  We bury the evidence thinking the decay is unnaturally bad, but we are burying our heritage with it.

Our heritage is very important, but often we only realise this once we have lost it.
Our heritage is very important, but often we only realise this once we have lost it.  Photographs covered by cobwebs on a mantle piece in an empty house.

One of the empty family houses which I have recently checked is in a small town some 400km from the nearest family member.  A local resident runs his sheep in the grounds to keep the grass down (and the garden beds too). He tells me he has sheep at three other houses in the same small town, all of them full of stuff, unoccupied and now falling down.  “There’s a piano in one of them.” he told me, “and an antique desk, but the roof is starting to leak over that”.

In that picture of the room above are several objects which I did not even notice while I was there but which I actually know a lot about. I took a high resolution photograph which I have studied since returning home.  The chairs to the left of the bed, for instance.  One was part of the dining set and was taken out of the dining room in the 1980’s when they finally decided to make it a loungeroom, pushing the dining table into the far corner.  The rest of that set is probably under the collapsed roof.  That chair was then placed in my grandparents’ bedroom, and came into this room after their death.  Under the window, with a cardboard carton on it, is a leather suitcase which the family used on their annual jaunt to Sydney to visit relatives, it first came to Mannus in the 1930’s.   I could go on and on.

Boer War medals
Boer War medals pinned to an old suit top in a crowded cupboard.  When the present owner dies, will anyone but me know they are there?

For any of us, the instant reaction on entering a room like this will be a sinking feeling, perhaps a feeling of futility.  I’d like to reassure everyone who is suddenly faced with cleaning out such a house.  It’s the same for many of us.  Your cluttered house is no worse than the others.   There’s a very good chance those valuable relics are still there, safely nestled in the mess.  It really is worth sifting through and you will never have another chance.  Also, if you think something might be significant but you are not sure, don’t just throw it away. Ask the rest of the family first, you never know who might know its story.

You’ll never regret saving your heirlooms.

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One thought on “Finding the Family Heirlooms – Recognising What We Have

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderfully written article. I’ve received a few things and have some background story on them that I’ve been considering documenting but haven’t taken the time to do it and the suggestion of taking a photo with new generations moved me. I absolutely HAVE to get some pics of this old violin hopefully with my uncle who inherited it and then gave it to me before he’s gone, then maybe one with my own sons and the violin as well. I agree it will make a big difference in the long run. Thanks again.

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