Author Archives: The Incidental Genealogist

About The Incidental Genealogist

Currently living and working in Switzerland, where I teach English in a Swiss University, I am fascinated by the social history of London - in particular South London where my branch of the Skelton lived for two centuries after moving from Wensleydale in North Yorkshire. As a fiction writer with short story publications, I'm excited to be exploring the possibilities of a non-fiction project through the art of blogging. I love the flexibilty this medium gives me (particularly with use of images, and links) and the way I can interact with my readers. Thank you for visiting my blog and feel free to get it touch, particularly if you have any information about my elusive ancestors or the places in which they lived.

Maldon: A Notable Town

This is a proud place, preserved by not having become a part of the ‘progress’ which has overtaken most other old Australian towns. Its people realise they occupy a piece of history which no amount of gold now could buy. At Maldon the air is sweet, the wildflowers flamboyant, the lemons and limes fragrant, the roses brilliant, the wattles and almond blossoms wild against the sky, the elms and white gums gentle screens under the afternoon heat, and the people friendly. The pace, if that is what it should be called, is easy. The rush is over but the secret stays.

John Larkin – Australia’s First Notable Town, Maldon, 1966

DSCN0259

DSCN0230 (2).JPG

DSCN0225 (2).JPGStreet Scenes in Maldon, Victoria

The morning after my fruitful visit to the Castlemaine Historical Society, which I chronicled in last month’s post), I took the local and infrequent bus to the small ex-goldrush  town of Maldon. It was a quiet Wednesday in mid-January with temperatures predicted to rise to almost 40 degrees, and not surprisingly there were only a couple of other people making the twenty-minute journey with me. Unfortunately, the local research centre was only open on a Friday for four hours (unless there was a fire warning). And despite a request from the researchers in Castlemaine, the centre was unable to send out someone to allow me to visit the archives (which can be done for a reasonable price), as the extremely hot and dry weather had led to just such a warning in the area.

Although I was disappointed at this news (to have come this far and been thwarted), part of me felt that after the previous successful research day I’d had in Castlemaine, where I’d discovered so much more about my ancestors than I could ever have imagined, I had probably accessed most of the information available on the Haydons. And so I told myself that anything else the centre might have (books, museum exhibits) would just be a distraction on the only day I had to explore the whole area, which included the out-of-town graveyard where Ann Haydon was buried, and the community of Eaglehawk where the family had lived and worked.

As I woke to another heat-stifling Central Victorian summer day, I had to laugh at my previous idea – to hire a bicycle and cycle the 17 kilometres from Castlemaine out to Maldon (which my new friends talked me out of)! The original idea behind this crazy thought was to allow me more time in the town to explore, freeing me up from having to return on the last bus in the late afternoon. But once on the small local bus, which carried me along long straight roads through typical central Victorian bushland, I realised what a slog the whole journey would have been. And as I looked out from the window at stands of dusty blue-grey gum trees and wattle, I thought about how the Haydons may have made this difficult trip by bullock cart along a dirt track, 160 years earlier.

BUSH NEAR MALDONBushland near Maldon, Victoria

This was a similar sensation to the one I’d had when I first took the local bus from Yeovil through the sunken lanes to East Coker (see In My Beginning is my End), imagining how my immediate family would have felt when they first arrived there from London during the war. What might the Haydons have thought as they approached Maldon in the 1850s? According to a contemporary source: It was recorded that no one could miss their way through the road-less country to the new field at Maldon because the route from Castlemaine was marked with flags or coloured handkerchiefs flown from the beer houses to attract custom. Thousands of adventurers rolled up in bullock wagons and horse-drawn drays, and thousands more walked, carrying on their backs all the paraphernalia required for work at the diggings. Dolly pots, cradles, pans and picks were at a premium at this time.

However, if truth be told, the first journey the family made from Melbourne into the Victorian bush was not to Maldon  itself, but to the nearby goldrush community of Muckleford, about 7 kilometres west of Castlemaine (in the direction of Maldon). Although I had been unable to ascertain what had happened to the Haydons there, I did know that William was recorded as being a glazier/plumber on the birth of the Haydon’s second son, Charles Skelton Haydon, in the summer of 1855, a year after the family arrived at Port Philip. But by the time of the birth of their first daughter, Sarah Ann Haydon, in the spring of 1857, they were living forty kilometres away at Deep Creek in Hepburn, and William was already calling himself a gold miner.

This description from the Emigrants Guide to Australia, published in 1853, gives some idea of what the Haydons’ original journey to Muckleford might have been like: We commence with the digger setting out from Melbourne. Persons going to the Diggings should confine their outfits to a small quantity of clothing and their blankets, as numbers of people are always leaving the Diggings, who sell their stocks at moderate prices. The best mode of travelling is to accompany (on foot) a horse-dray, which will carry the blankets, clothing, and provisions. It will be proper to take provisions for five or six days, as the charges on the road (5 shillings for each meal, 5 shillings for bed, and 30 shillings for a horse) are exorbitant, and besides, the conveyance does not always arrive at night at a house where such accommodation can be procured. A horse-team is preferable to a bullock-team, simply because it performs the journey much sooner; the time taken by the former being five or six days at present, which is the most favourable season, and by a bullock-team ten days. No one should attempt to carry his own goods if he can afford to pay for their conveyance by dray.

347004-small

The bus from Castlemaine to Maldon passes through much of what was once the township of Muckleford near to where the road crosses the Muckleford Creek, although nowadays it is made up of scattered farmsteads, the original and short-lived gold rush community having dispersed. As you may recall, in last month’s chapter (see The Lost Boy on the Bendigo Road), I mentioned that while other gold rush towns soon sank into oblivion, Maldon grew and prospered throughout this period and beyond, due to the presence of underground seams of quartz-bound gold which could be worked with new crushing technology. And it is for precisely this reason that there was still an intact and thriving community at Maldon in the centuries to follow.

After all the pictures I’d seen of Maldon (old and new) and the videos I’d watched, the town itself came as something of a surprise. I had not expected it to be so quiet nor the roads to be so wide. As the bus rattled through the High Street, my first thoughts were that the place looked like a Wild West outpost combined with an English village, with some Australiana thrown in for good measure. If that sounds a rather trite description, then I can only apologise. Whenever I visit somewhere new, my brain constantly rakes through all the impressions and memories of other places I’ve visited, trying to make comparisons. And then I recalled that when I first landed in Australia in 1989, all my twenty-five year old (untravelled) self could think about was: Why is the sun so fierce? Why does the grass look so different?

DSCN0219 (2).JPGMain Street, Maldon, Victoria

But this did set me wondering how the Haydons must have felt when they voyaged into the Australian bush. To see a wombat or a kangaroo for the first time must have been quite an experience in the days before mass produced books  and the growth of public museums. In fact, in the section about animals, the 1853 Emigrants Guide to Australia states that: Opossums are of different sizes, from that of the kangaroo as large as a man to the smallness of a rat they leap on their hind legs, outstripping a horse, and have pouches in their bellies to preserve their young from danger or the weather: one species springs from tree to tree. Here is an animal that the learned term Ornithorynchus paradoxus, found in the mud of swamps and rivers, that has the bill and feet of the duck; the body, habits, and fur of the mole; and the internal structure of a reptile. The eagles are white, and the swans black; the owls screech in the day, the cuckoo at night. The birds are beautiful, but songless, and some have brooms in their mouths instead of tongues. The paragraph continues on this note, but this extract does give a flavour of just how exotic the indigenous wildlife was considered to be!

The bus deposited me right in front of the building which housed the Maldon Museum (staffed by volunteers and thus open only for a few hours at the weekend) and the Visitor Information Centre. Although I was tempted to first explore the town, I decided to go directly to the information office, just in case it had to close early because of the fire risk. And there, in inimitable Australian fashion, I was bombarded with enough curious questions and local information to keep me in Maldon for at least a week. After patiently explaining my situation (and  dire lack of time), I grabbed the most promising-looking leaflets I was proffered and rushed out into the streets with horrified cries of You shouldn’t walk all the way out to the cemetery in this heat! ringing in my ears.

A couple of false starts later (less haste, more speed) I finally found the main road out of the other side of the town, and made my way along the grass verge towards the graveyard, situated just over 3 kilometres outside Maldon. I passed all the lovely little rose-covered colonial style cottages, the deserted golf course, and just when I thought I’d never find the turn-off to the wonderfully named Nuggety, I saw the high security fence of the Tarrangower women’s prison (something the tourist brochures fail to mention) and knew I was almost there.

Earlier that morning I’d made the decision that visiting the graveyard should be my priority. Despite the age of the town, I knew that there were only a few buildings that had survived from my ancestors’ time, as most dated from the boom of the 1860s, after the widowed William Haydon had already returned to London. Even the old market hall which housed the tourist office and archives and museum had only just been erected before William left the colony. So while he might have known that it did not become the success the town had envisaged, due to competition with nearby Castlemaine market, he probably never knew that only a few years later it was turned into regional government offices.

Market_Hall_Extract_Full_Res

DSCN0175 (4)

DSCN0174 (2).JPGMaldon Museum, front and side, and as a market hall in 1859

By the time I walked through the main gates of the cemetery, I was cursing the fact that in my rush to save time I’d neglected to stock up on any food or drink. I finished the last of my measly little bottle of water in the covered wooden seating area near the entrance gate, and then began to search around for a tap (as is commonly found in European graveyards). In the end I decided not to waste too much time on this endeavour (figuring I was too near to civilisation for it to become any more than just an annoyance), and concentrated instead on exploring the cemetery.

The first place I headed to was the pioneers’ section, where the earliest graves were to be found. While some dated from the 1860s, disappointingly I could find none from as early as 1860, and after a while I had to concede that any grave of Ann’s that had once been there (if she had indeed ever had one) was certainly no more. But perhaps it had been nothing more than a simple wooden cross which had soon deteriorated in the harsh climate.

Fascinating as the cemetery was, in particular the section for the Chinese community, I had to give up my search after an hour and head back to town, otherwise I’d run the risk of missing out on exploring what was left of Eagle Hawk (now Eaglehawk). For a rural cemetery, the one at Maldon  was a sprawling place (reported to have over 7,500 graves), and I realised from the leaflet the tourist information had given me that much of what I was viewing, including the main gates and caretaker’s cottage (which gave the place so much charm), had been built several years after Ann’s death.

DSCN0181 (2)

DSCN0183 (2).JPGThe Cemetery at Maldon

Although the first burials in Maldon were held in 1854, it was not until 1860 that detailed records were kept and some sources even state that previous to 1861 citizens may have been interred in other places, such as The Rock of Ages (the hill above the cemetery). Ann’s burial record (held by the Victorian State Archives) showed that she died at the age of 29, on October 8th 1860, in Eagle Hawk, Maldon, from TB and pericarditis, and that the death had been registered by William James Haydon of Eagle Hawk (a painter) the next day. The document also stated that she was buried on October 10th at Maldon by the Scottish-sounding Presbyterian minister, Alexander Robb. Unfortunately, there was no grave or burial number included in the record, even though there were so many other wonderful genealogical details (including the name and profession of Anne’s parents, where she was born, how long she had been in Victoria, and her husband and children’s details). However, I did see some metal site numbers in the oldest part of the cemetery, protruding from spaces where graves might have once been.

DSCN0186 (2)Was someone once buried here?

My map from the tourist office showed me a route back to Maldon through the bush marked ‘Back Cemetery Road’, which sounded a lot more appealing than the long way round via the prison and main road. So I set off along this track, startling kangaroos as I went, and realised that this was possibly the way that the first burial parties would have originally come from Eaglehawk (or more appropriately, Eagle Hawk). As I walked – or rather trudged – I tried to put myself into the head of William James Haydon when faced with his young wife’s death. With no relatives around and the knowledge that he might not be staying in Maldon or even Australia for more than a few months or years (perhaps he had already been formulating plans to leave the colony), he may not have been interested in creating a permanent resting place for Ann out in this wild and inhospitable bush. And I could imagine that in its early days the graveyard would just have been an area of cleared scrub with a picket fence around it. Certainly nothing which could have compared to the grandeur of Nunhead Cemetery in South London where the rest of the Skeltons were buried (see Present at the Death), and where Ann’s name was eventually added to the family gravestone.

DSCN0191 (2)

DSCN0194 (3)On Back Cemetery Road (with the cemetery behind me)

Ignoring my growing thirst, I decided to look round the suburb of Eaglehawk before heading back to the main street. Back Cemetery Road appeared to come out on that side of town via Church Street (confirming my suspicions that it had once been the main route to the cemetery) and from there I was able to take the self-guided Eaglehawk Walk (in reverse), using the leaflet from the tourist office. Unfortunately many of the historic buildings listed on the walk were not historic enough for the Eaglehawk (or Eagle Hawk) of 1858-61, and it was hard to imagine this quiet lazy country suburb as it had once been, when shops, hotels and other commercial enterprises lined the busy Eagle Hawk Road (now Reef Street).

DSCN0198 (2)Simple 19th Century Cottage in Eaglehawk

Over the years I have learned to accept the fact that I will often be disappointed with my genealogical searches ‘in the field’: I know from past experience that it can be hard to find any semblance of the community that my ancestors had experienced, and the further back in time the more likely this situation will be. However, I really did struggle to imagine Eaglehawk in its heyday as Eagle Hawk, when contemporary descriptions of the township described a booming population in the thousands, and with a myriad of prospering businesses operating around the main thoroughfare, alongside public baths, a theatre (with its own company), numerous hotels and bars, as well as churches of all denominations, including a synagogue.

DSCN0265 (2)Welsh Congregational Church, 1863, Eaglehawk/Maldon

I did feel sad, though, to think that I would never be able to pinpoint the whereabouts of the Billiards Rooms that the Haydons ran. That I could not locate the surgery of the wonderfully-named Dr. Kupferberg (the German doctor who had tended Ann in her illness, and who was much involved with the German Club and Gymnasium, as well as being a celebrated local singer). And I was frustrated by the fact that within all the empty spaces I could not conjure up the true spirit of the wild gold rush past in any way.

DSCN0195 (2).JPGSite of public baths (1860) at Eaglehawk today

The Perseverance Mine (of which William Haydon had a share) never lived up to its name, but the remains of the impressive Beehive mine, nearer to the centre of town, can still be visited. Although the tall chimney stack dates from 1863, after William Haydon had returned to London, it gives a flavour of how the landscape around Maldon was changing at that time. Such constructions (along with the ubiquitous wooden poppet heads – overground structures to support the winches) would have begun protruding from the hills and gullies, along with belching steam and thumping engines, lending the place the air of  a small scale, industrialised town in the English Midlands. 

As local historian, Christopher Creek, points out in A Rich Vein, his book about Maldon’s North and Eaglehawk (Eaglehawk Press, 2015): In the mid to late 19th Century Maldon was a noisy, smelly and industrial eye-sore. Work was physically dangerous and, in some places, very toxic. The noise of batteries operating almost twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, provided a deafening and rhythmic background to daily life for nearby residents. It was a raucous place, with upwards of 20,000 people encamped and more than 60 hotels and grog tents slaking the thitst of the parched. The contrast with today could not be greater. 

Before inspecting the ruins of the Beehive Mine, I sensibly stopped off in the Main Street (which confusingly runs into the High Street!) for some much-needed refreshments. Stumbling into the nearest café and hoarsely crying out for strong tea and a pie, I attracted the curiosity of the woman behind the counter, and in between customers (and gulps of brew) I told her about my walk out to the cemetery and back to the town via Eaglehawk. She was aghast at the fact that I’d allowed myself to become so dehydrated, and as she made me another giant pot of tea (to go with my spinach pie) she sympathised with my fruitless search for Ann’s gravestone.

Would you believe it! she said, shaking her head. Daryl was just in here a moment ago. I looked at her blankly. Daryl Walker – the Superintendent of the graveyard. He knows the name of everyone buried there. You might just catch him if you run out now. I dashed into the street but there was no-one who looked like a Daryl to be seen. (Somehow the name conjured up the image of an Akubra-wearing stockman, climbing into a pick-up and driving away in dust cloud, while chewing down on an Aussie pie). Alas, we would never meet, but when I wrote to him a few weeks later, he very kindly informed me that, just as I’d suspected, there were unfortunately no cemetery records for an Ann Haydon at Maldon.

DSCN0217 (2)

DSCN0220 (2)No-one to be seen on Main Street!

Feeling rejuvenated by my break, I took the trail up to the remains of the Beehive Mine (so-called because miners noticed a swarm of bees near the entrance), which once had one of the highest gold yields in Victoria. Although the actual mine was founded in the 1850s, the chimney stack was not added until 1863, when it was needed to take smoke from the boilers that drove the steam engines that were beginning to be used for extracting and crushing the quartz (and pumping out water). Today the chimney is a monument to all the gold found in Maldon – it was bought for this purpose after the First World War, when the mine closed and the remains were sold off at public auction – and is a key location on the town’s heritage trail. 

DSCN0215 (2).JPGChimney of the Beehive Mine, Maldon (constructed 1863)

Quartz fragments lay scattered around on the ground beside the old mine, and I stuffed a handful in my pocket, wondering if Willam James Haydon had also brought a tangible reminder of his time in Maldon back to the Old World with him (earth from Ann’s grave, or perhaps even some gold?) For a few minutes I allowed my mind to drift off in an attempt to pick up any historical vibrations (for want of a better phrase) that could relate to the Haydons. But I soon realised that I had no time for such indulgences: in just over an hour the last bus was due to depart for Castlemaine and I could not leave without seeing every bit of the town. So I quickly made the decision to finish up my day in Maldon by combining the two historical walks described by the leaflets from the tourist office (the Historic Town Walk and the Historic CBD* Walk). This way I reasoned that I could get an overall feel for the place, and note any buildings that still remained from the Haydons’ time.

*CBD is an (Australian) abbreviation for Central Business District, which in this case was a bit of an anomaly.

DSCN0269 (2)Ghost Signs in Maldon

Fittingly, the final place I visited before I boarded the bus back to Castlemaine was the local hospital, which in 1860 had replaced the original small wooden building designed for this purpose (this became the dispensary), and which ironically was in the process of being built at the time of Ann’s death. Would such a place have helped her to die more peacefully (knowing that it could not have saved her from TB), or would the removal from her family home have only led to more stress for Ann in her final months? What certainly would have been hard for her was the knowledge that she would be leaving behind four motherless children in a strange land on the other side of the world. Did she in fact ask William to take the family back to London in the event of her demise (which she surely realised was upon her)? Sadly, these are the things that, in the absence of personal documents, no amount of genealogical research can uncover.

MALDON HOSPITALMaldon Hospital

DSCN0248 (2).JPGAs the Castlemaine bus came into sight, I pondered these questions, then became distracted by the raucous  screeching in the tree canopy overhead. Rainbow lorikeets and rosellas were gathering for the evening, and  announcing their arrival with the same loud squawking as the feral parakeets which flew high above the gravestones in the wild parts of Nunhead cemtery in South London. I suddenly thought about how Ann had travelled so far from her home by the Thames in search of a new life, only for her crumbling bones to end up lying somewhere unmarked in the dust of the Australian bush. And yet someone had arranged for her name to be carved into the granite of the Skelton grave in Nunhead, possibly years later.

*

Although it has been over two years since my visit, I have never stopped thinking  about Maldon and the fact that I would like one day to return and spend longer in the area. I imagine how wonderful it would be to rent one of the nineteenth century cottages for a week or more (or even a month!) and busy myself with research, while making an effort to get to know the place and its friendly and welcoming people. This time I would linger in the local cafés, hike through the surrounding bushland, as well as taking the time to talk to the local experts and and consult the Maldon archives. Perhaps I might even try to find some gold of my own!

MALDON COTTAGEI could live here . . . Brick Cottage, Maldon, Victoria

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Lost Boy on the Bendigo Road

Oh, who would paint a goldfield,
And limn the picture right,
As we have often seen it
In early morning’s light.
The yellow mounds of mullock
With spots of red and white,
The  scattered quartz that glistened
Like diamonds in  light.

The azure lines of ridges,
The bush of darkest green,
The little homes of calico,
That dotted all the scene.
Oh, they were lion-hearted
Who gave our country birth!
Oh, they were of the stoutest sons
From all the lands on earth!

Henry Lawson The Roaring Days (1889)

size1         Edwin Stocqueler, Australian Gold Diggings c1855

The Tuesday I spent with the Castlemaine Historical Society was one of those perfect research days that made me want to spend the rest of my life buried among boxes of archives. It brought to mind those drama-infused months when I returned to my genealogical quest after twenty years of neglect, and the excitement I felt at discovering new records on a daily basis (see Begin Again). Not only had I two decades of censuses to catch up on then – and all the spin-off research that created – but the digital revolution meant I could usually receive instant answers to my questions. And as I sat at the computer monitor in the old courthouse in Castlemaine clicking through the database of the collections, it felt as if I was reliving that stomach-churning period all over again.

Anyone who thinks that new technology has put an end to research in the field should think again. Like many parochial records, those held in Castlemaine were not all in the public domain, and the knowledge required to interpret them and put them into context was greatly enhanced by the local historians. These volunteers (who also carry out their own research) were more than happy to help me try to reconstruct my ancestors’ lives on the Victorian goldfields.

It felt strange to be bandying place names about in front of people who actually knew the exotic-sounding destinations I’d read about on dreary winter afternoons: Eagle Hawk was not just an early mining settlement to the Castlemaine historians, but a quiet neighbourhood of Maldon with a number of fascinating old mining remains; the cemetery at Tarrangower was a sprawling place, rich in local history, and could be visited from Maldon on a bush hike via the backroads if the weather was not too hot.

MALDON CEMETERYThe sprawling Maldon Cemetery at Tarrangower

I like to think my excitement was infectious on that day, as more researchers popped over to our terminal to see what we were in the process of discovering, offering up advice as well as names of people to contact. They knew of an expert on the Eagle Hawk diggings who had written a book about the early goldrush there – I should go and see him! And I needed to contact the superintendent of the cemetery at Tarrangower to find Ann’s grave record. Plus it would be sensible of me to arrange access to the Maldon Museum and Archives before I left the area.

My head buzzed with ideas and plans. I felt panicked at the thought that I had only one day set aside for exploring Maldon itself. How could I have been so stupid as to think there would be nothing but a quaint little outback town that I would wander around and then leave after a couple of hours? These Australian social historians who were plying me with facts and information along with strong tea and biscuits had an incredible amount of knowledge at their fingertips. It seemed to me that their short colonial history had given them a focus and a passion that extended beyond their local area to the immigrant stories of the ‘old country’.

At times I felt like an ancient traveller from that place, with my funny accent, and accounts of the Victorian London my ancestors left behind when they boarded the Atalante in 1854 lured by reports of gold in the great South Land. Perhaps they had even played the contemporary family board game Race to the Gold Diggings, introduced in the short and interesting clip from the National Library of Australia (below).

The local researchers were lucky in having access to the archives of one of Australia’s oldest still-running newspapers, the Tarrangower Times, which has been published in Maldon since 1858. The archived articles (now digitalised and accessible in Australian state libraries) show how the town’s development accelerated at the close of the 1850s, mimicking on a smaller scale the sudden growth of Melbourne which I described in last month’s chapter.

The name Tarrangower, which is still used today for the region, was confusingly also used to refer to what is now known as Maldon before it was settled by the colonialists. However, all this changed when gold was discovered in 1853, and miners rushed the area from Melbourne and neighbouring goldfields in an attempt to make their fortune. What made the new township of Maldon so successful though, was that once the initial scramble to find surface gold was over, discoveries of quartz gold in underground seams (called reefs) were made. And with the quick introduction of machinery to crush the stone and extract the gold, this meant that Maldon continued to grow while other nearby diggings were abandoned after only a few months.

A contemporary description of this phenomenon is as follows: It was a novel and exciting experience for new-chum inexperienced miners to feast eyes on chunks of gold freely showing in quartz at their feet, and baffling as well, for few if any had the foggiest notion how to go about extracting the bright golden metal from the rock. A number got to work at first with heavy buckhammers, but in the course of time primitive crushing machines were installed, and soon great wealth began pouring into the pocket of numerous lucky miners.*

So it is little wonder that the Haydons settled in the area – being a family with young children they would no doubt have wanted to be in a more stable and growing community. Perhaps they even imagined being there for the rest of their lives, eventually becoming ‘important’ people in the town. As Maldon had some of the richest gold seams in Australia and its intact goldrush architecture gave it the honour of becoming Australia’s first ‘Notable Town’ by the National Trust of Australia in 1966, there have been a number of books and articles written about the place over the years. Most of these also make reference to local worthies and characters from the early days, and there is no reason why the Haydons might not have ended up in a footnote to history somewhere!

mainReplica of an early goldrush township near to Maldon

However, thanks to the Tarrangower Times and the meticulous records of the local court there was a paper trail of sorts which allowed me to put together a story of the Haydons’ lives in Maldon. This was beyond anything I could have imagined before my visit: originally I’d planned to just ‘rock up’ (no pun intended), take a few photographs, check out the local museum and leave to resume the rest of my trip (which would actually mostly be spent in Tasmania). But with the help and patience of the Castlemaine Historical Society and the local public library I was able to understand something of the lives the Haydons led in the Victorian goldfields.

The first thing that my researcher and I uncovered was the Maldon Court records, kept from 1858 when Maldon first became a municipality. As they fall within the Castlemaine District jurisdiction, we were able to access them from the archives there. My initial thought when I saw that a W. J. Haydon had been up before the local courts several times between 1858 and 1860 was one of trepidation. I felt sure it would turn out to be some mining-related misdemeanour (of which the other researchers assured me there were many). Had William fought someone over a claim? Or even worse: had he stolen someone’s pickings or harmed another miner in the process? In the end I was relieved to see that he was actually the plaintiff – or in other words, the one who had brought the issue to court in the first place. And it turned out that the defendants were actually miners who owed him money for board and lodgings (and goods sold) – a common occurrence where credit was widely accepted in order for businesses to remain competitive. So the first thing I learnt that morning was that William James Haydon was in fact a boarding house keeper as well as being a miner.

This came as a complete surprise to me as this ‘profession’ had not been listed in any of the registration documents I’d received from the Victorian Archives i.e. the births of his children and the death of Ann. Could it be that this had just been a temporary role for William or simply deemed an unimportant one? However, I later discovered that many women on the Australian goldfields did such work, so it is  most likely that the running of this establishment fell to Ann. In fact, in 1858 the Tarrangower Times ran an advertisement for a Servant of all work for Mrs. Hayden at The Billiard Rooms, Eagle Hawk. Despite being a different spelling of the surname, The Billiard Rooms crops up again in association with the Haydons, so I am assuming this must be Ann. For example, another advertisement in January of that year states: Found – on Porcupine Flat, a young kangaroo dog* The owner can have the same by describing it and paying expenses to W. Haydon, Billiards Room, Eagle Hawk.

* This was a cross between and a greyhound and a larger dog (such as a Scottish deerhound) which was used for hunting kangaroos

r819_0_5745_4885_w1200_h678_fmaxThomas Tyrwhitt Balcombe’s ‘Kangaroo Dog’ 1853, from the collection of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

The afore-mentioned reference to Ann seeking help with the running of the boarding house in 1858 is particularly poignant, given that when she died in October 1860 her death certificate stated that she had been suffering from tuberculosis for over two years. And if that wasn’t enough, in September 1859 she gave birth to her fourth and final child – a girl named Elizabeth, whose middle name bore that of her sister, Helen, who had recently married and set up home in London. Even with domestic help (and without illness and pregnancy to contend with), running a boarding house must have been a full-on occupation in those days. No doubt the older children helped as well, which is possibly how the story of The Lost Boy on the Bendigo Road came about.

Of all the documents I have uncovered in the course of my research, that newspaper article was probably the most personal and descriptive. Not only did it help to conjure up a picture of the local goldfields in the 1850s, but it also showed that the Haydon’s were part of a tight-knit community. And when I re-read the article after my return from Australia I smiled to see that in the research centre in Castlemaine I had underlined in pencil the phrase who is a very intelligent boy. Presumably that is why Ann had entrusted William with such an errand in the first place, although it is hard to imagine how a boy who had grown up in such an environment would be anything but ‘streetwise’. Brought out to Australia as a toddler, little William could not have retained any memories of his time in England and would have known nothing but life in the Central Victorian goldfields

I have taken the liberty of reproducing the article in full here (including the original rather idiosyncratic punctuation) as it is such a charming read: LOST AND FOUND. – The neighbourhood of Eagle Hawk was on Saturday evening thrown into a state of painful excitement from the fact of a young child, son of Mr. W. Haydon being missing. It appears that the youngster (who is about 7 years old) had been sent from Eagle Hawk to Bell’s Reef, and performed the journey in safety. The party to whom he had been sent naturally supposing that he would be equally successful in finding his way home, sent him thither towards evening. Mrs. Haydon feeling uneasy at the prolonged absence of the boy, communicated with Bell’s Reef, and to the consternation of all, it was found that he had started for home some hours previous. The neighbours turned out en masse, and the hills and gullies underwent a rigorous examination, but to no purpose. Nothing could be learnt of the absentee save that a woman on Porcupine had seen and spoken to him early in the afternoon. All Saturday night passed – the anguish of the parents may be more readily conceived than described, and the most gloomy forebodings pervaded the breast of all parties. The general idea was that the poor little fellow had fallen down one of the numerous holes on and near Porcupine Flat*, but early on Sunday morning, to the joy of all, the truant was discovered in a tent on the Bendigo road, where he had been taken care of, was soon restored to the bosom of his family. The child, who is a very intelligent boy, and on being found said that he kept the road, and for a long time thought he was right, but at length beginning to doubt, he still thought the best plan would be to keep the beaten track. Too much praise cannot be given to the residents on Eagle Hawk, for the prompt manner in which they turned out in search of the lost one. From the Tarrangower Times, 12th April, 1859.

*Such worries were not unfounded as many children often died falling into waterholes and abandoned pit mines.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Bendigo Road (from Maldon) today

Other less dramatic articles in the newspaper reported William Haydon appealing against a rates assessment in 1859 – which seems to be more or less standard practice in the town at the time. The following year he puts his name to a signatory request for a public meeting concerning the licensing laws. Again this was not an unusual occurrence in the growing colony, where laws were being shaped on an ongoing basis – except for the fact that William does this two weeks after Ann’s death. This might indicate that he expected to remain in the area, but could also be in solidarity with his fellow inn keepers as the community had most likely rallied round the family when Ann was gravely ill and in the dreadful weeks afterwards, However, whatever William’s intentions in those gloomy days after Ann’s death, six months later he was back in Melbourne with his four motherless children, ready to board the Sussex* and make the return trip to England. And this explains why his youngest child Elizabeth Helen, who had been unbaptised in Australia – possibly due to her mother’s ill-health, showed up in the baptism records from Brixton in 1861, confusing me at the outset of my enquiry (see Three Sisters: Ann).

SUSSEX

*The Sussex (left) was a popular emigrant ship which shuttled between England and Australia at the height of the goldrush. In September 1861 it docked at Southampton four months after leaving Melbourne, carrying a large quantity of gold, wool and copper, alongside returning emigrants, including the Haydons. Sadly, the ship was eventually wrecked on rocks off Port Philipp in an accident in 1871.

IEP133Landing Gold from The Australian steam-ship, in the East India Docks Illustrated London News 22 January 1853

I wonder whether William departed Australia with a heavy heart or whether he was pleased to leave the colony behind with its memories of Ann and the hardships of the early goldfields. We know that when he returned to London he lived with his parents, working for his father once again in the building trade, before he remarried in 1864. So at some point the whole seven years in Australia must have felt like a dream – or at the very least a fantastic tale. And as William lived to be on old man, dying on the eve of the outbreak of WW1 (sadly in the same year as William Junior – who by then was 62), his grandchildren possibly plied him with questions about his life as a gold miner ‘in the olden days’. Or perhaps he tried to keep the memories of his time in Australia compartmentalised, out of respect for his new wife and the three younger children they’d had together. But it is quite likely that his first family would have wanted to reminisce about their mother and their formative years, especially as they grew older themselves and had their own families.

Unfortunately we will never know how the Haydons dealt with life on their return to London, especially the children, with their wild ways and colonial burrs, who had known nothing but the hot and dusty Australian bush. Although one thing I did find out was that Charles Skelton Haydon – the first of the children to be born on Australian soil – had once fancifully put in the census of 1881 (when he was newly married), that he was born on the Boat at sea, although on all the other census returns he simply put Australia or Victoria, Australia as his birthplace. Charles at least must have retained some form of connection with the colony as his first-born son, Charles William (no surprise there), emigrated to Australia himself as a young man, becoming a fruit grower until he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1916. He later returned to Britain after the war.

But before I get ahead of myself by racing into the twentieth century with its futuristic wars, I would like to return to the Maldon of 1858. This was the year that William Haydon first advertised a share of a mining claim on Eagle Hawk Reef belonging to Bruce and Coleman, giving his address as the Billiards Rooms. A year later his name crops up again in the mining news section of the Tarrangower Times in relation to a meeting of claimholders on the southside of Eagle Hawk Gully. These miners had decided to amalgamate their claims in order to create a new mining company – which they cheekily named Perseverance (not an uncommon name for a mine at the time). The article goes into some detail about the size of the share, the dimensions of the mine and the working regulations and finally states: This is another step in the right direction taken by the Eagle Hawk miners, who are I am happy to say, beginning to lose faith in the non-combination style of working.

This idea to work more cooperatively on the reefs was a clever move, as once this type of mining took off it was not long before it was commercialised, and many of the work was carried out by companies employing diggers. The technology for quartz crushing soon became more sophisticated, and by the end of the 1850s steam engines had been installed in many of the mines, giving rise to chimney stacks to ventilate the fires which heated the water. Not only did this change the look of the diggings, but the relentless noise and dust from the stamp batteries permeated Maldon and the surrounding townships night and day. This type of extraction was to continue for another 70 years, leaving a permanently scarred landscape which is still visible in the area today, along with remnants of some of the later mine workings.

downloadEarly quartz crushing in Victoria c1861

Once the Castlemaine research centre closed in the mid-afternoon (the heat, the heat), I headed straight over to the public library to read up on the history of the Tarrangower diggings. It all seemed more real and poignant now that I was actually embedded in the locality,  and I took copious notes from the books and pamphlets in the local history section, photocopying as much as I could get away with (and carry).

I was especially surprised to discover that Eagle Hawk had actually developed faster in the goldrush years than Maldon itself. By the early 1860s the township was described thus: Its busy shopping street was lined both sides with trading establishments of every description. There were practising doctors, lawyers and chemists, at least three hotels, two churches, a day school, and a large amusement theatre. The area was surrounded by crushing and puddling machines and a swimming pool proved very popular.*

After reading such a description I was keener than ever to spend as much time as possible in Maldon and Eagle Hawk before I left the area. And that night I fell asleep on my motel bed, surrounded with sheets of A4 paper, dreaming about kangaroo dogs and fantastical steam crushing machines, until I woke up to the distant sound of the early morning traffic thundering along the nearby highway. Blinking in the harsh light already coming through a gap in the curtains I had the sudden delightful realisation that in a couple of hours I would be about to embark on what I hoped would be one of the most exciting excursions of my genealogical quest to date.

To be continued next month in A Notable Town.

*Both extracts above taken from A Concise History of Maldon and the Tarrangower Diggings by A. J. William (1953)

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Three Sisters: Ann

When first we left old England’s shores
Such yarns as we were told
As how folks in Australia
Could pick up lumps of gold

So when we got to Melbourne Town
We were ready soon to slip
And get even with the captain
We scuttled from the ship

    With My Swag All On My Shoulder (trad. arr.)

Frustratingly, the four daughters of my great-great grandfather’s first marriage seemed to disappear one by one from the records just as the Victorian age began to pick up steam. Unlike their successful middle brother, the mahogany merchant James William Skelton (see A Tale of Exploitation) the paper trail which documented their lives suddenly petered out when they reached their twenties, leaving me to wonder what had happened to all of them.

With Margaret Sarah, James Skelton’s first born, and possibly his favourite child (as she taught music at his tailoring premises in the city), I soon discovered she had died from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, shortly after her mother’s demise from cancer of the womb (see Present at the Death). These twin tragic events appeared to precipitate James’ dash into the bed of the impoverished teenage Mary Ann (my paternal great-great grandmother), a relationship I have written about at length in another chapter (see When I Grow Rich). Regular readers will know that Mary Ann Hawkin’s story runs through that of my branch of the Skelton family like an earth wire, and although she was the one who is responsible for our existence, she could also be said to be the one responsible for our ‘downfall’.

In the first census shortly after the two deaths, taken in 1851, James Skelton is still recorded as living in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton in the family home with his younger daughters, Ann and Helen. However, we know that Mary Ann was already pregnant with their first child by then, although she was registered along with her infant son William (whose father was not James) at another address. I can imagine that my great-great grandfather had probably been attempting to keep this embarrassing relationship a secret from his adult children. (Although knowing grown-up daughters, they probably would have guessed at his situation, maybe even humouring him by feigning ignorance of his nocturnal wanderings).

COLD HARBOUR LANE HOUSE (2)The house in Brixton where James lived with Ann and Helen in 1851

The child that Mary Ann was pregnant with in 1851 was the first of five children she would go on to have with James. And although they did not marry until shortly before his death in 1867 at the age of 68, by 1861 they were openly living together in Walworth. So sometime in the 1850s James would have had to have ‘the discussion’ with his four living children. By then his only son, James William, was already out in British Honduras and had fathered an illegitimate daughter of his own, so he possibly felt removed from the situation. However, it is fair to say that as a Victorian social climber he was probably not too happy about his father’s sudden drop in status, continuing to refer to him as ‘a gentleman from Brixton’ until his death.

Aldred Rd. (2)Aldred Road in Kennington – where James lived with Mary Ann

For the girls it may have also felt like a betrayal of sorts. Particularly as Mary Ann was the same age as Ann, the youngest daughter. So it is interesting to note that in 1851, only a few months after the census was taken, Ann Skelton married William James Haydon – a 23 year old plumber, painter and decorator who worked for his father’s business. On the marriage certificate, James Skelton (his handwriting shaky) and Ann’s older sister, Sarah Westle Maria Skelton*, were the official witnesses.

*This was the only document to record the presence of Sarah, who had been untraceable since the 1841 census, when as a teenage girl she was living with the rest of the family in Horsleydown Lane.

A son, William, was born in Surbiton ten months after the wedding. A daughter, Elizabeth Helen, must have also been born, for although there is no birth record, this child of Willian and Ann Haydon’s was baptised in Brixton in 1861. There was, however, frustratingly no census return for the young family earlier in that year. It also seemed strange that there was a gap of almost a decade between the birth of the two children. But everything eventually became clear when I discovered William Haydon in the 1871 census, back in South London at the family home in Brixton Road. There he was listed as having six children – three of whom had been born in Australia, including the aforementioned Elizabeth Helen. Yet he was no longer married to Ann, but a woman called Mary Ann from the east London parish of Dalston. It was then – with a jolt – I realised that she must have been William’s second wife. Which in those days usually meant one thing only.

Eventually I began to gradually put together the story of Ann’s short but adventurous life in Australia. And when I turned up in the Victorian outback in January 2016, in the fierce heat of high summer, I was finally able to understand the risks that Ann had taken when she had made the notoriously dangerous voyage ‘down under’ with her young family in search of the immigrant dream over 160 years earlier.

gipsy-jh

I arrived in Melbourne on a balmy Antipodean evening, less than a week into the new year, queasy and disoriented from two long-haul flights, Yet it was the most delicious and strangest feeling to walk out of Tullamarine airport and realise that I was now on the opposite side of the world. What kind of weird magic was it that had taken me there in the space of a day compared to Ann’s three month ordeal? I wanted to reach back through time to tell her all about that marvellous invention that would radically change our lives in the centuries to follow. But I knew that even if I could, it would be too much for her to bear. For she would surely guess that if man could invent such a flying machine they would also have come up with a cure for the disease that was to prove fatal for her and her two older sisters.

*

The wonderful thing about Australian birth records (or at least the Victorian state ones) is the amount of detail each contains. Not only are both parents’ ages given, but also their birthplace, their marriage date and place, the number of children they already have, as well as the father’s profession. And a quick on-line credit card transaction can have these records on your computer a few minutes after locating them in the archives. But on that first warm but windy morning in Melbourne, bleary yet elated, I decided to trek out through the bland northern suburbs to the Victorian Archives Centre, wanting to ascertain for myself if there was anything more to discover. It was more or less a wasted trip (with me shivering in the air conditioning and cursing the fact the cafeteria was unexpectedly closed), although I was at least able to find out more about the ship on which the family arrived in Australia.

The three Haydons set sail from the Port of London on March 20th 1854, travelling with 25 other paying passengers (passage cost £7 and 16 shillings each) in a ‘windjammer’ full of rum, brandy, wine, beer, tobacco, and hardware, bound for Port Philip. After three months at sea they finally landed on the Yarra river on July 24th 1854 – right in the midst of a cool Melbourne winter. The city at that time was booming and a huge ‘canvas town’ had been erected to house the new immigrants who had been arriving daily since gold had been discovered in Victoria three years earlier. Many of those living there were ‘digging widows’ (with their children): women who were waiting to get the message to join their husbands on the goldfields.

459789389c088922b4002626958f058b       Canvas Town, South Melbourne 1850s (c) Gov of Victoria

Whether the Haydons stayed in such a place initially or were lucky to have lodgings in a boarding house, we will, unfortunately, never know. However, throughout that decade Melbourne would use its new-found wealth to transform from a rough and ready frontier town to a grand colonial city. 1854 was the year many great municipal schemes and public buildings were nearing completion. And when William Haydon set sail back to England in 1861 with his four motherless children in tow, he would have found the place as elegant as any old-world city.

Did William make the decision to go ‘down under’ in 1854 primarily to search for gold, or was he just attracted by the many advertisements for passage to this exciting new land that would have been all over London at the time? Being a young man, the idea of the gold rush presumably enthralled him, but perhaps he was canny enough to realise that his tradesman skills would be more likely to create wealth in a country that was going through a fevered expansion. But whatever the reasons, we know that a year after the Haydons’ arrival in Victoria they were living far from Melbourne in the wild and uncharted interior of the state, indicating that gold was the primary motive.

Gold_mining_scene_-_miners_and_familiesGold Miner and Family c1861 by Richard Daintree (c) Victoria State Library

The birth records of their three Australian-born children (their first-born, little William, had made the voyage with them at one and a half) show that they moved from the principal gold-prospecting areas in Victoria: from the settlement of ‘Muckleford’ in The Loddon to ‘Deep Creek’ at Hepburn, and finally to the wonderfully named ‘Eagle Hawk’ at Maldon. In 1855, on the birth of Charles Skelton Haydon, his father is described as being a plumber/glazier by the registrar in Castlemaine. But by 1857, when the first girl, Sarah Ann, was born, he was already described as a ‘Goldminer’. Another daughter was to follow two years later, when William was still described as a miner.

And from this record it is interesting to note that from July to September of 1859 there were only five births in the boomtown Maldon area, and all to miners (few of whom would have had their families with them). I was fascinated by the names of the mining settlements into which these children were born: Sandy Creek, Porcupine Flat, Lister’s Gully, all evocative of the Gold rush landscape – yet their poetic beauty could not obscure the knowldege of the harsh conditions the families would have faced in such places.

45e5dc1313bcf22bab4670c11ee6180bCastlemaine in the 1860s, photographer unknown

Before I left for Australia I had spent some time researching the areas in which the Haydons had lived. Hepburn (or Daylesford) was now a chi-chi spa town, marketing itself through the natural mineral springs it possessed. It didn’t seem to have much connection with its previous incarnation as a gold-rush town. But something about the bleak-sounding Eagle Hawk at a village called Maldon piqued my interest. Perhaps because the family had spent the most time in that area – and Ann had been interred there in 1860 (one of the first burials in the new municipal graveyard).

In addition, the settlement of Muckleford (where the family had initially lived), was located just outside Castlemaine (the administrative centre of the Mount Alexander Diggings region), on the main road to Maldon. So it seemed as if I would manage to see both of those key places. Then what really sold Maldon to me was its description as Australia’s ‘first notable town’, an honour bestowed in 1966 through the National Trust of Australia due to the intact gold rush architecture, and which prevents any alterations to the buildings. A short Victorian state-sponsored tourist video (below) gives a flavour of the town, although on the day I visited there were only a handful of people around as the temperature was almost 40 degrees!

You can perhaps imagine my feelings as I prepared to leave Melbourne after four days exploring the city, and take the train to Castlemaine. I was excited, yet feared disappointment. I’d enjoyed my time in Melbourne, but after first visiting the wonderful Museum of Immigration and doing my usual ‘pounding the streets until my feet bled’ – or in this case burnt to a crisp –  I aready knew that the ‘old’ Melbourne that was so beloved of locals and tourists was just being built when the Haydons arrived. So any attempt to understand how they would have experienced the colony proved futile. Perhaps the closest I felt to them was when I crawled into a replica ‘immigrant ship’ in the museum, trying to imagine how they survived the three months at sea.

DSCN0102 (2)

295395bd1d50ffc3b1bad34b8886db12New (2016) and Old (1854) Melbourne: Swanston St from two different angles.

I even took a long boat trip from the centre of town down the Yarra river and out to the old maritime settlement of Williamstown to try to experience how they might have felt when they sailed into the huge bay of Port Philip. But it seemed like all of Melbourne was there, eating and drinking vast quantities, while lying in the sunshine, and the whole exuberant over-excess made me feel sad and lonely.

DSCN0154 (2)Melbourne Skyline from Williamstown

220px-Fort_Gellibrand

After taking the self-guided historic town trail, I decided to walk out to the old bluestone Williamstown Lighthouse at Gellibrand Point (see left), telling myself that this was possibly the first sight of Australia Ann would have had from on deck the Atalante. But somehow I couldn’t quite conjure up the spirit of the 1850s with all the conspicuous consumption around me, and I was quite relieved when the afternoon finally came to a close, and all the BBQs were packed up and the SUVs driven back to suburbia.

Disembarking from the boat back in the centre of town I thought I saw my cousin and his wife on the other side of the river. I knew they often holidayed in Australia as their youngest son had emigrated there several years previously (although their break was usually over Christmas and New Year – and David was based near Sydney). Nevertheless, I ran over the bridge to catch up with them, and of course it was not Steve and Beverley at all, but two slightly more glamorous look-alikes. It was then I glanced down and saw the glaring red marks all over my feet and ankles – the very place I’d forgotten to put on sunscreen. I was, I surmised, possibly slightly ‘sunstruck’ and so I hurried back to my hotel, pausing to pick up some calamine lotion and a pie en route.

Sprawled on the bed with my notebook computer (is there anything more blissful than returning to a hotel room alone?) I did some last minute research for my trip to Castlemaine. What would the weather be like? What were the exact times of the infrequent Maldon buses? And the official opening hours of the Maldon Visitor Centre and Heritage Museum? And was there any place in Castlemaine itself where I could obtain more information about the Mount Alexander goldfields in general?

Of course, I should not have left all these important tasks until my last night in Melbourne, but in the excitement of being free to explore a strange city I had fallen into my typical unfocused research pattern which revolved around just turning up in a place and walking around to soak up the atmosphere, and hopefully at the same time noticing things and being able to talk to people. And although this is an excellent strategy in some ways (leading to all sorts of unexpected sights and encounters), it really should be combined with a more structured approach. Particularly if it is taking place in a country on the other side of the world!

This was, however, actually my third visit to Australia: the first being on a working holiday visa in 1989; the second being my pre-wedding ‘honeymoon’ in 2005, but which involved me coming out on my own a few weeks earlier ‘just to get a bit of extra travelling in’. However, I had never visited the goldfields region before, and had in fact spent very little time in Victoria at all. So I was looking forward to my trip into the interior of the state, and wondering whether the places would remind me of the old ghost towns I’d visited in California. These were abandoned settlements that had captured my imagination in a way that had taken me by surprise (not being a fan of Wild West tropes), especially when the human stories behind the deserted buildings leapt to the fore.

I was to be in Castlemaine for three nights – plenty of time (or so I thought) to explore the area and visit Maldon. And I had agreed to meet up with an Australian friend later in the week, who had already booked our onward accommodation. Now, looking back, I see that this was perhaps one of the daftest things I could have done. As someone who is almost pathologically afraid of letting people down, one of the most stressful things for me is having to cancel arrangements I’ve already made with others. And so I kept right on with the agreed plan, even though all my instincts were screaming Stay! Stay! Stay!

And the reason for this was pure and simple: I fell in love with the rugged beauty of Central Victoria, the friendliness of the people, the surprisingly cool and arty town of Castlemaine, the open and curious nature of those I told about my research. And I made one very serendiptous connection which brought me much closer to understanding Ann’s life in Malden – and for that alone I will always be grateful to the Castlemaine Historical Society.

This lively group meets in the Old Court House every Tuesday to carry out research for themselves and others. For a small fee, visitors are welcome to use the facilities and pick the brains of the resident researchers. And it just so happened that the day I was due to arrive in Castlemaine coincided with the eve of the first meeting of the Historical Society after the festive break.

31379720 (2)Back of the Old Court House Castlemaine (where the researchers eat their pies)

So shortly before nine o’clock on a Tuesday in mid-January I headed out through the wide Castlemaine streets to the Old Court House, already sweating in the formidable heat. As well as a sun hat and water, I was carrying a slim folder containing my meagre research notes. I did not realise then quite how much they would be augmented by the end of that day.

To be continued next month in The Lost Boy on the Bendigo Road

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home Thoughts from Abroad

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England—now!

Robert Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad, (1845)

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

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

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

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

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

*On returning back to Switzerland a fortnight later there is always a surprise to find that spring has usually appeared in my absence and tulips are now out beside the crocuses, and the hornbeam hedge in front of the house has exploded into a mass of green.

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

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

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

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

BLUEBELL WOODSBluebell Woods at Weston-Sub-Edge, Cotswolds

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

SCENERY.JPGTypical Cotswolds Scenery

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

HIDCOTEHidcote Manor Gardens, Cotswolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COTSWOLDS TREE.JPG

And after April, when May follows,

And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover

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

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

Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture!

And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower

—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Robert Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad, (1845)

Over the next three months I will be looking at the lives of James William Skelton’s three surviving sisters, starting with Ann, who emigrated to Australia with her husband in 1854, but who never made it back to England. My trip to the gold fields of Victoria was also a wonderful opportunity to visit the country again, meet fellow historians on the way, and immerse myself in the emigrant story. I look forward to sharing my research with you next month in Three Sisters: Ann.

Wishing everyone a very Happy Easter!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2018

The Living and The Dead

I have plunged into the eighteenth century and can see I may get involved with many other contemporary enthusiasts. But I am using (or trying to) this century as a means of living more fully in the twentieth century. This is what I want to remember: don’t run away from your problems here and now, however well you write and see the past.

Jean Lucey Pratt (in 1949), A Notable Woman, ed. Simon Garfield (2015)

Last month I described my visit to the old Holloway Sanatorium at Virginia Water in Surrey – the institution where my ancestor, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath-Skelton, spent his final terrible 18 months (see Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall). But what I did not mention was that, on that icy February day, I was not the only visitor taking advantage of the ex-asylum’s relatively infrequent open days.

While I was upstairs mooching around the gloomy Great Hall, with its hammerbeam roof, searching for the light switch, an unexpected group of visitors entered the room. With gasps of Oh, it’s just as I remembered! and I’d clean forgotten about that!, the three women were obviously familiar with their surroundings (including the whereabouts of the old fashioned light switches). Thrillingly, I realised that I was possibly about to come face to face with some of the people who had actually worked in the building while it still played an active role in mental health care, rather than simply housing the wealthy.

1355 (3)The Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Anyone who is particularly interested in the recent history of Holloway Sanatorium will soon discover that there is one relatively famous ex-employee who wrote about his time there in a very funny and irreverent way. In his book Notes From a Small Island, the British-American humourist Bill Bryson briefly mentions the period in 1973 when he worked as a janitor at the asylum, a job he obtained through knowing some of the student nurses (and where he eventually met his future wife).

He describes the institution as such: The hospital, I came to discover, was its own little universe, virtually complete unto itself. It had its own joinery shop and electricians, plumbers and painters, its own coach and coach driver. It had a snooker room, a badminton court and swimming-pool, a tuck shop and a chapel, a cricket pitch and social club, a podiatrist and hairdresser, kitchens, sewing room and laundry. Once a week they showed movies in a kind of ballroom. It even had its own mortuary. The patients did all the gardening that didn’t involve sharp tools and kept the grounds immaculate. It was a bit like a country club for crazy people. I liked it very much.

Over the years, Bryson, whose parents-in-law lived in the area, sadly watched the decline of the old sanatorium after it closed its doors in 1981. From being initially used as a set to film crime drama or rock videos (including the spooky Charlotte Sometimes, by The Cure), the buildings eventually fell into total disrepair and were repeatedly vandalised, as well as being looted for remaining ‘artefacts’, including some of the old casebooks.

In the late 1990s when Bryson returned to Virginia Water from America, fully expecting to see the old sanatorium further degraded, he was unprepared for the scene which awaited him and described it thus: So imagine my surprise when I crested a gentle slope and found a spanking new entrance knocked into the perimeter wall, a big sign welcoming me to Virginia Park and, flanking a previously unknown vista of the sanatorium building, a generous clutch of smart new executive homes behind. With mouth agape, I stumbled up a freshly asphalted road lined with houses so new that there were still stickers on the windows and the yards were seas of mud. One of the houses had been done up as a show home and, as it was a Sunday, it was busy with people having a look. Inside, I found a glossy brochure full of architects’ drawings of happy, slender people strolling around among handsome houses, listening to a chamber orchestra in the room where I formerly watched movies in the company of twitching lunatics, or swimming in an indoor pool sunk into the floor of the great Gothic hall (this was originally the dining hall, similar to the Great Hall, upstairs) where I had once played badminton and falteringly asked the young nurse from Florence Nightingale (a ward name) for a date, with a distant view, if she could possibly spare the time, of marrying me.

SWIMMING POOLThe (New) Swimming Pool at Virginia Park

According to the rather sumptuous accompanying prose, residents of Virginia Park could choose between several dozen detached executive homes, a scattering of townhouses and flats, or one of twenty-three grand apartments carved out of the restored san, now mysteriously renamed Crossland House (this was after Thomas Crossland, the architect). The map of the site was dotted with strange names – Connolly Mews, Chapel Square, The Piazza – that owed little to its previous existence. How much more appropriate, I thought, if they had given them names like Lobotomy Square and Electroconvulsive Court. Prices started a £350,000 (twenty years ago).

For the locally-based ex-nurses I met that day (none of whom had known Bryson or his wife), the external changes to the estate had been gradual. However, they were still unprepared for both the grandness of the interior and the coldness the place exuded, now that it was devoid of the staff and patients. And as is the nature of such encounters, we rapidly fell into conversation; while I showed them my photographs of Herbert and told them his story, they furnished me with their memories of the place – all of which seemed very positive. This was curiously very reassuring, even though they had worked there half a century after Herbert’s death. He would have been well cared for they said. It was very much a happy place.

I wanted to believe them, but had a feeling that Herbert’s condition wouldn’t have been an easy one to deal with. One of the ex-nurses later explained that during her medical training she’d once had the opportunity to discreetly observe an old lady suffering from advanced tertiary syphilis (very few of these cases existed by then due to the widespread use of penicillin from the 1940s), and she described the rather shocking limb tremors she witnessed in the patient.

I was touched at my new friends’ interest in my research, and felt quite emotional when I brought out some of the old Rotary postcards of Herbert, and they mentioned how he looked slightly like me (there is indeed a Skelton resemblance – my cousin’s oldest son could almost double for Herbert).

HERBERT SLEATH (2)Herbert Sleath-Skelton c1906

Of course I pumped Nina, Beth and Helen (by now we were one first name terms) for any relevant information about their time at the hospital, and was impressed at how little they gave away about their individual patients. When we were later joined briefly by a retired male nurse from the subcontinent, the three women were rather disconcerted when he inadvertently blurted out the name of a famous actor-comedien who had once been treated at the asylum.  We would never give names they said. Even now.

Afterwards, when I re-read Bill Bryson’s account of the months he spent at Holloway San, it tallied with the stories the nurses had told me of upper-crust patients (there was still a proportion of fee-paying patients up until 1974 to offset costs, some even from the pre-NHS days) wandering the estate and neighbouring town of Virginia Water in plus fours and dinner jackets, their cut glass accents allowing them to get away with a lot of mischief both in and out of the asylum. Bryson describes this scenario more generally in his book as follows:

Virginia Water is an interesting place. It was built mostly in the twenties and thirties, with two small parades of shops and, surrounding them, a dense network of private roads winding through and around the famous Wentworth Golf Course. Scattered among the trees are rambling houses, often occupied by celebrities and built in a style that might be called Ostentatious English Vernacular or perhaps Game Stab at Lutyens, with busy rooflines crowded with gables and fussy chimneypots, spacious and multiple verandas, odd-sized windows, at least one emphatic chimney breast and acres of trailing roses over a trim little porch. It felt, when I first saw it, rather like walking into the pages of a 1937 House and Garden. But what lent Virginia Water a particular charm back then, and I mean this quite seriously, was that it was full of wandering lunatics. Because most of the patients had been resident at the sanatorium for years, and often decades, no matter how addled their thoughts or hesitant their gait, no matter how much they mumbled and muttered, adopted sudden postures of submission or demonstrated any of a hundred other indications of someone comfortably out to lunch, most of them could be trusted to wander down to the village and find their way back again.

Each day you could count on finding a refreshing sprinkling of lunatics buying fags or sweets, having a cup of tea or just quietly remonstrating with thin air. The result was one of the most extraordinary communities in England, one in which wealthy people and lunatics mingled on equal terms. The shopkeepers and locals were quite wonderful about it, and didn’t act as if anything was odd because a man with wild hair wearing a pyjama jacket was standing in a corner of the baker’s declaiming to a spot on the wall or sitting at a corner table of the Tudor Rose with swivelling eyes and the makings of a smile, dropping sugar cubes into his minestrone. It was, and I’m still serious, a thoroughly heartwarming sight.

While this doesn’t detract from the gravity of some of the inmates’ conditions, it does seem to demonstrate that the ethos of the place – likened by many to a prolonged stay in a country hotel – had remained throughout the years. Patients appear to have been treated with kindness and respect, and the fact that the asylum had been built in what was originally open countryside meant that there had always been little restrictions on the patients’ movements (at least those not deemed to be a danger to themselves and others, such as Herbert).

With our new-found solidarity, the ex-nurses and I approached the administrator’s office on the ground floor to enquire about access to other parts of the building – and were rather perfunctorily told that most of the old sanatorium was out of bounds, including the chapel (a badminton match was taking place there). What we had seen that day seemed like a tease, and just as I have often found with genealogical research, it felt as if the curtain was being slowly lifted on an interesting and unknown aspect of my ancestor’s life, only for it to fall abruptly back down before the entire scene could be fully absorbed. Again, it felt like moving closer to – yet simultaneously further from – the truth.

Over lunch at a local overpriced bistro full of the American wives of bankers (many who lived at Virginia Park), I got to know the three women better. They had kindly invited me to join them for their reunion meal, and after parting we agreed to keep in touch. And so it was that a year later I returned to Virginia Water with my mother in tow. This time the nurses had arranged for us all to have a guided tour with Joy Whitfield – an expert in the history of the sanatorium – from the nearby Egham museum. By then (2013), the open days had shrunk to once a year, and on the 15th of September a small group of us gathered in front of the lodge gates to meet Joy. This time we were able to visit the chapel (where Joy had incidentally been married) and learn more of the historic details of the building – such as the elaborately painted TH, JH, and TC initials on the ceiling of the grand entrance hall, standing respectively for Thomas Holloway (the Victorian benefactor), his wife Jane, and Thomas Crossland (the architect).

1387 (2)Ceiling in the entrance hall (initials of Jane and Thomas Holloway)

1413 (2)The Chapel, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Joy had also thoughtfully brought along some of the photographs and brochures of the original fee-paying asylum from the turn of the century for us to browse through after our tour. A video (below) shows the contents of an Edwardian advertising booklet for Holloway Sanatorium. It certainly does look like it is emulating the style of a country house hotel. And in fact a contemporary account of the sanatorium states that: Dominated by the idea that a cultivated person whose mind is affected will never be cured if surrounded by vulgar idiots or grim accessories, Mr George Martin (Thomas Holloway’s brother-in-law, who later became Martin-Holloway) has endeavoured to introduce as many objects as possible to awake and stimulate the trained intelligence for the moment over-strained. In the smaller but still ample parlours and living rooms the same idea of cheerfulness and suggestiveness is carried out. It is endeavoured above all things to avoid leaving a dimmed intelligence opposite to a blank wall.

As I mentioned last month, one of the things that puzzled me about Herbert’s time as a patient at the sanatorium was the absence of his wife, Ellis Jeffreys, in his life. She is not even mentioned in the contested will of 1915, in which Herbert leaves almost everything to his wealthy sister, Maude Beatrice Floersheim, who would go on to be the beneficiary of three more wills before her own death in 1953 (see The Fortunate Widow). This fact has led me to surmise that the relationship had become strained several years previous to Herbert’s final illness. In addition, it would appear that neither she nor any other family member organised a funeral or an obituary for Herbert, who only twenty years earlier had been described by The Penny Illustrated Paper so: Mr Sleath is popular wherever he goes, for he has a very artistic and yet a genial and buoyant personality; he is a thorough Englishman, a splendid horseman, and a good all-round sportsman.

There is, however, plenty of evidence as to how Ellis lived out her remaining decades as a widow. After writing (or rewriting) her own will a month after Herbert died (in which she left everything to her daughter, Evelyn), she continued to live at both Dormy Cottage with Evelyn and at an address in town (30, Hill Street, S.W.7), acting on the London stage. By the 1930s, Ellis had even entered the exciting new world of cinema. So it is now possible to view Ellis as a celluloid creation, something which was denied us in the case of Herbert. And stills and promotion material from these films clearly show her aging well – a good-looking, fashionably dressed older woman, often playing the part of a mother or grandmother figure to the younger, rising stars of the period.

s-l1600Ellis Jeffreys in 1936 (at age 67)

But was it galling for Ellis to be re-imagined in these roles, having once been the attractive ingénue herself, or was she just grateful to still be able to work at a job she clearly loved, and continue to be active in society at a time when most older women became invisible? Somehow I think it was most likely the latter. Ellis always comes across to me as a survivor – a strong woman who did not allow herself to be the puppet of any one man. And yet I also have this feeling that she was perhaps manipulative in her own way, using her looks and connections to create the aristocratic lifestyle she wanted for herself.

In 1933, Ellis and Evelyn finally moved out of Dormy Cottage and into a large Jacobean farmhouse in the village of Chobham in Surrey. It seems a strange move for two women who were often up in London, as the house and grounds were even bigger and the village more remote (it did not even have a train station) than their previous residence. But perhaps the property was seen as an investment opportunity for ‘little’ Evelyn: she inherited the house* on her mother’s death in 1943 (from pneumonia and heart disease), and continued to live there alone for over half a century, until her own death in 1987.

*Ellis states in her 1921 will: My two children are aware that my love for them is equal and in making this my Will I desire to leave on record that I am solely influenced by the fact that my son is now old enough and able to earn his own living. I accordingly GIVE all my property to my daughter Ellis Evelyn Isabella Curzon and APPOINT her my Executor.

Shipping records also show that throughout the 1930s Ellis and Evelyn took several trips and cruises to exotic destinations together, so perhaps Ellis was making good money through her frequent film appearances. Between 1930 and 1938 (when she retired) she appeared in no less than a dozen British films, none of which appear to have stood the test of time. And while I have enjoyed watching full-length performances of her son, the actor George Curzon (who was famous for playing the role of Sexton Blake, as well as appearing in numerous Hitchcock films, including The Man Who Knew Too Much), I have not yet had the opportunity to see his mother spring to life before me. But like many of the actors and actresses of the period, who made the transition from the stage to film later in their career, I somehow imagine that she might come across as rather shrill and hammy. Even George does not exactly seem very natural and authentic today (usually playing the same cool, aristocratic part), although this may be more due to changing fashions in acting style.

George Curzon in The Scotland Yard Mystery, 1934 (man on right)

And so the dead rise up before us again through the magic of new technology, and we can only wonder at what those who first saw these moving pictures thought of such a spectacle!

Over coffee in the now busy local bistro, I explained to the ex-nurses that my next plan was to go out to the village of Chobham and try to see Chobham Farm (where Ellis and Evelyn lived). I had printed out a map of the area from the internet and had rather naively worked out that I could walk over there (and back) before darkness set in. But my new friends sensibly thought otherwise, and Nina eventually persuaded me to let her husband drive me to Chobham – she had a service appointment with her own car at the local garage that afternoon, but knew her husband would be free, and more importantly would be on board with the plan. Nina assured me that, as a newly-retired lecturer, he was interested in a plethora of different subjects, and local and social history was one of the things he wanted to delve into further, now he had more time on his hands.

We found ‘Geoff’ (I cannot recall if this really was his name, but in my mind he is a Geoff!) at Nina’s cottage-style, book-filled home, seated by a roaring fire, reading the Guardian. Outside the large back window which overlooked the secluded garden, birds screeched and flew from bush to tree to well-stocked feeders and back again. I was fascinated at the number of feral parakeets visiting their small but wild space, and it reminded me of my experience in the ‘rewilded’ area of Nunhead Cemetry in search of the family grave (see Present at the Death). I then remembered the sad sight of Herbert’s name on the Skelton tombstone, carved into a small area  on the granite (almost like an afterthought), and immediately I felt a brief connection between one area of my research and another.

When I later explained this feeling to Nina and her husband, they considered it a very apt description of the way social history can create unexpected links between people, places and events. Perhaps more importantly, it gives us opportunities to connect with living people with whom we might not otherwise come into contact. I thought about the new friends I’d made at East Coker, five years previously, when I’d started out on my quest (see In my Beginning is my End). And how all those encounters – including the ones that day in Virginia Water – had enriched me in some way, and had also (hopefully) touched the lives of others, too.

This was why I included the introductory quote from the biographer and diarist, Jean Lucey Pratt (in relation to the research for her biography into the 18th century actress, Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington). Pratt, whose edited journals were published recently as A Notable Woman, was the one of the Mass Observation diarists to be featured in all three of Simon Garfield’s edited collections featuring the cream of the archive material (namely: Our Hidden Lives, We are at War, Private Battles). It was through reading these books to discover more about wartime Britain that I fell in love with the writing of this remarkable woman, which naturally led me on to read her own diaries once they were published (see a Guardian book review here). Such is the nature of social history research!

Rather disappointingly, the trip to Chobham did not let me see much of Chobham Farm. Like many of the old country lanes around the village (which were now busy with cars), Sandpit Hall Road had no footpath or stopping place, which made it hell for pedestrians. And as most of the ex-farms* were set back from the road and hidden behind hedges, it was difficult to see much.

*Chobham Farm’s adjoining farmland was sold for 1920s housing before Ellis bought the property, although it still retained a huge garden.

geograph-4255333-by-Shazz (1)Junction of Sandpit Hall Road, Chobham

We drove by the dark wooden house a couple of times, slowing down to attempt a closer look. But I soon realised I did not have to see the place: I was getting tired of ogling all the ‘porn’ properties that my wealthier ancestors had inhabited. It felt like a replacement for real world activities – for chatting with Nina, Beth and Helen about their time at Holloway Sanatorium and their views on current mental health provisions, or discussing the south-east’s parakeet invasion with ‘Geoff’. I felt as if I had a psychological thermostat (for want of a better expression) which whenever I was in danger of going too far into the land of the dead would bring me partway back to the present. I realised more than ever that I wanted to be with the living, talking about the things that matter to us now. And perhaps it was at that point when I had the intimations that I should not get too carried away with this project, but try to combine it with the things that currently interested me.

I decided then and there that I would go the following winter to Australia. I would seek out the details of the life of Ann  Haydon (née Skelton), Herbert’s paternal aunt, who died of TB on the goldfields of Victoria before Herbert or his siblings were even born. This adventurous young sister of Herbert’s father (James William Skelton) is linked to the fate of her nephew by dint of sharing a ‘space’ with him on the family tombstone at Nunhead. They were the only two members of the family not be buried in the grave, yet their names were also engraved in the ugly pink granite. And in the canopy above the absurd block of stone which carried the memory of them and their immediate family, I knew that there would still be the raucous squawks  of the green feral parakeets. A sound like Australia in London. Like Nunhead in Virginia Water.

P1030838 (2)

P1030847 (2)The gravestone enscriptions of Ann (above) and Herbert (below)

To be continued soon in Three Sisters: Ann

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2018

Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall

Call no man happy till you know his end.

Herodotus, The Histories, (440 BC)

The final chapter of this three-part trajectory of the life of my ancestor, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath-Skelton is, like most traditional stories, written to be read in a linear, chronological fashion. In the first part (see Herbert Sleath Struts his Hour) we saw how Herbert conquered the London stage and found his cod-aristocratic bride. In the second (see The Lady and the Cowboy), we learned more about this relationship – which was possibly not all it seemed – and about Herbert’s twin loves, namely those of America and racehorses. And now we arrive at the last act, where we will be able to judge Herbert’s life (if we so desire) in its entirety.

But the piecing together of this life story was anything but linear. If plotted out mathematically it would be a series of loops circling in on themselves, then out again, some wide, some tight. What I started with was the surprise find of a Rotary photograph of a young and handsome Herbert Sleath, then I moved straight on to applying for Herbert’s death certificate. After all, when someone dies at age 50 (even in 1921), there is always the questions of Why? and From what? This is not just to satisfy morbid curiosity: as I have discovered previously through my research, death often casts a backward shadow over life. To wit, the number of my London ancestors who died in late middle-age of bronchitis-related infections. (It is not necessary to be a medical practitioner to realise that this would have been to a large part due to the polluted air in the industrial working class suburbs of South London).

Herbert2 (2)Herbert Sleath-Skelton c1908

But to continue the story of Herbert Sleath-Skelton we must return to where we left off: when Herbert was a sprightly man-about-town, and the classic Edwardian gent. Throughout the 1910s, Herbert and his successful actress wife Ellis Jeffreys were to continue living in their rural idyll at Dormy Cottage, in Woking, and acting (often together) on the London stage. However, the outbreak of war in 1914 changed everything. Several months later, when Herbert no doubt felt uncomfortable continuing in his present career while young men all around him left to do their duty (including his step-son, George Curzon), Herbert obtained a temporary commission as a lieutenant in the armoured car division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (conscription did not start until 1916, and then only to age 40). A grainy photograph from The Sketch in August 1915 shows Herbert in his uniform beside his armoured car, still looking relatively young and gallant at age 44.

HERBERT_NAVYHerbert Sleath-Skelton in August 1915

Herbert was to leave the Royal Navy Air Service shortly after this photograph was taken. This was due to the fact that the armoured car units were about to be handed over from the air force (then part of the navy) to the army, and it would seem that Herbert had to apply for a new commission. However, to complicate things further, Herbert had suffered a nervous collapse while under heavy shell fire at Loos in September 1915, and thus was also in need of a period of rest and recuperation.

Herbert eventually took up his new post in March 2016, but records show that his three month initial probationary period in the army did not go as intended. By June of that year, his behaviour was described by the Brigadier General as unsatisfactory: He (Herbert) seems to be careless and inefficient, and has shown no signs of improvement, although this was pointed out on several occasions. There has been great difficulty in getting him to understand the simplest orders, or obtaining any information from him about his section. His returns were often inaccurate and he had no idea how to select his N.C.O.s or organise his section. This certainly does not fit in with the portrait of Herbert that other records have helped to build up, and very much points to the fact that he was probably already suffering from the illness which was to kill him five years later.

Tellingly, it is also around this time that Herbert and Ellis’s lives seem to begin to diverge. Even though they were to keep the same official address at Dormy Cottage in Woking up until Herbert’s death (although typically Herbert also lists other addresses during the years from 1915 until his death), Ellis does not appear to be as involved in his life as much as previously (she is still acting on the stage throughout the war), and it is up to Herbert’s younger sister, Maude Beatrice, to intervene on her brother’s behalf when the War Office clamps down on Herbert’s further requests for sick leave and a pension at the time when his worsening illness makes him unfit for service. In addition, Herbert’s will (which was contested), written in July 1916, makes no mention of Ellis, but leaves all of his relatively meagre estate to his sister, Maude Beatrice Floersheim, making this the first out of four inheritances  she would go on to receive in her lifetime (see The Fortunate Widow).

Finding the folder full of correspondence between Herbert, Maude and the War Office in the National Archives at Kew was somewhat of a breakthrough for me. I had first become aware of Herbert’s unusual death in 2012, and it wasn’t until slightly later that detailed records from the First World War began to be accessible to the general public. Every year, as the 100 year limited is reached, more and more of these documents became available for consultation, illuminating past mysteries with a few scraps of yellowing paper. And from the correspondence to which I was privy, I was finally able to create the link between Herbert’s old life on the stage to his last debilitating years.

From Herbert (and later Maude’s) letters to the War Office, Herbert’s physical and mental decline from 1915 onwards becomes more and more evident. Although he was put on sick leave again in the summer of 1916, he had to suffer the ignominy of ongoing medical tests and doctor’s reports (every three months) in order to continue being eligible for his army pay. At the end of 1916, he was described by a medical doctor as: Suffering from the effect of shell shock. He is an extremely nervous condition. Knee jerks are absent but there is a marked tremor of the tongue and fingers. He suffers from insomnia and has marked tachycardia (rapid heartbeat).

The following month, Herbert wrote to the War Office to ask if he could be officially invalided out of the army so that he would be able to take up civilian work (in order to have an income to live on). This letter is heart-breaking to read as Herbert’s writing had become more and more ‘jaggy’ and uneven, obviously the result of tremors in his hand. In addition, Herbert’s mental capacities also appear to be diminished as the letter rambles on rather illogically and is not consistent intellectually with his past endeavours as a successful actor-manager and astute businessman. Something was obviously very, very wrong.

And this is where two strands of my research start to meet and curl around each other in a most satisfying, although macabre, way. In 2012 I had been rather shocked to discover that Herbert had died in 1921 (at the age of 50) in an institution with the grim-sounding name of Holloway Sanatorium. Not only that, but the cause of death was given as General Paralysis of the Insane. In other words: late stage syphilis which had affected the brain. This was a disease that was not an uncommon cause of death in the pre-penicillin days, and actually merits its own Wikipedia page, here.

Another quick online search connected this disease to the institution: Holloway San was not quite the Swiss-type sanatorium I had imagined, but was a private ‘hospital for the insane’. Located in upmarket Virginia Water, Surrey, it had first opened its medieval-looking doors (albeit to the middle-classes) in 1885, offering a wide range of up-market facilities. Surprisingly, it survived for almost a full century as a lunatic asylum, later mental hospital (take your pick from either of these terribly un-PC names!), being taken over by the newly-formed NHS in 1948, although still continuing to care for some of the old, pre-war patients.

HollowaySan1884front (4)

1411 (2)Holloway Sanatorium then (1884) and now (as Virginia Park)

This magnificent Victorian gothic building, was the brainchild – along with nearby Holloway College – of the wealthy philanthropist, Thomas Holloway, who had made his fortune selling dubious cures for all-ills. In the Victorian entrepreneurial spirit of its benefactor, Holloway San was designed as an institution to cure those who wanted to help themselves. In other words, for fee-paying middle-class professionals who needed to ‘get better’ in order to take up the reins of their profession again. These patients were originally not expected to stay for longer than 12 months, and only curable cases were deemed to be accepted into the asylum. But these rules appear to have become more flexible over time, and thus by 1920, patients like Herbert, while less common, were not rejected.

I was lucky in that my initial research into Holloway Sanatorium led me to the case notes (currently being digitalised) of the asylum’s patients, most of which are held in the Surrey History Centre in Woking (others being kept at the Wellcome Library in London). And it was at the history centre, on a sunny day in early September 2012 that I was finally able to read the doctors’ reports on Herbert, detailing the eighteen months he had spent in the hospital up until his death. It had taken me three months to organise my visit, mainly due to the fact that that the period (1920-21) was not covered by the 100 year access rights, and thus I had to obtain special permission to view the records. My enquiries were handled by the extremely helpful head archivist, Julian Pooley, who is a passionate believer in the importance of local and social history, with a particular interest in Surrey’s mental hospitals and how such documents can help current mental health professionals. See a description of this research here.

Once I was able to ascertain by documentation that there were no living relatives of Herbert – I did fleetingly think of his step-grandson, Earl Howe, sitting in the House of Lords, but banished that thought as quickly as it had appeared – then I was able to either view the records in situ or pay to have a copy of Herbert’s case notes sent to me. I chose the former, which Julian Pooley agreed would give me the most ‘authentic’ experience. And by looking at the particular case notes’ book as a whole, I was able to compare Herbert’s situation with those of the other patients. It was not a pretty picture.

Holloway_Sanatorium_Hospital_for_Insane,_Cas_Wellcome_L0032179 (2)Example of a female patient’s case notes (c) Wellcome  Museum

Although Holloway Sanatorium was one of the first asylums to take photographs of the inmates, and as such has been the interest of researchers in this field, there were disappointingly no images of Herbert. However, after reading the doctors’ notes, this did not surprise me. Herbert was obviously one of the more ‘difficult’ patients at the institution described on entry to the asylum (on 22nd April 1920) as: violent and abusive, struggles, kicks and bites when touched. A fortnight later he was: Still raving and abusive. Almost impossible to examine. Speech very inarticulate. Stammering and slurring of consonants very marked. Says that he is colonel of the First Rifle Guards and that he is very rich, that he is going to have various people arrested and shot etc. etc. Cannot concentrate his attention on any one subject. And the following week the examining doctor writes: At times the patient is quiet and agreeable but more often is garrulous and self-centred. Cannot carry on a rational conversation.

As I sat in the comfortable and light Surry History Centre, and transcribed Herbert’s case notes on that beautiful late summer’s afternoon, I felt all sorts of conflicting emotions. Not only was there terrible sadness at the way this successful man had fallen so low, but there was unexpected anger at the seemingly off-hand way the doctors had described Herbert. Example: Nothing to note except that he is inactive, has gained several pounds in weight, and seems to be settling down to the demented stage. There was also frustration at the fact that anything he said had not been taken seriously, such as the idea that he was (or had been) rich. Example: considers he is a very wealthy man, which is a delusion. And of course the horrified embarrassment at reading: History of incontinence of the faeces on 2 or 3 occasions.

Half-way through the day’s research, I went out for a much needed break, and walked out from the centre of the town to the exclusive suburb of St John’s, where Dormy Cottage was located. The stroll along Jackman’s Lane emphasised the still semi-rural location of the house which – although surrounded by mature hedges and trees, and thus difficult to see in its entirety – looked like the kind of place I had spent my childhood dreaming about owning one day. (With a recent million pound selling price, this is alas, to stay a fantasy).

cottageDormy Cottage, Jackson’s Lane, St John’s, Woking

Sorting through my scribbled notes on the crowded train back to London that evening, I reflected on Ellis’s role in all of these proceedings. Why were there no details of visits or letters from her as there had been in other patients’ case histories? (This was the sort of thing that the different case notes had brought to my attention, illustrating the importance of viewing records in situ). Why, when admitted to the asylum was there this official statement: Has been in private care in Brighton. Mrs Mary Kate Bang, nurse, Brighton Pier Hotel, states patient has been ill for 3 years following shell shock: has had fits of epileptic character? It was becoming clear that Ellis had rejected her husband in his illness, as had presumably all the others who had been close to this once popular man. And when Herbert died in September 1921 (his last days at the asylum make harrowing reading), there were no death notices or obituaries in any contemporary newspapers, as there would be for Ellis twenty years later.

Although it is a well-known fact that many soldiers contracted syphilis during the First World War*, it would appear from his symptoms (of third degree syphilis) that Herbert had had the disease prior to this period. Had Ellis been aware of this while they were living their supposedly dream life at Dormy Cottage (see The Lady and the Cowboy)? Or did Herbert’s illness only begin to be evident during his military service, and thus exacerbated by the shell shock he received at Loos? And what (astute readers may cry) of Ellis’s confession in her divorce that her ex-husband, the Hon. Frederick Graham Curzon, had syphilis. Had he in fact passed the disease onto her, and she in turn had unwittingly given it to Herbert? Would she even be aware of this possibility – and if so, did she blame herself?

*An estimated 5% of troops were infected, although the disease was often concealed by servicemen as it was punished as a military crime. In addition, any illness not caused by military service resulted in docked payments (hence Herbert’s focus on the shell shock theory). However, some historians point to the fact that a number of men actually tried to catch venereal disease so that they could leave the horror of the trenches.

Curzon had died the year before Herbert, at the age of 53, from Syncope (fainting) and Myocarditis, alongside Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema. The former diagnosis may in fact be an indicator of tertiary syphilis, a disease which has always confused medical practitioners due to its reputation as ‘the great imitator’ i.e. many of its characteristics are shared with other illnesses.

The informer of the death was his son, George Penn Curzon, who was by then a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and resident at Dormy Cottage. As already mentioned, Herbert’s wife, Ellis Jeffreys, was not listed as a beneficiary in his 1916 will (which was unsuccessfully contested in the high court), but Herbert did leave £100 to both his step-children, indicating that he had most likely been close to them. As a stepmother myself, I know that although often a fraught relationship, it can be a very enriching experience, and without children of his own Herbert may have enjoyed having the company of young people to create a more traditional family atmosphere at Dormy Cottage.

Whatever I may think of Herbert, it is still extremely sad to think that his family life unravelled so quickly over five years. However, with so much more stigma surrounding both sexually transmitted diseases and mental illness in those days, it is perhaps unsurprising that Herbert’s friends and relations washed their hands off him in his final years, leaving him to rot in Holloway San. Without family visits (interference?), it would have been easier for the medical staff just to dismiss him as another ‘madman’ who had to be ‘drugged up’ and kept away from the ‘normal’ life of the asylum. But perhaps this is unfair of me to judge these doctors so harshly as Herbert was certainly not an easy patient. And if those looking after him had never known him as the healthy, successful man he had once been, then it may have been harder to show compassion, particularly if he had been violent towards them.

For several months after viewing Herbert’s case notes, I tried to arrange a date to visit the old Holloway Sanatorium. Although it is now a private housing complex (described by the estate agents as: Spooky Sanatorium to Luxury Living), it was initially still open to the public several days a year through an arrangement with English Heritage in return for grant aid given for conservation work. Previous to that, in the intervening years since the NHS had packed up and left, the place had become neglected and vandalised – although before it became too dilapidated it had been used by film companies whenever the abandoned Gothic country house look was needed. Not only did this include TV series, such as Inspector Morse, but more excitingly, rock videos of the period, the best of which (in terms of showcasing the asylum) is Charlotte Sometimes by The Cure, and Bonnie Tyler’s magnificant Total Eclipse of the Heart. (Among several of the other videos that were made was the very un-PC Ozzie Osborne song Bark at the Moon, which, given Herbert’s Case notes, had me in tears of outrage).

Bonnie Tyler, Total Eclipse of the Heart (filmed at Holloway San)

But in 1994, just when it looked as if the old sanatorium would need to be demolished, the property developers Octagon made a successful bid to restore the Grade 1 listed building to its former glory, eventually bringing in a team of specialists to complete the work to standards acceptable by English Heritage. Although most of it was transformed into private apartments, and what Octagon described as ‘extensive on-site leisure activities’, on set days every month visitors had always been able to view the parts of the building that English Heritage had subsidised (although it was clear this was grudgingly accepted by the residents, and public visits are sadly no longer allowed). Access included the entrance hall and stairway, staircase to (and including) the grand hall, as well as the chapel in the grounds (if open).

As luck would have it, I ended up arriving by train from Waterloo on one of the coldest February days I have ever experienced. From the small station at the upmarket commuting enclave of Virginia Water – the UK’s most expensive area! – it took me less than five minutes to reach the security gates of what was now named Virginia Park.

Holloway San EntranceGated entrance to Virginia Park (with Stop sign and porter’s lodge)

Once I was vetted by the porter and allowed into the grounds, a strange feeling began to creep over me. On the surface everything seemed very quiet and peaceful, but that there was also something slightly menacing about the place. A Stepford-Wives feel seem to cling to the posh housing estate that had bloomed up in the grounds around the main building since it had been redeveloped, but still it was not hard to imagine how the old asylum would have originally appeared without all the twee stone houses dotted around like uprooted ersatz lodge houses.

As I approached the entrance to the main building (in all its Victorian Gothic splendour) and the wonderful spectacle of the frozen fountain, a couple of expensive cars glided past, making me feel as if I had somehow strayed on private property – although in a sense that is probably what most visitors felt when they came for one of Virginia Park’s infrequent open days. But ‘open day’ was a bit of a misnomer as it was very much a do-it-yourself affair, which on that February day suited me fine. I simply wanted to be left alone to try to imagine what life might have been like for the inmates of the asylum.

1406 (2)Frozen Fountain at Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Before I took the steps to the entrance, I paused at the fountain and glanced up at the main building, trying to take in the whole scope of the red-brick façade. I soon had the queer sensation that the Puginesque central tower was moving slightly towards me. It was an oppressive feeling and I wondered how the patients had felt when they had arrived at the entrance and had seen the (then ivy-covered) building hovering over them like an overly watchful nurse. I walked slowly up the wide flight of steps, trying to imagine how a recalcitrant patient might have been led stumbling towards the entrance door by a doctor or a distressed relative.

1407 (2)Entrance to Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Once inside the building, I realised that no amount of reading about the place – or watching the slightly surreal early 80s rock videos that were filmed there – is preparation enough for the gothic splendour of the interior, replete with medieval bestiary paintings and Gothic arches and the rich dark colours of the paintwork. It struck me that this was not quite the calming environment that certain patients might have wished for, or even needed. Every section of the wall was covered with mythical beasts sprouting tongues or tails, or bat-like wings, or fins and weird bulging eyes, and all of them looked more malevolent than the last. But there was also another accompanying feeling: that of having strayed into a monastery or a pre-reformation church, which in itself was balm to the modern soul, weary of life in the 21st century. And perhaps it might have had a similar effect on those who had also been forced to retreat from the demands of their own lives.

Holloway San CeilingDetail from wall painting, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

After the bright entrance hall, the Great Hall upstairs was a dark and gloomy place – even once I had managed to locate the light switches! It reminded me of the Victorian village church I had attended as a child, with its hammerbeam roof and stained glass windows. And it was in this huge room that I began to feel something of both the oppressiveness and opulence of the place – like a long stay at a country hotel from which it was impossible to escape. There was a sadness in the dark and dusty corners that did not go away, even when a shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom. I stayed there for a while, absorbing the atmosphere, thinking about Herbert and all the others who had passed through the space where I stood: some to return to their families, others to live out the rest of their days there, perhaps still believing they were simply the long-term guests of the benevolent local aristocracy.

1405 (2)Staircase to the Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

1355 (3)The Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Before I reluctantly left the building I noticed that there were one or two quotations painted on the walls in the Great Hall, set in between the portraits of various kings and queens, and Victorian statesmen. And there, in Gothic lettering, was the quote from the Greek historian, Herodotus, which made me think about Herbert and his tragic demise. 

1354 (2)

Call no man happy till you know his end.

To be continued next month in The Living and The Dead.

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2018

 

The Memory Thief

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter

 Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

Happy New Year! 2018 marks the third year of A London Family, and I now  have almost thirty chapters devoted to my genealogical quest – well over 100,000 words, and certainly more than enough for a full-length book. Nevertheless, I intend to continue with my project until this summer, ending with the discovery of the Ur-Skeltons in the Yorkshire Dales, and a surprise piece of information which highlights some of the issues involved in following a patrilinear family history.

There are, however, still plenty of exciting tales to come before then: including the third and final part of the story of the life and times of Herbert Sleath, as well as sea voyages to exotic destinations, and the requisite untimely deaths in which such adventures often ended. But as the demands of the festive season are currently impinging rather disproportionately upon my free time, I have decided to revisit the catalyst that reawakened my interest in family history: namely the discovery of the previously unseen photograph of my teenage father and his friends (including my future uncle) in Coker Wood in 1944.

I initially wrote about this event in 2007 – two years after first visiting the Somerset village  of East Coker with my mother (and with a copy of the photograph in my bag). Ten years ago I was studying part-time for an MA in creative writing, and wanted to incorporate the story into a fictional piece of work. This was part of a larger project on the Freudian idea of ‘the uncanny‘ in literature, a concept which, although notoriously dificult to define, had begun to intrigue me. Around that time I also became aware of   the close connection between photography and ‘the uncanny’, a topic explored obliquely by Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida, and which I discussed in an earlier post (see Those Ghostly Traces).

This story set within the tale which follows is one that readers may remember from my first blog posts. In those two chapters (see In my Beginning is my End and East Coker), I expanded the narrative of the original text, adding the background details and information required by the factual nature of the posts. But for those who have not yet read the initial chapters, or who are happy to take a return journey to Eliot’s village of open fields and deep lanes (albeit on a slightly circuitous route), then this creative offering is for you.

THE MEMORY THIEF (2007)

The rain fell relentlessly over the Bodensee. It spat down onto the bare heads of the children who played on the upper deck of the ferry while their parents watched from the fuggy warmth of the restaurant. It drove away the last of the tourists buying coffee and ices on the oleander-lined promenade. It splattered onto the shiny metal roofs of the vehicles on the car deck, washing away the dust of the Autobahn and the sins of carbon monoxide emissions.

I huddled in my parka on the bench at the back of the ferry and watched the harbour slip behind us as we nudged out into the open water with a renegade hoot. The lake hissed and roiled, the metres sliding between us and the German Zoll. Soon those metres would add up to the kilometres that would propel us into another country entirely. That was where home was now. For better or worse I had settled in a small town on the Swiss side of the lake. A place of two seasons: foggy or sunny; a place where the snow seldom fell, and bananas and palms slept uneasily throughout the long, dark winter, encased in hessian sacking.

We were heading for the foggy season. The lakeside cafés would soon be pulling in their outdoor furniture, and the ubiquitous window-box geraniums would be replaced with pumpkins – later, festive pine cone wreaths. Then I would make this journey again in reverse, laden down with cheese and chocolate and handmade candles from the Christmas markets. But in between those two trips was a whole semester of teaching and marking and lesson preparation, while the endless rhythm of shopping and cooking and cleaning hummed away in the background like a badly-tuned radio which was impossible to turn off. I tried instead to think of the positive things about the cold season: meals by the log fire with friends; the Italian marroni sellers in the old town; the scarlet leaves on the Japanese maple at the top of the lane; the winter clothes in boxes in the attic just waiting to be rediscovered.

My thoughts were interrupted by a woman walking past on unsteady legs who stopped to ask for directions to the toilets. I pointed her down to the lower deck, and she stumbled wordlessly towards the metal stairs, her sparse hennaed hair fluffing up around her face in the wind. A purple-nosed man in a sludge-green boiled wool jacket caught my eye and looked away. Something cold and hard settled low on my stomach. Ach, ja, I heard someone say. Self-important lips smacked shut. A low, rumbling laugh. A belch and the sound of a beer glass cracking onto a Formica tabletop. I looked over the railing down at the water. This grey, foam-flecked lake would be my substitute sea for the next few months. But seagulls would never chase the ferries on twisting wings, their rackety calls splicing the air; and seals would never lurk underneath the shifting waves, their worried old man’s heads bobbing up sporadically above the waterline.

As we headed out across the Bodensee, the rain became heavier, and I reluctantly picked up my bag and entered the restaurant. Orders of bratwurst and potato salad and Weizenbier were being carried aloft by the serving staff, and I ducked into the first available seat at the table near the door. In the centre of the table a round of pretzels hung on a wooden tree, looking like a game of hoopla on a fairground stall. I looped off the topmost one and bit into it. A large crystal of salt dissolved against my tongue, and I immediately called out to a passing waiter and ordered a beer.

The man sitting opposite me put down his Frankfurter Allgemein with an attention-seeking rustle and raised his head. Sweat beaded his forehead and trickled down craggy tributaries to the twin dams of his bushy eyebrows. He looked similar to the actor who played the retired Black Forest detective in the TV series I often watched on Monday nights. But then he extended his right hand across the table top, and I knew as soon as he clasped his four fingers around my five that he was someone else entirely.

Dr Killian Fuchs. Professor für Psychologie in die Rorschacher Hochschule. Und sie sind Frau Skelton – die Engländerin die auch bei uns arbeitet?

Ja, das stimmt. Aber bin keine Engländerin, komm’ aus Schottland.

Ah, ha. Scotland. One of my favourite places. He leant forward, his words piercing the damp air with his stale, peppermint-sweet breath. Have you just come from there?

Sort of.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry. I have also been in my home town – Duisburg. Do you know it?

I shook my head.

Perhaps you are feeling homesick, like me. But it will pass, as it always does.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up. Fahrkarten, bitte. The ticket collector in his peaked cap stood beside us. I reached for the inside pocket of my jacket for my travel documents and pulled out the plastic wallet that contained my passport, identity card, travel pass and remaining euros.

A very good idea, Dr Fuchs said, once the conductor was satisfied with validity of our travel cards. He pointed to the zip-lock wallet. If you fell overboard, the authorities would be able to quickly identify you.

I smiled perfunctorily and busied myself fiddling with my documents, slipping them one by one back into the wallet. As I did so, a photograph fell onto the table, picture side up. Before I could catch it, Dr Fuchs splayed out his good hand and grasped the photo as it slid towards the edge of the table.

May I have a look? It seems to be hand coloured – a technique I’m particularly interested in for various reasons.

It is hand coloured – by my father, actually. But I don’t think there was much technique to it. He was just a boy when he did it.

Dr Fuchs reached for a pair of heavy-looking reading glasses on a chain around his neck. He pushed them up over his nose and peered down at the photo, angling it into the light. Eventually he turned it over and read the faint pencilled inscription on the back: Expedition to Coker Wood, Whit-Monday, 1944.

Is your father in this photograph?

Yes. He’s the one on the right. A friend of his took it. I just found out recently.

So your father told you about the photograph?

No. My mother and I found it some years after he died. All we knew was that he’d been evacuated to Somerset from London during the Blitz. He spent most of the war there, living on a farm.

Dr Fuchs handed me back the photograph and fumbled in the top pocket of his tweed jacket. He drew out an outsize handkerchief and rubbed at his forehead. Sorry, my dear. A touch of the flu, I shouldn’t wonder. It always gets me this time of the year. I see you have almost finished your beer. Would you care to join me in a hot drink?’

As we sipped at our Ovalmaltines, Dr Fuchs explained that as a child he too had gone to stay with his grandparents in the German countryside towards the end of the war. He had very few memories of that time, apart from those he had later constructed for himself from the photographs taken by visiting relatives. It was this subject to which he was returning for his final work: the link between family memories and photography. It was to be his lasting contribution to the field, after having retired from teaching. In several weeks he would join his youngest daughter in New Zealand’s Bay Of Islands, where he hoped to buy a small house which overlooked the ocean.

But now I’d very much like to hear more about your photograph.

There isn’t really a story, I’m afraid.

Dr Fuchs leaned over and patted me on the arm. I will be the judge of that. But please, will you excuse me for one moment. He tapped the side of his nose. I have to pay a visit.

When he returned, his jacket was buttoned up tightly, revealing what looked like the bulge of a tobacco tin or a packet of cigarettes in his inside left pocket. The stairs to the lower deck had obviously overexerted him and he squeezed back into his seat, face flushed, hands trembling slightly.

I explained what I knew of the photograph, but as I talked Dr Fuchs seemed slightly distracted, raising his right hand to his heart, as if assuring himself it was continuing to beat. At one point I stopped and asked if he was feeling alright – I thought I could hear a faint mechanical whirring noise – but he just batted away my concerns and urged me to continue.

And this is more or less the story I told him.

When I was a child I used to beg my father to tell me about the time he’d spent as a young evacuee in the English West country. Eventually he would relent and tell me about collecting newts in jam jars, about raiding birds’ nests for eggs, about hunting for shrapnel in the lanes. As I grew up, he added other tales to his repertoire: the dances in the village hall, drinking scrumpy straight from the farmer’s barrel, shooting rabbits. For some reason I never thought to ask him the name of this wonderful village. To me it was a mythical place of perpetual summer, where hollyhocks and sunflowers towered high above the inhabitants, and children were free to run through woods and fields and lanes. When later I asked my father where this village was, he told me it was near Yeovil. Such an alien-looking name must surely have been that magical place of his boyhood!

After my father died, my mother found some photographs of him hidden in an old leather wallet he had once used. One of the photographs had been taken in Somerset, in the village I assumed to be Yeovil. It wasn’t until I inspected the back of the photograph that I discovered it had been taken in a place called Coker Wood. The name ‘Coker’ niggled at me for days before I thought to check it on the internet. (You have to remember, this was in the late nineties). It was there I came across the Eliot poem, East Coker – part of the Four Quartets – and decided that one day I had to make the pilgrimage.

I waited until this summer so I could travel down by train from Scotland with my mother. It was the day the bombs went off in London: the seventh of July. We had chosen that weekend as it was the local celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, and the East Coker on-line newsletter promised a day of special events ‘commemorating VE and VJ Day’.

East Coker Commemorations

It was a hot day, and as news filtered through about the London bombings the staff at each station became increasingly vigilant. In the end we were unable to leave our suitcases anywhere to break up our journey, and did not stop to look round Bristol as we’d intended. From Yeovil we caught a local bus to East Coker, travelling the way the first evacuees would have come on September 1st, 1939. At the outskirts of Yeovil – to my mind, an unprepossesing market town – a wrought iron signpost (of the kind seldom seen nowadays) pointed us in the direction of East Coker. The bus veered off down a narrow lane which seemed to sink deeper into the surrounding land the further we travelled along it. Snake-like roots of ancient hedgerows protruded from the sandy soil, while above us the canopy shut out most of the late afternoon sun. Then we rounded an unexpected corner and came into the centre of the village: a village that looked as if it should not – could not – belong in the twenty-first century.

From those first impressions (the patriotic red, white and blue bunting strung up across the road between the thatched cottages; the alms houses by the church; the hayricks in the fields) to later, more concrete information (so this is the farm where Dad once lived; this is the hall where he went dancing; this is the church he was forced to attend), 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. And in the heat of the following day, on a sunken footpath which led from the farm through the woods to the old priory, I lay down, head to the cool soil, and heard the drum of distant hooves and the click of mid-summer insects. For those few seconds it felt as if the earth was struggling to gather up the momentum to move backwards, to reveal something to me – until the shouts of children in the playing fields broke through the thick afternoon air.

East Coker -Path

Later that day we finally met Alan Cornelius – the old man who had taken the photograph in the woods on Whitsun Monday over sixty years previously. He was manning one of the stalls in the village hall WW2 exhibition, and his table was a jumble of WW2 paraphernalia: old ration books, bits of home guard uniform, various pieces of ammunition. One part of his collection was dedicated to the story of the relationship between the local children and the evacuees – and amongst the letters and photos we saw our own photograph mounted in a crude wooden frame. And it was then we learnt the story of that day out in the woods. A moment of late childhood, hanging high and free above the dark shadow of the war, but caught like a dragonfly in ether for the dissection of future generations.

The ferry was now negotiating the narrow entrance to the harbour on the Swiss side of the lake. I was anxious not to miss my connecting train home, and made my excuses to Dr Fuchs as I gathered my possessions around me. For a moment he sat completely still, eyes blinking in the bright glare of a sudden shaft of sunlight which broke through the clouds. Then he stood up and left the table with little more than a nod and handshake. It was only then I noticed he had no luggage of his own – save for a small leather shoulder bag.

The last time I saw him was at the Swiss Zoll. I turned to give him a wave but he’d been stopped by one of the customs’ officers and was showing him the contents of his bag. A flash of something metallic caught my eye but I could not afford to dawdle – the local train was already in the port railway station and my husband would be waiting for me at the other end.

*

Since then two more summers have passed, and I have yet to return to East Coker, despite my original intentions. It is almost as if I dare not build further on the foundations of the flimsy house of my memory. Who knows which stone might send the whole edifice tumbling down? And even the lost image of my father’s grinning face – forever framed in Alan Cornelius’ father’s Kodak Brownie – has become almost impossible to recall.

Coker Wood 1944 (3)

In Eliot’s Village

I went to Eliot’s village and stood, quite still,

In a hollow, earthy lane,

Like you might have done

Over sixty years ago now,

When Eliot’s Quartets were fresh and new

And yet to be dissected.

 

The hall, the house, the pub all stand

the woods, the stiles, the awkward paths.

I know you never wanted to return

So I went in your place.

And found a sadder-sweetness there

Amongst the mid-summer haying.

 

Happy New Year! The Incidental Genealogist, January 2018