Tag Archives: Rievaulx

Can We Ever REALLY Know our Ancestors?

Moor Guide.

The Costumes of Yorkshire: George Walker, 1813. New York Public Library Online, Public Domain photo

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” writes L.P. Hartley at the very beginning of The Go-Between, a novel I read and loved in my 20’s.

As a woman who now likes to pen stories based on her family tree, this famous first line has new meaning for me. It makes me ask the question: Despite our best efforts, can we ever really know our more distant ancestors?

Sure, we can absorb with attention the family myths. We can dig out the dates of births, marriages and deaths. We can check out the newspaper record. We can look up legal documents and even research with scholarly precision the historical context of their -often- difficult lives.

But is that REALLY knowing them?

Or is the best way to know our ancestors through our own parents and grandparents, through their inherited behaviours and beliefs that we witnessed first-hand. I have three other ideas.

The Coast-to-Coast Walk (WIkipedia Share alike Pic John Carter

1. Visiting the ‘homeland’ can give you a feel for who your ancestors were.

There’s a well-known 182 mile coast-to-coast hike that goes from the soaring sandstone cliffs of St. Bee’s Head on the west coast of Cumbria to the charming storied fishing village of Robin Hood’s Bay on the east coast in Yorkshire. Patching together my father’s Nixon/Forster family tree, I discovered he had ancestors; farmers, lead miners, grocers, servants; living just north and south of – and even directly on – this picturesque route.

This 182 mile ‘footpath’ traverses three national parks: The Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks. It’s a walk that offers up isolated pebbled beaches and quaint historic villages; rugged wildernesses with hilltop cairns; flat easy patches with long sweeping vistas; medieval castles and ancient stone circles; serene valleys dotted with sheep; sturdy Roman roads and magical heather moorlands.

As it happens, I can take this hike anytime (on YouTube) and see with my own eyes pretty much what many of my ancestors saw with their own eyes.

My ancestors had good eyes, I bet, for long distance gazing. Strong legs, too. And leathery skin beaten up by the cold wet winds of the moors. They probably were skinny and didn’t worry about cholesterol as they downed their breakfasts of heavy black rye bread and fatty bacon. Come to think of it, that description fits my ­father pretty well. His exceptional long distance eye-sight and strong legs made him a top athlete in the 1930’s at this boarding school in St. Bees. He was still participating in cross-country ski marathons in Quebec in the 1980s.1

Woman making oatcakes on a Yorkshire farm

2. You can always look to old family recipes to teach yourself something essential about your antecedents.

In my 1960’s Montreal home, on Saturdays when we ate roast beef, I was in charge of making the Yorkshire pudding, and I do believe that it was my father who showed me how to make the batter and take fat drippings from the roast and spoon it into the bottom of the muffin tins.

Still, it was my French Canadian mother who was in charge of the kitchen and her roast was ‘blue’ -practically mooing on the plate a la francaise. My father ate only the outside over-cooked part.

Apart from frying our POM (Pride of Montreal) white bread slices in bacon fat (ICK!) my British (who was born in Malaya, after all) didn’t seem to know much about his native Yorkshire foods. He never mentioned the oatcakes that were a staple of the poor; or the cheese pies eaten on various festive occasions or the special mutton pie made with candied fruit in a rich crust served with fresh fried trout and curd cheesecakes, washed down with ‘home-made’ whisky served as a reward at the end of sheep-shearing season.

As a child of the Raj, my father more spoke with fond nostalgia of the Mulligatawny soup (curried chicken with apples) he ate on his father’s Selangor Rubber Estate.

Still, somehow, more through his dislikes rather than his preferences, I learned that (generally-speaking) eating plain hearty food was in his North of England blood.

Midsummer Eve in Yorkshire – a time when witches and fairies come out to play with the humans.

3. Consulting out-of-print genealogy books can give you an insider’s knowledge about the people who came before.

I stumbled upon a terrific little volume online: Rambles Through the North Yorkshire Dales. Published 1913 on archive.org. The book even has a chapter on the Yorkshire character. Bingo!

The Yorkshireman, says the author, a native, is notorious for being, tight-fisted. “He loves to get the best of a bargain not only for business purposes but as sport.” He is suspicious of strangers, especially of the patronizing upper-crust kind. He is “reticent and hard on the outside with a queer sense of independence and a real and natural sense of humour.”

So right! My father would drive ten miles to save ten cents on gasoline. He could deconstruct a person’s character, a television show, a work or art with one well-chosen (often withering) word. He didn’t follow the current fashion – and mocked us when we wanted to. He was amused by the minutia of everyday life, although I seldom got his subtle jokes.

Yorkshiremen says the book are filled with ‘a fierce romanticism, a strong religious fervour.’ Still, people from the North of England were once very superstitious. These people believed or half-believed in dragons and water sprites, fairies and ‘boggles’ or imps who were often the ghosts of nasty feudal landlords long dead.

Many of the local traditions around holy wells and sacred fires, etc. stem back to pre-Christian times. and are still carried out in various and sundry small towns.

Does this fit my father? No, not at all. My father, educated in mathematics at Oxford, was a pragmatist. Still, he seemed to actually take delight in reading fairy tales to me.

Peter Nixon and Marie Marthe Crepeau

And last but not least, my North of England ancestors spoke funny. Real funny. According to my mother, my father lost his English accent the day he arrived in Canada.

I learned about the Yorkshire dialect by watching the original All Creatures Great and Small television series based on the life of Alf Wight or James Herriot, a veterinarian, in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. In that show, locals were used to play the farmers and I often needed subtitles to understand them!

No, my Yorkshire father never said things like, “Ere, wot’s f’r us tea Mutha” as in “Mother, what are we having for dinner?”

M’of t’sop, d’yawanowt?

I’m going to the shop? Do you want me to get anything?

Put t’wood int ‘ole. Close the door. (Put the wood in the hole)

Sit this sen Darn as in Sit down.3

but I suspect his grandfather, Robert Nixon, who at 67 in 1911 was still working as a delver in the local Rievaulx quarry certainly did.

Rievaulx Castle by Turner: There is no shortage of paintings of the North of England, from Victorian Era and beyond, but these paintings seldom depict working people. The few I could find online were not Creative Commons. Indeed, Her Majesty the Queen has a nice one of poor fisher folk in her collection.
My father’s ancient genes according to mytrueancestry.com. Yes, Danish and Norwegian Viking, Saxon, Visigoth, Merovingian. The history of Yorkshire indicates this is all pretty on spot. He has lot of Celt too. And some deep Illyrian (Croatia). Maybe this has something to do with Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman Legions (mercenaries) who manned them. Apparently, Northern English is riddled with Viking words.
  1. Even better, his younger brother, Michael Nixon, living in Keswick right on the hiking path, was awarded the MBE for performing mountain top search and rescue in the mountains of the Lake Country well into his 80s! https://keswickmrt.org.uk/mike-nixon-mbe-1928-2018/)
  2. I never met Michael. I don’t think my father knew him at all, either.
  3. My father very very often made fun of the Canadian ‘aboot’ for ‘about.’ From what I can see, this ‘aboot’ is right outta Yorkshire so I have to wonder if there was something subconscious going on here: if years before at prep school he had had the ‘aboot’ shamed out of him. My grandmother spoke in the Queen’s English. She was from County Durham but educated at a Quaker School. I know because I have a tape of her speaking about British Malaya from Cambridge University archives. It is not in the public domain so I can’t link it here. https://imfromyorkshire.uk.com/yorkshire-sayings. Here’s a link to BBC Sounds discussion of English spoken in Helmsley North Yorkshire, the home of the Nixons. https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/BBC-Voices/021M-C1190X0035XX-0301V0

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.