Photo: Clifton Park, Rotherham, South Yorkshire, UK
Recently, I managed to attend a lunchtime talk at Clifton Park Museum, by a wonderful man called Jim Wilson about "Humber Keels". As friends will know, my Barrass roots go way back on the canals of Yorkshire. Generations of my ancestors were keelmen and women, master mariners, captains, mates, sailmakers, ship's carpenters and just about every other occupation associated with living around ports and inland waterways.It was surreal to hear Jim, who didn't know me from Adam (or Popeye!) as he spoke, talking about my Barrass ancestors by name.
He regaled us with tales of my distant Victorian third cousin three times removed, Pegleg Barrass, christened marginally less comically as Horace in Stainforth near Doncaster in 1889. Horace lost a leg as a young man in WW1, something to do with barbed wire, I believe, and with true Yorkshire Barrass grit, made his own wooden leg from boatbuilding offcuts going spare along the canal. Jim was rather scared of him as a child, as he seemed as exotic as Long John Silver to his young eyes!
Another relative who was a young lass in Stainforth in the 1950s once told me a tale of trying the door of the outside toilet shared by houses along the canal bank there. She rattled the "sneck" (handle) of the toilet door, but found it wouldn't open more than a crack because, as she thought, some prankster had jammed something against the door to stop folk entering. Seeing the obstruction was an old piece of driftwood, she ran off to tell her granny that someone had put a chair leg or a wheelbarrow in the lav! You're ahead of me, aren't you? Yes, it turned out to be our Pegleg sitting quietly on the loo with his wooden leg propped up against the door to repel boarders and ensure a bit of privacy! I told Jim this tale after his talk and we reminisced about the lives of our keel forebears.
When I got home, I looked at some census returns to see where Jim's Wilson family might fit in with my own canal genes. Sure enough, his granny was one of the Parish family, and my first cousin five times removed, Martha Barrass, born in 1814 married David Parish, a boat hauler along the river. Yes, when a horse wasn't available, or on sections of the canal too narrow to set the sails, the heavy barges were attached to a strap around the chest of a man or woman to be hauled along.
On the 1881 census, in the Old Harbour at Sculcoates in Hull, I found many keels moored together. Jim Wilson's great grandparents, James and Lucy Wilson, were there on board their keel "Kate" (named after one of Jim's great aunts, a little girl on the keel at that time) and, moored just two berths along the quay, one of our keels, the "Thistle". "Thistle"'s captain was my great great gran's brother, Thomas Barrass (born in Stainforth in 1839), and his mate was my great great great granddad, Samuel Barrass (b 1816, Stainforth). Also on board were Tom's wife, Mary Ann nee Brooke from Gainsborough and their three children, the youngest of whom, George went on to die in 1916 in WW1, when he was an acting corporal in the 6th battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment.
Family history never ceases to be a joy, whether it uncovers funny or tragic stories. I have my share of murderers, bigamists, eccentrics, suicides and adventurers but I think our Pegleg is perhaps one the more memorable to the citizens of Doncaster! Cheers, Horace!