I do not know when he first visited East Coker in search of his ancestors, or how often he came here, but I do know that his last visit was in the late summer of 1939, when he took some photographs of the village and the church, and it must have been then that he gathered the impressions that he later set down in the poem “East Coker”.
Address given by Sir Rupert Hart-Davis in tribute to T. S. Eliot at the memorial service and unveiling of a memorial plaque at St Michael’s church, East Coker, 26th September 1965
St Michael’s Church, East Coker, burial site of T.S. Eliot’s ashes
This last post of the year will focus on the final part of the introduction to my family story, edited for a memoir writing competition. In October’s blog post (see The Lost Family – Part 1), I began by outlining the background to my quest, detailing my experience of working as a probate genealogist or so-called heir hunter in London in the 1980s. Last month (see The Lost Family – Part 2) I turned to the more recent past, when an unknown photograph of my father as a boy reignited my interest in researching my paternal family history, sending me to East Coker in Somerset, where my father had lived as a wartime evacuee. This month I will complete the trilogy by describing the serendipitous meeting with my father’s schoolfriend, Alan Cornelius, the man who took the photograph of his boyhood friends in Coker Woods one spring day in 1944.
As previously, I’ll also be updating the story with current recollections of the events I recount, as well as the additional knowledge gained in the last few years during my struggle to create a coherent narrative from my genealogical quest. This will hopefully inspire some readers to chronicle their own family research, perhaps including their personal responses to the stories they uncover along the way.
The Lost Family: Part 3
East Coker is a place that has mostly won the battle to preserve its rural charms, mainly due to the Eliot connection, and has few modern buildings or street lights. Visitors come to see the deep lanes, the open fields, the houses of grey stone and the hollyhocks that aim too high. It is even said that Eliot based part of his poem on the 1876 Friedrich Gerstäcker tale of the mysterious community of Germelshausen, where the population had been cursed by the pope and were only allowed to come out of the earth for one day of revelry every hundred years. There is a strange a feeling of liminality when entering the village through the ancient sunken lanes that resemble tunnels into another world. And it is not difficult to imagine that the place is haunted by the spectre of an earlier time, which can only be faintly glimpsed at certain moments.
And the deep lane insists on the direction into the village*: I have arrived in East Coker several times over the years – once on foot over the fields and woods from Yeovil Junction Station, another time arriving ‘the back way’ through Burton Cross, where my father lived during the war on Burton Farm. But whatever road or path I take, it always seems a surprise to come across the village: East Coker gives the impression of being hidden away – both in time and place. This is almost like a metaphor for my own genealogical research, an endeavour which sometimes feels akin to glimpsing through a door which has opened slightly onto another world, only for it to close again when you try to push through to the other side.
After a reader contacted me about my East Coker post, I learned that the deep lane shuttered with branches* was also called a holloway – or hollow way (derived from the Old English ‘hola weg’). Having very little experience of travelling along such sunken lanes it came as a surprise to enter the village along such a route. Perhaps it also reminded me of the road to Dunure in Ayrshire, the seaside village close to our home where our family spent many days in summer. Although not technically a holloway (which are characteristic of Southern England due to the geology of the landscape), it gave the same feeling of entering another world, which was made even more exciting to me by the sound of branches whipping against our Austin 1100 (see Looking Back).
* From East Coker, by T.S. Eliot
The morning I met Alan Cornelius – the old man who’d taken the photograph in Coker Woods on that Whit Monday over sixty years ago – the village was looking its time-warped best. The jaunty union-jack bunting strung up between the thatched houses in the main street hung still in the mid-summer air, and the sounds of hay stooking cut across the yellow fields. The Helyar Arms was preparing for its first customers, and the church was alive with the bustle of middle-aged women setting the final touches to the arrangements for the flower festival.
By noon the cow parsley in the hedgerows was wilting in the heat, and the exhibition in the village hall was coming to a close. ‘We called those long wooden sticks ‘staves’ back then,’ Alan Cornelius said, as he packed away his own copy of ‘my’ photograph amongst his other WW2 memorabilia. ‘And we were off to fight the enemy in the woods.’ He shook his head and smiled.
Among all the other bits and pieces on his stall that the younger visitors to the exhibition found so fascinating, was a copy of his childhood diary. The short, scribbled entries illustrated just how exciting the war could seem to a thirteen-year-old boy. There were numerous descriptions of long bike rides spent searching for incendiaries in the surrounding fields, building model aeroplanes bought from a shop in Yeovil, watching out for enemy aircraft, visiting the local Westland Aircraft Factory (where Lysanders or ‘Lizzies’ were built).
One diary entry triggered a particular memory for Alan Cornelius: ‘Early on in the war, a bomb fell on a nearby farm, killing a bull. Your dad said this was abominable. It was typical of him. He always was a sharp one.’ I thought back to how my father always used to make up limericks and nonsense rhymes, and imagined him honing this skill amongst his peers. He’d come to the village with his mother and baby brother, not as part of a school group, so a sense of humour and aptitude for word play might have eased the path to acceptance by his new classmates.
My aunt was the first in the family to arrive in East Coker when war broke out, ending up there with part of her all-girls grammar school in Camberwell. Yet, while my aunt was sent to Somerset, my father was initially evacuated with his local primary school to Leatherhead in Surrey where he was billeted alongside other children with a Mormon family. Years later, he remembered them chiefly for the fact that they watered down the milk and gave their charges the cast-off bicycles of the junior members of the Kennedy clan. (Joseph Kennedy – then American ambassador to Great Britain – had stayed in a house in nearby Headley during the first year of the war, before being forced to resign in November 1940). I like to imagine my father cycling to school on J.F.K’s old bicycle, and sometimes wonder if that was the source of my parents’ on-going joke that our family and the Kennedys shared a series of (near) parallel death dates. In an uncanny twist of fate, my father was to eventually die in January 1995, several hours before Rose Kennedy did.
True as I’m riding this bicycle: My father used to say this a great deal, something which delighted and annoyed the rest of the family in equal measure. For several years I thought it was ‘Trew’s riding this bicycle’, or words to that effect (another of my father’s favourite expressions). However, it was a while before I finally learnt what he was actually saying – and more importantly, what it meant. He used the phrase whenever he was pressed about the veracity of the stories he told, so that in the end we could never know what had really happened and what was made up (a trait he shared with his brother). Possibly this was a way for my father to avoid having to go deeper into certain topics or give away too many personal details, something he hated doing. So for most of his life, none of us – including my mother- knew much about his background. However, as I mentioned last month, ‘fact is often stranger than fiction’, and I think my father secretly enjoyed the absurdity of recounting the kind of story which sounds as if it could be made up but was in fact actually true.
Of course, once the 1939 register was available for consultation (and even then I had to wait a couple of years until the redacted names of those who might still be alive were released) I saw that so much of what he’d remembered had actually happened. My father had stayed with a large Russian-American Mormon family not far from the Kennedy’s home. I came to the conclusion that if these facts were true, then why not the bicycle story. There are many people I know (myself included) who might have dined out on such an anecdote for years, but although a good raconteur, my father shied away from the limelight. My mother now admits she wished she’d questioned him more about his past, and I often wonder if that is the main reason why my London family genealogy was so compelling. From an early age I always associated the Skelton family with an unknown – but possibly romantic – backstory. In contrast, I felt (erroneously, I realise now) that I knew a great deal about the Scottish side of my family, removing their mystery for me.
Within a year, my father was back in London – like many families the ‘phoney war’ had lulled them into a false sense of security – with my grandparents omitting to tell my aunt, lest she also wanted to return home. My father remembered the constant trips to the air raid shelter (always when he was setting out his lead soldiers), so this would have been in the autumn of 1940, when the bombing started in earnest. Having only recently moved the family from a dilapidated Victorian terrace in Brixton to a modern, cottage-style semi on the Bloomfield Hall Estate in West Norwood, my poor grandmother must have despaired at ever being able to create the comfortable family home she craved.
One inauspicious afternoon, my father arrived back from school to find my grandfather standing at the end of their road, suitcases at his feet, saying that their house had taken a hit and they would be ‘going away’. It is one of the very few things I remember my father telling us about that period in his life – apart from the spectacle of watching the Crystal Palace burn down from his upstairs bedroom window in the old family house in Denmark Road, so I realise it must have been an important memory.
Crystal Palace Fire, November, 1936
A Blazing Arch of Lucid Glass: The voiceover accompanying this Pathé newsreel clip above illuminates (no pun intended!) both the iconic status of this building and the horrific drama of the fire which destroyed it. In 1936 the Crystal Palace was already 85 years old, and yet next year (2021) marks a further 85 years since it burned to the ground in such a dramatic way. So just as there are still people alive today who remember the terrible conflagration which lit up the sky over South London and could be seen for miles around, there must have been old people then who could recall the wonder of the new glass building in Hyde Park, perhaps even having seen the exotic exhibits on display during The Great Exhibition in 1861.
However, by the time my father saw the smoke and flames rising above Sydenham Hill the Crystal Palace was certainly not the exalted place it had once been, with the surrounding gardens popular places for working class families to gather on Sundays. My aunt recalls the whole family going there to watch the motor racing which took place in the grounds from 1927, a fact that surprised me at the time but proved to be correct. The actual building had several uses over the years – there were the popular Saturday music concerts, and it even housed the Imperial War Museum for a few years in the 1920s. However, historians agree that by the end of the 19th century, the Crystal Palace’s best days were over.
As a family historian, I am interested in the fact that the Crystal Palace and gardens links the two unknown sides of my family: both the ‘struggling’ and the wealthy. The former branch of the family (from which I descend) may or may not have visited the Great Exhibition (an event which cut through the classes as long as one could afford the one shilling entrance fee) but they certainly took advantage of the building’s relocation to South London to enjoy their Sunday downtime. Some of the wealthier side of the family – the ‘undiscovered’ branch – were actually involved in The Great Exhibition itself, with James William Skelton’s in-laws (the Sleath family) winning an award for their glass eyes (see Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans).
When the newly dubbed Sleath-Skelton family took up residence in The Avenue in Dulwich, they were only a stone’s throw from the Crystal Palace, which had moved there from Hyde Park only a few years previously. Then the glass building and its surrounding grounds was seen as a neighbourhood attraction which brought the railway to this rural outpost. But as the century moved to its end, the area filled up with the new railway commuters and rows of terraced housing began to march over the fields, gobbling up the market gardens and dairy fields, and in the process attracting more of those who were seeking cheaper housing. This was how my great-grandparents ended up in the area (in nearby Romanny Road) for a few years in the late 19th century, and again in 1938 when my grandparents moved to a new house on the Bloomfield Estate, a place they all loved. The concept of the interwar cottage estate particularly interests me, and there is some fascinating information about the ones in Lambeth at the excellent Municipal Dreams blog here.
My grandparents’ house on the Bloomfield Estate, today
In the end, my grandmother took her two boys to Somerset to join their older sister in a bid to keep them all together, while my grandfather stayed in London working as a tram conductor at the Camberwell depot, a reserved occupation, although as a veteran of the Great War, he was too old to serve again. My aunt later told me that this was not an easy time for my grandmother: in her first billet she stayed with a woman who treated her like her own personal skivvy. This must have been galling to a mature mother of three, but she eventually found a more convivial place for the family in a cottage at Burton Farm, where the Dunning family lived. And this was the place where my father retained strong memories of helping out on the farm with the other children – and which gave him his lifelong love of the British countryside.
Burton Farm Cottage, East Coker, today
The more I heard from Alan Cornelius about life in East Coker during the war, the more I realised that evacuation to the village would not necessarily have been a hardship. Most of the villagers appeared to have made a great effort to integrate the evacuees, and many of the youngsters were pleased to welcome the newcomers to their clubs and dances. As my father’s old schoolfriend pointed out to me himself: What adolescent hasn’t rejoiced at the injection of new ‘talent’ into their midst?
It is never too soon to start asking questions: Like many evacuees, including several in East Coker, my aunt actually married her childhood village sweetheart. Jack Boucher, was an older and ‘cooler’ local lad who also featured in the 1944 Whitsun Monday photograph. Even as an old man, Alan Cornelius remembered him well, writing in his unpublished memoirs: Our 1940s equivalent of ‘The Fonz’ was a young man several years our senior. He was a natural leader in everything that the youth of the day rated as important. He then listed my uncle’s achievements on the sporting field as well as describing his prowess at organising youth entertainments, going on to say: I rarely saw him idle his time away, and he undoubtedly set a high standard for all the other lads around him.
I was lucky enough to meet up with my uncle again (after many years) in 2005 on my first visit to East Coker, and wish I’d asked him more about his upbringing in the village. Sadly it would be the last time I’d see him, and just like the passing of Alan Cornelius it underscored for me how important it was to talk to those who held the memories of the past. And yet there is still this part of me which is reticent to ask too much – perhaps after having a father who did not like to talk about his childhood I’m afraid to upset or offend elderly friends and relatives. I sometimes wonder now if I’ll ever see my aunt again, and wish I had not been so cavalier about my ageing relatives in my youth, particularly when I was first carrying out family research in the mid-80s and early 90s.
The photograph below shows the East Coker Boys Club, taken in 1944 at Coker Court. My father is in the front row, far left (kneeling) and Alan Cornelius and Jack Boucher are also in the front row, 3rd and 2nd from the right, respectively. In his memoirs, Alan wrote: Over the last few years of the war, there were some twenty of us, but the core group were no more than eight, with others moving in and out for a variety of reasons.
East Coker Boys’ Club, 1944
Despite the charms of East Coker, for the rest of his life my father was to wonder what direction his life’s trajectory might have taken had he been able to attend the prestigious James Alleyne’s School in Dulwich. He remembered the smart uniform which had already been bought, and the sense of life about to begin; but the war sent him off spinning in another direction, away from his scholarship studies. East Coker, however, kept him rooted during a time of great upheaval. And he was, I believe, always grateful for that.
The Incidental Genealogist, December, 2020