Monday, 17 July 2017


Today our north was promised a broken future.

It made the news.

It made us cry.

I see the monster viaduct, the swathes of sweetness, cow parsley and paddock, cut by knives of ringing rails.

HS2 is coming to harm and haunt us.

I am feeling furious for the fields;
for the warren of whirling windfarm blades spinning in breezes on Penny Hill at Ulley;
for Thurcroft and the southern reaches of my Wickersley on her upland plain;
for Broadlands at Bramley;
for Hellaby, Braithwell, Firsby Reservoir;
for Hooton Roberts, where Vaughan Williams played croquet, learned the apple tree's lean on Linden Lea;
for Conisborough, its castled keep and bailey;
for Denaby Main, split by something more sinister than pick and pit;
for the floodplains of my beloved Dearne;
the Shimmer estate in Mexborough, cloven in half and hammered flat;

I am feeling heartbreak for my heartland;
for the souls caught in the soulless march of money;
for those whose homes will be demolished;
for those whose babies must be relocated;
for those whose children will be uprooted from familiar schools for classes across an alienating distance,
leaving friends in mixed up mayhem.

I am grieving
for lost lads and lasses, their amenities, homes, communities gone;
for the disabled, the disadvantaged, the disoriented poor,
facilities snatched away, shattered, scattered,
subjected to demolition, compulsory purchased;

I am up in arms
for people's daily lives razed by arbitrary mandates from on high;
for our farms, our wildlife, our fragile habitats, noble nature,
irreplaceable treasures destroyed on a whim;
for our woods, our blessed places, our countryside,
green fields that will be gone
when HS2 belts blazing through.

It will not stop to nod to us,
nor note our tears,
the absence of bat, newt and bumblebee,
the wandering death of hedgehogs.

Shame on greed.

Shame on the gravy train.

Saturday, 15 July 2017


Someone said you were 
Well dressed.

I tried to see it in you.
I gazed down into your depth,
Your mossy brickwork,
Your echoing hollow of plipping dark.

I hauled up your pail, hand over hand,
Thirsty for a drink.

I made eye contact with myself 
In your lichen circled mirror,
Coins thrown, making wishes.

I whispered a blessing
Over chaplets of daisy and cinquefoil,
Withering woodruff woven
Sticky Willy,

You had spelled your own name
In stitches of myosotis,
Instead of the local saint's.

Chlorophyll clouds dried
On boards of salt and clay,
Straws strewn on water,

"Don't fall in!"
A dove flustered out of the copse
A startled naiad
I grabbed your rail,
Recovering my balance,
Blinded by your shimmer,
Newly baptised,
Baby fresh

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

ALL MY GRANDFATHERS GREAT: 4. The one who was a 'bit of a lad' and a bigamist

James Wallace in his army uniform in the 1880s

Last in this series of blogposts about 'all my grandfathers great', concerns my maternal grandma's father. He was James Wallace, a lucky Jim who was known in our family in hushed tones as a 'bit of a lad', the one who was a saw maker, had an extra tooth in his lower jaw and was a bigamist.

Jim was born to a Sheffield cutler, Charles Wallace b 1824 with distant Scottish roots, who became a professional vocalist, travelling round the northern counties singing in the Music Halls, and his second wife, an Irish lass, Mary Ann Bray who had, I believe, come over to the north of England in the wake of the Irish 'Great Hunger', the mass starvation of the 1840s.

Jim used to tell my grandma and her elder daughter Phyllis, my aunt, how he "went round singing on my father's knee." Jim was born in Hanley, Stoke on Trent, while the family were touring there in 1859. A younger brother, Albert, was born in Bradford the following year, and other siblings were born in Sheffield and Leeds. Censuses and certificates show the itinerant family in other venues such as Halifax, a place that would become especially significant later in Jim's life.

Jim was always a restless soul, having grown up on the road, in and out of places of entertainment. I get the impression his boredom threshold was set very low! As soon as he was old enough, after the deaths of his parents, he joined the Army in the Prince of Wales Own Yorkshire Regiment and served in India from 1880-1892. He used to tell his own children when they were slouching at the dinner table:

"Sit up straight, because I was in the army in India!"

His army records reveal, among other gems, that he spent a lot of time in the military hospital in India with malaria every hot season and with an injury from being knocked out with a cricket ball. Whether intentionally is not revealed! He also had an extra tooth in his lower jaw, something I inherited from him, or rather I have inherited the space where that tooth should be, which dentists have remarked on, mystified.

On one of his furloughs from the army in 1887, he was back in Sheffield to marry Alice Jane Seagrave, my great grandma, by whom he had a daughter, Annie Lilian, known as Lil or Lily, a son James Victor and another daughter, my maternal gran, Elsie, born the year he left the army. Looking back, it becomes evident that once he'd left the army, life at home with a family was a bit tame for 'bit of a lad' Jim.

In a short space of time, he had moved his family in with a local girl, 13 years younger than Jim, who ran a local Sheffield Dining Rooms on the premises where my grandma was born in 1892. This lass was an invalid for much of her short life, with TB, and must have been glad of the extra rent from Jim. They had a child together just five years after my grandma was born, a boy who was a brother adored by my gran and taken in most willingly by Alice Jane after the early death of his mother.

At this stage, rather than living in the same house as landlady and tenants, they were living next door, and Jim was the informant present at his lover's death. The lad's great grandma insisted , rightly, that Jim take his responsibility to his son seriously, not a hard ask given the lad's adorable personality and the fact he was already very much considered part of the family, then and ever after. The mind boggles at the brazen way Jim went about things, though! Oh, to have been a fly on the wall to hear the polite conversation at the breakfast table once my long-suffering 'wouldn't say boo to a goose' great grandma Alice Jane knew what he had been up to for so long behind her back and under her nose and roof.

Jim did various jobs up to his retirement: tool maker, saw maker (his mother was part of the Davenport saw manufacturing dynasty in Sheffield), bicycle maker, invoice clerk, spade and shovel maker. From his children's school records, it seems Jim was not always around. No surprise there! Ever the wanderer with an eye to the main chance, a charmer who inevitably came up smelling of roses, in 1921, when my gran Elsie was holding her eldest newborn child in her arms, her father was on a flying visit, and said as he left:

"Well, Elsie, I'll see you when I come back!"

"IF you come back..." my grandma said wistfully.

She adored him but knew him too well to fall for his patter. She was right that she would never see him again, that he would never again live with her mum. But nobody could have predicted what would happen next, as Jim reached his mid sixties.

Remember Halifax? That's where Jim's father and mother had married back in 1853 when they were travelling vocalists. In 1924, leaving no traces back in Sheffield, Jim, still married to my great grandmother, was in Halifax in his retirement, claiming to be a widower. There, he married another Alice, bigamously, under the name James Maitland Wallace. He used his uncle Henry's name in place of his father Charles's on the illegal certificate, and claimed to be still in his late 50s!

Nobody knows where he dreamed up the name Maitland. Perhaps drawing on his pride in his distant Scottish roots? It kept me off his trail for many a long year! The only clue I could trace is that the minister who officiated at the wedding of Jim's younger son, my great uncle by the family's landlady, which took place in Sheffield that same year, had Maitland as his surname. Who can tell if it wasn't some bizarre joke on Jim's part? In any case, it kept him one step ahead of the law. Meanwhile, my great grandmother Alice Jane went to live with their eldest daughter, only dying in 1933.

His eldest lass Lil took his secret to her grave, and did her level best to save his skin. She buried her mother in the Seagrave family grave in Sheffield General Cemetery as a "widow". Nobody but close family would be any the wiser till I started digging seventy years later!

James, to his credit, faithfully nursed and cared for his second Alice till her death after a long illness in Halifax. During the Second World War his eldest daughter Lil sent my aunt, her niece Phyllis, to check Jim was safe during the blitz. She was the only person alive who had his secret address. My aunt remembered spending the night in the same bed as Alice Mk II in their tiny terraced house that stank of gas. Goodness knows how Jim explained to poor Alice who this lass was who had turned up out of nowhere claiming to be his granddaughter, from the family he dared not speak about for fear of the long arm of the bigamy law!

Towards the end of WW2, in January 1945, Jim turned up unexpectedly at my grandma Elsie's funeral, his youngest daughter who had died unexpectedly at 52 from heart trouble. My aunt clearly remembered the tears in his eyes. Jim himself had angina from the age of 42, but went on to live to the ripe old age of 92. He spent his twilight years with daughter Lil and her family in Cheshire, not far from where his first and only legal spouse, Alice Jane, had also died twenty years previously.

On his 90th birthday, my uncles arranged to fulfil their errant grandfather's ambition of going in an aeroplane at Manchester Ringwood Airport. Irresistible to the end, he always got his way!

Oh what a tangled web we weave, and all that. But those tangled webs are the stuff family history is made of. We genealogical armchair detectives wouldn't have it any other way. Those weavings are the very substance of who we are and where we have come from, what binds us together with so many fascinating silken threads of memory and mitochondria.

Great grandfather Jim in old age, dapper to the end

Monday, 3 July 2017

ALL MY GRANDFATHERS GREAT: 3. The one who was an inventor and went bankrupt

My Great Grandfather, Charles the cabinet maker
The third of my great grandfathers is on my maternal side, my mum's dad's dad.

Charles Mamwell was the eighth of nine children born to Christopher, a cottager (farmer) in the tiny village of Grainthorpe, a couple of miles inland from the bleak coast of Lincolnshire and Mary Townend, a lass from the neighbouring village of Marshchapel. The year was 1839 and the new Queen Victoria had been on the English throne for two years.

Charles's ancestors had lived in Lincolnshire, farmers, builders, fishermen since at least the 1590s. He was apprenticed as a cabinet maker and to better his employment prospects, moved north to the steel city of Sheffield in the West Riding of Yorkshire, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1860s.

There Charles met and married Elizabeth Oldfield, niece of Sheffield philanthropist and businessman James Howarth, an Edge and Joiner's Tool Manufacturer, her mother's elder brother who had founded the firm Howarth and Sons. Charles must have felt at the top of his game, with premises on Fitzwilliam Street and later a shop on Queen's Road at Heeley.

One of his nephews, his brother William's lad from Grainthorpe, came to Sheffield to learn the cabinet making craft from Charles as his apprentice at the beginning of the 1870s. However, this nephew, William, never became a rival cabinet maker in the city. Instead he wandered the country doing various carpentry jobs, before ending up in Blackpool, on South Beach, where he set himself up as a phrenologist with the tag-line: "Prof W. Manwell (sic); private sessions 1s/6d". Bump-feeling was a popular pseudo-science at the time.

Back in Sheffield, Charles and Elizabeth had three daughters: the eldest a skillful left-handed hosier and draper called Helen and her younger sisters Alice, a midwife and Ada, a cook. Another child, a son called Charles Arthur Oldfield Mamwell died in infancy of convulsions. Charles travelled back to  visit his folks in his native Grainthorpe regularly, and his younger children were baptised in the Parish Church of St Clement's there in the village.

Helen was born with a facial birthmark which, by the estimation of those times, disfigured her. Wanting the best for Helen, Charles paid for treatment from what we might call a 'quack' doctor, which must have cost him very dearly. Not long afterwards, he declared bankruptcy. The sad saga of his creditors and debts I discovered in the pages of the Sheffield newspapers, in stark contrast to the joyful announcements of his marriage to Elizabeth only a few years before.

This 'treatment' left Helen so damaged that she was compelled to wear a veil over the affected side of her face for the rest of her short life. Gradually, her face was eaten away as the mole grew cancerous and she eventually died at the age of 47, after many years of stoical suffering while carrying on her drapery business at a shop in Broomhall, of carcinoma of the larynx. Charles did not survive to see the final years of Helen' life, perhaps mercifully, as he never forgave himself for his well-intentioned intervention.

Two years after the death of their infant son, Charles' first wife Elizabeth also died at the age of 35. You can trace the course of Charles' grief by looking at his writing in the family Bible, where he recorded all the births, deaths and marriages of his family in the middle pages under tissue paper inserts. In the days before Elizabeth died, his looping copperplate script is a thing of beauty. Later, the letters crowd and sag, reflecting his grief and despondency as his life spiralled down from those first hopes and dreams.

Alongside his cabinet making, Charles was an inventor. He invented a hinge for a school desk. It never rains but it pours. When he showed his design to a man who promised he would take it to patent it for Charles, this same charlatan stole the design and passed it off as his own. I inherited the article in a newspaper cut out and saved by my great grandfather, praising this other man for "his" ingenious invention. One more nail in the coffin of Charles's high hopes of success and security for himself and his family. I also have his prototype model of the hinge, still in the original buff envelope in which he kept it ready to make his family's fortune, and an oak chest with his business plate lovingly hammered into the dovetailed wooden joinery.

Elizabeth Thompson Mamwell, b 1848, my great grandma and Charles' second wife

Charles hired another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Thompson, a cobbler's daughter, to help look after his young girls when he was widowed. My great grandmother was a sunny, capable, humorous lass, and they fell in love and married the following year. They went on to have another two daughters and, finally, a surviving son, my maternal grandfather, Chris, born in Tipton Street, Wincobank in 1889.

They moved further out into the Sheffield suburbs, to Chesterfield Road, Norton Within, where, at the age of 63, Charles died of apoplexy, a broken man. He is buried with Helen and my great grandma in the cemetery at Norton Lees, overlooking the gorgeous Peak District that was the backdrop to his hopes and his hardships.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

ALL MY GRANDFATHERS GREAT: 2. The one who spelled his name wrongly and whose bones went to chalk

The second tale of my grandfathers great kicks off a little further south, in the Erewash Valley in the English Midlands, on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Last blog, you met my ancestor Thomas Barrass. My other paternal Great Grandfather was James Ellis, born in Awsworth in Nottinghamshire in 1874, the eldest boy in a family of eight siblings in a mining family in a mining community.

I have no photos of James, but I'm told he was tall and spare, and according to my dad's cousin, I am the spitting image of him, which I take as more of a compliment than she perhaps meant it to be!

The nearest I can come to knowing what he looked like, short of looking in the mirror and cutting my hair in a short back and sides from the start of the last century, are these photos of James's younger brother William Henry, whose lovely granddaughter I went to school with, still my dear friend, who lent me this picture:

William Henry Ellis, my great granduncle b 1884 in WW1
James's surname, "Ellis" was wrongly written as "Ellies" on his parents' wedding certificate, and on James's own birth certificate. His siblings had no scruples about shruggling off this error, but it seems James was more wary. On the 1911 census, when James was sharing a house with his younger brother William's family, William fills in his bit of the return as "Ellis" but no! Great Granddad James dutifully writes "Ellies". He doesn't want the men from the ministry making trouble, now, does he?

James worked as a miner down the pits of the Nottinghamshire Coalfield and married a local lass, from nearby Ilkeston, Mary Ann 'Big Polly' Stenson. The Stensons had given their name to Stenson's Lock on the Erewash Canal, as many of Polly's ancestors had worked on the canal as wharfingers and lock keepers. They had two children, my paternal grandma Mary Elizabeth 'Little Polly' and her younger brother Lambert. Sadly, Lambert died of tubercular meningitis and exhaustion when he was just six years old. James was present at the death in Nottingham General Hospital. There were no more children, and I grew up imagining my grandma was an only child, like me.

When the Barnsley coal seam was discovered in the later years of the nineteenth century, new pits began opening on the South Yorkshire coalfield. Some of James's family, including some of his brothers and inlaws, moved north to work in these new areas.  James and his two Pollys, big and little, left the scene of the loss of their beloved Lambert and settled close to where his relatives were already telling stories of Yorkshire hospitality, in the village of Goldthorpe, nestled in South Yorkshire's Dearne Valley.

James worked as a dataller (a worker hired or paid by the day) at Hickleton Main colliery until crippling rheumatoid arthritis confined him to a water bed upstairs in their cramped terraced house. He never left that bed again. As my gran always told me:

"His bones went to chalk" 

which I learned as a fact till his death certificate told me the full truth many years later. Cerebral hemorrhage, arteriosclerosis and his long-term rheumatoid arthritis ended James' life at just 56 years old.

He is buried in Bolton-on-Dearne cemetery with his Polly and close to other members of the family. From the Erewash Valley to the Dearne Valley. My grandma was always proud of her Ilkeston roots, and so am I. Going back there once I had unravelled the history was one of the most moving of my genealogical adventures. I can't explain how much it felt like home from home.

One bonus discovery I made along the journey to discover my great grandfather's story: James's elder sister Charlotte was aunt by marriage to the successful and popular Ilkeston-born jockey, Elijah 'The Whippet' Wheatley, who won the 1913 St Leger on Night Hawk, and married famous music hall star Marie Lloyd's sister Maud. We genealogists have to grab our claims to fame with both hands, whenever we find them, you know!

Mary Elizabeth "Little Polly" Barrass, nee Ellis, my paternal grandmother, only surviving child of James Ellis and Mary Ann "Big Polly" Stenson Ellis 

Saturday, 1 July 2017

ALL MY GRANDFATHERS GREAT: 1. The one who worked with horses, dreamed of sheep and kept secrets

Yours truly at Huggin Carr, Hatfield Woodhouse near Doncaster in 2003, where my great grandfather Thomas Barrass worked as a farm lad in 1871 aged 14

Family history is so giddily glorious! (At least, it is to those of us who have ever been bitten by the genealogy bug!)

Years of trawling round gusty graveyards, scrutinising old photos, traipsing round records offices, perusing births, marriages, deaths, going cross-eyed over newspaper cuttings, chasing up family rumours, and I feel like I know many of my kin from a bygone age.

Can't text them. Can't email them. Can't Skype them.

But I feel like I know many of my ancestors better than I know some of my living friends and family! They run through my dreams. They inhabit my heart. They echo through my writing.

My four great grandfathers are right up there, jostling for attention, to be known and named and nattered about, long after they died in the days before I was born. Like the best of friends, I'd like to introduce them to you. Grab a cuppa - incoming series of four!

First there's Thomas, the one who worked on farms with horses and narrowly avoided causing me to be a Bottom. Thomas Barrass was a man of many secrets.

I have no photos of Thomas. No photographs of my dad's side of the ancestors survived the bonfires kindled by one over-zealous married-in relation who decided, after my grandfather's death, that tidy drawers and clean breaks were preferable to pictures of your husband's unknown Victorian ancestors grinning back at you in sepia.

The family rarely spoke about Thomas. He was born in 1857, in a run-down area of Hull near the docks called Chaffer's Alley, long since swept away by slum reforms. This was where his mother Charlotte's ancestors had been mariners and keelmen, shuttling between the port and the canals and waterways they called home for generations.

Thomas was born under a double shadow. No father was named on his birth certificate. The shame that went with that in the past is hard for us to grasp today. Only a year earlier, his mother had been in the farmhouse when her grandmother, a Yorkshire farmer's wife and daughter of a seafaring man, slit her own throat with a penknife while suffering from 'melancholy' on a cold winter night while lying in bed next to her husband of half a century. That tragedy split and scattered Thomas's family.

His mother hastily married a kind man who seems more than likely to have been Thomas's father, a yeast and bacon dealer, a cordwainer's son from a tiny village near Doncaster, as soon as she was free from the responsibility of caring for her devastated grandfather, after whom Thomas was named. They married at Thorne Register Office in October 1861, a matter of weeks after Charlotte's grandfather passed away. Had the marriage taken place a few years earlier, Thomas's descendants, myself included, would not have inherited his mother's surname, Barrass, but that of his putative father, Bottom. I'm truly thankful for small mercies!

When he was just seven, Thomas's mum died from galloping tuberculosis just before her thirtieth birthday. Little Thomas was like the cuckoo in the nest when his widowed father wed again, going on to have many more children who bore his own blushfully preposterous surname. (Sorry, Bottoms up!)

Thomas worked as a young lad on local farms. He had a special affinity for horses. He had less affinity for writing, as his childlike spidery signature in the marriage register shows. He made up a name for his father (his own name) and put 'tailor' as his father's profession, grasping at the idea, perhaps, because his mother was a seamstress and dressmaker.

He soon felt the wanderlust that ran in his veins, but instead of sailcloth and tide, he followed the call of the earth from his great grandfather's farming blood. Thomas moved away from the flat farmland around Doncaster to the hills and valleys near Barnsley, first to Bolton-on-Dearne, where he married a lass whose relatives were, in contrast to Thomas, chatty, jokey, confident, open.

Thomas and Eliza had ten children, including twins and my paternal granddad. How they all subsisted in a tiny tied farm cottage at the bizarrely-named 'Rockley Bottom' near what is now Worsborough Country Park, is an enduring mystery. In fact, Eliza didn't survive for long. At forty-seven, after another short move to Upper Hoyland, cerebral meningitis snatched her from Thomas's side. This new blow left him struggling to bring up his large family alone. The eldest girl, Blanche, became a mother figure to her younger siblings.

Luke and John (Jack), twin sons of Thomas b 1893

Newly bereaved, Thomas decided, along with many other Yorkshiremen of the day, to seek his fortune at the other side of the world. The Patagonian sheep farming boom was still a draw for struggling agricultural labourers of the Old World. Thomas is listed in the ship's manifest as "Thos Barries", shepherd, travelling steerage to Punta Arenas (as his son Joseph told his own son Joe) on 27th September 1906 from Liverpool on the "Oriana" with many other farmers and shepherds. Eliza had died in April the year before.

It seems an unlikely move for an unambitious soul like Thomas, but life had already thrown all it could to scupper his happiness - suicide, illegitimacy, rejection, widowhood, poverty. He had very little left to lose. So he sailed to Chile's Punta Arenas, bound for Argentina in the early years of the new century to seek his fortune on the sheep farms, opportunities offered as an incentive to emigrate in the local newspapers at the time. But he soon returned to South Yorkshire. The best of the boom was long past. It wasn't the first boat Thomas had missed.

In his declining years, Thomas seems to have been a regular guest at the seasonal celebrations of his children's families, particularly his twin sons' families in Ackworth, a taciturn ghost at the feast, giving little away, of words or goods.

I learned from a cousin of my dad's, one of the twins' children, how Thomas was a man of very few words. No wonder. He had so many secrets to keep, not least suicide and bastardy, which in those days attracted discrimination and judgment from society.

His wife Eliza's family, the Wrights, used to tease Thomas, get him drunk, mock him, emphasising his otherness in their eyes. Dad's cousin, a child in the 1920s, remembers Thomas jingling half a crown in his pocket for ages, a coin his grandchildren thought he was going to give them as a treat before he left for his own cottage. As he left, having eaten and lodged for free over Christmas, he would grudgingly give them just a few pennies instead. They saw only a miserly freeloading old man. As a more distant descendant with the fuller picture laid out in the branches of my family tree, I have the luxury of judging him less harshly.

By 1911, Thomas was living with his son, my granddad, in Goldthorpe, in retirement from his labouring, but he did not stay in one place for long. He moved to his last home on Longfields Crescent in Hoyland, near to where his youngest child, Grace, lived with her husband and children in a caravan, not far from where Eliza had died. Perhaps our love of compact living spaces, be it caravan, cottage or cabin, stems from Thomas's roots living aboard the Humber keels that were home to many generations of the Barrass family. His ancestors founded the keel community that grew up around Stainforth on his Barrass side, and were Thorne mariners on his Pattrick side. Blood and water - canal water, that is - are equally thick in our family!

Thomas died in the building used as the Barnsley Workhouse on Gawber Road, that later became St Helen's Hospital, now part of Barnsley District General Hospital. It was the summer of 1928, and Thomas was 71, suffering from the cardiovascular troubles common in his side of the family. His cause of death was given as valvular disease of the heart.

Many years ago, as I began to dig into our family history, I discovered how deeply hidden Thomas's roots lay. When I asked him the routine starter question about his grandparents' names, my father could only say, frowning in puzzlement,

"I have an idea they were William and Mary..."

That's all Thomas was for many years. Eliza too. Forgotten. Misunderstood. Question marks in the dim distance of time. The ancestors before them, too, were obscured by fogged opaque glass. Tragedy had sent them scuttling for cover, for anonymity, even to their own.

That's why I think telling our ancestors' stories is so healing and so important.

One great grandfather down.

Three to go.

Join me here on 'Pinwheels and Rainbows' tomorrow for the next.

Exploring my waterways roots on the West Cut Bank in Stainforth, near Doncaster, where Thomas's mother Charlotte and generations before and after her were born around the Stainforth & Keadby Canal