Category Archives: East Coker

The Memory Thief

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

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

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

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

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

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

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

THE MEMORY THIEF (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sort of.

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is your father in this photograph?

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

So your father told you about the photograph?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Coker Commemorations

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

From those first impressions (the patriotic red, white and blue bunting strung up across the road between the thatched cottages; the alms houses by the church; the hayricks in the fields) to later, more concrete information (so this is the farm where Dad once lived; this is the hall where he went dancing; this is the church he was forced to attend), we gradually learnt about the modern-day village and its shadowy wartime predecessor. Walking across the damp fields at dusk towards the warm light of the pub on that first evening, it was almost possible to imagine that the past might still exist in some ghostly form alongside the present. And in the heat of the following day, on a sunken footpath which led from the farm through the woods to the old priory, I lay down, head to the cool soil, and heard the drum of distant hooves and the click of mid-summer insects. For those few seconds it felt as if the earth was struggling to gather up the momentum to move backwards, to reveal something to me – until the shouts of children in the playing fields broke through the thick afternoon air.

East Coker -Path

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

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

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

*

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

Coker Wood 1944 (3)

In Eliot’s Village

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

In a hollow, earthy lane,

Like you might have done

Over sixty years ago now,

When Eliot’s Quartets were fresh and new

And yet to be dissected.

 

The hall, the house, the pub all stand

the woods, the stiles, the awkward paths.

I know you never wanted to return

So I went in your place.

And found a sadder-sweetness there

Amongst the mid-summer haying.

 

Happy New Year! The Incidental Genealogist, January 2018

 

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Of Lost Toys and Mothers

A family without secrets is rare indeed. People who live in families make every effort to keep certain things concealed from the rest of the world, and at times from each other as well. Things will be lied about, or simply never mentioned. Sometimes family secrets are so deeply buried that they elude the conscious awareness even of those most closely involved. From the involuntary amnesias of repression to the wilful forgetting of matters it might be less than convenient to recall, secrets inhabit the borderlands of memory. 

 Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (1995)

When I was a child, a vague sense of my father’s feelings of wartime ‘rootlessness’ was communicated to me by his reluctance to talk about his own childhood, and even to put names to the places where he’d lived. And he in turn was possibly affected by the silences kept by his parents about their own unsettled beginnings, which were marked by death and poverty – particularly in the case of my grandfather.

The theory of transgenerational ‘haunting’ (or cryptonomy) described by the psychoanalysts Abraham and Torok, may provide one answer for these silences. They believe that the hidden traumas of previous generations can affect the lives of their descendants, and that this knowledge is passed on through what is hidden or not said, rather than what is implicitly stated. The 2nd World War was certainly an uncanny time in history, being haunted by memories of the previous – and relatively recent – conflict, and would have revived negative memories for those who had lived through that time. It was only when I was older that I began to appreciate the fact that, like many of those born in the latter half of the 19th century, my grandparents had lived through two long periods of war, something which must have impacted on their lives in various ways.

Years later when my father returned to visit East Coker (where he was evacuated during the war: see In my Beginning is my End), he was disappointed and saddened by the experience and did not want to talk about it. The lane which led to Burton farm  – once a dirt track with one or two cottages – was now graced by a row of detached suburban-style houses, while the original village centre had expanded outwards to swallow other nearby lanes and hamlets. This does not detract from the intact feeling of the place for the modern visitor, but would represent major changes to someone who had waited almost half a century to return. Like his father before him, who did not recognise post-war Brixton, he could not easily reconcile this version of a more ‘sanitised’ East Coker with the one he had kept in his memory. And devoid of the people he had once known, the place might have given off the eerie feeling of being a simulacrum of the village he had once called home.

The Day They Took the Children

It was around this time that I, perhaps thoughtlessly, gave my father a book detailing the personal childhood experiences of the evacuation (The Day They Took the Children, by Ben Wicks), thinking it would be something in which he might be interested. Later I discovered that he had put it away, unread. The children’s evacuation had exerted a fascination for me ever since I’d watched the 1974 children’s BBC drama Carrie’s War, (based on the book by Nina Bawden), and I had always regarded it as something exciting – almost wishing I could have experienced it for myself, despite the hardships the story portrayed. And in some way my father’s time in Somerset had become entwined with those thoughts of escape and adventure.

One thing which happened at the time of the evacuation which I had heard about was the story of the lost toys. Growing up in a household full of practically every plaything I could reasonably wish for, this tale has always seemed especially poignant. Pieced together from shared memories, it concerns the day, relatively early on in the war, when my grandfather brought some of the furniture and belongings from the bombed house in West Norwood down to Somerset, travelling from the railway station in a pony and trap. When the children knew that their father was bringing their cherished possessions from the old house, they were in a great state of excitement at seeing their father and being reunited with their favourite things again. Alas, it was not to be. None of their toys were among the objects on the cart, including my father’s beloved fort and my aunt’s dolls’ house, both of which I believe had been made for them by my grandfather, who had a gift for working with wood. It turned out that Sidney had stored some of their belongings with relatives in Norwood with whom he had eventually quarrelled, and he had never been able to go back to fetch these items.

I often wonder what happened to those toys – which were no doubt greatly loved at a time when children had few playthings. I remember once when I was staying with my Scottish grandmother after she had been widowed, and my mother had helped her clear out a cupboard built into the floor of the cloakroom in the hall (or lobby press, as we called it). This had always been my grandfather’s domain (being dark and dusty and full of spiders), and when my mother took it upon herself to rummage about in the space she found a cornucopia of old toys, many of which she’d been bequeathed from older relatives, including a china doll bought in France during WW1, a metal spinning top, and a couple of strange wooden objects we had to be taught how to use! This also spurred my Scottish grandmother to reminisce about her favourite childhood games – including the metal hoops that she and her siblings played with in the street (which seem to be the ubiquitous image of turn of the century childhood). I vowed then that I would never let my favourite childhood toys languish in an attic or basement space.

So it is little wonder that the one possession my father still had from his childhood was tucked away at the back of his section in my parents’ wardrobe, thus taking on a magical significance in my eyes. It was a book of fairy tales which had been given to him for Good Work and Conduct in 1936 while a pupil at Crawford Road School, situated round the corner from the house in Denmark Rd. It seemed strange to me then for an adult to keep a children’s book hidden away like that, and the moment our parents’ backs were turned my sister and I used to sneak the book out of the wardrobe, revisiting our particular favourite stories again and again. We enjoyed being spooked by the graphic descriptions of evil deeds and the accompanying evocative line drawings. Blue Beard and his Seven Wives was one story of which I never tired – and I would reread with relish the descriptions of the forbidden closet where Blue Beard’s ex-wives’ bodies were plastered against the walls. And as children we believed that the book had been hidden in order to protect us from reading about such horrific events.

Fairytales

Eventually it ended up in the hall bookcase – the pages had been so badly smeared with grease from our cake-eating fingers that there was little point in keeping it away from us any longer. But we were never admonished for ‘defacing’ the book (I had even scribbled over the dedication), whose first owner had kept in immaculate condition. Maybe there was a sense of liberation from the past when two living and irreverent children found joy anew in the gruesome tales? Thankfully the book survived intact, in part due to its special status, while its counterpart (my mother’s fairy tale book) at our McKay grandparents’ house did not.

This book was possibly my father’s link to his stable pre-war childhood – and had probably been a prized possession in a house that had few books (even as adults my parents never collected books in the same way my sister and I do, although we were certainly given plenty as children). This period in my father’s childhood seemed to have created the strongest memories, many of which I only know through my mother. I learned that the family had once had a pet dog called Ronnie, and had kept hens for a while; that Sidney rose early on cold mornings to light the fire before the family stirred, and that he could turn his hand to almost anything: he grew vegetables, made things from wood, and knitted intricate patterned woollens (a skill he had learned in the army).

The Swing that Grandad Skelton Made, 1968
Grandad (Sidney) Skelton looking for some DIY jobs to do: Ayr, 1967

For her part, my grandmother, Edith, was a very motherly woman who fussed over her brood to an extent that my father eventually found claustrophobic: the very fact that she kept them all together during the war is testament to her desire to give them a continued sense of family. In short, both my grandparents dedicated themselves to raising their three children, trying (perhaps even unconsciously) to give them the safe childhood that they themselves had lacked.

We know already that Edith lost her father at a relatively young age, and had also to move from her childhood home to less salubrious surroundings (see I Remember, I Remember), but what of Sidney? When I was doing my initial research in those far-away, pre-internet days I only had access to the census up until 1891, but once I was able to continue my search I had both the 1901 and 1911 census at my disposal. This data in turn threw up more avenues of research in the form of birth, marriages and death certificates, which in turn created more leads (such is the nature of genealogical research). Parish records – particularly for the London area – were now on-line, and school and workhouse registers could be viewed at the London Metropolitan Archives – before many of them eventually also became digitalised. And so it was that I was able to find out more about my grandfather’s beginnings.

It seems that Sidney Skelton was born on February 12th 1892 in part of a multi-occupancy house which the family rented at 78, Cator Street in Peckham (near the Old Kent Road and the now long-gone Surrey Canal). He was the fifth child to a working-class couple in their early thirties – his father Arthur was a journeyman bootmaker. (This meant he had served an apprenticeship but had not reached the level of master where he could hire apprentices). Arthur Skelton had named his son after his younger brother – who had inadvertently also been christened Arthur (!) but was known as Sidney.

CATOR STREET
A handful of well-preserved original houses in Cator Street today

From the various records I consulted,  the Skeltons appear to have led a precarious existence: as their family grew, Arthur and his wife Elizabeth (neé Holton) were constantly moving around Lambeth in the search for cheaper rents and employment (often renting two rooms for the whole family). In contrast to most of their siblings, Arthur and Elizabeth seem to have been a rather feckless pair. They had met as teenagers in Kennington where they’d lived in adjoining streets, and married soon after, when Elizabeth was six month’s pregnant with their first child, Arthur jnr. Elizabeth had no education and was unable to write, while Arthur snr. had grown up not really knowing his father, who had been 60 when he was born. Arthur  snr. was, like his own son Sidney was to be, also the fifth child of six: in his case he was the product of a long-term relationship between a middle-aged widower and a teenage single mother. His mother (who was in her thirties when widowed by her 67 year old husband of 3 years) eventually had to go out to work in order to support the family, and Arthur left school at the age of 10 (as was normal in those days) and started work as a milk boy.

In June 1895, when my grandfather was three, the family (who had already moved several times since his birth) were now living in Daniels Rd, Nunhead opposite the famous cemetery.  At around this time Charles Booth described the street (which was built in 1863) as 2 story houses, flush with sidewalk; broken windows occasional; numerous and noisy children: a low standard street; difficult to say what the people do for a living, but some work as labourers in the adjacent cemetery, others as builders’ labourers etc. Broken windows seemed to be a relatively common feature of the area – Booth’s notes for the neighbouring Nunhead Grove mention that A small boys’ battle was raging while we were in this street, with stones flying about unpleasantly, but apparently no damage done. One of the common complaints of this section is that of boys who break a window instead of cutting an enemy’s eye open.

It was while living at Nunhead that Sidney’s mother Elizabeth was admitted to St Thomas’s Hospital with Cirrhosis of the Liver and Jaundice. She died on the charity ward there, several weeks later. We do not know what caused this illness – whether she had contracted a hepatitis infection or had been imbibing to escape the privations of her life. Unfortunately, the impressive looking, red leather Death Book from St Thomas’s, which I consulted in the LMA, did not give me any more details. Soon after his mother died, little Sidney (who even as an old man gave the impression that he had never quite developed into his full height) was sent to the local school with his siblings – possibly because there was no one now at home to look after him. However, the following year (1896) Arthur married a neighbouring widow (Harriet Pushman) who had several children of her own, necessitating yet another house move.

What really saddened me was when I discovered that some of Sidney’s experiences had actually closely mirrored (albeit in different circumstances) one set of his grandchildren, who, over seventy years later, were themselves left motherless at a vulnerable age. This made me curious as to why he had never told any of the family about the loss of his own mother. Had he in fact even remembered the event? When it came to his grandchildren, Sidney played a major role in helping them and their father come to terms with their situation – but he was also adamant that his grandson should learn to stand on his own two feet. With hindsight it would seem that (whether consciously or not) Sidney wanted him to deal with his loss in the same stoical way as he had no doubt done, having had little choice in the matter. I often wonder what it would have been like for such a young child to have suddenly gained not only a new step-mother, but also a collection of step-siblings near to him in age. (His oldest brother, Arthur, eventually went on to marry his step-sister, Harriet, both of whom were named after their respective parents).

There is, however, a sad post-script to this story. Several months ago I came across the records of the baptism of another little boy who was born to an Arthur and Elizabeth Skelton of Daniels Rd in Nunhead. I would seem that he was ‘one of ours’. Yet why had I never heard of this child? My father’s family had always assumed that Sidney was the last of the brood. But it turned out that Elizabeth had actually given birth to one more child at the age of 35, a year before she succumbed to her illness. A boy called Frederick Edward. So what had become of him? Some more research soon revealed the horrible truth: he had died alongside his mother at St. Thomas’s from Rickets (3 months) and Marasmus (in other words, severe malnutrition) at the age of 7 months. It seemed that no-one in the family had ever known of this little fellow’s existence: an infant who would not have been allowed to lose his life in the London of today.

It is perhaps the death of Frederick which makes me (rightly or wrongly) judge Arthur and Elizabeth harshly. Was Elizabeth an alcoholic who was unable to care properly for her children? Was Arthur already in a relationship with Harriet Pushman before Elizabeth’s demise? Were they actually both unfit to be parents?

Some things we will never know, and it is perhaps better so. But the idea that the repressed memory of such events may find their way down through the generations in different ways is certainly appealing. And there is yet one more twist to this tale. The night my grandfather died (and before we received the news in Scotland, as we had no telephone at the time) my father – who was by no means given to flights of fancy – awoke to find his father standing at the bottom of the bed, smoothing down the coverlet. It seems that even as Sidney was leaving this world, he was trying to let his children know that he still wanted to take care of them. 

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2016

East Coker

What is the late November doing

With the disturbance of the spring

And creatures of the summer heat,

And snowdrops writhing under feet

And hollyhocks that aim too high

Red into grey and tumble down

Late roses filled with early snow?

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

East Coker is a place that has mostly won the battle to preserve its rural charms, mainly due to the Eliot connection, and still has few modern buildings or street lights. Visitors come to see the “deep lanes”, “the open fields”, the houses of “grey stone” and the “hollyhocks that aim too high”. It has even been said that Eliot based part of his poem on the 1876 Friedrich Gerstäcker tale of the mysterious community of Germelshausen, where the population had been cursed by the pope and were only allowed to come out of the earth for one day of revelry every hundred years. There is certainly a feeling of liminality when entering the village through the ancient lanes that resemble tunnels into another world. And it is not too difficult to imagine that the place is haunted by the spectre of an earlier time which can only be faintly glimpsed at certain moments.

The morning I met Alan Cornelius – the old man who had taken the photograph in Coker woods on that Whit Monday over sixty years ago (see In my Beginning is my End) – the village was looking its time-warped best. The jaunty red, white and blue bunting strung up between the thatched houses in the main street hung still in the mid-summer air, and the sounds of hay stooking cut across the yellow fields. The Helyar Arms was preparing for its first customers, and the church was alive with the bustle of middle-aged women setting the final touches to the arrangements in St Michael’s Church flower festival.

Flower Festival at St Michael's Church, East Coker

St Michaels's East Coker
St Michael’s and All Saints, East Coker

By noon the cow parsley in the hedgerows was wilting in the heat, and the exhibition in the village hall was coming to a close. We called those long wooden sticks ‘staves’ back then Alan Cornelius said, as he packed away his black-and white copy of ‘my’ photograph amongst his other WW2 memorabilia. And we were off to fight the enemy in the woods. He shook his head. It seems like a lifetime ago now!

Among all the other bits and pieces on his stall that the younger visitors to the exhibition found so fascinating, was a copy of his childhood diary. The short, scribbled entries illustrated just how exciting the war could seem to a thirteen year old boy. There were numerous descriptions of long bike rides searching for incendiaries in the surrounding fields, building model aeroplanes bought from a shop in Yeovil, watching out for enemy aircraft, visiting the local Westland Aircraft Factory (where Lysanders or ‘Lizzies’ were built). 

One diary entry triggered a particular memory for Alan Cornelius which made me smile: Early on in the war a bomb fell on a nearby farm, killing a bull. Your dad said this was ‘abominable’. It was typical of him. He always was a sharp one. I thought back to how my father used to make up  limericks and nonsense rhymes when we were young, and could imagine him honing this skill amongst his peers. He had arrived in the village with his mother and baby brother as a ‘lone’ evacuee, not as part of a school group, so a sense of humour and an aptitude for word play might have eased the path to acceptance by his new classmates.

My aunt was actually the first in the family to be sent to East Coker when war broke out, being evacuated with part of her school, and was the reason my father finally ended up in the village. Alan Cornelius described this event in his unpublished memoirs as such: 

The pupils of the Charles Edward Brooke School for Girls in Camberwell had left their school at 8am on the morning of Friday September 1st, and after a train journey of over four hours from Waterloo to Yeovil Town Station via the Junction, arrived at the reception centre in the Yeovil Liberal Hall in the early afternoon. Here they were divided into ‘Village Groups’, and the East Coker contingent arrived at the village hall sometime around 4pm, resplendent in felt hats, uniforms and badges, and with school staff, house mothers and an air of genteel respectability which most foster parents found very acceptable and in stark contrast to the primary school children from Battersea who had preceded them by some hours. Even so, there was still the air of a cattle market over the business of placements in foster homes.

Children from the Charles Edward Brooke (girls) School boarding trams in Camberwell New Road. The children are to be taken to Waterloo station for evacuation, 1939. (1998/36461)

Children from the Charles Edward Brooke (girls) School boarding trams in Camberwell New Road. The children are to be taken to Waterloo station for evacuation, 1939. (1998/36461) (c) London Transport Museum

Click here to read a personal account of evacuation from the Charles Edward Brooke School, (which coincidentally was recorded on the day I first visited East Coker).

While my aunt was sent to Somerset, my father was initially evacuated with the local Gipsy Hill primary school to Leatherhead in Surrey. There he was billeted alongside other children with a Mormon family whom he remembered chiefly for the fact that they gave their charges the cast-off bicycles of the junior members of the Kennedy clan. (Joseph Kennedy – then American ambassador to Great Britain – had stayed in a house in nearby Headley during the first year of the war, before being forced to resign in November 1940). I like to imagine my father cycling to school on J.F.K’s old bicycle, and sometimes wonder if that was the catalyst to my parents’ on-going joke that our family and the Kennedys shared a series of (near) parallel death dates. In an uncanny twist of fate, my father was to eventually die in January 1995, several hours before Rose Kennedy did.

Within a year, my father was back home in West Norwood  – like many London families the ‘phoney war’ had lulled them into a false sense of security – with my grandparents omitting to tell my aunt, lest she want to return too. My father remembered the constant trips to the air raid shelter (seemingly always when he was in the middle of a setting out his lead soldiers), so this would have been in the autumn of 1940, around the time that the bombing  started in earnest. Having only recently moved the family from a dilapidated Victorian terrace in Brixton to a modern, cottage-style semi on the Bloomfield Hall Estate, my poor grandmother must have despaired at ever being able to create the comfortable home she craved!

One inauspicious afternoon, my father arrived back home from school to find my grandfather standing at the end of their road, a couple of battered suitcases at his feet, telling him that their house had taken a hit and they would be ‘going away’ (the London bomb maps shows the area was heavily shelled during this period). It is one of the very few things I ever remember my father telling us about that period in his life – apart from the spectacle of watching The Crystal Palace burn down from his upstairs bedroom window in the old house in Denmark Road.

In the end, my grandmother took my father and his brother to Somerset to join their older sister in a bid to keep her children together, while my grandfather stayed in London working as a tram conductor out of the Camberwell depot. From my aunt, I know that this was not an easy time for my grandmother: in her first billet she stayed with a woman who lived in a cottage opposite the church, and who treated her like her own personal skivvy. This must have been galling to a mature mother of three who was used to being mistress of her own home, but she eventually found a more convivial place for the family in a cottage at Burton Farm, where the Dunning family lived. And this was the place where my father retained strong memories of helping out on the farm with the other children – and which gave him his lifelong love of the British countryside.

Burton Farm
Burton Farm, East Coker (now a listed building) – Burton Cottage is on the far right.

Burton Cottage

The more I heard from Alan Cornelius about life in East Coker during the war, the more I realised that evacuation to the village would not necessarily have been a hardship – as long as the children were placed with a sympathetic household. The villagers appeared to have made a great effort to integrate the evacuees, and many of the youngsters were pleased to welcome the newcomers to their clubs and dances. What adolescent hasn’t rejoiced at the injection of new ‘talent’ into their midst? Alan Cornelius describes the impact of the arrival of the girls from the Charles Edward Brooke School thus:

The Primary school children (from Battersea) with the few parents that accompanied them, soon became bored with country life. With the ‘Phoney War’ extending into 1940 and seeing little reason to remain evacuated, they returned in ones and twos to their familiar life in the city. A few did come back when the Blitz started in earnest and their school in the Mission Church in Burton remained in operation until nearly the end of the war.

The Mission Church, Burton Lane, which my grandmother used to clean
The Mission Church, Burton Lane, which my grandmother used to clean when it was used as a school.

The CEBS girls, however, settled down quickly, adjusted to the quiet country life and were much more concerned to complete their education with good School Certificates. Each day, coach loads of girls were bused in from the villages, and in the early days the local company of Barlow and Phillips used their rather ancient (even then) char-a-banc, a wide-bodied vehicle with a folding canvas roof and celluloid windows, on the East Coker run. A relic from the 1920s outings to the seaside, it produced much merriment with us ‘lads’, particularly if girls of our acquaintance were traveling in it. It didn’t take long for some of those to blossom into more fulsome friendships, although the village foster mothers were probably even more protective than their natural ones in guarding their charges from the amatory advances of the local youth.

The East Coker Boys Club,1944 at Coker Court
The ‘local youth’: East Coker Boys Club, 1944, at Coker Court. My father is on the far left (kneeling). Alan Cornelius is 3rd from the right (seated).

Despite the charms of East Coker, for the rest of his life my father was to wonder at what might have happened had he been able to take up his scholarship to attend the prestigious James Alleyne’s School in Dulwich. He remembered the smart uniform which had already been bought, and the sense of life about to begin; but the war sent him off spinning in another direction. East Coker, however, kept him rooted during a time of great upheaval and chaos. And he was, I believe, always grateful for that.

Western Gazette, July 15th 2005 (some factal inaccuracies)
Western Gazette, July 15th 2005 (some factual inaccuracies in regard to our story). Click on the image to read.

To be continued next month in I Remember, I Remember . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2015

 

In my Beginning is my End

In my beginning is my end, in succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

Perhaps I wasn’t being entirely truthful when I said last month that I did not have any photographs of my paternal family (see Begin Again). Some years after my father died, my mother came across a handful of old snapshots in a battered leather wallet, one of which was recognisably a small black and white picture of my English grandparents flanking their first car (a retirement treat) on a day trip to Hayling Island.

The other photographs, however, were disappointingly of unknown friends and colleagues. But one of the pictures fascinated me in particular. It was the only hand-coloured image in the collection, and showed five boys under a tree, relaxed and grinning at an unknown photographer, long pointed sticks in their hands. On the reverse was written in faded blue ink: Expedition to East Coker Woods, Whit Monday 1944. It was not difficult to locate my father (to the far right) and my future uncle (through marriage) behind him.

Expedition to East Coker Woods, Whit-Monday 1944

From the date (my father was born in 1928) I knew the boys were all most likely teenagers, but their old-fashioned clothes and obvious pleasure in their bank holiday outing made them seem much younger. In fact, such was the incongruity of the image that I was instantly reminded of Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills, set in 1943, where a group of children, played by adults, set off to play in the Forest of Dean, with tragic consequences. I had even watched that film with my father, who was normally averse to anything by Dennis Potter.

That must have been taken when Dad was an evacuee my mother explained. He was sent to Somerset. I think his mother’s family originally came from somewhere near there.

But wasn’t the place called Yeovil – not East Coker? I remembered the name because as a child my father had occasionally told me stories about the time he’d spent there during the war. He told me about collecting newts in jam jars, about raiding birds’ nests for eggs (something of which he was later ashamed), about hunting for shrapnel in the lanes. When I grew older, he added other tales to his repertoire: the dances in the village hall, drinking scrumpy straight from the farmer’s barrel, shooting rabbits. When I finally asked my father where this village was, all he said was that it was called Yeovil. To my Scottish ears the place sounded exactly like the kind of mythical English village of perpetual idyllic summers, where hollyhocks and sunflowers towered high above the inhabitants, and children were free to run through woods and fields and lanes.

I pulled out the AA drivers’ map circa 1988 that now had little use in a family of non-drivers. Once I located Yeovil it wasn’t that difficult to find the Cokers (East, West and North – where was South?) standing to the south-west of  Yeovil like sentries. But there was something else about the name that seemed vaguely familiar. It niggled at me for days before I later came across the Eliot poem – part of the Four Quartets. I thought it strange that my father, who loved poetry, had never bothered to tell me about the village and its link to Eliot, particularly when I had studied the writer so intensively for my English ‘O Grade’ exam.

My 1941 5th edition - originally one shilling
My 1941, 1st edition, 5th impression – originally priced at one shilling.

As we were growing up, my father had given my sister and me an eclectic mix of poetry books, from Seamus Heaney’s North to Hillaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and he must have been aware of the connection Eliot had to East Coker. Although the poem had been first issued in pamphlet form by Faber and Faber in 1940 (and reprinted several times, such was its popularity), the Four Quartets was not published until several years later. So my father would have certainly heard about the poem at some point. It was almost as if he had never wanted us to know the exact location of the place which had taken away so much with one hand (his home in London; his coveted scholarship to the posh school in Dulwich), but had bestowed gifts with the other (love and respect for nature; an appreciation and understanding of the British countryside).

A few weeks later I came across the on-line East Coker Newsletter while trying to find out more information about the village. An announcement proclaimed that there would be special events set up to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE and VJ Day during the second weekend in July 2005. This seemed to resonate with my plans to visit, and I knew then that I had to make the trip.

East Coker Commemorations

What I couldn’t realise then is that the date of my first visit to East Coker would forever be linked in my mind with the London bombings. That weekend was due to be hot, and as my mother and I boarded our flight on the morning of July 7th   we were oblivious to the horrific events unfolding in the capital. But the news soon filtered through to us, and in the end we were unable to leave our luggage in the centre of Bristol to look round the city as we had planned, so we simply took the next west-bound train and ate our limp picnic in the stuffy compartment while the ticket collector nervously prowled the corridors, checking and re-checking for any stray luggage. As we watched the lush West Country scenery slip past, it was hard to imagine the scenes of carnage in the capital – just as it must have been difficult for those who moved from London to the countryside for the duration of the war to envisage the destruction of the Blitz.

After everything I’d expected from the ancient-sounding name, Yeovil seemed an unprepossessing place. Disaffected youths roamed the bland post-war shopping area around the bus station, and there was a feeling that the market town had seen better days. I was beginning to wonder if we were in for a similar disappointment with East Coker. After all, it had been my father who had always told us that we should never go back anywhere. He himself had returned in the 1980s and had been saddened with the changes to the village, and reluctant to talk about the experience. But I consoled myself with the thought that as we had no memories of the place ourselves, there was not the same degree of emotional involvement, and that whatever we might see or experience there would more than likely be a revelation to us.

From Yeovil we caught a local bus to East Coker, travelling the way some of the evacuees might have come on September 1st, 1939. Before long a cast iron signpost – of the kind seldom seen nowadays – pointed us in the direction of East Coker. The bus suddenly veered off down a narrow lane which sunk deeper into the surrounding land the further we travelled along it. Snake-like roots of ancient hedgerows protruded from the sandy soil, while above us the canopy shut out most of the late afternoon sun. Then we rounded an unexpected corner and came into the centre of the village: a village that looked as if it should not – could not – belong in the twenty-first century.

One of the many sunken lanes around East Coker

Sunken lanes and cast iron signposts around East Coker
Sunken lanes and cast iron signposts around East Coker.
Thatched Cottages in East Coker
Thatched Cottages in East Coker

From those first impressions (the patriotic red, white and blue bunting strung up across the main road between the thatched cottages; the alms houses by the church; the hayricks in the fields), to later, more personal information (so this is the farm where Dad once lived; this is the hall where he first went dancing; this is the church where he carved his name in the vestry), we gradually learnt about the modern-day village and its shadowy wartime predecessor. Walking across the damp fields at dusk towards the warm light of the pub on that first evening, it was almost possible to imagine that the past might still exist in some ghostly form alongside the present.

And in the heat of the following day, on a sunken footpath which led from the farm through the woods to the old priory, I lay down, head to the red soil, and heard the drum of distant hooves and the click of mid-summer insects. For those few seconds it felt as if the earth was struggling to gather up the momentum to move backwards, to reveal something to me – until the shouts of children in the playing fields broke through the thick afternoon air.

Public Footpath from Burton Lane to Nash Priory
Public Footpath from Burton Lane to Naish Priory.

The following day we finally met the boy who had taken the photograph in the woods on Whitsun Monday over sixty years previously. He was manning one of the stalls in the village hall war exhibition, and his table was a jumble of WW2 paraphernalia: old ration books, bits of home guard uniform, various pieces of ammunition. One part of his collection was dedicated to the story of the relationship between the local children and the evacuees.  

And there I saw it. Amongst the letters and diaries and various bits and bobs of printed memorabilia, was a copy of our own photograph in black and white, mounted in a crude wooden frame. Not trusting myself to speak, I reached into my bag and pulled out my hand-coloured version, and passed it across the table, watching the old man’s face twitch as he struggled to work out the connection.

It was then I learnt about that day out in the woods. A moment of late childhood, hanging high and free above the dark shadow cast by the war, and caught on camera like a dragonfly in ether for the dissection of future generations.

To be continued next month in East Coker.

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2015