My grandfather’s younger brother was called Tom Adlam. As far as we know, he is by some distance the most famous Adlam, having been awarded the Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest military honour) in the First World War. His citation reads as follows.
“On 27 September 1916 at Thiepval, France, a portion of a village which had defied capture had to be taken at all costs and Second Lieutenant Adlam rushed from shell-hole to shell-hole under very heavy fire collecting men for a sudden rush. At this stage he was wounded in the leg but in spite of his wound he led the rush, captured the position and killed the occupants. Throughout the day he continued to lead his men and on the following day, although wounded again he still led and encouraged them. His magnificent example and behaviour produced far-reaching results.”
In later life, he was content to be headmaster of a small school in Hampshire and led a modest, quiet life until his death in 1975. Despite the fact that we lived less than 20 miles away, we seldom visited. Indeed, I can only remember meeting Uncle Tom on one occasion when I was 10.
A few years ago, my own father was contacted by another Adlam who was trying hard to assemble a genealogy of the Adlam family. My father was amused by this approach, in particular by his correspondent’s statement that the Adlams appeared to have “emerged from a hole in the ground somewhere near Salisbury about 150 years ago.” He was, I think, quite helpful but appeared to have little interest in family history. For two principal reasons, however, I have recently developed much more interest in the subject.
First, earlier this year I was contacted by Sheneika Adlam, a young Jamaican lady, through Facebook. I had previously known of Adlams in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia and Canada, but I was unaware of Adlams in Jamaica. Second, I have just finished reading "Bury the Chains" by Adam Hochschild. This brilliant book tells the story of the campaign in Britain to abolish slavery. Much of the book describes slavery in the Caribbean, including Jamaica. Among many interesting themes, Hochschild examines the sexual abuse suffered by slave women at the hands of white overseers. He quotes extensively from the journal of one Thomas Thistlewood, whose catalogue of callous abuse is recorded in hideously banal detail. Hochschild speculates that Thistelwood's mission appears to have been aimed at lightening the colour of the entire plantation, such was the quantum of his sexual appetite.
The sad fact is that many slaves - in particular their children - were given (or took) their owner's name. Does the fact that there are Adlams in Jamaica today mean that there were Adlams who were - in one way or another - involved in slavery in the Caribbean? Do the horrors of this worst of trades form part of my own family history? It wouldn't really be surprising: I daresay most people in Britain have some distant family connection with the slave trade, but we all prefer to think of the Uncle Toms rather than the Thomas Thistlewoods of the past.
They may have little interest until they reach the tipping point in their lives when the past becomes more interesting than the future, but, for the sake of my sons and daughter, I want to find out more.