Saturday, 3 October 2009

A History of Private Life

This week whilst browsing through radio programmes on BBC iPlayer, looking for something to help me get to sleep, I came across a wonderful new series entitled ‘The History of Private Life’.

The series, which is broadcast on BBC Radio 4, consists of thirty 15-minute programmes presented by historian Amanda Vickery and, according to the press release, includes:

‘Men behaving badly, adultery on the sofa, servants running amok, witches, poltergeists, burglars, bashful bachelors, glamorous widows, wedding nights, rows in bed, bedbugs, pots and pans, the imperial bungalow and suburban love – all in their own words.’

As family historians it is perhaps with private life, the domestic, that we are most concerned. We want to know who our ancestors married, how many children they had and where they lived. This series explores how they lived and is based on research in archives across the UK.

Some of the most revealing material comes from private letters and diaries and so naturally is concerned with the middle and upper echelons of society rather than the illiterate masses, but there are also sources used that will be familiar to many genealogists including The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

I think the strongest programme so far has been the opening episode entitled ‘The Bed’. A particular highlight was an extract from Samuel Pepys’ diary showing that married life has changed little in 350 years:

‘At night to bed, and my wife and I did fall out about the dog’s being put down into the cellar, which I had a mind to have done because of his fouling the house, and I would have my will, and so we went to bed and lay all night in a quarrel.’

The series also includes songs from the 18th and 19th centuries that have never previously been recorded.

The first five episodes are currently available on BBC iPlayer and there is also an omnibus edition and a discussion inspired by the programme. Further information, including details of the research behind the series, is given on the BBC website at