An Evening of Family History with Sir Tony Robinson

Don't ask whether I have a cunning plan...

The curse of Baldrick clearly still dogs Tony Robinson!  "Don't ask me whether I have a cunning plan" was his only precondition to the Q&A session at the end of an evening of family history hosted by Manchester City Council at the Midland Hotel on Friday evening 8 November.

The evening was opened by Neil MacInnes, the Council's Head of Libraries, Information and Archives.  Neil explained the Archives+ partnership and gave a few tantalising insights into what to expect when the fully refurbished Central Library opens its doors to family historians next spring.  Books and documents are now returning to the archives from over thirty storage locations and (did I really hear this right?) already 14 miles of shelving have been filled.

Russell James, a family historian working for ancestry.co.uk, gave a short overview of Ancestry's partnerships with national and local archives, which has led to their present UK database of 1 billion records.  Some 900 people work full time on transcribing and indexing sources and a further 50 million further records are to be added in the coming year.  Russell stressed the importance of local archives in finding such valuable material as school and employment records.  He also highlighted the work Ancestry had done with Manchester's archives in digitising parish registers.

The big event of the evening though was a talk by (Sir) Tony Robinson. Tony told us a little of his personal history (an academic low-achiever who had found his home in theatre, first as a child actor in Oliver! and then 20 years in 'rep'  when one day he was offered a part in Rowan Atkinson's new comedy series...) Tony's interest in history goes back to enjoying his father's stories but was really fired by his involvement in the long-running Time Team archaeological series.

Aside from relating several theatrical anecdotes (not least how the near farce of the shooting of final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth was turned into one of the most poignant moments in television comedy), Tony's main theme was the value of history and our understanding of our family history which he summarised into: 'Only if we know where we come from, can we live our lives to the full'.

Tony was also at pains to dispel the fear that making archival material available on the internet represented a 'dumbing down' of history. He suggested that those in control of the written record had ever jealously guarded it and resisted dissemination creating a 'terror of innovation around the written word'. He particularly criticised the secrecy which surrounds some materials, especially the 100 year closure rule which applies to census returns.

The evening finished with a short Q&A session after which hopefully Tony made it back to Piccadilly Station in time for the 9.30 train through the teeming crowds who had just left the rival attraction of the switching on of Manchester's Christmas lights.

John Marsden
Manchester & Lancashire Family History Society