Saturday, 22 October 2011

An ancestral town remembered : Bungay

Bungay is a market town of much significance to my ancestry. Three of my family lines came from Bungay, the earliest record of which is a marriage which took place in 1771, at St Mary's Church.

Bungay is rich with history:  Bigod's Castle, a Benedictine Priory, two parish churches (St Mary's and Holy Trinity), secret tunnels, and perhaps more notably, the legend of the Black Shuck. For lovers of gothic tales and the macabre, Bungay is the town for you.

Bigod Castle
Elizabeth Bonhote (1744 - 1818), wife of Daniel Bonhote (an attorney), was born in Bungay and wrote novels and essays. Her most gothic novel Bungay Castle was written in 1796 and is still in print today. Set during the War of the Roses, Bonhote's novel included gothic themes of mystery, wicked uncles and long-lost sons.

In August 1577 while the congregation of St Mary's Church were assembled for worship, a thunderstorm blew up suddenly, plunging the church into darkness. Then, before the terrified congregation, appeared a black dog. Described as "the divel in such a likeness" it ran along the body of the church with great swiftness and incredible haste, seizing upon two people who sat praying for mercy. Known as a "Straunge and Terrible Wunder" the Black Shuck is still an ongoing legend in the town of Bungay and there are several shops in the town named after the legendary dog, one being Black Dog Antiques on Earsham Street.

St Mary's Church
My ancestors lived and worked in Bungay from the late 1700s, my first ancestors gaining their living in Ostlery and Agricultural labouring. One family line, the Jolly's, originated from nearby Laxfield. My 3 x great-grandfather Josiah Jolly arrived in Bungay in 1829/30 with his new bride Susan and they remained in the town, having at least 13 known children! Another family line, the Preston's, didn't come to Bungay until the late 1890s from Norwich (formerly Holt) but they also remained in the town.
Bungay must have been a particularly cold place to live in as two of my family lines were kept busy raising large families. Josiah and Susan had 13 children, as I have already mentioned, and another family line, William and Eliza Ward were also kept busy with a family of 12. Jokes aside, it would have been more common to raise large families in Victorian rural areas, as the eldest children usually worked on the land alongside their parents, whilst the middle children invariably stayed at home with the youngest infants. Given time, the entire family would be out working, side by side come rain, hail or shine. Their livelihood would have been dependent on the seasons. More often than not, my male ancestry spent their "leisure hours" esconced in a local publichouse. Two known favourites were 'The Swan' and 'The Three Tuns'. Life was hard, money was scarce and children were prone to infant death or crime. Indeed, there is at least one known ancestor of mine who was transported to Australia in 1847, after stealing from a Butcher in Earsham Street. Before leaving England for good, he was sent to Millbank Prison for 3 years. He was 22 years old.

Earsham Street circa 1910
I remember Bungay with a deep fondness. I have always been attracted to the gothic feel in Bungay and its familial connection with my dearest grandmother Lilian and dearest great-grandmother Nellie Jolly. My grandmother worked in the Buttercross Tearooms (known in her day as Alfo's) during the 1960s and my great-grandmother ran a Boarding House for single working men in Lower Olland Street during the 1940s and 1950s. Both women were strong, fiercely independent, loyal to their faith, and family-oriented.

As a child I remember walking through Bungay town with my mother, bicycling to nearby Earsham, Mettingham and Ditchingham, walks through the churchyard  of St Mary's and nearby ruins of the Priory, the Outney Common, and Falcon Meadow.
The last time I visited Bungay I was pleased to see so much history still alive and well in the town, especially with the Castle and the Museum. Fisher Theatre in Broad Street is open once again (originally opened by David Fisher in 1828) and Bungay can still boast many literary people such as George Crabbe, Henry Rider Haggard, Elizabeth Bonhote, Ethel Mann, and Parson James Woodforde. Even Chateaubriand, during a period of exile, resided in Bungay in the 1790s (rather reminiscent of the more recent exile of Julian Assange!).
In recent years the continued efforts of people such as Frank Honeywood, and Christopher & Terry Reeve keep the history of Bungay very much in our hearts and minds.

Song of "Old Bungay"
(First Stanza of Eight)
Written by Samuel Taylor in 1816
Sung at the Theatre, by Mr Fisher, to the tune of: "The Roast Beef of old England"
Of London and Plymouth, and fifty more such,
Enough has been said, aye, and some say too much:
Of all the fam'd Town's this fam'd Island can boast,
Where's the like of Old Bungay? search thro' the whole host!
Then of all places, this is the place of renown;
Oh, what a place is Old Bungay!
Old Bungay's a wonderful town!

Aerial view of Bungay showing both Churches: St Mary's Church (left) and Holy Trinity (right)

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Postcards & Photographs : Each One Tells a Story

This morning I visited the Nexus Toy Fair with my science-fiction-loving family, and there was one senior chap who was selling old postcards. Did I look at the wonderful array of Star Wars figurines and sci-fi DVDs? Did I heck as like. I went straight to the postcards table, and oggled his vast collection!

Recently a dear friend at  said: "Think about it - why do people collect old postcards? The main reason is nostalgia..." This got me seriously thinking.

A dictionary definition of nostalgia is: A sentimental longing for the past, typically for a place or period with happy personal associations. When it comes to old postcards I certainly love to see places as they once were. Also, for me personally, it captivates me to see how a place looked in my ancestors time. I am fascinated with scenes of old streets, old houses and businesses, seaside attractions, and churches.

On the left you can see a postcard scene of the church tower of St Michaels in Beccles. The church itself has not changed over time but its surroundings have significantly changed. Housing and businesses have altered and changed hands, been demolished and some buildings which were once publichouses or mills are now private homes.

I love to collect old postcards so that I can see places through the eyes of my ancestry. Beccles, my hometown, has seen much progress and alteration throughout the centuries, and yet local history books and photography show how little has really changed. The shopfronts and the people may have changed but the historical flavour remains when you walk the streets or sit by the Quayside.

Postcards are a window to the past, no doubt about it. Not only do they provide a valuable historical resource for genealogists and social historians alike, but they also allow us a glimpse into how our ancestors once communicated with each other. I have many postcards that have scrawled messages such as: "I will be with you in two days time. The train leaves at 8.15am..." Soldiers relied on the exchange of postcards with their families and loved ones, mothers and lovers fervently sent postcards of home, and holiday postcards were delivered far and wide at the envy of their recipients. The famouse catchphrase "Wish you were here..." was coined by the sending of a postcard.

Over 100 years ago my Norfolk ancestors sold postcards in their stationer's shop. They didn't just sell them, they went out to the various places within a twenty-mile radius and took the photographs that ended up on the postcards. Historical documents prove that they travelled from place to place on bicycles and snapped local scenes such as churches, farms, houses and halls, prominent local businesses and organisations, as well as taking photographs of a journalistic nature. In particular, they took photographs of the damaging effects of the 1912 East Anglia flood.

Photographs are my passion. Not just simple portraits of men, women, children and pets. Not just landscapes and scenery. Not just buildings and architecture. For me it goes beyond the subject matter. For me it is about the story photographs tell. When you look beyond the composition and the framing, recognition of the subject matter lights up the photograph in an entirely new way.Just sit with a group of elderly people and watch their faces as they recall the subject in the photograph, the memories they inspire and evoke, and the hearty conversation that follows. Sit with any family member and their photo album and listen (and watch) as they regale you with the finer details such as where the photograph was taken, what the weather was like, where the clothes they were wearing came from (and what colour the fabric was, if it is a black and white photograph) and, before you know it, all kinds of history (family and social) comes pouring out.

That is how my love of family history began. Back when I was a child and my beautiful grandmothers sat me down and showed me their photograph albums. For hours we would sit together, pouring lovingly over each page. With each photograph I learned who the people behind the faces were, where they had lived, what they loved and who they loved, and the variety of special events the photographs had captured. Some photographs are blurred, some are over-exposed, some have faded or lost their vibrancy and some are stained or damaged but each one is cherished and loved. They are a very special, very real link to the past. A photograph can tell the viewer so much. Perhaps that is why I love scrapbooking and journaling. Many of my scrapbooks are filled, not only with the photograph itself, but the story behind the photograph.

If you love genealogy and social history, photographs and postcards provide a vital visual aid to your story. They bring your ancestry alive in ways that pure words alone cannot convey. Telling your story is so much more than just names and dates. With today's technology it isn't too hard to open a Google Images search engine and begin a visual journey to your family's past. Better yet, why not visit a Fair, your local history centre, a car-boot sale or a charity shop? You never know what you might find. There is a wealth of visual history out there, waiting to be found. Let the stories begin...

Image from Ultimate Photo Guide website

Sunday, 9 October 2011

An Elusive Ancestor : Richard Humphries

Every now and then an ancestor comes along, destined to elude you. We all have at least one in our family tree, right? I have several but none has proved as elusive (or as frustrating) as Richard Humphries.

Born in Hammersmith in 1829, to John Humphries and Ann Rogers, Richard was the eldest of seven children. They lived on The Mall, which fascinates me because when I was a teenager I lived in a block of units by the river, not unlike the scene here (left).

John and Ann were both employed as Mattress Makers, and when Richard went out to work he got his trade as an Upholsterer.

Around 1849 the Humphries family were dealt a cruel blow when the house they moved to in Putney was infested with the deadly cholera disease. Within days of moving in, one son was dead and the father, John, quickly followed. Suddenly Ann was left alone to raise the remaining children, two of which were mere infants. She sent the youngest four to the North Surrey Industrial School in Penge. The eldest two, including Richard, were old enough to fend for themselves. Richard took work in Lambeth and later that same year, married Mary Ann Smith.

Richard and Mary Ann had four children, the first child (an only daughter) died of Scarlatina. Their remaining three sons were born and raised in Putney and they lived in relative comfort until 1871. Then the real confusion began. The census of that year was very revealing in that Richard was no longer married to Mary Ann. His new wife was listed as Sarah Ann. In addition, there was a new child listed. I automatically assumed that Mary Ann had died and Richard married again. Searches for Mary Ann's death and Richard's second marriage almost caused temporary insanity, as both turned up nothing. Eventually I located Mary Ann as having died at the Wandsworth & Clapham Union Workhouse (oddly, 10 years older than she actually was), being listed in their records as a "Widow". Long story number one...

Richard and Sarah Ann were not married, but they had three children together nonetheless, the last of whom was born in 1871, three months after the census of that year. Then the search goes cold for Richard. He is not in the 1881 census, and interestingly, Sarah Ann is married to someone else and they are living in Battersea. She married in 1876 and used her maiden name of Spencer. Her three children are all listed on the 1881 census as Spencer children, not Humphries!

Which begs the question? What happened to Richard Humphries? All manic searches have proved dead end after dead end. The paper trail has, time and again, gone completely cold, having been thwarted at every turn. For example, there are three possible death registrations for a Richard Humphries, however, all three have been investigated and I can attest with every fibre of my being, that they are not my ancestor. I have several cousins who believe they know when he died (1890 is one theory, 1915 another) but I have gone back through the records with a fine tooth comb and can assuredly disprove their theories. It is maddening to not know the truth. Hence, long story number two...

When I poured over the Putney parish registers seven years ago, I came across a burial for an unknown man, around the age of 40 years, drowned in the Thames at Putney. The year was 1875. He was given a burial at St Mary's Church and a coroner's report found that the unknown man had drowned as a result of his leg being caught in a barge. I know I am an ardent lover of Charles Dickens (see previous post) but could it be? Could it possibly be Richard Humphries? Tell me I am grasping at straws, clutching to a romantic fictional notion but it is the best theory I have to go on. Richard disappeared, without a trace, sometime between 1871 and 1876. His "second wife" who he was not legally married to, but had three children with, marries another man in 1876 and carries on with her life, as though Richard Humphries did not exist.

Where did you go Richard? What on earth happened to you? Why has your trail gone cold? Why don't you want me to find you?

Image from Genea-Musings