At an auction about ten years ago, I bought a collection of Victorian christening mugs. I was drawn to their charm and to the idea that each name heralded a story, a story of a life that had unfolded in some way and which I might perhaps be able to trace. I was deeply into family history research at the time, and was also writing a book about life stories, Your Life, Your Story. I made a start on the research but got distracted by other avenues to explore, which included investigating the history of two samplers which had been passed down to me from my mother. Their story is already on my blog at ‘A Tale of Two Samplers’.
And so the mugs decorated the shelves of the houses we’ve lived in since, and look particularly pretty filled with summer flowers. Then, recently, my subscription to Ancestry was about to expire and I decided to have one last go at researching their origins. I dug out my original notes, sorted and typed them, and away I went on the trail.
Objects which have a personal story fascinate me, but if they’re not part of my own heritage or a strand of history that I’m following, there’s a limit to how far I’d be prepared to go in chasing every detail. But it was a pleasure to discover the outline of six of these lives. The other three, as I’ll explain, could not be traced. And then, finally, I also solved the mystery of a named mug passed down through our own family, which I couldn’t understand before.
So let’s imagine these 19th century babies, each one the apple of its parents’ eyes. Each one wide-eyed and curious about the world around, with a future life as yet unwritten. How did it all turn out?
I’ll give the essence of what I’ve found, since unless by some strange coincidence any of these is connected to your own family, you will not be enthralled by too many dates and details. These are stories-in-a-nutshell.
Silvester Rose was born on May 16th 1876. An unusual name is a good start for researching family history. In this case, it’s a rather suave name which we might associate with the leader of a swing band, or perhaps a louche artist. However, our Silvester was born into a solid tradesman’s family – his father Fred was a plumber and decorator, and Silvester followed in his footsteps, becoming a plumber’s apprentice when he was in his teens. The family lived in Towngate, Leyland, a few miles south of Preston in Lancashire. (If you’re interested in how the village looked at the time, there are many historical photos here ) In 1904, Silvester married Jane Ellen Bowling, but she died before 1911 when he remarried Sabina Booth, a dressmaker. By that time Silvester was 34, and described his occupation as ‘publican’. Perhaps he was tired of crawling under floorboards to deal with pipes. Perhaps he fancied a more sociable occupation.
Silvester died in 1933, and was buried on 28th January at St Andrew’s Church, Leyland. He was only 56, but had seemingly done well enough in his working life to leave £4002 14s 6d to his widow Amy.
There’s one more element in his life which might play a part in this: in 1909, aged 32, he had become a Freemason, and joined the Carnarvon Lodge of United Grand Lodge of England. He would thus have had solid connections in the area which may well have helped him in business. Did he have children? According to a family tree uploaded to Ancestry, he had at least one child – a daughter called Dorothy Mabel Ellen Rose, born in 1913, who died in 1983 at the age of 69 in the same area of Lancashire. She was given the same name as his mother, Dorothy, the woman who had gazed into her newborn baby’s face back over a hundred years earlier. Who chose his name, Silvester? Fred or Dorothy, or even another relative? That we shall probably never know.
Places and families
Often, in previous generations, people didn’t move too far from their birthplace. Although there are plenty of exceptions, especially the emigrants, who sailed away to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, many life stories ended more or less where they began. Marriages were often to partners known since childhood. Other relatives were on hand to help out with the children. There were economic, social and practical benefits to staying put in your area. Most of the stories I’ve researched here turned out to be about those who stayed local, with one interesting exception.
Frederick John Bartlett
Frederick John Bartlett was born in 1877. His is the only christening mug among my collection which tells us where he was born, in Eastbourne, and it seems he stayed there most of his life. His father William was a Bank Manager, and his mother Sara Elizabeth looked after her brood of children at 3, Prospect Cottages, Crown Lane. Frederick himself started his career – and indeed ended it – as a Bank Clerk. He married Emily Adeline Manning, and by 1939 was retired and living with her in Milton Road, Eastbourne. However, he did have one major interlude in his settled Sussex life, and that was serving in World War One. His army records show that he signed up in 1915, and plainly survived his service. According to a family tree on Ancestry, he died in 1954. Is this another quiet life, well-lived, with just a brief foray into the theatre of war?
Next we’ll move on to the only girl commemorated in my set of mugs. Were such mugs ordered more to celebrate the birth of boys, rather than girls? I haven’t yet found a definitive answer to this, but I discovered that Emily Bronte had her own mug, which is now preserved in the Museum at Haworth. Perhaps girls played more with their mugs as children, at pretend tea parties for instance, and they were more likely to get broken? But this is merely a guess.
Emily Cranfield came from the Bedford area, where she was born in Roxton in 1863, and died in 1952, at the good old age of 89 years. Her full name was Emily Wilkerson Cranfield, as she was given her mother’s maiden name for a middle name being, which was a common practice in the period. She had strong family connections in the area, yet in all the census entries from 1871 when she was 8, to 1911 when she was 48, and even again in the 1939 Register aged 76, she is never once found living with her own family. Even in her girlhood she was not at home according to the records, and although in adult life she remained a spinster, this usually meant a woman would be more likely to live with relatives, and not try to fend for herself. There is surely a story here, which I have only partially teased out.
Emily’s father, Thomas Cranfield, married Emily Wilkerson, and they had three children – Mary Jane, Emily Wilkerson of the christening mug, and Anne. But Emily the mother died in 1864, the year that Anne was born, and when baby Emily was only a year old. Thomas re-married a Maria Gibbins two years later, in 1866. This was not unusual – the majority of widowers married again as quickly as they could, often within three months, in order to have a new mother for their children and someone to run the house while the man worked to bring in a wage. For a widowed woman, this was equally advantageous in terms of economic survival. ‘Blended’ families were commonplace, despite the perception that it’s a modern invention. My own 2 x great grandmother, who came from a poor family of weavers and miners, ended up with at least twelve children under her roof, both her own, and as step-children from her two marriages to two widowers.
Thomas had already made a big financial commitment, since in 1864, the same year that Emily’s mother died, he had taken on the lease of a large country house and its farmland. As the documents tell us: In 1864 Rev. Robert Delap leased the house, with 749 acres and 37 poles of land to Thomas Cranfield of Roxton, yeoman, for £1,274/0/4 per annum. This lease was renewed in 1873 at a rent of £1,226/16/- per annum. You can also read a list of all the rooms in the well-appointed house at the records here. This was a sizeable holding, and Thomas went on to establish his position as a farmer, finishing his farming career with an impressive 1172 acres under his command in 1881. The gamble paid off.
But perhaps not for his family. Emily is never reported as living there. Was she, perhaps, rejected by her stepmother? Did they clash badly enough for Emily to want to move out when she could? Or was her father uncaring, and uninterested in providing for his daughter?
In 1871 she was named as a boarder at a school in St Peters Green, Bedford, with her sister Mary. A spell at boarding school wasn’t uncommon, and was often favoured by yeoman classes. who couldn’t get a good enough basic education for their children locally, as I’ve mentioned in A Tale of Two Samplers. The house we used to live in in Kingsdown, Bristol, was once a small school, filled with the sons and daughters of farmers from across the other side of the Avon river in Gloucestershire (boys in the house next door – girls in our house, which had a gigantic keyhole lock on the front door!) But the pattern for Emily seems here to be set for all the later years too. In 1881 she was a ‘visitor’ at the farm of Alfred Rogers in Bromham, Beds, and in 1891 she was living at her brother-in-law’s, Frank Hilton, another farmer. Then in 1901 she was working as a housekeeper at Mansion House, Bedford. By 1911, she was a ‘boarder’ with the family of William Barber. Finally, in 1939 (there are no accessible censuses between these dates) she was living on ‘private means’ at Manor Cottage, Kempston, with Mary J. Hilton. According to family trees posted on Ancestry, this was Emily’s sister Mary Jane (b. 1861) widow of Frank Hilton, the farmer referred to in 1891. It seems the two sisters were living out their latter years together as widow and spinster, so at least she was back with one of her own relatives.
Emily seems to have inherited a little money eventually, or perhaps was a very careful saver, as she has her own ‘means’ to live on, and a legacy to bestow at her death in 1952. She was able to leave the tidy sum of nearly £3000 to Marion Hilton, spinster, presumably another member of this Hilton family. But for several decades, she was just the boarder, the housekeeper, the maiden aunt. Was it a sad life? It’s probably unwise to jump to conclusions, based on intermittent records and no personal memoirs. But it certainly seems that she was excluded from the heart of the family, and its fortunes.
More Stories and a Mystery Mug
In the next post, I’ll lead you, via a Mystery Mug, through the stories of the three other christening mugs, whose owners I’ve managed to identify. I’ll also pay brief tribute to the three babies whose identity remains hidden from me. I hope you’ll join me for Part Two.
This is the fourth and final story of Tales from Tigerlily
The East End Rag Markets
Tigerlily came to life as a shop in 1974, as a vintage clothes store on Mill Road, Cambridge. But before that, I’d been getting into gear buying and selling through a friend’s stall on Cambridge market. The East End of London was where my serious buying began, in terms of sourcing ‘period clothing’ as we called it then. I drove down there almost every Sunday morning, leaving Cambridge in the dark, and often getting there before daybreak. Sometimes my business partner Helen would accompany me, or meet me there – it was she, in fact, who had introduced me to this extraordinary collection of stalls and sellers, with their treasures and junk, rubbish and bric-a-brac. This sprawling, colourful, ragamuffin of a second-hand market was held around Sclater Street and Cheshire Street, an area which runs across Brick Lane. The streets here were lined with stalls, which also edged into the dilapidated old warehouses, plus improvised sales pitches anywhere there was space. Piles of old clothes, shoes, bicycle parts and knick-knacks would be spread out along the walls and even the pavements. Some were only fit for the dustbin, and may even have come from there in the first place. Others could be treasures, retrieved from attics and forgotten places of storage. I had to be quick off the mark to decided which was which!
The pre-dawn raids
The first buyers would arrive before the day had fully dawned, flashing their torches onto the jumble of goods They were usually dealers, expertly picking out what was desirable stock for their own particular sales niche. It could be antiques, marketable second-hand modern clothes, vintage radios, old machinery, watches and clocks, collectable books, or anything else potentially specialist and desirable. And we weren’t the only ones looking for textiles and clothes. Some of the upmarket and expensive London vintage stores had buyers on the prowl; it was a relatively new type of business, but sellers in places like Portobello Road and the Kensington Antiques Market were already cashing in on the trend. And some had already beguiled the Brick Lane dealers into saving all the good stuff for them. I would regularly watch as a tall, red-haired young woman from Notting Hill and her trendy boyfriend would swan in to receive their piles of saved goods from the favoured stallholders, rather like a royal couple graciously accepting tribute from their subjects. Was I jealous? Of course! I had to get to a similar position – somehow, somewhere. And since these Tigerlily blogs aren’t chronological, you may have seen from the second in the series that I finally cracked this challenge in the rag mills up north, rather than on the streets of London.
Cheshire St and Sclater St- the best streets for bargains!
As mentioned, it was Helen who was already familiar with the Brick Lane whirl of buying and selling. Before Tigerlily opened, she ran her stall on Cambridge market one or two days a week, making a basic living from supplying crepe dresses, Victorian nighties, men’s jackets and grandad shirts from a bygone era. As I began giving her some of my finds from jumble sales and junk shops to sell on commission, we considered co-ordinating our efforts – I had the transport, she had the know-how. Before we dared to think about a shop, however, we needed to see if we could dovetail our efforts and build up enough of a supply.
Hitches and glitches – and advice on baby care!
So I made these trips to London for a year or two before we opened our shop Tigerlily, and we carried on with our joint expeditions for some time after we began trading. It wasn’t all straightforward – I remember when my hatchback Renault broke down at about 4am on a solo trip to London. No mobile phones back then, of course, and I had to try and hitch a lift home in the dark. I was picked up by a car full of male party goers on their way home. Luckily, they were plainly all shattered by then, the driver was sober, and they were courteously silent for the half an hour or so that it took to drop me off in Cambridge. Another more major issue was that I did a lot of trips while pregnant – my daughter was born just before the shop began trading – and the nausea I felt in early pregnancy was intensified by the ripe smells of the Brick Lane area. The origin of the smells came both from from rotting fruit left over from weekday trading, along with the smell of mould and decay from some of the ancient bundles of fabric piled up at the back of the derelict warehouses. So it wasn’t always a pleasant task, sorting through what was on offer.
After Jessica was born, I sometimes brought her with me on these buying trips, perfectly content in her carrycot-on-wheels, the only transport solution of the day for a small baby. Sometimes I met with East End disapproval – the fashion there was for enormous, shiny prams. And the new edict that babies should be put to sleep on their tummies hadn’t reached these parts, so our progress was greeted with shrieks of horror from Cockney mothers and grandmothers, who prophesied that she would suffocate this way. (Yes, I know, policy has reversed since then, probably several times over.)
Remnants of an even earlier time – these were probably still operational when I visited the area in the ’70s. Now the Bath House is smartly done up, its heritage preserved. Many old buildings had already been swept away then, some because of bomb damage, some because of ruthless redevelopment schemes.
Relics from a passing era
But we did find marvellous things in Cheshire Street and around. One day, I had finished my buying and was sitting waiting in the car for Helen to re-appear with her finds, so that we could start the drive back to Cambridge. She finally arrived, puffing under a load of blue velvet tailcoats.
‘I was on my way back, when I saw these. Some guy had just put them out.’ Apparently, she told me – though I haven’t been able to verify this –they had been worn by the Parliamentary Whips, in the style of 18th century men’s apparel, and were now being scrapped for something more modern. They went like hot cakes when she put one in Tigerlily’s window and I wish I’d kept one for my own collection.
I picked up a full-length hand-embroidered dress once, draped over some railings with a few pitiful items, and on sale for next to nothing. It was made of heavy hand-woven cream cotton, and I think it was probably Palestinian. That I did keep, and wear, for a while. Like Helen’s tailcoats, it appeared just at the last moment in the morning. Although most of the good things went very early, you never knew what you might spot later on. Hence it was difficult, sometimes, to drag ourselves away.
But needs must, and we’d turn for home by about 11.0 – Cambridge wasn’t a long drive away. I’d have emptied my flask of coffee while on the prowl, and on return I’d make myself a large fried brunch, and go back to bed for a few hours. The baby could share my nap, and I’d hope that my husband would look after both children and make our tea! The sorting, washing, and pricing could wait until the Monday.
Return to Brick Lane
The whole scene has remained vivid in my mind for over forty years, but I never went back again until very recently, just before lockdown in March 2020. I was thrilled beyond measure to revisit the area again. I had come to Spitalfields on a weekend blogging course run by ‘The Gentle Author’ of Spitalfields Life, and I eagerly took the first part of Sunday morning, before our session started, to walk down Brick Lane. I had been to London regularly since the 1970s, but somehow had never made it back to this part of town before.
I experienced sudden surges of memory – landmarks that I didn’t even know I remembered until they were there in front of me, like the railway bridge running over Brick Lane itself. But my most intense state of exaltation came from re-discovering Cheshire and Sclater Street, which had been the prime destinations for our buying trips. I couldn’t conjure up a mental map, but it was as though my feet and deep-buried memories just carried me there unerringly. And some of the stalls were reminiscent of those which had been there all those years ago. The old warehouses were still there, though some were now restored, and no longer full of stinking bales of old clothes.
It was a thrill to buy an old Cadbury’s hot chocolate jug from a bric-a-brac stall in a warehouse I’d once frequented, and mentioning the ‘good old days’ to stallholders brought smiles and recollections to share.
I chatted to a seller who described how, as a boy, he used to drive up with his Dad in their pick-up truck, and started unloading their goods before it got light, ready for the first buyers. I even began to think I might remember him and his father, but perhaps it was more of a generic memory of the fierce urgency for sellers to claim their pitches and get the items on display before the customers arrived. People would be trying to take the items off the truck themselves before they could unload, he told me.
I felt that in a tenuous way, I still belonged to the club! I bought a glass pendant too, as a token of my reunion with the markets of the Brick Lane area.
Now, as the morning progressed and my writing course beckoned me to return, I noticed that more people were coming out for a Sunday morning saunter, just as they had in the 1970s. I remembered how, from the shadowy figures running down the street flashing their torches to left and right, gradually the streets filled up with people in the morning light, until it was so packed that you could hardly get from one place to another. Then it was time to go home, and in those days, to drive back to Cambridge, in a car laden with my finds.
Those finds were never quite enough though, especially when it came to stocking a shop. So eventually, my forays led to the bigger rag mills, where I made links with the sorters and sellers. Planned, longer trips, took over from the frenzied excitement of Brick Lane in the early dawn of a Sunday morning. But Cheshire Street and Sclater Street remain as my essential memory of hunting for treasures in the debris of the past.
Before I left that Sunday in early March, 2020, I visited a superb bookstall where everything was just £1, and there were several excellent Folio editions available. I bought Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which turned out to be remarkably apt. Within a week, we were in lockdown.
The end of Tigerlily
We ran the shop for about five years, so all in all I had about seven years of buying and selling vintage clothing, antique textiles and linen, and related accessories. Towards the end, I began to weary somewhat of the sorting and washing of bundles of clothes. As a family, too, we started thinking about a move to the country, which we eventually managed, arriving near Dulverton on the southern side of Exmoor. And things had become awkward with Helen, my business partner, with issues from her personal life clouding our working arrangement. Eventually we found a solution: we both decided to let go of Tigerlily, and passed it on to a young woman, who had worked hard and loyally for us for several years. She was delighted to take over, and several years later, when I bumped into her unexpectedly in London, she was still in charge. So I’m glad that Tigerlily had a longer life, and that it has become something of a legend in Mill Road history!
I decided to embrace country living, and to put more time and effort into becoming established as a writer. I kept a few big boxes of old textiles and linen, and sold a little here and there – it was only in about 2010 that I finally put the last batch into auction, little pieces of embroidery, lace and costume which I had hung onto more for their sentimental value. But my trading genes resurfaced in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I founded Firebird Russian Arts, and they still bubble away. Researching my family history later, I discovered that I have generations of shop keepers on both sides of the family! However, as I tell my husband, ‘If I ever start talking about taking on a shop again, please hit me over the head and bring me to my senses!’ Twice was good, but three times would definitely be too many. And my great delight was always the sourcing of the treasures, rather than the day-to-day operations of selling.
This is the third in a series of stories from my vintage clothes shop, Tigerlily, which I ran from 1974 to1979 on Mill Road, Cambridge (at the town end, before the railway bridge, for those in the know about the two parts of Mill Road). We were a destination!
I’ve already described how I bought bin bags of stock from the rag mills, and the next post will be about the street markets I frequented too, but for this account, I’ll reveal how Tigerlily sourced stock in a far more upmarket manner – at the ‘posh end’ of the trade.
Finding Tigerlily treasures at ‘the posh’ end
At that time in the ‘70s, the term ‘vintage’ hadn’t been coined for clothes. Even using ‘period’ was a novelty, and most older clothes were considered only fit for throwing away. In the frugal decades earlier in the century, the majority of people had much smaller wardrobes and couldn’t afford new clothes on a whim, or because fashion dictated. However, at the other end of the scale ‘period costume’ meant couture items and their accessories which might prized as heirlooms, such as hand-made lace, exquisite embroidery, and silk or chiffon evening gowns. Such items rarely turned up in the kind of places where I was searching for stock – rag mills, street markets and jumble sales. But then I discovered that there were some collectable ‘antique’ clothes and textiles which could be within my reach. And the key places to find these happened to be at the high-class auctions in London.
So off I went to discover the delights and perils of buying at auctions run by Phillips and by Bonham’s, both household names in the world of fine art and antiques. It was an eye-opener. On the pre-sale viewing days, I marvelled at the wonders which were hung quite casually on clothes rails, or folded in old trunks and boxes. There were silk shawls, Edwardian blouses, and slinky silver lame evening dresses. I recall too pleated Fortuny dresses, original William Morris curtains, a set of antique Tibetan Temple hangings, and glorious panne velvet opera cloaks, trimmed with swansdown. Some of these sold for huge prices, others for very little if they were not in mint condition. ‘Good enough’ condition meant that they might be within my price range.
Another feature of these ‘costume’ auctions was fine lace, the prime examples ready to be snapped up by specialist collectors. However, there were also ‘lots’ of lace which had no particular place in a museum or collector’s display, and were thus were more towards my end of the market. So I was sometimes able to buy large cardboard boxes full of lace trims, panels and collars. With the help of a book I acquired, I took a beginner’s crash course in learning the difference between hand and machine made lace, and between some specific types, such as Honiton or Venetian. The lace pieces sold very nicely in Tigerlily, for modest prices.
These gorgeous dresses above were in the iconic style of Mariano Fortuny – which typically sold for a fortune, both in the early part of the 20th century when he was working as a designer, and when they came up for auction decades later. Sadly, they were never within our budget. This quote describes the design:
‘Registered in Fortuny’s name in 1909, his emblematic ‘Delphos’ dress—named after the Charioteer of Delphi—took its inspiration from the chiton, the long woollen Greek tunic, and reflects the craze for Greece whose interpreter at the time was Isadora Duncan. This one-size-fits-all dress, made of finely pleated silk and open to all sorts of subtle variants of neckline and sleeves, was an ongoing success for forty years. Its admirers among the modernist elite included Comtesse Greffulhe and her daughter Elaine, the Marchesa Luisa Casati, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse and, of course, Isadora Duncan.’
Antique lace, of which these are examples, used to come my way in the job lots at the costume auctions. I was able eventually to identify most of the more common varieties. Machine-made lace curtains were also back in favour again. They lasted well, provided that they hadn’t been starched, which tended to rot the material over time.
The perils of lace, chiffon and silk
I also found some dresses and job lots of garments at auction which might have represented, say, the back end of a 1920s wardrobe, or even of a theatrical costume collection. These too went well in Tigerlily, with one notable exception. I’d purchased a large suitcase full of chiffon and silk dresses and nighties from the 20s and 30s, which no one else seemed interested in. They weren’t exceptional, but they were fun, and wearable, with a touch of glamour to them. I priced them up, and started to put them out in the shop, a few at a time.
However, a couple of weeks later, I reached into the box to see what was left, and to my horror, the fabric of a dress literally fell apart in my hand! I pulled out others – they virtually crumbled as I touched them. I realised that whoever had kept the collection hadn’t opened it up for years, and now, as the air began to reach the textiles, they were disappearing like fairy gold in the daylight.
Later that day, a young woman came into the shop, looking anxious, clutching one of our brown paper bags.
‘I bought this dress last week,’ she said, ‘but look at it now!’
I knew what was coming, before she held up the garment, now in shreds. Once a chiffon 20s shift, it was now not even suitable to use as a duster.
‘I wouldn’t mind,’ she continued earnestly, ‘if I’d worn it a few times, but it was only the once!’
I hastened to put her out of her misery, and refunded her money with an apology and an explanation. After all, we didn’t want to get the reputation of a shop whose clothes fall apart after a first wearing.
A flirtation with ‘The Lady’ and Victorian underwear
Another strategy I used at the posh end was to put advertisements in magazines like Vogue and The Lady. They carried ads for ‘dress agencies’ at the time, where, I supposed, impoverished gentlefolk could sell off last year’s ball gown or suit they’d worn to a Royal Garden Party. So my ads were a little different, as I asked for antique or period clothing. Extraordinarily, it worked, and people started contacting me. We would exchange letters or phone calls first to try and establish if what they had to offer was potentially of interest, and if what I could offer financially would be acceptable. Then boxes would arrive by post, if the location was too far away for me to visit. Occasionally, I had to send back a box of unwearable items, but on the whole the surprises were pleasant ones. One in particular was a set of exquisitely stitched and embroidered white cotton lawn underwear and nightdresses, a never-worn trousseau for an Edwardian bride. What was the story there? I was bowled over, and sent the seller a price she was both astonished and pleased to receive. She was so pleased, in fact, that she sent me more!
There were the ones that got away, however – I arranged to meet one lady at a Cambridge bus stop in the rain to see her treasures. (Why? Perhaps she was just changing buses and couldn’t come any further? I can’t recall.) She opened a ancient cardboard dress box and revealed a perfect fully-beaded 1920s flapper dress in black-and-white geometric designs. It was accompanied by a matching Juliet cap (a skull-fitting cap rather like a bathing hat) in the same delicate fabric and beading. As soon as I saw it though, I realised that it was probably too good for me. It was really a museum or collectors piece, and we mainly sold pieces for wear by people with modest budgets. I couldn’t afford the price she wanted, and regretfully had to let it go. Could I, should I, have bought it? It would have been an investment, but I suppose there’s a chance that it too might have turned out like the box of vanishing fairy gold, and crumbled away. Many 1920s items of clothing were really very fragile, and didn’t stand the test of time. A Victorian cotton nightie can be good for 150 years, whereas a 20s flapper dress might not outlast the decade.
An old lady’s story
And sometimes, people brought items unbidden into the shop, to see if we wanted to buy them. That was fine, but they could cut up rough if politely refused. One woman brought in a dress she had bought new from a shop in London the day before, and decided she didn’t want. Not vintage – I’m talking about a ‘modern’ 1970s dress, expensive and rather ugly. She graciously offered me 10% off the price she’d paid, which would ensure there was ‘something in it’ for me. Thank you, but no thank you. She was indignant. She plainly didn’t realise that the average mark-up from buying a garment wholesale to selling it from the shop floor is 100%, so even if we had been interested, the discount was negligible. Even to this day, I think many people don’t realise that to cover overheads and make a modest living, many types of shop have to mark up their merchandise by doubling the wholesale price, then adding the VAT.
But there was also a wonderful surprise one day, when a very elderly lady came in, with something in a bag to show me. It was a Chinese silk shawl, heavily embroidered with coloured flowers on black silk, and a deep knotted fringe. I had long admired such shawls, but couldn’t afford the inflated prices they reached at the London auctions. When she saw I was interested, she told me she had other similar items at her home which was just around the corner from the shop. I made an appointment to visit with alacrity.
‘I was out in China, you see,’ she told me, when I went round. This had been between 1900 and 1920, when she was a glamorous young Englishwoman who attracted the eye of various handsome young men out there. ‘One of my suitors bought me some of these pieces. But I didn’t like him, so I never wore them.’
The items in question were not only the shawl, but a beautiful black silk trouser suit, embroidered with orange and white flowers, birds and fish. They were in pristine condition. She also had an unfinished square embroidery, lacking its fringe but perfect in every other respect, with immensely detailed scenes of Chinese life.
I bought everything, at a price we were both happy with. Some items I earmarked immediately for my own collection. Gradually, over the years, I disposed of my hoard, but these Chinese items are with me or my family for keeps! They are treasured, even if they can’t be out on permanent display. The fringed shawl tends to live in a drawer in case the cats claw it on the sofa. It’s also too awkward to wear, because the fringe can catch in your own and other people’s clothing – as I discovered to my embarrassment, striding grandly up the aisle of a cathedral to find my seat for a concert. The square embroidery, the shawl without a fringe, I’ve passed on to my daughter, and it’s now in safekeeping for my granddaughters.
The trouser suit I’ve worn on various occasions, not often, but enough for it to have gentle signs of wear. A few years ago, I wore the jacket to a Gala evening at our Exeter Northcott Theatre. In the social part of the evening, Robert and I got chatting to a couple who admired it. He was British, she Chinese. I was able to tell her, ‘Yes, it’s genuine Chinese embroidery, and it’s about a hundred years old.’
At that point, I felt like an antique myself. After all, the old lady, when she sold it to me, was vividly remembering the days of her youth, and now I’m remembering mine, and the time when I bought it. When does a life story turn into history?
Below: detail from theembroidered silk trouser suit
My Tigerlily dealings took me into some strange situations and up some curious pathways. It was an education, as well as a business. I still enjoy rubbing a piece of supposed vintage fabric through my fingers to detect whether it’s genuine 1930s satin, or a later revival piece, made of artificial fabric. The seams will tell me whether that so-called Victorian nightie is handsewn, or a later reproduction. The feel, as well as the eye, give the clues that you need to pick out a period pieces and appreciate its worth, not just in monetary terms but as a valuable link to costume history, and for the chance to continue its life story into the 21st century.
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.