The best books on social and family history

Who am I?

I became interested in social and family history when my Turkish friend, Ahmet Ceylan, told me amazing stories about his family. An academic by training, I used my expertise in the history of Turkey to explore the archives and uncover extraordinary details about the lives of the Robinsons. My field research took me to the wolds of Lincolnshire, the side streets of Istanbul, and the foothills of the Himalayas. I am keen to learn more about my own family, and for my next book, I am exploring the lives of people who owned/occupied the land/property where I live in Oxford, UK.

I wrote...

Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons

By Gareth M. Winrow,

Book cover of Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons

What is my book about?

This book focuses on the amazing life of the surprisingly little-known Hannah Rodda/Robinson. Raised in the slums of London’s East End in the 1850s and a housemaid of one of Queen Victoria’s doctors, the self-made Hannah later marries a former Lincolnshire farmer who owns tea estates in the Darjeeling district. After his death, Hannah becomes one of the first women in Victorian England to convert to Islam, marries a supposed Afghan warlord, and relocates to Constantinople. The marriage is a disaster but, astonishingly, the Sultan himself comes to Hannah’s rescue. One of Hannah’s sons, Ahmet Robenson, becomes a sporting legend in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, playing as goalkeeper for the Galatasaray soccer team and introducing basketball and the Scouting movement.

The books I picked & why

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Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul

By Charles King,

Book cover of Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul

Why this book?

I was fascinated by this book and its colourful stories about the lives of individuals who played a role in the formation of today’s Istanbul. The backdrop is the famous Pera Palace in the centre of Istanbul, the much-loved hotel of the crime writer, Agatha Christie. Much of the book concentrates on the inter-war period. Superbly written, you can almost see and hear the sights and sounds of the alleyways, nightclubs, shops, and restaurants of a now almost forgotten Istanbul.

Common People: The History of an English Family

By Alison Light,

Book cover of Common People: The History of an English Family

Why this book?

This book is more than just a history of the author’s family. It is full of reflections on life and on family and history in general. At times reading like a detective story, this book inspired me to write about family history. The author delves deep into her working-class origins and explores the lives of characters whose stories – much like the Robinsons in my own work - would have been lost if it had not been for the publication of this book.

Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam

By Ron Geaves,

Book cover of Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam

Why this book?

I found this to be an engrossing and detailed account of the life of the founder of arguably the first mosque in Victorian England in Liverpool. The author closely examines the adventures of the controversial and charismatic Quilliam and his family. Given his relationship with Hannah Rodda/Robinson, which is actually scarcely mentioned by Geaves, Quilliam is a key character in my book on the lives of the Robinsons. The lawyer and self-styled sheikh cultivated close ties with the Ottoman Sultan and was regarded with great suspicion by the British authorities.

The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found

By Bart Van Es,

Book cover of The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found

Why this book?

Written in a simple yet highly effective style, and emotionally very moving, the author goes on a personal journey to follow the story of a Jewish girl, Lien, whom his grandparents sheltered in the Netherlands in the Second World War. The harsh reality of life in Nazi-occupied territory is skillfully brought to the fore, but the book is more than just another account of Nazi atrocities. Just as the author himself is affected, the reader, myself included, cannot fail to be impacted by the story of Lien.

The Black Russian

By Vladimir Alexandrov,

Book cover of The Black Russian

Why this book?

This book brings to life the story of the little-known Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to ex-slaves who had become successful farmers in Mississippi. I was amazed at how the entrepreneurial Frederick found employment in various cities across Europe before becoming a successful nightclub owner in Moscow and then in Istanbul after the Bolshevik Revolution. Well-researched and documented, the book critiques American racism and, in my opinion, offers a new and refreshing insight into the politics and society of Russia and Turkey.

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