It’s that time of year when, for better or worse, when families come together. You can’t choose the people you’re related to. Or those who came before you. And in some ways, those ancestors can be the most interesting – at least to me. The tales you’ll never hear, the snippets that are passed down (and maybe become twisted in a generational game of Chinese whispers).
I’m sure you have folks who are every bit as interesting (and maybe more so).
I had a great-uncle named Urban Bowling. I never knew him, but when I was digging into my family tree, it was a name that struck me. Married to a woman called Marjorie Cassy Adelina (here many siblings had equally flowery names).
Urban was born around the start of the 20th century, my maternal grandmother’s brother. I don’t know much more about him, other than he died before I was born. But really, with a name like that, he’s someone I would have liked to meet.
It was interesting to delve into that side of the family. My grandfather, quite a Victorian figure, one who believed children should be seen and not heard, was a man who’d made himself a success. Going back a couple of generations further, his family had been dirt poor in Leeds, like so many. Even his own father hadn’t been well off. But he…well, somehow he managed to pull himself up and became the area manager for Dunlop.
With poor eyesight, he’d spent the First World War as a special constable instead of in the trenches. By the early 1930s he had a good house – a semi in Alwoodley – and my mother was attending Leeds Girls’ High School, about as posh as you could get here. The family had a maid and a chauffeur, and in the midst of the Depression they could afford to take holidays in Torquay and the Isle of Man.
My mother aged 15, second from left on couch, and family, 1934. No idea if Urban Bowling is present.
That was a far cry from my father’s family, descended from Isaac Nickson, who arrived in Leeds in the 1820s with his wife and family and set up shop as a butcher. Before that he’d been in Malton running an inn, and somewhere out in the country, doing the same thing, and appeared to leave in cloudy circumstances.
His male descendants mostly became painters and decorators: two of the brothers went into business together, while others seemed to work on their own, most of them settling around Meanwood or Sheepscar for a while. One lived in Holbeck (he died and his wife took over the business in the 1860s, apparently doing quite well, as she employed seven men), and another made his home in Cross Green.
That’s where Harold, my paternal grandfather was born. The woman he married lived just down the hill in Hunslet, where her father ran the Royal Oak (that same man would go on to run the Victoria in Sheepscar for 20 years, for those who’ve read my Tom Harper books). They married in July 1914 and my father was born in November; I’m sure you can figure out why they wed.
From the few stories I’ve heard (and from the Saturday mornings I had to spend with him when I was young as my father visited – by then he was in Bradford, where he’d die) he was a daunting man; he certainly terrified me and seemed to cow my father, by then in his forties. My grandfather liked to drink a bit a gamble. His big win came in 1921 – a mill in Dublin. He packed up his family, a wife and two sons, and moved there. Not the best time to be English in Ireland. A year later they were back in Cross Green.
Sometimes he wouldn’t give his kids any pocket money for weeks, then, when he was flush, or had a few, he’d make them a present of half a crown each, a fortune for a boy in those days.
It was a very working-class neighbourhood. My father and his brother both won scholarships to Cockburn High School, leaving, like most pupils, at 14.
But I never knew my father to have any real trace of a broad Leeds accent, as if he’d worked hard to erase those roots. For part of his life he was a salesman, a commercial traveller. Perhaps he thought it would help in the business (and earlier he’d been a cinema manager). It never occurred to me to ask. I do recall, though, that he had a book on Pelmanism, as well as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Somehow, changing an accent through force of will fits in with that.
And to finish by going back to that Tom Harper thread: in the 1890s I had a distant relative who was a Leeds copper. Joined up when he was 26, after being a plumber. But he only lasted on the force for a couple of years. Why he left, I don’t know. Yet.