Category Archives: Photography

Back to School

September is a month traditionally bound up with that ‘back-to-school’ feeling: updated goals for a new season, and the chance of a fresh start blowing in on the cooler air. Even if our schooldays were decades ago, the change from summer to autumn brings with nostalgia for a time when reinventing yourself simply by dint of getting older and moving up a year was deemed possible. Perhaps it still is? I’d like to think so.

Back to school for my mother was the smell of leather satchels and sharpened pencils; while I recall scratchy wool blazers chafing on sunburnt shoulders which had been free for several weeks, along with a vague sense of excitement in knowing I’d soon be learning new things. Even now, I’ll sign up for courses at this time of year, believing somehow that they will make me a better person. While that might sound like a noble aspiration, I often think that endless studying can sometimes be an excuse for inaction – just one more class before I can crack on with a new career plan!

But back in the simpler days of obligatory education, there was something comforting about the rhythm of the seasons and the knowledge that, although many aspects of our lives were out of our control, there was an enjoyment to be had in the freedom to manipulate other things within those constraints. Choosing new season school shoes or deciding that this was the year to finally audition for a part in the school play, for example. And knowing you’d be meeting up with old friends, as well as making new ones, was enough to beat the alarm clock that first week back.

As a schoolgirl myself when I first became interested in the family photograph albums, I was always amazed that my mother could recall the names of most of the pupils in her primary class photograph, as well as remembering the things they got up to all those years ago. Most thrillingly of all, she was sometimes able to tell us what happened to these children in the decades afterwards. The pretty popular girl (there’s always one) who became dowdy with motherhood and housework, or the quiet boy who became a famous musician. I used to wonder whether I’d be able to do the same thing with my own class photos, and of course – surprise, surprise – it turns out I can! 

Alloway Primary School, Class 1, 1969 (I am on the far left)

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

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2022

 

The Children in the Street

It’s been particularly hot where I live in Switzerland this summer, and so early mornings and evenings are often the best times to be out and about. But as a self-confessed ‘owl’ (with another of my species as a house guest) it has sometimes been difficult to achieve much before sundown. Thus it was a treat to be able to enjoy a quirky British film at our local open air cinema last month, taking advantage of the cool evening breeze from the lake. Set in a gloomy, early 1960s Newcastle, The Duke was a rather incongruous choice for our location, yet despite that – or perhaps because of that – the mainly Swiss audience seemed to love the film, even if the subtitles did not convey all the nuances of the dialogue.

Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren played a suitably dowdy middle-aged, working class couple from that time; and although the period details seemed to be spot on, I couldn’t help but feel that the street scenes seemed rather contrived. Were there really that many children playing that many different games outside the terraces of Newcastle in 1961? Sometimes it was difficult to know where one game ended and the other began. Later, when my mother and I compared notes, we agreed that it had almost felt like watching one of Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns, a 1970s comedy TV series set earlier in the 20th century, where British customs of all classes were parodied.

My mother did, however, recall that it had been common for her to play with friends in the streets in the 1940s, despite my grandmother’s lamentations that many more children were to be seen outdoors in her day. And while my own childhood had also been as relatively unstructured and technology-free as that of the previous generation, one of the main differences in the intervening decades was the increasing number of cars on the road. Yet because I grew up on the outskirts of a village and my mother in a city suburb, then it was difficult to really compare our experiences. Nevertheless, both of us came to the conclusion that the philosophy of our childhoods was mainly the same: to be able to explore our environment freely in the company of other children. Of course it was that same spirit which brought my grandmother and her siblings out of their crowded Edinburgh tenement and onto the car-free streets of the Dumbiedykes and beyond to the grassy freedom of Holyrood Park, which abutted the neighbourhood. 

Mary Neilson (top left) with friends, Holyrood Park c1924

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, August 2022

The Portrait in the Shed

Last month I returned to Scotland again for a short visit. And in a brief sunny two-day window bookended by cold and wet weather, my mother and I headed over to the west coast to visit my younger sister. Since we’d last seen each other, she’d moved into an old quarryman’s cottage in a tiny Ayrshire village. Set on the banks of the river Ayr with a nature reserve at her back door and a welcoming neighbouring pub with great food  it was the perfect location for a weekend away, bringing back memories of our Ayrshire childhood in the seventies.

My sister’s terraced cottage was decorated in her eclectic style with objects old and new. In the entrance porch I was surprised but pleased to see the twin brass eagles that had graced my grandparent’s mantlepiece for all the years I’d know them. They were made by Robert Neilson, my grandmother’s father, who was a brass finisher by trade. As a child they’d always fascinated me – as they obviously did my sister – and they were just as exquisite as I’d remembered, with the strange detail that had intrigued me at the time: the birds’ flat-topped heads and outsized feet; their arched wings and the indentations of their feathers. I automatically reached out to touch them, as I’d always done, and felt that same unexpected coldness and roughness.

One of a pair of Brass Eagles which my great-grandfather made

In the small room at the front of the house was an even greater surprise: the lost portrait of our Great Uncle Adam that I remember so well from the day we triumphantly unearthed it from my grandfather’s garden shed. That warm afternoon we’d set ourselves the task of emptying the shed of all its accumulated junk in order to make some play room for ourselves. I still can recall the musty damp smell of the tiny wooden building and the wonder as the area outside the shed filled up with all the tools and boxes that had been stored there (looking like it had doubled in amount once freed from its confines). Soon we could see a wooden floor and knew that we were on target to achieve our goal. Except we hadn’t quite worked out how everything would go back in.

With my grandparents in summer 1964 – the shed is behind us

We were lucky that day that my grandparent’s were fairly sanguine about the enterprise, using it as the spur they needed to get rid of some of the unwanted items they’d forgotten about over the years. But I’m not sure what they thought when we came proudly back into the house carrying a large and unwieldy framed photographic portrait of a young smiling man in military uniform. Oh, it’s Uncle Adam they exclaimed. When he was in the war. By that they meant the 1st World War, in which Adam Neilson had enlisted in the Signallers in 1914 at the age of 16 by saying he was older than he actually was. His parents had been furious and tried to get him out of the contract, with Great Grandma seemingly upset about the fact she’d just bought him an expensive new winter wool coat. Yet he had survived the conflict – like my London grandfather he felt it better to choose his regiment rather than be conscripted later – and gone on to become a much-loved uncle and now our oldest great-uncle. 

Adam Neilson c1914/15

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, May 2022

Walking Pictures

While I was undertaking February’s onerous task of organising the large and jumbled collection of Scottish family photographs, I came across a number of  so-called ‘walking pictures’. So delighted was I with these spontaneous-looking images – like unexpected peeks into unguarded moments in my relatives’ lives – that I almost thought about giving them a separate category. In the end, I reluctantly filed them in their individual family folders, but not before deciding they should at least have their own chapter in my Scottish family story.

Most of us with collections of personal photographs from the last century will recognise the walking picture and may even been ‘victim’ of one. These opportunistic snaps were mainly taken in the 1920s through to the 1950s, before camera ownership was widespread. The business idea was simple: commercial photographers set themselves up on busy main streets or seaside resorts, catching pedestrians as they walked and talked and gazed around them. The walkers were often unaware of the camera pointing in their direction – at least until the moment when their wry smiles or looks of quizzical surprise were captured on film.

Catherine and Ann Neilson, Princes St. Edinburgh, late 1920s

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, April 2022

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

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, March 2022

Foxed Mirrors and Fairytales: Part 2

My Scottish grandparents had a past – I knew that – but it was not one that I could readily imagine. It was as if they had been brought into the world solely to be Grandma and Grandad, and false teeth, glasses and greying hair had been their lot since the beginning. Even if the photograph box yielded up images of them as a young ‘courting couple’ in the 1920s or as thirty-something parents in the following decade, this was not the same people I knew. Something had happened along the way to separate them from their youth – irreversible split that I dreaded experiencing myself, and which I planned to do everything in my power to prevent. And often their memories were fleeting or muddled, or were of things about which they no longer spoke, as if they had become unmoored from the people they once were before they met and married and had my mother.  

My McKay grandparents as a young engaged couple

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

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

The Incidental Genealogist, November 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.

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

Haunted by Those Ghostly Traces

As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperilled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life. Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family – and often, is all that remains of it.

Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

One of the most fascinating aspects of my genealogical research to date has been the discovery and analysis of old family photographs. Indeed, this was the initial impetus for returning to my quest – with that tantalising hand-coloured image of my father as a young evacuee in Somerset during the war reigniting my interest in my London ancestors after a long hiatus. Photographs that I discovered hidden in family collections or were sent digitally through connecting with known and unknown relatives all contributed to the enjoyment (as well as the frustration!) of piecing together the full story of my relatives – the ‘lost’ and the found.

Then there was the added surprise of finding out about the other family that my great-great-grandfather had established with his first wife, and the accompanying images I was able to assemble of some of these more successful individuals, thanks to the internet. A particular highlight was the Rotary postcards of the young Edwardian actor-manager, Herbert Sleath (see Herbert Sleath Struts His Hour) and his wife, Ellis Jeffreys (see The Lady and the Cowboy).

Herbert Sleath

Herbert looking like a prototype for the future Rudolph Valentino

When I wrote the chapter on photography (below) back in January 2016, I had only just begun to uncover the story of Herbert and Ellis’ glamorous yet tragic lives. I was also still to learn about the award-winning local photographer Charles Skelton Tyler, who developed his own film at his chemist’s shop in Earles Colne in Essex (see Three Sisters: Helen). However, from the very beginning of my quest I had realised how important photography would be to my research. For that reason, this post was possibly one of my favourite ones to write and research as it sent me out from the narrow world of my family and into the much larger one of the social history and philosophy of photography, and back again. It illustrates one of the myriad of benefits in undertaking a genealogical project: namely the opportunity to learn about a myriad of inter-related subjects.

This month, as I contemplate areas for future research, I would like to leave you with those aforementioned thoughts on photography and family history. At the end of summer, I plan to embark on a new genealogical project focussing on the Scottish side of my family which will have a collection of family photographs at its core – the ones uncatalogued in my mother’s three ‘messy boxes’ that I mentioned in my very first post in September 2015 (see Begin Again). Next month I intend to explain more about this undertaking and the impetus behind it, including how it links to the research on my London family that I have carried out to date. 

*

In the second part of Camera Lucida (1980) – Roland Barthes’ strange and moving text on the nature of photography – Barthes describes the futile search for the essence of his recently deceased mother in her collection of family photographs. Now, one November evening, shortly after my mother’s death, I was going through some photographs. I had no hope of ‘finding her’, I expected nothing from these ‘photographs of a being before which one recalls less of that being than by thinking of him or her’ (Proust), I had acknowledged that fatality, one of the most agonizing features of mourning, which decreed that however often I might consult such images, I could never recall her features (summon them up as a totality).

Camera Lucida (1980)Later in the book, however, we discover that Barthes finally believes he’s succeeded in finding the definitive  definitive image of his mother. There I was alone, in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved. And I found it. Barthes goes on to describe this photograph (the Winter Garden Photograph) of his mother as a young girl in great detail – although maddeningly he chooses not to reproduce it in the text, as he does other images. His reasoning for this decision is that for us it would be nothing but an indifferent  picture and would not possess the ability to wound us or remind us of our own mortality in the same way it does for him.

Much has been made about the omission of this photograph, with some scholars going so far as to even doubt its existence – at least in the form that Barthes described. Whether this is true or not, Barthes is at pains to describe the anguish felt at being unable to penetrate the other images of his mother, whereas the only one which has given me the splendour of her truth is precisely a lost, remote photograph, one which does not look ‘like’ her, the photograph of a child I never knew.

This search for the ‘true identity’ of his mother relates in part to the first section of Camera Lucida, in which Barthes describes the impact that certain photographs have on the viewer. He does this by using two terms which have since become commonplace in the study of photography. The first is the studium – which can loosely be described as what the photographer intended the image to represent (a calculated decision); whereas the punctum is what unexpectedly ‘pierces’ the viewer, breaking through the intellectual coldness of the studium. So, according to Barthes, the Winter Garden Photograph would possess no punctum for us – and would simply be a study of a brother and sister in a conservatory (or winter garden), at the turn the 20th century. In other words, it would (if at all) only affect us at the level of the studium.

CAMERA LUCIDA QUOTE

By deciding not to publish the picture, Barthes is possibly recreating his own frustrations at being unable to go beyond his initial feeling of euphoria at having ‘discovered’ his mother – to accede to what is behind. Barthes goes on to describe his desire to enlarge the details of the photograph in order to try to get closer to the essence of his mother, knowing as he does so that it will only distort the image and render it even more difficult to ‘see’. According to Barthes, a  photograph can never totally surrender its secrets to the viewer: this is the ultimate nature of the photograph as that-has-been.

Barthes does, at least, admit to photography’s more superficial ability to make the genetic attributes of a person more prominent – something of particular interest for family historians. He states: But more insidious, more penetrating than likeness: the photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror): a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself or of a relative which comes from some ancestor.

edith_stops_at_95_denmark_road_camberwell-3 (2)Perhaps it is both things we ourselves are seeking when we scrutinise our own family photographs. When I look at the picture of my grandmother as a child outside the old family home in Brixton (see I Remember, I Remember), am I not looking for both her essence and her connection to me? When I look at the photograph of myself as a baby on her lap, over half a century later, am I not asking myself: Is this where my fat face comes from?

Coker Woods (4)My renewed interest in discovering more about my paternal London ancestors was rekindled after twenty years by the discovery of the hand-coloured photograph of my father as an evacuee in East Coker (see In my Beginning is my End). When I first came across the image it was as if I was looking at another father – one who seemed more carefree than I had ever known him to be – and the idea that this ‘lost father’ could be the key to understanding the complex and at times contradictory individual I’d known, seemed very appealing. But, like Barthes, my initial feeling of excitement at having this sudden window thrown open onto the past soon turned to a certain degree of frustration at the obvious limitations of the exercise.

In the final part of Barthes’ many-layered and wilfully obscure text, in which he reduces the idea of the photograph to that-has-been (the ultimate evidence of the existence of a moment in time, a mad image, chafed by reality), he attempts to pin down the emotion that certain pictures aroused (or ‘pricked’) in him – first calling it love, then settling on pity as a more apt description: . . . I passed beyond the unreality of the thing represented, I entered crazily into the spectacle, into the image, taking into my arms what is dead, what is going to die . . .

The same sentiment is echoed in On Photography, when Sontag states that: Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. An ugly or grotesque subject may be moving because it has been dignified by the attention of the photographer. A beautiful subject can be the object of rueful feelings, because it has aged or decayed or no longer exists. All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Much has changed in the world of photography since these two influential texts were written –  we are all photographers now, and the modern world is awash with a superfluity of images. However, in an age dominated by nostalgia, there has been renewed interest in ‘looking for the lost’ (see Looking for the Lost): cataloguing things which have disappeared or are on the cusp of oblivion. Old photographs are treasured, reprinted, exchanged and collected, allowing us the opportunity to become custodians of the past. As Sontag points out: A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject, would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900. . . Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.

Those of us who can remember when cameras were not so ubiquitous may now lament the missed opportunities to document our lives, as well as those of our families and communities. (In youth it is hard to make a connection between one’s own present and a future past; and the aging process inevitably does away with the notion of distant future.)

On the Low Green, Ayr 1965

Family Slide: Picnic on the Low Green, Ayr, 1965 (with my mother and paternal grandparents)

Our family was very typical of those in the pre-digital era, taking photographs only on holidays and high days. These select images were captured on Kodak slide film, which meant that they have been relatively well-preserved – even though there was often a certain amount of exasperation surrounding their inaccessibility (inevitably there were no functioning batteries available for the slide viewer when nostalgia struck). For a brief few years we also had a projector which magnified the images onto a screen – something which delighted us as children as we played poor man’s ‘home cinema’. But oh, if only we’d had the luxury of a ciné camera! What a privilege it would be to see those who are long-gone in front of us once more on fading Super 8, romping and waving with the air of determined glee that old amateur films seem to demand of their subjects.  

Conversely, Barthes is of the opinion that photographs are more poignant than the moving image by virtue of the fact that they capture only one specific moment and have no future referent. (In the Photograph, Time’s immobilization assumes only an excessive, monstrous mode: Time is engorged). He believes it to be impossible for photography to conjure up real memories (which are not static),  and that it may even lead to replacing them with false ones. It is true to say that family albums do engender a certain amount of selective recall: for me, I can only ever recall being dressed in a kilt when I went to visit my grandparents in London.

LONDON-SHIP

With my mother, in homemade kilt, London, early 1970s. What fascinates me now is the undeveloped dockland behind us.

In terms of the power of photography to offer up a truthful likeness, Sontag believes that most devotees of Shakespeare would prefer to have a photograph of the Bard (however faded it might be) than an exquisite painting by a master portrait painter, such as Holbein the Younger, because a photograph is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask. As she so aptly points out: Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross

ARTHURFor family historians, the possession of a picture of a long-deceased family member may arouse similar feelings. When I first encountered the group portrait of my grandparents’ wedding (the banner image in the heading above) I was mesmerised by the fact that I was seeing my great-grandfather Arthur for the first time. Someone who had been born over a century before me and who had previously only been a name in a parish register and census return had suddenly taken on a ‘living’ form. Finally I realised where the family eyes came from, the bushy eyebrows, the high forehead. And when Barthes describes his wonder and awe at seeing a photograph of Napoleon’s younger brother, knowing that he was looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor, then I understood exactly what he meant: I felt the same unsettling emotion at the idea that I was looking at someone who had known my mysterious great-great-grandfather, James Skelton (who plays a pivotal role in the family  story).

It is hard for me to find an illustration of my own personal equivalent of the Winter Garden Photograph, but one which comes very close is the image of my paternal grandfather, Sidney Skelton, below. Little is known about this studio photograph, except that it was taken when he joined the Hussars, several years before the outbreak of World War One, at a time when the British army was building up its reserves (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier). Wanting to escape the poverty of a working class boyhood in Lambeth and the endless waiting at the docks in the hope of a day’s work, he may have inadvertently saved his own life by making that decision. (As a trained cavalry soldier he would have been in a much better position to survive the conflict than those who were hurriedly conscripted later).

When my parents first received a copy of this photograph from my aunt, my mother decided to frame it and put it out for my father to appreciate – and this was in a family that very rarely displays photographs. But a few days later it disappeared: my father had packed it away because he found it too disturbing to see the image of his deceased father as a young man with his life still before him. At the time I thought this a rather odd thing to do. I loved the picture of my soldier-grandfather who I’d only ever known as a rather quick-tempered and gnarly old man, and of whom I had always been slightly afraid. And it fascinated me that the long sinewy fingers which held the riding crop were identical to mine and my father’s, particularly evident in the way we held books and newspapers. 

But for me it is the slightly drooping eyes – another family trait – which ‘pierces’ me. There is something both innocent and knowing about the way this young man looks straight at the camera, resplendent in his new uniform. It is almost as if he is able to see fearlessly into the future. His steady gaze and the slight flicker of a smile make me feel that he is telling us he has accepted his destiny , whatever it may bring, and that he is finally ready for his life to begin.

GRANDAD S

Wishing everyone a wonderful summer!

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2021

The Lost Family – Part 2

The amateur ‘snapshots’ surviving in today’s collections most often date from the 1910s onwards, when more families took up photography. Visual clues such as dress details and any vehicles in the scene can often aid close dating.

Jayne Shrimpton, Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs (2014)

P1070475 (2)My Skelton Grandparents, Hayling Island, 1950s

This month I will be continuing with my family story as I edit the first 5,000 words of A London Family for a memoir writing competition. In October’s blog post (see The Lost Family – Part 1),  I began by outlining the background to my quest, focusing on my experience of working as a probate genealogist or so-called heir hunter in London in the 1980s. Now I turn to the more recent past, when an unknown photograph of my father as a boy reignited my interest in researching my paternal family history.

Just as I did last month, I will also be commenting on both the editing process and my own response to my earliest chapters, given that I can now look back on the beginnings of the project with the hindsight from over a decade of carrying out my second wave of genealogical research.  Writing the monthly blog chapters has forced me to distil facts, choose an angle, and try to make each post a standalone narrative, which enabled me to make some sort of sense of my quest from the very beginning. This was definitely preferable to simply conducting the bulk of the research first, even if it did mean I sometimes had to revisit old ground as the project progressed. However, while I feel this gave the narrative a pleasing circular structure which meant new readers could come on board at any time, it remains to be seen how successfull I will be at turning the story into a more traditional book-length narrative. It will certainly be an interesting process, and one which I hope will improve my writing and editing skills.

*

The Lost Family: Part 2

I’m not being entirely truthful when I say I did not have any photographs of my paternal family. Some years after my father died, my mother came across a handful of old snapshots in a battered leather wallet at the back of a drawer, one of which was recognisably a small black-and-white image of my English grandparents flanking their first car (a retirement treat) on a day trip to Hayling Island in the late 1950s. All the other photos were disappointingly of unknown friends and work colleagues, but one of the pictures fascinated me in particular. It was the only hand-coloured one in the collection, and showed five boys under a tree, relaxed and grinning at an unknown photographer, long pointed sticks in their hands. On the reverse, in faded blue ink, was written: Expedition to East Coker Woods, Whit Monday 1944. It was not difficult to locate my father (to the far right) and my future uncle (through marriage) behind him.

Coker Woods

The Uncanny Art: I’ve included this iconic photograph of my father and his friends in many of the posts over the years because I find it a very powerful image, particularly as it is responsible for all my recent genealogical research and writing to date. Not only do I feel it has a slightly otherwordly quality to it (the hand colouring is possibly the reason for this), but it was this image that encouraged my interest in the cultural theory of photography. This led me to read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and On Photography by Susan Sonntag (amongst other texts), illustrating that family history is a wide-ranging subject that if tackled with an open mind can bring its own intellectual rewards. Exploring these side-shoots has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the project and something which I certainly would not have done to the same extent had I not also been constructing a narrative around the topics that might interest other researchers (see Those Ghostly Traces). 

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

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

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

cottageThatched Cottages in East Coker

A Lost Eden: As I’ve mentioned before, growing up in Scotland with an English father meant that, although I felt very much Scottish, part of me was fascinated with the idea of London and the south of England, where my Skelton relatives all lived. As a child I loved the glamour of the capital, so it is not surprising that I headed there to live and work after graduating in 1984. But I was also entranced with the idea of the mythical West Country, especially as on family trips ‘down south’ to see our English cousins I always delighted in the very exotic looking thatched cottages with their colourful gardens. A visit to the White Horse in Berkshire – while not technically in the West Country – only added to the sense that there was something mysterious about the landscape. In contrast I felt that Scotland was too harsh, cold and wet for my liking (I have since revised my opinion) and that I really should have grown up in a village like East Coker. It is no surprise that as a teenager I devoured the novels of Thomas Hardy and loved to visit the nearby countryside when I lived in London, even if only to walk in the green belt near to my first flat in North London (see A Rose in Holly Park).

I pulled out the old AA drivers’ map circa 1988 that had little use in a family of non-drivers in the 21st century. Once I located Yeovil it wasn’t that difficult to find the Cokers (East, West and North – where was South?) standing to the south-west of Yeovil like sentries. But there was something about the name that seemed vaguely familiar. It niggled at me for days before I later came across the T.S. Eliot poem of the same name – part of the Four Quartets. I thought it strange that my father, who loved poetry, had never bothered to tell me about the village and its link to Eliot, particularly when I had studied the writer so intensively in my final years of school.

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

P1050432

Four Quartets: I first came across T.S. Eliot when I studied The Journey of the Magi while preparing for my English exams. Despite being entranced by the poem, I do remember that this was also the catalyst for my decision not to study English literature. Class time was short, and it was not possible to question the images and language of the poem ourselves, given that we had less than a year to prepare for our final exams. Cramming was the order of the day. However, I could not stop wondering whether Eliot would have even agreed with Brodie’s Notes explanations of the symbolism he used in the poem.

Reading Eliot as a mature adult is an altogether different experience, and each time I pick up the Four Quartets I see something else in the work. East Coker, in particular, is a fascinating journey into Eliot’s state of mind at midlife at the outbreak of war. He first visited the village in 1936 when on a pilgrimage to his ancestral home – Andrew Eliot had left East Coker for America around 1650 – and later requested his ashes be buried in St Michael’s church in the village. As Peter Ackroyd points out in his celebrated biography of Eliot: It was the final dramatic, but telling, gesture.

Eliot’s long interest in Buddhism is clearly evident in the poem, yet it was not until a few years ago that I realised to how great an extent. While travelling in Japan one summer I came across a little-visited hillside temple in Kyoto on the banks of the Hozu-Gawa river. A flight of steep stone stairs led up to the building and at the top was a small viewing hall which afforded good views of the city and surrounding countryside. As well as containing binoculars for this purpose the room also had some strategically placed reading material in both Japanese and English. There were the usual crudely published pamphlets, concerned with the history of the temple and information about its founder, but also some photocopied sheets of Buddhist poetry. 

Temple View

I picked up a couple and began reading – before I realised with a sudden shock of recognition how close they were to the Four Quartets in rhythm, language and meaning. Poems such as The Song of Zazen and The Heart Sutra had clearly been very influential on Eliot, who had always incorporated ideas from other sources into his work.  Eliot himself once said that Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal, bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. But whatever you may think about Eliot’s ‘appropriation’, these Buddhist poems certainly gave me a deeper understanding of the Four Quartets and the eternal message of redemption contained within.

A few weeks later I came across the on-line version of the East Coker Newsletter while searching for more information about the village. An announcement proclaimed that a weekend of special events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE and VJ Day had been organised for the second weekend in July. This seemed to resonate with my own plans to visit, and I knew then that I had to make the trip.

East Coker Commemorations

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

An auspicious date: When I first wrote about visiting East Coker on the 7th of July 2005, I omitted to mention the London bombings as it had not really impacted on our visit, as terrible as the terrorist attacks were. I also found it difficult to weave the two events together but felt instinctively that by not mentioning the attacks it was somehow disrespectful to those who had been affected by them. I thought long and hard about this, then remembered the situation in the train with luggage, and saw that as a way of connecting the bombings with the story of the evacuees.

This is probably one of the most challenging aspects about writing non-fiction – trying to create a coherent narrative from disparate events. It also emphasises how important it is to be aware of the external environment at key moments in a family’s history and how this can impact on individuals. It could be something as simple as checking the weather on an ancestor’s wedding day (I was able to do this for my great-great grandfather’s wedding in 1823), to understanding the contemporary political and legal system, and how this affected the citizens of a country or a region.

Yet after everything I’d expected from the ancient-sounding name, Yeovil seemed an unprepossessing place. Disaffected youths roamed the bland post-war shopping centre beside the bus station, and there was a feeling the market town had seen better days. I was beginning to wonder if we were in for a similar disappointment with East Coker. After all, it had been my father who’d always said we should never go back anywhere. He himself had returned in the 1980s and was saddened by the changes to the village, and reluctant to talk about the experience. But I consoled myself with the thought that, as we had no memories of the place, whatever we might see or experience would be a revelation to us.

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

East Coker Holloway‘Holloway’ on the approach to East Coker

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

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

East Coker FootpathFootpath to Naish Priory

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

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

Stranger Than Fiction: There’s a hackneyed saying that life is stranger than fiction, which must be dispiriting for fiction writers who are trying to curb their enthusiasm for coincidence and serendipity. But on that that day when I met Alan Cornelius, I felt that I’d slipped between the pages of a novel and that anything could happen. I suppose in some kind of novel I might have ended up falling in love with his youngest son; although this being real life, I never met his sons who, like myself, are all relatively happily married. However, I did meet one of his granddaughters the following year when I went to visit him at his home. She arrived with some courgettes for him from her parents’ garden, although this might have just been a reason to look in on him. For he was already ill with the cancer that would soon take his life, and sadly this was the first and last time I ever got to talk to him at length. That was the day he gave me a copy of part of his unfinished manuscript about his childhood, and I felt very honoured to be entrusted with his memories. 

In the blog I have quoted at length from his reminiscences about the ‘vacuees (as he called them) but removed this from the manuscript. One of the joys of blogging is that you are not restricted by traditional publishing conventions, and I felt very much that his story should be told in his own words. As an ex local councillor, Alan Cornelius was also very interested in discussing politics and we had a very lively couple of hours together talking about all and sundry (including his military badge collection). It sometimes feels disrespectful to focus on the past when ‘interviewing’ those who can shed light on family history as they are often just as involved with the present as we are. I was aware of this, too, when I went to visit my aunt last summer. Although she could bring my father’s childhood to life just by looking at an old photograph, she was also very much living in the moment.

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

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2020

Looking for the Lost

Old photographs have a truth and clarity to them which is lacking from architectural prints, drawings or paintings. Depicting people and places frozen in time, and at random moments of their existence, they convey a haunting message of mortality. As primary sources of historical evidence, they are by their very nature, impartial, and bear witness to past places or events, undistorted by the interpretation of their creator. Unlike the artist, or draughtsman, ostensibly the camera never lies, so photographs provide a direct, tangible link to a long-distant past.

Philip Davies, Lost London 1870-1945, (2009)

images

These days it often seems as if we cannot get enough of ‘lost London’: its lost buildings, lost streets, lost stations, lost rivers etc. Whatever has been lost in the capital, there’s a book to celebrate/commiserate the demise. And I cannot deny having my own share of such publications. In fact, on returning to my genealogical research a few years ago, the first item I acquired was the heavy black-and-white illustrated tome simply called Lost London 1870-1945 (a period straddling the birth of commercial photography to the end of WW2). It is a book which has delighted me since. Not only did it allow me to view some of the long-gone churches in which my ancestors had been baptised or wed, including the iconic Hawksmoor church of St John Horsleydown , which was badly damaged in WW2 and never rebuilt (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), but I was also able to take a peek into the neighbourhoods in which these same family members had lived, worked, played and died.

bombed-st-js-2St John Horsleydown or ‘The Louse Church’ in 1945 (after WW2 bombing)

Sadly, many of the places featured in the book were wilfully destroyed during early 20th century ‘improvements’ to the city, as well as in the post-war era, and yet are streets and buildings which a few years earlier my grandparents may have known when young. Almost stranger still were the glimpses of neighbourhoods before their damage during WW2 bombing raids – places which my father might have walked as a boy, and thus still within the capture of living memory. These poignant photographs seemed to be the last link between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ London, and when turning each page revealed yet another loss I became almost panicky at the thought of these terminal vanishings. (Once on returning with my camera a year or two later to photograph an old Victorian tenement where my great-great grandmother had lived I was horrified to find it already gone and replaced by a modern block of flats, even though I realise this was a better use of limited urban space).

The Shard and Southwark Cathedral Old and New London collide: The Shard and Southwark Cathedral

For a long time I could only really deal with the book in small doses, such was the affect of the images. To add to this, the often ghost-like people who peered from upstairs windows or stared from shop doorways almost seemed to be willing the viewer to make a connection with them, as if they wanted to defy the very march of time itself. As Davies states in his preface: The spectral figures of people and vehicles, which are the product of long exposure times, add to the haunting quality of the images. Figures stare at the camera, and, where they have moved, leave a ghostly trace on the plate.

I often had the disquieting feeling that by seeing these places made whole again by the photographic image I could somehow intervene to prevent their disappearance. In his book Camera Lucida, the French writer and philosopher Roland Barthes (see Those Ghostly Traces) describes this peculiar nature of photography: A painting can feign reality without having seen it. Discourse combines signs which have referents, of course, but these referents can be and are most often “chimeras.” Contrary to these imitations, with photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality, and of the past. He goes on to state: what I see been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject (operator or spectator); it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred.

Today as I glance through my much-loved copy of Lost London, I realise that many of the photographs have taken on a new meaning in the years since I began my genealogical quest. Places I could barely locate on a map I can now anchor in their neighbourhoods and the districts to which they connect. I do not by any means pertain to have a fraction of the kind of knowledge possessed by a London flaneur, but realise that my long weekends of pounding the capital’s streets until my legs ached have at least been of some use. And in fact, the truth is that these were the happiest times I spent in London. Just me and an A to Z and an Oyster card (which was often left untouched in my pocket). In those moments of freedom – setting out over one of the bridges towards ‘London-over-the-water’ in the morning with the wind off the Thames stinging my eyes was always an exhilarating moment – I felt as alive to the city as I do to the sea or the mountains at the outset of a long hike.

Some weekends my walking would take me to the door of a conveniently located research centre – like the Lambeth Archives housed in the Minet Library just around the corner from my father’s boyhood stamping ground. Wonderfully placed for researching the streets which surrounded it, this was where I learned about the beginnings of my grandmother’s home in Denmark Road, where she lived as a child and married woman (see I remember, I remember), and about my great-great grandfather’s house in nearby Coldharbour Lane. Although this early Victorian semi-detached villa-style house was but a short walk away from Denmark Road, none of my immediate relatives had ever been aware of the ‘other family’ before. Unfortunately, knowledge of the first London Skeltons had been ‘lost’ to the generations that followed due to their tangled double-family genealogy. And it is this story with which my project is mainly concerned: by creating a chronological narrative, I hope to eventually have built up a framework on which to hang these knotted threads for further disentangling.

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)

COLD HARBOUR LANE HOUSE (2)

Two Brixton houses: two different families

The one thing, however, which unites both Skelton family branches (the lost and the found; the wealthy and the poor) is south London. And this is the place I usually head to on my safaris around the capital. From riverside Bermondsey to Camberwell and Gipsy Hill, and beyond to Croydon, the family has steadily (and typically) moved further south from the river. The master tailor, James Skelton, who first arrived from Yorkshire in the early 19th century, started the trend for moving to somewhere cleaner and more wholesome in which to raise a family, while benefiting from the extra living space – not to mention the increased status such addresses brought. As respiratory problems affected a great deal of Londoners, shortening their lives and causing them misery, including many in my own family, moving away from centres of industry and the burgeoning railways (see A Riverside Rest) was a smart and obvious move for those who  could afford it.

But then as these places themselves fell foul to speculative building, and the once green fields and market gardens were covered with rows of hastily built stockjobbers’ houses, the wealthier sought to move further out. Sometimes that trend was temporarily reversed, as was the case with James Skelton when in middle-age he set up home with an impoverished teenage single mother, shortly after the death of his first wife (see When I Grow Rich). Thus instead of enjoying a well-earned retirement in his leafy Brixton neighbourhood, he had to ‘downsize’ to more industrial Walworth to enable him to bring up six children! I sometimes wonder if, when he died in Aldred Road from bronchitis at 67 (not a bad age in the 1860s), he ever regretted filling up his remaining years with the duties of maintaining another family, or whether those new children had given him a reason to carry on until the end. This was despite the probable distaste his grown-up ‘other’ children had for his union with a young pauper girl, which was only made legal in 1864, shortly before his death.

Aldred Rd. (2)Aldred Road, Walworth c1916

In many ways my family research is not merely an attempt to learn about my unknown London ancestors, but to also discover London in a way that takes me to places I might not have ever visited. As I’ve mentioned previously, despite living in the capital for three years in the mid-eighties, I rarely went south of the river, being content to enjoy the then ‘coolness’ of north and west London. Now it seems inconceivable that I did not think to venture farther than the George Inn on Borough High Street, or the South Bank Centre, but Southwark had always seemed so gloomy to me (from the other side of the river) and childhood memories of boat trips to Greenwich passing dark and forbidding warehouses (where anything might happen) had only added to this impression.

When I did start to explore the streets of ‘London-over-the -water’, I was surprised and delighted at the variety of architectural styles, the hidden gardens, the helpful folk who often appeared whenever I pulled out my A to Z on a street corner. If I was tired, I’d hop on a bus to get a better overview of the surrounding neighbourhood and have the added advantage of seeing into living rooms and gardens as the bus dawdled at lights or crawled up many of south London’s unexpected hills. Sometimes I’d get on the wrong bus and end up somewhere unplanned, but I always tried to see this as an opportunity to discover somewhere new. Tranquil gardens, like those at the Horniman Museum, or wonderful streets, such as Camberwell Grove, would have remained unknown to me had it not been for a wrong turning or a mistaken bus route. Even if there was not a direct ancestral connection, these places were just as fascinating to visit as the neighbourhoods of my forbearers. Oftentimes I wondered if I was walking in the ghost footsteps of someone who had gone before me: Did X ever walk down this road and marvel at the houses just as I do now? Did Y ever visit these gardens and take the same pleasure I do in strolling between the flower beds and sitting under the trees?

Horniman Museuem Gardens c1900Horniman Museum Gardens c1900 (c) Horniman Museum

My favourite activity was to connect up the neighbourhoods in which my ancestors once lived, walking along what I liked to think of as ‘genealogical ley lines’. This is how I came to learn about the River Effra – what the historian and writer Jon Newman describes in his eponymous book as ‘South London’s Secret Spine.’ The name Effra was already familiar to me through my walks in Brixton where there is an Effra Road, Close, Court and Parade, as well as other landmarks which include Effra in their title. Thus I always associated the word ‘Effra’ with that area, just as I did the name ‘Ruskin’ or ‘Denmark’, but without initially giving the etymology much thought. It was only later, when I could map out South London in my head and roughly understand how all the different parts were interconnected that the Effra began to mean more to me than just another ubiquitous street name.

The turning point was when I heard about the relatively new Lambeth Heritage Festival – a month-long series of walks and talks in the area held every September since 2013. Having attended one or two of these events previously, in 2016 I was interested to note that the programme included a trio of excursions which covered the route of the river Effra from its source in Norwood to its outlet into the Thames at Vauxhall. The walks were led by Jon Newman, the head archivist at the Minet library, who had recently published his book on the topic. The first walk was concentrated on the ‘High Effra’ and was advertised as: A horseshoe walk, descending the Lower Norwood branch of the Effra from its source and then returning up the Upper Norwood branch to that stream’s source. The next walk (the ‘Middle Effra’) was described as: A walk along the Effra valley as it passes between Knights Hill and Herne Hill. Finally, the ‘Low Effra’ was billed as: A walk following the course of the ‘new cut’ of the river dug in the middle ages from Kennington to the Thames.

effracoverMuch to my frustration, I wasn’t able to join any of these walks or attend the lecture which accompanied the book launch. However, the following year another talk on the subject was scheduled during the Lambeth Heritage Festival. I took my mother along with me as it coincided with our yearly trip to the capital, and the location – a modern upstairs conference room in Southwark Cathedral – was relatively close to our digs in Bankside. (It would be the last time we would visit London together before all the walking became too much for her). On instinct, I kept the title of the talk a secret from my mother – as I felt befitted the subject. I also had the feeling that the idea of an underground river in south London would not excite her in the same way that it did me. I hoped, however, that the content of the talk would lead her to come to the same realisation that I had.

Halfway through the event, when Jon Newman paused to take a sip of water, my mother turned to me and hissed Our family are the River Effra! And I knew then that she had ‘got it’, too. From Gipsy Hill to Coldharbour Lane to Kennington and the River Thames, the course of the vanished river was like a geographical history of our family. Back in our rooms at the LSE Bankside that night, we scoured Newman’s book and let our eyes linger on the images and maps which accompanied the story of the river from its beginnings in what was once known as The Great North Wood to its artificial ‘outfall’ into the Thames. It was frustrating to note that any photographs which appeared to be of the Effra were only of the old river bed, the watercourse having already been mostly directed underground by the time this technology was in place. As Newman himself points out: Just as London’s nature writers missed out on the Effra so, by and large, did London’s photographers; the river’s vanishing act just pre-dated the growing affordability and portability of cameras.

 River Effra 1870The River Effra channel at Norwood c1870

Perhaps that is why the history of this river exerts such a hold on so many people. The very fact that there are no true images of the Effra as an actual river means that we must rely on other evidence to tell its story – documents, sketches, paintings, maps, place names, the physicality of gurgling drains. But despite all this, the Effra is still hidden to us – in more way than one – and can never be returned to us, for all the fanciful thinking out there. Except perhaps in our imagination, where it rushes and sparkles.

This is also why I believe we are drawn to our family histories: they are like stories forced underground that bubble up to the surface at certain points and intersections, yet can only be fully understood by our own plodding research into the archives. But still we walk the streets, searching for the more physical traces of our ancestors, every so often experiencing a feeling that we cannot quite describe, but briefly sense it to be one that has passed through the generations. The smell of the Thames at high tide from a set of waterman’s stairs; the bells at St Paul’s on a rainy Sunday morning; the taste of roast chestnuts on a winter’s afternoon in early December. Or we might glance up for no reason and see a ghost sign advertising the rental of carriages on the side of a building, or turn into an unexpected alley in the City which smells of beer and grilled chops and hear the chink of cutlery, the sound of laughter. And in those moments we may feel the shape-shifting nature of time.

The physicist and writer Carlo Rovelli talks briefly about the nature of time

Just as many of our ancestors bemoaned what was being lost, perhaps fearing that time was racing forwards without their consent, we too are often nostalgic for the buildings and places that no longer exist – in particular those which are just tantalisingly out of the reach of living memory. Yet there can also be a danger to this way of thinking: we should not forget that our past was once someone else’s future. The restored Victorian warehouses which line the Thames in my great-great grandfather’s Horsleydown neighbourhood (now part of Bermondsey) are nothing less than modern replacements for the old timbered ones my ancestors would have known. The Tower Bridge, loved and revered by so many, involved the destruction of local neighbourhoods on either side of the river (including part of Horsleydown Lane), and it is easy to forget that many eminent Victorians disliked such displays of the Gothic pastiche that came to dominate the architecture of the time. In some quarters there were even calls for its removal in the post war development of the city. (Writing in South London in 1949, the opinionated but highly readable historian Harry Williams contends that: The Tower Bridge is inefficient and a back-number, but it is part of the London scene for, as previously remarked, the river without it is almost unimaginable.  It must be replaced since it is an anachronism, but it should be succeeded, not by the underground tunnel recommended by the County of London Plan, but by a splendid new bridge, a magnificent conception to lift up our hearts every time we gaze upon it).

TOWER BRIDGEThe ‘new’ Tower Bridge – with Horsleydown Lane on the right

When we think about the sad story of the Effra, polluted and pushed underground over the years in the name of progress, it is hard to see this as anything but the converse. Newman points out that today such a river would most likely be regarded as a ‘soft’ engineering solution to the increased rainfall caused by climate change – in the same way other watercourses have been ‘re-natured’. Not only does this provide an attractive landscape for local residents and restores wildlife habitats, but a natural, meandering watercourse slows down and incorporates water that may cause flooding downstream during heavy rains.

For all our nostalgia over lost churches and streets, perhaps it is the loss of this unphotographed natural splendour – and others like it – which we should mourn most of all.

To be continued next month in A River Ran Under Them.

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2019