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

Return to East Coker

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.

T.S.Eliot, East Coker (1940)

CROSSROADS.JPGSignpost to Naish Priory in the woods at Burton, East Coker

It was not a particularly auspicious weekend weather-wise when I travelled to Somerset with my cousin last month. We had arranged to meet up with our elderly aunt on the Saturday of our long weekend in the West Country, and so decided it would make sense to look around East Coker the day before our planned visit. This would allow my cousin to see the places that I hoped my aunt would still be able to describe to us from her memories of the wartime evacuation, and make the experience more meaningful.

Thus it was a cool, wet and blustery Friday afternoon when we arrived in the village – not what I’d intended at all. My first visit in July 2005 (see East Coker) had certainly been influenced by the good weather and I’d wanted my cousin to have the same initial impression. However, fortified with tea and cakes from the National Trust café after our trip to nearby Montecute House, and sporting the matching bucket hats we’d purchased in Sherborne the day previously, we decided there was nothing to stop us exploring the village in the wind and rain. And maybe it would even clear up later, we told ourselves rather optimistically. (It didn’t).

A lucky coincidence saw us approaching East Coker by way of the sunken lanes I’d already described to my cousin. I’m not quite sure how much Sandra appreciated having to squeeze by a number of large vehicles exiting the village, but she certainly agreed with me that it was an ‘exciting’ way to arrive. It also brought home why the new Keyford housing estate is slated to be situated near the Dorchester Road at the far end of the village. Those pesky narrow lanes effectively sealed off the other part of East Coker (where our fathers had lived with our aunt and grandmother during WW2) from further development, and thankfully could not be widened due to planning regulations.

HOLLOW LANE.JPGA sunken lane on the approach to East Coker

We soon passed the old hamlet of Burton and the end of Burton Lane (which led to the farmhouse cottage where the Skeltons had lived for the duration of the war). We had, however, already decided to head straight for the heart of the village (what had once been called Up Coker), and park by the almshouses next to the church. Not only did this mean we could start our walk by viewing the impressive St Michael’s, with its T. S. Eliot memorial, but it also gave me the opportunity to show my cousin the first cottage in which our grandmother was billeted (West Wells), and where I was told she’d only stayed for a short time as she’d been unhappy about being made to ‘feel like a skivvy’ by the woman of the house.

ALMSHOUSESThe 17th century almshouses by the church

A wedding rehearsal in the church meant we only had time for a cursory look around, and I was glad that I’d had the chance to attend a Sunday service with my mother on our first visit back in 2005. It was on that July morning that I felt the sense of the community that pervades the place, as well as delighting in the Englishness of the service, which was so different from my memories of attending the Church of Scotland in my youth.

Conscious of the worsening weather, we did not stop for a drink in the Helyar Arms as planned (called The New Inn until 1948), but headed past the pub and along the road leading to Sutton Bingham – once a scattered village and now a reservoir, whose medieval church with pre-reformation wall paintings had been preserved. My mother and I had visited the church on that first trip, and had wondered at the homes which had disappeared. My father would have known the village (where there had been a railway station, closed in the early 60s, but not as part of the reservoir development), and it must have been an uncanny experience for him to return to the area and see that great expanse of water where once there were farmhouses and fields.

COKER MARSH ROAD.JPGCottages at Coker Marsh

In the end we only got halfway up the road before heavy rain halted us in our tracks. However, it was enough to give Sandra a feel for this part of the village – called Coker Marsh – and where our uncle’s extended family (the Bouchers) had lived in one of the stone cottages which lined the road. Walking back the same way towards the church, I noticed a small stream running along the left-hand side of the road which, judging from the stone channel in which it ran, looked like it might have once had a purpose beyond just taking away runoff water. The remains of a cress bed? I could not remember it from my earlier visits, but wondered whether this was because it had been dried up previously. This made me think about other aspects of the village I might have missed, or forgotten about, and I realised that although I generally prefer to explore places on my own, by showing Sandra around East Coker I was strengthening my own mental map of the area.

Our next plan – to walk via Back Lane to Burton – was stymied by more heavy rains so we missed out going there on foot, much to my disappointment. While it was certainly useful to have a car, particularly in such horrible weather, I have always relished my own rambles around the area, climbing the many wooden stiles and taking the lanes that lead to the neighbouring villages. Being a non-driver admittedly closes off some opportunities, but also means that walking long distances becomes commonplace (just as it once was). For years I was slightly ashamed of this proclivity for visiting new places under my own steam, often in combination with public transport, as I always felt it made me seem like a second-class citizen. But now that eschewing car ownership has suddenly become more mainstream, I feel less defensive about my lack of driving skills.

BACK LANE.JPGWild Flowers in Back Lane

Although we missed out on the very charming footpath up Back Lane – which my aunt later told us was one where she would go with our uncle before they were married and wanted some privacy – I did, however, convince Sandra to park up at North Coker and walk along the road to Burton Cross. This meant that we were able to admire the stone cottages, many with thatched roofs, and their bright and blowsy, albeit rain-soaked, gardens. We passed by what had once been the shop and post office, a sad reminder of how little of these services remain in rural locations. On my first visit in 2005 it had still been trading and my mother and I had been grateful to be able to purchase snacks and a newspaper. No doubt my father would have spent any hard-earned pocket money there – as had most of the village children throughout the years – as well as in the small shop next to the pub, which had long since closed. And I pictured him scampering along the road, after having helped out with the harvest or haymaking, wondering whether to spend his precious farthings and ha’pennies on liquorice or boiled sweets.

As we walked up Burton Lane to the cottage where my grandmother and the three children lived during the war, I tried to picture it as it had been in the 1940s, devoid of the new bungalows which were squeezed in between the row of original cottages and the fields. I had once come across a photograph of the lane, taken shortly before the war, which showed a herd of short-horned cows being driven along a narrow dirt track bounded by hedges, trees and fields. In the distance all that could be seen was the roof of the wooden gospel hall – the building my grandmother cleaned in return for reduced rent on the rather spartan Burton Farm cottage opposite.

BURTON LANE (2).JPGLooking down Burton Lane from the road end today

On this visit, I was more conscious of the modern houses which flanked the lane, looking shabbier now that previously. And I could swear that a couple of newbuilds had popped up between them in the once generous gardens, giving the lane a more hemmed-in feel. In contrast, the original cottages nearer the road-end appeared even more attractive next to their characterless suburban-looking neighbours. Yet I was aware that to have lived there once would have meant putting up with cold and damp and darkness for a good part of the year.

As Sandra is particularly interested in old buildings (but still wants to live in a modern one), I had little difficulty in persuading her to take the sandy track which ran by the chapel towards Culliver’s Grave (the name of a field) and at a crossroads in the woods turns off to Naish Priory. This 14th century Grade 1 listed building is now a private home, and although it was never a true priory, it did once have religious connections. It is, however, a remarkable survivor from the period with a price tag only the super-wealthy can afford. Currently it’s owned by the local conservative MP and arch-brexiter, banker Marcus Fysh,  which may explain the number of EU flags draped over the front gates of several more modest houses in the village!

NAISHSide view of Naish Priory

The following afternoon, when I told my aunt of our trip to the priory through the woods, she explained that this was the way she’d walked from the farm cottage to pick up the school bus to Yeovil (a 1920s charabanc brought out of retirement for the evacuees). Although it did not seem like much of a short cut, I’m sure there was a good reason for my aunt to use this trail, rather than take the road. Perhaps she’d simply wanted to avoid someone (such as the farmer who was rather touchy-feely) or had enjoyed the lonely track, which she’d undertaken in all weathers.

Asking someone at an advanced age about their reminscences is obviously something which needs to be handled sensitively, and I was conscious of the fact that it felt just as important for us to talk to our aunt about the present as the past. Luckily Sandra – who knew our older English cousins much better than I did – was able to supply that side of the conversation. While she browsed through photographs of a recent family wedding, I showed my aunt some of the old family photographs I’d accumulated over the years. Most of these she could remember, as either I’d sent her copies in the post or she’d been the one to furnish me with the originals. However, viewing them together was a completely different experience. Each image released a most astounding array of sharp memories, as if the photograph had been taken yesterday. For example, a great-uncle I’d never known (my grandmother’s beloved older brother) was described by my aunt for the first time as being ‘pompous’. Even as a boy you can see it in the way he looks!

Sometimes I just had to catch my breath and listen carefully as my aunt described such momentous events as The Crystal Palace burning down in a relatively matter-of-fact way: Mother called us to the window and said there must be a huge fire going on somewhere over South London. We did not know then that it was the great Crystal Palace where we went to listen to bands on a Sunday. My aunt then told us about the car races in the grounds of the Crystal Palace that my grandparents took them to watch. The car racing at Sydenham was something I had not known about, and seemed a strange thing for a young family to do. But then when reading more about it afterwards, I discovered that these were really popular events, which in the 1930s would have perhaps fascinated a wider variety of people.

Crystal_Palace_fire_1936Crystal Palace burning down, November 30th, 1936

And so it was that the afternoon continued in a most delightful fashion, my aunt moving lightly from the present to the past, depending on the topic of conversation, her face a range of flickering emotions. Shafts of late summer light from the garden fell through the open stable door of my aunt’s tiny 18th century cottage lighting up her features, which, as Sandra remarked later, made her look like Nana and Grandad rolled into one person. Behind my aunt on the wall, a clock ticked ominously, making me aware of the limited hours we had – and not just on that afternoon. It was one of those rare moments (or rather a collection of moments, strung together like delicate fairylights illuminating the dark) where it seems that time has ceased to exist in normal terms. I felt as if we had almost slid into another world: one in which we could glide between 1929 and 2019 with ease, summoning up ghosts along the way.

My aunt’s stories – delivered in that funny old-fashioned clipped London accent that the whole family once had – triggered a range of emotions in me that Sandra later told me flitted across my face in the same way as my aunt’s (and, if truth be told, just like Sandra herself). With my aunt’s uncanny ability to describe past events in exquisite detail, frozen moments in photographs were suddenly set free to take on their own momentum. A picture of the back yard at Denmark Road reminded her of how she and my father used to dare each other to climb over the fence into the next door neighbour’s garden at night and run around without getting caught. She explained that this was because the neighbour’s back yard was actually planted out with shrubs and flowers and had a lawn – as opposed to the more functional space to the rear of their own house.

Another photograph of my aunt and father in fancy dress brought back a memory of a party at school. My aunt explained that my grandmother had been so delighted with the sight of her two children all dressed up in their costumes (number three was yet to be born) that they went straight from their junior school in nearby Crawford Street to a local photograper’s studio in their outfits. And that slightly superior-looking smile on her face? Well her Pierrot suit had been specially made for her, whereas my father had just had to contend with what he could find in the dressing up box.

P1070488 (3).JPGMy aunt and father in fancy dress c1933

That afternoon I also learnt that the dog my grandfather brought home to Denmark Road one day, surprising his children, had actually never been meant as a family pet but as a guard dog to protect the house from a ‘light-fingered’ family two doors down. My aunt laughed to recall that one night when they all returned home from a day out (perhaps at the Crystal Palace), the house had been ransacked and the dog was found quivering under the table.

Such tales, although not dramatic in themselves, are important to family historians. Not only do they bring the very human side of genealogy to the fore, but also illustrate the concerns of previous generations – which may have been very different from our own. They also help us to understand the behaviour of our ancestors. As a child I always thought it strange that my father obsessively checked all the locks on the doors and windows of our bungalow every night and admonished us if we left our bicycles outside. I wonder, too, if he perhaps felt guilty that his childhood dog was just left out in the back yard most of the time. In contrast, our own family dog went everywhere with us and was (according to the vet) literally walked to death by my father and myself.

JET.JPG

Our Cocker Spaniel, Jet, 1974-1982

My aunt, however, does not suffer fools gladly (just like my grandfather and father) and certainly could not simply be described as some sweet old lady siting in a rocking chair waiting for her relatives to visit. One of the reasons I had not seen so much of her over the years is that she and my father did not always have the easiest of relationships. He found her bossy; she found him difficult. But their younger brother (Sandra’s father) was the adored baby of the family who kept the infrequent family reunions going throughout the years. My last memory of my aunt on that Saturday afternoon is of her standing in her front garden as we prepared to take our leave (with promises to return in a few months) jabbing at the twisted trunk an old wisteria tree with one of her walking sticks. She was annoyed with the fact that while she wanted the tree cut down to let in more light, her neighbours wanted it to remain. This was because the old wisteria’s spreading branches also decorated the facades of their own cottages, added value to the homes.

Later that evening, esconced in a quiet country pub, Sandra and I browsed through my copy of East Coker: A Village Album by Abigail Shepherd, a book very much rooted in the tradition of oral history. My cousin was able to easily recognise the old photographs of the places we’d visited, so little had changed in East Coker over the last century and a half, and we both expressed our amazement that our aunt (who also had a copy) had been able to recognise so many people in the book. Not only had she been able to locate Sandra’s father as a child from a sea of other schoolchildren who were all in fancy dress to commemorate the end of the war, but she was able to put names to the blurry faces of some of the adults standing sheepishly at the back. I found it equally impressive that she’d known who everyone was in my father’s boyhood photograph of the 1944 Whit Monday trip to Coker Woods, the discovery of which had reawakened my interest in my Skelton family history (see In my Beginning is my End). 

Coker Woods.pngThe photograph of my father (right) with friends, East Coker 1944

Since returning from my visit to Somerset, I’ve been rereading Abigail Shepherd’s informative and entertaining book about East Coker, discovering facts I’d previously missed or forgotten about,  and tying in some of the stories my aunt told us about (such as Queen Mary’s visit to Mrs Dorothy Walker-Heneage at Coker Court in 1941) with the reminiscences  outlined in the book.  As East Coker: A Village Album was first published in 1997, many of those interviewed are no longer alive today to tell their tales, including my father’s friend, Alan Cornelius, who as a teenager had taken the group photograph in the local woods with his father’s Box Brownie.

I’m glad that I was finally able to meet Alan Cornelius, and learn about his wartime boyhood experiences, and am grateful for the copy of his (unpublished) notes on the subject of the ‘vacuees.  By chance, my aunt told me last month that one wartime Christmas the only electric bulb they possessed in their small farm cottage gave up the ghost, prompting her mother to ask her to go to the Cornelius household to see if they had a spare. Of course, my aunt being my aunt simply put her foot down and refused to go out begging for a lightbulb on Christmas Day, and so the family had to celebrate in candlelight. Which sounds as if it might have been wonderful for everyone but my poor grandmother!

A VILLAGE ALBUM

Of course, today marks the day 80 years ago when my aunt and father were evacuated with their respective schools: my aunt to East Coker with Charles Edward Brook School for Girls in Camberwell, and my father to Leatherhead in Surrey with his school. However, only a few months later my grandmother was able to move to East Coker with her youngest son and bring the three children together under one roof, while my grandfather continued to work in London. For a fourteen year old like my aunt, the evacuation seemed more like an adventure away from the restrictions of her parents, in particular my grandfather, who could be a rather strict father.

As Alan Cornelius pointed out to me, there was great excitement in the village when the evacuees arrived and a lively social scene grew up, with boys’ and girls’ clubs held at Coker Court, as well as local dances, sports events and cultural activities. It is not surprising then to learn that many of these wartime friendships blossomed into relationships and then into the inevitable (in those days) marriages. It seems strange to think that my aunt’s lifelong connections to the area – cemented by her marriage to a popular local East Coker boy – all hinged on the lottery of the evacuation on the 1st of September 1939.

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2019

 

A Tale of Two Villages

She prophesied, that, late or soon,
Thou would be found deep drown’d in Doon;
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.

Robert Burns, Tam o’ Shanter (1791)

ALLOWAY AULD KIRKThe Auld Kirk, Alloway, 1895 (which looks the same today)

Last month I wrote about my recent trip to Dunure in Ayrshire (see Looking Back), when I visited some of my childhood haunts, including the village of Alloway, famous for its association with the ‘ploughman poet’ Robert Burns. Next month I shall be returning to East Coker, the Somerset village where my father spent his wartime childhood as a London evacuee (see East Coker), and which also has a connection with a well-known poet, albeit of a very different kind and millieu. Yet – perhaps even because of the two poets – the similarity does not stop there. Both these attractive conservation villages surrounded by farmland have also been prey to post-war housing booms and thus at risk from being swallowed up by the nearby county market towns of Ayr and Yeovil respectively.

Had my father consciously been aware of the similarities between the two places when he’d first visited the site for the soon-to-be built bungalow in Alloway? On that day in July 1963, when he’d set out along the tree-lined road from Ayr, the sun had shone on the parks and green spaces, and it had shone, too, on Alloway’s small main street, with its handful of stone cottages, two shops, village hall and war memorial. Opposite the post office – like the proverbial jewel in the crown – was Burns Cottage, birthplace of the Scottish Bard two hundred years previously, with its thatched roof reminscent of many of the buildings in East Coker.

Burns_Cottage_Alloway (2)Burns Cottage and Alloway Village (looking north) today

Alloway-Village-Street-Scene-Ayr-Ayrshire-Scotland-Postcard (2)Alloway, Village, Ayr (looking south) c1904

Walking up Doonholm Road, past the older and grander houses of Alloway, to see where the new Weir’s estate was being built, my father would have  observed the red sandstone village school with its air of Victorian respectability. Then there was the rather imposing Burns Monument Hotel which overlooked the river, with its posh upstairs restaurant, and the flagstoned cellar bar (where old men used to gather round the open fire with their sheepdogs and penny whistles). The idyllic setting of the old hotel was further enhanced by the backdrop of the local Burns Monument and Gardens and the famous medieval hump-backed Brig o’ Doon. Both the old bridge and the nearby ruined Auld Kirk were immortalised in Burns’ poem Tam o’ Shanter where a drunken Tam tried to hurry his horse, Meg, over the river to escape the witches who were chasing him (as they were believed to be unable to cross running water).

BURNS MONUMENT HOTEL 1970s.jpgBurns Monument Hotel c1970

BURNS MONUMENT HOTEL C1920Burns Monument Hotel and Gardens c1940 (from the Brig o’ Doon)

BROG O DOON.jpgBrig o’ Doon (with hotel gardens), early 20th C

Our road was named after the Doonholm Estate and ‘big house’ which it led to (and where Robert Burns’ father had worked as a gardener two hundred years previously). It was one of the first to be developed in the village, and before the Ayr bypass was built in the 70s was still a rural byway, rather than the rat run to the A77 that it eventually became. In those days it was the main access from the village to the outlying farms, including Mount Oliphant where the Burns family moved to when Robert was young. Sheep were still driven along it to graze in the field opposite our house, and on occasion stray cows could be found wandering down the road. In fine weather local riders passed by on horseback as did a rather eccentric old spinster on an outsize tricycle who taught Sunday school to the children of the farming communites. My father had remarked on the appeal of this country road to my mother when he went to visit the house, perhaps because it reminded him of Burton Lane in East Coker, which led to the old farmhouse at Burton Farm where he’d lived for most of the war.

Further up from our house, where the Doonholm Estate began, was an old railway bridge underneath which summer trains would run out to the local Butlin’s Holiday Camp (a place I loved as a child). These were the last gasp of Britain’s steam trains which followed the remains of the Maidens and Dunure Light Railway, then a sixty-year old branch line which had been in decline since the 1930s. On Saturdays my father used to take me up to the bridge and hold me up to let me watch the trains pass as they blasted and hooted their way to the coast, taking holidaymakers to their week at the camp. Previously the line had run all the way to Turnberry hotel and golf course (now belonging to Donald Trump) until the hotel was requisitioned during the war as a military hospital and the golf course used as an airfield. There had been several small stations along the line, including one at Alloway and Dunure, as both were local tourist destinations. In Alloway the remains of the old Victorian station (disused for many years) had been reduced to a pile of rubble, which we explored as children.

BUTLINS.JPGOn a daytrip to Butlins with our Skelton Grandparents c1968

This was 130 years after the first steam train line in London was laid – the London and Greenwich Railway, which was also originally designed as a day-tripping route. I have written about this line before (see A Riverside Rest) as it ran close to my great-great grandfather’s house in Bermondsey and, like many at the time, he was no doubt fascinated by the idea of this new form of travel. It feels strange to think that I was able to witness the last of the working steam trains that James Skelton would have once found so modern. As my sister once said when we were walking through Beamish Open Air Museum near Newcastle and looked up to see an early steam-powered locomotive with its large black chimney chugging along in the distance: What would it have felt like to have clapped eyes on that for the first time! It must have been quite a frightening sight.

Not long after the last stretch of our local railway line was closed in 1968, I found myself of an age where exploring outdoors with friends took up a large proportion of my free time. The old railway (as we always so earnestly called it) was an ideal place to build dens, search for wildlife, and walk our dogs. Later – along with several other teenage girls in the neighbourhood – I exercised a local farmer’s ponies on the route. But already by then it was becoming boggy and overgrown, and parts had become impassable, while further out many sections had been incorporated into farmland.

On my trip back this summer, I discovered that the secton of the old railway line by Doonholm Road has incorporated a new feeder road to the bypass, ironically taking traffic away from our old home. But it has also opened up all the fields beyond to vast new housing developments which seem out of place so far from the compact centre of Alloway. In many ways, the Somerset village of East Coker has fared better, despite the recent plans for the controversial new Keyford Estate. This is possibly because it had more of an actual village centre to begin with, and was surrounded by grade 1 agricultural land once used in the booming flax industry.

By contrast, a great deal of the farmland near Alloway was not ideal for growing crops (as Robert Burns and his father discovered), and in 1754 the whole area had been sold by the burgh of Ayr to help pay off debts. Thereafter it was held by several wealthy landowners, most of whom had made their money through trading in the West Indies and who rented out the least profitable parts of their estate to tenant farmers. In fact, our house in Doonholm Road was built on what was once an orchard belonging to the Rozelle Estate (named after one of the owner’s Jamaican plantations). Eventually Rozelle’s remaining parkland and ‘big house’ were bequeathed to the local council to be used for recreational amenities, as was the neighbouring estate of Belleisle with its large Victorian golf course (see On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot).

BELLEISLE POOH STICKSPlaying ‘Pooh Sticks’ by the golf course in Belleisle c1969

Yet it was Doonhom Estate which continued to exert more of a fascination on me due to the fact that it was off limits to the ‘common folk’. Regular forays into the grounds were organised by the local brownie and guide groups – usually a treasure trail through the woods which ended in a sausage sizzle on the banks of the river where we were all bitten alive by midges. Then there were rainy, summer fêtes in the grounds, and it was at one of these events that I first rode a pony and tasted honey, instantly becoming hooked on both activities. When I was about nine or ten I also had the fortune to befriend (possibly I engineered this friendship) a girl whose family rented the old servants’ quarters  on the estate. So for a few halycon months I was able to roam the grounds, including the stable block, and was given as much honey to eat as I liked! 

DOONHOLM HOUSE 1905Doonholm House, Alloway c1905

When I first visited East Coker in 2005, there was still a feeling of community replete with ‘local characters’ (akin to Alloway’s tricycling Sunday school teacher). This was something that Alloway appeared to have lost during the mass building of houses which went on throughout the 70s and 80s. Maybe that is why my mother and I were so captivated by the place on our first visit. Although it saddened my father to return almost half a century later and see the changes time had wrought, for us it was a delight to discover what seemed such a quintessentially English village with thatched cottages whose gardens were full of summer flowers, including Eliot’s ‘hollyhocks which aim too high’. Even as we approched the village on the bus from Yeovil as it descended through the hollow lanes, it felt like entering a green doorway into a magical world.

HOLLOW LANES.JPG

COTTAGE EAST COKER.JPGHollow Lanes and Thatched Cottage, East Coker

As a child I never really felt we truly belonged in Alloway as a family, despite the fact we were all involved in the community in our own way. This was in part beause we had no relatives nearby and our house had no history to speak of. Most of the people we knew at the time were also incomers into the new estates. Like myself, nearly everyone I once went to school with has left the area, as have most of their parents – if only through death and illness (at least on the part of the parents). On our recent visit, I noticed, too that the place has a different feel these days, with Range Rovers parked in front of the local shops (where once we tied up our ponies to buy ice creams on summer day), and the local pub turned into an award-winning restaurant with an emphasis on upmarket weddings. The cellar bar has of course long gone, as have the men and their dogs.

I have discussed this feeling of impermanence in our family before (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers) when I mooted the idea that it had perhaps been unknowingly passed down the Skelton line. Poverty and two world wars created much upheaval for my father, grandfather and great-grandfather’s generation. Before that, there was my great-great grandfather, James Skelton (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), who came from a family which was very much rooted in the Yorkshire Dales.

James Skelton was born in 1799 on the cusp of a new and exciting century of progress, and so like many of his generation headed to one of the booming industrial centres to make his way in the world. But why did he choose London, rather than a town or city closer to home? Was there a family connection which helped him to secure a foothold there? Or, like myself over 150 years later, was he simply attracted to the glamour of the capital and the thought that all of life worth knowing would be found there?

Despite the fact that the Skeltons have been mostly living in South London for two hundred years, North Yorkshire is the place I have now come to think of as their spiritual home.  Compared to the history of land use and ownership in Alloway and East Coker, the area has followed a different direction thanks to its unique geography and the creation of the Yorkshire Dales National Park in 1954. There it is still possible to freely traverse the ancient paths which link up villages and hamlets, and to feel as if you are part of a timeless landscape. If James Skelton were able to return to the land of his ancestors he would no doubt recognise much about the area – something that could not be said about his South London neighbourhoods.

YORKSHIRE DALES.JPGThe Yorkshire Dales – our spiritual home?

It is a part of the country I have recently started to visit in conjunction with my genealogical research, and with which I have also begun to feel a strong connection. So I am pleased to announce that I will soon be turning my attentions to my family’s Yorkshire beginnings. But in the meantime I am looking forward to my upcoming trip with my cousin Sandra to East Coker to visit our aunt (our fathers’ sister), and the opportunity to gain some additional insights into the more recent family history.

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Looking Back

Out on the road today
I saw a deadhead sticker on a cadillac
A little voice inside my head said:
“Don’t look back, you can never look back”

Don Henley, The Boys of Summer (1984)

SUNSET AT DUNURESunset over Arran from Dunure, Ayrshire

Here we are again, back at the start of summer, with our nostalgic (false?) memories of long school holidays and their endless weeks of sunshine. Frustratingly, where I grew up in south-west Scotland it was often the pre-summer weeks which were the warmest and driest. Not this year, though.  I spent most of a rather chilly and wet June in the seaside village of Dunure, staying in a converted fisherman’s cottage – one of several in a whitewashed terrace which face onto the shore. The eponymously named ‘Seaview’ was a simple row of houses I’d loved as a child: back then it had reminded me of the kind of places Enid Blyton’s very English characters stayed in for their summer ‘hols’ (possibly because it was how I imagined Cornwall to look like).

DEAVIEW AT SUNSET.JPGSunset on Seaview Cottages, Dunure, Ayrshire

The cottages overlook a sheltered bay, with a medieval ruined castle on one side and a small harbour on the other and it would be not too difficult to imagine some un-PC adventure involving smugglers and gipsies taking place there in classic Blyton fashion. So picturesque is the village and its surroundings that it was recently the site of filming for the television series Outlander (a time-travelling adventure set in 18th century Scotland based on the books of the same name by Diana Gabaldan).

DUNURE BEACH.JPGDunure beach and ruined castle, Ayrshire

Since the success of the TV series, Dunure is no longer a wee secret on Scotland’s lesser-known south-west coast. (There are even signs at both entrances to the village proclaiming it as an Outlander film site). But yet it still relatively quiet when compared with other coastal destinations in the UK. Maybe this is because it is a place you cannot pass through accidentally – the road down to the tiny harbour parts company from the main coastal route from Ayr a couple of miles back, winding its way through a dense canopy of vegetation. As a child, this was part of the excitement of getting there – it felt like travelling through a living tunnel into another doll-sized world. And after parking in Kennedy Park, near the ruined castle, we’d usually have the pick of Dunure’s many small secluded bays, tucked in beside the basalt cliffs, that make this part of the coastline so impressive.

WITH GRANDAD AT DUNURE.JPGWith Grandad Skelton at Kennedy Park, Dunure c1970

For the past five years I’ve been returning to this spot for my spring or summer holidays with my husband and some of our family in tow. Despite the village’s relatively hidden location, there is a regular bus service from the nearby town of Ayr, so we never bother to rent a car when we visit, preferring to explore the coastline on foot or by kayak. The area never fails to disappoint, whatever the weather. Even – or especially – when it rains, there can be something glorious about beachcombing when the shore is glistening with small shiny pebbles that look like they have come from a giant’s sweetie jar, upended in a fit of pique. It is then we like to search along the tideline for one of Dunure’s hidden gifts: agates.

COASTAL PATH DUNURE.JPGOn the Ayrshire Coastal path at Dunure

On any given day, there is always someone poking around on the numerous beaches, looking for these semi-precious stones, and the area has been well-known by collectors since the 19th century. For the uninitiated, it can at first be difficult to know exactly what to look for; but once the eye settles in, they pop up all over the place. Agates are basically layers of silica made up of microscopic crystals which have coated the inside of cavities in molten rock and are often striated, lending them their beauty. Although they are usually found as fragments due to their propensity to shatter, the ones I especially love collecting are the intact nodules, despite the fact that without specialist cutting equipment the internal patterns of the stone remain hidden from view. However, the surface of these round agates has a charm of its own: it is often pitted, and has a waxy lustre, and many are half-transparent when held up to the light. I have a bowl of these other-wordly looking gems at home that never fails to intrigue guests, particularly the paler ones, which look like miniature moons complete with craters.

AGATES FROM DUNURE.JPGAgates from Dunure

Collecting agates remind of researching the lives of ancestors: it is always difficult to stop because you never know where the next nugget of information will come from. And then there is the fact that even if you find something, it is usually just a fragment of the whole story. Yet genealogical research adds another dimension to everyday life in the way that searching for agates changes a beach stroll into something more than just a walk along the shore. Some days you might want to spend a long time focused on one spot, shifting the pebbles around; another day you might simply want to glance down occasionally at your feet and see if anything catches your eye.

Like genealogical research, the intact agates hold their secrets internally with just a hint of what their story is on their outer crust. As modern-day social historians, we are also constantly struggling to get below the surface of things. We can peruse these wonderful maps of where our ancestors lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, and sometimes beyond, but know that unless documented in a sketch, or painting – or later in a photograph, the view of these streets and houses are lost to us. And that is only one sense: what of the smells and sounds and textures that our forebearers experienced? We may be lucky enough to have an image of the places where they lived and worked – or photographs of our ancestors themselves. Yet even these may prove to frustratingly hide more than they reveal. As Roland Barthes points out at the beginning of Camera Lucida (his book on the nature of photography): The first thing I found was this. What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. (For more about Barthes and photography, see Those Ghostly Traces).

I believe that is what makes returning to our childhood homes after a long absence such an unsettling experience – it may look the same in many respects, but without the sounds, sights and smells of our formative experiences it is only a simulcrum of the place in which we grew up. I had this sensation when one day during our stay in Dunure my mother and I took the local bus in to the village of Alloway – the suburb of Ayr famous for being the birthplace of the poet Robert Burns – where we lived from 1964 to 1995. We both felt strangely out of place as we walked around the village, looking at the changes time had wrought. What I found particularly disturbing was the absence of the imposing red sandstone Victorian school which I’d attended from 1969 to 1976, and which had been demolished* in 2008.

*I discovered later that during the demolition a ‘time capsule’ from 1895, placed there when the school was being built, had been discovered in a wall by one of the workers (named Frank). The local paper stated that: Frank had the presence of mind to turn off the machinery and go and have a closer look. The jar turned out to be a time capsule buried 113 years ago in 1895. The pupils got the chance to have a close look at the contents of the capsule and learn a bit about life back in the time of Queen Victoria. Inside the blown-glass jar was an architect’s drawing of the school, minutes and accounts, coins from the time and copies of several newspapers of the day. (Although I realise that for present-day children, this time capsule probaly still would have been considered very old if it had been found to have dated from my period at the school!)

When the new teaching buildings (termed ‘the huts’) were hastily built in the 1970s to cope with the demands of the village expanding into a suburb, the original school had remained as the infants’ department. But the 21st century obviously needed a new type of school, and a few years ago the whole lot was torn down and completely rebuilt. Passing the modern building on that afternoon in Alloway, all I could see that remained of the old school was the white tiled wall of the outdoor Victorian toilet block, now incorporated into the outer wall of the new schoolyard.

It was a strange feeling to see that that wall – of all things – had remained. The toilet block had not been a pleasant place to visit in those days, explaining why many children had ‘accidents’ during the lessons. This was because the school bullies used to lurk there, trying to inflict ‘Chinese burns’ on the infants (or worse). I was at least heartened to see that the old sandstone wall which once separated the schoolyard from Robertson’s Field (but now divides the school from an up-market housing estate and sports ground) was still there. Possibly this was due to memories of sitting beside the wall on warm afternoons before the summer holidays, having al fresco lessons. I remembered how we used to take our little wooden chairs outside and sit in a circle as the teacher read to us, or we listened to a story on the school radio. 

ROBERTSONS FIELDRobertson’s Field could not be saved (c) Ayrshire Post, 2018

That day in Alloway I began to get an inkling of what my father must have felt when he returned to East Coker in the late 1980s, almost fifty years after arriving as a London evacuee to join his mother, baby brother and older sister in the village (see East Coker). Like myself, he would have witnessed a new generation of people living there who all knew each other but whom were strangers to him. Perhaps just as I did, he wanted to stand in the local shop and tell them what it used to look like half a century ago, when sweets were bought from jars with old money, and farthings and ha’pennies would always fetch you something (if only a white mouse or a liquorice bootlace). Or that once there were fields and lanes where now there are ugly, modern, sprawling houses with ridiculous made-up names. No wonder he told us children that as adults we should ‘never go back’.

When my mother and I first visited East Coker we had nothing to compare it with, so viewed it simply as ‘Eliot’s Village’, modernised, but still with the ‘shuttered lanes’ and ‘hollyhocks which aim too high’ and a pleasing lack of streetlights which allowed us to view the night sky. But for my father the post-war advances in farming along with the new houses built to accommodate those who longed to live in such a desirable spot would have added up to a considerable change. And of course there is the obvious psychological effect of revisiting an old haunt that is more difficult to pin down. A sense of shifting time and space that reinforces the ephemeral quality of life.

For that reason, keeping my father’s advice in mind, this time I did not visit our old family home in Alloway where we’d all once lived (in various combinations) for over thirty years. I’d done so several years before and felt awkward walking slowly past the house (now much changed and extended) a couple of times in a road devoid of pedestrians. It was difficult to believe that the four of us had all resided in the original little bungalow with the tiny bathroom for so long – no wonder there had been tensions during our teenage years!

DOONHOLM ROAD.JPG1963 brochure for our house in Alloway (ours was a mirror image)

What had once seemed an expansive front garden now appeared small and suburban – although I noticed with delight that all the trees my father had planted at the back to give us privacy now towered over the house. It was hard to imagine that the house had been the epitome of modern chic in 1963, and the garden originally nothing but a fenced in square of mud which my father had transformed with the help of Grandad Skelton, no stranger to growing his own fruit and vegetables out of wartime necessity.

GRANDAD IN THE GARDEN.JPGGrandad Skelton after a spot of gardening in Alloway, c1967

My mother told me later that they had never intended to stay so long in the house, having a vague plan to move to London after a couple of years, if my father (an air traffic controller) could get a posting to Heathrow Airport. Although perhaps it was just as well that we accidentally stayed in Ayrshire for the first chunk of my life, as it means I still have a place to return to which can be called ‘home’. And maybe that is the difference between my own peacetime childhood and that of my father’s. After the war interrupted his life in South London, he was forced to integrate into a new community which was very different from the one in which he’d grown up. Thus years later, when he was ‘looking back’ at his youth from the perspective of middle age, he had two very different sets of memories to consider.

Regular readers may know that it is the story of my father’s wartime evacuation to East Coker in Somerset which sparked my current genealogical quest (see In My Beginning is my End), and it has been a recurring motive in my writing on the subject. So I am delighted to announce that in August I will be returning to East Coker with my cousin, where we have arranged to meet up with our aunt. I envisage our 3-day trip as a sort of middle-age genealogical version of Thelma and Louise with a National Trust card thrown in for good measure. And as well as perhaps solving a few mysteries which my research has thrown up, I hope that our visit will also spark some new stories about the London branch of my family which I can share with you later in the year, when – in the words of Don Henley – The summer’s out of reach.

NUMBER 33.JPG

Wishing everyone a warm and sunny July!

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2019

 

The Stories Which Connect Us

But the vast mass of men and women in every time do not leave behind them either renown or testimony. These people walked our streets, prayed in our churches, drank in our inns or in those that bear the same names, built and lived in the houses where we have our being today, opened our front doors, looked out of our windows, called to each other down our staircases. They were moved by essentially the same passions and griefs that we are, the same bedrock hopes and fears: they saw the sun set over Westminster as we do. Yet almost all of them have passed away from human memory, and are still passing away, generation after generation.

Gillian Tindall, The House by the Thames, (2006)

BOOK

When I picked up a copy of The House by the Thames by the historian and writer Gillian Tindall, I had no idea that it would be one of the first of many books I would accumulate on the history of London, yet would remain my favourite for years to come. Since then I have reread it several times: not just for the detailed historical information, but as a masterclass in the art of creative non-fiction, a genre which endeavours to both entertain and illuminate readers. The book has also influenced my own writing on the topic of my ancestors, and I continue to aim for the standard Tindall has set, aware of how much I still have to learn about the craft. However, the act of writing is inextricably bound up with the quest for improvement, and is part of what makes it such a life-affirming thing to do.

In the intervening years I have amassed a healthy collection of books about the capital, as well as those pertaining to life in the Victorian era. But a decade earlier, just before I returned to researching the history of my London family (see Begin Again), I did not quite know where to start with my research. A plethora of texts was available, some of which seemed overtly sensationalist, others appearing off-puttingly dense, and some spanning different areas and/or time frames from my own focus. However, The House by the Thames, which combined a historical narrative with a storyteller’s gift, proved to be an ideal entry into the history of London’s south bank for a novice like myself.

The book initially appealed to me on several levels, not least because it was centred on a Thameside neighbourhood close to where my ancestors settled, in nearby Horsleydown. The fact that the story revolved around a single house, also gave it an obvious focus that some other texts might lack, thus making the topic more accessible to a non-historian. And hadn’t I already noticed this unusual house when first crossing the Millennium Bridge after years away from the capital? There on the cobbled streets of bankside I had encountered not only the new Shakespeare’s Globe (how did that get there?), but the surprising remnant of a row of early 18th century houses, incongruous beside the iconic bulk of the old power station which now houses the Tate Modern Art Gallery and the new-fangled glass and steel towers which surround it.

THE HOUSE BY THE THAMESNumber 49 Bankside (on left)

Right from the first page of the book, with chapter one entitled In Which we Find the House, I knew I was in the hands of a word alchemist. We are pulled into the narrative with the tantalising opening line: You can reach the house in a number of different ways. (And I thought about my own way there, across ‘the wobbly bridge’ from St Paul’s). Throughout the rest of the chapter, Tindall leads us expertly through time and space to finally arrive outside the eponymous house, telling us that: Occasionally strangers will be brave enough to tug the ancient bell-pull, which jangles a bell within on the end of a wire, and enquire if the house is a museum that can be visited. They are politely turned away. (We can certainly sympathise with such behaviour as by now our own curiosity is piqued). This is followed by the tantalising description: Before the door is shut again they will get a glimpse of a panelled room and an arched doorway, rugs and a longcase clock, perhaps a whiff of logs smouldering on a pile of soft ash in an open fireplace. Here, surely, is the past, on which the door has fleetingly opened? But there is no automatic admittance to the past. A way has to be found.

HOUSE DOORWill the door open to 49 Bankside?

Of course we know that Tindall is going to find that way for us. And what a route it is. On the journey there we learn about the history of the south bank and the factors which contributed to make ‘the Surrey side’ different from ‘the City side’ over the centuries. There are diversions into a myriad of related subjects: everything from the Thames watermen and lightermen who operated between these two shores, to the building of the bridges and the coming of the industries which would change the area for good. The majority of these topics also affected my own ancestors, and many are ones I have chosen to explore in relation to my family history. As Tindall’s book uses the history of a house, rather than a family, as the main subject, this keeps the focus to a specific area of London. And what makes this story such an appealing one to follow is that the writer is so evidently alongside us as we read – an authorial voice which is sometimes critical, other times surprised and enthusiastic, yet which never over-rides the narrative.

MILLENIUM BRIDGEThe route to The House by the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral

Since then, I have read a number of non-fiction books which explore the history of South London specifically. Some of the most fascinating have been those written in another period, such as Harry Williams South London (from The County Books Series), published in 1949, giving us an insight into the post-war mind. Although Williams writes in such a style which seems shockingly un-PC to the modern reader – and often makes blithe generalisations about the neighbourhoods he explores – there is something prescient in the summarising statement of the book: The history of the twentieth century is too close at hand to make any review of it possible, but at least it can be said that its influence upon the ten boroughs has been largely negative. We have rid ourselves of much of the misery, cruelty and danger of early days, but apathy towards ugliness is growing, a remorseless process of decay set in motion by the blindness of men who thought and still think only in terms of material prosperity. The foul congeries of slums of South London have disappeared, but the tenements and new housing estates that have taken their places have been built without faith in themselves or in the future.

SOUTH LONDON

Throughout the book, William veers between nostalgia and anger at the demise of south London’s past glories. When it comes to Bankside he takes great delight in describing the 16th/17th century neighbourhood, with its pre-Puritan theatres and taverns. The world was a gay place for Londoners back then he muses sadly; then goes on to state: Dignity and quality were there, music and colour, and of all these attributes, only music has survived in the ordinary life of England. The post-war drabness of his own world has obviously affected him greatly. He then goes into full purple prose to describe Shakespeare’s time in Bankside (where the old Globe theatre was located), which is worth quoting in full below:

Shakespeare is supposed to have derived his close knowledge of ships and the sea from the long row of riverside hostelries with projecting balconies and snug tap-rooms, which lined the river along Bankside and Bermondsey. There, in these friendly inns, the sea captains, pirates, smugglers, rovers and honest sailors from a hundred wandering ships of all nations nightly congregated to drink and sing and exchange the tales of their trade. We can see on a dozen balconies, leaning out over the scurrying blackness of the river, clusters of men, hard and craggy with the rigours of their calling, but never hard-faced. Gaily dressed – for the deadening uniformity of clothes had not yet stifled the English scene – they swopped sailors’ yarns in that rich and vital speech which was the prerogative of the meanest scullion in Shakespeare’s day. And somewhere Shakespeare himself would be lurking and listening and drinking, and in the end disputing in friendly argument. For wit matched wit in his time and inventiveness of thought was the monopoly of no man and no class.

N.B. With such a rum-sounding bunch packed into these ‘snug tap-rooms’ and ‘projecting balconies’ and on the sauce, I somehow think there must have been more than just ‘friendly argument’ going on!

However, when reading Williams’ descriptions of contemporary run-down post-war Bankside, we get the sense that he cannot get out of the neighbourhood fast enough. He stands in front of number 49 (although he never names it) looking wistfully to the City and states: And so we take one glance across the river at the majesty of St. Paul’s Cathedral, as Wren must have looked so often from his house on the south shore; then averting our eyes from the disgusting contrast, let us retrace our steps back to the bridge foot (of Southwark Bridge).

OLD BANKSIDEBankside, 1827

BANKSIDE 1940Bankside, 1940 (no 49 is partly visible on on the left)

Both Images: ‘Old houses on Bankside’, in Survey of London: Volume 22, Bankside (The Parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark), ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1950), p. 54. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol22/plate-54

Giving us a late Victorian’s view of South London is the prolific Walter Besant, who in 1898 wrote in the introduction to his book on the topic (described on the frontispiece as being the companion to ‘London’, ‘Westminster’, ‘East London’ etc): I hope that ‘SOUTH LONDON’ will be received with favour equal to that bestowed upon its predecessors. The chief difficulty in writing it has been that of selection from the great treasures which have accumulated about this strange spot. The contents of this volume do not form a tenth of what might be written on the same plan, and still without including the History Proper of the Borough. I am like the showman in the ‘Cries of London’- I pull the strings and the children peep. Strange spot indeed!

References to Williams and Besant have cropped up in some of my previous posts, as both writers are highly readable and at their most enjoyable when they go ‘off-piste’ to rant and rave (albeit gently) about their own hobbyhorses. This is Besant’s take on local churches (including my own family’s original parish church in Horsleydown): It is a great pity that in the whole of South London lying east of the High Street (the current Borough High Street) there is not a single beautiful, or even picturesque church. Look at them! St Olave’s (now St Saviour’s Cathedral), St John, Horsleydown, St. Mary Magdalen, St Mary, Rotherhithe, the four oldest churches in the quarter. It cannot be pretended that these structures inspire veneration or even respect. Modern day readers may wish to disagree (and may even feel frustration that St John’s was destroyed by WW2 bombing).

ST JOHN HORLEYDOWN (2)St John’s Horsleydown, engraving by John Buckler c1799

Similarly to Harry Williams, although fifty years earlier, Walter Besant was rather disparaging about the south London of his day. In fact, he was forced to issue an apology in future editions of the book for describing the perceived lack of culture in the area. His original paragraph is reproduced here: In South London there are two millions (sic) of people. It is therefore one of the great cities of the world. It stands upon an area about twelve miles long and five or six broad – but its limits cannot be laid down even approximately. It is a city without a municipality, without a centre, without a civic history; it has no newspapers magazines or journals; it has no university; it has no colleges, apart from medicine; it has no intellectual, artistic, scientific, musical, literary centre – unless the Crystal Palace can be considered a centre; its residents have no local patriotism or enthusiasm – one cannot imagine a man proud of New Cross; it has no theatres, except of the very popular or humble kind; it has no clubs, it has no public buildings, it has no West End.

The brief (and rather unenthusiastic) apology he later added as a post script to the book states: NOTE. – Since this was written several new theatres have been built in South London. I should therefore like to correct the passage on p. 320 which states that the Theatres are humble. Also I would like to acknowledge the existence of local newspapers, and instead of saying that it has no public buildings I would say only one or two buildings.

We come away with the impression that such patrician writers of another age are perhaps not quite to be trusted with their stories – yet they now allow us to view places and their history through the eyes of a different generation. We know, for example, that Besant regards the contemporary 1898 south London population figure of two million people as being extremely high, and states: I cannot quite avoid the use of figures, because a comparison between the population of these villages (the old scattered communities) in 1801 with that of the great towns in 1898 is so startling that it must be recorded. (There was a ten-fold increase in south London’s population in the 19th century, compared to five-fold north of the river). Today, although there is currently around double that number living in south London, the rate of population growth has been slower, and thus the changes Besant viewed in his lifetime must have been so much greater than those observed over the course of the last century.

COTTAGES IN GIPSY HILL.JPGVillage feel in Gipsy Hill today

Tindall – who most definitely knows how to separate fact from fiction – has the luxury of writing a hundred years after Besant and thus being able to extend the history of Bankside and the surrounding area into the 20th century, and to see it come full circle in many respects (as it returns to the ‘gay place’ of the past that William’s described). She also has access to a large number of documents that previously would not have been available as they were either still locked away and/or not available to the general reading public. The most obvious of these records are the official census returns, which are only released one hundred years after they have been taken. These ten-year snapshots in time, which began in 1841, are a boon to genealogists and social historians, yet can sometimes distort a family’s story if not used in conjunction with other records (see Moments in Time for my treatment of this subject). Yet the past is always moving forward, and as Tindall points out: The identities of all those who lived in the house in 1911 and in subsequent decennial years are lying quietly in an archive as I write (in 2006), but neither I nor any other researcher can access them till the requisite term of years has elapsed.

The online release of many more 20th century records – such as electoral registers and phone books – has gone some way to fill in the gap between the 100-year rule and living memory which is always going to exist due to the span of a human life. But all family historians will sympathise with the frustration at moving from an era where there is a relative abundance of records, to one where there is an information gap, despite the fact we feel we should be able to discover more as we move closer to our own time. In fact, detailed parish records of the pre-registration time in 1837 often yield up more information than later official records, with the main advantage that a certificate does not have to be bought unseen, always an irritant (and loss of a tenner) if it proves to be the wrong one. This can often be the case if the family name was a relatively common one. (Earlier records can also circumvent this issue due to the significantly smaller population of the time). I still remember from my ‘heir hunter’ days in Holborn (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born) how many dud certificates the company ended up paying for, but as we needed to move fast to beat the competition then the net had to generally be cast far and wide.

The issue of researching a too-common name certainly does not come up when it comes to the occupants of number 49 Bankside from the mid-18th to 19th centuries. Tindall is able to trace the Sells family from their (recorded) beginnings in the area as Thames lightermen, to their ownership of the house and its neighbours through their successful expansion into the lucrative coal business. Their story ends a century after their arrival in Bankside, when the direct descendants of the original family (now the Peronnet Sells) leave the heavily industrialised Bankside of the Victorian age to relocate to a quieter semi-rural area further inland from the river, just as my own great-great grandfather (James Skelton) did when he moved to Brixton from the nearby riverside parish of Horsleydown.

And here is where the story of this Bankside family entwines with my own family history in an unexpected way. By 1871, Edward Perronet Sells Ill, who was born in 1845 and lived in no. 49 Bankside as a child, had moved into the same street on the outskirts of Croydon where James Skelton’s oldest son, the wealthy mahogany dealer, James William Skelton, resided. When the young Sells takes a house in Morland Avenue to live alongside all the other merchants and brokers – a high proportion being (like James William) described as West India merchants, it was still considered an undeveloped semi-rural outpost. The handful of houses in this once salubrious street had the luxury of extensive gardens to the rear, as well as facing onto Morland Park, and were often just referred to by their fancy titles. James William called his own residence ‘Westle House’, a recurring family name whose significance I have yet to discover as it possibly related to his mother’s side of the family, the branch from which I am not descended.

CROYDON HIGH STREET c1870Croydon High Street c1870

I have mentioned the sad history of Westle House before (see The Story So Far), which was advertised for sale in 1868 shortly before James William moved to Gipsy Hill with his new wife (and thus he may have actually just missed having Edward Peronnet Sells as a younger neighbour). It was described as including ten bed and dressing rooms, four reception rooms, and convenient and extensive domestic offices, but is now in its death throes (if it hasn’t already been put out of its misery). I went in search of this villa in Morland Road, some years back, on the off-chance that it was still standing, amazed at my good luck that of all the houses in the original street it was James William’s which was the sole survivor.

It was hard to imagine this house once being described – in the estate agent parlance of the day – as being admirably situate and standing in its own pleasure grounds, with well-stocked kitchen garden. A detailed map of the ‘new’ street that I was able to access in the Croydon archives prior to visiting the house showed that there had once been a circular driveway at the front of the building. At the rear was a long narrow garden, consisting of a lawn and shrubbery and a vegetable garden, with fruit trees furthest from the house. It seemed strange to think of a single man living there, so far from town, until I recalled the fact that he’d brought back his half-Belizean daughter to London with him at some point in the 1860s. Was he perhaps ashamed of this girl, whose mother he appears never to have married? Did he want to hide her away from society? Sadly, Louisa Arabella did not survive past the age of 21, dying of TB in Gipsy Hill several years later. Her story is one that I have always wanted to be able to tell, but she leaves no records other than her death certificate.

I try to imagine her sitting in the garden of Westle House on a summer’s day, pining for the warmth of the Caribbean. Perhaps she was already instructing the gardener to grow the plants that reminded her of her homeland and to nurture the herbs that would bring back the taste of her childhood in Belize. But these thoughts only occurred to me afterwards, and on that wet October day when I set out along the busy Morland Road I certainly knew that, even if the house was still standing, this delightful large garden would never have survived. Nevertheless, I was still unprepared to find the house boarded up and surrounded by ugly security fencing. (In the space which once was the garden was a block of modern flats). If truth be told, I could not get away from the place fast enough, such was my distress at seeing the building in its current state.

WESTLE HOUSEThe old ‘Westle House’ in Morland Rd Croydon today

A few months later the poor old boarded-up house even appeared on television, starring (of all things) in a conservative party political broadcast which highlighted how Croydon’s conservative MP would replace such dilapidated housing with affordable flats. The strange thing is that I do not think I’ve ever watched a party political broadcast in my life – and certainly not a conservative one – but was either waiting for the news to come on or too lazy to switch off afterwards. Of course, when I heard the word ‘Croydon’, I glanced up with a certain amount of interest. But as the story of the local housing crisis unfolded, I suddenly knew with a chilling certainty that Westle House was going to appear. And then everything moved so fast – the house was there on the screen and the MP was wittering on about how many flats could be fitted into the space. The whole thing spooked me considerably, and when I found out later that someone had recently been found dead in the grounds of the house (which presumably explained the security fencing), I felt that the building had most definitely come to the end of its natural lifespan.

This made me realise how pleased I was that the old Skelton family home – that of James William’s father – in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton was still very much in use and seemingly well-loved by its current occupants. One day I happened to glance inside while walking by (perhaps ‘happened to’ is an understatement) and saw what looked like a lively family with teenagers sitting round a big table. If I’d had enough guts I might have been more like Tindall’s Bankside strangers and knocked on the door, hoping that instead of turning me away, however politely, they would have invited me inside and told me their own stories of the house.

BRIXTON HOUSEDare I knock on the red door?

Knocking on strangers’ doors is the kind of thing that the writer Julie Myerson was not afraid to do when she researched her non-fiction book Home: The Story of Everyone who Ever Lived in my House, which was first published in 2004. After I’d read The House by the Thames, I must have been hungry for more stories about south London homes and Myerson’s book was an obvious choice, although her mid-Victorian terraced Clapham house is a lot younger than the Bankside one and thus the social history focuses on a different timespan. It is also a very different style of book as stories of Myerson’s own life (past and present) are interspersed with that of the occupants of the house.

As a novice to historical research, Myerson describes learning about the different types of records and archives available, as well as documenting the ways she attempts to contact people connected with the house and her delight and frustration at the responses – or lack of them. So the book also functions as a sort of beginner’s guide to undertaking genealogical research. But what really makes Home stand out is that Myerson has the novelist’s capacity to weave stories from the information she collects, slipping from fact to fiction and back again with ease, and bringing the tales of the inhabitants to life in a way that allows us to see them as people who (in the words of Gillian Tindall above): opened our front doors, looked out of our windows, called to each other down our staircases.

x293

Starting with her own experiences of buying the property in the late 1980s, she moves the narrative gently backwards so that we feel we are being pulled back with the house through the years until we reach its beginnings in 1871. The final chapter, entitled Grass and Silence, opens with the eerie Number 34, it’s time to finally undo you. You’re coming apart pretty fast now – bricks, slate, cement, mortar, nails, joists flying away as hurriedly as they appeared. London gravel and clay are pouring back into your deepest foundations – shovelled and levelled, a layer of turf and gorse flung quick as a blanket over the top.

And there on the last page is the line: Bazalgette’s men break soil at first light on Monday. Just as when I came across the name of Edward Peronnet Sells in the census for Morland Road in Croydon in 1871, it is an uncanny reminder that all our histories of London are interconnected.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2019