Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I’ve been absent from this blog for rather a long time. I last wrote back in May when Leicester was celebrating an unprecedented sporting success and everyone round here was bubbling over with joy and excitement. Since then a lot has changed.


I should have written about my trips to the theatre over the summer and believe me, there was a part of me that so wanted to tell you all about the stunning A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Globe, a side-splittingly hilarious production of The Rover at the RSC (which I’m seeing again in January) and a brilliant version of The Importance of Being Earnest at Leicester’s Curve, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to write anything so trivial in an enthused manner.


In June, I tried to write a blog post about why I was, despite everything, still proud to be British. And while I am very proud and always will be, the events of the summer have left my pride a little dented.


I went to see Doctor Strange at the cinema a few weeks ago and thought about writing a post asking “Where are our Super Heroes?” But, that didn’t seem quite serious enough.


Christmas is almost upon us once again, hurtling towards me like a freight train with promises of an appearance in the school panto, a children’s Christmas party and a trip to see Cinderella where I expect to be deafened by hundreds of screaming kids. And that’s just work!


The onset of the festive season reminds me that on 23rd December last year I wrote a small blog about hope. I still have hope. Because there has to be hope, even in the face of things I never believed would happen. I don’t particularly want to be political here but to quote the song I quoted back in December “How can things be better left unsaid?”


My Twitter bio states, amongst other things, that I am a “believer in multiculturalism, feminism and sharing our beautiful world.” I don’t know anyone close to me that doesn’t also believe in those things. And yet here we are living in a country that has become increasingly isolationist, where racial hatred incidences are on the increase, and where people would rather see child refugees die than reach out and help them. And that is bad enough, but then you look further afield and see the marching feet of fascism slowly creeping across the western world and I have to ask, “Have we learnt nothing?”


Fascism – extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practices.
Synonyms: authoritarianism, totalitarianism, dictatorship, despotism, autocracy, absolute rule, nazism, rightism, militarism, nationalism, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, chauvinism, jingoism, isolationism, neo-fascism, neo-Nazism, corporativism, corporatism, hitlerism, francoism, falangism.”

Oxford English Dictionary

My great-grandfather was a Labour Party pioneer. He was a member of the party from 1898 (the Labour Party as we recognise it today was founded in 1900) until his death in 1960. He was a Regional Labour Party Organiser, Election Agent and founder and editor of The Labour Organiser – “The only Labour Journal devoted to Organisation, Electioneering and Business Matters”. He is widely quoted in books about the party, most recently in The Collins Review into Labour Party Reform in 2014. He was asked by fellow Labour Party member Oswald Mosley (who had formerly been a member of the Conservative Party) to join the British Union of Fascists (BUF), which Mosley founded and whose supporters were known as “blackshirts”. My great-grandfather refused. I can’t help wondering what he’d make of politics today and the rise, once again, of political opinions we should all find abhorrent.


There’s been a lot of talk about accepting that people have voted against what I believe in and that we should all just “suck it and see”. I cannot do that. I cannot agree to accept the rise of hatred and intolerance. I cannot agree to accept that we should not care for our fellow man whatever their colour, religion, nationality or sexuality.


This world in which we live is a precious thing. All life on earth is precious. And so I still hope … and I hope I’m not the only one.

Read Full Post »

Phoebe was born in 1834 in Colchester. The date of her birth is unknown, as is that of her christening, if there ever was one. She went on to have one of the most interesting lives of any of my ancestors. Reading between the lines and there are many lines, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was a life beset by scandal and maybe it was. One thing is certain, it was a hard life, but oh the stories she could have told!


Phoebe was the 3rd child, one of six, of George Henry Gusterson and his wife Susan. George was an army man, at least for a short while. His first child was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia – now Canada – and his second at Chatham Army Barracks in Kent. Although I have no details of his service, it seems likely that he left the army around 1830 and the family settled in Colchester, the place of his birth.


They lived around North Hill in Colchester. For at least some of the time they most likely lived in a dwelling behind the houses and businesses on North Hill – a house or rooms off a courtyard which was no doubt cramped and perhaps a little squalid. George worked as a labourer. Over time he had various jobs which included working at the local iron foundry and as a bricklayer.


At the age of seventeen, Phoebe was working as a housemaid to a butcher and his family. She was listed on the 1851 census as being resident at the butcher’s house so it was a live-in position. At this time, her parents only had three children still living at home easing the burden on the household.


Phoebe’s adventures began in November 1854 when she married a Thomas Barrell. He was a soldier, a private in the infantry and fourteen years her senior. At the time of their marriage, his place of residence was recorded as the Wagon and Horses Inn. I have no idea if he was local although that seems unlikely; I can find no trace of him.


In June 1856 Phoebe’s father was in court on a serious charge (those of you who have read my previous family history blogs will know that my ancestors are quite familiar with court proceedings). He was charged with having “ill-treated his wife” and having “threatened to murder her”.  The story was helpfully recounted in the The Essex Standard at the time:

Colchester Town Hall. Monday, June 9. Before the Mayor and S. G. Cooke. Esq. George Henry Gusterson was brought up on a warrant, charged with having ill-treated his wife on Friday evening last and threatened to murder her. – It appeared that he had been for about two years out of employment, during which time he was mainly supported by the unremitting labour of his wife. Several times he has threatened to murder her, and on Thursday night his conduct was such that she was compelled to leave her home. On Friday night she returned to the house for some things, when the defendant received her with the greatest apparent affection; but after she had entered the house he fastened the door, and declared with an oath that he would murder her. Hearing her screams her son attempted to break open the door, upon which defendant struck her several times with a screw-driver, and she became insensible. – The Bench asked if he was in the habit of getting drunk; but the complainant (who seemed to feel keenly being driven to the necessity of appealing to the law for protection) begged not to be pressed to answer the question. – Defendant subjected his wife to a lengthy cross-examination, and endeavoured to show that he was the most ill-used of husbands; that he, not his wife, ought to be the complainant; and that notwithstanding the greatest provocation he always behaved kindly to his wife. – The Bench, however, considered the case proved, and ordered defendant to enter into his own recognizances in £20 to keep the peace for six months, and to find one surety in £10.”

The son who tried to break down the door was only twelve years old at the time! As it happens, George was unable to find surety and was committed to prison for six months. Six months!! That seems an unduly lenient sentence for threatening to murder someone.


Amazingly enough, in September of the same year he was back in court, this time to be discharged on the request of his long-suffering wife:

COLCHESTER TOWN HALL. – SEPT. 11. Before the Mayor and J. Chaplin, Esq. Mr. Abell applied on behalf of Mrs. Gusterson for the discharge of her husband, George Henry Gusterton [sic], who, it will be remembered, was committed to prison on the 9th June last, in default of finding surety for his good behaviour to his wife for six months. Having given a solemn promise to behave better to her for the future, his wife wished him to be set at liberty. – The Bench having acceded to this request, the prisoner was brought up into the Court and addressed by the Mayor, who said at the earnest request of his wife the Bench had consented to his liberation. He had much to thank his wife for, especially after the treatment she had received at his hands, and he hoped he would properly appreciate it. Whatever he did, let him shun drink; it was drink that had brought him to his present position. It had been to him a curse, and would continue so, unless he endeavoured in the most determined manner to free himself from it. – Gusterson thanked the Bench for their kindness, and having entered into his own recognizances for his future behaviour, left the Court with his wife.”

Maybe encouraged by the misdemeanours of her father Phoebe embarked on something quite remarkable. With her husband, Thomas, now presumably dead, most likely in the Crimea (sadly something I cannot ascertain), she married again.


In 1854, Britain had declared war on Russia following Russian incursions into the Crimea. Struggling to recruit sufficient soldiers at home the British fell back on the time-honoured tradition of hiring foreign recruits. The majority came from the German states, eager for action, many deserting their own army. Known as the British German Legion or Anglo-German Legion, the mercenaries saw little or no action as the war ended. Many were still being trained and Britain was contractually obliged to pay them their dues. In 1856, around 10,000 legionnaires were billeted at Barrack field in Colchester Garrison. Having committed the treasonous act of swearing an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria they faced difficulties with repatriation and the British Government decided to resettle some of them, in the Cape Colony in South Africa, known then as British Kaffraria, to help protect the Eastern Cape Frontier. They wanted married men so they gave the men permission to marry any woman who was willing to join him on the adventure. In the end, less than 2,500 men volunteered for resettlement and the number of married soldiers that arrived in the Cape was far fewer than that, less than 400, and the colony struggled from the very start, not helped by the lies and exaggerations they were told about the settlement in order to make the idea seem more appealing.


One of Colchester’s oldest photos, taken in 1856, of the British German Legion’s encampment by the Garrison Church in Colchester. Source: Essex County Standard.


On 16 November 1856 Phoebe married a Carl Formhals on board the depot ship HMS Britannia in a mass wedding with a number of other couples. Her younger sister Sarah also married a German, Heinrich Langefeldt, her marriage taking place in the Garrison Church on 19 October 1856.


Carl was actually Prussian, from a town called Arnsberg. He was 5’4”, blonde and a butcher by trade. He enlisted in the British German Legion in November 1855 aged just 21.


Phoebe and Carl sailed for South Africa on 19 November 1856 and arrived in the Cape on 28 February 1857. They took a circuitous route, chasing trade winds across the Atlantic, then turning south down the coast of Brazil before crossing to the Cape. Three months on board a ship must have felt like an eternity.


On arriving in South Africa, after camping in a tented village overlooking the mouth of the Buffalo River close to the hamlet of East London, they were moved to Fort Murray, a three-day march away. The women and children rode on ox wagons with the baggage while the soldiers walked. Of course, by this time the legionnaires realised that British Kaffraria was not what they’d been promised. It was nothing like Germany – it was hot, there was a lack of proper roads and the forts were not stone castles but earthen constructions. When they arrived in Fort Murray they once again had to make do with tents. During these early days, and later on, many died from dysentery.


The legion was broken up into three regiments and after two months they left Fort Murray to settle into various villages. Sarah and her husband settled in Stutterheim where he was granted land and it is possible that this is also where Phoebe and Carl settled but there is no record.


There seemed to be some confusion about how the men should be ordered. Were they soldiers who were becoming settlers or were they settlers who had been soldiers? Apart from the weekly parade they were left to their own devices and did very little. There was dissent, money was a problem, soldiers starting deserting. Many seemed uninterested in constructing permanent homes. There were relatively few married men and no prospect of any women for the unmarried ones and therein lay the main problem.


The soldiers received full pay for a year; a whole 11 months longer than originally promised thanks to lies fed back to Britain by those in charge about uprisings and threatened wars. After that the soldiers were reduced to half-pay which made their lives unsustainable. By way of a solution to this and to help rid the colony of those soldiers who were uninterested in settling and thus causing problems, they were offered the opportunity to volunteer to serve in India where a “mutiny” had occurred. Around 45% of the settlers volunteered and by August 1858 they had left. Those who stayed were once again able to receive full pay. Further German immigrants were brought over and the colony started to flourish.


Phoebe and Carl stayed in South Africa as did her sister, Sarah, and her husband. Phoebe had two children, Charles in 1859 and Bertha in 1860. Carl purchased his discharge from the legion on 31 August 1859.


In 1861 Phoebe Formhals was back in Colchester, England, with her two children in tow, living with her mother and two siblings. The census lists her as married but her husband is not there. There is no record of when, how or why Phoebe returned to England. What happened to Carl is a secret that Phoebe may very well have taken to her grave.


Phoebe’s father was living elsewhere with a woman listed as “housekeeper”. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t; however, I doubt she was his housekeeper if this was her profession. In his daughter’s absence he had been in court again, this time on the charge of obtaining charitable contributions under false pretences. For this he served two months of hard labour. He died in 1865 in the workhouse. A sorry end to a sorry tale.


From the time she arrived back in England and until she married for a third and final time, Phoebe worked as a tailoress. On the 1871 census she reverted to her first married name, Barrell, and was calling herself a widow. Was she a widow? Who knows. She may have wished to distance herself from the German surname since anti-German sentiment began to make an appearance in Britain in the 1870s following the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian war.


On 1 Jun 1873 Phoebe married Joseph Slade, another soldier. He had served in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and quite possibly the Crimea, and was living in the Colchester Garrison. The marriage certificate records Phoebe as Phoebe Barrell, widow. It makes no mention of her previous husband.


When Phoebe’s children married they both named their father as Charles Barrell, Charles being the anglicised form of Carl. On Charles’ marriage certificate his father’s profession was recorded as being a publican, which he most definitely was not, and on Bertha’s, it was correctly recorded as soldier.


Phoebe and Joseph remained together until her death in 1898. They had a child, William, in 1880, no doubt rather unexpectedly given Phoebe’s age (45-46). On the 1881 census Joseph is listed as an army pensioner so had at some point in the intervening years left the army. Another ten years passed and Joseph was working as a labourer at Colchester Garrison which afforded them accommodation within the barracks; however, Phoebe is sadly noted as being paralysed – to what degree it doesn’t say. She died on 22 May 1898 aged 64. Her death certificate lists the causes of death as rheumatoid arthritis and debility plus something that is frustratingly illegible. It says she had suffered from arthritis for 18 years and debility for two. Given the adventures she had and the hardships she must have faced, 64 seems like a good age.


So for all intents and purposes Carl Formhals never existed, or at least that’s the impression Phoebe seems to have been hoping to give. The German surname was erased from the collective family memory and, although we knew her children were born in South Africa, the mass wedding was just a rumour. It was only when I started delving into her past that we found out the truth. But what is the truth? What happened to Carl? Did he return to Germany? There is no record of him remaining in South Africa but that means very little. A man with the same name, birth year and birthplace married in Germany in 1861 but the name isn’t uncommon enough for me to make any assumptions and I don’t have access to any other records to be able to delve further. Did Phoebe commit bigamy?


Phoebe and Carl’s daughter, Bertha (pictured below), was my great x 2 grandmother. When she was eligible to receive an old age pension from the government she experienced some difficulty proving her age because she had no proof of her birth. There was no official recording of births and such-like in the Cape Colony.


The rather wonderful looking Bertha Mary Ann Hunwicke (née Formhals but known as Barrell). Family archive.


So, a tiny part of me is German, or more accurately, Prussian. Whatever the reasons for Phoebe and Carl parting ways I am very proud to call them my ancestors. I think they were brave and adventurous, especially Phoebe. Imagine the stories she could tell.


The story of the Eastern Cape’s German Settlers can be found here:




As an aside it is interesting to note that Phoebe’s elder brother, also George Henry Gusterson, seems to have been of the same ilk as his father. On 11 November 1856, five days before Phoebe married Carl Formhals, her brother was in court on charges of ill-using his wife. He had used a familiar threat: murder.

COLCHESTER TOWN HALL. – Nov. 6. Before Mayor and S. G. Cooke. Esq. MATRIMONIAL DISAGREEMENT. – George Henry Gusterson, jun., was summoned for ill-using his wife. – Mr Abell for defendant. Complainant stated that she had been married to defendant four or five years, and about two months ago he left her in London after selling off the furniture, and she did not know where he was till a week afterwards, when, on his promising to behave better to her, she came to Colchester and lived with him. On Friday last he struck her in the face with his fist, and threatened to murder her. On Monday last, when she returned from the Court, after applying for a summons, he repeated his threatening language. – A neighbour, Mrs Brooker, a respectable woman, spoke to hearing defendant make use of threatening language towards his wife on various occasions. Mr Abell, for defendant, called Eliza Hardwick, who stated that she had heard complainant speak to her husband about another woman, when defendant replied that he would knock her head through the wall. She had heard complainant tell her child not to love her father. – In answer to a question by the Clerk to the Magistrates, this witness admitted that she had been brought into the station-house off the pavement when intoxicated. – The Mayor asked complainant if there was any prospect of their living peaceably together after this? – Complainant. No, Sir: this is the fourth time he has treated me thus, and I wish to be separated from him. – Mr Cooke. We cannot do anything of that kind: our business is, if possible, to set man and wife together. – The Mayor, We might sit here all day if we were to separate married people who wished to part. – The Bench then required defendant to find two sureties in £10 each to keep the peace towards his wife; and the required sureties being forthcoming defendant was discharged.”

George Henry Gusterson, jun. disappears from all records after this and his wife is living in London with her daughter by 1861 and is recorded as a widow. Again, was she? Who knows.



Read Full Post »

The curtain rose and just as a copperish head of curls started to emerge on the stage to the strains of Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy I heard a quiet gasp and a hand grabbed my upper arm. I jumped. A voice whispered in my ear, “Knock knock …”


“Who’s there?” said Benedict Cumberbatch.


Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photographer: Johan Persson.


This trip to the theatre had been a whole year in the imagining, the anticipation so great there was a real danger of it being a huge anti-climax. But I remained hopeful, even in the face of some horrible behaviour from the press and some less than favourable reviews of the early previews. Cumberbatch is an actor I consider to be one of the greatest of his generation and I like to make up my own mind about these things.


We were making the most of our weekend in London and before we even got to Hamlet we went to the Almeida Theatre in Islington to see Bakkhai with Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel. Bakkhai is the story of Dionysus, son of Zeus. An ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides. Now, call me uncultured but I know nothing about the Greek Gods and the myths and legends that surround them. I kept telling people I was going to see Bacchus and was somewhat relieved to discover that Dionysus is referred to as Bacchus quite regularly throughout the play as that’s what the Romans named him. I might just have got away with that one!


Ben Whishaw as Dionysus, Bakkhai. Photographer: Marc Brenner.


The play was very different to anything I’ve ever seen before. Ben Whishaw is a wonderful waif of an actor, best known to me for his ethereal performance as Richard II in The Hollow Crown series for which he won a BAFTA. Perhaps known better elsewhere for being the latest incarnation of Q in the James Bond films. In this he is almost androgynous, funny and sinister with an otherworldly air. There were only three actors in the whole play, as is apparently traditional, and they take on all the various parts, hence Bertie Carvel played both Pentheus and Pentheus’ mother. He was rather good in drag – apparently something he’s done before. Ben Whishaw aside, the thing I will remember most is the Greek chorus: a group of women who can do things with their voices I have never heard before and perhaps wouldn’t want to hear again.


Chorus, Bakkhai. Photographer: Marc Brenner.


Bakkhai is ultimately rather disturbing but it was very good and an interesting and cultured start to the weekend.


The following day we continued with the culture and ancient things and paid a visit to the British Library to see the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition which is fascinating but rather long and drawn out by what appeared to me to be some fairly tenuous links in the legacy part. Tony Hancock anyone? The stars of the exhibition are the beautiful illuminated books, manuscripts, charters, Papal Bulls and all manner of other things. All stunning in their painstaking detail and fascinating in their content and context. As someone who loves words I wanted to be able to read everything but in most cases it is almost impossible for us who are untrained and so spoilt by modernity to even attempt to read the beautiful and archaic script. The message that one takes away from this exhibition is that our rights, our freedom, justice, are not new concepts. It has ever been thus.


But I digress. On to Hamlet, which I can categorically state right now was not, in any way, anti-climatic.


We were in the fourth row, mesmerisingly close to the stage. After the knock knock joke from my witty friend Nic, which wasn’t entirely unexpected, I stared at the man on the stage, unable to quite comprehend that this was the Benedict Cumberbatch, right in front of me – Hamlet, no less.


Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photographer: Johan Persson.


When the whole stage was revealed I was stunned. It is a jaw-dropping set. Beautiful and magical and full of surprises. And it is vast.


I am one of those people the press have been trying to shame. I am not a Shakespeare connoisseur. Yes, I love his work but I’ve seen relatively little and I don’t always understand everything. I didn’t know what an arras was, was a bit sketchy on the bare bodkin and knew even less about the story of Hamlet. Unless I’m going to The Globe or to my local theatre I nearly always choose to go and see something because of who is in it. I wanted to see Hamlet because of Benedict Cumberbatch and what’s so wrong about that? Actors like Cumberbatch want to open up the theatre to a whole new generation of theatre-goers. They want people who’ve never seen a Shakespeare play to experience the Bard and love him like they do, and they want to eradicate the elitism and snobbery that prevails throughout much of theatre-land. I, for one, get very excited by the thought of Shakespeare reaching places he’s never reached before. Theatre needs new blood and most of all it needs the kind of blind enthusiasm and utter joy that only the young and un-jaded can bring. In Shakespeare’s day no-one minded heckles and jeers and applause and laughter, it was expected. I do think Willy Shakes may have been with Cumberbatch on mobile phones though.


During the interval, while scoffing some seriously good ice cream, we exchanged our views on the play so far. They were unanimous: the whole thing was mind-blowing in the extreme. Cumberbatch was mind-blowing, the set was mind-blowing, we loved it. We all felt that we were watching something rather special – a master at work.


Cumberbatch was born to perform Shakespeare. The poetry and the prose make perfect sense only when spoken in the right way and he does this unfailingly. He is witty, poignant, sad, angry and ultimately heart-breaking. He has perfect comic timing and can easily reduce me to tears of mirth or tears of sadness. He is a very physical actor on stage and when he roars he roars – I flinched!


For me there wasn’t a bad performance in the whole cast. Special mentions should go to Jim Norton for Polonius who was funny and bewildered, Sian Brooke for a heartbreaking Ophelia and Karl Johnson, an actor I already loved, for the ghost and the gravedigger – the latter being brilliantly dark with wicked humour.


The critics seem to be largely fixated on three things: the set being a distraction, the time in which the play is set and what sort of Hamlet Cumberbatch is portraying.


The set is immense and sumptuous – later imploding to become something much darker and sinister – but I was only truly distracted by it when it first appeared, staring in wonder with my jaw resting on my chest. After that I was drawn to the players and the story. For me the set only enhanced my experience.


I agree that the time in which the play was set was somewhat ambiguous but I don’t see why this mattered. Generally I saw it as being a fairly modern setting but ultimately this Elsinore seemed quite fantastical and ambiguity and fantasy go quite well together I think. So really … who cares?


What sort of Hamlet is Cumberbatch? “A bloody good one” according to his mother and I concur. Quite frankly I had no idea that this was “a thing” – I’ve never seen any other Hamlet so for me Cumberbatch’s will always be the definitive performance, the gauge by which I judge all others. I found him beguiling, seriously funny, mad with grief and anger, heart-breaking and full of rage. Most of all I felt great empathy towards him.


The instant standing ovation at the end was so well-deserved. Cumberbatch hadn’t quite reached the trinity of blood, sweat and tears but two out of three ain’t bad. He is a force of nature on stage, a fact enforced by the soaked t-shirt, and I only wish I could go and see this Hamlet again and again.


“A hit, a palpable hit.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2


A sweaty Hamlet contemplates killing Claudius. Photographer: Johan Persson.


Read Full Post »

… that man being the Duke of Wellington of course!


The Battle of Waterloo. William Sadler II (1762-1839). Oil on canvas. Source.


I have an ancestor called Thomas James Drinkwater, sometime Assistant Surgeon in the 2nd Life Guards. His name appears on the Waterloo medal rolls. He was my great (x4) grandfather.


Thomas was born around 1787 in Farnham, Surrey. The youngest son of a surgeon and great great grandson of a Baptist Minister who was imprisoned for preaching in 1677. He joined the 2nd Life Guards on 22 September 1812 and served in Iberia and was at Vitória and Waterloo.  He served for a total of 6 years until 1818. He married and settled in Ledbury, Herefordshire, where he continued to work as a surgeon. He had 4 children but sadly died in 1823 aged just 36 years old.


I registered Thomas’ details some time ago on a website that was collecting information from descendants of men who had been at Waterloo. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and there have been all sorts of commemorations taking place both here in the United Kingdom and in Belgium.


Completely out of the blue I received a rather smart-looking letter in the post. Enclosed in the envelope was this:

Invitation. My image.


To say I was stunned would be an understatement. (Not sure why they think I’m married!) I was thrilled but concerned that I might be unable to attend because the service was on a weekday in term time and I would be working. Anyway, to cut a long story short I was given permission to take the day off work and I accepted the invitation.


On the 18th June 2015, exactly 200 years to the day since the battle, I travelled to London, wearing my interview suit (it would have to do) and arrived at St Paul’s Cathedral at about 9.10am. The security gates opened at 9.30am and I had to show my ticket, passport and have my bag searched by a very polite young soldier who appeared unperturbed by the Birkenstocks hiding in the bottom of my smart handbag – I can wear heels but I can’t walk in them!


I joined a queue waiting for the doors of the cathedral to open at 10.00am and had a bit of time to take in my surroundings. I was now in the environs of St Paul’s Cathedral having entered through a gateway in Paternoster Square. There were metal fences surrounding the area and people were gathering on the other side to watch. I’ve never been on the inside looking out before – it’s a bit weird! While we waited in the rather hot sunshine we were serenaded by a Scot’s Guards pipe band which sounded wonderful.


Upon entering St Paul’s Cathedral which is already an awe-inspiring sight I had to walk past this line up of Standards, Guidons and Colours of the regiments in succession to those that fought at Waterloo:

200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo
At first glance they could easily have been mistaken for mannequins because they stood so still. And they seemed so tall! It truly was a memorable sight and one I wasn’t expecting which made it seem all the more surreal. It’s something I will probably never see again and I only wish I could have lingered but we were being ushered to our seats.


Because I had arrived so early I was very near the front of the queue entering St Paul’s. This meant that when I reached the area in which I was to be seated I found myself in the 2nd row. I was sitting just under the edge of the famous dome in the south transept. When I looked up this was my view:

Looking up into the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. My photo.


The service was attended by a lot of very well-known people. I didn’t know a lot of them would be there so I failed to spot any of them except those mentioned in the Order of Service. In attendance were their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall (Charles and Camilla to us plebs), the Earl of Wessex (Prince Edward), the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Prime Minister (David Cameron), the President of the European Parliament and the present Duke of Wellington. I saw the Royals arrive and spotted the Duke of Wellington but I saw no politicians or anyone else. I only glimpsed Charles and Camilla because when they came in and left it was in procession and we all had to stand. I could see the tops of their heads when we were all seated though! They were sitting just in front of the congregation on the right-hand side of the aisle as is traditional – royalty on the right, politicians on the left. They can be seen in this photo, as can I:

200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo


Here is a print screen version to which I’ve added a handy little red circle so you can see where I was sitting (click to enlarge):


In addition to the above, amongst the congregation were senior representatives of the Armed Services, representatives and ambassadors of all combatant countries involved in the Battle, and descendants of men who fought in the Battle (including me!), 200 children and 200 teachers together with members of the public who entered a ballot for tickets.


To quote the order of service, “during the service an anthologicon is delivered, drawn from extracts from contemporary accounts of events before, during and after the Battle of Waterloo by British, French and German readers under-laid by the sound of the organ.” So, the story of the Battle of Waterloo was told through the voices of those who were actually there read by their descendants or current serving members of the armed forces. It was incredibly moving and very thought-provoking.


To have been a surgeon on such a battlefield is something I don’t think any of us can truly imagine and I feel immensely proud to be descended from someone who served his country in such a way.


The horror of battle was summed up by the Duke of Wellington in a conversation recalled by his friend Lady Shelley:

I hope to God that I have fought my last battle. It is a bad thing to be always fighting. While in the thick of it, I am much too occupied to feel anything; but it is wretched just after. It is quite impossible to think of glory. Both mind and feelings are exhausted. I am wretched even at the moment of victory, and I always say that next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained. Not only do you lose those dear friends with whom you have been living, but you are forced to leave the wounded behind you. To be sure one tries to do the best for them, but how little that is! At such moments every feeling in your breast is deadened. I am now just beginning to regain my natural spirits, but I never wish for any more fighting.


The Bishop of London, the Right Reverend and Right Honourable Richard Chartres, KCVO, gave the address. The main thing I took away from what he said was this:

The past cannot be changed but we are responsible for how we remember it.

His address can be read in full here and I strongly recommend reading it.


The service was not a mourning of loss nor a glorification of war but a commemoration of all those who fought at Waterloo and a salute to their courage and resolution.


I am so honoured and privileged to have been there. I don’t imagine for one moment that my ancestor, Thomas James Drinkwater, ever dreamt that his great great great great grand-daughter would be thinking about him and honouring him in such a way so many years later.


After the service and once the great and the good had exited the building I made my way outside into the sunshine. As I walked down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral I noticed that there were many more people watching from behind the barriers, undoubtedly come to see the Royals and other dignitaries. It is very bizarre to be watched by so many people waving cameras and phones – not that they were looking at me of course.

200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo


As the bells of St Paul’s rang out across London I made my way back to Paternoster Square, removed my jacket, packed away my heels, replaced them with my trusty Birkenstocks whilst sighing in blissful relief and joined the crowds in London – just another tourist once more.


I still can’t quite believe I was there!



All photos that are not labelled as mine are embedded courtesy of St Paul’s Cathedral’s Flickr account.

Read Full Post »

Back in July I wrote about the things that remain elusive in my family tree and the fanciful idea of finding a Royal connection. I sit here now with a piece of paper in front of me on which I have written the descent of William the Conqueror from Charlemagne because I’ve found that elusive piece of information thanks to a message I received from someone who happened to read my blog.


King William I (‘The Conqueror’) by Unknown artist.
oil on panel, circa 1620, purchased, 1974
Primary Collection. NPG 4980(1)
© National Portrait Gallery, London.


I know that pretty much everyone with British ancestry is more than likely related to Royalty somewhere along the line and that what I’ve found is anything but exclusive or special or even that interesting to most people, but it means something to me. You see, while we all may be related to the great and the good, and the not so good, those of us who are able to follow the trail back are a lot rarer.


I always assumed that if I was really lucky and found a connection it would be via a shared ancestor. I never imagined that I’d follow the trail back and find names like Lancaster and Plantagenet. You see, as it turns out, I’m descended from Henry III and Eleanor of Provence by two of their sons, Edward I (Edward Longshanks – Hammer of the Scots) and Edmund Crouchback. This, of course, means that I can trace my lineage back to William the Conqueror and Charlemagne and then further still.


The amount of “blue” blood flowing in my veins, if indeed there’s any at all, because after all who knows what went on behind closed doors, is infinitesimal. But I can draw up my family tree and see one branch of it stretching back nearly 1500 years and to me that is quite incredible. I can’t quite comprehend it and some would argue that the reason I can’t is because it’s meaningless. But instead of thinking of it in terms of years I look at William the Conqueror and I realise there are only thirty generations between us. Thirty! That seems a very small number to get back almost 1000 years. And after that it’s only another eleven to get back to Charlemagne.


I’m well aware that thirty generations back I should have over a billion ancestors but of course that would be more people than there were on the entire planet at that time so there’ll be a lot of common ancestors across the various branches of my family tree. I may even have other lines of descent from William the Conqueror. Who knows?


It seems funny to me that the very first family tree I ever drew was a Royal one. When I was a teenager there was a drama series on the television called Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. It told the story of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. I was of an age, fifteen, where I was easily caught up in romance and fanciful ideas. I fell in love with the story and desperately wanted it to be true. I set about finding out how Anna Anderson would be related to Queen Elizabeth II had she turned out to be Anastasia. The relationship between the current British Royal family and the Russian Tsar is, of course, well documented, but I had no knowledge of it so I sat in the local library armed with the Dictionary of National Biography and various other books and wrote it all out. Imagine what my fifteen-year old self would have done with the knowledge that, not only was she distantly related to the entire Royal Family, but she was descended from Kings and Emperors, not to mention Vikings!


In many ways I’m still that fifteen-year old girl with fanciful ideas and endless daydreams. I must remember that just occasionally fanciful ideas are not so fanciful after all.



I went to the theatre on Tuesday evening. A long anticipated trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see David Tennant play Richard II at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was sublime, extraordinary, wonderful, moving, and every other superlative you might care to suggest. I’m a huge fan of David Tennant which is why I bought a ticket; however, seeing it just confirmed to me my love of Shakespeare. The fact that it happened to be Tennant playing the lead was simply a fabulous bonus.


David Tennant in Shakespeare’s Richard II at the RSC in Stratford. Source.


I mention this here because as the main characters were revealed upon the stage I was struck that I can now go to the theatre and see plays about people that I can legitimately add to my family tree. Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, banished forever by Richard II, is a distant great-uncle. He was brother to a direct ancestor of mine a mere twenty generations back. Fanciful ideas …


Read Full Post »

Change is necessary, change is good, but sometimes change brings sadness.


As part of my family history research I’ve come across a lot of churches that are no longer standing and graveyards that have long since been lost in the mists of time and buried under decades or centuries of change. Sometimes they’re flattened by war, sometimes they’re demolished simply because they’re in the way.


I just came across St Mary’s Church in Birmingham whose churchyard was the last resting place of my great x 5 grandmother, Mary Moseley. She died in March 1833.


St Mary’s Church and General Hospital off Whittall Street, Birmingham, 1921.
Source: Britain from Above

The same scene today – now Birmingham Children’s Hospital. Source: Google Earth.


Looking at the two images above you can see that the old hospital with its two towers (slightly distorted by the Google Earth’s rendering) is still standing but the unusual octagonal church and surrounding gardens that lay beyond it are no longer there. St Mary’s is long gone.


The website A History of Birmingham Churches by William Dargue tells us the story of St Mary’s:


At the beginning of the 18th century Birmingham began to spread northwards from its ancient centre around the Bull Ring. One of the earliest estates to be laid out was that of Dorothy and Mary Weaman. However, housing development here was slow, and so the ladies decided to build a church, not so much to cater for local residents, but rather to attract new residents. At a time when most pews were rented and the best pews had been taken in the other churches in the town, this would prove an attractive proposition to newcomers to the estate. They would live close to their place of worship and, if they subscribed towards the building of the church, they would be guaranteed the rent of a prestigious pew near the pulpit.

St Mary’s was built in 1774 in Whittall Street by Joseph Pickford, an architect from Derby who had worked on the Palladian Horse Guards building in Whitehall. A chapel of ease of St Martin’s, St Mary’s took its dedication from the Christian name of Mary Weaman, for, although the cost of building was raised by subscription, Mary Weaman gave the site for the new church and £1000 towards its construction, by far the largest single amount. The final cost was around £4700.

When first built, the church stood in open ground on the north edge of the town, but the creation of a new church here had the desired effect and the area was soon built up around it. St Mary’s was an octagonal brick building with a small tower and spire, in a neo-classical style and surrounded by a large churchyard. The importance of being assured a place of burial was probably of equal rank to that of having a guaranteed seat in the church.

The octagonal shape of the church was considered ideal for preaching and there was only a small apsidal chancel. There was a tower of three stages, the first round, the second octagonal with Doric columns at each angle, and the third octagonal with a clock face and pediment on each alternate side. There was a slender spire.

In 1776 part of the gallery collapsed during the morning service. Although there were no injuries other than the loss of some ladies their handkerchiefs and some gentlemen their hats, this was a serious matter. The trustees had difficulties in arranging a meeting with the architect. In the end the matter was settled by Pickford’s offer of £400 in settlement.

One of the Hiorne brothers (it is not known which one), the architects of St Bartholomew’s in Masshouse Lane, was consulted. He suggested using cast-iron columns to support the gallery. If this is not the first example of the use of cast-iron this way, it is certainly one of the earliest.

St Mary’s had a Methodist connection (Methodists were part of the Church of England until after John Wesley’s death in 1791). In 1786 John Wesley attended a service at the church to hear ‘an admirable sermon’ from the curate.

The church remained a focus of evangelical preaching until the end of the 19th century.

Around the beginning of the 19th century the district became a focus for gun manufacture. The rear gardens of the large Georgian houses were first used to carry out manufacturing processes, and then the houses themselves were used. And the area quickly lost its high-class status.

In 1841 St Mary’s was assigned a parish out of that of St Martin’s. In 1857 the building was renovated. The tower and spire were found to be unsafe and were rebuilt in 1866 to a very similar design, but with pilasters instead of columns and a balustrade on the second stage. In 1888 400 of the 1700 sittings were free. At some point the tower and spire appear to have been rebuilt yet again.

In 1882 the churchyard, presumably now full, was taken over by the Corporation and laid out as a public garden, known as St Mary’s Garden.

In 1897 the General Hospital was rebuilt in Steelhouse Lane close to the church. Because of need for land for the expansion of the General Hospital, St Mary’s was closed in 1925 pending demolition and the parish united with that of the Bishop Ryder Memorial Church in Gem Street.

The sale of the land paid most of the cost of £20,415 to build a new St Mary’s on the new housing estate at Pype Hayes in 1929. St Mary’s 18th-century silver communion service by Boulton & Fothergill now belongs to Pype Hayes church.”

St Mary’s Church. Image from R K Dent, 1878, ‘Birmingham Old & New’.
Source: Sally Lloyd


I know the burials were reinterred elsewhere before the building work began, some in Witton Cemetery around 1927, and the rest in Warstone Lane Cemetery around 1952-53. In 1882 a record was made of all the monumental inscriptions in St Mary’s churchyard but sadly there were no Moseleys listed. This could be because no stone was ever placed on the grave or because the one that was had succumbed to the ravages of time. This, of course, means that Mary’s new grave wherever she was reinterred will also be unmarked.


Mary is not by any means the only ancestor I have whose last resting place is forever lost and each one saddens me. I know that it would be impossible to preserve all graveyards and cemeteries forever but I still find it sad that so much of our heritage has been lost to the unceasing march of progress. Change and progress are and always will be inevitable. But sometimes it just makes me sad …


Read Full Post »

I’m going through a Shakespeare phase; while looking for inspirational quotes I find myself increasingly drawn to his works. Actually, I hope it’s not a phase because as Ben Jonson wrote about Shakespeare in 1623, “He was not of an age, but for all time!” I don’t know if I should be concerned that Macbeth seems to be quite prominent in my subconscious … the title of this post being a prime example. Hopefully that’s simply a result of my recent trip to The Globe.


To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.”

William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Sc 5.

While my life at the moment seems mostly to be a succession of days with a rather bleak outlook (although infinitely better than Macbeth’s) I’ve just had a busy, stressful, but wonderful week. A friend came to stay for four nights and we went out and about to various events, and I had to cope with a particularly tough event of my own. The theme of these few days has definitely been courage, either other people’s or mine.



A “German” soldier keeping watch from his trench. My photo.


On Saturday my friend and I went to The Victory Show, a tribute to World War II. The show is a step back in time to the 1940s with battle re-enactments, flying displays from World War II aircraft and a huge army encampment. I go mainly to see the aircraft as I can’t resist the lure of the Spitfire, Hurricane, Messerschmitt, B17 “Sally B” and countless others. This year we stood and watched the set-piece battle between the “Germans” and the “Allied Forces”. While it was done primarily for entertainment purposes, with a few tricks for the crowd like exploding water tanks that soaked anyone unlucky enough to be standing behind the hedges in which they were hidden and a “German” soldier being shot in the bottom, there was, of course, a serious side.

It’s not difficult to see how much courage was required on both sides of the real war. Watching the “Germans” crouching in their trenches like sitting ducks as the “Allies” advanced, and seeing the “Allies” face heavy bombardment from anti-tank guns and rocket launchers makes you think.


Where is your ancient courage? You were us’d
To say extremities was the trier of spirits.”

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, Act 4, Sc. 1.

The “Allies” advancing on the “German” trenches. My photos.


Something else that gave me great pause for thought was the tiny confined space of the cockpit in each of the aircraft, not to mention the seemingly flimsy frame of these war birds. We paid a few extra pounds to walk the flight line and get up close and personal with the aircraft. You don’t realise how small a Spitfire or any of the other planes are until you’re standing next to the wing peering into the space which is less of a pit and more of a small hole with a view. The bravery and courage of the pilots who threw these aircraft around the skies is something I can barely comprehend. They must have found their sticking places, but sadly it took more than courage to ensure they didn’t fail. It took skill and a great deal of luck. During World War II air crew had less chance of survival than the infantry did in World War I. For many their fates were set as soon as they set foot inside the aircraft.


Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Sc. 2.

The cockpit of the Grace Spitfire (ML407). My photo.



On Sunday we went to the Shackerstone Family Festival. Shackerstone is a small village in Leicestershire best known today for the Battlefield Line Railway, a preserved steam and diesel museum that runs trains to Bosworth Battlefield. The festival brings together an eclectic mix of family attractions such as vintage narrowboats on the Ashby Canal, llama racing (seriously), lawnmower racing (again … seriously), dog agility displays, arts and crafts, steam traction engines, birds of prey displays, fairground rides and this year, and my main reason for wanting to go, the Red Arrows.


The Red Arrows displaying at the Royal International Air Tattoo in July 2013.
My photo.


The Reds put on a terrific display over the canal and for the first time ever I heard gasps of amazement from the crowd as the synchro-pair flew towards each other, seemingly heading for a collision. You never hear gasps like that at the big airshows because the majority of the crowd know what to expect. It gave me immense pleasure to be able to show my mum why I love the Reds so much. She was one of the gaspers and even professed to finding it really scary to watch. She did also say that she really loved it but having never seen them before was taken aback by their skill and courage.


To be a pilot with the Red Arrows does indeed take great skill and it’s something that only a very few RAF pilots get to do. Not only are they putting on a great display for the crowds but they’re showing us what the aircraft can do and showing off their own professional excellence. To do what they do, to do what any RAF pilot does, takes great courage, just as it did in the past.



On Monday morning I had to screw my own courage to the sticking place. I’m not going to go into the details but I had an interview for a job that was near perfect for me and one I truly wanted. I tried so hard to overcome my fear and be brave. I was determined not to fail and I don’t think I did. I didn’t get the job but I succeeded in overcoming my fear and finding some courage that a week before I truly didn’t think I had. This was a huge thing for me and while I’m disappointed at the outcome I was given wonderful feedback and now have some learning points to take forward for the next time. I must remember that while “brevity is the soul of wit” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Sc. 2) it is not necessarily the best approach in interviews. In other words: expand, expand, EXPAND! Or, if you are going to be brief, at least be succinct and choose your words carefully.


Early in the morning before I left home for the interview I found a little inspiration thinking about Richard Armitage and his fear of water. If he can stand to be water-boarded, filmed under water in a sinking submersible craft, or stuck in a barrel on a fast-moving river then I too can face my fears.


My situation may not have been life-threatening but if you’ve ever had a panic attack you will no doubt know that it can feel as if it is. My biggest achievement was learning to control my panic and finding the courage not to let it consume me.

These quotes seem especially apt for me:


Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.”

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act 1, Sc. 4.

Nothing will come of nothing.”

William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 1, Sc. 1.


On Wednesday we had the very great honour and privilege of being present at the screening of a documentary called “Finding the Pathfinders” at The Kinema in the Woods at Woodhall Spa.  The film charts the search by Douglas Percy Cannings DFM for his wartime crewmates. Percy, as he prefers to be known, is the father of a friend of mine and on 11th September, the day of the screening, he celebrated his 90th birthday.


Percy Cannings on his 90th birthday.
Source: The Kinema in the Woods.


Percy served in the RAF during World War II as a mid-upper gunner in Lancaster bombers. He completed two tours: the first with 100 squadron and the second with 97 squadron, the latter being part of the Pathfinder Force. The Pathfinders’ job was to locate and mark targets using flares at which the main bomber force could then aim so increasing the accuracy of their bombing.


Before the screening of the film Sean Taylor gave a talk about “A day in the life of a Bomber Command Lancaster Crew”. Sean is the Safety Officer and guide at the Aviation Heritage Centre in East Kirkby, Lincolnshire. Listening to the talk gave us a better understanding of just how remarkable it is that Percy survived the war especially when you consider that he flew 47 missions!



The film was made by Percy’s family and was poignant and moving. As each of his crewmates were researched and traced more and more moving stories were told, families were brought together, and the departed remembered. Their stories, along with the stories of all who served, must not be forgotten and I’m so proud to have been able to share in what was a truly wonderful day.


After the film had been screened one of only two Lancasters still flying (the other is in Canada) flew over the Kinema. The RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight very kindly agreed to the flypast and performed three passes each at a height of approximately 200 metres. The noise was incredible and she was so low she unexpectedly set off several car alarms. It was a very fitting tribute to a quite remarkable man.


If questioned about his bravery and courage Percy will undoubtedly shrug his shoulders and say something about just doing his job. But to me and to all who have had the privilege of meeting him he is a hero; someone who put his life on the line 47 times so that we might be free.


Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 20 Aug 1940.

A trailer for the documentary can be viewed here:


Sandy blogged about her dad back in 2010:

I’m so proud of my Dad

and you can read more about Finding the Pathfinders by visiting Ermine Street Project’s blog here.

I think the following quote is true of so many people, especially those who were prepared to give the ultimate sacrifice.


Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 2, Sc. 5.



The Oxford English Dictionary cites courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.” Courage is something that can desert the best of us and at the most inconvenient moments. It’s not a tangible thing; there’s no tablet you can swallow to take away your fear. Courage is something you have to find for yourself.


If I’ve learned one thing this week it’s that I have courage and that I can screw that courage to a sticking place and know that it won’t fail me. I can think of all those other people who’ve screwed their own courage to a sticking place and faced their fears and I can take strength from that.


I know that my fears pale in comparison to the others I’ve mentioned here but they are no less real. I know I can now breathe steadily and still my shaking hands and do what needs to be done. And, I will remember


But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.”

William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 1, Sc. 7.


Read Full Post »

Source unknown.


To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without root”

Chinese Proverb


Throughout all the research I’ve done into my family tree there have been many things that I’ve longed to find buried in the past. Some I’ve been lucky enough to stumble over, others have remained elusive.


Some of these things might surprise you because they’re not all lovely and fluffy but then neither is life, and if nothing else I’ve found that my ancestors were real people with faults and flaws, and I’m proud of every single one of them. I’m so blessed to have found such exciting and interesting people, and I love that a small part of these people lives on in me. I don’t necessarily want to emulate them but I would love to have met them.


I hoped for and found:


Scandal – Closer to home than I expected; so close, in fact, that I can’t write about it here. I will say that we’re talking 3 generations back so not directly involving anyone still living!


Bigamy – I found one confirmed bigamist, a great x 3 grandfather on my mother’s side, John Hawkins. There is a possible other, a great x 3 grandmother on my father’s side, but it’s unprovable. The first one I’m sure brought great shame on the family but I can’t help being ridiculously excited by it. I was lucky enough to find that a vicar had written a note in the margin of the parish register. It was next to the christening record of my great x 2 grandfather – John Hawkins’ son by his second bigamous marriage. It confirmed what I was already sure was true although it seems he went unpunished as he died in 1851, 3 years after his son’s birth. The note said: Elizabeth Warner was married on the 3rd of November 1847 in Kenilworth Church to John Hawkins who, it has since been ascertained is a married man with a wife & children living.

Parish register margin note. My image.


Lawbreakers – I know it’s not big and it’s not clever but it makes for interesting reading! The Smiths of Tollesbury aside I’ve found quite a few others spending time behind bars.


Convicts – not direct ancestors but siblings of my ancestors – one went to Australia, the other to Tasmania and I consequently have hundreds of relatives scattered all over that part of the world.


Foreign ancestors – I am part German (Prussian actually) but that’s a story for another day. I am also part Welsh but that doesn’t count as foreign.


Famous relatives – For a long time I searched in vain for a connection to Herbert Morrison, Labour politician, senior cabinet minister and grandfather of Peter Mandelson. He looks very much like my great-grandfather (also an important figure in the Labour Party) of whom he was a friend and associate. The family believed that they were cousins but I know for certain they were not. I have found a possible connection by marriage but have been unable to prove it. I am, however, related to sisters Carole Carr (actress, singer and radio presenter – a forces sweetheart in WWII) and Dorothy Carless (singer), and The Wyatts – Thomas (poet allegedly in love with Ann Boleyn), and his son Thomas (beheaded for raising a rebellion against Mary I); none of them close relatives but famous (or infamous) nonetheless.

The Carr / Carless sisters:


Members of the Peerage – I’m related to the current and 9th Earl Bathurst of Bathurst (he’s my 12th cousin). Their family seat is Cirencester Park which is famously the home of the oldest polo club in the UK.


Still proving elusive although a bit of simple maths shows that if I go back far enough they are inevitable:


My parents being related – so far it seems that they’re not and a connection is becoming increasingly unlikely. Their families originate from very different parts of the country and I have no surnames that appear on both sides, but I have always loved the idea of finding out they were distantly related. If that’s weird then I don’t care!


A Royal connection – who doesn’t want a Royal connection? Well maybe some don’t but I do! A link to the Royal family is something I’ve become increasingly desperate to find. As I’ve done more and more research I’ve discovered that some of my ancestors and their close relatives moved in some very elite circles. And of course, the further you go back in time the smaller the population and the greater the chance of a connection. A connection has proved to be frustratingly elusive but I am now a little closer than I’ve ever been before.


On my mother’s side, I have the aforementioned link to the Wyatt family. Thomas Wyatt (snr) married Elizabeth Brooke who was 3rd cousin to Anne Boleyn and a direct descendant of John of Gaunt, so the Royal Family already exist in my family tree albeit connected to me by marriage only.


My link to both the Wyatts and the Bathursts is via a marriage between the two families. An Edward Bathurst married an Elizabeth Wyatt on 1st June 1714 in the parish church of Ash in Surrey – my great x 7 grandparents. Both were the children of gentlemen, the lowest rank of English gentry. They would likely have been well-respected members of their communities and judging by their wills were comfortably off. Their connections with their better known cousins were too distant to have elevated them socially.


Edward was the grandson of Margaret (or Margarite) Holland who was born around 1580 in Angmering, Sussex and when I was browsing through some of the names in my lineage the other week her name jumped out of my computer screen and sent me into a frenzy.


My frenzy was caused by me knowing that the surname Holland appears in the Royal family tree. Yes, I have a very detailed one on my computer that I compiled myself. Obsessed? Me? Never!


Another Margaret Holland, Duchess of Clarence and grand-daughter of Joan of Kent, married John Beaufort and was the great-grandmother of Henry VII, making her an ancestor of the Tudors, Stewarts, Hanoverians and consequently Queen Elizabeth II. But what does this have to do with my family tree?


The Margaret Holland in my family was the daughter of George Holland of Angmering. I did a bit of googling for Hollands of Angmering and found a couple of old books that have been digitised and are now freely available online. The first was a book of pedigrees of families in the county of Sussex compiled in 1830 by someone called Berry. This book told me that George was the grandson of William Holland of Calais and showed a copy of the family coat of arms. It also showed me that through his mother Joan (or Mary) Bellingham he was connected to some important armorial families and could trace his lineage (and hence mine) back to the time of William the Conqueror. The second book was entitled The Lancashire Hollands and written by Bernard Holland. This book raised my excitement levels considerably because I found a whole section about the Hollands of Sussex. Sadly, these Hollands were not from Angmering so my excitement abated slightly until I read the last paragraph.


There was in Sussex another family of Holland living at Angmering, whose pedigree for five generations, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is given by Berry. This family had the same crest and arms as the Hollands of Conway; but Berry, in his ‘Sussex Genealogies,’ does not say that they were derived from these, or from the Hollands of Upholland. The first of them mentioned is a William Holland of Calais.”

I looked up the Hollands of Conway (anglicised spelling of Conwy), which is in Wales, in the same book. It shows a detailed pedigree going back to someone called Piers (or Peter) Holland who it says was in the service of Henry IV. The book also states that he is “believed to be fifth in descent from Alan, a brother of Robert, first Lord Holland.” The book explains this further and says that these brothers were of the Hollands of Upholland in Lancashire.


Robert, first Lord Holland, was the great-grandfather of Margaret Holland, Duchess of Clarence. Can you see why I might be excited?


My Hollands carry the same coat of arms and crest as a family that is believed to share ancestry with Hollands that are ancestors of Kings and Queens. I know it’s a very tenuous connection and one that sadly can’t be proved. I can prove my connection to the Angmering Hollands by searching through parish registers, helpfully now digitised and available online but the trail from William Holland of Calais back to the Hollands of Conway and Upholland is as cold now as it was back in 1830. All I can do is make a note in my records explaining what I know to be true and what I believe might be true, and hope that one day something remarkable comes to light.


So a provable Royal connection remains elusive but the Hollands of Angmering may be the closest I ever come to it. I shall never stop searching for more information on them and I’ll continue to search for other Royal connections because you just never know what might turn up.



Read Full Post »

William Richard Curtis, 1899-1980

William Richard Curtis, 1899-1980. Family archive.


Most people my age don’t have clear memories of relatives who fought in the First World War … some have no memories at all. The Second World War is still within living memory: my parents were born in it, my grandmother lived through it; however, it’s the First World War that draws me in time and time again as I scour records for information about my ancestors and relatives.


The Great War – “the war to end all wars”. It draws me in because I can’t, not even for a moment, imagine the horrors that the young men in my family faced. Too many never came home, their stories, like them, buried forever in a field in France, a desert in Gaza or some other battle-scarred place.


Uncle Will came home and I have clear memories of him – my one living memory of someone who served his country in the horror of the trenches.


Will with his parents and sister, my grandma. c. 1906.
Family archive.


Will was born a Victorian in 1899. My grandma, his sister, was born in 1904 and, as a result of being born so long before the war, seemed to me to be a whole generation older than my other three grandparents (she was 12 years older than my granddad).


Will was born in a beautiful village called Snitterfield, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, where his family had lived for generations. He was born 9 months and 9 days after his parents’ wedding day – a honeymoon baby, if they had a honeymoon. His father’s occupation is listed on the 1901 census as “carrier / dealer” and maybe this profession is what took the family to Wales where my Grandma was born. In Wales he found work as a “domestic gardener”. They then moved to London for a short time and then to Bosbury in Herefordshire where they ran The New Inn. They finally settled in Bromsgrove in Worcestershire where Will’s father became an Insurance agent and later ran a grocer’s shop.


Will’s father died of cancer in 1916 and was buried in Snitterfield, a place that was close to his heart. It must have been an extremely difficult time for the family. Will’s mother had to take in washing to put food on the table and in January 1917 Will enlisted in the army two days before his eighteenth birthday.


Will with his mother (in mourning) and his sister. c. 1917. Family archive.


He joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and then, after a few months, was transferred to the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Sadly, his service records were destroyed during the Second World War and because he never spoke of his experiences I have no way of knowing the details of the time he served. What I do know, from doing a little bit of research into regimental service numbers, is that he transferred into the 8th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment and is unlikely to have served at Passchendaele.


Thanks to my grandma carefully hoarding some old family postcards, and to her memory of times past, I know that both she and her mother travelled to Newcastle upon Tyne and visited Will in hospital on 1st June 1918. It was exactly two years, to the day, since they buried his father. Will had been wounded in France.


Will wearing “hospital blues” while recovering from his injury.
c. 1918. Family archive.


Will was one of the lucky ones. He came home with little more than a badly injured foot. Lucky because he survived the injury, lucky because it rendered him unfit for war service and lucky because he never had to go back. Of course, there are many reasons why he may not have felt lucky.


As I mentioned, he never spoke of his war service but there’s no doubt that it affected him very much. He refused to have anything but condensed milk in his tea, a common trait of men who’d spent time in the trenches, and, after he retired, he gradually left his bungalow less and less often. Eventually, he could barely make it to the garden gate, not because he was debilitated in any way but, we assume, because of some unknown fear, most likely related to the experiences in his past.


Uncle Will, as I knew him.

Uncle Will, as I knew him. Family archive.


To me, he was always an old man. He was 73 when I was born. He smoked roll-ups (with a herbal mixture rather than traditional tobacco) and I was endlessly fascinated by the little machine he had for rolling them. Even though I was only 8 when he died in 1980 I have clear pictures in my mind: Uncle Will sat in his front room rolling a cigarette and licking the paper to seal it; his wife, Auntie Lil, whisking me and my brother into the walk-in larder to find something we might like to eat, me playing in his garden as the trains roared past up the Lickey Incline (I mentioned this here).


Uncle Will was, of course, actually my great-Uncle but he was always just Uncle Will to me. Very close to his sister and happily married to Lil, he was also a craftsman. Aged just 12 years old he went to work for the Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts, a very important name in the Arts and Crafts Movement. They are perhaps best known for the work they did on the gates to Buckingham Palace although this was before Will joined them. He specialised in all aspects of ecclesiastical work e.g. altar & processional crosses, but the work of which he was most proud was bronze work done for the Queen Mary liner and the entrance gates to ICI house on Millbank, London.


Unable to find any information online, a couple of years ago I went to London and wandered down Millbank to see if I could find the gates. The building is now Nobel House and is occupied by Ofgem but the gates are still there and are very fine indeed. I can understand why he was so proud.


The gates to 9 Millbank, formerly ICI HQ. Panels designed and created by the Bromsgrove Guild. My photos (click to enlarge).


He worked with the Bromsgrove Guild until 1956 when they sadly ceased production. He went on to work for a company called Garringtons which made automotive parts and where, although he was much respected as a craftsman and very popular, he was never happy. He retired in 1964.


Uncle Will died in 1980 and was cremated. He would very much like to have been buried in Snitterfield, a place filled with happy childhood memories of holidays and kindly relatives, but it was never meant to be.


My reason for wanting to remember my Uncle Will was because I watched a drama series on BBC1 called The Village. I won’t go into detail about the programme except to say that it portrayed a young man who went off to fight in the First World War. He came home on leave and developed symptoms of shell shock caused by being left out in the open at night as punishment for things written in a letter home. A doctor blamed it on ingested toxins, another less reputable person blamed it on him being feeble-minded. When he failed to return to his regiment because he was too ill, he was taken by force and shot for desertion. I cried.


We all know that this really happened. Men, although relatively few, really were shot for cowardice, desertion and other offences. I don’t believe it’s the fault of the people who made those decisions, it was simply of the time. It’s just sad that it took until 2006 for those men to be posthumously pardoned.


The programme made me think of all those men in my family who had to fight for their country. Uncle Will was the only one I ever knew personally. As I said, I can’t begin to imagine the horrors of war and what living through those things must do to a person. Uncle Will was one of the lucky ones and I am proud to have known him.



An interesting article on The Bromsgrove Guild can be found here.


Read Full Post »

Fishing smacks off the coast of Mersea, Essex in 2004 (edited by me). Source.


For other craft our prouder river shows,
Hoys, pinks, and sloops; brigs, brigantines and snows:
Nor angler we on our wide stream descry,
But one poor dredger where his oysters lie;
He, cold and wet, and driving with the tide,
Beats his weak arms against his tarry side,
Then drains the remnant of diluted gin,
To aid the warmth that languishes within,
Renewing oft his poor attempts to beat
His tingling fingers into gathering heat.”

Extract from The Borough by George Crabbe (1754 – 1832)


If you read my previous post about The Smiths of Tollesbury you will be aware that they didn’t exactly live within the law. Of course, they were by no means the only people to live a less than, shall we say, blameless life. The times in which they lived and the lives to which they were born were hard and unforgiving so it’s no surprise that they looked to make money any way they could, and sought solace in the bottom of a tankard of beer.


After writing about them previously I did some further research. At the last count, Thomas and Mary Ann Smith (it seems she had a middle name) had 11 children. Of those children I’m aware of three that died before they were 5 years old. For some unknown reason only the first four births and then the last were registered. The other six were unregistered as far as I can tell. Additionally, the three youngest appear not to have been christened. The registering of births was the responsibility of the local registrar who in these cases seems to have been a little inept. It wasn’t until 1875 that the law was changed making registration of children’s births compulsory and the responsibility of the parents.


I’ve also found a couple of new and interesting stories regarding the family. For this I owe the local Essex press a debt of gratitude as they seem to have recorded every single case that took place in the local courts, thus providing me with a rather colourful history of a family that otherwise may well have been overlooked as simply poor and uninteresting.


In 1853, a possibly pregnant Mary Ann, who I’d previously thought of as down-trodden and put upon, made a court appearance of her own. She accused her next door neighbour of assault. As the case proceeded it became apparent that Mary Ann had not been assaulted at all. She had, in fact, been the one doing the assaulting and the case was therefore dismissed. What she did and why she did it will forever remain a mystery as the details were not reported. I wonder what sort of woman she was…


In 1861, Mary Ann had to go through something that no mother should ever have to face. Her nine year old daughter, Selina Alice, was assaulted by a 42 year old man called Isaac Rootkin. The paper reported that he was accused of and pleaded guilty to “assault with intent to abuse” and that he had “a previous conviction for a similar offence”. He was sentenced to two years’ hard labour which seems a lenient punishment for what he did. Ever curious to know the whole story, I looked up the details of his previous conviction. Four years before assaulting Selina, Isaac Rootkin, a builder’s labourer, had been sentenced to just 18 months’ hard labour for “carnally abusing” a little girl of 11 years old. Reading between the lines I’m assuming that Selina’s assault was less horrific than that of the first unfortunate child but, of course, I don’t know that for sure.


Both these assaults took place in a time when the words we now use to describe crimes such as these and the people who commit them were unknown. People were punished more severely for crimes such as larceny and robbery than they were for what we would now refer to as child sex abuse and paedophilia. Having spent so long in the company of the Smiths and having fallen in love with their wayward exploits, reading about Selina saddened me very much. I know she lived to be at least twenty but after that I’ve so far been unable to trace a marriage or a death. I shall continue to search.


In 1870, Mary Ann did something that must have shocked the people that knew her. She remarried following the death of her first husband Thomas. Now of course remarriage is nothing unusual even if it is to a man who encourages your sons to steal oysters and who will, in the future, be accused of piracy (more on that later). William Crabb was considerably younger than Mary Ann, but even that is not that shocking until you realise that he’d also been widowed … his deceased first wife being none other than Thomas and Mary Ann Smith’s eldest daughter, also Mary Ann Smith.


William Crabb married the daughter in 1866 in the parish church in Tollesbury. She died approximately nine months later. I don’t have the death certificate but it does seem likely that she died in childbirth or from complications with a pregnancy. Anyway, as you may have already realised William Crabb marrying his mother-in-law was illegal. In fact, a marriage of this kind only became legal in the UK in 1986 so they were over 100 years too early. Unsurprisingly the wedding took place in the local registry office in nearby Maldon where they were probably unknown. It could never have taken place in the local church where plenty of people would have known of a few “lawful impediments”! Mary Ann’s brother, Henry Biggs, was a witness at the registry office implying that at least her family were happy with the arrangement, or at least happy to let it go ahead. The marriage was, of course, void so legally they were never married.


And so to the piracy. Unfortunately we’re not talking eye-patches, skull and cross-bones, buried treasure and Jack Sparrow here. No, nothing so glamorous! In 1894, William Crabb and several other men were charged that “on the high seas, [they] did piratically and feloniously assault William John Barker, master mariner, of Burnham” on board his ship, the Emmeline, putting him “in fear of his life”. Apparently they “piratically, feloniously, and violently did steal from [him] a cargo of oyster shells”, and other items that were “the goods and chattels of certain subjects of our Lady the Queen.” There were other men charged as well in regards to offences on another boat.


It seems the case was very high-profile in the local area and at least 200 people came to see the proceedings. The court was crowded as were its precincts. The majority of the people attending were fishermen from Tollesbury. The alleged offences took place near Brightlingsea, another town further along the coast also known for its oyster fishing.


1904 map showing Tollesbury, Brightlingsea and Burnham (all circled in red).
Click for larger version.


In the springtime fishermen from Burnham-on-Crouch were “in the habit of taking culch1 and shell from the grounds … off Brightlingsea, said to be common property, to sell for the purpose of oyster culture”. This habit caused great upset amongst the fishermen of Tollesbury and the surrounding area because “the taking of the shell destroys the spat which in the season affords a living to them”. They had allegedly threatened the Burnham men on several occasions and although no threats had actually been carried out, things had been “a bit lively”.


Allegedly four Burnham boats were on the point of returning home when three Tollesbury vessels, each with two or three hands, were seen to be bearing down on them. One of the boats drew up alongside the Emmeline and upon touching it “some twenty or thirty men jumped up from the deck, and armed with sticks and shovels proceeded to board the Burnham boat”. The other two Tollesbury vessels likewise attached themselves to other Burnham boats. The fourth Burnham boat approached the others to see what was amiss and found herself similarly threatened. On pulling up alongside this fourth vessel, the Tollesbury men found themselves faced with a gun and an angry Burnham man threatening to “blow out the brains of any man who attempted to board”. The gun was allegedly unloaded but the boat was allowed to leave with its hoard. The three “captured” boats were driven onto the sand about three miles away from where the culch was gathered and their hoard thrown overboard. The Burnham men were threatened with a similar fate should they say anything about the affair. The paper reports that “various other picturesque incidents were narrated by the learned Counsel, one being to the effect that the Tollesbury men insisted on their captives supplying them with cocoa, tobacco, and various articles”. The Burnham men were set free a few hours later. It was made clear that “no blood was spilt, neither were any lives lost”.


To be found guilty of piracy could have resulted in the men being sentenced to penal servitude for life. There was some debate as to whether this was an act of piracy at all or simply a farce. Reading it all now, it does seem a little farcical but then put yourself in the shoes of the men finding themselves outnumbered and no longer in control of their boats.


The issue the Tollesbury fishermen had was that they believed removing the culch inflicted great damage to the fishery which was said to be worth a quarter of a million pounds. The Burnham men admitted to taking oyster brood for which the Tollesbury and Mersea Company alone had paid £14,578 in six years. Of course, the ground from which the Burnham men had been taking culch was a public one so they had committed no offence; however, several witnesses attested to it being the “best breeding ground in the Kingdom”. Any sums paid for oyster brood would have been paid to whoever caught the brood and it was said that two or three hundred boats worked the grounds, so removing culch permanently was “ruinous to the fishery”.


It’s not hard to understand why the Tollesbury men felt so strongly about this situation. Judging by the report in the paper it appears that the case descended into a bit of a farce, but, to cut a long story short, parts of which I’m a little unsure about, William Crabb and the other men on his boat were found not guilty.


So, I can only conclude that the people of Tollesbury were passionate and fiercely protective of their livelihoods. Mary Ann may have had a lot of worry and strife caused by her children and her wayward husband, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that she supported them wholeheartedly in maybe not all but at least some of their many misdemeanours. Putting food on the table and a roof over their heads was no doubt the most important thing. I’d like to think that the one thing she objected to was their money being wasted on beer.


I do still intend to somehow fictionalise the story of the Smiths and give it some colour and depth. There’s so much raw material that is amusing, heartbreaking and even bewildering that I may struggle to know where to start!



1Culch – the rocks, crushed shells, and other sea detritus that create an oyster bed, where oyster spawn can attach themselves.


The poet quoted at the beginning of this post is not, as far as I know, any relation to William Crabb; however, George Crabbe was from Suffolk which neighbours Essex, so anything is possible!


I found this blog by Michael Halminski which describes how oysters spawn and goes a long way to explaining the fury of the Tollesbury men in finding the Burnham men removing the culch.



Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: