I am sometimes daunted by the large scale of my project, covering four generations of my family. But the fact is that the changes from one generation to the next fascinate me. The men’s work, for example, was sometimes typical for their own time and status, and sometimes it manifested more idiosyncratic ambitions. Who was it said that ‘work’ consists either of moving things about, or of getting other people to move things about?
The first generation I look at began by moving stuff out of the earth. They were ‘slate-getters’, in the late 18th century, their daily work consisting of the toil up to Walna Scar quarry, in North Lancashire, to hew its characteristic striated slate from caves beneath the surface, and load it onto carts that carried it to a port on the estuary of the River Duddon. The remains of the quarry are still there, with the ruins of their shelters.
Later, they would make a considerable fortune getting the quarriers of Merionethshire to work slate. Their roots in practical experience helped bridge the social gap between English manager and Welsh worker.
The next generation included my great great grandfather, who mixed things together. He was a distiller of tar and turpentine in Liverpool, servicing the ship-building industry, working alongside his father-in-law and brother-in-law. Back in Wales, he sold gun cotton, used for explosive work in the slate quarries. He retained a fascination with the products of the earth, exhibiting lead and copper ore and crystals at a local bazaar in Caernarvon.
His brothers, meanwhile, had become bankers, and their nephews followed in that path, reflecting the growth of more bureaucratic vocations in the mid-19th century. They moved gold, specie, cheques and bills of exchange about, facilitating, but no longer participating in the businesses of hewing and carrying and mixing.
However, one of the nephews, my great grandfather, left banking, having developed quite different ambitions. What he did was to mix sounds together, making a name for himself in the esoteric world of designing church organs, using combinations of wood, and metal, and air, to create a multiplicity of musical dynamic, tone and range.
My grandfather tried several kinds of work, and eventually settled on the least practical of all, that of acting in the theatre. He used spoken words and gestures to move an audience.