Leyburn itself is a cheerful little town, with a modern church and a very wide main street which forms a most extensive market-place. There is a bull-ring still visible in the great open space, but beyond this and the view from the Shawl, Leyburn has few attractions, except its position as a centre or a starting-place from which to explore the romantic neighbourhood.
Gordon Home, Yorkshire Painted and Described (1908)
The view over Wensleydale from Leyburn Shawl, early 20th C
The summer of 2016 is one that most of us from the UK can clearly remember, but not in the same way that we might the glorious Olympic summer of 2012, when even the most unpatriotic among us were flying the Union Jack. I’ve written about this topic before (see Home Thoughts from Abroad) when I described visiting the Cotswolds with my cousin and his wife in the spring of that year. A few weeks later, my husband and I headed to Reeth in Yorkshire for the third time, both of us with a slight feeling of trepidation. Less than a month after the unexpected outcome of the Brexit referendum, we were setting foot back on English soil, this time a little less sure of the atmosphere we would encounter in what the media described as a newly-divided country.
However, apart from a heated – yet good-natured – discussion in the local pub with some middle-aged men from County Durham, most people we met were trying hard to forget about the vote. In fact, I recall one incident in the Tennants Auction Rooms outside Leyburn where an antique dealer came in to the showroom attempting to drum up some passion for a debate with his peers, finally giving up in disgust that there seemed to be an acceptance of the status quo.
I myself soon learnt that it was better not to speak about what swiftly became the largest elephant in the room. In Darlington railway museum a friendly chat about locomotives soon swiftly ended on mentioning the ‘B word’, and my Swiss husband (well-trained in neutrality and referend) begged me to keep quiet about the topic. As I’m not very good at doing what he says at the best of times, I set about trying to subtly squeeze the theme into every new encounter, fascinated at the lengths people would go to avoid discussing the very thing that was dominating domestic politics in the UK.
Things became even weirder when we headed to Leyburn to spend a few hours exploring the ‘birthplace’ of my Wensleydale ancestors. As luck would have it, we arrived in the middle of a 1940s re-enactment weekend in which the whole town was decked out with sandbags and Union Jacks, and allied military personnel roamed the streets (all German uniforms were verboten).
Allied Forces in Leyburn, 2016
This was a rather unsettling experience, to say the least. Trying to imagine 18th century Leyburn while caught up in what felt like some bizarre time trip which referenced a completely different era was not an easy task. Add to this the fact that a 19th century Leyburn had almost obliterated the earlier, smaller town from the previous century, and I felt that this was a cognitive challenge almost beyond me. My husband – who doesn’t really like old things in any case – wondered (not for the first time) why the British were caught up in a national obsession with the past. As we strolled around the town, glancing at taped up shop windows and gas mask bags, I began to ask myself the same question. Perhaps this had even been the very thing which had helped galvanise the ‘leave vote’ in the first place.
‘Air Raid Ready’, The Golden Lion, Leyburn, 2016
This re-enactment weekend was, however, thankfully a very British affair, with a good-natured focus on dressing up and dancing, and invading the local pubs and tearooms. I spotted numerous costumes, including a very authentic-looking rural French resistance fighter, or Maquis. Two young women dressed as land girls caught my attention in particular, and I complemented them on their outfits as they walked past, arm-in-arm. Laughing, they told me that they loved the fashion and music of the era (they were all red lip-sticked, rolled hair and headscarves, with the charming addition of belted trousers, wellies and army great coats), then dashed across the square to join an impromptu dance to a big band sound.
Everyone – young and old (although I did wonder how it would feel like to anyone who’d actually experienced the war) – seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, and it was hard not to get drawn into the communal enthusiasm for the event. I tried to put thoughts of Brexit out of my head, reasoning that any visitors to the UK who stumbled upon this time-warp town would probably find it all very charming and eccentric and just what they’d expected from the inhabitants of ‘the island’.
However, the spirit of an older Leyburn certainly eluded me on that day, and so we returned a week later to explore the place again once it had divested itself of the 1940s. Although it was a gloomy damp afternoon when we arrived, and the streets seemed duller without the previous weekend’s celebrations, it was slightly easier to spot the old Leyburn, nestled into the new, when free from the distractions of a relatively recent war. By walking the back alleyways and lanes behind the High Street it was just possible to imagine the ugly-sounding Trotters Alley of my Leyburn ancestors, and in a corner of one of the buildings we came across the ancient water pump embedded in the wall (and which the local tourist office’s historic self-guided walk pamphlet had mentioned).
Leyburn’s Back Lanes and Ancient Water Pump
We subsequently learnt that Leyburn had doubled its population in the first three decades of the 19th century, increasing from less than 500 to over 1000 inhabitants. It was during this period that the town began to expand, growing further still once the Wensleydale Railway arrived in 1856, when it attracted its fair share of middle-class Victorian retirees. As many of the buildings described in the walking trail booklet were from this era, it was harder to imagine how the town might have looked to my 18th century relatives. Older lanes had been swept away as the town opened up, yet the parishioners still had to worship at the parish church in Wensley until St Matthew’s Church was built in 1868.
Love Lane, Leyburn
It was only when I walked down Love Lane (where the New Theatre was housed from 1794 to 1865) towards The Shawl that I started to get the sensation that I might be treading in my ancestors footsteps. For here, on this wooded limestone ridge, the same views over Wensleydale would have been familiar to the Skeltons of Leyburn and they would have no doubt walked along the same paths that constitute the public footpaths of today. However, were I to bring them back to this spot over two centuries later, I wonder if they would notice how quiet the woods and dales are. Where are the lead miners, the noisy horse and carts, the myriad of birdsongs? What would they think about our new, eerily quiet countryside?
Commercial Square and High Street, Leyburn, North Yorkshire
As I mentioned last month, the first James Skelton – the grandfather of my London James – appeared to have only had two out of six children who survived long enough to have families of their own, both of whom were agricultural labourers. These were John (of Leyburn) and Thomas (who moved to the neighbouring parish of Patrick Brompton). I have experienced many happy (and frustrating hours) searching for their descendants, a number of whom stayed in the area. I’m almost certain that many of the 21st century Skeltons who live in Leyburn today are related to me in some way, although trying to untangle exactly what the relationship is seems like a job for a mathematician.
In fact, tracing the Skeltons back to their Leyburn beginnings was almost as complicated a task. I can only liken it to trying to complete a jigsaw where some of the key pieces are missing. So while it might be easy to slot two or three parts together, trying to connect them up to create the whole picture appears to be impossible, no matter how many times you turn and twist the individual sections.
Some of my Skelton ancestors jumped out at me by dint of their curious names or short lives. There was the wonderfully named Tibby who would have been my London James’ aunt, yet who disappeared into thin air shortly after she was born. Then there was her older sister, Isabella, who survived but a year. And Charles who – like his older brother James – only made it to 22.
I wonder if, as he began to outlive his own children, did this first James (my London James’ grandfather) feel weighted down by the deaths of the young people he’d helped to create, or did he focus instead on the living ones and their families? And was he also able spend time with his grandchildren, James and Mary, the two little ones who’d grow up to never have any memories of their own young father? Somehow I imagine he would have wanted to have these very living reminders of his first-born namesake son: the young wool-combing James who died of ‘bloody flux’ shortly after moving to Darlington with his new family.
But what of the first James of Leyburn – the Ur-James of this story and grandfather of ‘my’ London James? Who exactly was his father? And was this James also the first-born son of a wool-comber? While I was naturally curious about his genealogy, I was surprised to realise that I was not more hungry for information. I did not really feel that I even needed to go further back. Perhaps this is because I believe there is a limit to how far we can stretch these ancestral connections. With each generation the blood is mixed more and more, and it is easy to forget that the women who married into the family in more recent times – my paternal great-grandmothers for example – are closer to me genetically than those Skeltons from 17th and 18th century Leyburn. But it is still the case that most family historians get caught up with the magical paternal name, focussing their research on moving back through this line to some mythical family genesis.
Yet when I discovered the 1751 parish baptism record for the ‘first’ James Skelton, one word in brackets in neat cursive script made me rethink the way I have been carrying out my family history.
It took a while to consider what this new information meant. Had I been following the ‘wrong’ family for all these years? Could I really even call myself a Skelton? And while I believe that Ann’s father was possibly a local shoemaker who was also called James Skelton (1695-1749?) – and he in turn was the son of a Leyburn shoemaker called Michael Skelton – I have begun to wonder really just how important all these people are. After all, now there is another birth line which I have to accept will always remain unknown. Surprisingly, this did not make me feel too despondent. Rather, it made me question why I had not followed any one of the names that the women in my family set aside at the time of their marriage. Stops. Burnell. Holton. Hawkins. The list goes on until it reaches Ann Skelton. And there it must stop.
Not only did James take his mother’s name, but the fact that she brought him up as an unmarried mother in 1751, along with what would appear to be a sister called Dorothy Skelton three years later, is a feat in itself. And if this is the same Ann Skelton who records show died unmarried in 1795 then she would have seen her son grow to be a middle-aged father and would have known her grandchildren – including the father of ‘my’ London James.
But of course we do not really know what happened to Ann. The Leyburn jigsaw has lost some of its pieces. And we can never find out the truth. Perhaps she was in some sort of semi-formal ‘arrangement’ with a married man who’d separated from his wife – or could not marry her for some reason – yet who brought up her children with her. I think about young Mary Ann Hawkins who had five children with Ann’s middle-aged great-grandson before marrying him at the end of his life (see When I Grow Rich). Or Mary Ann’s first illegitimate son (not one of James’ children) who appeared to have committed bigamy by marrying twice, but got away with it (see Black Sheep and Blackfriars)! This is but one family, yet there are so many tales that repeat and overlap.
In a nod to the matriarchy, I decided to see if I could find out what happened to James’ older sister Mary. It took a few years of searching in the wrong place before I eventually found her married at twenty to a John Blythe and living in York. John was a joiner, Mary a dressmaker. It appeared that they went on to have four children who were of an age with James’ children, before Mary became a widow in mid-life. The oldest child, a boy named Matthew undertook an apprenticeship as a copper engraver in York, a trade he passed to his own son, just as the woolcombers and shoemakers in the family had done before him.
I often wonder if James ever returned from London to visit his sister and her family in York. Were his own children ever curious about their Yorkshire cousins, in the way my London cousins fascinated me, despite – or because of – the fact we did not see each other very often when growing up? And most likely he would have wanted to spend time with his mother Margaret, although she too is one of the missing pieces of the puzzle that I have never found. My instinct tells me that if she’d lived to be middle-aged, she might have gone to stay with her married daughter in York. However, by the time of the first census in 1841 she was not to be found. Had she been alive, she would probably already have been approaching 70 by then: a relatively good age in those times.
Sometimes when I have a spare few hours and the weather is awful, I trawl the online genealogy sites, looking to see if anyone who’s evaded my ‘capture’ will appear unexpectedly. These sessions always start out with a sense of optimism: who or what will I find this time? But I have to face facts. The heady days of my initial research in the 80s and my second wave of internet-based research can never be repeated. There are very few revelations to look forward to now, just puffing out the flesh on the bones.
Perhaps I should start thinking about leaving my ancestors in peace for a while.
Wishing everyone a very Merry Xmas!
The Incidental Genealogist, December 2019