Tag Archives: Photography

April is the Cruellest Month

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland (1922)

T S Eliot The Wasteland

April certainly feels like the cruellest month this year. It can be hard to appreciate the days lengthening, and nature re-asserting itself after the long winter, when we are unable to take advantage of the season in our customary manner. Yet, at a time when, out of necessity, our movement has become very much restricted, any green spaces we can still access will become even more precious to us in the following weeks.

For the above reason, I would like to focus this month on the way that various gardens – both private and public – have shaped the lives of my London ancestors. From the story of the creation of two very different municipal parks (see A Tale of Two Parks) to my grandmother’s Edwardian childhood (see Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman), and the presence of Crystal Palace in many of my south London ancestor’s lives (the poor and the wealthy), gardens have always been entwined with my family story to some degree.

kristallpalast_sydenham_1851_aussenCrystal Palace and grounds, Sydenham, c1854

This probably comes as no surprise, however, as the desire to have a small piece of land to call one’s own seems to be imbedded in the British psyche, whether one is much of a gardener or not. Notions of privacy and control over personal space play a pivotal role as do ideas of resurrecting some part of a lost arcadia. This desire seems to cut across all the social classes, as can be seen by the notebooks collated by Charles Booth’s researchers when constructing Booth’s famous poverty maps. These jottings indicate that even in some of the most impoverished of neighbourhoods the residents still attempted to brighten up their streets with flowers in window boxes.

When describing a road in Kennington near to where my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton,  was raised, Booth’s social research assistant, George Herbert Duckworth, mentions that Flower boxes and windows are brightest in the poorer coster streets. He compares this with another street, slightly higher up the social scale, where there was not a flower at any window, deducing that It almost seems as though it were thought respectable not to have flowers. This is an interesting observation, which might possibly be attributed to the fact that in these residences there was more space for indoor plants, or that plants were grown at the rear of the house, out of sight. Perhaps flower boxes placed at the front of the house could have given those who were unsure about their social status the sense that they were advertising the absence of no other growing space.

Duckworth appeared to be particularly interested in all things horticultural as he often added descriptions of the plants and gardens he encountered on his research trips accompanied by the local policeman, thus giving us a vivid snapshot of late Victorian London. For example, in the description of another Kennington street he notes: China pots with overgrown ferns in front window. This allows the street to come alive for the modern reader in a way that surpasses descriptions of two-shilling weekly rents and numbers of factory labourers.

By the time Booth’s poverty maps were being created, the local green space, Kennington Park, previously Kennington Common and once the site of political gatherings and demonstrations, had been a formal, gated park for four decades. In 1858, after a false start, elaborate flower beds had been laid out in symmetrical patterns, a style which was once at the cutting-edge of mid-Victorian garden design and would soon be adopted elsewhere. For the local residents it was a unique chance to see large areas of flowering plants, and the Gardener’s Chronicle of the time mentioned a bordering of flowers as bright as the smoke and vapour from an adjoining vitriol factory (in photograph below) will let them be.

chartists

Kennington Park circa 1908Kennington Common, Chartist Rally, 1848* vs, Kennnington Park, c1908

*Copyright, The Royal Collection

In her book How to be a Victorian, the writer and historian Ruth Goodman points out that not all plants could survive in the polluted London air, where chemicals mixed with precipitation to create an acid rain which poisoned the soil. As the time of Booth’s investigations coincided with the peak of the London smogs, the window boxes thus represent an act of faith by the families who had established them. Perhaps that is why they were more predominant in certain streets and neighbourhoods. Those who had little say in their economic conditions and cramped environments might have sought to exercise some sort of control over nature, which also gave them a sense of hope.

Goodman describes the growth of urban gardening in the mid-18th century as such: The 1830s to 1850s were the heyday of florist’s societies. Groups of mainly urban men, whose working lives were spent in small, home-based workshops as weavers or frame knitters, carpenters or nail makes, flowers became their passion. They raided new varieties, selected the strongest seeds and perfected their chosen flowers over years of patient, careful propagation and superb horticultural skill. The plants they grew were cultivated on tiny patches of ground around their homes and workshops, and in pots and containers which stood in yards and on windowsills.

Whenever I look at informal photographs of my ancestors, I find myself trying to glean the lost details of their day-to-day routines. The images act as a portal into the past, which although can be a limitation in terms of freezing one moment rather than other (see Those Ghostly Traces), does offer up some clues as to their daily lives. For that reason, I treasure the photographs of my grandmother’s family at 95 Denmark Road, Brixton, possibly taken by her older brother. Not only was this house my grandmother’s home for over three decades, but it was the place where she lost both her parents, met my grandfather, and gave birth to her three children, before the building succumbed to WW2 bombing raids.

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)Edith Stops at 95, Denmark Road, c1910

In the picture above, it is the building itself and the small strip of garden in front of the house which intrigue me almost as much as the image of my young grandmother. I described my reaction to receiving this photograph (amongst others) from the grand-daughter of my grandmother’s brother in one of my earliest posts (see I Remember, I Remember) as such: For days afterwards I scrutinised every detail of the photographs, hoping that repeated viewings would reveal more. I became particularly obsessed with the image of the house at 95 Denmark Road. The squinty old building fascinated me almost as much as the sight of my grandmother standing at the gate.

My gaze was drawn to the blinds and the net curtains at the windows; the  plant on the window sill of the front room; a flower bed of what look like tulips in a tiny sad strip of garden; iron railings which were yet to be removed for a future war; a boot scraper in front of the rather forbidding-looking front door. I longed to see through the sash window on the ground floor to the room that lay behind the fussy nets. I imagined it to be dark and over-stuffed with furniture, shabby too. Perhaps a room they only used ‘for best’. And what is that shadowy object lurking just out of sight between the curtains? An aspidistra? A mahogany plant stand? Or Harriet sitting on the good chair, reading the newspaper?

In other photographs, we can see the back yard of their terraced mid-19th century house – basically a functional outdoor space, with space for some flower and vegetable beds. As no-one thought to photograph the back garden from the other side i.e. facing the back of the house, it is only these partial glimpses that we are afforded. However, I should imagine that by the time my grandfather became the head of the house, the garden would have become his undisputed territory, although with a henhouse to contend with as well as young children, this was most likely a purely practical project.

In fact, my aunt recalled that in the 1930s she and my father would dare each other to climb over the wall that separated their property from the neighbour’s and run around their immaculate garden under cover of darkness. Part of the excitement was the illicitness of the activity – but there was also the lure of entering a forbidden garden of sorts. One which was given over wholly to beauty and pleasure. Of all the anecdotes my aunt has furnished me with, this one stands out in my mind as it seems to encapsulate the world of childhood in one secretive and daring act.

Stops Family in Back Garden of 95 Denmark RoadThe Stops Family in the back garden of 95, Denmark Rd, c1923

In later years, my grandfather would spend a great deal of time gardening, both at the family’s new post-war accommodation and in the gardens of his three children as they settled down and raised families of their own. In fact ,our very own suburban garden in Scotland owes a debt to my London grandfather, not just in the way it was laid out, but in the gardening advice he gave to my father over the years. As a child I remember seeing retired first world war veterans working in their gardens and allotments, some who had been gardening for years, building up a wealth of experience along the way. Many would have initially wanted to provide for their families (a strong instinct in my grandfather), as well as feel some sort of control over their own environment.

Garden At Bishop's GroveMy parents in my grandparents’ back garden in Hampton, April, 1963

Grandad Skelton in the back gardenGrandad Skelton in our back garden, Alloway, c1967

Although my own father was not yet seventeen when the war ended, and thus not involved in the conflict, he did his required period of national service and then stayed in the forces, spending many years overseas in the RAF. For the rest of his life he always said that having his own home and garden was something he would never take for granted. Simple things such as not sharing a bathroom or having his own bedroom seemed like a luxury after years of living in shared digs. And of course this would have been compounded by the fact that during the war the family left their home for a cramped and draughty farm cottage in East Coker (see East Coker), even though it was through his experiences of beng evacuated to Somerset that my father grew to love the British countryside.

As a child I always used to laugh at the fact that in the summer evenings he would go out and walk around the garden, smoking the stub of a cigar (often on a toothpick) telling us he was just off to survey the estate, the dog padding at his heels. At the time I never really understood what all that surveying entailed, but of course all he probably wanted were some moments on his own to contemplate life quietly in the garden, taking pleasure from the things he had planted and nurtured there, and perhaps planning future changes to the beds and borders.

Although the garden was relatively small (but much bigger than the yard in Denmark Road), we made use of the space to grow our own fruit and vegetables in a sort of kitchen garden which was separated from the recreational part by a trellis fence over which climbing roses were trained. Like most children I enjoyed cramming my face with illicit fruit and ate things that felt instinctively good, but at the time I had no idea if they would help or harm me. I chewed on whole peapods before the peas were properly ripe as I loved the juicy taste of the pods. (I did not know about mange tout at this stage in my life!). I ingested handfuls of elderberries (which my father used to make a particularly awful wine) before thinking I was going to die and then lying down on my bed awaiting my grisly end, too scared to tell my parents I might have eaten poisonous berries. I sucked the juice out of crab apples and threw the sour flesh away – until the day I bit down on a wasp. And the blackcurrants that were earmarked for our favourite jam were scoffed in great quantities by myself and friends, out of sight behind the trellis.

One of the wonders of going to London to visit our family was to see the amazing things they could grow in their gardens on account of the warmer, drier weather. Their vegetable gardens felt like jungles compared to ours; although to be fair, the fact that our back garden was often in partial shade was a disadvantage. Yet we clung to the British tradition of hiding the kitchen garden away from prying eyes, meaning that our sunny front garden was mostly underused (despite the fact that it was set back from the road in a dip), apart from the times when my mother sat sewing in the porch on warm spring  afternoons.

In the front garden of 33 Doonholm RoadIn the sunny front garden of our house in Alloway, c1968

Step at Doonholm RoadSteps down from the road to the front garden in the ‘dip’, Alloway, c1965

But for most of my ancestors such an expanse of front garden would have seemed like a luxury not to be wasted on decoration. Either they possessed the narrow strip gardens illustrated by the Denmark Road photograph, or their terraces were flush again the pavement. As backyards were mostly functional, then trips to local municipal parks, such as Kennington Park, would have been important fixtures of summer Sunday outings. When we visited our grandparents in West London (where they moved after the war), most of the excursions we did with them involved going to nearby parks and gardens, such as the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew or Bushy Park – always in Sunday best, of course!

At Kew with Grandma SkeltonAt Kew Gardens with Grandma Skelton, c1971

At present, when we cannot access many of the local parks and gardens that we love, we could do worse than to take inspiration from those Victorian gardeners who planted up pots and other containers to brighten up their surroundings. Even if the nurseries and garden centres have closed their doors, as long as we have access to some sort of growing media, we can propagate plants through a wide variety of methods and share seeds, cuttings, bulbs etc. with friends and neighbours, just as many of our ancestors would have once done through financial necessity. A window box or an indoor windowsill can still offer up the pleasure of nurturing life, and watching it grow, giving us hope and strength for the upcoming weeks.

Happy Easter

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Easter!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2020

 

Some Thoughts on Childhood Memories

It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.

Sigmund Freud, Screen Memories (1899)

SCREEN MEMORIES: A Video Essay on SMULTRONSTÄLLET / WILD STRAWBERRIES from Catherine Grant on Vimeo.

The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud coined the term screen memories to describe childhood memories which have been distorted by later experiences, in particular around the time of adolescence. In his 1899 text of the same name, he gives the case history of a 38 year old professional man whose childhood memories fall into three categories. First, there are those which his parents or other relatives have described and which he no longer knows if genuine or not – something most of us can relate to. Then there are the ones he can remember because they involved an important event, such as an accident, and which have not been related in great detail by another person (possibly because no one else was present). Finally, there are those which have been fixed in his mind in almost cinematic clarity, but seem to have no bearing on actual experience and no focal point to them. It is this third group that Freud regards as screen memories – in other words, those reminiscences which are a cover or screen for important events of a later date that have been repressed. He points out that this is not to say that the screen memories are themselves completely false, only that in their vivid detail they represent a stronger, later memory.

Of course, this being Freud, the case study he describes focuses on how the patient’s childhood memory of picking yellow flowers for a young girl in the Alps was a symbol for a later longing for a teenage cousin. The first memory had become a screen for the second one (which was of a sexual nature). While the analysis makes for interesting reading, Freud himself later believed that it was not always possible to apply this concept to all childhood memories which appeared to belong to that category. In addition, it was later discovered that the patient in the case study was in actual fact a fabrication and the screen memory described was one Freud himself had experienced.

The idea of screen memories is certainly an interesting one, although difficult to prove or disprove. But like most people I certainly have memories of events that happened to me in childhood which others recall in different ways, or not at all. In my own case, however, I think that some of my earliest memories eventually became mixed up with films I’d seen or books I’d read. Thus, for several years I believed I’d lived in an industrial city at the turn of the 19th century as I appeared to have very clear images of soot-stained brick walls and dark canals, as well as playing in cobbled car-free streets in an apron-covered dress and tackety boots. Later, like many teenagers I went through a phase where I believed in re-incarnation, and thus assumed I might have once been a Victorian child. I scoured every book in our local public library on the subject, leaving me even more confused and sometimes more than a little scared. Eventually I came to the conclusion that all the 19th century-based children’s literature (both classic and contemporary) which I’d devoured had imprinted itself upon my memory in such a way that I believed I’d had the experiences myself.

These false memories were, I believe, not so much screen memories as ones which stemmed from the times when we went visit our two sets of grandparents in Edinburgh and London. In the sixties and seventies, inner city buildings were still blackened with soot from coal fires, and many remnants of the industrial revolution were still visibly present in most town and city scapes. Because I grew up in a modern suburban development built around a country village, I had little experience of urban environments. This meant that visits to grimy tenements in Edinburgh or trips down the river Thames to Greenwich, passing darkened factories and warehouses, were full of wonder for me, overlapping in my mind with the Victorian and Edwardian tales I’d so eagerly devoured as a child. Books such as Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) or Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) filled my head with strange images that threatened to spill into my dreams and colour my real life experiences. (The fact that they were also televised in the 70s may have also fed into my imagination).

THE WATER BABIES

N.B. Although The Water Babies was recommended by my own parents (who had read it themselves in childhood), it would seem as if some of the themes in the book which are related to race and identity would be rightfully viewed as rather contentious by today’s standards.

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When family historians are in the enviable position of being able to ask older relatives about their childhood memories, there is a tendency to want to soak up all the details with which their stories are furnished and to pass them on to future generations. But just sometimes it appears impossible to reconcile such reminiscences with the time, and the age of the child. My father, for example, remembers his maternal grandmother as being an old lady in black who sat on a chair in the corner of the room. Yet, he was two when she died and it seems strange to think that he could have recollections of his Somerset-born grandmother, Harriet Stops, the old widow who’d presided over the family home in Brixton for more than thirty years. Even my aunt wrote once to say: I don’t remember Harriet very well but I thought she died before Bob was born, in my mind I can’t see him around and he was a great, fat lump of a baby!

HARRIET STOPS

Harriet Stops in her 70s

Setting aside what this comment may unwittingly show about the relationship of my father and his older sister, I’d like to think that he actually did remember his dour-looking grandmother, as this very act of remembrance creates a connective chain of memories that link forward to myself. As Roland Barthes points out at the very start of Camera Lucida: One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it.

This was the same feeling I experienced when my aunt recognised my great-grandfather (who also died in 1930) from her parents’ wedding photograph in 1924. When she wrote to say that she knew it was her grandfather Arthur right away, then it suddenly hit me that my aunt had in fact known James’ Skelton’s second youngest son! This was an old man who possibly still had memories of his Yorkshire-born father: the one who was the first Skelton from the family to head to London and seek his fortune, thus creating the South London branch of the Wensleydale Skeltons. Although poverty meant that Arthur died relatively young (at age 70) and my aunt was only five at the time, his younger brother Sidney (after whom my grandfather was named) lived into his 80s, surviving until the 1940s. Thus there are still descendants out there who possibly would have been privy to tales of their grandfather’s childhood in Kennington with the elderly James and his much younger wife, Mary Ann Hawkins.

SKELTON WEDDING

Grandad Arthur (1859-1930) is on the far left of the wedding group

However, tracing down living relatives with whom you have not had a prior connection is not as easy as it sounds. I’d always imagined that most would be eager to meet up and share their knowledge, but despite my best efforts I have not had much luck in this area – unless the relative in question was already involved in researching the family history.

This has luckily happened in the case of some of Arthur junior’s grandchildren (my grandfather’s older brother) who have furnished me with photographs and memories of Arthur’s children (their parents), and were a real impetus to continuing my research after a twenty-year hiatus. I have also been fortunate to make contact with a descendant of William Hawkins Skelton, the illegitimate first son Mary Ann had shortly prior to meeting my great-great grandfather. William was brought up in the Skelton-Hawkins household with the other five children they couple had together between 1850 and 1862 (see Black Sheep and Blackfriars) and may not even have known that his father was not actually James Skelton as he took both his parents’ names.

ARTHUR AND JAMES FREDERICK SKELTON

William Hawkins Skelton’s sons: Arthur William and Frederick James c1890s

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But while the personal aspect to memory is what makes childhood recollections so fascinating, I believe it is also the very thing that makes them fallible. There are always cases where one family member swears that an event did not take place – or that the memory is not a true one. As the writer Hilary Mantel pointed out in an article about autobiography entitled ‘Father Figured’: Disagreement in accounts of family events is often due to ‘point of view’ – which, as every storyteller knows, is vital to what is reported. Because you recall things differently from your sibling, it doesn’t mean either of you are wrong. She went on to say: Freud with his passion for archaeloogy, influenced the way we think of memories, we imagine we have to dig for then. My instinct is that this is not true. In our brains, past and present co-exist; they occupy, as it were, adjoining rooms, but there are some rooms we never enter.

When discussing my aunt’s childhood with her on a visit to Somerset last summer (see Return to East Coker) I noticed that her current recollections of events did not always fit with previous ones from over a decade earlier. Thus I came to the conclusion that anything she repeated in which the same details overlapped must have been a strong and reliable memory – which certainly presents a case for showing patience when elderly relatives repeat the same stories again.

What I also realised on that visit to my aunt was that family photographs, although an excellent starting point for stimulating memories and putting names to faces, could occasionally actually be counter-productive. Relatives who looked similar (even across generations) were sometimes liable to be confused. And while the images were able to provoke strong reactions and awaken associated memories, they could at times constrict memory due to the focus on the single frozen moment when the photograph was taken. As Barthes points out near the end of Camera Lucida: The Photograph does not call up the past (nothing Proustian in a photograph). The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed. He further adds that: The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been. This distinction is decisive. In front of a photograph, our consciousness does not necessarily take the nostalgic path of memory . . .

But what of screen memories (if they do indeed exist) or the other types of unreliable recollection of which I mentioned earlier? Sometimes I have this terrible fear that by the end of my life I may be babbling all sorts of nonsense. Not out of madness (although that may be a possibility), but by confusing everything I’ve seen, read or experienced over hopefully a long lifetime. Once on a visit to my then 90 year-old Scottish great-aunt whose middle name I bear, my husband asked her about her wartime service with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (or WAAFS). Were you in the war, too? my aunt retorted brightly. My mother gently pointed out to her that my husband had not been born until years after the war ended, but yet to me it did not seem such a strange thing for her to ask. Not because she was losing her faculties in any way, but because I sensed that for her time had taken on an elastic quality more in keeping with actual memory than in the way the clocks worked (the past and present co-existing).

I myself find it strange that things I consider as relatively recent events are consigned to history as far as most of my students are concerned. Born at the turn of the century they regard anything in the old century to be very much in the past. This has enabled me to be aware of how previous generations might have also felt, in particular those born a hundred years before myself. They would have been middle-aged in the 1920s and may have had to put up with the ‘bright, young things’ bemoaning the Victorian values with which they grew up or their struggle with new technology.

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One thing I have become intrigued by during the last few years of my research is the tale of the mysterious ‘Rose’ (said to be my grandfather’s younger sister) as well as that of the foundling ‘Nell’ (said to be my grandfather’s niece). Hardly any records exist which can corroborate my aunt’s stories of these two women, who are both still just within living memory. My aunt once wrote to me about her father’s siblings and described his sister Rose so: Rose was the baby of the family and she suddenly started visiting us when Bob and I were very small, bringing us expensive presents. Bob had a tricycle once, I had a china-faced doll. Before we got too used to these presents, she died quite young, it was said from blood poisoning. She was scratched by a rusty nail in a packet of cigarettes – they said!

EILEEN AND BOB SKELTON

Eileen and Bob Skelton at the age when visited by Rose

However, my grandfather’s sister Rose (christened Rosina) was much older than my grandfather – who was actually the ‘baby of the family’ – and as I later found out (after wasting many weeks looking for her death in the 1930s) went on to live a long life, dying in north London in 1968, just around the corner from the flat in Whetstone which I rented in 1985, shortly after arriving in London (see A Rose in Holly Park). As Rose Ryall (née Skelton) had a large number of her own children over the years, it is very doubtful that she was the Rose to which my aunt alluded.

I first heard about Rose more than 30 years ago now, when my father (Bob) was still alive. Luckily that meant he was able to verify that someone like Rose had indeed existed, and described her as always very glamorous, wearing fur coats, perfume  and bright lipstick when she came to visit, bearing her expensive presents for them. However, the whole thing does sound slightly odd – especially the Agatha Christie-type ending with the ominous They said! But I’ve come to believe that Rose was possibly just a family friend or a relative from the other side of the family. Maybe even a step-sister of my grandfather. But why she would dote on these two children in particular does not seem to make sense.

As both my aunt and father remembered Rose (or the woman said to be her), then I am confident that such a person did exist. In addition, I have often been surprised at how much information my aunt did recall which I was initially sceptical about, but that turned out to be true. For example, my aunt first wrote to tell me of the two brothers my grandfather lost in the First World War, where he himself served in the cavalry (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier). However, the two young men – whom my aunt said were named Ginger and Peter – did not appear to exist in the records.

Later I realised that Ginger was actually a nickname for red-haired James Francis, the boy named after his paternal and maternal grandfathers respectively, who left behind a widow and baby when he died in 1917. Peter took a little longer to find and it was not until the publication of another census that I discovered him to be my grandfather’s step-brother. Surprisingly my aunt had no knowledge of the fact that her father had lost both his mother and baby brother in the summer of 1895, when he was just three. And neither was she aware that a few months later he was being brought up by a new stepmother and living alongside a collection of step-siblings, one of whom was Peter Pushman.

Nell is the other mysterious woman in my grandfather’s history. She was said to be a foundling who arrived one day on the doorstep of Arthur Skelton junior’s household in Elm Road, Thornton Heath (Arthur was my grandfather’s older brother). On her wedding in 1935 to a local boy, also living in Elm Road, called Alfred Cosstick, she gives her name as Nellie Major and her age as 21, yet the details about her father remain blank. My aunt can still remember Nell as the oldest girl in the household – which was shared with Arthur’s five children, including Peter Sidney below, alongside Ginger’s widow and daughter (see The Two Arthurs).

PETER SIDNEY SKELTON AND ALFRED COSSTICK

Nell’s future husband, Alfred Cosstick, with Peter Sidney Skelton* c1930

*Peter was most likely named after Arthur Skelton junior’s step-brother (Peter) and his youngest brother, my grandfather (Sidney), proving that the brothers were close, having been through the Great War together (although Peter did not survive).

Would such a busy household have added another one had there had not been some kind of familial connection? This reminds me of a family in our neighbourhood when I was growing up. One of the youngest of the six children was said to be adopted, but he looked so like the rest of the family that it seemed obvious that he was actually their half-brother! So my own theory about Nell is that someone in the family was responsible for her existence, and that was why Arthur Skelton junior felt obliged to take her in.

ARTHUR SKELTON JUNIOR 1930s

Arthur Skelton Junior c1930s

In her eloquent memoir Giving up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel describes the relationship between memory and family secrets thus: I know, too, that once a family has acquired a habit of secrecy, memories begin to distort, because its members confabulate to cover the gaps in the facts; you have to make some sort of sense of what’s going on around you, so you cobble together a narrative as best you can. You add to it, and reason about it, and the distortions breed distortions.

Whether the true stories of Nell and Rose have become distorted over the years – intentionally  or not – they remain the most enigmatic of female family figures for me. Perhaps because both their involvement with my own family ended abruptly. Rose with her strange death; Nell by quarrelling with my grandfather. When I visited my aunt last year, she finally remembered what the fall-out in the 1940s had been about. Apparently, my grandparents had stored some furniture from their bombed-out house in Norwood with Alf and Nell, who lived nearby. Later my grandfather discovered they had been using the furniture in their own household (a pragmatic-sounding decision, I thought) and this led to then cutting off contact for the rest of their lives. It seems a sad and petty story, and I’m sure there must be something more to it. But possibly emotions were heightened during the stresses and deprivations of the war, and fragile relationships were pushed to breaking point.

In every family there are at least one or two figures whose backgrounds are shrouded in mystery and whose tales remain untold. While records may not always offer up much in the way of enlightenment in these cases (although occasionally they can indeed help to solve such mysteries), childhood memories can in fact be a way to bring into focus those aspects that were deemed to be important at the time. These  are often things that transcend the logic of adults and the facts of the record keeper, and which can cut through the years in their simplicity and honesty.

As Hilary Mantel states so succinctly in Giving up the Ghost: Still, I think people can remember: a face, a perfume: one true thing or two.

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2020

Looking for the Lost

Old photographs have a truth and clarity to them which is lacking from architectural prints, drawings or paintings. Depicting people and places frozen in time, and at random moments of their existence, they convey a haunting message of mortality. As primary sources of historical evidence, they are by their very nature, impartial, and bear witness to past places or events, undistorted by the interpretation of their creator. Unlike the artist, or draughtsman, ostensibly the camera never lies, so photographs provide a direct, tangible link to a long-distant past.

Philip Davies, Lost London 1870-1945, (2009)

images

These days it often seems as if we cannot get enough of ‘lost London’: its lost buildings, lost streets, lost stations, lost rivers etc. Whatever has been lost in the capital, there’s a book to celebrate/commiserate the demise. And I cannot deny having my own share of such publications. In fact, on returning to my genealogical research a few years ago, the first item I acquired was the heavy black-and-white illustrated tome simply called Lost London 1870-1945 (a period straddling the birth of commercial photography to the end of WW2). It is a book which has delighted me since. Not only did it allow me to view some of the long-gone churches in which my ancestors had been baptised or wed, including the iconic Hawksmoor church of St John Horsleydown , which was badly damaged in WW2 and never rebuilt (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), but I was also able to take a peek into the neighbourhoods in which these same family members had lived, worked, played and died.

bombed-st-js-2St John Horsleydown or ‘The Louse Church’ in 1945 (after WW2 bombing)

Sadly, many of the places featured in the book were wilfully destroyed during early 20th century ‘improvements’ to the city, as well as in the post-war era, and yet are streets and buildings which a few years earlier my grandparents may have known when young. Almost stranger still were the glimpses of neighbourhoods before their damage during WW2 bombing raids – places which my father might have walked as a boy, and thus still within the capture of living memory. These poignant photographs seemed to be the last link between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ London, and when turning each page revealed yet another loss I became almost panicky at the thought of these terminal vanishings. (Once on returning with my camera a year or two later to photograph an old Victorian tenement where my great-great grandmother had lived I was horrified to find it already gone and replaced by a modern block of flats, even though I realise this was a better use of limited urban space).

The Shard and Southwark Cathedral Old and New London collide: The Shard and Southwark Cathedral

For a long time I could only really deal with the book in small doses, such was the affect of the images. To add to this, the often ghost-like people who peered from upstairs windows or stared from shop doorways almost seemed to be willing the viewer to make a connection with them, as if they wanted to defy the very march of time itself. As Davies states in his preface: The spectral figures of people and vehicles, which are the product of long exposure times, add to the haunting quality of the images. Figures stare at the camera, and, where they have moved, leave a ghostly trace on the plate.

I often had the disquieting feeling that by seeing these places made whole again by the photographic image I could somehow intervene to prevent their disappearance. In his book Camera Lucida, the French writer and philosopher Roland Barthes (see Those Ghostly Traces) describes this peculiar nature of photography: A painting can feign reality without having seen it. Discourse combines signs which have referents, of course, but these referents can be and are most often “chimeras.” Contrary to these imitations, with photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality, and of the past. He goes on to state: what I see been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject (operator or spectator); it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred.

Today as I glance through my much-loved copy of Lost London, I realise that many of the photographs have taken on a new meaning in the years since I began my genealogical quest. Places I could barely locate on a map I can now anchor in their neighbourhoods and the districts to which they connect. I do not by any means pertain to have a fraction of the kind of knowledge possessed by a London flaneur, but realise that my long weekends of pounding the capital’s streets until my legs ached have at least been of some use. And in fact, the truth is that these were the happiest times I spent in London. Just me and an A to Z and an Oyster card (which was often left untouched in my pocket). In those moments of freedom – setting out over one of the bridges towards ‘London-over-the-water’ in the morning with the wind off the Thames stinging my eyes was always an exhilarating moment – I felt as alive to the city as I do to the sea or the mountains at the outset of a long hike.

Some weekends my walking would take me to the door of a conveniently located research centre – like the Lambeth Archives housed in the Minet Library just around the corner from my father’s boyhood stamping ground. Wonderfully placed for researching the streets which surrounded it, this was where I learned about the beginnings of my grandmother’s home in Denmark Road, where she lived as a child and married woman (see I remember, I remember), and about my great-great grandfather’s house in nearby Coldharbour Lane. Although this early Victorian semi-detached villa-style house was but a short walk away from Denmark Road, none of my immediate relatives had ever been aware of the ‘other family’ before. Unfortunately, knowledge of the first London Skeltons had been ‘lost’ to the generations that followed due to their tangled double-family genealogy. And it is this story with which my project is mainly concerned: by creating a chronological narrative, I hope to eventually have built up a framework on which to hang these knotted threads for further disentangling.

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)

COLD HARBOUR LANE HOUSE (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Brixton houses: two different families

The one thing, however, which unites both Skelton family branches (the lost and the found; the wealthy and the poor) is south London. And this is the place I usually head to on my safaris around the capital. From riverside Bermondsey to Camberwell and Gipsy Hill, and beyond to Croydon, the family has steadily (and typically) moved further south from the river. The master tailor, James Skelton, who first arrived from Yorkshire in the early 19th century, started the trend for moving to somewhere cleaner and more wholesome in which to raise a family, while benefiting from the extra living space – not to mention the increased status such addresses brought. As respiratory problems affected a great deal of Londoners, shortening their lives and causing them misery, including many in my own family, moving away from centres of industry and the burgeoning railways (see A Riverside Rest) was a smart and obvious move for those who  could afford it.

But then as these places themselves fell foul to speculative building, and the once green fields and market gardens were covered with rows of hastily built stockjobbers’ houses, the wealthier sought to move further out. Sometimes that trend was temporarily reversed, as was the case with James Skelton when in middle-age he set up home with an impoverished teenage single mother, shortly after the death of his first wife (see When I Grow Rich). Thus instead of enjoying a well-earned retirement in his leafy Brixton neighbourhood, he had to ‘downsize’ to more industrial Walworth to enable him to bring up six children! I sometimes wonder if, when he died in Aldred Road from bronchitis at 67 (not a bad age in the 1860s), he ever regretted filling up his remaining years with the duties of maintaining another family, or whether those new children had given him a reason to carry on until the end. This was despite the probable distaste his grown-up ‘other’ children had for his union with a young pauper girl, which was only made legal in 1864, shortly before his death.

Aldred Rd. (2)Aldred Road, Walworth c1916

In many ways my family research is not merely an attempt to learn about my unknown London ancestors, but to also discover London in a way that takes me to places I might not have ever visited. As I’ve mentioned previously, despite living in the capital for three years in the mid-eighties, I rarely went south of the river, being content to enjoy the then ‘coolness’ of north and west London. Now it seems inconceivable that I did not think to venture farther than the George Inn on Borough High Street, or the South Bank Centre, but Southwark had always seemed so gloomy to me (from the other side of the river) and childhood memories of boat trips to Greenwich passing dark and forbidding warehouses (where anything might happen) had only added to this impression.

When I did start to explore the streets of ‘London-over-the -water’, I was surprised and delighted at the variety of architectural styles, the hidden gardens, the helpful folk who often appeared whenever I pulled out my A to Z on a street corner. If I was tired, I’d hop on a bus to get a better overview of the surrounding neighbourhood and have the added advantage of seeing into living rooms and gardens as the bus dawdled at lights or crawled up many of south London’s unexpected hills. Sometimes I’d get on the wrong bus and end up somewhere unplanned, but I always tried to see this as an opportunity to discover somewhere new. Tranquil gardens, like those at the Horniman Museum, or wonderful streets, such as Camberwell Grove, would have remained unknown to me had it not been for a wrong turning or a mistaken bus route. Even if there was not a direct ancestral connection, these places were just as fascinating to visit as the neighbourhoods of my forebearers. Oftentimes I wondered if I was walking in the ghost footsteps of someone who had gone before me: Did X ever walk down this road and marvel at the houses just as I do now? Did Y ever visit these gardens and take the same pleasure I do in strolling between the flower beds and sitting under the trees?

Horniman Museuem Gardens c1900Horniman Museum Gardens c1900 (c) Horniman Museum

My favourite activity was to connect up the neighbourhoods in which my ancestors once lived, walking along what I liked to think of as ‘genealogical ley lines’. This is how I came to learn about the River Effra – what the historian and writer Jon Newman describes in his eponymous book as ‘South London’s Secret Spine.’ The name Effra was already familiar to me through my walks in Brixton where there is an Effra Road, Close, Court and Parade, as well as other landmarks which include Effra in their title. Thus I always associated the word ‘Effra’ with that area, just as I did the name ‘Ruskin’ or ‘Denmark’, but without initially giving the etymology much thought. It was only later, when I could map out South London in my head and roughly understand how all the different parts were interconnected that the Effra began to mean more to me than just another ubiquitous street name.

The turning point was when I heard about the relatively new Lambeth Heritage Festival – a month-long series of walks and talks in the area held every September since 2013. Having attended one or two of these events previously, in 2016 I was interested to note that the programme included a trio of excursions which covered the route of the river Effra from its source in Norwood to its outlet into the Thames at Vauxhall. The walks were led by Jon Newman, the head archivist at the Minet library, who had recently published his book on the topic. The first walk was concentrated on the ‘High Effra’ and was advertised as: A horseshoe walk, descending the Lower Norwood branch of the Effra from its source and then returning up the Upper Norwood branch to that stream’s source. The next walk (the ‘Middle Effra’) was described as: A walk along the Effra valley as it passes between Knights Hill and Herne Hill. Finally, the ‘Low Effra’ was billed as: A walk following the course of the ‘new cut’ of the river dug in the middle ages from Kennington to the Thames.

effracoverMuch to my frustration, I wasn’t able to join any of these walks or attend the lecture which accompanied the book launch. However, the following year another talk on the subject was scheduled during the Lambeth Heritage Festival. I took my mother along with me as it coincided with our yearly trip to the capital, and the location – a modern upstairs conference room in Southwark Cathedral – was relatively close to our digs in Bankside. (It would be the last time we would visit London together before all the walking became too much for her). On instinct, I kept the title of the talk a secret from my mother – as I felt befitted the subject. I also had the feeling that the idea of an underground river in south London would not excite her in the same way that it did me. I hoped, however, that the content of the talk would lead her to come to the same realisation that I had.

Halfway through the event, when Jon Newman paused to take a sip of water, my mother turned to me and hissed Our family are the River Effra! And I knew then that she had ‘got it’, too. From Gipsy Hill to Coldharbour Lane to Kennington and the River Thames, the course of the vanished river was like a geographical history of our family. Back in our rooms at the LSE Bankside that night, we scoured Newman’s book and let our eyes linger on the images and maps which accompanied the story of the river from its beginnings in what was once known as The Great North Wood to its artificial ‘outfall’ into the Thames. It was frustrating to note that any photographs which appeared to be of the Effra were only of the old river bed, the watercourse having already been mostly directed underground by the time this technology was in place. As Newman himself points out: Just as London’s nature writers missed out on the Effra so, by and large, did London’s photographers; the river’s vanishing act just pre-dated the growing affordability and portability of cameras.

 River Effra 1870The River Effra channel at Norwood c1870

Perhaps that is why the history of this river exerts such a hold on so many people. The very fact that there are no true images of the Effra as an actual river means that we must rely on other evidence to tell its story – documents, sketches, paintings, maps, place names, the physicality of gurgling drains. But despite all this, the Effra is still hidden to us – in more way than one – and can never be returned to us, for all the fanciful thinking out there. Except perhaps in our imagination, where it rushes and sparkles.

This is also why I believe we are drawn to our family histories: they are like stories forced underground that bubble up to the surface at certain points and intersections, yet can only be fully understood by our own plodding research into the archives. But still we walk the streets, searching for the more physical traces of our ancestors, every so often experiencing a feeling that we cannot quite describe, but briefly sense it to be one that has passed through the generations. The smell of the Thames at high tide from a set of watermans’ stairs; the bells at St Paul’s on a rainy Sunday morning; the taste of roast chestnuts on a winter’s afternoon in early December. Or we might glance up for no reason and see a ghost sign advertising the rental of carriages on the side of a building, or turn into an unexpected alley in the City which smells of beer and grilled chops and hear the chink of cutlery, the sound of laughter. And in those moments we may feel the shape-shifting nature of time.

The physicist and writer Carlo Rovelli talks briefly about the nature of time

Just as many of our ancestors bemoaned what was being lost, perhaps fearing that time was racing forwards without their consent, we too are often nostalgic for the buildings and places that no longer exist – in particular those which are just tantalisingly out of the reach of living memory. Yet there can also be a danger to this way of thinking: we should not forget that our past was once someone else’s future. The restored Victorian warehouses which line the Thames in my great-great grandfather’s Horsleydown neighbourhood (now part of Bermondsey) are nothing less than modern replacements for the old timbered ones my ancestors would have known. The Tower Bridge, loved and revered by so many, involved the destruction of local neighbourhoods on either side of the river (including part of Horsleydown Lane), and it is easy to forget that many eminent Victorians disliked such displays of the Gothic pastiche that came to dominate the architecture of the time. In some quarters there were even calls for its removal in the post war development of the city. (Writing in South London in 1949, the opinionated but highly readable historian Harry Williams contends that: The Tower Bridge is inefficient and a back-number, but it is part of the London scene for, as previously remarked, the river without it is almost unimaginable.  It must be replaced since it is an anachronism, but it should be succeeded, not by the underground tunnel recommended by the County of London Plan, but by a splendid new bridge, a magnificent conception to lift up our hearts every time we gaze upon it).

TOWER BRIDGEThe ‘new’ Tower Bridge – with Horsleydown Lane on the right

When we think about the sad story of the Effra, polluted and pushed underground over the years in the name of progress, it is hard to see this as anything but the converse. Newman points out that today such a river would most likely be regarded as a ‘soft’ engineering solution to the increased rainfall caused by climate change – in the same way other watercourses have been ‘re-natured’. Not only does this provide an attractive landscape for local residents and restores wildlife habitats, but a natural, meandering watercourse slows down and incorporates water that may cause flooding downstream during heavy rains.

For all our nostalgia over lost churches and streets, perhaps it is the loss of this unphotographed natural splendour – and others like it – which we should mourn most of all.

To be continued next month in A River Ran Under Them.

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2019

Those Ghostly Traces

As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperilled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life. Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family – and often, is all that remains of it.

Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

In the second part of Camera Lucida (1980) – Roland Barthes’ strange and moving text on the nature of photography – Barthes describes the futile search for the essence of his recently deceased mother in her collection of family photographs. Now, one November evening, shortly after my mother’s death, I was going through some photographs. I had no hope of ‘finding her’, I expected nothing from these ‘photographs of a being before which one recalls less of that being than by thinking of him or her’ (Proust), I had acknowledged that fatality, one of the most agonizing features of mourning, which decreed that however often I might consult such images, I could never recall her features (summon them up as a totality).

Camera Lucida (1980)Later in the book, however, we discover that Barthes finally believes he  has  succeeded in finding  the image which defines his mother for him. There I was alone, in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved. And I found it. Barthes goes on to describe this photograph (the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’) of his mother as a young girl in great detail – although maddeningly  he chooses not to reproduce it in the text, as he does other images. His reasoning for this decision is that for us it would be nothing but an indifferent  picture and would not possess the ability to wound us or remind us of our own mortality in the same way it does for him.

Much has been made about the omission of this photograph, with some scholars going so far as to even doubt its existence – at least in the form that Barthes described. Whether this is true or not, Barthes is at pains to describe the anguish felt at being unable to penetrate the other images of his mother, whereas the only one which has given me the splendour of her truth is precisely a lost, remote photograph, one which does not look ‘like’ her, the photograph of a child I never knew.

This search for the ‘true identity’ of his mother relates in part to the first section of Camera Lucida, in which Barthes describes the impact that certain photographs have on the viewer. He does this by using two terms which have since become commonplace in the study of photography. The first is the studium – which can loosely be described as what the photographer intended the image to represent (a calculated decision); whereas the punctum is what unexpectedly ‘pierces’ the viewer, breaking through the intellectual coldness of the studium. So according to Barthes, the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ would possess no punctum for us – but would simply be a study of a brother and sister in a conservatory, or winter garden, at the turn the century. In other words, it would (if at all) only affect us at the level of the studium.

CAMERA LUCIDA QUOTE

By deciding not to publish the picture, Barthes is possibly recreating his own frustrations at being unable to go beyond his initial feeling of euphoria at having ‘discovered’ his mother – to accede to what is behind. Barthes goes on to describe his desire to enlarge the details of the photograph in order to try to get closer to the essence of his mother, knowing as he does so that it will only distort the image and render it even more difficult to ‘see’. According to Barthes, a  photograph can never totally surrender its secrets to the viewer: this is the ultimate nature of the photograph as that-has-been.

Barthes does, at least, admit to photography’s more superficial ability to make the genetic attributes of a person more prominent – something of particular interest for family historians. He states: But more insidious, more penetrating than likeness: the photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror): a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself or of a relative which comes from some ancestor.

edith_stops_at_95_denmark_road_camberwell-3 (2)Perhaps it is both things we ourselves are seeking when we scrutinise our own family photographs. When I look at the picture of my grandmother as a child outside the old family home in Brixton (I Remember, I Remember), am I not looking for  her essence and her connection to me? When I look at the photograph of myself as a baby on her lap, over half a century later, am I not asking myself: Is this where my fat face comes from?

Coker Woods (4)And my renewed interest in discovering more about  my  London ancestors was, in part, rekindled by the discovery of the hand-coloured photograph of my father as an evacuee in East Coker (see In my Beginning is my End). When I first came across the image it was as if I was looking at another father – one who seemed more carefree than I had ever known him to be – and the idea that this ‘lost father’ could be the key to understanding the complex and at times contradictory individual I’d known, seemed very appealing. But, like Barthes, my initial feeling of excitement at having this sudden window thrown open onto the past soon turned to a certain degree of frustration at the obvious limitations of the exercise.

In the final part of Barthes’ many-layered and wilfully obscure text, in which he reduces the idea of the photograph to that-has-been (the ultimate evidence of the existence of a moment in time, a mad image, chafed by reality), he attempts to pin down the emotion that certain pictures aroused (or ‘pricked’) in him – first calling it love, then settling on pity as a more apt description: . . . I passed beyond the unreality of the thing represented, I entered crazily into the spectacle, into the image, taking into my arms what is dead, what is going to die . . .

The same sentiment is echoed in On Photography, when Sontag states that: Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. An ugly or grotesque subject may be moving because it has been dignified by the attention of the photographer. A beautiful subject can be the object of rueful feelings, because it has aged or decayed or no longer exists. All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Much has changed in the world of photography since these two influential texts were written –  we are all photographers now, and the modern world is awash with a superfluity of images. However, in an age dominated by nostalgia, there has been renewed interest in ‘looking for the lost’: cataloguing things which have disappeared or are on the cusp of oblivion. Old photographs are treasured, reprinted, exchanged and collected, allowing us the opportunity to become custodians of the past. As Sontag points out: A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject, would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900. . . Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.

Those of us who can remember when cameras were not so ubiquitous may now lament the missed opportunities to document our lives and those of our families and communities. (In youth it is hard to make a connection between one’s own present and a future past; and the aging process inevitably does away with the notion of distant future.)

On the Low Green, Ayr 1965
Family Slide: Picnic on the Low Green, Ayr, 1965 (with my mother and paternal grandparents)

Our family were very typical of those in the pre-digital era, taking photographs only on holidays and high days. These select images were captured on Kodak slide film, which meant that they have been relatively well-preserved – even though there was often a certain amount of exasperation surrounding their inaccessibility (inevitably there were no functioning batteries available for the slide viewer when nostalgia struck). For a brief few years we also had a projector which magnified the images onto a screen – something which delighted us as children as we played poor man’s ‘home cinema’. But oh, if only we’d had the luxury of owning a ciné camera! What a privilege it would be to see those who are long-gone in front of us once more on fading Super 8, romping and waving with the air of determined glee that old amateur films seem to demand of their subjects.  

Conversely, Barthes is of the opinion that photographs are more poignant than the moving image by virtue of the fact that they capture only one specific moment and have no future referent. (In the Photograph, Time’s immobilization assumes only an excessive, monstrous mode: Time is engorged). He believes it to be impossible for photography to conjure up real memories (which are not static),  and that it  may in fact even lead to  replacing them with  false ones.  It is true to say that family albums do engender a certain amount of selective recall: for me, I can only ever recall being dressed in a kilt when I went to visit my grandparents in London.

LONDON-SHIP
With my mother, in homemade kilt, London, early 1970s. What fascinates me now is the undeveloped dockland behind us.

In terms of the power of photography to offer up a truthful likeness, Sontag believes that most devotees of Shakespeare would prefer to have a photograph of the Bard (however faded it might be) than an exquisite painting by a master portrait painter, such as Holbein the Younger, because a photograph is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask. As she so aptly points out: Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross

ARTHURFor family historians, the possession of a picture of a long-deceased family member may arouse similar feelings. When I first  encountered the group portrait of my grandparents’ wedding (see banner image in the heading above) I was mesmerised by the fact that I was seeing my great-grandfather Arthur for the first time. Someone who had been born over a century before me and who had previously only been a name in a parish register and census return had suddenly taken on a ‘living’ form. Finally I could see where the family eyes came from, the bushy eyebrows, the high forehead. And when Barthes describes his wonderment and awe at seeing a photograph of Napoleon’s younger brother, knowing that he was looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor, then I understood exactly what he meant: I felt the same unsettling emotion at the idea that I was looking at someone who had known my mysterious great-great-grandfather, James Skelton (who plays a pivotal role in the family  story).

It is hard for me to find an illustration of my own personal equivalent of the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’, but one which comes very close is the image of my paternal grandfather, Sidney Skelton, below. Little is known about this studio photograph, except that it was taken when he joined the Hussars, several years before the outbreak of World War One at a time when the British army was building up its reserves. Wanting to escape the poverty of a working class boyhood in Lambeth and the endless waiting at the docks in the hope of a day’s work, he may have inadvertently saved his own life by making that decision. (As a trained cavalry soldier he would have been in a much better position to survive the conflict than those who were hurriedly conscripted later).

When my parents first received a copy of this photograph from my aunt, my mother decided to frame it and put it out for my father to appreciate – and this in a family that very rarely displays family photographs. But a few days later it disappeared: my father had packed it away because he found it too disturbing to see the image of his deceased father as a young man with his life still before him. At the time I thought this a rather odd thing to do. I loved the picture of my soldier-grandfather who I’d only ever known as a rather quick-tempered and gnarly old man, and of whom I had always been slightly afraid. And it fascinated me that the long sinewy fingers which held the riding crop were identical to mine and my father’s, particularly evident in the way we held books and newspapers. 

But for me it is the slightly drooping eyes – another family trait – which ‘pierces’ me. There is something both innocent and knowing about the way this young man looks straight at the camera, resplendent in his new uniform. It is almost as if he is able to see fearlessly into the future. His steady gaze and the slight flicker of a smile make me feel that he is telling us he has accepted his destiny , whatever it may bring, and that he is finally ready for his life to begin.

GRANDAD S

To be continued . . . 

Happy New Year! from The Incidental Genealogist, January 2016