Category Archives: Research

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 the Myslexia 2020 Memoir Writing Competition (details here). 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 succesfull 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.

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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

The Lost Family – Part 1

There is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.

Helen Keller (1912)

396-3Skelton Family Christmas, London 1966

As mentioned in September’s post, this month I will be returning to the beginning of my story as I edit the first 5,000 words of A London Family for the Myslexia 2020 Memoir Writing Competition (details here). For the first section of my entry,  I have combined the static page entitled The Incidental Genealogist is Born with my initial post of Begin Again from September 2015.

Although the former would have also made an ideal first chapter, I decided to place it apart from the rest of the blog posts in order to highlight the background information to my quest. In addition, it did not quite fit into the About the Search page (equivalent to the About Me page in many blogs) which I felt needed to be short and succinct. I initially avoided giving away too much about myself as I wanted the main focus to be my research, with the personal elements interspersed throughout the story. I personally prefer to read the type of memoir where the backstory of the writer is gradually revealed on a need-to-know basis, while being interwoven with a higher quest, as I feel this keeps the reader’s interest piqued.

As I edit my writing I will comment on any aspects of this process as well as other points that I become aware of while rewriting the initial section. This may be of interest to others attempting similar projects or those simply curious about the writing process. Editing a text is a very different process from putting the initial words down on paper (or screen), but it is a satisfactory and enjoyable process that also sheds light on individual writing practices.

I have given the text the working title of The Lost Family. This seems to me more poetic and mysterious than A London Family, and was actually the original blog title before I realised that it was rather ambiguous for online searching (where names need to closely reflect their content).

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The Lost Family: Part 1

Back in 1984 most people could only guess at what the technological revolution would unleash. Even that harbinger of our silver-suited future, Tomorrow’s World, had only an inkling of the invention that would bring both pornography and family history (two of the most popular uses of the internet) into our homes. And in that Orwellian pre-internet year, fresh out of college and facing the economic realities of the North-South Divide, I decided to follow Norman Tebbit’s advice, and headed to my father’s home city of London in search of a job. (Albeit on the overnight mail train from Scotland).

Night train from Stranraer to London in Ayr StationStranraer to Euston train in Ayr (AKA ‘the paddy’ as it linked with the Irish ferries)

In media res (sort of): My first edit involved removing the introductory paragraph and starting with the one above, which not only helped to reduce the wordcount, but also meant I was beginning with action, rather than background details. This is a common editing technique which often results in a much tighter introduction, bringing the reader into the story faster and encouraging them to read on.

One day shortly before Christmas, when the capital was looking its most enticing – and expensive – I spied an advertisement for a trainee genealogist in the window of the Job Centre in Kensington High Street. Although the advert had initially caught my eye because it looked like a job where my biology degree might be useful, even my interviewer was unclear about what exactly I’d be doing for £3 an hour, 35 hours a week. However, she did make the job sound rather exciting: like becoming a private detective without the risks. And anything was better than my current role as temporary shelf-stacker at Sainsbury’s, West Ealing.

The devil is in the details: I initially changed the final phrase of this paragraph to the more general supermarket shelf-stacker in order to reduce my wordcount and because I felt slightly uncomortable naming the actual place (as it had been a rather eye-opening experience). However, I later returned to  the original and more specific temporary shelf-stacker at Sainsbury’s, West Ealing as I felt that it was exactly this sort of detail that made the description come alive and personalised the text.

Two days later, on a bright December morning, I nervously climbed up the marble, statue-lined stairs to the tiny office on the top floor of the impressive Africa House in Holborn. I never thought to ask the elegant middle-aged man who interviewed me from behind the large mahogany desk what exactly he would do with the results of my genealogical research – I was too busy trying to look sophisticated in my American tan tights and scratchy new wool suit than to worry about the company’s ethics. Besides, ethical concerns were not top of anyone’s agenda in 1984, least of all in Thatcher’s London.

Africa House - Exterior

Africa House - InteriorAfrica House, Kingsway Holborn – imposing inside and out.

Eventually I discovered the firm’s main source of income came from matching unclaimed legacies with missing relatives. In other words, they were probate genealogists, or so-called ‘heir hunters’, although I was never quite sure of the ins and outs of the business. The staff had obviously been told to keep me in the dark whilst I was undertaking my three months’ probation and I was cautioned not to have contact with any other local genealogists. Later I had to sign a contract agreeing not to accept employment for a rival firm within a one-mile radius of Africa House for up to two years after leaving the company. This sounded decidedly dodgy, even to my young, provincial ears, and I knew that the job must be something involving large sums of money and possibly subterfuge.

A parenthesis is evidence that the man who uses it does not know how to write English or is too indolent to take the trouble to do it. (Mark Twain): In the above paragraphs I realised that I originally had a number of clauses in parenthesis (dashes and brackets), something I know I tend to overdo. While this is possibly more acceptable in a blog post, I thought I should try to avoid this when submitting a manuscript. However, I realise that some of my favourite authors have their own punctuation quirks, so feel I need to tread a fine line between keeping my own style without it becoming wearying for the reader. Plus, I don’t necessarily always agree with Mark Twain’s statement (c.f. Tristram Shandy)!

When I first started working there – and to this day I cannot remember the name of the company, I could almost swear it never had one – there was only one other ‘field researcher’. Cyril was a tall, stooped man, who had formerly been something in the City, and had come out of a bored retirement in the Home Counties to put in a couple of days’ work a week. After our research was over for the morning, and if the weather was fine, Cyril and I would cut down Surrey Street to the Embankment and eat our packed lunches on a bench overlooking the Thames, throwing our crusts to the lone Muscovy duck living on that stretch of the river. I enjoyed Cyril’s company – he was a quiet and thoughtful man and an antidote to the loud and brazen money-crazed yuppies who seemed to be everywhere in London that year. However, one morning, arriving late at Alexandra House after a delay on the Northern Line, I found Cyril collapsed in a chair in the black-booked corner of Deaths, a bucket at his feet and a concerned assistant nervously standing over him. An ambulance was summoned, and after that episode my fellow researcher disappeared back into retirement (much to the relief of his adult children) and I was left on my own.

Building the Embankment behind Somerset HouseBuilding the new Victorian Embankment behind Somerset House c1860s

Making the Most of Memory (article here): When I reread this paragraph I was surprised at how much I’d remembered from that time. Even though I wrote a draft of this text almost 10 years ago now, it was still much later than the actual event. However, once I started writing down my memories, many more flowed from them. Specific ones obviously stood out – my job interview in Africa House and Cyril becoming ill, for example. While other occasions seemed to be less important, I was still able to recall them in detail. Feeding the Muscovy duck at the Thames was one such memory: looking back I realise I was like a sponge at that point – keen to learn as much about London and the world as possible. Cyril was an interesting companion who clearly enjoyed the role of benign teacher, and working together presented both of us with opportunies to benefit from the exchange.

I soon grew bored with the research. What had initially seemed like a challenge eventually became routine and I started rushing through the lists of dead people I had to find so I could sneak in some searches for my elusive London ancestors. This helped to break the monotony of looking through the heavy records books for several hours a day (punctuated by the occasional jaunt to Somerset House for wills or the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane for the census returns), and often I could combine the two tasks if the search dates and places overlapped. Coming across a relative’s name scribbled by some registrar or census enumerator gave me a thrill that those of the unknown people on my list never did. And once I started ordering copies of their birth, marriage and death certificates, it was even more gratifying to see the familiar family name, sometimes in my ancestors’ own hands.

In the pre-internet days, all the records had to be consulted in situ by perusing the large unwieldy books which were shelved chronologically in St Catherine’s House (blood red for Births; spring green for Marriages) and Alexandra House (Deaths in black, of course). There was a sort of comforting rhythm that I would fall into – lifting the books, flipping over the pages, replacing them, moving onto the next, scribbling into my reporters’ pad. Apart from the thump of books and the shuffle of feet along the rows and the occasional stagey whisper, the place was usually quiet. There were no inadvertent throbs and tinkles of mobile phones, or the sound of computers whirring and chiming. The professional genealogists (of which I almost felt a part) worked quickly and methodically, briefcases at their feet, eyes averted from their rivals.

As the morning wore on, amateur researchers came in with their tuck boxes, much the same as they visit the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell today. But unlike the airy rooms of the LMA with their computer terminals and changing exhibitions, the dark and stuffy records offices were strange places to be sequestered for a young woman eager for life in London to begin.

HEZ-1527719 - © - The Print CollectorSearching Wills in Somerset House c1875 (not much changed in a century!)

How times change: Once Cyril left the company I felt as if I did not have any allies in the office. There was a rather gruff older woman called Mary Lush who baffled me with her opening line of But I’m certainly not one! on being introduced. It was many years later before I’d learn what a lush was! She also referred to the boss (who wore a fedora and a long coat with a fur collar) as A sort of Walter Mitty figure, another reference which completely escaped me. A young person today would only need to whip out their phone to find out what Mrs Lush-by-name-but-not-by nature meant (if they could be bothered). I did not have that luxury and felt too unsure of myself to ask. I normally saved these things up to ask my parents when I called them on Sunday night from the phone box at the end of the street (when I could be bothered). Mum was great at clearing up any confusion regarding cultural references, and words were her forté. Dad was even less chatty by phone than he was normally, but would sometimes take the call and talk for a minute ot two before saying ‘I’ll pass you over to your mother’.

Just thinking about how technology has changed so much over the intervening decades makes me realise that the experiences of my childhood and youth are probably a lot closer to those of my parents than ones experienced by the tech-savvy generations to follow. However, unlike my parents I benefited from the boom in higher education started in the 1960s and the free university places open to all. In 1984 I was also living with a boyfriend in London – mainly to save money on rent, as I recall, and not for any grand passion – something that my mother could never have contemplated in her twenties. However, I told the genealogists in Africa House that I was living with my female cousin in case they thought any the less of me. So perhaps things were not quite as free and open as I remember. It seems to me that the early 80s were the beginning of a more modern time. People stopped saying ‘Good morning/afternoon/evening’ as a greeting in the street and started to say simply ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’. At some point we no longer prefixed our phone answering at home with calling out ‘Alloway 43883’. And we also started to eat in the dining room during the week (rather than just on Sundays and special occasions).

I was certainly not sad to leave it all behind me for a very different job as a trainee virologist at a lively teaching hospital. I always knew that one day – when the time was right – I would return to my research. Yet what finally restarted my quest again, over a quarter of a century later, was a documentary about a family I knew or cared little about.

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Late one wet September afternoon in 2010, still exhausted from a recent sightseeing trip to New York, I lay on the sofa, trawling the internet for something undemanding to distract me from that miserable, out-of-sorts feeling that comes from being jetlagged. Eventually I stumbled across an intriguing-looking documentary about the Waugh Family, based on the book Fathers and Sons by Alexander Waugh. And by the time the story of the Waughs had drawn to its natural conclusion, I felt like an addict denied the next fix.

Images from the film continued to spool through my head while I tackled the ironing basket. Like others who had left comments on the website, I’d been both maddened and moved by the content. The Waughs were clearly the kind of family with heirlooms, and family paintings and draughty piles in the country – and in their particular case, a literary legacy). Even though they’d had their share of ups and downs over the centuries, it was obvious they knew their place in the world. Not only had they the things to prove it – pieces of furniture that were passed from one generation to another, as well as documents and graves to confirm their existence – but there was the intangible wealth tied up in the family name with its reputation and traditions.

Fathers and SonsThree Generations of Waughs (Auberon, Alexander and Evelyn)

This set me thinking about my own namesake family once more. Since my first attempt at genealogy, both my father and uncle had died, making me more keenly aware that twenty-five years can decimate a lot of witnesses to the past. Perhaps that is why Alexander Waugh’s documentary had affected me. There is the parent explaining death to the child: One day we all die. Even I will leave you, as you in turn will leave your children; and the needy child inside the adult: Why did my parents have to die! But Waugh at least seems to take comfort in knowing there are graves to visit if one chooses (even only to spit on). There are books which chart the family history. There are copious photographs and records of the family members’ lives. And that is before even mentioning the literary oeuvre, as well as the more tangible objects of houses and heirlooms.

The branch without fruit: Looking back, it now seems obvious that my project gained momentum as soon as I discovered the ‘lost family’ – the one which my great-great grandfather, James Skelton (The Tailor from Horsleydown) had with his first wife. I was particularly fascinated by his son: the social climber, James Wiliam Skelton, who married a well-connected woman from an interesting family and added her name to his to create the shortlived Sleath-Skelton branch of the family. Despite none of the three children having any issue of their own, two of them in particular – Maude Beatrice and Herbert – have left a particularly long paper trail, which meant I was privy to how the other half (of my family) lived. Yet their lives frequently disappointed me in that the opportunities they had to engage themselves with more noble activities, rather than simply amassing fame or fortune, were never taken. There appeared to be no grand philanthropic gestures or involvement in social or political movements that brought about change.

Perhaps in that respect I need not feel ‘intimidated’ by families such as the Waughs. The more I delved into my own family history, the more I came to believe that, in the case of my ancestors, a good heart and a sense of adventure are more important than possessions and status. The fact that my great-great grandfather eventually set up home with a young, impoverished single mother while he was approaching fifty, now seems like an act of faith. Although they did not marry until shortly before he died, the five children they had together in the same terrace in Aldred Road in Kennington is proof of his commitment to a woman whose parents and younger siblings were no strangers to the horrors of the Victorian workhouse.

Aldred Road, KenningtonAldred Road, Kennington, early 20th C

Those originating from a more ‘ordinary’ kind of family (although I don’t believe that any family is truly ordinary) often have scant knowledge of their ancestors. Lack of space, time and money meant that little was passed on from one generation to another. Some might be lucky enough to find letters and cards stored in an old hat box in the attic. A christening shawl or part of a wedding outfit might be discovered, yellowing in a leather suitcase. Or even a family bible, the family names annotated inside in fading ink, located at the back of a woodworm-infested bookcase. But for most amateur genealogists the photograph album is the place to begin.

Nowadays, thanks to the internet, there are collectors around the world who try to find the descendants of long-lost family albums and ‘orphaned’ photographs. Their success rate is not particularly high, but they persevere due to their belief in the intrinsic value of the project. The albums and photographs are unearthed in junk shops, garage sales and house clearances, the family keeper of memories (for there is always one, and it is usually a she) having no doubt passed away without a worthy heir to inherit the role. The images posted on the web, in the hope of reuniting them with their descendants, are sad and silent sepia reminders of our own mortality, and the fact that we too will soon be forgotten. Many of the them come from the heyday of the studio Cabinet Card, where the sitters’ expressions were rigid from the immobility necessary for the length of the exposure, unaware that future generations will judge them to have been grim and stern. These photographs can usually never reflect the reality of the period, and often convey a gravitas that would have been absent from their daily lives.

A further limitation is that the photographs mostly only cover a certain period. It is unusual to find a picture of the father as a child, then later as a grandfather. For that you must have a chronological album spanning decades – a luxury denied to most. Or even a big messy box still waiting to be catalogued. I am lucky that my mother has the latter. Several messy boxes, in fact. Most of them started out life containing now defunct brands of goods from the 1940s, and for the last half a century have housed an eclectic mix of photographs from the Scottish side of the family, spanning well over a hundred years.

I remember the first evening my grandmother brought out the photograph boxes, their outdated labels already exciting me with the intimations of a yesteryear of which I was not a part. I was around seven or eight then – the perfect age to be initiated into the delights of the family album, particularly for such a morbid child as I. After that it became a ritual: every time we went to visit our Scottish grandparents there was always one evening set aside for the albums and the endless questions they generated. At first I couldn’t quite believe it was possible to possess photographs that were so old. Surely cameras were too modern an invention to have been around during the 19th century? And those strange clothes looked terribly stiff and uncomfortable. I wasn’t able to make the connection that the type of outfits I saw on the BBC’s Sunday afternoon children’s period dramas had actually been worn by normal people, some of whom were related to me.

Ann and Mary (4)Ann and Mary and Neilson with older friend, c1920, Edinburgh

My sister and I always had our favourite pictures that we searched for first: our two ‘youngest’ great-aunts, standing outside their tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Old Town, holding hands with a neighbour’s child, both of them in grubby pinafores and tackety boots; our mother, perched on the steps of her childhood home towards the end of the war, proud in her new school uniform; Grandad looking dashing in plus fours, leaning on his motorcycle, smoking a pipe. We saw our living relatives in ways we’d never imagined before, and we learnt about the others who’d gone before us but who still touched the lives of those who had once known them.

What’s in a name? When I originally described this picture of our two ‘youngest’ great-aunts I had included the line whose Christian names were now our middle ones. I always knew I’d been named after my great-aunt Mary, who was like a second grandmother to me, and just assumed my sister had been called after Mary’s older sister, Ann. But it was only when I questioned my mother about this recently that she pointed out that it was actually her own best friend (and bridesmaid) whom my sister was named after. This actually made more sense, as our great-aunt Ann had moved to the south of England on her marriage and my mother had little to do with her while growing up (in comparison to her close relationship with her Aunt Mary).

Recently when I asked my paternal aunt about the origins of her middle name ‘Florence’ (thinking she was named after one of her Skelton cousins – ‘Little Flo’ – who died from complications after childbirth) she also explained that it was the name of her mother’s best friend. This made me realise that it was important not to presume anything when carrying out genealogical research. My own erroneous assumption had led me to thinking that the Skelton families were closer than they were – even though my aunt explained that my grandmother, Edith, kept her distance from my grandfather’s family, believing them to be a bit wild!

Rereading a letter she sent me about her parents’ wedding photograph (shown below) she states: The two bridesmaids in the the front are, on the left Little Flo (Skelton) from Elm Road in Thornton Heath and (on the right) Flo French from Coldharbour Junction, Edith’s friend since childhood. 

Skelton Marriage in 1924My Grandparents’ Wedding in October 1924 with the Two Flos

It had always puzzled me that in contrast my father did not seem to possess any photographs of his family. In many ways it was inevitable I’d eventually want to continue my quest to find out more about the paternal name-carrying side of family of which I knew so little. The Waugh documentary was simply the catalyst to reignite my interest in my London family.

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2020

 

Reflections

Writing a family history is one of the best means to preserve and share your research with others, both in the present and future; whereas a family tree and research data are not necessarily things others can follow easily or feel connected to. Moreover, writing an ancestral story creates the opportunity to explore social history and places associated with your ancestry that may not have been pursued so far. In addition to which, reviewing and distilling the mass of information gathered to create a story as one of the best means I know of spotting gaps and anomalies and identifying what still needs to be checked. 

Gill Blanchard, Writing Your Family History (2014)

Writing Your Family History

This month marks the fifth anniversary of A London Family: it was the 1st of September 2015 when I published the first chapter. Now, sixty posts later, I find myself refelecting on the journey I have taken over the last five years and the myriad stories I have written about my previously unknown ancestors. It has been a fascinating quest, and yet I often wonder if I really have achieved what I set out to do. But therein lies the rub: can we really ever know enough about the past to be satisfied with our research? There are always other potential avenues to explore and new records opening up. A lifetime of study, in fact. But who really wants to devote their years to becoming an expert on one unknown family? It is something I ask myself now as other roads beckon and ideas for future projects slowly start to come together like an approaching light out of a fog.

Lately I have found myself reading over some of the earlier posts I  wrote, many of which I had almost forgotten – so that facts appear new again and I find myself wrapped up in the story as if it belonged outside of me. I note, too, that there are uniting themes – ‘the two’ and ‘the lost’ spring to mind, as do the more prosaic ones of photographs and houses. Some posts flow on from the previous ones (and indeed were planned as a set) others revisit themes and topics, attempting to regard them from a fresh angle in the light of new knowledge. Sometimes I’ve paused to reflect on what I have learned about carrying out research or writing, other times there have been digressions into a topic I found fascinating, or a summary of certain subjects. So although there is the semblance of a linear narrative over the months and years, I regard my story more as a looping structure, befitting the medium of blogging in ‘real time’ about a topic.

However, as I mentioned in a much earlier post (see The Story So Far), the very act of writing creates order from chaos as our brains are hardwired to fashion narratives in order to understand the world. So perhaps in the end I could say that I have learned almost more about the process of writing my story and how I approach that task than I have about the paternal side of my family. Of course, there were times when I felt I came close to knowing and understanding the lives of the ancestors I researched, and sometimes I became overwhelmed with my responsibility to them and their life histories. But in the end it is the world of the living which we inhabit. Perhaps that is why the most treasured moments of my research were when it was shared with others, and in the new friends and contacts I made. One particular highlight was the trips to London with my mother when we explored places with family connections: the old asylum at Virginia Water, for example, the Skelton grave at Nunhead, or my father’s boyhood home in West Norwood.

Our London student digs at Bankside House (c) LSE

Previously in September we would set off for a week in London together, with lists of the impossible things we hoped to achieve during our stay. Unfortunately, those holidays came to an end a couple of years ago after my mother had some unexpected issues with her mobilty. It seems hard to imagine that only a few years ago we walked from our digs at the LSE student accommodation (after a breakfast fit for a king) on the South Bank to visit a writer friend in Kensington, much to her amazement, or that we’d fit in two or three guided history walks a day in various parts of the capital, rushing from the tube to a bus, followed by a mad dash on foot to the starting point – as we were invariably late.

We quickly grew to feel at home in the area around the South Bank (the LSE accommodation is superbly situated) and as well as the obvious sights we explored the back streets of Southwark on family history related jaunts which inevitably lead us to other places. Stumbling across the Old Operating Theatre at Old St Thomas’ Hospital, and finding cavernous spaces full of vintage treasures in the railway arches in Bermondsey are two occasions which stand out. Distractions abounded, and family history was often neglected in the excitement of new finds throughout the capital – the John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, for example, or Denis Sever’s House in Spitalfields . It was a far cry from the trips we took to visit my grandparents in the 1970s when child-friendly attractions such as Madame Tussaud’s and feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square were the order of the day!

With my mother in Trafalgar Square, c1973

Often my conversations with my mother turned to the maternal side of the family, and more than once I asked her if she was happy for me to currently focus all my research on the English Skeltons, while neglecting her Scottish ancestors. As she was equally interested in both sides of our family she pointed out that it made sense to leave that line of research to a time when gadding about London would not be an option any more. A decade ago I could not imagine that day would come, but of course I now realise that it is here. The current pandemic has only served to underline this fact further, with the rather surreal weekend I experienced in London in March (see Strange Times Indeed) making me feel like a stranger in a place I though I knew and loved (but then that is London for you – the ultimate shape-changing city). 

Old and New Southwark

At the same time as I started to wonder in which direction I should move, I read about a memoir writing competition in the women writers’ magazine Myslexia and decided then and there that I would attempt to create a traditional narrative from A London Family that could be read as one entity, rather than as a series of fragmented posts. Some chapters clearly follow this structure, while others will need to be taken apart and rewritten. It will be an interesting endeavour and one which I hope will help me to discover more about my quest, allowing me to synthesise ideas and add new content as I reflect on my experiences to date. 

The initial submission is the first five thousand words of the memoir, a task which is proving to be enjoyable as I combine my earlier posts to make one storyline, ruthlessly cutting out extraneous words to achieve the correct narrative arc within the wordcount. While putting the draft of the story down on paper can often be a challenge, the final editing process is usually a very soothing one as the angst of the empty page (or screen) has long been removed. The process of improving the text further (one which has most likely already gone through several edits) is always a fascinating one and a deadline and/or wordcount can be a spur to greater things.

In many ways our shrunken Covid-stricken world can currently feel similar to this. Deprived of our normal activities and the chance to wander freely, we focus in on the things around us and perhaps take the opportunity to appreciate and understand them on a deeper level. Of course this is not to belittle the very real hardships the virus has caused, but as humans we naturally try to seek meaning from our existence. Thus anything that aids this process can help us come to terms with the new reality, enabling us to continue moving forward with our lives.

I intend to publish this initial section of the memoir (with the working title of The Lost Family) in the upcoming months, adding comment on the content from my current perspective, both in terms of the information and the process of writing about it. For those who are new to A London Family, I hope it will also provide a sound introduction to some of the themes I have been discussing these past few months. And for those readers who have been with me since the beginning, I hope you will still find it interesting to revisit the genesis of my quest and learn how I now view those initial forays into family history. 

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2020

Strange Times Indeed

Once, as I was walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy which was strange to me, on a hot summer afternoon, I found myself in a quarter the character of which could not long remain in doubt. Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses, and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. But after having wandered about for a while without being directed, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, but only to arrive yet a third time by devious paths in the same place. Now, however, a feeling overcame me which I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad enough to abandon my exploratory walk and get straight back to the piazza I had left a short while before.

Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, 1919

The Uncanny at the Freud Museum(c) The Freud Museum, London

What a strange summer it is, this year. Sometimes I forget that we have entered a ‘new normal’, other times it feels all too present. I think back to my last visit to London in March in order to attend a weekend writing workshop; a trip which was booked in November and tentatively taken before travel restrictions came into place. I returned home on the Monday after three days out of the country to find everything beginning to close down in Switzerland – including my own workplace. At the time, it was difficult to reconcile this event with the busy streets of the capital. I thought back to the packed West End theatre where I’d laughed and cried at a wonderful performance of Uncle Vanya; the morning I’d spent at the Tate’s Aubrey Beardsley exhibition, already quickly filling up with visitors at opening time on a Monday.

There was, however, an unspoken feeling that it would not be business as usual for much longer. An unease permeated the city, in the way that people joked too loudly and appeared to affect an air of nonchalence in the face of the impending pandemic. As I browsed the plant stalls on Columbia Road Market early on that Sunday morning, chewing on a fresh bagel, I felt as if I was witnessing the last gasps of freedom. It was – I imagined –  an inkling into how Londoners might have felt on the eve of both world wars, the sights and sounds of the capital already feeling like the backdrop to a bad play full of hammy actors. I was reminded of a line in Kate Atkinson’s latest book, Transcription, set in World War Two, in which the heroine states at the beginning of conflict: The war still seemed like a matter of inconvenience rather than a threat. (A sentence which could just has easily have applied to that strange and uncanny time at the beginning of March).

Transcription

On my way to the Tate the following day, I passed Downing Street and saw a catering van pull up outside number 10; while only yards away in Westminster subway, a girl with a racking cough who was sleeping rough craved a hot chocolate. As I handed her the drink she confessed she was terrified of catching the virus. Only when I arrived back home and watched the evening’s news did I realise that just round the corner at Westmister Abbey the last minute preparations for the yearly Commonwealth Service were being put in place: a celebration which, in the light of recent events, now feels like an anachronism. Strange times, indeed.

I’m not sure now when I will next return to London. I told a woman I met on the writing workshop that I’d love to meet up for a riverside pint in September. But that almost feels too soon. Perhaps I was already slowly falling out of love with the place in any case. What if all that wonder and magic had only been in my head, and the quest for my lost ancestors had simply heightened those feelings?

That last Sunday evening in the capital I felt strangely ill at ease. An old friend I’d agreed to meet for dinner had to cancel due to flu (not the virus, as it turned out). Unexpectedly alone, I had the urge to be with other people, and yet there was no-one with whom I could meet at the last minute. As I set off through Spitalfields, I was able to console myself with the thought that I could enjoy the long walk back to my digs in King’s Cross. At the last minute I decided to detour through the upper floor of Liverpool Street Station, entering from Bishopsgate and taking what I thought was a shortcut away from the surrounding busy roads. But the layout of the building confused me and all of a sudden I found myself enclosed in an area of high walls and steel and glass that did not seem to have an exit. A feeling of panic rose up in me. I felt painfully isolated by the alienating post-modern architecture and the lack of people – a sharp contrast to the busy streets around Spitalfields Market.

Liverpool-street-stationLiverpool Street Station (c) Network Rail

Usually I love to walk the city on my own, especially such a route through the back streets of villagey Clerkenwell and Islington. Despite not having family connections to the area, I had fond memories of Clerkenwell as it is the home of the London Metropolitan Archives (I place I have grown to know well over the last few years). Almost a decade earlier, in March 2011, the LMA was one of the first places I visited when I restarted my family research, and it was while searching for the location of the archives that I stumbled across Clerkenwell Green and the nearby Priory. I could not believe that I’d never thought to visit the area when I’d lived in London in the 1980s, and this thought then spurred me on to make the most of my time ‘on the ground’ whenever I was in the city.

ClerkenwellGreenC-compositeClerkenwell Green (Composite), (c) Nevilley on en.wikipedia – Clerkenwell

I remembered that such feelings of alienation were not new, even though it was years since I’d had that off-kilter sense of being utterly alone in the city. When I was living in London in the mid-eighties I was no stranger to such waves of crippling loneliness. Although time and experience had dulled the memory, I had a flashback to the way I’d felt when I returned to the capital after a weekend away visiting friends: the sadness of the shuttered streets on a Sunday night, everyone at home and busy preparing for the Monday. This feeling of being rejected by the city grew stronger as I walked back to my digs through streets that all of a sudden felt grim and hostile, despite the fact they had seemed quirky and interesting only hours earlier.

Retracing my route, I cut through Bunhill Fields burial grounds, striding along the old flagstone pathway through the gravestones shortly before the gates were due to close. That morning I’d stopped to admire the spring flowers planted between the graves in the style of a woodland garden. Then I had felt a surge of unexpected happiness to find this corner of an imagined pastoral setting in such an urban environment. Now the scene only seemed to highlight the surrounding cityscape and the graveyard walkway did nothing to lift my spirits, appearing instead claustrophobic with the signs of departed souls all around me. I quickened my step until I exited at the other side and set off through the deserted streets of Clerkenwell looking forward to reaching the youth hostel where I knew there would be a comfortable buzz in the café bar.

Bluebells, Bunhill FieldsBluebells, Bunhill Fields, (c) David Fisher, Creative Commons

Walking through the crowds around King’s Cross, a jumble of faces and loud voices, gesticulations and shouts, I felt as if I could not breathe. I had not liked the quiet streets of Clerkenwell and Islington, but neither did I feel comfortable with this seething sea of strangers around me, everyone jostling for space on the narrow pavements. It was a relief to slip through the electronic door of the hostel and into the fuggy warmth of the foyer café bar. I ordered something to eat and drink and found a space next to a woman from my dorm room. As we chatted about our disparate reasons for being in London, those strange feelings of alienation began to dissipate. Perhaps all I’d needed was some genial company with something wholesome to eat and drink.

The next day I had all but forgotten my experience of the night before. But later I allowed myself to think about how we respond as individuals to city spaces and how the same places can quickly change from welcoming to hostile, depending on our own moods. Had my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, sometimes felt such feelings of alienation when he arrived as a young man from Yorkshire two hundred years previously? The late Georgian capital would have been full of wonders but could also have been at times a threatening place for an ingenue from the Yorkshire Dales. The contrast between the urban and rural would have been much greater in the days before the railways, with the sights and sounds and smells of the metropolis so much more intense. As one of Bunhill’s famous ‘residents’, the poet and visionary William Blake, wrote in Jerusalem  early in the 19th century:  I behold London, a Human awful wonder of God.

Freud’s theory of the uncanny describes the unsettling effect that occurs when the familiar is suddenly seen as unfamiliar: when what is expected to be seen is not there. This phenomenon often occurs when a place appears to be known to someone, but perhaps not as well as previously thought. A city such as London which is in constant change and flux is likely to throw up these situations, which are then further enhanced by personal feelings of sadness, fear or vulnerability. Perhaps that is why places like London evoke such strong feelings in us. One time the capital can open up, as if wanting to share its wonderful secrets; another time it can feel like a closed city which does not wish to let you partake of its mystery and faded glamour.

I have experienced both those sides of London, perhaps most strongly when I lived there in my early twenties and everything about the city was new and exciting. The Pet Shop Boys’ video for West End Girls (above) encapsulate that strange feeling for me, even when I watch it again over thirty-five years later. However, getting to know the capital again through exploring the history of my London family has added another layer of complexity to my relationship with the place. It is this uneasy connection which I intend to examine in greater detail in a future post.

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2020

 

 

 

Taking Stock

Cat in Yorkshire DalesCat at the Window, Wensleydale, North Yorkshire

Happy New Year! 2020 marks the start of the fifth year of searching for my ‘lost’ London ancestors with over fifty tales already written. On the way, I’ve uncovered madness, illegitimacy, poverty, riches, and bigamy. (I feel there must be a murder or two tucked away somewhere). I’ve learnt that things that may shock us today today were once considered more commonplace – and how the opposite is also true. My research has taken me on a physical and psychological journey through London and beyond. I’ve come to know parts of the capital I’d never normally have thought to visit, as well as exploring the Yorkshire dales of my pre-London ancestors and visiting locations as far afield as the goldfields of Victoria, Australia.

Yet how many more untold stories are still out there, waiting to be disinterred?

There are times when I’ve become so fully immersed in previous centuries that I almost feel as if I’m living with one foot in the past. Last year, when researching my grandfather’s role in the First World War (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier), I often wrote the date as 1918 instead of 2018. Sometimes it even seems as if the past is dragging me down – hanging on to that metaphorical foot – so that I’m not as present in my own life as I’d like to be. Other times, the past unexpectedly illuminates the present like a roving searchlight: for a short while there is a clarity and connection, and then the light passes on and the shadows gather round again.

My quest has been an exhilarating and infuriating project to undertake, and one which has made me aware of my own strengths and weaknesses as a researcher. But by setting myself monthly blog writing deadlines, I’ve been forced to turn a pile of disorganised notes into a coherent narrative, helping me to make sense of my ancestors’ lives and the times in which they lived. As the omniscient storyteller, I have been in possession of an uncanny power which has enabled me to follow whole lives from start to finish in a matter of hours. I knew one ancestor would die through lack of an undiscovered, yet simple, drug, even when writing about his birth; I was aware that another would became wealthy through a business which would be considered unethical and unsustainable today, yet all the while being proud of this young man’s successful career. Yet it is only through 21st century technology that I can have this macabre ability to view someones’s past, present and future all at once.

BIRTHS, MARRIAGES AND DEATHS.JPGRed for Births, Green for Marriages, Black for Deaths

When I first went to seek work in London in the technological dark ages of 1984, with a suitcase full of garish clothes and a mediocre science degree, I had no idea that several weeks later I’d be a trainee heir hunter, spending my days prowling round the government record centres in Holborn and beyond (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born). December 1984 found me invited to my first ever office Christmas lunch in order to meet the handful of staff which made up the tiny probate genealogy business to which I’d accidentally become apprenticed. We gathered in a dark wood-panelled City dining room with heavy cutlery and damask tablecloths on a cold winter’s day which seemed bright with possibility. I remember feeling rather grand as I ate my first ever ‘avocado pear’ – like a girl in a film about ‘making it’ in London or some such rubbish, although at the time I took it all quite seriously.

Possibly the warning signs were already there: I was replacing the youngest member who was leaving to go to America. This might have been the same woman I met that day whose husband was a member of the band Pilot (which I remember from my schooldays as having two big hits in the seventies with the very catchy January and Magic). The other employees were all at least two or three times my age and once I started working in the office their vocbulary and and cultural references occasionally flummoxed me. A middle-aged woman called Mary Lush introduced herself with a joke about her last name and later once alluded to the boss being a bit of a Walter Mitty figure. (I asked my parents about both of these things during my weekly phone-box-at-the-end of-the-road call home).

I regret not staying longer in the job to learn more about probate geneology – it could have been an exciting opportunity to become involved in what appeared to be a growth industry. However, the old fashioned office hierarchy and low ‘apprenticeship’ pay, coupled with the lack of opportunities for meeting others in my age group, made me seek pastures new after my three month probation period was over. I feel slightly ashamed of the fact that I did not give the position more of a chance, and so let down those in the company who had invested their time and energy in training me. Of course, in those days I did not see it like that at all and felt that I had had a lucky escape from the stifling world of the dead and – to my mind – half-dead.

Ah, if only I’d had my middle-age sensibilities all those years ago! Not only in regards to employment opportunities, but in my understanding of the concept of time passing. In those days, elderly relatives (and sadly not so elderly, although they would now be elderly had they lived) were still all around me and their memories could have been more skilfully tapped and bottled for the future. But 1984 was the future then, and at that point I could not imagine myself ever looking back on my years in London with my American tan tights and 50p vouchers for ‘luncheon’ and see it as old fashioned in any way.

Of course, now I treasure the chances that remain to talk to those who are the last link to the London of my ancestors (see Return to East Coker), and am beginning even to feel that my own memories may soon be classified as ‘of value’ to social historians. (The Victorian school with the outdoor toilets and the hand bell and coal-fired furnace certainly springs to mind here!).

But as I sit at my desk in late December, I consider what led me to my quest and what has kept me going all these years – and perhaps more importantly, whether it has truly helped me in any way to understand my unknown London family and its dynamics. I can now say unequivically that it has, albeit in unexpected ways. I have learnt a great deal more about social history than I could have gleaned from books alone.  Particularly enjoyable have been these little ‘side jaunts’ down roads (paved and unpaved) which led me to explore the story of the lost Effra river in South London (see A River Ran Under Them) and the history of the Victorian goldrush (see Maldon: A Notable Town) amongst other subjects.

After all those hours and words, I believe I have now come to better understand the motivations of my ancestors, whose strengths and weaknesses were exacerbated by the times through which they lived. I can also see how this has affected future generations, leading to patterns being repeated – or rejected – down the years.

Above all, my search has highlighted how fleeting our time is on the earth and how interconnected we all are, as our actions reverberate into the future and outwards into society at large.

Happy New Year! from the Incidental Genealogist, January 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a Time

Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940) 

124 (2)

In the dark – but often spiritually illuminating – time between Christmas and New Year, it is customary to look back on the previous twelve months, while attempting to plan for the next. I say attempt because not only do good intentions often go astray, but there are many events that can derail future plans, not least human fallibilities.

Five years ago I made the resolution to write up my unknown London family history in a series of blog posts intended to replicate the chronological chapters of a book, although the project did not become a reality until 2015. Prior to that, I had been going around in circles, unable to finish any one topic because there was always something extra to research, another fact to verify, or a new location to visit. But by setting myself official monthly deadlines, I was eventually able to circumvent this procrastination, at the same time moving my story forward in ways that I had not imagined at the beginning of my quest.

I do sometimes feel, however, that there is a price to pay for this ‘living in the past’. Not only can it be quite dispiriting to see how quickly a life is begun and ended, but it can be tempting to ignore the hardships our ancestors faced and instead become nostalgic for the lives they once led, particularly in today’s crowded and fast-paced world. This feeling is particularly prevalent at Christmas – a festival that we naturally associate with the 19th century, especially London, in part due to Charles Dickens’ perennial Yuletide classic A Christmas Carol. Yet, we often forget that many of the Christmas traditions we associate with the Victorians were only being established at this period, and that there would have been huge gaps in the expectations of the wealthy and the working class.

L_3293-1987_christmas_card_1000pxThe first Christmas Card, designed by J.C. Horsley, 1843 (c) V&A 

Having been born in the last year of what was once called the old century, my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, would have witnessed those changes throughout his life. It was not until he was a relatively mature father of five (in 1834) that Christmas Day was officially declared a public holiday, and several decades before Boxing Day was also given this status. Christmas Day for James and his growing family would not have differed much from other days – as it was for my Scottish grandparents up until the 1950s – but by the time he had established his second family in the 1860s many of the customs we now take for granted were already in place. I therefore like to think that the Christmas traditions I experienced as a child, and which my father inherited from his parents and grandparents, stretched back over a hundred years, while being modified on the journey.

As I have previously described (see The Ghosts of Christmas Past), Christmas for us as children was celebrated more in the English style. (Although Scotland had caught up in the intervening decade or two, I was aware that many of our family rituals seemed rather overblown in comparison to my friends). Along with Guy Fawkes’ Night, it was the festivity we most associated with our father, who did not recognise our Scottish customs of Halloween and New Year. While I don’t remember the big London Christmases of my early childhood, most of those same traditions were carried on in our own family home throughout the 1970s and into the 80s. As our Scottish relatives did not live nearby, it was usually just our nuclear family of four, and I always enjoyed that quiet period in the days between Christmas and New Year where there was nothing much else to do but go for long walks with the dog, returning to new books and mince pies, along with a glut of fresh pens and paper for all those creative endeavours that petered out during that first week back at school in January.

P1040601 (3)A London Family Christmas, 1966

Like many people, I continue to associate this time of year with contemplation and reflection: a chance to not only think about new ventures, but to consider the direction in which our lives are going and how to find our way back to the old paths we might have allowed to become overgrown with the passage of the years. And family history can help us to do just that – to reassess our future in relation to the past. Unhealthy patterns of behaving or relating may be discarded or amended in the light of knowledge of the effects of past actions on future lives. We realise that relatives who fell out with each other over something petty went on to deny subsequent generations the chance to connect with each other. We wonder if a misguided late Victorian parent may have prevented a bright child from reaching their potential. And we learn that war created upheavals that reconfigured family dynamics for decades to come.

Of course there are kindnesses to consider, too. An unknown aunt who bestowed much-wanted toys on younger relatives before dying young; a grandfather who handmade intricate dolls-houses (with real electric lights and wallpaper!) for all his four grand-daughters; the Somerset villagers who showed compassion towards a family of London evacuees. And in the present day, there are newly-discovered relations (some too distant to ever have met in the traditional way) who have supplied photographs and documents as well as those all-important personal anecdotes. And that is before mentioning other researchers, historians and writers who have offered advice and guidance, some becoming friends along the way.

Genealogy can also encourage us to regard time differently. Past, present and future may slip and slide into each other. What would my Bermondsey ancestors make of present-day Bankside, with the strange apparition of old-new Tower Bridge appearing from the river mists at the end of their narrow, cobbled lane? Or at the sight of Shakespeare’s Globe rising out of the debris of what to them was modern wharfs and warehouses? Of course, any visit to the capital after some years away can create similar sensations in the modern mind. When I first returned to London to pick up the genealogical quest I’d started in the 1980s, the unexpected changes to the city confused me. Hadn’t there once been an iron railway bridge across Ludgate Hill, spoiling the view of St Pauls’ Cathedral from Ludgate Circus? And look! There was the ‘lost’ Temple Bar, re-erected in an unrecognisable reincarnation of Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s. Strange new tube stations had also sprung up in unexpected places like fungi arising from the hidden network of their underground mycelium. Not only that, but a fast train line now linked London with France, bringing us closer to our continental neighbours.

LUDGATE HILL (2).jpgLudgate Hill Railway Viaduct, London, early 20th Century

However, it is the social aspects of family history which I often find most illuminating. In my own quest to find out about my London ancestors I have been both surprised and disappointed by the fact that the ‘lost’ wealthy branch from my great-great grandfather’s first marriage (in particular his merchant son, James William Sleath-Skelton, see A Tale of Exploitation) seemed unwilling to help the other second family to prosper in an increasingly competitive and industrialised world. Although the unorthodox – yet not uncommon – living conditions of my great-great grandfather and his much younger partner (who only became his wife shortly before his death) may have offended the High Victorian sensibilities of the adult children from his first marriage, I wonder if they did not feel some sort of duty towards the struggling descendants of this union, most of whom had to leave school relatively young and take up manual work. Was there no Christmas spirit among them which might have seen a food hamper delivered to the Hawkins-Skelton’s cramped terraced house in Kennington, or a box of toys for the children? After all, these were their half-siblings, children whose many descendants  would spread out over south London, going on to fight for King and Country in the 20th century’s future wars.

While Dickens was spreading the message that Christmas should be a time of giving and togetherness, many wealthy families up and down the land, including the Sleath-Skeltons, were obviously donating to specific charities. But while it may have been easier to give to anonymous individuals under the umbrella of a charitable organisation, it seems that when it came to their own relations some preferred to shun those deemed less successful than themselves. Ironically, it was just at the time that Christmas was reinstated as a public holiday, the New Poor Law of 1834 was coming into effect, something I have discussed before in relation to my great-great grandmother’s (Mary Ann Hawkin’s) immediate family, most of whom fell foul of this law and ended up incarcerated in separate workhouses, despite their protestations for parish relief (see When I Grow Rich). 

Dickens was vehemently against the amendment to the poor law, which saw parish or ‘outdoor’ relief being replaced by the punitive workhouse system. He viewed the new law as anti-Christian, writing his novel Oliver Twist in response to this and other social injustices of the time, particularly towards children. It is interesting to note that several years later he visited the Norwood School of Industry (a sort of children’s workhouse) in South London, to which Mary Ann’s younger siblings had been sent while their parents were in the separate (male and female) City union workhouses. Were little Emma and Sophia Hawkins aware of the illustrious visitor in their midst that day in 1850, when they were no doubt displayed as examples of how ‘industrial schooling’ was able to improve the lives of what Dickens called compounds of ignorance, gin and sprats in his article about the school (entitled London Pauper Children), which was later published in his new journal Household Words?

Scrooge (2)Illustration from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) by John Leech

Perhaps the last words of this post should be given to Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew, Tom, who appears at the start of A Christmas Carol, explaining to his embittered  uncle why he believes in celebrating Christmas: I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Happy New Year! from the Incidental Genealogist, January 2019.

 

The Story So Far

There will always be questions left unanswered and ‘missing’ ancestors to be found. Writing a family history therefore means accepting your research will never be finished and deciding to do it anyway.

Gil Blanchard, Writing Your Family History (2014)

At the start of a new year, I would like to reflect on what I have learnt so far from my ongoing quest to discover more about my ‘lost’ London ancestors, some of which may be of use to readers contemplating  a similar project. This January marks the start of my second full year of blogging – and my 17th post – tying in neatly with the number 2017. I’d also like to thank those of you who have been following my story over the past one and a half years. It has been wonderful to have you alongside me on the trip, and I look forward to a further year of research and writing. Over the next few months I intend to focus predominantly on the other, previously unknown, branch of the Skelton family, who by dint of their relative wealth and success left an exciting paper trail behind them as they moved throughout the Empire with the confidence of the age.

wot-i-have-learnt-2

Family history is not so much a series of linear, chronological events, as a set of interlinked themes across generations. It is impossible to work neatly backwards (or forwards) without having to move sideways, then zig-zag about in an ungainly fashion. Yet this can be a very liberating discovery as it removes the need to know everything about one group of ancestors before moving on to investigate the next. And the added advantage to writing in blog form is that it usually only needs some minor post-publication editing to change a piece of information that later turns out to be inaccurate in some way. Any interesting new discoveries can either be inserted into a previous post or developed into a completely new one.

Researching records is never a cut-and-dried process. There is a tendency to feel that once a particular area has been researched in the archives all the available information through one particular channel has been amassed. But thanks to my slapdash research methods, which mostly entail scribbling illegible notes in blunt pencil on the back of recycled paper, I have regularly found myself re-researching the same things at various points throughout the year. As well as the obvious fact that new records can appear through digitalisation and/or the lifting of access restrictions (or even due to missing a particular record first time around), this disorganised method often exposes me to different ways of looking at old information as my research skills improve. So I have ceased to worry about the fact that my haphazard approach to record keeping may not be the most efficient one, even if I am not exactly proud of my lax record-keeping skills.

Story-telling creates a coherent narrative. The very fact that every month I have to attempt to create something readable from a variety of different sources makes me see connections and patterns which might otherwise have remained hidden. And while I’m well aware that taking a different approach to a topic may result in the narrative moving in another direction, my monthly deadlines prevent me from obsessing too much about which one is the ‘correct’ way to tell the story – a procrastination device with which other writers may be familiar!

Expect the unexpected. I have found more twists and turns in my family history than in an Agatha Christie novel. From bigamy and madness, to unexplained deaths and unimagined riches (all coming up in 2017), I have been shocked and saddened and surprised at the events that have revealed themselves to me. When I first started my research in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born), I had naively expected to find what I imagined to be a straightforward history of an ordinary working-class London family, and even learning that the Skeltons had originated from North Yorkshire seemed like an exotic breakthrough. Of course, now I realise that every family, every generation – every life, in fact – is full of stories that might be discarded by a novelist for being too fanciful. And as all family historians know: there is no such thing as an ordinary family.

sleathy-card-2Novelty card featuring my Edwardian actor ancestor, Herbert Sleath-Skelton (middle), discovered in a Harrogate garden centre!

Do not assume. This pithy three-worder is the companion to the previous aphorism. Most family historians will be aware of this old chestnut – and despite its hoariness it is not one to discard. But while it makes sense when applied to written records which need to be cross-checked (an example of such an error will be illustrated next month), it is often more difficult to follow this piece of advice when it comes to social history in general. Is it somehow wrong to state that James Skelton’s second wife, my great-great grandmother Mary Ann Hawkins, might have once been a local prostitute who met her much older lover and future husband through this profession (see When I Grow Rich)? Or that my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Skelton (née Holton), could have been an alcoholic, dying as she did in her thirties from cirrhosis of the liver (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers)? Perhaps the important thing is to make sure that such conjectures are not described as facts, but to lay out the supporting evidence and guide the reader to make up their own mind on the matter.

And what about coincidence? My students tell me that whenever they actively learn new vocabulary from our in-class texts they will often encounter this same expression somewhere else shortly afterwards, even though they claim to have never come across the word previously. So I use this observation to illustrate to them how their vocabulary is being strengthened and developed almost without them being aware of it. Almost, that is, apart from these ‘coincidences’ which remind them that since having ‘learnt’ a new vocabularly item they will start to recognise it in many different situations. And thus it is with research and background reading. It is not uncommon for me to discover a fact about Victorian London, only for it to resonate with a particular tale I want to tell. Or I will visit a new place which later becomes pivotal in the lives of one of my ancestors. I therefore embrace all the chances to learn about my topic in many different ways, never presuming that there is nothing new to discover about a particular subject.

A further point to make in regard to coincidence is that I have found again and again that disparate ancestors often lived in close proximity to each other at different times in their lives. This will become particularly apparent in the coming months as I focus on the ‘lost’ family that my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, had with his first wife, Sarah Vaughan. And so it was that my father grew up in a terraced house in Brixton, just a stone’s throw from the section of Coldharbour Lane where, unbeknown to him, his great-grandfather, James Skelton had lived with his first family, one hundred years previously. Later, when my grandparents moved to the new Bloomfield Estate in West Norwood, my father would have seen from his upstairs bedroom window the spire of the church in Gipsy Hill where James William’s children (including Herbert) had been baptised (as Sleath-Skeltons*) in the 1870s. *That three-pronged fabulous offshoot of the family tree, which rapidly grew towards the light, but withered and died before its strange flowers could produce any fruit.

gipsy-hillSpire of Christ Church, Gipsy Hill, from the Bloomfield Estate

On a more personal note, when I moved to London in 1984, little did I know that a few months later I would be living round the corner from the place where my grandfather’s sister, Rose Ryall, lived out her old age (see A Rose in Holly Park). And most recently, after visiting a writer friend at her home in Kensington, I was delighted to discover that one of the ‘lost’ Skelton children had lived in this same Victorian mansion block for several decades. Even the impetus for continuing my genealogical research came from the chance meeting of an old man in Somerset with an identical photograph to the one I had found in my father’s wallet (see In my Beginning is my End).

Coker Wood 1944 (3)The 1944 East Coker photograph that sparked my current quest

Many of the aforementioned coincidences are, however, not so surprising – particularly given the fact that London was smaller in the past and the Skeltons had mostly chosen to make their mark in certain neighbourhoods. But still it can be an uncanny experience to follow these family ley lines across the city, slipping between the centuries and social classes, as one street or suburb gives way to another. Only recently I had such an experience when the large villa in Croydon, where James William had first set up home in the 1860s (in what was then countryside) flashed up on the TV screen. It was a scene from a short political broadcast by the Conservative Party to illustrate the number of new affordable homes they  claimed were being erected in the Croydon area. And this large remaining grand house – now much vandalised, yet once admirably situate, facing Morland Park, was given as an example of a dilapidated building about to torn down and replaced by new flats. In the photograph below, it is just possible to glimpse the block of seventies’ flats which has already been built in what the auctioneer so exquisitely describes in the London Standard of 5th June 1868 as the valuable mansion’s pleasure-grounds and well-stocked kitchen garden.

westle-houseThe’ valuable mansion’ which James William named Westle House

A few days previously I had marked this address in my A to Z as worthy of a revisit for an upcoming London trip, and as I froze the image and rewound and replayed the scene again and again, I felt almost dizzy with the sensation of two worlds colliding. But the oddest thing was that just seconds before the building had appeared on the screen I had this sudden premonition that poor old Westle House was about to feature. I still don’t know where this feeling came from – perhaps it was simply an obvious candidate for the section on regenerating Croydon. It is certainly one of the ‘family buildings’ that has haunted me most since I first visited it one winter’s afternoon, and felt slightly spooked by its appearance – the lone survivor of a bucolic past in a heavily built up area. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2014 a homeless man was found dead in the grounds (now protected by a solid metal fence), and it is hard to reconcile this sad building with the glorious villa it has obviously once been.

So while the rational part of me acknowledges that true coincidences are in fact rare events, there is still a part of me that wonders if my ancestors are trying to prod and nudge me in the direction of their stories. Perhaps it is this continued belief in the magic of my quest which makes me feel that, despite the inevitable frustrations surrounding such a project, it is a worthwhile undertaking.

Happy New Year! from The Incidental Genealogist, January 2017