Category Archives: Grandparents

February Fill the Dyke

February certainly lived up to its old appellation of ‘fill-the-dyke’ this year – at least it did in Scotland. It was my first trip home in two years, and while many things in Edinburgh had changed, the late winter weather was just as miserable as I’d remembered, albeit persistently windier. I had never heard the old rhyme February fill the dyke, either black or white before, but my mother told me that it was one of her maternal grandmother’s favourite climate-related sayings, including the rather pessimistic  Ne’er cast a clout before May be out. (Etymologists still cannot decide whether the May in question refers to the spring month or the arrival of the hawthorn – or may – blossom several weeks earlier, but there are compelling arguments for both alternatives).

Despite the ambiguity of the aforementioned rhyme, had it been May and not February my mother and I might have actually managed to do some of the things we’d planned (layered up or not): such as exploring the Canongate and Dumbiedykes area of the city where one side of our Scottish family had lived, or heading down the east coast to rural Athelstaneford, from where the Neilsons had originated. But due to the hostile weather we spent a lot of time indoors, sorting out the five messy boxes that contained all the Scottish family photographs amassed over the last 130 plus years. That in itself took up most of the week (and most of the living room), and in fact was a task that I’d still not finished when I was hurriedly packing my suitcase in preparation for my all-too-soon departure.

However, without the dykes being filled (both black and white) I doubt I’d have had the time to even manage to reorganise one of the boxes; so I have February to thank for my achievement. And even though I didn’t manage to digitalise all the photographs, I made at least a stab at sorting out the contents of the boxes into five separate categories. While it had always seemed fun just to prise open the lids and find random photos irreverently juxtaposed inside – my mother playing tennis in shorts as a teenager in the fifties next to a cabinet card of straight-backed Victorians – it was not conducive to any easy retrieval of images, something which needed to be rectified for my genealogy project. But therein lay the problem: how should the contents of the boxes be categorised?

My grandmother with my grandfather’s motorcycle, Largs late 1920s

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album

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The Incidental Genealogist, March 2022

A Tenement with a View

This month in my new Scottish family history blog, I am focusing on my grandmother’s childhood home in the Dumbiedykes‘  tenement flat in the east of Edinburgh. It is a house which I have never seen as it was torn down during the 1960s post-war ‘slum clearances’, although it had once been a much loved family home. Not only was the location fairly central for Edinburgh’s Old Town, but the balcony from the top floor flat looked over Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat. This balcony was also the scene of many family photographs – no doubt because of the space and light that wasn’t available inside the crowded tenement – and it’s thanks to this (and the unknown photographer, who was possibly one of my grandmother’s brothers) that there are so many natural images of the family relaxing at home throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s.

*My Grandparents on the Dumbiedykes Balcony, c1930

As a child I was always drawn to the set of photographs taken from the balcony of my great-grandparents’ tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Dumbieykes area. Through these images I saw my grandmother morph from a gangly 1920s teenager into a young married woman in the 1930s and then as a mother in the 1940s. Fashion moved on over the decades, but the solid-looking wrought-iron balcony was a constant. I have been told that the views from the flat over Holyrood Park were spectacular, although unfortunately no-one in the family thought to photograph them. My mother credits the fresh air blowing in from Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags for the Neilsons’ longevity – in addition to my great-grandmother’s plain and wholesome Scottish cooking. And even if they did not take advantage of the outdoor space in quite the same way we would today, the family must have appreciated being able to step out onto the balcony on a sunny morning, or to simply have a place to hang up damp laundry or wet overcoats.

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album

Better still, become a subscriber to the new blog and always get each new chapter delivered to your inbox on the first of the month!

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2022

An Ordinary and Unremarkable Woman: Part 2

This month, I am publishing the second part of an essay my mother (born Catherine Thomson McKay in 1938) wrote about her namesake maternal grandmother – Catherine Miller Thomson – the great-grandmother who I remembered from my early childhood. With my mother’s permission, I have edited and updated her text slightly, without removing the spirit of the original. This potted biography was originally an assignment for a course in family history, a subject my mother took up after I returned home from London and recounted my exploits as an heir hunter in Holborn in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born). When my mother wrote the article, she was younger than I am now; which is a sobering reminder of how time has a habit of overtaking us all. But this can also be a spur to action, as it is never too late to start working on a family history and interview living relatives.

Part 1 last month focussed on my great-grandmother’s early years and this post will move through the years of her marriage in the Dumbiedykestenement flat in the east of Edinburgh. It is a house which no longer exists, being torn down during the 1960s ‘slum clearances’ that destroyed many solid housing in its well-meant quest for social change during the post-war period, but was a much loved family home. Not only did the balcony from the top floor flat afford the Neilson family wonderful vistas over Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat, but it was fairly central for the rest of the city, in particular the south side. Despite my assumption that the moves to the suburbs or farther afield were something the subsequent generation had aspired to, I later discovered that most of the Neilsons liked their life in the city. And during my time living and working in The Canongate – the eastern end of the Royal Mile – in the mid-90s, I grew to appreciate the benefits of being in the heart of the old town, but with parks and hills and a palace on my doorstep. 

*Catherine and Robert Neilson in Middle-Age

In the years after my grandmother’s marriage to Robert Neilson in 1897, the outside world was changing. Queen Victoria had died; there followed the short reign of Edward the Seventh, and then George the Fifth ascended the throne. Great ships were being built in Scotland at Clydebank, but for the working man the fear of being out of work was omnipresent. There were no family allowances or unemployment benefits and the one dread of a family was to go ‘on the Parish’ or into the workhouse – known locally as ‘the Poorshoose’. Fortunately, through the thrift of my grandparents, this did not happen to their family. good health was also a strong factor in their favour as they all remained in remarkably good health, despite the relatively crowded conditions of their living quarters. The dreaded spectre of tuberculosis, which wiped out many families in those days, was fortunately absent from their household. 

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album

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Happy New Year!

The Incidental Genealogist, January 2022

An Ordinary and Unremarkable Woman: Part 1

This month, I am publishing the first part of an essay my mother (born Catherine Thomson McKay in 1938) wrote about her namesake maternal grandmother – the great-grandmother who I remembered from my early childhood. With my mother’s permission, I have edited and updated her text slightly, without removing the spirit of the original. This potted biography was originally an assignment for a course in family history, a subject my mother took up after I returned home from London and recounted my exploits as an heir hunter in Holborn in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born). When my mother wrote the article, she was younger than I am now; which is a sobering reminder of how time has a habit of overtaking us all. But this can also be a spur to action, as it is never too late to start working on a family history and interview living relatives.

Through editing this post, I came to realise how much of my Edinburgh ancestor’s lives were based around The Canongate – the eastern end of the Royal Mile, and a place I knew well. In the 1990s, not only did I live and work in the heart of the district, but on summer evenings I would lean out of the flat window, surveying the busy thoroughfare below, musing on the fact that citizens had done this for centuries (although I did not go as far as to throw out the contents of my chamber pot, as was once commonplace!). Ghost tours stopped in the centuries old courtyard behind the tenement, spooking the residents with their shrieks and howls. On quiet Sundays I’d explore all the hidden closes and gardens of this most historical street. I became enchanted with some of the nooks and crannies that the majority of visitors overlooked, including White Horse Close, where unbeknownst to me, my great-grandmother had lived as a girl in the 1880s. In fact, I even took my husband there on our first date – and we’ve been back many times since without ever being aware of the family connection.

In the months that follow, I look forward to sharing this remarkable district of Edinburgh with you. As my mother says below: All history passed that way.

*

Catherine Miller Thomson age 18

My maternal grandmother, whose name I share, was an ordinary and unremarkable working-class woman, typical of her social standing and the times in which she lived. But in retrospect, three facts about her life now appear remarkable to me today: she lived through the Boer and the 1st and 2nd World Wars; her lifetime coincided with the reign of six monarchs, spanning Victoria to the present Queen Elizabeth 2nd. And she produced eleven children with predictable regularity from the time of her marriage in 1898 until shortly before her 43rd birthday in 1917.

*

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album

Better still, become a subscriber to the new blog and always get each new chapter delivered to your inbox on the first of the month!

The Incidental Genealogist, December 2021

The Evening with the Photograph Album

Exactly six years ago this month, my nascent blog was featured by The Gentle Author in the London blog, Spitalfields Life. As an alumnus from the Gentle Author’s writing course, I had been invited to send in a post from my blog to be considered for publication, and through this fortuitous event (see here) I gained my first core readership, as well as the confidence to promote my blog to friends and family. Since then, I have featured again in Spitalfields Life (see here), and also returned to the old weaver’s house in Fournier Street for an advanced writing workshop with The Gentle Author just before the pandemic hit the country (see Strange Times Indeed).

Now I find myself in the position of having to promote my new blog A Scottish Family Album. So if you have enjoyed A London Family (which will continue to remain online and accessible to readers and researchers), it would be an honour and a pleasure if you joined me in my new Scottish genealogical quest which is based on the old family albums that my mother inherited from her parents and maternal grandmother. Starting this fresh project has taken me back to the early days of my London-based research and the excitement that each new family find generated. This time I have the added bonus of my secret weapon: my Scottish mother, who herself undertook genealogical research into her family after I came back home full of tales about life in Thatcher’s London as an heir hunter.  

This month’s blog post in A Scottish Family Album is entitled Foxed Mirrors and Fairy Tales – and is focused on my own impressions of my Scottish grandparents and their home in Edinburgh. Having featured in last month’s A London Family, it is a link between my two strands of genealogical research.

With my McKay grandparents, Edinburgh 1964

My Scottish grandparents were ten years younger than my English ones (my father was ten years older than my mother) and thus my Scottish grandfather just missed serving in WW1, unlike Grandad Skelton (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier). Yet both my grandmothers worked as young women – Grandma Skelton as a telephonist at the Central Post Office in London (see Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman) and my Scottish grandmother undertook an apprenticeship in an Edinburgh department store as a dressmaker, a skill she passed on to my mother. 

I always remember her making her own clothes, just as my own mother did, and in fact in the 1963 wedding photograph of my parents below, she is wearing her own ‘mother- of-the-bride’ outfit (second from left). In contrast to my rather stout and ungainly English grandmother, Grandma McKay was always neat and elegant and whippet-thin. It is hard for me to believe that on this day she is exactly the same age as I am now, although her grey permed hair seems to set her apart from today’s fifty-somethings (the outfit would still be a killer one!)

Poor grandma Skelton almost looks like the second-rate version in her similar get-up, and yet I loved them both dearly; and whereas my Scottish grandmother could be nippy and spiky at times, Grandma Skelton was more of an archetypal mothering grandmother (see Portrait of my Grandmother in Later Life). However, I had the chance to get to know my Scottish grandmother for a lot longer as she did not die until I was thirty-four. Up until that point, we had many a fascinating conversation, and a visit to Grandma’s was never just a chore for me. She was sharp as a tack and curious about the world, and I often thought that it was as if each grandparent had ended up with the other’s partner (in looks and temperament).

All my grandparents at my parents’ wedding (partners swapped!) 

Both my grandmothers had to give up work once they married, although my Scottish grandmother did not have her first and only child (my mother) for another seven years. Interestingly, this seven-year wait for a family also happened to my English grandmother’s mother, who then had three children when she was relatively mature. For that reason, my father barely knew his maternal grandmother, but had a vague memory of an old lady dressed in black who sat in a chair in a corner of the living room.

In my mother’s case, she was thirty before she lost her grandmother (who was born in 1874) and during the years when my great-grandmother lived with their family after the untimely and accidental death of her husband, my mother had ample opportunity to hear all her grandmother’s tales of growing up in the 19th century. It seems unfathomable to me now that I have my own memories of a woman who had come of age during the high Victorian time, and through the longevity in the Scottish family (at least on my grandmother’s side) I have been lucky to be the recipient of tales passed down from the generations. This is not least because of all those family photographs (see Messy Boxes) which were always the catalyst for stories and reminiscences round the fireside.

As T. S. Eliot says in East Coker (where we started out in 2015): There is a time for the evening under starlight, A time for the evening under lamplight (The evening with the photograph album).

Looking forward to you joining me on my new genealogical venture!

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2021

 

Foxed Mirrors and Fairy Tales

I have just published the introductory chapter on my my new blog A Scottish Family Album, where I’ll be delving into the lives of my Scottish ancestors through the boxes of photographs that my mother has amassed. This month’s post of A London Family not only provides a link to the new site, but offers up a preview of next month’s story about my Scottish grandparents.

Having had a great deal more contact with my Scottish relatives (and a still very much alive mother) I hope to approach this project in a different way from my London family, and I’m excited about the possibilities this will generate. Research trips to Edinburgh can now (hopefully) be combined with visits to my mother and with some careful planning we can still go out ‘into the field’, the way we used to do when we went on our yearly week-long September visits to the English capital.

Not only will it give us both a new lease of life after the recent stultifying lockdowns, but the pandemic has shown us we cannot take the continued existence of our elderly family members for granted. I must confess, I feel rather guilty about having neglected my Scottish family so long for the glamour of the unknown London one. But isn’t that just human nature: to be interested in the unattainable while dismissing the near at hand? We live our lives full of contradictions but often only when something comes along to rip the lid of things do we start to see in new ways.

*My Scottish (McKay) Grandparents, 1920s

Grandma and Grandad were plastic milk tokens and sealing wax, Valentino and Houdini, foxed mirrors and fairy tales. Their interwar four-in-a-block house in Edinburgh had things we did not possess in our modern sixties’ bungalow – a wireless and a kitchenette, a lobby and a press – and every drawer and cupboard and bookcase held remnants of the last fifty years. I was fascinated by the scraps of rich velvet containing rustling dry lavender, the ornate hat pins in the button tin, the old books with their in-plates commemorating regular attendance of school and Sunday school in the earlier part of the old century. And if those dark and sombre books were opened, the strange and alluring perfume of the past slipped out like a genie from a bottle. Then it was possible to imagine the house spinning back through time until the garish red and yellow carpets were replaced with rugs and linoleum and the ugly electric bar fires spirited away to allow the empty fireplaces to return to the more glamorous task (to my mind) of burning coals.

I don’t possess any specific memory of my grandparents and their house until sometime in the late sixties, when I was around three or four and they were knocking on the door of early old age. The first concrete image I have is of sitting on the sofa with my grandmother’s mother and of using a long-handled brush as an oar in a pretend boat in which we were sailing away. I remember, too, that I had no idea of the purpose of this brush which lived in the bathroom and was presumably a back scrubber; but I loved its transparent turquoise colour, and this was what had possibly put me in mind of boats and the sea.

Four Female Generations in my Grandparents’ Garden, 1964

Perhaps more interesting now is the memory of Great Grandma, who was born in 1874, and who I remember vaguely as small and stout, and often dressed in dark shapeless clothes, her grey hair in a bun. By the 1960s she’d already had numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so I was possibly nothing to get excited about, although I still retain a feeling of love and safety emanating from her solid frame and the knowledge that she was enjoying being part of my boat fantasy that day.

Although I loved the watery look of the turquoise brush, which looked like something Neptune might possess, I hated the rest of my grandparents’ spartan bathroom with the tiny, frosted glass window set up high in the outside wall, and the cold enamel bath which dominated the narrow space. But to be fair, as an indoor bathroom had been luxurious in 1935, they had possibly not wanted to tempt fate by making it any more appealing than it had to be. This might explain why they both still washed daily in the kitchen, scrubbing their armpits with flannels over the large Belfast sink, bathing only weekly, as if they were still in the wartime business of conserving water.

As a relatively spoilt child of parents who’d benefitted from the post-war economic boom, I also could not understand how my grandparents were able to happily share their garden with the family upstairs, and never felt truly comfortable playing outside in this space, watched by the elderly couple from their back windows. However, I did love the fact that I could just jump over the low fence and play with the children next door – and jump over their fence to reach the next set of children, as well as the fact that we could then all play out together in the quiet streets. This was mainly because at that time so few of the neighbours owned cars, but also that there was a large cul-de-sac at the top of the road where we could set up elaborate skipping games. In the quiet neighbourhood in Ayr where I grew up, everyone lived more sedately behind their hedges and fences and there was not the shared feeling of community that I sensed in the suburb of West Edinburgh where my grandparents lived.

My McKay Grandparents in early old age

Today my mother lives a ten-minute walk away in a  ‘posher’ suburb. Yet when I visit her we rarely walk to the house where my grandparents lived for half a century and where my mother grew up and spent all her pre-married life. When we occasionally do go, we always end up noticing what has remained and what has changed in the neighbourhood. Front gardens have been swept away and superseded by utilitarian car parks; the original thirties doors and windows have been replaced with a hotchpotch of modern equivalents ; the shared gardens are now divided into distinct halves by boundary markers.

Whenever I happen to pass my grandparent’s old house, I look for the botch-job tarmacked stones on the front path which used to fascinate me as a child. Just one strange ugly section of lumpen molten tar over rocks, but to me it is a link with the days when I used to strut from the house to the street in my grandmother’s old-fashioned court shoes, or when I used to drag out the old turkey rugs from the lobby press to play on. Laying them over the misshapen path I used to pretend they were magical flying carpets, transporting me back through the years rather than to distant lands, and I could almost see my mother sitting on the outside coal bunker (which by then held only wood scraps) on the day she tore her dress jumping off for a dare.

I knew this story because I’d been told it many times whenever I asked about the naughty things my mother had done when young. I felt sure there must have been much worse, perhaps kept hidden from me, and one day I would find out the truth. But it seems in the naughtiness stakes, my sister and I were the outright winners, not having endured the same kind of strict 1940s upbringing of my mother (despite her being a long-waited for, only child).

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2021

 

Remembering my Return to East Coker

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.

T.S.Eliot, East Coker (1940)

This month I’ve been spending time at home in Switzerland with my mother, who miraculously was still able to come out for her annual summer visit – albeit via rerouted flights and increased bureaucracy. Having not seen each other for a year, it has been a very enjoyable visit, with one of our main activities being to prepare for the new Scottish family history blog which I intend to launch in the autumn. While talking to my mother about her childhood, I have been impressed at the breadth and depth of her reminiscences, which go back eighty years to when she was a toddler being carried out to the air raid shelter at the bottom of her garden in west Edinburgh.

Despite having some memories of the war, the ten year age gap between my parents meant that my mother’s experiences differ from those of my London-born father. Yet I was interested to learn that she did indeed spend some time as an evacuee in the countryside outside Edinburgh with her mother at the beginning of the conflict. There they stayed in the mining village of Roslin (made famous by the medieval Rosslyn Chapel which featured in Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code) with one of my grandmother’s older sisters, her miner husband, and their two young boys. I remember visiting this elderly couple in the 1970s in their terraced cottage on the Main Street and playing in a back lane with some local children, thinking how much fun it would be to live in such a close knit community.

Maybe it’s because my mother was so much younger than my father and was always happy to talk about her childhood that there was a sense of her memories being somehow less valuable than those of the more unknown London branch of the family. There was no mystery surrounding her upbringing, and with regular contact with our Edinburgh-based grandparents (and others in their extended families) there were always plenty people to ask about the past. Unlike my English grandparents, my Scottish grandparents had remained in the same house since the 1930s and we were surrounded with the objects they had accumulated over their lifetimes. Opening drawers and cupboards always revealed strange objects (such as sealing wax and hat pins) and once even a cache of old-fashioned toys underneath the floorboards (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers).

In addition to these items were the boxes of family photographs that my grandparents inherited from my great-grandmother when she came to live with them after she was widowed. It is those images which will form the basis of my new blog A Scottish Family Album, and with my mother’s help I intend to investigate how photographs of relatives – many who are long gone – can trigger more memories and family stories. Another pair of eyes can also illuminate some overlooked aspect of a photograph, and looking at such images together will hopefully shed new light on the stories behind the photographs.

This was certainly the case when I took some copies of family photographs to my elderly aunt, who I visited with my English cousin in August 2019. Both of us fully intended to return the following year and make it an annual pilgrimage for as long as we possibly could. However, as this has obviously not been possible, I would like to revisit that afternoon by publishing an updated version of the post I wrote two summers ago. Even on that muggy Saturday I was aware that time was slipping away from us as we talked, and it is perhaps just as well that we had not known then of what was about to happen.

*

CROSSROADS.JPGSignpost to Naish Priory in the woods at Burton, East Coker

In the summer of 2019, just before the world ground to a halt, I was lucky enough to have the chance to return to Somerset – where my story began – to visit my aunt. I travelled with my cousin Sandra (the daughter of my father’s younger brother) and we stopped at the village of East Coker on the way. This allowed my cousin to see the places I hoped my aunt would still be able to describe to us from her memories of the family wartime evacuation, making the visit more meaningful for all of us.

Unfortunately, it was a cool, wet and blustery Friday afternoon, in contrast to my first visit in July 2005 (see East Coker), which had certainly been influenced by the good weather. However, fortified with tea and cakes from the National Trust café after our trip to nearby Montecute House, and sporting the matching bucket hats we’d purchased in Sherborne the day previously, we decided there was nothing to stop us exploring the village in the wind and rain. Maybe it would even clear up later, we told ourselves rather optimistically. (It didn’t).

A lucky coincidence saw us approaching East Coker by way of the sunken lanes I’d already described to my cousin. I’m not quite sure how much Sandra appreciated having to squeeze her car by a number of large vehicles exiting the village, but she certainly agreed with me that it was an ‘exciting’ way to arrive. However, those pesky narrow lanes effectively prevented the other part of East Coker – where our fathers had lived during WW2 – from further development, and thankfully could not now be widened due to planning regulations.

HOLLOW LANE.JPGA sunken lane on the approach to East Coker

We soon passed the old hamlet of Burton and the end of Burton Lane (which led to the farmhouse cottage where the Skeltons had lived for the duration of the war). We had, however, already decided to head straight for the heart of the village (which had once been called Up Coker), and park by the alms houses next to the church. Not only did this mean we could start our walk by viewing the impressive church of St Michael’s, with its T. S. Eliot memorial, but it also gave me the opportunity to show my cousin the first cottage in which our grandmother was billeted (West Wells), and where I was told she’d only stayed for a short time as she’d been unhappy about being made to ‘feel like a skivvy’ by the woman of the house.

ALMSHOUSESThe 17th century alms houses by the church

A wedding rehearsal in the church meant we only had time for a cursory look around, and I was glad I’d had the chance to attend a Sunday service with my mother on our first visit back in 2005. It was on that July morning that I felt the sense of the community that pervades the place, as well as delighting in the Englishness of the service, which was so different from my childhood memories of attending the Church of Scotland.

Conscious of the worsening weather, we did not stop for a drink in the Helyar Arms as planned (actually called The New Inn until 1948), but headed past the pub and along the road leading to Sutton Bingham – once a scattered village and now a reservoir, whose medieval church with pre-reformation wall paintings had been preserved. My mother and I had visited the church on that first trip, and had wondered at the homes which had disappeared to make way for the water. My father would have known the village (where there had been a railway station, closed in the early 60s, but not as part of the reservoir development), and it must have been an uncanny experience for him to return to the area and see that great expanse of water where once there were farmhouses and fields.

COKER MARSH ROAD.JPGCottages at Coker Marsh

In the end we only got halfway up the road before heavy rain halted us in our tracks. However, it was enough to give Sandra a feel for this part of the village – called Coker Marsh – and where our uncle’s extended family (the Bouchers) had lived in one of the stone cottages which lined the road. Walking back the same way towards the church, I noticed a small stream running along the left-hand side of the road which, judging from the stone channel in which it ran, looked like it might have once had a purpose beyond just taking away runoff water. The remains of a cress bed? I could not remember it from my earlier visits, but wondered whether this was because it had been dried up previously. This made me think about other aspects of the village I might have missed, or forgotten, and I realised that although I generally prefer to explore places on my own, by showing Sandra around East Coker I was strengthening my own mental map of the area.

Our next plan – to walk via Back Lane to Burton – was stymied by more heavy rains so we missed out going there on foot, much to my disappointment. While it was certainly useful to have a car, particularly in such horrible weather, I have always relished my own rambles around the area, climbing the many wooden stiles and taking the lanes that lead to the neighbouring villages. Being a non-driver admittedly closes off some opportunities, but also means that walking long distances becomes commonplace (just as it once was). For years I was slightly ashamed of this proclivity for visiting new places under my own steam, often in combination with public transport, as I always felt it made me seem like a second-class citizen. But now that eschewing car ownership has suddenly become more mainstream, I feel less defensive about my lack of driving skills.

BACK LANE.JPGWild Flowers in Back Lane

Although we missed out on the very charming footpath up Back Lane – which my aunt later told us was one where she would go with our uncle before they were married and wanted some privacy – I did convince Sandra to park up at North Coker and walk along the road to Burton Cross. This meant that we were able to admire the stone cottages, many with thatched roofs, and their bright and blowsy, albeit rain-soaked, gardens. We passed by what had once been the shop and post office, a sad reminder of how little of these services remain in rural locations. On my first visit in 2005 it had still been trading and my mother and I had been grateful to be able to purchase snacks and a newspaper. No doubt my father would have spent any hard-earned pocket money there – as had most of the village children throughout the years – as well as in the small shop next to the pub, which had long since closed. I pictured him scampering along the road, after having helped out with the harvest or haymaking, wondering whether to spend his precious farthings and ha’pennies on liquorice or boiled sweets.

As we walked up Burton Lane to the cottage where my grandmother and the three children lived during the war, I tried to picture it as it had been in the 1940s, devoid of the new bungalows which were squeezed in between the row of original cottages and the fields. I had once come across a photograph of the lane, taken shortly before the war, which showed a herd of short-horned cows being driven along a narrow dirt track bounded by hedges, trees and fields. In the distance all that could be seen was the roof of the wooden gospel hall – the building my grandmother cleaned in return for reduced rent on the rather spartan Burton Farm cottage opposite.

BURTON LANE (2).JPGLooking down Burton Lane from the road end today

Even today the lane is very much a rural road and it was possible to imagine how it once was – and how different from the busy streets of South London it must have been for the Skeltons. Yet on this visit, I was more conscious of the post-war houses which flanked the lane, looking shabbier now than previously. And I could swear that a couple of newbuilds had popped up between them in the once generous gardens, giving the lane a more hemmed-in feel. In contrast, the original cottages nearer the road-end appeared even more attractive next to their characterless suburban-looking neighbours; although I was aware that to have lived there once would have meant putting up with cold and damp and darkness for a good part of the year.

As Sandra is particularly interested in old buildings (but stressed she still wants to live in new one), I had little difficulty in persuading her to take the sandy track which ran by the chapel towards Gulliver’s Grave (the name of a field), and turns off at a crossroads in the woods towards Naish Priory. This 14th century Grade 1 listed building is now a private home, and although it was never a true priory, it did once have religious connections. It is, however, a remarkable survivor from the period with a price tag only the super-wealthy can afford. Currently it’s owned by the local conservative MP and arch-brexiteer, investment banker Marcus Fysh,  which may have explained the number of EU flags draped over the front gates of several of the more modest houses in the village!

NAISHSide view of Naish Priory

The following afternoon, when I told my aunt of our trip to the priory through the woods, she explained that was the same way she’d walked from the farm cottage to pick up the school bus to Yeovil (a 1920s charabanc brought out of retirement for the evacuees). Although it did not seem like much of a short cut, I’m sure there was a good reason for my aunt to use this trail, rather than take the road. Perhaps she’d simply wanted to avoid someone (such as the local farmer who was rather touchy-feely) or had enjoyed the lonely track, which she told us she’d undertaken in all weathers.

Asking someone at an advanced age about their reminiscences obviously needs to be handled sensitively, and I was conscious that it was just as important for us to talk to our aunt about the present as the past. Luckily Sandra – who knew our older English cousins much better than I did – was able to supply that side of the conversation. While she browsed through photographs of a recent family wedding, I showed my aunt some of the old family photographs I’d accumulated over the years. Most of these she could remember, as I’d either sent her copies in the post or she’d furnished me with the originals. However, viewing them together was a completely different experience. Each image released a most astounding array of sharp memories, as if the photograph had been taken yesterday. For example, a great-uncle I’d never known (my grandmother’s beloved older brother) was described by my aunt for the first time as being ‘pompous’. Even as a boy you can see it in the way he looks!

Sometimes I just had to catch my breath and listen carefully as my aunt described such momentous events as The Crystal Palace burning down in a relatively matter-of-fact way: Mother called us to the window and said there must be a huge fire going on somewhere over South London. We did not know then that it was the great Crystal Palace where we went to listen to bands on a Sunday. My aunt then told us about the car races in the grounds of the Crystal Palace that my grandparents took them to watch. The car racing at Sydenham was something I had not known about, and seemed a strange thing for a young family to do. But then when reading more about it afterwards, I discovered that these were popular events, which in the 1930s would have perhaps fascinated a wider variety of people.

Crystal_Palace_fire_1936Crystal Palace burning down, November 30th, 1936

And so it was that the afternoon continued in a most delightful fashion, my aunt moving lightly from the present to the past, depending on the topic of conversation, her face a range of flickering emotions. Shafts of late summer light from the garden fell through the open stable door of my aunt’s tiny 18th century cottage, lighting up her features, which, as Sandra remarked later, made her look like Nana and Grandad rolled into one person. Behind my aunt on the wall, a clock ticked ominously, making me aware of the limited hours we had – and not just on that afternoon. It was one of those rare moments (or rather a collection of moments, strung together like delicate fairy lights illuminating the dark) where it seems that time has ceased to exist in normal terms. I felt as if we had almost slid into another world: one in which we could glide between 1939 and 2019 with ease, summoning up ghosts along the way.

My aunt’s stories – delivered in that funny old-fashioned clipped London accent that the whole family once had – triggered a range of emotions in me that Sandra later told me flitted across my face in the same way as my aunt’s (and, if truth be told, just like Sandra herself). With my aunt’s uncanny ability to describe past events in exquisite detail, frozen moments in photographs were suddenly set free to take on their own momentum. A picture of the back yard at Denmark Road reminded her of how she and my father used to dare each other to climb over the fence into the next door neighbour’s garden at night and run around without getting caught. She explained that this was because the neighbour’s back yard was actually planted out with shrubs and flowers and had a lawn – as opposed to the more functional space to the rear of their own house.

Another photograph, this time of my aunt and father in fancy dress, brought back a memory of a party at school. My aunt explained that my grandmother had been so delighted with the sight of her two children all dressed up in their costumes (Sandra’s father was yet to be born) that they went straight from their junior school in nearby Crawford Street to a local photographer’s studio in their outfits. And that slightly superior-looking smile on my aunt’s face? Well her Pierrot suit had been specially made for her, whereas my father had just had to contend with what he could find in the dressing up box.

P1070488 (3).JPGMy aunt and father in fancy dress c1933

That afternoon I also learnt that the dog my grandfather brought home to Denmark Road one day, surprising his children, had actually never been meant as a family pet but as a guard dog to protect the house from a ‘light-fingered’ family two doors down. My aunt laughed to recall that one night when they all returned home from a day out (perhaps at the Crystal Palace), the house had been ransacked and the dog was found quivering under the table.

Such tales, although not dramatic in themselves, are important to family historians. Not only do they bring the very human side of genealogy to the fore, but also illustrate the concerns of previous generations – which may have been very different from our own. They also help us to understand the behaviour of our ancestors. As a child I always thought it strange that my father obsessively checked all the locks on the doors and windows of our bungalow every night and admonished us if we left our bicycles outside. I wonder, too, if he perhaps felt guilty that his childhood dog was just left out in the back yard most of the time. In contrast, our own family dog went everywhere with us and was (according to the vet) literally walked to death by my father and myself.

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Our Cocker Spaniel, Jet, 1974-1982

My aunt, however, does not suffer fools gladly (just like my grandfather and father) and certainly could not simply be described as some sweet old lady sitting in a rocking chair, waiting for her relatives to visit. One of the reasons I had not seen so much of her over the years is that she and my father did not always have the easiest of relationships. He found her bossy; she found him difficult. But their younger brother was the adored baby of the family who kept the infrequent family reunions going throughout the years.

My last memory of my aunt on that Saturday afternoon is of her standing in her front garden as we prepared to take our leave (with promises to return in a few months), jabbing at the twisted trunk of an old wisteria tree with her walking stick. She was annoyed with the fact that while she wanted the tree cut down to let in more light, her neighbours wanted it to remain. This was because the old wisteria’s spreading branches also decorated the facades of their own cottages, adding value to the homes.

So like Aunty! Sandra whispered as the garden gate clicked behind us.

So like Grandad! I thought.

Later that evening, ensconced in a quiet country pub, Sandra and I browsed through my copy of East Coker: A Village Album by Abigail Shepherd, a book very much rooted in the tradition of oral history. My cousin was able to easily recognise the old photographs of the places we’d visited, so little had changed in East Coker over the last century and a half, and we both expressed our amazement that our aunt (who also had a copy) had been able to recognise so many people in the book. Not only had she been able to locate Sandra’s father as a child from a sea of other schoolchildren who were all in fancy dress to commemorate the end of the war, but she was able to put names to the blurry faces of some of the adults standing sheepishly at the back. I found it equally impressive that she’d known who everyone was in my father’s boyhood photograph of the 1944 Whit Monday trip to Coker Woods, the discovery of which had reawakened my interest in my Skelton family history (see In my Beginning is my End). 

Coker Woods.pngThe photograph of my father (right) with friends, East Coker 1944

Since returning from my visit to Somerset, I’ve been rereading Abigail Shepherd’s informative and entertaining book about East Coker, discovering facts I’d previously missed or forgotten about, and tying in some of the stories my aunt told us about (such as Queen Mary’s visit to Mrs Dorothy Walker-Heneage at Coker Court in 1941) with the reminiscences  outlined in the book mentioned above. As it was first published in 1997, many of those interviewed are no longer alive today to tell their tales, including my father’s friend, Alan Cornelius, who as a teenager had taken the group photograph in the local woods with his father’s Box Brownie.

I’m glad that I was finally able to meet Alan Cornelius, and learn about his wartime boyhood experiences, and am grateful for the copy of his (unpublished) notes on the subject of the ‘vacuees.  By chance, my aunt told me that one wartime Christmas the only electric bulb they possessed in their small farm cottage gave up the ghost, prompting her mother to ask her to go to the Cornelius household to see if they had a spare. Of course, my aunt being my aunt simply put her foot down and refused to go out begging for a lightbulb on Christmas Day, and so the family had to celebrate in candlelight. Which sounds as if it might have been wonderful for everyone but my poor grandmother!

A VILLAGE ALBUM

Of course, it is now more than 80 years ago when my aunt and father were evacuated with their respective schools: my aunt to East Coker with Charles Edward Brook School for Girls in Camberwell, and my father to Leatherhead in Surrey with his school. However, only a few months later my grandmother was able to move to East Coker with her younger son and bring the three children together under one roof, while my grandfather continued to work in London. For a fourteen year old like my aunt, the evacuation seemed more like an adventure away from the restrictions of her parents, in particular my grandfather, who could be a rather strict father.

As Alan Cornelius pointed out to me, there was great excitement in the village when the evacuees arrived and a lively social scene grew up, with boys’ and girls’ clubs held at Coker Court, as well as local dances, sports events and cultural activities. It is not surprising then to learn that many of these wartime friendships blossomed into relationships and then into the inevitable (in those days) marriages. It seems strange to think that my aunt’s lifelong connections to the area – cemented by her marriage to a popular local East Coker boy – all hinged on the lottery of the evacuation on the 1st of September 1939.

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2021

Park Life

One of my first blog posts was back in spring 2016, at what seems a much more innocent point in time. It’s probably just as well that we did not know then about what was lined up in front of us: the nasty triumvirate of Brexit, Trump and Covid-19 that would dominate the last five years, and which still keeps on giving . . .

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With the rapid development of the surrounding area in the first half of the 19th century, Kennington Common lost its ancient agricultural purpose and became a mere dumping ground for rubbish. In 1849 an observer stated that “The stunted herbage is trodden and soiled by a troop of cows belonging to a neighbouring milkman. A kind of pond near one corner, and a deep ditch opposite South Place, are the cemeteries of all the dead puppies and kittens of the vicinity.” The vitriol factory on the east side gave off a constant stream of sulphurous vapour, and the ditches presented “an accumulation of black offensive muddy liquid, receiving constant contributions from numerous unmentionable conveniences attached to a line of low cottage erections”.

Survey of London: Vol 26, Lambeth, F H W Sheppard (ed): 1956

A manufactory for oil of vitriol, on the east side of Kennington Common, occupies three acres of ground; and between that and the Kent-road are, a smelting-house for lead and antimony, a tannery, a manufactory for glue, another for tobacco-pipes, with manufactories for floorcloth and for carriages.

 A Topographical Dictionary of England: Newington, S Lewis (ed): 1848

In 1852, the Kennington Common Enclosure Act led to a revoke of the rights of the local population to use the common land of the Manor of Kennington in the way they had for centuries. Many of the area’s wealthier residents must have sighed in relief. The Common had always had a rather chequered history – it was the site of public hangings in the 18th century and a place where dissenters gathered, as well as an area for local sports and festivities, which could sometimes get out of hand, not to mention the rather dubious activities which went on under cover of darkness.

The famous failed Chartist rally of 1848 – spectacularly captured on daguerreotype by William Edward Kilburn (see below) – had been the final nail in the common’s coffin. Thereafter, efforts moved quickly to consolidate the wishes of local reformers, clergy and politicians to have the land enclosed.

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Kennington Common Chartist Rally: 10th April, 1848 (c) The Royal Collection

N.B. The large building in the background of the image is the afore-mentioned Messrs Farmers oil of vitriol manufactory, showing the extent to which it must have  dominated the neighbourhood. In this remarkable picture, it seems to resemble a rather menacing symbol of industrialisation looming over those who were demonstrating against the political subjection of the time.

In 1852, six-foot high iron railings were erected around the perimeter of the old common and over a period of two years the badly neglected fields were turned into a public park, which finally opened in March 1854. However, the completed grounds did not at first meet with a particularly welcome reception, and were described by one contemporary as: intersected by un-level, puddle-holding walks, some of them unsightly and crooked, others leading to nothing and nowhere. Other criticisms focused on the lack of evergreens and the unstructured nature of the planting without regard to heights, habits or colours. But from 1858, under the leadership of John Gibson (who’d previously worked as superintendent of the new Battersea Park), the design of the park began to change. Elaborate flower beds were laid out in symmetrical patterns, a style which was at the cutting-edge of mid-Victorian garden design and would soon be adopted elsewhere. For the local residents it was a unique chance to see large areas of flowering plants, and the Gardener’s Chronicle of the time mentions a bordering of flowers as bright as the smoke and vapour from an adjoining vitriol factory will let them be.

When my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton, and his siblings were growing up at nearby Aldred Rd in the 1860s and 70s (see The Two Arthurs), the park might have been a welcome place for Sunday strolls and games en famille, despite the lack of real freedom for children to play as they pleased. It would certainly have been a vivid contrast to the above-mentioned oil of vitriol factory, spewing out its noxious vapours at the eastern border of the park, and no doubt affecting all those who lived in the neighbourhood – including the residents of 35 Aldred Rd.

Kennington Park circa 1908

In full bloom at Kennington Park, circa 1908

first went to Kennington is search of Aldred Road in the summer of 1991, shortly after returning from two years spent overseas. When starting my genealogical search in the mid-80s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born) it had somehow never crossed my mind to venture south of the river to seek out the old family haunts. It seems strange to me now that I waited so long to do so. I already had a nascent collection of addresses from the birth, marriage and death certificates I had accumulated, as well as information from the five censuses up to 1881 – as well as more living relatives to question! The only thing which might explain my reticence was this rather strange idea I once had about South London.

Gustav Doré 1872

Gustave Doré: Over London by Rail, from London: A pilgrimage, 1872

Thinking back to that August afternoon, thirty years ago, two things remain in my mind. Firstly, that I had been completely unaware of just how many elegant Victorian and Georgian buildings graced the streets of south London, hidden behind the layers of dirt and soot. Secondly, that a number of these old buildings seemed to be in the process of either being gentrified or pulled down.

Aldred Road – where Arthur’s family had lived for four censuses in a row – had disappeared off the map (after morphing into Aldred Street somewhere along the line), so I headed along Camberwell New Road to try to find what was left of Cator Street, amazed at the sight of so many architecturally stunning Georgian houses at one stretch. Farther along, I took a short cut through an unexpected open expanse of fields that looked like it too might have originally been part of an old common – although there was something about the place that gave off an eerie feeling of impermanence. Roads that led nowhere. Bridges over dry land. Instinctively I took out my new camera and photographed several old buildings that seemed as if their days were numbered. As I snapped away, a sense of panic rose up inside me at the thought that Cator Street was possibly turning to rubble (as Aldred Road/Street obviously had) before I had the chance to discover it for myself.

That day I knew nothing about the history of the area I’d just crossed – which officially began its post-war life as the North Camberwell Open Space – and had been renamed Burgess Park in the 1970s (after Jessie Burgess, who was Camberwell’s first female mayor in 1945). Later I discovered that these plans for a great ‘Hyde Park of South London’ from the bomb damage of the 1940s had been mired in controversy for over half a century, chiefly because they had involved the ‘removal’ of the remaining homes within the new park’s borders. What I was actually witnessing that afternoon was the imminent destruction of some of the last of the buildings clinging to the fringes of the burgeoning Burgess Park.

Noel Soho Works
Ludovic Noel and Sons, chain of French Grocers: 1860-1960. 77-85 Coburg Rd. Demolished 1991.

According to the current Wikipedia entry, Burgess Park is still not complete and contains some former roads which have been stopped up but not yet grassed over. The boundaries of Burgess Park remain a matter of dispute, and because the park has never been finished, it is regularly the subject of proposals to build housing, schools, or transport links of the sort that would never be contemplated in one of London’s more traditional Victorian Parks.

Back in June 1972, The Evening Standard reported that: Unfortunately clearing this 150 acre park involves displacing nearly 6000 people. Some live in tenement blocks and terraces from which they will be glad to escape to council flats. But also due to come down are some rather fine 19th century houses, rare visual delights in the otherwise uninspiring area between the North Peckham redevelopment to the south, and the monumental new Aylesbury estate in Walworth(The Aylesbury Estate can be seen on the left of the photo below).

The George Pub
The George (Pub), 231 St George’s Way (Rd). Demolished circa 1991

As Southwark Council mention on its website: The park grew steadily, taking in hundreds of demolished dwellings, thirty streets, a few factories, churches, and filling in an old canal. It was always intended that the park would have regional importance yet its management and funding over the years have failed to deliver this ambition and although it is an important part of many local people’s lives there is a consensus that the park has never been ‘finished’.

In The Story of Camberwell, Mary Boast points out the fact that Burgess Park is an anomaly. Simply put, the creation of a park from what was once streets packed full of terraces and factories and shops and pubs is a reversal of the normal pattern of events in the capital. Land that was once open fields was given over to market gardens; which in their turn were built over by speculative developments. But now that land has once again become open fields, easily accessible to those living close by.

This came over a century too late for my grandfather’s older siblings, who would possibly have found their recreation along the old Surrey Canal (filled in by the 1970s) during the brief time they lived in the area. The outline of the waterway can still be traced in Burgess Park, with many of the canal’s bridges still intact, creating the strange effect of a lost landscape. Perhaps that is what I found so unsettling about the park on my initial visit – it was if the land was still attempting to redefine itself. However, returning recently on an unseasonably warm March Sunday, when the park was being utilised to full capacity, the sombre feelings that had accompanied me on my earlier visit were dissipated by the sight of so many young families enjoying the (much improved) public space. Did many of the Victorian residents of Kennington also regard their park in a new light once it was in full bloom and memories of the old common had faded away?

One of the most charming aspects of Kennington Park today is the late Victorian, Arts and Crafts tearooms, which were recently refurbished after lying vacant for several years. I stumbled across the Kennington Park Café on a bright spring morning after trekking several miles round the neighbourhood on an empty stomach, and fell upon my generously-filled toastie and mug of builders’ tea like Esau on his pottage.  Now, whenever I am exploring the area I detour just to eat here, and if weather permits, sit on the terrace and enjoy the friendly green vibes of the park.

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Kennington Park Tearooms today, with the pioneering 60s Brandon Estate (site of Aldred Road) in the background

Although the tearooms were built too late for Arthur’s family to enjoy, previously there had been a purpose-built wooden building in the park where visitors could buy food and drinks (from 1861-88). Even further back, when the park first opened, the park keeper’s wife sold refreshments from the rear porch of the Prince Consort Lodge. Now occupied by the national charity Trees for Cities, the Lodge is a semi-detached house which was designed as a showcase for model workers’ dwellings by the Society for the Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, of which Prince Albert was president.

Originally built for the Great Exhibition in 1851, the building was later moved to the front gates of Kennington Park, where one of the cottages could be inspected by the public (two park attendants lived in the other cottage). While some believe it was – and still is – an important reminder of the Chartist legacy, others feel that the cottages served more to appease the conscience of the middle classes. In the end, very few houses to this design were actually built for workers in London, and it was to be almost a century later before many of Arthur’s children could live in a house that contained such luxuries as an indoor flushing W.C. (see I Remember, I Remember). 

MODEL HOUSING
Prince Consort Lodge, Kennington Park

Nearby Burgess Park also boasts its own brand of ‘model housing’ – in this case the old alms houses of the Female Friendly Society Asylum  in what is now Chumleigh Gardens. Built in 1821, they suffered bomb damage in WW2, and although incorporated into the park from the outset, were not renovated until 1981. They now house the park offices, community centre  and café, and are surrounded by the popular multicultural garden. An interesting heritage trail which takes in these buildings and other historic sites in the park is described on the wittily-named  Bridge to Nowhere  website, run by the Friends of Burgess Park.

Chumleigh Gardens
Alms Houses at Chumleigh Gardens, Burgess Park

Both parks – Kennington and Burgess – are separated by a century of policy and changing attitudes to public space. Products of history and circumstance, they link one generation of my London family to another, however tenuously. Whenever I am in south London, I am pulled back to them again and again, even if they can no longer offer up any clues to my family’s past.

Park 1967
Sunday in the park with my grandparents, 1967

I go to Kennington Park to wonder at what it would have felt like to stroll the more formal (and no doubt very crowded) mid-Victorian gardens of Arthur senior and his siblings; to Burgess Park to wonder at the lost streets and the filled-in canal, and the densely-packed community that once thrived where now there are fields and gardens and an artificial lake. And every time I visit the two parks, I wonder what my south London ancestors would make of these now very modern, urban spaces.

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2021

Revisiting the Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas comes but once a year

And when it does, it brings good cheer.

Well it looks as if Christmas didn’t come this year for many of us – and if it did the ‘good cheer’ was certainly not as much in evidence. Should we even have bothered attempting to celebrate the festival at all? That was the question many people were asking themselves in December. Yet it seems that even in the face of scientific evidence we cannot easily give up the idea of a traditional family Christmas. Perhaps our reverence for the holiday can be found in our childhood memories and the emotional connections that were made many years ago. Most Christmases experienced in adulthood are mere simulacrums of the earlier ones that delighted us so much, and any magazine aimed at grownups that purports to show its readers how to have Your Best Christmas Ever! (thankfully not in evidence in 2020) are mainly peddling a falsehood. Most of us know that our best Christmases are decades behind us.

It was with thoughts of Christmases past that I decided to republish a post I wrote a few years ago about this subject. Rereading it at the end of 2020, the words seem even more poignant. Although Christmas first lost some of its magic when I grew into adulthood, it lost more of its magic a second time when my father was admitted to hospital on Christmas Day in 1994 (never to return home). This year seems like it is the third time the magic of Christmas has taken a hammering.

It’s hard to believe that as recently as last winter I was bemoaning the fact that the festive season was beginning to feel like a great deal of extra work and fuss, and even fantasised about cancelling the event (apart from watching Carols from Kings). Now that this has actually come to pass, I feel quite differently about it – such is the way of human nature. I know that next year I will appreciate such things as cold visits to crowded Christmas Markets and the hours spent decorating the house and writing Christmas cards.

When Christmas comes around again, l will know that every busy stall or shop means a return to normality. That every light or bauble on the Christmas tree is a symbol of hope. And perhaps even more importantly, that every line I scribble in a card means one more healthy friend or relative. 

Wishing you a safe and heathy 2021!

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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. 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 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 everyone 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’d 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. 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 in London, Christmas 1966

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 controller) 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 and exotic 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 much 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 separated 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 nostalgic 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 over-piled 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 one 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 Times and the TV Times (publications only indulged in at Christmas), our plastic trays filled with sausage rolls, ham, chutney etc, a glass of Ribena and lemonade (considered 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 the body of the snowman) 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.

snowmanPreparing 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-sounding  Guardian Angels, which gave a glimpse into the possibility 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 ‘us kids’ 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 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 always put up around the house. I remember as a child thinking it magical that a flattened boot-shape could suddenly become a multi-coloured honeycombed bell to hang 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 all spent 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 despite myself 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.

The Incidental Genealogist, January 2021.

My Family Houses Through Time: Part 1

The house whose history is under discussion is blessedly silent. It is the place to which we all return after the story of each of its owners or tenants is told, to gather our thoughts, digest what we have learned and mull the wider implications before setting out again down a new avenue.

Lucy Mangan, A House Through Time Guardian newspaper, May 26th, 2020 (full review here)

A HOUSE THROUGH TIME

The third series of the wonderful A House Through Time with David Olusoga, which aired on BBC2 last Tuesday, was much-awaited in our (hundred year old) house. The history  of  the 300-year-old townhouse in Bristol is already proving to be just as exciting as its counterparts in Newcastle (series 2) and Liverpool (series 1). Like the previous houses featured, number 10 Guinea Street was originally built for the newly wealthy Georgian middle classes, and by dint of its architectural interest and listed status has managed to survive into the 21st century.

Conserving such old buildings is, however, a relatively modern concern – mainly dating back to the last quarter of the 20th century. Unfortunately, large swathes of urban housing were swept away by new developments during successive building waves, particularly in the late Victorian era and after WW2. Those of us who can trace our beginnings to more humble abodes will often discover that the houses of our ancestors are no longer standing – perhaps even the whole street or district has vanished. Listed buildings may also have been granted their status too late to have saved more than a handful here and there, and as with the Bristol house featured in the programme, often just a strip of the original street remains.

This was the situation when I sought out Cator Street in Peckham – the birthplace of my grandfather in 1892, when the family of seven (my grandfather was child number five) all lived in two upstairs’ rooms, privately rented from the downstairs’ tenant. A fairly common enough set-up at the time, this was often organised by widows or spinsters who needed to make extra income to cover their costs. It was for the same reason that my newly-widowed great-grandmother rented out a spare room in her house at Denmark Road in Brixton to various lodgers after the death of her husband (see I Remember, I Remember).

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)My grandmother outside the house at Denmark Road c1910

Of course, it just so happened that one of these boarders was a First World War veteran (born in 1892 in Cator Street!) who went on to marry her daughter. This was perhaps not the most romantic of set-ups, but possibly a practical one as my grandmother would have been able to closely observe her new beau’s domestic habits before committing herself fully. Yet, when my grandfather arrived there in 1922, newly discharged from the stripped-down British cavalry, he probably would never have imagined he’d end up living there for almost two decades, becoming head of the household along the way (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Civilian).

Unfortunately, many of the houses in Denmark Road were damaged during the Blitz and a low-rise post-war housing scheme occupies the site of number 95 and environs. But because of their novelty and old-fashioned charm, the houses which have survived have become more valuable and sought after, a situation that has been replicated all over the capital, including Cator Street, where the remaining houses have an almost cottagey feel. While none of these Blitz survivors (pictured below) were the actual ones my grandfather’s family had inhabited, I was pleased to find at least some of them still standing as they enabled me to imagine how the street might have once looked – although it would certainly not have appeared so charming in the 1890s.

CATOR STREETRemaining houses in Cator Street, Peckham

The afternoon I discovered these last original houses in Cator Street was towards the end of a long day tramping the streets of south London. Earlier I’d moved even further back in time to the 1860s (a leap of one generation) to the site of Aldred Road in Kennington – the place where my grandfather’s father, Arthur Skelton, was born (see The Two Arthurs). Just like my maternal great-grandmother, Arthur’s mother also took in lodgers when she became widowed in her thirties with six children to support, although she was also able to work locally as a ‘nurse’, looking after the children of wealthier families. Eventually she rented out two rooms in her home to her grown-up son Sidney (my grandfather’s namesake uncle) and his young family, which sounds a win-win situation for all concerned.

Aldred Rd. (2)Aldred Road c1917

After a bombing raid in WW2 destroyed much of Aldred Road and the neighbouring streets, a few houses limped on until the 1950s when the whole of Aldred Road (since renamed Aldred Street) disappeared to make way for a new estate. Three 18-storey blocks of flats, which constituted part of the pioneering early 1960s Brandon Estate, took the place of the tight rows of Victorian terraces; and it is easy to see how such high towers set among green spaces were considered to be the future of urban architecture. Low-style dwellings and existing older housing stock (or rehabilitated houses in the architects’ parlance) were also included in the development of the estate, as were shops, a library and cultural centre and – rather surprisingly – a Henry Moore statue.

THE BRANDON ESTATE The Brandon Estate, Kennington, London

In the end, I was able to obtain more of a flavour of the 19th century neighbourhoods in which my ancestors mostly lived while not searching for their old homes. Quite by accident I stumbled into an intact enclave of late Georgian terraces just off Waterloo Road on an exploratory walk along the South Bank. This area is well worth a visit if you ever find yourself south of the river, and unsurprisingly is occasionally used as a film set for period dramas. In many ways I felt that wandering around those streets brought me closer to imagining the neighbourhoods of my ancestors than standing next to a busy road, craning upwards to look at a house where they’d once lived, yet whose surroundings had completely changed from the time it was inhabited by my family.

ROUPELL STREETRoupell Street off Waterloo Road

This was certainly the case with the Brixton house in which my Yorkshire-born great-grandfather, James Skelton, had once lived in the 1840s (when the area was being developed) with his first wife and family. Reminder: James was the father of Arthur through a second marriage, who was the father of my grandfather, Sidney. While the elegant house is still standing on the busy Coldharbour Lane, whose name suggests the rural beginnings of the area, it is a mixed neighbourhood of architectural styles, and it is hard to imagine this dwelling house in its heydey, when it would have been set among leafy semi-rural streets and surrounded with the market gardens which once predominated in the area. As the gentrification of Coldharbour Lane continues apace, this house and others like it will certainly become more desirable. Despite it being located almost directly round the corner from Denmark Road, my grandfather never knew that his own paternal grandfather had once lived in such a relatively grand house, only a stone’s throw away from his own family home yet almost a century apart. 

COLD HARBOUR LANE HOUSE James Skelton’s residence in the 1840s, Coldharbour Lane, Brixton

When researching a family history, it is relatively common to come across neighbours marrying neighbours – whether they be young and entering into new relationships, or widowed and choosing second partners. Therefore it was no surprise to learn that my grandfather’s parents grew up on adjoining streets in Kennington: Arthur Skelton (of Aldred Road) married the pregnant Elizabeth Holton (of Royal Road) in 1880 when they were both around twenty. Later, when researching the Holton family, Elizabeth’s birth certificate led me to another wonderful row of listed Georgian terraced houses – this time on the busy Vauxhall Bridge Road .

The original name for this section of the road was Belvoir Terrace, making it harder to trace the location of the actual house without the use of old maps. In the case of the Brixton house (shown above), which was described as being 22, Sutherland Road in the 1851 census (part of Coldharbour Lane), there was a great deal of digging about (no pun intended) in the Lambeth archives pertaining to the local sewerage systems before I could map the house onto the modern numbering of the street. I was unable to do the same with Belvoir Terrace – or possibly unwilling to put in the work as it would have entailed visiting another set of archives on the other side of town.

Belvoir TerraceListed Georgian houses on Vauxhall Bridge Rd (formerly Belvoir Terrace)

Data from the British Listed Buildings website describes the row of houses such: This row, first called Belvoir Terrace, dates from c.1827. An Act was passed in 1826 enabling the development of lands belonging to the the Rev. Henry Wise, and the terrace is shown on the 1829 edition of Crutchley’s map of London. It stands within an area known previously as Neat House Gardens. Vauxhall Bridge and its approach road were opened in 1816, opening up this part of London for development. Directly behind Belvoir Terrace ran an open sewer (closed over in 1844). An early development in this part of Pimlico and one of the few to survive in this area. The terrace, now shorter than when first built, possesses various features of interest including the former projecting centrepiece to the row, which endows the fronts with an architectural presence. The remaining houses of Belvoir Terrace are listed as characteristic examples of late Georgian domestic architecture laid out along a new arterial road. 

However, although I was sure number 4 was long gone, I was content just to know that somewhere in this street my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Holton, was born in 1859 during the brief period when her father, William Holton, was working at nearby Buckingham Palace as a labourer, possibly for the Metropolitan Board of Works. This job may have been connected with setting up the sewerage system, that great Victorian legacy which has helped house historians so much. Sadly, Elizabeth, who never learned to read or write, died 36 years later with her malnourished youngest child on a charity ward at St Thomas’s hospital from Cirrhosis of the Liver and Jaundice. My grandfather was only three years old when he lost his mother in the summer of 1895, and never knew he’d once had a baby brother called Frederick (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers).

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When I started my most recent wave of family research, I’d hoped there might be a house standing somewhere that could be seen as the London Skeltons ‘ur-home’. Perhaps in my mind I secretly dreamed of living there one day, of finding a space which would contain my families’ essence in the way that our modern 60s bungalow never did. My grandparents 1970s retirement flat in Hampton certainly did not qualify, and their post-war council house in nearby Bishops Grove held no links to their south London roots and extended family. But the only three houses that had sheltered the Skeltons south of the river for any length of time to be classed as family homes were Aldred Road (c1850-1880) in Kennington and Denmark Road (c1900-1938) in Brixton, both of which were long gone. However, I’m aware this is a greater timespan than many other working class families in urban areas, it being more common to move around on a regular basis as incomes rose and fell.

There is nothing like doing your own family history to underline such trends. Arthur and Elizabeth seemed to be constantly changing their residence – even in Cator Street they moved between rented rooms in different buildings within the space of months – and different records showed different addresses throughout the years. One of the places where they lodged that particularly appealed to me was Rommany Road in Gipsy Hill. Not only did the name connect the area to the history of The Great North Wood (Norwood) where gipsies were said to have camped, but it seemed to me to be a quintessential south London terraced street. And its location was – just like Coldharbour Lane in Brixton –  another geographical crossing point of the disparate branches of the Skelton families (see A River Ran Under Them). Both these happenstance situations were due to speculative builders throwing up brick terraces to follow the wealthier farther out from the industrialised areas close to the Thames and into the new suburbs.

P1030889Terraced houses on Rommany Road, Gipsy Hill

If truth be told, the house at nearby Durning Road might be a better contender for a more modern, 20th century version of our London family home. Not only does it still exist, but it was the place that my grandparents moved to when they decided to leave Denmark Road for somewhere with more ‘mod cons’. An outside toilet and no electricity might have been acceptable for my great grandmother, but by the 1930s, and with a family of her own, my grandmother wanted something a little more luxurious. As my aunt once said about their move to the cottage-style house on the Bloomfield estate in 1938: It was like paradise. We had electric lights! We had a bathroom! And wonder of wonders we had a through way from the front garden to the back garden, and we all loved it. Unfortunately, the upcoming war put paid to the family’s plans to remain together in their new home for any length of time.

P1030886 (2)The old family home at Durning Road, Gipsy Hill

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Those who have followed my blog from the beginning may recall how the story of the literary Waugh family triggered my renewed interest in my genealogy project (see Begin Again). As I wrote back in September 2015: The Waughs were clearly the kind of family that had heirlooms, and family paintings and draughty piles in the country (and in their particular case, a literary legacy). And even though they’d had their share of ups and downs over the generations, it was obvious they knew their place in the world. Not only had they things to prove itpieces of furniture that were passed from one generation to another, as well as documents and graves to confirm their existence – but there was the intangible wealth tied up in the family name with its reputation and traditions. 

What I hadn’t expected to find during my research these last few years was the evidence of another Skelton family. One who, like the Waughs, left more of a trace in the world by virtue of their money and connections and travels overseas. This was the line of relatively successful south London Skeltons, descended from the first marriage of my great-great grandfather, Yorkshire-born James Skelton. I always think of them as ‘The Lost Family’ as they vanished leaving hardly any descendants – and were also unknown to my own branch of the family and the many twigs which sprouted from that fecund limb.

While I like to think that I have been equally fascinated by both sides of the family – the lost and the found; the rich and the poor; the shrewd and the feckless – the tantalising glimpses into the more glamorous world of successful and intrepid Victorians of which my direct ancestors were never a part, has often pulled my focus disproportionately in that direction.

And it is to them and their houses to which I will return next month. 

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2020