Category Archives: Writing

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).

*

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 used to be 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. But 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 of 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 to 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 started up my quest again, over a quarter of a century later, was a documentary about a family I knew or cared little about.

*

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 member’s 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 nobler acts, 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 of their own 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 about 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 about. 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 confer on their subjects a grandness 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 was. 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 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 Ann 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Stories Which Connect Us

But the vast mass of men and women in every time do not leave behind them either renown or testimony. These people walked our streets, prayed in our churches, drank in our inns or in those that bear the same names, built and lived in the houses where we have our being today, opened our front doors, looked out of our windows, called to each other down our staircases. They were moved by essentially the same passions and griefs that we are, the same bedrock hopes and fears: they saw the sun set over Westminster as we do. Yet almost all of them have passed away from human memory, and are still passing away, generation after generation.

Gillian Tindall, The House by the Thames, (2006)

BOOK

When I picked up a copy of The House by the Thames by the historian and writer Gillian Tindall, I had no idea that it would be one of the first of many books I would accumulate on the history of London, yet would remain my favourite for years to come. Since then I have reread it several times: not just for the detailed historical information, but as a masterclass in the art of creative non-fiction, a genre which endeavours to both entertain and illuminate readers. The book has also influenced my own writing on the topic of my ancestors, and I continue to aim for the standard Tindall has set, aware of how much I still have to learn about the craft. However, the act of writing is inextricably bound up with the quest for improvement, and is part of what makes it such a life-affirming thing to do.

In the intervening years I have amassed a healthy collection of books about the capital, as well as those pertaining to life in the Victorian era. But a decade earlier, just before I returned to researching the history of my London family (see Begin Again), I did not quite know where to start with my research. A plethora of texts was available, some of which seemed overtly sensationalist, others appearing off-puttingly dense, and some spanning different areas and/or time frames from my own focus. However, The House by the Thames, which combined a historical narrative with a storyteller’s gift, proved to be an ideal entry into the history of London’s south bank for a novice like myself.

The book initially appealed to me on several levels, not least because it was centred on a Thameside neighbourhood close to where my ancestors settled, in nearby Horsleydown. The fact that the story revolved around a single house, also gave it an obvious focus that some other texts might lack, thus making the topic more accessible to a non-historian. And hadn’t I already noticed this unusual house when first crossing the Millennium Bridge after years away from the capital? There on the cobbled streets of bankside I had encountered not only the new Shakespeare’s Globe (how did that get there?), but the surprising remnant of a row of early 18th century houses, incongruous beside the iconic bulk of the old power station which now houses the Tate Modern Art Gallery and the new-fangled glass and steel towers which surround it.

THE HOUSE BY THE THAMESNumber 49 Bankside (on left)

Right from the first page of the book, with chapter one entitled In Which we Find the House, I knew I was in the hands of a word alchemist. We are pulled into the narrative with the tantalising opening line: You can reach the house in a number of different ways. (And I thought about my own way there, across ‘the wobbly bridge’ from St Paul’s). Throughout the rest of the chapter, Tindall leads us expertly through time and space to finally arrive outside the eponymous house, telling us that: Occasionally strangers will be brave enough to tug the ancient bell-pull, which jangles a bell within on the end of a wire, and enquire if the house is a museum that can be visited. They are politely turned away. (We can certainly sympathise with such behaviour as by now our own curiosity is piqued). This is followed by the tantalising description: Before the door is shut again they will get a glimpse of a panelled room and an arched doorway, rugs and a longcase clock, perhaps a whiff of logs smouldering on a pile of soft ash in an open fireplace. Here, surely, is the past, on which the door has fleetingly opened? But there is no automatic admittance to the past. A way has to be found.

HOUSE DOORWill the door open to 49 Bankside?

Of course we know that Tindall is going to find that way for us. And what a route it is. On the journey there we learn about the history of the south bank and the factors which contributed to make ‘the Surrey side’ different from ‘the City side’ over the centuries. There are diversions into a myriad of related subjects: everything from the Thames watermen and lightermen who operated between these two shores, to the building of the bridges and the coming of the industries which would change the area for good. The majority of these topics also affected my own ancestors, and many are ones I have chosen to explore in relation to my family history. As Tindall’s book uses the history of a house, rather than a family, as the main subject, this keeps the focus to a specific area of London. And what makes this story such an appealing one to follow is that the writer is so evidently alongside us as we read – an authorial voice which is sometimes critical, other times surprised and enthusiastic, yet which never over-rides the narrative.

MILLENIUM BRIDGEThe route to The House by the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral

Since then, I have read a number of non-fiction books which explore the history of South London specifically. Some of the most fascinating have been those written in another period, such as Harry Williams South London (from The County Books Series), published in 1949, giving us an insight into the post-war mind. Although Williams writes in such a style which seems shockingly un-PC to the modern reader – and often makes blithe generalisations about the neighbourhoods he explores – there is something prescient in the summarising statement of the book: The history of the twentieth century is too close at hand to make any review of it possible, but at least it can be said that its influence upon the ten boroughs has been largely negative. We have rid ourselves of much of the misery, cruelty and danger of early days, but apathy towards ugliness is growing, a remorseless process of decay set in motion by the blindness of men who thought and still think only in terms of material prosperity. The foul congeries of slums of South London have disappeared, but the tenements and new housing estates that have taken their places have been built without faith in themselves or in the future.

SOUTH LONDON

Throughout the book, William veers between nostalgia and anger at the demise of south London’s past glories. When it comes to Bankside he takes great delight in describing the 16th/17th century neighbourhood, with its pre-Puritan theatres and taverns. The world was a gay place for Londoners back then he muses sadly; then goes on to state: Dignity and quality were there, music and colour, and of all these attributes, only music has survived in the ordinary life of England. The post-war drabness of his own world has obviously affected him greatly. He then goes into full purple prose to describe Shakespeare’s time in Bankside (where the old Globe theatre was located), which is worth quoting in full below:

Shakespeare is supposed to have derived his close knowledge of ships and the sea from the long row of riverside hostelries with projecting balconies and snug tap-rooms, which lined the river along Bankside and Bermondsey. There, in these friendly inns, the sea captains, pirates, smugglers, rovers and honest sailors from a hundred wandering ships of all nations nightly congregated to drink and sing and exchange the tales of their trade. We can see on a dozen balconies, leaning out over the scurrying blackness of the river, clusters of men, hard and craggy with the rigours of their calling, but never hard-faced. Gaily dressed – for the deadening uniformity of clothes had not yet stifled the English scene – they swopped sailors’ yarns in that rich and vital speech which was the prerogative of the meanest scullion in Shakespeare’s day. And somewhere Shakespeare himself would be lurking and listening and drinking, and in the end disputing in friendly argument. For wit matched wit in his time and inventiveness of thought was the monopoly of no man and no class.

N.B. With such a rum-sounding bunch packed into these ‘snug tap-rooms’ and ‘projecting balconies’ and on the sauce, I somehow think there must have been more than just ‘friendly argument’ going on!

However, when reading Williams’ descriptions of contemporary run-down post-war Bankside, we get the sense that he cannot get out of the neighbourhood fast enough. He stands in front of number 49 (although he never names it) looking wistfully to the City and states: And so we take one glance across the river at the majesty of St. Paul’s Cathedral, as Wren must have looked so often from his house on the south shore; then averting our eyes from the disgusting contrast, let us retrace our steps back to the bridge foot (of Southwark Bridge).

OLD BANKSIDEBankside, 1827

BANKSIDE 1940Bankside, 1940 (no 49 is partly visible on on the left)

Both Images: ‘Old houses on Bankside’, in Survey of London: Volume 22, Bankside (The Parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark), ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1950), p. 54. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol22/plate-54

Giving us a late Victorian’s view of South London is the prolific Walter Besant, who in 1898 wrote in the introduction to his book on the topic (described on the frontispiece as being the companion to ‘London’, ‘Westminster’, ‘East London’ etc): I hope that ‘SOUTH LONDON’ will be received with favour equal to that bestowed upon its predecessors. The chief difficulty in writing it has been that of selection from the great treasures which have accumulated about this strange spot. The contents of this volume do not form a tenth of what might be written on the same plan, and still without including the History Proper of the Borough. I am like the showman in the ‘Cries of London’- I pull the strings and the children peep. Strange spot indeed!

References to Williams and Besant have cropped up in some of my previous posts, as both writers are highly readable and at their most enjoyable when they go ‘off-piste’ to rant and rave (albeit gently) about their own hobbyhorses. This is Besant’s take on local churches (including my own family’s original parish church in Horsleydown): It is a great pity that in the whole of South London lying east of the High Street (the current Borough High Street) there is not a single beautiful, or even picturesque church. Look at them! St Olave’s (now St Saviour’s Cathedral), St John, Horsleydown, St. Mary Magdalen, St Mary, Rotherhithe, the four oldest churches in the quarter. It cannot be pretended that these structures inspire veneration or even respect. Modern day readers may wish to disagree (and may even feel frustration that St John’s was destroyed by WW2 bombing).

ST JOHN HORLEYDOWN (2)St John’s Horsleydown, engraving by John Buckler c1799

Similarly to Harry Williams, although fifty years earlier, Walter Besant was rather disparaging about the south London of his day. In fact, he was forced to issue an apology in future editions of the book for describing the perceived lack of culture in the area. His original paragraph is reproduced here: In South London there are two millions (sic) of people. It is therefore one of the great cities of the world. It stands upon an area about twelve miles long and five or six broad – but its limits cannot be laid down even approximately. It is a city without a municipality, without a centre, without a civic history; it has no newspapers magazines or journals; it has no university; it has no colleges, apart from medicine; it has no intellectual, artistic, scientific, musical, literary centre – unless the Crystal Palace can be considered a centre; its residents have no local patriotism or enthusiasm – one cannot imagine a man proud of New Cross; it has no theatres, except of the very popular or humble kind; it has no clubs, it has no public buildings, it has no West End.

The brief (and rather unenthusiastic) apology he later added as a post script to the book states: NOTE. – Since this was written several new theatres have been built in South London. I should therefore like to correct the passage on p. 320 which states that the Theatres are humble. Also I would like to acknowledge the existence of local newspapers, and instead of saying that it has no public buildings I would say only one or two buildings.

We come away with the impression that such patrician writers of another age are perhaps not quite to be trusted with their stories – yet they now allow us to view places and their history through the eyes of a different generation. We know, for example, that Besant regards the contemporary 1898 south London population figure of two million people as being extremely high, and states: I cannot quite avoid the use of figures, because a comparison between the population of these villages (the old scattered communities) in 1801 with that of the great towns in 1898 is so startling that it must be recorded. (There was a ten-fold increase in south London’s population in the 19th century, compared to five-fold north of the river). Today, although there is currently around double that number living in south London, the rate of population growth has been slower, and thus the changes Besant viewed in his lifetime must have been so much greater than those observed over the course of the last century.

COTTAGES IN GIPSY HILL.JPGVillage feel in Gipsy Hill today

Tindall – who most definitely knows how to separate fact from fiction – has the luxury of writing a hundred years after Besant and thus being able to extend the history of Bankside and the surrounding area into the 20th century, and to see it come full circle in many respects (as it returns to the ‘gay place’ of the past that William’s described). She also has access to a large number of documents that previously would not have been available as they were either still locked away and/or not available to the general reading public. The most obvious of these records are the official census returns, which are only released one hundred years after they have been taken. These ten-year snapshots in time, which began in 1841, are a boon to genealogists and social historians, yet can sometimes distort a family’s story if not used in conjunction with other records (see Moments in Time for my treatment of this subject). Yet the past is always moving forward, and as Tindall points out: The identities of all those who lived in the house in 1911 and in subsequent decennial years are lying quietly in an archive as I write (in 2006), but neither I nor any other researcher can access them till the requisite term of years has elapsed.

The online release of many more 20th century records – such as electoral registers and phone books – has gone some way to fill in the gap between the 100-year rule and living memory which is always going to exist due to the span of a human life. But all family historians will sympathise with the frustration at moving from an era where there is a relative abundance of records, to one where there is an information gap, despite the fact we feel we should be able to discover more as we move closer to our own time. In fact, detailed parish records of the pre-registration time in 1837 often yield up more information than later official records, with the main advantage that a certificate does not have to be bought unseen, always an irritant (and loss of a tenner) if it proves to be the wrong one. This can often be the case if the family name was a relatively common one. (Earlier records can also circumvent this issue due to the significantly smaller population of the time). I still remember from my ‘heir hunter’ days in Holborn (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born) how many dud certificates the company ended up paying for, but as we needed to move fast to beat the competition then the net had to generally be cast far and wide.

The issue of researching a too-common name certainly does not come up when it comes to the occupants of number 49 Bankside from the mid-18th to 19th centuries. Tindall is able to trace the Sells family from their (recorded) beginnings in the area as Thames lightermen, to their ownership of the house and its neighbours through their successful expansion into the lucrative coal business. Their story ends a century after their arrival in Bankside, when the direct descendants of the original family (now the Peronnet Sells) leave the heavily industrialised Bankside of the Victorian age to relocate to a quieter semi-rural area further inland from the river, just as my own great-great grandfather (James Skelton) did when he moved to Brixton from the nearby riverside parish of Horsleydown.

And here is where the story of this Bankside family entwines with my own family history in an unexpected way. By 1871, Edward Perronet Sells Ill, who was born in 1845 and lived in no. 49 Bankside as a child, had moved into the same street on the outskirts of Croydon where James Skelton’s oldest son, the wealthy mahogany dealer, James William Skelton, resided. When the young Sells takes a house in Morland Avenue to live alongside all the other merchants and brokers – a high proportion being (like James William) described as West India merchants, it was still considered an undeveloped semi-rural outpost. The handful of houses in this once salubrious street had the luxury of extensive gardens to the rear, as well as facing onto Morland Park, and were often just referred to by their fancy titles. James William called his own residence ‘Westle House’, a recurring family name whose significance I have yet to discover as it possibly related to his mother’s side of the family, the branch from which I am not descended.

CROYDON HIGH STREET c1870Croydon High Street c1870

I have mentioned the sad history of Westle House before (see The Story So Far), which was advertised for sale in 1868 shortly before James William moved to Gipsy Hill with his new wife (and thus he may have actually just missed having Edward Peronnet Sells as a younger neighbour). It was described as including ten bed and dressing rooms, four reception rooms, and convenient and extensive domestic offices, but is now in its death throes (if it hasn’t already been put out of its misery). I went in search of this villa in Morland Road, some years back, on the off-chance that it was still standing, amazed at my good luck that of all the houses in the original street it was James William’s which was the sole survivor.

It was hard to imagine this house once being described – in the estate agent parlance of the day – as being admirably situate and standing in its own pleasure grounds, with well-stocked kitchen garden. A detailed map of the ‘new’ street that I was able to access in the Croydon archives prior to visiting the house showed that there had once been a circular driveway at the front of the building. At the rear was a long narrow garden, consisting of a lawn and shrubbery and a vegetable garden, with fruit trees furthest from the house. It seemed strange to think of a single man living there, so far from town, until I recalled the fact that he’d brought back his half-Belizean daughter to London with him at some point in the 1860s. Was he perhaps ashamed of this girl, whose mother he appears never to have married? Did he want to hide her away from society? Sadly, Louisa Arabella did not survive past the age of 21, dying of TB in Gipsy Hill several years later. Her story is one that I have always wanted to be able to tell, but she leaves no records other than her death certificate.

I try to imagine her sitting in the garden of Westle House on a summer’s day, pining for the warmth of the Caribbean. Perhaps she was already instructing the gardener to grow the plants that reminded her of her homeland and to nurture the herbs that would bring back the taste of her childhood in Belize. But these thoughts only occurred to me afterwards, and on that wet October day when I set out along the busy Morland Road I certainly knew that, even if the house was still standing, this delightful large garden would never have survived. Nevertheless, I was still unprepared to find the house boarded up and surrounded by ugly security fencing. (In the space which once was the garden was a block of modern flats). If truth be told, I could not get away from the place fast enough, such was my distress at seeing the building in its current state.

WESTLE HOUSEThe old ‘Westle House’ in Morland Rd Croydon today

A few months later the poor old boarded-up house even appeared on television, starring (of all things) in a conservative party political broadcast which highlighted how Croydon’s conservative MP would replace such dilapidated housing with affordable flats. The strange thing is that I do not think I’ve ever watched a party political broadcast in my life – and certainly not a conservative one – but was either waiting for the news to come on or too lazy to switch off afterwards. Of course, when I heard the word ‘Croydon’, I glanced up with a certain amount of interest. But as the story of the local housing crisis unfolded, I suddenly knew with a chilling certainty that Westle House was going to appear. And then everything moved so fast – the house was there on the screen and the MP was wittering on about how many flats could be fitted into the space. The whole thing spooked me considerably, and when I found out later that someone had recently been found dead in the grounds of the house (which presumably explained the security fencing), I felt that the building had most definitely come to the end of its natural lifespan.

This made me realise how pleased I was that the old Skelton family home – that of James William’s father – in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton was still very much in use and seemingly well-loved by its current occupants. One day I happened to glance inside while walking by (perhaps ‘happened to’ is an understatement) and saw what looked like a lively family with teenagers sitting round a big table. If I’d had enough guts I might have been more like Tindall’s Bankside strangers and knocked on the door, hoping that instead of turning me away, however politely, they would have invited me inside and told me their own stories of the house.

BRIXTON HOUSEDare I knock on the red door?

Knocking on strangers’ doors is the kind of thing that the writer Julie Myerson was not afraid to do when she researched her non-fiction book Home: The Story of Everyone who Ever Lived in my House, which was first published in 2004. After I’d read The House by the Thames, I must have been hungry for more stories about south London homes and Myerson’s book was an obvious choice, although her mid-Victorian terraced Clapham house is a lot younger than the Bankside one and thus the social history focuses on a different timespan. It is also a very different style of book as stories of Myerson’s own life (past and present) are interspersed with that of the occupants of the house.

As a novice to historical research, Myerson describes learning about the different types of records and archives available, as well as documenting the ways she attempts to contact people connected with the house and her delight and frustration at the responses – or lack of them. So the book also functions as a sort of beginner’s guide to undertaking genealogical research. But what really makes Home stand out is that Myerson has the novelist’s capacity to weave stories from the information she collects, slipping from fact to fiction and back again with ease, and bringing the tales of the inhabitants to life in a way that allows us to see them as people who (in the words of Gillian Tindall above): opened our front doors, looked out of our windows, called to each other down our staircases.

x293

Starting with her own experiences of buying the property in the late 1980s, she moves the narrative gently backwards so that we feel we are being pulled back with the house through the years until we reach its beginnings in 1871. The final chapter, entitled Grass and Silence, opens with the eerie Number 34, it’s time to finally undo you. You’re coming apart pretty fast now – bricks, slate, cement, mortar, nails, joists flying away as hurriedly as they appeared. London gravel and clay are pouring back into your deepest foundations – shovelled and levelled, a layer of turf and gorse flung quick as a blanket over the top.

And there on the last page is the line: Bazalgette’s men break soil at first light on Monday. Just as when I came across the name of Edward Peronnet Sells in the census for Morland Road in Croydon in 1871, it is an uncanny reminder that all our histories of London are interconnected.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2019

 

The Memory Thief

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter

 Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

Happy New Year! 2018 marks the third year of A London Family, and I now have almost thirty posts, or chapters, devoted to my genealogical quest – well over 100,000 words, and certainly more than enough for a full-length book on the subject. Nevertheless, I intend to continue  with my project  until the end of 2019, finishing with the discovery of the Ur-Skeltons  in the Yorkshire Dales, and a surprise piece of information which highlights some of the issues involved in following a patrilinear family history.

There are, however, still plenty of exciting tales to come before then: including the third and final part of the story of the life and times of Herbert Sleath, as well as sea voyages to exotic destinations, and the requisite untimely deaths in which such adventures often ended. But as the demands of the festive season are currently impinging rather disproportionately upon my free time, I have decided to revisit the catalyst that reawakened my interest in family history: namely the discovery of the previously unseen photograph of my teenage father and his friends (including my future uncle) in Coker Wood in 1944.

I initially wrote about this event in 2007 – two years after first visiting the Somerset village  of East Coker with my mother (and with a copy of the photograph in my bag). Ten years ago I was studying part-time for an MA in creative writing, and wanted to incorporate the story into a fictional piece of work. This was part of a larger project on the Freudian idea of ‘the uncanny‘ in literature, a concept which, although notoriously dificult to define, had begun to intrigue me. Around that time I also became aware of   the close connection between photography and ‘the uncanny’, a topic explored obliquely by Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida, and which I discussed in an earlier post (see Those Ghostly Traces).

This story set within the tale which follows is one that readers may remember from my first blog posts. In those two chapters (see In my Beginning is my End and East Coker), I expanded the narrative of the original text, adding the background details and information required by the factual nature of the posts. But for those who have not yet read the initial chapters, or who are happy to take a return journey to Eliot’s village of open fields and deep lanes (albeit on a slightly circuitous route), then this creative offering is for you.

THE MEMORY THIEF (2007)

The rain fell relentlessly over the Bodensee. It spat down onto the bare heads of the children who played on the upper deck of the ferry while their parents watched from the fuggy warmth of the restaurant. It drove away the last of the tourists buying coffee and ices on the oleander-lined promenade. It splattered onto the shiny metal roofs of the vehicles on the car deck, washing away the dust of the Autobahn and the sins of carbon monoxide emissions.

I huddled in my parka on the bench at the back of the ferry and watched the harbour slip behind us as we nudged out into the open water with a renegade hoot. The lake hissed and roiled, the metres sliding between us and the German Zoll. Soon those metres would add up to the kilometres that would propel us into another country entirely. That was where home was now. For better or worse I had settled in a small town on the Swiss side of the lake. A place of two seasons: foggy or sunny; a place where the snow seldom fell, and bananas and palms slept uneasily throughout the long, dark winter, encased in hessian sacking.

We were heading for the foggy season. The lakeside cafés would soon be pulling in their outdoor furniture, and the ubiquitous window-box geraniums would be replaced with pumpkins – later, festive pine cone wreaths. Then I would make this journey again in reverse, laden down with cheese and chocolate and handmade candles from the Christmas markets. But in between those two trips was a whole semester of teaching and marking and lesson preparation, while the endless rhythm of shopping and cooking and cleaning hummed away in the background like a badly-tuned radio which was impossible to turn off. I tried instead to think of the positive things about the cold season: meals by the log fire with friends; the Italian marroni sellers in the old town; the scarlet leaves on the Japanese maple at the top of the lane; the winter clothes in boxes in the attic just waiting to be rediscovered.

My thoughts were interrupted by a woman walking past on unsteady legs who stopped to ask for directions to the toilets. I pointed her down to the lower deck, and she stumbled wordlessly towards the metal stairs, her sparse hennaed hair fluffing up around her face in the wind. A purple-nosed man in a sludge-green boiled wool jacket caught my eye and looked away. Something cold and hard settled low on my stomach. Ach, ja, I heard someone say. Self-important lips smacked shut. A low, rumbling laugh. A belch and the sound of a beer glass cracking onto a Formica tabletop. I looked over the railing down at the water. This grey, foam-flecked lake would be my substitute sea for the next few months. But seagulls would never chase the ferries on twisting wings, their rackety calls splicing the air; and seals would never lurk underneath the shifting waves, their worried old man’s heads bobbing up sporadically above the waterline.

As we headed out across the Bodensee, the rain became heavier, and I reluctantly picked up my bag and entered the restaurant. Orders of bratwurst and potato salad and Weizenbier were being carried aloft by the serving staff, and I ducked into the first available seat at the table near the door. In the centre of the table a round of pretzels hung on a wooden tree, looking like a game of hoopla on a fairground stall. I looped off the topmost one and bit into it. A large crystal of salt dissolved against my tongue, and I immediately called out to a passing waiter and ordered a beer.

The man sitting opposite me put down his Frankfurter Allgemein with an attention-seeking rustle and raised his head. Sweat beaded his forehead and trickled down craggy tributaries to the twin dams of his bushy eyebrows. He looked similar to the actor who played the retired Black Forest detective in the TV series I often watched on Monday nights. But then he extended his right hand across the table top, and I knew as soon as he clasped his four fingers around my five that he was someone else entirely.

Dr Killian Fuchs. Professor für Psychologie in die Rorschacher Hochschule. Und sie sind Frau Skelton – die Engländerin die auch bei uns arbeitet?

Ja, das stimmt. Aber bin keine Engländerin, komm’ aus Schottland.

Ah, ha. Scotland. One of my favourite places. He leant forward, his words piercing the damp air with his stale, peppermint-sweet breath. Have you just come from there?

Sort of.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry. I have also been in my home town – Duisburg. Do you know it?

I shook my head.

Perhaps you are feeling homesick, like me. But it will pass, as it always does.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up. Fahrkarten, bitte. The ticket collector in his peaked cap stood beside us. I reached for the inside pocket of my jacket for my travel documents and pulled out the plastic wallet that contained my passport, identity card, travel pass and remaining euros.

A very good idea, Dr Fuchs said, once the conductor was satisfied with validity of our travel cards. He pointed to the zip-lock wallet. If you fell overboard, the authorities would be able to quickly identify you.

I smiled perfunctorily and busied myself fiddling with my documents, slipping them one by one back into the wallet. As I did so, a photograph fell onto the table, picture side up. Before I could catch it, Dr Fuchs splayed out his good hand and grasped the photo as it slid towards the edge of the table.

May I have a look? It seems to be hand coloured – a technique I’m particularly interested in for various reasons.

It is hand coloured – by my father, actually. But I don’t think there was much technique to it. He was just a boy when he did it.

Dr Fuchs reached for a pair of heavy-looking reading glasses on a chain around his neck. He pushed them up over his nose and peered down at the photo, angling it into the light. Eventually he turned it over and read the faint pencilled inscription on the back: Expedition to Coker Wood, Whit-Monday, 1944.

Is your father in this photograph?

Yes. He’s the one on the right. A friend of his took it. I just found out recently.

So your father told you about the photograph?

No. My mother and I found it some years after he died. All we knew was that he’d been evacuated to Somerset from London during the Blitz. He spent most of the war there, living on a farm.

Dr Fuchs handed me back the photograph and fumbled in the top pocket of his tweed jacket. He drew out an outsize handkerchief and rubbed at his forehead. Sorry, my dear. A touch of the flu, I shouldn’t wonder. It always gets me this time of the year. I see you have almost finished your beer. Would you care to join me in a hot drink?’

As we sipped at our Ovalmaltines, Dr Fuchs explained that as a child he too had gone to stay with his grandparents in the German countryside towards the end of the war. He had very few memories of that time, apart from those he had later constructed for himself from the photographs taken by visiting relatives. It was this subject to which he was returning for his final work: the link between family memories and photography. It was to be his lasting contribution to the field, after having retired from teaching. In several weeks he would join his youngest daughter in New Zealand’s Bay Of Islands, where he hoped to buy a small house which overlooked the ocean.

But now I’d very much like to hear more about your photograph.

There isn’t really a story, I’m afraid.

Dr Fuchs leaned over and patted me on the arm. I will be the judge of that. But please, will you excuse me for one moment. He tapped the side of his nose. I have to pay a visit.

When he returned, his jacket was buttoned up tightly, revealing what looked like the bulge of a tobacco tin or a packet of cigarettes in his inside left pocket. The stairs to the lower deck had obviously overexerted him and he squeezed back into his seat, face flushed, hands trembling slightly.

I explained what I knew of the photograph, but as I talked Dr Fuchs seemed slightly distracted, raising his right hand to his heart, as if assuring himself it was continuing to beat. At one point I stopped and asked if he was feeling alright – I thought I could hear a faint mechanical whirring noise – but he just batted away my concerns and urged me to continue.

And this is more or less the story I told him.

When I was a child I used to beg my father to tell me about the time he’d spent as a young evacuee in the English West country. Eventually he would relent and tell me about collecting newts in jam jars, about raiding birds’ nests for eggs, about hunting for shrapnel in the lanes. As I grew up, he added other tales to his repertoire: the dances in the village hall, drinking scrumpy straight from the farmer’s barrel, shooting rabbits. For some reason I never thought to ask him the name of this wonderful village. To me it was a mythical place of perpetual summer, where hollyhocks and sunflowers towered high above the inhabitants, and children were free to run through woods and fields and lanes. When later I asked my father where this village was, he told me it was near Yeovil. Such an alien-looking name must surely have been that magical place of his boyhood!

After my father died, my mother found some photographs of him hidden in an old leather wallet he had once used. One of the photographs had been taken in Somerset, in the village I assumed to be Yeovil. It wasn’t until I inspected the back of the photograph that I discovered it had been taken in a place called Coker Wood. The name ‘Coker’ niggled at me for days before I thought to check it on the internet. (You have to remember, this was in the late nineties). It was there I came across the Eliot poem, East Coker – part of the Four Quartets – and decided that one day I had to make the pilgrimage.

I waited until this summer so I could travel down by train from Scotland with my mother. It was the day the bombs went off in London: the seventh of July. We had chosen that weekend as it was the local celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, and the East Coker on-line newsletter promised a day of special events ‘commemorating VE and VJ Day’.

East Coker Commemorations

It was a hot day, and as news filtered through about the London bombings the staff at each station became increasingly vigilant. In the end we were unable to leave our suitcases anywhere to break up our journey, and did not stop to look round Bristol as we’d intended. From Yeovil we caught a local bus to East Coker, travelling the way the first evacuees would have come on September 1st, 1939. At the outskirts of Yeovil – to my mind, an unprepossesing market town – a wrought iron signpost (of the kind seldom seen nowadays) pointed us in the direction of East Coker. The bus veered off down a narrow lane which seemed to sink deeper into the surrounding land the further we travelled along it. Snake-like roots of ancient hedgerows protruded from the sandy soil, while above us the canopy shut out most of the late afternoon sun. Then we rounded an unexpected corner and came into the centre of the village: a village that looked as if it should not – could not – belong in the twenty-first century.

From those first impressions (the patriotic red, white and blue bunting strung up across the road between the thatched cottages; the alms houses by the church; the hayricks in the fields) to later, more concrete information (so this is the farm where Dad once lived; this is the hall where he went dancing; this is the church he was forced to attend), 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. And in the heat of the following day, on a sunken footpath which led from the farm through the woods to the old priory, I lay down, head to the cool 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 -Path

Later that day we finally met Alan Cornelius – the old man who had taken the photograph in the woods on Whitsun Monday over sixty years previously. He was manning one of the stalls in the village hall WW2 exhibition, and his table was a jumble of WW2 paraphernalia: old ration books, bits of home guard uniform, various pieces of ammunition. One part of his collection was dedicated to the story of the relationship between the local children and the evacuees – and amongst the letters and photos we saw our own photograph mounted in a crude wooden frame. And it was then we learnt the story of that day out in the woods. A moment of late childhood, hanging high and free above the dark shadow of the war, but caught like a dragonfly in ether for the dissection of future generations.

The ferry was now negotiating the narrow entrance to the harbour on the Swiss side of the lake. I was anxious not to miss my connecting train home, and made my excuses to Dr Fuchs as I gathered my possessions around me. For a moment he sat completely still, eyes blinking in the bright glare of a sudden shaft of sunlight which broke through the clouds. Then he stood up and left the table with little more than a nod and handshake. It was only then I noticed he had no luggage of his own – save for a small leather shoulder bag.

The last time I saw him was at the Swiss Zoll. I turned to give him a wave but he’d been stopped by one of the customs’ officers and was showing him the contents of his bag. A flash of something metallic caught my eye but I could not afford to dawdle – the local train was already in the port railway station and my husband would be waiting for me at the other end.

*

Since then two more summers have passed, and I have yet to return to East Coker, despite my original intentions. It is almost as if I dare not build further on the foundations of the flimsy house of my memory. Who knows which stone might send the whole edifice tumbling down? And even the lost image of my father’s grinning face – forever framed in Alan Cornelius’ father’s Kodak Brownie – has become almost impossible to recall.

Coker Wood 1944 (3)

In Eliot’s Village

I went to Eliot’s village and stood, quite still,

In a hollow, earthy lane,

Like you might have done

Over sixty years ago now,

When Eliot’s Quartets were fresh and new

And yet to be dissected.

 

The hall, the house, the pub all stand

the woods, the stiles, the awkward paths.

I know you never wanted to return

So I went in your place.

And found a sadder-sweetness there

Amongst the mid-summer haying.

 

Happy New Year! The Incidental Genealogist, January 2018

 

Writing Down the Past

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

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

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

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

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

Family Photographs

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

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

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

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

Thomas_and_Edith_with_mother_Harriett_'Before_going_to_the_War' (2)

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

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

Postcards from the Past

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

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

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

Herbert Sleath-Skelton1 (2)

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

Secret Thought Bubbles

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

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

Bringing the Past to Life

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

Music of the Past

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

 The Things They Left Behind

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

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

What would they have said?

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

Memories, Memories, Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Incidental Genealogist, May 2017

 

 

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