— Ivan Rendall, first paragraph of the introduction, Reaching for the Skies, 1988.
Welcome to my Home Page - continued.
The internet has lifted millions of ancestors out of obscurity, filling cracks and holes in history with real people. In my case it has, among others, given me a new and intimate portrait of my maternal grandmother. She died in 1956 when I was nine. I called her Nan-Nan. I felt she loved me, as she loved all her grandchildren. She was small, tough and strict, but even as a young boy I could sense that outside her immediate family she was pathologically shy, distant and uncommunicative. It was nearly always summer when we visited her, and they were happy, sunny times. However, the strongest sense I took home after the holidays was of a sad woman. My mother gave me scraps of information about her but it wasn’t until I researched the detail of my extended family online, that I began to understand the conspiracy of events that had made her sadness so profound.
Nan-Nan was a Creole, the second daughter of Granny Caroline whose family had settled in Jamaica in the seventeenth century, pushed out of Ireland by Cromwell. Her father was Lionel, the second son of an English baronet and a civil engineer; he had built railways in Africa, South America and the West Indies before marrying Caroline in Jamaica where they had four daughters and a son. Lionel died when Nan-Nan was six. Her family was split up: she and her elder sister Katherine were sent to live as semi-orphans, thousands of miles from their mother and younger siblings. They were brought up at Thirkleby, one of the great houses of Yorkshire, under the rod of her unusually strict and instinctively aristocratic Granny Frankland, her baronet son Ralph, and alongside her father’s Eton-educated nephew, William.
Nan-Nan lived with her ferocious granny even when the old lady retired to Hove where she died in 1913. Nan-Nan had been educated as marriage fodder but remained unmarried at 27 when she sailed to Jamaica to see her mother the same year. However, on the steamship she met a gentle and adoring Indian Army officer, William, a second generation Creole himself. He was on long leave from Bangalore and going visit his father who still ran several family estates in Jamaica. Nan-Nan’s formal chaperone sensed where her real duty lay: to encourage the romance rather than police it. Within two months Nan-Nan and William had been married in Spanish Town, the start of a long, devoted marriage.
My grandfather became Doody because Anne, their first child, born in 1914, could not say Daddy. Two days before their first wedding anniversary, the British Empire and Germany went to war. Six weeks later the first casualty in Nan-Nan’s family came at the Battle of the Marne: her cousin William, who was practically a brother, was declared missing believed dead and never found. His mother destroyed every portrait and photograph of him. A month later her cousin Philip was killed near Ypres less than 24 hours after arriving at The Front. And so it continued for four years: Nan-Nan’s brother, Maurice, died on the Somme, Doody’s brother Percy died of wounds as a prisoner of the Germans, Nan-Nan’s Jamaican cousins Charles, Ronald and Reginald, and Doody’s British and Australian cousins Andrew, Ralph, Noel and Owen were all killed.
Nan-Nan and Doody had moved from Bangalore to Quetta on the Northwest Frontier where Doody was an instructor at the Indian Army Officer Training School. That is where my mother was born in 1916. Weeks after her birth, Doody was sent to Mesopotamia where he led the engineers who bridged the River Tigris just south of Baghdad. In the process he was wounded in the legs, the groin and abdomen and spent a year in India recuperating. In France, Nan-Nan’s, younger sister, Olive had a similar experience when her husband, Harold, was wounded in almost exactly the same way. Two more of Doody’s cousins, William and Hugh, were less severely wounded in the arm and hand.
The physical and mental effects of wounds, and death continued after the war. Nan-Nan’s sister, Katherine, who had nursed British soldiers in Salonika, died of TB in 1920. Their cousin, another Reginald, had also contracted TB fighting in Macedonia; he married but died a year later. Another cousin she had played with as a child in Jamaica, Robert, contracted meningitis in the trenches leaving him totally deaf and was invalided out of the army. Another, Lionel, an ambulance driver, died young in Canada in 1926, having suffered from a nervous disease. Her uncle and surrogate father, Ralph, died in 1916, heartbroken, as did his brother a week later. Doody’s mother, Agnes, whom Nan-Nan hardly knew because of the war, died in 1919, a year after her son Percy was killed. One of Doody’s cousins, Marcell, a vicar who had volunteered in 1914 at the age of fifty-two, had a nervous breakdown then lived by preaching in London.
Neither Nan-Nan nor Doody spoke about the war, either what happened on the battlefield or at home. Yet twelve of Nan-Nan’s close male relatives and in-laws were killed in it, most of them unmarried and under 30. Others died of disease contracted as a direct result of it. Her husband’s and brother-in-law’s injuries left them both with permanent limps. Five of their cousins were wounded physically or mentally. Her children were shorn of uncles. Thirkleby was demolished in 1926. Nan-Nan did not come from an army family yet her Jamaican family, her grand family and her husband’s family all had been cut to pieces by war.
The world changed: the airs and graces she had learned from Granny Frankland were obsolete in the amoral, post-war society. She followed Doody’s career when he transferred to the British Army in 1920 though she could not bear to live on army camps so their four children grew up in rented, albeit rather grand, houses. She drove her own pony and trap when shopping but never learned to cook. She was a Christian but she held on to the dark superstitions of Jamaica’s folk religion, obeah, which she had absorbed as a small child. She was torn between loyalty to her Creole roots and obedience to her grand family which had plucked her from her mother.
She coped. Unlike millions of people who had been touched by the war, she was financially secure, indeed very secure given the bittersweet fact that she and Doody inherited greater wealth than they might have anticipated because the war had killed so many male relatives. How could she not have the deep underlying and ineradicable sadness? It had permeated deeply into the emotional certainties of the idea of the families she loved. I still feel Nan-Nan’s sadness, the more so since I have researched her extended family which I could not have done without the internet. I hope I’ve made her part of history.
I am writing this home page at home, at the kitchen table to be precise. I share the table and the home with my wife, several cats, and four chickens (though they live outside.) It is a second home to three children and four grandchildren. We live in the country; we live in a landscape. Like all landscapes it has a history, and much of that has been uncovered in the last twenty years from on-line archives.
Looking out of the kitchen window I can see our Green, about an acre of long grass and knapweed, teeming with insects, a timeless hunting ground for swallows and swifts. The Green has hardly changed in 1200 years, since Anglo-Saxon kings established it as a place to stand, graze and water cattle overnight, water that came from a well just outside my kitchen door. The Green is at a junction between two single-track, tarred roads which, with a fourth, un-tarred bridleway leads from the Green, to Dead Field’s Wood. On the other side of the wood is a junction with what is almost certainly a Neolithic pathway. It runs along a low ridge that protects the five houses which cluster around the Green from north winds. My wife, Heather, discovered a feral apple in a hedge not far from the Green; I like to think it harks back to the 17th and 18th centuries when travellers on foot could stop for lunch on the roadside and pluck a fresh apple for pudding. It has named locally, Wichenford Wonder, been grafted on to new rootstock, resurrected from obscurity and is now integrated into the history of our landscape. It will shortly be put on a new website, linked to other sites, building the network of local history websites.
The house was built as a barn in the seventeenth century. It has given up some of its secrets by digging in the fields: finds include dozens of clay pipes, a William & Mary halfpenny and shards of slipware pottery that fit together into parts of a bowl. It was converted into a home in 1838. In 1892, the owner bought five acres of land and planted an orchard. In 1910, he opened a shop in the front room which also housed the Post Office. Our public services today are thin: a fire hydrant, a post box marked EIIR, and two Parish Council noticeboards. Our natural amenities are more plentiful: from the front of the house you can see a ridge in the Cotswolds, about thirty miles away across a landscape of ancient trees and even more ancient fields, all full of history. Like all landscapes it has meaning and poetry, flowing with changing and unchanging ideas and facts, all full of history.
This website is about history, popular history. It covers landscape and events but above all it is about people and families, how they lived and what they did. In 1983 I worked on a television series for the BBC called Soldiers, a History of Men in Battle. It was presented by Frederick Forsythe and written by two military historians: John Keegan and Richard Holmes. They all did a great job but the stars were the old soldiers who spoke directly to the audience with all the authority of eyewitnesses and their personal experience on the battlefield. People put history in context and context makes history out of people. It is a virtuous circle. Computers are reshaping the way we live our whole lives, so the internet inevitably reshapes history at the same time, by embedding more and more people’s lives into a broader, deeper, human narrative.
We are not just digitising the past, making it instantly accessible, we are looking at history differently. Only a few years ago, it took months to research the archives for information on events, landscape and people. Today, it takes only a few hours to achieve the same result but crucially, the sources can be cross referred globally as well all without touching the original letters, diaries and photographs which are consequently better preserved. But arguably the biggest difference the internet has made to history is that the millions of records it delivers into the home are generated through detail, from the bottom up: small facts about people, things and how they interacted. Merging that detail into the historical record gives it a new perspective and a fresh context.