These last weeks, something made me dive back into that very old interest of mine, researching my family history…but not at all in the same way as I looked at this before. I had grown weary with this ‘hobby’ years ago, no longer finding purpose in collecting names and dates relating to people I will never really get to know; history, in general, had stopped feeling so meaningful to me as I came to realise that nothing had the power to define, or reinvent, me so much as what was going on with me right now. Yet, with an imminent trip to Norfolk (my family ancestral ‘home’) looming fast, I inevitably found myself glancing once again at my family tree and, all of a sudden, it started swiftly and easily unlocking its deeper secrets in a way that felt completely synchronistic with my journey back there.
I had never once been to Norfolk before; in fact, it occurred to me, I had pretty much been everywhere else in the British isles, all along every coastline and zig-zagged across all the many spaces in between yet Norfolk lay there quite untouched and this absence of any experience of it began to feel like a giant pointing finger, singling it out for my attention. In fact, the very peculiarity that both sets of parental ancestors originated from Norfolk, though neither of my parents did, seemed like a red flag to my interest, asking me to take a deeper look. My sense of the geography of which I am an expression is so profound for me – I feel like I deeply know this land from which I come, I feel it all around me – and yet Norfolk felt like a numb patch, an area of paresthesia that was like a trapped nerve tying to grab my attention.
One of the difficulties I had, that made me ‘give up’ on the Norfolk folks years ago, was the challenge of taking them any further back in time than I had already gone. My mother’s lot were called ‘Green’; like my own name of ‘White’, this is far from unusual as names go, which makes them all the harder to pick out or to follow beyond the era of census data being available.
One particular Green that I knew something about was my great (x4) grandmother Caroline who had always drawn my attention more than some other names I could have settled upon, for no particular reason…and this time of looking was no exception. To refresh my memory, I simply reviewed all the same old census material as last time and, suddenly, it was as though I was painting her portrait; she went from being a blank white canvas to being as colourful as her name until this whole, vibrant picture of a real woman seemed to step forward out of the data. There she was, in 1841, living in the village of East Walton married to a farm labourer, working as a grocer, with six young children; there she was again, now widowed at age 39, running a lodging house near the toll house on the Lynn Road next to the village, still with six children under her roof; there she was ten years later, living as housekeeper for her brother William who was a retired farmer in the next village; then, after he died, she must have suddenly reinvented herself as a ladies companion~nurse as she was staying in the house of a solicitor in Tooting (now a suburb of London), Surrey with an employer from Great Yarmouth. Finally, 1891, she was living with her daughter and son-in-law (a foreman for a corn merchant) in a tiny terraced house, crammed with ten occupants, in Kings Lynn – which is where she died at age 77. This woman surely knew how to reinvent herself, chameleon fashion, in order to survive and had all the nerve that it takes to make a complete change of lifestyle and location as necessary. Perhaps inspired by her taking the chance geographical leap south with her gentile employer, her son Thomas had also moved to Surrey by 1881, which is where his grandaughter / my grandma was born…and so I can safely say that I am the product of the quantum leap she took to follow her fortunes; she enabled me to happen. I began to feel really proud of her, to feel gratitude for all those qualities that added up to me…and then to see how I am the continuation of those qualities and how I have, no less, taken that kind of quantum leap in my own story of shift and survival. As much as I had learned anything about Caroline Green, I had found out something about myself!
At the same time as reviving my interest in this side of the family, I took another look into my father’s side; another stuck line with the Wilkins family that I could take no further back than about 1820 when they were farm labourers in rural Norfolk; this time at East Ruston and Stalham at the edge of the Broads. A ‘dark’ and dreary story of ever-increasing ill-fortune and poverty as Norfolk’s once booming agriculture fell victim to the birth of the modern era, I had long known that my family there ended up in the workhouse just before leaving for Tyneside and a new life. Last time I looked into all this, all my focus was upon their failure to thrive, their state of desperation and a sense of them falling helplessly victim to circumstance, running away from poverty, rather than anything to do with their courage, proactivity or determination to thrive. In short, I felt terribly sorry for them, turned-off by their circumstances…and that’s exactly where I had left them at the end of all my earlier research.
Again, it was as though I had now been invited to look back into this ‘story’ with new eyes and, as with the Greens, new doors of understanding seemed to open with ease this time around. This time, a more colourful picture presented itself….of a young married couple working side by side on a farm in the ancestral village of East Ruston, as yet with no children; then, a decade later, I find them in more independent times with three young children, a house of their own, him working as a ‘general dealer’ in the nearby market town of Stalham. Then, new information unearthed, she dies at the age of 47 (when she was ‘my age’ is what really struck me about this), leaving three children and presumably a bereft husband. It is the next census that finds the husband – circumstantially defeated, possibly sickly (he dies within a decade, age early 50s) – and his younger son Thomas, age 13, living in the workhouse at Smallburgh. His daughter has been sent on to an uncle, his elder son is now labouring on a farm. This is the part of the story where I got stuck last time…apart from finding the young Thomas, a decade later, in Great Yarmouth working as what I read to be a ‘scavenger’, which I found to be a common term for a street sweeper and collector of nightsoil. From bad to worse, it felt like…I hardly wanted to delve any deeper.
Only, something took me back to that 1871 census form again where, this time around, (it seemed clearer than I remembered it, somehow) I was able to read that word ‘scavenger’ and see that it actually read ‘searanger’; also to notice that he was sharing a house with the overseer of a silk carpet factory, not living in slums. Facing up to my relief over this enabled me to dig deep with another series of question directed at myself: what did it matter what he was doing to make a living and had I been feeling ashamed of my relatives? If so, what was all that about, what element of judgement still lurked in me about how others make a living and how was this consistent with who I am, how I regard myself and others, where did this belief system even come from? Uncomfortable stuff, this line of questioning brought up a whole, deep and hidden, layer of self-judgement about some of my own former occupations and income levels to light, enabling me to own them all and be proud of whatever I have ever done to make a living and to keep a roof over my family’s head, just as he did.
Yet, back to Thomas Wilkins, the parentless 22 year-old “searanger”, this was no shameful occupation at all, this was sheer courage and determination in action – my great grandfather was rescuing souls on one of Great Yarmouth’s lifeboats; boats which saw a great deal of action and loss of crew life around the the time I am speaking of. It took me a while to look into the details of this but here’s what I found. Sea rangers were generally fishermen who took other opportunities to help out fellow seamen and to make extra income and the work was both physically demanding and extremely dangerous (a contemporary news reports describing a rescue carried out by one of the Ranger lifeboats, The Rescuer, referred to the fact they operated without wearing any form of life preservers). Though what were referred to as “rangers” existed in Great Yarmouth long before 1800, a company called the “Rangers Sea Company” was formed in 1820, based at Gorleston Beach, where they somewhat precariously, and with limited funding, manned four private lifeboats independently of the RNLI and were often reliant on donations (the boat pictured is a later boat than Thomas would have known, the Elizabeth Simpson, privately funded by a lady of that name following the loss of one of their earlier boats in 1889; it shows how the crew stood up to row).
So, if my Thomas was really doing this to make a living, he was going about it anything but the easy way and, presumably, putting whatever he could aside, ready to start a new life. Within five years, he took his East Ruston-born love Emily, her parents and her orphaned niece Rosa to Durham, where he and Emily married before settling in South Shields, bringing Rosa up alongside their own children. Here, he took a steady job labouring for the local corporation, she ran a sweet shop and they died in a pleasant little row of houses, aged in their mid 70s. For all that, I get the sense he never (ever) forgot his roots and those dreadful years in the workhouse at Smallburgh, Norfolk. That poverty-consciousness, ingrained fear of tragedy striking at any moment and of familial separation have run through my family like a hot poker ever since, carried through his son (who died, age 36, of encephalitis lethargica – the ‘sleeping sickness’ epidemic of the 1920s which always strikes me as a condition of being struck rigid with fear; leaving a widow and my 8 year-old dad plus two more fatherless siblings) and then my dad, who was deeply afraid of poverty and illness all his life. No less, it transferred into me…I see now how I became afraid of all these things long before I really knew what they were, carried no less by my father’s fearful attitude to life than they were by his endlessly cursory words about the need to live ‘small and invisible’, to trim your cloth to your circumstances, to never slip into debt of any kind including mortgage (and to loathe yourself if you ever did), to be self-sufficient at all costs, to waste nothing and expect very little, to always assume the worse was coming over the horizon long before you had any sign of it coming, to bow down to your betters, to stick rigidly to ritual and routine, to always stay close to home and, if you were fortunate enough to have even the simplest of homes, to remain there all your days even if you longed for something different. Unlocking this door was like opening an over-stuffed cupboard and watching all the old tribal encoding come tumbling out of my own cells; the fears and limitations I never (really) had the meaning of and the excuse for, though I carried them all buried and bizarrely active within my own DNA.
Some deeper understanding of what the workhouse meant in mid Victorian times coloured this picture even more meaningfully for me. In the 1890s, an inspector was sent to complete a report on conditions at Smallburgh and described an H-block designed to house up to 800 inmates though, at the time, there were nearer 70 and probably something in between when my family where there. Very likely, young Thomas and his father would have been accommodated separately from each other, which must have been awful after the break-up of their family unit. Children and new born babies are described as having been in the care of ‘a deaf and blind woman and an imbecile’ in the 1890s so conditions for minors were presumably dreadful. My search for family burials unearthed multiple infant deaths of my family name in the early 1800s, at Smallburgh, all of them averaging somewhere between 2 and 9 years old; chances are, some were my relatives.
Smallburgh had no running water, no hygiene facilities whatsoever; commodes were used indoors and the limited outside privies were quite some distance away from the block. I met a couple of wonderful senior ladies in East Walton churchyard; one of them recalled a relative of hers who talked about visiting a family member at their local workhouse when she was a child. This woman-inmate spent all her time obsessively miming-out the action of washing clothes and pegging them out to dry, though there was no running water to be had there; in fact, inmates of workhouses are often portrayed as being simpletons or those who had lost their mental faculties but this kind of insight into their awful living circumstances makes you wonder whether it wasn’t the conditions there that caused this terrible damage to mental health!
So here in Thomas Wilkins, much like Caroline Green, was another paradigm-changer; someone fuelled by a strong desire to survive and outgrow circumstances that no longer served him in his tribal patch and, if that meant uprooting and starting again in completely unknown territory, then, so be it. Time and again my tree was throwing up, for my attention, those characters that did this very thing; those who made this kind of a move, one that cut them free from old limitations just as surely as it launched their own LEAP into all the mixed terror and opportunity of the complete unknown. They pushed the boundaries of their experience and, every time, one way or another, it led to the kind of expansion that would have been unlikely had they stayed put where they were at the start. No less, it brought to mind – with new appreciation – thoughts of my dad; the one who, during desperate times in 1930s Tyneside, instigated a family exodus that included his widowed mother, brother and sister, to Nottingham, on the back of his ability to get a job as a joiner on a building site during the housing boom there. No less it brought to mind ME…and how I always just knew I had to leave the Midlands and head south when I did (and then stay here alone, rather than just giving up and running back to where my family were beckoning me during the very hardest time of my life), for all the tugging up of my roots felt so very hard, in fact scared me to death at the time, and permanently marginalised me with my old friends and all the family that continue to live there. Breaking out of the secure, familiar pounding-ground of the tribe can be one of the hardest things you ever do…and the familiar can dress itself up as ‘safety’ during the very hardest of times…and yet the spiral-action that breaks us out of the circle that goes round and around getting nowhere, during a stuck-phase, can be the very quantum leap that is the beginning of a whole new story.
During my time in Norfolk, I happened to be reading a book that I started several weeks ago but which gained no traction for me until I picked it up again on this holiday. It is Richard Bach’s ‘One‘ – and anyone who has read any of my recent book reviews will know just how much I love Richard Bach. An exploration of ‘what if?’ on so many levels, this genius book plays with timelines and choicepoints, alternate versions of self that take different actions, turn different corners, choose to see things differently and so invite different outcomes. It was such a brilliant thing to be reading while my Norfolk experience was unfolding for me, enhancing so many of the mind games that were already playing out in my own adventure. It began to inform a whole new way that I was starting to look at this whole family-tree-research stuff and the next biggest clue came in the form of a walk we did in the woods at Walsingham Abbey where we started to notice that all the many upturned tree roots lying amidst the soon-to-bloom bluebells resembled giant wooden stars. The thought occurred to me, what if the very gift of our history is delivered to us, not when we look to our past to define or inform who we are now (allowing our…often heavy…past to (in)form the way we perceive ourselves here) but by starting with who we are now as the ideal – regarded from our most expanded perspective – and looking back at our history to see how we informed and encouraged them; considering that we could be the product, the goal, the very focus-point of opportunity that lit some of their most inspired choices!
Looked at this way up, our history becomes illuminated and we become the star that lights its way. Suddenly, we can look back and appreciate it all…the very toughest bits, the horrors, the tragedies, the sadnesses, everything the past has to offer…from the perspective of “well, I wouldn’t be me, as I am today, or even alive at all if that hadn’t happened”. There is no room for shame, for sorrow, for regret in such a perspective; there can only be the strongest sense of “meant to be” and of everything having played out perfectly. In a very literal sense, I wouldn’t exist if none of my ancestors had been through enormous challenge and then made their own particular quantum leap. Suddenly, the whole, wonderful, two-way process revealed itself to me in all its glory. Yes, perhaps without this particular genetic history I wouldn’t have been running most of the programs of fear, perceived limitation, ingrained poverty-fear and so on that have informed my own journey of discovery thus far but then I wouldn’t be where I am now without all those perceived obstacles. Likewise, I probably wouldn’t have been fuelled by such fierce determination to survive against all odds, the unwavering confidence in my own reliability, independence and strength…indeed, the unquestionable belief in my own right to be at liberty, to survive and to THRIVE that has been the fire beneath me all my life. I have always been lit from within by the belief that I can do whatever I choose, be whatever I want to be, including happy and fulfilled in this life. The gift of my ancestors is that, in seeing them, I see ME…and maybe, just maybe, in their most enlightened moments, they saw me too; shining across time, calling them over here!
As if to make the point more strongly, we had just been to visit the workhouse at Smallburgh – a sobering experience even though the few remaining buildings are the original reception block (now turned into light industrial units), not the slums – and had gone on to Happisburgh beach to blow the cobwebs away. The cliffs at Happisburgh have been subject to some terrible erosion; many of the hallmarks of human existence, including whole houses, have crumbled into the sea there, leaving strange portions of chimney stack and house wall protruding from the sand. The whole beach is like a metaphor for the way our own weighty, convoluted histories (always) fall away eventually and are then grounded, dissolved, crumbled and eroded, weather-beaten and sieved into molecules until all that is left behind are the most relevant bits, the clues that relate to the ‘us’ in the here and now. As I thought this, I looked down at a single red house brick spot-lit in the afternoon sunshine and, like a Alice in Wonderland type clue left, noticed it was moulded with a single, poignant word – it read “star”.
The final synchronicity in this trail was this: choosing somewhere to go on our final afternoon in Norfolk, I tripped upon Seahenge…which I had vaguely heard of without realising its location was so close to where we were now staying. When I say ‘location’, I mean the place where this 4000 year-old megalith appeared above the waters, revealed (so fittingly, like my brick) by the gradually eroding coastline in recent decades and formally “discovered” when the media got hold of the story in 1998; it was then removed for conservation work and put into a museum so there is no trace of it (or a subsequent wooden circle discovered) at Holme Next the Sea, where we headed for our final beach walk, yet I still felt so strongly that I wanted to finish off there, to feel into the place. However, what really caught my eye was that this henge consisted of a single, huge and inverted oak tree root – a giant wooden star exactly like the ones we were spotting on our walk a couple of days earlier – surrounded by a circle of wooden tree posts numbering 55 in total (which felt like another wink from the universe as that’s my special number). When we made this beachfront our finale of the holiday, the clouds parted to gift us with a window of molten silver-gold light on the water where Seahenge used to be, before the tide very swiftly came in and the clouds began to regather – it couldn’t have been more perfect!
Norfolk has been such a gift, on so many levels; far more than I could possibly share and I am still unpacking it. Its seemingly endless, winding, daffodil- and blossom-lined lanes, stringing together so many picturesque villages and hamlets, with hardly a town amongst them, harked back to that other era I was trying to feel into and were also strangely mesmerising and therapeutic as we drove around on them. The fact our holiday rental in Little Walsingham turned out not only to be positioned right next to a ruined friary (something we knew about when we booked it) but also, by surprise, to be adjoined to one of the earliest Methodist Chapels in the country seemed strangely apt given my dad’s family were Methodist through-and-through. It felt like a circumstantial smile on my family tree-researching and I could just sense how much Dad would have loved that synchronistic touch and have felt like it was home-from-home because of it.
As for those ancestors of mine, by mid-week I had visited not only the workhouse but my dad’s turf in both Stalham and East Ruston and its parish church of St Mary’s (finding some relevant gravestones while we were there). Something amazing happened to me while we were in Stalham and Happisburgh – everywhere I went, I reckoned I was seeing people who bore a close family resemblance to me and my family. In the supermarket that we dashed into for supplies, I caught a glimpse of my brother’s look-alike sat behind a till and, as we sat eating our picnic lunch, could have been watching a reincarnation of my favourite aunt walking across the carpark, right down to the hollow of her eyes, the point of her chin and the very clothes she was wearing. It made me laugh; I felt sure it was imagined but what it taught me is that when we set out hoping, intending and being open to seeing ourselves in others rather than focusing on the differences (however alien their habits and lifestyles may be), those similarities are invariably what we begin find…one after startling other. It was a reminder of how easily and seamlessly we might all start to see these familial similarities in other people, wherever they happen to come from, just as soon as we open up to this deeper knowing that we all belong to the same family tree, at the root!
One of my big breakthroughs, just before we left for Norfolk, was to push through the apparent cul-de-sac of the name Green, on my mother’s side, to discover that my Caroline’s maiden name was Faux (variously spelt Forks and Folkes)…a far more unusual and thus easier name to trace. The next visit of our week was to East Walton (where she lived) and its extremely beautiful round-towered church of St Mary’s where we immediately found the gravestones of Caroline’s mother Mary (my great x5 grandmother) and also the brother William she was housekeeper to (and the words “in affectionate remembrance” suggested to me that he was the good-hearted soul I had imagined), plus some members of the Green family. There was something so complete about this visit to the tranquil churchyard they must have known so well, including my chat with the two local ladies who told me stories and my time spent in the white-bright interior of this simplest of churches with its huge plain glass windows. After that, I took a look at the few very scattered houses that now make up East Walton, though they were mostly more modern and it has shrunk enormously since ‘her’ time there (in 1851, my family occupied at least two of the very long row of cottages that ran from end to end, covering the whole range of livelihoods you would expect in a thriving village). We visited the old wheel wright’s oven in front of the old forge which, I imagine, would have been very near the tollhouse where Caroline later kept lodgings. The picture, in my head, of their world in this quiet rural place surrounded by pasture and sheep and with its church bells ringing on Sunday began to flood with so much colour; like the black-and-white outlines painted by census forms had suddenly been filled in with the kind of domestic details that gave people their humanity and form. I realised, with a smile, I had literally travelled from the White of my own name to the Green of theirs and right back again, identifying and so adding their particular touch of colour to the full-spectrum of me.
On our journey back to Berkshire, we stopped at St Mary’s in the town of Watton, where the earlier generations of the Faux family lived from at least 1700, yet found no one we ‘knew’ amongst the badly eroded gravestones of that considerably more crowded graveyard and that’s when it all felt really complete, like I needed to search no further. All these scrubbed out and eroded letters seemed to be telling me that I had already unearthed what was most relevant to me, I had reached the end of my trail and need concern myself with anonymous names and meaningless dates no longer. At Smallburgh and then at East Ruston and East Walton, I had bowed deeply to each of my paternal and maternal forbears and had assured them all that “I see you, I see you” which is all, I felt, they had ever been asking for me to acknowledge. I liked to feel that they had received that message now, had felt me addressing them across time and that I had helped inform them in their own quantum decision-making, their most terrifying yet life-altering leaps into the unknown. Like the star that is a tree root turned upside down, perhaps my appreciation of them across time had been the unfathomable light calling them to take yet another brave step ahead in a completely unknown, unexplored direction, sending them my assurances that “its all great over here, just keep heading this way, this way, over here, don’t lose faith, yes this way, don’t give up…” May I listen ever so attentively to my own guiding helpers across the multi-directional corridors of time!
“The Lifeboat Service in South East England” by Nicholas Leach
Account of Ranger sea rescues – Broadland Memories Blog
A more balanced account of the background to the discovery of Seahenge than some…
Ancestry website for access to UK census, birth, marriage and death data