The amateur ‘snapshots’ surviving in today’s collections most often date from the 1910s onwards, when more families took up photography. Visual clues such as dress details and any vehicles in the scene can often aid close dating.
Jayne Shrimpton, Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs (2014)
My Skelton Grandparents, Hayling Island, 1950s
This month I will be continuing with my family story as I edit the first 5,000 words of A London Family for a memoir writing competition. In October’s blog post (see The Lost Family – Part 1), I began by outlining the background to my quest, focusing on my experience of working as a probate genealogist or so-called heir hunter in London in the 1980s. Now I turn to the more recent past, when an unknown photograph of my father as a boy reignited my interest in researching my paternal family history.
Just as I did last month, I will also be commenting on both the editing process and my own response to my earliest chapters, given that I can now look back on the beginnings of the project with the hindsight from over a decade of carrying out my second wave of genealogical research. Writing the monthly blog chapters has forced me to distil facts, choose an angle, and try to make each post a standalone narrative, which enabled me to make some sort of sense of my quest from the very beginning. This was definitely preferable to simply conducting the bulk of the research first, even if it did mean I sometimes had to revisit old ground as the project progressed. However, while I feel this gave the narrative a pleasing circular structure which meant new readers could come on board at any time, it remains to be seen how successfull I will be at turning the story into a more traditional book-length narrative. It will certainly be an interesting process, and one which I hope will improve my writing and editing skills.
The Lost Family: Part 2
I’m not being entirely truthful when I say I did not have any photographs of my paternal family. Some years after my father died, my mother came across a handful of old snapshots in a battered leather wallet at the back of a drawer, one of which was recognisably a small black-and-white image of my English grandparents flanking their first car (a retirement treat) on a day trip to Hayling Island in the late 1950s. All the other photos were disappointingly of unknown friends and work colleagues, but one of the pictures fascinated me in particular. It was the only hand-coloured one in the collection, and showed five boys under a tree, relaxed and grinning at an unknown photographer, long pointed sticks in their hands. On the reverse, in faded blue ink, was written: Expedition to East Coker Woods, Whit Monday 1944. It was not difficult to locate my father (to the far right) and my future uncle (through marriage) behind him.
The Uncanny Art: I’ve included this iconic photograph of my father and his friends in many of the posts over the years because I find it a very powerful image, particularly as it is responsible for all my recent genealogical research and writing to date. Not only do I feel it has a slightly otherwordly quality to it (the hand colouring is possibly the reason for this), but it was this image that encouraged my interest in the cultural theory of photography. This led me to read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and On Photography by Susan Sonntag (amongst other texts), illustrating that family history is a wide-ranging subject that if tackled with an open mind can bring its own intellectual rewards. Exploring these side-shoots has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the project and something which I certainly would not have done to the same extent had I not also been constructing a narrative around the topics that might interest other researchers (see Those Ghostly Traces).
From the date (my father was born in 1928) I knew the boys were all teenagers, but their old-fashioned clothes and obvious pleasure in their bank holiday outing made them seem much younger. In fact, such was the incongruity of the image that I was instantly reminded of Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills, set in 1943, where a group of children, played by adults, set off to play in the Forest of Dean, with tragic consequences. I’d even watched that film with my father, who was normally averse to anything by Dennis Potter.
That picture must have been taken when Dad was an evacuee my mother explained. He was sent to Somerset during the war. I think his mother’s family originally came from there.
But wasn’t the town called Yeovil – not East Coker? I remembered the name because my father had occasionally mentioned his wartime years there. When I was young he told me about collecting newts in jam jars, about raiding birds’ nests for eggs (of which he was later ashamed), about hunting for shrapnel in the lanes. Later he added other tales to his repertoire: the dances in the village hall, drinking scrumpy straight from the farmer’s barrel, shooting rabbits. But when I asked my father where exactly this place was, all he said was that it was called Yeovil. To my Scottish ears, the strange name sounded like the kind of mythical English village of perpetual idyllic summers, where hollyhocks and sunflowers towered high above the inhabitants, and children were free to run through woods and fields and lanes.
Thatched Cottages in East Coker
A Lost Eden: As I’ve mentioned before, growing up in Scotland with an English father meant that, although I felt very much Scottish, part of me was fascinated with the idea of London and the south of England, where my Skelton relatives all lived. As a child I loved the glamour of the capital, so it is not surprising that I headed there to live and work after graduating in 1984. But I was also entranced with the idea of the mythical West Country, especially as on family trips ‘down south’ to see our English cousins I always delighted in the very exotic looking thatched cottages with their colourful gardens. A visit to the White Horse in Berkshire – while not technically in the West Country – only added to the sense that there was something mysterious about the landscape. In contrast I felt that Scotland was too harsh, cold and wet for my liking (I have since revised my opinion) and that I really should have grown up in a village like East Coker. It is no surprise that as a teenager I devoured the novels of Thomas Hardy and loved to visit the nearby countryside when I lived in London, even if only to walk in the green belt near to my first flat in North London (see A Rose in Holly Park).
I pulled out the old AA drivers’ map circa 1988 that had little use in a family of non-drivers in the 21st century. Once I located Yeovil it wasn’t that difficult to find the Cokers (East, West and North – where was South?) standing to the south-west of Yeovil like sentries. But there was something about the name that seemed vaguely familiar. It niggled at me for days before I later came across the T.S. Eliot poem of the same name – part of the Four Quartets. I thought it strange that my father, who loved poetry, had never bothered to tell me about the village and its link to Eliot, particularly when I had studied the writer so intensively in my final years of school.
As we were growing up, my father had given us an eclectic mix of poetry books, from Seamus Heaney’s North to Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and he must have been aware of the connection Eliot had to East Coker. Although the poem had first been issued in pamphlet form by Faber and Faber in 1940 (then reprinted several times, such was its popularity), the Four Quartets was not published until several years later, so my father would certainly have heard about the poem at some point. It was almost as if he’d never wanted us to know the exact location of the place which had taken away so much with one hand (his home in London; his coveted scholarship to the posh school in Dulwich), but had bestowed gifts with the other (love and respect for nature; an appreciation and understanding of the British countryside).
Four Quartets: I first came across T.S. Eliot when I studied The Journey of the Magi while preparing for my English exams. Despite being entranced by the poem, I do remember that this was also the catalyst for my decision not to study English literature. Class time was short, and it was not possible to question the images and language of the poem ourselves, given that we had less than a year to prepare for our final exams. Cramming was the order of the day. However, I could not stop wondering whether Eliot would have even agreed with Brodie’s Notes explanations of the symbolism he used in the poem.
Reading Eliot as a mature adult is an altogether different experience, and each time I pick up the Four Quartets I see something else in the work. East Coker, in particular, is a fascinating journey into Eliot’s state of mind at midlife at the outbreak of war. He first visited the village in 1936 when on a pilgrimage to his ancestral home – Andrew Eliot had left East Coker for America around 1650 – and later requested his ashes be buried in St Michael’s church in the village. As Peter Ackroyd points out in his celebrated biography of Eliot: It was the final dramatic, but telling, gesture.
Eliot’s long interest in Buddhism is clearly evident in the poem, yet it was not until a few years ago that I realised to how great an extent. While travelling in Japan one summer I came across a little-visited hillside temple in Kyoto on the banks of the Hozu-Gawa river. A flight of steep stone stairs led up to the building and at the top was a small viewing hall which afforded good views of the city and surrounding countryside. As well as containing binoculars for this purpose the room also had some strategically placed reading material in both Japanese and English. There were the usual crudely published pamphlets, concerned with the history of the temple and information about its founder, but also some photocopied sheets of Buddhist poetry.
I picked up a couple and began reading – before I realised with a sudden shock of recognition how close they were to the Four Quartets in rhythm, language and meaning. Poems such as The Song of Zazen and The Heart Sutra had clearly been very influential on Eliot, who had always incorporated ideas from other sources into his work. Eliot himself once said that Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal, bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. But whatever you may think about Eliot’s ‘appropriation’, these Buddhist poems certainly gave me a deeper understanding of the Four Quartets and the eternal message of redemption contained within.
A few weeks later I came across the on-line version of the East Coker Newsletter while searching for more information about the village. An announcement proclaimed that a weekend of special events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE and VJ Day had been organised for the second weekend in July. This seemed to resonate with my own plans to visit, and I knew then that I had to make the trip.
What I couldn’t have foreseen is that the date of my first visit to East Coker would forever become linked in my mind with the London bombings. That weekend was due to be hot, and as my mother and I boarded our flight from Edinburgh on the morning of July 7th we were oblivious to the horrific events unfolding in the capital. But the news soon filtered through, and in the end we were unable to leave our luggage to look around Bristol as planned, so took the next west-bound train and ate our limp picnic in the stuffy compartment while the ticket collector nervously prowled the corridors, checking and re-checking for any stray bags. As we watched the lush West Country scenery slip past it was hard to imagine the scenes of carnage in the capital – just as it must have been difficult for those who moved from London to the countryside for the duration of the war to envisage the destruction of the Blitz.
An auspicious date: When I first wrote about visiting East Coker on the 7th of July 2005, I omitted to mention the London bombings as it had not really impacted on our visit, as terrible as the terrorist attacks were. I also found it difficult to weave the two events together but felt instinctively that by not mentioning the attacks it was somehow disrespectful to those who had been affected by them. I thought long and hard about this, then remembered the situation in the train with luggage, and saw that as a way of connecting the bombings with the story of the evacuees.
This is probably one of the most challenging aspects about writing non-fiction – trying to create a coherent narrative from disparate events. It also emphasises how important it is to be aware of the external environment at key moments in a family’s history and how this can impact on individuals. It could be something as simple as checking the weather on an ancestor’s wedding day (I was able to do this for my great-great grandfather’s wedding in 1823), to understanding the contemporary political and legal system, and how this affected the citizens of a country or a region.
Yet after everything I’d expected from the ancient-sounding name, Yeovil seemed an unprepossessing place. Disaffected youths roamed the bland post-war shopping centre beside the bus station, and there was a feeling the market town had seen better days. I was beginning to wonder if we were in for a similar disappointment with East Coker. After all, it had been my father who’d always said we should never go back anywhere. He himself had returned in the 1980s and was saddened by the changes to the village, and reluctant to talk about the experience. But I consoled myself with the thought that, as we had no memories of the place, whatever we might see or experience would be a revelation to us.
From Yeovil we caught a local bus to East Coker, travelling the way some of the evacuees might have come on September 1st, 1939. Before long, a cast iron signpost, of the kind seldom seen nowadays, pointed us in the direction of East Coker. The bus suddenly veered off down a narrow lane which sank deeper into the surrounding land the farther we travelled along it. Snake-like roots of ancient hedgerows protruded from the sandy soil, while above us the tree canopy shut out most of the late afternoon sun. Then we rounded an unexpected corner and came into the village: a place that looked as if it should not – could not – belong in the twenty-first century.
‘Holloway’ on the approach to East Coker
From those first impressions (the patriotic red, white and blue bunting strung up across the main road between the thatched cottages; the alms houses by the church; the hayricks in the fields), to later, more personal information (so this is the farm where Dad once lived; this is the hall where he first went dancing; this is the church where he carved his name in the vestry), we gradually learnt about the modern-day village and its shadowy wartime predecessor. Walking across the damp fields at dusk towards the warm light of the pub on that first evening, it was almost possible to imagine that the past might still exist in some ghostly form alongside the present.
In the heat of the following day on a sunken footpath which led through the woods to the old priory, I lay down, head to the red soil, and heard the drum of distant hooves and the click of mid-summer insects. For those few seconds it felt as if the earth was struggling to gather up the momentum to move backwards, to reveal something to me – until the shouts of children in the playing fields broke through the thick afternoon air.
Footpath to Naish Priory
That weekend I finally met the boy who’d taken the photograph in the woods on Whitsun Monday over sixty years previously. He was manning one of the stalls in the village hall war exhibition, and his table was a jumble of WW2 paraphernalia: old ration books, bits of home guard uniform, various pieces of ammunition. Part of his collection was dedicated to the story of the relationship between the local children and the evacuees.
It was there I saw it. Amongst the letters and diaries and various bits and bobs of printed memorabilia, was my own photograph, but in black-and-white, and mounted in a crude wooden frame. Not trusting myself to speak, I reached into my bag, pulled out my hand-coloured version and passed it across the table, watching the old man’s face twitch as he struggled to work out the connection.
Stranger Than Fiction: There’s a hackneyed saying that life is stranger than fiction, which must be dispiriting for fiction writers who are trying to curb their enthusiasm for coincidence and serendipity. But on that that day when I met Alan Cornelius, I felt that I’d slipped between the pages of a novel and that anything could happen. I suppose in some kind of novel I might have ended up falling in love with his youngest son; although this being real life, I never met his sons who, like myself, are all relatively happily married. However, I did meet one of his granddaughters the following year when I went to visit him at his home. She arrived with some courgettes for him from her parents’ garden, although this might have just been a reason to look in on him. For he was already ill with the cancer that would soon take his life, and sadly this was the first and last time I ever got to talk to him at length. That was the day he gave me a copy of part of his unfinished manuscript about his childhood, and I felt very honoured to be entrusted with his memories.
In the blog I have quoted at length from his reminiscences about the ‘vacuees (as he called them) but removed this from the manuscript. One of the joys of blogging is that you are not restricted by traditional publishing conventions, and I felt very much that his story should be told in his own words. As an ex local councillor, Alan Cornelius was also very interested in discussing politics and we had a very lively couple of hours together talking about all and sundry (including his military badge collection). It sometimes feels disrespectful to focus on the past when ‘interviewing’ those who can shed light on family history as they are often just as involved with the present as we are. I was aware of this, too, when I went to visit my aunt last summer. Although she could bring my father’s childhood to life just by looking at an old photograph, she was also very much living in the moment.
It was then I learnt about that day out in the woods. A moment of late childhood, hanging high and free above the dark shadow cast by the war, and caught on camera like a dragonfly in ether for the dissection of future generations.
To be continued . . .
The Incidental Genealogist, November 2020
I have just come across an old copy of a 1948 photo from East Coker of a Royal British Legion dinner gathering. The photo has the names of the participants shown in hand writing. If any one is interested please email me.
Excellent. The unfolding of the story is very much about the discovery of the past going hand in hand with YOUR experiences of the present. The train journey, the news form London, the man with the world war two stall, these have to be intertwined with your discoveries.
Interesting read. Serendipity. I recently posted a photo of my great uncle in his army uniform on a local history Facebook site. He was killed in Italy in 1944 shortly after being married. I got a message back from a lady to say that he was her Mum’s first husband. She was able to send me a photo of the wedding that none of the family had seen before. These moments seem to be very strange and you wonder if they were meant to be.
What an amazing story! I think the internet has helped to make these serendipitous moments happen more often. But like you say, it does always make you think that these moments were meant to be.