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)
A 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 conveniently at the end point of these invigorating walks, and of course the Yorkshire folk themselves, who are invariably a tonic.
Walking 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 believed 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 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, woolcombing machinery had not yet been 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 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 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 sensibilities 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 theoretically 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, which 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, 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 syphilus (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.
16th 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.
Churchyard, 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 within 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 trepidation. 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 anointed from that font. It took a long time before I could venture outside back into the late afternoon sunshine.
Interior of Holy Trinity Church, Wensley, North Yorkshire
Congregational 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 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 stronger 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.