Will Christmas really be Christmas?

12DayscolouredI wonder what books and films and plays you most associate with Christmas. Not to mention Christmas songs and carols. I think many of us have traditions that go back years and are as important a part of the festivities as the crackers and mince pies.  And each generation establishes new ones. When I was four years old, during the Second World War, my aunt organized a Nativity tableau in the local church using all the village children.  I don’t have to take part in one of those any more.  But that same year she invented actions for The Twelve Days of Christmas, and just a couple of days ago I watched the six children in the family faithfully repeating them as we belted out the final frantic verse.  They never knew my aunt, but I’m sure they’ll be teaching their own children those same actions a few decades from now.

‘“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,”’grumbled Jo, lying on the hearthrug.’  As in  my early years, the March family in LIttle Women were ‘making do’, because it was wartime. One English tradition that had to wait until the end of the war was the annual production of Peter Pan, which was finally revived at the Scala Theatre in Tottenham Court Road.  This was a must, for my mother had played ‘Wendy’ six years running in the 1920s. The revival had hardly changed since those days; ‘Peter’ was still played by an actress: Margaret Lockwood, and a few years later her own daughter Julia ‘Toots’ Lockwood, Peggy Cummins, Barbara Kelly.  My great uncle Russell was still playing ‘Smee, the non-Conformist pirate.’  We all knew the music, we all knew how revive ‘Tinkabell’ . . . ‘She thinks she might get better,’ Peter Pan pleaded ‘ – if children believed in fairies. Oh, children, if you do believe, clap your hands!’  And we all shouted out ‘WE DO BELIEVE! WE DO BELIEVE!’ and clapped our hands like mad.  I imagine that in years to come, today’s children will feel equally fervent about Frozen. 

Then there’s A Christmas Carol, which my mother first read to me when I was six.  ‘What’s today?’ cries Scrooge, after his night with all the ghosts.  ‘Why, CHRISTMAS DAY,’ replies the small boy, and it all ends happily ever after.  This year, there was a wonderful version of it on BBC Radio 4, with music.

One year, long after I grew up, my father was ill in Taunton Hospital.  I spent the whole of Christmas week  tucked up in his cottage, driving in to visit him each day as he made a swift recovery, and spending the rest of the time gorging myself on old movies which were always the mainstay of the television schedules in those days: Gone With The Wind, White Christmas, The Sound of Music, It’s a Wonderful Life!.  One of the best holidays I remember!  Nowadays, when my goddaughter and her husband have put the children to bed and tidied away most of the gift paper, we all sit down and watch the DVD of Love Actually.  Bliss!

Diana Devlin

Categories: Festivals and Customs, Legacies | 2 Comments

Christmas trees and memories

Among the many boxes of other people’s memories stored in my attic are a few that hold my own. At Christmas, when we bring down the boxes of decorations, some of these take the spotlight for a few days.

Dad's Christmas Tree

Dad’s Christmas Tree

Every year one particular small, faded Christmas tree sits on my dining room mantelpiece; it belonged to my father. As a boy he was never allowed a real Christmas tree, “too much mess” his mother maintained so he had this artificial tree, German made, paper, wire and wood with plaster berries. Once he had his own home with my mother we always had a real tree but his boyhood tree still had a place as it now does in my own home.

The First Fairy

The First Fairy

It also has its own fairy, for a while she was on the big tree but when I was a child she was usurped by the new fairy.

The new fairy

The new fairy




One day Dad took me Christmas shopping and in Woolworths we found her; and proudly brought her home to take pride of place on the tree where she has reigned ever since. Of course her tinsel trim is faded and her wand went missing long ago but every year she reminds me of how much my Dad loved Christmas and how he passed his delight in it onto us as children.

My tree has some other decorations with a history, some bought on holidays and others made by my daughters; some given as presents and others from my first Christmas in my own home, each has its own set of particular memories.

The Christmas Cat Bell

The Christmas Cat Bell

There is the one cat bell, a strange decoration certainly, but I remember it from my great aunts tree, it had a companion but only this one has survived to make it to my tree.





By twelfth night they will all be back in the attic, carefully packed in bubble wrap and tissue paper waiting for their next show.

Barbara Selby

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Grandfathers’ chests

WCS chest

Two leather chests,side by side in the sitting room, reminded me of my two grandfathers – their  original owners.And then I realised that the smaller one, with the initials W.C.S. on the lid, must have belonged originally to my great-grandfather, William Capel Slaughter, a city lawyer, and been passed on by him to his son, Arthur. As William died in 1917, I think it unlikely that Arthur had it during his time of military service [which included the Gallipoli campaign]. This probably explains why this small trunk [[47 x34 x 29 cm] is in such good condition for its age. It is made of brown leather over a wooden frame, and is lined with fine red leather, with red velvet inside the lid. There are two brass rings fitted inside, no doubt for securing the contents. But what exactly would  it have  been used for? Inside , the maker’s label is clearly visible : Hill and MIllard Ltd.. Military Outfitter and Trunkmaker, 7 Duncannon Street, Trafalgar Square, London W.C. The brass lock still works although the key is missing.

The company of Hill and Millard dates from 1854, and they were in Duncannon Street from 1890 to 1930. In an advertisement of 1884 they describe themselves as manufacturers of Barrack and Camp furniture, as well as Portmanteaux and trunks, giving delightful illustrations of their wares. My great-grandfather’s chest is too small for clothing and the quality of the lining suggests it was used for valuable or delicate items. As William was never in the army, perhaps he used the case to transport personal items when he travelled from his country house in Kent  to his flat in Berkeley Square, or on his trips abroad before the war. Only one clue as to its history remains – an old label, badly torn ,all that survives of a parcel stamp showing that 7d was paid on one of its many journeys.

On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I visited the  elegant eighteenth century home of the Van Loon family, now a museum. In one of the bedrooms there was a large leather trunk, and on top of it was a smaller travelling case of very similar dimensions and design as my great-grandfather’s. Unfortunately I was unable to ask if it could be opened so I could not see if there was a maker’s stamp inside. I would love to know what these small trunks originally contained – they were obviously made of sturdy materials and built to last.                                                                                                                                                             Susie Gutch

Hill and Millard Ltd's stamp

Hill and Millard Ltd’s stamp


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The value of feedback

Now that I have an almost complete draft of my family history I have begun seeking feedback on it. I have re-hashed it too many times to see it objectively and while it is not destined for a very large public I hope that a few people outside the family will find it worth reading. The most helpful reflections so far have come from my fellow would-be writers on the Faber Writing Family History course we did together three years ago. Most of us have had to rethink our original ideas about what we were researching and writing and radically re-plan it. My colleagues have posed some tough challenges about the structure and purpose of my draft.

Am I writing this for my family? Emphatically not – they are not interested in 18th and 19th century history and feel no kinship with these remote ancestors. From the beginning I realised I knew little about the personal lives of these ancestors – they left no letters or diaries – so any family-centred story would have to be a work of fiction. When that didn’t work out I adopted a factual narrative.

Is this a history of the West Riding wool industry? For sure not. That is a huge subject on which I am ill qualified to write.

Is this a social history of the West Riding? Only in so far as is necessary to put the story of my ancestors and their wool manufacturing mill into its social and economic context. A problem arises when the context overwhelms the narrative thread, is of questionable direct relevance and/or looks more interesting than the primary story.

What is the primary story? It has a dual focus over 150 years: the evolution of the family manufacturing business from cottage industry, to small scale workshops to a large modern factory and the lives of five generations of my ancestors who owned that business in as far as they can be known.

The only remaining landmark of Gomersal Mills

The only remaining landmark of Gomersal Mills

Why is this worth writing or reading? It is the story of ordinary lives in a place with a strong sense of local identity. There is a considerable body of work in the local studies sections of libraries in the West Riding and my research has drawn upon original sources to expand and even correct the information about my ancestors in existing publications. It is a minor contribution to scholarship. My ancestors were prominent in their own small community and the business which bore their name only finally closed in the 1990s. Local inhabitants, worshippers at the chapel they founded or former employees might be interested to learn more of the story – if the quality of the writing is good enough!

These same colleagues have also suggested creative ways to deal with the unknowns and ‘excessive’ conjecture in my existing draft which offer a way to improve the reader’s experience. So many, many thanks for the ideas and encouragement – I hope my writing skills are equal to the task.



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Sail and Steam

When I was a child, there were still working horses on the streets, though motor cars had been around for over fifty years.  The milkman, the coal merchant and the rag-and-bone man all had horses.  One of my earliest children’s books had a picture of a milkman’s horse ‘eating its breakfast out of a nosebag’.  A familiar sight to me, which no modern child in London would recognize. The change from sail to steam on the seas was also gradual.

One of the most stunning scenes in Mike Leigh’s film, Mr Turner, is a reconstruction of Turner’s famous 1838 painting, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.  While Turner captures a single moment, in the reconstructed scene, we see the ship and the tug in motion, with steam from the funnel puffing clouds into the air.  Actually, we learn, that moment never happened, as HMS Temeraire was already partly stripped when she made her last voyage up the Thames.  Turner wanted to show that the age of sail was passing, but he was ahead of himself. The advent of steamships did finally put paid to the schooners and the clippers of the merchant navy, but throughout the 19th century, sailing ships and steamships coexisted.

The Laura Ann

The Laura Ann

One of my ancestors, Captain Thomas,  was a master mariner in the merchant navy and skippered a small, 145-ton schooner called the Laura Ann, north and south along the west coast of South America.  In a memoir of 1842, he described the following incident.  He was carrying as a passenger a certain Captain Robson, who was anxious to get to the port of Yquique, on the coast of Chile, where he was to land some cargo he planned to sell. This was a minor port, and he could avoid paying the heavy duty owing at major ports.  When the Laura Ann was six or eight miles from the port, as he thought, he left the ship and rowed towards the shore, to be ready to unload the cargo.  Unbeknownst to him, the schooner had drifted much further out to sea during the night.

‘At 10 next forenoon’ wrote Captain Thomas, ‘ seeing the steamer “Peru” coming from the North and bound for Yquique, and it being still calm I went to her in the long boat which I put out for the purpose, and asked the Captain to take the vessel in tow, telling him that I asked it in Captain Robson’s name, he having important reasons for wishing my vessel to anchor before the mail was landed from the steamer. At first he was highly amused at the idea, and only laughed, but eventually decided on taking the ship in tow.  We had by this time drifted at least 20 miles to the North of Yquique; three hours after we were taken in tow, that is at half after one, we anchored at Yquique and our [rowing] boat returned wih Captain Robson on board.’

By this ploy, Captain Robson suffered no delay in personally overseeing the landing of his cargo. Clearly, the idea of a steamer towing a schooner into harbour was a huge joke.

©Diana Devlin

Categories: 19th Century, Journeys | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Dog’s Life by Michael Holroyd – a review.

 A Dog's Life by Michael Holroyd, published in the UK. by MacLehose in 2014

A Dog’s Life by Michael Holroyd, published in the UK. by MacLehose in 2014

This is a fictionalised account of Holroyd’s eccentric family, detailing 24 hours in the lives of the inhabitants of the house called ‘This’ll do’. It’s a study of old age, and of a middle class family in reduced circumstances struggling to cope with the post-war world of the early 50s. Best known for his biographies [e.g. Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey], Holroyd has also written his autobiography and a family memoir. ‘A Dog’s Life’ grew out of his early writing based on his experiences being brought up in his grandparent’s house after his parents divorced. He observed acutely the humour and pathos of a household of individuals at enmity, the petty point-scoring and unkindnesses, the dreariness of the daily round and the terrible boredom of mealtimes. These were all things the young Holroyd longed to escape from, and he did so through reading. The humour lies in his accurate portrayal of each character – their obsessions, and how they eat, talk, dress and move. Other humorous scenes are created through minutely remembered period detail . At the same time, the author is sympathetic to the ‘tragic’ aspect of the situation, how the family has become trapped in their house and their relationships.

In his postscript, sub-titled ‘Change and Delay’,  Holroyd describes how the novel was first published in 1969 in the USA, and prior to that he had given it to his father to read .His father hated the way the characters were portrayed, and thinking that they would be easily identifiable, threatened legal action if the book went ahead.That is why it was first published in the States, and only came out in the UK this year, after his father had died . Holroyd had had difficulties with threats of litigation concerning the biographies he had written, and was used to trying to navigate the problems of an author revealing truths that could hurt the friends and family, or the reputation of the subject. He emphasises ‘the  essential moral difference between writing of the living, who are vulnerable, and the dead’ – for the truth can be told about them without hurting them, although friends and family members may be hurt, especially if  some matters had been kept secret. However, Holroyd also goes on to say that it is important to maintain the truth, insofar as it can be ascertained ,’For if we are merely fed with sentimental, false or protective stories about what people have done, we will be seriously misled.’ The author goes on to analyse the difference between creative fiction, as a work of the imagination and what he describes as ‘the recreative chronicle of non-fiction’ He does not see novel and biography writing as ‘rivals,so much as catalysts.’ He also does not believe that biographers should be restricted to proven facts, but they must take into account their subjects’  ‘fantasies, lies, dreams, delusions and contradictions.They must not invent, but they may speculate.’ The author  points out that biographies need not end with a death – a life story may be told backwards, or may focus on the most interesting periods. In his opinion, Life -writing has more to do with social history than biography.

Thus the Post-script provides many useful pointers for anyone engaged in writing family history, as well as offering advice on how to tackle difficult or painful topics.

Susie Gutch

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25 Years after the Fall (of the Berlin Wall)

Exactly 25 years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell. Tonight, a concert at the Brandenburg Gate commemorated one of the most important events of the 20th century. It did so by releasing 8,000 white helium balloons which were illuminated and lined up next to one another over a nine-mile line; the same line along which the original wall, a guarded concrete partition, stood between the years 1961-1989.

November 9, 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

November 9, 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The white balloons were a work of art which, it was reported, took longer to erect that the original wall had. This was telling. People had gone to great lengths to ensure that the world did not forget what happened only a quarter of a century before. When the balloons were released, the wall floated away and, for a second time, disappeared.

Peter Gabriel performs at the Brandenburg Gate party, 9 November 2014.

Peter Gabriel performs at the Brandenburg Gate party, 9 November 2014 with the white balloons representing the Berlin Wall.

Another anniversary was also celebrated today, “Remembrance Day”. Importantly, this year’s celebrations commemorated the centenary of the First World War. Wreaths were laid all over Europe to remember what happened 100 years ago.

Together, these two events alone could tell the story of the 20th century. The First World War eventually led to a Second World War and then a Cold War. Borders were drawn and re-drawn, the Berlin wall was erected and millions of people were affected- displaced, torn from families and loved ones or killed fighting for their countries. Nations were tested, old countries disappeared and new ones were formed. Allegiances were changed, sometimes unwillingly, and a new world order resulted. Politically and economically it was a remarkable century as new systems came into play and affected all those who were still around after surviving the bloody wars.

The fact that the anniversaries (and significant ones at that) of these two watershed events occur on the same date is rather extraordinary. Conveniently, it allows us all to reflect upon the significance of events which made up the entire last century- the causes, consequences and conclusions- all in one day. For all of us writing and researching family history, we know that regardless of where a family resided last century or what their circumstances, they were, in some way, affected. Indeed, millions of family histories were rewritten; unknowingly for many as simple steps taken to survive the consistent hardships regularly resulted in upheaval within a family structure. Leaving one’s native country to seek a better future in another country did not necessarily mean the intention was to relocate an entire branch of a family tree forever, yet often this was exactly the outcome. Today, putting the pieces of the puzzle together for us, their legacies, is fraught with challenges but we hold a privileged position when we delve backwards into history to make sense of stories which were unravelled and try to piece them back together as if we ourselves took part in the events themselves rather than in just their anniversaries.

© Kristina Tzaneff

Categories: How we write, Journeys | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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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