Behind The Covers: a book’s hidden story

Like many of us, I can’t resist searching through a pile of second-hand books whether they’re in a shop, car boot sale or just an old cardboard box in a street market. If I want a modern paperback I will go to our local bookseller and buy new but when it comes to second-hand, it is non-fiction I’m after – and the older the better.
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There is something rather special to holding a book that has been previously owned, and hopefully loved, by someone else. It is even better when you find that they have written inside the cover. Sometimes it is the signature of the author with a personal note added or a birthday greeting from an aunt but it is the name of the unknown owner that really excites me. In those two or three words an imagined picture emerges of the man, woman, girl or boy that was also opening the covers with the same sense of eager anticipation.IMG_0741A copyright
Over the years I have picked up a number of these books, usually for no more than a couple of pounds and more often just for pence for they are of little real monetary value. Occasionally I have struck lucky: a book on cricket turned out to have been signed by Donald Bradman, the legendary Australian captain, and turned my seventy-five pence purchase into a profit of over ninety pounds within days. More often the book remains on my shelves forever.

garden book 3
My interest in social and family history means that I can never resist carrying out a little research into my purchases. A book on Victorian garden design published in 1861 and presented in 1879 to Duncan Buchanan by the Paisley Florist Society slowly revealed its story. The Paisley Florist Society, the second oldest in the country and founded in 1782 , is still going strong. The fate of Duncan Buchanan’s Barshaw Gardens changed over the years: in 1912 the house and gardens were sold and turned into a public park which is still open to the public. After he won his prize he pencil sketched a delightful view on the back page which, for me, makes the book priceless.garden book agarden book 2
Not all books have such a happy story. A G Street wrote Round The Year On The Farm in 1941 and is a calendar of farming life and tasks supplemented with photographs. The signature Edgar Liversedge of Rawmarsh didn’t take a lot of research for in 1914 his mother Emily, in a fit of madness, cut his four younger siblings throats before cutting her own. Before she did so, she sent young Edgar, aged 12, downstairs to wait for his father to return home so that he could tell him what she had done. As it happened she and ten year old Doris survived and Emily found guilty of murder was sent to a mental home for life. How did Doris and Edgar fare after such a terrible ordeal? One can only hope that Edgar, who had perhaps turned to farming, found solace in nature and the great outdoors.

A G Street copyright
Now, when I open my A G Street I find I am not only reading a charming record of the time of farming with horses but also a record of the sadness of the book’s owner. This is, I’m glad to say, an exception for most second-hand books have a happy hidden story just waiting to be uncovered.

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Seeking Great-Aunt Ba-ba

Some people make a lasting impression on you and in the case of Great-aunt Ba-ba it was just as well for I only met her once as a child when she was very elderly.  Someone of twenty seems ancient to a youngster, as for being ninety, I just couldn’t get over anyone being that old or that much fun.

Gt Aunt Baba (Frances White) 90th bithday about 1965

photo take by me about 1965, which means she would have been born around 1875

Great-aunt Ba-ba was a ‘spinster of the parish’, a description that conjures up a sad and somewhat diminished individual whereas in reality, if she was anything to go by, they were far from that.  Lively and interesting, I adored her instantly but was too young to ask her any questions about her life.  I doubt if I would have been told much anyway for that generation were far too busy living in the present: perhaps the effect of surviving two world wars.

Frances White - auntie baba - and Clara Joyce Shortland

On the left, about 1925

One story I heard many times from my father was of how when he and his brother were sent to stay with her in the school holidays they were allowed to run wild, something that wouldn’t have been tolerated by their strict parents.  This would have been about 1920 and to reach Rudgwick in Sussex from the Thames Valley took the whole day.  Once there they would spend all day running free through the woods and cowslip-ing in the meadows.  On trips to the south coast my father would always make time for a detour to show me his playground and Aunt Ba-ba’s wonderful house. postcard of Greenhurst, nr Rudgwick

about 1918-20

So how did she get her pet name?  I have no idea – I understand that her real name was Frances White – and there is no one now left alive that can answer the question. Perhaps her name was Barbara, or is that too simple an explanation? I had another great aunt that was called ‘Toddles’ so perhaps silly names were just a family thing!

Frances White - auntie baba

1940’s?

I’d always assumed that Frances White was just a family friend for, in days past, it was customary for children to call them aunt or uncle out of respect.  Recently I have discovered another old family photograph – that of Charles William Langston-White and this could be a missing link.  His mother Norah Langston (my first cousin twice removed, whatever that means) married James William White in 1909 – he was born in Sussex.

charles william langston-white, aged 3yrs 3mths

“aged 3yrs 3mths” so taken June 1916

Could Great-aunt Ba-ba have been related to this White family?  I would have thought it probable but, so far, my researches have drawn a blank and I have found no trace of her having even existed in the public record books.  Fortunately I have these few photos of her and my memory to prove she existed.

If there are any enthusiastic genealogists or amateur sleuths reading this I will be grateful if you can find out more.