Author Archives: The Incidental Genealogist

Choice Shards

Much of the approved Thames path, forever negotiating between private and public, opts for the virtual over the actual, thereby spurning the essence of what London has always been about: its river highway. That restless, sediment-heavy movement. The sound and smell of dying centuries. The pre-human gravity. To begin to understand the complexity of migration and settlement, patterns of trade, fashions in architecture, we have to learn to read the hard evidence, as it has been deposited on the foreshore. The impulse is forensic: bones, smoothed corners of brick, masonry nails, coins, relics hidden among gravel and coal bruises to tempt future detectorists and amateur historians. From these fugitive traces past lives can be assembled like novels missing vital chapters. In the golden hour, when the liquid carpet rolls back, we are free to comb and trawl without challenge, to carry home choice shards from which we can almost taste the biographies of those who were here before us.

Iain Sinclair, London in Fragments (Foreword), Ted Sandling (2016)

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will have probably jaloused by now that I prefer to do my research in the field, and will find any excuse to go wandering off around parks and neighbourhoods in search of traces of my ancestors. Sometimes this limitation is enforced upon me as I am often only in London for a weekend, when it is usually not possible to visit the record offices (apart from occasionally for a few hours on a Saturday). In general, though, I like to combine both types of research during my sojourns to the city, taking my cue from the fickle London weather. And so it was that I ended up on a mudlarking expedition one bright morning in early spring, during one of those rare weekends when the temperature in the capital rivalled that of Athens and the attractions of the city were laid out before me like a particularly ravishing picnic.

First up on that metaphorical blanket of goodies was a Bankside mudlarking trip run by London Walks, one of my favourite guiding companies (I am trying to work my way through their portfolio, joining all the walks that have any connection to my genealogical quest). I had never been in the capital on a weekend which coincided with one of their popular mudlarking expeditions, such walks being restricted to a combination of low tides, weekend dates and the availability of their resident archaeologist. But on this Saturday in March there was a serendipitous collision of these factors, with the sunshine thrown in to boot, and as I waited at Monument Station for our guide, alongside the miscellany of other ingénue mudlarkers, I felt a happy wave of anticipation course through me. (Apart from the moment when I had a quick apprehensive re-reading of the walk’s description as rubber-booted families popped out from the underground carrying metal detectors and bulging rucksacks).

Mudlarking as a modern activity (as opposed to its unfortunate historical counterpart) had always appealed to me. Whenever I had followed the Thames path at low tide (particularly on the south bank of the river) I had always spotted people poking about on the exposed foreshore, either absent-mindedly or with the intense concentration of the serious artefact hunter. And when I first visited the Thames-side neighbourhood of Horsleydown and descended the old waterman’s steps to the river (see The Tailor of Horsleydown) I automatically started searching about in the stones and mud for some long-forgotten sign that my ancestors had once lived in the vicinity. I pocketed a piece of willow-pattern pottery that I imagined could have been part of a bowl from my great-great grandfather’s cramped kitchen at the back of the brick 18th century house in nearby Horsleydown Lane. Had his first wife, Sarah Vaughan, used such crockery in the 1830s, or was this just wishful thinking and I was in fact woefully inaccurate with my historical knowledge of porcelain dating? More strangely, on the unprepossessing foreshore there was also a scattering of strange fingers of pale white stone with dark shiny interiors. They almost looked as if they could have once been prehistoric tools of some sort, and I knew that I needed to find out more about what was in this muddy treasure trove.

Later I discovered that what I and most of those waterside ramblers were doing on the riverbank was called mudlarking – searching for historical ‘artefacts’ that were regularly exposed by the fast-flowing tidal Thames. Some of those engaged in the activity seemed to take their efforts extremely seriously, using metal detectors and spades, not to mention sporting rubber waders and gloves. Others with cameras and smart-casual city clothes looked as if they had accidently ended up close to the water, but while there could not resist the lure of the objects which protruded at their feet as they picked their way along the exposed strips of riverside.

The mudlarking expedition I joined was unsurprisingly a popular one, and thankfully the detectorists were soon dissuaded from the notion of digging for buried treasure: we were told that an approved license was needed for such activity, and even then there was restrictions to where it could be carried out. That explained why I had always seen the professional-looking mudlarks on the north shore, whereas the incidental day-tripping types were mostly to be found on the accessible beach in Bankside below the Tate Modern.

However, those spontaneous tourist mudlarkers were not entirely wrong with their instinctive choice of location. Our archaeologist guide, Fiona, pointed out that there were rich pickings to be had at this site due to its proximity to the old industries which had lined this stretch of the river. Not only were there the remains of boat building (nails and other iron artefacts), but there were also lumps of molten glass which had come from the glassworks further upstream towards Blackfriars, and fragments from the Lambeth potteries. And that was before the ubiquitous clay pipe stems, red terracotta roof tiles, ancient animal bones, discarded oyster shells, and other by-products of several centuries of London life.

Once Fiona had given us a basic introduction to the role of the river, and Bankside in particular, she issued us with plastic bags and latex gloves, along with strict instructions to scrub our hands clean afterwards to guard against the possibilty of catching Weil’s disease (a bacterial infection transmitted by rats). Then the mudlarking code of conduct was pointed out – essentially common sense – and we were let loose on the foreshore. There was a fun, competitive spirit among the group as we each tried to outdo each other with our finds. Fiona stood in a prominent part of the beach, and we were at liberty to approach her with anything interesting we found – in particular those items which seemed unusual and which we had problems identifying ourselves.

I soon realised that to gain the most from the session, it would make more sense to curtail my searching relatively quickly and focus instead on listening to the explanations of the findings of the group (most who presented them to Fiona with an endearing child-like enthusiasm and desire to impress). That way, I figured I would learn more about the artefacts in the mud and be better equipped for future solo mudlarking expeditions, particularly around Horsleydown, a place to which I was keen to return with my new-found knowledge.

And so I came to learn the difference between Victorian terracotta roof tiles (a small nail hole) and ones from earlier generations (a larger hole for a wooden peg). Many of these Tudor peg-tiles had been dumped into the Thames during the rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire, and Fiona enthused us all by explaining that it was  even possible to find ones still with the scorch marks of the flames upon them. I learnt that clay pipes were discarded almost like cigarette butts are today, but that to find one with both the stem and bowl intact was rare. I learnt, too, that the long white fingers of stone with the shiny dark interiors  that had so puzzled me on my trip to the foreshore at Horsleydown Old Stairs were actually nodules of flint which came from the chalk downs up river. In fact, many fragments of flint found in the Thames have been naturally flaked by their movement downstream and may resemble prehistoric tools to the untrained eye.

TILES (2)

PIPES (2)

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FLINTS

My Finds: (1) Tiles (2) Clay Pipe Stems (3) Bones & Shells (4) Flint

As the morning wore on I could see how, as a professional archaeologist, Fiona had to strike a tricky balance between imparting her enthusiasm for mudlarking with tempering the group’s urge to gather all and sundry without regard to the long-term effects of over-collecting. She encouraged us to search selectively, patiently re-explaining why we were not to dig around in the mud, even if we could see part of an exposed artefact (objects must be able to be picked up from the surface), and took some of our more important finds away to be catalogued, making sure they would eventually be returned to their ’owners’. These included an intact clay pipe from the 17th century, and some Victorian railway crockery to mark the Golden Jubilee. Fiona also explained how any rare pre-1700 finds should be reported to the Museum of London to be catalogued. (Even if it turns out that they are, in fact, neither rare or old, and it has purely been wishful thinking on the part of the collector).

Shortly after the mudlarking expedition finished and everyone started stowing away their plastic bags of finds and drifting off for lunch, I rushed along the south bank to Horsleydown Old Stairs to try to reach the foreshore before the tide came in, longing to search there now that I had a better idea of what I was looking for. And although it was certainly more interesting to scour the debris at my feet with all the new information I’d acquired, my search did not yield anything particularly exciting. Certainly the Bankside area had been more forthcoming in giving up its watery (muddy?) secrets.

HORSLEYDOWN OLD STAIRS.JPG

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HORSLEYDOWN_FORESHORE (2).JPGHorsleydown Old Steps and Foreshore

I must confess that I felt quite deflated at my lack of success, and hunger and high tide drove me up Horsleydown Lane to The Anchor Tap (the local pub my ancestors would have been familiar with). Over a cold pint I thought about the architectural interloper of Tower Bridge arriving slap bang in the middle of the neighbourhood, centuries after it had been established, and all the dredging and filling in and general destruction to the river bank the building of the bridge had necessitated. On the mudlarking trip we had learnt about the damage that the construction of the Millenium Bridge had done to the nearby riverside, resulting in loss of areas of potential interest to archaeologists. Every new bridge across the Thames has wreaked a certain degree of havoc on the river bank and changed the flow of the water in some way.

I vowed to make mudlarking an integral part of any subsequent fairweather London trips (tides permitting) – particulary on the foreshore at the foot of  Horsleydown Old Stairs in the hope I might eventually discover something that might link back to my ancestors’ lives in the neighbourhood. Access to the river is not as common as it once was – from the numerous watermen’s stairs that lined the banks of the river there are only a few that still exist, (and which are protected from future destruction) – and it always seems a miracle to me that Horsleydown Old Stairs are still there, particularly given their close proximity to Tower Bridge. Every time I descend the tricky steps to the river, I thrill to the fact that my ancestors would have walked this same way, and feel as I am connecting with those riverside Skeltons who went before me.

As both Iain Sinclair and Ted Sandling point out in London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures, it can sometimes seem almost like trespassing when you descend to the river, away from the hurly-burly of the surrounding crowds, and reconnect with the vast watery highway that both links and divides London. And being able to spontaneously collect the remains of the activities of past Londoners feels like a very special privilege. As Sinclair points out: The practice of strolling and stooping turning over likely stones with boots poulticed in noxious slop, is one of the surviving liberties of the city.   

Yet it would seem as if this liberty is currently under threat, as new guidlines from the Port of London Authority (here) appear to indicate that from 2017 even picking up exposed items will now need a mudlarking licence due to the increase in the number of people collecting on the foreshore. A past-time formerly associated with only  a few ‘eccentrics’ has now become a fast-growing hobby – perhaps through the democratic spread of information, and the tantalising images on the internet of the artefacts that can be found through a combination of luck, patience and know-how. 

But whatever your thoughts are on the matter (and there are clearly arguments for and against the new restrictions), there is no doubt that the original 19th century (and earlier) practice of mudlarking seems horrific to our modern sensibilities. Those who had no other employment opportunities (mostly the very young and the very old) would take to the river in search of anything they could find to sell on: usually lumps of coal, scraps of iron, wood or bone. It was a hand-to-mouth existence in conditions that are unimaginable to us today.

When Henry Mayhew interviewed young mudlarks at one of the watermen’s stairs near the Pool of London in the 1840s, he remarked in London Labour and the London Poor that: It would be almost impossible to describe  the wretched group, so motley was their appearance, so extraordinary their dress, and so stolid and impressive their countenances. He describes the experiences of one juvenile mudlark as such: At first he found it difficult to keep his footing in the mud, and he had known many beginners fall in. He came to my house, at my request, the morrning after my first meeting with him. It was the depth of winter, and the poor little fellow was nearly destitute of clothing. His trousers were worn away up to his knees, he had no shirt, and his legs and feet (which were bare) were covered with chilblains. And not only was this affliction  part and parcel of the perilous life on the edge of the river, but Mayhew later mentions that: The lad suffered much from the pieces of broken glass in the mud. Some little time before I met with him he had run a copper nail into his foot. This lamed him for three months, and his mother was obliged to carry him on her back every morning to the doctor. As soon, however, as he could ‘hobble’ (to use his mother’s own words) he went back to the river, and often returned (after many hours’ hard work in the mud) with only a few pieces of coal, not enough to sell even to get them a bit of bread.

THE MUDLARK

For my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, and his family, the presence of mudlarks congregating at certain points in the river would have been a fact of life. I do not know what James thought about the poverty which was endemic in London at that time, but I like to think that his second marriage to Mary Ann Hawkins (see When I Grow Rich) showed him to be someone who believed in equality and the fairer distribution of wealth. His own beginnings in North Yorkshire in the early 1800s would indicate that he knew about hardship and the precariousness of existence in 19th century England. And however much it might be exciting to find a piece of plate or pottery or glass from the quarter century period that James spent living and working as a tailor in Horsleydown Lane (perhaps even an actual fragment from some of those objects itemised in his Sun Fire Insurance documents – see Where There’s a Will . . . and the Sun), there is no escaping from the truth of the matter that these ‘choice shards’ will never tell us what this man thought or felt as an individual. And so, like so much of genealogical research, we are pulled tantalisingly close only to be pushed away again by the impossibility of our task.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2017

P.S. Those wishing to find out more about modern mudlarking can access the plethora of information on the web devoted to the subject, with the colourful website of Thames and Field being a particularly interesting (and eccentric) one to peruse.

 

Writing Down the Past

At its best, family history is a trespasser, disregarding the boundaries between local and national, private and public, and ignoring the hedges around fields of a academic study; taking us by surprise into unknown worlds.

Alison Light, Common People: The History of an English Family, (2014)

Later this month I will be holding a creative writing workshop in Switzerland (where I currently live and work) for teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL). The aim of this half-day workshop is to show teachers how they can use creative writing exercises in their EFL classes in order to encourage their students to take risks with the new language and to personalise it, thereby fostering a sense of ownership and increased confidence in the use of English. The teaching material is designed to be adapted for different levels of language ability, although the workshop will be aimed at native speakers. This is to allow the teachers to experience the activities as learners themselves, enabling them  to tap in to their own creative wellspring.

My interest in family history and the demographic of the group makes it an obvious choice of topic for some of the exercises. For that reason I decided to focus this month‘s post on the different ways in which family history research and creative writing can be combined. To this end, I have adapted some of the activities used in the workshop to focus solely on family history.  These exercises may be of interest to other writers and teachers*, as well as those who would like some creative inspiration to help them write their own family history.

*I use this term broadly as it may include teachers of others subject, such as social history.

Family Photographs

I have touched on the role of photographs in family research in an earlier post (see Those Ghostly Traces), in particular in relation to Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. Both these important texts about photography attempt to get to the essence of what it means to take photographs and be photographed; to collect photographs and use photographs to document events and lives, as well as shape and frame (reframe?) memory. As Sontag points out: What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Photographs of people are an obvious choice for teaching material as there is a wide variety of activities which can be used in conjunction with images, from simple descriptive vocabulary to complex character bios, to investigating historical details. If students can bring in copies of a selection of their own family photographs, then the activity takes on a more personal and meaningful nature. Naturally, this topic needs to be handled sensitively, but discovering more about the backgrounds of the other students generally increases both cohesion and respectfulness of differences within the group.

A series of photographs in chronological order can be used to create an interesting narrative, such as the ones I have of my English grandmother, Edie, which cover 70 years of her life (see I Remember, I Remember). This makes an ideal longer project and could be used as the basis of a short biography. To illustrate this, I usually print out a selection of my own photographs on good quality A4 paper and insert them into plastic pockets. This allows them to be handled and prevents them from being regarded as  ‘too precious’. The images* (below) illustrate the relationship of my  own grandmother with her beloved oldest brother Tom, before and after the Great War. Such a series could create a jumping off point for a number of activities. *All photographs courtesy of Tom’s grand-daughter, Margaret Andrews.

Tom,_Fred_and_Edith_with_mother_1909_'Taken_soon_after_Father_died' (3)After Father Died c1905: Edie and Tom, with Fred and Harriet

Thomas_and_Edith_with_mother_Harriett_'Before_going_to_the_War' (2)

Before Going to War in 1915: Edie and Tom with Harriet

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Tom’s Marriage in 1917: Edie (back centre) is bridesmaid 

Postcards from the Past

For family historians, historical postcards can be an important research tool. In a teaching situation, copies of the original can be made, or postcards can be mocked up from images in magazines or on the internet. Using such images in a creative way can be a powerful way to attempt to see the world as our ancestors did. For example, postcards of places that family members visited on holiday, or where they lived, can be used as a stimulus to write to someone else in the character of a particular family member. The image I have of Kennington Park in its hey-day is one that helps me to imagine how it might feel to have visited the place at the time my ancestors lived nearby – the gardens being such a contrast to the dull streets and factories of their neighbourhood on the other (wrong?) side of the park (see A Tale of Two Parks).

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Postcard of Kennington Park c1900 (purchased on ebay)

This activity could even be expanded to include postcards of people (ancestors or important figures of the time), such as the old Rotary ones of actors which can be picked up cheaply on the internet. I am currently amassing quite a collection of images of my Edwardian actor ancestor, Herbert Sleath and his actress wife, Ellis Jeffreys, and every so often purchase a used one where the writer might allude to the image on the front. I have even come across cards the couple sent to friends, and particularly relish one where Herbert appears to be arranging a secret rendezvous with another woman (written in shorthand) –  a reminder of  the days when the frequency of the postal service almost resembled the speed of texts and emails. Writing a ‘secret postcard’ could certainly add spice to this exercise. This activity could be expanded to write letters and diary entries in the character of an ancestor.

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Did Herbert Sleath write this postcard (27/2/1908) himself?

Secret Thought Bubbles

Continuing with the topic of secrecy, the first two activities lead naturally on to one where copies of portraits and paintings of people (usually reproduced on postcards) are distributed to the students, who then have to write a ficticious ‘thought bubble’ for the person (or one of the people) depicted. It is interesting to then separate the writing from the images and ask the other students to try to match the ‘thought bubbles’ to the pictures. This is an activity I aim to do for the two portraits I have of the child prodigy actor, William Robert Grossmith (see Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans), stimulated by the discussion that the Sunderland schoolchildren had on the Shakespeare on Tour website (here) when speculating on his life. Obviously, this activity could be extended to include family photographs. I would also like to write thought bubbles for all the members of my family in the Skelton wedding photograph in the banner image above (reproduced in full below). I often wonder what little Peter at the front was thinking of the whole event.

Marriage_Edith_Stops-Sidney_SkeltonNEW (2)My Grandparents’ Wedding, London, 1923 (c) M. Andrews

Bringing the Past to Life

A couple of years ago I stumbled across these two silent film clips from the Mitchell and Kenyon collection of Local Films for Local People (now in the British Film Institute) which have been enhanced and set to a very evocative score. Whenever I feel a little lost for inspiration, or wonder if my genealogical quest is a worthwhile one, then I only have to watch these short films again to restore my faith in the value of my project. Such a clip can obviously be used in a myriad of ways in the classroom: from chosing to write about one of the people who appear in the film to creating descriptions and narratives (as well as ‘secret thought bubbles’). But perhaps more importantly, most people never fail to be moved by the lively scenes unfolding in front of their eyes, knowing as they gaze upon the curious and open faces that flit across the screen that not one of the population depicted in the film will be alive today. It is a sobering thought, but one that should spur us to action to make the most of the opportunities we have today to document the past lives of our ancestors.

Music of the Past

Although the video above is set to contemporary music (Chanson du Soir and Arco Noir from Richard Harvey’s Strings of Sorrow album), both tracks evoke the poignancy of the lost Edwardian world unveiled to us through the uncanny time machine of technology, and the music greatly enhances the viewing experience. Music in general can be made to stimulate ideas for writing and undertaking timed writing activities to various tracks is another way to unleash creativity. I often find I am drawn to listening to the music of the period about which I am writing: for example, The Lark Ascending  by Vaughan Williams is one which is I find  particularly inspiring when writing about the period set around the Great War.

 The Things They Left Behind

Personal objects are an obvious way to build up a character bio. For example, writing a description of a person from a number of items that they  carry around in their (hand)bag. This could include both something humdrum (e.g. a monogrammed handkerchief) and esoteric (e.g. an amulet). When my Scottish grandmother died and the flat in the sheltered house where she had lived for the last twenty years of her life was being cleared out, a strange crumpled little doll was discovered in her bedside table inside an out-dated Scottish Bluebell matchbox. I could not understand why she would have wanted to keep such a creepy-looking thing close by (particularly as so much had already been discarded when she made the move into sheltered accommodation) until my mother realised that it had been the decorative doll on her christening cake, over 60 years earlier. Such an object (and its discovery) certainly lends itself to a piece of descriptive writing.

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Miniature Doll from my Mother’s Christening Cake

What would they have said?

It is interesting exercise to attempt to recreate the conversations that our ancestors might have had with each other (and also with those outwith the family), particularly at pivotal moments in their lives. One day, while stuck for inspiration trying to imagine the lives of James William Skelton’s and Emma Sleath’s three children – the Sleath-Skeltons, who were born into a different class and lifestyle than any of the Skeltons who had come before them and any to come since – I wrote out a conversation the three of them might have had with each other as they took a walk round Hyde Park to discuss a matter of family importance. It was a tricky exercise that yielded up ideas that might have otherwise been rejected. And a reminder that even if the result  never made it further than some lines on a piece of scrap paper, it still lodged itself somewhere in the imagination, sending out little shoots and tendrils of inspiration at unexpected moments.

Memories, Memories, Memories

Perhaps the most obvious – and powerful – type of creative writing exercise involves working with personal memories, however imperfect they may be. An exercise that worked well in a workshop I once attended is to imagine your grandparents’ old house while walking through it as a child, using all the senses as you do so. After this silent ‘meditation’ there is a timed exercise to put these recollections down on paper. Although the writing is often rough and ready, the raw material can later be worked on to come out with a memory that feels authentic, and which may unleash other reminiscences in its wake.

A similar exercise I undertook at another workshop is to write a description of  a childhood incident  in the 1st person, then once the piece is complete to pass it to another student to rewrite in the 3rd person – the other writer being ‘given permission’ to change some of the details if need be, usually naturally forming it into a tighter narrative in the process. This is a fascinating exercise on many levels, and it is particularly interesting to reread ‘your’ memory when rewritten as a short story, blurring the distinction between fact and fiction, something which can really lift a piece of writing. However, this exercise works best if you are not aware of what will happen to the text in the second part of the workshop!

The final ‘memory exercise ‘I would like to describe is one which returns to the initial theme of family photographs, and is from a practice called memory work that aims to bring to light repressed memories (and is thus a more private and personal exercise). As Annette Kuhn points out in her book Family Secrets: Anyone who has a family photograph that exerts an engimatic fascination  or arouses an explicable depth of emotion could find memory work rewarding.

The basic idea is to take such an image and start to describe it, moving from the obvious external cues to taking up the position of the subject (using the 3rd person), and attempting to bring out the feelings that may have been associated with the photograph. At the same time the context of the photograph should also be given consideration. So questions should be asked about why it was taken, where and by whom etc. In addition, attention should be paid to the technology used as well as the photographic conventions of the time. These guidelines stem from the work of artists Rosy Martin and Jo Spence, and encourage those undertaking memory work to be more critical and questioning of their lives and those of others. I have also found it also interesting to do this with other family members who may or may not also be in the photograph.

For myself I always feel strangely sad when I look at photographs of myself with my grandfather, Sidney Skelton (whose harsh beginnings I have written about in Of Lost Toys and Mothers). I never felt quite at ease when I was with him: I often could not understand his strange Cockney accent; his abrupt nature was disconcerting to me; his habit of permanently smoking strange-smelling roll-ups was off-putting to a young child. When I look at the picture (below) taken of us together at Ayr beach in the 1960s, I know that I am aware I have to pretend to love this taciturn English grandfather of mine as this is what is expected of me. Yet he is a stranger to me. And when he died when I was about ten (my first experience of the death of a grandparent) the only emotion I felt was a terrible sense of guilt that I was not able to be sad (wondering if that meant I would always be incapable of experiencing true grief).

397 (3)With my grandfather, Sidney Skelton, Ayr c1967

But after recently enlarging the photograph to investigate it further, I could see there was more going on in the image than I had initially thought: the (most likely) painful burns on limbs which had been left unprotected from the sun (normal at that time), the small rag/towel that I am clutching for some reason – could it be to dry my feet? Suddenly I remember that I did not like going barefoot at Ayr seaside as the pink road between the beach and the low green was covered with a layer of very tiny sharp stones – but maybe Grandad had carried me over and deposited me on the low wall. So perhaps I am being too hard on myself, and there is no need to blame my miserable looking countenance solely on my grandfather (who most likely treasured the few occasions that he spent with his Scottish grandchildren). And I think about my father who might have found this photograph charming: his elderly father and first child, together in what was a typical family pose – although it does not seem to come naturally to Sidney, despite the fact that he looks happier than he does in other photographs from that time.

Later I discovered that the image was just one of a series taken on the same summer day at Ayr beach in 1967 (hard to believe this is half a century ago already!) I am currently arranging them into chronological order in an attempt to trigger more memories from that day at the beach, a fascinating experience that is yielding even more insights about this long-forgotten time in my life.

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The Incidental Genealogist, May 2017

 

 

Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans

It is an undeniable fact that the number of amputations performed in this and other countries has been greatly augmented of late years, attributable no doubt to the numerous accidents occasioned by the increasing use of Machinery and Steam power in all departments. This circumstance, in conjunction with the casualties of the late war, have caused the subject to be prominently before the notice of the medical profession.

William Robert Grossmith, Amputations and Artificial Limbs, (1857)

Sleath Shop

Trade Card for Sleath’s Improvements, 18th C (c)Fitzwilliam Museum

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Advertising Feature for Sleath & Jackson, c1800 (c)British Museum

When Emma Sleath married James William Skelton on 21st Nov 1866 at St Giles Church, Camberwell, at the age of thirty, she may well have been relieved to be finally leaving her family to marry such an eligble bachelor. A successful West India merchant who had grown rich through trading in mahogany (see A Tale of Exploitation), James William was a respectable decade older than Emma, as well as having a substantial home on the outskirts of London – Westle House in Moreland Road, Croydon. Whether Emma knew about his British Honduran daughter, whom he’d fathered while establishing his business out in the Caribbean, is open to question.  With three decades already behind her, Emma would not have been naïve in the ways of the world, and had possibly already resigned herself to the fact that marrying an older successful man necessitated accepting some sort of baggage. Of course, she may even have been delighted at the thought of becoming a step-mother and had perhaps already established a good relationship with the teenage Louisa Arabella. Yet what can often be an emotionally fraught situation today, would no doubt have created the same conflicts for the Victorians – particularly when it came to the issue of illegitimacy. But having witnessed her father’s early death and her mother’s fast re-marriage, followed by the birth of two half-siblings, Emma would possibly have accepted this situation as an inescapable part of life in the mid-nineteenth century (where death was always lurking close by).

Emma’s Father, John Henry Sleath, had died suddenly of apoplexy (cerberal haemorrhage) in early 1843 at the age of forty-five, when Emma was just six. Only several months after this tragic event, her mother quickly, and perhaps rather sensibly, went on to marry her late husband’s younger business partner, William Robert Grossmith. The Sleath family had established their successful business in Fleet Street a century earlier, when they had grown wealthy through supplying trusses and artificial body parts to the Georgian Court and high-ranking military. What the Sleaths (and their business partners) had learned to excel at over the years was the mechanics of creating life-like and moveable prosthetic limbs, an invention which Emma’s stepfather continued to develop further. In fact, so well-respected was Wiliam Grossmith that in 1856 he published a book on the subject: Amputations and Artificial Limbs (or Grossmith on Amputations, Artificial Legs, Hands &c.) Surprisingly, this was not the first book to which his name was attached – in 1827, shortly before his ninth birthday, the ‘memoir’ of his life as a prodigy child actor was published. Entitled The Life and Theatrical Excursions of William Robert Grossmith the Juvenile Actor, not yet nine years of age, this book followed on from a shorter pamphlet, published in 1825, with the title The Life of the Celebrated Infant Roscius, Master Grossmith of Reading, Berks, only seven years and a quarter old.

Although William Robert Grossmith is a very tenuous connection to the Skelton Family (not only was he Emma Sleath’s step-father, but Emma herself is not a blood relative), he is, nevertheless, an important one in the history of the Sleath-Skeltons. His early success on the stage and his theatrical connections can be claimed to be one of the influences on Emma’s youngest son, the Edwardian actor-producer, Herbert Sleath-Skelton – who often went by the stage name of Herbert Sleath. (More about this colourful character in a future post). William Robert Grossmith was a relatively famous child actor in the 1820s, and deemed to be ‘the Infant Roscius’ of his time. His younger brother, Benjamin Grossmith, also went on to follow him on the stage at a very early age. This was towards the tail end of the hey-day of the Georgian child prodigy actor (which included young girls), the most famous being Master Betty, or William Henry West Betty, said to be the original ‘infant Roscius’ – Roscius being a term once used to describe an actor of outstanding talent (after the famous Roman actor, Quintus Roscius), but which may be unfamiliar to readers today.

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William Grossmith in various acting roles c1825 (c)British Museum

And if this was not enough to excite a humble family historian such as myself, I discovered that William and Benjamin Grossmith had an even  younger brother who also had a gift for impersonation  – George Grossmith I. Not only would he become the father of George Grossmith II (who had a famous son, George Grossmith III, hence the numbers) and his younger brother Weedon but he was said to be a talented and humorous solo performer in his own right. His sons later said that their father would leave his family in London for several months of the year in order to tour the country with his entertaining literary ‘lectures’, a task he was somehow able to combine with his day job as criminal court reporter for The Times (a role which George II eventually took over). His famous sons, George and Weedon Grossmith, went on to become successful and multi-talented actors, producers, writers and artists, and are perhaps best remembered today for their illustrated (and very funny) book The Diary of a Nobody, first published in 1892.

As you might imagine, the discovery of this connection to the  famous Grossmith Family left me elated. As a teenager I had watched the 1979 BBC adaption of ‘The Diary’, although it was my younger sister who owned a copy  of the book (being more interested in social history at that time), and who was particularly taken with the story of the trials and tribulations of the deludedly aspirational Pooter family of Holloway. The Grossmith brothers had themselves grown up in a very different household to the fictional characters they lampooned. Theirs was a very middle-class Bohemiam upbringing where famous actors of the day, including Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, were regular guests to the family home, alongside prominent literary figures, such as George Sala.

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George Grossmith I

Diary of a Nobody

Weedon Grossmith and George Grossmith II (and ‘The Diary‘)

What was perhaps even more surprising to discover was that Evelyn Waugh’s father, Arthur – who professed ‘The Diary’ to be one of his favourite books – would often read out extracts to his sons during the frequent evening theatrical reading sessions in his study. Those readers who have followed my genealogical quest from its beginning (see Begin Again) will know that it was the documentary, Fathers and Sons, (and Alexander Waugh’s accompanying book) about the male line of the literary Waugh family that first re-ignited my interest in returning to research my own family history. So it was with a certain sense of satisfaction that I learnt of this coincidence.

Indeed, in 1930 Evelyn Waugh went so far as to make the following observations on the Grossmiths’ book in the Daily Mail newspaper: I still think that the funniest book in the world is Grossmith’s (sic) Diary of A Nobody. If only people would really keep journals like that. Nobody wants to read other people’s reflections on life and religon and politics, but the routine of their day, properly recorded, is always interesting, and will become more so as conditions change with the years.

The Australian academic, Peter Morton, suggests that Waugh not only identified with the Pooters’ wayward but ‘modern’ socially climbing son, Lupin, but could see in Mr and Mrs Pooter the petit bourgeois sensibilities of his own parents (from which, just like Lupin, he wished to escape). It would appear that in later life Waugh made an extensive study of the diary, comparing it with the original series published in the Magazine Punch from 1888 to 89. This was after receiving a copy from his mother at Christmas in 1946 – something that may have been prompted by his mention of the diary in his recently published novel, Brideshead Revisited (where Lady Marchmain reads extracts to her family).

But our story of the Grossmiths, like Alexander Waugh’s investigation into his family, begins with an earlier generation: namely with the prodigous talents of Emma’s stepfather, William Robert Grossmith (uncle to the more famous Grossmiths who succeeded him). Born in Reading in 1816 (although said to be born in 1818!), William  was the oldest son of a Looking-Glass and Picture Frame Manufacturer (that very title conjuring up the Victorian mysticism of Alice and her adventures). As an infant William seemingly already showed great talent for memory and impersonation, and a visit to the local theatre at age six seemed to have left an impression on him. Thereafter he began to learn theatrical songs off by heart, showing aptitude for singing tunes by ear. When his father introduced him to Charles Kemble, an actor and the manager of Convent Garden Theatre, Kemble described the young Grossmith as the greatest theatrical prodigy he had ever met with and advised the elder Grossmith to first try him on the boards of one of the minor theatres.

After success in 1824 at the Royal Cobourg/Coburg Theatre in Southwark (now The Old Vic) performing several popular comic songs of the age – an opportunity which which came about due to an introduction to James Jones*, the theatre’s founder – young William withdrew from the stage at the behest of his mother, who was concerned about the effect acting  might have on his moral development. However, shortly afterwards  this bright and inquistive child encountered the works of Shakespeare, and began to learn to recite whole plays, all the while displaying a full range of adult emotions. His particular favourite was Richard III, and so it came to pass that several months after ‘retiring’,  the Infant Roscius was back at the Cobourg, acting out scenes from this play to a rapturous audience, as well as playing to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre for one week (after being offered a more lucrative contract by the Manager). *The first book to describe William’s juvenile career (in 1825) was dedicated to James Jones who has since honoured him with the title of his ADOPTED CHILD.

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Contemporary external and internal views of the Royal Cobourg

Although Mrs Grossmith continued to try to thwart the attempts of those who were keen to put William on the stage, after a short while the Grossmiths were eventually persuaded to allow their son to give a full evening performance at their local theatre – an event which consisted of short acts featuring different Shakespearian characters, interspersed with comic songs. So impressed were the Reading audiences with the young Grossmith that William and his father eventually set off on a tour of the provinces, along with an elaborate portable stage which had been specially constructed to accomodate the boy’s small size. William even found time to give a private performance to the Princess Augusta at her home in Frogmore Lodge, Windsor, as well as to perform at the Chertsey residence of Mrs Fox (Elizabeth Armistead) – the elderly widow of Charles James Fox, the famous Whig politician, and a controversial figure who in her youth had also appeared on the stage.

Hancock, G.; William Robert Grossmith (1818-1899), as Richard in 'Richard III' by William Shakespeare

William Grossmith as Richard III in the Tent Scene (c)V & A Museum

The childhood memoirs of young William draw to a close in 1827 with the grand announcement that the New Argyle-Rooms (off Regent Street) in London are booked for his appearance during the upcoming season, in an attempt to woo the fickle West End audiences. Thus the booklet ends on this positive note for William’s future success: . . . it may be confidently predicted, that, whether our very youthful actor should stop short at the point of histrionic excellence he has already reached, or whether ( . . .) he will be too conspicuous and remarkable not be generally observed, and his beams too pure and splendid not to be constantly admired.

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However, by 1830 not only had the New Argyll Rooms ceased to exist, having burnt down in a fire, but with William now an adolescent (the playbill appears to have taken some liberties with William’s real age), his ‘Farewell Tour’ had already been announced (see playbill above). The playbill (below) of the following year ushers in the new infant prodigy: William’s younger brother, Benjamin Who is now but five years and four months old. However,  it is interesting to note that a later newspaper advertisement from 1833 indicates that the two Grossmith brothers are still occasionally acting together, so perhaps it was not quite as easy for the teenage William to relinquish his fame (and fortune). And in fact a further discovery (while making a final edit to this chapter) showed that the two brothers had indeed continued to act together throughout the 1830s, touring Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland, albeit with William still having the lesser role.

2014HD7965_2500 (2)Playbill feat. Grossmith brothers, 1831 (c)V & A Museum, London

Roscius

The young William’s slip from top billing is perhaps unsurprising. In the history of the theatre, very few juvenile actors have ever enjoyed the same level of success as adults – to wit, the young Master Betty, who gave up acting when he went up to Cambridge at seventeen, but after an unsuccessful comeback was forced to retire at twenty and live from the wealth he had accumulated in his youth. Perhaps our William was lucky in that from an early age he also showed a great interest in things of a scientific nature. In the latter biography of his childhood  it is remarked that during his country-wide tours he would often collect fossils in his free time, and when visiting the north of England it was reported that: Nothing in this quarter engaged the boy’s attention so much as the mode of weaving cotton by the vast powers of steam, so multifarious in its application. Two years earlier, in 1825, the writer of his first biography also mentioned that, alongside his powers of mimicry, a genius for poetry and song, and appreciation of art and architecture, the young William is equally as curious in scientific and mechanical acquirements. He views minutely all kinds of machinery, he enquires and examines into its nature, its use, and its properties; a mere cursory inspection will neither gratify his senses, nor satisfy his enquiring mind; everything must have its explanation, for he observes, “everything has its use”.

Although William Robert Grossmith was obviously interested in things of a mechanical nature, we  do not know how his conversion from child actor to mechanical surgeon was achieved: most likely he took up some course of study or apprenticeship in his teens, which he may have combined with intermittent touring. Unsurprisingly, it would seem that Emma’s stepfather showed the same sort of devotion to the craft of creating artificial limbs as he previously did to stage acting. In the book describing this successful second career, published when he was but thirty-nine, (after fourteen years of running the business – and of marriage to Emma’s mother), he outlines at great length how to construct the perfect limb for different types of injuries. Although it makes for slightly gruesome reading, it is fascinating to note (from the case histories of past patients) how many people at that time lost limbs in the employ of the new steam railways – in addition to those that were amputated due to illness (often in childhood) and riding accidents. As Grossmith himself points out: It is an undeniable fact that the number of amputations performed in this and other countries has been greatly augmented of late years, attributable no doubt to the numerous accidents occasioned by the increasing use of Machinery and Steam power in all departments. This circumstance, in conjunction with the casualties of the late war*, have caused the subject to be brought prominently before the notice of the medical profession. * The Crimean War

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Artificial leg by William Grossmith (c) Science Museum, London

Artificial_left_arm_Wellcome_L0037165Artificial Arm, by William Grossmith (c) Wellcome Collection, London

In 1856, William Robert Grossmith was granted Freedom of the City of London by redemption (meaning that he possibly paid  for the privilege). However, by the mid-nineteenth century the advantages to being a Freeman were not as great as they had once  been, and perhaps William was more concerned about the status this honour would confer on him than anything else. In the frontispiece to his book on amputations, he dedicates the work to William Lawrence, president of the Royal College of Surgeon’s and a leading opthalmic surgeon of the time, who also treated Queen Victoria (and was made a Serjeant Surgeon, or surgeon of the royal household). In this dedication, Grossmith mentions the many patients which this eminent surgeon had sent to his business in Fleet Street, and praises him for his promotion of the advancement of the Industrial Arts. So it is perhaps while writing the book that he decided to apply for the Freedom of the City, an act which he may have reasoned would eventually lead to more professional kudos.

Not only did William Grossmith win the medal for artificial eyes at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, but accolades followed from several other international exhibitions, including the Great Industrial Exhibition in Dublin in 1853, and the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855, where Grossmith won medals for his artificial limbs. These awards were always  mentioned in the frequent advertisements for the business which appeared in the regular newspapers of the day.

After William died in 1899, one year after his step-daughter Emma, the business survived well into the 20th century with the name W. R. Grossmith Ltd intact. Before William’s death the company had already moved its premises to 110 the Strand, then later round the corner to 12 Burleigh Street. Unfortunately, William’s immediate successor to the business – his son, William  Benjamin – had died almost twenty years previously at the age of 30 (while working for the company), and William Grossmith’s step-son John Henry Sleath (Emma’s older brother), who had initially been apprenticed to the business as a Surgical Mechanist, had eventually taken a different professional direction. (His other step-son, George Sleath, who had worked for the business had unfortunately also died relatively young). And when William made his will in 1887, he had still not specified who would take over the company on his death – mentioning a codicil he intended to make to clarify this. This was, however, never written and it has so far proven impossible to find out what happened to the firm after William’s demise. I am, however, convinced that such an astute business man would have organised his succession planning before his death at the age of eighty-one – particularly as the business was still limping on (no pun intended) even after I was born. But after two centuries of trading, the company of W. R. Grossmith finally went into liquidation – an event which took place in 1966 at their registered office in Africa House*, Kingsway. *Observant readers may recall that it was in this very building, less than twenty years later, where I started my career as a genealogist (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born).

Over the two hundred years that the company sold trusses and artificial body parts, it moved between owners and addresses (mainly all in Fleet Street), although the Sleath connection was the thread which continued to run through the company’s history. When Emma’s father (John Henry Sleath) took over the business as a young man, he himself had inherited it from a Mr John Williamson, his father’s  business partner – who in a strange coincidence had also become his step-father. So perhaps when John Henry Sleath later took on the young William Grossmith he had in mind the possibilty of the very same role for him. Certainly the speedy way which Emma’s mother remarried (already called Mrs Grossmith when the will was finalised) makes one think this scenario was not unlikely.

Interestingly, a couple of years ago an online search alerted me to a letter in a 1925 edition of the  journal Notes and Queries which asked about the relationship of  William Robert Grossmith to Sleath, the artificial limb maker, but at the time I was unable to discover if anyone had ever replied to this rather unusual query. Then while putting the finishing touches to this chapter I unexpectedly came across both a copy of the original question – and the response – which I have included below.

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(c)The British Museum, London

John Henry Sleath’s will was indeed to be found, although it is no longer kept at Somerset House (a place I remember from my days as an heir hunter). With a credit card and an internet connection, the pre-1858 (Doctors’ Commons) wills can be  ordered on-line instantaneously from the National Archives, and lately even the Probate Registry (for wills post-1858) has moved into online ordering, considerably speeding up research time.

Interestingly, John Henry Sleath’s simple and uncomplicated will (made in 1841, two years  before he died) stated that everything he possessed should be given to his wife Martha, and appointed her his sole executrix. There were no caveats about remarriage (such as  in my great-great grandfather’s will to his much younger wife, Mary Ann),  and in the document Sleath stated that he entrusted Martha with his estate well knowing that she will do the best for our children. So it would appear that he regarded his wife as a trustworthy partner,  and combined with the absence of  financial restrictions on her remarrying, this may point to the fact that  William Grossmith could well have been already lined up to step into John Henry Sleath’s shoes. And so it is perhaps fitting that it is Emma’s step-father who should have the last say in this chapter, linking as he does the story of the Grossmiths and Emma’s actor-manager son, Herbert Sleath, who worked with his older Grossmith cousins, George and Weedon, on many occasions.

Last year (2016) was the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and to mark the ocassion the BBC created a Shakespeare on Tour website in which, to my delight, William Robert Grossmith was featured, using his early life to  illustrate the history of childhood Shakespearean actors. This was mainly because of the discovery of old playbills (such as the ones above) which showed Young Master Grossmith touring in the north-east. (The link to the above-mentioned site is here and the link to the short recording of schoolchildren discussing Grossmith’s stage career in an acting workshop is here, and is an especially touching tribute). However, it is interesting to note that the website states that: It’s difficult to find details of Grossmith’s life after he retired. According to an article in The Idler magazine of February 1893, the comic actor and writer George Grossmith, remembered today as the author of ‘The Diary of a Nobody’, claimed to be nephew of Master Grossmith the Infant Roscius. It seems that no-one can ever imagine the delightful child actor eventually becoming a successful maker of artificial limbs, hands, eyes, noses &C.

But perhaps one of the main things that unites the young William Grossmith with the older one, is a sense of playfulness. In an interview with the New York Times at a Surgical Aid Society meeting in London in 1889, not only did Grossmith mention how he can spot one of his ‘own’ legs walking down Fleet Street, but he also enthusiastically discusses the quality of his artificial eyes (which seemingly  fill a prominent place in the window of his body parts’ shop). According to Grossmith, his artificial eyes (which he was proud to state were worn by MP, actors and the clergy) will last much longer than those of his competitors due to the fact that they are made from durable French enamel.  Despite this advantage, the technology was obviously still not available to create an unbreakable eye. I have one customer Grossmith starts, who uses 6 or 7 every year. He is a member of the Athanaeum Club, where there are marble washstands, and is constantly letting his eye drop on these and break when he takes it out with the object of cleaning it.

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See you next month!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2017  

 

 

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A Tale of Exploitation

The mahogany industry has been, unfortunately, a tale of exploitation. The ‘get rich quick’ policy was adopted by all concerned and many of these people left the country and took their profits with them. No attention was paid to either natural regeneration or replanting, and it is now possible to walk through large tracts of bush which were once full of mahogany and not see a single sizeable tree. Indeed, the only natural wealth of the colony has now been exhausted.

F.C. Darcel, A History of Agriculture in the Colony of British Honduras(1954)

10309484_1506641026218934_7329609308366106728_neeMahogany tree, British Honduras, early 20th century

Back in 1985, at the time I first learned that my great-great grandfather was a widower when he married his young ‘housekeeper’, Mary Ann Hawkins, I had very little interest in discovering more about his previous family – the one I now think of as ‘lost’. In those days genealogy was an extremely time-consuming and relatively expensive pastime, so early on I’d made the decision to only focus on my direct ancestors. I realise now what an incredibly short-sighted view this was: after all, if I wanted to find out more about the man who instigated the London branch of the family, what better way to start than learning about his youthful first marriage? Perhaps I would even also gain more insight into why he later chose to marry a woman who was younger than his own daughters.

When the Waugh documentary (Fathers and Sons) triggered my renewed interest in family history a quarter of a century later (see Begin Again), I straight away began my on-line search for a James Skelton in south London (who was born in North Yorkshire in 1799). When looking for London-based ancestors in the earlier part of the 19th century – before the population of the capital exploded – it is still relatively easy to find those who do not possess overly-common surnames, and thus it was not long before I located James and his family living at Horsleydown Lane in riverside Bermondsey, an experience I wrote about earlier in The Tailor of Horsleydown. This discovery felt like a real breakthrough in my research: finally I would find out more about the man who, like so many during the early 19th century, moved hundreds of miles from his home in an attempt to better himself and give his family the opportunities he himself might have been denied.

And what I learnt through the subsequent investigations came as a surprise. These children of James’ first marriage appeared to have been markedly more successful than those of his second. (Unfortunately, it would not be until the 2nd half of the 20th century that most of the descendants of the latter group would find doors opening to them through changes in educational policies). And this ‘lost family’ were in fact much more documented than the second one which I belong to – in part due to the fact that they they spread out across the Empire, taking risks along the way (some which resulted in their untimely deaths) in their pursuit of new lives and opportunities in the colonies.

This first family  James had with Sarah Vaughan was predominantly female, except for their middle child. As to be expected, it is this son – sandwiched between two younger and two older sisters – whose social and economic rise was the most dramatic. The only one of the children to be formally educated, James William Skelton was sent to the nearby St Saviours’ Grammar School, where he would have had the chance to make connections with other socially mobile boys. It may even have been here that James William met the Bermondsey-born Thomas Schofield, son of a local custom house official. These two men (and their sons) were to form a life-long bond that resulted in them establishing a successful mahogany import business together. It was one which flourished throughout the time of Victoria, when furniture made from this dark, tropical hardwood was very much in demand due to the size of the logs as well as the wood’s known resistance to expanding and splitting in the damp weather of the British Isles.

James William Skelton was a self-made man who encapsulated the spirit of the age, with his colonial business and urge to get ahead, and within a generation he would take his family into the fringes of the lesser aristocracy. Possibly he was carrying on the dream his own father had started when he left his Yorkshire village all those decades ago, but had been unable to ultimately fulfil when, after losing both his wife and oldest daughter in mid-life, he ended up living with the young Mary Ann in a cramped terraced house in Kennington, surrounded by the crowd of noisy, young children he’d helped to bring into the world – and whose existence no doubt embarrassed his oldest son. (But perhaps I am giving James William value judgements that he did not possess, and how can he defend his actions now that he is buried under a slab of pink granite at Nunhead Cemetery?)

Finding out about James William’s exotic and successful business was certainly an exhilirating moment, and one of the high points of my research to date (later dampened by thoughts of colonial exploitation and environmental degradation). From his entry in the school records of St Saviour’s, to his deathbed business transactions and elaborate will and testament, this high-flyer left  behind a paper trail which documented his achievements and those of his children in the kind of detail that I could previously only have dreamt of finding for my family. And I am still coming across clues to his lavish lifestyle today as new records go on-line or revisiting a previous search allows me to see details I originally overlooked.

The book of St Saviour’s school admission records, discovered cracked and musty in the archives of the Southwark History Centre, showed that James William joined the school in early January 1834, a few days after his seventh birthday, and was a pupil there for four years. This school was attached to the church of St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral) but the building in use at the time of James William’s school days ceased to be in service by 1839 (and unfortunately no longer exists – the site is covered by one of the many Victorian railway arches which blight Southwark).

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North View of Queen Elizabeth’s Free Grammar School, St. Saviour’s, Southwark, 1815 From: Survey of London: Volume 22, Bankside (The Parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark), ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1950), p. 41. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol22/plate-41

 

However, when I started searching for James William, his schooldays were the last thing on my mind. Having not found him in either the 1851 or the 1861 census, I had almost presumed him dead until I found a James William Skelton living with his wife and children in some grandeur at a residence named Carlton House, The Avenue, Gipsy Hill, in 1871, and describing himself as a Retired West India Merchant. Fast forward ten years and the same James William (now strangely not retired) had moved the family into a luxury apartment in a new development at Clapham Common, gaining several more servants along the way.

At first I thought I’d made a mistake with this wealthy man. I had always imagined that James Skelton’s first-bon son might have followed him into tailoring, taking over the family business at some point, and going into wheeling and dealing overseas seemed a grand departure from the family line (James Skelton himself having descended from Yorkshire wool staplers – more about this in a subsequent post). It was only until I was able to scrutinise his marriage certificate that my suspicions were confirmed – this James William and my half-ancestor were one and the same person. And so began a frenzied search that lasted several months and which finally convinced me I had to commit this whole project to words, illustrating as it did the disparity between the two branches of the familiy and the different lives of the haves and have-nots of Victorian England and beyond.

During this manic period of research, I soon gleaned that the reason James William disppeared from the UK census for two decades in a row is that at some point in his youth he and his business partner, Thomas Schofield, went out to British Honduras (now Belize) and set themselves up in the nascent colony as mahogany merchants (the Schofields seem to have owned land in  Corazol in the northern part of the country), and naming the company Skelton and Schofield. So although James William was most likely moving back and forward between the two distinct worlds of London and the Caribbean during this time, he evades the census which captured his two younger sisters still unmarried and living at home with their father in 1851, and the one ten years later which saw James firmly ensconced in Aldred Rd with Mary Ann and five of their six children.

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Map of British Honduras (now Belize)

But what the census was not able to pick up, other records did. Trade directories show that James William (with Thomas Schofield) had offices in the City – moving location several times until the company settled in the Old Rectory in Martin’s Lane off Cannon Street (still standing today, on account of its connection with the church of St Martin’s Orgar). In addition to this, the business had an import office at East Wood Wharf in the West India Docks at the Isle of Dogs. Today the remains of these huge docks and their accompanying warehouses, first developed over 200 years ago,  can be seen at the Museum of London, Docklands.

fig96West India Docks, 1841: Mahogany Sheds in East Wood Wharf visible. From: ‘The West India Docks: Historical development’, in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, ed. Hermione Hobhouse (London, 1994), pp. 248-268. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp248-268

docklands-2Remaining Victorian Warehouses at the West India Docks
                                                                                                                                                 
James William pops up again and again in the pages of the London Gazette, buying and selling property, involved in business transactions, purchasing a huge clipper ship, (which he names after his first son) and finally bringing this son, Stanley Sleath-Skelton, into the business before eventually retiring to Brighton. The firm of Skelton and Schofield appear to have  offices in the most evocatively-named parts of the City: St Helen’s Place, Mincing Lane, Throgmorton Street, (before becoming esconsed at the Old Rectory in Martin’s Lane for several decades), some of these buildings which still survive today. His marriage and children’s births are recorded in the newspapers of the time, such as the Pall Mall Gazette and The Times. Maddeningly, there are no photographs of this Victorian success story – only the tantalising description of the Portrait of myself as a boy and  Portrait of myself as a man (presumed to be oil paintings) that he records in his meticulously detailed will, and which I have discussed previously in Where there’s a Will . . . and the Sun.

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The Old Rectory, Martin’s Lane, Cannon St, City of London

Then, when almost forty, James William does something that confirms in my mind that he was without a doubt a social climber. He shrewdly marries a wealthy young woman whose family own a very lucrative body parts shop in Fleet Street (more about this uncanny-sounding business next month) and double-barrels his name with hers, turning this stunted branch of the family (none of their three children had any issue of their own) into the Sleath-Skeltons. And not only that, but on his wedding certificate in 1866, a year before his father died, he decides not to describe him as a retired tailer (as all James’ other children do), but simply furnishes the registrar with one elusive, snobbish Victorian expression: Gentleman. Could it be that he was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of his new bride and her family? Somehow I cannot imagine him ever wanting his putative in-laws to know that his father was currently living with a much younger (and uneducated) woman in a scruffy terraced house in Kennington surrounded by a crowd of what my father used to refer to as ‘snotty-nosed brats’.

During her lifetime, Emma Sleath seemed to have been close to her older sister, Mary Caroline, who married a successful autioneer-banker called John Green. In the census of 1871 the two families with their young children were living next door to each other in Gipsy Hill, renting large detached houses set back from the road, replete with coach-houses for their vehicles and drivers. The row of grand houses, simply called The Avenue (later renamed Dulwich Wood Avenue) was built in 1859 on open country, not far from both the new Crystal Palace at Sydenham and Gipsy Hill railway station, and overlooked a field with a herd of cows which belonged to the local dairy. Today the road (or at least the section which survived WW2 bombing and post-war development) still maintains a semi-rural feel, and the houses are, of course, eye-wateringly expensive. Although Carlton House (where James William lived) and the Green family’s neighbouring Homedale House were unfortunately at the end of the street which was destroyed by bombing, the remaining section does give a flavour of what The Avenue was once like. Now these buildings and their surroundings are an anomaly in a relatively busy urban area, although the old dairy herd field in front of the houses has been preserved as urban parkland.

gh-house-2A typical Victorian Villa on Dulwich Wood Avenue

gh-field-2The old dairy herd field in front of Dulwich Wood Avenue

I visited Dulwich Wood Avenue on one of my marathon walks around London, trying to get a feel for how the various south London neighbourhoods of my ancestors connected together (something that maps cannot really convey). That Sunday I walked from Brixton (where my father and James Skelton both lived in separate centuries) through sylvan Dulwich and the old turnpike (which put me in mind of Totteridge – see A Rose in Holly Park), and eventually arriving at the disconcertingly busy Paxton roundabout. After wandering up Dulwich Wood Avenue, I crossed the park and walked up Gipsy Hill to Christ Church (opened in 1867) where the little Sleath-Skeltons were baptised (and whose brass lectern was gifted by John Green, while church warden from 1867-69). From that vantage point I marvelled at the sight of St Paul’s and the City in the distance – a view spectacular enough to rival the one from the hight point at Nunhead Cemetry where the ostentatious pink granite Skelton family grave (courtesy of James William) is located.

gipsy-hill-church-2Christ Church, Gipsy Hill, built 1867

gh-view-2Evening view of the City from Christ Church, Gipsy Hill

Later that day, as the unseasonably warm March sunshine gave way to a sudden cool evening, causing an exodus from the local parks onto public transport, it suddenly occured to me that not only were the exhausting walks I was undertaking perhaps the same routes that my ancestors had trodden as they spread outwards across south London from riverside Bermondsey, but that these roads were like genealogical ley lines across the capital. And there at Gipsy Hill, at that place where the Roma once lived in the Great North Wood, was evidence of these tracks meeting. On one side of Gipsy Hill were the remaining smart villas of Dulwich Wood Avenue – and on the other side, higher up, the houses of the newer Bloomfield Estate which my grandparents moved to in the 1930s, delighting at their modern  cottage-style council house with indoor toilet and electric lights. And not far from there was the Victorian terraced house at Romanny Road where my grandfather lived at the turn of the old century with his father and new stepmother and assorted siblings.

But if there was one place (node?) which seemed to pull all these elements together, it was the Crystal Palace. From my father’s lifelong recollections of the terible conflagration he observed from his upstairs bedroom window in Brixton, to the knowledge that a great many of my London ancestors, the poor and the wealthy, would have gone there at some point in their lives (either to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, or later to the park and buildings in Sydenham), the grounds and its last remaining statues seemed to me to be a symbol of the great social leveller. I later discovered that the Sleaths had won medals for their moving body parts at the Great Exhibition, so no doubt the young Emma and her family would have been a visitor in 1851, while as a young woman living in Gipsy Hill she may have attended concerts there or accompanied her children to the park, perhaps noting with disdain the growing number of amusements and fairs in the grounds that were encouraging greater numbers of working class visitors

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Ghostly reminders of the lost Crystal Palace in Crystal Palace Park

A different day of exploring south London took me to The Cedars at the north side of Clapham Common, which was the subsequent home of the Sleath-Skeltons. Having moved with their coachman and hs family (each apartment came with a mews flat – themselves now worth a pretty penny), the family also took some of their existing servants and acquired a footman – already becoming a dated concept in the 1880s. By this time the two Boys, Herbert and Stanley, had been sent away with their cousins, Sydney and Percy Sleath Green, to Cheam prep school to prepare them for Eton (which would then prepare them for Oxford or Cambridge &Etc.) James William’s youngest child, his daughter Maude Beatrice (a marginally classier name than those of her brother and cousins – at least to modern ears), was educated at home, possibly with her cousin Daisy Winifred Green, who was like a sister to Maude right up until their deaths in the 1950s.

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p1060887-2The Cedars (and their mews) at Clapham Common, built in 1860

I intend to write about each of James William’s children (Stanley, Herbert and Maude) in separate chapters, as this dated-sounding troika led strange and colourful lives which, given their social status, were much documented in records and contemporary sources. However, in addition to these three children, there was also an  unknown teenager  who appeared on the 1871 Gipsy Hill census alongside baby Stanley and Herbert, but disappeared shortly afterwards. This turned out to be the Caribbean-born daughter of James William, who at some point must have been brought over to England from British Honduras, and had been given the rather aristocratic name of Louisa Arabella. Sadly, this young woman died at the family home at Gipsy Hill from the horrific-sounding Renal Anasarca (swelling of the body tissues due to renal failure)  at the age of twenty-one. It is heart-breaking to think that this young woman, who no doubt expected to have been initiated into London society, died at the age she would have been ‘coming out’ and taking her place in the world. But her memory lives on in the oral history of the descendants of the Sleath-Green family who today still talk about the rumour that there was exotic Caribbean blood in the family. As Daisy Winifred’s grand-daughter (more about this unexpected contact next month) wrote in an early email exchange with me: One thing that has always interested me is another bit of family lore, and that is that there may be a ‘local’ from the Caribbean in our ancestry, but I have found no trace.

In Deborah Cohen’s book Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day, Cohen devotes a chapter to describing the fate of the illegitimate children of British colonists with indigenous women – a not uncommon occurence. Although these children were  sometimes brought back to the ‘mother country’ and assimilated into the new family, many of them were packed off to lesser-known English boarding schools, often at a distance from the family home in order to avoid the obvious questions which might arise from their darker complexions. In the case of Louisa Arabella, she appears to have come to England once James William had set up home as a respectable married man, and it would be interesting to know how Emma Sleath dealt with the arrival of this older step-daughter in the family at the same time as she was having her own children. Unfortunately, the death certificate of this young woman is the only official record I currently have which documents her existence (discounting the 1871 census), yet I hope one day to be able to tell Louisa Arabella’s story in more detail. 

And what of Louisa Arabella’s birth country of British Honduras – now Belize, and an independent nation since 1981? Many people know of the country through  its growing reputation as a world-class scuba-diving destination,  popular with American tourists, (not least because of the prevalence of English.) In addition, eco-tourism is making an impact, and although there is no longer a mahogany exporting industry to speak of, bananas, citrus fruit and sugar are some of the main crops  now grown. However, the mahogany tree is still an important symbol in the country: it is the official national tree and features on the country’s flag – along with the phrase Sub Umbra Floreo (under the shade I flourish). The Belizean national anthem (video link below) also includes the patriotic line No longer hewers of wood we shall be – a reference to the period between 1750 and 1950 when the back-breaking and dangerous work of felling and squaring the mahogany trees which grew deep and scattered in the rainforest was carried out (originally by slaves until this was outlawed in 1838) for the benefit of the colonists.

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As a postscript, I would like to add that after my initial excitement at learning about these wealthy and successful ancestors, I soon began to question my reaction to their life stories. Why did I somehow feel better about the Skelton family, knowing that there was at least one branch who left their mark on the world? And what did it say about myself and my motives for carrying out family research if I thrilled more about adventures in the Empire and the discoveries of  large houses and servants than I did to trips to local parks, and terraced houses and factory labourers?

These are all questions that I will attempt to answer in the next few months as I explore the privileged lives of the Sleath-Skeltons and their relatives. I will also delve deeper into their connection with the Schofields, culminating in a tale which ends with the mysterious death of Thomas Schofield’s son under a train at Warren Street underground station in 1933, shortly after Skelton and Schofield was finally dissolved.

I look forward to you continuing to follow my story in the coming months!

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2017

Black Sheep and Blackfriars

By the cloisterly Temple, and by Whitefriars (there, not without a glance at Hanging-sword Alley, which would seem to be something in his way), and by Blackfriars-Bridge, and Blackfriars-road, Mr. George sedately marches to a street of little shops lying somewhere in that ganglion of roads from Kent and Surrey, and of streets from the bridges of London, centering in the far-famed Elephant who has lost his Castle formed of a thousand four-horse coaches, to a stronger iron monster than he, ready to chop him into mince-meat any day he dares.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)

As regular readers may remember, when my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, finally got round to marrying his much-younger second wife, Mary Ann Hawkins, in 1864, the couple had been together for over a decade and presided over a family of six. However, when James Skelton died only three years later, shortly after his 68th birthday, his will stipulated that his estate should be divided up between his wife and four children. As mentioned before (see Where there’s a Will . . . and the Sun), it was the two oldest boys – William and James jnr – who were not named in the document. In the case of William it is perhaps unsurprising, as all evidence points to the fact that he was not James’ son. And although I have never been able to confirm the death of James Skelton jnr, his absence from any records after the 1871 census (where he was living at home in Aldred Road with his widowed mother and younger siblings) makes me suspect that he most likely died as a young man.

I would very much like to be proven wrong, though, and every so often make another valiant search for him, never giving up hope of finding a middle-aged James Skelton jnr somewhere – perhaps running a garage, or working as a dodgy builder/decorator (two career choices his younger brothers made). But while my search for the elusive James has drawn a blank, in the intervening years I have discovered more about the other child who was not mentioned in the will – his older half-brother, William Hawkins Skelton – and the boy I sometimes think of as the black sheep of the family.

I have yet to come across any records of William’s birth: he suddenly appears as a fully-formed infant with his unmarried mother in the 1851 census. Frustratingly, Mary Ann is not at home on the day of census (the last weekend in March), but is described as a ‘visitor’ to a house in riverside Lambeth where an oil man called George Tiltman and his young family live. The Tiltmans, however, have a servant who is the same age as Mary Ann. Could this be the reason she is at their house? More plausible, perhaps, than the theory of one of William’s descendants: that the Tiltmans may have been philanthropists who took pity on a young, impoverished single mother. I do feel that this may be putting 21st century sensibilities into mid-19th century heads, and that it is unlikely that Mary Ann would have lived with the family without playing some sort of functional role in the household. Interestingly, The Society of Genealogists points out on their website that: Apparently unrelated household members noted as visitors or lodgers, and sometimes servants, may in fact be members of the extended family. Their surnames may give clues to in-laws or marriage partners. This is also the case when in-laws are specifically recorded.

While that has certainly been true with other ancestors (see A Rose in Holly Park), I have found no familial connections to the Tiltmans. To complicate matters further, at the time of the census Mary Ann was already two months pregnant with her second child, James jnr, who was born in October of that year. The official birth certificate declares her address to be 83, Waterloo Road, Southwark (a stone’s throw from the Tiltman residency), but does not name the child’s father. However, as mentioned in an earlier post (see When I Grow Rich), the spring census states that two unmarried ‘tailoresses’ were living at this address, which could point to the fact that Mary Ann (described in later records as a ‘needlewoman’) was lodging with contemporaries.

As I have previously pointed out, this line of reasoning does of course open up speculation as to whether the young women, including Mary Ann, were indeed what they said they were. Waterloo Road and environs was not exactly a salubrious area – and the coming of the new Waterloo Bridge Station (with its ‘iron monsters’ that Dickens alludes to when describing Mr George’s foray over Blackfriars Bridge into South London in the passage from Bleak House, above) did little to improve the neighbourhood.

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Constructing Waterloo Bridge Station when Mary-Ann lived nearby

So William’s start in life is shrouded in mystery, although I think it is safe to say that he was not James Skelton’s child. The only consistent ‘fact’ about him is that throughout his life he names Christ Church, Southwark (sometimes erroneously giving the location as Blackfriars, Surrey – perhaps because the church is on Blackfriars Road), as his birth parish. I have noticed that many of my ancestors  always remembered the exact London parish where there were born, however small, yet often make ‘errors’ with other facts. It seems strange that they never forgot this throughout their lives, despite many of them constantly being on the move from a young age, and indicates the bureaucratic links that the inhabitants had with the parish of their birth.  Unfortunately, many of the parish records of Christ Church were destroyed along with the old church in a bombing raid, in April 1941, so there is no way of knowing if Mary Ann took her infant son to be baptised at the church.

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Christ Church c1800 (Great Surrey Street became Blackfriars Rd)

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William Hawkins Skelton was most likely named after his maternal grandfather, William Hawkins snr, and it was his younger half-brother James jnr who had all the honour of being James and Mary Ann’s first born. However, despite this, William was soon part of the growing Skelton-Hawkins family and in the 1861 census he can be found as an 11 year-old schoolboy living at 35 Aldred Road (where the family were to stay for almost half a century) along with Mary Ann and James snr, and three half-siblings. Ten years later, in the 1871 census, he was at the same address (now minus his elderly stepfather, but with yet another half-brother), and in 1881, at the grand old age of 31, the census records him again as being unmarried and still residing at Aldred Road. It is not until the following decade that we find him with a family of his own: wife Annie (ten years younger) and three young children. By the turn of the century, four more children have arrived and William gives all the impression of a settled, middle-aged, family man.

But things are often not what they appear. When relying on census records it is easy to forget that they are only brief snapshots across the decades (see Moments in Time) and many events can take place in the ‘hidden’ years between. Not only that, but for various reasons a certain percentage of the population were tempted to be less than truthful about their situations. To wit, William’s own mother, who, in 1861 was described as being a widow with five children and working as the housekeeper/servant to the retired widower, James Skelton. Of course, it was all those children which gave the game away. After all, what elderly man would employ a live-in help with an accompanying brood of five when a single woman, unencumbered by a young family, could just as easily have filled the vacancy?

And so it should not have been a surprise to suddenly discover that, between the ages of 21 and 31, our William slipped out of sight to marry and have a family of four, then leave his wife to return to his mother in Kennington. It seems such a modern story, and yet there is a horrible twist to it. It would appear that once William left his wife, some of his children assumed William to be dead – or regarded him as so. And thus it came to pass that when his oldest daughter, Alice Margaret, married as a teenager in 1894, her father was officially recorded as a deceased painter/decorator. For those of us who have experienced the loss of a parent while relatively young, this revelation may come as an ugly shock.

I still remember that powerful episode of East Enders (from my soap-watching days) when ‘Dirty Den’ came back from the dead and his daughter Sharon was confronted with the awful truth of what her father had done. The story focused on the conflicting emotions which ensued, and I can only imagine how William’s daughter would have reacted had she come across her supposedly deceased father on the streets of Southwark, especially if she believed that both her parents had been complicit in the deception. And who has not lost someone close and had the terrible (recurring?) dream where the person in question is not only found to have been alive all along, but is in fact discovered living nearby?

In the summer of 1871, just three weeks after the census showed the twenty-one year old William living at home and uncharacteristically working as a school teacher (possibly one of those untrained teaching positions which helped to maintain discipline), he married a widow, 12 years his senior, at the local registry office. What his mother thought of this situation is anyone’s guess, particularly as William’s new bride already had a young family of four – although Mary Ann did agree to be their official witness. Despite the fact that Elizabeth Sarah Chappell (née Sparks) was then already pregnant with their first child (a boy named Arthur William), she was only one month into her pregnancy, and most likely not even aware of it herself. So I do not believe that was the reason for their marriage. But what I imagine to be more likely is that this older, recently widowed woman, already experienced in the ways of ‘married love’, was perhaps very appealing to the young William, who may have found life rather suffocating at home with his mother and teenaged siblings. He might have even still felt alienated by the absence of provisions for him in his stepfather’s will, three years earlier. And at twenty-one, he no doubt gave little thought to the future of the four fatherless children he had suddenly ‘inherited’ with his marriage.

The unexpected union of Elizabeth and William produced a further three children of their own, and then in 1881, when William is to be found back at Aldred Road under his mother’s wing, Elizabeth appears on the same census with five of her seven children, and describes herself as married – living apart from husband. But before long she is back to calling herself a widow, although (as expected) she keeps her new married name of Skelton. So something which might have started out initially as a misunderstanding – that Mr Skelton is the deceased husband (rather than Mr Chappell) – eventually becomes the family line. And in 1891, up pops William again in the latest census with his new ‘wife’ Annie Skelton (née Lipsham) and another set of children, so Elizabeth would have possibly had no choice by then but to oficially call herself a widow (as divorce was only for the very wealthy).

Even on her mother’s death in 1920, Elizabeth’s oldest daughter from her first marriage describes her as Widow of William Skelton, House Painter (Journeyman). As William did not die until five years later, either she believed her mother’s story or was complicit in the lie. Another scenario is that William (or a family member) tricked the Chappell-Skeltons into believing that William had died at some point – although this idea does seem rather far-fetched. But it is of course also possible (and more plausible) that everyone in the family knew he was alive and living with another woman, and just kept quiet about this fact to satisfy the authorities. One day I hope I will eventually find out the truth about William!

When one of William’s descendants contacted me a couple of years ago, he confimed what I had expected about William’s second ‘bigamous’ marriage. And even more excitingly, he was able to supply extra details about William’s first family by telling me the story of his own great-grandfather, James Frederick Skelton. Born in 1873, in Bethnal Green during his parents’ short sojourn out of south London, James was the 2nd of William’s children with the widow Elizabeth Chappell (the first being Arthur William). When James was born, his father’s profession was described as a Tramway Car Conductor. Interestingly, while William had described himself as a Gas Fitter on his marriage certificate, as previously mentioned he was said to be a School Teacher on the 1871 census several weeks earlier, a Journeyman Plumber in early 1872 (when Arthur William was born), a General Labourer in 1881 (when he was back at Aldred Road briefly). And for the latter part of his life he oscillates between a House Decorator and a House Painter, often adding that wonderfully elusive Victorian & Etc. I don’t doubt he did all these things (and more besides), but it does give the impression of a risk-taking or ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit – the kind of man who might easily have had two wives!

In 1906, William’s son, James Frederick, married a heavily-pregnant local Brixton girl, and his sister, Alice Margaret, and her husband were the witnesses at the wedding. However, unlike on Alice’s marriage certificate, there is no mention of his father William being ‘deceased’. Three weeks later James Henry Skelton was born – the grandfather of the ‘long lost cousin’ who contacted me, and the first of nine children the newly-married couple would have together.

James Henry (or Jim) lived a long and fruitful life, not dying until 1990. His descendant, Mark Coxhead, told me that at one stage an uncle agreed to undertake family research for the old man, but that his grandfather declined the offer. Mark had always believed this was to do with him being born only a few weeks after his parents’ marriage in 1906, but had later wondered if it might also havee been connected with the ‘bigamous’ situation of his grandfather William’s so-called second marriage. However, I think it is more likely that the old man did not want the past raked over in the off-chance that, like many of his generation, something distasteful – and perhaps still unknown – would be found lurking in the woodshed (where old branches of the family tree were stacked).

Nowadays, we all thrill to family histories which include illegitimate births, criminal records, workhouse and asylum admissions &Etc. But trawl not too far back and most of those born at the turn of the previous century were not so keen to go prodding about in the closets of their past. Victorian sensibilities died hard, and 20th century families were still afraid of ‘scandals’. So it is not surprising that as one neared the end of life it would have been more comforting to let the past remain there, particularly after the upheaval (physical and mental) caused by two world wars, which may have  also resulted in the loss of family members. As Mark pointed out, although his grandfather had served in WW2 he never talked about his wartime experiences. Like my own grandfather’s service in the Hussars in the Great War, no-one in the family knew what he had witnessed – and I have explored the ramifications of this silence in more detail in a previous post (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers).

It would seem, though, that small skeletons have indeed tumbled out of their respective cubby-holes. Records show that both James Frederick and his older brother, Arthur William, spent a large proportion of their young adulthood in the pre-war WW1 military (as my own grandfather did), joining different regiments in the 1890s, and both were sent to India for most of their 12 year stint in the army. (My grandfather was also said to have been in India before the Great War, although like many who served at that time his army records were lost during WW2 bombing). James and Arthur were both discharged in 1905 – just in time for James to marry, start his family, then re-enlist with his brother at the outbreak of war in August 1914 (when both were relatively old for active combat, although obviously experienced as soldiers). The two Skelton brothers were discharged in 1918, shortly before the end of the war.

The ‘family skeletons’ which arise from the military records are certainly not scandalous, but paint a colourful picture of William’s oldest sons, in particular Arthur William. Not only does he seem to consistently lie about his age on his enlistment forms, but throughout most of his Indian service Arthur is found to be repeatedly disobeying orders. His conduct sheets include the following remarks: Drunk and improperly dressed returning to barracks; Absent from Tattoo; Neglecting to obey station orders – being out of bounds.

As punishments for these offences he is confined to barracks, endures detention, and is fined several shillings. He is promoted then demoted, but despite all this his character is described as good on his discharge forms. I do not know what happened to Arthur William after he returned to civilian life, but he does not seem to have favoured marriage and family life, like his brother. For his part, James Frederick, while never drunk on duty, is often heftily fined, as well as being punished with month-long dentention, for being AWOL. I was also fascinated to learn that both brothers enter the army with tatoos on their right arms: Arthur a cross; James a heart and flower (details which could only be gleaned from the army records). Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have such information  from my grandfather’s time in the military! 

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Arthur & James Skelton in tropical uniform (c) Mark Coxhead

It is interesting to note that when both brothers join the army in the 1890s, they give their father, William Skelton, as their next-of-kin. When re-enlisting in 1914, however, James Frederick names his wife and children, while the unmarried Arthur lists his mother and sister (Alice Margaret). Thus it would seem that William Hawkins Skelton was at least in contact with his sons while they were younger. Perhaps a better theory than those I have previously suggested is that William was regarded as ‘deceased’ by the members of the family who were angered by his domestic arrangements, and not by those ones who (grudgingly?) accepted his lifestyle choice. I certainly know of one or two modern families where such things have happened, and the phrase he/she is dead to me can stll be heard today. Interstingly, it is only the female relatives who describe William as ‘deceased’ – which is also concurrent with theories that women are generally more concerned about social status and ‘keeping up appearances’ than men.

The other curious  fact is that Mark’s grandfather seemed to be adamant that red hair was a Skelton family feature. However, as Mark himself points out, this could have come from any side of the family, if it indeed was an inherited feature at all. But the only relative that our two families have in common is Mary Ann Hawkins, so any particular shared trait would have had to have been passed on from her. My grandfather did have a brother James (who died in WW1) who was nicknamed Ginger on account of the colour of his hair, but to believe that there was a genetic connection involved does sound more like an instance of wishful thinking. As indeed does the other family trait that Jim Skelton seemed to have inherited: namely that of an ‘unpredictable’ nature.

In 1960, after working in the Southwark-based Warehouse Department of Fleetway Publishing for four decades, James Henry Skelton was finally made Warehouse Manager, an event that was recorded in their in-house staff magazine. Mark sent me a copy of the article, which also includes a photograph of the fifty-four year old Jim Skelton (who started at the firm as a fourteen-year old sweeping-up boy when his father, James Frederick, worked there as a porter after the war). The text states: As a fiery auburn-haired boy at Lavington Street back in 1920 under his father’s watchful eye he experienced much of the rough and heavy days that were then part and parcel of healthy circulations. The article then goes on to say that: From those encounters, perhaps, he developed the art of creating a practical joke while maintaining a poker face. Later it is rather cryptically pointed out that: While much of the impetuous fire may have been calmed by maturity, and ‘storms’ now subsided in teacups, the very nature of his varied tasks in a department becoming more technical than ever before must inevitably find Jim Skelton being accepted by different groups in different ways. Hence he may continue to be a controversial figure: which may turn out to be far more interesting than putting him in a definite category.

jim-skeltonThe accompanying picture shows Mr. J. H. Skelton squinting at the camera in a way reminiscent of my father, my grandfather and his brother Arthur, and also their father, Arthur snr (William Hawkins Skelton’s half-brother). So did those deep-set drooping eyes actually come from the Hawkins family? And if so, can they really be claimed as a ‘Skelton trait’? Perhaps more interesting are the hints that Jim had a ‘fiery’ personality – something that could be said of my grandfather and his brother Arthur and some of their descendants!

When I started my research in 1984, Jim Skelton was still very much alive, and possibly enjoying a full retirement, pursuing his love of gardening, collecting wood, literature and classical music (all hobbies he was doing in 1960). Frustratingly, had I then all the information currently at my disposal, it might have been possible to ask him about his shadowy grandfather. (Did you ever meet him? would have been my first question). But perhaps this would not have yielded up as much information as I like to imagine. I have previously managed to make contact with the surviving grandchildren of other Hawkins-Skelton offspring and disappointingly it is often impossible to get beyond a tantalising Yes, I remember the old man or The families lost touch after the war, and it feels impolite to keep pressing an elderly stranger who may become distressed at bringing up the past.

Yet I still nurture this wild hope that some distant relative out there has a box in their attic which, while not necessarily a receptacle for skeletons, might be hiding a bundle of letters and some photograph albums, or even a diary or two. When I hear about other such genealogical finds, I feel myself twitching with envy, and wondering whether this holy grail of family history might ever be mine – or whether I am doomed to be like the gold panners whose finds of a few shiny flakes encourage them to persevere in their quest, ever hopeful of discovering a nugget.

But perhaps it is the very conscious act of putting flesh on the bones of such a meagre skeleton that forces me to reach out beyond my own family history to seek out parallels and stories from the wider world. And so it is that I have come to believe that it is the existence  of  Blackfriars Bridge which, by linking the two riverside parishes of St Ann’s and Christ Church, united the Hawkins with the Skelton Family, and which may also have accounted for William’s confusion in regard to the location of his birth parish.

My great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Hawkins, was born in the shadow of St. Paul’s, and spent her childhood in the dingy courts and alleys of the City parish of St Ann’s, Blackfriars (named after the site of the medieval Domenican riverside monastery of dark-clothed monks). This was a parish without a church after the building was burned down in the Great Fire in 1666, and was afterwards amalgamated with St Andrews-by-the-Wardrobe – even though it continued to keep separate parish records. And  more importantly for our story, it was considered the ‘home’ parish of the Hawkins, and the place where Mary Ann’s father, William Hawkins, unsuccessfully tried to obtain settlement relief, based on the fact that his father had undertaken a 7 year apprenticeship there.

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Old Blackfriars Bridge from Lambeth, c1800 (demolished 1864)

Although the Thames was a physical and psychological barrier for most Londoners, living in one of the few parishes with a crossing to the other shore must have made movement to the opposite side more convenient and tantalising. And when I look at the above image of the old bridge (whose elegant Portland stone arches are perhaps already beginning to crumble), I can imagine the young Mary Ann scurrying across from the Middlesex-side, holding on to her skirts and bonnet as the wind whips upstream, while the river below her seethes with life and noise. Like her contemporaries (including the fictional Mr. George), she would have considered it normal to walk the streets of the capital for miles and whether she first crossed to the Surrey-side for business or pleasure or simple curiosity, she certainly could never have imagined that over a century later hundreds of her descendants would have made their home in ‘London over the river’.

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2017

The Story So Far

There will always be questions left unanswered and ‘missing’ ancestors to be found. Writing a family history therefore means accepting your research will never be finished and deciding to do it anyway.

Gil Blanchard, Writing Your Family History (2014)

At the start of a new year, I would like to reflect on what I have learnt so far from my ongoing quest to discover more about my ‘lost’ London ancestors, some of which may be of use to readers contemplating  a similar project. This January marks the start of my second full year of blogging – and my 17th post – tying in neatly with the number 2017. I’d also like to thank those of you who have been following my story over the past one and a half years. It has been wonderful to have you alongside me on the trip, and I look forward to a further year of research and writing. Over the next few months I intend to focus predominantly on the other, previously unknown, branch of the Skelton family, who by dint of their relative wealth and sucess left an exciting paper trail behind them as they moved throughout the Empire with the confidence of the age.

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Family history is not so much a series of linear, chronological events, as a set of interlinked themes across generations. It is impossible to work neatly backwards (or forwards) without having to move sideways, then zig-zag about in an ungainly fashion. Yet this can be a very liberating discovery as it removes the need to know everything about one group of ancestors before moving on to investigate the next. And the advantage to writing in blog form is that it usually only needs some minor post-publication editing to change a piece of information that later turns out to be inaccurate in some way. Any interesting new discoveries can either be inserted into a previous post or developed into a completely new one.

Researching records is never a cut-and-dried process. There is a tendancy to feel that once a particular area has been researched in the archives all the available information through one particular channel has been amassed. But thanks to my slapdash research methods, which mostly entail scribbling illegible notes in blunt pencil on the back of recycled paper, I have regularly found myself re-researching the same things at various points throughout the year. As well as the obvious fact that new records can appear through digitalisation and/or the lifting of access restrictions (or even due to missing a particular record first time around), this disorganised method often exposes me to different ways of looking at old information as my research skills improve. So I have ceased to worry about the fact that my haphazard approach to record keeping may not be the most efficient one, even if I am not exactly proud of my lax record-keeping skills.

Story-telling creates a coherent narrative. The very fact that every month I have to attempt to create something readable from a variety of different sources makes me see connections and patterns which might otherwise have remained hidden. And while I’m well aware that taking a different approach to a topic may result in the narrative moving in another direction, my monthly deadlines prevent me from obssessing too much about which one is the ‘correct’ way to tell the story, a procastination device with which other writers will be familiar.

Expect the unexpected. I have found more twists and turns in my family history than in an Agatha Christie novel. From bigamy and madness, to unexplained deaths and unimagined riches (all coming up in 2017), I have been shocked and saddened and surprised at the events that have revealed themselves to me. When I first started my research in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born), I had naively expected to find what I imagined to be a straightforward history of an ordinary working-class London family – and even learning that the Skeltons had originated from North Yorkshire seemed like an exotic breakthrough. Of course, now I realise that every family, every generation – every life, in fact – is full of stories that might be discarded by a novelist for being too fanciful. And as all family historians know, there is no such thing as an ordinary family.

sleathy-card-2Novelty card featuring my Edwardian actor ancestor, Herbert Sleath-Skelton (middle), discovered in a Harrogate garden centre!

Do not assume. This pithy three-worder is the companion to the previous aphorism. Most family historians will be aware of this old chestnut – and despite its hoariness it is not one to discard. But while it makes sense when applied to written records which need to be cross-checked (an example of such an error will be illustrated next month), it is often more difficult to follow this piece of advice when it comes to social history in general. Is it somehow wrong to state that James Skelton’s second wife, my great-great grandmother Mary Ann Hawkins, might have once been a local prostitute who met her much older lover and future husband through this profession (see When I Grow Rich)? Or that my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Skelton (née Holton), could have been an alcoholic, dying as she did in her thirties from Hepatitis C (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers)? Perhaps the important thing is to make sure that such conjectures are not described as facts, but to lay out the supporting evidence and guide the reader to make up their own mind on the matter.

And what about coincidence? My students tell me that whenever they actively learn new vocabularly from our in-class texts they will often encounter this same expression somewhere else shortly afterwards, even though they claim to have never come across the word previously. So I use this observation to illustrate to them how their vocabulary is being strengthened and developed almost without them being aware of it. Almost, that is, apart from these ‘coincidences’ which remind them that since having ‘learnt’ a new vocabularly item they will start to recognise it in many different situations. And thus it is with research and background reading. It is not uncommon for me to discover a fact about Victorian London, only for it to resonate with a particular tale I want to tell. Or I will visit a new place which later becomes pivotal in the lives of one of my ancestors. I therefore embrace all the chances to learn about my topic in many different ways, never presuming that there is nothing new to discover about a particular subject.

A further point to make in regard to coincidence is that I have found again and again that disparate ancestors often lived in close proximity to each other at different times in their lives. This will become particularly apparent in the coming months as I focus on the ‘lost’ family that my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, had with his first wife, Sarah Vaughan. And so it was that my father grew up in a terraced house in Brixton, just a stone’s throw from the section of Coldharbour Lane where, unbeknown to him, his great-grandfather, James Skelton had lived with his first family, one hundred years previously. Later, when my grandparents moved to the new Bloomfield Estate in West Norwood, my father would have seen from his upstairs bedroom window the spire of the church in Gipsy Hill where James William’s children (including Herbert) had been baptised (as Sleath-Skeltons) in the 1870s. That three-pronged fabulous offshoot of the family tree, which rapidly grew towards the light, but withered and died before its strange flowers could produce any fruit.

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Spire of Christ Church, Gipsy Hill, from the Bloomfield Estate

On a more personal note, when I moved to London in 1984, little did I know that a few months later I would be living round the corner from the place where my grandfather’s sister, Rose Ryall, lived out her old age (see A Rose in Holly Park). And most recently, after visiting a writer friend at her home in Kensington, I was delighted to discover that one of the ‘lost’ Skelton children had lived in this same Victorian mansion block for several decades. Even the impetus for continuing my genealogical research came from the chance meeting of an old man in Somerset with an identical photograph to the one I had found in my father’s wallet (see In my Beginning is my End).

Coker Wood 1944 (3)

The 1944 East Coker photograph that sparked my current quest

Many of the aforementioned coincidences are, however, not so surprising – particularly given the fact that London was smaller in the past and the Skeltons had mostly chosen to make their mark in certain neighbourhoods. But still it can be an uncanny experience to follow these family ley lines across the city, slipping between the centuries and social classes, as one street or suburb gives way to another. Only recently I had such an experience when the large villa in Croydon, where James William had first set up home in the 1860s (in what was then countryside) flashed up on the TV screen. It was a scene from a short political broadcast by the Conservative Party to illustrate the number of new affordable homes being built in the congested Croydon area, and this last remaining grand house – now much vandalised – which was once admirably situate, facing Morland Park, was given as an example of a dilapidated building about to torn down and replaced by new flats. In the photograph below, it is just possible to glimpse the block of seventies’ flats which has already been built in what the auctioneer so exquisitely describes in the London Standard of 5th June 1868 as the valuable mansion’s pleasure-grounds and well-stocked kitchen garden.

westle-house

The’valuable mansion’ which James William named Westle House

A few days previously I had marked this address in my A to Z as worthy of a revisit for an upcoming London trip, and as I froze the image and rewound and replayed the scene again and again, I felt almost dizzy with the sensation of two worlds colliding. But the oddest thing was that just seconds before the building had appeared on the screen I had this sudden premonition that poor old Westle House was about to feature. I still don’t know where this feeling came from – perhaps it was simply an obvious candidate for the section on regenerating Croydon. It is certainly one of the ‘family buildings’ that has haunted me most since I first visited it one winter’s afternoon, and felt slightly spooked by its appearance – the lone survivor of a bucolic past in a heavily built up area. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2014 a homeless man was found dead in the grounds (now protected by a solid metal fence), and it is hard to reconcile this sad building with the glorious villa it has obviously once been.

So while the rational part of me acknowledges that true coincidences are in fact rare events, there is still a part of me that wonders if my ancestors are trying to prod and nudge me in the direction of their stories. Perhaps it is this continued belief in the magic of my quest which makes me feel that, despite the inevitable frustrations surrounding such a project, it is a worthwhile undertaking.

Happy New Year! from The Incidental Genealogist, January 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas comes but once a year

And when it does, it brings good cheer.

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There is something about Christmas that can make us nostalgic for our childhood, even if it wasn’t necessarily the one we might have chosen for ourselves. I consider myself lucky that I grew up in a household where Christmas was eagerly awaited by us all every year (with the possible exception of my mother), mostly due to my father’s enthusiasm for the festival. (The oft-quoted lines of the above rhyme were just one manifestation of this). My mother, however, had grown up in a Scotland where Christmas Day was barely celebrated, and had yet to acquire even the status of a public holiday, and so had always had very modest expectations of the festival. There was no tree or decorations in the McKays’ house; very few presents were exchanged; and dinner on the 25th was just a ‘good’ evening meal, as my grandfather had to work (and there was certainly no special cake or brandy pudding to follow). This frugality was obviously partly due to the war and the rationing of goods throughout the forties and fifties, but the Presbyterian Church itself did little to encourage overt celebrations of the event.

Like most Scottish families at the time, the McKays celebrated Hogmanay, with New Year’s Day being the main public winter holiday. It is little wonder, then, that my Edinburgh based grandparents found our English-style celebrations rather excessive, frequently telling my sister and me that we were very lucky little girls. But by 1974, even Boxing Day was given public holiday status in Scotland (Christmas Day had been declared one in 1958, ending a period of four centuries when the festival had been effectively banned), and many Scots had become just as enthusiastic about Christmas as their English counterparts. I certainly don’t ever really recall feeling that our family celebrations were very different from those of my school friends, although like most children I was convinced that our traditions were superior to anyone else’s.

The first time my mother experienced a ‘full on’ English Christmas was when she joined the Skelton family’s celebrations in London in the early 1960s. Little did she know then that she would have years ahead of her attempting (successfully, I might add) to fulfil my father’s fantasy of what a ‘proper Christmas’ was like, but at the same time creating memories for her yet unborn children that would last them a lifetime. All the slightly strange rituals that she witnessed in Twickenham during those bitterly cold winters eventually made their way into our damp west coast bungalow: the gaudy, homemade crepe-paper chains hanging everywhere; the spicy and exotic foods that only appeared once a year; the over-decorated tree; the ‘treasure map’ to indicate where the post-dinner presents were hidden; the Boxing Day ‘snowman’. These were all things I had assumed my parents had created just for our delight, and as a child it never even occurred to me that many of the traditions we so enjoyed might have been started by another family separated from me by time and distance. And even though I was present for a couple of those 60s London Christmases, I have retained very few memories of the event – just a residual feeling of a lot of light, warmth and noise.

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          With my Skelton Grandparents at Christmas, London 1967

All families end up creating their own Christmas rituals, though, and one of ours was to go on the big green double-decker bus to the neighbouring town of Prestwick (where my father worked as an air traffic contoller) to see ‘the lights’, while my mother had the whole afternoon (and kitchen) free for baking. Because I did not associate my father with public transport (unless we were in London visiting our grandparents), it felt strange to be going on our local bus service together. And just like when we were riding in the famous blood-red buses of the capital, we sat upstairs at the front to get the best views. These excursions sometimes made my father nostalgic for London – he would tell us about going to see the Christmas lights in Oxford Street, the wonder of Selfridge’s windows, the delights of Hamleys’ toy shop. And a lot of the time he simply moaned about the fact that Scotland was bereft of many of the things he enjoyed most about Christmas – in particular mulled wine and roast chestnuts and all the other culinary delights that he associated with the festive period.

Maybe it was living for so many years through rationing that made my father wish for the extravagance of Christmas fare. The fact that so many things were not readily available during that time would have made the festivities even more special, and most  parents would have made an extra effort to lighten this dark period for their children, particularly if their own childhood Christmases had been blighted by death or poverty (as in the case of both my grandparents). This might go some way to explain the abundance of canned and pickled goods my father bought in early December – including the weirdly-named (and coloured) piccalilli, which to me was the quintessential London food (reminding me at the same time of Picadilly). 

The rural Christmases my father experienced as an evacuee on a farm in East Coker would have no doubt also have been special to a London schoolboy – particularly as my grandmother had made the decision to move down to Somerset to join her children for the duration of the war. Like many other evacuees, my father had originally been seperated from the rest of his family and sent with his school to Leatherhead in Surrey, where he lodged with the acting head of the Mormon Church in Britain (Andre K. Anastasiou) and his family, as well as other London school children. But after one year he returned home, and during the Blitz my grandmother took him and his infant brother to join his sister in East Coker, where she had been evacuated with her School (see East Coker). Perhaps it was experiencing these unsettling moves at a formative period in his life that made my father nostaligic for a traditional family Christmas. As mentioned previously (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers), I believe that my grandparents tried to create a more stable childhood for their three children than they themselves had experienced, and making sure Christmas was a special family occasion would no doubt have been important to them.

Christmas Under Fire

At the end of 2012, I was lucky enough to visit the 1940s house at the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth (seen in the video clip below) just before the exhibition closed. It was a strange feeling to walk through rooms haunted by another time,  and I had the odd sensation that I had been in such a house before. But when  I tried to reach back for the memory, it kept sliding away from me, like a view just out of sight. Perhaps the ‘idea’ of the house was just imprinted on my mind from old films I had seen, or a vague sense that my grandparents’ house in Bishop’s Grove (where they were rehoused directly after the war) had such a look and atmosphere. In the end I loitered for so long there, standing silently in each of the rooms whenever there was a lull in visitors, that I began to worry someone might find my behaviour suspicious. Even now, when I recall the experience, I have the uncanny feeling of stepping back into my own past on that winter’s afternoon, although I know that cannot be.

Interestingly, I  recently came across the David Lean film This Happy Breed (adapted from the play by Noel Coward), which tells the story of a London Family between the wars. The story was in part influenced by Coward’s upbringing in Clapham and is now a wonderful evocation of the period, as well as being entertaining in its own right. Although the film was made in 1944, the Christmas scene takes place almost twenty years previously, in 1926. Yet it shows the kind of decorations that I remember from my own  childhood – and the ones that my father associated with a ‘proper Christmas’. This scene  in the film is shown in the video clip below.

In addition to taking on the traditions of an English Christmas, my mother soon learnt to cook the kind of Sunday roasts my London grandmother had dished up to her own family, complete with Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and Brussel sprouts. Christmas dinner was just a more extravagant variation of this meal, with turkey substituting for the roast beef, and ham, stuffing, chipolatas, parsnips and cranberry sauce added to the list of foodstuffs overpiled on our overheated plates. At the time I found this meal just as overwhelming as the huge lunches we sat down to after attending church on Sunday.

However, the one festive meal that I adored as a child was our cold Christmas Eve buffet – another Skelton tradition which came about through my grandmother cooking up a large amount of ham on the 24th (in preparation for the Christmas meal). This was the kind of dining experience I could relate to as it was possible to take as little or as much as you wanted over the course of several hours. In addition, there was all our favourite home baking laid out on the mid-century modern hostess trolley for afters (tiffin, mince pies, gipsy creams etc), which to me were infinitely more enjoyable than either Christmas pudding (which smelled too much of alcohol) or the traditional stodgy Christmas cake with its old-fashioned marzipan and polyfilla-style icing.

Every year I declared Christmas Eve to be my favourite part of the holiday, as we settled down in front of the television to watch a family show we had chosen together (from the three channels available) with the aid of the special festive editions of the Radio and T.V. Times (publications only indulged in at Christmas), our plastic trays filled with sausage rolls, ham, chutney etc, a glass of Ribena and lemonade (the posh ‘Christmas drink’) at our sides. Even as a child, I was aware that the aspect of the festivities that I liked the most was that sense of being together as a family, sharing in these annual rituals, and feeling as if we were closing ourselves off from the demands of the outside world for a few days. The presents were simply the icing on the (Christmas) cake, but certainly not the be and end-all of the holiday, particularly  as tradition had decreed that we were not allowed to open our main gifts until after Christmas dinner – and then only one per person at a time. This was a very civilised and civilising experience, and I was always slightly shocked when friends told me about their dawn raids on the presents under the tree, wondering why more families had not adopted our sensible routine.

Another one of the traditions that convinced me we were secretly morally superior to other families was the Boxing Day snowman. Conceived by the London Skeltons as a way of prolonging the celebrations – particularly if they were taking place on the 26th at another relative’s house – the snowman was  basically a portable present holder made from an old dried milk tin covered in cotton wool. Inside was a small present for each guest on which a label (enticingly hanging outside) was tied. When the snowman’s head was taken off, everyone pulled the tag with their name on it. The actual item was usually something as mundane as a bottle of perfume or a packet of cigars, but for the younger members of the family the ritual of the Boxing Day snowman gave the presents an added glamour.

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Preparing the Boxing Day Snowman, London, 1960s

Christmas would also not have been Christmas without the special records my parents played – in particular my father’s favourite: Mario Lanza Sings Christmas Carols. I especially loved the rather eerie  Guardian Angels, which gave a glimpse into the possibiltity of another more esoteric world to a child raised in the traditions of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. In fact, the run up to Christmas (when bracing carols were sung instead of the normal tuneless Victorian hymns) was one of the few times my father regularly attended services at our local church, and my parents both enjoyed the special atmosphere of the midnight service on Christmas Eve. I now regret very much that I never had the opportunity to attend this event with them – as a teenager I decried it hypocritical just to turn up in church for the ‘fun bits’ (a view I shared with my current beau, the minister’s son). My parents, however, took all this youthful rebellion in their stride, with my father (contrary to form) sanguinely declaring that the fact we came out with such statements was proof that we were following normal behavioural development patterns!

As in all families, Christmas became a more muted affair as my sister and I grew older and social activities and boyfriends began to dominate the agenda. By the 1980s the Christmas stockings – my father’s old knee-high RAF socks from his baggy-shorted time in the Middle East – seemed to have had shrunk in size until they eventually disintegrated.  And returning home from university one year, I noticed that the house was no longer festooned with lurid crepe chains and other paraphernalia. My mother explained that  when the box holding the Christmas decorations had been brought down from from the loft, all that was found left inside was a brightly-coloured mouse nest and pile of droppings. She had sighed with relief at this (having first determined that there were no rodents on the loose), and joyfully sprayed some twigs silver instead. 

xmas-paper-decorationsBut even then I felt nostalgic for the old decorations – particularly the single ones we had always hung  around the place. I remember as a child thinking it quite magical that the flattened boot-shape could suddenly pop up  into a multi-coloured honeycombed bell we could dangle from the ceiling. And every year, the opening of the decoration box would bring back memories of all the other Christmases we had experienced.

During this time and beyond, assorted partners would sometimes join our family for the celebrations, often declaring our family Christmases to be one of the best they’d ever had, and earlier  traditions (such as the present map) were revived for their benefit. Naively, I imagined this state of affairs continuing for years into the future, with perhaps new members of the clan with whom to share our rituals.

Unfortunately, Christmas 1993 was to be the last time we would all spend the holiday together. On Christmas Day, 1994, my father (who was then terminally ill) was rushed into hospital, having valiantly tried to hang on for one more family Christmas. We trooped in to visit him on Boxing Day, clutching our sad little presents that would forever remain unwrapped, none of us quite able to believe that the light from our Christmas lodestar was about to be extinguished.

But Christmas goes on, as does life, and new families and new countries have added their own traditions to the mix. Not everyone in my family is the biggest fan of Christmas, but I still get that sense of excitement when December comes round again. And whether I am polishing the angel chimes, collecting pine cones, making mince pies, decorating the tree, or even listening to Mario Lanza, there is always a little bit of those first Christmases that still follows me around, wherever I might be.

Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas!

The Incidental Genealogist, December 2016.