Following an exchange of emails yesterday, I've arranged to meet up with my fourth cousin who lives in Calgary. "Fourth cousin" immediately identifies me as a family historian, because who else would know?
Our original contact with each other in 2006 contained two pleasing coincidental symmetries: that she got in touch with me in England, as part of her own family history research, just as I was about to emigrate to Alberta, and secondly that my cousin's ancestor (who was my great-grandfather's first cousin) had emigrated to Alberta almost exactly one hundred years before I did.
I heard David Willetts on the radio recently, talking about the family. He thought it was true and important that the nuclear family (2 parents and children) had been the family unit for the British since time immemorial. He suggested that evidence for that lay in the lack of words we have for wider family beyond first cousin. However, we do have the word cousin. In Thinking Allowed on Sunday, Laurie Taylor hosted a discussion about the importance of cousin relationships, and cousin marriages in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain. The historians disagreed on the causes and how widespread the phenomenon was, but agreed that cousins and even sibling relationships were more important than today.
There are no cousin marriages in my (mostly artisanal) family tree, but going through the nineteenth century census records, what I found was a complicated web of mutual support which encompassed not just extended families, but also friendships and communities, At the end of the nineteenth century, my family were part of a supportive network which stretched from Wiltshire and Dorset, via London, to Norfolk, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. It involved a childless woman fostering two of her friend's large brood; a father bringing up three stepsons and one of his nieces as well as his own children; weaving families from Coventry giving each other support and intermarrying two generations after they'd moved to Nottingham; a widow being given accommodation by her husband's great-nephew; and everywhere elderly parents moving in with, or close to, their adult children.
So, where David Willetts sees the nuclear family, I see community, which I suppose is why he is a Conservative, and I never will be.