Following on from the post about alchemy, and the role of Hermes as a guide and trickster spirit, I’m going to recount a story about meeting someone who fits that role rather well. This person was indeed a sharp-witted trickster, a glamorous chameleon, and a talented performer. The only thing was that at the time, I didn’t know it, and, probably, nor did he.
It was 1965, and my schoolfriend Helen and I, aged 16, were spending a weekend in London. This was something we’d had to beg and plan for, getting our parents on side and making all sorts of promises as to what we wouldn’t do in regard to men, drink, and sleazy music clubs. Our mothers only consented to this dangerous undertaking provided we stayed at the respectable YWCA girls’ hostel in Marylebone. Little did they know that even here we would have to fend off the amorous advances of African students who were keen to get to know English girls – they were staying the equivalent men’s hostel down the road. We made sure we kept our interaction to playing table tennis with them and talking urgently about the Queen when things threatened to get out of hand. Actually, we had our sights set on visiting Carnaby Street and Soho anyway, and weren’t keen to get entangled on the wrong side of Oxford Street.
Helen and I today still compare notes on our shared adventures during teenage years. And not long ago, we revived our memories of that lively weekend. What did we actually get up to in Soho? Well, I thought my diaries might help here. I still have all the schoolgirl diaries that I wrote, which cover nearly every year from 11 to 18. I keep planning to destroy them, because they are so cringe-making, but somehow it doesn’t happen. I read out less-embarrassing-but-still-amusing parts if we have a schoolfriends reunion. And they are invaluable for reconstructing I did when. Sometimes, even now they provide me with insights which change my perspective on past events. So I now thumbed through 1965, looking for the right entry. And there it was – what two schoolgirls from Birmingham got up to in the heady streets of Soho, in Swinging London.
‘Went to Carnaby Street but didn’t see anyone interesting. All the boys walking up and down were trying to look famous. The shops were displaying horrible floral ties and swimming trunks. ugh ugh. Walked to Denmark St (known as ‘Tin Pan Alley’ and the heart of the record industry at the time) …where we met two boys from a supposedly up and coming group called Davey Jones and the Lower Third. One was called Teacup…Bought them cups of tea as they were impoverished. Went back to Carnaby St after lunch and looked in disgust at more floral ties.’
The next day we returned to central London and Soho. It wasn’t that we didn’t have anything else to do; in fact, we’d had a rather too exciting night. We’d neglected to tell our mothers that the YWCA couldn’t have us for the middle night of our visit, and that we’d fixed to stay in a flat near Dulwich normally occupied by Diz Disley, a well-known folk/jazz musician. (If you’ve followed my Cherry’s Cache blogs before, you may recall that I was deeply and genuinely into folk music at the time.) He’d invited us to crash there, while he was away, but it was a large house with many comings and goings. More specifically, there were some unexpected arrivals into our bedroom during the night, which meant fending off more unwelcome advances. But these particular adventures take up two A4 pages of my diary, and I’ll save them for another time.
We wandered into Trafalgar Square where: ‘We asked two American beats (why do beats always congregate round fountains?) if they would like to climb up the lions to have their photo taken but they said they didn’t do that any more. One of them took the camera, pointed it at our stomachs, and took a photograph. Then we went to Denmark Street. No sign of the elusive Davey Jones or any of the Lower Third. Had lunch in at the café there – two boys called ‘The Ants’ sat at our table. They were quite sweet. One was good-looking and they were chuffed cos they’d made a demo disc.’
Hmm, so we’d met a few young hopefuls, a couple of would-be pop groups. I typed out the account and emailed it off to Helen, who then vaguely remembered one of the boys. But, as she remarked, they were just one of so many groups now lost without trace. I agreed – it was doubtful that they’d even made a passing wave in the recorded history of the planet. Nevertheless, I thought I would just check…Well, of the Ants there was certainly no obvious trace. I hardly think Adam Ant could be one of the guys in question, since according to Wikipedia, he was only 10 at the time. But what about the ‘elusive’ Davy Jones?
I decided to look a little further. And then, to my astonishment, I found that Davy Jones and the Lower Third had actually released a record shortly afterwards. So they really had begun to climb the ladder!
But the real surprise was when I read that a few months later, Davy changed his name – to David Bowie.
Oh yes, and as a side note, Teacup really did exist, as lead guitarist ‘Teacup’ Taylor.
David Bowie-to-be was just 18, and he himself could have no way foreseen the meteoric rise to stardom which awaited him. But was he already stepping into the role of the trickster figure? It’s interesting that I was already referring to him as ‘elusive’.
Perhaps I could apply to go on the ‘true or false?’panel game of ‘Would I Lie to You’ using the line, ‘I once bought David Bowie a cup of tea in Soho, because he couldn’t afford to pay for his own.’
From Davey Jones and the Lower Third to world legend David Bowie…
This is my second post about Tigerlily, the vintage clothing shop that I opened in Cambridge in 1974. As I mentioned in the first post, keeping the stock going was the biggest challenge. You cannot phone up a supplier and order six 1930s satin wedding dresses, or a genuine old Japanese kimono. You might find a dealer who would do you a job lot of collarless ‘grandad’ shirts – very popular with the guys in the ‘70s! – but probably the price would be prohibitive, as the items had already entered the retail chain, and been upgraded from ‘chuck-outs’ to desirable garments. Buying the ‘bread and butter’ items at the bottom end of the pricing pyramid, where it was up to me to recognise their potential, was the only practical option.
Collarless shirts were in fact our secret weapon. I adored the antique embroidered items that I sold, from Chinese shawls to Hungarian peasant blouses, and took my pick of silk nighties, but it was the less exotic items which made the money. I took a stall every year at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and for those few days, Tigerlily transferred its business to a tent. It was always those shirts which paid the rent and turned a good profit. We could literally sell hundreds over the weekend. Our security arrangements consisted of paying one of my helpers generously to bed down in their sleeping bag among the racks of clothes, given that the official night watch was minimal in those early optimistic years of festivals.
Where to source the clothes? Steptoe and Son come to the rescue!
On the question of resources, jumble sales were ‘entry level’ for hobby traders, as I had once been, but not a serious place to look long term if you have a permanent retail outlet. I’ll describe in a later post how we also trawled the London East End secondhand markets, but even they weren’t consistent as a source for a shop. So I asked myself the question: ‘Where do the unsold items from jumble sales go? And the clothes from house clearances?’ (You have to be a little bit ruthless in this business, realising that you’re mostly dealing with garments of dead people. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, especially when the deceased hasn’t long left this world.) Well, there were still traces of the old-fashioned rag and bone businesses, (think horse and cart, Steptoe and Son) who took on other people’s throw-outs – I found one or two yards in London, and used to have great chats with a lively South London individual, who’d reminisce happily about life as a street urchin, having fun with his mates. ‘Mum just used to turn us out after breakfast with some sandwiches, and tell us not to come back till tea-time.’ I once bought a fabulous set of Art Deco shop scales from him, which I wish I’d never sold – they went in a trice. Pickings were slim however, even though he kept things back for me.
I then discovered a larger-scale rag warehouse in Kettering, an easy car journey from Cambridge. Probably the Yellow Pages located it for me initially, as I had no contacts there. It was a depressing and smelly place, with not a great deal to offer, but at least I learnt the form there, when dealing with employees rather than sole traders. This was to make friends with one or more of the ‘rag pickers’, ie the clothes and textile sorters, who then save the good bits for you, and get rewarded with tips for their trouble. You pay the going rate to the boss at the warehouse, by piece or by weight, usually a very cheap amount, and a ‘finder’s fee’ to your new best friend. This was a normal practice, and there was nothing underhand about it; the management accepted this, unless they wanted certain items themselves to sell on in a particular way. Our 40s dresses and de-mob suits didn’t fall into that category.
Two things were essential to this method of acquiring stock: a hatchback or estate car to pile the black sacks in, and a sturdy washing machine at home to deal with industrial quantity loads of cotton shirts and nighties. Plus it helped to have a strong constitution to put up with smells, and at least some muscle power to heave around the black sacks stuffed full of potential booty. Oh, and a good supply of cash in hand.
The Secret Sources of Yorkshire
I was still on the lower rungs of the ladder. However, one day Mick, the ‘friend’ in question at Kettering, revealed that their bales of clothes eventually migrated up to Yorkshire, to the greater rag mills of Batley and Dewsbury. I was on it, like a terrier on the scent of a rabbit! Before long, I hit the A1 up north and discovered this old clothes Mecca of England. I soon rooted out a few of these warehouses, made friends with a bunch of ladies working there, proved myself a paying customer with the management, and become a regular. We got on, had a laugh, and I made sure I never let them down – I turned up once a month, and paid the ladies well for their trouble.
The rag warehouses I visited were usually filthy places, mostly housed in old textile mills, with broken windows, and ancient groaning conveyor belts which allowed the pickers to sort the old clothes. But they were also places of wonder. Long before the days of formal recycling, they were a masterclass in how to re-use and upcycle.
‘Where are those going to?’ I pointed at a small mountain of brightly-coloured headscarves.
‘Oh, those are for Nigeria – the women love to wear them.’
‘And those?’ A drabber pile of sober waistcoats, taken from men’s three-piece suits, lay on the floor.
I could see it in my mind’s eye – the Pakistani men in their long kurta shirts and loose trousers, with a tailored British waistcoat over the top. Smart!
I marvelled at the jewel-like heaps of woollen garments were dotted around, literally in all the colours of the rainbow. Wool could be re-spun into second-grade yarn, and by sorting the items into colours into blue, green, red, yellow, pink, purple and so on, they could be processed in batches.
Crimplene dresses (remember those?) were for ‘the market women’ who ran the second-hand stalls. The ‘hippy gear’ – the vintage clothing – was for people like me. The only thing which couldn’t be re-cycled or re-purposed, I was told, was the material that suits were made from.
‘It’s only good for cardboard.’
But even that gave it a place in the recycling chain. I was amazed at the time, and had ambitions to write an article about it. Sadly, I never did, and I have no photographs either of these extraordinary places. Those in this article are ones I’ve been kindly lent or discovered much later, but they do not show those rainbow piles of wool or cheerfully-patterned scarves.
These photos, from a rag warehouse in the area show the basic equipment used in the sorting process – baskets, nylon sacks and wooden troughs. I brought home some sturdy shallow baskets, plus a number of the bags, which came in handy for years as storage.
While I was visiting these warehouses, I kept an eye out for garments that I might wear, and I picked up some good-as-new cashmere jumpers. The Harris tweed women’s jackets were fabulous too, and just about ready for a fashion revival. This was the thing – you had to have an eye for what was desirable or funky – the image that people wanted to wear. But age and period weren’t everything; even some really old items weren’t funky or stylish enough – they could be too large, too short, or too worn to tempt customers. Our clothes were sold fairly cheaply and were not always perfect, but they still had to be the right fashion for the present moment. ‘50s clothes, believe it or not, were despised, apart from some of those strange old American baseball jackets. You might get away with selling a full cotton rock-and-roll skirt, if you were lucky. At that time, twenty years was all that divided the ‘70s from the ‘50s, and I believe that it’s at least a thirty year gap before styles begin to come back into favour again. Though does that mean that the 1980s are cool now?
A Tigerlily customer remembers:
‘Bought an American style Baseball jacket from here many years ago, early 80s I think, it was black but with red pvc style arms, people would stop me in town and ask where I purchased it, it started quiet a trend back then, rockabilly style with skintight jeans, basketball boots (hi tops) and my hair in a flat top, I felt the dogs Bo**ox in it’. Paul Blowes, via ‘Cambridge in the good old days’ Facebook page.
The other side of the coin
The warehouses could also be dangerous places – some that I visited were housed in former textile mills, with broken windows and rickety wooden stairs. Fires broke out on at least two occasions I was there, probably from people smoking carelessly around piles of textiles. Although I loved my trips to the mills, I couldn’t help but observe that in one or two of the mills that I frequented, there was an inherent male bullying culture which made for a volatile atmosphere. The women there told me about the hardships of their lives too, and many were on anti-depressants, which were handed out by their GPS like sweets in that era, with no warning of possible addiction. One day, I witnessed a very young woman, probably still a teenager, who was sobbing her heart out because someone had just drowned a litter of kittens born in the mill. I could really feel with her and for her, but at the same time recognised that she’d have to toughen up if she intended to keep working there. Having said this, other mills were cheerful places, better run by dedicated family firms.
However, whatever the state of the building or the problems of management in the rag mills I knew, I was greedy for the treasures that might be buried in such smelly and sometimes repellent piles of clothing. Just as the alchemical gold is said to be forged from a ‘primal substance’, something base and dirty that everyone overlooks, there was much here which could be redeemed and transformed into new use. And occasionally, there was real and recognisable treasure to be found – one or two pickers who I met had found gold coins and jewellery in the pockets of worn-out clothes in the bales!
I remember those mills with curious affection, and nostalgia. I’d like the chance to pick up a Harris Tweed jacket there today, and some top-of-the-range cashmere sweaters. And although I don’t miss the stink of old clothes and rooting through piles of dubious textiles, I miss that sense that any moment now, I might stumble upon something extraordinary and beautiful.
The fascinating life and history of these businesses has largely gone unrecorded, to my knowledge. I had no photos of my own, and internet pickings are very slim. So I am very grateful to Judith Ward for offering me photos of her family’s warehouse, taken just before it closed down in 2009. This was not one that I visited, but the shots remind me of what I’d typically see on a clothes-hunting expedition.
Please note that none of the comments about my own experiences relate to this particular business.
Does Tigerlily refer here to Rupert Bear’s chum, the charming daughter of a Chinese magician? No – it was the name of my vintage shop in Cambridge, purveyor of period clothing and other delights.
I opened Tigerlily with a friend in the autumn of 1974. I’d had my second baby only six weeks before, and although it seemed madness to go ahead at such a time, I’d been seized by a rush of energy after an exhausting pregnancy. It was the strangest and yet in a way the best time to do it. I was ready for some new adventures of my own, especially while the baby was portable and could come with me. Helen and I signed the lease of a Victorian two-storey shop on Mill Road, Cambridge, and hastened to open up as soon as possible.
For the previous year, on and off, I’d been nibbling around the edges of such a project, learning where to find vintage clothes, and how to sell them. Students and younger people were desperate to get their hands on Victorian nighties, collarless shirts, 1940s crepe flower-sprigged dresses, and ‘30s chiffon ball gowns. My friend already had a market stall selling these, and I’d load my small haul onto my bike and trundle it down to the city centre, for her to sell on commission.
We had the large upstairs of the shop for vintage clothes, along with bags, scarves and some period bric-a-brac. We also had the damp and dingy cellar for storage, but it wasn’t wise to keep things in there for too long! Helen took up residence in the flat at the back. Both the cellar and the flat were the source of future problems, but for now we went with it, while my friends Paul and Arunee Denison sold jewellery, largely from Arunee’s native Thailand, in the small ground floor shop.
The shop was spacious, cheap, dilapidated, but serviceable. From London rag trade wholesalers we bought cheap clothes rails; from an old-fashioned haberdasher’s shop which was closing down in Mill Road itself, we acquired tall cupboards with glass -fronted drawers, a counter, and a wooden till which pinged when opened or closed. We found a fabric covered screen to enclose a changing corner, a few mirrors, a heap of clothes hangers, and that was that. A sophisticated touch (we thought) was to bend wire coat hangers slightly, thus giving the dresses a more stylish look. Within two weeks of signing the lease we were up and running on an astonishingly small outlay. Yes, we were forever contacting the landlords about water running down the inside wall and fungus growing in the back corridor, but we made it work, and also made it look surprisingly attractive.
However it was getting harder to find the prize items – there were very few charity shops back then, and some had already wised up to the potential of vintage, or ‘period clothing’ as we called it. Jumble sales were unreliable, although could yield up a few items. And now we needed a steady stream of stock to keep a shop going – it soon became the ‘go-to’ place for students and a whole range of clientele. New grandmothers came looking for antique christening robes for the babies born across the road in the old Maternity Hospital. Antique costume hunters came up from London to – they hoped – snatch a treasure from under our noses. Young men attending May Balls got their vintage dinner jackets from Tigerlily. We kept prices on the low side, and turnover was therefore high.
I bought a 1950s peach coloured ball gown with a label in it from a shop in 5th Ave, New York that I wore to a May Ball in circa 1980. Plus plenty of other vintage clothes besides, which I wore as daily outfits. Happy days! – Helen Balkwill, via ‘Cambridge in the good old days’ Facebook page.
In this niche business, sources were everything. You didn’t tell your rivals where you found that 1920s flapper dress, or the velvet smoking jacket. You might even put them off the scent with vague chat about bric-a-brac shops and bequests from a late elderly aunt. London already had some prize vintage clothing stores, such as Cornucopia in Pimlico, where you could drool over extraordinary treasures, selling for sky high prices.
Below left are some examples of the elegant 1930s evening wear that came our way – the bias cut adopted in the period looked gorgeous when silk or satin was used, though must have been devilishly difficult to sew. Day dresses were cheerful, and still showing the influence of the Deco style.
So with a shop to fill, we obviously had to keep up the stock levels and find reliable sources for our supplies. Much of the fun of running such a business, of course, is discovering unexpected caches of clothes (you can see how my love of ‘the cache’ comes in here!). But nevertheless, you can’t keep a half empty shop going on promises of future surprises.
Helen and I were independent traders, in that we kept our own stock and did our own accounts. We used coded labels and sometimes – I wince to think of it now – stapled these onto garments. OK, it was before the days of the plastic threaded tag, but even so! But we did pool some resources, and she did me a great service even before we opened the shop by sharing her prized destination with me. This was the rag market around Cheshire Street and Brick Lane in the East End of London, where she showed me the ropes. I had the car, she had the expertise, so we would drive down from Cambridge in the middle of the night, getting there in time for dawn, whatever the season. I’ll be writing about this in a later post. But I needed something more than the Brick Lane market, and the story of how I filled the gap will be told too in future posts.
It wasn’t just a simple matter of filling the rails with our finds though. We had to sort, check, wash, mend, iron and price the items of clothing. Some might have to go to the dry cleaners. At that time, in what I call the ‘First Wave Vintage’ era, no one really bothered to re-make or re-shape clothes. Either they’d find a buyer, or not. The exception was turning patterned headscarves into ‘handkerchief skirts’. I wonder if that brief fashion will ever come back? And clothing could be smelly, fragile, or reveal unexpected holes, including moth damage. Once, in a second-hand clothes dealer’s attic in Inverness (not my usual geographical area!) I caught a human flea. Believe me, the usual fleas that might jump off our cat or dog and nip us are nothing compared to the insatiable, vicious attacks of the human flea, which I understand is now a rarity. I did suffer for my calling. And as someone who is allergic to dust, perhaps it wasn’t the perfect profession for me!
I should add here that I do think of my main profession to be that of a writer, but I have always enjoyed having another occupation too. I’ve inherited trading genes from generations of shopkeepers in various branches of the family, and have always found the best balance for me is to combine writing and research with a more outward-looking activity. Searching for treasures combines it all, since it’s what I do with my research in order to re-present them in my writing work, and it’s what I did in stocking both Tigerlily and my later Russian arts business.
We roped our friends in to help out in the shop, paying them a modest but fair wage to (wo)man the till, and I had my very own mending and ironing lady who coped beautifully with the jobs that I hated.
I was one of the friends Cherry roped in to help at Tigerlily! I had just moved to Cambridge and met Cherry through mutual friends – so working part-time in her buzzy and post-hippy shop suited me very well! The shop was a great meeting point of town and gown – students enjoying the wonderful clothes and bric a brac that Cherry seemed to have a real knack for finding. It was such fun going through the new stuff after one of Cherry’s shopping sprees: peasant blouses, chiffon dresses, lacy and embroidered delights, even fur coats (we were allowed in those days) some which I have happily passed on to my daughter. – Briji
And overall, Tigerlily was a great financial success, because it was run on a low budget and we could be flexible in how we ran it. I had never heard of a business plan, but it was in profit within the first month. Much later, in the 1990s, when I started Firebird Russian Arts, I knew that there would be no such easy rides this time. I found that I would have to work for three years without taking pay, run proper accounts and learn how to handle financial forecasts. (I leave you to guess how casual my Tigerlily book-keeping was). No more hippy-style set-ups! But it did give me a measure of freedom, at a time when I had small children, and it brought much fun as well as a healthy cash injection into our family life. My children have distant memories of running round the shop and climbing through the clothes rails. And if I felt like closing up early, why not? I smile today when I see the note ‘Back in 10 mins’ on the door of a small shop. I know what that means.
Why ‘Tigerlily’? Well, we played around with various names for the shop, which had to suit not just us but also Paul and Arunee’s jewellery shop below. I wish I could now remember some of the dreadful ones that were put forward! But then Tigerlily came into my mind, and everyone liked it. Later, in the 1990s, I called my Russian arts business ‘Firebird’. Perhaps there’s a pattern here, of two such juxtaposed images creating an identity – the tiger and the lily, the fire and the bird? The Firebird is a mythic Russian creature, and Tigerlily is a striking orange flower. Let’s just say, I wasn’t relying on Rupert Bear annuals for my choices!
Stories of Tigerlily still to come:
Tigerlily and the Rag Mills Tigerlily at the Posh End Tigerlily down Brick Lane
On the first of December, 1685, a band of bedraggled refugees landed at Appledore in Devon, and made their way to nearby Barnstaple. They were both sea sick and hungry after a difficult eleven day crossing from the West coast of France. Among them was my 6 x great grandfather, Louis Mauzy, a Huguenot minister, along with his wife Suzanna and at least two children. All the refugees on board the ship were Huguenots, fleeing a new wave of French persecution against their Protestant-based religion. Although they had no friends or contacts in this area of Devon, they were welcomed with open arms by the inhabitants of Barnstaple, who rushed to find them bread to eat, gave all of them lodging and hospitality in their homes, and then helped them find their way into new lives here.
This dramatic story might never have been recorded, but for the diligence of fellow-refugee Jacques Fontaine, who had helped to organise the escape. Many years later in 1722, as Jacques reached the final stages of his life, he decided to write up his life story for the sake of his children and descendants. He made two copies by hand, to try and ensure that it would never be destroyed, and you’ll find the touching way in which he addressed his descendants at the end of this blog. It’s a rarity to find such an extended and accessible memoir from this period.
I have a particular interest in life stories, and have coached many courses and individuals to encourage memoir-writing, along with writing the book Your Life, Your Story. What we don’t write down may soon be lost, so it’s a huge gift to posterity to tell a life story, in full or in part. Thanks to Jacques’ resolution to preserve his story, we have a remarkable first-hand account of the flight of this group of French Huguenots from their homeland to begin new lives in England, and later in Ireland, both in Fontaine’s case, and in that of my own Mauzy ancestors. Jacques’ full-length memoir is entitled Persécutés pour leur foi: Mémoires d’une famille huguenote (Persecuted for their Faith: Memoirs of a Huguenot Family), and written in a very direct and engaging way. (The subsequent translation is a different matter, as I’ll explain later.) Extracts are included here, to bring to life his riveting account of this extraordinary journey. You can read the full set of extracts that I’ve translated via a link to a PDF at the conclusion of this blog.
I knew that we had one prominent French Huguenot line in our family tree on my father’s side, which is that of the Despards, who arrived much earlier, at the court of Queen Elizbeth I in the late 16th century, and settled in Ireland as engineers and miners. I plan to write a blog about them in the not-too-distant future, celebrating my illustrious Despard cousin ancestor, the famous Col. Edward Marcus Despard (1751-1803), who fought alongside Nelson, was hanged as a radical, (or as a traitor, depending on your point of view) and who features, in a fictionalised version, in the television series of ‘Poldark’!
But as for the Mauzy family, I knew nothing, except that my 6x gt grandfather Louis Mauzy had been born in France and somehow ended up in Devon. His granddaughter Elizabeth, like my 7 x gt grandmother Alice Despard earlier, later married into the Irish line of my family. Living in Devon myself, I was curious to learn more about the story of how they arrived on these shores.
And I owe it to Jacques Fontaine’s enthusiasm for detail, that the name of my grandfather is actually recorded in his account of the escape from France. I’d probably never have found it though without an internet search for the uncommon name of Mauzy, which led me to the French edition of the memoir, available as a printed book. If I’d simply looked at the English translation, I wouldn’t have found it, as it only refers to a ‘Huguenot Minister’. This English version was produced in 1838 by one of Fontaine’s descendants, and omits many other chunks of text; it also changes the tone, endeavouring to make it consistently solemn and pious throughout, instead of the mix of entertaining digressive rambles and changes of mood which Fontaine himself employed, in an engaging way. If by any chance you’re eager to delve into this life story, I suggest you try the French text if you possibly can, as it has a wealth of detail and genealogy excluded from the later translation.
The Huguenots flee from France
Who were the Huguenots? They were principally French Protestants who emerged in the wake of the 16th century Reformation, and followed in particular the doctrines of the religious reformer Jean Calvin. (The origin of the name Huguenot is uncertain, but is probably taken from Dutch or German allusions.) They came under attack from Catholics in France, and many were killed in ambushes and by raiding parties, especially in the infamous St Bartholemew’s Massacre of 1572, the time when the Despards in my family tree fled to England and Ireland. For a while, peace between the two religious factions was restored by a treaty known as the Edict of Nantes, issued in 1598. But this stability eventually broke down, and under King Louis IV, persecution of the Huguenots began again. When King Louis XIV ascended the French throne in 1643, it escalated to the point where he directed troops to seize Huguenot homes and force them to convert to Catholicism. Then in 1685 Louis XIV enacted the Edict of Fontainebleau, otherwise known as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which made Protestantism illegal. More bloodshed ensued, and over the next several years, over 200,000 Huguenots fled France for other countries. You can read the full account here, and another produced by the UK Huguenot Society here.
It now becomes clear why this particular party of Huguenots fled to Devon in 1685. But this order of 1685 also forbade Huguenots to leave France, so anyone who wanted to make a run for it had to do so with great secrecy, as Fontaine’s story reveals. Patrols were out, looking for would-be deserters. Anyone caught trying to escape would be punished: the men condemned to row on galley ships, and the women imprisoned or sent to convents. ‘Convert or be enslaved’ was the message. The Huguenot Society tells us : About 200,000 Huguenots left France, settling in non-Catholic Europe – the Netherlands, Germany, especially Prussia, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and even as far as Russia where Huguenot craftsmen could find customers at the court of the Czars. Many of the Huguenots were well-educated and highly skilled in trades such as weaving, engineering, goldsmithing and clock-making, so their exodus deprived the country of a whole class of professionals and artisans.
But one thing puzzled me: in Fontaine’s account he says that while he and the others had to hide while waiting to board their ship, terrified of being caught, Louis Mauzy and his family were already on board, with a passport to leave. Then I discovered that Protestant Ministers were in fact ordered to ‘expatriate’ at this point in time. So to keep his faith, and to keep his family safe, Mauzy was compelled to leave his homeland.
And then, reading further, I learned that, as it happened, this turned out to be his sole chance to escape. The English translation of Fontaine’s memoirs gives a note that: ‘In 1686, The enactments were still more severe. A Protestant taken in the act of public worship was punished with death, and all Protestant clergymen whether natives or foreigners were to be executed. To increase the vigilance of the soldiery, a reward of three or four pistoles [gold coins] was given for every Protestant that was taken up.‘ (A Tale of the Huguenots, Jacques de La Fontaine, translated 1838, p100). So as it turned out, Louis Mauzy had only a few short months to make good his escape to England, during the brief period when he had been ordered to leave. If he had tarried, he and his family would most probably have been killed. Louis Mauzy brought with him his wife Suzanne, née Sannager, and at least two children, a girl also called Suzanne, and my future 5 x gt grandfather who was probably christened Louis, but known later as Lewis, in the anglicised form.
An article on ‘England’s First Refugees’ notes that ‘comparatively few refugees came in 1685, the actual year of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, or in 1686’, so it was only the brave or desperate few who took their chances at this period. I will now let Jacques Fontaine’s story take over.
Mémoires d’une famille huguenote
Chapter IX p. 127 In November 1685, Jacques Fontaine realised that it was the moment to try and escape from France with his own family, which included a sister-in-law and a niece. ‘I offered others the chance to come, but the response was that it wouldn’t only be foolish, but simply crazy, to risk such great dangers, since the coasts were all well-guarded, both on land and at sea.’
They arrived at a place called La Tremblade, not far from La Rochelle on the west coast ‘We stayed with a drunkard who was to be the pilot for the English vessel and who spoke English, and because of whom we ran a thousand risks of being discovered due to his carelessness and inebriation.’ After waiting for a few days, they were told that they could leave the next day, and ‘the drunkard’ ordered them to wait for him on the beach at Mus-de-Long. Here he intended to pick them up his boat. ‘We left at night, with a couple of horses to carry our small amount of luggage. Once on the beach, I made a speech to those there, and said a prayer for our situation…a prayer which was definitely uttered from the heart as much as from the mouth.´ They weren’t alone: ‘We were among some 40 or 50 people on the shore, nearly all of them young men and women.’ Things did not go as planned: ‘Some of them didn’t take all the precautions necessary to conceal their escape, with the result that the papists [Catholics] were forewarned, and sent orders that the ship should not depart; therefore, we remained in the dunes the whole day.’
There was a further scare, as the parish priest from La Tremblade had decided to take a stroll in those dunes, with his dog and a companion. ‘They were almost upon us; we had placed ourselves between two little hills of sand, and we could see the dog… But, by divine providence, two poor fishermen, who had already seen us [and were sympathetic to our plight] …made them believe that they were off track. They assured them that if they continued in this direction, they would get lost in the hills of the sand dunes.’ The fishermen thus successfully diverted the priest and his friend onto another path.
Since the first attempt at boarding the ship had failed, Fontaine and his family party returned to La Tremblade:
We lodged at the home of a local townsman, where fifteen or twenty of us spent the day hiding in his house. He took us in very reluctantly, as they’d been searching all the houses in order to discover where we were. He was in a terrible state of fear…, because he would have to pay a fine of a thousand ecus if he were caught harbouring a Protestant. Night having come, he finally decided not to run such a risk, and ordered us all to leave his house; this was a little uncivil, but his reasoning was understandable.
“I have,” he said, “damned my soul in order to save my wealth, and I would lose it to save yours! No,” he said, “either do as I do or take your chance elsewhere.”
We considered this treatment to be rather cruel, but we had good cause to thank God later, since less than half an hour after we had left, the authorities came with some soldiers, and visited the house of our host, where they didn’t find anyone hiding. We hid ourselves again as best we could, one here, another there, among the poor sailors’ wives who we found far more charitable than the rich people, and thus we spent the next four or five days.
The area around La Rochelle itself was at this period largely Protestant, which also helped their chances of escape. But their troubles weren’t yet over. The captain of the English ship eventually arrived, but told the group they would have to follow him in their little boats to a place on the coast where he could pick them up unobserved once he’d cleared customs and finished with the official paperwork.
‘In the dusk of the same evening, on the 29th November 1685, we went on board a little open launch – my fiancée, her sister, my niece and me, two lads from Bordeaux and six young girls from Marennes, and, under the cover of night, we passed the guard boats on the Seudre and got through the current of Oleron without being spotted. Then at ten o’clock in the morning, we got soaked near the Ile d’Aix, at the tip of the Ile d’Oleron. There we waited until our ship appeared. We’d given an order to our boatman that if we were pursued, he should beach his boat as fast as he could, and then it would be simply a question of “Run for dear life!”‘
However, Jacques Fontaine had been lame ever since childhood, when a doctor failed to diagnose his broken leg. Running away was something he couldn’t do: ‘As for myself, who couldn’t count on my legs to carry me off, I had my gun and a pair of pistols, and was resolved never to sell my life and be taken alive.’ All went well though to start with, and they had already exchanged the agreed signals with the English captain, when suddenly: ‘We saw a royal frigate, which was used solely for checking ships, to make sure that no Protestant left the kingdom; if they found any, they sent the men to the galley ships and the women to convents.’ Their own boat lying at anchor would most definitely attract suspicion. ‘And we were only a canon ball’s length away from them!’ The escapees were in a state of utter terror.
The officers did indeed search the main ship, and this is where Fontaine refers to my own great grandfather, Louis Mauzy, mentioning that he had already boarded: ‘They searched everywhere in the ship. But no one was hiding on board; only M. Mauzy, a minister, and his family were there, with their passport. What a blessing, Lord, that we hadn’t already managed to get to the ship! If they had been delayed until an hour later, they would have found all of us.’ They still could not board however, but had to try and keep up with the ship to a place where it would be safe to embark, while at the same time not giving the officers any cause for suspicion. ‘When they had finished, they ordered the English captain to set sail, which he did, and he left with a favourable wind, leaving us behind, and with the frigate positioned nearly between us and him. This was a terrible crisis, because if we returned to La Tremblade, it was a hundred to one that we would not be able to escape.’ The little boat they were waiting in would arouse suspicion if it was still there: ‘The poor boatman, who only had his son as crew, wailed and lamented his plight and that of his son, persuaded that only the hangman’s noose awaited the two of them, since he had already changed his religion.’ This was a real crisis.
Finally, Jacques came up with a ploy to explain convincingly why they were anchored in this spot. The Huguenots would hide at the bottom of the boat, covered by an old sail, while the boatman blamed his presence on unfavourable winds. Fontaine, rather proud of his ploy afterwards, told the boatman what to do while the officials made their inevitable inspection: ‘If those on the frigate asked him where he was going, he would say:”From La Rochelle, and I want to go to La Tremblade.” If they asked, “And what have you got on board?” “Only ballast.”‘ The boatman must also pretend that he and his son were drunk and incompetent, presumably to heighten the impression of poor judgement!
It worked! They were then able to board the ship piloted by the English captain, and endured an eleven day crossing, with strong head winds and little to eat and drink. ‘At last we disembarked on the 1st December (old style calendar) at Appledore, in the Bristol Channel, at the mouth of the little river, which flows to Barnstaple. Having paid for our passage, your mother and I only had twenty gold pistoles [gold coins] left between us; but God, who had not led us to a safe country only to let us die from hunger, touched the hearts of the chief citizens of Barnstaple, who having sent for us, all twelve took one or two of us into their homes and treated us with incredible gentleness and friendliness, each taking as much care of the French person they had in their house as if we had been their children or their brothers, meaning that God allowed us to find fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters amongst strangers.‘
That first bite of fresh bread, given by welcoming strangers, made a huge impression on Jacques and his fellow refugees: ‘I am also compelled to remember, with gratitude for Divine Providence, that first mouthful of bread which I ate, having disembarked in Appledore. Our joy at being safe, and the privations we suffered in the ship, added to the usual purgations from being at sea, with myself in particular being the one most afflicted by sea sickness, led us now to having a great appetite, with the result that the most urgent thing (after giving thanks to God) was to ask for some bread.’
But it only took a minute or two before Fontaine, who was an astute trader, as well as preparing to for Protestant ordination, saw a perfect business opportunity:
‘They gave us ‘biscuits’ [baked roundels of bread], as big as plates, which in France would be worth around two sous apiece; and, when we came to pay, they asked us to pay only half a sou for each ‘biscuit’. I was impressed with their good price, but because the man we were talking to spoke only very poor French, I thought he had made a mistake; after asking him several time he always said that each biscuit cost half a sou. Unable to believe this, I gave a little girl a marked sou, and told her to go and buy me bread with this amount. She went to the baker and brought me back two of these biscuits or galettes. That confirmed the price to me.’
The bread, and thus the wheat grain it was made with, were very cheap. He began to hatch a plan: ‘At first it occurred to me that anyone who could send grain to France would make a considerable profit; but my fiancée and I only had twenty pistoles left.‘ He lost no time in checking out the grain market in Bideford the next day, accompanied by an interpreter, and then in borrowing money from other refugee friends already based in Plymouth., and thus he started making his first deals on English soil. One of his projects soon afterwards was to import fancy French items and sell them through his own shop in Exeter – brandy, tobacco and fine wine being among the goods.
Images of Appledore, taken on our visit there in 2018. Many of the houses and quaint cottages in the town date from the period of the Mauzy family’s arrival in 1685. The Customs House would surely have been an important place!
Fontaine’s story continues in the memoir, as he moved with his family to Taunton, where he ran various import and export schemes, some more successful than others. Eventually, they settled in Ireland where a kaleidoscope of adventures continued, including inhabiting a ‘haunted’ house in Dublin and dealing with pirates off the coast of Cork. Jacques died in 1728, aged 70, having written his life story, and prefaced it with this touching dedication:
My dear children, Having observed the deep interest you have taken in all that has befallen your ancestors, when I have related their adventures to you, I am induced to write down their history for your use, to the end that the pious examples of those from whom we derive our origin may not be lost to you, or those who succeed you.
Translation: With grateful thanks to Gill Yates, who helped me to translate these extracts, and more of the text, from the French. You can read the full text of our translations as a PDF file using the link below.
But what of the Mauzy family? After this tantalising, eye-witness glimpse of my ancestors on the boat, it’s back to the records, which are scanty. However, the basic outline of their lives is that Louis Mauzy became the pastor of the Huguenot congregation in Barnstaple in North Devon. His daughter Suzanne married André Majendie, and they settled in Exeter where André became a minister for the Huguenot Congregation, possibly at the ‘French Church’ of St Olave’s, or more likely at the second French congregation which existed in the city, its meeting place unknown. Suzanne died as a widow, in Dartmouth on the south Devon coast, leaving her ‘garden’ to her daughter Charlotte, and her ‘silver candlesticks’ to her son John James, along with other bequests. She was buried at St Petrox , an ancient church which stands on the rocky peninsula at the end of the estuary, looking out at the sea which featured so dramatically in Suzanne’s life; she had been one of the refugee party, on board in 1685.
Louis’ son Lewis Mauzy (my 5 x gt grandfather) became a doctor of medicine, married Anne Hutchinson in about 1705, and lived in Exeter; he also left a will when he died in 1727, which establishes some of the family connections. True to his Protestant ethics, the will opens with the mournful instructions: It is my desire to be buryed in the most private manner my body to be laid in a plain black coffin without any Binding and carried to the Grave by six honest and ordinary Men without any other Bearers or Mourning. We do not know as yet where he was buried.
Lewis and Anne had at least five children, one of whom, Elizabeth, married into an Irish Protestant family (with names Long and then subsequently Phillips) and became my 4 x gt grandmother. Among the children of Lewis and Anne is a son, also called Lewis, who graduated from the University of Oxford, where he is recorded in the alumni lists.
I never expected to find a Devon connection in the Irish side of my family history, or to have a first-hand account of how these ancestors escaped from France. They were refugees, and they were welcomed into Devon, which has given me pause for thought in these times when we have our own refugee crises. In one sense, they paved the way, and indeed, the word refugee is said to have come from these Huguenots who fled in fear of their lives. They certainly enriched the life of those countries which which took them in, as they brought their considerable talents and skills with them.
My task here has been to tell just one family story, backed up by reliable sources, but without the expertise of specialist researchers, who devote themselve to the task of Huguenot history. As soon as I can, I plan to go back to Appledore and Barnstaple and look at these places with new eyes, knowing now that this is where the Mauzy family and their fellow refugees landed and began their new lives.
‘The Huguenots of Devon’ – Alison Grand & Robin Gwynn, Devonshire Association Transactions, Dec 1985 (117: 161-194)
‘The Huguenots in Exeter’ – Col. Ransom Pickard, Devonshire Association Transactions, June 1936
‘The Mauzey-Mauzy Family’ – Armand Jean Mauzey, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Jan 1950 (pp 112-119) sourced in JStor
Family history is a quest, and the act of going out on site visits to do your research can be a story in itself. If you visit the places where your ancestors lived and worked, it can become a magical journey where surprises and discoveries abound. Savouring the atmosphere of ancestral haunts and walking the landscapes where they too walked can bring a kind of knowledge beyond that of hard facts.
In this post, I have written up one of my own quests on the trail of the ancestors – a trip to Coventry to discover more of my 3 x great grandfather, watchmaker Daniel Brown. I wrote it down a few years ago, in such a way that I could share the story with others, but it has never seen the light of day until now. I offer it here, after giving it the cold editorial eye, and a sprucing-up.
For those interested in doing something similar, I’ve added tips and suggestions about the process at the end. It’s worth making a special undertaking to do this. While teaching life writing and family history courses, I’ve often encouraged people to set up a ‘quest’ and write about their discoveries, and it’s always been exciting and moving to read their stories.
Arrival in Spon Street
‘Is this Spon Street?’ asks my husband, in mild disbelief.
We gaze down the narrow city street, studded with a mixture of nightclubs and kebab takeaways, bridalwear shops and ‘the last proper butcher’s in Coventry’. It’s a wet, cold Saturday morning, and the street is deserted. Is this really the historic quarter, the street once filled by hundreds of craftsmen: dyers and weavers, shoemakers and watchmakers? The Coventry websites call it ‘the town’s finest renovation project’, but it seems a little sad right now. The photos they show, a real dream of an ancient street, obviously must depend on where you point the camera. Historical in part, we concede, noticing some exquisite groups of half-timbered houses dotted along the street, among the Victorian and ‘60s infill. We are here to follow up one of those former inhabitants, my 3 x great grandfather, Daniel Brown, watchmaker of Spon Street in the late 18th century. And even though first impressions are not quite as expected, we’re ready to take what the city can offer us.
I was last in Coventry when I was at school in Birmingham. Coventry wasn’t a place you came to then except to see the new cathedral, or, in my case, to listen to the Rolling Stones. It’s not familiar, although I can still recognise the ‘modern’ shopping precinct of the late 1960s where I looked in vain for trendy clothes, now smartened up with a glass roof. We aren’t here to cover my old trails, though, but rather to find new ones. When you’re hunting ancestors, even in a place you know well, you inevitably see your surroundings in a different light, and explore nooks and crannies which wouldn’t have attracted your attention before. Even the air smells different when you’re on the trail; often, a strange magic creeps in, and such days remain glowing in the memory.
So here is the background to this particular quest. Daniel Brown was born around 1768, and lived in the labyrinth of workshops in Spon Street for most of his life, practising his skills as a watchmaker. He married a woman called Anne –surname possibly Fulford – and they produced a family of some five children. One of these children, James, became my 2 x great grandfather. It seems that Daniel’s own father, Isaac, was a weaver, and since James reverted to the weaving trade, Daniel is the only watchmaker in my line, and of great interest as such. What can Coventry tell me about him?
He must have done well at his trade, since at his death at the age of 81 in 1849, he had money and property to leave in his will, an estate worth about £25,000 in today’s terms. Daniel’s first will had me fooled, though: it was a draft prepared less than ten years before his death, written in an almost indecipherable hand. I assumed it was his final will, but when I’d finally transcribed it, I thought it might be prudent to check for a proven will. There was one – much more legible this time, but oh, what had the old so-and-so done? He’d gone and got married again, in 1844, at the age of 76, to one Sarah Stone. Both their ages are coyly concealed on the marriage certificate, which declares simply that they are ‘of full age’. Well, it must have been obvious in Daniel’s case, but I’d like to know if Sarah was a tempting young wench, or a shrewd elderly widow? At any rate, Sarah comes in for the sum of 10 shillings to be paid to her ‘at the end of every week’ until it reaches a total of £300. This surely shows an astuteness in Daniel’s control of his money – if she was a gold digger, she would only be in line for a share of his assets and if she died soon after him, the residue of the bequest would pass back to his own family. Other bequests are to his children and grandchildren, who each receive a decent legacy. All, that is, except for my 2 x gt. grandfather James, who obviously owed his father a packet already, since Daniel’s will offers to write off James’s debts, but little else.
In the city centre itself, we admire Lady Godiva’s statue, a legend which is a tribute to the independence and feistiness of the inhabitants.
Discovering the city
We pay the steep entrance fee into the Cathedral to see not only the famous Graham Sutherland tapestry, but the Piper Baptistry window, the Whistler angels etched on glass, and the Frink choir stalls. The more we gaze, the more I appreciate this incredible building and its art, far more than I did in my restless teenage years. Yet I’m assailed by a sharp sense of the sadness and anger embedded here, in the juxtaposition of the new Cathedral and the ruins of the old, following the horrendous destruction of the Blitz. Witnessing this contrast, though, helps me to get a perspective on the longer history of the city. Although my direct-line descendants moved out to the nearby town of Bedworth, Coventry must still have been imprinted in the family story. My sense of the old Coventry as a productive, busy place, fostering independent craftspeople and small businesses, has now been heightened by the contrast with its post-war trauma. Indeed, almost anything you see and experience on a family history quest is likely to feed your knowledge, and fire up your imagination. You can never achieve this in quite the same way from research carried out at a distance.
I am eager to visit the ribbon weaving display at the Herbert Museum and City Art Gallery. Many of Daniel’s relatives and descendants, including my great grandmother, worked in this industry, often from as young as ten years old. In the 19th century, beautiful and intricate silk ribbons were woven to adorn ladies’ costumes, and both Coventry and Bedworth depended economically upon this trade. The industry continued through the era of hand loom weaving into that of machine weaving and jacquard looms, which were capable of reproducing complex patterns. The Museum has a stunning example of a jacquard loom, and a video of the monster at work. (You can see below an example of an earlier hand loom on the left, and a jacquard on the right.)
The images below show the types of decorative silk ribbon that were being woven in Coventry and the surrounding areas in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These are in pattern books, preserved at the Herbert Museum.
Ribbon weaving was often done from family workshops, sometimes situated on the top floor of their cottages for maximum light, but later subsumed into fully-industrialised factories which swallowed up their children for the workforce. Cash’s (of school nametapes fame) is probably the most famous of these old Coventry firms. At the Tourist Information Office – another source of local wisdom – the woman at the desk told me wryly that most of the Cash’s name tapes are now woven in Turkey, although some decorative bookmarks are still made locally as souvenirs. Now, in the Museum, we admire the sample ribbon pattern books dating from the 1840s, the time when my Bedworth ancestors were in the trade. There’s also an account of the terrible times of hardship that hit the ribbon weavers after the tariffs were lifted on the import of French silk, causing a major slump in home production. Famine struck both Coventry and Bedworth, soup kitchens were set up, and charitable funds were used to send whole families abroad to the Colonies. My great grandfather was fortunate in that he spotted the opportunity to work on the railways, which gave the chance for a family to move, something very difficult at the time. (He ended his career as signalman at Althorp Park Station, known these days as the stately house where Princess Diana lived.)
Winners and Losers
On these quests, not every plan may prove possible. It seems that I can’t make the special visit that I’d been promised earlier, to see the rest of the ribbon weaving samples in store. It’s Saturday, and curators only work Monday to Friday, I’m told. Another time, perhaps. Indeed, I’ve learned from past experience, that it’s more rewarding to stay with what can be done, than to fret about what can’t. Perhaps I can take this enticing option on a future visit.
But, to balance this up, contrary to what the website says, the History Centre is open on Saturdays. An inviting, glass-walled library on the ground floor of the Museum, it is available for any walk-in visitors who’d like to consult shelves of local material, with the assistance of knowledgeable volunteers. We only have a short time, but some quick browsing produces a possible match for Daniel in the apprenticeship records and a plot number for him in the London Road Cemetery. This will at least give us a chance to see his gravestone; I discovered a picture of his memorial stone on a website a couple of nights ago.
We return to Spon Street, which is now looking a little brighter, with a few visitors in its shops and cafes. This was once a major highway into the city, and has been an important part of Coventry’s trading quarter since medieval times. But apart from the recent historic reconstruction at the inner end, little now remains of the cottages and bustling workshops which once flanked it for the best part of a mile. The city ring road has cut through it, and the two parts are severed, and only accessible on foot. The move to the era of ‘Car is God’ has created some truly terrible town planning in the Midlands, as I’ve written about in ‘Finding Brummagem’. The outer stretch is quiet now, leading us past blocks of flats, deserted open grassland, community centres and an occasional old cottage. But the sense of space is opened up, and it’s possible to project the imagination even further back in history, to a time when the area was rural. The river Sherbourne, which the dyers once used, is still racing along behind a row of houses, and on the old stone bridge which crosses it, you can stand and dream of life gone by.
Two o’clock, and we haven’t had lunch yet. (Food is always important on my quests. Fuel is definitely needed.) Oh, and the Watch Museum is open in Spon Street as well. Another piece of good fortune, as it only opens for a few hours twice a week. Can’t miss that. So shall we try the cemetery too? I steal a sideways glance at my husband. He doesn’t look too jaded, so maybe something to eat will strengthen us enough to complete the quest. We go for coffee and sandwiches in a bistro operating in one of the reconstructed 17th century houses, then stroll over to the Watch Museum. This consists of a very decrepit block of cottages, which lead back from the street into a courtyard.
‘Come out to the back!’
A museum guide beckons us eagerly. He throws open the door to one of three privies, lovingly restored. A hundred and eleven people once lived and worked here, and they had to share the facilities.
He scratched his head. ‘Some tourists have borrowed our bowler hats,’ he says, and shows us to where a couple of visitors are posing bowler-hatted for their photos against the back wall of the final cottage, which has a gaping crack running from top to bottom.
The inside rooms on show are incredibly dilapidated too, with flaking, distempered doors and bare floors, but they give me a sense of the old way of life more vividly than an artistic reconstruction. Was Daniel’s life this hard? Did he have to squirrel away his money to improve his lot?
We admire the selection of Coventry watches on display, and I wonder about Daniel’s status. I’ve found him listed in the watchmakers’ records for the town, but I don’t know if he worked entirely on his own account, or as a piece-worker for one of the local firms? I’m told by the guide that watchmakers could do either, or both, but that individual watches were rarely signed as many watches were composite productions. I’ve already seen in my research that the censuses of the period reveal many dial-makers and watch-finishers, as well as watchmakers proper. So finding a ‘Daniel Brown’ watch remains a dream for me.
‘Most watchmakers were apprenticed, and the first thing they got when they’d served the apprenticeship was the sack,’ the guide informs us. ‘They had to make shift for themselves, then. But they were also freer to do what they wanted. Look out for a marriage at around the age of twenty-one. They weren’t allowed to marry before that. It can help you with knowing the age of your ancestor.’
I check my dossier. ‘Twenty-four,’ I say.
He nods sagely. ‘Sounds about right. They tended to marry as soon as they could.’
I buy a booklet produced by the Museum, describing a historic watchmakers’ trail around the city, and then we’re off to our final stop: the London Road Cemetery. We are back in the car, and snarled up on the Coventry Ring Road, which was probably devised by planners when they were in a sadistic mood. Poor old Jane, our Sat Nav voice, can’t cope with all their loops and kinks. We circle around the city in the wrong direction. Eventually, as navigator I tell Robert to take the next road off the demonic ring.
‘Where’s it going?’ he asks.
‘I don’t know. I don’t care. Anywhere is better than this.’
Jane recovers her sanity and coolly directs us to the post code for the cemetery. And that’s where she can help no further. We only have a vague memory of the plan we consulted at the History Centre, with its numbered section and grave. We drive all around it, finally choose one of the unmarked entrances, and drive the car a little way in. It’s late afternoon now, and the place is practically deserted. We wander through the vast graveyard, looking for older stones that will show us we’re in the right area. But only modern graves catch our eye, some vividly decorated with pink flowers and teddies. Who can we ask? There’s one mourner by a grave, but he is truly mourning, wiping away tears. I decide to go through an iron gate in the wall – shades of The Secret Garden – to see if the old area is beyond there. It’s getting dusky, and I hesitate when I see three lads who look as though they might be drug dealing. Ah no, here comes a safe-looking middle-aged couple with their shopping. They tell me, rather vaguely, that there’s another complete section of the cemetery we need to find.
‘Where the Rolls Royce factory was. You know,’ she says helpfully.
‘No, I’m sorry, I don’t,’ I reply. ‘Do you know what road the entrance is on?’
‘No, haven’t a clue,’ answers her husband.
We decide to try again. This time, we find a friendly Irish lady tidying up a grave. She’s driven her car right up to the graveside. ‘Have to be careful. People have been robbed here.’ She tells us that there is a Chapel, and an older graveyard around it. ‘Just up there.’ She waves her hand vaguely.
Thank you, thank you. By now, Robert is using his visual skills as a professional artist and is consulting the photo of the gravestone.
‘Look at the shape of it,’ he says, tracing the indentations and angles cut into the top of the stone. He also has stonemason ancestors, so I’m trusting his instincts to spot the right one.
But we can’t find anything. We ask another man, also Irish as it happens, who shakes his head. As we head towards the exit, we see a very organised-looking lady tending a grave. I say it’s not worth asking, but Robert says we should give it one last shot.
‘Of course,’ she says. ‘You need to go out of here, and then find the other entrance, the original one. It’s just down the road.’
Ah, it’s in a different place altogether! The cemetery was opened in 1847 and since then, the railway line has sliced it in half. We pick up the car which is languishing near a cedar tree, and drive out, round, down – and there it is – the older, grander entrance to the original cemetery. Daniel Brown was one of the first to be buried there in 1849.
Four magpies bounce across the path.
‘A boy!’ we say excitedly, in line with the old children’s rhyme. But will we find our man?
We search the first area without any luck, and I am thinking that it’s nearly time to go home. The air is darker, the mood is eerie, and we’re in a place where the dead are thick in number and the living very scarce. We are the only ones, in fact.
Then we spot the Chapel, further along. It’s a kind of strange, mausoleum type of building and with it comes a whiff of the Victorian cult of death. We move towards it, through the obelisks and the forest of stones, both plain and elaborate, some now leaning at an angle or almost swallowed up by the trees.
‘I’ll take this side, you take the other,’ I suggest.
Five minutes later, Robert calls out: ‘Found it!’
And there he is. ‘Daniel Brown, departed this life June 21st 1849 aged 81 years. And of John Brown, son of the above, who died Dec 5th 1855, aged 58 years.’
Planning and carrying out the quest Plan out your day, but allow for the unexpected as well. Following up new leads is half the fun! Think about your route in advance, especially if it involves finding car parks in towns. It can save you time and frustration. It can be more fun and give support to have someone with you, but be up front about the fact that you’ll be focused full-time on following the trail. Don’t plan extra side trips.
Suggestions for what to take A small dossier of relevant material, eg local information and notes on family records. (Keep it light and compact – it can be difficult to find something quickly from a big sheaf of papers.) Recording materials, such as a notebook, camera and a voice recorder, which can be on your phone. A relevant map if possible. Ordinance Survey maps are useful for detailed navigation in the countryside (or the equivalent outside the UK); for a city, you can probably download a visitor’s map from the internet.
While on the trail Ask for help from locals – anyone from a farmer to a museum attendant may have valuable clues for you. If you tell them you have family connections they may open up, and give you much more detailed information. Buy local leaflets or booklets, on anything from folklore to churches. If you don’t have time to look at them while you’re on your quest, they may be really useful later. It’s much harder to track them down when out of the area. Follow your nose – it may be the best guide that you have! Be philosophical: you may be thwarted on some counts, but find wonderful new avenues to explore too.
Afterwards Do write up your quest within a few days. If you’re short of time, just make notes, but make them as full as possible. It’s extraordinary how quickly we forget details.
Set yourself a reasonable length to write to – about 1500-5000 words is usually plenty. If you make it much longer, it may be too much of a project and never get completed. It’s better to make the first account precise, and expand it later, if you wish.
There’s always scope for editing! Sometimes the story comes out in a rush, which is great for conveying energy, but be ready to check and prune it later.
Share it with others – it makes a wonderful bulletin to circulate to other family members. Everyone loves to read a story.
Reflect on what questions have arisen out of your quest. You may end up with more questions than answers, but they may stimulate further research, and might even pave the way for the next quest.
You may also be interested in these other family history posts:
I became intoxicated by poetry in my teenage years. At school, we plunged deep into the Metaphysical Poets, were thrilled by D.H. Lawrence, and learnt to love Wordsworth. I also craved more recent poets untouched by the exam syllabus. I managed to put together enough money to buy paperbacks of poetry with titles such as Beat Poets and Jazz Poems, and by authors such as e.e.cummings and Laurie Lee, and Liverpool Poets like Roger McGough. Diving into these chimed in with our growing sense of the new freedom of the 1960s.
This is, I admit, a prelude to talking about my own poetry. Of course, writing heartfelt poems is what teenagers do, and of course I was influenced by all the above poets, leading to some cringe-making lines. But nevertheless, some of those poems did come good, and two have stories attached to them, which I am about to tell. I still have my ‘Poems’ notebook with its marbled hardback cover and I find I can bear to read most of those written down there. And the earliest poem I have on record is far distant enough to be entertaining – we were instructed at school to write something epic about the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. Here’s my effort, aged about twelve – the only thing I’ve ever preserved from my school exercise books.
Those of you who’ve read my blog before may remember how I began writing for Jackie magazine while I was still in the Sixth Form at school. That was in October 1966, and emboldened by this moderate success, I decided to try my luck with poems. Not to Jackie, of course, but to the prestigious ‘Poetry Review’. I’m afraid I don’t remember how or why I came to choose that august publication, but it was certainly a daring move. I had the naivety to give anything a shot, and – I suppose – thought I might as well aim high. My diary of Jan 7th, 1967, records: ‘The other day I sent off some poetry to Poetry Review for criticism (took great courage!!)’.
To my astonishment, I had an encouraging letter back from the editor – which, sadly, I haven’t kept – saying he’d like to publish the one called French Boy, for a fee. I think it was around two guineas. And so it was duly included, in Autumn 1967 issue. He also asked if I could send him further poems in future. But, with the carelessness of youth, I didn’t get round to doing that. Life was opening up at a rapid pace – I was at Cambridge university by the time it was published that autumn, and was distracted by a myriad of other exciting possibilities. I even lost or threw out the edition of Poetry Review containing the poem. (Here are a couple of others from around the same era, which I discovered on the internet.)
Fast forward to 2005, when I visited my daughter in Australia, while she and her boyfriend were living in Sydney for a few years. I’d rented a studio flat nearby, but as it wasn’t available for the first few days, I had to look elsewhere for a bed. Two old friends of mine from astrology circles, Derek and Julia Parker, had emigrated to Sydney not long beforehand, and when I contacted them, they said they’d be delighted to put me up for the interim. Julia is an astrologer of repute, and Derek a man of broad literary accomplishments; together they’d written the best-selling ‘The Compleat Astrologer’.
Below: Derek and Julia Parker during my visit to Australia, and their best-selling treatise on astrology
Somehow, during one of our delightful catch-up conversations, I mentioned the Poetry Review and how I’d had a poem published there as a teenager.
‘But I was the editor at the time!’ said Derek.
I had completely forgotten the name of the kind editor but, yes of course – it came back to me now! ‘I don’t suppose you have a copy of that issue, do you? I no longer have mine.’
‘Of course,’ he said, and pulled it down from the shelf.
I took the photocopy he made me, and vowed never to lose sight of it again. Yes, I can criticise it – but it did make the pages of a worthy poetry journal. And how foolish I was not to take that further. I still occasionally write poetry, but the chance to really build it as a craft has passed now.
The poem is one of a group I wrote about a rather miserable French exchange with an uptight family whose holiday home was in an uninteresting area of sand dunes and summer villas, full of moderately wealthy bourgeoisie and their offspring. Appearances and conformity were the rule of the day. The visit inspired a number of complaining poems on my part – which I won’t bore anyone with – and this one was about a lad who was a little too good to be true in appearance, and a little too vain to be likeable.
Zut he said neatly
And opened two rows of white teeth
to grin charmingly.
His slim brown fingers
plucked the strings precisely
and his blond hair
was oh so shiny,
with an enchanting touch,
a casual touch.
The golden Apollo muscles
beneath his blue shirt.
The careful notes
flickered and broke.
because this, too,
was part of the flawless
Poetry Review – Edited by Derek Parker
Vol LVIII, no. 3, Autumn 1967.
The Albert Hall At the same time that I submitted the poem for Derek’s attention, I also sent one off elsewhere. The diary tells the tale – here’s the full entry:
Diary entry forJan 7th 1967 Most extraordinary thing happened today. Yes actually HAPPENED!!! Well the other day I sent off some poetry to Poetry Review for criticism (took great courage!!) I was typing some poems out and came across the ‘Folk Club’ one which is rather frivolous to put it mildly. Typed it out then thought I’d better not send it with the rest cos it wasn’t really the same kind of thing. So I sent it off to ‘Sing’, one of the folk song magazines – didn’t even know if it was still in print. Expected it back with a note saying ‘What the hell did you send us this for?’ Well today the phone went for me, and a voice said, ‘This is Eric Winter, Editor of ‘Sing’’. He said how much he liked my poem and said they would print it next issue, and also he showed it to Pete Seeger last night who also liked it, and gave a recital of it at his concert in the Royal Albert Hall! Complete with actions – and apparently the audience loved it! Then E. Winter wanted to know if I’d written any more poems, prose, songs etc and if I’d send him some, and come and see him if I was in London at all. V. Flattering! Great – it’s a big laff, but that’s made my day.
Eh? What? Pete Seeger read out my poem? I had almost forgotten about it, or assumed it was a distorted memory – but the diary doesn’t lie. (Truly, it doesn’t!) Again, I can only blame the casualness of youth. And perhaps an element of not enough self-belief. As I’ve said since to other budding writers, you have to take your achievements seriously. Surprisingly, it is too easy to assume that a success – maybe in a competition, or in getting a story published – was a fluke. That anyone could have done it, and that it doesn’t indicate any real value. But this shrugging off of success is as much of a trap for a writer as is being too conceited about one’s chances. So, please take a lesson from me in this respect. Cherish what you achieve, and build on little successes.
Folk Club (March 1966)
Fred plays the guitar
brrm brrm brrm brrm
and we all say
well done Fred
what was that you played?
and drink our beer.
And Fred says
this song is called and it comes from well
actually I learnt it off a fellah named
sorry if I forget the words I only
worked it out last well here goes –
brrm brrm brrm brrm
clap clap clap
well done Fred
because everyone likes Fred
and we drink more beer
and say o look here comes Clive,
but which Clive is it?
well tonight it is big Clive
and he has had all his long black curls
Well they were an institution
you could laugh or rave or scream
or maybe even tell the time by them
if you tried hard enough.
you please yourself.
but now he looks like a new shorn sheep
well I suppose he is in a way.
brrm brrm brrm brrm
sssh - tell me later.
he’s out of tune and i don’t like his voice and
brrm brrm brrm brrm brrm
ALL JOIN IN THE CHORUS
tOOralay tOOralay tOOralay o!
and haul away Joe
cos we’ll all kill Paddy Doyle for his boots
would you all take your glasses downstairs please.
singing whackfoldedaddyo and we’ll all go together
Brrm brrm brrm.
And no, I didn’t keep a copy of ‘Sing’ magazine where it was published. And no, I didn’t follow up by sending Eric Winter other contributions. Sigh. As I said, please don’t take a lesson from me.
But if you’d like to read one of my more recent offerings, here’s a selection:
We may think of ancestor cults as belonging to earlier forms of society, but this isn’t entirely true. Anyone who starts researching family history knows how finding the ancestors can create what feels like a living connection with those of our blood line who passed away long ago. I should know – I’ve done it! It came as something of a shock to me, but as with other avenues I’ve explored, I eventually decided to put both my research tips and something of my experience into a book. The result is Growing Your Family Tree: Tracing your roots and discovering who you are (Piatkus 2011; e-book with Lume Books 2019)
In order to write the book, I wanted to hear how other people had experienced the family history trail, so I set up a survey. Some wonderful material came up through this, which I’ve quoted liberally in the book, and which I hope to include in a future post for Cherry’s Cache. Also on the agenda is a further post about taking up ‘The Quest’ in family history, making expeditions to explore the terrain where ancestors lived, and hunt for new information.
But for this current post, I’d like to share two experiences which I had, of witnessing what ancestors mean in cultures other than a modern Western one. These are included in my book, but I’m bringing them together here for the first time, and with photographs which tell as much of the story as the words.
Sailing to the far side of the world – Bali and Easter Island
My husband Robert and I used to go on cruises as guest lecturer and artist-in-residence. We made some fascinating voyages, mostly on smaller ships, which allowed us to travel to smaller ports than is possible on giant liners. One of the most extraordinary journeys was to Easter Island, as I’ll recount shortly. First though, I’ll relate how a trip to Bali allowed us to see, quite by chance, a ceremony for drawing back the spirit of an ancestor to dwell in the family home:
From Chapter Two In modern Western culture, it may seem odd to assert that the ancestors can make their presence felt, but in many other cultures it is a natural assumption. Ancestor veneration is, or has been, important in practically any society that we might care to study. African, South American and Aboriginal Australian cultures all have strong beliefs in the significance of the ancestors, and practise customs which acknowledge the part they play in family life. They are variously thought, for instance, to guide their descendants, govern the local landscape and assist in divining the future. In shamanic practice, still found in countries such as Mongolia and Siberia, magician healers enter a trance and depart on a journey to the spirit realms to encounter the ancestors of the villagers, who will then give them counsel for the wellbeing of the community.
Ancestors in such cultures may be seen as deities, spirits or souls of the departed – there is no one definition, and often the boundaries are hazy – but their existence at some level is taken as a given. On the whole, they are not deified in the sense of worship, and therefore scholars nowadays prefer to use the term ‘ancestor veneration’, as this reflects more accurately the broad sweep of customs associated with the ancestors.
When my husband and I visited Bali early in 2010, by great good fortune we hired a taxi driver who was keen to show us some of these customs. He drove us to a temple built into the rocky hillside, known as Goa Lawah. It is a popular venue for funeral ceremonies, and renowned for its colony of sacred bats, which reside in a cave at the back of the temple. Situated at a place where sea and land meet (symbolising the border between the present life and the afterlife, our driver told us), the temple acts as the mediator for the soul that must take its journey from one to the other. The body is first cremated, and then the ashes are placed in a coconut shell and taken down to the shore close by, where they are thrown into the ocean. A line or rope, with up to 2500 ceremonial coins tied to it, is cast into the waters as well, and the mourners cry out for the dead person to return to them as they draw it back to shore again. Two times more, the line is cast and the call goes up for the deceased to come home.
After twelve days have passed, the family members return to the same spot, and collect some kind of object (our driver was vague on this point – perhaps a stone from the shore, or something left over from the ceremony) which they carry reverently back to their home. This object is then placed in the domestic shrine, where it is believed to embody the spirit of the relative, now an honoured ancestor. From this time on, this ancestor will watch over the family, and protect and bless its members.’
It might seem as though Western society is far removed from such practices, but we too have our graveyards, where flowers are renewed, and relatives go to remember their loved ones. On Remembrance Sunday in Britain, we honour the dead of the two World Wars, and in Russia, practically every newly married couple has a photo taken in front of the local war memorial, where the eternal flame burns to commemorate the fallen soldiers. There are traces of interaction with the departed too, in Western customs, such as the feast of Samhain or Halloween in Irish tradition, when food and drink was and perhaps still is left out for the dead. We mark roadside casualties with shrines of flowers and symbolic objects. In Russian Orthodoxy, the first forty days after the death of a person are thought to be a journey during which the soul suffers various trials and temptations before reaching a more blessed state; at the end of these forty days, families may hold a ‘remembering feast’ to honour the departed and the arrival of the soul in heaven.
The mother at the centre of the world
Discovering the part that ancestors can play in human life may come about in unexpected ways. When I visited one of the remotest islands in the world, I had no idea that it would lead me into an intense experience of this kind. Here’s how it happened:
From Chapter Eight It’s 2 March 2008. Mother’s Day in the UK, but we are spending it in the South Pacific, far away from gifts of flowers and chocolates, and restaurants packed with families taking Mum out to lunch. In fact, we are in a completely different civilisation altogether, visiting Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island. Robert and I have been transported here as lecturers on board a cruise ship, and today is our second and final day in this extraordinary place. We catch the tender boat from our ship and ride the fierce waves to the shore. The captain has warned us all that we might not even be able to land, after six days of sailing from the Chilean port of Valparaiso. All in the lap of the gods, he says.
And gods are what they have here. Yesterday, we watched the island emerge from the haze with growing excitement – a rounded volcanic scoop of land dressed in soft greens and greys. We began to make out cliffs and swathes of grassland, then, finally, the first of the giant statues for which the island is famous: the Moai. Nearly a thousand of these stone statues, with their huge heads and staring gaze, are placed around the island, many at the edge of the land, facing inwards towards the people they protect and command. Each face has its own character. When we landed, I made straight for the first Moai I could see, standing on the rim of the harbour, and was seized with a spine-tingling sense of awe as I gazed up at him. In fact, I felt overwhelmed. This was a place I had known of since I was a child, but had never dreamed I might be able to visit. Now we were stepping into its mythical world.
There are still many questions and mysteries surrounding the old culture of Easter Island, but it’s known that the statues were carved between five and eight hundred years ago, and it is thought that they represent the deified male ancestors. Certainly, today’s inhabitants treat them as such, and asked us to respect the Moai by never treading upon the ahu, the sacred stone platforms upon which they are set. On the first day, then, we became acquainted with these ancestors, along with the herds of bright bay horses that roam the island freely, the green-sided volcano with its extraordinary internal lake and the exquisite beaches fringed with palm trees. The island, once stripped of its trees, is back to a better natural balance again, planted also with stately groves of eucalyptus. All through the centuries of change, the Moai have presided as immortals over the landscape.
Now it’s day two of our visit, and we have barely a morning to see whatever else we can of this magical island. Something has tickled my imagination in a guidebook that I browsed on board the ship: a mention of an ancient round stone representing ‘the navel of the world’. Te Pito Te Henua is one of the other names for Easter Island and that in itself means the navel and uterus of the world, so this stone would therefore be the navel of the navel. Robert agrees: we should try to find it.
Friends on board recommended that we seek out the woman taxi driver on the quayside, probably the island’s one and only female cabbie among the ranks of beaming and burly male drivers. We spot her easily, and though they’d mentioned her simply because of her general helpfulness, hiring her cab for the morning turns out to be crucial to what we discover.
‘Ah, so you want to go to the place that we visit for energy,’ she says, when we ask her about the site, for which we have only rough directions. She takes us over to the north coast of the island, veering away from a well-frequented beach (though that, in Easter Island terms, may mean only a handful of people) to turn down an unpaved road which emerges by another small and completely empty beach. Among the rocks above the sea line, a round wall of stones and boulders has been created, about three feet high and eight feet in diameter. Within the circle it encloses, a huge and beautifully smooth ovoid stone has been placed, like a giant egg. Four similar but smaller stones are set around it at regular intervals, forming a square. It has a Celtic feel about it – we could almost be on the West Coast of Ireland or in the Hebrides – but here we are, over two thousand miles from any mainland and over eight thousand away from home.
It is first and foremost a place for women, our driver tells us. She invites me alone to accompany her into the circle, and seats me on one of the smaller stones, encouraging me to place my hands on the great stone egg in front of me. She sits opposite and does likewise. ‘Put your hands on it gently,’ she says. ‘Relax.’
Women of the island have been coming here for hundreds of years, she explains. They come to pray for help, for safe childbirth and even for the delivery of their babies. The stone is the mother, their mother, and the island’s mother. ‘What do you feel?’ she asks me.
I feel as though the stone is not a stone at all, but an egg with the shell stripped away, and the delicate but all-powerful pulse of life moving within its membrane. I sense the women who have laid their hands here, and the ancestral mothers whose spirit is contained within the stone itself. Currents of energy seem to be running up my arms.
I tell her some of this, and she is satisfied. She then steps outside the circle and invites Robert to come and join me. Now I can suggest to him how to sit and place his hands and, rather to his surprise, he too experiences waves of energy.
We leave the enclosure. It’s time to get back to the harbour and board our ship for another six-day voyage, back to the coast of South America. Both of us are reflective after the experience, and feel privileged that one of the islanders trusted us enough to teach us about her sacred site. We first met the father of the island in the myriad forms of male ancestors, but now we have also met its mother – the one stone representing all the female ancestors.
This is a Mother’s Day that I won’t forget.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these descriptions, and please remember that you’re welcome to add comments or recount your experiences too. If you are making a comment on the blog for the first time, this will be submitted to me first to activate it, so it could take a day or two before you see it posted.
‘…There’s whisky in the jar!’ – A tuneful roar of voices giving out the last line of the chorus…a moment’s hush…a thunder of clapping – laughter – chairs scraping on the floor – feet rushing, coming my way, downstairs. I make my way up, cradling my guitar carefully, against the flow. Smell of cigarette smoke, faint wash of stale beer, touch of rough jackets, knobbly jumpers as I push my way up and through into the warm fug of the club room. ‘You singing tonight?’ asks the girl with long dark hair on the door. I nod, a small frisson of fear shooting through my stomach. She nods back, and waves me in: no charge for floor singers. I am in the Holy Ground.
In the mid-sixties, while still at school in Birmingham, I discovered folk song, and fell headlong in love with it. I lived for the nights when I could turn up at folk clubs with a bunch of friends, order a daring half pint of shandy, and wedge ourselves in among the crowd. Then we would settle in for an evening of songs ranging from the bawdy to the tragic, accompanied by guitars, penny whistles, concertinas, dulcimers, spoons, or anything else that came to hand. We didn’t know it then, but many of these old Birmingham pubs only had a short life left before demolition razed them from existence (see my earlier post ‘Finding Brummagem’). Many of those wonderful etched glass panels and wrought iron Victorian tables would soon become a thing of the past. (I see that a single original table can now sell for over a thousand pounds on the internet.) The images below come from an article about a few that escaped demolition and makeovers, which you can read here.
The Folk Song Revival
There was a major folk song revival at the time, following on from the earlier jazz club phase of the 50s and indeed slightly overlapping with it. To put it simply, American folk singers held sway from the 1940s, and ran alongside skiffle, jazz and blues in the 50s, but in the 60s the British and Irish folk traditions rose up in popularity. Key figures such as Ewan McColl, Shirley Collins and Bert Lloyd promoted ‘the voice of the people’, and moved the folk song movement on from the polite drawing room where collectors and composers such as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams had left it at the turn of the century. It opened the door to more energetic, earthy performances – and was very good for business in the pubs too.
It also generated a new wave of song-writing in a folk style, as in this famous one, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw your Face‘ by Scotsman Ewan McColl, and sung by American folk singer Peggy Seeger. The pair formed a lasting duo.
Folk music may have hit Soho earlier, as I’ve mentioned in my blog on the Soho Coffee Bar, but for a more general population in the provinces, it was only just beginning in the 1960s. The nation woke up to its heritage, and folk clubs sprang up like mushrooms throughout the land; Birmingham was especially enthusiastic in this respect Anyone could have a go – all you needed to do was to get hold of a guitar, learn a few basic chords, and then you could take it to parties and clubs, and trot out a few songs. Even Youth Hostels and Greek beaches ‘benefited’ from the wandering minstrels of the folk revival. Such music often had a broad base, too. Wherever you went in the world, you were never too far away from someone intoning ‘We Shall Overcome,’ crooning ‘Will ye go, Lassie, go?’ or giving a rendering of Davy Graham’s ‘Angie’. (I hasten to say, I love all of those!) And many performers took it to a much higher level, working hard on their singing and playing. Just as a side note, I think it’s been work in progress to this very day, since the standard of instrumental playing among folk musicians now is phenomenally good, at a level which was only reached by a few exceptional professionals back then.
Here’s a version of the famous ‘Whisky in the Jar’, sung by the Dubliners. As my own photos for this post are all black and white, I’ll spice it up a bit with some music! This recording has some delightful pictures of Irish scenes. And I particularly liked a recent comment: ‘Even in Ukraine me, and my friends love to sing this while we drinking. Cheers to the Ireland and lovely Irish people from far Ukraine!’ Yes, Irish music travels well.
It was the traditional British and Irish music that enchanted me. Even though I began by learning all kinds of songs, I focused more and more on the true traditional repertoire. If I heard a song that took my fancy, I delighted in copying it out into my own notebook. The oral tradition, in the sense of collectors trudging to remote farmhouses in search of a song, was almost past and gone. (I did try it as a teenager, on my pushbike, panting up Shropshire hills with a heavy, low quality tape recorder in a rucksack on my back, but soon gave up.) But we had a way of sharing songs between ourselves, which was in its own way just as exciting. Scribble down the words, and a few chords, and do your best to remember the tune. And if it did come out a little differently, well, that was part of the tradition too. There was still a sense of songs being passed from singer to singer.
I could afford to buy a few songbooks, some of which I still have, including The Penguin Book of Folk Songs, minus its cover and in fragile condition now, and Marrowbones edited by Frank Purslow. A friend’s brother made a guitar for me – most kind of him, and it did work, sort of, but when I managed to scrape enough money together, I bought my own Spanish guitar. I was never very dextrous though, so my instrumental playing, including piano, remained at a basic level. Pages from my own song books here show ‘Bridgwater Fair’ in my handwriting – something I was proud to have dug out of an archive – and in another hand, the sea shanty ‘Sally Free and Easy’, which was often sung by Cyril Tawney. This was followed by ‘The Nightvisiting Song’ which I expect one of the Munstermen wrote out for me (see below). There’s a version of it sung by Luke Kelly on the YouTube link below.
The Birmingham Folk Scene
It’s on record that The Holy Ground Folk Club opened on Saturday April 24th 1965 at 7.45pm at the Cambridge Inn. . And according to my old diaries, I was there with a friend the following week, May 1st. ‘Went to the Holy Ground in the Cambridge Inn. Club itself was pretty good – Bloke with a lute singing May day songs – we both enjoyed him best.‘
Sat May 8 – ‘Later, when it was very full, they said the ladies had got to sit on the gents knees.’ Sat May 15th – ‘…Sang ‘Flowers & weeds’ and ‘The Dear Companion.’ Not too bad. Not v. good though…
Sat May 22 – They had a wild Irishman as the guest singer tonight – Joe Heaney. He said he’d teach me Gaelic, but I don’t think he quite meant what I meant.
The Holy Ground became the favourite venue for a bunch of us to spend a lively Saturday night out. It was run by the Munstermen, who were somewhat similar to the Dubliners, full of energy and good humour, and vibrant playing and singing. There were guest singers such as the incorrigible Joe Heaney, mentioned above, and frequently Diz Disley, who had been more famous as a jazz player, and overlapped with those Soho cafes which I wrote about. There were also regulars such as singer-songwriter Harvey Andrews, and Jon Swift who unusually played a lute, and was the man I mentioned in my diary write-up. I suppose male singers were more prominent at that time, but female ones were certainly present and welcomed. I did a duo act with another schoolfriend for a while – there’s a photo of us practising a little further on.
Other clubs which I gravitated to included the Partisan, the Peanuts and the Camp, all listed in an astonishing compilation here . (If you look at Grey Cock, Precursor you will see my name listed as a regular singer, misspelt as Cherrie Phillips.) The folk clubs were a melting pot at the time of different tastes and interests. However unified our bellowing of Musha rain dum a doo, dum a da, there were diverse views as to whether folk singing was all about having a good time, or should be approached with a missionary zeal and a purist creed. Diversity ran through the audiences too, which were a great mix of younger and older people, and from all backgrounds. It was also an ideal place to meet up with my own friends, and to eye up the slightly older and preferably handsome male folkies there. But, surprisingly, I never really took up with a boyfriend in the folk clubs, though there were a few serious pangs of the heart and more than a few casual kisses. It was mostly about fun and friendships. And I was genuinely serious about the music.
It got to the stage where I was actually getting paid a modest amount to appear in some of the clubs. My diary entry for the Holy Ground of July 17th, 1965, relates: Mick says that in a couple of weeks, instead of one proper guest, they’re going to have John Swift, Peter Moggs and me!! Wow!(getting paid too!)
But one day at school, I was summoned to the head mistress’s office. She was holding up an advertisement – a very tiny advertisement – from the Birmingham Mail. It announced that Cherry Phillips would be singing at the Grotto Club in Deritend. Yes, it did sound a bit dubious.
‘Do your parents know you’re doing this?’ she asked sternly.
‘Yes, they do,’ I told her, which was indeed true. They were rather pleased, as I recall.
She tried another tack. ‘But this – Grotto – club – it’s not in a very nice area of town.’
I shrugged. No it wasn’t, but it was in no way dangerous, and I wasn’t there late at night.
She had one more try. ‘I do know that it’s not illegal for you to be on licensed premises at 16, because I’ve checked the laws. But only if you don’t drink.’
I nodded in what I hoped was a mature and understanding manner.
‘And can you honestly say that you would never get tempted into – drinking alcohol – there? Perhaps if – if a man offered to buy you a drink?’
Now was the time to look shocked and mildly offended. ‘Oh no, Miss Wilkes.’ I added a touch of bewildered innocence to give it greater authenticity.
I was dismissed, under caution, with severe warnings about compromising my homework and academic standards. I calculated that the occasional bitter shandy would harm no one, though my diary records that I did accept the odd extra tipple from MEN.
During this period, I made very good friends among the other singers, some of whom I am back in touch with today:
Pam Bishop – who with her husband Alan Bishop, formed the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, which I’m about to mention. Pam has remained a singer, story-teller and archiver of folk music recordings all her life. See my blog on Black Country Humour for a closer look at their performances of the time.
Laurie Green – who has since led another life as an Anglican bishop, involving much charity work in India, (details here) and who still finds time to sing and play his guitar. He, Doug and Spike had a brilliant trio, with a repertoire of saucy songs and comic monologues. Below are Spike and Laurie performing ‘The Battle of Hastings’ (left) and a song with Doug on banjo (right). Both photos taken by me on club nights. You can hear some of Laurie’s current recordings on his website.
Mick Treacy – There were three Micks in the Munstermen – Mick Hipkiss, Mick Lillis and Mick Treacy, who were all Irish as you might expect. They were the liveliest folk band in town, and could get everyone tapping their feet and singing along with gusto. Mick returned to his old hometown of Mitchelstown and we plan to meet up and reminisce when travel is possible again. He is still playing and performing to great acclaim, as you can see from this recent notice about a concert in Cork (under Spanish Civil War songs).
Doc Rowe – now an esteemed folklorist, who has attended traditional folk customs for more than 50 years now, and created a unique archive of recordings. You can see him with part of his collection in the photo below, and read an interview with Doc here conducted by John Wilks. Doc has supplied marvellous photos of Tar Barrel Rolling for my recent blog Topsham Celebrates. He was one of those I knew as ‘the Devon crowd’; there were always links between the Birmingham folk and the Torquay folk, and visits were paid between the two places. My summer just before going up to university was spent in Devon, working in a hotel kitchen by day, and singing in folk clubs there by night. It’s probably part of the reason I’m living in the county today!
The end of ‘Careless Love’ and the beginning of ‘Strictly Pure’
But my carefree approach to clubs and singing was about to change, when I came across an entirely different type of person:
Charles Parker Charles was a red-haired and radical BBC radio producer. He and folk singer Ewan McColl were responsible for the innovative series of Radio Ballads, which are the stuff of legend today – Singing the Fishing, The Travelling People and The Big Hewer.
I first saw Charles eating cornflakes at breakfast during the Keele Folk Festival, where I had persuaded my parents to let me go for the weekend. It was long before huge and noisy festivals were invented, and was a concentrated, well-programmed series of workshops, talks and performances by the likes of A. L. Lloyd, Anne Briggs and even Arlo Guthrie, who was in his late teens at the time, but already a very able musician following in the footsteps of his father, Woody. I took against Charles, however, when I overheard him criticising the ‘warm bath of sentimentality’, which he claimed that many folk singers were immersed in. How dare he! I was having a really good time, thank you.
But a little later that year, I grudgingly admitted that Charles might have a point. He ran a weekly folk song workshop in Birmingham, hosted by Pam and Alan Bishop, and I trotted along to this to learn from my elders and betters. This workshop was formally known as the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, though it mostly took place in the Bishops’ living room in Mosely. Charles cared intensely about the music and the voices, songs and lives of the people he recorded – the Radio Ballads were innovative because they allowed working people and those on the margins of society to speak for themselves, something rare at the time. As I came to know him better, I developed a great respect for him, even if I didn’t always agree with what he said. His passion was genuine. He wanted everything to have the same veracity; he would tell you if your song moved him to tears, or if it just reeked of artificiality. Charles and Ewan were intensely political, but whereas Ewan was too dogmatic for my taste, Charles was imaginative and compassionate.
Sometimes a group of us met at the Parkers’ flat in Harborne, where he would pull down piles of books off his shelves to make a point, complaining that he needed to have a mild incapacitating illness in order to read everything he wanted to. He would hand out copies he didn’t need any more – I still have his Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial English, J-Z. (It’s a great book, and recently I sourced A-I to make up the pair!) I invited him to my wedding a few years later, and he gave us a signed set of the Radio Ballad records as a gift, which of course I have kept, though with nothing to play vinyl on these days. I was saddened to read of his early death not so long after that. A trust has been set up in his name, to keep the spirit of his work alive.
You can listen to an excellent account of his life and work here
Field work at last!
The photo you see here is one that has only come to light recently. In July 1967, when it was taken, I was doing a post A-Levels project on folk song collecting. The tradition wasn’t quite dead, even in industrial Birmingham, and in the old Jewellery Quarter, Charles introduced me to Mrs Cecilia Costello. She was the child of Irish immigrants, but had grown up as a Brummie in hard circumstances in the old back-to-back streets of houses.
She adored her repertoire of songs and stories, and had already been discovered and recorded in 1951 by earlier collectors.
Her very beautiful version of the ‘Grey Cock’ appears in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. (You can now hear the original recording of her song on YouTube below). But she had since been forgotten, and presumed dead. And it was only when some public mention was made of ‘the late Cecilia Costello’ in the late 60s, that she re-surfaced and declared herself still fully alive. In her humble terraced home, she sang and talked, while we listened and recorded. Later, I was allowed to ‘borrow’ (strictly against the BBC rules, I gathered!) some of Charles’s equipment and I went on a visit of my own to record her stories and music. (There is now a collection of all the Costello recordings which I acquired a couple of years ago, and I can hear my laugh on it in one or two places. Mine was very minor input, however, and Rod Stradling took on most of the hard work of collating and editing all the recordings later on.) These are obtainable at present via this link.
At some point in my sessions with Charles, this photo and the one above must have been taken. I had no knowledge of it until it was used at a recent Charles Parker Study Day as their background image for the conference. Apparently the question was going round: ‘Who is that woman?’ Only one person in the audience knew. And that’s how I came to have it, very late in the day, thanks to Doc Rowe!
I have never forgotten Cecilia Costello or Charles. In fact, I would say that they have helped to shape my approach as a writer. I learned how powerful the voice of an individual human being can be, to sing songs, conjure up the past, and convey messages from the heart. I put much of what I learned, indirectly, into my book, ‘Your Life, Your Story’, and included a dedication to Charles Parker.
Singing has remained a part of my life, and I went on to train as an early and Baroque music singer in my twenties, performing as a concert singer in my thirties, and as a chorus member of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields a little later. My love of folk music remains, though, I still prick up my ears like an old war horse, when I hear those Irish choruses!
This is the 42nd post I’ve written for Cherry’s Cache. The site was launched in April with three posts already in place, and new posts have gone up at weekly intervals since. So, I’ve been kept busy through lockdown and through a very mixed year – a year of challenges for all of us.
The idea had been brewing for a while; my author’s website had an intermittent blog, but I felt it was time to strike out again in a more purposeful way. I also needed to get my teeth into a project which wasn’t writing a book every two years, which I’ve been doing for a long time now. It wasn’t the right moment either in terms of my own ideas or the publishing market for that. But I needed to write, all the same!
And then an email popped up in my inbox, a notification from The Gentle Author, of Spitalfields Life blog, that he was preparing to give his last ever courses on blog writing. I’ve long been a subscriber to the G.A.’s blog, which is an incredible compendium of articles about London life, so I decided that this was my one and only chance. I signed up for the advanced course in early March, for those who already had experience of blogging and writing. I felt it would hone my skills and perhaps help me to discover a format for the new blog.
It was a magical weekend, staying in an old weaver’s house in Spitalfields, right opposite the Hawksmoor church. A small but committed group of us gathered to talk about our aspirations, and to check out ways of presenting material, designing a website and keeping ourselves on track with the writing. I’m bound by group confidentiality not to discuss exactly what we did, or said, but I’m proud to include give links below to some of the blogs that others are writing, with their kind permission.
The weekend was intensified for me because of the sense of a looming crisis, as the Covid virus epidemic gathered pace. There were no actual restrictions in place then; the general advice was to be cautious, but the crowds I saw gathering in and around Spitalfields pubs in the evenings made a mockery of that. I made a few careful expeditions. A friend and I visited the Dennis Severs house by candlelight on the Friday evening before the course – magical! And I spent a blissful early Sunday morning rediscovering my (very) old haunts of Sclater and Cheshire Street, at the end of Brick Lane, where I had once ‘fossicked’ for vintage clothes for my shop Tigerlily. (We’re talking Cambridge, 1970s, here.) I plan to write something more about Tigerlily later on.
Below: Signs of the old rag markets in the Cheshire St area. I spent some time reminiscing with the stall holder on the left, who remembers coming down to his Dad’s stall there when he was a boy. From the bookstall I bought a copy of Daniel Defoe’s ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ – an ironic touch in the situation.
But I decided to cut short my visit after the course, as it was plain matters were getting worse, and I had to get back to Devon by train. I cancelled a follow-on stay with my son in Stockwell, and a planned visit to the Tate, and left the course a couple of hours early. As I jumped on the train at Paddington, I felt as though I was fleeing before a tidal wave.
However, I had reaped huge benefits from the course. I pounced on a suggestion from The Gentle Author, that I should celebrate the diversity of my writing – I’ve never fitted easily into one category – and tend to write about a variety of subjects that fascinate me, and which I research enthusiastically. On the journey home, the name ‘Cherry’s Cache’ came to me, and I also jotted down a wealth of topics that I might cover. In the weeks that followed, with the friendly but ‘remote’ help of designer Jason, who handles the Spitalfields Life website, I became the possessor of a smart new website. The G. A. had advised me not to try and do it myself – time wasted, for a writer, he said! And although I had already learnt how to construct a basic site through one of the blogging platforms, Jason’s work gave me something far more sophisticated and user-friendly than I would have been able to create.
So here I am. I decided to put up one post a week, and I aim to hold to that until the 12 month year is up, in April. Then I may slow it down a little, perhapsposting once every two weeks. Although it’s exciting and stimulating, getting a weekly blog into place, it’s also a great deal of work! I enjoy research enormously, and probably for that very reason, it always takes me further than I expect into new areas. Some blogs, like those on Anna Zinkeisen and the Zodiac Calendar and cinematographer Walter Lassally require a considerable amount of background preparation, and I try and ensure that the facts are as solid as I can make them. Others I revisit from existing material, but I nearly always want to re-craft blogs or articles which I’ve written before. So my aim is that everything on this site, whether written from scratch or discovered in my ‘trove’, has a freshness to it, and a guarantee that I’ve put my spirit and energy into it.
With that aim of refreshing the spirit, for any and all of us, I made a decision at the start that I wouldn’t usually reflect current events in my posts. I’d like some of the stories to be relevant in the future, not tied to the circumstances in which I wrote them. Also, I reckoned that readers were getting enough of the news and the prevailing pandemic anxieties, and that it would be better to tackle topics which could interest and cheer people. My Gentle Author coach was kind enough to say: ‘I am so pleased that you are writing your blog, these things take on a greater meaning when people are searching hungrily for stories beyond the news.’ Indeed. And it’s not my task to write as an activist, or agitate for particular kinds of change – others do that better. Once, I was asked in a visualisation exercise what my job was, I spontaneously replied, ‘I bring the fire from the mountain.’ Make of that what you will.
For these 42 posts, I’ve written a staggering 90,835 words, give or take a thousand or two. I am staggered because this is actually longer than any book I’ve ever written. Perhaps I shall be able to turn these posts into a book one day?
Some of the many images which I compiled for the last nine months of posts. I find that creating and choosing pictures is incredibly rewarding; I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of images and text, as in slide lectures, which I gave for many years as a NADFAS (Arts Society) speaker.
The game’s not over yet. I hope I can continue at least for another year, even if with fewer posts. And here’s a big THANK YOU for reading my posts, and for subscribing to the email list, if that’s how you get the alerts. There have been some lovely comments. I quote a few here as they help motivate me to keep going!
Hi Cherry – It wouldn’t be Sunday with your blog. Many thanks! (KC) Love your cache writings. (JP) I really enjoyed this. What a fascinating and profound experience. (MC responding to On ‘Meeting the Shaman’)) Absolutely fascinating Cherry! I love your researched and interesting blogs.(JW) I just loved all your Russian content – especially the red corner etc. Thank you! (BM) Hope you can keep up your Cache which I have been enjoying very much. Laughed out loud at the masterly Sign collection, and enjoyed another journey to Topsham. You write so entertainingly! (LO)
The adventure continues! Happy New Year again – please keep reading, and do share the link with anyone who might enjoy Cherry’s Cache.
Cosmo, a cat of Hidden Topsham Do you remember Cosmo, the ‘six dinner Sid’ cat of Topsham? He’s still around, as you can see from a more recent photograph. One morning, I found him lurking on the corner of Monmouth Street, standing guard over something. As I got closer, I could see that it was a dead fish. And moreover, it wasn’t something washed up on the riverbank, but a splendid fancy koi-carp type of fish, with elegant wavy fins. Or it had been. Oh, Cosmo! Did you go fishing in someone’s pond? Or should we give you the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that a passing heron dropped its catch right in your path? It’s possible, after all. Just.
Golden Quinces– I used the last of this year’s crop of quinces to make Quince Chutney. Chutney needs to be left for 4-6 weeks before it’s ready to eat, to reduce the vinegariness and meld the flavours. We’ve now just tried the first pot, and it’s pretty good! It has quite a tart flavour, but rounded out in a lovely Christmassy spice way. The Quince jelly, which was ready to eat straight away is superb. Last year, I don’t think I boiled it long enough and the resulting jelly was light both in colour and texture. This year’s is much stronger in both senses, and especially delicious eaten with soft cheese on an oatcake!
Venetia, the Woman who named Pluto – The Stats which I can look up for this website are a fascinating collection of information as to whereabouts in the world readers come from, what links they’ve clicked, and what pages they’ve looked at. My post on Venetia Phair was published back in October, describing how I met Venetia, and the story of how she named a newly-discovered planet back in 1930. This week, the post suddenly had 24 hits from China. Was it a class of Chinese students learning about space exploration? I will probably never know.
And the final update – the Twelfth Night cake!
In my post about The Twelve Days of Christmas I gave a Spanish recipe for a Twelfth Night cake/loaf celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings at the Christian festival of Epiphany and what used to be ‘party night’ in the last of the Twelve Days. It’s in a circular shape, rather like the crown of one of the kings. I felt that I was duty bound to have a go at making it, so this morning, shortly after 6am I got cracking, like a good baker. It is a kind of enriched dough, rather like a brioche, and needs up to 3 hours proving in two stages. I nearly gave up at the first hurdle, when I realised that the 25gm of yeast must refer to fresh yeast, which I didn’t have, and the method described might not suit the small packets of instant yeast which most of us use these days. However, I did have a tin of granular yeast (bought during the lockdown when nothing else was available) and I decided to try that. And I’m happy to say that it worked! I’d already stocked up with some candied fruit, the best I could find locally. But because it’s baked on the outside of the loaf rather than in the dough, it gets very hard, and in future I’d only use the softest types, like glace cherries.
At 10am I wondered if I could finish it in time before a Zoom call with friends at 11. But I wasn’t going to stint on the decorating – I placed 12 cherries for the 12 months of the year, and added various artistic touches with glace citron peel. (Yes I know, I’m not a potential Bake-Off winner.) It was out of the over before 11, and when it had cooled a little, I brought it upstairs to show my friends triumphantly. Robert and I tried it at lunch – it’s quite like brioche as I mentioned, or an old-fashioned sweet bun, with a delicate flavour of orange and lemon rind (grated into the dough) and a touch of brandy. I ate my slice with a little quince jelly. Then a couple of hours later, I wrapped several chunks in silver foil and took them to friends in the town, so that they could share in what I hope is Twelfth Night good luck for the year ahead. Here’s the cake, from its dough ring stage to the finished ‘crown’. By the time you read this, I will have also added a few notes to the recipe that I posted earlier.
My Fellow Bloggers
Last, but most definitely not least, I’d like to point you to some of the fascinating blogs by other members of our Spitalfields Life blogging course. Please take a look! The diversity of what we write is fascinating.
From left to right: Carolyn Skelton, Jo Rogers (in earlier years!), Bertie the Bear, and Shula Rich
Carolyn Skelton: ‘A London Family is the story of my quest to find out more about the elusive paternal side of my family. It starts with my job as an ‘heir hunter’ in London in the 1980s and describes how an old photograph found in a wallet years later sent me on a search which encompasses two hundred years of social history…’ https://alondonfamily.com
Bob Ball: Mindfully Bertie – These are tales told from the viewpoint of a bear – well, not just any bear, but Bertie! ‘My blog Mindfully Bertie has, over four years, carried me through bereavement to being told in Spitalfields that I am “ a proper writer”.’ www.mindfullybertie.org.uk
Amanda Root: The Coastal Pilgrim – ‘This is a blog about one woman, surrounded by an interested and helpful community, starting a seaweed farm, which may or may not morph into a social enterprise and which is hopefully going to get us all eating more seaweed!’ https://thecoastalpilgrim.com/
Jo Rogers: – ‘Huguenot Jo is a blog exploring the effect of Huguenot ancestry on Jo’s family, with a lineage going back to the 1680s. It looks at the historical context of Huguenot persecution, and the contribution of these French refugees to the societies which took them in. ‘www.huguenotjo.co.uk
Shula Rich:Natural Beauty Brains – ‘I wanted my blog to reflect that I’m many things and egged on by the tuts of ‘you can’t do that’ put everything I do together. Lease advice – natural beauty brains – waking beauty.’ https://www.naturalbeautybrains.org/
Linda :Letters from Linda – Letters of life, snippets and snapshots, a history. Linda says: ‘So far I’ve started to write about my family and some of the mementos I’ve collected in my flat that give me happy memories.’ http://lettersfromlinda.com/
Images from ‘The Coastal Pilgrim’ (left) and ‘Letters from Linda’ (right)
If you’d like to get in touch, on the ‘About’ page you will find a ‘Contact’ link which you can click on to bring up a Contact Form. A message from there will reach me by email. Or else visit http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk and select the Contact tab there.
Topsham knows how to celebrate! Even though our feasts and festivals couldn’t be the same this year, due to the pandemic, the customs of dressing up the town and dressing up ourselves are firmly embedded in the calendar. We’ll do it again next year, if we can.
This post is based on the Topsham celebrations that I’ve witnessed over the last few years, with a few historical occasions thrown in for good measure. It’s not a comprehensive Topsham Calendar, and it will be more picture-dense and text-light than usual. But I’m including a link to a full account of the illicit Tar Barrel rolling event!
Let’s enjoy some celebrations here virtually, and despite all the restrictions, I’m sure that we’ll still have a festive spirit and display in the town. As I write this, in early November, the town is making itself ready for Christmas as cheerfully as possible. And as I come to make the final tweaks on December 5th, everything is up and twinkling! More photos further on.
Charter Day Since 2016, Topsham Charter Day has been held each August, to celebrate the day when King Edward I granted the charter which turned Topsham into a town, back in 1300. (Woe betide anyone who dares refer to it now as ‘a village’!)
On the first of our modern Charter Day celebrations, Charles Courtenay, the current Earl of Devon, arrived by boat from Powderham Castle to receive the charter from ‘the King’. According to the schedule for the festivities:
1.45pm: The king and his entourage and townsfolk will process along Fore Street, lined with “medieval” market stalls, to St Margaret’s Church green. Here, he will present a replica town charter to the present Earl of Devon, Charles Courtenay.
In case of any confusion, the Earl was real, while the king was ably acted by one of our townspeople. You can read the complete order of ceremony here:
The Town Criers’ competition has staunchly remained a popular feature of Charter Day. They arrive from all over the country, to process down the main street in splendid array, then make a speech from the balcony at the Globe Inn, in the old coaching yard. It’s the speech that decides who will be crowned the best Crier in the land.
Christmas Well, Christmas in Topsham wouldn’t be the same without the Carols at the Bridge Inn, which always takes place just before lunchtime on Christmas Day, to the rousing accompaniment of our local celebrated folk group Show of Hands. I hope we can still manage it in some form in 2020.
Topsham shop windows are beautifully decorated, house doors likewise.
Nello’s Longest Table Once every two years, in June or July, over two thousand people gather for lunch together in Topsham. The line of tables stretches down Fore St, winds around to the Quayside, then snakes back again alongside the river to Ferry Road. Over 350 tables are laid out, so that families, friends and visitors can feast together, and create one ‘Longest Table’.
This lunch was set up in memory of Nello Ghezzo, a local restaurateur who dreamed of a feast which the whole town could take part in. Nello died in 1999 and in 2008 the first such meal took place, named in his honour. The event is also a fabulous fundraiser. In 2018 the organisers posted on Facebook: We are absolutely delighted to hand over the proceeds from this year’s Nello’s Longest Table and Topsham Food Festival: £2500 to Force Cancer Charity, £2500 to the Brain Tumour Charity (in memory of Geoff), and £1500 to Estuary League of Friends for the new and fabulous Nancy Potter House. We furthermore were able to fund the new Love Topsham web site as well as give a donation to Love Topsham for admin for new Topsham traders initiatives.
There’s always a rush to secure tables in favourite spots when the booking opens, and the food is generally more banquet than picnic, with delicious creations and exotic specialities.
Dressing up may be either to a theme or on the whim of the individual groups. The second Longest Table in 2010 reported: Tables were decorated beautifully with colourful cloths, china, table decorations, flowers and even chandeliers. Others had based themselves on a theme – there was a Mexican table complete with sombreros and giant moustaches, a Sicilian men (and women) in black table, a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a gardening table, walkers’ table, and more.
As the day goes on, groups mingle, children play games (racing each other around the churchyard is a favourite) and wine flows freely. We missed it happening this year, in 2020! Here’s hoping we can go ahead in 2021.
And what celebrations happened in days of old? The Museum archives tell a tale or two.
(With thanks to Catriona Batty and the Topsham Museum for supplying these images.)
Other festivals pop up throughout the summer, like various Music Festivals, Beer and Bacon, ‘Secret Gardens’ (which I’ve written about here…). Plus ‘Jazz in the Garden’, a Dog Show, and a Flower and Produce Competition. I’m sure I’ve missed some out! Ah, yes, the Food Festival at the Quayside, which produced an excellent talk on salmon fishing from Ed Williams-Hawkes, and a demonstration of making the acclaimed ‘Smokie’ dish which used to be the top favourite at the Globe Inn. Here’s how a member of the Hodges family who ran the Globe explains it:
The Topsham Smokie Basically it’s smoked haddock poached in milk with bay leaves. Make some lovely white sauce – you can put some cheese in there & use some of the milk that has poached the fish. Mix up the fish, white sauce and stir in some mashed potato. Put in a pot, top with tasty grated cheddar cheese and bake xxx simples !!!
Demonstrated by a chef from the Globe Inn, who hasn’t forgotten how to make this scrumptious dish.
Guy Fawkes Night But what about November 5th? There may be a mega-display at the Rugby Club most years, but individual fireworks are a matter of past glory, according to long-term resident Roy Wheeler. Recording his memories back in 1988, he remembered how, decades earlier, the local lads would pitch a firework battle on Chapel Platt, just outside the Methodist Church.
One thing I remember vividly was fifth of November, firework time. A chap used to keep what is Meg’s Restaurant now was a man called Gilders – we used to call Putty Gilders – and he used to sell everything. And we used to buy our fireworks there and then it was a case of ‘Top Town’ versus ‘Bottom of the Town’. The bottom of the town boys used to come up to there and we used to come down to this side and we used to throw fireworks at each other. It was a battle-royal. That was always something to look forward to! Ha ha ha ha! But yes, this was always a very busy spot and it wasn’t so long ago that the City Council in their wisdom, or otherwise, planted a tree there. Thought it would enhance the beauty but it didn’t last very long. The Topsham people weren’t going to have that. They weren’t going to have their Platt desecrated. Hee hee! So, the tree was knocked over. (Account supplied by Topsham Museum)
Still earlier, in the 19th century, there was a rip-roaring tradition of celebrating Bonfire Night in Topsham and Exeter, with processions, battles and exotic guys. This account reveals that a recreation of the Armada provided plenty of entertainment for Topsham folk:
Western Times – Saturday 08 November 1890 Had the weather been favourable no doubt the carnival held on Thursday by Young Topsham” would have surpassed any previous attempt. But unfortunately rain fell heavily and a strong wind blew continually during the night. The procession did not start until close upon eight o’clock. The order was follows:—The local band, banner, Topsham guys, Young Exeter, the local fire brigade, Captain on horse, back, Committee, Topsham Cyclist Guys, tar barrel brigade, and a representation of the Armada fleet, under the command of Ally Sloper.” The latter was the most striking feature of the carnival. After the procession had broken up, the two model ships, representing the British and Spanish fleets, were formed for action the ” battlefield” in Fore-street, and after a warm encounter the Spanish vessel was ” bombarded “by Roman candles. A large number of excellent rockets were let off, and the celebration, which was witnessed by a large number of persons, including many from Exeter, continued up to a late hour.
Indeed, it wasn’t all fun and happy outcomes:
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Saturday 13 November 1847 Accidents. —Since Friday last, upwards of 27 individuals, who have received serious injury from accidents, have been taken into the Devon and Exeter Hospital. Of these accidents 18 or 19 were occasioned by the unexpected explosion of rockets and other fireworks in the hands, or near the persons, of the sufferers; one of whom, a lad, was brought from Topsham, so injured the lower part of his person, that life is despaired of. Another young person had his skull fractured by a kick, or a blow from a bludgeon, as he was engaged with others in the fun of rolling tar-barrel.”
Did someone say Tar Barrel? What’s that about? – surely the only Tar Barrel Rolling round here is in Ottery St Mary? But no – Topsham used to have its own tradition of Tar Barrels, until it was made illegal in the town, probably in the early 19th century. As a sport it can be thrilling, but the dangers are obvious, and especially so in narrow streets with old timber-framed cottages.
And in 1847, the Rev. Frederick Isop Cocke,, assistant curate of Topsham, was convicted of Unlawfully Rolling a Tar Barrel. The Rev. Cocke appealed – he had only been doing his duty, he said, and trying to keep the barrel away from the crowd. In January 1848 he was acquitted. ‘Decision of the Bench was received with loud cheering outside the court.’ Western Times – Saturday 08 January 1848 – you can read the whole story here:
But be warned, if you decide to persue this account, that the ‘he said’, ‘she said’, ‘No I didn’t’, ‘Yes you did,’ runs to over 3000 words . Nevertheless, it’s a mine of information about local people and the streets of Topsham at the time. The story proved immensely popular around the country, and appeared in briefer versions in various provincial newspapers. After all, a parson with a flaming tar barrel, who ends up in court, makes a good story!
Finally, I’ll end with a custom which has only recently been introduced, but which is based on a very old tradition which certainly took place in the area, if not in the town itself. This is the now annual Wassail. Wassails are usually held in January, an old farming custom intended to drive evil spirits out of the orchards and produce a healthy crop of apples. (Very important in cider making districts!)
Topsham’s Wassail is now going strong, with songs especially written by Adrian Wynn, and a merry band of folk club followers, children and townspeople. We gather at Matthews Hall, serenade the apple tree there……, then move onto Victoria Road and a noble old apple tree in a garden there, thought to be a survivor of a former cider orchard. Further stops occur at other venerable apple trees, including the Old Vicarage, and the procession eventually celebrates the final tree at the Allotments . To make the magic work, a robin must be placed in the branches, and a piece of bread dipped in cider then stuck in the tree itself. Possibly a few cups of cider and slices of apple cake may also be consumed en route. And perhaps I should mention that we’re usually accompanied by a farmer with his shotgun; traditional Wassails aren’t complete without a loud blasts fired through the branches, to send the devils packing! You can see him lurking with gun at the ready in the picture on the right.
Topsham Wassail In the orchard dark we muster, North wind whistles through the North wood Tree; Prosper Greasy, Soldier prosper, In our orchard and soils of old, Gather Topsham, sing and rattle, We’ll bring cider back to thee! Gather round and old Tom Putt Will flow and fill our wassail bowl.
Christmas 2020 – So here we are, in the run-up to Christmas, with shop windows beautifully decorated, lights twinkling and everything as normal and cheerful as it can be in this extraordinary and difficult year. As a small town with a busy High Street (actually called Fore Street!) it has a particular sense of community and the feeling that everyone is doing their best to create the spirit of Christmas here. I’m thankful to be living in Topsham!
With thanks to Doc Rowe, for his stunning photographs of the Ottery Tar Barrels
Catriona Batty and the Topsham Museum, for photos of historic Topsham celebrations and the memories of Roy Wheeler
All other photographs by Cherry Gilchrist, with thanks to Love Topsham for help both in the town with masterminding various projects, such as the Christmas lights and other festivities, and for supporting this blog.