Reverend John Forster. Published with the permission of the Primitive Methodist Ancestor Website.
Late in his life, Somebody Forster, my great-grandfather, awakened from his night’s sleep to ask his wife of many decades, ‘Woman, what are you doing in my bed?” It was dementia.
Until lately, this serio-comic anecdote was the only thing I knew about my father’s mother’s father, other than that he was a Methodist Minister from the North of England. But, just last month, I accessed the 1901 UK Census, (for free, yea) and it took me about thirty minutes to find out all I could want about my great-grandfather Somebody.
First, I looked up my grandmother, Dorothy Forster, who I knew was born in 1895 in Middleton-on -Teesdale, County Durham, UK, to see that her father was a Reverend John from Knockburn, Northumberland; her mother Emma, a former Cowen from Crook, and, more importantly, that John was a Primitive Methodist Minister. (I checked. PM’s were dissenters; socialists and pacifists, apparently.) *1
Then, googling the keywords “John Forster” and “Primitive Methodist,” I landed on a webpage from a genealogy site, myprimitivemethodistancestors.org , with a short biography of Great-granddad John, with grainy photos of him and wife Emma taken in 1914. 2
Apparently, John Forster, a bookish, self-educated son of a farmer, was an accomplished essayist who penned over fifty articles for the Connexions Magazine of the Primitive Methodists on sundry weighty topics including “Heredity in Relation to Morals” and “Primitive Methodism and the Labour Question.”(He also served as a Temperance Committee; amusing, as his daughter, my Grandma Dorothy*, could really slug back the gin!)
I was most intrigued, though, to see that John had published a book of poetry, in 1923, shortly after my father, his grandson, was born at the European Hospital near Kuala Lumpur, Malaya. The author claims that Reverend John’s poems ‘contain lyrics of extraordinary charm and grace.’
(Well, I know the Wasteland was published in 1922, ushering in modernity, it is claimed, but no one said anything as nice about T.S. Eliot’s poem 😉
Curious, of course, about these verses, I contacted the Primitive Methodism Website’s administrator, asking for help. She immediately emailed me back a longer biographical article about John Forster, but no examples of his poems. The volume in question, Pictures of Life in Verse seems to have gone missing from the church/museum library.
There’s good news, though. This longer article lists Reverend John’s assignments or ‘circuits’ in chronological order. The Forster family moved often, it seems, around the area: Thornley, Crook, Middleham, Bradford, Middleton-in-Teesdale, (a very pretty sheepy village) about six other towns, then, it said, “his present one (1912) being Helmsley.”
Bingo! I know from the 1911 UK Census, that Helmsley is the hometown of my grandfather, Robert Nixon. Clearly, alliances were made in that era that resulted in the marriage of John and Emma’s second daughter, Dorothy, to Robert Nixon, son of a delver in the local Rievaulx quarry, although a Great War would delay official matrimony.
Dorothy would have been 17 in 1912 and fresh out of her co-ed Quaker boarding school and Robert Nixon just 22, and working in service as a footman.3
Perhaps Robert’s prospects weren’t good enough for the righteous Reverend John. In 1913, according to online records,4 Robert, travelled to Malaya to work as a labourer in a rubber plantation. During WWI, Dorothy worked as a land girl, leading enormous Clydesdales through the woods, a comical sight as she was only 5 foot tall.*5
The same records also reveal that Robert returned to England in 1916, now the plantation’s Assistant Manager. This trip home was very likely to secure a wife for real as rubber company officials insisted their employees return to the UK to find respectable British (see: white) wives.
Whatever transpired back in Helmsley, North Yorkshire in 1916, on December, 1921, *6 Reverend John Forster, perhaps taking time off from penning one of his charming verses, sent his second daughter, Dorothy off to Selangor, Malaya. She’d become pregnant almost immediately upon arrival. I know because my father, Peter, was born on October 23, 1922.7
Checking into Emma Cowan’s parentage, I see that her ancestors belonged to this same church, Redwing Chapel, that has an online presence! United Congregation of Red Wing Chapel, Garrigill, and Low Chapel, Alston, Cumberland; http://www.fivenine.co.uk/family_history_notebook/source_extracts/parish_registers/cumberland/redwing_registers.htm
- Website: Myprimitivemethodistancestors.org
- UK Census 1911
- UK Immigration and Transportation Records http://www.familysearch.org
- Family Lore
- UK Immigration and Transportation Records. After WWI, there were many, many more unmarried women than men in England, so perhaps this had something to do with Dorothy’s decision to go to Malaya to marry Robert Nixon. They did not get married in the UK, or at least I can’t find any record of a marriage.
- Family lore, (my Aunt Denise, who died last month) said that Robert kept his Asian mistress after marriage. Dorothy eventually got her own boyfriend, a colonial lawyer who remained faithful to her until her death in 1971. Both Dorothy and Robert were interned at Changi Prison in Singapore during WWI. Dorothy was Women’s Camp Commandant for a term. I only met my grandmother once in 1967, when she came to visit. Robert died while she was at our house in Montreal’s Snowdon district. He fell off a ladder at his daughter’s, Denise, in Farnborough, Hants, UK. I recall the telegram. I recall, also, that my grandmother managed to wipe a tear or two from her eyes. I’ve written about my Colonial Grandmother in a play Looking for Mrs. Peel, which makes it all the more amusing that my great-grandparents were named John and Emma.