There is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.
Helen Keller (1912)
Skelton Family Christmas, London 1966
As mentioned in September’s post, this month I will be returning to the beginning of my story as I edit the first 5,000 words of A London Family for the Myslexia 2020 Memoir Writing Competition (details here). For the first section of my entry, I have combined the static page entitled The Incidental Genealogist is Born with my initial post of Begin Again from September 2015.
Although the former would have also made an ideal first chapter, I decided to place it apart from the rest of the blog posts in order to highlight the background information to my quest. In addition, it did not quite fit into the About the Search page (equivalent to the About Me page in many blogs) which I felt needed to be short and succinct. I initially avoided giving away too much about myself as I wanted the main focus to be my research, with the personal elements interspersed throughout the story. I personally prefer to read the type of memoir where the backstory of the writer is gradually revealed on a need-to-know basis, while being interwoven with a higher quest, as I feel this keeps the reader’s interest piqued.
As I edit my writing I will comment on any aspects of this process as well as other points that I become aware of while rewriting the initial section. This may be of interest to others attempting similar projects or those simply curious about the writing process. Editing a text is a very different process from putting the initial words down on paper (or screen), but it is a satisfactory and enjoyable process that also sheds light on individual writing practices.
I have given the text the working title of The Lost Family. This seems to me more poetic and mysterious than A London Family, and was actually the original blog title before I realised that it was rather ambiguous for online searching (where names need to closely reflect their content).
The Lost Family: Part 1
Back in 1984 most people could only guess at what the technological revolution would unleash. Even that harbinger of our silver-suited future, Tomorrow’s World, had only an inkling of the invention that would bring both pornography and family history (two of the most popular uses of the internet) into our homes. And in that Orwellian pre-internet year, fresh out of college and facing the economic realities of the North-South Divide, I decided to follow Norman Tebbit’s advice, and headed to my father’s home city of London in search of a job. (Albeit on the overnight mail train from Scotland).
Stranraer to Euston train in Ayr (AKA ‘the paddy’ as it linked with the Irish ferries)
In media res (sort of): My first edit involved removing the introductory paragraph and starting with the one above, which not only helped to reduce the wordcount, but also meant I was beginning with action, rather than background details. This is a common editing technique which often results in a much tighter introduction, bringing the reader into the story faster and encouraging them to read on.
One day shortly before Christmas, when the capital was looking its most enticing – and expensive – I spied an advertisement for a trainee genealogist in the window of the Job Centre in Kensington High Street. Although the advert had initially caught my eye because it looked like a job where my biology degree might be useful, even my interviewer was unclear about what exactly I’d be doing for £3 an hour, 35 hours a week. However, she did make the job sound rather exciting: like becoming a private detective without the risks. And anything was better than my current role as temporary shelf-stacker at Sainsbury’s, West Ealing.
The devil is in the details: I initially changed the final phrase of this paragraph to the more general supermarket shelf-stacker in order to reduce my wordcount and because I felt slightly uncomortable naming the actual place (as it had been a rather eye-opening experience). However, I later returned to the original and more specific temporary shelf-stacker at Sainsbury’s, West Ealing as I felt that it was exactly this sort of detail that made the description come alive and personalised the text.
Two days later, on a bright December morning, I nervously climbed up the marble, statue-lined stairs to the tiny office on the top floor of the impressive Africa House in Holborn. I never thought to ask the elegant middle-aged man who interviewed me from behind the large mahogany desk what exactly he would do with the results of my genealogical research – I was too busy trying to look sophisticated in my American tan tights and scratchy new wool suit than to worry about the company’s ethics. Besides, ethical concerns were not top of anyone’s agenda in 1984, least of all in Thatcher’s London.
Africa House, Kingsway Holborn – imposing inside and out.
Eventually I discovered the firm’s main source of income came from matching unclaimed legacies with missing relatives. In other words, they were probate genealogists, or so-called ‘heir hunters’, although I was never quite sure of the ins and outs of the business. The staff had obviously been told to keep me in the dark whilst I was undertaking my three months’ probation and I was cautioned not to have contact with any other local genealogists. Later I had to sign a contract agreeing not to accept employment for a rival firm within a one-mile radius of Africa House for up to two years after leaving the company. This sounded decidedly dodgy, even to my young, provincial ears, and I knew that the job must be something involving large sums of money and possibly subterfuge.
A parenthesis is evidence that the man who uses it does not know how to write English or is too indolent to take the trouble to do it. (Mark Twain): In the above paragraphs I realised that I originally had a number of clauses in parenthesis (dashes and brackets), something I know I tend to overdo. While this is possibly more acceptable in a blog post, I thought I should try to avoid this when submitting a manuscript. However, I realise that some of my favourite authors have their own punctuation quirks, so feel I need to tread a fine line between keeping my own style without it becoming wearying for the reader. Plus, I don’t necessarily always agree with Mark Twain’s statement (c.f. Tristram Shandy)!
When I first started working there – and to this day I cannot remember the name of the company, I could almost swear it never had one – there was only one other ‘field researcher’. Cyril was a tall, stooped man, who used to be something in the City, and had come out of a bored retirement in the Home Counties to put in a couple of days work a week. After our research was over for the morning, and if the weather was fine, Cyril and I would cut down Surrey Street to the Embankment and eat our packed lunches on a bench overlooking the Thames, throwing our crusts to the lone Muscovy duck living on that stretch of the river. I enjoyed Cyril’s company – he was a quiet and thoughtful man and an antidote to the loud and brazen money-crazed yuppies who seemed to be everywhere in London that year. But one morning, arriving late at Alexandra House after a delay on the Northern Line, I found Cyril collapsed in a chair in the black-booked corner of Deaths, a bucket at his feet and a concerned assistant nervously standing over him. An ambulance was summoned, and after that episode my fellow researcher disappeared back into retirement (much to the relief of his adult children) and I was left on my own.
Building the new Victorian Embankment behind Somerset House c1860s
Making the Most of Memory (article here): When I reread this paragraph I was surprised at how much I’d remembered from that time. Even though I wrote a draft of this text almost 10 years ago now, it was still much later than the actual event. However, once I started writing down my memories, many more flowed from them. Specific ones obviously stood out – my job interview in Africa House and Cyril becoming ill, for example. While other occasions seemed to be less important, I was still able to recall them in detail. Feeding the Muscovy duck at the Thames was one such memory: looking back I realise I was like a sponge at that point – keen to learn as much about London and the world as possible. Cyril was an interesting companion who clearly enjoyed the role of benign teacher, and working together presented both of us with opportunies to benefit from the exchange.
I soon grew bored of the research. What had initially seemed like a challenge eventually became routine and I started rushing through the lists of dead people I had to find so I could sneak in some searches for my elusive London ancestors. This helped to break the monotony of looking through the heavy records books for several hours a day (punctuated by the occasional jaunt to Somerset House for wills or the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane for the census returns), and often I could combine the two tasks if the search dates and places overlapped. Coming across a relative’s name scribbled by some registrar or census enumerator gave me a thrill that those of the unknown people on my list never did. And once I started ordering copies of their birth, marriage and death certificates, it was even more gratifying to see the familiar family name, sometimes in my ancestors’ own hands.
In the pre-internet days, all the records had to be consulted in situ by perusing the large unwieldy books which were shelved chronologically in St Catherine’s House (blood red for Births; spring green for Marriages) and Alexandra House (Deaths in black, of course). There was a sort of comforting rhythm that I would fall into – lifting the books, flipping over the pages, replacing them, moving onto the next, scribbling into my reporters’ pad. Apart from the thump of books and the shuffle of feet along the rows and the occasional stagey whisper, the place was usually quiet. There were no inadvertent throbs and tinkles of mobile phones, or the sound of computers whirring and chiming. The professional genealogists (of which I almost felt a part) worked quickly and methodically, briefcases at their feet, eyes averted from their rivals.
As the morning wore on, amateur researchers came in with their tuck boxes, much the same as they visit the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell today. But unlike the airy rooms of the LMA with their computer terminals and changing exhibitions, the dark and stuffy records offices were strange places to be sequestered for a young woman eager for life in London to begin.
Searching Wills in Somerset House c1875 (not much changed in a century!)
How times change: Once Cyril left the company I felt as if I did not have any allies in the office. There was a rather gruff older woman called Mary Lush who baffled me with her opening line of But I’m certainly not one! on being introduced. It was many years later before I’d learn what a lush was! She also referred to the boss (who wore a fedora and a long coat with a fur collar) as A sort of Walter Mitty figure, another reference which completely escaped me. A young person today would only need to whip out their phone to find out what Mrs Lush-by-name-but-not-by nature meant (if they could be bothered). I did not have that luxury and felt too unsure of myself to ask. I normally saved these things up to ask my parents when I called them on Sunday night from the phone box at the end of the street (when I could be bothered). Mum was great at clearing up any confusion to cultural references and words were her forté. Dad was even less chatty by phone than he was normally, but would sometimes take the call and talk for a minute ot two before saying ‘I’ll pass you over to your mother’.
Just thinking about how technology has changed so much over the intervening decades makes me realise that the experiences of my childhood and youth are probably a lot closer to those of my parents than ones experienced by the tech-savvy generations to follow. However, unlike my parents I benefited from the boom in higher education started in the 1960s and the free university places open to all. In 1984 I was also living with a boyfriend in London – mainly to save money on rent, as I recall, and not for any grand passion – something that my mother could never have contemplated in her twenties. However, I told the genealogists in Africa House that I was living with my female cousin in case they thought any the less of me. So perhaps things were not quite as free and open as I remember. It seems to me that the early 80s were the beginning of a more modern time. People stopped saying ‘Good morning/afternoon/evening’ as a greeting in the street and started to say simply ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’. At some point we no longer prefixed our phone answering at home with calling out ‘Alloway 43883’. And we also started to eat in the dining room during the week (rather than just on Sundays and special occasions).
I was certainly not sad to leave it all behind me for a very different job as a trainee virologist at a lively teaching hospital. I always knew that one day – when the time was right – I would return to my research. Yet what finally started up my quest again, over a quarter of a century later, was a documentary about a family I knew or cared little about.
Late one wet September afternoon in 2010, still exhausted from a recent sightseeing trip to New York, I lay on the sofa, trawling the internet for something undemanding to distract me from that miserable, out-of-sorts feeling that comes from being jetlagged. Eventually I stumbled across an intriguing-looking documentary about the Waugh Family, based on the book Fathers and Sons by Alexander Waugh. And by the time the story of the Waughs had drawn to its natural conclusion, I felt like an addict denied the next fix.
Images from the film continued to spool through my head while I tackled the ironing basket. Like others who had left comments on the website, I’d been both maddened and moved by the content. The Waughs were clearly the kind of family with heirlooms, and family paintings and draughty piles in the country – and in their particular case, a literary legacy). Even though they’d had their share of ups and downs over the centuries, it was obvious they knew their place in the world. Not only had they the things to prove it – pieces of furniture that were passed from one generation to another, as well as documents and graves to confirm their existence – but there was the intangible wealth tied up in the family name with its reputation and traditions.
Three Generations of Waughs (Auberon, Alexander and Evelyn)
This set me thinking about my own namesake family once more. Since my first attempt at genealogy, both my father and uncle had died, making me more keenly aware that twenty-five years can decimate a lot of witnesses to the past. Perhaps that is why Alexander Waugh’s documentary had affected me. There is the parent explaining death to the child: One day we all die. Even I will leave you, as you in turn will leave your children; and the needy child inside the adult: Why did my parents have to die! But Waugh at least seems to take comfort in knowing there are graves to visit if one chooses (even only to spit on). There are books which chart the family history. There are copious photographs and records of the family member’s lives. And that is before even mentioning the literary oeuvre, as well as the more tangible objects of houses and heirlooms.
The branch without fruit: Looking back, it now seems obvious that my project gained momentum as soon as I discovered the ‘lost family’ – the one which my great-great grandfather, James Skelton (The Tailor from Horsleydown) had with his first wife. I was particularly fascinated by his son: the social climber, James Wiliam Skelton, who married a well-connected woman from an interesting family and added her name to his to create the shortlived Sleath-Skelton branch of the family. Despite none of the three children having any issue of their own, two of them in particular – Maude Beatrice and Herbert – have left a particularly long paper trail, which meant I was privy to how the other half (of my family) lived. Yet their lives frequently disappointed me in that the opportunities they had to engage themselves with more nobler acts, rather than simply amassing fame or fortune, were never taken. There appeared to be no grand philanthropic gestures or involvement in social or political movements that brought about change.
Perhaps in that respect I need not feel ‘intimidated’ by families such as the Waughs. The more I delved into my own family history, the more I came to believe that, in the case of my ancestors, a good heart and a sense of adventure are more important than possessions and status. The fact that my great-great grandfather eventually set up home with a young, impoverished single mother while he was approaching fifty, now seems like an act of faith. Although they did not marry until shortly before he died, the five children they had of their own together in the same terrace in Aldred Road in Kennington is proof of his commitment to a woman whose parents and younger siblings were no strangers to the horrors of the Victorian workhouse.
Aldred Road, Kennington, early 20th C
Those originating from a more ‘ordinary’ kind of family (although I don’t believe that any family is truly ordinary) often have scant knowledge about their ancestors. Lack of space, time and money meant that little was passed on from one generation to another. Some might be lucky enough to find letters and cards stored in an old hat box in the attic. A christening shawl or part of a wedding outfit might be discovered, yellowing in a leather suitcase. Or even a family bible, the family names annotated inside in fading ink, located at the back of a woodworm-infested bookcase. But for most amateur genealogists the photograph album is the place to begin.
Nowadays, thanks to the internet, there are collectors around the world who try to find the descendants of long-lost family albums and ‘orphaned’ photographs. Their success rate is not particularly high, but they persevere due to their belief in the intrinsic value of the project. The albums and photographs are unearthed in junk shops, garage sales and house clearances, the family keeper of memories (for there is always one, and it is usually a she) having no doubt passed away without a worthy heir to inherit the role. The images posted on the web, in the hope of reuniting them with their descendants, are sad and silent sepia reminders of our own mortality, and the fact that we too will soon be forgotten about. Many of the them come from the heyday of the studio Cabinet Card, where the sitters’ expressions were rigid from the immobility necessary for the length of the exposure, unaware that future generations will judge them to have been grim and stern. These photographs can usually never reflect the reality of the period, and often confer on their subjects a grandness that would have been absent from their daily lives.
A further limitation is that the photographs mostly only cover a certain period. It is unusual to find a picture of the father as a child, then later as a grandfather. For that you must have a chronological album spanning decades – a luxury denied to most. Or even a big messy box still waiting to be catalogued. I am lucky that my mother has the latter. Several messy boxes, in fact. Most of them started out life containing now defunct brands of goods from the 1940s, and for the last half a century have housed an eclectic mix of photographs from the Scottish side of the family, spanning well over a hundred years.
I remember the first evening my grandmother brought out the photograph boxes, their outdated labels already exciting me with the intimations of a yesteryear of which I was not a part. I was around seven or eight then – the perfect age to be initiated into the delights of the family album, particularly for such a morbid child as I was. After that it became a ritual: every time we went to visit our Scottish grandparents there was always one evening set aside for the albums and the endless questions they generated. At first I couldn’t quite believe it was possible to possess photographs that were so old. Surely cameras were too modern an invention to have been around during the 19th century? And those strange clothes looked terribly stiff and uncomfortable. I wasn’t able to make the connection that the outfits I saw on the BBC’s Sunday afternoon children’s period dramas had actually been worn by normal people, some of whom were related to me.
Ann and Mary and Ann Neilson with older friend, c1920, Edinburgh
My sister and I always had our favourite pictures that we searched for first: our two ‘youngest’ great-aunts, standing outside their tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Old Town, holding hands with a neighbour’s child, both of them in grubby pinafores and tackety boots; our mother, perched on the steps of her childhood home towards the end of the war, proud in her new school uniform; Grandad looking dashing in plus fours, leaning on his motorcycle, smoking a pipe. We saw our living relatives in ways we’d never imagined before, and we learnt about the others who’d gone before us but who still touched the lives of those who had once known them.
What’s in a name? When I originally described this picture of our two ‘youngest’ great-aunts I had included the line whose Christian names were now our middle ones. I always knew I’d been named after my great-aunt Mary, who was like a second grandmother to me, and just assumed my sister had been called after Mary’s older sister, Ann. But it was only when I questioned my mother about this recently that she pointed out that it was actually her own best friend (and bridesmaid) whom my sister was named after. This actually made more sense, as our great-aunt Ann had moved to the south of England on her marriage and my mother had little to do with her while growing up (in comparison to her close relationship with her Aunt Mary).
Recently when I asked my paternal aunt about the origins of her middle name ‘Florence’ (thinking she was named after one of her Skelton cousins – ‘Little Flo’ – who died from complications after childbirth) she also explained that it was the name of her mother’s best friend. This made me realise that it was important not to presume anything when carrying out genealogical research. My own erroneous assumption had led me to thinking that the Skelton families were closer than they were – even though my aunt explained that my grandmother, Edith, kept her distance from my grandfather’s family, believing them to be a bit wild!
Rereading a letter she sent me about her parents’ wedding photograph (shown below) she states: The two bridesmaids in the the front are, on the left Little Flo (Skelton) from Elm Road in Thornton Heath and (on the right) Flo French from Coldharbour Junction, Edith’s friend since childhood.
My Grandparents’ Wedding in October 1924 with the Two Flos
It had always puzzled me that in contrast my father did not seem to possess any photographs of his family. In many ways it was inevitable I’d eventually want to continue my quest to find out more about the paternal name-carrying side of family of which I knew so little. The Waugh documentary was simply the catalyst to reignite my interest in my London family.
To be continued . . .
The Incidental Genealogist, October 2020