Seek and Ye Shall Find

Several years ago I wrote of my fruitless search for my great-aunt.  I hadn’t physically lost her for she had died many years earlier – she was just one, albeit an important one, of the conundrums that constantly arise when researching your family history.

Aunt Baba had left a lasting impression on me when I met her for the first and only time; me just entering my teens, she as an elderly lady of ninety.  Although she certainly was elderly (ancient to my young eyes) she still had the quiet energy and sparkle that had endeared her to my father and his siblings as youngsters.  Perhaps because of the happy visits to her that he would tell me of, I too, adored her instantly.

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

Aunt Baba, aged 90, c.1965

As youngsters, my father, uncles and aunts, around the time of the Great War,  would travel to Rudgwick, Sussex in what is now the South Downs National Park to stay for short holidays.  There they were allowed to run wild, roam the fields and woodlands and generally be spoilt in a way that would never be allowed by their authoritarian parents.  Brought up as Plymouth Brethren, a strict Christian sect, their usual life was one of bible study, education, chores and prayer meetings.  At aunt Baba’s, although she too was Plymouth Brethren, life was very much more relaxed.  In later years, when I was a child, the Brethren became more rigid and dictatorial about who they could associate with.  My father had rebelled as a young man and as a consequence, contact with us became forbidden.  Family meetings were very few and aunt Baba’s visit was shrouded in secrecy for fear of her being ‘caught’.  Many years later, long after both she and my father had died, I realised I had no idea whether she was a relative or not and my research was drawing a blank. In desperation, I wrote of her  in the hope that someone ‘out there’ might respond.

Frances White - auntie baba watermark

Relaxing in the 1940s?

The blog post (link here) created quite a lot of interest but no hard leads.  It did generate correspondence from the Rudgwick Preservation Society which although useful didn’t produce the breakthrough I hoped for.   Fast forward to a couple of months ago when I discovered a letter from my father’s eldest sister.  In it she told of how, when staying with aunt Baba, she had met her future husband whose parents also lived in the village and were Brethren.  This was the first ‘hard’ fact I had to go on and from there aunt Baba’s story unfolded.

Frances White - auntie baba - and Clara Joyce Shortland watermark

My aunt as a young woman with aunt Baba, about 1924

Born close to midsummer’s day 1875, aunt Baba, who remained unmarried, by 1916 had become housekeeper to an elderly farmer and his son who lived in the wonderful, ancient house of my father’s memory, Greenhurst.  By the time of the Register that was conducted of all households immediately prior to WW2, it can be seen that by 1939 she had moved to a house in the heart of the village.  Within its grounds stood a Plymouth Brethren Meeting House.  Further correspondence with the Rudgwick Preservation Society has revealed that when the son died, (his father predeceasing him by several years), the house had been left to their loyal and long-serving  housekeeper; a wonderful gesture.  By 1943, old telephone directories show that she had moved once more, this time to a smaller house in the same street.  She was still living there in 1953.  She may have continued to reside there after that date but the trail disappears until the record of her death in 1965 – which means she must have died within months of my meeting her.

postcard of Greenhurst, nr Rudgwick watermark

The house where my father ran wild c.1918

The research has revealed that her name was, as I had thought, Frances White, and that she was a close family friend and not a relative.  I am rather sad that she isn’t blood related for, in theory, she doesn’t belong on my family tree.  I have placed her there for posterity anyway as an honorary member, in the process, no doubt, causing some confusion to future genealogists.

Is there more to find out?  Indeed there is, for how on earth did she end up being called aunt Baba?  That is the part of her history that, I suspect, she has taken to her grave.

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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.

Two Updates……..

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First Update – Ancestors!
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Regular readers of this blog may recall my post about discovering not only my great (and also great-great) grandparents graves but also finding that the church that they had been instrumental in building still there and thriving. Great-great grandpa Wright had also been Deacon at one time.
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To recap, I did not have time to visit the interior of the church and vowed to return. How pleased I was that I did. Members of the congregation were so friendly and welcoming and interested in my connection. It was Harvest Festival, always a joyful time and the service was delightful. How surreal it was to sit there – in a church interior that, miraculously, had remained virtually unaltered since the day it was built in the mid 1800’s, worshipping in the place of my ancestors. Their presence felt very strong and I think they would have approved that I, not a very religious man (although I like to think quite a spiritual and good one) and now the ‘elder’ of the family, had returned. I was so pleased that my first steps inside the building had been to join others in prayer.

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Since then, I have returned once again, this time with a friend, to hear an organ recital. It was a joy to see the church filled with so many people. As a cousin, who works with the poor in Afghanistan, said “God is holding you in the palm of His hand, you never know when He will release you”. By coincidence – or perhaps not – the opening hymn was ‘To God Be The Glory’, a hymn sung a few weeks earlier at the last of my aunt’s funeral. A deeply religious woman, her greatest wish was that I might have the same depth of faith as she. How heartly I sang although I doubt if my aunt would consider me yet saved!
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On my last visit, I also found the house where my grandmother had been raised. Overlooking the River Thames, our great river that runs, 30 miles downstream, through London it was just a few yards from the paper mill that my ancestors owned before the Second World War. All was sold long before I was born – a pity, it would be amazing to live there now!
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Second Update: She-Dog!
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After delays for one reason and another, the precious She-Dog may be in pup. She has met a handsome lurcher of similar colouring – not the original choice but just as dashing – and spent a few days away on extended honeymoon. Fingers crossed, I may finally become a father. Watch this space!
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Searching for Granny ….

….. well, great-Granny actually. I hadn’t exactly lost her for I had ‘discovered’ her in old census records when researching our family history. I also remembered being told, as a child, that “Granny used to live there”. What I hadn’t realised was that Granny and my more distant ancestors were some of the most important mill owners on the River Thames, the premier river of England. The family owned Marlow Mills, which they converted from corn to paper production in the early 1800’s.
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Marlow Mills survived many mishaps ranging from a very destructive fire to withstanding the riots that were a spill-over from the agricultural riots of the 1830’s. Other mills in the area had their machinery destroyed – the ancestors were obviously made of tougher stuff, for they surrounded the mill with vicious man traps. The traps could still be seen hanging in their offices in the early 1900’s – perhaps as a warning to any other miscreants! What it didn’t survive was the craze for redevelopment and in the 1960’s they were bulldozed and luxury riverside homes built in their place. Sadly, we no longer owned the mill by then: if we had I might be living in luxury for the 17 properties on the site sell now for around one million pounds each.
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Yesterday, I found myself in Marlow on business but, with time to spare, decided to explore. How odd it felt walking these once familiar roads and riverside walks now knowing that two hundred years ago my family were doing the same. This street view probably hasn’t changed much although, as the family were so religious, I can’t imagine that they sat outside the local pub drinking alcohol in the warm, summer sunshine!
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The view of the river, the church and the bridge must have changed even less, although they would have watched with interest the suspension bridge, designed by William Tierney Clark, being built in the 1830’s (the old wooden bridge collapsed into the river in 1828). Ten years later, he designed and built a larger version of the bridge in Budapest, with which Marlow is twinned.
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This old post box must be one of the very earliest ones made for, even in Victoria’s reign, the design became more elaborate. This one looks ancient but is still in everyday use – the VR stands for Victoria Regina, she reigned from 1837 – 1901 and is our longest reigning monarch. If it is one of the earliest it could date back to 1853, the year that post boxes were first introduced. Incidentally, by tradition, all British post boxes bear the initials in Latin of the reigning monarch at time of manufacture. I wonder how many of my family had posted letters here?
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I knew, from an old record found on the internet, that Joseph Wright – my great-great grandfather – had been instrumental in building a free church in the town. To my delight, not only did I find the church still thriving, I was able to speak with a senior member of the congregation who, by chance, happened to be there. I was shown a history of the church but there was no mention whatsoever of the Wright family connection, a name not even known to them. Had I got the right place?
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Searching through old gravestones, I first came across one with the initials J W and M A D carved in the base. The initials turned out to be for Mary Ann Downing (not for death by insanity!), a name I’d not heard of and, frustratingly, the husband’s name had been damaged and was barely legible – I could just make out the name Joseph. However, it had obviously been a smart grave once for there were the signs that it had been surrounded by iron railings. But why Downing and why J W?
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Then I came across the grave, below, that looked so recent. To my amazement it wasn’t new at all but over 130 years old. The marble and the railings of such high quality that they showed no sign of wear. Here the names were clear – they were of William, Joseph Wright’s brother and partner in the milling business, and his wife.
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Further along was another grave in good condition, although more modest. It was unusal for it was very long and narrow. Almost overlooked in my excitement, this was the grave of Ellen Wright my ‘own’ grandmother’s mother. I had found great-Granny! I knew of Ellen for she had been born in Finland, which had always been something of a mystery. I found that she had been born there because her father was, for a few years, at a paper mill there before returning to the mill at Marlow. Was he learning new techniques or was he there advising?
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The final pieces of the jigsaw came into place when, at home, I found that after Joseph’s death, Mary Ann had remarried (hence the Downing surname). Her widowed husband obviously agreed to her wishes and she was laid to rest with Joseph, her first love.
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Feeling extraordinarily emotional (strange, really, for I did not know them in the true sense), I reported back my discoveries to the gentleman in the church who was equally delighted to discover that these unknown benefactors were still present within the church they had helped to create.
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Now all that is left to close the circle of 200 years is for me to attend a service, something I hope to do in the very near future.
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