Monday, 30 November 2015

When St Andrew’s Day and a little bit of south east London come together with stories of Canada, Germany and maybe even India

Uncle George, circa 1918
Now St Andrew’s Day pretty much went unremarked in our house and that I find odd given that my grandparents crossed the border in to England just a century and a bit ago and three of my uncles were born  in Scotland.

Added to which I share the saint’s name and both Uncle George and Uncle Fergus served in the Black Watch and I grew up with stories of Robert the Bruce, the Young Pretender and our own tartan.

But south east London was a long way from the east Highlands where we originated from and Alloa which was the stepping off point for England for my grandparents is a place far away.

And  father had made the journey south by the 1930s so if he did ever talk about his youth it was of Gateshead and not of a time across the border.

So for me Scotland was pretty much just a place, and one that I didn’t even visit until 2006 but during the past year as I have been rediscovering my childhood in Lausanne Road thoughts of Scotland have also begun to bubble to the surface.

The tent of family stories, circa 1955

They are a mix of daring tales of the Highland clans mixed with the victories of Scots armies over the English and a string of laments from the Flowers of the Forest and farewells to the boy who would have been King to the haunting sound of the pipes.

My earliest memories are of sitting with Uncle George in our tent in the garden of Lausanne Road on hot summer’s days when the sun beat down heating the canvas and releasing that distinctive smell which mixed with his pipe smoke and was only interrupted by the buzz of insects.

A long time later he told me the more personal stories which pitched our family across the Highlands and involved tales of  itinerant traders, ships engineers who plied the oceans and barrel makers, shop keepers and many more.

All of which has made me reflect on our lost identities and how it is often very hard to draw them up from half told tales, family myths and a big dollop of romantic tosh.

But the last few years of trawling our own family history across south east London, the Midlands and into Scotland, and on to Germany and Canada have confirmed that the myths and half remembered stories will have more than an element of fact.

Family tombstone, Markinch, Fife, 1976
So the cocoa factory of Kender Street was real, our links to Canada are more extensive than I could have thought and the history of Well Hall and Eltham is very much mine.

And what has made it possible to confirm so much that was folklore and vague memory is the growing body of historical information now on online which has allowed me to call up army records from the Canada, opened up endless census returns, and read contemporary accounts which sit on dusty shelves in libraries as far away  as California and Australia.

Above all it has also allowed me to correspond with people engaged in similar research across the world and although there can be a time delay those links will pretty much be done in a few hours.

Now that may seem a long way from St Andrew’s Day, the garden of Lausanne Road or even our house in Well Hall but I think not.

St John River, New Brunswick home to great uncle Roger, 1914
The common thread is that search for identity and the desire to give a context to family members who we know little about.

For me hoovering up a family tree which finally gets lost two centuries ago is not enough.

I want to know how their lives were lived out and how their achievements and contributions were part of something bigger.

Grandmother's home Cologne, circa 1930
So I shall be crossing that border, and continuing the search for my great uncle migrated to Canada in 1914 and in the fullness of time explore a link with India.

Mother always maintained that my grandmother’s maiden name of Bux was not common in Germany where she had been born in 1895 but was from the sub continent.

It was for me a link to far and yet there in the historical records the name Bux is prominent amongst seamen who worked the ships that sailed from India to Europe in the 19th century.

All of which leaves me yet again with that simple observation that history is messy and full of surprises.

Pictures; from the collection of Andrew Simpson

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