Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Roots 5: Seamen & Papists

The last instalment tracing the family history of my four grandparents:

As a child I remember my paternal grandmother's family as pretty grim and forbidding. They came from Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast and consisted of a couple of elderly unmarried aunts - sisters of my grandmother. 

I recall going up there for one of their ninetieth birthdays. Although Whitby now seems Gothic and romantic - back then Hilda and Winifred seem to have scarily taken on the grim and grey bleakness of the wind-swept town. Both had worked in domestic service and both had ended up as doctors' housekeepers. Even in the 1970's they dressed the part of modern day Mrs Hudsons. And they lived together in a two-up two-down on one of Whitby's steeply cobbled side-streets - without phone or television - and with coal fires.

They were also extremely Catholic - and the height of Hilda's  birthday celebrations was a special private mass held  in her house by a visiting priest. Looking back there was some humour in this when in a panic Hilda had to hide a bottle of brandy (brought as a present by the same priest) from her friend who was 'chapel' and strictly temperance.

After their deaths, I effectively forgot about this branch of the family - they certainly weren't much fun when I was small - and in retrospect I probably held them responsible for the Catholicism which I came to regard as something of a stain on the family identity. With no living members of this part of the family, they were the last branch to get my attention when I started to look into my own history. 

In fact it turns out they were actually a bit  more colourful than I had given them credit for:

If the river dominates my maternal grandfather's arm of the family - the sea dominates my Whitby ancestors: Matthew, the oldest of them that I can trace, was born in 1811 and was a ship's master who went on to become an innkeeper when he married as his second wife was a widow who kept a pub.

Looking at their marriage certificate from the 1840's, they were married in the rites of the Catholic church. It looks as if, unlike my paternal grandfather's family where Irish immigration introduced Catholicism  -  they were part of that peculiar minority of English Catholics. Both were born locally, neither had Irish names, and this remote part of North Yorkshire was not a place that attracted Irish immigration at the time. Like parts of Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria pockets of Catholicism had managed to survive the reformation and produced crops of local martyrs - although the records of Catholicism amongst ordinary people who weren't recussant toffs or priests on the run are very hard to track down.

Most of the men of Whitby earned their living from the sea as whalers and fishermen. Mathew had three sons and the eldest two both went to sea. The middle son John drowned when his ship sank - a reminder of how precarious that life was  - and perhaps as a consequence, Robert the youngest stayed ashore and became a cabinet-maker. The eldest son, another Matthew went on to also become a ship's master. Amazingly the manifest book of his ship - the Mary-Eliza built in South Shields in the 1860's - has survived. The ship was a small coaster that worked the East Coast and North Sea routes with mixed cargoes - a kind of floating white van of its time.

Matthew had no family but his brother Robert the cabinet-maker did - and reading between the lines it seems as if son John was discouraged from or tried to avoid going to sea. He had a number of short-lived jobs ashore - including that of 'sewing machine sales agent' - but in his late twenties he too became a merchant seaman. He died at sea  in his forties when working as a steward on a small cargo ship bound for South America and is buried in the English cemetery at Buenes Aires. 

He left behind five children and life must have been extremely tough for my great grandmother on her own. The two boys left home to become engineering apprentices in Bradford - one of them becoming in later life a metalwork teacher in an approved school.  Two of the sisters - the forbidding aunts that I remember - went into service and the third, my grandmother, married and moved down to London where her husband worked on Fleet Street. 

All the Whitby relatives were extremely Catholic but unusually they either didn't marry or  had small families, and I am the last one of the line left. I have little evidence of any of them other than some sepia photos, the ship's manifest  and  an odd collection of missals and other prayer books - one of which is a Latin text of Thomas Aquinas' 'Imitation of Christ' dated 1720 - which in itself must carry quite a tale. For someone like myself who has a bit of an obsession with the civil war and seventeenth century radicalism, it is rather disturbing to find that one section of my ancestors would have probably been found at that time in the ranks of some of the most fanatical Royalists.

And that last instalment pretty much now rounds up my family story.

The hap-hazard nature of public records means that for the majority of us ordinary folks  it is pretty hard to trace our antecedents beyond the late eighteenth century, but I will go on trying. It is a great window into social history. Although my background is relatively stable and ethnically dull (other than an unexpected Irish influence) certainly in comparison to my partner's family - this in itself reveals something about the lives of ordinary working people: Three generations of print-workers, three generations of soldiers, and at least three generations of seamen and five of boatmen.

It's a story that takes in the ports of the North coast, the mills of West Yorkshire, London's East End and suburbs of West  London. It also covers the full range of working class historical experience from prosperous artisans to others who sought refuge from poverty in soldiering. I had no expectation or desire to find any connections to the famous or notorious - and said when I started that I just hoped not to find any 'toffs or Tories' lurking in the family closet . I haven't really found either - although these English Catholics were possibly the very first Tories - from whom the name was first derived as a term of abuse for anyone outside the Whig and Protestant consensus.

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