Author Archives: Dorothy Nixon
Writing stories about your ancestors can seem a bit self-indulgent. Who wants to hear about your long dead aunties and uncles? Your own relatives may roll their eyes when you pull out your tablet and talk about the blood, sweat and tears that went into a year-long investigation into an-all-but-forgotten life.
Sure, the genealogy writing exercise may start out as a purely personal exploration (as in Why am I here?) but with careful attention to detail and a sense of humility on your part, the practice can become so much more than that.
Exploring ancestry through prose provides you with a versatile platform to inform and delight your readers. Your stories even may inspire others to take the plunge and explore their own roots while polishing their writing skills.
Genealogy writing is often personal in nature, as in “My great grandmother, Lydia Tittle, was born in 1897 in the poorest part of Ulster,” and it sometimes it comes in the form of the personal essay, as in “When I was a little girl growing up in rural Georgia, I was very close to my Ma Tante Mathilde, my father’s French sister.”
It may sound counter-intuitive, but my top tip to avoid sounding self-indulgent when writing about yourself and/or your ancestors is to use your own natural voice.
What is ‘voice’? Well, storytelling was once a sacred art. The storyteller invoked a muse to tell a certain tale to an enraptured audience. I like to think of ‘the writing voice’ as something similar. Before I get down to writing a first draft, I invoke a piece of my personality to tell the story. For me, it’s a feeling I conjure up, much like I’m told a method actor does before walking onto the stage, and sometimes, as with acting, it can be a bit unsettling to bring up this feeling/personality, even scary. It certainly doesn’t feel self-indulgent. Enveloped in this character/feeling, it’s easier for me to choose the appropriate words and expressions while writing and to maintain a consistent tone for the piece.
The biggest mistake any beginning writer can do is to try to imitate someone else’s voice because readers will pick up quickly on the deception, but if you write stories in your own voice, even if you are still developing your style and technical skills (and what writer isn’t?) your readers will be inclined to be generous with you because they will sense you are ‘opening up’ to them, taking a risk, giving them a little piece of your heart, as it were.
Ask yourself these questions before you embark on the personal essay writing journey:
- Are you using your own unique voice?
- Is your essay and the information contained within worthy of the time the reader will spend on it?
- Does your story have substance? Is it useful, as in informative; diverting as in surprising or funny; or moving, as in sentimental or touching?
- Does your story have universal human appeal so that all readers can relate, or is it aimed at a specific reader with a specific interest?
- Does your story have a take-away, a gift that keeps on giving such as a fascinating fact or two, a broader insight, or some useful research tips that the reader can call upon later?
Young Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Virginia. Daughter of Elizabeth Hardy, who was sister to Mary ‘Pinky’ Hardy, United States General Douglas MacArthur’s mother.
As a schoolgirl back in the 1960’s before Expo 67 opened in Montreal, the only works of art I would have recognized were the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. I would have seen them, you see, on TV caricatured in advertisements for toothpaste or gloves, or on sophisticated Saturday morning cartoons like the Bugs Bunny Show.
Today, when I think of the Venus de Milo, I think of my husband’s Great Aunt Elizabeth.
In 1910 Elizabeth Hardy Fair,a single society girl from Warrenton, Virginia, USA, was visiting the Continent for the first time. She was in her mid twenties.
The aging ingénue kept a written record in diary form and I have it. This European diary reveals that she started her trip in London (hated it, too gloomy) and then went on to Paris, (loved it, so pretty).
Sorry to say, that’s about as deep as she gets.
Still, Elizabeth penned this one rather intriguing phrase from a visit to the Louvre: “Saw Gaylord Clarke coming out of the Venus de Milo Room. Second time we have met since abroad.”
Now, if this were a scene from an E.M. Forster novel, and Miss Elizabeth Fair were a luminous young woman of head-strong character, this ‘chance meeting’ at the Louvre would have been, no doubt, a significant turning point in the trajectory of Miss Elizabeth’s life.
Just think of it. In 1910, women such as Elizabeth covered themselves, neck to toes, in starchy shirtwaists and princess skirts.
Now contemplate the Venus de Milo with her sumptuous drapery dipping below the upper curve of her perfect buttocks, and then figure what it must have felt to be a young man coming out of the Venus de Milo room in that era–before the age of California beach volleyball. And then imagine what an opportune moment it was for the very eligible Miss Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Warrenton, Virginia.
As it is, this Mr. Clarke left for England the next day. End of their story.
Elizabeth soon returned to Warrenton, still very much single. Eight years later she would travel to Montreal (to visit her older sister, Mae) and find a husband in the form of one Frank Tofield, banker.
She would live out her life in the posh Linton apartments on Sherbrooke Street West in ‘uptown’ Montreal, impressing her great nephews and nieces at every Sunday dinner with the button on the floor under the dining room table that she used to summon the staff with her foot.
Now, as someone who likes to write about ancestors, I like to think that everyone who ever lived is worthy of at least one book, or at least a good short story, but my husband’s Great Aunt Elizabeth may be an exception.
Elizabeth and Frank had no children and all she left behind to her nephew is a tattered scrapbook with a few yellowed clippings like this one from a 1904 St. Louis Social Notes page: .
Miss Elizabeth Fair of Warrenton VA is the guest of Dr. and Mrs. John O’Fallon and is a beautiful girl who has been a great deal feted and admired around St. Louis. The 1904 World’s Fair!
The year before, in 1903, she attended her soon-to-be famous first cousin, Douglas MacArthur’s, West Point graduation. She glued the dance card into her scrapbook. Mae had the first dance, a waltz; she had the third, a gavotte.
And then there’s this diary, this pedestrian record of her 1910 European experience visiting all the usual landmarks, Hyde Park, Les Champs Elysees and Le Bon Marche where she bought handkerchiefs and gloves. It is a diary exposing no wicked sense of humour, sharing no penetrating insights, and including not even one memorable phrase like, say, “I shall return.”
Well, she did mention seeing suffragettes on the march in London.
Oh, she does pencil in this candid opinion on Da Vinci’s most famous work.
Went to the Louvre in the morning. Pictures most interesting. Mona Lisa was carefully inspected but it does not appeal to me in the least. After lunch, shopped and then drove through Parc Mont Claire. This park is lovely, abloom with flowers, statuary and strollers galore. Great place for lovers and babies… So, no surprise, in 1910, Elizabeth, had love and babies on the mind.
I wonder what was wrong, then, with this mysterious Mr. Clarke? If things had gone well, it might have been a very good thing for one Frank Tofield. Family legend has it the well-to-do couple argued incessantly over the decades over her spendthrift ways.
(I found Frank’s signed Bible and it was filled with dozens of brittle, faded four leaf clovers.)
So, no book about Great Aunt Elizabeth Hardy Fair, by all definitions a most ordinary Southern Belle and first cousin to a genuine history-book legend. No short story either.
Just this short blog post.
Below: Elizabeth at her wedding: lavish tastes
Emma Forster. Reprinted courtesy of the genealogy website myprimitivemethodists.org
For a while there I thought I had an illustrious ancestor, Joseph Cowen, the radical Liberal MP from Newcastle-on-Tyne. Here was someone I could be proud of and someone my ‘socialist’ brother, living in Europe, could be proud of, too. Or, so I thought.
Upon looking up my great-grandmother Emma Cowen’s father, John, on familysearch.org , I discovered that the man was born in Blaydon Manor, Durham, which would make him the brother of this famous Joseph Cowen.
There was no other John Cowen born in Durham in 1832, his birth year, so it had to be him. Right?
I texted my brother in socialist Denmark along with a capture of a statue of Joseph in the town of Newcastle. “Look, who we’re related to. We’re NOT the descendants of lowly coal-miners. He’s got Daddy’s eyebrows, doesn’t he?)
My brother, probably washing down his grass-fed beef with an artisanal beer, immediately texted me back: “That doesn’t sound right to me.”
So, I double checked to find I had been foiled by a census typo.
My real ancestor John, great great grandfather, was misspelled in the 1841 UK Census under John Cowin. This John Cowin was born 1932 in South Bedburn, Durham. Another later Census entry for the family confirms Emma Cowan’s dad was born in Bedburn.
Emma is my great-grandmother from Durham, who married John Forster, Primitive Methodist Minister, from Cumberland, who produced Dorothy in 1895, who married a Malayan planter, Robert Nixon (from Helmsley) in 1921 and whom I only met once in my life, 1967, the year of Expo67. Dorothy is subject of my play Looking for Mrs. Peel.
So, it seems, I am not the descendent of a radical liberal politician, friend to Anglo-Jewry, but a descendant of one John Cowen, a Victorian Age auctioneer.
(And that is correct, because Emma Cowen was born on Eliot Street, in Crook and Billy Row, Durham, and his auction house was located there, I discovered on yet another online document.)
Because I had to know, I checked to see that the profession of auctioneer was a pretty lucrative one at the time, although one that was despised because it preyed on human misery. Thackery, apparently, simply hated auctioneers.
Bankruptcy was often used in Victorian era novels to make a point about human greed and to propel the plot. George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, which I just listened to online, includes a sad, plate-by-plate description of a family bankruptcy.
Going backwards in time over the UK Censuses, I discovered John was the son of a grocer, Joseph, Crook and Billy Row, Durham, who was the son of another grocer, Joseph from Auckland Bishop, who was the son of someone who worked in the lead smelters at Alston, Cumberland. (If I got things right.)
Lead smeltering. Now, there’s the hideous job I was looking for! If your ancestry can’t be illustrious, it might as well be pitiful.
It didn’t take me long to find out all about the lead mining industry in Alston, Cumberland, where most of my Cowens lived. (The place is still crawling with Cowens.)
There are lots of books out there on the subject. I downloaded one off Archive.org about Alston and ‘its pastoral and mining people.’
For a time, apparently, lead mining was the only industry in the area, so my ancestor had no choice.
He had about 8 kids so the work didn’t dampen his mojo.
Lead was in everything back in the Victorian era, even in food, up until 1900 or so. (Lead actually smells and tastes nice, as any girl from the 1960’s who skipped on the sidewalks of our polluted city streets knows very well.)
These Durham Cowen’s were all religious, described as dissenters. Their births and marriages were registered at Redwing Chapel, Garrigle, Cumberland.
Here’s a drawing of the same chapel in the book about Alston and its people.
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.
Peter Nixon, former RAF Ferry Command pilot, and new wife Marie-Marthe circa 1949.
My father had flown over the Nile.
The Nile River. In Africa.
And, even better, he had flown over the Nile…at night.
Weren’t we impressed, my two brothers and I, way back when in the 1960’s, to learn that particular spine-tingling fact.
Of course, we knew that our father had been in the War (well, duh) as part of something called the Ferry Command (ZZZzzzz) that moved planes back and forth over the ocean.
To us, our father’s Air Force career seemed dull and boring and highly unromantic and, obviously, not dangerous at all.
But, then, we kids ferreted out his black leather WWII log book. We deciphered his compact, prep-school handwriting to see that he had been over the Nile at night and, now, our already strapping 6 foot 4 inch British Pater suddenly seemed taller in our eyes.
(How ever did he fit that huge Yorkshire farmer frame into those tiny mosquito planes, I now wonder.)
I write about this because yesterday my husband came to pick me up at Trudeau Airport in Dorval.
My plane from New York City had been delayed by half an hour and he had wandered the premises for a bit.
“Do you know there’s a section of the airport devoted to the Ferry Command,” he asked me as we walked back to the car.
“No,” I said.
“And they show some of the airmen involved,” he continued. “Maybe your dad is one of them.”
But, I was too tuckered out from travelling all of one hour in a cramped commuter jet to take a look at said installation. Luckily, my husband had snapped some pictures on his phone.
Half a century has now passed since the day we kids first perused that enigmatic leather log book.
My father has been dead for 10 years, succumbing in 2005 to Alzheimer’s in the Veteran’s Hospital at Ste. Anne de Bellevue.
While he was sick, a couple of books were (finally) written about the Ferry Command. I read them.
I came to realize that the Ferry Command is the reason I am here, on Earth and in Montreal.
The Ferry Command, you see, was headquartered at Dorval.
(Hence, the installation. Hence, IATA headquarters being in Montreal.)
My father never mentioned it, or, more likely, I wasn’t paying attention, but the Ferry Command was an important part of the WWII effort.
There was nothing safe about being a Ferry Command pilot. Ferry Command planes, I discovered, were shot down and/or crashed regularly, and some crashes (the ones that made headlines, anyway) involved planes that were taking a dozen or more Ferry Command pilots, huddled together like so many human popsicles in the frigid belly of the machine, back to Canada from an overseas mission.
What exactly was this Ferry Command? Well, before the US officially entered WWII, skilled American pilots were hired on the sly, at sky-high pay, to ferry planes from Canada to England.
Planes, secretly being manufactured in the States, were literally pushed over the Border, and, then, these Yankee flying aces would take them over to England.
When the US officially entered WWII, enlisted men from the RAF were brought into the Ferry Command, my father among them.
My father, a British child of the Raj, was 19 in 1941, either having just finished prep school at St Bees in County Durham, or a year into his Oxford studies.
He had been a top athlete at St Bees, captain of all the school teams. I’m guessing that’s why he was funnelled into the RAF.
Anyway, I read that the Ferry Command pilots partied hard in the Mount Royal Hotel between assignments. I’m guessing my father met my French Canadian mother at one of these gatherings.
(Too late to ask either of them.)
Lately, I also learned something else of acute interest to me: that Ferry Command planes were serviced by young women maintenance workers at Keswick Airport in England. I’ve seen certain alluring pictures on the RAF website. (I suspect they only chose the prettiest Screen Gems style women for these promo pics.)
Now, my father never mentioned that. That, certainly, would have stuck in my brain, way back when, in the optimistic era of the Beatles, Emma Peel and Women’s Lib; a time when WWII, to us Boomer children anyway, seemed so many, many lightyears away.