Ghosts of Christmas past (Object 177)

Christmas cassette tapeFor many of us, Christmas is the time of year when we think most acutely of family, especially of those we have lost. I know that for a lot of people the childhood memories are not always pleasant, which can make Christmas itself a particular ordeal. But having been blessed with a very happy childhood, I am one of those people who gets sentimental in a good way at this time of year, remembering all those lovely Christmases that my parents provided for us. Although I have no children of my own with whom to recreate the family traditions, I’m glad that Brother 2 has kept up some of them with his girls, and I always celebrate in a big way with friends and get in touch with all my distant cousins. I love it.

And thankfully, I don’t have to rely just on my increasingly shaky memory to provide the evidence for those happy festivities. The object above may be almost obsolete technology now, but it carries recordings that were made on even older equipment: my Dad’s reel to reel tape recorder. The cassette is labelled “Xmas ’64, ’65, ’66” in my brother’s hand, with no further information, but when it turned up in my recent end-of-year sort-out I knew at once what it was.

For several Christmases when we were children, Dad set up his reel to reel machine to record us as we opened our presents. His intention wasn’t just to record our sweet excited voices for posterity; he would also make sure we recorded who had given us what, for the purpose of those very important Thank You letters. Listening to these wobbly recordings now, I am instantly transported back to the downstairs sitting room in our house, with a scented fir tree standing tall by the big French window, a pile of brightly wrapped parcels beneath it. Mum and Dad (and, in 1964 and 65, Grannnie Lane:  I can just make out her gentle Hebridean lilt in the background), handing out the parcels one by one – no rushing and tearing back then, it was all very restrained and all the better for it. Having woken up to find, delighted, the bulging stockings that Father Christmas had left on our beds in the night, we wouldn’t open any other presents until after breakfast, and always kept a few back to open after dinner too. This may seem overly strict by today’s standards but we really didn’t mind, it stretched out the joy over the whole day and gave us something to look forward to. I kind of miss that, the joy of anticipation, now that everything is so instantly available on demand.

These recordings bring so much back to me: so many people long gone, some still living, some still in my life, some long since forgotten. Even some of the presents are still clear in my memory. Here are some highlights from the transcription I have made, listening to them on the CD a friend has just made for me (the 3rd format so far! I would upload the audio file to here but it would give away our names).

1964 begins with my Dad’s warm Glasgow burr asking me, then aged 3,  “S_____, have you had a merry Christmas?” which is followed by me singing a series of nursery rhymes into the mic. I seem to know several, from Husha Bye Baby and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to Wee Willy Winky and Itsy Bitsy Spider, and judging from the rhythmic way I am singing them I am rocking backwards and forwards banging my back against the chair as I always used to do (I called it “banging” and apparently my youngest niece did the same thing at that age). It’s very cute. We then move on to unwrapping presents and my brothers are delighted with their train sets – I know this because Dad asks them: “Are you happy then boys with your model railways?” and they both exclaim “Yes!” I believe they still are today; they still have them.

The next section begins with Dad announcing with great drama: “It is now Christmas 1965. Merry Christmas everyone! Now for the grand opening of parcels.”  Each present is announced in turn – who from, who for, what it is. We get gifts from our next door neighbours, the Mitchells,  3 children the same ages as us; from our Glaswegian uncles and aunts; from each other. I get a “cookery set” with which I am apparently delighted – I wonder if Mum was really as delighted with what she got, as she exclaims in her very posh Received Pronunciation English “Come and see what Grannie’s given me – Oh, just what I needed, I was hoping someone would give me a pinnie!”

After some white noise Dad opens proceedings again with “Merry Christmas 1966” and this recording is much longer and more detailed. The boys, aged 8 and 9 by now, are very lively, while I am still only 5 and whingeing a bit in the background. One of my brothers, I can’t tell which, announces proudly that I have milk chocolate kittens that he has given me. Again there are gifts from the kids next door and our relatives, but also from Peggy and her daughter Maggie, and from “Denise” who I vaguely remember, a friend of Mum’s I think. Brother 1 receives “a pair of gloves from the Larbys!” – that would be Mr and Mrs Larby, Auntie’s gardener and housekeeper from Churt, which is very touching (I got a handkerchief).  I don’t know what Brother 2 has given to Dad but it is apparently “Lovely, the very thing, just what I needed!” When Mum opens a set of kitchen scales she says “Ooh, I shall get all my quantities right now shan’t I?” which is very noble of her. From her best friend Margaret Press – “Auntie Margaret” – she gets a wall can opener which one brother is thrilled to note is “Prestige! It’s by Prestige!”  while I am even more thrilled to open up a parcel from Uncle Robert and Auntie Nan to find a toy horse inside: “Look what I got it’s a little horsy! I’ve got a nice little horsy!” (I actually remember that toy horse, I even named it “Horsy”).

There is much excitement as I open one particular gift,  apparently it takes me a while to undo the wrapping then I exclaim “Look what I got from Auntie Margaret!” and one of my brothers says “It’s a bunny looking out of a window” and the moment I hear that description, 51 years later, I know exactly what it is. “To put on your wall, how nice!” says Mum, while Dad reminds me to say thank you so I say clearly into the mic “Thank you Auntie Margaret” for her to listen to later. I loved that thing! It was a little wall plaque made of plaster, exactly as my brother describes, with a rabbit in relief poking its head out of a wooden-style window frame, a country scene in the background. It hung on my bedroom wall for the rest of my childhood but hasn’t survived in the Usmeum, in fact I had forgotten all about it until this moment.

There are chocolates from our lodger Peter Chadwick and a record token for Dad from Peggy; Mum (who probably suggested the gift) says to him “You can buy that Pete Seeger record now.” There is a parcel from Mum’s friend Joan down in Poole and her children Philip and Caroline, containing, amongst other things,  a “James Bond Aston Martin”(Matchbox or Dinky, presumably), and a “chocolate smokers’ set” (!) There are “Biscuits! Biscuits!” from Betty Burgess, who I think was Peggy‘s sister.  Our Glaswegian Grandad has sent us some money because he “couldn’t be with us this year”. Mum’s cousin Doy  has given Mum a recipe book and Dad a bottle of whisky; Mum also has a “nice bottle of Riesling” from someone.

Just before the tape runs out  Mum says “You children are lucky! All these friends and relations” and reminds us we will have a lot of Thank You letters to write (which we always dutifully did).  One of my brothers thoughtfully concurs “We’re all very lucky aren’t we,” and I have to agree with him. We were exceptionally lucky to have these happy family Christmases full of love, and even more so to have these records of some of them, so that over 50 years later I can listen to the voices of my long dead parents and grandmother (not to mention my childhood self) and get a bit teary-eyed. For all the right reasons.

Me and my brothers 1960s

Me with my brothers in the 1960s



Posted in 1960s, Dad, Mum, Parents, Peggy Lane, nee Peigi Murray (maternal grandmother) | Tagged | 1 Comment

Dalmatians and Croatians (Objects 174-176)

I have just been away for a brief but enjoyable city break to Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast. This seems as good an excuse as any to feature these 2 very different Dalmatian dogs from the Usmeum, and my memories of them.


This china dalmatian, who I named Domino,  once belonged to a neighbour of ours called Nadya Gazdar. The Gazdars lived in the next street to us and had 3 children: Nargis, who was about my age, her brother Seth and little sister Nadya. When I was about 10 and my parents were collecting bric a brac to sell at the annual Morning Star bazaar, Mrs Gazdar arrived at our door with Nadya in tow and a bag of contributions. This hollow china dog was amongst them and she explained that it had belonged to Nadya who “didn’t really want to part with it.” Nadya was clearly unhappy to do so but wasn’t being given a choice, and I felt for her, being so attached to my own collection of china animals. So I spent my pocket money on the china spotty dog, who joined the others in my bedroom cabinet, to be loved and cherished for many years. I would have given him back to Nadya if she had asked, but I suspect Mrs Gazdar was stricter than my own mother when it came to clearing things out. (The Usmeum is testament to Mum’s lenience in this respect!). So I still have Domino today.



Pongo, on the other hand, was a gift to me from my best friend Briony-next-door, when we were quite small. This jolly wooden spotty dog with his head on a spring reminded me of the “male lead” in Disney’s original 101 Dalmatians film,  which we saw at the cinema and absolutely loved. I don’t know why he survived in the Usmeum unless it was because he was a gift from Briony; I always hated to part with things that were gifts from someone special in my life.

My recent trip to the stunning ancient city of Dubrovnik was my first visit to this region, but whilst there I recalled that my parents had also once visited the former Yugoslavia. As a result of their boundless hospitality and international socialist principles, they had friends the world over. When my Dad retired in 1978 after 22 years’ service at British Airways they still had the benefit of his staff concessions, so were able to enjoy some trips abroad to visit people in various European countries. I’ve now found the photograph album of their 1982 trip, which didn’t take in Dubrovnik but did see them spend time in Zagreb with one friend before travelling overnight by train (in a thunderstorm!) to Split to visit their friend Silva. The photos in the album carry notes and captions in my Dad’s distinctive handwriting; here are a few examples:

Yugoslavia photo albumDad was a great admirer of Marshal Tito and I remember when the troubles began to break out after his death, Dad remarked that it showed what a good job Tito had done in keeping the countries united. This photo of a mural of Tito features in the holiday album of Split, but I doubt if it still exists:

Dad died in 1992 so didn’t live to see the worst horrors of the wars of that decade, but last week in Croatia I was privileged to experience a country, and a people, who have emerged from their trauma with dignity and determination to overcome whatever life throws at them. The city of Dubrovnik has been beautifully restored to its former glory and, surrounded by sparkling tranquil seas, it was hard to imagine what had gone before. I hope to have the chance for more Dalmatian explorations someday, to compare with my parents’ experience of 1982.


Dubrovnik today

Posted in 1960s, 1980s, Dad, Mum, Ornaments ("ordiments"), Parents, Photographs | Tagged | 2 Comments

Doran’s hands (Object no. 173)

John Doran poemYesterday was Father’s Day here in the UK, so I have been thinking of my Dad more than usual. Going through some old papers of his I found these scraps with jottings in his familiar hand. A quick read through revealed that I had at last found the mystery poem he had written, about his ancestor, John Doran. I had found other poems of Dad‘s but not this one, although I knew he had written one as I remember him reciting it to me; as a young revolutionary himself, he had been very taken with the drama of the story.

I wrote about Doran in a previous post,  and this family legend has also been on my mind lately as I have been reading Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry with its vivid and visceral portrayal of the later Irish uprisings. As it happens I am going on holiday to Ireland this week, for a friend’s wedding in Wicklow, so this is a timely find.

Sadly, either Dad never finished it, or the finished version is yet to be discovered, as these verses are incomplete. It’s no masterpiece but I like it, and in my head I hear it recited in my Dad’s stirring tones. Below is the best transcription I can make out from these notes, I have had to substitute the odd word [in square brackets] where I can’t read it but I hope I have kept to the spirit of his words. He didn’t give it a title so I have called it Doran’s Hands:

John Doran was a scholar, for he could read and write
He set his hand to Ireland’s cause, to help her in her fight
But peasants’ hands are earthy brown
And Doran’s hands were white.

He wrote the village letters and the village sums made right
He said, Be free, and Irish hands unite!
But peasants’ hands are earthy brown
And Doran’s hands were white.

Stravaiging for arms, the boys were out one night
The Bishop’s House surrounded, but no hand raised in fight
Pass out your guns, and quick, the early light
The shutter bangs against the wall, the staff obey in fright
The peasants’ hands were earthy brown
And Doran’s hands were white.

The Bishop grim in shadow waits, his [failing] sight
No face could see, but the eager hands, and his guns in passive flight
And the peasants’ hands were earthy brown
But Doran’s hands were white.

The king an armed troop has sent the village to [surround]
And by the Captain command the Bishop, [not to fail]
To [bring to] him the man who led the boys that summer night
And they have taken the scholar John Doran
And they will put him to the wall the [record] to set right
For where their hands were earthy brown
John Doran’s hands were white.

Maybe one day I will find a finished version, but this will have to do for now. And one day perhaps I will do some research to find out how much truth is in the family legend. But as I’d hate to spoil the myth that has been passed down the generations,  I probably won’t.  After all, why let the truth get in the way of a great story? I’m sure Dad would agree!




Posted in 18th century, Dad, Letters, cards and documents | Tagged , | Leave a comment

My Learning Relation: Attila the Nun (object no.172)

Learning Relations bookA few posts ago I featured the books written by a family friend, so here is another book written by a member of our extended family. The author gave me a copy some years ago, but I donated it to the library I managed at that time, an academic department library which included education and psychology amongst its specialist subjects. I had not read it, and, wanting to write about this person, I recently obtained another copy from an online bookseller. This one was withdrawn from Durham University’s education library and has been well-read. Having now read it myself, I can see why. It is a fascinating read, and the perfect object to illustrate the remarkable life of my Dad’s cousin Doreen Grant.

Doreen has made a previous appearance on this blog: she was the one who organised the great Grant Family Gathering in Glasgow in 2008. The youngest of 5 daughters born to my grandmother Alice’s brother John Grant and his wife Jessie in 1927, Doreen was adored by the whole family. Like most of my grandmother’s side of the family, they were devout Catholics, none more so than young Doreen. By the time she reached her teens she was convinced of her calling, and eventually took up orders with the Sisters of Notre Dame. When I visited her in the nuns’ retirement home in Glasgow a few years ago, she recalled that time in her life and how certain she was, never once having faltered in her faith or her certainty in her vocation. I remember her visiting our house when I was a child, in her brown habit and veil, and being struck by her vivacious spirit, nothing like the popular portrayal of nuns as stern and severe martinets.

Doreen, who still lives, but sadly now under the heavy cloud of Alzheimer’s disease, was a real force of nature. As she writes in the first chapter of her book:

“I had begun my teaching career after the war in the then notorious Gorbals area of Glasgow. My twentieth birthday was spent trying to make some meaningful impact on a class of fifty-two squirming six-year-olds there. By Christmas of that year I was visiting the homes of all the pupils who had been absent from the class Christmas party. With small ribboned serviettes of festive food I trudged up and down tenement buildings on that dark winter’s evening after school. I was so intent on making sure no children missed their buns that I thought nothing of my surroundings, until one mother exclaimed upon opening the door, ‘Oh Miss, you shouldn’t be here!…See the teacher down to the main road, Wullie!’

What new world had I strayed into? What was so unsuitable about this environment that I had to be escorted quickly out of it? Certainly the tenement was like something out of Dickens with its worn stone stairs lit only by tiny gas lamps. Many of the two-roomed flats, served by communal toilets on the landings of the public stairs, were subdivided into ‘single-ends’ in which entire families ate, slept and lived their whole lives. But was the source of distress completely the building and its lack of amenities, or were there other ways in which a teacher did not match this home setting?

I was facing fundamental differences here between home and school. Even at twenty I could feel vaguely that these were differences in expectations, in the meaning of learning and eventually of life. This mismatch had a greater effect on children’s education than the poor physical environment and would not be removed merely by building huge housing estates around the city. Awareness of this dissonance was to be heightened in the following years by joining the Sisters of Notre Dame, a religious congregation concerned with education and social justice.”

Not for Doreen the quiet life of the cloistered community, protected from the harshness of the outside world. She had joined an order that applied faith in active service, and continued her teaching career, eventually becoming  head of a secondary modern school in Speke housing estate in 1960s Liverpool. Her innovative work there earned her a CBE, but Doreen, never one to rest on her laurels, wanted to address the issue that troubled her most: why so many evidently able pupils failed to thrive at school despite the best efforts of herself and the teachers. “Wilful or biddable, truants or attenders, some pupils remained outside the circle of my enthusiasm. I began to have doubts about the omnipotence of school. So I left my headship and returned to full-time study in search of a solution.”

Doreen spent the next 10 years studying at London, Liverpool, and Glasgow universities, attaining her PhD from the latter in 1974. What she had learned from the work of luminaries such as Jerome Bruner, Margaret Donaldson and Paolo Freire eventually led her back to the Gorbals tenements to explore the link, or lack of it, between home, family  and school in one of the most underprivileged communities. “Wine alley”, as it was known locally, was “not an alley, but a small stigmatised housing estate, broken in both appearance and spirit.” With the sheer force of her personality (and a different sort of ‘grant’ from the Urban Aid fund) Doreen managed to win over parents’ inherent suspicion of authority,  and established “stairhead seminars” in an empty flat, where a group of parents from the estate would meet to discuss their children’s education. Their initial reluctance gradually gave way to enthusiastic participation in workshops and activities that they repeated later with their children, with immediate improvements in the lives of both. Women felt empowered and involved in their children’s learning for the first time, many developing the confidence to speak to school and other professionals as equals.

My librarian’s heart lifted when I read on p. 35 that “Glasgow’s Library Department had generously co-operated with us in setting up a small well-stocked library in the flat.” One of the mothers whom Doreen had struggled to engage in the programme became its most enthusiastic volunteer helper, finally finding her voice along with her natural aptitude for the work:

“In 1979 when Urban Aid ended Alice became a permanent paid assistant and by 1982 she was in complete charge of book issuing in the library which had been moved to the heart of Summertown, a new neighbourhood centre housed in a former school…Alice gradually found how to relate her shy unassuming personality to the advancement of learning. Until her death in 1987 she could be found among the encyclopedias, paperbacks, and pre-readers, presenting to all who crossed the library threshold a reassuring, friendly, local face.”

From the humble beginnings of the stairhead seminars Doreen managed to coax the local authority into giving them the use of a disused school building as a community education centre. The whole community gradually got involved in putting on shows and pantomimes, relishing their roles. So successful was this community pantomime that in later years a youth group performed it at the Edinburgh Fringe. Other activities evolved: Family Nights with craft activities for parents and children to learn together, leadership training courses, educational day trips. Throughout the book Doreen is refreshingly respectful towards the community she is working with, and insists that she learned as much from them as they from her. In turn she earned their respect and trust, and the project was so successful it attracted attention from the local press and TV:

Learning relations p.81

…which in turn invites opposition from the local education authority officials, whose noses have been put severely out of joint by this troublesome nun. When the library is threatened with closure the community come out in force, speaking powerfully at council meetings, and winning a reprieve. For most people it is their first brush with officialdom; one mother reports back “We’ve never seen people so high up interested in weans. I thought people like that didnae want to know us, we were just a bit of dirt. They’ve got money – we’re nothing. But I got found oot wrong there. They were really interested.”

So the project is not lost, but Doreen still has numerous battles to fight with the authorities, and observes with wry wisdom:

“Throughout western society the bureaucrats, segregated from practitioners, are chained to enormous systems which regulate all the society’s major decisions. I constantly failed to grasp this limiting factor. My personal life is lived in the company of women who express obedience through informed consensus and so I find autocracy incomprehensible. Bureaucratic decision makers, focused on order and control, found my ideal of an educational milieu based on free co-operation quite inconceivable. I had embarked on a collision course.”

She remains undaunted, however. At one point she organises a conference and wishes to invite American academic Dr David Weikart, whose work in Michigan had influenced her own. When the council refuse to provide a budget for his fee and hospitality, Doreen gets around the problem by offering him free accommodation at the convent if he will deliver his lecture free of charge – which he accepts. When she is forbidden to travel to the Hague to present an application for funds to the Bernard van Leer Foundation, she goes anyway – and wins a grant of £250,000, a fortune now, let alone in the 1980s.  Rather than being congratulated, however:

“I was subjected to a formal warning on my successful return. It all provided laughter at ‘behind the scenes’ meetings where I was nicknamed ‘Boadicea” – when it was not ‘Attila the Nun’! One official had felt the only way left for him to stop my flying to Holland was to ‘Declare a state of emergency and close the airport.’ Another’s after-dinner tale was, ‘I took disciplinary action against her and she said, ‘Thank you. Now get on with administering the small fortune I obtained.’ The reality was very different from their jokes. I was angered and upset by the whole unpleasant procedure which smacked of male chauvinism.”

Ultimately the project was taken under the wing of the local education department, and Doreen, no longer directly involved, wrote up the experience as Learning Relations, published by Routledge in 1989 – and reissued in 2014 as a Routledge Revival. It is rightly considered a classic in its field, brilliantly written, with the passionate spark of its author as evident on the page as in person. I am struck by the parallels between her convictions and the socialist politics of my parents, and with feminism. My Dad had left the Catholic church when he turned to Communism as a  young man, and Doreen expressed her sadness at this in some letters which I have in the archives. In one written following his father’s funeral in 1972, she is deeply sad that he was unable to take communion with his brothers. In another, written a few years later, she says:

“I’d love to keep in touch with you James, and with Eleanor. We don’t have any rules and regulations about correspondence these days. But I’m not good at it! I’m much better at talking – and much more keen on it – than putting thoughts to paper.
I do agree with you about the need to accept people with different values and try to work together to build the future. I think there is quite a fruitful Christian-Marxist dialogue going on. I read odd articles about it.”

Doreen is doing herself a disservice here: she writes very well. Every Christmas we would receive a beautifully presented summary of her year’s activities, showing the desktop publishing skills she learned in her 70s that put me to shame.

Doreen's lettersIn her 2013 letter, at the age of 86, she is astonished to learn of the Routledge Revival reprint of her book: “Just when I am old, the ideas in the book seem to be new!” In 2012, she features the annual reunion lunch of the people she worked with during the Learning Relations project. Most people who have met Doreen over the years have stayed in touch, along with her adoring extended family. The Grant Gathering features in her 2007 newsletter, with photographs of my brother and niece 1:
2007 newsletterI am full of admiration for my Dad’s cousin, as I know he was. She has achieved so much in her long life, and done much more for society’s most disadvantaged than have many of us with more conventional lives. Tomorrow we face a general election and, like many people I am hoping for a change of government and a return to the more compassionate social values in which I was raised. In today’s deeply troubled times we need fewer bureaucrats and more true activists like Doreen.

Attila the Nun, you are a Right On Sister. I salute you.

Doreen aged 80 in 2007

Doreen aged 80 in 2007

Posted in 1970s, Books, Glasgow family | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mumbles and scraps (Objects 170-171)

Going to Mumbles sketch

“Going to Mumbles, 1809”

Today’s objects are some sketches that I assume came from the 19th century residents of Llwyn Derw House, as featured in the previous post. The clue is in the inscriptions: in the charming pen and ink sketch above, the carriage’s passengers were apparently “Going to Mumbles” in 1809. So this was probably sketched by a member of the Horman-Fisher family who lived there then, or by one of their visitors.

This scrap of paper stuck on to a piece of cardboard shows a scene from another holiday and is inscribed “A Scrap from our Welsh Diary, 1862”:

Diary sketch

“A scrap from our Welsh Diary, 1862”

I like the pun on “scrap” here as the horses of the genteel riders appear to be having a wee skirmish with those of the passing Welsh ladies in their traditional hats. This one is signed “JJW” and also has a signature of “Maj H. Wilson” I think, added in pencil, not a name I recognise. On the reverse of this “scrap” however, is another, which seems to be a handwritten copy of the local newspaper report of Margaret Horman-Fisher’s wedding to William Fry:
Newspaper wedding reportThe full text reads:

Cambrian, Oct.12. 1877

Oystermouth. The marriage of William Fry esq. son of the late Wm Fry Esq of Portfield, Somersetshire, and Miss Margaret Jane Horman-Fisher, only daughter of S. Horman-Fisher, Esq. of LLwyn Derw, was solemnised in the parish church of Oystermouth on Wednesday morning. The bride, who was attired in a very handsome white satin dress, trimmed with Honiton lace, and orange blossoms, wearing a wreath of the same and a white veil, and followed by her six bridesmaids, in very pretty dresses of blue muslin, with wreaths of pear blossoms, and veils, each wearing a handsome gold bracelet, the gift of the bridegroom, was escorted up to the altar, where the bridegroom, with his best man and many other members of the two families had arrived a few minutes before, and occupied the seats in the chancel. The service was most impressively read by the Rev. H. Knight Eaton, vicar of Christchurch, Stafford, uncle of the bride, assisted by the Rev. Secretan Jones, vicar of Oystermouth, on returning to Llwyn Derw, breakfast was served to about forty, chiefly relatives of the bride and bridegroom. The presents were very numerous and handsome.”

This account ties in the Horman-Fishers with the Eaton family, who have also featured here and here. It’s nice to have these scraps of the past in my family archives, however distant these relatives may be, literally and figuratively, to my family and life today.


Posted in 19th century, Fry family, Horman-Fisher family, Paintings and sketches | Tagged | Leave a comment

House of Mystery, with a heart of oak (object no.169)

LLwyn Derw paintingThis oil painting of a country house used to hang in our much humbler family home, from the time Mum inherited it from Auntie in 1971, until her own death 30 years later. Prior to that it had hung on the walls of Derwen, Auntie’s house in Churt, so I have known the painting all my life. As with so many things, however, the painting was just “there”: literally part of the furniture, not something I ever thought to ask Mum about. This blog was partly born of all those unasked and unanswered questions: the ones that you never think to ask until after the only people who could answer them have gone. I wanted to document what I know of our family history before I too have taken these scraps of knowledge and memories to the grave.

As my brothers and I sorted out the contents of our childhood home when it was sold, many such questions arose amongst the boxes and newspaper. This painting, for instance: where was the house, why had the painting been treasured enough to keep? After some discussion we concluded it must be Bentworth Hall in Hampshire, stately home of Auntie’s relatives the Horman-Fisher family. None of us had ever seen it so it seemed a safe assumption; we were not aware of any other stately homes in the family apart from squire Stephen Lane’s Worton Hall in Isleworth, which we knew from Mum’s description to have a grand sweeping staircase at the entrance, which this house didn’t seem to have (More of Squire Lane and Worton Hall here). Another reason for our assumption was that in retirement Mum had written to the then owners of  Bentworth to see if they wanted to buy various paintings that had come from there, including  a small painting of the Hall itself. This must be it, we concluded.

So, when I arranged to visit the current occupants of Bentworth Hall when I happened to be in the area a few years ago, I took along this painting to show them, along with other bits and pieces of Horman-Fisher history. As soon as we approached the house up the long drive it was clear how wrong we had been: this square brick pile with its stumpy chimneys bore no resemblance to the grand building before us, with its imposing 19th century elegance and  tall chimneystacks. This was slightly embarrassing but my hosts seemed to enjoy the other items I had brought.

It was a few more years after this, when I began sorting through the family archives in earnest to write this blog, that I came across the actual painting of Bentworth Hall. It is a simple watercolour on a scrap of torn card, not even framed, but instantly recognisable as the house I had seen in Hampshire:

So that solved one mystery, but left another unanswered. What was the house in the oil painting? For a few more years the picture remained wrapped up and stored somewhere and forgotten about, ending up eventually with me. Even then it stayed in its wrapping as I had no room for another painting on my wall and it meant little to me, although, hoarder that I am, I was still loathe to part with it.

Then 2 weeks ago, Brother 1 and his wife came to visit me for his 60th birthday.  We spent a pleasant day trawling through old family photographs and ephemera. Looking at some of the oldest photographs of Auntie’s Fry family cousins, my brother suddenly recognised the house in these photos:
Llwyn Derw A colour tinted version confirmed it:

Llwyn Derw in colourThe house in the painting is Llwyn Derw, the Swansea childhood home of Elsie Fry, Auntie’s cousin and lifelong companion.

LLwyn Derw paintingThe unsigned painting may have been the work of Elsie’s mother Margaret (nee Horman-Fisher), as she was, like many ladies of her time and class, an accomplished artist; you can see more of her work on display here in the  Usmeum.

I am grateful to a reader for contacting me when I wrote about about the Frys and  Llwyn Derw House in another post. Carol Powell, editor of the History of Mumbles website, knew the house well, having lived nearby for many years. Sadly it has now been demolished to make way for modern housing, but she kindly sent me this photograph of the house as she knew it in the 1980s:

LLwyn Derw house 1980sIt must have been much extended from the Fry family days. Here is another photograph from my family archives, showing the rear view of the house as it was then:

Llwyn Derw rear view..and another showing their lavishly furnished drawing room:

Llwyn Derw interior..and the grounds, simply labelled “Llwyn Derw Drive”:

Llwyn Derw DriveI gather that Elsie and her 3 sisters enjoyed a very happy childhood there, so I imagine that the house her father later built for her mother (in which I spent so many happy childhood holidays) was named “Derwen” in tribute to the family seat. Ms Powell tells me that the word “Llwyn” in Welsh means grove and ‘Derw’ means oak – so Llwyn Derw = Oak Grove, whilst “Derwen” means oak tree. A fitting symbol of endurance for a family history blog.

I am glad we finally cleared up the mystery of the house in the painting (which is now going up on my wall), and that we hadn’t gone too far wrong in our original guess. Only about 164 miles, and one generation.

Frys at Llwyn Derw Wood

“The Frys at Llwyn Derw Wood”




Posted in 19th century, Fry family, Horman-Fisher family, Paintings and sketches, Photographs | Tagged | Leave a comment

Blood brothers

Me and my brothers 1960sToday is Brother 1’s 60th birthday. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the above photo was taken, in the early 1960s. He is on the right, Brother 2 in the natty bow tie on the left, myself in the middle. I find it amusing that my eldest brother, who has always seemed to me like a classic English gentleman, with his tweeds and niceties and eccentricities, was born on St George’s Day, while I with my arguably more Celtic love of drinking and carousing was born on St Andrew’s day. In many ways he seems a throwback to our posh English grandfather, whilst I feel more affinity with our Glaswegian relatives. (Brother 2, the middle one, seems to fit in quite comfortably wherever he chooses to be). That said, Brother 1 did meet his French wife at Scottish country dancing classes, so I am probably oversimplifying things. In honour of this auspicious occasion, which we will celebrate later today, here is a post about brothers.

Brother 1 was named after our mother’s only, much loved brother, who was lost at sea when stationed in west Africa in 1942. I have written about him before, so this post is by way of an update. My brother is the custodian of the letters he sent from the Navy just before and during his posting, which he has recently shared with me. Knowing his fate, they make for very poignant reading. Some are reproduced in the links below. Even more poignant, for me, are the words my brother wrote when he sent the scanned documents:
“How would things have turned out if we’d had another uncle?  I understand why Mum was so affected.  I feel a personal affinity with him – the curse of being named after and forever compared.”

Mum's brother

Mum’s brother aged 21, shortly before his death.

I had no idea he felt like that, but I understand perfectly what he means when he wonders what might have been. Mum was very close to her brother who by all accounts would have been the perfect, funny, loving, supportive uncle. At the time of his death he was engaged to a local girl and would probably have stayed living nearby, so we would have had close cousins and extended family growing up. We were fond enough of our aunts and uncles and cousins on Dad’s side but didn’t see much of them as we didn’t live very close (strangely I am closest to the one who lived furthest away, in Glasgow, as we were nearest in age and wrote often). It would have made all the difference to Mum as well to have had her dear brother to support her through the difficult times in her life, such as the loss of her mother and sudden re-appearance of their estranged father soon after. My Dad was solid as a rock in support of her but she must have felt her brother’s loss extra keenly at these times. And I think that she may have been a different person herself – more light-hearted perhaps, carrying  less of the weight of the world on her weary shoulders, had she not also carried this heavy burden of loss.

Mum and her brother as children

Mum and her brother

Some of the letters he wrote to her and their mother from the HMS Edinburgh Castle can be found on the links below:

Uncle’s letters 9 August 1942 at sea 3 August 1942 at sea

My Mum and grandmother had seen him not long before he left and he promised to send them a telegram to let them know when he arrived safely in Freetown. When a telegram duly arrived they opened it eagerly, only to find this inside:
15 August 1942 Telegram

One can only imagine the shock. And the grief, especially when this telegram arrived a few days later:

1942 Telegram

The following tributes from his mess mates and the ship chaplain are some of the few scraps of evidence we have of the person he was, and the uncle he could have been:
Tributes from friends 16 August 1942 from G Gardner messmate 3 September 1942 from Chaplain

In my earlier post about Mum’s brother I wrote about an unforgettable experience I had in 2010, when I travelled to Sierra Leone as a volunteer with a library project and was able to visit his grave. As the first member of his family, indeed to my knowledge the first person ever to visit him in his final resting place, it was a deeply emotional occasion for me. As a a result of this project I ended up leaving my library career in academia for a job with a charity that supports libraries in developing countries. When I joined the charity 5 years ago we did not have any programmes in Sierra Leone, but last year we were able to send books there for the first time since 2007, and this January I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country again on a monitoring trip. This second journey was deeply significant for me for more than one reason. In 2010 I had visited with an organisation that was trying to establish a library in the Freetown central prison. In the intervening years the library has been established, but had only a few out of date books. In my new job I was able to connect the dots and arrange for a donation of new books to the prison via one of our distribution partners. By sheer coincidence, my monitoring trip in January coincided with the official handover ceremony of the books we had sent last year. I was able to visit the prison library I had helped, in a small way,  to set up, and meet some of the prisoners whose lives will be changed, with opportunities for literacy, education and (virtual) escape, by having access to these books.

And I was able to visit the grave again, and this time I took a flowering bush to plant in his memory. Mum’s brother is buried in the Commonwealth Graves Commission cemetery at King Tom in Freetown, a beautiful, tranquil spot overlooking the sea with its fierce undercurrents that claimed his life. It is immaculately maintained, with sparkling headstones arraigned with military precision commemorating many European, north American and Antipodean people who have lost their lives there, not only those in the armed forces: there are merchant seamen and civilians buried here too. My taxi driver at first took me by mistake to the public cemetery, which was a stark contrast of unkempt, overgrown  graves with broken and vandalised stones and evidence of unpleasant activity.  He was astonished when we found the right cemetery, never having been aware of its existence before. I was pleased to find my uncle had a new headstone in place of the broken one I found there last time. The cemetery caretaker helped me to plant the bush and promised me faithfully he would water it every day; he seemed genuinely pleased that someone had come from Britain to visit a relative there, and evidently took pride in his work.

Planting my uncle's flower

Planting my uncle’s flower

King Tom Cemetery

King Tom Cemetery

I have never been as close to either of my brothers as our Mum was to hers, but blood, as they say, is thicker than water.

Happy birthday, Brother 1: you’ve done alright.

Me and my brothers 2011

With my brothers at my 50th birthday party in 2011: a rare event for the 3 of us to be together, and even rarer for Brother 1 (left) to have a pint of beer!

Mum Grannie Brother 1

Mum with her mother and first born son

Posted in 1930-1949, 1950s, 1960s, Lane family, Letters, cards and documents, Mum, Peggy Lane, nee Peigi Murray (maternal grandmother), Photographs | Tagged , | Leave a comment