Ten Things you Didn’t Know About Stockport – or perhaps you do…

In no particular order…

Stockport Viaduct. The River Mersey’s banks are to the right where the trees are

1. Stockport per se is not in the 1086 Domesday Book compiled after the 1066 Norman invasion. However, nearby Bramhall (Bramale), held as two manors owned by freemen Brun and Hakun, was described as ‘a waste’ which is pretty ironic when Bramhall today is one of the most sought after residential areas in the borough. Bredbury (Bretberie in 1086) was owned by Richard de Vernon, a common name in Stockport including Vernon Park, Vernon Building Society, Vernon Primary School and Vernon Mill. Originally a cotton spinning mill, Vernon Mill is now under multi-business occupaption. Werneth (Warnet), Romiley (Rumelie), Cheadle (Cedde) and Norbury (Nordberie) also get brief mentions in the Domesday Book.

2. The River Mersey formed the ancient boundary between the Anglo Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria. It starts in Stockport town centre with the confluence of the Rivers Goyt and Tame and flows from here to Liverpool and the sea. Its name, first recorded in 1002 during King Ethelred’s reign as Mærse, literally means ‘river border’ and became the county border between Lancashire and Cheshire. Lancashire Hill was thus named because it’s on the Lancashire side of the river. Today, the Mersey runs beneath the 1960s-built shopping precinct, Mersey Way, revealed at one end of the pedestrianised section and at the ‘Bullring’ by Stockport Plaza cinema/theatre at the other. An anomaly today is that the part of Stockport to the Manchester border, even though it’s the ‘wrong’ ie Lancashire side of the river, is in Cheshire.

The River Mersey emerging at ‘the bullring’ from the tunnel under Mersey Way
Lancashire Bridge blue plaque on Stockport’s town centre bridge over the River Mersey

3. Although primarily remembered as a former hat (from the 1650s) and cotton town, Stockport was the site of England’s third silk spinning mill.  Built in 1732 on ‘the park’ on the bank of the River Goyt just before it merged with the Tame (point 2), Logwood Mill (later Park Mill) was set up by Italian-born John Guardivaglio aka Nathaniel Gartrevalli (imagine living in 1730s Stockport when no-one went abroad and never met anyone from Italy and repeat ‘Giovanni Guardivaglio‘ and ‘Nathaniel Gartrevalli‘ with an Italian/Manchester accent) who was given the dosh by six entrepreneurs. A noticeboard and map on Warren Street shows where Park Mill stood. John Gardivaglio arrived in England with industrial spy John Lombe (1793-1822) who, circa 1716, stole an extremely secret Italian process of spinning warp thread (organzine) from silk cocoons and the two fled Italy for their lives. John Guardivaglio remained in Stockport, marrying here at the old St Mary’s Parish Church, and was buried here (as a pauper) in 1788.  When silk spinning became economically unviable, Stockport span cotton. Its last hat factory closed in 1997.

Stockport Grammar School from 1832-1915 site plaque. on the wall beneath Stockport’s War Memorial
The former site of Stockport Grammar School on the corner of Greek St and the A6 from 1832 until its demolition during WW1. Stockport’s Art Gallery War Memorial stands there now

4. The second oldest school in the north of England, Stockport Grammar now sited in Davenport, was founded in 1487 by goldsmith and merchant Edmund Shaa. His legacy paid the wages of a priest to teach Latin and Greek grammar to local boys for free. In 1496, its teacher, John Randall, was paid £10.  The first lessons are believed to have been taught in St Mary’s Parish Church and from 1608, the school stood in Chestergate on land which is now the 1960s precinct. It remained here for over 200 years until relocating to Greek Street. In 1915, during World War I, it moved to its current location in Buston Road. Stockport’s Art Gallery War Memorial now stands on the site.   In 1482, Edmund Shaa was Lord Mayor of London and appears as such (although not named) in Shakespeare’s  Richard III.  Why? Because Edmund Shaa was involved in Richard of Gloucester’s usurpation of the throne when he became Richard III. There’s also a Shaa Road built in the 1880s on land owned by the Goldsmith’s Company in Acton, West London. A history of Stockport Grammar School can be found via this link.

5. The iconic viaduct built for the Manchester and Birmingham Railway Company (London & North Western Railway from 1846) was completed 40 December 1840 and the world’s largest viaduct at that time. Today, it’s still one of the world’s largest brick built edifices. Containing 22 arches 63 feet high (19.2m) built from about 11 million bricks, it took more than 600 men 21 months to build and was widened in 1887-1889 with a further 11 million bricks. The entrepreneurs behind the construction insisted all trains from Manchester, a mere ten or so minutes down the line, must stop at Stockport station hence why most still do today. The viaduct features in several L S Lowry paintings. The view of distant hills and Stockport below from the train crossing the viaduct is magnificent. 

6. If Trip Advisor existed when Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) was researching and writing his 1845 seminal work The Condition of the Working Class in England, Stockport would have received an appalling review. The above viaduct is also included in his commentary. Engels described Stockport as ‘one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent. But far more repulsive are the cottages and cellar dwellings of the working-class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of the town from the valley bottom to the crest of the hill. I do not remember to have seen so many cellars used as dwellings in any other town of this district.’ 

Friedrich Engels’ statue in First Street, Manchester. Engels wrote ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ whilst living in Manchester. He didn’t like Stockport

Thankfully, Stockport is more pleasant today and has some wonderful places to visit!

Stockport Grammar plaque on wall below Stockport’s Art Gallery War Memorial

Census 2021 – 220 years of number crunching

How do we know agricultural labourers formed the biggest employment group in 1841? Or that 1,038,791 people earned their living as servants in1851? Or if there are more women than men?  Why, a census of course. And 2021, is census year.

From the late eighteenth century, the industrial revolution was gobbling up the countryside and it felt like there were more people than ever – but unless you perform some sort of exercise to prove it, some type of head count, there’s no evidence to back up perception.

England and Wales have ‘counted’ their population every decade since 1801. For the three censuses between 1801-1831 only 791 listings (at parish level) have survived usually naming only the householder.

I love looking at old censuses. The 1841 is quirky. No relationships are recorded for the household so anyone in the same house could be related – or not. Ages are given; but for those over 15, they’re rounded to the nearest 5 years and, although the rule was to round down, the enumerator didn’t always follow instructions. Enumerators had to be literate but, of course, the majority of the working class in 1841 weren’t and, because the main householder was supposed to complete their own form, you can imagine issues resulting from illiteracy. Handwriting was appalling and numbers badly formed. Once the schedules were completed, they were collected by the enumerator and copied into handbooks. These are the documents we find online. Now consider the enumerator who couldn’t read the writing or the numbers. He did as accurate a job as he could but there are often mistakes. I’ve seen ‘Emm’ transcribed all number of things like Evans, Emms, Im or Emin and no, I’m not related to artist Tracey.

People were often recorded with a pet name so baby of the family could be ‘Billy’ not William and it was common to name children after their parents. A hypothetical example: let’s call both mum and daughter Elizabeth Jane. In the census, mum  might be ‘Betty’ and daughter ‘Jenny!’ This confuses an awful lot of family historians until they realise shouting ‘Bert’ in a household with Albert senior and Albert junior and another son called Herbert put everyone in a tizzy.

Census day was usually held in March or April (it’s Sunday 21st March in 2021) and the census counted everyone staying overnight at an address. This is why you find ‘visitor’ in some households;  often relatives – mum staying with son and daughter-in-law, or grandma visiting a new grandchild. 

Desperately poor families might rent out a room, cellar or attic to another family for extra income. These might be recorded as lodgers or enumerated in the same building as a separate household. What did this tell statisticians? The area was poor with a high density of population.

Where people originated from was another statistic extracted from the census. Twenty five per cent of Lancashire’s population in 1861 was from outside the county. Economic migration in process… The Irish were crossing the sea to Liverpool for employment. The railway network was expanding and people followed the railways from the south to the north or north to the south. Not only could agricultural workers leave the countryside to seek more profitable work elsewhere but they might even (often did) work for the railway companies.  As technology progressed, machinery replaced manual labour and the workforce deviated towards a different industry.  A 20th century example is the replacement of male clerks with female secretaries and huge typing pools full of women. Computerisation in the 21st century resulted in a proliferation of people working in IT. Where are those secretaries now?  Remember carbon paper?

The paper census of yesterday is largely digitised in 2021 but the trend of where we live, how we earn a crust and how long we live is as important as ever.

Of course, for family historians out there, we use the census for a completely different reason. Snooping on the progress of our family; how they loved, where they lived and how they improved their economic standing  – or not. The ups and downs throughout the centuries.

Can you remember what you were doing and where you were living in 2011 and 2001? Next year, 2022, the 1921 census will be released initially on FindMyPast (subscription). The 2021 census will be released to nosey parkers like you and me in 2121 so if anyone recently born reaches their centenary, they can see themselves in the palimpsest of history. 

For more information on the history of the census and what information was gathered over the years, see The National Archives and Family Search. And, if you are in England and the UK, relish in completing that form!

Tragic death and restitution in Stockport

Willow Grove Cemetery  is about a mile from where I live.  I don’t know about you, but I appreciate the serenity and peace of graveyards; their silence, the trees, flowers, birds and squirrels but, above all, long forgotten stories and personal tragedies.

The sign in Willow Grove Cemetery.

Willow Grove is punctuated by notice boards recounting histories of some residents. James Gaskell caught my eye. In a nutshell, the sign tells us James Gaskell, aged 37, died 11 October 1906 pushing a seven year old girl out of the way of an electric tram in Great Portwood Street, Stockport.   Erected by public subscription, the gravestone is ‘in admiration of the act of heroism.’

I spotted a discrepancy on  the gravestone itself.  He died, not in October but April 1906.  Inscribed at the bottom obscured by grass and pink clover was the name of his wife, Emily Jane Gaskell, buried alongside him.

James Gaskell gravestone

Not just because of the fundamental error on the noticeboard but in consideration of such a tragic yet ultimately heart-warming story, I had to investigate further.   

Did James and Emily have children?  What happened to them?  What about the little girl he saved?  What happened to her?  In effect, what happened next?

Bearing in mind reporters in the past made factual mistakes (not always their fault; illiterate people can’t spell their names and people often didn’t know how old they were), I turned to the BNA.

James Gaskell’s inquest was held on the 16th April 1906.   James was a hatter with wife and two children and the child he saved was ‘a little boy named Barrett.’  So much for the seven year old girl!

I started with hero James Gaskell.  In 1891, he was an apprentice hatter living with his parents (dad was a blacksmith striker) and six siblings at 179 Brinnington Rise (now Brinnington Rd) an extension of Great Portwood Street where James ultimately met his death.   His siblings worked in the cotton mills. Two years later James  married Bangalore-born Emily Jane Thompson and by 1901 James, Emily, their sons, 6 year old James and 3 year old Charles Edward, were living with granddad James Gaskell senior at 33 Hill Street, Portwood, Stockport.  Walking from home to Great Portland Street by passing their parish church, St Paul, would have taken about three minutes. 

Hill Street and the neighbouring streets no longer exist.   The Peel shopping centre now stands where once they did.  Portwood was (partly still is) an area of heavy industry; tanneries, bleach works, gas works, and mills sharing the banks of Rivers Tame and Goyt which, a little further on merge into the River Mersey eventually reaching the coast at Liverpool.   An 1899 map showing Great Portwood and Hill Streets is found at  https://maps.nls.uk/view/101598010

Who was the little boy Barrett James saved from a tram car? 

The surnameBarrett/Barratt is relatively common and in the 1901 census there were two boys of relevant age living in James’ road.    10 month old William Barratt was the son of a spindle maker and he and his family lived at No 28.  Born around June 1900, he was 5 or 6 at the time of the accident so I discounted him.     

In Howard Street, the other side of Great Portwood Street, was another contender.  However, Thomas Barratt was a policeman’s son and I think that would have been mentioned at the inquest and in newspapers.

However living at No 1 Hill Street was greengrocer Henry Barratt and wife Ellen.  Their son Fred was baptised  17 October 1898 making him  7½ in April 1906. 

James’ heroic action is now personal!   Not only did he spot the danger to a child but in a split second realised he knew the boy…  the greengrocer’s son at the end of his road!  And in a split second, James shoved a neighbour’s child out of the way of imminent death – and was killed himself.

What happened to the boy whose life was saved?    In 1911, the greengrocer’s family now swelled to three sons ranging in age from schoolboy Fred, 12, to baby Sidney, 2, had moved to 39 River Street; five people in three rooms.   Fred’s dad still ran his greengrocer’s shop so if it were here, the family were shoehorned upstairs.   Fred next surfaces in the 1939 Register as a paper storesman and Works’ Air Raid Warden/first aider thus repaying James’ gift of life.  Sharing his home in Jennings St., Edgeley, was wife Martha and daughter Vera.  Fred died at home 30 October 1943 having easily repaid James Gaskell’s sacrifice.

James’ two sons?     The subscription for their father’s heroism raised £381 including a donation of 5 guineas (£5 5s= £5.25 today) from James’ employers.   This was a lot of money at a time when £400 would buy a small house however in 1911, Emily Jane, her two sons and their grandad, James Snr, lived at the same address, 33 Hill St.  I can find no WW1 records for elder son James although he was 20 when the war began. He married Gladys Preston in 1928 and in 1939  the couple were at 79 Winifred  Rd., Davenport, where  James was employed as a heavy worker at the gas works.   Like Fred Barratt whose life was saved by James’ dad, he too was an ARP Warden.  James died, aged 80, in 1974.    

Younger brother Private Charles Edward, 8 when his father was killed, survived WW1 (Cheshire Regiment; discharged November 1919 back to 33 Hill St) and married Mary Watson in 1931.  He became a finance clerk for the local education authority and in 1939, the couple lived at 7 Arlington Drive, Woodsmoor (just over a mile from his brother) with her parents, retired butcher Fred, and Elizabeth.   Did Charles realise his father-in-law had the same name as the child James Gaskell had saved? 

James’ widow Emily Jane never left 33 Hill Street.  She was there in 1939.  It was her address when she died at St Thomas’ Hospital 10 November 1957. Charles inherited her estate of £645 – £200+  more than the subscription raised for her selfless husband.    When Emily Jane was reunited with her husband, she’d lived with his ghost in the same house for over 56 years. 

There’s no plaque to James Gaskell in London’s Postman’s Park which commemorates 62 people who sacrificed their lives saving others.   Perhaps there should be.

Willow Grove Cemetery showing the notice board and, two rows behind, James Gaskell’s gravestone

Bigamy bigamy – so good he married twice

For those of you in the UK, I hope you’re enjoying David Olusoga’s third BBC series A House through Time based on a Georgian house in Bristol.  In a recent episode, a programme ‘character’ was a shadowy guy who, in the late 1790s/early 1800s married a resident’s daughter by licence.   This chap was already married and his first wife was still alive…

Now I love this programme but content decisions are made due to time constraints and this episode omitted some really important and interesting points about marriage licences and bigamy so here goes…

Olusoga’s programme pointed out a £1,000 penalty for lying about ‘impediments’ on a marriage licence and explained it was to dissuade someone from committing bigamy.  £1,000 is a stiff fine today but at the turn of the 18/19th century was the equivalent of  over £83,000. Some disincentive! The programme glossed over the fact marrying by licence was quicker.  It was also more discrete!

The majority of couples married by banns.  This required the church minister to declare their names in the Sunday service for three consecutive weeks.  It gave a chance for someone in the congregation to speak out should they know one of the prospective couple was already married.  A current spouse is the ‘impediment’ in the phrase ‘does anyone know of an impediment?   Although we know it’s a formality to ask the question, everyone today still holds their breath for a fraction of a second.  What if…?

As a result of the nineteenth century population explosion, it was common in the 1840s, 50s and 60s for up to thirty (and more) couples to be married in the same church at the same time.  So many babies were born, mass baptisms were expedited.    

If you were prominent in a community; the lawyer, the family doctor, local squire, did you want to be married alongside a road sweeper, agricultural labour and spinner?  Of course not.  So you married by licence and paid more for the privacy it afforded.  As a bonus, your names weren’t prattled in front of the hoi palloi every Sunday for three consecutive weeks.   Nine months later, the baby was baptised privately…

Back to our house in Bristol and the bigamy element.  Until the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1857, divorce was impossible!   It required an individual Act of Parliament, a humungous amount of money and only 300 divorces in total were realised before this date.    

The penalty for bigamy at the beginning of the nineteenth century was more than severe.  A bigamist could be executed!        Yes, it was a capital felony until 1 July 1828.    The marriage licence penalty of £1,000 was well worth the risk.

Even into the twentieth century, a bigamous husband (it was usually the man) was fined and/or sent to prison for six months.

You can read more in my book Tracing your Female Ancestors.

Medieval trading practices – 2020!

When the world goes wrong, we revert to basics… no more self-service. Back to counter service only. I remember greengrocers beautifully displaying their wares, shiny apples to the front, perfect lettuces, radishes and potatoes to the back.  Touch them – you received a metaphorical slapped wrist.

Blaggs Hardware shop serving from their counter

Blaggs in Heaton Moor Road has been trading as a hardware and ironmongers’ shop for over a century.  In their house (built 1904), my next door neighbours have an original servant’s bell system supplied by this very company.

However, corona virus has resulted  in Blaggs changing their service to medieval trading practices – with a twentieth first century twist. Instead of entering the shop, a customer waited outside.  

Flashback more than half a millennium to the middle ages – this is what traders did then.  Instead of a counter, they dropped their window shutter into the street and, supported by ropes, their shutter transformed into a counter.  Wares were displayed on this or a table inside their workroom visible from the street.  In some parts of the world, Vietnam for instance,  it’s still often very similar.

The modern twist at Blaggs?  No cash or coins – only contactless!

Sadly, as I write this, Blaggs closed their doors to personal customers but are delivering to local customers.    Flashback again to when they first opened in the early Edwardian age. Then, they employed a delivery boy with hand cart or, if he were very lucky, a bicycle.

Treading the boards, an actor’s life, 1911

111 Wellington Road North, Stockport, today is a car showroom but 100 years ago, a seven-roomed theatrical boarding house stood on this site.  With regular trams puttering between between Stockport and Manchester city centre, it was a convenient bed-stop for strolling players and theatrical vagabonds.

On census night, 2nd April 1911, 25 year old Doane Gardiner was lodging in two rooms at this address where London-born Clara Hayes ran her theatrical digs business. His entry reads ‘actor, Shakespearean Repertoire, legitimate stage.’  This is a long way from his home as he intriguingly gives an address of c/o Morgan Grenfell & Co, London EC (his bank) and place of birth as Albany, New York. So what on earth was this chap doing in Stockport?  A romantic version of the wild west?

Doane’s description of himself was very specific. What was repertoire and legitimate theatre? Even in the theatre, the class system ruled.  Doane was a Bishop’s grandson, so there was no way he would have performed in risque music hall. No, Doane was a serious thespian hence his care in the census records. Repertoire was an established theatrical tradition; actors performed a production six nights a week plus two matinees whilst rehearsing their next production. They might even perform several different plays in one week. In 1911, there were not paid for rehearsals soit was a hard graft indeed. Anyone with theatrical aspirations took the menial position of assistant stage manager supporting the stage manager with props, sound effects, and rehearsals – whilst taking on smaller roles as cast all whilst learning on the job. Meanwhile, many theatrical troupes travelled round the country from venue to venue – a week here, a week there, travelling by train and staying in digs which they paid for out of their salary. Tough.

So why was an actor from New York performing in Stockport of all places?  A quick scan of the 31st March 1911 edition of the Stockport Advertiser reveals an advertisement for The Theatre Royal Stockport (long since demolished) in St Peter’s Square three or four tram stops from Doane’s digs.   The theatrical offering for discerning Stopfordians that week was a different Shakespeare play each night, a choice including Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Othello, Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It. There was more of the same the following week. Doane was not headlining.

A year earlier, in the US 1910 census, Doane is found, an actor, living with his parents in New York.  His sister Margaret, by the way, became a suffragist. To discover what our potential leading man looked like, his application  for a US passport  in June 1906 revealed a student at Harvard University; 5ft 10” tall (taller than the average Englishman), a small mouth, prominent chin, high forehead, brown hair, grey blue eyes, roman nose and oval face. Hamlet anyone?  He intended to return to the USA within five months.

As an American citizen, he was under no obligation to fight for the British Army when we went to war against Germany in 1914. However on the 30 November, just three months after England had declared war, he became a naturalised British Citizen. His occupation? Actor and stage manager. The US Adjutant General Military Records testify what happened next.

‘Enlisted private Machine Gun Corps, British Army 1914; transferred to Inns of Court Officers’ Training Corps; promoted corporal January 1915; commissioned 2d lieutenant 3rd Reserve Battalion, City of London Royal Fusiliers in April; served as officer in charge of Zeppelin observation posts; commission lieutenant January 1916; went to France in November; organisation attached to British 4th Army; transferred to supply service; with Army of Occupation, Germany; returned to England and demobilized February 1919.  Engagements: Flanders 1916 and 1917. Twice mentioned in despatches.’

What a hero!

Divorce 1900 style

My cousin got divorced in the 1940s.  It took her years to live down the shame.  I never understood why a woman felt humiliated by chucking in an abusive partner who beat her up – or why neighbours gossiped behind their hands about this ‘scarlet woman.’  He, on the other hand, was regarded as just one of the lads…   Imagine, therefore, how a woman was treated in the 1890s! 

Before 1857, just over 300 marriages ended in divorce.  Let me rephrase that.  Before 1857, for a married person to wed someone else, he (it was inevitably the husband) had to obtain a Private Act of Parliament. Only the exceedingly wealthy could afford one and the only permissible justification for divorce was adultery.  Because it was an individual Act of Parliament, the paperwork for 314 divorces is stored in the archives at the Houses of Parliament…  

As for everyone else… they didn’t bother.   

Following legislation in 1857, it became slightly easier but still expensive.  And, because divorce courts were only tried in London and, because the background to a divorce was generally juicy, divorce hearings and their sordid details were published in local and national newspapers. News of the screws indeed.

This is the backdrop to a story I discovered about Scottish-born Ellen Frances Addie who’d grown up in an affluent area of Stockport; Heaton Moor.  On the 16th November 1892, 22 year old Ellen married Frederick Pickard, also 22, at the local congregational church.  For a short while they were in Douglas on the Isle of Man before returning to Heaton Moor to live with her parents in Lea Road.  They’d been married less than a year.  As Ellen was already pregnant, perhaps she wanted the support of her mum; she certainly wasn’t getting it from Frederick.

Lea Road, Heaton Moor, Stockport.
© Adèle Emm 
Lea Road, Heaton Moor, Stockport
© Adèle Emm   

It gets worse.  As I read the petition (Ancestry, subscription), my jaw dropped lower and lower and the ‘Oh my Gods!’ grew louder and louder.  Today, we might laugh.  To a late Victorian this was… well… indescribably shocking. 

Ellen’s divorce petition (24th April 1900) explains what happened next.  On 1st November 1893 Frederick ‘has since lived separate and apart from her and discarded her without reasonable excuse.’   Less than a month after leaving his wife, their daughter Marie is born.  Callous brute.

Not only had Frederick deserted her but, on the 25th April 1898 under the assumed name of Frederick Cecil Gill he ‘married’ Catherine Phelan at St Joseph’s Church, New York, USA.  Bigamously! By November 1898, Catherine Phelan, too, had given birth. A son. Did she know Fred was already married?  Did she care? We might never know. To compound Ellen’s chagrin, all dates and places of her husband’s binky-bonky were announced, in public, to the London court.

Ellen’s petition was undefended.  Frederick, presumably pursuing the American high life with ‘wife’ Catherine, didn’t attend the court hearing.   Ellen’s decree nisi was granted 12 November 1900 and her decree absolute 20 May 1901.  About a fortnight afterwards, a free woman, she married second husband James Barker.

Of course the neighbours knew about the divorce. Details were published in the Manchester newspapers twice in the same week – just in case someone missed them the first time.  

After remarrying, Ellen set up home with her eight year old daughter, Marie, and new husband a few hundred yards from her parents who were still living in Lea Road. Memories are long.   Was the behind-the-back gossip too painful?  Within a handful of years Ellen and James had relocated their growing family (four more daughters) to Southport, Lancashire. They were now well out of earshot of the scandal. They were still there in 1939.

You can read more about the mechanics of divorce 1815-1914 in Tracing Your Female Ancestors.

My Ancestors Worked in Textile Mills

You might be pleased to know my latest book will be published by the Society of Genealogists in mid January 2020. I’m delighted! What a fabulous start to the New Year!

My books always take a year to research and write; a long all-consuming chunk out of a life. There are the inevitable ups and downs of research, writing and editing but I get to travel all around the country visiting libraries, museums, and parts of the country I would never normally think of visiting.

Writing non-fiction and finding a publisher is very different to writing fiction and getting a novel published. But all authors, whether fiction or non-fiction, before they get a contract, have to have a germ of the idea, a proposal, contact with an agent/publisher and endless negotiations…. I have written novels (a very long time ago) and, although they travelled a long way down the publication route, they’ve never seen the shelf of a bookshop. Like Dracula, the manuscripts rest ‘undead’ in my cellar.

Novelists insist fictional characters become friends and, like friends, lead a life of their own. I remember, when writing one of my ill-fated novels, the keyboard took over my fingers and a favourite character ended up under a lorry. Was she dead? Did I resurrect her? Non fiction is similar. With a 55,000 word count, there is a huge amount of culling and editing. What is relevant? What isn’t? Instead of characters, you have facts and themes – but for me, there are always stories within the hi-story. Whenever I conduct family history research, it’s the stories behind those dates, facts and place names that fascinate me and, whenever possible, I integrate them into my textbooks.

Chinese Soap Berry Tree

This October, I was in Taroko Gorge, Taiwan,  where I spotted a sapindus mukorossi tree.  What the heck?  I hear you ask.  Good question.   Used to wash clothes, dishes and hair, the Chinese Soap Berry was the equivalent of our soapwort (saponaria officinalis, also called wild sweet William), a poisonous plant found in parts of the UK countryside.  Because soapwort contains saponin, a natural toxin which, when shaken with water, makes foam, leaves and/or roots were boiled up by our ancestors for a free cleaning agent. Remember, from 1712-1853, soap in the UK was taxed.  Just imagine that!!!!    

Chinese Soap Berry tree, sapindus mukorossi, Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

For the Taiwanese, depending on the season, they used the skin of the berry or the bark, both of which contain saponin.  When berries were  available,  they used them to make soap bubbles but in winter, people used the bark.  Wrapped in cloth, it was squeezed to make those all-important bubbles. Of course, once chemical agents had been invented, the poor old soap berry tree went out of favour.  Who wanted the hard graft of fuddy duddy methods when it could be bought ready made?  Fashions change so recently Grandma’s more environmentally-friendly natural products have returned to favour.

Click here to learn more about the lives of our female ancestors.

What have white rabbits, 1st of the month and Alice in Wonderland got in common?

Answer; Beverley in Yorkshire’s  East Riding

Well Mr White Rabbit of St Mary’s Beverley. Why can’t I turn you upright like I did when I edited it… You are seriously relaxed!

I’ve just been to Beverley Yorkshire and it was wonderful; a mad mix of architectural eras (including a snug local pub still lit by gas), the enormous Beverley Minster, the race course and two markets – the Saturday and Wednesday markets higgledy piggedly in a very upmarket town centre. Whilst extolling its virtues to various friends nobody, just like me, had ever been there before and we are all missing a real treat.   In one way, it’s not so surprising I’d not been.   It is, after all, in the middle of nowhere.  To misquote Peter Pan, instead of following the second star to the left and fly right on until morning, for Beverley, you follow the M62 to the very end before vaguely turning left.

It’s also a little embarrassing I’ve never been before.  My father’s goddaughter, who lived there for years, kept inviting me.  It’s only after she’s moved to Salisbury do I finally get to go.  

The story has it that Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson), author of Alice in Wonderland , was staying at the Beverley Arms, just across the road from St Mary’s Church (now amongst my favourite churches and due to feature in one of my forthcoming articles)  when he spotted  a white rabbit carved in stone  on a pillar (photo courtesy my American friend, Robert, as my shots were out of focus).  As a writer, I’m well aware authors recycle everything –Charles was no exception.

Now it’s your turn to do something for me. 

When I was at school, attempting to ward off the inevitable hex (i.e. punch) on the first day of the month, we used to shout ‘white rabbits and no return.’    Now, if I remember correctly, there’s actually two other lines of doggerel which we omitted – ‘Pinch punch, first day of the month and no return.’    So; can anyone out there tell me how white rabbits became a mantra for warding off evil?  You will have my everlasting gratitude…