April is the Cruellest Month

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland (1922)

T S Eliot The Wasteland

April certainly feels like the cruellest month this year. It can be hard to appreciate the days lengthening, and nature re-asserting itself after the long winter, when we are unable to take advantage of the season in our customary manner. Yet, at a time when, out of necessity, our movement has become very much restricted, any green spaces we can still access will become even more precious to us in the following weeks.

For the above reason, I would like to focus this month on the way that various gardens – both private and public – have shaped the lives of my London ancestors. From the story of the creation of two very different municipal parks (see A Tale of Two Parks) to my grandmother’s Edwardian childhood (see Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman), and the presence of Crystal Palace in many of my south London ancestor’s lives (the poor and the wealthy), gardens have always been entwined with my family story to some degree.

kristallpalast_sydenham_1851_aussenCrystal Palace and grounds, Sydenham, c1854

This probably comes as no surprise, however, as the desire to have a small piece of land to call one’s own seems to be imbedded in the British psyche, whether one is much of a gardener or not. Notions of privacy and control over personal space play a pivotal role as do ideas of resurrecting some part of a lost arcadia. This desire seems to cut across all the social classes, as can be seen by the notebooks collated by Charles Booth’s researchers when constructing Booth’s famous poverty maps. These jottings indicate that even in some of the most impoverished of neighbourhoods the residents still attempted to brighten up their streets with flowers in window boxes.

When describing a road in Kennington near to where my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton,  was raised, Booth’s social research assistant, George Herbert Duckworth, mentions that Flower boxes and windows are brightest in the poorer coster streets. He compares this with another street, slightly higher up the social scale, where there was not a flower at any window, deducing that It almost seems as though it were thought respectable not to have flowers. This is an interesting observation, which might possibly be attributed to the fact that in these residences there was more space for indoor plants, or that plants were grown at the rear of the house, out of sight. Perhaps flower boxes placed at the front of the house could have given those who were unsure about their social status the sense that they were advertising the absence of no other growing space.

Duckworth appeared to be particularly interested in all things horticultural as he often added descriptions of the plants and gardens he encountered on his research trips accompanied by the local policeman, thus giving us a vivid snapshot of late Victorian London. For example, in the description of another Kennington street he notes: China pots with overgrown ferns in front window. This allows the street to come alive for the modern reader in a way that surpasses descriptions of two-shilling weekly rents and numbers of factory labourers.

By the time Booth’s poverty maps were being created, the local green space, Kennington Park, previously Kennington Common and once the site of political gatherings and demonstrations, had been a formal, gated park for four decades. In 1858, after a false start, elaborate flower beds had been laid out in symmetrical patterns, a style which was once at the cutting-edge of mid-Victorian garden design and would soon be adopted elsewhere. For the local residents it was a unique chance to see large areas of flowering plants, and the Gardener’s Chronicle of the time mentioned a bordering of flowers as bright as the smoke and vapour from an adjoining vitriol factory (in photograph below) will let them be.

chartists

Kennington Park circa 1908Kennington Common, Chartist Rally, 1848* vs, Kennnington Park, c1908

*Copyright, The Royal Collection

In her book How to be a Victorian, the writer and historian Ruth Goodman points out that not all plants could survive in the polluted London air, where chemicals mixed with precipitation to create an acid rain which poisoned the soil. As the time of Booth’s investigations coincided with the peak of the London smogs, the window boxes thus represent an act of faith by the families who had established them. Perhaps that is why they were more predominant in certain streets and neighbourhoods. Those who had little say in their economic conditions and cramped environments might have sought to exercise some sort of control over nature, which also gave them a sense of hope.

Goodman describes the growth of urban gardening in the mid-18th century as such: The 1830s to 1850s were the heyday of florist’s societies. Groups of mainly urban men, whose working lives were spent in small, home-based workshops as weavers or frame knitters, carpenters or nail makes, flowers became their passion. They raided new varieties, selected the strongest seeds and perfected their chosen flowers over years of patient, careful propagation and superb horticultural skill. The plants they grew were cultivated on tiny patches of ground around their homes and workshops, and in pots and containers which stood in yards and on windowsills.

Whenever I look at informal photographs of my ancestors, I find myself trying to glean the lost details of their day-to-day routines. The images act as a portal into the past, which although can be a limitation in terms of freezing one moment rather than other (see Those Ghostly Traces), does offer up some clues as to their daily lives. For that reason, I treasure the photographs of my grandmother’s family at 95 Denmark Road, Brixton, possibly taken by her older brother. Not only was this house my grandmother’s home for over three decades, but it was the place where she lost both her parents, met my grandfather, and gave birth to her three children, before the building succumbed to WW2 bombing raids.

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)Edith Stops at 95, Denmark Road, c1910

In the picture above, it is the building itself and the small strip of garden in front of the house which intrigue me almost as much as the image of my young grandmother. I described my reaction to receiving this photograph (amongst others) from the grand-daughter of my grandmother’s brother in one of my earliest posts (see I Remember, I Remember) as such: For days afterwards I scrutinised every detail of the photographs, hoping that repeated viewings would reveal more. I became particularly obsessed with the image of the house at 95 Denmark Road. The squinty old building fascinated me almost as much as the sight of my grandmother standing at the gate.

My gaze was drawn to the blinds and the net curtains at the windows; the  plant on the window sill of the front room; a flower bed of what look like tulips in a tiny sad strip of garden; iron railings which were yet to be removed for a future war; a boot scraper in front of the rather forbidding-looking front door. I longed to see through the sash window on the ground floor to the room that lay behind the fussy nets. I imagined it to be dark and over-stuffed with furniture, shabby too. Perhaps a room they only used ‘for best’. And what is that shadowy object lurking just out of sight between the curtains? An aspidistra? A mahogany plant stand? Or Harriet sitting on the good chair, reading the newspaper?

In other photographs, we can see the back yard of their terraced mid-19th century house – basically a functional outdoor space, with space for some flower and vegetable beds. As no-one thought to photograph the back garden from the other side i.e. facing the back of the house, it is only these partial glimpses that we are afforded. However, I should imagine that by the time my grandfather became the head of the house, the garden would have become his undisputed territory, although with a henhouse to contend with as well as young children, this was most likely a purely practical project.

In fact, my aunt recalled that in the 1930s she and my father would dare each other to climb over the wall that separated their property from the neighbour’s and run around their immaculate garden under cover of darkness. Part of the excitement was the illicitness of the activity – but there was also the lure of entering a forbidden garden of sorts. One which was given over wholly to beauty and pleasure. Of all the anecdotes my aunt has furnished me with, this one stands out in my mind as it seems to encapsulate the world of childhood in one secretive and daring act.

Stops Family in Back Garden of 95 Denmark RoadThe Stops Family in the back garden of 95, Denmark Rd, c1923

In later years, my grandfather would spend a great deal of time gardening, both at the family’s new post-war accommodation and in the gardens of his three children as they settled down and raised families of their own. In fact ,our very own suburban garden in Scotland owes a debt to my London grandfather, not just in the way it was laid out, but in the gardening advice he gave to my father over the years. As a child I remember seeing retired first world war veterans working in their gardens and allotments, some who had been gardening for years, building up a wealth of experience along the way. Many would have initially wanted to provide for their families (a strong instinct in my grandfather), as well as feel some sort of control over their own environment.

Garden At Bishop's GroveMy parents in my grandparents’ back garden in Hampton, April, 1963

Grandad Skelton in the back gardenGrandad Skelton in our back garden, Alloway, c1967

Although my own father was not yet seventeen when the war ended, and thus not involved in the conflict, he did his required period of national service and then stayed in the forces, spending many years overseas in the RAF. For the rest of his life he always said that having his own home and garden was something he would never take for granted. Simple things such as not sharing a bathroom or having his own bedroom seemed like a luxury after years of living in shared digs. And of course this would have been compounded by the fact that during the war the family left their home for a cramped and draughty farm cottage in East Coker (see East Coker), even though it was through his experiences of beng evacuated to Somerset that my father grew to love the British countryside.

As a child I always used to laugh at the fact that in the summer evenings he would go out and walk around the garden, smoking the stub of a cigar (often on a toothpick) telling us he was just off to survey the estate, the dog padding at his heels. At the time I never really understood what all that surveying entailed, but of course all he probably wanted were some moments on his own to contemplate life quietly in the garden, taking pleasure from the things he had planted and nurtured there, and perhaps planning future changes to the beds and borders.

Although the garden was relatively small (but much bigger than the yard in Denmark Road), we made use of the space to grow our own fruit and vegetables in a sort of kitchen garden which was separated from the recreational part by a trellis fence over which climbing roses were trained. Like most children I enjoyed cramming my face with illicit fruit and ate things that felt instinctively good, but at the time I had no idea if they would help or harm me. I chewed on whole peapods before the peas were properly ripe as I loved the juicy taste of the pods. (I did not know about mange tout at this stage in my life!). I ingested handfuls of elderberries (which my father used to make a particularly awful wine) before thinking I was going to die and then lying down on my bed awaiting my grisly end, too scared to tell my parents I might have eaten poisonous berries. I sucked the juice out of crab apples and threw the sour flesh away – until the day I bit down on a wasp. And the blackcurrants that were earmarked for our favourite jam were scoffed in great quantities by myself and friends, out of sight behind the trellis.

One of the wonders of going to London to visit our family was to see the amazing things they could grow in their gardens on account of the warmer, drier weather. Their vegetable gardens felt like jungles compared to ours; although to be fair, the fact that our back garden was often in partial shade was a disadvantage. Yet we clung to the British tradition of hiding the kitchen garden away from prying eyes, meaning that our sunny front garden was mostly underused (despite the fact that it was set back from the road in a dip), apart from the times when my mother sat sewing in the porch on warm spring  afternoons.

In the front garden of 33 Doonholm RoadIn the sunny front garden of our house in Alloway, c1968

Step at Doonholm RoadSteps down from the road to the front garden in the ‘dip’, Alloway, c1965

But for most of my ancestors such an expanse of front garden would have seemed like a luxury not to be wasted on decoration. Either they possessed the narrow strip gardens illustrated by the Denmark Road photograph, or their terraces were flush again the pavement. As backyards were mostly functional, then trips to local municipal parks, such as Kennington Park, would have been important fixtures of summer Sunday outings. When we visited our grandparents in West London (where they moved after the war), most of the excursions we did with them involved going to nearby parks and gardens, such as the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew or Bushy Park – always in Sunday best, of course!

At Kew with Grandma SkeltonAt Kew Gardens with Grandma Skelton, c1971

At present, when we cannot access many of the local parks and gardens that we love, we could do worse than to take inspiration from those Victorian gardeners who planted up pots and other containers to brighten up their surroundings. Even if the nurseries and garden centres have closed their doors, as long as we have access to some sort of growing media, we can propagate plants through a wide variety of methods and share seeds, cuttings, bulbs etc. with friends and neighbours, just as many of our ancestors would have once done through financial necessity. A window box or an indoor windowsill can still offer up the pleasure of nurturing life, and watching it grow, giving us hope and strength for the upcoming weeks.

Happy Easter

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Easter!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2020

 

Some Thoughts on Childhood Memories

It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.

Sigmund Freud, Screen Memories (1899)

SCREEN MEMORIES: A Video Essay on SMULTRONSTÄLLET / WILD STRAWBERRIES from Catherine Grant on Vimeo.

The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud coined the term screen memories to describe childhood memories which have been distorted by later experiences, in particular around the time of adolescence. In his 1899 text of the same name, he gives the case history of a 38 year old professional man whose childhood memories fall into three categories. First, there are those which his parents or other relatives have described and which he no longer knows if genuine or not – something most of us can relate to. Then there are the ones he can remember because they involved an important event, such as an accident, and which have not been related in great detail by another person (possibly because no one else was present). Finally, there are those which have been fixed in his mind in almost cinematic clarity, but seem to have no bearing on actual experience and no focal point to them. It is this third group that Freud regards as screen memories – in other words, those reminiscences which are a cover or screen for important events of a later date that have been repressed. He points out that this is not to say that the screen memories are themselves completely false, only that in their vivid detail they represent a stronger, later memory.

Of course, this being Freud, the case study he describes focuses on how the patient’s childhood memory of picking yellow flowers for a young girl in the Alps was a symbol for a later longing for a teenage cousin. The first memory had become a screen for the second one (which was of a sexual nature). While the analysis makes for interesting reading, Freud himself later believed that it was not always possible to apply this concept to all childhood memories which appeared to belong to that category. In addition, it was later discovered that the patient in the case study was in actual fact a fabrication and the screen memory described was one Freud himself had experienced.

The idea of screen memories is certainly an interesting one, although difficult to prove or disprove. But like most people I certainly have memories of events that happened to me in childhood which others recall in different ways, or not at all. In my own case, however, I think that some of my earliest memories eventually became mixed up with films I’d seen or books I’d read. Thus, for several years I believed I’d lived in an industrial city at the turn of the 19th century as I appeared to have very clear images of soot-stained brick walls and dark canals, as well as playing in cobbled car-free streets in an apron-covered dress and tackety boots. Later, like many teenagers I went through a phase where I believed in re-incarnation, and thus assumed I might have once been a Victorian child. I scoured every book in our local public library on the subject, leaving me even more confused and sometimes more than a little scared. Eventually I came to the conclusion that all the 19th century-based children’s literature (both classic and contemporary) which I’d devoured had imprinted itself upon my memory in such a way that I believed I’d had the experiences myself.

These false memories were, I believe, not so much screen memories as ones which stemmed from the times when we went visit our two sets of grandparents in Edinburgh and London. In the sixties and seventies, inner city buildings were still blackened with soot from coal fires, and many remnants of the industrial revolution were still visibly present in most town and city scapes. Because I grew up in a modern suburban development built around a country village, I had little experience of urban environments. This meant that visits to grimy tenements in Edinburgh or trips down the river Thames to Greenwich, passing darkened factories and warehouses, were full of wonder for me, overlapping in my mind with the Victorian and Edwardian tales I’d so eagerly devoured as a child. Books such as Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) or Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) filled my head with strange images that threatened to spill into my dreams and colour my real life experiences. (The fact that they were also televised in the 70s may have also fed into my imagination).

THE WATER BABIES

N.B. Although The Water Babies was recommended by my own parents (who had read it themselves in childhood), it would seem as if some of the themes in the book which are related to race and identity would be rightfully viewed as rather contentious by today’s standards.

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When family historians are in the enviable position of being able to ask older relatives about their childhood memories, there is a tendency to want to soak up all the details with which their stories are furnished and to pass them on to future generations. But just sometimes it appears impossible to reconcile such reminiscences with the time, and the age of the child. My father, for example, remembers his maternal grandmother as being an old lady in black who sat on a chair in the corner of the room. Yet, he was two when she died and it seems strange to think that he could have recollections of his Somerset-born grandmother, Harriet Stops, the old widow who’d presided over the family home in Brixton for more than thirty years. Even my aunt wrote once to say: I don’t remember Harriet very well but I thought she died before Bob was born, in my mind I can’t see him around and he was a great, fat lump of a baby!

HARRIET STOPS

Harriet Stops in her 70s

Setting aside what this comment may unwittingly show about the relationship of my father and his older sister, I’d like to think that he actually did remember his dour-looking grandmother, as this very act of remembrance creates a connective chain of memories that link forward to myself. As Roland Barthes points out at the very start of Camera Lucida: One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it.

This was the same feeling I experienced when my aunt recognised my great-grandfather (who also died in 1930) from her parents’ wedding photograph in 1924. When she wrote to say that she knew it was her grandfather Arthur right away, then it suddenly hit me that my aunt had in fact known James’ Skelton’s second youngest son! This was an old man who possibly still had memories of his Yorkshire-born father: the one who was the first Skelton from the family to head to London and seek his fortune, thus creating the South London branch of the Wensleydale Skeltons. Although poverty meant that Arthur died relatively young (at age 70) and my aunt was only five at the time, his younger brother Sidney (after whom my grandfather was named) lived into his 80s, surviving until the 1940s. Thus there are still descendants out there who possibly would have been privy to tales of their grandfather’s childhood in Kennington with the elderly James and his much younger wife, Mary Ann Hawkins.

SKELTON WEDDING

Grandad Arthur (1859-1930) is on the far left of the wedding group

However, tracing down living relatives with whom you have not had a prior connection is not as easy as it sounds. I’d always imagined that most would be eager to meet up and share their knowledge, but despite my best efforts I have not had much luck in this area – unless the relative in question was already involved in researching the family history.

This has luckily happened in the case of some of Arthur junior’s grandchildren (my grandfather’s older brother) who have furnished me with photographs and memories of Arthur’s children (their parents), and were a real impetus to continuing my research after a twenty-year hiatus. I have also been fortunate to make contact with a descendant of William Hawkins Skelton, the illegitimate first son Mary Ann had shortly prior to meeting my great-great grandfather. William was brought up in the Skelton-Hawkins household with the other five children they couple had together between 1850 and 1862 (see Black Sheep and Blackfriars) and may not even have known that his father was not actually James Skelton as he took both his parents’ names.

ARTHUR AND JAMES FREDERICK SKELTON

William Hawkins Skelton’s sons: Arthur William and Frederick James c1890s

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But while the personal aspect to memory is what makes childhood recollections so fascinating, I believe it is also the very thing that makes them fallible. There are always cases where one family member swears that an event did not take place – or that the memory is not a true one. As the writer Hilary Mantel pointed out in an article about autobiography entitled ‘Father Figured’: Disagreement in accounts of family events is often due to ‘point of view’ – which, as every storyteller knows, is vital to what is reported. Because you recall things differently from your sibling, it doesn’t mean either of you are wrong. She went on to say: Freud with his passion for archaeloogy, influenced the way we think of memories, we imagine we have to dig for then. My instinct is that this is not true. In our brains, past and present co-exist; they occupy, as it were, adjoining rooms, but there are some rooms we never enter.

When discussing my aunt’s childhood with her on a visit to Somerset last summer (see Return to East Coker) I noticed that her current recollections of events did not always fit with previous ones from over a decade earlier. Thus I came to the conclusion that anything she repeated in which the same details overlapped must have been a strong and reliable memory – which certainly presents a case for showing patience when elderly relatives repeat the same stories again.

What I also realised on that visit to my aunt was that family photographs, although an excellent starting point for stimulating memories and putting names to faces, could occasionally actually be counter-productive. Relatives who looked similar (even across generations) were sometimes liable to be confused. And while the images were able to provoke strong reactions and awaken associated memories, they could at times constrict memory due to the focus on the single frozen moment when the photograph was taken. As Barthes points out near the end of Camera Lucida: The Photograph does not call up the past (nothing Proustian in a photograph). The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed. He further adds that: The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been. This distinction is decisive. In front of a photograph, our consciousness does not necessarily take the nostalgic path of memory . . .

But what of screen memories (if they do indeed exist) or the other types of unreliable recollection of which I mentioned earlier? Sometimes I have this terrible fear that by the end of my life I may be babbling all sorts of nonsense. Not out of madness (although that may be a possibility), but by confusing everything I’ve seen, read or experienced over hopefully a long lifetime. Once on a visit to my then 90 year-old Scottish great-aunt whose middle name I bear, my husband asked her about her wartime service with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (or WAAFS). Were you in the war, too? my aunt retorted brightly. My mother gently pointed out to her that my husband had not been born until years after the war ended, but yet to me it did not seem such a strange thing for her to ask. Not because she was losing her faculties in any way, but because I sensed that for her time had taken on an elastic quality more in keeping with actual memory than in the way the clocks worked (the past and present co-existing).

I myself find it strange that things I consider as relatively recent events are consigned to history as far as most of my students are concerned. Born at the turn of the century they regard anything in the old century to be very much in the past. This has enabled me to be aware of how previous generations might have also felt, in particular those born a hundred years before myself. They would have been middle-aged in the 1920s and may have had to put up with the ‘bright, young things’ bemoaning the Victorian values with which they grew up or their struggle with new technology.

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One thing I have become intrigued by during the last few years of my research is the tale of the mysterious ‘Rose’ (said to be my grandfather’s younger sister) as well as that of the foundling ‘Nell’ (said to be my grandfather’s niece). Hardly any records exist which can corroborate my aunt’s stories of these two women, who are both still just within living memory. My aunt once wrote to me about her father’s siblings and described his sister Rose so: Rose was the baby of the family and she suddenly started visiting us when Bob and I were very small, bringing us expensive presents. Bob had a tricycle once, I had a china-faced doll. Before we got too used to these presents, she died quite young, it was said from blood poisoning. She was scratched by a rusty nail in a packet of cigarettes – they said!

EILEEN AND BOB SKELTON

Eileen and Bob Skelton at the age when visited by Rose

However, my grandfather’s sister Rose (christened Rosina) was much older than my grandfather – who was actually the ‘baby of the family’ – and as I later found out (after wasting many weeks looking for her death in the 1930s) went on to live a long life, dying in north London in 1968, just around the corner from the flat in Whetstone which I rented in 1985, shortly after arriving in London (see A Rose in Holly Park). As Rose Ryall (née Skelton) had a large number of her own children over the years, it is very doubtful that she was the Rose to which my aunt alluded.

I first heard about Rose more than 30 years ago now, when my father (Bob) was still alive. Luckily that meant he was able to verify that someone like Rose had indeed existed, and described her as always very glamorous, wearing fur coats, perfume  and bright lipstick when she came to visit, bearing her expensive presents for them. However, the whole thing does sound slightly odd – especially the Agatha Christie-type ending with the ominous They said! But I’ve come to believe that Rose was possibly just a family friend or a relative from the other side of the family. Maybe even a step-sister of my grandfather. But why she would dote on these two children in particular does not seem to make sense.

As both my aunt and father remembered Rose (or the woman said to be her), then I am confident that such a person did exist. In addition, I have often been surprised at how much information my aunt did recall which I was initially sceptical about, but that turned out to be true. For example, my aunt first wrote to tell me of the two brothers my grandfather lost in the First World War, where he himself served in the cavalry (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier). However, the two young men – whom my aunt said were named Ginger and Peter – did not appear to exist in the records.

Later I realised that Ginger was actually a nickname for red-haired James Francis, the boy named after his paternal and maternal grandfathers respectively, who left behind a widow and baby when he died in 1917. Peter took a little longer to find and it was not until the publication of another census that I discovered him to be my grandfather’s step-brother. Surprisingly my aunt had no knowledge of the fact that her father had lost both his mother and baby brother in the summer of 1895, when he was just three. And neither was she aware that a few months later he was being brought up by a new stepmother and living alongside a collection of step-siblings, one of whom was Peter Pushman.

Nell is the other mysterious woman in my grandfather’s history. She was said to be a foundling who arrived one day on the doorstep of Arthur Skelton junior’s household in Elm Road, Thornton Heath (Arthur was my grandfather’s older brother). On her wedding in 1935 to a local boy, also living in Elm Road, called Alfred Cosstick, she gives her name as Nellie Major and her age as 21, yet the details about her father remain blank. My aunt can still remember Nell as the oldest girl in the household – which was shared with Arthur’s five children, including Peter Sidney below, alongside Ginger’s widow and daughter (see The Two Arthurs).

PETER SIDNEY SKELTON AND ALFRED COSSTICK

Nell’s future husband, Alfred Cosstick, with Peter Sidney Skelton* c1930

*Peter was most likely named after Arthur Skelton junior’s step-brother (Peter) and his youngest brother, my grandfather (Sidney), proving that the brothers were close, having been through the Great War together (although Peter did not survive).

Would such a busy household have added another one had there had not been some kind of familial connection? This reminds me of a family in our neighbourhood when I was growing up. One of the youngest of the six children was said to be adopted, but he looked so like the rest of the family that it seemed obvious that he was actually their half-brother! So my own theory about Nell is that someone in the family was responsible for her existence, and that was why Arthur Skelton junior felt obliged to take her in.

ARTHUR SKELTON JUNIOR 1930s

Arthur Skelton Junior c1930s

In her eloquent memoir Giving up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel describes the relationship between memory and family secrets thus: I know, too, that once a family has acquired a habit of secrecy, memories begin to distort, because its members confabulate to cover the gaps in the facts; you have to make some sort of sense of what’s going on around you, so you cobble together a narrative as best you can. You add to it, and reason about it, and the distortions breed distortions.

Whether the true stories of Nell and Rose have become distorted over the years – intentionally  or not – they remain the most enigmatic of female family figures for me. Perhaps because both their involvement with my own family ended abruptly. Rose with her strange death; Nell by quarrelling with my grandfather. When I visited my aunt last year, she finally remembered what the fall-out in the 1940s had been about. Apparently, my grandparents had stored some furniture from their bombed-out house in Norwood with Alf and Nell, who lived nearby. Later my grandfather discovered they had been using the furniture in their own household (a pragmatic-sounding decision, I thought) and this led to then cutting off contact for the rest of their lives. It seems a sad and petty story, and I’m sure there must be something more to it. But possibly emotions were heightened during the stresses and deprivations of the war, and fragile relationships were pushed to breaking point.

In every family there are at least one or two figures whose backgrounds are shrouded in mystery and whose tales remain untold. While records may not always offer up much in the way of enlightenment in these cases (although occasionally they can indeed help to solve such mysteries), childhood memories can in fact be a way to bring into focus those aspects that were deemed to be important at the time. These  are often things that transcend the logic of adults and the facts of the record keeper, and which can cut through the years in their simplicity and honesty.

As Hilary Mantel states so succinctly in Giving up the Ghost: Still, I think people can remember: a face, a perfume: one true thing or two.

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2020

Snowdrops in January

In sheltered places in south-west England, the snowdrop begins to flower at Christmas, and in other parts it is welcomed as one of the first signs of spring, flowering from January to March. The drooping bell-shaped flowers have six segments – three white ones outside the flower and three tipped with a bright green spot inside. It is doubtful whether the snowdrop Galanthis nivalis is a native of Britain. It was probably introduced in medieval times from central Europe and is rare in Ireland.

AA Book of the British Countryside (1973)

SNOWDROPSSnowdrops (c) Nick Bramhall, 2013, Creative Commons

Last month, a calendar arrived from North Yorkshire with the first postal delivery of the year. It was a personal hommage to the Dales from a friend and fellow social historian, and featured twelve distinct photographs of the region in different seasons. As I flipped through it to see what each month would bring – January was a bleak but beautiful Arkengarthdale – I could not help returning again and again to February’s image, which depicted delicate drifts of snowdrops in the gardens at Kiplin Hall. I recalled visiting this Jacobean house and gardens one cold April a few years back when the weather had precluded walking in the national park. At that time of the year, the estate had been full of daffodils in nodding clumps everywhere, giving hope for the warmer months to follow.

As a child I had always been fascinated by drifts of snowdrops, and every January I eagerly searched for my first sighting – which in the mild climate of south-west Scotland was often early in the new year. I grew up feeling that snowdrops belonged to January, just as crocuses did to February and daffodils to March. April was always associated with the blood red tulips which flanked the front entrance porch to our house. This was a suntrap from early spring onwards, and my mother often liked to sit and sew there on warm afternoons. She was sometimes in that spot when we came home after school, and the smell of tulips can suddenly bring back memories of finding her settled in the old nursing chair at the open door, a piece of handsewing on her lap.

AT THE FRONT PORCH SUMMER 1967

AT THE FRONT PORCH IN SPRING 65At the front porch, 1960s

Although our house was set back from the main road, I used to think it strange that my mother chose to sit at the front door, whereas my father and I preferred the privacy of the back garden. But now in my own house, I eagerly soak up the early season sun from the steps which lead down to the south-facing front garden. There I can read or write while surrounded by the scent and sight of early blooms and the buzz of insects. This appears to speed up the arrival of spring, as well as extending the summer season, and feels almost as if I am able to tamper with time itself.

In this same front garden, the snowdrops are strung out in clumps along the base of the old hornbeam hedge; and just like in the the cooler climate of North Yorkshire, here in Switzerland they don’t usually get going until early February. As our spring is concentrated into a short but intensive season, there is often the strange spectacle of all my childhood favourite bulbs being in flower at once. This is in contrast to the mild protracted springs of south Ayrshire, where the first drifts of snowdrops in the local woods and parks in early January always used to lift my spirits and give me hope for the new year ahead.

Yet like a spurned lover who refuses to believe the relationship is over, I still search for the green spears and white buds among the leaf litter at the beginning of the year. And I have come to believe that the landscapes of our early years are imprinted on us, whether we are conscious of this or not. An Australian friend here in Switzerland, for example, dreams of big, wide blue skies; a Dutch relative for the long, cold beaches by the North Sea. And although I also yearn to be by the sea, I grew up in an area where most of the local walks were through the woods and parklands of former private estates.

Thus I often seek out similar paths on which to hike, wherever I am in the world. Having also very strong olfactory memories associated with the damp, mild climate of Ayrshire – the smell of rotting bark, fungus, and decomposing earth – I enjoy walking in woodland on wet days or after rain showers, particulary in spring, when the scents of new life arising from the damp ground seem especially poignant.

SOUTH WEST COAST WALKWalking trails in woodland by the sea, Culzean, Ayrshire Scotland

My ancestors no doubt carried their own memories of their childhood environments. My great-great grandfather James Skelton (see The Tailor of Horsleydown) would have remembered – and perhaps hankered after – the distinctive countryside of the Dales, while establishing a life for himself in crowded riverside Bermondsey. And in a strange reversal of circumstances, my father was sent out of South London to the rural Somerset village of East Coker as a schoolboy over a century later (see East Coker). His love of nature and the British countryside appeared to stem from this wartime evacuation, and I believe he was never truly at home again in London, even chastising me for wanting to move there myself when I’d finished my studies.

Coker Woods          My father (far right) with friends, Coker Woods, East Coker, 1944

In contrast, my London grandparents always loved to visit formal parks and gardens – a hangover perhaps of the late Victorian / Edwardian time in which they lived, when ordinary working class Londoners did not often venture beyond their neighbourhood. Many of these green spaces were controlled environments with a whole host of rules and regulations, more suitable for Sunday strolls than spontaneous play (see A Tale of Two Parks), so it likely that their childhood memories were of car-free back streets. My grandmother certainly did not appreciate rural life in East Coker as much as her three children did, although it is fair to say that having to leave her own home and friends, as well as being separated from her husband, must have been a contributory factor. What might have been an adventure to young teens, would have been a stressful and precarious time to the middle-aged, especially as the horrors of the previous war were still relatively recent.

KEW GARDENS WITH GRANDMA SKELTONAt Kew with my English grandmother, c1971

So just as I associate my London grandparents with day trips to Kew Gardens or Bushy Park, both places which were relatively near to their retirement flat in Hampton, my father is always linked in my mind with hikes along the coast or in the hills. Although his shift work meant he often went walking alone, with just the dog for company, I would sometimes tag along at the weekend. This was always an opportunity for us to have our most relaxed chats and Dad would tell me tales about the things he’d seen and experienced on other outdoor excursions – often with his trademark dry sense of humour. It was then that I learnt a little more about his boyhood in East Coker and how the evacuation years had fostered his love of the countryside.

Always curious about the natural world, he hardly ever went out walking without his binoculars and a bird or plant identification guide. I still have battered copies of some of the books he used, and it can be a disconcerting feeling to come across notes my father scrawled in the margins. However, one of the reference books we always kept at home (with which I became particulary obssessed) was the AA Book of the British Countryside, first published in 1973. This unwieldy tome was laid out like a colourful encyclopedia, and had an eclectic mix of entries, including notes about architecture and railways alongside information on indigenous flora and fauna. I would sometimes set myself the goal of learning all the articles for one specific letter over a weekend, but often gave up in frustration as so much seemed to be focused on southern England, so did not seem to be applicable to my own situation. (The term ‘found mainly in the south’ was always rather off-putting, making me feel I was living somewhere inferior). How lucky my father had been to live in that hallowed place as a boy. Yet I was too young to realise that the beaches of the Scottish south-west coast and the rugged beauty of the Galloway Hills were possibly just as exotic to him as the idea of Stonehenge or the New Forest was to me.

Recently I came across a copy of the original AA Book of the British Countryside in a second-hand bookshop, and since then have spent many happy hours rereading my favourite entries and marvelling at what a work of art the book is (with its old fashioned type and layout only serving to increase the charm). Although some of the entries are critical of certain environmental issues, such as landscape disfigurement and pollution, the book is almost silent on topics we would expect to be discussed today, and as such seems rather quaint and outdated for a modern audience. Perhaps it is the fact that it published by the Automobile Association which creates the greatest cognitive dissonance in the mind of the contemporary reader!

AA BOOK OF THE BRITISH COUNTRYSIDE

Such criticisms aside, the book was one my father and I both loved and we would frequently use it as a reference book and learning tool. Now it is sitting on the bookcase in my office, and the sight of it gives me a frisson of pleasure, taking me back to simpler days when I’d come home from a family walk and look up something of interest, happy to be expanding my knowledge for some future time when it could surely be put to good use.

But of course our lives often do not turn out exactly as planned, and while my father possibly dreamt of a retirement in which he would have more time to spend outoors in nature, his freedom was in actual fact very short-lived. Twenty-five years ago, he passed away after a relatively long illness at almost the same age as his Yorkshire born great-grandfather, James Skelton. However, James’ death from bronchitis, a few days after his 68th birthday, was perhaps more expected, and by then he’d outlived one wife and at least two of his children.

DAD ON A MOUNTAIN HIKEDad in the hills, c1989

There were snowdrops in the Ayrshire Hospice that January day in 1995, a quarter of a century ago now. Bunches of them in simple glass jars, decorating the bedside cabinets of the patients. Including one at my father’s empty bed.

I remember thinking that I would never feel the same about snowdrops again. But the fact that the sight of their delicate drooping heads can still give me hope for the future only seems to emphasise the redemptive power of nature.

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2020

Taking Stock

Cat in Yorkshire DalesCat at the Window, Wensleydale, North Yorkshire

Happy New Year! 2020 marks the start of the fifth year of searching for my ‘lost’ London ancestors with over fifty tales already written. On the way, I’ve uncovered madness, illegitimacy, poverty, riches, and bigamy. (I feel there must be a murder or two tucked away somewhere). I’ve learnt that things that may shock us today today were once considered more commonplace – and how the opposite is also true. My research has taken me on a physical and psychological journey through London and beyond. I’ve come to know parts of the capital I’d never normally have thought to visit, as well as exploring the Yorkshire dales of my pre-London ancestors and visiting locations as far afield as the goldfields of Victoria, Australia.

Yet how many more untold stories are still out there, waiting to be disinterred?

There are times when I’ve become so fully immersed in previous centuries that I almost feel as if I’m living with one foot in the past. Last year, when researching my grandfather’s role in the First World War (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier), I often wrote the date as 1918 instead of 2018. Sometimes it even seems as if the past is dragging me down – hanging on to that metaphorical foot – so that I’m not as present in my own life as I’d like to be. Other times, the past unexpectedly illuminates the present like a roving searchlight: for a short while there is a clarity and connection, and then the light passes on and the shadows gather round again.

My quest has been an exhilarating and infuriating project to undertake, and one which has made me aware of my own strengths and weaknesses as a researcher. But by setting myself monthly blog writing deadlines, I’ve been forced to turn a pile of disorganised notes into a coherent narrative, helping me to make sense of my ancestors’ lives and the times in which they lived. As the omniscient storyteller, I have been in possession of an uncanny power which has enabled me to follow whole lives from start to finish in a matter of hours. I knew one ancestor would die through lack of an undiscovered, yet simple, drug, even when writing about his birth; I was aware that another would became wealthy through a business which would be considered unethical and unsustainable today, yet all the while being proud of this young man’s successful career. Yet it is only through 21st century technology that I can have this macabre ability to view someones’s past, present and future all at once.

BIRTHS, MARRIAGES AND DEATHS.JPGRed for Births, Green for Marriages, Black for Deaths

When I first went to seek work in London in the technological dark ages of 1984, with a suitcase full of garish clothes and a mediocre science degree, I had no idea that several weeks later I’d be a trainee heir hunter, spending my days prowling round the government record centres in Holborn and beyond (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born). December 1984 found me invited to my first ever office Christmas lunch in order to meet the handful of staff which made up the tiny probate genealogy business to which I’d accidentally become apprenticed. We gathered in a dark wood-panelled City dining room with heavy cutlery and damask tablecloths on a cold winter’s day which seemed bright with possibility. I remember feeling rather grand as I ate my first ever ‘avocado pear’ – like a girl in a film about ‘making it’ in London or some such rubbish, although at the time I took it all quite seriously.

Possibly the warning signs were already there: I was replacing the youngest member who was leaving to go to America. This might have been the same woman I met that day whose husband was a member of the band Pilot (which I remember from my schooldays as having two big hits in the seventies with the very catchy January and Magic). The other employees were all at least two or three times my age and once I started working in the office their vocbulary and and cultural references occasionally flummoxed me. A middle-aged woman called Mary Lush introduced herself with a joke about her last name and later once alluded to the boss being a bit of a Walter Mitty figure. (I asked my parents about both of these things during my weekly phone-box-at-the-end of-the-road call home).

I regret not staying longer in the job to learn more about probate geneology – it could have been an exciting opportunity to become involved in what appeared to be a growth industry. However, the old fashioned office hierarchy and low ‘apprenticeship’ pay, coupled with the lack of opportunities for meeting others in my age group, made me seek pastures new after my three month probation period was over. I feel slightly ashamed of the fact that I did not give the position more of a chance, and so let down those in the company who had invested their time and energy in training me. Of course, in those days I did not see it like that at all and felt that I had had a lucky escape from the stifling world of the dead and – to my mind – half-dead.

Ah, if only I’d had my middle-age sensibilities all those years ago! Not only in regards to employment opportunities, but in my understanding of the concept of time passing. In those days, elderly relatives (and sadly not so elderly, although they would now be elderly had they lived) were still all around me and their memories could have been more skilfully tapped and bottled for the future. But 1984 was the future then, and at that point I could not imagine myself ever looking back on my years in London with my American tan tights and 50p vouchers for ‘luncheon’ and see it as old fashioned in any way.

Of course, now I treasure the chances that remain to talk to those who are the last link to the London of my ancestors (see Return to East Coker), and am beginning even to feel that my own memories may soon be classified as ‘of value’ to social historians. (The Victorian school with the outdoor toilets and the hand bell and coal-fired furnace certainly springs to mind here!).

But as I sit at my desk in late December, I consider what led me to my quest and what has kept me going all these years – and perhaps more importantly, whether it has truly helped me in any way to understand my unknown London family and its dynamics. I can now say unequivically that it has, albeit in unexpected ways. I have learnt a great deal more about social history than I could have gleaned from books alone.  Particularly enjoyable have been these little ‘side jaunts’ down roads (paved and unpaved) which led me to explore the story of the lost Effra river in South London (see A River Ran Under Them) and the history of the Victorian goldrush (see Maldon: A Notable Town) amongst other subjects.

After all those hours and words, I believe I have now come to better understand the motivations of my ancestors, whose strengths and weaknesses were exacerbated by the times through which they lived. I can also see how this has affected future generations, leading to patterns being repeated – or rejected – down the years.

Above all, my search has highlighted how fleeting our time is on the earth and how interconnected we all are, as our actions reverberate into the future and outwards into society at large.

Happy New Year! from the Incidental Genealogist, January 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale from the Yorkshire Dales: Part 3

Leyburn itself is a cheerful little town, with a modern church and a very wide main street which forms a most extensive market-place. There is a bull-ring still visible in the great open space, but beyond this and the view from the Shawl, Leyburn has few attractions, except its position as a centre or a starting-place from which to explore the romantic neighbourhood.

Gordon Home, Yorkshire Painted and Described (1908)

LEYBURN SHAWL.jpgThe view over Wensleydale from Leyburn Shawl, early 20th C

The summer of 2016 is one that most of us from the UK can clearly remember, but not in the same way that we might the glorious Olympic summer of 2012, when even the most unpatriotic among us were flying the Union Jack. I’ve written about this topic before (see Home Thoughts from Abroad) when I described visiting the Cotswolds with my cousin and his wife in the spring of that year. A few weeks later, my husband and I headed to Reeth in Yorkshire for the third time, both of us with a slight feeling of intrepidation. Less than a month after the unexpected outcome of the Brexit referendum, we were setting foot back on English soil, this time a little less sure of the atmosphere we would encounter in what the media described as a newly-divided country.

However, apart from a heated – yet good-natured – discussion in the local pub with some middle-aged men from County Durham, most people we met were trying hard to forget about the vote. In fact, I recall one incident in the Tennants Auction Rooms outside Leyburn where an antique dealer came in to the showroom attempting to drum up some passion for a debate with his peers, finally giving up in disgust that there seemed to be an acceptance of the status quo.

I myself soon learnt that it was better not to speak about what swiftly became the largest elephant in the room. In Darlington railway museum a friendly chat about locomotives soon swiftly ended on mentioning the ‘B word’, and my Swiss husband (well-trained in neutrality and referend) begged me to keep quiet about the topic. As I’m not very good at doing what he says at the best of times, I set about trying to subtly squeeze the theme into every new encounter, fascinated at the lengths people would go to avoid discussing the very thing that was dominating domestic politics in the UK.

Things became even weirder when we headed to Leyburn to spend a few hours exploring the ‘birthplace’ of my Wensleydale ancestors. As luck would have it, we arrived in the middle of a 1940s re-enactment weekend in which the whole town was decked out  with sandbags and Union Jacks, and allied military personnel roamed the streets (all German uniforms were verboten).

ALLIED FORCES IN LEYBURN 2016Allied Forces in Leyburn, 2016

This was a rather unsettling experience, to say the least. Trying to imagine 18th century Leyburn while caught up in what felt like some bizarre time trip which referenced a completely different era was not an easy task. Add to this the fact that a 19th century Leyburn had almost obliterated the earlier, smaller town from the previous century, and I felt that this was a cogntive challenge almost beyond me. My husband – who doesn’t really like old things in any case – wondered (not for the first time) why the British were caught up in a national obsession with the past. As we strolled around the town, glancing at taped up shop windows and gas mask bags, I began to ask myself the same question. Perhaps this had even been the very thing which had helped galvanise the ‘leave vote’ in the first place.

SANDBAGS AND SONGS  IN LEYBURN 2016.JPG‘Air Raid Ready’, The Goldon Lion, Leyburn, 2016

This re-enactment weekend was, however,  thankfully a very British affair, with a good-natured focus on dressing up and dancing, and invading the local pubs and tearooms. I spotted numerous costumes, including a very authentic-looking rural French resistance fighter, or Maquis. Two young women dressed as landgirls caught my attention in particular, and I complemented them on their outfits as they walked past, arm-in-arm. Laughing, they told me that they loved the fashion and music of the era (they were all red lipsticked, rolled hair and headscarves, with the charming addition of belted trousers, wellies and army great coats), then dashed across the square to join an impromptu dance to a big band sound.

Everyone – young and old (although I did wonder how it would feel like to anyone who’d actually experienced the war) – seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, and it was hard not to get drawn into the communal enthusiasm for the event. I tried to put thoughts of Brexit out of my head, reasoning that any visitors to the UK who stumbled upon this time-warp town would probably find it all very charming and eccentric and just what they’d expected from the inhabitants of ‘the island’.

However, the spirit of an older Leyburn certainly eluded me on that day, and so we returned a week later to explore the place again once it had divested itself of the 1940s. Although it was a gloomy damp afternoon when we arrived, and the streets seemed duller without the previous weekend’s celebrations, it was slightly easier to spot the old Leyburn, nestled into the new, when free from the distractions of a relatively recent war. By walking the back alleyways and lanes behind the High Street it was just possible to imagine the ugly-sounding Trotters Alley of my Leyburn ancestors, and in a corner of one of the buildings we came across the ancient water pump embedded in the wall (and which the local tourist office’s historic self-guided walk pamphlet had mentioned).

BACK LANES OF LEYBURN.JPG

P1060775.JPGLeyburn’s Back Lanes and Ancient Water Pump

We subsequently learnt that Leyburn had doubled its population in the first three decades of the 19th century, increasing from less than 500 to over 1000 inhabitants. It was during this period that the town began to expand, growing further still once the Wensleydale Railway arrived in 1856, when it attracted its fair share of middle-class Victorian retirees. As many of the buildings described in the walking trail booklet were from this era, it was harder to imagine how the town might have looked to my 18th century relatives. Older lanes had been swept away as the town opened up, yet the parishioners still had to worship at the parish church in Wensley until St Matthew’s Church was built in 1868.

LOVE LANE IN LEYBURNLove Lane, Leyburn

It was only when I walked down Love Lane (where the New Theatre was housed from 1794 to 1865) towards The Shawl that I started to get the sensation that I might be treading in my ancestors footsteps. For here, on this wooded limestone ridge, the same views over Wensleydale would have been familar to the Skeltons of Leyburn and they would have no doubt walked along the same paths that constitute the public footpaths of today. However, were I to bring them back to this spot over two centuries later, I wonder if they would notice how quiet the woods and dales are. Where are the lead miners, the noisy horse and carts, the myriad of birdsongs? What would they think about our new, eerily quiet countryside?

LEYBURN

LEYBURN 2.JPGCommercial Square and High Street, Leyburn, North Yorkshire

As I mentioned last month, the first James Skelton – the grandfather of my London James – appeared to have only had two out of six children who survived long enough to have families of their own, both of whom were agricultural labourers. These were John (of Leyburn) and Thomas (who moved to the neighbouring parish of Patrick Brompton). I have experienced many happy (and frustrating hours) searching for their descendants, a number of whom stayed in the area. I’m almost certain that many of the 21st century Skeltons who live in Leyburn today are related to me in some way, although trying to untangle exactly what the relationship is seems like a job for a mathematician.

In fact, tracing the Skeltons back to their Leyburn beginnings was almost as complicated a task. I can only liken it to trying to complete a jigsaw where some of the key pieces are missing. So while it might be easy to slot two or three parts together, trying to connect them up to create the whole picture appears to be impossible, no matter how many times you turn and twist the individual sections.

Some of my Skelton ancestors jumped out at me by dint of their curious names or short lives. There was the wonderfully named Tibby who would have been my London James’ aunt, yet who disappeared into thin air shortly after she was born. Then there was her older sister, Isabella, who survived but a year. And Charles who – like his older brother James – only made it to 22.

I wonder if, as he began to outlive his own children, did this first James (my London James’ grandfather) feel weighted down by the deaths of the young people he’d helped to create, or did he focus instead on the living ones and their families? And was he also able spend time with his grandchildren, James and Mary, the two little ones who’d grow up to never have any memories of their own young father? Somehow I imagine he would have wanted to have these very living reminders of his first-born namesake son: the young wool-combing James who died of ‘bloody flux’ shortly after moving to Darlington with his new family.

But what of the first James of Leyburn – the Ur-James of this story and grandfather of ‘my’ London James? Who exactly was his father? And was this James also the first-born son of a wool-comber? While I was naturally curious about his genealogy, I was surprised to realise that I was not more hungry for information. I did not really feel that I even needed to go further back. Perhaps this is because I believe there is a limit to how far we can stretch these ancestral connections. With each generation the blood is mixed more and more, and it is easy to forget that the women who married into the family in more recent times – my paternal great-grandmothers for example – are closer to me genetically than those Skeltons from 17th and 18th century Leyburn. But it is still the case that most family historians get caught up with the magical paternal name, focussing their research on moving back through this line to some mythical family genesis.

Yet when I discovered the 1751 parish baptism record for the ‘first’ James Skelton, one word in brackets in neat cursive script made me rethink the way I have been carrying out my family history.

Illegitimate.

It took a while to consider what this new information meant. Had I been following the ‘wrong’ family for all these years? Could I really even call myself a Skelton? And while I believe that Ann’s father was possibly a local shoemaker who was also called James Skelton (1695-1749?) – and he in turn was the son of a Leyburn shoemaker called Michael Skelton – I have begun to wonder really just how important all these people are. After all, now there is another birthline which I have to accept will always remain unknown. Surprisingly, this did not make me feel too despondant. Rather, it made me question why I had not followed any one of the names that the women in my family set aside at the time of their marriage. Stops. Burnell. Holton. Hawkins. The list goes on until it reaches Ann Skelton. And there it must stop.

Not only did James take his mother’s name, but the fact that she brought him up as an unmarried mother in 1751, along with what would appear to be a sister called Dorothy Skelton three years later, is a feat in itself. And if this is the same Ann Skelton who records show died unmarried in 1795 then she would have seen her son grow to be a middle-aged father and would have known her grandchildren – including the father of ‘my’ London James.

But of course we do not really know what happened to Ann. The Leyburn jigsaw has lost some of its pieces. And we can never find out the truth. Perhaps she was in some sort of semi-formal ‘arrangement’ with a married man who’d separated from his wife – or could not marry her for some reason – yet who brought up her children with her. I think about young Mary Ann Hawkins who had five children with Ann’s middle-aged great-grandson before marrying him at the end of his life (see When I Grow Rich). Or Mary Ann’s first illegitimate son (not one of James’ children) who appeared to have committed bigamy by marrying twice, but got away with it (see Black Sheep and Blackfriars)! This is but one family, yet there are so many tales that repeat and overlap.

In a nod to the matriarchy, I decided to see if I could find out what happened to James’ older sister Mary. It took a few years of searching in the wrong place before I eventually found her married at twenty to a John Blythe and living in York. John was a joiner, Mary a dressmaker. It appeared that they went on to have four children who were of an age with James’ children, before Mary became a widow in mid-life. The oldest child, a boy named Matthew undertook an apprenticeship as a copper engraver in York, a trade he passed to his own son, just as the woolcombers and shoemakers in the family had done before him.

I often wonder if James ever returned from London to visit his sister and her family in York. Were his own children ever curious about their Yorkshire cousins, in the way my London cousins fascinated me, despite – or because of – the fact we did not see each other very often when growing up? And most likely he would have wanted to spend time with his mother Margaret, although she too is one of the missing pieces of the puzzle that I have never found. My instinct tells me that if she’d lived to be middle-aged, she might have gone to stay with her married daughter in York. However, by the time of the first census in 1841 she was not to be found. Had she been alive, she would probably already have been approaching 70 by then: a relatively good age in those times.

Sometimes when I have a spare few hours and the weather is awful, I trawl the online genealogy sites, looking to see if anyone who’s evaded my ‘capture’ will appear unexpectedly. These sessions always start out with a sense of optimism: who or what will I find this time? But I have to face facts. The heady days of my initial research in the 80s and my second wave of internet-based research can never be repeated. There are very few revelations to look forward to now, just puffing out the flesh on the bones.

Perhaps I should start thinking about leaving my ancestors in peace for a while.

Wishing everyone a very Merry Xmas!

The Incidental Genealogist, December 2019

A Tale from the Yorkshire Dales: Part 2

Arise my Muse, fair Wensley’s vale display,
And tune with vocal reed the sylvan lay,
Thro’ the gay scenes of lovely Bolton rove
Its peaceful plains, and each sequester’d grove;
Enjoy the solitude, as gently glide
The lapsing moments of life’s wasting tide.

Thomas Maude, Wensleydale; Or, Rural Contemplations (1780)

Walking Trail Yorkshire Dales.JPGA wild and magical place, the Yorkshire Dales

It’s funny how our first impressions of a place stay with us, even if we eventually end up viewing the location somewhat differently, or a different mood colours our feelings on a return visit. For me, the Yorkshire Dales will forever be a wild and magical part of the country, just as London will always be associated with glamour and excitement. And East Coker in Somerset will never be anything else than the quintessential southern English village, with its thatched houses and sunken lanes permanently bathed in midsummer sunshine.

All three places have played an important role in my life these last few years, in particular London, which I’ve been visiting on and off for over half a century now (gulp!) – including a two-year stint of living and working there in the mid-eighties. However, it has been in the Yorkshire Dales where I’ve felt most at home. It could be because the landscape reminds me somewhat of rugged areas of the west coast of Scotland, where I grew up. Or that the National Park is laced with a series of interlocking walking trails which entice the visitor out across the land, inviting you to get to know the landscape intimately. Then there are the friendly local pubs which often lie conviniently at the end point of these invigorating walks, and of course the Yorkshire folk themselves, who are invariably a tonic.

Walking in the Dales.JPGWalking in the Yorkshire Dales

As I mentioned last month, my first visit to Yorkshire was in 1991 when I stopped to explore the town of Catterick, just outside the Dales National Park. This was where I had erroneously belived my great-great grandfather, James Skelton (see The Tailor from Horsleydown), to have been born, until I discovered much later that his birthplace was actually in Darlington, located in the neighbouring county of Durham.

Perhaps James Skelton had always described Catterick as his place of birth because he thought – or felt – it to be so. After all, his parents were married in the parish church there, and seven months after this event his older sister Mary was also born and baptised at St Anne’s. Two years later, the family were living in Darlington, which at that time was a relatively small market town with just under 5,000 inhabitants. I suspect that this move was precipitated by a need to find and keep work, especially if a second baby was on the way.

As I mentioned last month, James Skelton’s father was recorded as being a woolcomber, even though his son later described him as a woolstapler. However, this declaration was made over sixty years after his father’s death and burial at St Cuthbert’s Church in Darlington, and it could have been either a false memory or a bit of wishful thinking. Maybe even a mixture of both.

St Cuthbert's Darlington.jpgSt. Cuthbert’s Church, Darlington, County Durham 19th C

A friend and historian from the Dales recently explained that these professions often overlapped. So while woolstapler was in general the term used to describe the more successful middleman who gave out the sorted wool to the woolcombers to separate before it was sold on to be spun into cloth, the jobs may sometimes have been combined. A description of woolcombing (taken from Family Tree Magazine, Nov. 1996, Vol. 13 no. 1) can be found below:

Woolcombing was part of the process of worsted manufacture. In the manufacture of woollen textiles the raw wool was carded to lay the tangled fibres into roughly parallel strands so that they could be more easily drawn out for spinning. Wool used for worsted cloth required more thorough treatment for not only had the fibres to be laid parallel to each other but unwanted short staple wool also had to be removed. This process was called combing. It was an apprenticed trade, a seven year apprenticeship being the norm in the mid 18th century with apprenticeship starting at about the age of 12 or 13. 

Many woolstaplers certainly became wealthy through judicious trading deals, and were thus able to buy and sell large quantities of wool, which increased their wealth further. In contrast, the woolcombers were involved with the labour intensive work of using heated combs to separate the fibres and then combing the long fibres together to make ‘tops’ (discarding the short ones which were used for the non-worsted trade). It was a job which sounds backbreaking to our modern ears, and had obvious health risks. These came not only from breathing in the wool fibres, but also from fleeces which could harbour diseases (including anthrax). In addition, there were the inherent dangers of having a charcoal-fuelled pot of oil in which the combs were dipped in order to ease the process of untangling the fibres.

Woolcombers often pooled resources, working together around one comb pot; and in the 18th century would have been self-employed, rather than working for a textile firm. Later on, they were employed directly by textile manufacturers in places such as Darlington, which was an important hub for the industry and one of the reasons  the town expanded so quickly in the 19th century. But in James’ father’s day, wool combing machinery had yet to be introduced, mainly due to the technical difficulties encountered when working with wool straight from the fleece. So even when the process of spinning and weaving had become mechanised, woolcombing was still using technology little changed from the middle ages.

Situated on the river Skerne, Darlington had in fact been a centre for linen and woollen cloth manufacturing for hundreds of years, and woolcombing was an important trade in the area in the 18th century. Like Catterick, Darlington was a staging post on the main road to London – the old Great North Road, which increased business and would have also meant that news of opportunities elsewhere would quickly reach the inhabitants. It was for this reason that I initially believed my great-great grandfather to have left Catterick for London in search of work. Perhaps even to seek employment in the wool trade, as Bermondsey (where he settled) was the centre for this in London and there was plenty work for staplers and combers in the area.

Travelling by Stagecoach 18th CenturyTravelling by Stagecoach in the 18th Century

But now, like most things connected with family history, I see that the story is a little more complicated. Being brought up without a father meant that James would not have automatically followed James senior into the wool business. Woolcombing was a trade that necessitated a seven year apprenticeship and was usually carried on by the oldest son. This would explain why both James’ father and grandfather (both confusingly called James!) were woolcombers. The first woolcombing James (1751 to 1813) passed on the trade to the namesake son he outlived by almost 15 years. There the line was cut short.

So what exactly happened to our James and his family after his father died? In last month’s post I suggested that his mother might have taken her two infant children to the market town of Reeth in Swaledale. This was the place described as being Margaret Skelton’s official ‘home parish’, and where she would have to return if she was in need of poor relief. Alternatively, the family might have gone to the nearby town of  Leyburn in neighbouring Wensleydale, in order to  live with one of James senior’s relatives.

Reeth, Yorkshire Dales National Park.JPGReeth in Swaledale, Yorkshire Dales National Park

There is, of course, another scenario: and that is that Margaret returned to Catterick for some reason (perhaps she had family living there), and why in later years James always gave the town as his birthplace in official documents. I’d previously imagined that it was seeing the stagecoaches rumbling off to London from the coaching inns which lined the High Street that had fuelled young James desires to go to London and seek his fortune. I even thought he might have been sorting or combing wool in one of the woolsheds in Catterick (I have it on good authority that they were located in the High Street) while overhearing tales about the opportunities in the wool trade in Bermondsey.

What our modern sensiblitites perhaps fail to comprehend is the number of years which had to be invested in training for a profession and how complex the apprenticeship system was. If James had ‘studied’ to become a woolcomber or stapler he would not have become a master tailor. So the most likely scenario was that he undertook a position as a tailor’s apprentice in Yorkshire and then later went to London once he could establish himself. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any apprenticeship records for him (very few have survived) and so there is a frustrating information gap between his baptism in 1799 and his marriage in Bermondsey in 1823.

For that reason, it felt like a huge psychological breakthrough the day in the County Records office in Durham when I discovered that James’ father and grandfather had originated from Wensleydale. At least now I had a place to call ‘home’ for the Skeltons – and it was a part of the Dales I’d independently come to know and love. When I first saw the entry for James’ father’s untimely death in Darlington and read the words James Skelton of Leybourne, then I finally knew at which particular parish to direct my further research.

Shortly after this discovery, I found the records for James’ grandfather: another James Skelton of Leybourn (the spelling of the name is a moveable feast), and I was heartened to note that he’d still been alive when his grandson had been growing up fatherless, and so perhaps had a role in raising him (he died when James was 15). Although our James should have theortically had several aunts and uncles through his father’s five siblings, only two uncles, Thomas and John Skelton (both agricultural labourers), survived long enough to marry and start familes of their own.

Several years before, on one of my first visits to the Dales after I’d returned to my genealogical research, I stopped to look round the village of Wensley, imagining it to be one of the main towns in Wensleydale. I’d not expected it to be little more than a cluster of stone houses, an inn and a church, given that it was the place after which the dale was named and – as I later discovered – the centre for the parish of Wensley, whch included the much larger market town of Leyburn.  

Although was too early for a drink in the pub, the medieval Holy Trinity Church was still open to visitors, so I went inside to have a look around.

Holy Trinity Church Wensley Exterior.JPGHoly Trinity Church, Wensley, North Yorkshire

There I was in for a real surprise. Not only were there some rare pre-reformation paintings on the wall depicting gruesome scenes of hell, there was also a reliquary box (used for saints’ remains) and oak chancel pews decorated with carved bestiary from during the reign of Henry VIII.

The wall paintings reminded me of those that my mother and I had seen at the church in Sutton Bingham – the old church near to East Coker which had survived the creation of a local reservoir.  At the same time, the strange beasts carved into the chancel pews  made me think of the neo-Gothic Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water where my ancestor, the Edwardian actor Herbert Sleath-Skelton, had been sent in his final terrible months of tertiary syphillus (see Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall).

It is at moments like those when I see that however much my husband may chide me for ‘living in the past’, I realise how we are all linked by these historical connections and the past and present become one. Then I know why I am carrying out my family research, and the value that it has for me personally.

Head Carving on Chancel Pew.JPG16th Century Carving on Chancel Pew, Holy Trinity Church, Wensley

Ever since I once came across the grave of a Victorian child who shared my birth year – albeit separated by a whole century – I have been fascinated by old graveyards. Thus, after my first visit to Holy Trinity Church, I walked through the churchyard, weaving in between the jumble of gravestones which jutted out from the ground like a mouth of decaying teeth. As usual I was drawn to the names, dates and inscriptions, but not really expecting to find any Skeltons. Apart from at Nunhead Cemetery in South London – where I had been in receipt of a detailed map which showed the exact location of the Skelton family grave (see Present at the Death) – my spontaneous graveyard searches have never been successful. I have wasted many hours looking for relatives amongst crumbling stones and ivy, cursing my lack of organisational skills, which should have seen me write to the parish concerned, weeks or even months in advance of my visit.

Holy Trinity Church, Wensley.JPGChurchyard, Holy Trinity Church, Wensley, North Yorkshire

It was not until relatively recently, when I knew that my ancestors had come from Leyburn, that I returned to the church to spend more time there. I’d been surprised to discover that Wensley was the parish to which Leyburn had once belonged: it is now hard to believe that the bustling market town of Leyburn was at one time inferior in size and stature to Wensley. Yet while Leyburn began to expand in the 19th century and Wensley contracted (this was in part due to the devastating effect of plague in 1563), the church was still the religious centre of the parish. It was also where most of my Dales’ ancestors were baptised, married and buried throughout the centuries.

No wonder that I was overcome with emotion that day in Durham Records Office when I discovered this fact. Of all the parish churches in England, Holy Trinity Church is one of the oldest and most fascinating to have survived – and has a particular beauty as it sits so well withing the surounding landscape. If I could have chosen my ancestral parish myself (what a terrible dilemma, though), this one would probably have been on the short list. And although I’m not a fan of visiting film and television locations, I should point out that the exterior of the church was used as the location for the wedding of two of the main protagonists in the 70s and 80s British TV series about a Yorkshire vet called All Creatures Great and Small.

Within a year after this discovery, I was back in Wensley clutching my updated family tree. This time I entered the dark church with a slight feeling of intrepidation. It was like stepping through a portal into another world. I wandered slowly around the building with the slightly dazed feeling of a time traveller. To think that my ancestors had walked up this aisle, had sat in these old oak pews, had been annointed from that font. It took a long time before I could venture outside back into the late aftenoon sunshine.

Holy Trinity Church Wensley Interior.JPGInterior of Holy Trinity Church, Wensley, North Yorkshire

Simple Pews Wensley Church.JPGCongregational Pews from the 16th Century, Church of the Holy Trinity, Wensley

What forced me out into the churchyard sooner rather than later was the fact that I knew there was a Skelton grave there. A handy reference card of tombstones engravings had been left out in the church for researchers and a quick glance under S for Skelton (I hardly dared hope!) showed a John Skelton had been buried there in 1862 along with his wife, Mary, who had died in 1853 . I knew this to be James’ paternal uncle, one of the only two surviving younger siblings of his late father. While James’ Uncle Thomas had moved to the neighbouring parish of Patrick Brompton on his marriage, John had stayed in Leyburn, working as an agricultural labourer, marrying a local girl and raising six children. He lived for many years in the rather disgusting-sounding Trotters Alley in Leyburn next door to a George Skelton – who was possibly a cousin.

John Skelton's Grave in Wensley.JPGJohn and Mary Skelton’s grave, Wensley, North Yorkshire

But even though the family name was the same, the grave did not have the same impact on me that my great-great grandfather’s tomb in Nunhead Cemetery had. Somehow there was a much stonger emotional pull towards the direct paternal line. I realise this has characterised so much of my research to date: right from the beginning I wanted to know as much as I could about James Skelton from Bermondsey and his son Arthur (my grandfather’s father). So it stood to reason that I was more interested in finding out about James’ father and grandfather. For that reason, the presence of an uncle in the churchyard actually just felt like a distraction, and in fact posed more questions than it answered.

Why was there was no gravestones for the other Skelton children – the ones who’d died young? Or for the children’s father, James Skelton’s grandfather? Had these gravestones all disintegrated over the last two-hundred years, or had they been moved or destroyed? 

But more than anything, what I really wanted to know was this: who exactly was the father of this first woolcombing James?

To be continued next month.

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2019

P.S. While researching this month’s post, I discovered that the surgeon-poet Thomas Maude – whose poem about Wensleydale is quoted at the beginning – is buried in the churchyard at Wensley.

 

 

A Tale from the Yorkshire Dales: Part 1

The Wool-comber cleanses and prepares wool in a proper state to be spun into worsted, yarn &c. for weaving and other purposes.

This is a very ancient trade in this country, wool having been long reckoned one of its staple commodities. The raw material, as is well known, is the hair or covering of the sheep, which, when washed, combed, spun, and woven, makes worsted, many kinds of stuff, and other articles, adapted to the use, comfort, and even the luxuries, of life.

Richard Phillips, The Book of English Trades (1815)

A Wool Comber (2)

March 1799. A boy is born in Darlington, County Durham and baptised at the imposing St Cuthbert’s Church. He is the second child of a wool comber called James Skelton. The boy is named after his father, who in turn was named after his. Three generations of James Skeltons already. And it doesn’t end there. The last was killed in the fields of France just over a hundred years ago. This most recent incarnation – ‘Ginger’ as he was known to his friends and family – was my grandfather’s favourite brother. After him, there were no more boys called James.

James the wool comber is only 22 when his namesake child is born. And he is still only 22 when he dies at home from ‘the Bloody Flux’ (or dysentry, as we’d call it today), leaving behind a widow and two infant children. But Margaret Skelton is no stranger to widowhood, having already experienced the loss of a husband before she married the twenty year old James in the North Yorkshire village of Catterick while pregnant with their first child, Mary. She just doesn’t expect this state to be visited upon her again so soon.

After James’ death, Margaret returns to North Yorkshire – most likely to collect parish relief. It is still more than thirty years before the draconian poor law will be introduced (see When I Grow Rich) and the spectre of the workhouse would in the future loom over such a family. So she and her children are relatively lucky. Perhaps they also have family to support them, and work that Margaret can do to help pay for her keep. James’ people come from Leyburn, hers from neighbouring Reeth. So they are not so far away from Darlington, a market town whose name will one day become synonymous with a new-fangled mode of transport that Margaret will probably not live to see. Steam locomotives and workhouses: two sides of the tarnished Victorian coin which symbolises the progress of that still future era.

Almost two centuries after James’ death, one of his descendants will start trying to trace him through the link to the son he barely knew – the boy who ‘done good’ and went off to London to seek his fortune (see The Tailor of Horsleydown). But she will fail and fail again for many years. Then one day she’ll make a breakthrough and will feel as if the clouds have parted and she has discovered some inescapable truth about the world. For she will realise that a place, a church, a landscape which has drawn her close is the same one that once nurtured her ancestors. And she will rush to the washroom of the Durham County Record Office to splash cold water on her face. Afterwards she will gaze at her reflection in the mirror above the sink as if she is looking at herself for the first time.

I’m from Wensleydale she’ll whisper to herself, over and over again, like an incantation.

Finally she feels that there is a place she can call her spiritual home.

YORKSHIRE DALESIs this my spiritual home?

When my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, married for the second time in 1864 at the age of 65, he had already lived almost three times as long as his father. By then he had a total of ten children (several of whom had predeceased him), ranging in age from forty to four. He had also experienced great social and technological changes in the world and had seen his adopted city of London transformed into a huge seething metropolis. He might have felt as if he had already lived three lives.

Like all official marriage certificates, James and his wife Mary’s document states their fathers’ names and their professions. In the case of James this is given as James Skelton, Wool Stapler* (deceased). If that information is added to the census data for the three decades in which James was enumerated – where he gave Catterick, Yorkshire as his birthplace – then it seems logical to assume this was the place where he was born and raised, given that Catterick was a hub for the 18th century wool business. So why had it never been possible to find my great-great grandfather in the records of that parish. Or for that matter in all the other parishes in North Yorkshire?

*I have reason to believe that this job description was a fabricaton designed to elevate James in the eyes of his family. All parish records show that both his father and grandfather were simple wool combers – and not the more wealthy middleman (the staplers) who brought the wool to the combers.

James’ parents’ marriage details eventually came to light, courtesy of the internet and the parish records collated by the Mormons for their International Genealogical Index (IGI). Ditto the baptism of his older sister, Mary. The location for both these events was the medieval Church of St Anne, in Catterick, North Yorkshire. But for years James’ early beginnings were still invisible to me, although everything I’d learned about genealolgy shrieked that he was out there somewhere, possibly hiding in plain sight.

ST ANNS.jpgSt Anne’s Parish Church, Catterick, North Yorkshire

It was only relatively recently that I found out why I had never been able to find James in the North Yorkshire records. This was because he had actually been born and baptised in another county. Then I was on to the scent like a bloodhound, and at the first opportunity took the early morning East Coast trainline from Edinburgh to the upmarket university city of Durham. When I blearily boarded the train clutching my briefcase and a takeaway coffee at 7am, I had no idea that that by the end of the day I would know more about my Yorkshire-born ancestors than I could ever have expected.

However, to start this story we have to go back even further. To the time before the internet when I began my genealogical search; to the time when I thought James had been born and bred in Catterick. In the late 1980s, my mother purchased a microfiche reader along with a box of microfiche from the IGI after I’d stimulated her latent interest in family history. And together we pieced together a Catterick genealogy that was so wrong. My mother even embroidered a sampler of the family tree showing Ralph and Elizabeth Skelton at the top, naked but for a snake and apple (bullion knots were used to good effect). But while they might have been distant relatives, they were certainly not the ones we should have been looking for.

Catterick was never the permanent home of the Skeltons, but for years I persisted in believing this erroneous fact. In 1991, I finally had the chance to visit Yorkshire, riding pillion up from London on a friend’s Norton motorcycle. We headed for Catterick and explored the village, with its two greens (high and low), and stomped around the graveyard of St Anne’s looking for Skeltons. Later we cooled our feet in what I thought was the Swale but was actually just the Brough Beck, a tributary which meandered through the village, lending it a special beauty.

BROUGH BECK (2).JPGBrough Beck in Catterick

Despite the fact that I could find no trace of any of my ancestors on that visit, I’ll never forget my first sight of the Yorkshire Dales. I’d spent two and a half years travelling and working my way around the world before that summer, but could not remember seeing a view more spectacular than the great expanse of wide valleys, with their rivers and becks, wooded hills and stone walls which followed the contours of the land. Looking back, I wonder now whether this response was not tapping in to a primeval connection to the place of my ancestors. Or possibly it was just my natural reaction to a landscape that resonates with the part of the human brain hardwired to prefer particular locations like the Dales that are safe and fertile, and where early man was thus attracted to settle.

IS THIS MY SPIRITUAL HOME.JPGThe landscape of the Yorkshire Dales

Since that time I have been back to visit Catterick a couple of times, once renting the old Blacksmith’s house on the High Green, an 18th century stone cottage that was certainly there at the time of my ancestors. Rather poignantly, I could hear the bells of St Anne’s. from the upstairs bathroom, a sound that my Swiss husband proclaimed as being ‘very English’. From our base in Catterick we took trips into both the North York Moors National Park to the east and the Yorkshire Dales National Park to the west. And it was in the latter place that we fell in love with the market town of Reeth and the surrounding area of Swaledale.

BLACKSMITHS COTTAGEBlacksmith’s Cottage, Catterick

Both Swaledale and the neighbouring Wensleydale very quickly wove its magic on us and several walking holidays in Reeth followed in quick succession. While there, I would sometimes try to fit in a couple of hours’ research at the North Yorkshire County Record Office in Northallerton. It was here I was finally able to view James and Margaret’s parish wedding certificate, which showed that Margaret had previously been married to a man named Bowes (unfortunately I have never been able to discover her maiden name as this is a common regional surname).

But it wasn’t until that day in Durham, when I could access the parish records from another county, that I began to piece together the story of the Yorkshire Skeltons and their connection to Wensleydale.

I also discovered something that made me question the way I had approached my genealogical research up to now.

To be continued next month.

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2019