Category Archives: Research

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