Returning to the River in my Mind: Part 2

The Tower Bridge is inefficient and a back-number, but it is part of the London scene for, as previously remarked, the river without it is almost unimaginable. It must be replaced, since it is now an anachronism, but it should be succeeded, not by the underground tunnel recommended by the County of London Plan, but by a splendid new bridge, a magnificent conception to lift up our hearts every time we gaze upon it. 

South London, Harry Williams (1949)

TOWER BRIDGETower Bridge c1971 (Horsleydown is on the right) (c) Skelton family

Last month, I revisited an earlier post I’d written about the Thameside parish of Horsleydown where my first London Skelton ancestors settled, two centuries ago. In this chapter, I intend to continue my exploration of London over-the-river, and as such have found it a pleasure to reread and edit my earlier writing on the topic. Despite not being able to return to the UK currently, I like to visit old and new London in my mind and reflect on my research and experiences to date. It is a comforting reminder of the time when a short trip to the capital could be organised in a couple of mouse clicks, and those long weekends were greatly anticipated events. Part of the pleasure was planning where to go and what to see, although latterly I’d often allowed myself to become distracted on tandem activities, which although not directly related to my genealogical research, did at least help to deepen my knowledge and understanding of the city. Sometimes it was, in fact, those random occasions – often serendipitous in nature – that offered me glimpses into the lives of my ancestors.

I started documenting these experiences last month (see Returning to the River in my Mind – Part 1), and continue to do so in Part 2, below. Perhaps my descriptions may even encourage some readers to visit this part of London, once life returns to normal.

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I will always treasure the moment in the reading room of the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) when I carefully laid the heavy, leather-bound rate books from Horsleydown Lane onto the large foam supports. My fingers struggled to untie the old ribbons which held the covers together, and I nervously eased the pages apart to an ominous creaking sound – accompanied by a rather worrying flurry of desiccated particles of brown leather. It appeared that no-one had opened these books for years, perhaps not even since they had been written, and in the intervening centuries the scribe’s ink had turned to a pale yellowish brown, reminding me of the ‘invisible ink’ I had made from lemon juice as a child. It was a joy to read the beautiful cursive hand of the unknown pen-pusher who’d transcribed these records almost two hundred years ago, perhaps perched all in black like a crow at a high wooden writing desk while laboriously copying out the scribbled notes of the enumerator.

Yet as much as I relish the challenge of searching the records for original documents, particularly when coming across something not in the public domain, nothing beats the  thrill of combining the hunt for specific information with an on-the-ground search. Horsleydown Lane certainly could not have come alive for me if I hadn’t spent time there myself, trying to get under the skin of the neighbourhood (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), even if that did prove rather elusive in the 21st century.

Some of my most successful research days have been those in which I visited the local records office – such as the Southwark Local History Library in Borough High Street, tucked away at the back of the John Harvard library like a tiny secret, or the wonderfully eccentric Lambeth Archives adjoining the Minet Library. Both these places are situated amongst the streets, building and parks that figure in my ancestors’ lives, and there is a comforting sense of continuity when I can set aside a document and walk out to view the area to which it refers, returning again and again to now familiar haunts. Every time I discover some new fact, I feel I want to go back and view the neighbourhood once more in the light of my recent knowledge. Thus my impressions of a place are always shifting and rearranging themselves as I see them in different seasons and weather conditions, at various times of the day, and in ever-changing moods.

In the Tardis-like room that houses the Southwark Local History Library, the friendly and knowledgeable staff helped me to put together an initial picture of the Skeltons’ lives in Horsleydown from the records they house. A trawl through the original trade directories of the time showed that there was James Skelton operating as a Tailor &c  from 1828 to 1843 in Horsleydown. The rate books I later consulted in the LMA showed that James initially paid £14 in annual rent for his brick, Queen Ann house at 41, Horsleydown Lane, which rose to £17 by the 1840s (his parish tax on that amount being £1 and 4 shillings). This record also indicated that the property, along with others in the Lane, was owned by the wealthy, local land-owning Abdy family, and belonged to the Horsleydown estate, built on what had previously been Horsley Down – which, as the name suggests, was grazing land up until the middle of the 17th century.

Another important piece of the jigsaw fell into place when an archivist helped me to locate the Skeltons’ abode in Horsleydown Lane from the incredibly detailed London street map, created by Richard Horwood from 1792-9. This breathtakingly intricate map not only gives the street number of every house in the capital, but also includes details of the buildings featured, along with their attached yards and gardens and outhouses. From the North Bermondsey section of the Horwood map, it is thus possible to ascertain the exact location of the family’s house. Going back even further by consulting earlier maps, such as John Roque’s plan of 1745 – the predecessor to the Horwood one – it is possible to build up a fascinating picture of how the neighbourhood grew over the centuries to eventually become a densely-populated industrial area by the Victorian age.

HORSLEYDOWN LANE MAP (3)Horsleydown in Horwood’s Map of London, circa 1800

Horsley Down RoqueHorsleydown in Roque’s Map of London, 1745

What excites me in particular about these two maps is the incredible attention to detail. In the Roque map the exquisite engravings of the long-lost pleasure parks and market gardens of South London help to conjure up a semi-bucolic atmosphere which is in marked contrast to the more urbanised area immediately across the water. There is something about the way the fruit trees throw eerie shadows onto forgotten fields and lanes which gives rise to an almost visceral pain at the loss of such things. I could scroll (metaphorically stroll) through this map for hours, visiting Dancing Bridge and Pye Gardens in Bankside, or taking the air along Melancholy Walk near Bermondsey Abbey.

By the time the Horwood Map was published, fifty years later, the landscape of Bermondsey was markedly changed, in part through the increase in the number of tanners, fellmongers and wool staplers in the area. Although there had been a leather trade there since Medieval times, mostly due to the presence of freshwater tidal streams from the Thames and nearby oak woods, the 18th century saw a boom in the trade, and it was claimed that a third of the leather in Britain came from Bermondsey by the beginning of the 19th century. This was a messy and smelly business involving oak bark, lime, urine and dog faeces, creating noxious smells in the vicinity of the production, and the tanneries had therefore initially been established inland, away from the inhabited areas close to the riverfront.

When James and his family moved to Horsleydown in the 1820s, Bermondsey was certainly in the process of change. In 1833, the new Leather and Skin Market was opened, and three years later the railway came to the area, cutting a swathe through residential districts and causing an exodus of wealthier residents in the wake of increased industrialisation, an event which I documented last month. This resulted in the material decline of the area throughout the second half of the 19th century and eventually led to the infamous slum clearances of the 20th. Writing in 1949, in South London, Harry Williams provocatively states that: Ten years ago Bermondsey was, perhaps, the worst slum district in the world. Wholesale damage and demolition caused to its moth-eaten and decayed property by war bombing has improved it, but it is an improvement purely negative in character. It is better because it has been thinned out and has lost a proportion of its congested population. What remains is a mess and a disgrace, none the less.

However, Williams does go on to say (in his own wonderfully poetic way)  that: This web of ill-planned slums, decayed waterfront and wandering highways has an extraordinary fascination. It is impossible to account for the atmosphere generated by the place unless we admit that the shadows of history still cling to the soil on which the events were played out. so many events, gay and colourful, mournful and turbulent, stately and murderous, have taken place in this small area that the air must be full of memories and whispers of gallantry, if only the ear were attuned to the tiny vibrations of forgotten things.

So much of Harry Williams’ riverfront Bermondsey has now gone. But with the loss of the industries which dominated the area and the subsequent closure of the docks, there is now the strange feeling that Horsleydown is slipping back  into its pre-industrial past when visitors would come from across the water to enjoy the pleasures on offer on the south side of the Thames. This trend is most obvious in nearby Bankside, but has also been replicated to a lesser extent in the area south of Tower Bridge, in part due to the attractions of the bridge itself. Now pedestrians can  follow the Jubilee Walkway to St Saviour’s Dock and beyond to where the replica of Sir Frances Drake’s Golden Hinde is berthed, taking in the shops, restaurants and galleries of riverside Horsleydown en route. Many will stroll along the cobbled street of Shad Thames without knowing the exact area through which they are passing, but if they are aware of the old parish name they might easily guess that it was once covered with fields where horses and cattle grazed.

P1050069Renovated Victorian Warehouses, Shad Thames, Horsleydown

GOLDEN HINDE 1 (3)Replica of the Golden Hinde, St Saviour’s Dock, Bermondsey

The famous Agas map of London in 1540 (not shown), clearly indicates this open land  (complete with drawings of long-horned cattle), and in the Hoefnagel painting from later in the century (below), these same fields can still be seen. The view of the White Tower from the end of the lane on the left – could this be the original Horsleydown Lane running down to the river? –  shows that the location is not in dispute, even if the artist may have taken liberties with the actual details of the scene.

Joris_Hoefnagel_Fete_at_Bermondsey_c_1569Joris Hoefnagel, A Fete at Bermondsey, circa 1570

A contemporary plan of the area (below) shows Horsleydown in more detail, and it has been suggested that the grey building with the towers, located on the right of the Hoefnagel  painting above,  could be the Hermitadge shown in the map below (top centre). The Knights Hous (the house of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem), is reputed to have stood on the site where the Horsleydown Brewery was eventually erected – and next to the St John’s of Jerusaleme’s Milles on the riverbank, thus indicating where Horsleydown Lane once was. With so much detail, the map is a fascinating insight into the pre-industrial land use of the area, which also encompassed what is today the approach to Tower Bridge, including the section to the west of the bridge, previously called Potters’ Fields, and recently developed as Potters’ Field Park.

HorseyeDown1544-399x600 (2)

It’s hard to imagine the area around Horsleydown currently attracting the same amount of interest if the 1943 County of London Plan to which Harry Williams refers had succeeded in having the ‘anachronism’ of Tower Bridge replaced by a ‘splendid new bridge’! As the most iconic bridge in London, Tower Bridge is frequently mistaken by visitors for London Bridge, whose historical claim to fame is not even hinted at in the modern river crossing. Sometimes I have difficulty myself in believing that Tower Bridge did not even exist when my own London grandparents were born. As I mentioned last month, my great-great grandfather from Horsleydown would be surprised today to see the addition of both Tower Bridge and the Globe Theatre in his old stamping grounds. As if the past had arrived in the future with no thought for the centuries in-between.

And that is what I find so strange and fascinating about shape-shifting London.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2021

Returning to the River in my Mind: Part 1

Of all the quarters and parts of London that of Horsleydown is the least known and the least visited, except by those whose business takes them there every day. There is, in fact, nothing to be seen: the wharves block out the river; the warehouses darken the streets, the places where people live are not interesting; there is not an ancient memory or association, or any ancient fragment of a building, to make one desire to visit Horsleydown.

South London, Walter Besant (1898)

Reading back through some of my older blog posts is akin to entering into another world. One where I could explore the streets and record offices of London at will, popping into cafes and pubs on the way. My weekends in the spartan rooms at St Paul’s Youth Hostel or my September weeks with my mother at the LSE summer bed and breakfast on Bankside seem like memories of another, freer, time where descriptions of global pandemics and lockdowns were mainly found within the pages of fiction.

Eventually I’ll go back, I tell myself. When travel restrictions lift and life becomes a little more like normal again I’ll book a few days in London. But will I? Obviously, friends and family in Scotland are a priority but after that will a trip to the capital be next on my list? I remember a golden early autumn weekend with my husband spent on the ‘Surrey side’ of the river. There we browsed the stalls at Borough Market, filling up our picnic basket, visited Brunel’s magical underwater tunnel at Rotherhithe and stopped for a pint at the Mayflower pub. Another day we caught the boat to Greenwich to visit the Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory as well as taking in an evening performance at Shakespeare’s Globe. Even the Morris Dancers who started an impromptu performance on Bankside seemed exotic to us and an important part of the memories of that special weekend.

A visit to London always surprises and inspires and can never bore – although the emotions thrown up may not always be comfortable (as in the last time I was there, when the pandemic took hold, see Strange Times Indeed). It’s a place that enables you to always learn something new about yourself and others and the world at large. Even if I’m not directly undertaking genealogical research (such as in the weekend trip with my husband where no family history searches were theoretically ‘allowed’), any trip to London over-the-river gives me a chance to be some immersed in the world of my ancestors.

Therefore, this month I want to revisit some of my earlier descriptions of exploring my ancestors’ riverside parish of Bermondsey, editing and combining them into two posts (with Part 2 to follow in June) to satisfy my urge to be there, if only in my mind. 

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It’s mid-September and I’m back in London. I haven’t visited the capital for a year now, although it doesn’t feel like that. Perhaps because I’m surrounded by my research it often seems as if the city is coming to me through my books and papers. Of course that is no substitute for the real thing, so it was good last month to stride out along the South Bank towards Rotherhithe, with the first scent of early autumn in the air.

I stop at the old watermen’s stairs at the bottom of Horsleydown Lane, the place where my ancestors would have crossed the river a whole lifetime before the iconic bridge would link the Surrey-side to the Middlesex-side at the Pool of London. While it is clear to me that Tower Bridge is the odd man out – a fancy-pants of a river crossing in amongst all the more functional ones – I still find it a struggle to imagine the Thames as my great-great grandfather would have seen it when he came to London from North Yorkshire sometime around 1820. 

P1040281 (2)Horsleydown Old Stairs and foreshore today

Horsleydown Foreshore c1850Horsleydown foreshore, c1850 (c) Guildhall Library & Art Gallery etc.

Not only would the great river have been heaving with boats, including those of the watermen and lightermen, but none of the bridges which span the waterway today existed two hundred years ago, at least not in their current incarnations. At that time, the crossings closest to Central London were limited to London Bridge (replaced in 1973), Old Blackfriars Bridge (replaced in 1869), and Waterloo Bridge (replaced in 1945), along with the iron construction of Southwark Bridge (replaced in 1921) and the iron Regent’s Bridge (soon after renamed Vauxhall Bridge and replaced in 1906). In fact, depending on when James Skelton actually arrived in the capital, he may have even been witness to the opening of these latter three toll bridges at Waterloo (1817), Southwark (1819),  and Vauxhall (1816).

Although I cannot determine exactly when my great-great grandfather made that all-important move to London, I do know he was born in 1799 in Darlington and grew up in North Yorkshire. As a young man he obviously undertook an apprenticeship in tailoring, and by the time he was in his twenties had settled down in the riverside parish of St John’s Horsleydown, now in Bermondsey (see The Tailor of Horsleydown). London Bridge would therefore have been his closest crossing, had he needed to go to the City by road. He would certainly have witnessed the ‘new’ London Bridge in the process of being constructed next to the old medieval one – which was no longer fit for purpose –  in the 1820s, and not completed until 1831 when he was already a father of four young children (with another on the way).

The_Construction_of_New_London_Bridge_alongside_the_old_bridge_by_Gideon_Yates,_1828.png‘New’ and Old London Bridge, by Gideon Yates, 1828

Would my great-great grandfather have been excited at this idea of progress? Was it in fact the opening of this improved road crossing which helped him decide to move much farther out to leafy Brixton over a decade later, commuting over the bridge to his new tailor’s shop in East Cheap, near St Paul’s? Or was it the coming of the railways in 1836, spreading out over South London throughout the 19th century, like a spider spinning a slow and stealthy web, which caused him to flee his adopted parish? Perhaps it was a combination of both, illustrating the complex relationship each generation has with the technological advancements of the age: where we gain in some areas, we lose in others. (We only have to think of the current trend towards video-conferencing and teleworking the pandemic has exacerbated to see parallels).

London’s first railway line, the London and Greenwich Railway, which opened in 1836 (but did not actually reach Greenwich until 1838) ran on a viaduct consisting of 878 brick arches, due to the number of streets that it had to cross. Walking through Bermondsey today, it’s hard to ignore this structure, which appears to dominate the neighbourhoods through which it passes. If you add in the noise and pollution the early locomotives would have generated – not to mention the carriages on the rudimentary rail system – it must have been a traumatic change to the area for the residents, particularly those in the more outer-lying parts that were still in open countryside.

London-and-greenwich-railway-1837London and Greenwich Railway, 1837 The Illustrated London News

Writing in his strange book South London over a century later, in 1949, Harry Williams states that: South London is almost crippled by these monstrous growths, unrealized by the traveller tearing along in his daily train. Whole areas have been choked by overhead rail-tracks on these wasteful brick arches, and to get a true appreciation of the sort of thing that can happen, one should pay a visit to Loughborough junction, where three of these monsters meet, or to Southwark Cathedral, where the main line track seems to hold down an area of a small country town.

aerial-view-01693-750London Bridge (with Southwark Cathedral) c1920 (c) Ideal Homes

Three years later, the new London and Croydon Railway opened, sharing the initial section of the line for two miles, the high-level pedestrian boulevards which ran alongside the tracks being utilised for this expansion. On Sundays (when trains did not run) these walkways had been a popular one-penny stroll, and perhaps my great-great grandfather and some of his family had dressed up in their smart Sunday best clothes to perambulate along them, wanting to see what all the fuss was about. I also imagine that they would have taken an early train journey, even just to experience this novel form of transport, especially as the family remained in the area until 1844 and thus had plenty of opportunities to be tempted by the idea.

In those days of relatively low-rise buildings, the long railway viaduct would have been an impressive sight. A few days after The Times article in 1835, the Mechanics Magazine stated that: The London and Greenwich Railway viaduct is now fast approaching completion, and presents a very imposing appearance. It forms a highly interesting object from the summit of Nunhead Hill, at the back of Peckham, from which the whole range of arches, seen in nearly its entire length, appears like the “counterfeit presentment” of a Roman aqueduct. Nunhead Hill is decidedly the best point from which to obtain a general view of this magnificent work, which there forms a part of the foreground to an exquisite and comprehensive panorama of the metropolis, in its whole enormous length from Chelsea to Greenwich, with all its “domes and spires and pinnacles”, amongst which those of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s are of course the most conspicuous.

Several years later, Nunhead Hill would become the site of the new ‘monster’ cemetery of All Saints – one of the ‘magnificent seven’ that were constructed in a ring around the capital in an effort to prevent the overcrowding in the London parish churchyards, and intended as a Victorian capitalist venture (albeit an unsustainable one). Today Nunhead Cemetery makes for a pleasant wooded stroll, as well a place of historical interest. And eventually James Skelton was himself laid to rest here in the ‘new’ family grave, situated at the highest point of the hill, the closest spot both to God and the fabulous views of the London skyline.

nunhead-cemetery-00585-640Nunhead Cemetery c1850

When the burial site was initially chosen for his oldest daughter in 1844 (see Present at the Death), the vista of London with which the family would have been confronted was obviously very different from that of today, although St Paul’s would have still been the dominant feature. Somehow this feels very comforting to me, as the cathedral has come to symbolise my times in London. This is because I usually stay at the YHA hostel in the old choir boys’ accommodation in Carter Lane, and from every dorm room the bells can be heard chiming the hours throughout the night. Despite what some of the guests say in the online feedback, for me it is nothing but a soothing sound which seems to be letting us know that all is right with the world.

FROM NUNHEADSt Paul’s Cathedral from Nunhead today

St Paul’s also symbolises family holidays in London as a child in the 1970s (all Londoners who have experienced the blitz seem to be forever drawn to this special place). I think, too, of James Skelton, who eventually moved out of Bermondsey and set up his tailoring business just a stone’s throw away at 15 East Cheap; of his second wife, Mary Ann Hawkins, who was born in one of the slum courts in the shadow of the great cathedral. She would have grown up with the sound of the bells, while her future husband would have heard them as he travelled into the City each day. And if it hadn’t been for the two bodies lying cold under the earth up on Nunhead Hill (James Skelton’s oldest daughter and his first wife), this young poverty-stricken teenager would never have been able to set up home in South London with my fifty year old grieving great-great grandfather. Such is the way the world turns!

So I see and I make connections as I walk the streets and parks of London. I feel privileged to know about my relatives’ lives through technology they could never have imagined, yet despite this knowledge I’m aware that as I tread in their faded footsteps I can never truly recreate their world. Sometimes, however, the city allows me a brief glimpse of a timeless space: the smell of roasting chestnuts on a winter’s day; a windy bridge crossing in early spring, grit stinging my eyes, while the brown-grey waters of the Thames roil and churn below; ghost signs on a wall advertising an obsolete product that was once regarded as commonplace. And for a brief moment I feel my ancestors calling to me over the years.

While looking through slide film of our family visits to London in the early 1970s, I came across the image (below) taken by my father which inadvertently captures the area of Horsleydown behind my sister and myself. It brought back memories of how much of the south bank of the Thames looked like a different world in those days. Dark hulking warehouses, many already closed up, lined the river, cranes jutting out over the water. It seemed to represent another London: one that both fascinated and repelled me. I often wished we could go over the bridge to discover what was on the other side for ourselves. However, just like Sir Walter Besant, (quoted at the beginning), my father used to say that there was nothing to see there; which was simultaneously a relief and a disappointment to me.

TOWER BRIDGE 2

Over forty years later, on that Saturday when I sat by the river’s edge at Horsleydown, I thought about the bridges and the railway lines which had marched on step-by-step alongside the speculative building ventures. It was inevitable that one day it would all eventually reach* sleepy Brixton, far away from the bustle of the river, where my great-great grandfather had moved with his family in respectable middle age. The relatively new, semi-detached villa on Coldharbour Lane – near the present-day (aforementioned) Loughborough Junction – had been constructed when the street was surrounded by trees and market gardens, and still deemed to be a relatively rural outpost, and it no doubt marked a stepping up in the social scale for the Skeltons of Horsleydown.

*And that it would then extend out even farther, only being stopped in its tracks by the post-war implementation of the green belt legislation.

What would James Skelton make of his old riverside neighbourhood now? There is the elaborate imposter bridge on his doorstep, looking like it has been there for hundreds of years; yet the family home in Horsleydown Lane no longer exists, bombed along with St John’s parish church in some unimaginable future-past war from the sky. Even the Victorian warehouses which tourists come to view and photograph would be regarded as modern interlopers, having replaced the original timber ones from earlier in the century with which my great-great grandfather would have been familiar. And if James did venture down the old watermen’s stairs to the foreshore and gaze out across the river, would he regard the current City skyline as progress?

Then if he continued to follow the riverside path beyond London Bridge and the Shard, past the hemmed-in but spruced-up Southwark Cathedral – which he’d have known as a simple parish church, and to whose long-demolished grammar school he’d sent his only son, what would his impressions be? The industry has all gone, and the resulting space opened up to pedestrians in pursuit of pleasure, as it once was centuries ago. No doubt he would marvel at the new-old Globe Theatre, looking as if it had been transported from the past to the future, missing out all the generations in between. He might then wonder who and what had shaped this strange, modern London which perplexed him so.

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2021

More Home Thoughts from Abroad

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England—now!

Robert Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad, (1845)

I cannot quite believe it’s yet another spring where April Fool’s jokes are non-existent and I’m not stepping on a plane to head home to see friends and family. Browning’s much-quoted lines of Oh, to be in England / Now that April’s there seem particularly melancholic this time around. A year ago I’d planned to fly to Bristol for a week’s break in Somerset, which obviously never happened. Like most people I had no idea that twelve months later I’d be looking at a similar scenario. It’s an unsettling feeling to know you are not able to visit your own country, but I’m lucky that I currently have no onerous reason to return. Friends and family in the UK are all well – either having survived Covid or not having caught it in the first place. Yet my thoughts automatically turn to home at this special time, when spring is delicately greening the land and everything seems fresh and new and full of promise.

My Easter break in the UK is usually synonymous with a litany of firsts of the year. The first drink outside in a pub beer garden after a country hike, while feeling the sun on my face. The first picnic on a sheltered beach, my back warming against a smooth boulder of basalt. The first coatless walk along the south bank of the Thames, seeing how far my legs will carry me before I jumped on a Clipper back to my starting place. April has always been one of my favourite months to be at home, possibly because it taps into my childhood memories of the excitement and wonder of the season. Exploring somewhere new in springtime only adds to the delight of discovering a place with a family connection, whether it be hiking the footpaths in the Yorkshire Dales or strolling through the daffodil-studded parks of South London.

This April I return to a post I wrote some time ago about a visit to England in the spring of 2016, shortly before the infamous EU referendum. It now seems much longer than five years ago when I headed to the Cotswolds with my cousin and his wife, and the trip feels as if it belonged to a simpler, kinder world. I can still recall lying on the grass at Hidcote Manor, dozing off our lunch beside the ha-ha, knowing I would always remember everything about that day. It was one of those rare times in life when you are conscious of a spreading and sustained happiness – of being in tune with your surroundings and the world in general. For most of us it has been difficult to summon up such feelings this past year. But spring has always been a season of hope and possibilities, and those days will certainly return.

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When Robert Browning wrote Home Thoughts from Abroad in 1845, shortly before his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett, he was in his early thirties and living in the north of Italy. This was a part of the world which would go on to play an important role in his life and literary work, and although Browning obviously had a great affinity for the place, the poem eloquently captures the feelings of the ex-patriate. Whether English or Australian, Italian or Indian, it is possible to recognise the longing for the homeland which is so delicately described (even if this is often just the idealised version of ‘home’ that exists in the imagination). As the verse aptly illustrates, the things that are taken for granted by those waking in their own country become much more significant to someone who is parted from them.

Around the time of the poem’s genesis (mid-19th century), the British Empire was still in the process of expanding rapidly, and many colonialists would have related to such feelings for the motherland. When I think of some of my own Victorian ancestors, I could imagine the same thoughts would have been in their heads. What might James William Skelton have felt when dealing with the tropical heat in British Honduras (see A Tale of Exploitation) instead of the soft light of an English spring? What did his younger sister, Ann, dream of while out in the wild and lawless goldfields of Australia? And did his older sister, Sarah, reminisce about cool spring rain from her palatial residence in Hong Kong? This branch of my family could be described as ‘children of the Empire’, and would no doubt have appreciated Browning’s sentiments, made much more poignant at that time by the ever-present fear of death from disease, or from the long and often harrowing sea journeys involved in emigration.*

*Ann died in Victoria, Australia, in 1860 from tuberculosis. She was just 29. Sarah also died from tuberculosis while travelling back to England by steam ship from Hong Kong in 1873, aged 47.

I do not, however, believe the poem was meant to be jingoistic in any way – Browning was not a colonialist, and he loved and appreciated the way of life in Italy, which he later called ‘my university’. But like many of these types of poems which have wormed their way into the nation’s post-colonial consciousness, the meaning may leave itself open to being hijacked and reduced to a simplistic message concerning the superior way of life in England (rather than the idea of yearning for ‘home’ in general).

My spring teaching break always falls in the first fortnight of April, a time when I long to return to the UK, and so I can certainly sympathise with Browning’s sentiments. For me, the British spring has a different quality  from that here in Switzerland, where the transition between the seasons seems to happen all too quickly. Thus the end of March is a time for me to pack my bags and ‘head home’, away from the lingering snow that often characterises my adopted country* at this time of year, and allow myself to be catapulted into a milder and greener world. Browning, however, would have experienced the reverse – there was not the long protracted British spring in his warmer Italy, and his reference to the gaudy melon-flower later in the poem seems to refer to this.

*On returning back to Switzerland a fortnight later there is always a surprise to find that spring has usually appeared in my absence and the old hornbeam hedge in front of the house has exploded into a mass of lime-coloured leaves.

As a Scot, however, I did not really associate Browning’s poem with my April visits to the UK until I started visiting England in springtime. Latterly this has been the Yorkshire Dales, in order to combine family research with a regular walking and sightseeing holiday. But once, several years before the genealogical trips started, it was Cornwall with Swiss friends who’d never been to what many Continental Europeans often refer to as ‘the island’. I still remember their delight when, after a day of driving through snow blizzards in Germany, we arrived to find ourselves in a magical land where pink Camellias were in bloom, the sea was a dazzling turquoise, and the gorse bushes fizzed with sun-coloured flowers drenched in the scent of coconut.

800px-Kynance_Cove_2Kynance Cove, The Lizard, Andy Wright from Sheffield, UK, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6021874

Of course I could not help but quote Browning’s poem as we strode along the lanes towards the sea, proudly showing off what I regarded as ‘my country’ to our Swiss friends. Not only did they enthuse about the beauty of southern Cornwall, but they also loved the very Englishness of the place: the cacophonous rookery by the old church, the fat badgers in the garden at night, the thatched cottages which lined the road to the harbour, the friendly local pub with the folk music jamming sessions, the cream teas in tiny chintzy cafes. I saw Britain through their eyes – a heady experience and one which I’ve always wanted to repeat. Next time you can show us Scotland, my friends said, and I was already planning where we would take them. But that was ten years ago, and despite our best intentions we have not yet been away together again. Perhaps I knew instinctively that nothing would beat that visit to The Lizard, where a run of great weather certainly helped to turn the whole experience into the living embodiment of Browning’s poem.

Fast forward eight years later to May 2016, a month before that terrible referendum, when another unexpected trip to the south of England was on the horizon. This time it was a long holiday weekend to the Cotswolds with my cousin and his wife. Steve and Beverley have featured in my story before – they were the ones who helped me visit Pennyhill Park (see On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot) and although not as fascinated by the family history as I am, they have always been very supportive of my project. But this time there was no genealogical side-trips planned – just three days of walking, talking, eating and relaxing. And it was every bit as much fun as I’d hoped. For the first time in years I was able to experience the magic of bluebell-carpeted woods again (I’m always too early in my spring break), not to mention having the chance to explore a part of the country I’d never visited before.

BLUEBELL WOODSBluebell Woods at Weston-Sub-Edge, Cotswolds

Looking back, that whole long bank holiday weekend seemed suffused in a dreamy pre-referendum light. It was the first few days of real warmth of the season, and on the drive up (across?) from Reading we stopped for lunch by the river at the wonderfully atmospheric Trout Inn in Lechlade, before heading to our final destination – the hamlet of Weston-Sub-Edge. That Friday evening, when we walked through the bluebell woods and over Dover Hill to the almost too-perfect yellow stone town of Chipping Campden, I felt enveloped in a sudden peace. May is always a hectic time at work, and despite what many people think about living in Switzerland, here there is a constant ‘performance pressure’ that permeates every aspect of life which I’ve never experienced to the same extent in the UK. Thus I always feel like I’m moving down a notch or two when I step onto home soil – although the fact that I’m usually there on holiday probably helps.

SCENERY.JPGTypical Cotswolds Scenery

The trip certainly surpassed my expectations, with the particular highlight for me being the walk over the fields from the church of St Lawrence at Mickleton to the arts and crafts gardens at Hidcote Manor, now owned by the National Trust. As we lazed on the grass by the ha-ha which separated the sheep from us, eating our homemade ploughman’s picnic lunch, and looking out over woods and undulating pastureland, I was overcome with an unexpectedly joyous feeling of possessing strong ties to family and land – an almost alien emotion for me, having lived away from my ‘home’ in south-west Scotland most of my adult life.

HIDCOTEHidcote Manor Gardens, Cotswolds

It was strange to feel such an attachment to an English landscape. Like many of my fellow compatriots north of the border, I have always had conflicting feelings about England, particularly the south. From an early age we are almost brainwashed into seeing this part of the UK as the default setting for the whole island. So much so, that when we actually visit the place for ourselves it can feel like stepping into a film set in the same way a first trip to Manhattan does. Therefore, while I delighted in the ancient churches, the soft meadowland paths, the stiles and kissing gates, the woodland streams, (in short the very Englishness of everything), part of me was struggling with the thought that it was not my own country. I am half English – the proof was in my very solid Berkshire cousin striding alongside me – and I do love the idea of England, at least in its most romantic sense. But something about the place shuts me out at the very same time that it beckons me in. It is a strange feeling to describe, although many Scots have attempted to do so over the years.

Throughout the weekend I discussed the concept of identity with my cousin and his wife – how it was possible to feel British and Scottish, yet in my case also a tiny bit English, too. Perhaps this complex web of allegiances had been further tangled by all the years I’ve spent living and working abroad. Possibly my English relatives find it an odd thing to query, but if so they never say. They have never needed to grapple with those feelings, seeing English and British as mostly interchangeable terms.

COUSINS_2 (2)With my very English Cousin, Chipping Campden, Cotswolds

However, it was not long before my national identity was called into question when the results of the EU referendum were announced. Very much in shock, we Brits living on the Continent kept our heads down and whispered long into the night with our fellow ‘remainer’ friends – most of us having been denied a vote in any case. And so it came to pass that those very fragile feelings of Englishness which I possessed from my paternal side of the family began to wither away, even my sense of Britishness. The handmade Union Jack rag rug I’d bought in the Dales was soon hidden under the bed, then my London mug mysteriously ‘broke’, the red, white and blue hessian shopper was suddenly needed for storing junk in the attic. And so it continued, until not a single object in the house could remind me of that patriotic feeling I’d once had, and which now was lost to me. It felt like a bereavement of sorts, and I struggled to keep up my enthusiasm for my genealogy project, no longer fired up to visit London in the same way I’d previously been.

And on April 1st 2017, I finally applied for Swiss citizenship. At the time I thought it an auspicious date, but now I see it as rather fitting – particularly as my new passport arrived a year later, just in time for my annual spring trip home. Before the EU referendum I had not felt the need for such a document. Unlike my parents-in-law, who had been happy to give up their Austrian and German identities after the war and proudly called themselves Swiss, I felt no strong desire to dilute my roots through taking on another nationality. In 2012 (what seems to me now like the high watermark of my feeling of Britishness, and I suspect I am not alone in this) I had celebrated the queen’s diamond jubilee with strangers – many of whom were English – on the Hebridean island of Islay, had watched and re-watched Danny Boyle’s exhilarating Olympic games’ opening ceremony, and had cheered on my cousin’s daughter as she gave the performance of her life for team GB in the synchronised swimming event.

It had been around this time that I’d begun to really throw myself into my genealogy project, discovering my English roots with a keen interest. My trips to London became more frequent and I felt more and more connected to the Skelton side of my family through pounding the streets of their neighbourhoods, tracking down long-lost relatives on-line, and immersing myself in the archives. But was my project simply a way to strengthen my feelings of belonging, of being British while living abroad? Now I realise that our very sense of national identity is such a fragile thing: it can be buoyed up by certain events, weakened by others. Did my ancestors feel this, too, or were they unwavering in their patriotism as they crossed seas, fought wars on foreign soil, and set up homes and businesses in far flung corners of the globe? Perhaps like me they always thought that it would only be temporary – that one day they would return to the place of their birth and find it unchanged.

However, in the case of both James William Skelton’s sisters, death prevented them from ever seeing their native land again. And so we might begin to understand how more intense those feelings of home were for those who did not know if they would ever walk amongst the blossoms and dewdrops of an English meadow again.

COTSWOLDS TREE.JPG

And after April, when May follows,

And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover

Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,

Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture!

And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower

—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Robert Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad, (1845)

Wishing everyone a very Happy and Healthy Easter!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2021

Park Life

One of my first blog posts was back in spring 2016, at what seems a much more innocent point in time. It’s probably just as well that we did not know then about what was lined up in front of us: the nasty triumvirate of Brexit, Trump and Covid-19 that would dominate the last five years, and which still keeps on giving . . .

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With the rapid development of the surrounding area in the first half of the 19th century, Kennington Common lost its ancient agricultural purpose and became a mere dumping ground for rubbish. In 1849 an observer stated that “The stunted herbage is trodden and soiled by a troop of cows belonging to a neighbouring milkman. A kind of pond near one corner, and a deep ditch opposite South Place, are the cemeteries of all the dead puppies and kittens of the vicinity.” The vitriol factory on the east side gave off a constant stream of sulphurous vapour, and the ditches presented “an accumulation of black offensive muddy liquid, receiving constant contributions from numerous unmentionable conveniences attached to a line of low cottage erections”.

Survey of London: Vol 26, Lambeth, F H W Sheppard (ed): 1956

A manufactory for oil of vitriol, on the east side of Kennington Common, occupies three acres of ground; and between that and the Kent-road are, a smelting-house for lead and antimony, a tannery, a manufactory for glue, another for tobacco-pipes, with manufactories for floorcloth and for carriages.

 A Topographical Dictionary of England: Newington, S Lewis (ed): 1848

In 1852, the Kennington Common Enclosure Act led to a revoke of the rights of the local population to use the common land of the Manor of Kennington in the way they had for centuries. Many of the area’s wealthier residents must have sighed in relief. The Common had always had a rather chequered history – it was the site of public hangings in the 18th century and a place where dissenters gathered, as well as an area for local sports and festivities, which could sometimes get out of hand, not to mention the rather dubious activities which went on under cover of darkness.

The famous failed Chartist rally of 1848 – spectacularly captured on daguerreotype by William Edward Kilburn (see below) – had been the final nail in the common’s coffin. Thereafter, efforts moved quickly to consolidate the wishes of local reformers, clergy and politicians to have the land enclosed.

chartists

Kennington Common Chartist Rally: 10th April, 1848 (c) The Royal Collection

N.B. The large building in the background of the image is the afore-mentioned Messrs Farmers oil of vitriol manufactory, showing the extent to which it must have  dominated the neighbourhood. In this remarkable picture, it seems to resemble a rather menacing symbol of industrialisation looming over those who were demonstrating against the political subjection of the time.

In 1852, six-foot high iron railings were erected around the perimeter of the old common and over a period of two years the badly neglected fields were turned into a public park, which finally opened in March 1854. However, the completed grounds did not at first meet with a particularly welcome reception, and were described by one contemporary as: intersected by un-level, puddle-holding walks, some of them unsightly and crooked, others leading to nothing and nowhere. Other criticisms focused on the lack of evergreens and the unstructured nature of the planting without regard to heights, habits or colours. But from 1858, under the leadership of John Gibson (who’d previously worked as superintendent of the new Battersea Park), the design of the park began to change. Elaborate flower beds were laid out in symmetrical patterns, a style which was at the cutting-edge of mid-Victorian garden design and would soon be adopted elsewhere. For the local residents it was a unique chance to see large areas of flowering plants, and the Gardener’s Chronicle of the time mentions a bordering of flowers as bright as the smoke and vapour from an adjoining vitriol factory will let them be.

When my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton, and his siblings were growing up at nearby Aldred Rd in the 1860s and 70s (see The Two Arthurs), the park might have been a welcome place for Sunday strolls and games en famille, despite the lack of real freedom for children to play as they pleased. It would certainly have been a vivid contrast to the above-mentioned oil of vitriol factory, spewing out its noxious vapours at the eastern border of the park, and no doubt affecting all those who lived in the neighbourhood – including the residents of 35 Aldred Rd.

Kennington Park circa 1908

In full bloom at Kennington Park, circa 1908

first went to Kennington is search of Aldred Road in the summer of 1991, shortly after returning from two years spent overseas. When starting my genealogical search in the mid-80s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born) it had somehow never crossed my mind to venture south of the river to seek out the old family haunts. It seems strange to me now that I waited so long to do so. I already had a nascent collection of addresses from the birth, marriage and death certificates I had accumulated, as well as information from the five censuses up to 1881 – as well as more living relatives to question! The only thing which might explain my reticence was this rather strange idea I once had about South London.

Gustav Doré 1872

Gustave Doré: Over London by Rail, from London: A pilgrimage, 1872

Thinking back to that August afternoon, thirty years ago, two things remain in my mind. Firstly, that I had been completely unaware of just how many elegant Victorian and Georgian buildings graced the streets of south London, hidden behind the layers of dirt and soot. Secondly, that a number of these old buildings seemed to be in the process of either being gentrified or pulled down.

Aldred Road – where Arthur’s family had lived for four censuses in a row – had disappeared off the map (after morphing into Aldred Street somewhere along the line), so I headed along Camberwell New Road to try to find what was left of Cator Street, amazed at the sight of so many architecturally stunning Georgian houses at one stretch. Farther along, I took a short cut through an unexpected open expanse of fields that looked like it too might have originally been part of an old common – although there was something about the place that gave off an eerie feeling of impermanence. Roads that led nowhere. Bridges over dry land. Instinctively I took out my new camera and photographed several old buildings that seemed as if their days were numbered. As I snapped away, a sense of panic rose up inside me at the thought that Cator Street was possibly turning to rubble (as Aldred Road/Street obviously had) before I had the chance to discover it for myself.

That day I knew nothing about the history of the area I’d just crossed – which officially began its post-war life as the North Camberwell Open Space – and had been renamed Burgess Park in the 1970s (after Jessie Burgess, who was Camberwell’s first female mayor in 1945). Later I discovered that these plans for a great ‘Hyde Park of South London’ from the bomb damage of the 1940s had been mired in controversy for over half a century, chiefly because they had involved the ‘removal’ of the remaining homes within the new park’s borders. What I was actually witnessing that afternoon was the imminent destruction of some of the last of the buildings clinging to the fringes of the burgeoning Burgess Park.

Noel Soho Works
Ludovic Noel and Sons, chain of French Grocers: 1860-1960. 77-85 Coburg Rd. Demolished 1991.

According to the current Wikipedia entry, Burgess Park is still not complete and contains some former roads which have been stopped up but not yet grassed over. The boundaries of Burgess Park remain a matter of dispute, and because the park has never been finished, it is regularly the subject of proposals to build housing, schools, or transport links of the sort that would never be contemplated in one of London’s more traditional Victorian Parks.

Back in June 1972, The Evening Standard reported that: Unfortunately clearing this 150 acre park involves displacing nearly 6000 people. Some live in tenement blocks and terraces from which they will be glad to escape to council flats. But also due to come down are some rather fine 19th century houses, rare visual delights in the otherwise uninspiring area between the North Peckham redevelopment to the south, and the monumental new Aylesbury estate in Walworth(The Aylesbury Estate can be seen on the left of the photo below).

The George Pub
The George (Pub), 231 St George’s Way (Rd). Demolished circa 1991

As Southwark Council mention on its website: The park grew steadily, taking in hundreds of demolished dwellings, thirty streets, a few factories, churches, and filling in an old canal. It was always intended that the park would have regional importance yet its management and funding over the years have failed to deliver this ambition and although it is an important part of many local people’s lives there is a consensus that the park has never been ‘finished’.

In The Story of Camberwell, Mary Boast points out the fact that Burgess Park is an anomaly. Simply put, the creation of a park from what was once streets packed full of terraces and factories and shops and pubs is a reversal of the normal pattern of events in the capital. Land that was once open fields was given over to market gardens; which in their turn were built over by speculative developments. But now that land has once again become open fields, easily accessible to those living close by.

This came over a century too late for my grandfather’s older siblings, who would possibly have found their recreation along the old Surrey Canal (filled in by the 1970s) during the brief time they lived in the area. The outline of the waterway can still be traced in Burgess Park, with many of the canal’s bridges still intact, creating the strange effect of a lost landscape. Perhaps that is what I found so unsettling about the park on my initial visit – it was if the land was still attempting to redefine itself. However, returning recently on an unseasonably warm March Sunday, when the park was being utilised to full capacity, the sombre feelings that had accompanied me on my earlier visit were dissipated by the sight of so many young families enjoying the (much improved) public space. Did many of the Victorian residents of Kennington also regard their park in a new light once it was in full bloom and memories of the old common had faded away?

One of the most charming aspects of Kennington Park today is the late Victorian, Arts and Crafts tearooms, which were recently refurbished after lying vacant for several years. I stumbled across the Kennington Park Café on a bright spring morning after trekking several miles round the neighbourhood on an empty stomach, and fell upon my generously-filled toastie and mug of builders’ tea like Esau on his pottage.  Now, whenever I am exploring the area I detour just to eat here, and if weather permits, sit on the terrace and enjoy the friendly green vibes of the park.

kennington park (3)

Kennington Park Tearooms today, with the pioneering 60s Brandon Estate (site of Aldred Road) in the background

Although the tearooms were built too late for Arthur’s family to enjoy, previously there had been a purpose-built wooden building in the park where visitors could buy food and drinks (from 1861-88). Even further back, when the park first opened, the park keeper’s wife sold refreshments from the rear porch of the Prince Consort Lodge. Now occupied by the national charity Trees for Cities, the Lodge is a semi-detached house which was designed as a showcase for model workers’ dwellings by the Society for the Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, of which Prince Albert was president.

Originally built for the Great Exhibition in 1851, the building was later moved to the front gates of Kennington Park, where one of the cottages could be inspected by the public (two park attendants lived in the other cottage). While some believe it was – and still is – an important reminder of the Chartist legacy, others feel that the cottages served more to appease the conscience of the middle classes. In the end, very few houses to this design were actually built for workers in London, and it was to be almost a century later before many of Arthur’s children could live in a house that contained such luxuries as an indoor flushing W.C. (see I Remember, I Remember). 

MODEL HOUSING
Prince Consort Lodge, Kennington Park

Nearby Burgess Park also boasts its own brand of ‘model housing’ – in this case the old alms houses of the Female Friendly Society Asylum  in what is now Chumleigh Gardens. Built in 1821, they suffered bomb damage in WW2, and although incorporated into the park from the outset, were not renovated until 1981. They now house the park offices, community centre  and café, and are surrounded by the popular multicultural garden. An interesting heritage trail which takes in these buildings and other historic sites in the park is described on the wittily-named  Bridge to Nowhere  website, run by the Friends of Burgess Park.

Chumleigh Gardens
Alms Houses at Chumleigh Gardens, Burgess Park

Both parks – Kennington and Burgess – are separated by a century of policy and changing attitudes to public space. Products of history and circumstance, they link one generation of my London family to another, however tenuously. Whenever I am in south London, I am pulled back to them again and again, even if they can no longer offer up any clues to my family’s past.

Park 1967
Sunday in the park with my grandparents, 1967

I go to Kennington Park to wonder at what it would have felt like to stroll the more formal (and no doubt very crowded) mid-Victorian gardens of Arthur senior and his siblings; to Burgess Park to wonder at the lost streets and the filled-in canal, and the densely-packed community that once thrived where now there are fields and gardens and an artificial lake. And every time I visit the two parks, I wonder what my south London ancestors would make of these now very modern, urban spaces.

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2021

Present at the Death Again

The value of the 19th century cemeteries today as open spaces in the metropolis is enormous. The trees are now mature; the graves and monuments have taken on the patina of age, and often, as in Highgate, an Arcadian quality exists which would be ruined by conversion to a pure park.

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Jeremy Bentham advised that one’s ancestors should be embalmed and kept around the house and gardens, and although his suggestion has practical difficulties, he certainly grasps the point that without a connection with our ancestors’ past we become loose and unsettled, and drift, with no roots and no tribal memory.

The Victorian Celebration of Death,  James Stevens Curl (1972)

These last few weeks I’ve been busy looking back through all my blog posts as I attempt to turn the story of my quest into a readable memoir. Understandably I have my favourite chapters; and unsurprisingly they often overlap with the ones that have been most popular with readers. These posts seem to fall into two categories: ones that are about universal issues or topics (such as death or photography), and those which are linked to a famous event or person. It stands to reason that when following any family history the reader will want to find things to relate to on a personal level – it is not enough for the writer to describe the life of an ancestor but to use that story to shed light on the human condition. At least that is the goal!

One post that I particularly enjoyed researching and writing in an odd sort of way is an early chapter on family deaths, which I have reproduced below. Perhaps a macabre one to chose to revisit currently, but also very pertinent. At the time I wrote about the topic I was intrigued by the number of older family members who had died from bronchitis, or related illnesses, as well as the young (and not so young) ancestors who’d succumbed to tuberculosis (TB) – or phthisis as it was written on their death certificates. It made me realise how many of these deaths would have been avoidable today, even although at the time they were an accepted part of life. No wonder Victorian children used to recite at bedtime: If I should die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.  This line was removed from our nightly prayers* as children because it was deemed no longer relevant. In a similar vein, my father never repeated the morbid stanza in one of his favourite poems,  I Remember, I Remember . . .  by Thomas Hood, even though the lines But now I often wish the night / Had borne my breath away! make sense in the context of the verse.

*The fact we even said prayers before going to sleep makes me feel like some sort of relic, although admittedly we were allowed to recite them in bed rather than kneeling on the floor as the children in our picture books did.

Living in industrialised cities was clearly not good for the lungs, particularly when coupled with the dangers of damp, substandard accommodation, thus it is no wonder that bronchitis was so prevalent in London. Along with other scourges of the time, TB lurked around every corner, much like Coronavirus today, with up to one in four Londoners contracting the disease. However, the fact that for many years there was no hope of a cure for what was often deemed an illness of poverty must have put a great psychological strain on the 18th and 19th century populace (the period when tuberculosis was most rampant). The eventual discovery of antibiotics and the BCG vaccine, along with improvements in living conditions, meant that by the second half of the 20th century – at least for those in developed countries – TB already seemed like something from the past. In fact, many people today are surprised to discover the disease has never been eradicated and is actually rising again in some parts of the globe, particularly due to the emergence of drug-resistant cases.

Sadly TB often affects younger people, and it is heart breaking to think of those like Margaret Sarah Skelton (mentioned below) dying such terrible deaths in their early twenties before their adulthood had properly begun. The hopelessness of their cases must have been particularly difficult for their families to accept and yet it was was not such an unusual situation for the times. Fast forward a hundred years or more and their lives would have taken very different turns.

While our current pandemic is something I could not previously have imagined, despite having worked as a virologist myself at University College Hospital, London, in the 1980s, after my short-lived career as an heir-hunter, it is heartening to know that our scientific understanding is so much further advanced. Not only have safe vaccines been created in less than a year, but our understanding of the way such viruses operate has also improved, with the knock-on effect that we now have even better insight into how to tackle cancer. 

Thus I dedicate this post to those who lived in less medically advanced times and stoically lived life to the full, despite the omnipresent threat of death amongst them. However, I am aware that this is also how a great number of the world’s population still live, and that there is much to do to ensure there is equality in health provisions across the globe.

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The arrival of an ancestor’s death certificate from the General Register Office (GRO) is always an eagerly anticipated moment for a family historian – especially if the death in question seems an unusual or untimely one. This is not simply due to morbid curiosity (although admittedly that does play a role), but because the way our ancestors died can tell us so much about how they lived. In the case of both my paternal great-great-grandparents, James Skelton and Mary-Ann Hawkins, bronchitis was stated as the official cause of death, something which does not surprise me, given the time and place where they lived (industrial Victorian Southwark). This fact puts me in mind of the rather macabre rhyme my father used to be fond of quoting: It’s not the cough that carries you off, but the coffin they carries you off in. Created as a humorous quip by the music hall star George Formby snr. in order to make light of his on-stage bronchial cough while suffering from tuberculosis, it illustrates just how pervasive such illnesses once were, even in the first half of the twentieth century.

As I later found out, it was that very same disease which ‘carried off’ James Skelton’s oldest daughter by his first marriage, Margaret Sarah, in December 1848, at the age of twenty-four. The Cause of Death stated on the certificate makes grim reading: Phthisis 7 years, Ascites, Anasarca. A quick internet search brought me to the rather gruesome medicine.net website where you are only a click away from thinking you have most afflictions known to man. Here Phthisis is rather blithely defined as: A good trivia or crossword item. An over-consonanted Greek word meaning “a dwindling or wasting away.” Pronounced TIE-sis. Phthisis is an archaic name for tuberculosis. A person afflicted with tuberculosis in the old days was destined to dwindle and waste away like Mimi, the heroine of Puccini’s 1896 opera “La Boheme.” I switched to a different website to determine the meaning of the other two medical terms, their Greek-sounding authority making me fear the worst. I discovered that Ascites means ‘bag-like’- based on the description of the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen. Its sister term Anasacra also refers to fluid retention (or Oedema), this time in the tissues, and like Ascites is another secondary effect of advanced tuberculosis (amongst other illnesses).

It is hard not to feel moved at the thought of James, officially named as present at the death, watching his oldest daughter suffer in her sickroom in such a grotesque way, only two years after his first wife, Sarah Vaughan, also died at home of what was most likely cancer of the womb (Diseased womb of long-standing, repeated haemorrhage and exhaustion). The family had moved into their relatively grand new house in Brixton two years prior to Sarah’s death, and this makes me wonder whether it was the bad health of his wife and daughter which may have precipitated the move to what was then still partially countryside.

From 1844 to 1847, James is to be found in the trade directories, carrying on his tailoring business, but now at 15 Cheapside, in the City, and sharing professional rooms with a Miss Margaret Sarah Skelton, Professor of Music. I can imagine father and daughter (perhaps his favourite child, as she was his first-born, and named after both his mother and wife) travelling into the city each day, delighting in each other’s company in that special way of fathers and daughters. Therefore it is not so surprising that only a year after Margaret Sarah’s demise he is in the arms (and bed) of the nineteen year old Mary Ann Hawkins, diluting his pain with some very living flesh.

An on-line burial record search revealed that both Sarah and Margaret Sarah were interred at the relatively new Nunhead Cemetery of All Saints – a piece of information which in Sarah’s case (in 1846) had been inserted into the parish register in cribbed handwriting, illustrating just how novel the idea of an out of parish burial was at the time. As is well-documented elsewhere – most notably in Catharine Arnold’s well-researched book Necropolis: London and its Dead – finding where to bury the dead in the capital’s unsanitary and over-crowded parish churchyards had become a prescient issue by the beginning of the 19th century. As a result of this, seven private cemeteries were established on large areas of open land on the outskirts of London between 1833 and 1841. These monster burial grounds were positioned in a ring around the city in areas which would eventually be swallowed up by the growth of the metropolis. The most well-known of these is Highgate, mainly due to its location and the number of famous people buried there, including Karl Marx. All of these private Victorian cemeteries – sometimes referred to as ‘the Magnificent Seven’ – were designed to provide not just burial grounds but also ‘health-improving’ parkland and walkways for visitors and the local population, and their construction included elaborate neo-gothic chapels and landscaped driveways for funeral cortèges.

nunhead-cemetery-00585-640-2Gravedigger at Nunhead Cemetery, circa 1850

Nunhead is one of the lesser-known of these huge cemeteries. It was the penultimate one (of the seven) to be laid out, and was consecrated by The Lord Bishop of Winchester in 1840. Perhaps because of the cemetery’s tricky location – on a hilltop, still surrounded by countryside in those days, near what were the distant villages of Nunhead and Peckham, but now a part of the South London metropolis which is not on an underground line – it was and is less visited by those outwith the area. Today it is included on the final section of the long Green Chain Walk through south-east London (originating in Thamesmead). That section of the walk (numbered 11) starts from Crystal Palace, taking in Sydenham Hill Woods, One Tree Hill, and Camberwell Old and New Cemetery along the way. Nunhead Cemetry makes a marvellous terminus to the hike, but the fifty-two acre plot is also a worthwhile destination itself, being now partly a nature reserve run by Southwark Council and The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery (FONC)

nunhead_plotNunhead Cemetery, 1860s (showing proposed local railway lines)

Until fairly recently the cemetery and its buildings had been allowed to fall into disrepair, and it was not until a lottery heritage grant in the late 1990s that restoration was begun by the above-mentioned groups. But a visit to the cemetery in the early 1970s, shortly after it was officially closed, would have been a very different sight from that which greets visitors today. James Stevens Curl describes it thus: Nunhead forms a huge wedge of open space, well planted with fine mature trees, in a particularly dismal part of London. Unfortunately many will regard this cemetery as an eyesore, for at the time of writing it is prone to savage attacks by vandals. The Dissenters’ Chapel has been demolished, and the charming, light, and feathery Anglican Chapel is daily being reduced to a ruin. The catacombs have been broken into and coffins have been thrown to the ground. Monuments have been smashed. Both gate lodges have been reduced to dereliction. Similar damage is reported from Highgate.

As if this does not sound bad enough, Curl goes on to state: The registers for Nunhead and several items concerning Highgate were found abandoned in the cemetery. This astonishing callousness towards valuable historical records and the dereliction of the cemetery itself are only possible to understand when we remember that privately owned cemeteries are a residue of an extraordinary boom in early Victorian times which came to a sudden end. What was not realised is that, since land is sold with rights in perpetuity, cemeteries must be a wasting asset. There can be no hope of profit, since local-authority cemeteries have the upper hand.

These wonderful old leather-bound registers of which Curl speaks are now stored at Southwark Council’s office in Camberwell New Cemetery and contain detailed information about each grave, including the depth of the plot and materials used. It was to this office that I turned when I decided to seek out the possibility of finding a gravestone for either Sarah Skelton (née Vaughan) or her daughter, Margaret Sarah. What I could never have imagined is that this enquiry would then lead me to the discovery of a family plot which contained, not only James’ wife and oldest daughter, but also James himself, as well as his son and daughter-in-law, and even a middle-aged grandchild (who died in 1921). However, this was a plot exclusively reserved for the first family: the one which called their father a ‘gentleman’ (even when he was living in sin with Mary Ann and squiring all those Cockney bastards), and which seemed to want to deny the existence of little Arthur and his siblings.

Until that winter’s day in 2012, I had never visited a family grave. Both sets of my grandparents were cremated and their ashes spread in anodyne crematoria rose gardens. To avoid my father ending up with this fate, his ashes are still in the plastic urn the crematorium supplied us with in 1995, currently at the back of my mother’s garage. I have never dared to even open the lid on the toolbox where the urn is stashed, but have assured my mother that one day his ashes will be co-mingled with her own and placed somewhere both of them loved (a tall order that anyone who knows/knew them can attest to). Although the idea of holding on to a relative’s ashes for so long may seem slightly unusual, I have since discovered that in actual fact a large proportion of the ashes of the deceased currently reside in attics and sheds up and down the land, while relatives remain undecided as to where this final resting place should be. But oh, for a grave! As mentioned in my first post, I am quite envious of the Waugh family, who have headstones to visit which seem to give them some kind of comfort, even if only to avenge themselves upon certain family members (see Begin Again).

To find out that there was a Skelton family grave of sorts was a moment that was fraught with apprehension. I was worried by the thought that in the intervening years the headstone might have been removed or have toppled to the ground and be covered in impenetrable vegetation (both of these scenarios considered a distinct possibility, according to the Nunhead Cemetery factsheet). And at the thought that I would now have some responsibility towards this grave. Would I always feel the need to return to visit the headstone with flowers on certain days or times of the year? Would I now be honour-bound to weed and care for the spot for the rest of my life? Who would be interested in carrying on such a tradition once I was no longer around to continue the task? But I was also comforted at the knowledge that so many of those ancestors whose records I’d perused for years were all together in there. I imagined their bones jumbled up beneath the earth, perhaps coloured scraps of silk and wool from their burial clothes clinging to a femur or a collarbone. I thought about all sorts of slightly gruesome things that I perhaps should not have and which made my heart race.

1341.JPGThe type of grave I expected (and hoped) to find

In the end, the actual event of visiting the grave was a mixture of both elation and disappointment. Having scrutinised the records which Southwark Council sent me ahead of my visit, I could see that Sarah (who was the first to be buried in the plot) had been interred in a private, brick-lined grave to a depth of 10 feet, at a cost of 30 shillings, an amount which was commensurate with contemporary records of the day (the cost of the grave itself would have been several pounds). Two years later she was joined by her daughter, and finally her husband James in 1867 (never mind that he had already married someone else by then), during which time ownership of the grave was then transferred to their only son, James William Skelton, who buried his own wife (Emma Sleath-Skelton) in the plot in 1898, before ending up alongside her two years later.

Thus the responsibility for the grave then moved to James William’s oldest son, Stanley Sleath-Skelton, who laid his younger brother to rest there in 1921 –  the Edwardian actor Herbert Sleath (see Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall). But when Stanley himself died a quarter of a century later, neither he nor his older sister had any children and there was no close living relative to bury them in the family plot. As James Stevens Curl so rightly pointed out above, there can be no financial sustainability in the business of private graveyards, as it stands to reason that only a handful of families would continue to use a family plot beyond a few decades. During the early years of Victoria’s reign, at the time of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, the belief in the resurrection of the intact body was strong, and the Cremation Act of 1902 coupled with the decline of 19th century religious ideals and the resulting changes to burial rituals could not have been foreseen.

Fortunately, it was a crisp and clear February morning when I first set out from Central London to Nunhead on my grave search, walking a route from the eponymous train station along Linden Grove towards the main entrance of the cemetery. Due to a rare overnight snowfall, dog walkers and nature photographers were out in full force, and I felt like an obvious outsider, standing at the imposing set of gates, mouth agape, clutching my A4 print-out of the cemetery map, while locals exchanged greetings, buoyed up by the beauty of the snow-covered cemetery under a bright blue sky.

nunhead-gatesEntrance to Nunhead Cemetery on the left of the Linden Grove Gates

The gargantuan Gothic gates with their inverted iron torches and snakes eating their own tails (ancient signs to symbolise both life being extinguished and eternal life, respectively) were an impressive spectacle, letting everyone who entered through them know that this was a place that took the business of death seriously. The huge stone piers solemnly framed my first sight of the Anglican chapel, and as I walked up the snow-covered driveway I thought about how James must have felt when the horse-drawn hearse carrying Sarah – and later Margaret – had slowly made its way up to the gothic chapel. It was an unsettling feeling, and I was glad that I had decided not to accept the offer to be met  by a volunteer from FONC who would help me to find the grave. I wanted this to be a private experience.

p1030874-2Approach to the Anglican Chapel (now a ruin) from the Linden Grove Gates

p1030867-2Side view of the Anglican Chapel from the west

When Southwark Council sent me the map of Nunhead Cemetery, showing me where the Skelton grave was, I was surprised to see that it was one of the larger plots, situated at the edge of a main walkway at the western edge of the graveyard (right on the current border of the wildlife reserve). I was hoping that the size and location would be a good sign – and that there would indeed be some kind of headstone which had survived the intervening years. I also knew that plots in this area of the graveyard were considered to be much sought after (and more expensive) because they were at the highest point of the  of the cemetery (thus deemed to be closer to heaven), with the added advantage of spectacular views of St Paul’s and the City.

p1030852-2View of St Paul’s Cathedral from the highest point of Nunhead Cemetery.

But as I passed meandering footpaths which enticed me away from the main walkway with their abundant vegetation and weathered graves topped with stone angels and urns, I could not help but hope that the Skelton grave might also tick all the required ‘Victorian gothic’ boxes, having from a young age dreamt of one day finding a crumbling family grave onto which I could bestow bunches of wildflowers and tears. So when I rounded the corner at the top of the walkway and saw what had been erected in the plot which was marked on my map (number 706), I felt both a thrill and shudder of disappointment.

1336-2My first sight of the Skelton Family Grave

I was surprised to see how large and relatively undamaged the grave was, something I had certainly not expected. And I was also taken aback by the ostentatiousness of the structure – a large block of pink and grey polished granite, which looked like it had come from a more recent era. As I circled the gravestone, reading the various inscriptions, I noted how easy it was to make out the names of the family members carved into the granite, as if it had only been a few years since they had been laid to rest. It was a curious feeling to think I might have been the first Skelton to visit the grave for almost a century, and I sat quietly for a while in the sunshine, contemplating this idea, while a colony of bright-green feral parakeets shrieked and chattered exotically in the trees above me. It was almost as if they were trying to alert me to the fact that there was an unexpected inscription on part of the headstone – one of James Skelton’s other daughters (and Margaret Sarah’s younger sister), who’d died in the Australian outback in 1860 at the age of twenty-nine, also from tuberculosis (see Three Sisters: Ann).

skelton-graveGrave inscription to Margaret Sarah Skelton and her sister Ann

Much later (on a summer visit to the grave) it struck me that this rather ugly granite gravestone might have been a fancy replacement for an older one, originally erected in the 1840s. It would not surprise me if the wealthy (and probable social-climber) James William had ordered the gaudy replacement on the death of his father – another way to prove that James Skelton was actually a ‘gentleman’ (a rather nebulous Victorian expression which meant different things throughout the 19th century). And on that summer’s day I noticed something I had overlooked on my first visit – the details of the stone mason carved into a corner of the grave. Further research showed that the A. Nicholson inscribed was credited with building the Great Eastern Street Fountain, and was active in Mark Lane in the City around the time that James William was working as a merchant in nearby Mincing Lane. This made me more convinced that the gravestone dated from James Skelton’s death in 1867.

p1030846-2Stonemason’s details on the gravestone

In an uncanny twist of fate (of the kind which seems to haunt my genealogical quest), I later discovered that James’ son Arthur – my great-grandfather – was actually living opposite Nunhead Cemetery (in Daniels Rd), in 1895 at the terrible time when both his wife and youngest child were dying at St Thomas’ Hospital (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers). Contemporary reports of the area attest to the fact that local children would meet up by the cemetery wall in Linden Grove as the rather gloomy Victorian hearses passed by with their black-plumed horses, so no doubt Arthur’s children, including perhaps my three-year-old grandfather, also played unsupervised there. The original houses on Daniels Road no longer exist, having been bombed in the Blitz, but they were built as simple terraced houses for manual workers, and a number of the cemetery labourers and stonemasons lived in their street. The cemetery would certainly have been omnipresent for those who lived in the surrounding streets, although sadly my great-grandfather Arthur probably never knew that his father’s grave was just a stone’s throw away from where he was currently living with his young family.

Arthur himself is buried in Croydon, alongside his second wife Harriet and Harriet jnr. (Arthur junior’s wife). The tombstone is no longer there but there are only one or two people still alive who knew him, and he is all but a shadowy memory of their early childhoods. There is now no-one living who knew any of the Skeltons in the family plot at Nunhead. I can safely say that, with all due respect to those who are interred there, I feel no strong desire to revisit the grave any time soon. If I return to Nunhead it will be to walk in the peaceful surroundings of the wildlife reserve and take consolation from the endless birth and decay cycle of nature, of which the cemetery is but one part.

I’ll leave you with the words of the writer Charlotte Mew, and the final evocative verse of her poem In Nunhead Cemetery, published in 1916:

I shall stay here: here you can see the sky;

The houses in the street are much too high;

There is no one left to speak to there;

Here they are everywhere,

And just above them fields and fields of roses lie –

If he would dig it all up again they would not die.

1343

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2021

 

Revisiting the Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas comes but once a year

And when it does, it brings good cheer.

Well it looks as if Christmas didn’t come this year for many of us – and if it did the ‘good cheer’ was certainly not as much in evidence. Should we even have bothered attempting to celebrate the festival at all? That was the question many people were asking themselves in December. Yet it seems that even in the face of scientific evidence we cannot easily give up the idea of a traditional family Christmas. Perhaps our reverence for the holiday can be found in our childhood memories and the emotional connections that were made many years ago. Most Christmases experienced in adulthood are mere simulacrums of the earlier ones that delighted us so much, and any magazine aimed at grownups that purports to show its readers how to have Your Best Christmas Ever! (thankfully not in evidence in 2020) are mainly peddling a falsehood. Most of us know that our best Christmases are decades behind us.

It was with thoughts of Christmases past that I decided to republish a post I wrote a few years ago about this subject. Rereading it at the end of 2020, the words seem even more poignant. Although Christmas first lost some of its magic when I grew into adulthood, it lost more of its magic a second time when my father was admitted to hospital on Christmas Day in 1994 (never to return home). This year seems like it is the third time the magic of Christmas has taken a hammering.

It’s hard to believe that as recently as last winter I was bemoaning the fact that the festive season was beginning to feel like a great deal of extra work and fuss, and even fantasised about cancelling the event (apart from watching Carols from Kings). Now that this has actually come to pass, I feel quite differently about it – such is the way of human nature. I know that next year I will appreciate such things as cold visits to crowded Christmas Markets and the hours spent decorating the house and writing Christmas cards.

When Christmas comes around again, l will know that every busy stall or shop means a return to normality. That every light or bauble on the Christmas tree is a symbol of hope. And perhaps even more importantly, that every line I scribble in a card means one more healthy friend or relative. 

Wishing you a safe and heathy 2021!

396 (3).JPG

There is something about Christmas that can make us nostalgic for our childhood, even if it wasn’t necessarily the one we might have chosen for ourselves. I consider myself lucky that I grew up in a household where Christmas was eagerly awaited by us all every year (with the possible exception of my mother), mostly due to my father’s enthusiasm for the festival. My mother, however, had grown up in a Scotland where Christmas Day was barely celebrated, and had yet to acquire even the status of a public holiday, and so always had very modest expectations of the festival. There was no tree or decorations in the McKays’ house; very few presents were exchanged; and dinner on the 25th was just a ‘good’ evening meal, as my grandfather had to work. And there was certainly no special cake or brandy pudding to follow. This frugality was obviously partly due to the war and the rationing of goods throughout the forties and fifties, but the Presbyterian Church itself did little to encourage overt celebrations of the event.

Like most Scottish families at the time, the McKays celebrated Hogmanay, with New Year’s Day being the main public winter holiday. It is little wonder, then, that my Edinburgh based grandparents found our English-style celebrations rather excessive, frequently telling my sister and me that we were very lucky little girls. But by 1974, even Boxing Day was given public holiday status in Scotland (Christmas Day had been declared one in 1958, ending a period of four centuries when the festival had been effectively banned), and many Scots had become just as enthusiastic about Christmas as their English counterparts. I certainly don’t ever really recall feeling that our family celebrations were very different from those of my school friends, although like most children I was convinced that our traditions were superior to everyone else’s.

The first time my mother experienced a ‘full on’ English Christmas was when she joined the Skelton family’s celebrations in London in the early 1960s. Little did she know then that she’d have years ahead of her attempting (successfully, I might add) to fulfil my father’s fantasy of what a ‘proper Christmas’ was like, but at the same time creating memories for her yet unborn children that would last them a lifetime. All the slightly strange rituals that she witnessed in Twickenham during those bitterly cold winters eventually made their way into our damp west coast bungalow: the gaudy, homemade crepe-paper chains hanging everywhere; the spicy and exotic foods that only appeared once a year; the over-decorated tree; the ‘treasure map’ to indicate where the post-dinner presents were hidden; the Boxing Day ‘snowman’. These were all things I had assumed my parents had created just for our delight, and as a child it never even occurred to me that many of the traditions we so enjoyed might have been started by another family separated from me by time and distance. Even though I was present for a couple of those 60s London Christmases, I have retained very few memories of the event – just a residual feeling of a lot of light, warmth and noise.

p1040821-2

p1040601-2

With my Skelton Grandparents in London, Christmas 1966

All families end up creating their own Christmas rituals, though, and one of ours was to go on the big green double-decker bus to the neighbouring town of Prestwick (where my father worked as an air traffic controller) to see ‘the lights’, while my mother had the whole afternoon (and kitchen) free for baking. Because I did not associate my father with public transport (unless we were in London visiting our grandparents), it felt strange and exotic to be going on our local bus service together. And just like when we were riding in the famous blood-red buses of the capital, we sat upstairs at the front to get the best views. These excursions sometimes made my father nostalgic for London – he would tell us about going to see the Christmas lights in Oxford Street, the wonder of Selfridge’s windows, the delights of Hamleys’ toy shop. And much of the time he simply moaned about the fact that Scotland was bereft of many of the things he enjoyed most about Christmas – in particular mulled wine and roast chestnuts and all the other culinary delights that he associated with the festive period.

Maybe it was living for so many years through rationing that made my father wish for the extravagance of Christmas fare. The fact that so many things were not readily available during that time would have made the festivities even more special, and most  parents would have made an extra effort to lighten this dark period for their children, particularly if their own childhood Christmases had been blighted by death or poverty (as in the case of both my grandparents). This might go some way to explain the abundance of canned and pickled goods my father bought in early December, including the weirdly-named (and coloured) piccalilli, which to me was the quintessential  London food (reminding me at the same time of Picadilly). 

The rural Christmases my father experienced as an evacuee on a farm in East Coker would have no doubt also have been special to a London schoolboy – particularly as my grandmother had made the decision to move down to Somerset to join her children for the duration of the war. Like many other evacuees, my father had originally been separated from the rest of his family and sent with his school to Leatherhead in Surrey, where he lodged with the acting head of the Mormon Church in Britain (Andre K. Anastasiou) and his family, as well as other London school children. But after one year he returned home, and during the Blitz my grandmother took him and his infant brother to join his sister in East Coker, where she had been evacuated with her School (see East Coker). Perhaps it was experiencing these unsettling moves at a formative period in his life that made my father nostalgic for a traditional family Christmas. As mentioned previously (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers), I believe that my grandparents tried to create a more stable childhood for their three children than they themselves had experienced, and making sure Christmas was a special family occasion would no doubt have been important to them.

Christmas Under Fire

At the end of 2012, I was lucky enough to visit the 1940s house at the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth (seen in the video clip below) just before the exhibition closed. It was a strange feeling to walk through rooms haunted by another time,  and I had the odd sensation that I had been in such a house before. But when  I tried to reach back for the memory, it kept sliding away from me, like a view just out of sight. Perhaps the ‘idea’ of the house was just imprinted on my mind from old films I had seen, or a vague sense that my grandparents’ house in Bishop’s Grove (where they were rehoused directly after the war) had such a look and atmosphere. In the end I loitered for so long there, standing silently in each of the rooms whenever there was a lull in visitors, that I began to worry someone might find my behaviour suspicious. Even now, when I recall the experience, I have the uncanny feeling of stepping back into my own past on that winter’s afternoon, although I know that cannot be.

Interestingly, I recently came across the David Lean film This Happy Breed (adapted from the play by Noel Coward), which tells the story of a London Family between the wars. The story was in part influenced by Coward’s upbringing in Clapham and is now a wonderful evocation of the period, as well as being entertaining in its own right. Although the film was made in 1944, the Christmas scene takes place almost twenty years previously, in 1926. Yet it shows the kind of decorations that I remember from my own  childhood – and the ones that my father associated with a ‘proper Christmas’. This scene  in the film is shown in the video clip below.

In addition to taking on the traditions of an English Christmas, my mother soon learnt to cook the kind of Sunday roasts my London grandmother had dished up to her own family, complete with Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and Brussel sprouts. Christmas dinner was just a more extravagant variation of this meal, with turkey substituting for the roast beef, and ham, stuffing, chipolatas, parsnips and cranberry sauce added to the list of foodstuffs over-piled on our overheated plates. At the time I found this meal just as overwhelming as the huge lunches we sat down to after attending church on Sunday.

However, the one festive meal that I adored as a child was our cold Christmas Eve buffet – another Skelton tradition which came about through my grandmother cooking up a large amount of ham on the 24th (in preparation for the Christmas meal). This was the kind of dining experience I could relate to as it was possible to take as little or as much as one wanted over the course of several hours. In addition, there was all our favourite home baking laid out on the mid-century modern hostess trolley for afters (tiffin, mince pies, gipsy creams etc), which to me were infinitely more enjoyable than either Christmas pudding (which smelled too much of alcohol) or the traditional stodgy Christmas cake with its old-fashioned marzipan and polyfilla-style icing.

Every year I declared Christmas Eve to be my favourite part of the holiday, as we settled down in front of the television to watch a family show we had chosen together (from the three channels available) with the aid of the special festive editions of the Radio Times and the TV Times (publications only indulged in at Christmas), our plastic trays filled with sausage rolls, ham, chutney etc, a glass of Ribena and lemonade (considered the posh ‘Christmas drink’) at our sides. Even as a child, I was aware that the aspect of the festivities that I liked the most was that sense of being together as a family, sharing in these annual rituals, and feeling as if we were closing ourselves off from the demands of the outside world for a few days. The presents were simply the icing on the (Christmas) cake, but certainly not the be and end-all of the holiday, particularly  as tradition had decreed that we were not allowed to open our main gifts until after Christmas dinner – and then only one per person at a time. This was a very civilised and civilising experience, and I was always slightly shocked when friends told me about their dawn raids on the presents under the tree, wondering why more families had not adopted our sensible routine.

Another one of the traditions that convinced me we were secretly morally superior to other families was the Boxing Day snowman. Conceived by the London Skeltons as a way of prolonging the celebrations – particularly if they were taking place on the 26th at another relative’s house – the snowman was  basically a portable present holder made from an old dried milk tin covered in cotton wool. Inside was a small present for each guest on which a label (enticingly hanging outside the body of the snowman) was tied. When the snowman’s head was taken off, everyone pulled the tag with their name on it. The actual item was usually something as mundane as a bottle of perfume or a packet of cigars, but for the younger members of the family the ritual of the Boxing Day snowman gave the presents an added glamour.

snowmanPreparing the Boxing Day Snowman, London, 1960s

Christmas would also not have been Christmas without the special records my parents played – in particular my father’s favourite: Mario Lanza Sings Christmas Carols. I  especially loved the rather eerie-sounding  Guardian Angels, which gave a glimpse into the possibility of another more esoteric world to a child raised in the traditions of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. In fact, the run up to Christmas (when bracing carols were sung instead of the normal tuneless Victorian hymns) was one of the few times my father regularly attended services at our local church, and my parents both enjoyed the special atmosphere of the midnight service on Christmas Eve. I now regret very much that I never had the opportunity to attend this event with them – as a teenager I decried it hypocritical just to turn up in church for the ‘fun bits’ (a view I shared with my current beau, the minister’s son). My parents, however, took all this youthful rebellion in their stride, with my father (contrary to form) sanguinely declaring that the fact ‘us kids’ came out with such statements was proof that we were following normal behavioural development patterns!

As in all families, Christmas became a more muted affair as my sister and I grew older and social activities and boyfriends began to dominate the agenda. By the 1980s the Christmas stockings – my father’s old knee-high RAF socks from his baggy-shorted time in the Middle East – seemed to have shrunk in size until they eventually disintegrated.  And returning home from university one year, I noticed that the house was no longer festooned with lurid crepe chains and other paraphernalia. My mother explained that when the box holding the Christmas decorations had been brought down from from the loft, all that was found left inside was a brightly-coloured mouse nest and pile of droppings. She had sighed with relief at this (having first determined that there were no rodents on the loose), and joyfully sprayed some twigs silver instead. 

xmas-paper-decorationsBut even then I felt nostalgic for the old decorations – particularly the single ones we always put up around the house. I remember as a child thinking it magical that a flattened boot-shape could suddenly become a multi-coloured honeycombed bell to hang from the ceiling. And every year, the opening of the decoration box would bring back memories of all the other Christmases we had experienced.

During this time and beyond, assorted partners would sometimes join our family for the celebrations, often declaring our family Christmases to be one of the best they’d ever had, and earlier traditions (such as the present map) were revived for their benefit. Naively, I imagined this state of affairs continuing for years into the future, with perhaps new members of the clan with whom to share our rituals.

Unfortunately, Christmas 1993 was to be the last time we all spent the holiday together. On Christmas Day, 1994, my father (who was then terminally ill) was rushed into hospital, having valiantly tried to hang on for one more family Christmas. We trooped in to visit him on Boxing Day, clutching our sad little presents that would forever remain unwrapped, none of us quite able to believe that the light from our Christmas lodestar was about to be extinguished.

But Christmas goes on, as does life, and new families and new countries have added their own traditions to the mix. Not everyone in my family is the biggest fan of Christmas, but despite myself I still get that sense of excitement when December comes round again. And whether I am polishing the angel chimes, collecting pine cones, making mince pies, decorating the tree, or even listening to Mario Lanza, there is always a little bit of those first Christmases that still follows me around, wherever I might be.

The Incidental Genealogist, January 2021.

The Lost Family – Part 3

I do not know when he first visited East Coker in search of his ancestors, or how often he came here, but I do know that his last visit was in the late summer of 1939, when he took some photographs of the village and the church, and it must have been then that he gathered  the impressions that he later set down in the poem “East Coker”.

Address given by Sir Rupert Hart-Davis in tribute to T. S. Eliot at the memorial service and unveiling of a memorial plaque at St Michael’s church, East Coker, 26th September 1965

St Michael's East CokerSt Michael’s Church, East Coker, burial site of T.S. Eliot’s ashes

This last post of the year will focus on the final part of the introduction to my family story, edited for a memoir writing competition. In October’s blog post (see The Lost Family – Part 1),  I began by outlining the background to my quest, detailing my experience of working as a probate genealogist or so-called heir hunter in London in the 1980s. Last month (see The Lost Family – Part 2) I turned to the more recent past, when an unknown photograph of my father as a boy reignited my interest in researching my paternal family history, sending me to East Coker in Somerset, where my father had lived as a wartime evacuee. This month I will complete the trilogy by describing the serendipitous meeting with my father’s schoolfriend, Alan Cornelius, the man who took the photograph of his boyhood friends in Coker Woods one spring day in 1944.

As previously, I’ll also be updating the story with current recollections of the events I recount, as well as the additional knowledge gained in the last few years during my struggle to create a coherent narrative from my genealogical quest. This will hopefully inspire some readers to chronicle their own family research, perhaps including their personal responses to the stories they uncover along the way.

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The Lost Family: Part 3

East Coker is a place that has mostly won the battle to preserve its rural charms, mainly due to the Eliot connection, and has few modern buildings or street lights. Visitors come to see the deep lanes, the open fields, the houses of grey stone and the hollyhocks that aim too high. It is even said that Eliot based part of his poem on the 1876 Friedrich Gerstäcker tale of the mysterious community of Germelshausen, where the population had been cursed by the pope and were only allowed to come out of the earth for one day of revelry every hundred years. There is a strange a feeling of liminality when entering the village through the ancient sunken lanes that resemble tunnels into another world. And it is not difficult to imagine that the place is haunted by the spectre of an earlier time, which can only be faintly glimpsed at certain moments.

And the deep lane insists on the direction into the village*: I have arrived in East Coker several times over the years – once on foot over the fields and woods from Yeovil Junction Station, another time arriving ‘the back way’ through Burton Cross, where my father lived during the war on Burton Farm. But whatever road or path I take, it always seems a surprise to come across the village: East Coker gives the impression of being hidden away – both in time and place. This is almost like a metaphor for my own genealogical research, an endeavour which sometimes feels akin to glimpsing through a door which has opened slightly onto another world, only for it to close again when you try to push through to the other side.

After a reader contacted me about my East Coker post, I learned that the deep lane shuttered with branches* was also called a holloway – or hollow way (derived from the Old English ‘hola weg’). Having very little experience of travelling along such sunken lanes it came as a surprise to enter the village along such a route. Perhaps it also reminded me of the road to Dunure in Ayrshire, the seaside village close to our home where our family spent many days in summer. Although not technically a holloway (which are characteristic of Southern England due to the geology of the landscape), it gave the same feeling of entering another world, which was made even more exciting to me by the sound of branches whipping against our Austin 1100 (see Looking Back).

* From East Coker, by T.S. Eliot

The morning I met Alan Cornelius – the old man who’d taken the photograph in Coker Woods on that Whit Monday over sixty years ago – the village was looking its time-warped best. The jaunty union-jack bunting strung up between the thatched houses in the main street hung still in the mid-summer air, and the sounds of hay stooking cut across the yellow fields. The Helyar Arms was preparing for its first customers, and the church was alive with the bustle of middle-aged women setting the final touches to the arrangements for the flower festival.

Flower Festival in St Michael's Church

By noon the cow parsley in the hedgerows was wilting in the heat, and the exhibition in the village hall was coming to a close. ‘We called those long wooden sticks ‘staves’ back then,’ Alan Cornelius said, as he packed away his own copy of ‘my’ photograph amongst his other WW2 memorabilia. ‘And we were off to fight the enemy in the woods.’ He shook his head and smiled.

Among all the other bits and pieces on his stall that the younger visitors to the exhibition found so fascinating, was a copy of his childhood diary. The short, scribbled entries illustrated just how exciting the war could seem to a thirteen-year-old boy. There were numerous descriptions of long bike rides spent searching for incendiaries in the surrounding fields, building model aeroplanes bought from a shop in Yeovil, watching out for enemy aircraft, visiting the local Westland Aircraft Factory (where Lysanders or ‘Lizzies’ were built).

One diary entry triggered a particular memory for Alan Cornelius: ‘Early on in the war, a bomb fell on a nearby farm, killing a bull. Your dad said this was abominable. It was typical of him. He always was a sharp one.’ I thought back to how my father always used to make up limericks and nonsense rhymes, and imagined him honing this skill amongst his peers. He’d come to the village with his mother and baby brother, not as part of a school group, so a sense of humour and aptitude for word play might have eased the path to acceptance by his new classmates.

My aunt was the first in the family to arrive in East Coker when war broke out, ending up there with part of her all-girls grammar school in Camberwell. Yet, while my aunt was sent to Somerset, my father was initially evacuated with his local primary school to Leatherhead in Surrey where he was billeted alongside other children with a Mormon family. Years later, he remembered them chiefly for the fact that they watered down the milk and gave their charges the cast-off bicycles of the junior members of the Kennedy clan. (Joseph Kennedy – then American ambassador to Great Britain – had stayed in a house in nearby Headley during the first year of the war, before being forced to resign in November 1940). I like to imagine my father cycling to school on J.F.K’s old bicycle, and sometimes wonder if that was the source of my parents’ on-going joke that our family and the Kennedys shared a series of (near) parallel death dates. In an uncanny twist of fate, my father was to eventually die in January 1995, several hours before Rose Kennedy did.

True as I’m riding this bicycle: My father used to say this a great deal, something which delighted and annoyed the rest of the family in equal measure. For several years I thought it was ‘Trew’s riding this bicycle’, or words to that effect (another of my father’s favourite expressions). However, it was a while before I finally learnt what he was actually saying – and more importantly, what it meant. He used the  phrase whenever he was pressed about the veracity of the stories he told, so that in the end we could never know what had really happened and what was made up (a trait he shared with his brother). Possibly this was a way for my father to avoid having to go deeper into certain topics or give away too many personal details, something he hated doing. So for most of his life, none of us – including my mother- knew much about his background. However, as I mentioned last month, ‘fact is often stranger than fiction’, and I think my father secretly enjoyed the absurdity of recounting the kind of story which sounds as if it could be made up but was in fact actually true.

Of course, once the 1939 register was available for consultation (and even then I had to wait a couple of years until the redacted names of those who might still be alive were released) I saw that so much of what he’d remembered had actually happened. My father had stayed with a large Russian-American Mormon family not far from the Kennedy’s home. I came to the conclusion that if these facts were true, then why not the bicycle story. There are many people I know (myself included) who might have dined out on such an anecdote for years, but although a good raconteur, my father shied away from the limelight. My mother now admits she wished she’d questioned him more about his past, and I often wonder if that is the main reason why my London family genealogy was so compelling. From an early age I always associated the Skelton family with an unknown – but possibly romantic – backstory. In contrast, I felt (erroneously, I realise now) that I knew a great deal about the Scottish side of my family, removing their mystery for me.

Within a year, my father was back in London  – like many families the ‘phoney war’ had lulled them into a false sense of security – with my grandparents omitting to tell my aunt, lest she also wanted to return home. My father remembered the constant trips to the air raid shelter (always when he was setting out his lead soldiers), so this would have been in the autumn of 1940, when the bombing  started in earnest. Having only recently moved the family from a dilapidated Victorian terrace in Brixton to a modern, cottage-style semi on the Bloomfield Hall Estate in West Norwood, my poor grandmother must have despaired at ever being able to create the comfortable family home she craved.

One inauspicious afternoon, my father arrived back from school to find my grandfather standing at the end of their road, suitcases at his feet, saying that their house had taken a hit and they would be ‘going away’. It is one of the very few things I remember my father telling us about that period in his life – apart from the spectacle of watching the Crystal Palace burn down from his upstairs bedroom window in the old family house in Denmark Road, so I realise it must have been an important memory.

Crystal_Palace_fire_1936Crystal Palace Fire, November, 1936

A Blazing Arch of Lucid Glass: The voiceover accompanying this Pathé newsreel clip above illuminates (no pun intended!) both the iconic status of this building and the horrific drama of the fire which destroyed it. In 1936 the Crystal Palace was already 85 years old, and yet next year (2021) marks a further 85 years since it burned to the ground in such a dramatic way. So just as there are still people alive today who remember the terrible conflagration which lit up the sky over South London and could be seen for miles around, there must have been old people then who could recall the wonder of the new glass building in Hyde Park, perhaps even having seen the exotic exhibits on display during The Great Exhibition in 1861.

However, by the time my father saw the smoke and flames rising above Sydenham Hill the Crystal Palace was certainly not the exalted place it had once been, with the surrounding gardens popular places for working class families to gather on Sundays. My aunt recalls the whole family going there to watch the motor racing which took place in the grounds from 1927, a fact that surprised me at the time but proved to be correct. The actual building had several uses over the years – there were the popular Saturday music concerts, and it even housed the Imperial War Museum for a few years in the 1920s. However, historians agree that by the end of the 19th century, the Crystal Palace’s best days were over.

As a family historian, I am interested in the fact that the Crystal Palace and gardens links the two unknown sides of my family: both the ‘struggling’ and the wealthy. The former branch of the family (from which I descend) may or may not have visited the Great Exhibition (an event which cut through the classes as long as one could afford the one shilling entrance fee) but they certainly took advantage of the building’s relocation to South London to enjoy their Sunday downtime. Some of the wealthier side of the family – the ‘undiscovered’ branch – were actually involved in The Great Exhibition itself, with James William Skelton’s in-laws (the Sleath family) winning an award for their glass eyes (see Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans).

When the newly dubbed Sleath-Skelton family took up residence in The Avenue in Dulwich, they were only a stone’s throw from the Crystal Palace, which had moved there from Hyde Park only a few years previously. Then the glass building and its surrounding grounds was seen as a neighbourhood attraction which brought the railway to this rural outpost. But as the century moved to its end, the area filled up with the new railway commuters and rows of terraced housing began to march over the fields, gobbling up the market gardens and dairy fields, and in the process attracting more of those who were seeking cheaper housing. This was how my great-grandparents ended up in the area (in nearby Romanny Road) for a few years in the late 19th century, and again in 1938 when my grandparents moved to a new house on the Bloomfield Estate, a place they all loved. The concept of the interwar cottage estate particularly interests me, and there is some fascinating information about the ones in Lambeth at the excellent Municipal Dreams blog here.

P1030886 (2)My grandparents’ house on the Bloomfield Estate, today

In the end, my grandmother took her two boys to Somerset to join their older sister in a bid to keep them all together, while my grandfather stayed in London working as a tram conductor at the Camberwell depot, a reserved occupation, although as a veteran of the Great War, he was too old to serve again. My aunt later told me that this was not an easy time for my grandmother: in her first billet she stayed with a woman who treated her like her own personal skivvy. This must have been galling to a mature mother of three, but she eventually found a more convivial place for the family in a cottage at Burton Farm, where the Dunning family lived. And this was the place where my father retained strong memories of helping out on the farm with the other children – and which gave him his lifelong love of the British countryside.

BUR_COTBurton Farm Cottage, East Coker, today

The more I heard from Alan Cornelius about life in East Coker during the war, the more I realised that evacuation to the village would not necessarily have been a hardship. Most of the villagers appeared to have made a great effort to integrate the evacuees, and many of the youngsters were pleased to welcome the newcomers to their clubs and dances. As my father’s old schoolfriend pointed out to me himself: What adolescent hasn’t rejoiced at the injection of new ‘talent’ into their midst?

It is never too soon to start asking questions: Like many evacuees, including several in East Coker, my aunt actually married her childhood village sweetheart. Jack Boucher, was an older and ‘cooler’ local lad who also featured in the 1944 Whitsun Monday photograph. Even as an old man, Alan Cornelius remembered him well, writing in his unpublished memoirs: Our 1940s equivalent of ‘The Fonz’ was a young man several years our senior. He was a natural leader in everything that the youth of the day rated as important. He then listed my uncle’s achievements on the sporting field as well as describing his prowess at organising youth entertainments, going on to say: I rarely saw him idle his time away, and he undoubtedly set a high standard for all the other lads around him.

I was lucky enough to meet up with my uncle again (after many years) in 2005 on my first visit to East Coker, and wish I’d asked him more about his upbringing in the village. Sadly it would be the last time I’d see him, and just like the passing of Alan Cornelius it underscored for me how important it was to talk to those who held the memories of the past. And yet there is still this part of me which is reticent to ask too much – perhaps after having a father who did not like to talk about his childhood I’m afraid to upset or offend elderly friends and relatives. I sometimes wonder now if I’ll ever see my aunt again, and wish I had not been so cavalier about my ageing relatives in my youth, particularly when I was first carrying out family research in the mid-80s and early 90s. 

The photograph below shows the East Coker Boys Club, taken in 1944 at Coker Court. My father is in the front row, far left (kneeling) and Alan Cornelius and Jack Boucher are also in the front row, 3rd and 2nd from the right, respectively. In his memoirs, Alan wrote: Over the last few years of the war, there were some twenty of us, but the core group were no more than eight, with others moving in and out for a variety of reasons. 

East Coker Boys ClubEast Coker Boys’ Club, 1944

Despite the charms of East Coker, for the rest of his life my father was to wonder what direction his life’s trajectory might have taken had he been able to attend the prestigious James Alleyne’s School in Dulwich. He remembered the smart uniform which had already been bought, and the sense of life about to begin; but the war sent him off spinning in another direction, away from his scholarship studies. East Coker, however, kept him rooted during a time of great upheaval. And he was, I believe, always grateful for that.

The Incidental Genealogist, December, 2020

The Lost Family – Part 2

The amateur ‘snapshots’ surviving in today’s collections most often date from the 1910s onwards, when more families took up photography. Visual clues such as dress details and any vehicles in the scene can often aid close dating.

Jayne Shrimpton, Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs (2014)

P1070475 (2)My Skelton Grandparents, Hayling Island, 1950s

This month I will be continuing with my family story as I edit the first 5,000 words of A London Family for a memoir writing competition. In October’s blog post (see The Lost Family – Part 1),  I began by outlining the background to my quest, focusing on my experience of working as a probate genealogist or so-called heir hunter in London in the 1980s. Now I turn to the more recent past, when an unknown photograph of my father as a boy reignited my interest in researching my paternal family history.

Just as I did last month, I will also be commenting on both the editing process and my own response to my earliest chapters, given that I can now look back on the beginnings of the project with the hindsight from over a decade of carrying out my second wave of genealogical research.  Writing the monthly blog chapters has forced me to distil facts, choose an angle, and try to make each post a standalone narrative, which enabled me to make some sort of sense of my quest from the very beginning. This was definitely preferable to simply conducting the bulk of the research first, even if it did mean I sometimes had to revisit old ground as the project progressed. However, while I feel this gave the narrative a pleasing circular structure which meant new readers could come on board at any time, it remains to be seen how successfull I will be at turning the story into a more traditional book-length narrative. It will certainly be an interesting process, and one which I hope will improve my writing and editing skills.

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The Lost Family: Part 2

I’m not being entirely truthful when I say I did not have any photographs of my paternal family. Some years after my father died, my mother came across a handful of old snapshots in a battered leather wallet at the back of a drawer, one of which was recognisably a small black-and-white image of my English grandparents flanking their first car (a retirement treat) on a day trip to Hayling Island in the late 1950s. All the other photos were disappointingly of unknown friends and work colleagues, but one of the pictures fascinated me in particular. It was the only hand-coloured one in the collection, and showed five boys under a tree, relaxed and grinning at an unknown photographer, long pointed sticks in their hands. On the reverse, in faded blue ink, was written: Expedition to East Coker Woods, Whit Monday 1944. It was not difficult to locate my father (to the far right) and my future uncle (through marriage) behind him.

Coker Woods

The Uncanny Art: I’ve included this iconic photograph of my father and his friends in many of the posts over the years because I find it a very powerful image, particularly as it is responsible for all my recent genealogical research and writing to date. Not only do I feel it has a slightly otherwordly quality to it (the hand colouring is possibly the reason for this), but it was this image that encouraged my interest in the cultural theory of photography. This led me to read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and On Photography by Susan Sonntag (amongst other texts), illustrating that family history is a wide-ranging subject that if tackled with an open mind can bring its own intellectual rewards. Exploring these side-shoots has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the project and something which I certainly would not have done to the same extent had I not also been constructing a narrative around the topics that might interest other researchers (see Those Ghostly Traces). 

From the date (my father was born in 1928) I knew the boys were all teenagers, but their old-fashioned clothes and obvious pleasure in their bank holiday outing made them seem much younger. In fact, such was the incongruity of the image that I was instantly reminded of Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hillsset in 1943, where a group of children, played by adults, set off to play in the Forest of Dean, with tragic consequences. I’d even watched that film with my father, who was normally averse to anything by Dennis Potter.

That picture must have been taken when Dad was an evacuee my mother explained. He was sent to Somerset during the war. I think his mother’s family originally came from there.

But wasn’t the town called Yeovil – not East Coker? I remembered the name because my father had occasionally mentioned his wartime years there. When I was young he told me about collecting newts in jam jars, about raiding birds’ nests for eggs (of which he was later ashamed), about hunting for shrapnel in the lanes. Later he added other tales to his repertoire: the dances in the village hall, drinking scrumpy straight from the farmer’s barrel, shooting rabbits. But when I asked my father where exactly this place was, all he said was that it was called Yeovil. To my Scottish ears, the strange name sounded like the kind of mythical English village of perpetual idyllic summers, where hollyhocks and sunflowers towered high above the inhabitants, and children were free to run through woods and fields and lanes.

cottageThatched Cottages in East Coker

A Lost Eden: As I’ve mentioned before, growing up in Scotland with an English father meant that, although I felt very much Scottish, part of me was fascinated with the idea of London and the south of England, where my Skelton relatives all lived. As a child I loved the glamour of the capital, so it is not surprising that I headed there to live and work after graduating in 1984. But I was also entranced with the idea of the mythical West Country, especially as on family trips ‘down south’ to see our English cousins I always delighted in the very exotic looking thatched cottages with their colourful gardens. A visit to the White Horse in Berkshire – while not technically in the West Country – only added to the sense that there was something mysterious about the landscape. In contrast I felt that Scotland was too harsh, cold and wet for my liking (I have since revised my opinion) and that I really should have grown up in a village like East Coker. It is no surprise that as a teenager I devoured the novels of Thomas Hardy and loved to visit the nearby countryside when I lived in London, even if only to walk in the green belt near to my first flat in North London (see A Rose in Holly Park).

I pulled out the old AA drivers’ map circa 1988 that had little use in a family of non-drivers in the 21st century. Once I located Yeovil it wasn’t that difficult to find the Cokers (East, West and North – where was South?) standing to the south-west of Yeovil like sentries. But there was something about the name that seemed vaguely familiar. It niggled at me for days before I later came across the T.S. Eliot poem of the same name – part of the Four Quartets. I thought it strange that my father, who loved poetry, had never bothered to tell me about the village and its link to Eliot, particularly when I had studied the writer so intensively in my final years of school.

As we were growing up, my father had given us an eclectic mix of poetry books, from Seamus Heaney’s North to Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and he must have been aware of the connection Eliot had to East Coker. Although the poem had first been issued in pamphlet form by Faber and Faber in 1940  (then reprinted several times, such was its popularity), the Four Quartets was not published until several years later, so my father would certainly have heard about the poem at some point. It was almost as if he’d never wanted us to know the exact location of the place which had taken away so much with one hand (his home in London; his coveted scholarship to the posh school in Dulwich), but had bestowed gifts with the other (love and respect for nature; an appreciation and understanding of the British countryside).

P1050432

Four Quartets: I first came across T.S. Eliot when I studied The Journey of the Magi while preparing for my English exams. Despite being entranced by the poem, I do remember that this was also the catalyst for my decision not to study English literature. Class time was short, and it was not possible to question the images and language of the poem ourselves, given that we had less than a year to prepare for our final exams. Cramming was the order of the day. However, I could not stop wondering whether Eliot would have even agreed with Brodie’s Notes explanations of the symbolism he used in the poem.

Reading Eliot as a mature adult is an altogether different experience, and each time I pick up the Four Quartets I see something else in the work. East Coker, in particular, is a fascinating journey into Eliot’s state of mind at midlife at the outbreak of war. He first visited the village in 1936 when on a pilgrimage to his ancestral home – Andrew Eliot had left East Coker for America around 1650 – and later requested his ashes be buried in St Michael’s church in the village. As Peter Ackroyd points out in his celebrated biography of Eliot: It was the final dramatic, but telling, gesture.

Eliot’s long interest in Buddhism is clearly evident in the poem, yet it was not until a few years ago that I realised to how great an extent. While travelling in Japan one summer I came across a little-visited hillside temple in Kyoto on the banks of the Hozu-Gawa river. A flight of steep stone stairs led up to the building and at the top was a small viewing hall which afforded good views of the city and surrounding countryside. As well as containing binoculars for this purpose the room also had some strategically placed reading material in both Japanese and English. There were the usual crudely published pamphlets, concerned with the history of the temple and information about its founder, but also some photocopied sheets of Buddhist poetry. 

Temple View

I picked up a couple and began reading – before I realised with a sudden shock of recognition how close they were to the Four Quartets in rhythm, language and meaning. Poems such as The Song of Zazen and The Heart Sutra had clearly been very influential on Eliot, who had always incorporated ideas from other sources into his work.  Eliot himself once said that Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal, bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. But whatever you may think about Eliot’s ‘appropriation’, these Buddhist poems certainly gave me a deeper understanding of the Four Quartets and the eternal message of redemption contained within.

A few weeks later I came across the on-line version of the East Coker Newsletter while searching for more information about the village. An announcement proclaimed that a weekend of special events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE and VJ Day had been organised for the second weekend in July. This seemed to resonate with my own plans to visit, and I knew then that I had to make the trip.

East Coker Commemorations

What I couldn’t have foreseen is that the date of my first visit to East Coker would forever become linked in my mind with the London bombings. That weekend was due to be hot, and as my mother and I boarded our flight from Edinburgh on the morning of July 7th we were oblivious to the horrific events unfolding in the capital. But the news soon filtered through, and in the end we were unable to leave our luggage to look around Bristol as planned, so took the next west-bound train and ate our limp picnic in the stuffy compartment while the ticket collector nervously prowled the corridors, checking and re-checking for any stray bags. As we watched the lush West Country scenery slip past it was hard to imagine the scenes of carnage in the capital – just as it must have been difficult for those who moved from London to the countryside for the duration of the war to envisage the destruction of the Blitz.

An auspicious date: When I first wrote about visiting East Coker on the 7th of July 2005, I omitted to mention the London bombings as it had not really impacted on our visit, as terrible as the terrorist attacks were. I also found it difficult to weave the two events together but felt instinctively that by not mentioning the attacks it was somehow disrespectful to those who had been affected by them. I thought long and hard about this, then remembered the situation in the train with luggage, and saw that as a way of connecting the bombings with the story of the evacuees.

This is probably one of the most challenging aspects about writing non-fiction – trying to create a coherent narrative from disparate events. It also emphasises how important it is to be aware of the external environment at key moments in a family’s history and how this can impact on individuals. It could be something as simple as checking the weather on an ancestor’s wedding day (I was able to do this for my great-great grandfather’s wedding in 1823), to understanding the contemporary political and legal system, and how this affected the citizens of a country or a region.

Yet after everything I’d expected from the ancient-sounding name, Yeovil seemed an unprepossessing place. Disaffected youths roamed the bland post-war shopping centre beside the bus station, and there was a feeling the market town had seen better days. I was beginning to wonder if we were in for a similar disappointment with East Coker. After all, it had been my father who’d always said we should never go back anywhere. He himself had returned in the 1980s and was saddened by the changes to the village, and reluctant to talk about the experience. But I consoled myself with the thought that, as we had no memories of the place, whatever we might see or experience would be a revelation to us.

From Yeovil we caught a local bus to East Coker, travelling the way some of the evacuees might have come on September 1st, 1939. Before long, a cast iron signpost, of the kind seldom seen nowadays, pointed us in the direction of East Coker. The bus suddenly veered off down a narrow lane which sank deeper into the surrounding land the farther we travelled along it. Snake-like roots of ancient hedgerows protruded from the sandy soil, while above us the tree canopy shut out most of the late afternoon sun. Then we rounded an unexpected corner and came into the village: a place that looked as if it should not – could not – belong in the twenty-first century.

East Coker Holloway‘Holloway’ on the approach to East Coker

From those first impressions (the patriotic red, white and blue bunting strung up across the main road between the thatched cottages; the alms houses by the church; the hayricks in the fields), to later, more personal information (so this is the farm where Dad once lived; this is the hall where he first went dancing; this is the church where he carved his name in the vestry), we gradually learnt about the modern-day village and its shadowy wartime predecessor. Walking across the damp fields at dusk towards the warm light of the pub on that first evening, it was almost possible to imagine that the past might still exist in some ghostly form alongside the present.

In the heat of the following day on a sunken footpath which led through the woods to the old priory, I lay down, head to the red soil, and heard the drum of distant hooves and the click of mid-summer insects. For those few seconds it felt as if the earth was struggling to gather up the momentum to move backwards, to reveal something to me – until the shouts of children in the playing fields broke through the thick afternoon air.

East Coker FootpathFootpath to Naish Priory

That weekend I finally met the boy who’d taken the photograph in the woods on Whitsun Monday over sixty years previously. He was manning one of the stalls in the village hall war exhibition, and his table was a jumble of WW2 paraphernalia: old ration books, bits of home guard uniform, various pieces of ammunition. Part of his collection was dedicated to the story of the relationship between the local children and the evacuees.

It was there I saw it. Amongst the letters and diaries and various bits and bobs of printed memorabilia, was my own photograph, but in black-and-white, and mounted in a crude wooden frame. Not trusting myself to speak, I reached into my bag, pulled out my hand-coloured version and passed it across the table, watching the old man’s face twitch as he struggled to work out the connection.

Stranger Than Fiction: There’s a hackneyed saying that life is stranger than fiction, which must be dispiriting for fiction writers who are trying to curb their enthusiasm for coincidence and serendipity. But on that that day when I met Alan Cornelius, I felt that I’d slipped between the pages of a novel and that anything could happen. I suppose in some kind of novel I might have ended up falling in love with his youngest son; although this being real life, I never met his sons who, like myself, are all relatively happily married. However, I did meet one of his granddaughters the following year when I went to visit him at his home. She arrived with some courgettes for him from her parents’ garden, although this might have just been a reason to look in on him. For he was already ill with the cancer that would soon take his life, and sadly this was the first and last time I ever got to talk to him at length. That was the day he gave me a copy of part of his unfinished manuscript about his childhood, and I felt very honoured to be entrusted with his memories. 

In the blog I have quoted at length from his reminiscences about the ‘vacuees (as he called them) but removed this from the manuscript. One of the joys of blogging is that you are not restricted by traditional publishing conventions, and I felt very much that his story should be told in his own words. As an ex local councillor, Alan Cornelius was also very interested in discussing politics and we had a very lively couple of hours together talking about all and sundry (including his military badge collection). It sometimes feels disrespectful to focus on the past when ‘interviewing’ those who can shed light on family history as they are often just as involved with the present as we are. I was aware of this, too, when I went to visit my aunt last summer. Although she could bring my father’s childhood to life just by looking at an old photograph, she was also very much living in the moment.

It was then I learnt about that day out in the woods. A moment of late childhood, hanging high and free above the dark shadow cast by the war, and caught on camera like a dragonfly in ether for the dissection of future generations.

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2020

The Lost Family – Part 1

There is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.

Helen Keller (1912)

396-3Skelton Family Christmas, London 1966

As mentioned in September’s post, this month I will be returning to the beginning of my story as I edit the first 5,000 words of A London Family for a memoir writing competition. For the first section of my entry,  I have combined the static page entitled The Incidental Genealogist is Born with my initial post of Begin Again from September 2015.

Although the former would have also made an ideal first chapter, I decided to place it apart from the rest of the blog posts in order to highlight the background information to my quest. In addition, it did not quite fit into the About the Search page (equivalent to the About Me page in many blogs) which I felt needed to be short and succinct. I initially avoided giving away too much about myself as I wanted the main focus to be my research, with the personal elements interspersed throughout the story. I personally prefer to read the type of memoir where the backstory of the writer is gradually revealed on a need-to-know basis, while being interwoven with a higher quest, as I feel this keeps the reader’s interest piqued.

As I edit my writing I will comment on any aspects of this process as well as other points that I become aware of while rewriting the initial section. This may be of interest to others attempting similar projects or those simply curious about the writing process. Editing a text is a very different process from putting the initial words down on paper (or screen), but it is a satisfactory and enjoyable process that also sheds light on individual writing practices.

I have given the text the working title of The Lost Family. This seems to me more poetic and mysterious than A London Family, and was actually the original blog title before I realised that it was rather ambiguous for online searching (where names need to closely reflect their content).

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The Lost Family: Part 1

Back in 1984 most people could only guess at what the technological revolution would unleash. Even that harbinger of our silver-suited future, Tomorrow’s World, had only an inkling of the invention that would bring both pornography and family history (two of the most popular uses of the internet) into our homes. And in that Orwellian pre-internet year, fresh out of college and facing the economic realities of the North-South Divide, I decided to follow Norman Tebbit’s advice, and headed to my father’s home city of London in search of a job. (Albeit on the overnight mail train from Scotland).

Night train from Stranraer to London in Ayr StationStranraer to Euston train in Ayr (AKA ‘the paddy’ as it linked with the Irish ferries)

In media res (sort of): My first edit involved removing the introductory paragraph and starting with the one above, which not only helped to reduce the wordcount, but also meant I was beginning with action, rather than background details. This is a common editing technique which often results in a much tighter introduction, bringing the reader into the story faster and encouraging them to read on.

One day shortly before Christmas, when the capital was looking its most enticing – and expensive – I spied an advertisement for a trainee genealogist in the window of the Job Centre in Kensington High Street. Although the advert had initially caught my eye because it looked like a job where my biology degree might be useful, even my interviewer was unclear about what exactly I’d be doing for £3 an hour, 35 hours a week. However, she did make the job sound rather exciting: like becoming a private detective without the risks. And anything was better than my current role as temporary shelf-stacker at Sainsbury’s, West Ealing.

The devil is in the details: I initially changed the final phrase of this paragraph to the more general supermarket shelf-stacker in order to reduce my wordcount and because I felt slightly uncomfortable naming the actual place (as it had been a rather eye-opening experience). However, I later returned to  the original and more specific temporary shelf-stacker at Sainsbury’s, West Ealing as I felt that it was exactly this sort of detail that made the description come alive and personalised the text.

Two days later, on a bright December morning, I nervously climbed up the marble, statue-lined stairs to the tiny office on the top floor of the impressive Africa House in Holborn. I never thought to ask the elegant middle-aged man who interviewed me from behind the large mahogany desk what exactly he would do with the results of my genealogical research – I was too busy trying to look sophisticated in my American tan tights and scratchy new wool suit than to worry about the company’s ethics. Besides, ethical concerns were not top of anyone’s agenda in 1984, least of all in Thatcher’s London.

Africa House - Exterior

Africa House - InteriorAfrica House, Kingsway Holborn – imposing inside and out.

Eventually I discovered the firm’s main source of income came from matching unclaimed legacies with missing relatives. In other words, they were probate genealogists, or so-called ‘heir hunters’, although I was never quite sure of the ins and outs of the business. The staff had obviously been told to keep me in the dark whilst I was undertaking my three months’ probation and I was cautioned not to have contact with any other local genealogists. Later I had to sign a contract agreeing not to accept employment for a rival firm within a one-mile radius of Africa House for up to two years after leaving the company. This sounded decidedly dodgy, even to my young, provincial ears, and I knew that the job must be something involving large sums of money and possibly subterfuge.

A parenthesis is evidence that the man who uses it does not know how to write English or is too indolent to take the trouble to do it. (Mark Twain): In the above paragraphs I realised that I originally had a number of clauses in parenthesis (dashes and brackets), something I know I tend to overdo. While this is possibly more acceptable in a blog post, I thought I should try to avoid this when submitting a manuscript. However, I realise that some of my favourite authors have their own punctuation quirks, so feel I need to tread a fine line between keeping my own style without it becoming wearying for the reader. Plus, I don’t necessarily always agree with Mark Twain’s statement (c.f. Tristram Shandy)!

When I first started working there – and to this day I cannot remember the name of the company, I could almost swear it never had one – there was only one other ‘field researcher’. Cyril was a tall, stooped man, who had formerly been something in the City, and had come out of a bored retirement in the Home Counties to put in a couple of days’ work a week. After our research was over for the morning, and if the weather was fine, Cyril and I would cut down Surrey Street to the Embankment and eat our packed lunches on a bench overlooking the Thames, throwing our crusts to the lone Muscovy duck living on that stretch of the river. I enjoyed Cyril’s company – he was a quiet and thoughtful man and an antidote to the loud and brazen money-crazed yuppies who seemed to be everywhere in London that year. However, one morning, arriving late at Alexandra House after a delay on the Northern Line, I found Cyril collapsed in a chair in the black-booked corner of Deaths, a bucket at his feet and a concerned assistant nervously standing over him. An ambulance was summoned, and after that episode my fellow researcher disappeared back into retirement (much to the relief of his adult children) and I was left on my own.

Building the Embankment behind Somerset HouseBuilding the new Victorian Embankment behind Somerset House c1860s

Making the Most of Memory (article here): When I reread this paragraph I was surprised at how much I’d remembered from that time. Even though I wrote a draft of this text almost 10 years ago now, it was still much later than the actual event. However, once I started writing down my memories, many more flowed from them. Specific ones obviously stood out – my job interview in Africa House and Cyril becoming ill, for example. While other occasions seemed to be less important, I was still able to recall them in detail. Feeding the Muscovy duck at the Thames was one such memory: looking back I realise I was like a sponge at that point – keen to learn as much about London and the world as possible. Cyril was an interesting companion who clearly enjoyed the role of benign teacher, and working together presented both of us with opportunities to benefit from the exchange.

I soon grew bored with the research. What had initially seemed like a challenge eventually became routine and I started rushing through the lists of dead people I had to find so I could sneak in some searches for my elusive London ancestors. This helped to break the monotony of looking through the heavy records books for several hours a day (punctuated by the occasional jaunt to Somerset House for wills or the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane for the census returns), and often I could combine the two tasks if the search dates and places overlapped. Coming across a relative’s name scribbled by some registrar or census enumerator gave me a thrill that those of the unknown people on my list never did. And once I started ordering copies of their birth, marriage and death certificates, it was even more gratifying to see the familiar family name, sometimes in my ancestors’ own hands.

In the pre-internet days, all the records had to be consulted in situ by perusing the large unwieldy books which were shelved chronologically in St Catherine’s House (blood red for Births; spring green for Marriages) and Alexandra House (Deaths in black, of course). There was a sort of comforting rhythm that I would fall into – lifting the books, flipping over the pages, replacing them, moving onto the next, scribbling into my reporters’ pad. Apart from the thump of books and the shuffle of feet along the rows and the occasional stagey whisper, the place was usually quiet. There were no inadvertent throbs and tinkles of mobile phones, or the sound of computers whirring and chiming. The professional genealogists (of which I almost felt a part) worked quickly and methodically, briefcases at their feet, eyes averted from their rivals.

As the morning wore on, amateur researchers came in with their tuck boxes, much the same as they visit the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell today. But unlike the airy rooms of the LMA with their computer terminals and changing exhibitions, the dark and stuffy records offices were strange places to be sequestered for a young woman eager for life in London to begin.

HEZ-1527719 - © - The Print CollectorSearching Wills in Somerset House c1875 (not much changed in a century!)

How times change: Once Cyril left the company I felt as if I did not have any allies in the office. There was a rather gruff older woman called Mary Lush who baffled me with her opening line of But I’m certainly not one! on being introduced. It was many years later before I’d learn what a lush was! She also referred to the boss (who wore a fedora and a long coat with a fur collar) as A sort of Walter Mitty figure, another reference which completely escaped me. A young person today would only need to whip out their phone to find out what Mrs Lush-by-name-but-not-by nature meant (if they could be bothered). I did not have that luxury and felt too unsure of myself to ask. I normally saved these things up to ask my parents when I called them on Sunday night from the phone box at the end of the street (when I could be bothered). Mum was great at clearing up any confusion regarding cultural references, and words were her forté. Dad was even less chatty by phone than he was normally, but would sometimes take the call and talk for a minute ot two before saying ‘I’ll pass you over to your mother’.

Just thinking about how technology has changed so much over the intervening decades makes me realise that the experiences of my childhood and youth are probably a lot closer to those of my parents than ones experienced by the tech-savvy generations to follow. However, unlike my parents I benefited from the boom in higher education started in the 1960s and the free university places open to all. In 1984 I was also living with a boyfriend in London – mainly to save money on rent, as I recall, and not for any grand passion – something that my mother could never have contemplated in her twenties. However, I told the genealogists in Africa House that I was living with my female cousin in case they thought any the less of me. So perhaps things were not quite as free and open as I remember. It seems to me that the early 80s were the beginning of a more modern time. People stopped saying ‘Good morning/afternoon/evening’ as a greeting in the street and started to say simply ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’. At some point we no longer prefixed our phone answering at home with calling out ‘Alloway 43883’. And we also started to eat in the dining room during the week (rather than just on Sundays and special occasions).

I was certainly not sad to leave it all behind me for a very different job as a trainee virologist at a lively teaching hospital. I always knew that one day – when the time was right – I would return to my research. Yet what finally restarted my quest again, over a quarter of a century later, was a documentary about a family I knew or cared little about.

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Late one wet September afternoon in 2010, still exhausted from a recent sightseeing trip to New York, I lay on the sofa, trawling the internet for something undemanding to distract me from that miserable, out-of-sorts feeling that comes from being jetlagged. Eventually I stumbled across an intriguing-looking documentary about the Waugh Family, based on the book Fathers and Sons by Alexander Waugh. And by the time the story of the Waughs had drawn to its natural conclusion, I felt like an addict denied the next fix.

Images from the film continued to spool through my head while I tackled the ironing basket. Like others who had left comments on the website, I’d been both maddened and moved by the content. The Waughs were clearly the kind of family with heirlooms, and family paintings and draughty piles in the country – and in their particular case, a literary legacy). Even though they’d had their share of ups and downs over the centuries, it was obvious they knew their place in the world. Not only had they the things to prove it – pieces of furniture that were passed from one generation to another, as well as documents and graves to confirm their existence – but there was the intangible wealth tied up in the family name with its reputation and traditions.

Fathers and SonsThree Generations of Waughs (Auberon, Alexander and Evelyn)

This set me thinking about my own namesake family once more. Since my first attempt at genealogy, both my father and uncle had died, making me more keenly aware that twenty-five years can decimate a lot of witnesses to the past. Perhaps that is why Alexander Waugh’s documentary had affected me. There is the parent explaining death to the child: One day we all die. Even I will leave you, as you in turn will leave your children; and the needy child inside the adult: Why did my parents have to die! But Waugh at least seems to take comfort in knowing there are graves to visit if one chooses (even only to spit on). There are books which chart the family history. There are copious photographs and records of the family members’ lives. And that is before even mentioning the literary oeuvre, as well as the more tangible objects of houses and heirlooms.

The branch without fruit: Looking back, it now seems obvious that my project gained momentum as soon as I discovered the ‘lost family’ – the one which my great-great grandfather, James Skelton (The Tailor from Horsleydown) had with his first wife. I was particularly fascinated by his son: the social climber, James William Skelton, who married a well-connected woman from an interesting family and added her name to his to create the shortlived Sleath-Skelton branch of the family. Despite none of the three children having any issue of their own, two of them in particular – Maude Beatrice and Herbert – have left a particularly long paper trail, which meant I was privy to how the other half (of my family) lived. Yet their lives frequently disappointed me in that the opportunities they had to engage themselves with more noble activities, rather than simply amassing fame or fortune, were never taken. There appeared to be no grand philanthropic gestures or involvement in social or political movements that brought about change.

Perhaps in that respect I need not feel ‘intimidated’ by families such as the Waughs. The more I delved into my own family history, the more I came to believe that, in the case of my ancestors, a good heart and a sense of adventure are more important than possessions and status. The fact that my great-great grandfather eventually set up home with a young, impoverished single mother while he was approaching fifty, now seems like an act of faith. Although they did not marry until shortly before he died, the five children they had together in the same terrace in Aldred Road in Kennington is proof of his commitment to a woman whose parents and younger siblings were no strangers to the horrors of the Victorian workhouse.

Aldred Road, KenningtonAldred Road, Kennington, early 20th C

Those originating from a more ‘ordinary’ kind of family (although I don’t believe that any family is truly ordinary) often have scant knowledge of their ancestors. Lack of space, time and money meant that little was passed on from one generation to another. Some might be lucky enough to find letters and cards stored in an old hat box in the attic. A christening shawl or part of a wedding outfit might be discovered, yellowing in a leather suitcase. Or even a family bible, the family names annotated inside in fading ink, located at the back of a woodworm-infested bookcase. But for most amateur genealogists the photograph album is the place to begin.

Nowadays, thanks to the internet, there are collectors around the world who try to find the descendants of long-lost family albums and ‘orphaned’ photographs. Their success rate is not particularly high, but they persevere due to their belief in the intrinsic value of the project. The albums and photographs are unearthed in junk shops, garage sales and house clearances, the family keeper of memories (for there is always one, and it is usually a she) having no doubt passed away without a worthy heir to inherit the role. The images posted on the web, in the hope of reuniting them with their descendants, are sad and silent sepia reminders of our own mortality, and the fact that we too will soon be forgotten. Many of the them come from the heyday of the studio Cabinet Card, where the sitters’ expressions were rigid from the immobility necessary for the length of the exposure, unaware that future generations will judge them to have been grim and stern. These photographs can usually never reflect the reality of the period, and often convey a gravitas that would have been absent from their daily lives.

A further limitation is that the photographs mostly only cover a certain period. It is unusual to find a picture of the father as a child, then later as a grandfather. For that you must have a chronological album spanning decades – a luxury denied to most. Or even a big messy box still waiting to be catalogued. I am lucky that my mother has the latter. Several messy boxes, in fact. Most of them started out life containing now defunct brands of goods from the 1940s, and for the last half a century have housed an eclectic mix of photographs from the Scottish side of the family, spanning well over a hundred years.

I remember the first evening my grandmother brought out the photograph boxes, their outdated labels already exciting me with the intimations of a yesteryear of which I was not a part. I was around seven or eight then – the perfect age to be initiated into the delights of the family album, particularly for such a morbid child as I. After that it became a ritual: every time we went to visit our Scottish grandparents there was always one evening set aside for the albums and the endless questions they generated. At first I couldn’t quite believe it was possible to possess photographs that were so old. Surely cameras were too modern an invention to have been around during the 19th century? And those strange clothes looked terribly stiff and uncomfortable. I wasn’t able to make the connection that the type of outfits I saw on the BBC’s Sunday afternoon children’s period dramas had actually been worn by normal people, some of whom were related to me.

Ann and Mary (4)Ann and Mary and Neilson with older friend, c1920, Edinburgh

My sister and I always had our favourite pictures that we searched for first: our two ‘youngest’ great-aunts, standing outside their tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Old Town, holding hands with a neighbour’s child, both of them in grubby pinafores and tackety boots; our mother, perched on the steps of her childhood home towards the end of the war, proud in her new school uniform; Grandad looking dashing in plus fours, leaning on his motorcycle, smoking a pipe. We saw our living relatives in ways we’d never imagined before, and we learnt about the others who’d gone before us but who still touched the lives of those who had once known them.

What’s in a name? When I originally described this picture of our two ‘youngest’ great-aunts I had included the line whose Christian names were now our middle ones. I always knew I’d been named after my great-aunt Mary, who was like a second grandmother to me, and just assumed my sister had been called after Mary’s older sister, Ann. But it was only when I questioned my mother about this recently that she pointed out that it was actually her own best friend (and bridesmaid) whom my sister was named after. This actually made more sense, as our great-aunt Ann had moved to the south of England on her marriage and my mother had little to do with her while growing up (in comparison to her close relationship with her Aunt Mary).

Recently when I asked my paternal aunt about the origins of her middle name ‘Florence’ (thinking she was named after one of her Skelton cousins – ‘Little Flo’ – who died from complications after childbirth) she also explained that it was the name of her mother’s best friend. This made me realise that it was important not to presume anything when carrying out genealogical research. My own erroneous assumption had led me to thinking that the Skelton families were closer than they were – even though my aunt explained that my grandmother, Edith, kept her distance from my grandfather’s family, believing them to be a bit wild!

Rereading a letter she sent me about her parents’ wedding photograph (shown below) she states: The two bridesmaids in the the front are, on the left Little Flo (Skelton) from Elm Road in Thornton Heath and (on the right) Flo French from Coldharbour Junction, Edith’s friend since childhood. 

Skelton Marriage in 1924My Grandparents’ Wedding in October 1924 with the Two Flos

It had always puzzled me that in contrast my father did not seem to possess any photographs of his family. In many ways it was inevitable I’d eventually want to continue my quest to find out more about the paternal name-carrying side of family of which I knew so little. The Waugh documentary was simply the catalyst to reignite my interest in my London family.

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2020

 

Reflections

Writing a family history is one of the best means to preserve and share your research with others, both in the present and future; whereas a family tree and research data are not necessarily things others can follow easily or feel connected to. Moreover, writing an ancestral story creates the opportunity to explore social history and places associated with your ancestry that may not have been pursued so far. In addition to which, reviewing and distilling the mass of information gathered to create a story as one of the best means I know of spotting gaps and anomalies and identifying what still needs to be checked. 

Gill Blanchard, Writing Your Family History (2014)

Writing Your Family History

This month marks the fifth anniversary of A London Family: it was the 1st of September 2015 when I published the first chapter. Now, sixty posts later, I find myself reflecting on the journey I have taken over the last five years and the myriad stories I have written about my previously unknown ancestors. It has been a fascinating quest, and yet I often wonder if I really have achieved what I set out to do. But therein lies the rub: can we really ever know enough about the past to be satisfied with our research? There are always other potential avenues to explore and new records opening up. A lifetime of study, in fact. But who really wants to devote their years to becoming an expert on one unknown family? It is something I ask myself now as other roads beckon and ideas for future projects slowly start to come together like an approaching light out of a fog.

Lately I have found myself reading over some of the earlier posts I  wrote, many of which I had almost forgotten – so that facts appear new again and I find myself wrapped up in the story as if it belonged outside of me. I note, too, that there are uniting themes – ‘the two’ and ‘the lost’ spring to mind, as do the more prosaic ones of photographs and houses. Some posts flow on from the previous ones (and indeed were planned as a set) others revisit themes and topics, attempting to regard them from a fresh angle in the light of new knowledge. Sometimes I’ve paused to reflect on what I have learned about carrying out research or writing, other times there have been digressions into a topic I found fascinating, or a summary of certain subjects. So although there is the semblance of a linear narrative over the months and years, I regard my story more as a looping structure, befitting the medium of blogging in ‘real time’ about a topic.

However, as I mentioned in a much earlier post (see The Story So Far), the very act of writing creates order from chaos as our brains are hardwired to fashion narratives in order to understand the world. So perhaps in the end I could say that I have learned almost more about the process of writing my story and how I approach that task than I have about the paternal side of my family. Of course, there were times when I felt I came close to knowing and understanding the lives of the ancestors I researched, and sometimes I became overwhelmed with my responsibility to them and their life histories. But in the end it is the world of the living which we inhabit. Perhaps that is why the most treasured moments of my research were when it was shared with others, and in the new friends and contacts I made. One particular highlight was the trips to London with my mother when we explored places with family connections: the old asylum at Virginia Water, for example, the Skelton grave at Nunhead, or my father’s boyhood home in West Norwood.

Our London student digs at Bankside House (c) LSE

Previously in September we would set off for a week in London together, with lists of the impossible things we hoped to achieve during our stay. Unfortunately, those holidays came to an end a couple of years ago after my mother had some unexpected issues with her mobility. It seems hard to imagine that only a few years ago we walked from our digs at the LSE student accommodation (after a breakfast fit for a king) on the South Bank to visit a writer friend in Kensington, much to her amazement, or that we’d fit in two or three guided history walks a day in various parts of the capital, rushing from the tube to a bus, followed by a mad dash on foot to the starting point – as we were invariably late.

We quickly grew to feel at home in the area around the South Bank (the LSE accommodation is superbly situated) and as well as the obvious sights we explored the back streets of Southwark on family history related jaunts which inevitably lead us to other places. Stumbling across the Old Operating Theatre at Old St Thomas’ Hospital, and finding cavernous spaces full of vintage treasures in the railway arches in Bermondsey are two occasions which stand out. Distractions abounded, and family history was often neglected in the excitement of new finds throughout the capital – the John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, for example, or Denis Sever’s House in Spitalfields . It was a far cry from the trips we took to visit my grandparents in the 1970s when child-friendly attractions such as Madame Tussaud’s and feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square were the order of the day!

With my mother in Trafalgar Square, c1973

Often my conversations with my mother turned to the maternal side of the family, and more than once I asked her if she was happy for me to currently focus all my research on the English Skeltons, while neglecting her Scottish ancestors. As she was equally interested in both sides of our family she pointed out that it made sense to leave that line of research to a time when gadding about London would not be an option any more. A decade ago I could not imagine that day would come, but of course I now realise that it is here. The current pandemic has only served to underline this fact further, with the rather surreal weekend I experienced in London in March (see Strange Times Indeed) making me feel like a stranger in a place I though I knew and loved (but then that is London for you – the ultimate shape-changing city). 

Old and New Southwark

At the same time as I started to wonder in which direction I should move, I read about a memoir writing competition and decided then and there that I would attempt to create a traditional narrative from A London Family that could be read as one entity, rather than as a series of fragmented posts. Some chapters clearly follow this structure, while others will need to be taken apart and rewritten. It will be an interesting endeavour and one which I hope will help me to discover more about my quest, allowing me to synthesise ideas and add new content as I reflect on my experiences to date. 

The initial submission is the first five thousand words of the memoir, a task which is proving to be enjoyable as I combine my earlier posts to make one storyline, ruthlessly cutting out extraneous words to achieve the correct narrative arc within the wordcount. While putting the draft of the story down on paper can often be a challenge, the final editing process is usually a very soothing one as the angst of the empty page (or screen) has long been removed. The process of improving the text further (one which has most likely already gone through several edits) is always a fascinating one and a deadline and/or wordcount can be a spur to greater things.

In many ways our shrunken Covid-stricken world can currently feel similar to this. Deprived of our normal activities and the chance to wander freely, we focus in on the things around us and perhaps take the opportunity to appreciate and understand them on a deeper level. Of course this is not to belittle the very real hardships the virus has caused, but as humans we naturally try to seek meaning from our existence. Thus anything that aids this process can help us come to terms with the new reality, enabling us to continue moving forward with our lives.

I intend to publish this initial section of the memoir (with the working title of The Lost Family) in the upcoming months, adding comment on the content from my current perspective, both in terms of the information and the process of writing about it. For those who are new to A London Family, I hope it will also provide a sound introduction to some of the themes I have been discussing these past few months. And for those readers who have been with me since the beginning, I hope you will still find it interesting to revisit the genesis of my quest and learn how I now view those initial forays into family history. 

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2020