The Thread of Identity

  by Ronald Ram
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The memorial to Francis Ram who was the steward of Sir Anthony Cooke, lord of the manor of Chadwell, in St Andrew's, Hornchurch.

The Thread of Identity was published in July 2010. It explores the way in which decision making and influence operated in Essex villages during the last 600 years. As the coalition government sets out to restore power to local communities, it is interesting to see how local power actually operated in the past. The vehicle is the history of the Ram family who belonged to "the middling sort" and helped to manage local affairs in villages across Essex by filling the various local offices such as church warden and overseer of the poor.

One or another member of the family lived in various villages, stretching from Havering to Boxted, but they were particularly to be found in the villages around Chelmsford and Colchester. Like many Essex families, they were eventually drawn to London as the great agricultural depression of the late 19th century took hold and population increased faster than rural employment opportunities.

Inevitably, there is a great deal in the book about these social, religious and technical issues our ancestors had to confront. How did Essex people cope with the reformation? the poor law? the growth in rural population and migration to the cities? the changing relationship between tenant and landlord? The bad news for the government is that from the evidence of these people, the author concludes that the government cannot create a "community" simply by passing new laws. Actual communities in the past were founded on mutual respect and a willingness to compromise when dealing with the problems they faced.

The front cover which shows the memorial to Francis Ram, has a connection to the Thurrock area. He was the steward to Sir Anthony Cooke of Gidea Hall, and Francis Ram managed his employer's estates in Chadwell and elsewhere. Ram would have travelled regularly to Chadwell in the course of his duties. His life, family and social environment are described in a 27 page chapter that is devoted to him. The book has another local connection in the description of the Bawtree family, who were partners with the Mills and Errington families in a Colchester bank. The murder of George Errington is briefly mentioned in a footnote, but there is a more detailed account in Panorama 43.

The Thread of Identity is divided into five parts ranging from a history of the Ram family through to the significance of the author's findings in the 21st century. It has well over 400 pages, 19 genealogical charts, 20 tables and 11 figures - these are mainly maps and copies of documents, but there is a distinct shortage of illustrations of the people and places. There is however, an extensive bibliography of documentary sources, theses, journal articles and books.

The book can be read from cover to cover, but the various themes in the book are well sign-posted in the table of contents (shown on the right hand side of this page). Some readers will simply wish to use the index to focus on the people, places or subjects that interest them. The book has two indexes - one for people and one for subjects. It would be easier for readers who wish to dip in and out if the places mentioned in the text were more fully indexed than they are.

It is by no means a "coffee table" local history book, but it will appeal to those interested in some of the most important themes in local or family history. It is also sets out to address issues relevant to politicians and policy makers who are attempting to move power from Westminster back to the local community.

The final third of the book brings the themes together and draws conclusions that the author believes are relevant to life in the 21st century. The issues discussed include the way in which the local community is influenced general forces such as economics and politics. To what extent did our ancestors have any real freedom of choice in deciding how to act, where to live or how to earn their living? When they were able to make choices about their life style, how were these choices influenced by their beliefs and social values? And what role did wealth and status play in making these choices?

The author, Ronald Ram, has a PhD in social sciences from Birmingham University. He has been interested in local and family history for some years and is a member of a group of local history researchers that meets regularly at Chelmsford. He has previously published local history articles in national and local journals.

The Thread of Identity is published in paperback by Amberley Publishing and the cover price is 18.99, although it can be purchased at a discounted price from the publisher or

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