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24 Nov 2013

Lost memories

I am still cross nearly 20 years later about a missing letter.  My great-grandmother had several cousins and most of them had names that fitted her own social standing - Joyce Summers, Una Hatch, Ellen Glover.  One of these, another Una, wrote to me in 1996 at Burchett's Green College, Berkshire.  I can just see the letter now, perched behind the bar which was where all student correspondence was kept.  Slipping down behind a steamy dishwasher or falling into a pile of bills.  Never to see the light of day again.

After Una's death, her son remembered the letter. Yes she had written one, he said, and it had been full of family information.  At the time he hadn't been interested, but now that he was, could he have a copy of the letter!  I suppose I could fax him an image of a nice clean beer glass, post him a box of big blue cleaning roll, or hand him the keys of the now-closed college for him to search himself.


It was something of a shock to discover that a large number of Gladys's cousins weren't upper middle-class at all.  Some of them weren't even middle-class.

Much of the blame for this lies on uncle Arthur Smith, who is edited out so fiercely from the family tree, that leaves you wondering if the official records are in error.  Gladys claimed there was only one uncle and he was variously listed as '?' or William. Clearly you weren't expected to ask too much about him, still less enquire if there was yet another uncle.

But there was, and he'd come to London during the gasworkers' strikes of the 1890s, to work as a blacklegger.  He stayed long enough to sire 12 children, before allegedly going off to Australia (this story borne out by two separate branches of the family).  It says a lot for the widow that most of the children survived and several fought in the First World War.  They didn't really leave Bermondsey much, and the thought of them ever meeting their Muswell Hill cousins does leave one pondering.  It would be about as socially awkward as the Edwardians could devise.

A tidal wave of news came pouring in from Bermondsey - I even rang up one of the cousins who lived in the towers near Millwall.  A pint at the Hobgoblin got us going, but I'd need more than a pint to take in 90 years of missing history.  These memories weren't so much lost as scattered to the four corners of south-east London.

I don't feel the 92 boxes of Jim Mortimer's life as trade union leader and Labour Party official fit into my notion of my family at all - yet he had been married to Arthur Smith's granddaughter.


With all this talk of Arthur it was easy to forget there was another brother, William Smith.  What had happened to him?  I knew that he was born in England in 1851, and surprisingly, this was pretty much nearly all that was required to find him - in Jamestown.  Hard-to-find?  I don't think so.

This time he brought yet another factor into the equation.  Supposing all my calculations are correct, Gladys now numbers among her cousins the wonderfully-named Victoria Ulander, wife of Axel.

A sense of who she was

It bothered me for ages that more and more data was accumulating about the lives of the Chappell children - who were orphaned in 1867 and who did more and more interesting things.  Several new members emerged as well.  All of these were notionally under the auspices of their mother and grandmother Mrs Jane Chappell who survived until 1925 age 95.  This age may not be so remarkable today, but consider her oldest brother left England in 1832 to practically found the colony of Tasmania.  That she survived the majority of her nephews and nieces (one of whom left her a legacy in her will as if resigned to the fact she would live forever).  And because many of the generations rolled around so quickly, there was barely a year after 1900 when some new significant thing didn't happen.

We got closer to real human memories with a surprise letter from great-granddaughter Eileen.  It shouldn't have been a surprise as it was in reply to mine- but I was innured to non-response.  I'd phoned great-great-granddaughter Eileen who was interested to see there was this other Eileen.  But other Eileen wrote me screeds and I left it too late to meet her, I think.  Not sure of Jane's role here, but her eldest son apparently lost her the farm.

James Chappell's will from 1867 records Thomas Haine as a witness.  And one of the Haine boys later took over his farm, Manor Farm, now the site of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at Yeovilton.  So if the Chappell boy gambled away the farm, how did one of the Haine's get it?

58 years later, Jane's obituary tells us nothing at all - she is absent from it.  The closest we get is her own son's obituary in Decatur, Illinois.  He'd done well for himself and the paper wrote at his passing (and boy did he look tired) of his venerable mother back in England.  I feel this gave Jane a role and in lieu of photographs, stories, this is at least something.

For other female members in this family, there's nothing.  I have a character-filled photograph for one, a clearly chequered life for another, a decent obituary here, but for one or two women there's nowt.

Turning it around

When cousin Joyce died a few years following first contact, my heart sank.  She'd never after all told me anything of her mother's eight siblings, only that they existed.  I had no names, or if I did that's all there were.  It was tough to get any information.

One Christmas, 19 years after finding out about them, I decided to interrogate freebmd, and emerge with some credible identifications of the Taylor siblings that I knew about, including Mary L.

Incredulously, I found only one Mary L Taylor matched.  The data seemed to tell me she died in Queensferry, Flintshire in 1951, leaving a will.  That was one sibling sorted.  It was all ok, but everyone was dead.  The one thing Joyce had revealed was a cousin Rhona still up in North Wales.  Combing through all the births in Wales showed only one girl who matched.  Lucky or what?  I did write her a letter, but chances like this needed another approach.  By bicycle.  I cycled off the border hills and into Mold, and was able to get an hour with Rhona at her bungalow.  She even guided me back down the hill into Queensferry as a bonus.

The short of it is that 120 years after Grandpa's aunt died, the resulting Taylor offspring have now been pinned through stories and photographs and those nearly lost memories have been properly found.

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