Looking up the Brontës

Many of us are fascinated by genealogical research, and looking through old records and census returns… one little offshoot of this is to look up the nineteenth century records of people we know from other areas… for example the Brontë family.

In the 1841 census, in the parish of Bradford in Yorkshire (the West Riding) in the registration district  of Keighley, in the town of Haworth, you would find Patrick Bronte, born in 1781 and aged 60, his sister-in-law Elizabeth Branwell of the same age who was born in Cornwall, and  two of his daughters,  Emily Jane aged 20 and born in Yorkshire, and Ann, a year younger; also in the household was fifteen year old Martha Brown who we can guess was a servant.

Charlotte, meanwhile was a short-term position with the White family at Upperwood House in Guiseley, also in the West Riding of Yorkshire; she had three charges, Jasper, Arthur and Sarah. Ten years later, Charlotte was at home; the family had a visitor, Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey. Martha Brown, the servant girl, was now a young woman of twenty-five, and there was another servant, eighty-one year old Tabitha Akroyd born in Haworth. Charlotte Bronte. Somehow over the ten years between surveys, Patrick has aged an extra four years – his date of birth is now recorded as 1777, not 1781, and his place of birth Ireland, and he is described as ‘Incumbent Or Perpetual Curate Of Haworth’.

In 1861, the inhabitants of the parsonage in Haworth have changed slightly; still in residence is eighty-four year old Patrick; all his children have died, he is alone apart from his son-in-law, Charlotte’s widower, Arthur B. Nicholls, and Martha Brown, now the housekeeper. There is another servant, Eliza Brown, who I guess is probably Martha’s younger sister. If you look back at the 1851 census, you can find Arthur B. Nicholls there in haworth, listed as ‘curate’ and living in Sexton House.

It’s really interesting to undertake  little journeys into the past like this; no doubt i could have found exactly the same information on any of the many websites devoted to the Brontës – but not as much fun!

I’ve used my interest in genealogy and family history research in my Thomas Radwinter series of e-novels; her is a link:



Happy birthday Joseph Mallord William…

Two hundred and forty-two years ago today, near Covent Garden a little boy was born and called John, and given the extra names of Mallord and William as well as a surname of Turner; yes, today is the birthday of J.M.W.Turner.

He’s described as an artist of the Romantic Movement, along with such contemporaries as  Delacroix, Constable, Gericault and Friedrich and he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1789 when he was only fourteen. He started as mostly a landscape painter, influenced and inspired by other contemporary artists, but as new technology such as steam engines became more common his fascination with them led to some amazing pictures such as ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ and ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’.  He was much criticised for his style at the time, but today when we look at his work it seems extraordinarily modern. His eye was extraordinary, and the way he captured the sea in all its states, and the light and the sky, was just extraordinary.

He was certainly an eccentric man, but an absolute genius… if you haven’t caught the film about him, Mr. Turner by Mike Leigh then I really recommend it – a storming performance from the always excellent Timothy Spall.

Have a look at the Tate gallery’s biography of him:


My featured image is from Margate where Turner spent a great deal of time; it’s a representation of Mrs Booth by Ann Carrington; Mrs Booth was Turner’s landlady with whom he had a loving relationship for many years.


Fuggan and apple dickie

I was wandering through my recipe books as I often do, and came across something called fuggan… I’d never heard of it before, but it’s Cornish, and is a simple but no doubt delicious  pastry with currants or other dried fruit. When I looked it up to find out more about it I came across an Arthur Fuggan, living in Oldham which I know well as I lived there for many years.

Arthur was born in 1864, and in the 1891 census he was living with his sister Matilda, her husband, his mother, and a niece. Oldham was one of the most famous and important cotton-spinning towns in the nineteenth century and so it was so surprise to see that Matilda was a cotton speed tenter.  Her husband was a pianist and when I saw that Arthur was a self actor minder I thought that he must be something to do with being on the stage… However, the word ‘minder’ made me wonder as I know that was a job in the cotton industry. I was right; a self actor minder is someone who ‘minded’ a ‘self actor’, or “operates a self-acting spinning mule, patented by Richard Roberts, which could be operated by semi-skilled personnel.” A tenter is merely someone who tents or tends a spinning machine in a factory. Arthur doesn’t appear again in the census, not by that name anyway, but there seem to be families of Fuggans living in other countries, particularly the USA

Back to the fuggan…  when I looked further into the edible fuggans, it seems there is also a meat fuggan, which is just meat and pastry; as far as I can gather the pastry is made into a longish fat lump, split down the middle, the seasoned, finely chopped meat is put in and the pastry moulded round it . Somewhere else I found that it was usually pork and sometimes had potatoes as well. It is baked in the oven and I guess might taste quite nice and  a way I  would think of making a small amount of meat go between a family. Apparently, the top of it was patterned with cross-hatched marks, representing the fishing nets of the men who were out at sea, no doubt looking forward to their tasty fuggan when they got home!

And so apple dickie… Similar, it seems to a fuggan, a Cornish pastry with chopped apple mixed into it and baked!

More on mythic voyages

I mentioned the travels of St Brendan of Clonfert, and referred to that other trans-Atlantic voyager from early times, Nicholas of Lynn… who may, or may not have travelled across the ocean; I mentioned him in my 50,000 word challenge, somehow I had travelled from my own story, to the tales of others and their relationship with rivers, seas and oceans.

The voyages of St Brendan may be more famous, but are they more true than those of a lesser known monk, Nicholas of Lynn, mathematician, astronomer, monk.

Nicholas of Lynn, (Nicolas de Linna) was born in 1330 in the Norfolk town of King’s Lynn, on the edge of the Wash. He became a Franciscan friar and an academic at Oxford University and is believed to have travelled to the Arctic Circle in about 1360. He is known to have written  a book describing his voyage and adventure,  but unfortunately there are no copies still in existence. It was called Inventio Fortunate,  ‘Fortunate Discovery’  and it was an account of his travels and journeys north.

However, two hundred years after he supposedly went on his adventure, Thomas Blunderville,  an English humanist writer and mathematician, well-known and well-regarded for work on logic, astronomy and education did not believe that Nicholas of Lynn could have made his voyage. More recently some weight has been added to the argument that in actual fact, Nicholas did indeed visit the Arctic, as Inventio Fortunate seems to have been a reasonably accurate description of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Whether Nicholas himself travelled to Greenland and Iceland, or whether he just rewrote the tales he heard, there are parts of ‘Fortunate Discovery’  which almost  conclusively indicate an Icelandic or Greenlandic source.

It may be that although Nicholas wrote about the voyages as if he himself had made them, he might have heard them from another sources; it seems very likely to some, that he got his information, not first hand by travelling through the Arctic, but from a priest named Ivar Bárdarson. Bárdarson was actually the  administrator of the See of Gardar in Greenland, from about 1340 to about 1360. He had obviously travelled around these very areas and would have known – from his own experience or from talking to other travellers, about the eastern seaboard of the Canadian Arctic. He wrote a description of Greenland which had a wide circulation and was translated; the explorer Henry Hudson took it with him on some if not all of his voyages.

Hudson was an interesting man too, who met a tragic fate; he was born some time between 1565-1570, and made two attempts on behalf of English merchants to find a prospective Northwest Passage to China, then known as Cathay. It was believed that there was a route above the Arctic Circle and Hudson also explored the region around modern where New York now stands  while he was looking for this supposed western route to Asia. He was actually under the employ of  the Dutch East India Company and explored  and gave his name to the Hudson River; it was mainly thanks to him that there was a Dutch colony there for a while – New York, famously was originally called New Amsterdam.

Hudson went on to discover the Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay on his final expedition. However, these harsh and dangerous conditions bred harshness and danger for Hudson and his son. They overwinterd on the shore of James Bay, named not after King James I for whom Hudson was not working, but Thomas James, a Welsh captain who explored the area two decades later between 1630 and 1631.

 Hudson wanted to continue to the west, to continue his search, and maybe just to explore and see what there was. However, all but seven of his crew mutinied. Hudson, his son and seven men were set adrift and were never seen again or heard of again. Unless they were fortunate enough to meet some friendly Inuit, they must have drowned, or starved, or maybe were even attacked by some creature, a polar bear maybe.

Meanwhile, one hundred and fifty years earlier, Ivar Bardarson returned to Norway, possibly between 1361 and 1364; this is where Nicholas of Lynn may have met him in person. From their meeting he may have written his ‘Fortunate Discovery’ .




Last word on NaNo… (for now!)

This is the fourth year I have attempted the challenge of writing 50,000 words in the month of November. I didn’t decide till the last minute, for several reasons – I was three-quarters way through another book I’m writing, I seemed to have hit a bit of a slough with writing anyway, I had an empty head – empty of any ideas.

I was undecided up until the last moment, the actual day the challenge started, November 1st and then I plunged in. The challenge is supposed to be a new novel, but I only had half-started ones, so I went for an idea I’ve been playing about with, of writing a sort of memoir, sort of family history, but using my imagination to make it more interesting and detailed than if I just tried to remember particular things from my childhood.

The connecting thread running through my stories is the River… the River in actual fact is many rivers, the Cam from my early years in Cambridge, the Mersey, the Irwell and the Medlock from living in Manchester, the Axe from living in Somerset, the Bann and the Bush from visiting Ireland so many times. I wrote quite a few stories about the Cam and my experiences, by it, on it, in it, and also its own story, where it comes from, what it’s like, where it goes and which other rivers join it on its way. I returned to the Cam with memories of it freezing over in years gone by, and from there I explored skating on the Cam and other fenland rivers and waterways, and became intrigued and involved with the story of a party of skaters in 1903 who had a tragic accident.

I started to write about the Irwell in the same way, but I got side-tracked by the actual river, and there is not much about me and my time in Manchester… something to go back to… ditto the Medlock and the Mersey.

I felt sure that since I am now living by the River Axe, a few hundred yards from it in fact, that I would write a lot of my own story; in fact I got involved in someone else’s life story, a man who died nearly sixty years ago, drowned in the Axe while trying to save someone else. While researching him, I came across a distant cousin of his, who also drowned at a similar age but in a river round he other side of the world, the  Campaspe in Victoria state,  an inland intermittent river… however in my writing the river played a very small part, I was  more interested in the life of the man before he sadly died. In turn I became interested in the pub his father owned for a few years, and then the man who built and started the pub thirty years previously – a long way from rivers, and from my own life story!

Of all the rivers I have loved the one which has featured most and in most of my novels has been the River Bush; I wrote about it, but again it was more the factual side of it… and so to with the bann, and then somehow St Brenadn was brought into my mind, St Brendan who is supposed to have gone on an amazing voyage of adventure… and suddenly I was writing about him and his companions and their experiences on the sea in boats, retelling his story. This in turn made me think of Nicholas of Lynn, a priest and monk who also went on great voyages – or so he wrote! Lynn is King’s Lynn, not far from where the skating accident happened…

Nicholas of Lynn

Somehow I moved away from English rivers to the Mighty Amazon,and my grandfather who went up it to Manaós in the early part of the twentieth century…

What a muddle it all seems looking back… a muddle but if I unpick it and reknit it in a more ordered pattern, maybe I might make something out of it all!

  1. the Cam, in it, on it, by it
  2. the Cam its composition and history and geography
  3. skating on the frozen Cam
  4. tragic skating accident in the Fens in 1903
  5. the story of the young people before and after the accident
  6. the Mersey, the Irwell and the Medlock
  7. the Axe
  8. Edwin Clogg of Looe, Cornwall
  9. Edwin Clogg of the Camberwell Hotel, Victoria
  10. the Camberwell Hotel and George Eastaway
  11. George Eastaway of Bristol
  12. Edwin John Clogg
  13. Arthur Parker the billiard marker
  14. Arthur Barker the farmer
  15. David Hoy the ship builder
  16. The  Bush and the Bann
  17. St Brendan and his voyage
  18. Nicholas of Lynn and his voyage
  19. Reginald Matthews and his journey to Manaós
  20. The Bush and my novels
  21. coracles and curaghs
  22. my writng




Recently we visited Montecute House in Somerset, home of the Phelips family for nearly five hundred years; there is a gallery of paintings from the National Portrait gallery and I think it will be a place I’ll visit many times – to look at those faces, faces of people it would be so easy to imagine bumping into as I walked down the stairs or went into the cafe.

It was interesting to notice other details too; most of the portraits here are ‘after’ original paintings – there was a sort of mass production going on even in Tudor times. I’m not expert enough to be able to judge any of these wonderful pieces, I just look at them and feel a connection to some of the people looking back at me. However, one thing I noticed, there seems to be a very stylised way of painting other parts of the figure, particularly the hands. painting after painting all has hands the same shape, very thin, with very long, disproportionate long it seemed to me – white fingers.

I came to a portrait of Sir Thomas Edmondes or Edmonds, who was born in 1563 and lived to be seventy-six, quite an achievement in those dangerous and difficult times. He was a diplomat and politician, and served Elizabeth I, James I who knighted him, and Charles I, before retiring to his residence in Essex. He was a short man, and often called the ‘little man’ but not in a disrespectful way as he was very much admired.

His character really comes through this painting by Daniel Mytens (Daniël Mijtens); Mytens came to England in 1618, so Sir Thomas would have been well into his sixties when this was painted. What I also noticed about this painting, was how finely painted his hands were, real hands, not those etiolated, pale forms of other pictures. Sir Thomas is carrying his white staff of office, to it is not merely a prop but an important part of the image… it would have been a disservice to him and his emblem, if he’d had feeble hands!


Here is more information about Sir Thomas:


The Welshness of Dahl

There was an item on the radio this morning about a festival celebrating Roald Dahl’s Welshness; although both his parents were Norwegian, Dahl’s father came to Wales in the 1880’s, and his mother in 1911 to marry him, and Roald was born in Cardiff four years later. As I was listening to the story I wondered what had brought Dahl senior to Cardiff and it seems that many, many Norwegian ships with Norwegian sailors docked there; what, I wondered could bring so much Scandinavian traffic to the city?

The answer is obvious – coal. The mining industry was flourishing in south Wales due to the massive industrialisation in Britain in the nineteenth century; from 4.5 million tons in 1840, to 16.5 million tons in 1874. All the mines and pits which were dug needed one vital thing – pit props; long, straight, strong timber was brought from Scandinavia, straight to Cardiff. Those same ships would take back black gold, coal to Norway and Sweden.

There were so many Norwegians visiting the city that a church was built and the Norwegian church there can still be seen today; no doubt many Norwegians stayed and settled in and around the area, and one of these was  twenty something Harald Dahl who worked as a ship broker. He married, had two children and then was widowed; his second marriage was to Roald’s mother.


So Roald was born in Cardiff, to a father who had lived there for nearly thirty years, but the Roald didn’t remain there due to tragic circumstances; his sister died when he was only three, and his father a short time after. When he was seven the little boy was sent across the sea, not back to Norway, but by ferry across St George’s Channel to Weston-super-Mare to go to boarding school. I’m not sure how long he stayed here, at the place he hated – the school, not Weston, but he was then sent to another boarding school.

I didn’t know Dahl had this connection to Weston,  and I’ll never look across the channel to Wales again without thinking of the poor little boy sent away from home to a cruel and ghastly place. That experience, and then being sent further away to the even worse school in Derbyshire no doubt affected him and can be seen in his writing.

To go back to the Welshness of Roald Dahl, the family spoke Norwegian at home, went to a Norwegian church and associated with other Norwegians, how much was the little boy affected by his Welsh environment? I don’t know! But certainly there is much excitement in Wales as the centenary of his birth approaches, and there will be great celebrations in September in the city and land of his birth.