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!

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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.

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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.

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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 the Myslexia 2020 Memoir Writing Competition (details here). 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 the Myslexia 2020 Memoir Writing Competition (details here). 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 succesfull 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 the Myslexia 2020 Memoir Writing Competition (details here). 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 uncomortable 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 opportunies 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 Wiliam 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 refelecting 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 mobilty. 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 in the women writers’ magazine Myslexia 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

Strange Times Indeed

Once, as I was walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy which was strange to me, on a hot summer afternoon, I found myself in a quarter the character of which could not long remain in doubt. Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses, and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. But after having wandered about for a while without being directed, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, but only to arrive yet a third time by devious paths in the same place. Now, however, a feeling overcame me which I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad enough to abandon my exploratory walk and get straight back to the piazza I had left a short while before.

Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, 1919

The Uncanny at the Freud Museum(c) The Freud Museum, London

What a strange summer it is, this year. Sometimes I forget that we have entered a ‘new normal’, other times it feels all too present. I think back to my last visit to London in March in order to attend a weekend writing workshop; a trip which was booked in November and tentatively taken before travel restrictions came into place. I returned home on the Monday after three days out of the country to find everything beginning to close down in Switzerland – including my own workplace. At the time, it was difficult to reconcile this event with the busy streets of the capital. I thought back to the packed West End theatre where I’d laughed and cried at a wonderful performance of Uncle Vanya; the morning I’d spent at the Tate’s Aubrey Beardsley exhibition, already quickly filling up with visitors at opening time on a Monday.

There was, however, an unspoken feeling that it would not be business as usual for much longer. An unease permeated the city, in the way that people joked too loudly and appeared to affect an air of nonchalence in the face of the impending pandemic. As I browsed the plant stalls on Columbia Road Market early on that Sunday morning, chewing on a fresh bagel, I felt as if I was witnessing the last gasps of freedom. It was – I imagined –  an inkling into how Londoners might have felt on the eve of both world wars, the sights and sounds of the capital already feeling like the backdrop to a bad play full of hammy actors. I was reminded of a line in Kate Atkinson’s latest book, Transcription, set in World War Two, in which the heroine states at the beginning of conflict: The war still seemed like a matter of inconvenience rather than a threat. (A sentence which could just has easily have applied to that strange and uncanny time at the beginning of March).

Transcription

On my way to the Tate the following day, I passed Downing Street and saw a catering van pull up outside number 10; while only yards away in Westminster subway, a girl with a racking cough who was sleeping rough craved a hot chocolate. As I handed her the drink she confessed she was terrified of catching the virus. Only when I arrived back home and watched the evening’s news did I realise that just round the corner at Westmister Abbey the last minute preparations for the yearly Commonwealth Service were being put in place: a celebration which, in the light of recent events, now feels like an anachronism. Strange times, indeed.

I’m not sure now when I will next return to London. I told a woman I met on the writing workshop that I’d love to meet up for a riverside pint in September. But that almost feels too soon. Perhaps I was already slowly falling out of love with the place in any case. What if all that wonder and magic had only been in my head, and the quest for my lost ancestors had simply heightened those feelings?

That last Sunday evening in the capital I felt strangely ill at ease. An old friend I’d agreed to meet for dinner had to cancel due to flu (not the virus, as it turned out). Unexpectedly alone, I had the urge to be with other people, and yet there was no-one with whom I could meet at the last minute. As I set off through Spitalfields, I was able to console myself with the thought that I could enjoy the long walk back to my digs in King’s Cross. At the last minute I decided to detour through the upper floor of Liverpool Street Station, entering from Bishopsgate and taking what I thought was a shortcut away from the surrounding busy roads. But the layout of the building confused me and all of a sudden I found myself enclosed in an area of high walls and steel and glass that did not seem to have an exit. A feeling of panic rose up in me. I felt painfully isolated by the alienating post-modern architecture and the lack of people – a sharp contrast to the busy streets around Spitalfields Market.

Liverpool-street-stationLiverpool Street Station (c) Network Rail

Usually I love to walk the city on my own, especially such a route through the back streets of villagey Clerkenwell and Islington. Despite not having family connections to the area, I had fond memories of Clerkenwell as it is the home of the London Metropolitan Archives (I place I have grown to know well over the last few years). Almost a decade earlier, in March 2011, the LMA was one of the first places I visited when I restarted my family research, and it was while searching for the location of the archives that I stumbled across Clerkenwell Green and the nearby Priory. I could not believe that I’d never thought to visit the area when I’d lived in London in the 1980s, and this thought then spurred me on to make the most of my time ‘on the ground’ whenever I was in the city.

ClerkenwellGreenC-compositeClerkenwell Green (Composite), (c) Nevilley on en.wikipedia – Clerkenwell

I remembered that such feelings of alienation were not new, even though it was years since I’d had that off-kilter sense of being utterly alone in the city. When I was living in London in the mid-eighties I was no stranger to such waves of crippling loneliness. Although time and experience had dulled the memory, I had a flashback to the way I’d felt when I returned to the capital after a weekend away visiting friends: the sadness of the shuttered streets on a Sunday night, everyone at home and busy preparing for the Monday. This feeling of being rejected by the city grew stronger as I walked back to my digs through streets that all of a sudden felt grim and hostile, despite the fact they had seemed quirky and interesting only hours earlier.

Retracing my route, I cut through Bunhill Fields burial grounds, striding along the old flagstone pathway through the gravestones shortly before the gates were due to close. That morning I’d stopped to admire the spring flowers planted between the graves in the style of a woodland garden. Then I had felt a surge of unexpected happiness to find this corner of an imagined pastoral setting in such an urban environment. Now the scene only seemed to highlight the surrounding cityscape and the graveyard walkway did nothing to lift my spirits, appearing instead claustrophobic with the signs of departed souls all around me. I quickened my step until I exited at the other side and set off through the deserted streets of Clerkenwell looking forward to reaching the youth hostel where I knew there would be a comfortable buzz in the café bar.

Bluebells, Bunhill FieldsBluebells, Bunhill Fields, (c) David Fisher, Creative Commons

Walking through the crowds around King’s Cross, a jumble of faces and loud voices, gesticulations and shouts, I felt as if I could not breathe. I had not liked the quiet streets of Clerkenwell and Islington, but neither did I feel comfortable with this seething sea of strangers around me, everyone jostling for space on the narrow pavements. It was a relief to slip through the electronic door of the hostel and into the fuggy warmth of the foyer café bar. I ordered something to eat and drink and found a space next to a woman from my dorm room. As we chatted about our disparate reasons for being in London, those strange feelings of alienation began to dissipate. Perhaps all I’d needed was some genial company with something wholesome to eat and drink.

The next day I had all but forgotten my experience of the night before. But later I allowed myself to think about how we respond as individuals to city spaces and how the same places can quickly change from welcoming to hostile, depending on our own moods. Had my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, sometimes felt such feelings of alienation when he arrived as a young man from Yorkshire two hundred years previously? The late Georgian capital would have been full of wonders but could also have been at times a threatening place for an ingenue from the Yorkshire Dales. The contrast between the urban and rural would have been much greater in the days before the railways, with the sights and sounds and smells of the metropolis so much more intense. As one of Bunhill’s famous ‘residents’, the poet and visionary William Blake, wrote in Jerusalem  early in the 19th century:  I behold London, a Human awful wonder of God.

Freud’s theory of the uncanny describes the unsettling effect that occurs when the familiar is suddenly seen as unfamiliar: when what is expected to be seen is not there. This phenomenon often occurs when a place appears to be known to someone, but perhaps not as well as previously thought. A city such as London which is in constant change and flux is likely to throw up these situations, which are then further enhanced by personal feelings of sadness, fear or vulnerability. Perhaps that is why places like London evoke such strong feelings in us. One time the capital can open up, as if wanting to share its wonderful secrets; another time it can feel like a closed city which does not wish to let you partake of its mystery and faded glamour.

I have experienced both those sides of London, perhaps most strongly when I lived there in my early twenties and everything about the city was new and exciting. The Pet Shop Boys’ video for West End Girls (above) encapsulate that strange feeling for me, even when I watch it again over thirty-five years later. However, getting to know the capital again through exploring the history of my London family has added another layer of complexity to my relationship with the place. It is this uneasy connection which I intend to examine in greater detail in a future post.

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2020

My Family Houses Through Time: Part 2

This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big
House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open
To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop
To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.

And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope;
Two great faded globes, one of the earth, one of the stars;
A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees;
A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.

To which he has now returned. The day of course is fine
And a grown-up voice cries Play! The mallet slowly swings,
Then crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball
Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then

Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn
And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play!
But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands
Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.

 Louis MacNeice, Soap Suds, 1961

LOUIS MACNEICE

Soap Suds by Louis MacNeice (pictured above) was a poem that I did not come across until long after I’d left school. In many ways, I’m glad of that. It meant I’d never had to over-analyse each line and was left to work out the meaning of the verses for myself. It had, in any case, always struck me as odd to be told what a poet was attempting to symbolise by their use of so-and-so device or allusion. I had a feeling that most poets did not realise themselves exactly what their work was about – certainly not at the point of creation – and to have done so would have been anathema to their art.

Today, over twenty years later, I find every line of this poem to be exquisite (which is why I’ve reproduced it in its entirety). The uncanny feeling it creates can only be experienced if the poem is read to the end, with the final verse having a particularly unsettling effect. It reminds me of the frisson I experienced when I first read part of The Witnesses (or The Two) by W.H. Auden*, reproduced in my copy of Richard Adam’s Watership Down. Possibly I wasn’t the only child to be introduced to Auden that way, and I can still remember the thrill when, at around the age of ten, I read the following lines:

When the green field comes off like a lid
Revealing what was much better hid:
Unpleasant.
And look, behind you without a sound
The woods have come up and are standing round
In deadly crescent.

*It’s no coincidence that Auden and MacNeice were part of the same group of modernist poets who strove to break away from the structured, romantic poetry of the 19th century (sometimes called the Thirties poets or the Auden group). The two writers were also friends, collabarating on Letters from Iceland, which loosely documents their travels through the country.

*

Soapsuds also makes me think of the time when I went with our primary school class to spend a week in an old mansion called Glaisnock House which had been converted into an outdoor centre. A few days before leaving on our trip we were given a list of items to bring with us, and I remember going into Ayr with my mother to look for a toilet bag in Boots in the High Street. (Having never been away on my own before, I’d never needed such a thing). As I had to fill the bag with some basic toiletries, I picked out a particularly strong-smelling, bright yellow bar of lemon soap to put into my new plastic soapbox.

Now whenever I catch a whiff of lemon fragrance, memories come back of that school trip to the spooky old house hidden in the Ayrshire countryside. Despite the spartan and rather military domestic arrangements at Glaisnock House, left over from its time as an agricultural boarding school (a concept which was both exciting and frightening after years of reading my mother’s outdated boarding school novels), that week away was one of the highlights of my final year at primary school. Living together so close like that, our class learned a great about each other and ourselves, and although we did not realise it at the time, we were mentally preparing ourselves for our imminent move away from the protective atmosphere of our village school to the large secondary school in town.

Glaisnock_House,_Cumnock_-_geograph.org.uk_-_207078Glaisnock House (c) Robert Watson, Creative Commons, 2006

Thus when I read recently of the demise of  Glaisnock after the unexpected death of its new Chinese owner (who’d wanted to turn it into a cultural centre), I was saddened both for the mansion and other houses that had shared a similar fate by dint of their size and the expense of purchasing and running them*. As the historian David Olusogo illustrated in the latter episodes of his recent BBC series A House Through Time (see My Family Houses Through Time: Part 1), there is often a common pattern to the histories of larger houses. These usually move from being single (family) to multiple occupancy or even being used as small schools and institutions along the way, and if not too big, through late 20th century gentrification back to being owned by one family again. Unfortunately, in the post-war move to modernise and rebuild towns and cities, many serviceable homes were destroyed, declared as ‘slums’ by medical officers, without much thought given to how they could be made inhabitable in the future – and how desirable they might one day become.

*As mentioned previously, many of these large houses – sometimes ‘the big house’ in a community where the feudal owners once lived – ended up being taken over by charitable institutions after the second world war (often in lieu of prohibitive inheritance tax) when political and economic changes in society made it impossible for one family to carry on living in such a place. Over the years, these houses and their adjoining estates have morphed into museuems, art galleries and parks – that is if they weren’t torn down or sold on to developers. 

In the course of my family research, I’ve been delighted to see that some old family homes still exist, while others were destroyed by bombing raids in World War Two, or pulled down as part of neighbourhood clearances. Anyone looking at a London family history has to contend with these 20th century disappearances, although this also serves to heighten the suprise and delight felt whenever a survivor is located. Perhaps even more poignant are the stories of houses that almost didn’t make it, yet were saved by far-sighted developers (not necessarily in a good way) or individuals.

While the fate of Glaisnock House lies in the balance, other large houses (some with connections to my own family) have eventually been turned into hotels and upmarket housing developments, or used as offices. While this does not always guarantee longevity – to wit James William Skelton’s villa, Westle House, in Morland Road, Croydon, whose sad demise I chronicled in  The Stories Which Connect Us – a building needs to have a purpose if it is to have a future.

WESTLE HOUSEWestle House, Morland Road, Croydon, awaiting demolition

The Bristol townhouse which featured in A House Through Time, although a relatively large private dwelling house, has survived by virtue of being an upmarket period property family home in a desirable area. James William’s 1860s home, Westle House once deemed admirably situate, facing Morland Park in Morland Road, Croydon, might have followed the same path had it attracted the same sort of homebuyers. But given that the once semi-rural location and large garden has disappeared, and the road (once a country lane) which passes the house is now a very busy one in the midst of a vast area of housing, anyone with the kind of money to invest in such a large property would be more likely to choose one located in a London suburb or farther out into the countryside.

Like many of these original satellite villages around London which became home to the wealthier inhabitants of the capital who wanted to have a country home of sorts while still being able to access the city, they have been engulfed by the encroaching suburbs. Any last remaining grand houses with large gardens have thus become anomalies. However, in neighbourhoods which, although close to London, have maintained an air of gentility or are within green belt areas, this type of housing might still survive – particularly if clustered together in an up-market enclave. This is certainly the case in Dulwich where James William’s later home, Carlton House, was situated.

gh-house-2Houses in Dulwich Wood Avenue today

This house was one of a row of mid-Victorian villas in Dulwich Wood Road (formerly The Avenue) where James William, who married later in life, lived with his young family Although little is known about the fate of that particular  house (apart from the fact that it was at the end of the street which was hit by a bomb in WW2), the villa next door was inhabited by James William’s brother-in-law and their family. It was this neighbouring house, called Homedale that was eventually used as a military hospital in the First World War after being previously used as a private girls’ school which also took in a number of boarders. I described the houses in Dulwich Wood Road in more detail in a previous post about James William’s eldest child, Stanley Sleath-Skelton (see Stanley Sleath – Man and Ship).

s-l1600 (4)Homedale, Dulwich Wood Avenue, as a WW1 military hospital

Those who have been following my story from the beginning may recall that James William Skelton was my great-great grandfather’s first son with his first wife – the family that I think of as ‘lost’. What has fascinated me about this branch of the Skelton family is the fact that most of them became a lot more successful than the second,  much less well-off family James Skelton had with his much younger second wife (from which I descend). For this reason, there is a great deal more information about the ‘lost Skelton family’ in the archives, with documents pertaining to their various voyages and business deals, as well as complex wills and newspaper articles.

James William Skelton became a very wealthy mahogany merchant in the 1850s and 60s, spending many years in Belize (then British Honduras). He also fathered a half-Belizean daughter, Louisa Arabella, who sadly died at age twenty-one from tuberculosis when she came back to live with her father and his new family in Carlton House. I’ve written about James William in detail (see A Tale of Exploitation) as his story is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a self-made Victorian man, albeit tinged with the shadows of colonial exploitation.

It is chiefly due to the wealth he amassed from the selling of rainforest timber that his three children were able to have the kind of lifestyle which allowed them access to an Oxbridge education (via Eton) as well as some rather grand houses. One of those was Pennyhill Park in Surrey – formerly the country home of the Floersheim family, into which James William’s daughter married. Being a young woman in the 1870s and 80s meant that her brothers’ type of education was denied her, but Maude Beatrice Sleath-Skelton (who would have been home-educated) mingled with the ‘right’ sort of young men and eventually married Cecil Louis Floersheim, a literary barrister who was passionate about natural history. It was Cecil who turned the orangery at Pennyhill into a butterfly house (sadly long gone) and had his favourite dogs buried on the estate in a pet cemetry (see On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot).

P1040040 (2)Pennyhill Park as a luxury spa hotel today

I had a strange feeling when I went to visit Pennyhill Park with my cousin’s wife one summer day, knowing that distant relatives whose lives I’d rigorously researched over the years had once filled the house with their larger than life personalities (see The Fortunate Widow). I can only imagine how uncomfortable it would have been had I actually had more than just a tenuous connection, through marriage, to the Floersheim family. There is something rather disquieting about wandering around a private space (which is still public to some degree), unable to get farther – both physically and psychologically – than the threshold in the lobby, but at the same time feeling that somehow one should be allowed to step inside and wander around at will. Of course I could have dined in the hotel restaurant or even stayed there overnight, but I knew right away that it wasn’t really my kind of hotel. In the end, I treated Beverley to an overpriced drink by the formal pond, watching the wedding guests cavorting around in all their finery, and trying to imagine what the Floersheims would have made of all the 21st century upgrades to the house.

P1040054 (2)The original house entrance, now the reception area, Pennyhill Park

But perhaps the saddest building I visited on my search for the grand houses where my lost London family lived was another place that had both a private and public space. And this was not a home in the traditional sense – but the large Victorian asylum where James William’s youngest child lived out his last few months, while being described by the doctors of the time as ‘raving’ (see Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall).

Herbert Sleath was the stage name of Herbert Sleath-Skelton, who was born at Carlton House in Dulwich in 1871 – four years before his half-sister Louisa Arabella died there. His father’s wealth meant he was able to pursue a career as an actor-manager, aided by theatrical connections on his mother’s side of the family. But his charmed life would come prematurely to an end when he contracted syphilis at some point in his thirties or early forties. When the disease eventually attacked his brain, he was removed to the Royal Holloway Sanatorium at Virginia Water in Surrey, an impressive neo-gothic building with the air of a large country hotel about it.

1411 (2)The old Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water

Of course, this sanatorium for the middle classes was meant to mimic the sort of country house many of the inmates would have been used to visiting. Rooms were decorated with fashionable contemporary furniture and the main hall was painted with great attention to detail – although the gothic beasts which crawl acrosss the walls and round the staircase must have been rather discomfiting for some of the residents.

Holloway San Ceiling

1405 (2)Details on the main staircase, Holloway Sanatorium

I was lucky to visit the main hall and staircase before it was closed to the public. Similar to my experience in Pennyhill Park, the old asylum was a strange public-private sphere that made me feel I did not quite belong there. Public visits to the very private grounds and the main hall had originally been allowed on set days per month on account of the fact that Historic England had carried out some of the conservation work on the building for the developers, including restoring the paintings in the staircase and main hall. But it was clear to me that ‘outsiders’ were not particularly welcome in the exclusive Virginia Park development.

However, it is true to say that had the building not been saved when it did then the restoration project might have been unsustainable. Sadly, after a brief spell as a film and video location in the 1980s (most notably for Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart), Holloway Sanatorium had begun to be broken into and vandalised. In a terrible breach of privacy, old patient records had even been found discarded there, detailing the lives of the inmates and their conditions.

Perhaps we can only hope that, although far from stockbroker belt Surrey, Glaisnock House in Ayrshire might also be saved from the wrecking ball. Just as in Holloway Sanatorium, vandals have started invading the building and destroying much of what they find there. It is sad for me to think of the old building being so neglected. I remember the rows of pegs in the downstairs cloakrooms for our coats, and the place at the side door where we left our dirty wellingtons. Then there was the large noisy dining room where we ate everything that was served to us, hungry from our excursions around the estate; the ‘rumpus room’ where we could play music and let off steam. Outside were the woods where we looked for bugs and constructed an assault course; the fields where we searched for wild flowers and ran cross-country races.

It was the last time we would really be children together, and although so long ago now, those memories can still be conjured up with a bar of lemon soap from which I can make soap suds.

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2020

 

 

 

 

 

My Family Houses Through Time: Part 1

The house whose history is under discussion is blessedly silent. It is the place to which we all return after the story of each of its owners or tenants is told, to gather our thoughts, digest what we have learned and mull the wider implications before setting out again down a new avenue.

Lucy Mangan, A House Through Time Guardian newspaper, May 26th, 2020 (full review here)

A HOUSE THROUGH TIME

The third series of the wonderful A House Through Time with David Olusoga, which aired on BBC2 last Tuesday, was much-awaited in our (hundred year old) house. The history  of  the 300-year-old townhouse in Bristol is already proving to be just as exciting as its counterparts in Newcastle (series 2) and Liverpool (series 1). Like the previous houses featured, number 10 Guinea Street was originally built for the newly wealthy Georgian middle classes, and by dint of its architectural interest and listed status has managed to survive into the 21st century.

Conserving such old buildings is, however, a relatively modern concern – mainly dating back to the last quarter of the 20th century. Unfortunately, large swathes of urban housing were swept away by new developments during successive building waves, particularly in the late Victorian era and after WW2. Those of us who can trace our beginnings to more humble abodes will often discover that the houses of our ancestors are no longer standing – perhaps even the whole street or district has vanished. Listed buildings may also have been granted their status too late to have saved more than a handful here and there, and as with the Bristol house featured in the progamme, often just a strip of the original street remains.

This was the situation when I sought out Cator Street in Peckham – the birthplace of my grandfather in 1892, when the family of seven (my grandfather was child number five) all lived in two upstairs’ rooms, privately rented from the downstairs’ tenant. A fairly common enough set-up at the time, this was often organised by widows or spinsters who needed to make extra income to cover their costs. It was for the same reason that my newly-widowed great-grandmother rented out a spare room in her house at Denmark Road in Brixton to various lodgers after the death of her husband (see I Remember, I Remember).

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)My grandmother outside the house at Denmark Road c1910

Of course, it just so happened that one of these boarders was a First World War veteran (born in 1892 in Cator Street!) who went on to marry her daughter. This was perhaps not the most romantic of set-ups, but possibly a practical one as my grandmother would have been able to closely observe her new beau’s domestic habits before commiting herself fully. Yet, when my grandfather arrived there in 1922, newly discharged from the stripped-down British cavalry, he probably would never have imagined he’d end up living there for almost two decades, becoming head of the household along the way (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Civilian).

Unfortunately, many of the houses in Denmark Road were damaged during the Blitz and a low-rise post-war housing scheme occupies the site of number 95 and environs. But because of their novelty and old-fashioned charm, the houses which have survived have become more valuable and sought after, a situation that has been replicated all over the capital, including Cator Street, where the remaining houses have an almost cottagey feel. While none of these Blitz survivors (pictured below) were the actual ones my grandfather’s family had inhabited, I was pleased to find at least some of them still standing as they enabled me to imagine how the street might have once looked – although it would certainly not have appeared so charming in the 1890s.

CATOR STREETRemaining houses in Cator Street, Peckham

The afternoon I discovered these last original houses in Cator Street was towards the end of a long day tramping the streets of south London. Earlier I’d moved even further back in time to the 1860s (a leap of one generation) to the site of Aldred Road in Kennington – the place where my grandfather’s father, Arthur Skelton, was born (see The Two Arthurs). Just like my maternal great-grandmother, Arthur’s mother also took in lodgers when she became widowed in her thirties with six children to support, although she was also able to work locally as a ‘nurse’, looking after the children of wealthier families. Eventually she rented out two rooms in her home to her grown-up son Sidney (my grandfather’s namesake uncle) and his young family, which sounds a win-win situation for all concerned.

Aldred Rd. (2)Aldred Road c1917

After a bombing raid in WW2 destroyed much of Aldred Road and the neighbouring streets, a few houses limped on until the 1950s when the whole of Aldred Road (since renamed Aldred Street) disappeared to make way for a new estate. Three 18-storey blocks of flats, which constituted part of the pioneering early 1960s Brandon Estate, took the place of the tight rows of Victorian terraces; and it is easy to see how such high towers set among green spaces were considered to be the future of urban architecture. Low-style dwellings and exisiting older housing stock (or rehabilitated houses in the architects’ parlance) were also included in the development of the estate, as were shops, a library and cultural centre and – rather surprisingly – a Henry Moore statue.

THE BRANDON ESTATE The Brandon Estate, Kennington, London

In the end, I was able to obtain more of a flavour of the 19th century neighbourhoods in which my ancestors mostly lived while not searching for their old homes. Quite by accident I stumbled into an intact enclave of late Georgian terraces just off Waterloo Road on an exploratory walk along the South Bank. This area is well worth a visit if you ever find yourself south of the river, and unsurprisingly is occasionally used as a film set for period dramas. In many ways I felt that wandering around those streets brought me closer to imagining the neighbourhoods of my ancestors than standing next to a busy road, craning upwards to look at a house where they’d once lived, yet whose surroundings had completely changed from the time it was inhabited by my family.

ROUPELL STREETRoupell Street off Waterloo Road

This was certainly the case with the Brixton house in which my Yorkshire-born great-grandfather, James Skelton, had once lived in the 1840s (when the area was being developed) with his first wife and family. Reminder: James was the father of Arthur through a second marriage, who was the father of my grandfather, Sidney. While the elegant house is still standing on the busy Coldharbour Lane, whose name suggests the rural beginnings of the area, it is a mixed neighbourhood of architectural styles, and it is hard to imagine this dwellinghouse in its heydey, when it would have been set among leafy semi-rural streets and surrounded with the market gardens which once predominated in the area. As the gentrification of Coldharbour Lane continues apace, this house and others like it will certainly become more desirable. Despite it being located almost directly round the corner from Denmark Road, my grandfather never knew that his own paternal grandfather had once lived in such a relatively grand house, only a stone’s throw away from his own family home yet almost a century apart. 

COLD HARBOUR LANE HOUSE James Skelton’s residence in the 1840s, Coldharbour Lane, Brixton

When researching a family history, it is relatively common to come across neighbours marrying neighbours – whether they be young and entering into new relationships, or widowed and chosing second partners. Therefore it was no surprise to learn that my grandfather’s parents grew up on adjoining streets in Kennington: Arthur Skelton (of Aldred Road) married the pregnant Elizabeth Holton (of Royal Road) in 1880 when they were both around twenty. Later, when researching the Holton family, Elizabeth’s birth certificate led me to another wonderful row of listed Georgian terraced houses – this time on the busy Vauxhall Bridge Road .

The original name for this section of the road was Belvoir Terrace, making it harder to trace the location of the actual house without the use of old maps. In the case of the Brixton house (shown above), which was described as being 22, Sutherland Road in the 1851 census (part of Coldharbour Lane), there was a great deal of digging about (no pun intended) in the Lambeth archives pertaining to the local sewerage systems before I could map the house onto the modern numbering of the street. I was unable to do the same with Belvoir Terrace – or possibly unwilling to put in the work as it would have entailed visiting another set of archives on the other side of town.

Belvoir TerraceListed Georgian houses on Vauxhall Bridge Rd (formerly Belvoir Terrace)

Data from the British Listed Buildings website describes the row of houses such: This row, first called Belvoir Terrace, dates from c.1827. An Act was passed in 1826 enabling the development of lands belonging to the the Rev. Henry Wise, and the terrace is shown on the 1829 edition of Crutchley’s map of London. It stands within an area known previously as Neat House Gardens. Vauxhall Bridge and its approach road were opened in 1816, opening up this part of London for development. Directly behind Belvoir Terace ran an open sewer (closed over in 1844). An early development in this part of Pimlico and one of the few to survive in this area. The terrace, now shorter than when first built, possesses various features of interest including the former projecting centrpiece to the row, which endows the fronts with an architectural presence. The remaining houses of Belvoir Terrace are listed as chatacteristic examples of late Georgian domestic architecture laid out along a new arterial road. 

However, although I was sure number 4 was long gone, I was content just to know that somewhere in this street my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Holton, was born in 1859 during the brief period when her father, William Holton, was working at nearby Buckingham Palace as a labourer, possibly for the Metropolian Board of Works. This job may have been connected with setting up the sewerage system, that great Victorian legacy which has helped house historians so much. Sadly, Elizabeth, who never learned to read or write, died 36 years later with her malnourished youngest child on a charity ward at St Thomas’s hospital from Cirrhosis of the Liver and Jaundice. My grandfather was only three years old when he lost his mother in the summer of 1895, and never knew he’d once had a baby brother called Frederick (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers).

*

When I started my most recent wave of family research, I’d hoped there might be a house standing somewhere that could be seen as the London Skeltons ‘ur-home’. Perhaps in my mind I secretly dreamed of living there one day, of finding a space which would contain my families’ essence in the way that our modern 60s bungalow never did. My grandparents 1970s retirement flat in Hampton certainly did not qualify, and their post-war council house in nearby Bishops Grove held no links to their south London roots and extended family. But the only three houses that had sheltered the Skeltons south of the river for any length of time to be classed as family homes were Aldred Road (c1850-1880) in Kennington and Denmark Road (c1900-1938) in Brixton, both of which were long gone. However, I’m aware this is a greater timespan than many other working class families in urban areas, it being more common to move around on a regular basis as incomes rose and fell.

There is nothing like doing your own family history to underline such trends. Arthur and Elizabeth seemed to be constantly changing their residence – even in Cator Street they moved between rented rooms in different buildings within the space of months – and different records showed different addresses throughout the years. One of the places where they lodged that particularly appealed to me was Rommany Road in Gipsy Hill. Not only did the name connect the area to the history of The Great North Wood (Norwood) where gipsies were said to have camped, but it seemed to me to be a quintessential south London terraced street. And its location was – just like Coldharbour Lane in Brixton –  another geographical crossing point of the disparate branches of the Skelton familes (see A River Ran Under Them). Both these happenstance situations were due to speculative builders thowing up brick terraces to follow the wealthier farther out from the industrialised areas close to the Thames and into the new suburbs.

P1030889Terraced houses on Rommany Road, Gipsy Hill

If truth be told, the house at nearby Durning Road might be a better contender for a more modern, 20th century version of our London family home. Not only does it still exist, but it was the place that my grandparents moved to when they decided to leave Denmark Road for somewhere with more ‘mod cons’. An outside toilet and no electricity might have been acceptable for my great grandmother, but by the 1930s, and with a family of her own, my grandmother wanted something a little more luxurious. As my aunt once said about their move to the cottage-style house on the Bloomfield estate in 1938: It was like paradise. We had electric lights! We had a bathroom! And wonder of wonders we had a through way from the front garden to the back garden, and we all loved it. Unfortunately, the upcoming war put paid to the family’s plans to remain together in their new home for any length of time.

P1030886 (2)The old family home at Durning Road, Gipsy Hill

*

Those who have followed my blog from the beginning may recall how the story of the literary Waugh family triggered my renewed interest in my geneology project (see Begin Again). As I wrote back in September 2015: The Waughs were clearly the kind of family that had heirlooms, and family paintings and draughty piles in the country (and in their particular case, a literary legacy). And even though they’d had their share of ups and downs over the generations, it was obvious they knew their place in the world. Not only had they things to prove itpieces 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. 

What I hadn’t expected to find during my research these last few years was the evidence of another Skelton family. One who, like the Waughs, left more of a trace in the world by virtue of their money and connections and travels overseas. This was the line of relatively successful south London Skeltons, descended from the first marriage of my great-great grandfather, Yorkshire-born James Skelton. I always think of them as ‘The Lost Family’ as they vanished leaving hardly any descendants – and were also unknown to my own branch of the family and the many twigs which sprouted from that fecund limb.

While I like to think that I have been equally fascinated by both sides of the family – the lost and the found; the rich and the poor; the shrewd and the feckless – the tantalising glimpses into the more glamorous world of successful and intrepid Victorians of which my direct ancestors were never a part, has often pulled my focus disproportionately in that direction.

And it is to them and their houses to which I will return next month. 

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Are At War

Hindsight can mess with history to a fatal degree, and we are lucky to have such passionately argued and reliably frank correctives as these.

Simon Garfield, We Are At War (2005)

We Are At War

Military epithets abound to describe our present situation, putting many of us (regardless of our age) in mind of World War Two and the so-called ‘blitz spirit’. But it can almost be harder to deal with this unseen and unknown contagious enemy than one realised in flesh and blood. And as our current prime minister recently discovered to his cost, showing no fear in the face of this invisible fiend is neither heroic nor sensible. What is needed now is often the exact opposite of that which was expected from the population eighty years ago. No wonder our initial national response to this pandemic was (at worst) chaotic and (at best) mixed!

Yet, during this strange period I’ve been reflecting on what it must have been like to live through the long years of the Second World War, which are only just still within living memory. This is not to denigrate the wars since that have taken place on foreign soil, but simply because WW2 was the last major conflict that my London family went through together, the memories of which have been passed on to future generations through their stories and anecdotes. As my own research has shown, those experiences often were different from the perception we usually have of everyone pulling together as one, with a communal mindset. Our blitz-spirit-soaked nostalgia for this era, kept alive in films and books and political rhetoric, seems rather naive when we consider that – just like today – it was a case of ordinary people trying to get by, with their very ordinary reactions to their individual situations. Some did heroic deeds, others stole and lied; and in between this, there was a wide continuum of human behaviour (with many moving up and down this invisible line as the war went wearily on).

It was the persistent idea that there was nothing extra to add to the narrative of WW2 studies which prompted writer Simon Garfield to initially focus on Britain’s post-war period while undertaking research at the archives of the Mass-Observation Project, housed at the University of Sussex. This resulted in the first of three books based on extracts from some of the diaries kept by ordinary people from the period 1939-48 (although the project actually started in 1937 and lasted for much longer).

Our Hidden Lives

The first book Our Hidden Lives (Ebury, 2004), focused on the three years immediately following the war, up until the birth of the National Health Service in 1948. However, while reading through the wartime diary entries, Garfield realised that much of what had been recorded during the conflict did in fact shine a light on some of the hitherto undocumented experiences of ordinary citizens. So, just like the time-jumping Star Wars trilogy (as Garfield himself says in his website), the second book, entitled We Are At War (Ebury, 2005), moves backwards to cover the period shortly before the outbreak of war and up to the start of the blitz in autumn 1940 (the so-called phoney war), while the third book deals with the period from then on until the end of the war.

It is in this final book, entitled Private Battles (Ebury, 2007), that Garfield lays to rest the idea that everyone was working together for the common good throughout the war period.  He points out that: The diarists writing here – by no means a representative sample of the country’s mood, but nonetheless a valuable snapshot of it – describe a wartime Britain we may be a little unfamiliar with. Displays of genuine camaraderie and the Blitz/Dunkirk spirit of legend are matched by acts of selfishness and expressions of spite. Usually these are the result of the daily grind: beating someone else to the rationed fruit or shoes, feeling resentful about the lack of support when fire-watching. But there is a deeper malaise too, a belief that the war is not being prosecuted well and that those in power do not understand the prolonged suffering of the less privileged. Churchill is by turns revered, mocked and scolded, his ministers treated with equal parts respect and disdain.

Private Battles

For me this was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the diaries: the fact that many of the writers (and their family members, friends and colleagues) expressed opinions that seemed startlingly out of line with the perceived notion of how the population thought and behaved during wartime. Some have the odd sympathy with the Nazi party and express anti-semitic tendencies, others (on the left and right) want to play their part in creating a new and better world order. All are critical of the government at some point. As one diarist succinctly points out: The trouble is that we foolishly expect our war ministers to be supermen. Another describes the theft of a much-needed (and hard to come by) torch, while a neighbour of one diarist is fined £15 for ‘causing dismay’ by spreading rumours that the BBC was not being truthful in its reporting of events. And all this played out against a background of humdrum events – regular trips to the  cinema, moaning about the entertainment on the wireless, borrowing books from the library – I Married A German by Madelaine Kent (an English woman’s account of living in Nazi Germany before WWII) seemed to be popular with the female diarists. The identity of Lord Haw Haw is a much discussed subject.

Many of the issues that currently face us – such as fear of an unknown future, worries about financial security and concerns about mental and physical well-being haunt the pages of these three books, in particular the first one (in terms of chronology), We are at War. This volume documents the vacillating moods of the diarists as they receive and react to the official – and unofficial – news updates in the early months of the war. As Garfield  states in the introduction: We join the diarists at a time of uncertainty, but we leave them at a time of resolve.

Some of the concerns of the protagonists may seem strange or comical in retrospect – but just like the old-fashioned language they use* (How the devil/blazes? etc.), it feels disrespectful to mock them in any way, as we in our turn will also be found outdated in thought and speech by future generations. Many of the diarists write about things that would seem racist or sexist today, a reminder to us of what society deems acceptable or not can change so rapidly. Some expressions appear to have picked up their negative connotations during war time. The diarists frequently refer to the Japanese as the ‘Japs’, yet I remember admonishing my Scottish grandmother for this pejorative term when we discussed my upcoming teaching position in Tokyo in 1991. As can be seen from reading the diary entries, war and other major crises do not only create new expressions or bring certain ones into prominence (the current term ‘ramp up’ springs to mind), but also change the meaning of words.

*I was interested to note that one diarist describes the term ‘slacks’ being a more polite form for trousers – a word my father used frequently, but rarely heard now (conjuring up, to my mind, visions of sleazy 70s loungewear).

From reading the diaries it becomes clear that the greatest worry that hung over the heads of all the protagonists was the uncertainty, along with the restrictions to their liberty. As one diarist mentions: Though  these events determine our future we have no control over them. We live from day to day in a kind of resigned doubtfulness unable to make plans for more than a month ahead. These are of course things that also make our current situation so troubling. It is now easier to put ourselves into the heads of our wartime ancestors and understand better their fears and worries and frustrations, alongside the feeling that they had no choice but to trust in a government which they did not always believe was following the best course of action. There was concern that if they spoke out against the government they were being disloyal and undermining the war effort (as well as receiving a fine), yet most also realised that in a functioning democracy it was incumbent on the country’s citizens to always remain questioning and vigilant.

For my English grandparents, separated from each other through the evacuation as well as the reserved occupation of my grandfather (a cavalry veteran of WW1 – see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier – and a Lambeth tram conductor*), it was undoubtedly a stressful time. And to think that it lasted for almost six years – with the effects being felt into the next decade, not to mention the lifelong implications of mental and physical wartime deprivations. All his life, my father wondered how things would have turned out for him had the war not prevented him from taking up the scholarship to Alleyne’s School in Dulwich. The smart new uniform which had been bought for my 11-year old father was never to be worn and he spent the rest of his school years in East Coker (see East Coker), attending the local school in Yeovil. In between these two events, there had been a brief stay in Leatherhead in Surrey, living with other evacuees with the acting president  of the Mormon Church in the UK, the Russian-Greek emigré Andre Konstantin Anastasiou and his family. This was where my father – according to my mother  – was given President Kennedy’s cast-off bicycle to use. (Joseph Kennedy had lived nearby in his role as the American Ambassador from 1938-40).

*One diarist writes in October 1939: I asked a bus conductor, ‘What will you chaps do in an air raid?’ ‘We’ve been told to leave the bus and make for the nearest shelter. We should have lists of the shelters but we haven’t got them yet.’

Kennedy Family, London 1938

Kennedy Family, London 1938

While all this sounds fascinating and worthy of the kind of dinner party anecdote my father would have never wanted to indulge in (hating dinner parties, in any case), I don’t think he was particularly happy there. Consequently it must have been a relief when it was finally decided that he and his younger brother should follow his mother to East Coker to join his older sister, who’d been evacuated there with the Camberwell School for Girls on the 1st of September at the outbreak of war. She was already half-way through her grammar school education at the time and billeted with a local family, and thus it would have made sense not to disrupt her education.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons my father never got on as well with his sister as he did with his younger brother. There might have been some resentment that she was able to complete her scholarship education, while his was never even allowed to begin. On a recent visit to my aunt (see Return to East Coker) it was brought home to me how very much she resembled my father – and her own father – she was, so it was inevitable there would be personality clashes between two bright, strong-willed siblings whose lives had been overturned by the outbreak of war. Sometimes I wonder how my motherly grandmother survived those headstrong family members, but at least she had her baby boy, my uncle, who seemed to be the one who was ‘easiest’ to parent. As my aunt tellingly remarked: although they all missed their father (who visited them from London every six weeks), day-to-day life was often easier without him!

Alleyn's School in 1922

What Might Have Been, Alleyn’s School (1922)

Recently I have been interested to read about how the current situation has changed the dynamics of our relationships with others. While most people obviously miss close contact with friends and family members, some relish the chance to be free of social and familial obligations. For many (health issues notwithstanding) there seems to be an uneasy mix of both these feelings, just as there might have been during wartime. In my own family, it would appear that after the war my grandfather never continued the relationships with his Skelton siblings (to the relief of my grandmother), which was one of the reasons I knew so little about my London family initially. Although my father had many cousins on his father’s side, it was only my aunt who was able to fondly remember them all from having been a regular visitor at their home in Thornton Heath before the war.

I very much wish that someone in my own family had recorded their thoughts and feelings (wartime or not) as carefully as the diarists in Simon Garfield’s trilogy. One of my favourite characters was Maggie Joy Blunt – a pseudonym for the writer Jean Lucey Pratt and the only one to appear in all three books. It emerged that I wasn’t the only one who particularly looked forward to reading her descriptions, but that many readers also wanted to find out more about her. Therefore I was delighted when a few years later Garfield finally gained permission from her niece to edit and publish Pratt’s own extensive private diaries (which spanned over sixty years), resulting in the book A Notable Woman, published by Canongate in 2015.

A Notable Woman

The psychologist, Julia Shaw, writing recently in the Guardian newspaper emphasises in her article entitled Lockdown is distorting our memories but there are ways to gain control (link to full article here) that it is imperative to keep a diary if you really want to remember your experiences accurately. She points out that: The one thing that almost every memory scientist repeats ad nauseum is this: if there are moments in your life that you want to preserve for posterity, write them down. Now. Assume that no matter how emotional, or interesting, or historic your experiences during the coronavirus lockdown are, you will forget them. Recording these memories outside your brain is the only way to truly keep them safe.

2020 Diary

As the Mass-Observation Project is currently asking for volunteers to write up their experiences of living through the 2020 pandemic in order to help the social historians of the future (see link here for details), could this be the year for some of us to play a part in living history? Even if we only keep a diary for ourselves in these strange and unsettling times, we never know who might find it useful eighty years hence.

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2020

April is the Cruellest Month

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland (1922)

T S Eliot The Wasteland

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

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

kristallpalast_sydenham_1851_aussenCrystal Palace and grounds, Sydenham, c1854

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

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

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

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

chartists

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

*Copyright, The Royal Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Easter

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Easter!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2020