Some Victorian weddings

I have just heard of a wedding taking place this summer which is to cost £55,000, a shocking expenditure in my opinion.  But will it be any more festive than some of the weddings  that took place between 1863 and 1870, uniting various members of my family then resident in Merioneth, North Wales?

A Victorian Wedding

A Victorian Wedding

The most striking difference between then and now is the close connection between the local community and the gentry, among which my forebears could now count themselves.  The villagers hung out flags in honour of the occasion; if they could not afford flags, they hung out their coloured handkerchiefs.  If the bride was local, they built decorative arches under which her carriage rolled towards the church.  These were covered with flowers and greenery, and carried banners wishing the couple well, in Welsh or English.  Children strewed the church path with flowers. Throughout the day, rounds of rock cannon were fired off.  This was a custom peculiar to North Wales.  Take a chunk of rock, bore some holes in it and fill these with gunpowder.  Fill a goose quill with powder to act as a fuse.  The resulting explosions illuminated and reverberated round the slate quarries.    In the evening neighbours lit up their windows with candles and there was a bonfire.  Mr John Casson’s wedding took place just before Christmas 1863 in the bride’s home village in Essex, so the main local celebration was to greet the couple when they returned on Christmas Eve from a short bridal tour.  A whole crowd met their carriage, unharnessed the horses and led the couple round the square in front of the Hotel, then off up the road and through an evergreen arch, to the family home.  Mr Casson made a speech, in English and Welsh, assuring his listeners that although ’Mrs Casson could not   speak to them in Welsh . . .she had promised him that she would try to learn the language’. The consensus was ‘that a merrier Christmas Eve was never seen in Festiniog’.

For that wedding, there was a dinner for the Casson household and farmhands, buns and oranges were distributed to all the schoolchildren, and half a pound of tea to each of the most deserving poor.  For his niece Mary Casson’s, in 1869, her parents laid on a ‘sumptuous luncheon’ for the wedding guests, a dinner in the farm-yard for tenants, workmen and neighbours, and a dinner of roast beef and plum pudding for the inmates of the workhouse at Penrhyndeudraeth, followed by evening tea.  The following year, Mary’s brother Thomas Casson married the daughter of a retired Welsh sea-captain, who lived like a squire in the nearby village of Talsarnau.  He laid on a grand supper for all his workers and families, and a tea-party for nearly 200 schoolchildren.  When the couple returned from honeymoon – the word was in general usage by then – there was an evening of music and speeches in the school to honour them, and the bride was presented with a handsome Bible and a celebratory ‘address’ engrossed on vellum.

These descriptions show up the sharp divide between rich and poor – which a welfare state was no doubt expected to eradicate.  But in these small Victorian Welsh communities, those who had either been born, or raised themselves,  into the gentry, clearly enjoyed and were honoured for carrying out some social obligations.


© Diana Devlin

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Scraps that survive

Among my grandmother’s (Mabel Burnley nee Harrison) few surviving papers are some interesting items.  There is a newspaper obituary of her father who died in 1933 and several letters about the business of clearing up his estate, but the oddest of all is a page from the Gomersal Book Society.  This must date between 1904-1913 and I cannot think of any reason why it has survived except by accident.  Nor can I find any trace of the book society to which it refers.

I suspect this was part of the Mechanics Institute in Gomersal which maintained a fair-sized library – it had 700 books when it was founded in 1854.  The reading room at the Institute, which had 200

A 100 year-old scrap of family history

A 100 year-old scrap of family history

members at this time, was well supplied with newspapers and journals, among them the Illustrated London News, Punch, the Leeds Mercury, Society of Arts Journal as well as evangelical magazines.  My great-grandfather, Thomas Lockwood Burnley and his cousin Thomas had been elected to the committee in 1887 and Thomas became a Trustee in 1907.  At some point the latter took charge of the English Mechanic and the Times Parliamentary Debates.  The rules of this book society were no doubt very ordinary, but from the tone one suspects that fines were levied and paid and the strict procedures complied with.  (If you click to enlarge the image you can read them).  It is nice to know that these two mill owners were fairly keen readers, on a wide range of subjects.  They had both had a respectable eduction – Thomas Lockwood at Applegate Grammar School in Newark – and Thomas at an obscure place in Doncaster.  This yellowing scrap of paper offers just a tiny and insignificant detail of their lives and how I wish more had survived.


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Where to next with Joseph?

I have just come back from the dentist who cheerfully informed me that the chipmunk bulge on the right side of my face was an abscess and a tooth will need to be pulled out as well as removing and remaking the neighbouring tooth’s cap to fill in the space.   I am lucky.  My dentist, well trained in my personal orthodontic needs since our first meeting as young things in the late 1970′s, will put me to sleep for the tooth extraction.   It made me wonder what the state and care of Joseph and his family’s teething was in the first half of the eighteenth century.

A Treatise on the Disorders and Deformities of the Teeth and Gums (1770)

A Treatise on the Disorders and Deformities of the Teeth and Gums (1770)

A Treatise on the Disorders and Deformities of the Teeth and Gums (1770) is thought to be the earliest book on dentistry.   Usually, whether wealthy or poor, teeth were ‘fixed’ by the local barber or blacksmith.   It was only later in the century that the idea – and quackery – of implanting teeth usually ripped from the mouths of children or young adults for a few coins laid the foundation for dentistry as we now know it.

I am assuming that since Joseph was 50 years old when he died he had good set of pearly whites.  There was no early death from blood poisoning due to rotten teeth or deformities in his facial features to indicate abscesses eating away into the jaw bones.  The two portraits of him painted by Thomas Hudson in the 1740′s show Joseph as a jolly man who looks as though he enjoys food and comfortable living.  I know from another portrait by an unknown artist that Joseph smoked so having tobacco stained teeth and a resulting questionable breath may have been normal for him.   But this may have been checked the 18th century drinking fluids which were mainly fermented and alcoholic, so maybe the alcohol acted as a mouthwash against most dental bacteria.

I think it is time to leave thoughts of Joseph’s teeth, but when I write my next blog hopefully mine will be back in the pink – or is that pearly white?


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Letters from my grandparents

I have written before on the subject of letters from my grandparents and what they meant to me when I received them and what they mean to me now.  I took one out of my writing box – a blue leather case I got for my 13th birthday (how I had longed for it and still use today, along with my sewing basket with my school number sewn onto the handle) – to refer to for my blog last month and I kept it out and re-read it and went to look for the others I had received from the same grandfather during my first year living in Izmir.  It struck me that here was a man 0f 98 whose life  spanned a century from the age of Victoria to that of Elizabeth II, who had witnessed  two world wars and much else besides, yet was still quite able to connect with me and what I was doing and relate it to his own experiences.  The sentences sing with interest and  encouragement. Here is just one example: “One never forgets one’s first sojourn in the East, near, middle or far.  My nine months in India, 2 years in Egypt, and most memorable, 9 months in Palestine were exquisite experiences.  You have down well to take the opportunity.  I sometime [sic] think to have done that, i.e., to have taken the opportunity is the supreme point of living…”

Later in the same letter he goes on to observe how, in Izmir, I am surrounded by ‘some of the most memorable bits of the ancient world. All of them at least ‘half as old as time’ and ends with his favourite exhortation to me to remember: “Unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna…”, an exhortation that set Ben and me off on many a journey to look for the seven churches in Revelations. One letter then, which began with history and ended with the Bible and along the way included a little phrase that has made me prouder than anything: “Stick to writing, you have a flair that way and it repays as a pleasant exercise.”  I am trying to, Grandpa, a little late in the day, but I am.

How lucky to have a cache of letters such as these, always my leitmotif as readers of this blog will know, and a source of endless memories and inspiration as well as a wonderful golden thread joining me to my grandparents and their history – the history of our family.  There are more letters, and from  my other grandparents too, and yet I wonder how future generations, in this age of disposable communication, will ever be able to feel that same golden thread linking them to their pasts?

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Is it never finished?

Researching one’s family can be a lifelong hobby – especially as there are so many different branches of any family to trace back.  But most of us aim to have a finished ‘product’ which we can circulate within the family or a wider audience.  So when to stop following up those distant relatives?  My family story is centred on the Burnley family and their wool mill in Gomersal, Yorkshire and I have made many trips there to find out more.   However, my great great grandfather, George Herbert Burnley (1841-1917) went into farming and by 1879 had left Yorkshire to farm near Newark.  It doesn’t actually alter the focus of my story as his only son, Thomas Lockwood, returned to Yorkshire to join the family business and his son was apprenticed to do the same, but it is a tantalising byway.

One of those cutlery items

One of those cutlery items

George Herbert Burnley was at Lower Hexgreave farm from about 1879, then Python Hill Farm by 1885 and retired to Farnsfield village by 1891 at the rather young age of 50 but the why and how will forever remain a mystery.  I can speculate that the long downturn in farming meant his son saw no future in it and/or that his childless uncle offered him a role in the family mill business but will never know for sure.  In contrast to the Yorkshire ancestors who stayed in one place, this ‘rolling stone’ left few traces.  I have no photo of him – only some ugly silver plated cutlery monogrammed with his initials and a huge heavy Bible which he gave to his only son on his marriage in 1892 with best wishes for his welfare – a rather stilted message.

Front page of that family Bible

Front page of that family Bible

GH moved to Llanfarfechan in Wales some time after 1906, with his wife Emma. His two unmarried daughters joined him and died there themselves in due course.  I did commission some research from the Nottinghamshire archives recently which turned up very little.  I doubt I shall travel to Wales to explore further especially as it is peripheral to my main story and a long way to go.  So this ancestor will be ‘parked’ but not entirely forgotten.



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Where to Write

“Where do you like to write?” – That is one of those favourite questions that some brave person nestling in an audience enjoying a writer’s workshop or interviews at literary festivals always asks, often hotly followed by,  “How do you organise your writing day?’ and “Where do you get your inspiration from?”

Usually the writer patiently finds an answer to satisfy, but I did once hear Lionel Shriver, the author who shot to global fame with her eighth book We Need to Talk About Kevin, spit out a retort that she was fed up of being asked those kinds of questions.   Did we, as novice writers, she asked the small eager huddled group of us sitting on old battered sofas in a dreamy timbered barn in deepest Devon with our pencils and laptops at the ready, really think that by emulating a successful writer’s habits we would achieve the same through some kind of osmosis?    Well here’s hoping!

Unlike the writers Daphne du Maurier and Roland Dahl I don’t have a garden to house a shed in with big Do No Disturb instructions vibrating from the woodwork.  I have in the past managed to write in the quiet moments between clients but unlike Sebastian Faulks I have no office.   I work from home.  He rents office space and works regular office hours that give him the discipline and framework to focus his thoughts and efforts –very successfully I might add.   Me?   I have always liked to write in the comfort of my home.  I like being curled up on the sofa with pencil and paper to get the project going, start my mornings propped up in bed with my laptop and eventually end up sitting up at a desk.

My “desk” has been the round dinning room table or my Grandmother’s bureau which has been moved around my current home from the living room looking out over the communal gardens to the bedroom with a slightly different garden vista, into the hall with no view whatsoever and back to the bedroom along a wall.   I decided last year to buy a dedicated writing surface in the form of a small glass and steel IKEA desk which has shifted along similar lines of the bureau journey but less influenced by whether radiators are working which is always a consideration with old wooden furniture.

Early July Morning Hightress House

Early July Morning Hightress House

I realise as I write this piece that over the last fifteen years in other two homes I have written four business books and co-authored two more, but no writing project has been completed in my current flat in nearly four years.   I am still moving the writing furniture about and trying to find a comfortable chair.  However my eye has come to rest on the kitchen.  I feel my days of cooking for forty are over and that a little Paris kitchen would suit me fine.   So far I have replaced the opaque glass in the kitchen window with clear panes to see the garden – I like views when I write.   My friend Dan is convinced someone will pay me a couple of hundred pound for the fifteen-year old kitchen and remove it free of charge if it is posted on   Over to you Dan I say.  He is coming to photograph the cabinets next week and Steve the builder is booked for September to create a new simple kitchen-come-writing space.   The other advantage of the kitchen is that if my design works there will be a large expanse of blank wall to stick notes, timelines and relevant pictures on to which I always find useful in the past.

Hopefully all is not lost.   I might yet get back on the productive writing track sooner rather than later or never.

© Nicola Stevens 2014

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The redoubtable May Osmund Alonzo Durant

As promised in my last blog, I now reveal some of the history of this remarkable man.

He was born at Tong Castle, Shropshire, in May 1816, the youngest of 14 legitimate children. We know little about his childhood, except that by 1822 his mother left the family home for the last time. At the age of 21, he married 20-year-old Catharine Galley, much to the disapproval of her father,  in Prestwich, Lancashire. He qualified as a surgeon, and by 1839 was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. His ambition was to follow his brother, Arthur Beaufoy Durant, into the East India Service. In future years he liked to claim that he had succeeded in this and that he had achieved the rank of Captain, but records from Crawford’s Roll of the Indian Medical Service indicate that although he applied for a post in Bengal he was not appointed and did not join.

Instead, he settled in Burbage, a village near Hinckley in Leicestershire, in a substantial house he named Tong Lodge, in honour of his pedigree. There were no children of the marriage and he clearly lived well above his means, for in 1847 he was forced to advertise an extensive sale of its contents: ‘All the Splendid, Modern, and Costly Household Furniture and Plate, Excellent Carriages, Superior Horses and Harness, Prime Hay, &c.&c.’ This did not stop him being declared bankrupt soon after. They remained in the neighbourhood for some time however, for in 1849 he appeared at the Petty Sessions in Hinckley as plaintiff, claiming that he had been assaulted. He did not win the case; it turned out the young man he was accusing had touched him in the street simply to remind him that he was supposed to report to the magistrate about an offence that he himself had committed. For May Osmund Alonzo, attack was the best form of defence. In 1851, he was practising in Ashton, Manchester. In 1856, he was in Sheffield, where, as well as offering his services as a surgeon, he claimed to be writing a refutation of a book called The Vestiges of Creation and also preparing a book on heraldry ‘illustrated by engravings of baronial remains in Shropshire, where my ancestors flourished’.

Peaceful Ramsgate

Peaceful Ramsgate

By 1859 he was living in Ramsgate, where he again appeared as plaintiff, accusing a young carter of damaging his 11 shilling hat, while his servant boy was driving him through the town. This time he won, but the magistrate remarked:
‘Captain Durant [sic] . . . allow me to say a few words about the rapid speed at which you drive through the town. . . It is but a short time since that I myself saw two ladies nearly knocked down by your servant, who was riding, and who apparently had not got his horse under control.’
The ‘Captain’ retorted: ‘I have driven through the most crowded places and never yet knocked anyone down.’

By 1861, he was living in Hornsey, Essex, but in September of that year his life ended abruptly for he was ‘found drowned in a dyke’ in the salt pans at Stonor, Kent. Was it drink, I wonder? And should we laugh at him, or throw up our hands in horror?

Catharine, undaunted, married his more respectable brother, who had retired from the East India Service. Better if she had done that in the first place.


Diana Devlin©


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Engineering dynasties – The Lighthouse Stevensons


The Lighthouse Stevensons  by Bella Bathurst

The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst

I have just finished reading Bella Bathurst’s “The Lighthouse Stevensons”, the story of the family of engineers who built Scotland’s lighthouses.  The book was our reading group’s choice for June and I began reading it as an well written, engrossing family story but then started to find it an unexpected source of material, both for early civil engineering but also in writing a family story. 

This is the family of Robert Louis Stevenson, and he was rightly proud of his ancestry even though, resisting strong family pressure, he did not choose to follow them.  Louis did write his own family history, Records of a Family of Engineers, including wishful and ultimately untrue links back to Rob Roy MacGregor.  After all which of us has not wished for a more glamorous forbearer to feature in our family histories.  

In my own case its salutatory to read that even such an illustrious family of engineers received scant recognition in their lifetimes.  Bella Bathurst notes “Even at the height of the Victorian engineering boom, great men went unnoticed and exceptional feats unacknowledged”. 

In the 18th century there was no such thing “as an archetypal engineer, let alone a civil or marine specialist.  The qualifications and bureaucracy of the modern profession did not exist[1]”.   In 1755 Samuel Johnson described an engineer as ‘an officer in the army or fortified place, whose business is to inspect attacks, defences, works’.  We have moved on a bit; The Chambers Dictionary gives a much longer definition for an engineer but specifically defines a civil engineer as ‘a person who plans and builds railways, roads, bridges, docks etc. as opposed to a military engineer, or to a mechanical engineer[2]. 

My own Institution of Civil Engineers was founded in 1818; some seven year after Robert Stevenson’s Bell Rock lighthouse was completed.  Its Royal Charter granted in 1828 defines the profession of a Civil Engineer as “being the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man”.  In the list of works are included, “the construction of roads, bridges, aqueducts, canals, river navigation and docks……. the construction of ports, harbours, moles, breakwaters and lighthouses”, the bread-and-butter of the Stevenson family.  

I started reading this book thinking only of my great-grandfather, Alfred John Liversedge, and how I imagine he would have dreamt of founding an engineering dynasty.  Given that his two sons followed him into the profession it must have seemed likely, but one emigrated to New Zealand and the other, my grandfather Herbert James Liversedge, predeceased him leaving in his turn two young sons but no income for the necessary technical education or apprenticeships.  He has had to wait for me, his great-granddaughter to have another member of the Institution in the family. 

However I then realised this was also the story of my father’s family, in three generations from the mid-19th century the family’s small building firm was sold and my grandfather began work as a surveyor for the borough council, still an engineer but no longer running his own firm.  My own father, John Francis Day, never completed his education, being diagnosed with suspected TB hip he spent years in bed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Land of Counterpane as his companion.


[1] The Lighthouse Stevensons, Bella Bathurst


[2] The Chamber Dictionary 1993

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Where do I write

Grandpa's letter recounting his travails with pen and inkwell 14.3.1979

Grandpa’s letter recounting his travails with pen and inkwell 14.3.1979

At the moment the question that is most exercising me about my writing is not what to write, but where to write.  This has been prompted by a small but significant leap, having done some writing recently that could be added into my project on living in the bush and starting out  married life far from home.  I am keen to continue, having got going again, and want to inject a certain amount of discipline into the exercise of daily writing. So, the question has arisen, where is the best place in my house to do this writing, so that I can take it seriously and enjoy it, too.  It is not so much the quest for some peace and quiet (or what Amelia, as a little girl would call ‘a piece of quiet’): I have that most days,  the boys having flown the coop and Ben not yet retired, but the search for the place that I can go to and get thinking and writing without distraction, yet one that does not induce boredom at being alone.

Up to now I have just sat at the kitchen table and spread myself out a bit, the things I need gathered about my laptop and, while it is homely and, perhaps more importantly, warm,  it is not ideal.  That is really down to me: flitting from writing to surfing the net, indulging in all the displacement activities that a kitchen can and does offer,  to pull me from the business of writing.  So, what’s the alternative?  I don’t have a shed like Roald Dahl, say, nor does the attic at the top of the house seem suitable. Not so for Will Self, who I heard on radio 4 not long ago, talking about his own writing place, an eyrie at the top of his house that has not been cleaned in his 18 years of using it as his study, as far as I remember him saying. Perhaps it could be the dining-room, rarely used  these days or the sitting-room, where I already have a pretty desk, inherited from my mother-in-law.

No-one seems to sit at desks these days, not like in the old days when my grandmother used to sit at hers every morning and do her correspondence and deal with bills and where she wrote the letter she sent me on my 17th birthday, which has featured on this blog.  I could write in bed. I  remember a wonderful novel called A Woman’s Age by Rachel Billington, published in the early 80s, that she swore she wrote every word of longhand and in bed every morning. I do write in bed every day, my morning pages, such as they are, but I could not envisage writing a whole book up there.  At the end of his very long life, my grandfather sometimes spent a day in bed and in one letter I got from him, while I was living in Izmir in the late 70s, he said he had been writing with a pen and inkwell on a tray in bed and the ink had dripped onto the eiderdown, so he continued with what he called a ‘byro’.

So, the search for the ideal writing place is on and maybe I shall try out every room until I find ‘the one’.  Virginia Woolf was right when she wrote that we women need a room of our own: maybe I need a whole new place, not in this house at all, more than just a change of room.

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A bizarre accident?

James Burnley (born 1831) died suddenly, age 36, in August 1867.  James’ death and the birth of his seventh child, William, were announced in The Leeds Mercury on the very same day.  There is a story that the cause was a bizarre industrial accident[1].  He was said to be near the top of a stack of bales of wool, helping to add to the pile, when standing up suddenly, his head was pierced by a spike of metal hanging from the roof.  I have been unable to trace any report of this gory tale in local newspapers which then, as today, revelled in such misfortunes.  Nor do I have the medical knowledge to speculate if such an occurrence was even feasible.

However the availability of death certificates from 1837 onwards allows some cross-checking and James’ makes no mention of an accident.   Instead, it states that having suffered an inflammation

James' tombstone

James’ tombstone

of the ear for two years, blood poisoning from an abscess set in and killed him in two days.  Doctors then were powerless against bacterial infections.   His funeral was held within the week and he was interred in a new family vault in the graveyard at the rear of Grove Chapel, Gomersal, (the family vault beneath the Chapel itself having the last place reserved for his father Thomas’ second wife Ann Blanche).  A plain grey stone slab marks the spot.

Could these two different versions of his death be reconciled in some way?  Might an earlier blow to the head have caused the abscess?  If there is any truth in this workplace anecdote, it might actually relate to his uncle William, who suffered a sudden, unexplained death in 1833, at the age of 35.  Unfortunately I doubt I shall ever be any the wiser about this one.



[1]  Two Hundred Years of Thomas Burnley & Sons, published in 1954 by the management of Gomersal Mills

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