Category Archives: Memories

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.

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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.

JET.JPG

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

Some Thoughts on Childhood Memories

It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.

Sigmund Freud, Screen Memories (1899)

SCREEN MEMORIES: A Video Essay on SMULTRONSTÄLLET / WILD STRAWBERRIES from Catherine Grant on Vimeo.

The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud coined the term screen memories to describe childhood memories which have been distorted by later experiences, in particular around the time of adolescence. In his 1899 text of the same name, he gives the case history of a 38 year old professional man whose childhood memories fall into three categories. First, there are those which his parents or other relatives have described and which he no longer knows if genuine or not – something most of us can relate to. Then there are the ones he can remember because they involved an important event, such as an accident, and which have not been related in great detail by another person (possibly because no one else was present). Finally, there are those which have been fixed in his mind in almost cinematic clarity, but seem to have no bearing on actual experience and no focal point to them. It is this third group that Freud regards as screen memories – in other words, those reminiscences which are a cover or screen for important events of a later date that have been repressed. He points out that this is not to say that the screen memories are themselves completely false, only that in their vivid detail they represent a stronger, later memory.

Of course, this being Freud, the case study he describes focuses on how the patient’s childhood memory of picking yellow flowers for a young girl in the Alps was a symbol for a later longing for a teenage cousin. The first memory had become a screen for the second one (which was of a sexual nature). While the analysis makes for interesting reading, Freud himself later believed that it was not always possible to apply this concept to all childhood memories which appeared to belong to that category. In addition, it was later discovered that the patient in the case study was in actual fact a fabrication and the screen memory described was one Freud himself had experienced.

The idea of screen memories is certainly an interesting one, although difficult to prove or disprove. But like most people I certainly have memories of events that happened to me in childhood which others recall in different ways, or not at all. In my own case, however, I think that some of my earliest memories eventually became mixed up with films I’d seen or books I’d read. Thus, for several years I believed I’d lived in an industrial city at the turn of the 19th century as I appeared to have very clear images of soot-stained brick walls and dark canals, as well as playing in cobbled car-free streets in an apron-covered dress and tackety boots. Later, like many teenagers I went through a phase where I believed in re-incarnation, and thus assumed I might have once been a Victorian child. I scoured every book in our local public library on the subject, leaving me even more confused and sometimes more than a little scared. Eventually I came to the conclusion that all the 19th century-based children’s literature (both classic and contemporary) which I’d devoured had imprinted itself upon my memory in such a way that I believed I’d had the experiences myself.

These false memories were, I believe, not so much screen memories as ones which stemmed from the times when we went visit our two sets of grandparents in Edinburgh and London. In the sixties and seventies, inner city buildings were still blackened with soot from coal fires, and many remnants of the industrial revolution were still visibly present in most town and cityscapes. Because I grew up in a modern suburban development built around a country village, I had little experience of urban environments. This meant that visits to grimy tenements in Edinburgh or trips down the river Thames to Greenwich, passing darkened factories and warehouses, were full of wonder for me, overlapping in my mind with the Victorian and Edwardian tales I’d so eagerly devoured as a child. Books such as Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) or Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) filled my head with strange images that threatened to spill into my dreams and colour my real life experiences. (The fact that they were also televised in the 70s may have also fed into my imagination).

THE WATER BABIES

N.B. Although The Water Babies was recommended by my own parents (who had read it themselves in childhood), it would seem as if some of the themes in the book which are related to race and identity would be rightfully viewed as rather contentious by today’s standards.

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When family historians are in the enviable position of being able to ask older relatives about their childhood memories, there is a tendency to want to soak up all the details with which their stories are furnished and to pass them on to future generations. But just sometimes it appears impossible to reconcile such reminiscences with the time, and the age of the child. My father, for example, remembers his maternal grandmother as being an old lady in black who sat on a chair in the corner of the room. Yet, he was two when she died and it seems strange to think that he could have recollections of his Somerset-born grandmother, Harriet Stops, the old widow who’d presided over the family home in Brixton for more than thirty years. Even my aunt wrote once to say: I don’t remember Harriet very well but I thought she died before Bob was born, in my mind I can’t see him around and he was a great, fat lump of a baby!

HARRIET STOPS

Harriet Stops in her 70s

Setting aside what this comment may unwittingly show about the relationship of my father and his older sister, I’d like to think that he actually did remember his dour-looking grandmother, as this very act of remembrance creates a connective chain of memories that link forward to myself. As Roland Barthes points out at the very start of Camera Lucida: One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it.

This was the same feeling I experienced when my aunt recognised my great-grandfather (who also died in 1930) from her parents’ wedding photograph in 1924. When she wrote to say that she knew it was her grandfather Arthur right away, then it suddenly hit me that my aunt had in fact known James’ Skelton’s second youngest son! This was an old man who possibly still had memories of his Yorkshire-born father: the one who was the first Skelton from the family to head to London and seek his fortune, thus creating the South London branch of the Wensleydale Skeltons. Although poverty meant that Arthur died relatively young (at age 70) and my aunt was only five at the time, his younger brother Sidney (after whom my grandfather was named) lived into his 80s, surviving until the 1940s. Thus there are still descendants out there who possibly would have been privy to tales of their grandfather’s childhood in Kennington with the elderly James and his much younger wife, Mary Ann Hawkins.

SKELTON WEDDING

Grandad Arthur (1859-1930) is on the far left of the wedding group

However, tracing down living relatives with whom you have not had a prior connection is not as easy as it sounds. I’d always imagined that most would be eager to meet up and share their knowledge, but despite my best efforts I have not had much luck in this area – unless the relative in question was already involved in researching the family history.

This has luckily happened in the case of some of Arthur junior’s grandchildren (my grandfather’s older brother) who have furnished me with photographs and memories of Arthur’s children (their parents), and were a real impetus to continuing my research after a twenty-year hiatus. I have also been fortunate to make contact with a descendant of William Hawkins Skelton, the illegitimate first son Mary Ann had shortly prior to meeting my great-great grandfather. William was brought up in the Skelton-Hawkins household with the other five children they couple had together between 1850 and 1862 (see Black Sheep and Blackfriars) and may not even have known that his father was not actually James Skelton as he took both his parents’ names.

ARTHUR AND JAMES FREDERICK SKELTON

William Hawkins Skelton’s sons: Arthur William and Frederick James c1890s

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But while the personal aspect to memory is what makes childhood recollections so fascinating, I believe it is also the very thing that makes them fallible. There are always cases where one family member swears that an event did not take place – or that the memory is not a true one. As the writer Hilary Mantel pointed out in an article about autobiography entitled ‘Father Figured’: Disagreement in accounts of family events is often due to ‘point of view’ – which, as every storyteller knows, is vital to what is reported. Because you recall things differently from your sibling, it doesn’t mean either of you are wrong. She went on to say: Freud with his passion for archaeology, influenced the way we think of memories, we imagine we have to dig for then. My instinct is that this is not true. In our brains, past and present co-exist; they occupy, as it were, adjoining rooms, but there are some rooms we never enter.

When discussing my aunt’s childhood with her on a visit to Somerset last summer (see Return to East Coker) I noticed that her current recollections of events did not always fit with previous ones from over a decade earlier. Thus I came to the conclusion that anything she repeated in which the same details overlapped must have been a strong and reliable memory – which certainly presents a case for showing patience when elderly relatives repeat the same stories again.

What I also realised on that visit to my aunt was that family photographs, although an excellent starting point for stimulating memories and putting names to faces, could occasionally actually be counter-productive. Relatives who looked similar (even across generations) were sometimes liable to be confused. And while the images were able to provoke strong reactions and awaken associated memories, they could at times constrict memory due to the focus on the single frozen moment when the photograph was taken. As Barthes points out near the end of Camera Lucida: The Photograph does not call up the past (nothing Proustian in a photograph). The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed. He further adds that: The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been. This distinction is decisive. In front of a photograph, our consciousness does not necessarily take the nostalgic path of memory . . .

But what of screen memories (if they do indeed exist) or the other types of unreliable recollection of which I mentioned earlier? Sometimes I have this terrible fear that by the end of my life I may be babbling all sorts of nonsense. Not out of madness (although that may be a possibility), but by confusing everything I’ve seen, read or experienced over hopefully a long lifetime. Once on a visit to my then 90 year-old Scottish great-aunt whose middle name I bear, my husband asked her about her wartime service with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (or WAAFS). Were you in the war, too? my aunt retorted brightly. My mother gently pointed out to her that my husband had not been born until years after the war ended, but yet to me it did not seem such a strange thing for her to ask. Not because she was losing her faculties in any way, but because I sensed that for her time had taken on an elastic quality more in keeping with actual memory than in the way the clocks worked (the past and present co-existing).

I myself find it strange that things I consider as relatively recent events are consigned to history as far as most of my students are concerned. Born at the turn of the century they regard anything in the old century to be very much in the past. This has enabled me to be aware of how previous generations might have also felt, in particular those born a hundred years before myself. They would have been middle-aged in the 1920s and may have had to put up with the ‘bright, young things’ bemoaning the Victorian values with which they grew up or their struggle with new technology.

*

One thing I have become intrigued by during the last few years of my research is the tale of the mysterious ‘Rose’ (said to be my grandfather’s younger sister) as well as that of the foundling ‘Nell’ (said to be my grandfather’s niece). Hardly any records exist which can corroborate my aunt’s stories of these two women, who are both still just within living memory. My aunt once wrote to me about her father’s siblings and described his sister Rose so: Rose was the baby of the family and she suddenly started visiting us when Bob and I were very small, bringing us expensive presents. Bob had a tricycle once, I had a china-faced doll. Before we got too used to these presents, she died quite young, it was said from blood poisoning. She was scratched by a rusty nail in a packet of cigarettes – they said!

EILEEN AND BOB SKELTON

Eileen and Bob Skelton at the age when visited by Rose

However, my grandfather’s sister Rose (christened Rosina) was much older than my grandfather – who was actually the ‘baby of the family’ – and as I later found out (after wasting many weeks looking for her death in the 1930s) went on to live a long life, dying in north London in 1968, just around the corner from the flat in Whetstone which I rented in 1985, shortly after arriving in London (see A Rose in Holly Park). As Rose Ryall (née Skelton) had a large number of her own children over the years, it is very doubtful that she was the Rose to which my aunt alluded.

I first heard about Rose more than 30 years ago now, when my father (Bob) was still alive. Luckily that meant he was able to verify that someone like Rose had indeed existed, and described her as always very glamorous, wearing fur coats, perfume  and bright lipstick when she came to visit, bearing her expensive presents for them. However, the whole thing does sound slightly odd – especially the Agatha Christie-type ending with the ominous They said! But I’ve come to believe that Rose was possibly just a family friend or a relative from the other side of the family. Maybe even a step-sister of my grandfather. But why she would dote on these two children in particular does not seem to make sense.

As both my aunt and father remembered Rose (or the woman said to be her), then I am confident that such a person did exist. In addition, I have often been surprised at how much information my aunt did recall which I was initially sceptical about, but that turned out to be true. For example, my aunt first wrote to tell me of the two brothers my grandfather lost in the First World War, where he himself served in the cavalry (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier). However, the two young men – whom my aunt said were named Ginger and Peter – did not appear to exist in the records.

Later I realised that Ginger was actually a nickname for red-haired James Francis, the boy named after his paternal and maternal grandfathers respectively, who left behind a widow and baby when he died in 1917. Peter took a little longer to find and it was not until the publication of another census that I discovered him to be my grandfather’s step-brother. Surprisingly my aunt had no knowledge of the fact that her father had lost both his mother and baby brother in the summer of 1895, when he was just three. And neither was she aware that a few months later he was being brought up by a new stepmother and living alongside a collection of step-siblings, one of whom was Peter Pushman.

Nell is the other mysterious woman in my grandfather’s history. She was said to be a foundling who arrived one day on the doorstep of Arthur Skelton junior’s household in Elm Road, Thornton Heath (Arthur was my grandfather’s older brother). On her wedding in 1935 to a local boy, also living in Elm Road, called Alfred Cosstick, she gives her name as Nellie Major and her age as 21, yet the details about her father remain blank. My aunt can still remember Nell as the oldest girl in the household – which was shared with Arthur’s five children, including Peter Sidney below, alongside Ginger’s widow and daughter (see The Two Arthurs).

PETER SIDNEY SKELTON AND ALFRED COSSTICK

Nell’s future husband, Alfred Cosstick, with Peter Sidney Skelton* c1930

*Peter was most likely named after Arthur Skelton junior’s step-brother (Peter) and his youngest brother, my grandfather (Sidney), proving that the brothers were close, having been through the Great War together (although Peter did not survive).

Would such a busy household have added another one had there had not been some kind of familial connection? This reminds me of a family in our neighbourhood when I was growing up. One of the youngest of the six children was said to be adopted, but he looked so like the rest of the family that it seemed obvious that he was actually their half-brother! So my own theory about Nell is that someone in the family was responsible for her existence, and that was why Arthur Skelton junior felt obliged to take her in.

ARTHUR SKELTON JUNIOR 1930s

Arthur Skelton Junior c1930s

In her eloquent memoir Giving up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel describes the relationship between memory and family secrets thus: I know, too, that once a family has acquired a habit of secrecy, memories begin to distort, because its members confabulate to cover the gaps in the facts; you have to make some sort of sense of what’s going on around you, so you cobble together a narrative as best you can. You add to it, and reason about it, and the distortions breed distortions.

Whether the true stories of Nell and Rose have become distorted over the years – intentionally  or not – they remain the most enigmatic of female family figures for me. Perhaps because both their involvement with my own family ended abruptly. Rose with her strange death; Nell by quarrelling with my grandfather. When I visited my aunt last year, she finally remembered what the fall-out in the 1940s had been about. Apparently, my grandparents had stored some furniture from their bombed-out house in Norwood with Alf and Nell, who lived nearby. Later my grandfather discovered they had been using the furniture in their own household (a pragmatic-sounding decision, I thought) and this led to then cutting off contact for the rest of their lives. It seems a sad and petty story, and I’m sure there must be something more to it. But possibly emotions were heightened during the stresses and deprivations of the war, and fragile relationships were pushed to breaking point.

In every family there are at least one or two figures whose backgrounds are shrouded in mystery and whose tales remain untold. While records may not always offer up much in the way of enlightenment in these cases (although occasionally they can indeed help to solve such mysteries), childhood memories can in fact be a way to bring into focus those aspects that were deemed to be important at the time. These  are often things that transcend the logic of adults and the facts of the record keeper, and which can cut through the years in their simplicity and honesty.

As Hilary Mantel states so succinctly in Giving up the Ghost: Still, I think people can remember: a face, a perfume: one true thing or two.

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2020