House clearance: a miscellaneous archive

One small reference in Richard Holmes’ Footsteps set me thinking about my family archive. He mentions Virginibus Puerisque, a collection of four essays by Robert Louis Stevenson.  When I read that title, a clear memory came to me of a set of dark volumes of Stevenson’s works that sat on the bookshelves at Cedar Cottage, the house in Kent my grandparents owned in the 1950s.  I never read them; I never even picked them up; I wonder who in the family has them now.  The items that have come into my possession are haphazard and disconnected.

Cedar Cottage was a downsizing from Bron y Garth, my grandfather’s house in Portmadoc, North Wales, where I was born.  When he sold it, he sent my aunt to go through everything, decide what was to be kept, and arrange an auction to sell off the rest.  One thing she kept back was a glass paperweight she gave me as my own memento of the house; it sits on my desk now.  What I would give to go back in time with her! How did she choose?  What did she discard that I should love to have now?

In the bottom of the welsh dresser at Cedar Cottage there were fascinating papers which my best friend and I loved foraging through during our half-term holidays.  An album that held between two of its pages a folded scrap of paper marked ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’s hair’, and sure enough there were a couple of stray hairs inside it.  Where did that album come from? Where did it go?

When Cedar Cottage was sold, more downsizing had to happen.  Papers and photographs were stuffed into the bottom of the dresser that stood just inside my grandparents’ Chelsea flat, as well as into bureau drawers and the wardrobe in the spare room. Books were pushed onto their already crowded shelves. When my grandmother died, these things moved to my aunt and uncle’s nearby house, where they were kept in the loft, or in a high cupboard in their drawing room.  My aunt’s archival intentions were honourable; I once found a packet marked in her handwriting ‘Letters, to be sorted later’.  How many things in our lives wait to be sorted later!

By the time my aunt and uncle died, I was helping with the house clearance myself. Many papers went to my stepfather, who had made himself unofficial historian of the Casson family.  When he died, four years ago, they came to me.  I soon discovered that the collection of resources I had inherited were patchy, to say the least.

My paperweight and the Captain's memoir

My paperweight and the Captain’s memoir

The most substantial document is the poignant handwritten memoir compiled by one great great grandfather, a Welsh sea-captain: an account of his first marriage, of the 4-year voyage he took his wife on from Liverpool, during which two daughters were born, and of her death soon after they returned to England. What else? a few deeds relating to Casson properties;  a list of ‘china, silver and plate’ sold to one great great grandmother by her sister; some letters exchanged between various Casson forebears between 1875 and 1909; a little booklet commemorating my great grandparents’ marriage; a tiny leatherbound volume of essays given to my great great great grandfather in 1815; a large album used by another great great grandfather as a sort of scrapbook, with a few notes and memorabilia stuck into it. Why these particular items, when so much else has disappeared?   I shall never know.

© Diana Devlin

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And by the way . . . encounters while researching

Until this last April, Errol – I don’t know his last name – was still working the quarry at Llechwedd, Blaunau Ffestiniog.  Then, over twenty men were laid off, while he and one other chap were kept on to maintain the site.  The main enterprise now is the visitor experience ‘Llechwedd Slate Cavern’ and adventure activities such as zip-wires and trampolines.  Earlier this month we had a wonderful time rattling round in his landrover, pale with slate dust, as he showed us the slopes where the Cassons once quarried, and walked us through some of the old buildings, now derelict and vandalised.  His thoughts about the past, present and future of the quarries were fascinating, but we were equally absorbed by his own story, as he explained how he had come to foster three children, whose parents were unfit to bring them up.  An amazing man.

Plas Penrhyn

Plas Penrhyn

The day before, I had spent the afternoon visiting a house my family occupied in the 1860s.  The present owner is a remarkable woman, a violinist, who has lived in the area ever since her mother and she were offered a cottage on the Portmeirion estate (think Patrick McGoohan in the 1960s series The Prisoner) without water or access, but which they grew to love.  We reminisced about her late lovely mother-in-law – the connecting link between us – a Quaker, who used to ride about Chalfont St Peter on a tricycle, well into her nineties.  When my new acquaintance was called away from the tea she was offering me, to talk to some builders, I sat happily on her verandah, looking out at the sun-drenched plain created when the great embankment was built across the estuary early in the 19th century, and at the hazy blue mountains beyond.  Before I left, we had discussed many things you would not imagine talking about on a first meeting, and I had made a new friend.

 

Cae Derw

Cae Derw

There was one more house to visit before I returned to Richmond.  My grandfather was brought up in Denbigh.  I was glad to have the chance to see round that house and try to work out how the rooms had been arranged when he was a boy.  As we passed by what had once been stables, I mentioned that the family had owned a donkey in those days.

‘Oh we found a shoe that might have belonged to it’  said my guide, the present owner.  She unhooked a rusty shoe from a pergola and handed it to me.  It looks a bit big for a donkey and too small for the horse my great grandfather rode, but anyway, it’s now sitting on my desk, beside a piece of slate from the quarry.

But the chief riches garnered from this recent research-cum-holiday trip have been the people I have met.  And that’s without having the space to write about the wonderful family I stayed with in Aberystwyth while visiting the National Library of Wales. . .

©Diana Devlin

 

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The Mysteries of Early 18th Century Living

Last weekend institutional buildings and private homes were generously made available to nose around as part of the annual London Open House 2014.    With so many choices I settled on a private house in Soho; 68 Dean Street built in 1732 to help give me an idea of the house and living conditions that Joseph and his family might have experienced. http://www.sixty8.com

It is unusual to find 18th century private residences that have not been dramatical remodelled by the demands of later generations of residents and their changing tastes.   No 68 Dean Street was saved from much alteration because it became the trade shop and warehouse for  the famous watchmakers Benford O’Shea, from 1869-1983.  Its commercial usage did not require modern interiors, just good solid walls and floorboards.

When the current owner bought the house it had lain empty for 10 years.  All other buyers had been frighten away by its Grade A listing and its unloved state.   The restoration led to unexpected discoveries. The first was two ‘hidden rooms’ in the rear attic inter-connected via a 4′ high door. Inside one of the rooms was found a giant ale bottle discarded by the plasterers in 1732. These attic rooms purpose remains a mystery since it was thought that servants did not ‘live in’ at that time. However fireplaces have now been discovered in the attics of two houses in Meard Street, and a complete servants quarters in No 5 Meard Street which disproves the experts theories about servants.

Little is known about early 18th century water and waste management in town houses but the discovery of 2 cesspits in 68 Dean Street has provided the first example of a complete waste and water management system of the period. The cesspit for ‘upstairs’ was discovered in the rear vault. A combined servants’ cesspit and soakaway was discovered in one of the front vaults.   The night soil man would come at regular intervals throughout the year with his unfortunate young helper who would be lower into the cesspits to shovel the sewage into buckets between the hours of midnight and 5am.  Both cesspits were accessible through a basement door in the front of the house and a side entrance to the rear of the building so as not to disturb the residents and their servants with the smell or sound.  The effluence was then taken to local farms.

As I climbed higher up the stairs to the family’s private rooms there was a discussion as to how more than one generation or working families might live together and yet have their own space within the house.  Looking at the two original doors that opened off to the second and third staircase landings it was possible that one couple could call the front room theirs and another generation claim home in the back two rooms which were only accessible through the one door off the landing.   In fact one of these doors had its own letter box cut into the wood.

The main learning for me was that no one is really sure how people lived in the past and that if we want to leave a trail behind about our living and working conditions we need to document it so there are no mistakes.   There is always something for a writer to do!

Nicola Stevens © 2014

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Leaving Africa part II

When our time in Bunia came to an end in the summer of 1985 we were quite ready to go back to Cambridge.  It had been the most difficult of our postings, primarily because communications were so limited and the sense we had of being in the middle of nowhere was never harder to live with than when bad news came from home. It did come, (in the shape of my mother having cancer), not so bad but bad enough to worry about, and we wanted to be back with our families and for Amelia to start nursery school – Cambridge was calling and we were impatient to get there.  Getting there was never going to be easy – we had ourselves, two children, a small mountain of luggage as well as effects that were consigned to boxes, sent to Kinshasa by one of the dodgy planes that flew between Bunia and Kin and left to BAT to organise shipment home.  By some miracle it all arrived some months later.  By some miracle we did too but the journey looked like being one of the most challenging we had undertaken during our time in Zaire.  We were to drive in our LandRover to Goma which was a two-day journey and then catch a plane to Kin (it was always called Kin) and thence to Nairobi and a week of visiting and a last safari before we left Africa.  Leaving – a word freighted with emotion and that sense of finality which we had become used to having left Izmir, England, Migori – is tough: there are always people to whom having to say goodbye to hurts, the more so when they have made your life so comfortable and easy in the circumstances, have become so much a part of the family and our boys in Bunia wee no exception, in fact the opposite.  I have written before about them all and even now, nearly thirty years later, I find myself wondering what became of them in the terrible years that followed.  I saw a tv programme in which Bunia featured the other day and my eyes hurt from trying (hopelessly, I know) to spot any of them in the crowds that milled around on the screen. It was all so familiar and ingrained, it was me walking down that street, unchanged despite all the upheavals of the intervening years, it felt like it was our home just as much as anywhere else we have lived.  But that last  journey from Bunia – at the time we thought we would never get out. Not long out of Bunia, the LandRover broke down and it took Ben and the driver a long time to sort out the problem, but eventually we arrived at Goma.  The night  in our hotel was broken by an intruder attempting to get into our room by the window, glass shattering everywhere and a lot of noise.  Ben spent the rest of the night sitting in a chair by the broken window, empty Coke bottle to hand to ward off the intruder if they came back. At that moment Cambridge seemed to call even louder. The next day the flight to Kin was most welcome,  even the rather unusual plane that we boarded, which was a transport aircraft with several cow carcasses and umpteen sacks of leeks and onions as our companions on the journey.  The children paid scant attention to our fellow passengers from their bucket seats and we were glad to be airborne and on our way.  We were even more glad to be on our way when we left Kinshasa en route to Nairobi a few days later.  No-one ever enjoyed passing through the airport at Kinshasa: it was a chaotic, dark, rough place and we had to have a ‘chef du protocol’ from the company to intercede for us and get us through to the departure lounge (anywhere less lounge-like would be hard to imagine).  For us it was a nerve-wracking experience as we had to somehow get through customs and all the controls with several thousand US dollars concealed in our luggage,  for, unwillingly, we had become smugglers.  For several months we had been doing deals with the American missionaries in Bunia – our local Zaire currency for their dollars, gold dust to us.  We were paid in the local currency and had so little to spend it on that it accumulated at a healthy rate, briquettes of Zaires piling up.  Nowhere in the world would exchange any of this for pounds or dollars, so we had to devise ways of getting it changed. Not for the first time the missionaries came to our aid, by swapping their US dollars for our Zaires.  It was up to us how we managed to get it all out (completely prohibited) and nappies came to our aid as a place to hide a few dollars, as did the writing of  a lot of ‘pretend’ letters, concealing currency and cheques.  Being searched minutely in a small, shabby, put-up cubicle was uncomfortable – even Amelia was searched, three years-old and untroubled by it all, but Sam escaped the indignity.  No-one found our life-savings and at last we were on our way to Nairobi and the so, so different place that was Kenya.It felt like an old friend and our week there passed in a dream of animal-watching, shopping in normal shops, driving along tarmac roads, using the telephone, until it was time to leave Africa for good.  Karen Blixen, after her return to Denmark when her African farm failed, wrote that she would always wonder whether it was raining in Africa. She never went back and we have yet to, as well. It gets under your skin, Africa, and I too will always wonder how life is going in Bunia and Migori, Zaire and Kenya, our African homes.

Saying goodbye to our Bunia family.

Saying goodbye to our Bunia family.

 

On the road to Goma

On the road to Goma

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Anniversaries, ashes, endings

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) from Four Quarters IV 1942

September has been my favourite month for as long as I can remember. It still comes with the frisson of excitement, the anticipation of a new academic year, in which everything will start afresh and full of potential. The sun is back, after the inevitable wet August Bank Holiday, but the air is as clear and sparkling as Spring.

But the September sun casts long shadows in shortening days. This is the end of Summer. There will be a last flush of flowers, but it will be surrounded by the death of the Summer garden.

Many of us start our life as family historians with an ending. A house is sold, marking the end of a life, and we inherit photographs, letters, objects which come with a yet to be discovered history. A generation is dying, and we scramble urgently to capture their memories. Our working life is winding down, so we seek comfort in the security of a certain past.

From those endings, we take our purpose, start our quest and forge our new identity. When we started to research the past, did we anticipate that our discoveries would so subtly change our sense of who we are?

This September, I shall despatch my mother’s ashes to New Zealand for burial.

I didn’t intend to do this in September 2014 specifically. The event is long overdue, as she died four years ago. However, if I had been seeking a significant date for an important act, I might have consciously chosen this month and this year.

On September 27th, it will be exactly 85 years since the New Zealand Steamship Company ship Rangitiki set sail from Southampton with 400 emigrants on board. One of them was Ivy Myrtle Webb, just turned eighteen, a ‘Domestic’ from Leytonstone in Essex. From Mum’s account, the process for starting her new life in New Zealand in 1929 was much less bureaucratic than the process for transporting her remains back there for the final time in 2014!

Rangitiki

Rangitiki

This is the Rangitiki, a photograph from the website dedicated to her, www.rms-rangitiki.com.  And with this final journey, a new story, the writing of my mother’s life, can begin.

 

Annie

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Typical 19th century great grandparents

My great grandfather, Frederick George Dunkley (1831-1916), lived all his life in the village of Silverstone, Northamptonshire.  It is a common surname in the area.  The census identifies him and many of the inhabitants there as general labourers but sometimes the term ‘woodman’ is added.  The countryside around is even today surrounded by ample forestry land and local historians have identified a distinctive culture of sturdy independence or general ‘cussedness’ in the men’s character.  Tree felling and timber sawing required some skill as well as a good level of fitness.  All the Dunkley men were short and muscular.  Frederick married in 1852, at the age of 22 to Elizabeth Ann Blackwell who was still a teenager.  They had 10 children.  Hard working, honest folk and devout Methodists who were proud of their respectability.

Frederick and Annie Dunkley, in old age

Frederick and Annie Dunkley, in old age

I have one studio portrait of them. Although poor, they have clearly dressed up for the occasion.  His suit is typical of the Victorian era and early twentieth century, along with a rather bold tie and an unusual-looking soft hat.  His beard is the early style of beard that first appeared in the mid-1850s but was often favoured by older gents well into the 1900s. His wife’s blouse and skirt combination was usual by the Edwardian era, her tailored skirt plain and her dressy blouse fashioned from the kind of bold patterned fabric often admired by mature ladies: to this she has added a prominent black lace collar that extends down the front – a separate ornamental accessory used to create an even more ornate effect.  Many clues point to the first decade of the 20th century and it may have marked their 50th wedding anniversary in 1902.

In the 1911 census Fred still describes himself as a worker, age 79.  He died in his 85th year and his wife in 1920 at the age of 88.  Their strong constitution was inherited by my grandfather, one of their sons and his daughter May who was the subject of my previous blog.  They were all very long lived and fit up to the end.  May preserved many of their Victorian habits and virtues – which included a good simple diet and lots of physical work – and a way of life that died with her.

Margaret

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The King of Instruments

Do you know your diapason from your dulcet treble?  Would you recommend unisonal duplication of manual stops and couplers?  Do you approve of Robert Hope-Jones’s innovations?  To whom would you attribute the introduction of the ‘Melody attachment’?

My great-grandfather, Thomas Casson, designed church organs at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  I have reached the chronological point in writing up the history of his family when he became so obsessed with persuading the musical establishment of the value of his reforms, that he threw up his respectable job as a bank manager, moved his family from Wales to London to take over an organ-building company there and bankrupted himself in the process.  Three questions arise: how am I to gain an understanding of his inventions? how am I to to communicate their significance to a non-specialist reader? how much needs to be included to give a clear picture of his family’s life during this period?

A Casson Patent Positive Organ

A Casson Patent Positive Organ

As I leaf through his pamphlets – The Modern Organ, Reform in Organ Building, The Pedal Organ: Its History, Design and Control, Development of the Resources of the Organ – I am quickly bogged down in technicalities.  Yet, by careful perusal of these documents, and of comments by others in the field of organ-design, I begin to get a glimmering idea how some his innovations increased the musicality of what he liked to call ‘the king of instruments’ , and of how the ‘positive organs’ in which he specialised in the second half of his organ-designing career allowed many small churches all over the world to instal an instrument of much greater musical potential than had been on offer previously.  Despite much rebuilding, many of these still exist.  Only last summer, visiting a little church in North Wales recommended by Simon Jenkins, I found one, still carrying its plaque: “The Positive Organ Company, Casson’s Patent’.   (At that time he could not ‘own’ a company, because of the bankruptcy. ) They can also be found as far afield as New Zealand and California.

One way to explain his inventions is to put words into his mouth that he might have used to describe to a child how an organ works.  Gradually perhaps, by that method, I can build up an understanding in the minds of my readers fairly painlessly.

His obsession had a major impact on family life.  At first he dreamt of creating huge instruments of greater power than anyone could imagine.  It was his wife who gently persuaded him towards the small ‘positive organs’ that finally restored his fortune and made his name.  I see the late Victorian passion for larger and larger organs – forgive the sexual innuendos this subject inevitably brings with it – and the fierce rivalries that developed between various different individuals concerned with such things, as running parallel to the national competitive empire-building that would lead to cataclysmic war just a few years after Thomas Casson’s death.

 

© Diana Devlin

 

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Mr Punch’s History of the Great War

Of all the books I’ve acquired from relatives over the years one of my favourites is Mr. Punch’s History of the Great War.  Published in 1919 by Cassell and Company and edited by Charles L Graves (1856-1944) it uses extracts from Punch magazine to “provide a mirror of varying moods, month by month, but reflecting how England remained steadfastly true to her best traditions”.

Growing up I read Punch in the doctor’s and dentist’s surgeries and the brutality of some of the cartoons in this collection seemed to me far removed from the modern, gently satirical publication.

An absorbing article by Dr Esther MacCallum-Stewart on firstworldwar.com compares Punch with The Wipers Times suggesting “both believed that comedy should be employed in a cathartic role against the tension, fear and grief caused by the fighting.”

Before war broke out Punch had been criticised as being too militant, publishing only one strongly anti-war article by the then sub-editor A. A. Milne.  Thus Punch entered the conflict publishing what amounted to government sanctioned propaganda with “little comedic undertone”.  However as the war endured this did change as the public mood shifted. She adds a surprising point about Punch’s and indeed middle-class male Britain’s attitude to women’s employment.  Having always believed that this was universally applauded I was surprised to realise the fear that this provoked and Punch’s efforts to undermine their role.[1]

Although intended primarily for the home market copies did make their way to the front, at least to the officer class.  However the lack of battlefield reporters resulted in such inaccuracies that it seems to have been most welcome as a higher quality toilet paper and probably provided some of the impetus behind the papers produced by the soldiers including the Wipers Times.  bravo belgium

Mr Punch’s August 1914 selection begins by recapping; “Four weeks ago we stood on the edge of the great upheaval and knew it not”.  There are two cartoons one; “Bravo Belgium” originally published on 12th August 1914 and drawn by F H Townsend, and the other depicting a recruiting office medical.  “Bravo Belgium”, a particularly well-known cartoon now appears in the Keystage 3 History syllabus.

Barbara Selby


[1] Esther MacCallum-Stewart – firstworldwar.com 2009

 

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Leaving Africa

I have written a fair bit about our life in Kenya and Zaire in the eighties, when Ben was working for a multi-national company: our arrival from England with first one, then two babies.  There will be more to come but today I have been thinking about our departures from those countries.  This is perhaps down to the time of year, August being when we usually took annual leave and is also when we left both Kenya and Zaire for good.  Leaving was so much more than just going home – it was the end of  a way of life that came with sadnesses as well as a certain pleasure at being back in the swim of a more regular family life in Cambridge.

Leaving the people with whom Ben had spent his working life in the field in Kenya was one such – as was leaving our boys at the house.  They threw a party for us at the office where a goat was ceremoniously roasted and speeches made.  The  mood at the end was lightened by an announcement that Ben’s secretary, Beatrice, who had just given birth to a baby boy, father unknown, had called her son Ben Travers which led to uproarious laughter and cheering.  The refrain ‘Cheers, not tears’ followed us to our car and is something I have never forgotten.  For months after we left, as we walked about Cambridge, if Amelia saw a black man, she would say joyously, ‘Joseph!’, the name of our guard who she loved playing with, truncheon and all.  Several months after our return I got a letter in Cambridge written by Boniface, our general factotum.  He had gone to a letter-writer at a stall in the town and dictated what he wanted to say, ‘Darling Madam’ it began.  High and low I have searched for that letter and hope that one day I might find it again and be transported back to the green and friendly place that we called home for a few years at

Migori.  I dream that I slipped it into a book and that along with the dried frangipani blossom that I tucked into a biography of Karen Blixen (Isaak Dinesen really) and found not long ago, it could be added to my treasure trove of letters, photograph and most of all, memories.  Leaving Bunia in Zaire deserves its own chapter so I shall think on that for my next post.

Amelia and Joseph Migori 1983

Amelia and Joseph Migori 1983

Farewell Party Migori 1983 - 'Cheers not tears'

Farewell Party Migori 1983 – ‘Cheers not tears’

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Aunty May and the Widow’s Mite

May Dunkley when young

May Dunkley when young

Florence May Dunkley (1909-2005) was my mother’s only sister and four years older than her.  The name May was popular when she was born and a number of my friends had their own Aunty May.  She was the 7th child and first girl of George and Catherine Dunkley, who lived in Silverstone, Northamptonshire.  Life was hard for poor rural workers and May’s mother was an obsessively fussy housewife so must have been delighted to have a daughter to help out at last.  That certainly set the tone of May’s early life – she was made to go to the butcher every morning and then punished for being late for school with a wallop across her hand and had many other domestic burdens besides.  She came home from domestic service to nurse her dying mother during WW2 and then dutifully stayed to look after her widowed father.  It was taken for granted that was her role in life.  She never married.  May was deeply scarred by her mother’s painful death from bowel cancer and her father’s vascular dementia in the last few years of his life.  She was hysterical at times and bitter about lack of support from most other family members.  Perhaps they were afraid to encourage her weaknesses or any further dependence.  Her younger sister, my mother, escaped into marriage and motherhood.

I have done little to research my mother’s ancestors.  They were too poor to leave any records, bar their births, deaths and marriages.  I joked to one of my friends that it would be like writing another Akenfield with forestry rather than agricultural workers.  Their three-room cottage was replaced with a smart new council house in 1946.  When May’s father died in 1954 she was forced to take any job she could find and worked in a shoe factory in nearby Brackley for many years.  Energetic, orderly and frugal in her habits, her retirement was a long one which relied heavily on local and distant family for her social life.  She took family ties very seriously, was always ready to help out in practical ways and was generous with money from her own very limited means.  Her nieces and nephews were the greatest pleasure in her life – she had a rare childlike empathy with children of all ages.

When she died in 2005 the local Methodist minister spent most of one afternoon drawing her life story from me in preparation for his funeral address. He

May's 90th birthday

May’s 90th birthday

chose the Biblical story of the Widow’s Mite from the Gospel of Mark. In it Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem.  He tells the story of a widow who donates two small coins (generally thought to be lepton) – the smallest and least valuable coins in circulation in Judea – while wealthy people donate much more. Jesus explains to his disciples that the small sacrifices of the poor mean more to God than the bigger, but proportionately lesser, donations of the rich.  How apt.  May touched many lives and held the extended family together in a way no-one else could.  We miss her still.

Margaret

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