An elegant gentleman

I told the story of Herbert de la Rue – as far as I knew it, a couple of years ago:

We moved from the flat where I had been brought up as a child into a house which we bought from an old, very old friend of my grandparents, a Mr Pleasants, his wife and sister… I’m not sure now whether she was his sister or his wife’s sister, or maybe they were two sisters, but the three old folks had lived in their house for many, many years. They were pleased to have a family they knew buy it, and especially to have us two children move in with our parents.

For whatever reason they let various bits and pieces behind, no doubt they didn’t want them or couldn’t accommodate them where they moved into sheltered accommodation, I think on Honey Hill… its amazing what comes back when you think about things. Among the items we ‘inherited’ were some old pictures, including two very fine-looking Edwardian gentlemen we christened Albert and Edward, and a water-colour of Mr Herbert de la Rue. We knew this because it was inscribed on the back. My dad thought that the de la Rues were a printing firm who used to make playing cards, he also seemed to think that one of the old ladies had been a maid in service to the family in London.

We were doing some tidying and we came across the picture of Herbert de la Rue and I tried to find out more about him. He was born in 1855, his parents were Warren de la Rue of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, and his wife Georgiana. In 1871 the family were living in Staines (now called Staines-on-Thames)  and three children lived at home, Herbert, Ernest and Alice, along with eight servants. Ten years later the family had moved to Portland Place in Marylebone, half as mile from where my family were living by Regent’s Park. Now there were only the two sons at home, Ernest was now a partner in the firm of de la Rue & Co who which was described as wholesale manufactures, stationers etc. Herbert was an underwriter at Lloyd’s

In 1851, four or five years before Herbert was born, Warren’s occupation is F.R.S &tc, Chemistry, Mechanics, Card Manufacturer, Envelope ditto, and Wholesale Stationer, Engineer (?) employing with partners 410 persons… so my dad was right, they did make cards. At this time two other children were living at home with Warren, Georgina and Alice, Warren junior and Thomas.

In 1891 I can only find Warren’s grandson, Warren, living with his parents Ernest and Florence, and his  sisters, Irene and Phillis. Of Warren senior, and Herbert I can find no census return.

However, it is interesting that by 1911, Warren de la Rue junior, Herbert’s brother is living in Chippenham not far from Newmarket… Newmarket which isn’t far from Cambridge where the Pleasants lived who had the picture of Herbert de la Rue which set me off on this quest. Warren had a large number of servants, including a Swiss chef, a footman and a waiter… as well as several female domestic servants, one of whom may have been the lady I knew in her old age, living in the house we later moved into.


A picnic with the National Mark

I was writing somewhere else about picnics, and I suppose I had picnics in my min when I was looking at my little National Mark Calendar of Cooking book from 1936. Maybe I wouldn’t pack a picnic for us with dishes from the little recipe book, but supposing I was writing about a family in the 1930’s who were going on a picnic, what might they take with them?

Mother no doubt would prepare it all, and I can imagine it in a traditional whisker basket or hamper, lined with a blue and white checked cloth. Father would find the right spot to lay out the rugs and cloth, and he would light the Primus stove to make tea.

Mother might have made sandwiches with the National Mark recipe for brown bread (wholemeal flour, yeast, butter, sugar, salt and tepid water) and maybe they would have beef in them. Collared beef (‘very delicious served cold‘) is beef simmered for a long time with onions, herbs (parsley, thyme, sage, marjoram)and spices (mace, cloves, bayleaf, allspice, pepper, celery seeds) – that would be delicious indeed in sandwiches! There were no plastic pots and tubs then, so I guess the salad was either brought as separate ingredients and prepared  sitting on the picnic rug, or maybe prepared and put into a bowl and wrapped in grease-proof paper. There is a lovely selection of salads in the June chapter:

  • celery leaf
  • lettuce and green peas
  • tomato and celery
  • cheese
  • rice, ham and tomato
  • cauliflower

Beef mayonnaise is another option instead of one of the salads above; cubes of beef, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, hard-boiled eggs and home-made mayonnaise (made with olive oil – it’s not just a recent fashion, pre-war cooks used it too!) There are lots of lovely desserts in this little book, desserts which would be practical to bring on a picnic. A sort of clafoutis made with plums, blackcurrant and almond paste tart, strawberry flan, gooseberry tart – and to go with the cup of tea father has made, fruit and nut cake or raisin brown bread. Father himself might prefer the cider cup!

My featured image, by the way is of my own  family on a picnic – a long time after the war I have to say!

Family museum… the bagatelle board

Family museum… the bagatelle board

This is the next in a series of random pieces about items which I remember from the past which actually no longer exist – except in my memory. When I go on one of my tidying sprees I try to be really strict with myself; over the years I have hung onto stuff which I don’t actually use, just because of the associations with it. For example until a couple of years ago I had a cheese grater from ‘home’, my family home when I was growing up. It was exactly the same as my own cheese grater but I kept it, even though I never actually used it – it had a semi-circular back which wasn’t as convenient as the rectangular grater I have, or the box grater – where the gratings (cheese, carrots, whatever) fall into a box. So I hardened my heart to its family associations, and sent it to the charity shop – where maybe it went straight into the recycling rather than onto a shelf!

Today’s item in the family museum is an old bagatelle board… and I mean old, maybe nineteenth century. We may have had it at home, but I remember it from my grandparent’s home… maybe we inherited it when they died, but we lived in a flat and didn’t have a lot of room, so maybe, like so much, it went in the dustbin.

It seemed quite long to me as a child, maybe 3-4 foot and 2 foot wide, but maybe it was smaller and only seemed big because I was little. In case you don’t know what a bagatelle is, it’s a board with a curved end, a raised edge, nails stuck in pattern which could enclose a ball bearing, fired by a spring… the enclosures of the pins had different scores, and if your balls went in you would add up your score. It was very simple, but very absorbing. I think in an original set you would have a certain fixed number of balls – probably nine, but we just played with as many ball bearings as we had (or maybe marbles, but I remember silver ball bearings)

I guess maybe the bagatelle was a forerunner to the pinball machine, except on the board there were no levers, it was just chance with a little skill in how hard you pulled back the spring to ‘fire’ the balls. I think it might have been slightly raised at the top end, so the balls would drift down to the bottom.

My grandparents, when I knew them, lived in a big house called Newton View in the village of Harston, just south of Cambridge. I remember the rooms being large with high ceilings, and very yellowy light, no doubt low-wattage bulbs! There were many children’s things in the old house which I suspect might have come from my great-grandparents, things my grandpa played with as a child; there were strange books with violent rhymes which these days we would think unsuitable for little children – children with fingers and noses cut off with scissors, children being burned by candles and open fires…

I’m sure this picture was in one of the books – or one very similar…

No doubt all these things went into the rubbish when my grandparents died, but I do remember playing with the bagatelle board at our own home, so maybe that did come home with us… it was old, and no doubt would be worth something now, it was handmade from good wood and had been well looked after…

Where it went I don’t know, but at least it still exists here in the family museum!


My family story in ten objects… number 5

This object is a coconut carved into a face… if you saw it you might think it was made by someone who lived where coconuts grow, someone who carved these sorts of things all the time to sell. No-one knows for sure where coconuts originated, but it’s generally thought it was the Indian/Indonesian areas and the ‘nuts’ floated away round the world and established themselves in different countries before they were exported by humans. No doubt artistic people in different countries carved the shells maybe as beautiful objects, maybe as things of religious significance, maybe for fun to pass the time –  certainly travellers, traders and sailors carved them  to pass the time on long voyages and bring to back as a souvenir… much the same as sailors made scrimshaw from whale bones.

However, this coconut head, which must be about sixty years old now, was carved on winter evenings by the fire in a small flat in Cambridgeshire – our flat, and carved by my dad. He was a scientist – an analyst specialising in proteins, fats and lipids; he was greatly respected and was involved in some of the most important research at the time, in both the Low Temperature Research Station in Cambridge, and the Meat Research Institute near Bristol. My dad was a great sportsman – rugby, cricket, rowing, golf, but his sporting activities were interrupted by seven years serving as a paratrooper during the war. Although he loved music, with a wide range of taste from opera to David Bowie, he wasn’t musical in any way.

So how did he come to carve this beautiful object? Why have I chosen this to represent something about my family? I’ve chosen it because it represents a great interest in creativity, making things, beautiful things, that my family all have.

As well as making this carving, dad also made glass animals and objects, including a chess set and Christmas decorations – he had to make particular and specific glass instruments for his work in the lab. His love of glass continued and he would often go to auctions (to look not buy); he was spotted by a dealer once who asked him what his line was, thinking that he was a dealer too. ‘Glass,’ my dad replied. ‘I thought so!’ said the dealer. He loved wood and made things including a table which I still have, and the panelling for a fireplace. Late in life he had a fancy for carving sheep’s horns for walking sticks… he collected them and processed them  and the sticks, but never got to carve them – I found a collection of horns after he died.

My mum was an incredible needlewoman and knitter; she made all our clothes, including my dad’s shirts and pyjamas. She had an amazing eye for colour and design, and could look at a piece of cloth and work out what she could make from it, just by eye. She would then make a pattern, but she knew exactly how far a piece of cloth would go. I remember seeing one of her school books when I was young, full of pictures – I’m not sure how good they were,obviously, but it demonstrates that she had an interest in art. She did various other needlework crafts, and at one time took up pewter work. She was so imaginative and creative, I am sure I got my love of language and imagination from her – a couple of times we began to write a story together and her writing was much better than mine (I was an adult at the time, not a child) She was always full of amazing ideas, so talented, so witty, so clever.

My sister, like me was interested in art, drawing and painting when she was at school. Unlike me she was also interested in fashion and design. Unfortunately she was in an accident when she was eighteen and now she lives in a care home; however she still paints and is very keen on ceramics.

This is one of my sister’s pieces

Returning to the coconut man; he represents that strong interest in the arts and creativity which has run through our family life. Interestingly, I married a musician and artist, but our children, although passionate about music, are much more on the mathematical and scientific side of things.


Vanishing Act

It’s happened to me, and I guess it happens to most people who are looking into their family history, that the ancestor they are seeking seems to vanish. I was following my family, census by census until suddenly in 1871, there they weren’t… I checked death records, I tried spelling their names in alternative ways, I tried ignoring the father and looking for the mother and then the children. None of them appear in the 1871 census. What a mystery… but there they were, back again in 1881.

There may be reasons why people are not on the census; maybe they were travelling, maybe some of the records are not complete for some reason. I haven’t yet found where my family went, but in my novel about a family in search of their roots, ‘Radwinter’, they do find an answer to the mystery.

My fictional character Thomas Radwinter is searching for a relative who had been living in the seaport of Portsmouth in the 1840’s and then disappears. It occurs to Thomas that maybe his ancestor boarded a ship and went somewhere, and an obvious destination at that time was half-way round the world to Australia.

Most people know that thousands and thousands of people, men women and children were transported to Australia as convicts. The prisons had become full and containment of criminals was becoming a major problem in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain. Running out of space for all those sentenced to imprisonment, many were housed in chains, in hulks, old rotting ships moored along the banks of the Thames. Previously, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries North America received those transported from the British Isles, sent to work on the plantations. The American War of Independence, 1775-1782, put a stop to that.

At the same time, Australia and the antipodes offered vast, seemingly limitless opportunities for farming, forestry, whaling and mining, and sending ne’er-do-wells far away not only got rid of them, but also ensured there was a labour force which needed minimal if any payment. It was a primitive and brutal life for all concerned. More than 165,000 convicts were transported to Australia

However, not all the travellers to these far off lands went because they were forced to; my family went to Tasmania in 1839 as merchants and traders, importing fine wines from Europe, porcelain and silk from China, and tea from India to their warehouses in Hobart. They exported wool, whale products, timber and minerals in their ship, the Lady Denison, until it sunk… or maybe the convicts on board overwhelmed the captain and crew, threw them overboard and sailed for San Francisco!

My character Thomas discovers that his family also went on the long voyage, round the Cape of Good Hope across the Southern Ocean to a new life. Thomas investigated his history as I did. He, and I, had a successful outcome to our research, thanks to the internet! The many very good genealogical web-sites make it possible to do in-depth research from home!

So, if your family seems to have disappeared, try looking up shipping lists and manifests, and records of passengers travelling from British ports… There are a lot of lists with a lot of ports, a lot of ships and lots of passengers – in fact in 1852 alone nearly half a million people emigrated to Australia!  However, playing the genealogical detective and with a little determination you might very well find your missing ancestor!


Training a maid… early morning duties

I know rich people probably still have maids – but are they even called that now? In the 1930’s many households, even quite ordinary ones would have a maid who would come in and help in the kitchen and possibly with some of the cleaning. In Agatha Christie’s novels the maid. housemaid,. kitchen maid are regular characters – although I seem to remember that M. Poirot had a butler. When my grandma was alone at home with four young children (grandpa was working away) a young girl from the village (probably aged about twelve or thirteen) came to help, and she was always called Ethel – not ‘the maid’.

In the 1936 recipe book, Modern Practical Cookery, there is a section near the back about how to train a maid. It seems slightly at odds with the rest of the book, where it is apparent that ‘the housewife’ is in the kitchen doing the cooking, and there are helpful hints on such things as laying the table.  I wonder if this section is left over from an earlier edition, maybe from before the 1st World War? This section comes after instructions on weddings, and marriage etiquette, which includes The Bride’s Kitchen and The Workshop (which have to be prepared in the new home before the happy couple take up residence) and Marking the Linen (because, of course, it is sent to a laundry!)

Just in case you have a maid who needs training, here is a little extract:

Early morning duties

In the morning, one of the maid’s duties is to knock at the bed-room door and then walk in with the tea, which is arranged on a tray with a biscuit and a piece of bread and butter..
She pulls up the blinds and inquires if her mistress would like a bath, and if so, fills it and puts a bath mat on the floor. She knocks at the door when the bath is quite ready.
When the maid has chance to give to her mistress, or when letters, parcels and newspapers arrive, they must be brought in on a silver salver, which is kept in the hall for that purpose.

The insufferable elitism of it – the maid (another name for a young girl, as if the woman doing the job is little more than a and biddable naive child) and the mistress – as if the woman who owns the house owns the people who work for her!


A line of Williams…

When I ma exploring my family history, as well as creating or adding to my family tree, I write a little explanation too. I write it in a very plain way, just to get the facts down – one day I hope to use both the tree and the facts creatively, and produce the story of my family in an accessible and interesting way – I am not quite sure how I am going to do that yet!

here is an example – and this is not something I have made up to show what I mean, this is my actual family. If by some chance you recognise some of these people, maybe they are in your family history too, then please do get in touch! Here’s the example in very plain writing:

A woman who maybe was called Ann Barnard or Barnet, married a man called Samuel Older, maybe he was Samuel I Older, Isaac maybe. Samuel died leaving his wife with three daughters and a son. Ann married again, Henry Matthews and she had eight more children with Henry; one of these was a son, Solomon.
Solomon married Sarah Moore, and one of his children was the first in a line of William Matthews. William the first married Mary, maybe she was Davies, maybe she wasn’t. His son, William the second married Fanny Court and their son William Henry, the third, married another Fanny, Fanny Searle. William and Fanny’s son, William Reginald, the fourth, married my grandma, Ida Isabel Walford, and their son William Alan, was the last of the William Matthews as he had two daughters.
Fanny Court was the daughter of Henry and Lucy Court, her grandparents were James and Elizabeth Court. Fanny’s daughter in law Fanny Searle was the daughter of Thomas and Fanny Searle and granddaughter of James Searle and Charlotte Harding. James Searle’s parents were William Searle and Sarah Blackman. William Searle, was the third with that name; his father was married to Mary Linton, his grandfather William was married to Ann Hersey But that William was the son of Richard Blackman. Sarah Blackman was the daughter of yet another William, who was married to Ann Woods. Ann’s parents were John Woods and Ann MacKrill, and Ann had undergone a name spelling change, her parents were John and Mary MacKrell.

Four Williams, photo taken about 1892

William was a popular nineteenth century name, and it is popular today. Coincidentally, my husband who has William as a middle name, comes from a line of Williams too – and our son has William in his name.

Earlier today I was very pleased to announce that my genealogical mystery, Radwinter, is now available as a paperback; my character Thomas followed his family history, and he came across quite a few Thomas’s!

if you’re interested in reading my story, here is a link: