Category Archives: Photography

Portrait of my Grandmother in Later Life

Family photography can operate at this junction betwen personal memory and social history, btween public myth and personal unconscious. Our memory is never fully ‘ours’, nor are the pictures ever unmediated representations of our past. Looking at them we both construct a fantastic past and set out on a detective trail to find other versions of a ‘real’ one.

Jo Spence and Patricia Holland, Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, (1991)

P1050391 (2)With my grandmother, Edith Skelton, on the Arran ferry, c1967

It is fair to say that neither my grandmother nor I seem to be particularly photogenic when we were snapped together on family outings in the 60s and early 70s. My grandmother had at least the excuse of age, as photographs of her as a young woman show her to look very different (see Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman). However, it was the ‘lost’ pictures of her as an Edwardian child that have made the biggest impression on me, and I very much wish I could have been privy to them as a child myself.

For most children, it is impossible to imagine their grandparents as anything other than old. And at a time when very few photographs were available of elderly relatives in their youth, it required an imaginative feat to picture the average pensioner as a child. This task was made more difficult by various ‘accoutrements of aging’, such as false teeth, grey hair, outdated clothes and ugly glasses, which were once more prevalent than today. But was the generational gulf really wider then, or is the belief that the current crop of retirees are more youthful than previously just an inevitable part of one’s own aging? If I met my grandparents today, frozen at ‘peak grandparenthood’ in their seventies, would I necessarily think them any older in body and spirit than their modern-day counterparts?

One thing about my grandmother that I may have mentioned before – as it fascinated me as a child – was the fact she retained her own teeth all her life, unlike all my other elderly relatives. Although her teeth were long and yellow (like a horse), they somehow suited her large face and lively grin*. And of course that meant there was never that horrible moment when you first saw a grandparent sans teeth, and wondered what had caused their face to crumple into one which resembled an unsavoury character from a particularly scary fairy tale.

* Years later, when I scrutinised photos of my Scottish grandmother as a young woman, I noticed that her smile had once been so different. It was only after my mother explained that her ‘one size fits all’ set of dentures, shockingly given to her in her 40s at the birth of the NHS to prevent future dental problems, had robbed her of her natural wide smile. But as a child I thought those funny regular too-white false teeth in old age was a given!

In fact, my English grandmother was unlike my Scottish grandmother in many ways, not least in her appearance. The age gap of almost a decade, made Grandma Skelton seem much older. She was never as fashionably dressed as my Scottish grandmother, who had been a dressmaker in her youth (having undertaken an apprenticeship), and made all her own clothes – including the mother-of-the-bride outfit, below. And while my McKay grandmother was slim and neat with short permed hair, the elderly Edith still had her unruly wavy hair tied back in a bun, strands often falling over her face (possibly why she wore hats so much). She was heavier and sweatier and ‘harumphed’ a great deal more. And my mother always used to say that the two couples were the wrong way round: Edie was the plump one, while Sidney was small and wiry – the exact opposite of my Scottish grandparents.

P1040641 (2)My parents’ wedding in March 1963 – with my grandparents ‘interchanged’

While we saw our McKay grandparents several times a year, travelling to London to visit the Skelton grandparents was considered to be quite a palavar. Not only did we all have to go down together as a family, but there was the hassle of how to get there. Over the years we tried different ways (flying, driving, the overnight bus) and all were considered stressful by my parents, who preferred to holiday at home and day-trip locally.

In addition, my grandparents’ retirement flat was relatively compact. So the four of us had to sleep in the double bedroom (kids on camp beds either side of our parents), while my grandparents had to use the pull-out sofa bed in the living room. Every morning Grandma would wake us all as she shuffled into the room in her pink house slippers, carrying a taper to light the boiler, which was housed in a cupboard in the corner, leaving a strong smell of gas in the room. (This was because she did not trust it to be left on overnight). Near to the boiler cupboard was Grandma’s old-fashioned dressing table, on which  was a collection of photographs of her three grown-up children. It always delighted me to see one of my father in his RAF uniform, sporting a rather raffish moustache, and smoking a cigarette something he’d given up – along with his MG Midget – on becoming a father. He always seemed very sophisticated in this photograph and not like the man we only knew as ‘Daddy’.

There was also a whimsical collection of tiny wooden animals which had once belonged to my father, and I used to put them into matchboxes and take them out with me on our day trips into London. Some I even took home to Scotland with me because I could not bear to leave them behind. Sadly, they have all disappeared over the years (a couple were lost in Bushy Park, which caused me no end of panic at the time) and I now only have one remaining. However, it was only recently that my mother told me this was a collection my father had started in his 20s, and not one from his boyhood at all. And of course this all makes perfect sense as the many moves the family undertook over the years, including the war-time evacuations, meant that there were very little possessions from the pre-war era (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers), and perhaps why my father always treasured the fairy tale book he’d received from his first primary school for good work and conduct in 1936.

P1070486 (2)The last remaining wooden animal from my father’s collection

After my grandmother and the children returned from East Coker in 1945, the family were reunited and temporarily housed in the top rooms of a multi-occupancy house in Teddington, West London, while waiting to be rehoused. (Presumably my grandfather had found work as a tram conductor in the area, otherwise it would have been a long commute to the Camberwell depot). And two years later they finally moved round the corner into a three-bedroomed semi-detached council house at Bishops Grove, where they were to remain for over twenty years, near to their newly married daughter and her growing family. My father was away in the Air Force by then, but this was his base in his vacation time, and thus he remained at the address on the electoral roll throughout the 1950s until suddenly he disappears in 1959 – the year he was accepted for air traffic control training, moved to Scotland, and met my mother. Shortly after this, my uncle married his local girlfriend, and just like my aunt and her husband had done a decade previously, the young couple lived with my grandparents while saving for a place of their own.

P1050416 (2)Edith with her new Scottish daughter-in-law, Bishops Grove, 1963

As the baby of the family, my uncle was quite content to stay with his parents a little while longer, whereas my father had wanted to get away from – in his eyes – rather suffocating mother, who he always felt was watching him closely. Even at a young age, I sensed that my father was often exasperated with his mother: at her needless fussing, her endless searches for public toilets, her wish to sit down and have ‘a nice cup of tea’. In addition, she became slightly deaf in her old age and everyone had to get used to repeating things to her.

For me, it was often difficult to understand her London accent in any case – it sounded like something from an Ealing comedy to my ears – and I always dreaded not knowing what she was saying to me. We had got used to our father’s way of speaking, which had been smoothed by his years as a boy in the west country and his time in the forces, not to mention his years in Scotland, but our Skelton grandparents seemed to speak like characters out of a film about the Blitz. Sometimes I found this quite strange, especially as they often commented on our accents, and I used to feel there was an insurmountable gap between us. And yet it was exciting too, to have these exotic-sounding grandparents who oozed what I felt was the spirit of Cockney London every time they opened their mouths.

Looking back I have no idea now what we all talked about when we tried to understand one another. Possibly my grandparents asked us about school and the sights we’d visited in London when the four of us returned to their flat in the evening. Other days we all went out together to nearby locations, such as Kew Gardens or Bushy Park (places where there were public toilets and cafes). Grandma aways wore a hat, whatever the weather, and did not make much concession to summer. For my father, who was a bit of a free spirit, these days out with young children and elderly parents were possibly tedious, but I remember that it always seemed exciting to go out en famille like that, and even more so when we went to visit our cousins (as we had none on the maternal side of the family). However, the age gap with our older cousins meant that we did not see so much of them so it was mainly the two children of my father’s younger brother we spent time with (and who I still visit today).

P1040615 (2)A rare family gathering (and a rare hatless moment for my grandmother)

However, I was always aware of my grandparents closer bond with their English grandchildren, who they saw on a regular basis, and who called them ‘Nan’ and ‘Grandpa’. Possibly it swould have been easiest all round if we’d just adopted this name for our paternal grandparents, too. Having to call them Grandma and Grandad Skelton to distinguish them from our Scottish grandparents (who did not need the extra appelation) always felt like marking them out as second-class grandparents, which in a sense they were. And had it not been for our collection of family phtographs, I would not even have known that they had come up to Scotland to visit us several times before they got too old to make the long journey after 1970. As hard as I try, I have no recollection of any of their annual summer visits!

P1040718 (2)Grandma Skelton dressed for a summer’s picnic, Ayrshire, c1970

It is only now, through re-viewing these old family photographs, that I can see how Edith’s children (and their children) have inherited some of her physical characteristics, including her slight double chin and thick, wayward hair. Whenever I’m with my Skelton-born cousins, I’m always surprised (and delighted) at how they walk with her flat-footed gait, and sometimes a quizzical look will flit over their faces which reminds me of my grandmother. And as we are all moving closer to the age our grandparents once were when we were young, these similarities have become even more apparent.

p1070482 (2)Edie’s own three children in middle age (1980s)

P1070488 (2)Studio portrait of my father and his sister, c1932

The abiding impression I have of my grandmother in her later life was the continuing importance of home and family. This is best illustrated by the fact that she moved to East Coker in September 1940 to be near to my aunt (who was evacuated there with Camberwell Girls School), taking her two younger sons with her (see East Coker). Both her boys had initially been billeted in seperate accommodation at the outbreak of war, my uncle to Brighton (he was only four!) and my father to Leatherhead with Gipsy Hill Junior School. There he lived with a large prominent Russian-American Mormon family who had known Joseph Kennedy when he had lived in the area, and my father recalled being given the future President Kennedy’s cast-off bicycle to ride.

When the boys returned to London during the period known as the ‘phoney war’, my grandmother no doubt decided that she did not want the three of them to be split up again. My aunt later told me that her parents kept the news from her that the brothers were back at home in case she wanted to return, too. However, I have the feeling that, as a teenager, my aunt was possibly enjoying her freedom in East Coker where there was a lively social life and many opportunities for interaction with the local youth. And of course it was here where my aunt eventually met her future husband.

Although my grandmother had given up her work as a telephonist (both her brothers had worked as telegraph clerks before the outbreak of WW1) on her marriage in 1924, like most of the population she undertook wartime tasks in East Coker. After a couple of false starts (a distressing billet where my grandmother was bullied by the woman of the house who wanted her to cook and clean for them all), the family found themselves in a farm cottage belonging to Burton Farm. Here the older Skeltons helped out the farmer Bill Dunning and his family, and my grandmother undertook cleaning work. My grandfather – on reserved occupation in London – came to visit ocasionally, but it must have been strange for the three children not to have had their father in their lives for five years, a long time for a child.

As the grown-up children all came back at various times to the family’s new home in West London after the war, Edie’s role as a mother and housewife never seemed to stop and simply segued into that of full-time grandparent. In the 1950s she regularly helped out my aunt with her three ‘steps-and-stairs’, then in the 1960s she helped bring up my uncle’s young children when he was widowed untimely. And all the while she continued to cook her legendary roast dinners with Yorkshire puddings so high they were fabled to have been stuck in the oven on occasion.

My grandmother also continued to see her two beloved brothers and their families, who had moved out of  London during the war, spending time with Fred and his wife in Exeter when he was very ill at the end of his life. Both Tom and Fred died relatively young, but Edith continued to stay in touch with some of their children, following their achievements with pride. And this was what I believe her final role was: to support her friends and family, and to help her children to attain their educational goals. Like many women at that time, it seems to have been enough for her to give the next generation wings to fly. She created a safe base from which they could launch themselves into the world, and at the same time was satisfied with this.

Stops (2)Edith with her first-born Stops nephew and neice, Demark Rd c1923

We can never know how much of our ancestors’ life decisions were based on personality or circumstances, but perhaps – just sometimes – there are those who find that both of these come together by happenstance. There was the free spirit who revelled in the cultural changes of the 1960s; the studious type who was lucky to be born in the time of scholarships and university grants; the entrepreneurial engineer who lived during a period of rapid industrial progress. Perhaps my grandmother found that she enjoyed the role that was thrust upon her; perhaps she had no choice. But I think in her own way she lived her life to the full, while still giving something back to society. And in the end, this is really all that each of us can hope for. 

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2019

 

 

 

 

 

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Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman

During the 1910s, women’s fashion favoured a more natural body shape and a decline in fussy ornamentation – an altogether less cluttered line. Ancestors can look fairly plain in photographs of this period, when wearing the popular blouse and skirt combination that formed the basis of the female wardrobe. Typically, a white or coloured blouse with a high collar, or slightly lower neckline with a rounded collar, was teamed with a plain tailored skirt, the skirt rather narrow or moderate in shape and sometimes featuring ornamental buttons.

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

edith at 18My paternal grandmother, Edith Matilda Stops, at age 18 in 1916

My London grandmother, Edith Matilda Skelton (née Stops), died on the 31st March 1976, two years into her short widowhood. She was found at her ground floor flat in Hampton, ensconced in her favourite comfy chair, a book on her lap, her weak heart having suddenly given out after 78 years. As a child, I had thought this a most normal-sounding death, but of course I now know better. When I think about the horrific-sounding demise of my Edwardian  actor/manager ancestor Herbert Sleath-Skelton in Holloway Asylum (see Herbert Sleath: His Decline and Fall), or that of his father’s junior business partner, George Schofield – who was crushed under a tube train at Warren Street Station towards the end of his life – then I know that my grandmother was one of the lucky ones.

The informant of my grandmother’s death was my fifty-year-old aunt, who lived nearby, and visited her mother regularly. She had been alerted by a neighbour who’d noticed from the communal garden that my grandmother had been sitting at the window in her chair all day, something which was very unlike her. In fact, earlier that morning she’d hung out a wash, then brought it inside, folding it in preparation for an ironing which would never happen. All those details I know as they were related to my parents in a phone call later that same day, no doubt to impress upon them that the death had been unexpected and that my grandmother had not suffered it any way. As it was, we’d only just had a telephone put in at our home – partly because when my grandfather died two years earlier, the family living next to us were contacted first. (We were not particularly close to them, so that probably was a slightly awkward scenario for all concerned).

glenmill.jpgThe flats at Glenmill, Hampton, with the communal gardens

It must have been that ugly grey phone, bolted high up the wall next to the hall mirror, which delivered the bad news about our grandmother to our house. I remember being  told very little about the event, at the time, and my father set off down to London for a slightly tense meeting with his siblings (there being some sort of friction between my aunt and uncle, as is often the case after the death of a parent). A few days later he came back with a rather kitschy swan vase for me – one of several ornaments my grandmother had out on display during my childhood. But I never felt as if it contained the essence of her, and sadly I lost it in one of my many moves over the years.

grandma's swanAn almost identical swan vase to my grandmother’s

What I really wanted (had I been asked) was the funny green plastic cup that I was told was actually called a beaker, and which could magically hold hot tea without melting. It had a strange but comforting smell – especially if you bit softly into the rim. When we finally arrived from Scotland at our grandparents’ house off the overnight bus (via the newly-built M1), all of us were exhausted and out of sorts, and I was always glad to be given sweet tea in that cup.

There were, however, very few items my grandparents had in their retirement flat which had accompanied them throughout their married life. This does not surprise me as they had the misfortune to be born in the 1890s, which would see them both involved (in their own way) in two world wars and all the disruption that entailed. And as regular readers may recall, when my grandmother and the three children all ended up being evacuated to Somerset to escape the Blitz, many of their possessions, including my father’s and my aunt’s favourite toys, were misplaced (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers).

However, recently I was pleased to discover that one of my cousins (with whom I share a birth year) had inherited my grandmother’s ‘wedding teapot’ through her father. She’d specifically asked for the item as it was a precious link to both her father and the beloved grandmother who had helped to look after her and her brother  when – in an uncanny mirroring of our paternal grandfather’s childhood experience – they had been left motherless at a very young age.

GRANDMAS TEAPOT.JPGMy grandmother’s silver-plated ‘wedding teapot’

As previously mentioned (see I Remember, I Remember), the one house that could have been described as the Stops-Skelton family home was 95 Denmark Road in Brixton*, where my grandmother lived from an early age until she turned forty. Not only did she meet my grandfather there when he came to lodge with her widowed mother, Harriett Stops, in 1922 (after serving in WW1), but all her three children were born in the house, and Harriett lived out her last years with the family, dying of heart disease in 1930, at the age of 73 at the local Lambeth Hospital (where her husband, Thomas Stops, had died of TB in 1906). Despite the  whole family being delighted to eventually be able to move to a modern cottage-style council house in West Norwood which had both electricity and an indoor toilet, I expect there must have been some degree of sadness when they closed the heavy door of number 95 behind them for the last time in 1938.    

*Lambeth Archives holds the details for this house, and I was fascinated to learn that it had been built on the site of gardens and orchards in the 1840s during a speculative building boom in the area. Thereupon the house changed hands several times, but always being used for rental income of up to £50 a year. It had been sold initially for £100 with £6 annum ground rents (on an 80-year lease), rising to £175 (possibly more), before it was reduced to £100 again by the 1930s. However, my grandfather’s brother (a builder) warned him not to buy it when he had the chance, which was a wise move given that the house was hit by a bomb shortly before it could celebrate its centenary.

denmark roadMy grandmother outside 95 Denmark Rd, Brixton, c1910

When I was a child, my grandmother always came across to me as a very motherly type, so it is hard for me to imagine her before her marriage as an independent young woman with a career as a telephonist at the central telephone exchange. That was in the early days of phone use, when calls had to be put through manually (something I can still just remember before STD or subscriber trunk dialling came into nationwide effect). She took up this job at the outbreak of WW1 and remained in it up until her marriage to my grandfather, Sidney Skelton, in 1924. In the photograph (below) of my grandmother with her mother and brother Tom, a telegraph clerk, taken in 1916, just before he went off to war, she appears very confident and grown-up in her smart but unfussy outfit – very different from the shy-looking little girl she seemed to be a decade earlier, in the image entitled ‘After Father Died’ (shown further below).

thomas_and_edith_with_mother_harriett_'before_going_to_the_war' (2)Edie with Tom and Harriett, ‘Before Going to War’ c1916

tom_fred_and_edith_with_mother_1909_taken_soon_after_father_died-3Edie with Tom, Fred and Harriett, ‘After Father Died’, c1906

From examining all the photographs of my grandmother in her youth, I have the sense she was once quite an active person, as there often appears to be an aura of restrained movement about her. In one particular image of her mother Harriett sitting in a chair in the back garden in Denmark Road, it is just possible to make out what looks like Edie (and the tail of a cat?) moving about behind her. However, as this was believed to be taken in 1923, a year before Edie’s marriage, it may have been another young female friend or relative.

It is strange feeling to think that this was also the same backyard* my father played in as a child, and which over the years contained a coal house, dustbin, outside toilet, dog kennel and henhouse. Despite all those multiple uses of what would not have been a particularly large space to begin with, it does even look as if there was the semblance of a garden as well.     

*As a child I found it odd  that my father called our suburban back garden a ‘back yard’, despite the fact I kept reminding him that, as it was covered in grass and had flowers and vegetables, it was technically a garden. For years I thought he’d picked up the expression from Americans he’d known, but of course it was only later I realised that a back yard really was what most old Victorian terraces had!

harriett june 23 Harriett Stops (née Burnell) in the back yard of 95 Denmark Road, June 1923

My grandparents’ wedding ceremony took place on Saturday 25th October 1924 at the parish church of St Matthews, in Brixton. Despite the fact that the following week would be the infamous  general election of 1924 (and the 3rd in two years), in which ex-prime minister  Stanley Baldwin* would be re-elected in a landslide win for the conservatives – the newly-married Edith was still not allowed to vote. She had to wait until 1928 (when ironically she turned thirty in any case) before the law changed to give all woman the same voting rights as men, who had been given the franchise in 1918 at age twenty-one (along with women over thirty, on conditions related to their properties or those of their husbands) under the 1918 Representation of the People Act.

I had always thought this age restriction was just due to some outdated notion that women were deemed to be more politically immature, but I have since discovered this it was created to redress the imbalance in the population caused by the loss of male voters during the Great War. By adjusting the voting age in such a way, it was reasoned that there would be more equal numbers of men and women.

*As surprising as it may seem, there is a vague family connection (through marriage) to Stanley Baldwin in the wealthy ‘other’ Skelton family, that readers may recall (see The Kipling Connection or Not So Great Expectations).

marriage_edith_stops-sidney_skelton (2)Skelton-Stops Wedding in Brixton, Saturday, 25th October, 1924

Edith must have been pleased to have Tom and Fred there beside her  on her ‘big day’, as both her older brothers had been active in the Great War, leaving her at home to lend support to Harriett while they were away. Due to this (the fear that she might lose them), and the strong bonds they created among them when they were all left fatherless at a relatively young age, my grandmother was to remain devoted to her brothers all her life. (This was lucky for me, as the only reason I have most of these photographs is because of Tom’s granddaughter, who I discovered on a genealogy website a few years ago).

As my own quest is centred mainly on the Skelton family, I have kept research into the Stops family to a minimum, even though, from a genetic point of view this is quite illogical. But at every new pairing there are more family history alleys one could travel down, and keeping my search to the Skeltons simplifies things, giving me more of a goal-orientated feel. If I were to start to investigate the Stops in any detail, I feel I would have to focus equally on the Burnells (Harriet’s family), then divide those into two branches, and so on*. I did, however, do this superficially for fun one day, and discovered that the first wife of Harriett Burnell’s brother, George, was called Matilda – and their little girl (who would go on to be called Daisy Matilda) was listed in the 1891 census as Not Named 4 ½ hours old! Was this the source of my grandmother’s middle name? As it turned out, the two cousins (Daisy and Edie) would become firm friends over the years, and my aunt recalled meeting Daisy as a child when she’d already left her native Somerset to take up a job in London as a waitress  at Selfridges .    

*I have sometimes been rather horrified to see huge sprouting family trees like ancient oaks where too many relatives seem to dilute the information – although I’m aware that ancestor-gathering does seem to be the aim of some researchers.

But to return to the Stops family. My grandmother’s father, Thomas Stops was a trained wheelwright/blacksmith, born in 1853 in Hackney, the middle son of another wheelwright (William Stops) from Wendover in Buckinghamshire. While these jobs sound very much like rural professions to our modern ears, there would most likely have actually been more of such work in the capital due to the number of horse-drawn vehicles on the streets. Despite this, William Stops was never able to make much money from his trade, and the growing family moved to different accommodation in East London on a regular basis. At one point they were living in Tower Hamlets at Pleasant Place, which sounded anything but pleasant if a contemporary description of the street by a physician investigating the sanitary conditions of London is to be believed.

It is worth quoting the extract in full, taken from the book Sanitary Ramblings being Sketches and Illustrations of Bethnal Green: A type of the condition of the metropolis and other large towns by Hector Gavin MD FRCSE (1848), due to the light it sheds on the plight of the insecure working class in the middle of the nineteenth century: This central square (consisting of Pleasant-row and Pleasant-place) is made up of swine-pens and yards in which dung-heaps are piled; in it are the privies of the northern half of the row, forming the south of the square. Immediately facing Pleasant-row is a ditch, filled with slimy mud and putrefying filth, which extends for 100 feet. The space between Pleasant-row and the central square is, beyond description, filthy; dung heaps and putrefying garbage, refuse, and manure, fill up the horrid place, which is covered with slimy foetid mud. The eastern end has likewise its horrid filthy foetid gutter reeking with pestilential effluvia; the southern alley is likewise abominably filthy: there the same slime and mud overspreads the broken up bouldered path; and there, the same most disgusting odours are given off, which are common to this area of putrescence. I do not think that in all my journeying through the degraded haunts of wretched poverty in this poor parish I have found a scene so distressing.

The houses in Pleasant-place are chiefly two-roomed and let at 3s. 6d. a week, but some of the two-roomed and all the three-roomed houses let at 5s. a week. I entered one of these houses on the southern side, and found that every individual in a family of seven had been attacked with fever, and that a daughter, aged 22, who had been convalescent eight weeks, on her return from the country to her miserable home, died of a relapse in two days. The body was retained in the house, because no means could be found to raise the money necessary to bury it, and was then lying in its coffin. The privy of this house is close to it, and is full and overflowing, covering the yard with its putrescent filth; the stench was perfectly unendurable; the house itself was most shockingly dirty. 3s. a week were paid for this den of pestilence, while the husband and wife together, by working night and day, could only earn 15s. a week. To permit a continuance of the state of things I saw would be, as it were, voluntarily to tolerate the elimination of a fatal poison to be sucked in at every breath of the occupants, who, this condemned to death, perish not by the momentary pangs of official strangulation, but by the more miserable death of loathsome typhus. How lost to all sense of charity and brotherly love, how forgetful of the value of human life, are those who apathetically survey such sad scenes of wretched misery.

So William Stops had left the rural town of Wendover to better himself in the capital and it had come to this? It is ironic to note that at the same time as William was struggling in the East End, living at the very unpleasant-sounding Pleasant Place, his father Joseph Stops, was ironically working as an agricultural labourer at Paradise Water Mill* (and maltings) in the village of Wendover, in Buckinghamshire, working for the miller Eizabeth Hoare (whose sisters ran a private boarding school for young ladies in the 1840s and 50s), while his wife (William’s mother) worked as a washerwoman.  

*Paradise House is now a grade 2 listed building and an extremely attractive private dwelling today, described in the town guide as being an 18th century construction which incorporates a much older one.

Despite the ‘paradise’ name, it is debatable whether life in the countryside was any easier than in the London ‘slums’. While places like Wendover are now highly desirable locations, particularly if in commuting distance to the capital (as Wendover is today), increasing industrialisation and threats from globalisation meant that the old rural trades, such as the lace making trade in Wendover, were now dying out. And even though living conditions in the capital were less than ideal, there was no rural idyll in the countryside either, with agricultural labourers earning a pittance for insecure work and living in poor quality housing.

However, it was often the next generation that was able to build on the risks their parents had taken through movement and migration, and so it was that when Thomas Stops married the Somerset-born domestic servant, Harriett Burnell, in 1887 after an eight-year stint as a soldier with the Royal Artillery, they were able to rent a terraced house on a new estate at Sands End in Fulham. It was there, at number 61 Cranbury Road, where several years later they had their three children: Thomas William Burnell (Tom) in 1893; Frederick Arthur James (Fred) in 1895; Edith Matilda (Edie) in 1898 (when Harriett was 41).

A few years ago I went to see the house, expecting an ordinary Victorian terrace. So I was rather surprised to see that number 61 had been merged with 61a next door to create a large five-bedroomed home now named ‘Lavender House’, which has been featured in several prominent glossy magazines (see article here). Currently worth about three million pounds, it is a far cry from the old Cranbury Road houses of the 1970s, a time when  the area had become slightly run down, and it was possible to buy a period property for around three thousand pounds.

lavender house

lavender house gardenLavender House, Cranbury Road, Fulham, today (front and back)

And perhaps here – where it all began – is a fitting place to end the first part of our story. The Stops family left Fulham for Denmark Road in south London in the early 1900s and shortly after that Thomas died of tuberculosis, leaving Harriett to bring up the children alone, taking in a series of lodgers to help pay her way (one of whom would become my grandfather). Unfortunately, it is impossible to know why the family moved to the other side of London as the only connection they had with the area was the fact that Harriett had worked as a domestic servant for a family in Camberwell when she arrived from her native Highbridge in Somerset.

However, I have in my possession (courtesy of my aunt) a copy of a wonderful cabinet portrait entitled ‘Edie with Dog’, which was possibly taken by one of those itinerant photographers who called from house to house, most likely when the family still lived in Fulham. I’m not sure if the dog was the family pet, but it is certainly the kind which was popular at the time, and might instead have belonged to a friend or relative. Edie looks like she’s wearing her best Sunday bonnet and white dress. So was it a special occasion, or had she been dressed up especially for the photograph?

The background (a suburban garden fence supporting hollyhocks and climbers) makes me believe this photograph was taken in the garden of 61 Cranbury Road, shortly before the family left the area. Although the copy is of poor quality, I still find the composition exquisite. There is the angle of Edie’s head as she gazes at the unseen photographer. The nonchalant way she is holding the lead of that tiny dog. The slightly wild vegetation which frames her, suggesting a ramshackle garden that would be enchanting to a child.

Even the faded sepia copy lends the image an ethereal quality, making Edie appear like an Edwardian ghost child. As a child myself, I would have loved to have reached back through time and played with this little girl from another age in her wild back garden. Yet when my grandmother was still alive, I could never really have imagined her as anything other than lumpen and yellow-toothed. And I find that impossibly sad.

p1070485 (2)‘Edie with Dog’, c1903

To be continued next month . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2019

Three Sisters: Helen

High Street Earles ColneOne of Charles Skelton Tyler’s last views of the High Street in Earls Colne was taken in 1907, showing his re-built shop, with the pair of upper bay windows, and the new houses on the corner of York Road. He retired in 1915 and leased the pharmacy to Alex Spafford (below).

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Mr Spafford continued the photographic side of the business and applied to the Magistrates Court for a licence to sell tonic water wine, describing himself as ‘an optician and pharmacist’. The magistrate asked sarcastically why an optician needed to sell alcoholic drinks. Mr Spafford was most indignant – “I am also a chemist and I object to being called an optician when my principal business is that of a chemist!” The licence application was refused on the grounds that Earls Colne already had more than its fair share of licensed premises – three fully-licensed pubs, three beer houses and one off-licence. But, even without tonic wine on offer, Mr Spafford continued in business until 1945.

Extract from Earls Colne Heritage Museum (ECHM) Website

This month I turn to the story of Helen Ann, the second youngest of James Skelton’s five children with his first wife, Sarah Vaughan. Those readers who have followed my genealogical quest from the beginning will know that it is this ‘lost family’ of my great-great grandfather with which I am particularly fascinated, most of them having led the kind of swash-buckling lives that my own direct ancestors were denied through poverty and lack education.

Out of the four children who lived long enough to establish their own independent lives, Helen was the only one who remained in England. (James Skelton’s oldest daughter, Margaret Sarah died at home in Brixton at the age of 24 – see Present at the Death). In my most recent posts I have described the lives of her two other sisters, Sarah and Ann, who emigrated from London to Australia and Hong Kong respectively (where they met their deaths in the same untimely way as their oldest sister, namely by contracting tuberculosis). And in A Tale of Exploitation I set out the story of their brother James William, who had already established a successful mahogany export business in British Honduras (now Belize), with an office in  London,  by the time he was in his twenties. It is for these reasons that I regard this family as true ‘children of the Empire’, even though I am not completely comfortable with that jingoistic-sounding term.

Unsurprisingly, the least adventurous of the children went on to live the longest. Helen survived the death of two husbands and was the only one of the siblings to make it into the 20th century, dying in Colchester in 1909 one week shy of her 80th birthday. She was also mentioned in both the will of her wealthy older brother, James William, and that of her sister Sarah’s husband (the Hong Kong judge, Henry John Ball), although the amount of money she was left in each case was relatively paltry.

Helen married the widowed Charles Tyler in 1855, exactly a year after he had lost his first wife. Despite having a young family to support, as a carpenter who owned his own business in Lambeth which employed six men, Charles was possibly seen as a ‘good catch’. More than a decade older than his new bride, he had been married for almost fifteen years before his wife Marianne died, along with his oldest child, and only son, Charles George. Both young Charles and his mother were buried in nearby West Norwood Cemetery, one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ I described in connection with the Skelton family grave, located in Nunhead Cemetery in South London. The fact that they were both interred in the same year, makes me think that it was one of the common infectious diseases of the time which resulted in their early demise.

After her marriage, Helen moved into the Tyler family home in Pratt Street, Lambeth, taking on the role of step-mother to the younger of Charles’ four daughters, and eventually went on to have two children of her own  – a daughter, Helen Westle Tyler, and a son, Charles Skelton Tyler. Unfortunately for the family, the 1861 census appears to show a change in their fortunes – Charles senior is now described simply as a case and crate maker, and only the youngest step-daughter is still living at home – the others have all been sent out to work as domestic servants. The following census seems to indicate further misfortunes throughout the 1860s*: by 1871 Helen is to be found residing in the High Street in Harlow (now called Old Harlow) in Essex, minus her husband, but with the second one waiting in the wings while a ‘lodger’ in the family home.

*As both Charles and Helen junior were born in Lambeth it would appear as if the Tyler family’s move to Harlow had been made shortly before the 1871 census. Whether it was for work or retirement or to be close to relatives, it is impossible to know. But the fact that Charles Senior died there in 1870, may point to the fact that he was already ailing previous to that, and thus the relocation to Essex might have been in connection with this.

harlow-high-street-old-harlow-c1905_h22503Old Harlow High Street c1900 (c) The Frances Frith Collection

Helen’s mysterious ‘lodger’ in the 1871 census describes himself as a chemist-pharmacist from York by the name of William S. Chrispin, a man who turns out to have (perhaps even unbeknown to Helen herself) connections with her own roots. As mentioned previously, Helen’s father, James Skelton, was originally from North Yorkshire and had arrived in London during the 1820s, whereupon he set up a tailoring business in riverside Bermondsey (see The Tailor of Horsleydown). So it is interesting to note that not only does Helen’s new husband hail from the county of her forebears (more about these Ur-Skeltons later next year), but he also calls himself William Skelton Chrispin on their marriage certificate, and forever after.

While the surname Skelton is relatively unusual, it is not uncommon in the north of England (from where it originates) and in major cities, such as London, due to economic migration. However, as William does not appear to baptised with this name (nor was it his mother’s maiden name) I suspect he has taken it on solely to please Helen, and perhaps to create a link with his step-son, who was baptised with the middle name of Skelton. So I do not think it is a family connection, although William was born in the hamlet of Osgodby (spelled Osgoodby in the census return of 1841) in the parish of Thirkleby in North Yorkshire, a place that is relatively near to the Wensleydale area from which ‘my’ Skelton family originated.

We have no idea how William Chrispin ended up in his forties (and unmarried) far from home, living in Harlow with the newly-widowed Helen (stated to be of no occupation) and her young son, Charles. But William’s addition of that enigmatic middle ‘S’ on the census form perhaps shows that he and Helen were already viewing themselves as a couple. And as they wed only a few months after this date, it is more than likely this is the case. I still do wonder if they originally met when he lodged in their house (just as my grandparents did when my great-grandmother rented out a room in the family home in Brixton to a returning WW1 soldier – see I Remember, I Remember); or whether the situation had more in common with my great-great grandfather’s relationship with his second wife, where the much younger Mary Ann Hawkins described herself as Housekeeper on the census of 1861 (while having already several children with James Skelton)!

But however they met, the Tyler-Chrispin marriage took place in the local parish church with Helen’s brother, James William Skelton, as one of the witnesses. Whether it was solely due to the presence of this social climber, both bride and bridegroom were somewhat creative when it came to listing their own and their fathers’ professions. William stated that his deceased father Thomas Chrispin was a Merchant (it is true that he’d once been some sort of merchant, but he had turned to farming by the time  William was born); and Helen described James Skelton as a Gentleman, a neat Victorian catch-all phrase for someone who has no need to work, which other members of the family had previously used when referring to their father (despite the fact that he was actually retired and bringing up a second family with his young mistress). In addition to this, William called himself a Surgeon; but was all this simply for the benefit of Helen’s older brother, whose wealth and success may have intimidated the new bridegroom?

In any case, the marriage must have been a relative success as the couple were to stay together for other 30 years before William died in 1904, five years before Helen. While organising my research notes several days ago, it came as something of a surprise to realise that I still had not yet applied for the death certificates of this branch of the family, despite my intentions to do so. However, I am assuming that Helen and William died of old-age related illnesses and it is perhaps the death of Charles Tyler senior* which will give more clues as to how the family ended up in Harlow.

*A search in the BMD records several months ago proved inconclusive, before I realised Charles had probably died in Harlow, not Lambeth. Such is the nature of the silly mistakes we can make while carrying out research. What appears to be his death certificate has now been duly applied for.

Just to confuse matters more, William Chrispin had a younger cousin who not only was called William Chrispin, but was also a chemist-pharmacist, operating a pharmacy in King Street, Huddersfield. Was William Chrispin the younger encouraged in his career path by William Chrispin the elder? If so, he is not the only younger relative that our William influenced as his step-son Charles was eventually apprenticed to a chemist in Cambridge. And shortly before Charles left home to start his studies, William had established a pharmacy in the small coastal community of Walton, Suffolk (next to Felixstowe), perhaps with plans for his step-son to take over the business when he eventually retired.

Walton-High-Street-Felixstowe-Horse-Cart-unused

But this event did not appear to come to pass: in 1887, at the age of 23, Charles Skelton Tyler married a local girl, Annie Archer, and set up his own chemist’s shop in neighbouring Felixstowe (in competition with his step-father?), before moving to Earls Colne in Essex in 1892. He was to remain in this part of the country for over two decades, successfully running the local pharmacy and bringing up his family of four until his ‘retirement’ in 1915, when for some inexplicable reason he went to Australia for a long vacation with his wife and two daughters.

In contrast, Helen’s daughter, called Helen Westle (that family name again!) remained unmarried all her life, and continued to live with the Chrispins (with no discernible job) until their deaths in the first decade of the new century. She herself died in 1940 at the age of 82, several weeks after her brother Charles, a man who I have become rather fond of in the course of my research. This is mainly because, unlike other family members, he appears to have left his mark on the world in a way that did not involve the exploitation of people or resources.

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Bill Jones, the local blacksmith, c1900, by Charles Tyler (c) ECHM

While running the Earls Colne pharmacy, it would seem that Charles also had a sideline in developing photographs (for himself and others), going on to create a good number of prize-winning pictures of the village and its inhabitants – including the above image, which was published in several national newspapers – some of which can be seen in the local history museum. As the C.S. Tyler pharmacy was situated in the middle of the High Street, this gave Charles the chance to readily document daily life in Earls Colne. And when I gaze in admiration at some of his photographs, I cannot help but wonder if any of his own family feature in them.

wp749d510d_06High Street, Earls Colne, by Charles Tyler, c1900 (C) ECHM

To come across these wonderful photographs taken by an ancestor (however distant) gave my enthusiasm for my genealogical quest a much-needed boost. While researching and writing this post I had become rather dispirited by my lack of progress, as well as annoyed at myself for neglecting to order the death certificates of Helen Ann and her two husbands. But this discovery of Charles’ photographs reminded me again of how family history can throw up these unexpected twists and turns to feed the addiction.

Yet how many more of these images are out there somewhere, perhaps languishing in a battered box belonging to one of Charles’ descendants, similar to those that my mother is fortunate  to  have inherited (see Begin Again)? And might Charles Tyler have taken pictures of his own elderly mother or her surviving relatives? Just when I was almost ready to hang up my genealogy hat, I find I’m enthused once more by the idea of tracking down a living descendant of Charles Skelton Tyler – someone who may be a repository of his ‘lost’ photographs from the turn of the last century.

Chalkney Mill by Charles Tyler (2)Chalkney Mill, Earls Colne, 1897, by Charles Tyler (c) ECHM

This may, however, prove to be a more difficult task as 20th century genealogy can be notoriously tricky due to the lack of published records, although the 1939 register has certainly been a boon to family historians. And to make things more complicated, not only do the two girls appear to have remained childless after they married in their thirties, both boys (with their relatively common names, coupled with the number of ‘Tylers’ increasing as the population booms) seem to vanish after 1911. Did Edward and William Tyler die during the Great War? They would have been in their early twenties when the conflict broke out, most likely still single, and at the age where signing up through patriotic bravado was common.

When I imagine that somewhere in England there might be a cache of Charles Skelton Tyler’s lost images in an attic or cupboard, I also wonder if in this same household there is a velvet-lined box containing the jewellery the teenage Helen Westle Tyler inherited from her Westle namesake aunt, Sarah. On her death in 1871, the possessions of Sarah Westle Maria Ball (neé Skelton) went directly to her husband, the Hong Kong judge Henry John Ball. And when he died three years later, his will stated that: I bequeath all the jewellery and trinkets formerly belonging to my late dear wife excepting such as I may otherwise in my life dispose of to Helen Tyler the niece of my said wife absolutely. Did the young Helen appreciate these gifts, or were they perhaps pushed to the back of a drawer and later deemed to be the outdated objects of a middle-aged woman she’d barely known?

But I like to think that once these two worlds might have collided, and alongside the portraits Charles took of local characters (such as Miss Jane Sadd, below), that there is, in a stranger’s attic or family album, a photograph of Charles’ unmarried sister. I can just imagine Helen, posing for her little brother in her Edwardian finery, while on a much anticipated visit to see her beloved nephews and nieces.

Perhaps she is even wearing one of her own aunt’s jewelled brooches.

Miss Jane Sadd by Chatles TylerMiss Jane Sadd, landlady of The Castle, Earls Colne, by Charles Tyler c1900 (c) ECHM

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Down the Past

At its best, family history is a trespasser, disregarding the boundaries between local and national, private and public, and ignoring the hedges around fields of a academic study; taking us by surprise into unknown worlds.

Alison Light, Common People: The History of an English Family, (2014)

Later this month I will be holding a creative writing workshop in Switzerland (where I currently live and work) for teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL). The aim of this half-day workshop is to show teachers how they can use creative writing exercises in their EFL classes in order to encourage their students to take risks with the new language and to personalise it, thereby fostering a sense of ownership and increased confidence in the use of English. The teaching material is designed to be adapted for different levels of language ability, although the workshop will be aimed at native speakers. This is to allow the teachers to experience the activities as learners themselves, enabling them  to tap in to their own creative wellspring.

My interest in family history and the demographic of the group makes it an obvious choice of topic for some of the exercises. For that reason I decided to focus this month‘s post on the different ways in which family history research and creative writing can be combined. To this end, I have adapted some of the activities used in the workshop to focus solely on family history.  These exercises may be of interest to other writers and teachers*, as well as those who would like some creative inspiration to help them write their own family history.

*I use this term broadly as it may include teachers of others subject, such as social history.

Family Photographs

I have touched on the role of photographs in family research in an earlier post (see Those Ghostly Traces), in particular in relation to Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. Both these important texts about photography attempt to get to the essence of what it means to take photographs and be photographed; to collect photographs and use photographs to document events and lives, as well as shape and frame (reframe?) memory. As Sontag points out: What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Photographs of people are an obvious choice for teaching material as there is a wide variety of activities which can be used in conjunction with images, from simple descriptive vocabulary to complex character bios, to investigating historical details. If students can bring in copies of a selection of their own family photographs, then the activity takes on a more personal and meaningful nature. Naturally, this topic needs to be handled sensitively, but discovering more about the backgrounds of the other students generally increases both cohesion and respectfulness of differences within the group.

A series of photographs in chronological order can be used to create an interesting narrative, such as the ones I have of my English grandmother, Edie, which cover 70 years of her life (see I Remember, I Remember). This makes an ideal longer project and could be used as the basis of a short biography. To illustrate this, I usually print out a selection of my own photographs on good quality A4 paper and insert them into plastic pockets. This allows them to be handled and prevents them from being regarded as  ‘too precious’. The images* (below) illustrate the relationship of my  own grandmother with her beloved oldest brother Tom, before and after the Great War. Such a series could create a jumping off point for a number of activities. *All photographs courtesy of Tom’s grand-daughter, Margaret Andrews.

Tom,_Fred_and_Edith_with_mother_1909_'Taken_soon_after_Father_died' (3)After Father Died c1905: Edie and Tom, with Fred and Harriet

Thomas_and_Edith_with_mother_Harriett_'Before_going_to_the_War' (2)

Before Going to War in 1915: Edie and Tom with Harriet

Thomas_Stops-Bessie_Burley_(Edith_is_Bridesmaid) (2)Tom’s Marriage in 1917: Edie (back centre) is bridesmaid 

Postcards from the Past

For family historians, historical postcards can be an important research tool. In a teaching situation, copies of the original can be made, or postcards can be mocked up from images in magazines or on the internet. Using such images in a creative way can be a powerful way to attempt to see the world as our ancestors did. For example, postcards of places that family members visited on holiday, or where they lived, can be used as a stimulus to write to someone else in the character of a particular family member. The image I have of Kennington Park in its hey-day is one that helps me to imagine how it might feel to have visited the place at the time my ancestors lived nearby – the gardens being such a contrast to the dull streets and factories of their neighbourhood on the other (wrong?) side of the park (see A Tale of Two Parks).

Unbenannt (2)Postcard of Kennington Park c1900 (purchased on ebay)

This activity could even be expanded to include postcards of people (ancestors or important figures of the time), such as the old Rotary ones of actors which can be picked up cheaply on the internet. I am currently amassing quite a collection of images of my Edwardian actor ancestor, Herbert Sleath and his actress wife, Ellis Jeffreys, and every so often purchase a used one where the writer might allude to the image on the front. I have even come across cards the couple sent to friends, and particularly relish one where Herbert appears to be arranging a secret rendezvous with another woman (written in shorthand) –  a reminder of  the days when the frequency of the postal service almost resembled the speed of texts and emails. Writing a ‘secret postcard’ could certainly add spice to this exercise. This activity could be expanded to write letters and diary entries in the character of an ancestor.

Herbert Sleath-Skelton1 (2)

P1060915 (3)Did Herbert Sleath write this postcard (27/2/1908) himself?

Secret Thought Bubbles

Continuing with the topic of secrecy, the first two activities lead naturally on to one where copies of portraits and paintings of people (usually reproduced on postcards) are distributed to the students, who then have to write a ficticious ‘thought bubble’ for the person (or one of the people) depicted. It is interesting to then separate the writing from the images and ask the other students to try to match the ‘thought bubbles’ to the pictures. This is an activity I aim to do for the two portraits I have of the child prodigy actor, William Robert Grossmith (see Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans), stimulated by the discussion that the Sunderland schoolchildren had on the Shakespeare on Tour website (here) when speculating on his life. Obviously, this activity could be extended to include family photographs. I would also like to write thought bubbles for all the members of my family in the Skelton wedding photograph in the banner image above (reproduced in full below). I often wonder what little Peter at the front was thinking of the whole event.

Marriage_Edith_Stops-Sidney_SkeltonNEW (2)My Grandparents’ Wedding, London, 1923 (c) M. Andrews

Bringing the Past to Life

A couple of years ago I stumbled across these two silent film clips from the Mitchell and Kenyon collection of Local Films for Local People (now in the British Film Institute) which have been enhanced and set to a very evocative score. Whenever I feel a little lost for inspiration, or wonder if my genealogical quest is a worthwhile one, then I only have to watch these short films again to restore my faith in the value of my project. Such a clip can obviously be used in a myriad of ways in the classroom: from chosing to write about one of the people who appear in the film to creating descriptions and narratives (as well as ‘secret thought bubbles’). But perhaps more importantly, most people never fail to be moved by the lively scenes unfolding in front of their eyes, knowing as they gaze upon the curious and open faces that flit across the screen that not one of the population depicted in the film will be alive today. It is a sobering thought, but one that should spur us to action to make the most of the opportunities we have today to document the past lives of our ancestors.

Music of the Past

Although the video above is set to contemporary music (Chanson du Soir and Arco Noir from Richard Harvey’s Strings of Sorrow album), both tracks evoke the poignancy of the lost Edwardian world unveiled to us through the uncanny time machine of technology, and the music greatly enhances the viewing experience. Music in general can be made to stimulate ideas for writing and undertaking timed writing activities to various tracks is another way to unleash creativity. I often find I am drawn to listening to the music of the period about which I am writing: for example, The Lark Ascending  by Vaughan Williams is one which is I find  particularly inspiring when writing about the period set around the Great War.

 The Things They Left Behind

Personal objects are an obvious way to build up a character bio. For example, writing a description of a person from a number of items that they  carry around in their (hand)bag. This could include both something humdrum (e.g. a monogrammed handkerchief) and esoteric (e.g. an amulet). When my Scottish grandmother died and the flat in the sheltered house where she had lived for the last twenty years of her life was being cleared out, a strange crumpled little doll was discovered in her bedside table inside an out-dated Scottish Bluebell matchbox. I could not understand why she would have wanted to keep such a creepy-looking thing close by (particularly as so much had already been discarded when she made the move into sheltered accommodation) until my mother realised that it had been the decorative doll on her christening cake, over 60 years earlier. Such an object (and its discovery) certainly lends itself to a piece of descriptive writing.

P1040577 (2)Miniature Doll from my Mother’s Christening Cake

What would they have said?

It is interesting exercise to attempt to recreate the conversations that our ancestors might have had with each other (and also with those outwith the family), particularly at pivotal moments in their lives. One day, while stuck for inspiration trying to imagine the lives of James William Skelton’s and Emma Sleath’s three children – the Sleath-Skeltons, who were born into a different class and lifestyle than any of the Skeltons who had come before them and any to come since – I wrote out a conversation the three of them might have had with each other as they took a walk round Hyde Park to discuss a matter of family importance. It was a tricky exercise that yielded up ideas that might have otherwise been rejected. And a reminder that even if the result  never made it further than some lines on a piece of scrap paper, it still lodged itself somewhere in the imagination, sending out little shoots and tendrils of inspiration at unexpected moments.

Memories, Memories, Memories

Perhaps the most obvious – and powerful – type of creative writing exercise involves working with personal memories, however imperfect they may be. An exercise that worked well in a workshop I once attended is to imagine your grandparents’ old house while walking through it as a child, using all the senses as you do so. After this silent ‘meditation’ there is a timed exercise to put these recollections down on paper. Although the writing is often rough and ready, the raw material can later be worked on to come out with a memory that feels authentic, and which may unleash other reminiscences in its wake.

A similar exercise I undertook at another workshop is to write a description of  a childhood incident  in the 1st person, then once the piece is complete to pass it to another student to rewrite in the 3rd person – the other writer being ‘given permission’ to change some of the details if need be, usually naturally forming it into a tighter narrative in the process. This is a fascinating exercise on many levels, and it is particularly interesting to reread ‘your’ memory when rewritten as a short story, blurring the distinction between fact and fiction, something which can really lift a piece of writing. However, this exercise works best if you are not aware of what will happen to the text in the second part of the workshop!

The final ‘memory exercise ‘I would like to describe is one which returns to the initial theme of family photographs, and is from a practice called memory work that aims to bring to light repressed memories (and is thus a more private and personal exercise). As Annette Kuhn points out in her book Family Secrets: Anyone who has a family photograph that exerts an engimatic fascination  or arouses an explicable depth of emotion could find memory work rewarding.

The basic idea is to take such an image and start to describe it, moving from the obvious external cues to taking up the position of the subject (using the 3rd person), and attempting to bring out the feelings that may have been associated with the photograph. At the same time the context of the photograph should also be given consideration. So questions should be asked about why it was taken, where and by whom etc. In addition, attention should be paid to the technology used as well as the photographic conventions of the time. These guidelines stem from the work of artists Rosy Martin and Jo Spence, and encourage those undertaking memory work to be more critical and questioning of their lives and those of others. I have also found it also interesting to do this with other family members who may or may not also be in the photograph.

For myself I always feel strangely sad when I look at photographs of myself with my grandfather, Sidney Skelton (whose harsh beginnings I have written about in Of Lost Toys and Mothers). I never felt quite at ease when I was with him: I often could not understand his strange Cockney accent; his abrupt nature was disconcerting to me; his habit of permanently smoking strange-smelling roll-ups was off-putting to a young child. When I look at the picture (below) taken of us together at Ayr beach in the 1960s, I know that I am aware I have to pretend to love this taciturn English grandfather of mine as this is what is expected of me. Yet he is a stranger to me. And when he died when I was about ten (my first experience of the death of a grandparent) the only emotion I felt was a terrible sense of guilt that I was not able to be sad (wondering if that meant I would always be incapable of experiencing true grief).

397 (3)With my grandfather, Sidney Skelton, Ayr c1966

But after recently enlarging the photograph to investigate it further, I could see there was more going on in the image than I had initially thought: the (most likely) painful burns on limbs which had been left unprotected from the sun (normal at that time), the small rag/towel that I am clutching for some reason – could it be to dry my feet? Suddenly I remember that I did not like going barefoot at Ayr seaside as the pink road between the beach and the low green was covered with a layer of very tiny sharp stones – but maybe Grandad had carried me over and deposited me on the low wall. So perhaps I am being too hard on myself, and there is no need to blame my miserable looking countenance solely on my grandfather (who most likely treasured the few occasions that he spent with his Scottish grandchildren). And I think about my father who might have found this photograph charming: his elderly father and first child, together in what was a typical family pose – although it does not seem to come naturally to Sidney, despite the fact that he looks happier than he does in other photographs from that time.

Later I discovered that the image was just one of a series taken on the same summer day at Ayr beach in 1966 (hard to believe this is half a century ago already!) I am currently arranging them into chronological order in an attempt to trigger more memories from that day at the beach, a fascinating experience that is yielding even more insights about this long-forgotten time in my life.

P1040802 (3)

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2017

 

 

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)

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  has  succeeded in finding  the image which defines his mother for him. 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 – but would simply be a study of a brother and sister in a conservatory, or winter garden, at the turn the 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 (I Remember, I Remember), am I not looking for  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)And my renewed interest in discovering more about  my  London ancestors was, in part, rekindled 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’: 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 and 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 were 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 owning 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 in fact 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 stenciled 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 (see 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 could see where the family eyes came from, the bushy eyebrows, the high forehead. And when Barthes describes his wonderment 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. 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 in a family that very rarely displays family 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

To be continued . . . 

Happy New Year! from The Incidental Genealogist, January 2016