Saturday, 24 September 2011

My Love of Writing : Family Letters

This morning I started reading The Shadow of the Wind and already I am completely bewitched. In it, the character Daniel Sempere, describes his passion for fountain pens and immediately I was transported to my father’s study.

For as long as I can remember my father always wrote with a fountain pen. I don’t think I ever saw him use an ordinary ink pen, unless it was passed to a client to sign his or her insurance papers. My memory of my father writing is always holding a fountain pen.
Since very early in my childhood the giving and receiving of letters and note-cards played a significant part in my family life. From a tender age I learned to love writing. When I was around five years of age my aunt and cousin emigrated to Australia and letters were frequently passed betwixt my family. Many is the time I would come home from school and find my mother ensconced on the settee, lost in a letter from her sister. The emotions they evoked; the pleasure and the pain I witnessed on my mother’s face; hearing her on the telephone excitedly telling my grandmother the latest letter had arrived; hours spent at my grandmother’s house, drinking copious cups of tea and exchanging letters – all filled me with a deepening love of writing.

When my mother emigrated to Australia four years later, it was my turn to write letters. Now I knew first-hand the effects of receiving a new letter, getting to know the style and colour of the aerogramme and airmail envelopes, the thickness of the folded letter inside, and the anticipation of reading its contents. I loved my mother’s writing; always so curly, neat and decorative. Her life, in the written word, lifted off the pages (Years later, she took calligraphy classes and further improved her individual style of writing). Two years later, it would be my turn to write letters to my father and my paternal grandmother. Then the love of writing letters using a fountain pen grew for me.

As I have already mentioned, my father always wrote with a fountain pen. All of his letters to me were written with flowing, blue ink. There were no blotches or spills, never once. I loved his writing style too, very neat and precise. His words flowed beautifully in the most perfect ink I had ever seen. When I returned to England for the first time since I had left, I sought out my father’s fountain pen. I desperately wanted to replicate his penmanship. I pleaded with him to tell me what pen he used in his letters to me. He told me it was an Osmiroid so I rushed to WH Smith’s in Lowestoft and bought myself one. I was so enthralled and so excited, I couldn’t wait to try it out. However, no matter how much I practiced, I could never replicate my father and his unique writing style. The ink wouldn’t flow properly, the nib would always snag or the ink would blotch everywhere. I was disappointed beyond words, but I never lost my love for the fountain pen or indeed pens in general.

Even today, more than twenty years later, I am still searching for the perfect writing pen. I have bought hundreds of different ball-point varieties and brands. I always prefer to use medium point as fine point simply irritates me. When I compose stories and for journaling purposes, I usually always turn to a Pilot ball-point pen. Even with my scrapbook journaling and page layouts, I prefer to always use medium point pens.

Where does my love of writing come from? The seed was planted during my formative years when I loved writing stories and letters. As a teenager, I was rarely seen without my diary and I kept one religiously for many years, buying only the best, beautifully crafted covers. During my late teens I joined a pen-pal service and enjoyed sharing letters with friends in Scotland, France, Germany and Sweden. The giving and receiving of family letters over the years, until the age of email and internet took away the more traditional methods, increased my love of story-telling.
Then there was my love of books, and the passion for researching my family history. Anybody who has seen an original document or transcription showing his or her ancestor’s very own handwriting knows the exquisite thrill it gives! This is my 4 x great-grandparent’s signature on their wedding certificate of 1846:

My paternal grandmother always used to tell me that I would be a writer. She had utmost faith that I had inherited her mother’s love of writing. For many years I automatically assumed that she only meant writing letters. It was not until recently that my father told me my great-grandmother wrote articles for the Beccles Parish magazine. I felt truly moved by that. As my maternal forebears were printers and stationers and postcard sellers, I also strongly believe that I have inherited their natural flair for the written and the printed word.

My great-grandmother

Monday, 19 September 2011

Joseph Powell 1786 - 1857 : Thames Waterman

Anybody who knows me well, knows that I am an avid admirer of Charles Dickens and his literary works. In 1998 the ABC aired the serial adaptation of 'Our Mutual Friend'. Being a fan of the actor Steven Mackintosh it was added incentive to tune in!
It was not for another 4 years that I discovered that one of my own ancestors was a waterman on the Thames. In that very moment, my favourite Charles Dickens book was thrust into sharper focus and exuberant reality. My very own my family history could tell the tale of the 'Great Stink' of London, the daily menace of gridlocked water traffic and demanding customers, and London's dead found in the River.

My 4 x great-grandfather Joseph Powell was baptised at St Paul's Church in Hammersmith in 1786, son of Bartholomew Powell. When he was 15, in 1802, Joseph was apprenticed to Nicholas Taylor. Joseph was bound to him for a full seven years until he qualified as a Waterman of the Thames in 1809.

Men like Joseph Powell were especially skilled as rowers and as navigators and as tidesmen. So skilled was this job that the Company of Watermen Guild was set up in 1555 and later in 1700, the Thames Lightermen amalgamated with the Watermen (The difference between the Thames Watermen and the Thames Lightermen was that the Watermen carried passengers and the Lightermen carried goods). Once Joseph had completed his apprenticeship and could work alone fully qualified, he had to apply to obtain a license from the Port of London Authority who issued him with a numbered badge which, by law, was sewn onto his coat sleeve. He would have then purchased or hired for himself a Wherry or Skiff to carry his passengers and he was responsible for keeping his boat in sound working order at all times.
Strict rules were in place by the Watermen’s Guild which ordered that Watermen not consume any alcohol whilst ‘on the job’ but despite this, they still had a reputation for being extremely obnoxious, uncouth, abusive and foul-mouthed. Come on! I think they had to be given the circumstances, don’t you? You have to remember that in the early centuries there was no sewerage systems in place and all raw effluent of the London populus went straight into the Thames so the Watermen were - pardon the pun - 'in the thick of it' all day every day!
Add to that the fact that the Thames was extremely busy all the time, filled with navy and merchant ships, cargo ships, ferries, Lighter barges, as well as their fellow Watermen. It would have been utter stinking chaos! Other foul conditions were things like floods, mud, slime, sludge, stench, rats, other people’s diseases and infections, even dead bodies were sometimes found. That’s not to mention the weather conditions!

By the 1760s there were well over a thousand ‘Hackney hell-carts’ as the Watermen had dubbed them, and it was causing considerable congestion. London streets couldn’t cope with the demand, and the increasing bottle-neck and deaths through accidents meant something had to give. London needed bridges to ease traffic flow and enforce safety for its people. You could imagine the outcry from the Watermen.
Until 1750 there was only one bridge in London and even that had caused upset when it was put in place hundreds of years before there was any talk of subsequent bridges being built in London. When Westminster Bridge was built in 1750 the Watermen strongly opposed and lobbied their case in Parliament but over time, they were defeated. The Watermen’s further appeals made even less impact as the years went on, causing only temporary delays but in the end they just could not prevent the building of bridges. The Watermen were losing the fight for their livelihood as the demand for road traffic ease grew ever stronger.

My 4 x great-grandfather Joseph Powell endured, through the extremes of weather, inestimable stink and traffic congestion. His daily route took him from Fulham, where he lived on the High Street with his wife and family, to his final destination at Hungerford Stairs  (yet another connection with Charles Dickens!).
According to the 1819 Post Office Directory his stops would have been:
The Globe Wharf
Hungerford Stairs

The 1826 Pigots Directory water conveyance listing from FULHAM:

King's Arms, Rose and Crown, Queenhithe, Waterman's Arms & Globe Wharf, Hungerford

A few good reasons to stop for alcoholic refreshments in amongst that list, wouldn't you say?!
I may be ridiculed for having a rather nostalgic, or even romantic, viewpoint of my ancestor Joseph Powell, but I would dearly love to have known him. He could well have been quite a feisty character like Gaffer Hexam, or calculating and cunning like Rogue Riderhood. He would have to have been a good mix of both to abide the stink of the Thames!

Lizzie and Gaffer Hexam in 'Our Mutual Friend'

For further reading on the life of a Thames Waterman you may like to search out Robert Cottrell and Christopher O'Riordan's meticulous works, and you may also like to read the great novels of Charles Dickens and Clare Clark for further inspiration! x

Monday, 12 September 2011

An ancestral town remembered: Holt

The first time I visited Holt in Norfolk, was during a holiday in 1993. My father took me there for the day and I vividly remember feeling an unexplained strange sensation about the place. At that moment in time, I had absolutely no idea why I felt that way. Dismissing the feeling, I forgot about Holt until years later when my research into my Preston ancestry was well under way. One day, whilst browsing the 1901 census, I located my great-grandfather and his parents living in Bungay. My 2 x great-grandfather was born in Holt. The hairs on my neck prickled!

When I visited Holt again, in 2007, it was a miserable misty day and I remember being annoyed because the rain never let up the entire time I was there.
Holt was home to my ancestors and I wanted to see the place properly! My 3 x great-grandfather William Preston had moved to Holt, from Fakenham, when he was in his early twenties. This would have been in the 1840s. He married a local girl by the name of Eliza Bunnett and they had five children; three sons and two daughters. The first-born was my 2 x great-grandfather William Gowen Preston.

William Gowen Preston lived in Holt up until he was 17, when mysteriously, he left Holt with his girlfriend and moved to Norwich. The day I came back to Holt, I hoped that somebody could help me understand why this had happened. Was he cast out of the family? Out of the town? If so, why? I wanted to find the answer to that and more, in the streets and the shops, the houses and the people of Holt. Irrationally, I hoped that somebody would spot me, know who I was and why I was there, and tell me everything I needed to know. This never happened of course but the rain and mist almost prevented me from discovering anything about my ancestors life there.

High Street, Holt circa 1905
Arthur Preston's Printing Works on the right
After a few hours of walking the streets, meeting up with a local historian and writer, the late Keith Entwistle, and taking photographs and video footage, I went to the local church. I did not know, or fully comprehend even at that time, the strong connections that my ancestors had had with this church. Years later, with more research, I have a better understanding and a deeper sense of their devoted years to St Andrews. Standing on the footpath leading up to the church, gravestones to my left and to my right, I looked feverishly for any ancestral graves. I walked right past my 3 x great-grandparents' grave and didn't realise that I had until I had come full circle around the entire churchyard. I followed the track around to the right hand side of the church, to the back. There were many gravestones there, surrounded by mushy and muddy grass mounds, unkempt in the harsh winter months.

After a short while I found the grave of my 2 x Great Uncle and Aunt (with her parents) and I stood talking to them, cleaning the stone, taking video footage and photographs, and then asked them to guide me to my 3 x great-grandparents' grave. However, as I pressed on, the rain worsened and the muddy sludge underfoot was beginning to depress me. The graves led to nothing and nobody. I was growing heavily down-trodden and yet I was still determined to find something. My stubborness kept me searching.
I walked around again, becoming tired, hungry and cranky. I felt as though I was going to burst. Then came a breakthrough...
At long last I recognised the name: Eliza Preston. And right there, in front of me, at the very spot I had started out from! I could have kissed the stone, I was so relieved. The video footage I have is proof of my emotional rollercoaster in that moment. I wept tears of sadness and relief. It was rather sad to see the stone is in such a poor state, the bottom of which is barely readable.

Here in Holt I found a connection to my heritage, in particular to my maternal grandfather who I never knew. I felt a strong connection deep in my soul that day.

One day I will return again to Holt, and the weather will be perfect. There will be clear blue skies and sunshine, and I will discover even more about my Preston ancestors and the glorious market town of Holt.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

My Grandfathers

Inspired by the fact that today is Father’s Day in Australia and that I have just seen one of the saddest movies of all time, my next blog is dedicated to my grandfathers.
I was blessed to have four grandfathers, although I only really knew one of them well enough to write anything about with any real heartfelt emotion.

My paternal grandfather died when I was 10 years old and I curse my childhood memories sometimes, as they are not rich with any memories of him. What I do recall are only fractured scenes, like from a movie that you saw years ago and only remember snippets of. He left an indelible impression on me though, and his death caused my father such an outpouring of grief. I vividly remember being told to go to my father’s bedroom one afternoon, only to be told that Grandad Ward had passed away in hospital earlier that day. I shall never forget my father’s tears. For a child my age, it was an especially poignant moment for me.

Herbert Ambrose Ward was a quiet man, a somewhat serious man, and a bit of a loner I think. The opposite of this was his enormous sense of humour. He really enjoyed a good joke and liked to play pranks from time to time. My childhood memories of going to visit my grandparents are marked by the fact that he spent much of his time away from the hustle and bustle of noisy visitors and us over zealous grandchildren, preferring to stay in the kitchen preparing the pot for tea or going outside to tend to his garden.
Born 5 August 1910, in the market town of Bungay, he was the first-born son of Arthur Ward and Barbara Hargreaves. Having served in the Boer War Arthur was a strict, austere man who my father remembers, kept a rifle in his hallway by the front door! This is quite ironic of character given that Arthur gave his son the name Ambrose, from the surname of the man who ran his favourite local drinking establishment.

Herbert Ward, doing what he loved most
Herbert was a keen cinemagoer and he loved film all his life (one of all-time favourite actresses was Mary Pickford). During the war years he kept a diary of films he showed the troops at Barracks, as part of his service with the Royal Army Service Corps was with the Army Kinema Services. An electrician by trade before the war, Herbert's love of cinema won out and despite taking on a post-war job at Beccles Maltings, he worked in the evenings and weekends as a Projectionist at both the Regal Cinema and the Beccles Cinema in Saltgate.

I do recall visiting Grandad in the Projection Room after I had been with my father to see a film at Beccles. He would take me up the back stairs and we would enter this dark, pokey room filled with cigarette smoke and I would be deafened by the loud, clacking sound of film running through the reels.

My parents divorced when I was still quite young and my father married the second daughter of Frank William Denson and Mildred Alice Leach. Frank was born 18 April 1914 in Beccles, the son of William Denson and Frances Lillian Leon.

Frank Denson (left), taken at Beccles Museum
opening ceremony in 1975
My childhood memories of him is with a pipe permanently in his mouth. He looked stern and serious on first glance, but he was funny too. He liked to tell me about local affairs, more of a historical nature than current. Frank is a renowned Beccles historian and Borough Archivist, and for many years worked at the Museum. He has spent many years of his life transcribing and researching the history of the town. Frank is still very much alive, having celebrated his 97th birthday this year.

My maternal grandfather passed away one year before I was born and my grandmother married again two years later. By this time I was about 18 months old.
I grew up hearing countless stories about Percy Preston, not all of them very flattering. My mother certainly missed him terribly when he died (and, naturally, still does 44 years on), not least because their relationship was not always smooth sailing.
Percy could be a hardened man, made bitter from his war experiences, but he also possessed a heart of gold, which endeared him to many local townsfolk of Bungay.
(What struck me when I started researching the family history was that both my grandfathers were born (and lived during their formative years) in the same street of Bungay! If they knew one another back then, I was never made aware of it.)

Percy Preston, with his wife Lilian
Percy was the first-born son of Percy Preston (senior) and Ellen May Jolly, born 29 September 1913. Better known to everyone as Pat, he was well known in the town for his participation in the Salvation Army Band, and, in his post-war years, for his job as Dust Collector in Bungay, and Café owner in Cross Street. Percy would open his doors for anybody in need of a cup of tea and a plate of bacon & eggs. Lorry drivers would detour off the main road to Bungay based solely on Percy’s goodwill reputation around the district.

Since researching the family history in-depth I have acquired Percy’s army records and set about meticulously researching each individual service he completed. What unravelled was a gallant and sometimes heart-wrenching story.

From his pre-war service in Dacca, India to his capture at Dunkirk in 1940, his years spent in a Prisoner of War Camp on the Polish borders to his rehabilitation in 1943, and finally to his Medical training at Aldershot and subsequent service with the Ambulance Trains in Epsom, county Surrey, Percy spent a total of 29 loyal years in the British Army.

My grandmother married two years after Percy had passed away. This is the grandfather I remember best of all, and spent the most amounts of quality time with. I remember him for all sorts of different things, such as his tobacco (Drum), his use of Blycream and Old Spice, his love of Westerns (especially John Wayne movies) and reading crime novels. He worked hard all his life, and was not afraid of getting ”stuck in” wherever he was needed.

Alf "Buster" Sampson, with my mother Denise
Alfred James Sampson was born 3 July 1926 in Mettingham, county Suffolk and was the first-born son of James Sampson and Alice Trett. James Sampson ran a farm in Mettingham and all of his sons helped out, and none were adverse to the hard graft. I have many happy childhood memories of Grandad digging and planting in the allotment patch that he lovingly kept. He was always outdoors, getting his hands (and his clothes!) dirty and muddy, and frequently getting wet!

At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned I had been to see a sad movie today. It was called ‘Red Dog’ and it tells the true story of a red Kelpie who travelled the length and breadth of North-West Western Australia (the Pilbara Region) in the 1970s. One place he called “home” from time to time was Dampier.
When my Grandad, better known to everyone who knew him as “Buster”, emigrated to Australia in 1978, he worked harder than ever. Taking on a job in Dampier, he would be away from the family home for weeks at a time. Dampier was a hot and unforgiving place, a mining town, and a man’s man territory. Alf seemed to fit right in, and he made many firm friends over the years.

I sorely wish I had known each one of my grandfather’s better. Growing up, I would say the females of the family were a stronger influence and presence in my daily life. My grandfathers taught me to remain quiet inside, to feel strongly about something but not to act out in a gregarious way or be driven by material possessions. Also, they each possessed a fabulous sense of humour, each one of them loving to share a good joke and have a hearty laugh. It may sound daft but I always associated the men in my childhood like the company BP – they were the “Quiet Achievers” in my life!

So I end this blog by saying “Happy Father’s Day” to my dear father and to the fondest memory of each one of my grandfather’s – Percy (Pat), Herbert, Frank and Alfred (Buster).
You are all missed and you are all loved. I hope this blog will do each one of you a small piece of justice.