Tag Archives: Rievaulx

My Grandfather, North Yorkshire and Discobulus

VenusandAdonis

Venus and Adonis by Titian. This Renaissance painting is now at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles but it once graced the Hall of Duncombe Park in Helmsley, North Yorkshire. I know this because of a precious little volume from 1829 I found on archive.org, A Description of Duncombe Park, Rivalx Abbey and Helmsley Castle.

As it happens, my father’s  paternal ancestors are from Helmsley, today a picturesque market and tourist town on the River Pye in the Ryedale District.

helmsley

Duncombe Park  was once an imposing structure in the Doric style built in 1718 overlooking Helmsley Castle not far from Thirsk where the vet who inspired All Creatures Great and Small worked. It was the seat of the Earls of Feversham.

My grandfather, Robert Nixon (1890-1967), was born to Robert Nixon Sr. and Mary-Ellen Richardson.

helmsleynixonhouse

This stretch of very unimposing row houses is where the Nixons lived in 1911, according to the UK Census.

abbott'swellcottge

Mary-Ellen was from nearby Rievaulx, a village famous for its cathedral ruins. She was born in this quaint cottage, Abbot’s Well. Her dad was a tailor.

RobertCENSUS

According to this census, Robert Nixon Sr. was a delver in a quarry in Rievaulx in 1911.

The same census page says my grandfather, Robert Jr.  21,  was a footman, likely at Duncombe Park. Robert was a strapping 6 foot 4 inches tall. The gentry liked their footmen to be fine physical specimens, but this was not always a good thing if Nixon family lore can be counted upon.

According to an English ‘auntie’ of my  father’s, the daughter of ‘the local earl’ went ga-ga for young Robert back in the day, so the love-struck girl’s powerful father sent him away, far away to Malaya.

I have no picture of Robert, but I recall seeing one decades ago and he looked like my dad, Peter.  So here’s a picture of Peter in 1958 holding our new puppy, Spotty, a coonhound. My father was also 6 foot four inches tall.

father

This myth might be true, as employment in Malaya was only offered to young men from well-off families, not delver’s sons.

I see that the sitting Earl of Feversham had four daughters, but they were much too old for Robert. Maybe it was Feversham’s granddaughter who fell in love with my strapping grandfather. I hope so, because I like this family myth. This is a Vanity Fair pic of the Earl from Wikipedia.

Lord Feversham 1829-1915

According to travel records, my grandfather, Robert took a boat to Malaya (willingly or unwillingly) in 1912 to work at Batu Caves Estate in Selangor, just outside of Kuala Lumpur.

He returned to England after WWI to marry my grandmother, Dorothy Forster, from County Durham, whose father was an itinerant Primitive Methodist preacher posted in Helmsley between 1912 and 1914.

MRsDOROTHYNIXON

Dorothy followed him to Malaya in December, 1921 and my dad was born ten months later on October 24.  Robert later became Manager of the estate. Both my grandfather and grandmother were interned at Changi Prison during WWII.

According to the 1829 book, Duncombe Park was  home to a treasure trove of classical paintings, among them the Titian shown at top, but also a Da Vinci, a Reubens, a Rembrandt  as well as Discobulus, described as ‘the finest statue in England.’

My grandfather never did get to see these great works of art in person because most were burned in a fire in 1879.  Back then, some of these paintings were worth five thousand pounds.

The Discobulus and the DaVinci work were lost in the fire but Titian’s Venus and Adonis was saved to eventually find its way to California and the Getty Museum.

Duncombe was rebuilt in the Baroque Italianate style and used as a backdrop to the 2012 British mini-series Parade’s End, with Benedict Cumberbatch.  I love that mini-series, so it is all very appropriate.

Duncombe

Dunscombepark1

Dissenters and Poets

 

john

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.

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.

Quelle Bummer!

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


  1. 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
  2. Website: Myprimitivemethodistancestors.org
  3. UK Census 1911
  4. UK Immigration and Transportation Records http://www.familysearch.org
  5. Family Lore
  6. 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.
  7. 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.