Category Archives: Writing

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

 

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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.

P1040802 (3)

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