Snowdrops in January

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

AA Book of the British Countryside (1973)

SNOWDROPSSnowdrops (c) Nick Bramhall, 2013, Creative Commons

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

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

AT THE FRONT PORCH SUMMER 1967

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AA BOOK OF THE BRITISH COUNTRYSIDE

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

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

DAD ON A MOUNTAIN HIKEDad in the hills, c1989

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

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

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2020

Taking Stock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year! from the Incidental Genealogist, January 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale from the Yorkshire Dales: Part 3

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

Gordon Home, Yorkshire Painted and Described (1908)

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

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

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

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

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

ALLIED FORCES IN LEYBURN 2016Allied Forces in Leyburn, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

BACK LANES OF LEYBURN.JPG

P1060775.JPGLeyburn’s Back Lanes and Ancient Water Pump

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

LOVE LANE IN LEYBURNLove Lane, Leyburn

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

LEYBURN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illegitimate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing everyone a very Merry Xmas!

The Incidental Genealogist, December 2019

A Tale from the Yorkshire Dales: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Walking in the Dales.JPGWalking in the Yorkshire Dales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued next month.

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2019

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

 

 

A Tale from the Yorkshire Dales: Part 1

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

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

Richard Phillips, The Book of English Trades (1815)

A Wool Comber (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

YORKSHIRE DALESIs this my spiritual home?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BROUGH BECK (2).JPGBrough Beck in Catterick

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

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

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

BLACKSMITHS COTTAGEBlacksmith’s Cottage, Catterick

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

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

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

To be continued next month.

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2019

Return to East Coker

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

T.S.Eliot, East Coker (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALMSHOUSESThe 17th century almshouses by the church

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

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

COKER MARSH ROAD.JPGCottages at Coker Marsh

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

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

BACK LANE.JPGWild Flowers in Back Lane

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

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

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

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

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

NAISHSide view of Naish Priory

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

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

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

Crystal_Palace_fire_1936Crystal Palace burning down, November 30th, 1936

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

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

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

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

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

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

JET.JPG

Our Cocker Spaniel, Jet, 1974-1982

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

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

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

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

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

A VILLAGE ALBUM

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

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

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2019

 

A Tale of Two Villages

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

Robert Burns, Tam o’ Shanter (1791)

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

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

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

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

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

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

BURNS MONUMENT HOTEL 1970s.jpgBurns Monument Hotel c1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOONHOLM HOUSE 1905Doonholm House, Alloway c1905

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

HOLLOW LANES.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

YORKSHIRE DALES.JPGThe Yorkshire Dales – our spiritual home?

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

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2019