Tag Archives: Identity

A Tale from the Yorkshire Dales: Part 1

The Wool-comber cleanses and prepares wool in a proper state to be spun into worsted, yarn &c. for weaving and other purposes.

This is a very ancient trade in this country, wool having been long reckoned one of its staple commodities. The raw material, as is well known, is the hair or covering of the sheep, which, when washed, combed, spun, and woven, makes worsted, many kinds of stuff, and other articles, adapted to the use, comfort, and even the luxuries, of life.

Richard Phillips, The Book of English Trades (1815)

A Wool Comber (2)

March 1799. A boy is born in Darlington, County Durham and baptised at the imposing St Cuthbert’s Church. He is the second child of a wool comber called James Skelton. The boy is named after his father, who in turn was named after his. Three generations of James Skeltons already. And it doesn’t end there. The last was killed in the fields of France just over a hundred years ago. This most recent incarnation – ‘Ginger’ as he was known to his friends and family – was my grandfather’s favourite brother. After him, there were no more boys called James.

James the wool comber is only 22 when his namesake child is born. And he is still only 22 when he dies at home from ‘the Bloody Flux’ (or dysentry, as we’d call it today), leaving behind a widow and two infant children. But Margaret Skelton senior is no stranger to widowhood, having already experienced the loss of a husband before she married the twenty year old James in the North Yorkshire village of Catterick while pregnant with their first child. She just doesn’t expect this state to be visited upon her again so soon.

After James’ death, Margaret returns to North Yorkshire – most likely to collect parish relief. It is still more than thirty years before the draconian poor law will be introduced (see When I Grow Rich) and the spectre of the workhouse would in the future loom over such a family. So she and her children are relatively lucky. Perhaps they also have family to support them, and work that Margaret can do to help pay for her keep. James’ people come from Leyburn, hers from neighbouring Reeth. So they are not so far away from Darlington, a market town whose name will one day become synonymous with a new-fangled mode of transport that Margaret will probably not live to see. Steam locomotives and workhouses: two sides of the tarnished Victorian coin which symbolises the progress of that still future era.

Almost two centuries after James’ death, one of his descendants will start trying to trace him through the link to the son he barely knew – the boy who ‘done good’ and went off to London to seek his fortune (see The Tailor of Horsleydown). But she will fail and fail again for many years. Then one day she’ll make a breakthrough and will feel as if the clouds have parted and she has discovered some inescapable truth about the world. For she will realise that a place, a church, a landscape which has drawn her close is the same one that once nurtured her ancestors. And she will rush to the washroom of the Durham County Record Office to splash cold water on her face. Afterwards she will gaze at her reflection in the mirror above the sink as if she is looking at herself for the first time.

I’m from Wensleydale she’ll whisper to herself, over and over again, like an incantation.

Finally she feels that there is a place she can call her spiritual home.

YORKSHIRE DALESIs this my spiritual home?

When my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, married for the second time in 1864 at the age of 65, he had already lived almost three times as long as his father. By then he had a total of ten children (several of whom had predeceased him), ranging in age from forty to four. He had also experienced great social and technological changes in the world and had seen his adopted city of London transformed into a huge seething metropolis. He might have felt as if he had already lived three lives.

Like all official marriage certificates, James and his wife Mary’s document states their fathers’ names and their professions. In the case of James this is given as James Skelton, Wool Stapler* (deceased). If that information is added to the census data for the three decades in which James was enumerated – where he gave Catterick, Yorkshire as his birthplace – then it seems logical to assume this was the place where he was born and raised, given that Catterick was a hub for the 18th century wool business. So why had it never been possible to find my great-great grandfather in the records of that parish. Or for that matter in all the other parishes in North Yorkshire?

*I have reason to believe that this job description was a fabricaton designed to elevate James in the eyes of his family. All parish records show that both his father and grandfather were simple wool combers – and not the more wealthy middleman (the staplers) who brought the wool to the combers.

James’ parents’ marriage details eventually came to light, courtesy of the internet and the parish records collated by the Mormons for their International Genealogical Index (IGI). Ditto the baptism of his older sister, Mary. The location for both these events was the medieval Church of St Anne, in Catterick, North Yorkshire. But for years James’ early beginnings were still invisible to me, although everything I’d learned about genealolgy shrieked that he was out there somewhere, possibly hiding in plain sight.

ST ANNS.jpgSt Anne’s Parish Church, Catterick, North Yorkshire

It was only relatively recently that I found out why I had never been able to find James in the North Yorkshire records. This was because he had actually been born and baptised in another county. Then I was on to the scent like a bloodhound, and at the first opportunity took the early morning East Coast trainline from Edinburgh to the upmarket university city of Durham. When I blearily boarded the train clutching my briefcase and a takeaway coffee at 7am, I had no idea that that by the end of the day I would know more about my Yorkshire-born ancestors than I could ever have expected.

However, to start this story we have to go back even further. To the time before the internet when I began my genealogical search; to the time when I thought James had been born and bred in Catterick. In the late 1980s, my mother purchased a microfiche reader along with a box of microfiche from the IGI after I’d stimulated her latent interest in family history. And together we pieced together a Catterick genealogy that was so wrong. My mother even embroidered a sampler of the family tree showing Ralph and Elizabeth Skelton at the top, naked but for a snake and apple (bullion knots were used to good effect). But while they might have been distant relatives, they were certainly not the ones we should have been looking for.

Catterick was never the permanent home of the Skeltons, but for years I persisted in believing this erroneous fact. In 1991, I finally had the chance to visit Yorkshire, riding pillion up from London on a friend’s Norton motorcycle. We headed for Catterick and explored the village, with its two greens (high and low), and stomped around the graveyard of St Anne’s looking for Skeltons. Later we cooled our feet in what I thought was the Swale but was actually just the Brough Beck, a tributary which meandered through the village, lending it a special beauty.

BROUGH BECK (2).JPGBrough Beck in Catterick

Despite the fact that I could find no trace of any of my ancestors on that visit, I’ll never forget my first sight of the Yorkshire Dales. I’d spent two and a half years travelling and working my way around the world before that summer, but could not remember seeing a view more spectacular than the great expanse of wide valleys, with their rivers and becks, wooded hills and stone walls which followed the contours of the land. Looking back, I wonder now whether this response was not tapping in to a primeval connection to the place of my ancestors. Or possibly it was just my natural reaction to a landscape that resonates with the part of the human brain hardwired to prefer particular locations like the Dales that are safe and fertile, and where early man was thus attracted to settle.

IS THIS MY SPIRITUAL HOME.JPGThe landscape of the Yorkshire Dales

Since that time I have been back to visit Catterick a couple of times, once renting the old Blacksmith’s house on the High Green, an 18th century stone cottage that was certainly there at the time of my ancestors. Rather poignantly, I could hear the bells of St Anne’s. from the upstairs bathroom, a sound that my Swiss husband proclaimed as being ‘very English’. From our base in Catterick we took trips into both the North York Moors National Park to the east and the Yorkshire Dales National Park to the west. And it was in the latter place that we fell in love with the market town of Reeth and the surrounding area of Swaledale.

BLACKSMITHS COTTAGEBlacksmith’s Cottage, Catterick

Both Swaledale and the neighbouring Wensleydale very quickly wove its magic on us and several walking holidays in Reeth followed in quick succession. While there, I would sometimes try to fit in a couple of hours’ research at the North Yorkshire County Record Office in Northallerton. It was here I was finally able to view James and Margaret’s parish wedding certificate, which showed that Margaret had previously been married to a man named Bowes (unfortunately I have never been able to discover her maiden name as this is a common regional surname).

But it wasn’t until that day in Durham, when I could access the parish records from another county, that I began to piece together the story of the Yorkshire Skeltons and their connection to Wensleydale.

I also discovered something that made me question the way I had approached my genealogical research up to now.

To be continued next month.

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2019

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Home Thoughts from Abroad

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England—now!

Robert Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad, (1845)

When Robert Browning wrote Home Thoughts from Abroad in 1845, shortly before his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett, he was in his early thirties and living in the north of Italy. This was a part of the world which would go on to play an important role in his life and literary work, and although Browning obviously had a great affinity for the place, the poem eloquently captures the feelings of the ex-patriate. Whether English or Australian, Italian or Indian, it is possible to recognise the longing for the homeland which is so delicately described (even if this is often just the idealised version of ‘home’ that exists in the imagination). And as the verse aptly illustrates, the things that are taken for granted by those waking in their own country become much more significant to someone who is parted from them.

Around the time of the poem’s genesis (mid-19th century), the British Empire was still in the process of expanding rapidly, and many colonialists would have related to such feelings for the motherland. When I think of some of my own Victorian ancestors, I could imagine the same thoughts would have been in their heads. What might James William Skelton have felt when dealing with the tropical heat in British Honduras (see A Tale of Exploitation) instead of the soft light of an English spring? What did his younger sister, Ann, dream of while out in the wild and lawless goldfields of Australia? And did his older sister, Sarah, reminisce about cool spring rain from her palatial residence in Hong Kong? This branch of my family could be described as ‘children of the Empire’, and would have no doubt have appreciated Browning’s sentiments, made much more poignant at that time by the ever-present fear of death from disease, or from the long and often harrowing sea journeys involved in emigration.*

*Ann died in Victoria, Australia, in 1860 from tuberculosis. She was just 29. Sarah also died from tuberculosis while travelling back to England by steam ship from Hong Kong in 1873, aged 47.

I do not, however, believe the poem was meant to be jingoistic in any way – Browning was not a colonialist, and he loved and appreciated the way of life in Italy, which he later called ‘my university’. But like many of these types of poems which have wormed their way into the nation’s post-colonial consciousness, the meaning may leave itself open to being hijacked and reduced to a simplistic message concerning the superior way of life in England (rather than the idea of yearning for ‘home’ in general).

My yearly spring teaching break always falls in the first fortnight of April, a time when I long to return to the UK, and so I can certainly sympathise with Browning’s sentiments. For me, the British spring has a different quality from that here in Switzerland, where the transition between the seasons seems to happen all too quickly. Thus the end of March is a time for me to pack my bags and ‘head home’, away from the lingering snow that characterises my adopted country*, and allow myself to be catapulted into a milder and greener landscape. For Browning it would have been the reverse – there was not the long protracted spring in his warmer Italy, and his reference to the gaudy melon-flower later in the poem seems to refer to this.

*On returning back to Switzerland a fortnight later there is always a surprise to find that spring has usually appeared in my absence and tulips are now out beside the crocuses, and the hornbeam hedge in front of the house has exploded into a mass of green.

As a Scot, however, I did not really associate Browning’s poem with my April visits to the UK until I started visiting England in springtime. Latterly this has been the Yorkshire Dales, in order to combine family research with a regular walking and sightseeing holiday. But once, several years before those genealogical trips, it was Cornwall with Swiss friends who had never been to ‘the island’. I still remember their delight when, after a day of driving through snow blizzards in Germany, we arrived to find ourselves in a magical land where pink Camelias were in bloom, the sea was a dazzling turquoise, and the gorse bushes fizzed with sun-coloured flowers drenched in the subtle scent of coconut.

800px-Kynance_Cove_2Kynance Cove, The Lizard, Andy Wright from Sheffield, UK, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6021874

Of course I could not help but quote Browning’s poem as we strode along the lanes towards the sea, proudly showing off what I regarded as ‘my country’ to our Swiss friends. Not only did they enthuse about the beauty of southern Cornwall, but they also loved the very Englishness of the place: the cacophonous rookery by the old church, the fat badgers in the garden at night, the thatched cottages which lined the road to the harbour, the friendly local pub with the folk music jamming sessions, the cream teas in tiny chintzy cafes. I saw Britain through their eyes – a heady experience and one which I’ve always wanted to repeat. Next time you can show us Scotland, my friends said, and I was already planning where we would take them. But that was ten years ago, and despite our best intentions we have not yet been away together again. Perhaps I knew instinctively that nothing would beat that visit to The Lizard, where a run of great weather certainly helped to turn the whole experience into the living embodiment of Browning’s poem.

Fast forward eight years later to May 2016, a month before that terrible referendum, when another unexpected trip to the south of England was on the horizon. This time it was to the Cotswolds with my cousin and his wife. Steve and Beverley have featured on this blog before – they were the ones who helped me visit Pennyhill Park (see On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot) and although not as fascinated by the family history as I am, they have always been very supportive of  my project. But this time there was no genealogical sidetrips planned – just a long weekend of walking, talking, eating and relaxing. And it was every bit as much fun as I’d hoped. For the first time in years I was able to experience the magic of bluebell-carpeted woods again (I am always too early in my spring break), not to mention having the chance to explore a part of the country I’d never visited but had heard so much about over the years.

BLUEBELL WOODSBluebell Woods at Weston-Sub-Edge, Cotswolds

Looking back now, that whole long bank holiday weekend seemed suffused in a dreamy pre-referendum light. It was the first few days of real warmth of the season, and on the drive up (across?) from Reading we stopped for lunch by the river at the wonderfully atmospheric Trout Inn in Lechlade, before heading to our final destination – the hamlet of Weston-Sub-Edge. That Friday evening, when we walked through the bluebell woods and over Dover Hill to the almost too-perfect yellow stone town of Chipping Campden, I felt enveloped in a sudden peace. May is always a hectic time at work, and despite what many people think about living in Switzerland, here there is a constant ‘performance pressure’ that permeates every aspect of life which I’ve never experienced to the same extent in the UK. And so I always feel like I’m moving down a notch or two when I step onto home soil – although the fact that I’m usually there on holiday probably helps.

SCENERY.JPGTypical Cotswolds Scenery

The trip certainly surpassed my expectations, with the particular highlight for me being the walk over the fields from from the church of St Lawrence at Mickleton to the arts and crafts gardens at Hidcote Manor, now owned by the National Trust. As we lazed on the grass by the ha-ha which separated the sheep from us, eating our homemade ploughman’s picnic lunch, and looking out over woods and undulating pastureland, I was overcome with an unexpectedly joyous feeling of possessing strong ties to family and land – an almost alien emotion for me, having lived away from my ‘home’ in south-west Scotland most of my adult life.

HIDCOTEHidcote Manor Gardens, Cotswolds

It was strange to feel such an attachment to an English landscape. Like many of my fellow compatriots north of the border, I have always had conflicting feelings about England, particularly the south. From an early age we are almost brainwashed into seeing this part of the UK as the default setting for the whole island. So much so, that when we actually visit the place for ourselves it can feel like stepping into a film set in the same way a first trip to Manhattan does. So while I delighted in the ancient churches, the soft meadowland paths, the stiles and kissing gates, the woodland streams, (in short the very Englishness of everything), part of me was struggling with the thought that it was not my own country. I am half English – the proof was in my very solid Berkshire cousin striding alongside me – and I do love the idea of England, at least in its most romantic sense. But something about the place shuts me out at the very same time that it beckons me in. It is a strange feeling to describe, although many Scottish writers have attempted to do so over the years.

Throughout the weekend I discussed the concept of identity with my cousin and his wife – how it was possible to feel British and Scottish, yet in my case also a tiny bit English, too. Perhaps this complex web of allegiances had been further tangled by all the years I’ve spent living and working abroad. Possibly my English relatives find it an odd thing to query, but if so they never say. They have never needed to grapple with those feelings, seeing English and British as mostly interchangeable terms.

COUSINS_2 (2)With my very English Cousin, Chipping Campden, Cotswolds

However, it was not long before my national identity was called into question when the results of the EU referendum were announced. Very much in shock, us Brits on the Continent kept our heads down and whispered long into the night with our fellow ‘remainer’ friends – most of us having been denied a vote in any case. And so it came to pass that those very fragile feelings of Englishness which I possessed from my paternal side of the family began to wither away, and even my sense of Britishness was called into question. The handmade Union Jack rag rug I’d bought in the Dales was hidden under the bed, then my London mug mysteriously ‘broke’, the red-white-and-blue hessian shopper was suddenly needed for storing junk in the attic. And so it continued, until not a single object in the house could remind me of that patriotic feeling I’d once had, and which now was lost to me. It felt like a bereavement of sorts, and I struggled to keep up my enthusiasm for my genealogy project, no longer fired up to visit London in the same way I’d previously been.

And exactly a year ago, on April 1st 2017, I finally applied for Swiss citizenship. At the time I thought it an auspicious date, but now I see it as rather fitting – particularly as my new passport arrived this week, just in time for my annual spring voyage home. Before the EU referendum I had not felt the need for such a document. Unlike my parents-in-law, who had been happy to give up their Austrian and German identities after the war and proudly called themselves Swiss, I felt no strong desire to dilute my roots through taking on another nationality. And in 2012 (what seems to me now like the high watermark of my feeling of Britishness, and I suspect I am not alone in this) I had celebrated the queen’s diamond jubilee with strangers – many of whom were English – on the island of Islay, had watched and re-watched Danny Boyle’s exhilarating Olympic games’ opening ceremony, and had cheered on my cousin’s daughter as she gave the performance of her life for team GB in the synchronised swimming event.

It had been around this time that I’d begun to really throw myself into my genealogy project, discovering my English roots with a keen interest. My trips to London became more frequent and I felt more and more connected to the Skelton side of my family through pounding the streets of their neighbourhoods, tracking down long-lost relatives on-line, and immersing myself in the archives. But was my project simply a way to strengthen my feelings of belonging, of being British while living abroad? Now I realise that our very sense of national identity is such a fragile thing: it can be buoyed up by certain events, weakened by others. But did my ancestors feel this, too, or were they unwavering in their patriotism as they crossed seas, fought wars on foreign soil, and set up homes and businesses in far flung corners of the globe? Perhaps like me they always thought that it would only be temporary – that one day they would return to the place of their birth and find it unchanged.

But in the case of both James William Skelton’s sisters, death prevented them from ever seeing their native land again. And so we might begin to understand how more intense those feelings of home were for those who did not know if they would ever walk amongst the blossoms and dewdrops of an English meadow again.

COTSWOLDS TREE.JPG

And after April, when May follows,

And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover

Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,

Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture!

And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower

—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Robert Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad, (1845)

Over the next three months I will be looking at the lives of James William Skelton’s three surviving sisters, starting with Ann, who emigrated to Australia with her husband in 1854, but who never made it back to England. My trip to the gold fields of Victoria was also a wonderful opportunity to visit the country again, meet fellow historians on the way, and immerse myself in the emigrant story. I look forward to sharing my research with you next month in Three Sisters: Ann.

Wishing everyone a very Happy Easter!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2018