Family History – Messages of Hope

Sometimes in your family history you can find messages of hope from the past. It is one of the reasons I regard this type of history research as potentially ‘radical’, so long as you are prepared to go beyond collecting dates of baptisms, marriages and burials (though even these records have their contexts). I was reminded of this watching the latest episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ on BBC 1 (25 January 2017: 8pm), which featured Sir Ian McKellen, actor and LGBT activist.

Inevitably, it being one of the features of this series, there is the attempt to find roots of the person’s celebrity in their past and, sure enough there was a great uncle who trod the boards and a grandmother who was a mezzo-soprano soloist. Neither were particularly famous, except at a local level, but – pause for thought – each in a quiet way illustrated how we are agents in history, however small, not simply victims of fate.

The greatest revelation however was the ancestor, Robert Lowes, who was a warehouse clerk in Manchester. He was very definitely one of those neglected heroes of the past who made an enormous difference to the lives of those around him. In the 1840s, at a time when Friedrich Engels was writing his classic The Condition of the Working Classes, Robert Lowes, humble clerk, skilfully organised his fellow workers, clerical and manual, to petition their rich and powerful employers for a half day holiday. Robert himself had used the opportunity provided by the Lyceum to build his skills at public speaking, writing, researching, networking and advocacy in his rare spare time. He wanted more of the same opportunities for his fellow workers. This was not a time when it was easy to organise, though demand for change was on the rise. But Robert’s campaign was successful and what we now know as ‘the weekend’ was born. He went on to campaign for workers in other industries, especially the women garment workers in the sweatshops, and was successful again.

This was an uplifting episode at a time when the process of reform and change started by men and women like Robert in 1845 is being put into reverse on a global scale and a Mussolini impersonator inhabits the White House. It is a reminder that we don’t have to be cowed by history or by patriarchal interpretations of the past and present – we can make history too. It just takes a bit of effort, one step at a time.

There is a less dramatic but just as vital example from my own maternal ancestry. My great uncle Edwin Martin was described to me as a ‘black sheep’, who was irresponsible in his working life, was blacklisted as a union organiser, might have been a communist, died of TB and left his wife and child destitute. I grew up with a sneaking admiration for this rebel and was fortunate enough in later life to be put in touch with his daughter, Margaret. He was a lovely man, a keen exponent of amateur dramatics and opera, a trade unionist, socialist in 1930s London. He looked after nieces who came to London to seek domestic work, making sure they were well placed and not mistreated. Yes, he did die of TB, from untreated milk; he did find work hard to get because of his principles; but he is remembered by his daughter with great affection. I was right to secretly admire him as I grew up.

A Year of Anniversaries

Every year is a year of anniversaries and it is the mainstay of the heritage industry and easy journalism to commemorate them. More importantly, for the family historian it is where personal history and public history often intersect to remind us that we are participants not mere spectators. Examples can run from the distant past to our own modern lives.

150 years ago, on 12-13 December 1866, there was a series of explosions in the underground workings of the Oaks Colliery near Barnsley which took the lives of over 360 men and boys, including rescue workers. None of those involved was a Bashforth, but the events still intersected with our family. Bridget MacDonald (née Drudy), of Irish extraction, was the wife of Patrick (aka Peter) MacDonald and had a young son called John. Patrick and his brother Michael, also Irish, were killed in the explosion, leaving Bridget destitute – among many other widows from the disaster. How she managed in the years afterwards, who knows, but in 1869 she married my three-times great grandfather Thomas, who was a widower with two young boys, and they went on to have four more children.

Of course, 2016 has been the latest of a series of centennial commemorations of the Somme Battles of 1916. Three bearers of the Bashforth name fell that year. Private Willie Bashforth from Conisbrough, serving in the 12 West Yorkshire Regiment at Ypres, died of wounds on 27 March 1916 and is buried at Lijssenthoek in Belgium. Private Arthur Bashforth of 1/5 KOYLI died in an attack on the Leipzig Salient on 23 July 1916. 2nd Lieutenant John Francis Cuthbert Bashforth died in a futile attack on the Quadrilateral on 15 September when one of the first tanks to be used failed in front of the 9 Norfolk Regiment, leaving them exposed behind uncut barbed wire. Both the latter are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.

Memorable event followed in the 20th century. 1926 saw the General Strike from 4-13 May. On 4 October 1936, there was the Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End and the Spanish Civil War was in full swing. In 1946, Winston Churchill made his speech about the ‘Iron Curtain’ and the Cold War was essentially launched. All apart from the last of these were before my time but have had echoes for me down the years of my own development, impinging on my consciousness.

On a more personal note, October 1956 made an impact on me because of the Hungarian Uprising, ruthlessly suppressed with Russian tanks in the November, alongside the Suez Canal invasion by French and British troops, and a growing awareness as I entered my teenage years of the dangers of nuclear warfare. While too young to do much about any of them, these were the seeds of future development. In 1966 Harold Wilson was re-elected with a massive majority for a Labour Government akin to the landslide of 1945, only to sell out any mandate to the IMF, whack up interest rates just as my parents bought their first house after years of scrimping and saving, since when I have never trusted the Labour Party as representatives of the interests of the working-classes. The same year I was confirmed in my opinion of both the Labour Party and the heavily bureaucratic nationalised industries by the events at Aberfan and the skinflint treatment of the local community that followed that tragedy.

As I wonder about 2016 and how it will be commemorated in the future, I recall the 40th anniversary of the death of topical singer-songwriter Phil Ochs on 9 April 1976. Check out his version of ‘When I’m Gone’ on YouTube – much more nuanced than cover versions I have heard. It is worth looking at these commemorations for signs of hope such as this and to restore faith and courage for the future. Goodbye 2016.

A drunk in the family – Part 2

[Continued from Part 1]. George Bashforth’s son John, who was not at home on census night in 1891, but was definitely one of the sons recalled by ‘JWR’, matched his father with 28 convictions from the early 1880s until 1907. He seems to have been somewhat itinerant in his drunkenness, clocking up offences in Dewsbury as well as Barnsley, and many of these were for begging in the streets, or for being a ‘rogue and vagabond’ – interspersed with several ‘drunk and disorderly’ events. His religious affiliation was even more promiscuous, including Wesleyan, Church of England and (mostly) Roman Catholic. He was about 5ft 3ins with sandy coloured hair and a variety of cuts and scars.

The Barnsley Chronicle, 24 June 1876 reported: ‘ASSAULTING A POLICE OFFICER. John Bashforth was charged with being drunk and assaulting PC Parkinson in Dodworth Road on the 18th inst. The officer went up to defendant and two other men on the road. Defendant was drunk, and when complainant ordered him home defendant struck him over the nose without any provocation. – The Bench committed defendant for one month for the assault on the police, and dismissed the summons for drunkenness.’

Along with his brother Charles, John was not above a bit of petty theft to feed their need for drink. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 3 September 1881 reported: ‘LARCENY BY FINDING AT BARNSLEY: At the Barnsley Police Court yesterday John Bashforth and Charles Bashforth, wheelwrights, were charged with larceny at Barnsley. – Sarah Wait, wife of an engine tenter, of Cape Street, Barnsley, said she went into the town on Saturday night with a silver lever watch in her dress pocket. She returned home, when she missed the watch, and gave information to the police. Prisoners went to Messrs Eaton and Richards, pawnbrokers, Wakefield, to pledge the watch, when they were given into custody. – Prisoners were each committed for fourteen days.’

John Bashforth eventually died in Barnsley Workhouse Infirmary of Bright’s Disease on 11 October 1915[1]. He never married, for which his female contemporaries should be grateful! Charles, meanwhile, gathered a new drinking partner in his younger brother Isaac.

In the Sheffield Independent, 23 August 1887, ‘Isaac Bashforth and Charles Bashforth, wheelwrights, of Barnsley, were charged with being drunk and assaulting Police-sergeant Balls, at Barugh, on Sunday afternoon last. The officer said he was on duty at Barugh when he saw both the defendants drunk and using bad language. He went up to them and ordered them home. Isaac Bashforth struck him on the breast. He was taking him into custody when Charles went up and struck him a violent blow over the eye and knocked him down. When on the ground he was kicked over the leg. – The Bench pointed out that the prisoners were both sons of a tradesman who at one time occupied a position in the town. They advised them to give over drinking. A fine of 5s and costs for each offence was levied. Defendants were also ordered to pay 7s 6d damage done to the officer’s trousers.’

Isaac Bashforth added further exploits after his father’s death. He was described as 5ft 4ins with brown hair and various scars around the face. From the age of 39 to the age of 47 he seems to have achieved eight convictions for being drunk and disorderly, the last recorded being on 22 August 1902, when he compounded the offence by assaulting the constable who tried to arrest him. He claimed to have been married at the 1901 census, to a woman called Emma nineteen years older than himself, but there is no evidence of a legal marriage. This last incident occurred at her funeral and led to reports in several newspapers on 23 August 1902.

The Nottingham Evening Post reported: “Disgraceful Scene at a Funeral: Arising out of a disgraceful scene which occurred at a funeral at the Hoyland Churchyard, a charge of drunkenness and assault was preferred against Isaac Bashforth, wheelwright, of Barnsley, at the West Riding Police Court yesterday. The prosecutor was Police-constable Imms. According to the evidence of the constable and several witnesses, Bashforth appeared at the funeral of the woman, with whom he had cohabited, in a state of intoxication, and created a disturbance when requested to leave the Churchyard by Police-constable Imms, who was sent for. Defendant struck him several times on the chest, and a struggle ensued in which the constable was injured. Defendant was subsequently locked up. – Ernest Angel stated that as the funeral procession proceeded down Church Street, defendant was following using bad language. He bent over the coffin, and otherwise behaved in a most offensive manner. – John Cadman gave corroborative evidence. – Defendant pleaded that he did not know what he was doing. He was too drunk. – The Bench imposed a fine of 5s and costs or 10 days for the drunkenness; and ordered defendant to pay 20s and costs or undergo one month’s imprisonment, for the assault.’ He went to gaol.

Isaac Bashforth died of bronchitis in 1904 aged 48 at 1 Court 3 Sackville Street, Barnsley attended by his married sister, Margaret Alderson[2]. The Alderson family seem to have been the ones to pick up the broken family pieces. Margaret’s brother-in-law Herbert and his wife Lucy, with five children, were accommodating Charles Bashforth in 1911 in the crowded conditions of Court No 2, Wood Street, Barnsley. Charles never married and died in 1920 aged 63[3].

On the gravestone of Elizabeth Bashforth, who died 26 April 1853, the mother of George and grandmother of the other miscreants, there is a long, blank, unused area ready for further inscriptions, not least of whom should have been that of her husband Swithen Bashforth, who died in some discomfort on 26 May 1873 aged 79 of old age, paralysis and diarrhoea at 13 Court 5, Sheffield Road, Barnsley, attended by Elizabeth Burkinshaw[4], his second wife Esther wasting no time in re-marrying. It is a graven silence that shames some disreputable offspring, whose several claims to the trade of wheelwright may have been honoured more in the breach than reality.

[1] Death certificate. The disease is chronic nephritis, kidney failure.

[2] Death certificate

[3] Apr-Jun 1920 Barnsley 9c 289

[4] Death certificate

A drunk in the family – Part 1

You may be excited to find that among your ancestors there is a notorious convict, especially if they were transported to the Colonies. Unfortunately, for most of us, they are usually less ‘romantic’ – petty thieves, vagrants and drunks. The records of the West Riding jail at Wakefield provide an insight into this uneasy corner of the past[1].

There was a well-known and respectable wheelwright business in early nineteenth-century Barnsley, established there by William Bashforth (1767-1824)[2] and continued by his eldest son, Swithen Bashforth (1793-1873). In St Mary’s old churchyard, there is a memorial stone for William and several of his family. It was organised by Swithen, who looked after his mother following William’s death. Swithen also arranged a stone for his first wife, Elizabeth (née Stringer), with space for his own inscription to be added.

The Barnsley Chronicle of Saturday, 21 July 1933, quoted an elderly resident recalling the 1870s[3]: “At the corner of Peel Street and York Street was a wheelwright’s establishment, kept by old Bashforth and his sons.” At various times before that, Swithen Bashforth had his workshop at 28 Peel Street[4]. What ‘JWR’ recalled, however, belonged to Swithen’s son George Bashforth (1820-1892). George and three of the sons referred to became well known for less respectable reasons.

George Bashforth married the widow Catherine Evans (née Shaw) on 25 March 1844 at Silkstone parish church. Catherine already had one son, James, and the couple went on to have ten more children: five daughters and five sons. Not all of the sons chose to follow their father’s trade of wheelwright in Barnsley, though all started their working life with him. George junior (born 1846) and William (born 1852) went to Worsbrough to the wagon works and the collieries.

The three who stayed were John born 1850, Charles born 1857 and Isaac born 1858. All three were unmarried in 1871, when the family lived at 3 Providence Street (on the south side of town off Park Road). By 1881, the family was at the wonderfully named Jumble Lane at No 9 Court and in 1891 they were at 3 Heelis Street, also on the south side. Catherine had died the previous year and John was (characteristically) out somewhere.

George Bashforth established a reputation for becoming drunk and disorderly.  On 2 July 1867, the Sheffield Independent reported Barnsley Court House, where ‘George Bashforth, labourer (sic), was charged with assault upon his wife on the Friday before’. She was knocked down by her husband in a public house where she had gone in search of him. He was committed to prison for seven days.

On 11 November 1871, the Barnsley Chronicle reported the headline His Eleventh Appearance. George Bashforth, a wheelwright, was charged with being drunk and riotous at Barnsley. The Mayor said: ‘Now George here again’. George replied, ‘I am sorry for it, as I have been teetotal since I was here before’, at which the public broke into laughter. Supt. Sykes handed in a list of previous convictions, which showed the defendant had been before the Court on ten previous occasions. The Mayor commented: ‘Drink! Drink! We should have nothing to do if it were not for drink’. The constable said he had found the defendant in Peel Square creating a disturbance and using abusive language. The Mayor asked the defendant if he had anything to say, to which he replied ‘No, I can say nothing, because I don’t know what I was doing.’ He was committed to prison for seven days.

Between 1881 and 1887, George accumulated a further ten convictions for being ‘drunk and riotous’ for which he received sentences of 14 or 28 days’ hard labour at Wakefield Prison. He was in his 60s and, thanks to the prison records, we learn of his grey hair, varicose veins and that his nose was broken and twisted to the right. Generally, he also had various cuts and bruises. It would appear from his declarations that he may have tried turning to Methodism to control his behaviour, but without success. On 9 October 1886, the Barnsley Chronicle reported that George Bashforth one of the eldest offenders in the town was charged with public disorder. PC Gaythorpe found the defendant drunk and riotous in Lindley Fold and was compelled to lock him up. The defendant was drunk every day and was a nuisance to the neighbourhood. He was committed to gaol for a month. It was only a month since he had come out of gaol.

On 25 August 1888, the Barnsley Chronicle used the headline ‘The Deceived Ones’. George Bashforth, 74, wheelwright, who had been convicted about 30 times at Barnsley for drunkenness and assault, was charged having been drunk and riotous at Barnsley on the previous Saturday. Mrs Smith of New Street, wife of a pork butcher, said the defendant without the slightest provocation struck her a violent blow on the face, on Saturday evening. PS McCrone proved that the prisoner was drunk and very violent in his conduct. He struck the last witness and another woman in the face. He also made use of very bad language and used bad language in Park Row. Prisoner said the newspaper told lies about him, he had not been up 40 times. Mr Taylor told him that the offence record was against him and imposed a fine of 5s and costs.

There may have been subsequent occasions of less riotous drunkenness before he died aged 72 of pneumonia at home in 1892, two years after his poor suffering wife, attended by his married daughter Margaret Alderson[5]. Unfortunately, by that time his sons were establishing their own equivalent reputations. [See Part 2]

[1] Accessible on Ancestry. I have also extensively used the British Newspapers on Find My Past.

[2] From whom the writer is descended.

[3] Quoted in Aspects of Barnsley, Volume 3: Chapter 2 ‘Town End in 1870’ by Ian Harley, p.35 (Wharncliffe, Barnsley, 1995).

[4] Barnsley Streets, Volume 2: EG Tasker (Wharncliffe, Barnsley, 2002)

[5] Death certificate

The Burston School Strike

On 4 September I had the great fortune to join a busload of trade unionists and other campaigners from Norwich to the little village of Burston, near Diss in Norfolk. It was in aid of an annual event commemorating the action of an isolated rural community acting in resistance to the overbearing power of the local squirearchy. I won’t go into all the details of what happened in 1914 and for 25 years afterwards. Best read it for yourselves here

In short, more than 60 pupils, supported by their parents, went on strike to seek the reinstatement of their two sacked teachers, Annie and Tom Higdon. Annie as Head had fought the local school management for better facilities. Tom had organised the local farmworkers to take over the parish council. The local farmers and the Vicar were incensed by this insubordination. The teachers set up their own school, which was supported by the trade union movement, socialists and others, who provided the funds to build a new school and help maintain it until Tom died in 1939 and Annie could no longer continue.

This was grassroots community action, organised by local people against enormous, wealthy and well-situated opposition. It is inspirational 100 years later as politicians talk incessantly about ‘community’ but mean something completely different, hierarchical and vested in established institutions. Sunday’s commemorative events highlighted how grassroots campaigning can overturn this alien concept of community and replace it with the genuine article. The Strike School in Burston still continues as a community venture, still with union support and still inspires. This is real working-class heritage with continuing power in the here and now. It is worth a million old castle ruins and stately homes.

History is Personal 1916-2016

History, like politics, is personal. It is people who make history, just as they make politics even when they don’t realize it.

I grew up aware from an early age that my grandfather had died in the Great War. To begin with that information lacked any real meaning as I never met him, nor had my father, there were no pictures or other mementoes in the house and no-one ever talked about him. It was decades later that he turned into an individual and someone I could genuinely ‘re-member’.

The organisation 14-18 NOW has been responsible for commissioning a number of striking interventions to commemorate the Great War. So far I have enjoyed Fierce Light, by a group of poets and Still by Simon Armitage. But the most moving of all has been ‘We’re here because we’re here’, to commemorate the centenary of the first day of the Somme campaign on 1 July 1916.

Hundreds of actors dressed in First World War uniforms dispersed around the UK mingling with shoppers, commuters and sightseers as they went about their daily business. They made no attempt to do anything except sit or stand around, just being there. Forbidden to engage in conversation, when approached they handed out cards bearing the name and details of a soldier killed on 1 July 1916. What a brilliant way to personalise the incomprehensible numbers who died that day – 19240 British alone.

There was something about the title (a satirical song from the First World War trenches that in an odd way both politicised and de-politicised the event, depending on how you read it) as well as the content, the ghostly and haunting reminders that made me think ‘Jeremy Deller’ even before I knew it was one of his ideas. Pure genius to haunt the stations, streets, villages and parks across the nation, just as my grandfather and his comrades came to haunt me and so many of those of us who are chilled by this very personal past. And at a time when xenophobia and false patriotism once again stalk our streets, we need these ghostly reminders.


One of the Anonymous

A life getting by

Matthew Bashforth (1876-1941) was the youngest child of Thomas Bashforth and Bridget (formerly McDonald, née Drury), born in Sheffield in a room at the back of the Arundel Castle public house on 8 April 1876. He was the youngest of seven children from three marriages. His father, Thomas, had been widowed with two boys when his first wife died of consumption. His mother, Bridget, had been widowed with one son when her first husband was killed in the Oaks Colliery disaster. Thomas and Bridget went on to have three girls and Matthew as they moved around in the constant hunt for work. Thomas, born in Barnsley of an equally itinerant father, was a blacksmith by trade but would turn his hand to anything involving metal, mostly foundry work, but opportunities were volatile.

Thomas thought he found settled work with Cammell & Co at their Dronfield works, making steel rail mainly for export to the growing global network of railway construction. Unfortunately, the domestic rail links were not good enough to get the products cheaply to the coast and, in 1883, the company relocated to Workington. There was no package of assistance. If you wanted to keep your job, you paid your own way and took your families by whatever means you could afford. Before leaving for Workington, his mother took Matthew to the RC Church in Sheffield where he was baptised on 2 September 1883.

Before the decade was out, both parents were dead and the family was scattered. Matthew became as itinerant as his father and grandfather. He next appeared in the public record, coming up to 15, working as a Blacksmith’s Assistant to his older half-brother, James Bashforth in Birmingham in 1891. If this was an attempt to give Matthew a trade, it didn’t work out. He would never be more than a labourer.

By 1901 he was living in Barrow in Furness, where his older sister Mary Ann and her husband James McIlheron lived. He worked as a general labourer in the shipyard Gun Shop and lodged with an Irish widow, along with several of his workmates.

On 3 May 1909 at Doncaster magistrate’s court, he was sentenced to 7 day’s hard labour in Wakefield prison for ‘lodging out’, that is for vagrancy and sleeping rough. It is not recorded as to why or where the ‘offence’ took place, but he was listed as a steel dresser by trade, so had been on the move again.

Come 1911 he was in a lodging house on Eldon Street, Tuxford, near Retford, in Nottinghamshire, aged 33, still single and working as a general labourer. The census description was ‘Steam Trasher’ (sic) and there were several more lodgers of the same sort from many different parts of the country. Why so many were needed to work with a threshing machine in spring time, I don’t know.

At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Matthew was 38 and enlisted. Whether this was from any great patriotic motive or was simply a case of ‘nowt better to do’, is not a matter of record. His medal index card shows that he served initially as Private 19459 West Yorkshire Regiment, going overseas from 9 October 1915 to the ‘Balkans’ – which was probably Gallipoli via Mudros in Greece. He later transferred as Private 210454 Labour Corps. He got his campaign medals, but that is all we know about his war.

Tuxford seems to have formed an attraction for Matthew. The likelihood is that Matthew remained in Nottinghamshire after his work in 1911 or came back there after the war. When the listing of citizens was completed in 1939 he was working as a chimney sweep and living at 66 Eldon Street.

Matthew died there on 15 October 1941 aged 65, of acute bronchial pneumonia. The death was registered by an Edith A. Robinson, present at death. She was a divorced woman who lived at the same address along with John Stevens, a permanent way labourer. Matthew never married, but he died as he had lived – among his own kind.

On the face of it, this sort of life is never celebrated in public and I feel that such anonymity is undeserved. We are exhorted to think that the world is created by entrepreneurs, statesmen and women, cultural celebrities, great leaders, inventors, TV personalities, and so on. But, in truth, what would any of these people do were it not for the millions of anonymous nobodies? Their world would collapse around them. It would disappear in a puff of smoke. It wouldn’t exist in the first place. For better or for worse, men and women like Matthew are the bedrock foundations of society in all its aspects. Think about it.

I feel two connections to Matthew. On the one hand he is a distant relative, the younger brother of my great-grandmother. I have photographs of her but nothing of Matthew. The public records from which I have reconstructed his narrative are a fragmentary surrogate for his physicality and serve to emphasise his personal ‘silence’. On the other hand, I share his situation, for I too have principally been involved in ‘getting by’, in meeting the daily challenges of life, albeit with the advantage of some hard-won workers’ rights. Now under threat. For all my present day materiality seems more rich and complex at this moment, it is just as ephemeral and in 70 years after my death will be as fragmentary. Yet we both have helped in our small, individual ways to shape the world around us, not as individuals so much as part of a greater whole. It makes you think what more we might achieve…