Category Archives: Childhood

The Queen’s/King’s Park: Part 2

When I was growing up, my Scottish grandfather, whose real name was Alexander McKay, had a series of lame jokes he would often repeat at certain times and places – what we might refer to now as ‘dad jokes’ (or ‘grandad jokes’). For example, if we were upstairs on the number 1 double decker bus going into Edinburgh – and we always travelled on the top deck for the views – we could see over the wall into the cemetery at Dalry. That’s the dead centre of town he would quip, a statement I never found funny on two accounts. Firstly, as a solemn little girl I didn’t think we should be making fun of the dead; and secondly, it was clear to me that this graveyard was not actually in the centre of town at all.

Grandad liked graveyards though, and I feel sure that this joke was one he used to better effect at Greyfriars Kirkyard. Not only is it actually in the centre of Edinburgh’s Old Town, but it’s also famous for the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, erected outside the entrance to commemorate the loyal dog that is said to have refused to leave the grave of his master for many years. Now the statue is always crowded by tourists rubbing its shiny nose (said to bring good luck) and taking endless photographs, but fifty years ago Edinburgh’s Old Town still looked dark and gloomy, and Bobby seemed sad and alone on his pedestal. I remember then feeling quite upset by the story of that little terrier and trying to imagine what kind of a life Bobby would have had in such a bleak place.

When Grandad himself died a few years later – much too young, in retrospect – there was no grave for him. Just an entry in a memorial book and ashes in the rose garden at Warrington Crematorium. I’ve only ever once been to view the spot, and that was when it was the turn of my grandmother’s cremation two decades later. Unlike in the case of my grandmother, I did not attend my Grandad’s funeral, even though I was already a teenager by then. All I remember was being taken to the zoo, along with my sister and our visiting English cousin, and then my father bringing us children back to my grandmother’s house for tea and cakes. There I met a sea of unrecognisable elderly relatives who were mainly distracted by the bright red curly hair and strange accent of my cousin, leaving me mostly in peace to wonder whether it had been disrespectful to go to the zoo on such a day and why the guests were not all in floods of tears.

But Grandad’s ‘mysterious illness’ had started several years earlier, not long after that trip to see the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. We had gone on a rare outing to Holyrood Park. I’m not sure now whether the plan had been to climb Arthur Seat or just to meander on the many paths that go through the area and have a picnic – as my grandparents would have done in their courting days, fifty years previously – but I do remember we’d not got too far up the hill behind the Palace before my grandfather took ‘a turn’ and then collapsed on the grass. At the time I didn’t understand what was going on, and at first thought he was just larking about, until my grandmother’s agitation and the fact that a taxi was called for to take us straight home, made me soon realise it was serious. There were strangers, too, that day who aided and comforted us and I have the feeling my sister and myself were in matching summer dresses, as if it were a more formal occasion. 

Paths Behind Holyrood Palace

The same Grandad never returned to us after that time. Maybe that was why I never wanted to go back to Holyrood Park until long afterwards when I lived in the Canongate and the memory of that frightening event had almost been forgotten. Then I could no longer easily recall the arrival of the blacker-than-black cab and shrinking back from the life-size doll that had replaced Grandad, and which was carefully helped into the back of the taxi.

Why is Holyrood? Grandad used to say in the time before his fall. I don’t know Grandad, why is Holly rude? we would say in return. Because it looks up Arthur’s Seat! This was a most un-Grandad like joke, and the first time I heard it I remember feeling almost shocked that my religious, non-swearing, tee-totalling grandfather could even think of such a thing. The joke’s impact was also lessened by the fact that the first time I heard it I did not understand what ‘seat’ meant in this context. Like many of Grandad’s rather lame jokes, which my mother had also heard growing up, it wasn’t really designed for the very young, missing the mark either linguistically or culturally. 

But Grandad told us, too, that Arthur’s Seat was both a lion and an extinct volcano. And that Holyrood actually meant holy cross and was the place where the Queen stayed when she visited Scotland, as well as the scene of many hundreds of years of bloody Scottish history. So now when I think of Grandad and Holyrood Park, it’s not that day when I sat upon a lump of rock at the side of the path with my little sister and the comforting strangers, but the time we were ‘guests of honour’ at the palace after hours. And all this was because Grandad had once been a magic man who’d brought light to places where there was once darkness, and who’d reportedly carried out secret war work while working as an electrician for the surreal-sounding Ministry of Works.

My Grandfather (far left) with Work Colleagues, c1940

On that afternoon we met one of Grandad’s old colleagues at the side door of the Palace (the tradesmen’s entrance) and were taken through each of the rooms in turn, allowed to romp free while Grandad chatted to his friend. I remember pretending the palace belonged to us – which it did that day when it was closed to the public – and feeling quite grown-up at the fact that I knew better than to expect to meet the Queen. That absurd notion had been disabused when we’d gone to Buckingham Palace a couple of years previously. Not only was I disappointed that we were unable to take tea with Her Majesty, but we weren’t even able to get beyond the main gates! My father’s pleasure at being back in London and seeing the changing of the guards again, encouraged him to quote the first lines of the A.A. Milne poem They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace, Christopher Robin went down with Alice a book he remembered from his own pre-Blitz childhood. But his excitement was not infectious, such was my disappointment in the fact that we were left to stare at an ugly, un-palace like building with hundreds of other people. No wonder Queen Victoria had reputedly never liked it, I thought to myself, years later.

But Holyrood at least resembled a fairy tale palace from the outside, if a little austere and Scottish, and while the ropes strung up against the treasures in the rooms might have been off-putting to the general public, I seem to remember (although I could be wrong here!) that while alone in the palace we were able to slip under them as long as we did not touch the artefacts as well as visiting rooms the public never got to see. After that afternoon, my grandfather became elevated in my mind from the humble electrician whose byzantine underfloor wiring in our own house made my father swear in frustration, to someone entangled with royalty and secrets and the blood of David Rizzio.

Grandad, thank you for giving me one of the best days of my childhood!

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2022

The Children in the Street

It’s been particularly hot where I live in Switzerland this summer, and so early mornings and evenings are often the best times to be out and about. But as a self-confessed ‘owl’ (with another of my species as a house guest) it has sometimes been difficult to achieve much before sundown. Thus it was a treat to be able to enjoy a quirky British film at our local open air cinema last month, taking advantage of the cool evening breeze from the lake. Set in a gloomy, early 1960s Newcastle, The Duke was a rather incongruous choice for our location, yet despite that – or perhaps because of that – the mainly Swiss audience seemed to love the film, even if the subtitles did not convey all the nuances of the dialogue.

Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren played a suitably dowdy middle-aged, working class couple from that time; and although the period details seemed to be spot on, I couldn’t help but feel that the street scenes seemed rather contrived. Were there really that many children playing that many different games outside the terraces of Newcastle in 1961? Sometimes it was difficult to know where one game ended and the other began. Later, when my mother and I compared notes, we agreed that it had almost felt like watching one of Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns, a 1970s comedy TV series set earlier in the 20th century, where British customs of all classes were parodied.

My mother did, however, recall that it had been common for her to play with friends in the streets in the 1940s, despite my grandmother’s lamentations that many more children were to be seen outdoors in her day. And while my own childhood had also been as relatively unstructured and technology-free as that of the previous generation, one of the main differences in the intervening decades was the increasing number of cars on the road. Yet because I grew up on the outskirts of a village and my mother in a city suburb, then it was difficult to really compare our experiences. Nevertheless, both of us came to the conclusion that the philosophy of our childhoods was mainly the same: to be able to explore our environment freely in the company of other children. Of course it was that same spirit which brought my grandmother and her siblings out of their crowded Edinburgh tenement and onto the car-free streets of the Dumbiedykes and beyond to the grassy freedom of Holyrood Park, which abutted the neighbourhood. 

Mary Neilson (top left) with friends, Holyrood Park c1924

In the above image, my grandmother’s youngest sister Mary (b1917) was snapped playing with local childhood friends on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano which dominated the view from the balcony of the family’s tenement flat (see A Tenement with a View). Only a few years later, Mary would be taking the children of her older siblings across to the same park on sunny days.

Mary and Anne Neilson, with nephew Jimmy, c1930

In this photograph of my two great-aunts as teenagers dressed up for a day out in Holyrood Park with their fashionable thin wrist watches and lisle stockings, they are flanking their much-loved nephew, a child the whole family adored due to his sunny disposition. There is rarely a picture of Jimmy without a grin or laugh on his face. In contrast, his two young aunts never seemed to smile for the camera as children and were always captured with slightly wary expressions. When Mary and Anne posed with a neighbourhood child for a street photographer ten years earlier, they certainly did not look as if they were particularly enjoying the occasion.

Anne and Mary Neilson with a neighbour, Dumbiedykes c1920

I have always wondered who took that photograph of my great aunts. Was it the same person who also managed to assemble the large group of Dumbiedykes’ children out playing in the street (shown below)? The standard of the photographs would indicate it was a professional photographer who took pictures of local children whose parents would possibly then buy the copies. There were certainly other such photographs of groups of children in the city taken during the same timeframe, which I came across on a historical Edinburgh photography website. However, as one contributor who posted a similar street scene of Edinburgh children from the early 1920s pointed out here: I can’t imagine why this photo would have been taken. The frame is completely plain with no photographer identified. Who would bother? I doubt it would have been for payment that would have to be collected from numerous parents. Could it be a Sunday School photograph?

Dumbiedykes Children, c1920

The more I look at the details in our own family photograph above, the more I think that the Sunday school theory could be the best one. The children seem too smartly dressed just to have been playing in the street. In the back row, my Great Uncle Bob is wearing one of the narrow woollen striped ties of the period and in the front row my Great Aunt Anne (5th from right) is wearing gloves and a fashionable coat. I also know that the Neilson children were regular attenders at their local Sunday school at St. John’s Street Church on Holyrood Road, but that they were also members of the Band of Hope, a temperance organisation for children, based on Christian principles. However, given the small size of the group, I believe it more likely to be a Sunday school class, taken outdoors due to the technical limitations of the equipment at the time. Yet the domestic background and lack of adults remains a problem. Perhaps it really was just a street photograph and the parents had been forewarned, making sure the children were turned out neat and clean for the occasion. But whatever the reason for its creation, it’s certainly one of my favourite photographs in my Scottish family album.

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2022

Toy Stories: Part 2

In last month’s post, I described my search for pictures of children and their toys in amongst my Scottish family photograph collection. I was surprised to discover there were not as many of these as I’d expected, surmising that the grown-ups who’d taken the photographs had most likely decided in advance how the children should be photographed. Possibly they did not want any toys to be a distraction. In contrast, the formal studio photographs often showed children with wooden or classic toys, which may have been given to them by the photographer to create a naturalistic setting or to relax the young sitters. 

I remember my father hadn’t been keen to encourage us to line up our dolls and stuffed toys for the rare times he had his camera ready, regarding it as a waste of good film, and I recall sneaking my ‘teddy-bear cat’ into family photographs. When he did give in to my demands for a portrait of my favourite toy, I proudly posed him on the back steps of the house for the occasion, dressed up in an outfit belonging to my younger sister.

Pussy Willow, c1970

Like many children, I adored my stuffed animal toys more then plastic renditions of babies or functional items such as building blocks and Lego sets. A soft item which can be cuddled obviously has a much greater chance of being loved and even improves with age as its battered parts are a reminder of all the hugs over the years. That’s possibly why my mother preferred Panda and George to her French bisque doll Margaret, who by dint of her antique status was only ever allowed to be played with under supervision, and never outdoors.

It is also the reason why I did not have many dolls myself, and those I did possess tended to be treated cruelly. The only doll I can really remember (and still have) was named Linda, after my mother’s much younger teenage cousin who seemed exciting and glamorous. Unfortunately, she (the doll) was often forced into doing the sort of activities that the cuddly stuffed animals would never have to endure.

Abseiling Linda Doll, c1971

So like many children, my dolls’ pram was actually full of a menagerie of animal toys, all tucked up safe inside, whatever the weather. While there are no photographs of that pram – I can barely remember it – one does survive of my mother with her own toy pram from around 1941. Almost bigger than my mother and charming in its old-fashioned style, it is not clear what toys (if any) the pram contains. My mother’s rare scowling face might indicate that she is having to share her beloved Panda and George with her baby cousin Alan who was staying, along with his mother, with the family at the time to escape the bombing raids of London (see Toy Stories: Part 1).

My mother with her doll’s pram, 1941

Another photograph from that period shows my mother and Alan with a cousin from an older sister of my grandmother’s. The doll my mother is holding was named ‘Robert’, after her favourite older cousin, indicating that not only did she have a surfeit of cousins, but that children’s naming patterns for their toys are almost as predictable as the ones previous generations used for naming their offspring. It would appear that many dolls and stuffed toys are named after the person who gave it to the child or a favourite relative. There is also the obvious names, such as Panda or Woof Woof, or in my case once even an amalgamation of both styles with the tongue twisting Mrs Holland’s Spotty Dog.

My mother with ‘Robert’ doll and two of her cousins, 1941

Yet in the larger working class families of the past, toys were most likely hand-me-downs, and a favourite teddy may end up being someone else’s within a few years. Although my grandmother told me about the metal hoops they would all chase in the street, courtesy of the neighbourhood’s brewers’ barrels and the Dumbiedykes ideal hilly situation, I never asked her about any soft toys she had – the kind she might reach for in the dark if having a nightmare. Perhaps this was because trying to imagine my grandparents as children was beyond me at the time, and to some extent still is. Frozen in sepia photographs, their old fashioned dress and hairstyles puts them beyond our reach, despite all the intellectual protestations to the contrary.

One of my favourite photographs from our family collection is of a younger brother of my grandmother’s. Although my mother and I cannot work out if it was Great Uncle Bob or Great Uncle Dave who was brought to the studio that day, we know from the boy’s clothes that it was most likely taken between 1915 and 1920. Yet his outfit seem to be rather informal for the occasion, lending the photograph its period charm. As Jayne Shrimpton points out in Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs: Casual sweaters had been common wear among poorer children since at least the beginning of the century; however, only in the 1910s do studio photographs begin to portray small boys from ‘respectable’ families wearing the soft, comfortable jersey and shorts set, with socks and shoes or boots.

My great uncle with wooden horse, c1915

What interests me particularly about the image is the wooden pull-along horse on which my great uncle is resting his foot. To me it looks like a studio prop that was used to give the boy a more natural-looking pose in the same way that books and flowers and furniture were used with adult sitters. I doubt such a toy would have been brought along to the studio, given the need to negotiate Edinburgh’s busy streets on foot and public transport. I often wonder if my great uncle had not wanted to keep this wooden horse after his photograph had been taken. After all, most children crave the ‘forbidden toy’ by dint of the fact that they are not allowed to play with it, whether it be an antique or belonging to someone else.

Stuffed animals and dolls are noticeably absent in the photographs of children that I possess in my collection, perhaps because they were regarded to be too babyish for the camera. However, there was one picture of unknown relatives which I came across that shows a little boy clutching what looks like a stuffed rabbit. As un ‘unbreeched’ infant i.e. still deemed too young to wear boys’ clothes, he was possibly allowed to bring his beloved toy along to the studio and his shy demeanour, clutching his rabbit, is in contrast to the more confident stance of his older ‘breeched’ brothers.

Boy with Rabbit Toy c1900

Unfortunately we have several other photographs in our family collection of unknown relatives and friends that I may be able to identify once I am further into my genealogical research. I am forever grateful for the times my mother sat with my grandmother and youngest great aunt and labelled up the majority of the older photographs – the ones I still call ‘the Victorians’ (see February Fill the Dyke) – in pencil on the reverse. This was a tip she learnt on her family history course in the 1980s and has helped so much in my bid to catalogue all those messy boxes.

Of course some of our photographs were already inscribed with names and dates, usually indicating they’d been sent to my great-grandmother (the original holder of the collection) or grandparents from various friends and family scattered around the country. One of these shows a younger cousin of my mother on the paternal side of the family playing with a friend in his back garden in Glasgow. I always loved this image as the piper which steals the scene looks like a miniature ghost, striding out of the tent and across the lawn, playing his ethereal bagpipes. Yet a closer inspection with a magnifying glass reveals the piper to be nothing more than a cut out advertisement for the company for which Alistair’s father worked as a sales rep (Wylie, Barr and Ross Ltd, a biscuit manufacturer). No doubt there was more fun to be had from repurposing that piper than from any expensive toy his father’s salary might have afforded.

Boys and Piper, 1951

Cousin Alistair’s life in the affluent suburban Glasgow of the 1950s was a far cry from that of the generation which had preceded him. Growing up in overcrowded tenements in Scotland’s two largest cities, the youth of the early 20th century did not have the luxury of a private back garden that most of their own children would have by the middle of the century. For them, the relatively car-free streets of their Glasgow and Edinburgh neighbourhoods were their playground. And in the case of my grandmother’s family in Edinburgh Dumbiedykes the proximity to Holyrood Park (see A Tenement with a View) meant acres of free space on their doorstep.

And it it is to this topic that I intend to turn to in next month’s post.

Wishing everyone a Happy Summer!

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2022

Toy Stories: Part 1

While researching and writing the story of my ‘lost’ London ancestors in my blog A London Family, I published a post entitled Of Lost Toys and Mothers which compared the childhood of my London-born father with that of my Scottish mother. My father’s experience of being a wartime evacuee in Surrey then Somerset (see East Coker) was very different from that of my Edinburgh-born mother, ten years his junior. Even though my mother went to live in the countryside outside Edinburgh with my grandmother for a few months early on in the war, she was an infant at the time and thus has no memories of that period. Not only that, but my grandmother had simply to take her baby daughter several miles out of the city to the village of Roslin, where her older sister Bessie lived with her miner husband and two young sons. It was certainly much less of an upheaval than the four years my father and his siblings spent with their mother in East Coker, living with strangers, with my English grandmother trying to eke out a living by undertaking odd jobs in the locality.

As I pointed out in Of Lost Toys and Mothers, my father and his siblings ‘lost’ their childhood toys when their London home was partially damaged in a bombing raid and the contents stored with relatives who lived nearby. When my paternal grandfather later went to retrieve the items, he quarrelled with that branch of the family and never spoke to them again. Later my aunt told me she suspected they had been using the furniture in their own home, a fact which had angered my grandfather, who was prone to irascibility.

When writing Of Lost Toys and Mothers, I also mentioned my Scottish family, stating that: I remember once when I was staying with my Scottish grandmother after she had been widowed, and my mother had helped her clear out a cupboard built into the floor of the cloakroom in the hall (or lobby press, as we called it). This had always been my grandfather’s domain (being dark and dusty and full of spiders), and when my mother took it upon herself to rummage about in the space she found a cornucopia of old toys, many of which she’d been bequeathed from older relatives, including a bisque doll given to a soldier uncle by a French family in France during WW1, a metal spinning top, and a couple of strange wooden objects we had to be taught how to use! This also spurred my Scottish grandmother to reminisce about her favourite childhood games – including the metal hoops that she and her siblings played with in the street (which seem to be the ubiquitous image of turn of the century childhood). I vowed then that I would never let my favourite childhood toys languish in an attic or basement space.

The French bisque doll called ‘Margaret’ from WW1

While I have kept my promise to myself and held on to some of my toys for over half a century, my mother was quite content to let her two favourite stuffed animals, Panda and George, be discarded when she became a teenager, something I find hard to fathom. She of course finds my special attachment to my very ancient stuffed cat rather strange. Yet I am comforted by the knowledge that the poet John Betjeman had a lifelong bond with his much-loved ‘companions’, Archie and Jumbo, and even went to so far as to have them close beside him on his deathbed. He was in fact holding them in his arms when he died in 1984. 

Pussy Willow and Me (when both of us were young)

Searching through the collection of Scottish family photographs I find very few where toys play a major role. But perhaps this is mainly because it is the adults who deemed what was worthy of being photographed. I do remember having to ask my father to include my dolls and stuffed animals in photographs (such as in the image above) and he was often reluctant to do so, unless it was some kind of prop that I’d been given as a distraction. That seems to be the case with the older studio portraits, where either the photographer had a wooden toy that the child could pose with, or a personal play object was brought along by the family.

Great Uncle Adam with wooden toy (c1900)

It’s hard to make out the exact details of Great Uncle Adam’s wooden toy but it appears to be a replica of a steam locomotive, replete with a chimney and boiler, which can be pulled along on wheels. The poor wee lad was probably torn between playing with the object or looking at the photographer, as he would have possibly been aware that both tasks were expected of him. I often think that being taken to a formal photographer’s studio must have been quite an overwhelming experience for a young child at that time.

Perhaps that is why I love the very natural looking photograph of my mother’s younger cousin, Alan, laughing while propped up on a rug in my grandparent’s back garden in Carrick Knowe flanked by Mum’s favourite toys. Alan and his mother Anne – a younger sister of my grandmother who’d moved to London after her marriage – had come to stay with my grandparents in Edinburgh to escape the dangers of the Blitz. (By then it was clear that the neighbourhood in West Edinburgh was relatively safe and the stay in Roslin had been abandoned). Although baby Alan seems rather disinterested in the toys, the photograph almost seems to have been taken with Panda and George in mind, possibly due to the pleasing composition of the image

Panda and George with a younger cousin of my mother c1941

A later photograph sent out as a family Christmas card shows an older Alan with his younger brother looking decidedly underwhelmed at their meeting with a beatific-looking Santa Claus in Selfridges Toy Department in London. We can only guess at what the old man is saying to them, but they are perhaps wondering whether his stuffed panda is just a prop or whether they’ll get to take it home with them. Whatever or whoever they are fixated on out of the frame, they don’t look as if they are particularly enjoying the experience (which was no doubt a money-spinner for the department store and the photographer). As rationing was still very much in place at this time, Xmas might have promised more than it delivered.

My mother’s younger cousins, Xmas c1947

My mother recalls an earlier straitened wartime Xmas where her mother made her a handsewn doll from a kit that was on sale at the local Co-op. A few weeks earlier my mother had been helping my grandmother with the shopping when they passed the ragdoll display in the shop. Do you like that doll? My grandmother asked my mother, hopeful in her tone. No, it’s horrible!  my mother replied petulantly, tired and fed up at  being dragged round the Co-op after school. Needless to say, when it turned up in her stocking on Xmas Day (customised by my grandmother, a qualified dressmaker) she promptly named it Betty – the ugliest name she could think of at the time. Now of course she cringes at the memory and to this day still hopes she hadn’t hurt her mother too much with her outburst. As my grandmother was rather thin-skinned, I’m surprised that doll actually did turn up on Christmas Day. I should add that this was also the year my mother realised that there was no Santa Claus. (For obvious reasons no photographs exist of Ugly Betty).

But perhaps my mother would have been more appreciative of her gift had the wonderful and quirky Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile been established during her own childhood, rather in 1955 when she turned 17. In the 70s it was one of my favourite places to visit as a child and I’d go with my mother and sister whenever we went to stay with our Edinburgh grandparents. At that time the museum was housed in an old soot-blackened tenement building (since much expanded and modernised) with dark, steep winding staircases and small cramped rooms. This of course was itself all part of the experience, lending the museum a slightly spooky lost-in-time feel. Display cases of glassy-eyed Victorian dolls vied with straw-stuffed bears for our attention, alongside cabinet curiosities and creepy automated doll-sized shows (such as the one of Sweeny Todd disposing of his clients with a cut-throat razor). Many of the exhibits were in fact the stuff of nightmares, which is why the museum held such a macabre fascination for me.

 An old collectable postcard of the ‘shoe doll’ (c) Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh

But perhaps the display that exerted the most pull on me was the one which housed the ‘make do’ dolls. There, a sad metal-faced female doll made from a discarded shoe nestled beside a barely-there doll composed of nothing but a rag wrapped round a mutton bone. I collected postcards of these objects – which to my mind were beautiful – and wondered at the children who had owned and loved such things seventy years previously. Yet as an adult I am more interested in the idea that the shoe doll was most likely made by impoverished parents for their daughter, and it is that sentiment that moves me, rather than the doll itself.

There is a more modern ‘interactive’ image of the doll (shown above) in the Edinburgh Capital Collections that can be directly accessed here. With the wonders of technology we can zoom in to see the detail on the clothing and limbs – even the individual stitching. I had always wondered how such a doll came to be in the museum (was it abandoned or stolen?) but the accompanying text to the digital image (below) has now cleared up the mystery for me.

This is part of a collection of over 600 dolls which belonged to Edward Lovett (1852 – 1933) who was a cashier in a London bank. He was a member of the Folklore Society and became an authority on ethnographic dolls, particularly makeshift, or emergent, dolls made for poorer children who did not have commercially made toys. He travelled extensively collecting these dolls from children in exchange for new ones

So now I know that somewhere in the East End of London, in 1905, a little girl was unexpectedly presented with a brand new, possibly relatively expensive, doll in exchange for an old pre-loved improvised one. I’m not sure, had I been that child, that I could have willingly given my homemade doll away. But I’m glad she did just that, as the shoe doll is an item which has intrigued and fascinated generations of children (and adults) in the Museum of Childhood for almost seventy years, and along the way gained an importance that its original maker could never have expected.  

To be continued in Toy Stories: Part 2 next month.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2022

Foxed Mirrors and Fairy Tales: Part 2

My Scottish grandparents had a past – I knew that – but it was not one that I could readily imagine. It was as if they had been brought into the world solely to be Grandma and Grandad, and false teeth, glasses and greying hair had been their lot since the beginning. Even if the photograph box yielded up images of them as a young ‘courting couple’ in the 1920s or as thirty-something parents in the following decade, this was not the same people I knew . Something had happened along the way to separate them from their youth – an irreversible split that I dreaded experiencing myself and which I planned to do everything in my power to prevent. And often their memories were fleeting or muddled, or were of things about which they no longer spoke, as if they had become unmoored from the people they once were before they met and married and had my mother.

My McKay grandparents as a young engaged couple

Your mother should have been called Rachael my grandfather said, a reference to the seven years they waited before their only child came along, when they had all but given up hope of starting a family. The biblical allusion passed over my head. All I could think was that my mother wouldn’t be my mother if she was called Rachael instead of Catherine – or Cathy as everyone called her. Years later I found out that, like my grandmother and great-grandmother before her, she’d also been called Kate. It was there in the teasing nickname my grandfather had given her as a child whenever she spilled food or drink on the table or herself (a trait I unfortunately share). For years I thought that ‘Slaister Kate’ (spelled slaistercait in my mind) was a proper Scot’s word until I found out that it was a combination of slaister  (the Scots expression for making a mess) and my mother’s childhood name. Yet in that one expression was all the affection that my grandfather had for his beloved daughter.

My mother as a flower girl at her Aunt Mary’s wedding, 1946

In contrast to my English grandparents, who I’ve described at length in A London Family, it was my Scottish grandfather who was the soft, cuddly one and my grandmother who was the thin, nervy ‘nippy’ one. Yet my mother tells me that Grandma was so much more relaxed with her grandchildren than she was as a mother herself, even though my own mother was – to all accounts – a model child who was incapable of telling a lie or doing anything she knew to be wrong. Years later, my grandmother would tell me how my mother had been a Godsend, looking after her in her long years of widowhood and declining health: a situation which my grandmother stoically accepted in a way that almost made me think that old age was just another passing phase of life (rather than terminal) and nothing to get too concerned about. I had not realised at the time that she was most likely protecting me from things I would later discover for myself.

After a stroke in her seventies, my grandmother moved into a local sheltered housing scheme, where she was happily ensconced in a bright and compact ground floor flat overlooking the shared gardens. Once when I was visiting her at New Year and went to have a nap on her bed, I came across a slightly creepy-looking object in the drawer of her bedside table. It was a tiny, squashed doll she kept in an old matchbox, and was one of the few objects (along the with the boxes of photographs) that she’d brought with her to the new flat. I vaguely remembered playing with the little plastic figure as a child and finding it deliciously strange and spooky – as I did with many things in her old house, including the heavy mirrors which hung from chains high up on the walls, and whose foxing seemed to be hinting at secrets hidden in the glass.

Although the mirrors stayed put until the move in 1989, at some point the little doll disappeared (possibly to avoid being lost or broken by curious fingers) only to resurface when my grandmother was in her last decade. It was almost as if it were some sort of talisman, the symbolic embodiment of my mother who had done so much to ease her into the latter part of her life. This queer disjointed baby doll was not actually a plaything at all (as I had once supposed) but had been centre piece of my mother’s christening cake in 1938. For over sixty years my grandmother had kept it, and when the sealing wax, lavender bags and milk tokens which had clogged up the drawers in the old house for years were all gleefully disposed of by my mother, the little doll moved house too, protected by its outdated matchbox.

The Christening Doll from 1938

I cringe now to think of some of the things I initially asked my grandmother about aging and loss in those early years of her widowhood. Do you miss Grandad? Have you seen his ghost? What does a stroke feel like? Are you afraid of death? Will you come and haunt me when you die? Grandma answered as best she could – but always from the heart – and I realise now how lucky I was to have her in my life for so long because as I matured (up to a point – it’s an ongoing process with me!) our conversations changed, too.

After she left us, the baton was passed on to her youngest sister, Mary (my mother’s favourite aunty), who became like a surrogate grandmother to me for another decade and told us stories of her own youth. As Aunty Mary – or Manty as we called her – was not as prudish as my grandmother, we were often freer with her and discussed different topics. Having served in the woman’s forces in WW2, Manty was a whisky-drinking, chain-smoking kind of women who worked fulltime after the untimely death of her husband and was thus wise to the ways of the world: she could certainly cackle over a double-entendre or an ‘actress-bishop’ joke in a way that my grandmother never could.

Aunt Mary (far left) with my Mother (as a baby) and Grandmother (far right) c1940

Now I realise that Grandma and Grandad were perhaps better suited than it would seem as my grandfather came from a religious Glaswegian family who were all good church-attending protestants and eschewed drink and any form of swearing. The only alcohol I remember touching my grandparents’ lips was the odd sherry or egg liqueur on special occasions and even the word ‘liar’ was deemed to be an unsuitable expression for young ladies; and so, just like politicians in parliament, we had to come up with more palatable ways to hint at this character defect. Unfortunately, my father had inherited a colourful list of swearwords from his own WW1 veteran father – many of which sound outdated today and conjure up images of Pathé newsreels of blitzed London. Thus it was with a certain dismay that my grandparents heard me hunting for ‘my bloody shoes’ at two years old! (How my father managed to keep the f-word from us for the first twelve years of my life, I’ll never know. He certainly made up for it in the years that followed).

Do I look like a child who would swear?

Perhaps that was one reason why my father never accompanied us on visits to our Scottish grandparents. He drove us from coast to coast, came in for a cup of tea, paced around the flat, then headed back west again. Sometimes he came to pick us up at the end of our stay and the process was reversed. Other times we went back by various complicated ways of public transport via Glasgow which always made my mother extremely stressed and prone to telling us and anyone who’d listen that she hated making the trip. If we did go back by rail from Haymarket in Edinburgh, rather than take the bus (Beeching had axed the local branch line into town several years earlier), then Grandad would stand in the garden in Carrick Knowe waving his outsize handkerchief at the Glasgow train as it thundered past the bottom of the garden through the tall stands of purple lupins, which a neighbour had planted at the side of the tracks

Sometimes other people in the carriage would wave back to Grandad either thinking that they knew him or that he was simply a lonely pensioner with an addled mind, trying to get the attention of passing trains. Often I’d miss seeing him: we flew by so fast and all the houses looked the same from the back. Just sometimes the train would slow down as it neared the signal box and we tried to catch a glimpse of Grandma at the kitchenette window, where she would most likely be rolling dough or making mince in the silver contraption bolted onto the fold-up Formica table, her fingers as red and shiny and cold as a scullery maid, like mine always are.

My grandparents in their garden beside the railway signal box c1961

Grandma used those bony hands to scrub and clean the house and the outside stairs and to tickle us until we thought we could no longer breath and my mother had to intervene. She always had a dark side to her ‘fun’, although it was not intentional, and my mother recalls her using this to cajole her into good behaviour. Born with a vivid imagination, my mother grew up believing that orange trees would grow from pips in her stomach and people would come along to pick them, or that she’d be dumped at the door of the children’s home if she did not behave (sometimes my grandmother would even pretend that was why they were taking the bus into town). Luckily, the next generation were spared all this, yet there were other horrors which lurked unchecked.

For some reason, my grandmother – who like me had a fear of hospitals – often watched a daytime medical television programme that involved a lot of blood and gore. That and Crown Court, and later televised snooker, appealed to her in a way none of us quite understood. And so, as a young child, I inadvertently witnessed a live hospital birth (thankfully only in black and white) which gave me an absolute fear of childbirth. When I asked Grandma why the woman was screaming so much, I was told in no uncertain terms why. And she made it clear that not only had she been very ill herself after giving birth, but my own mother had nearly died in hospital with me and was forced to endure 48 hours of agony before an emergency caesarean was performed (considered a last resort in those days). I’m not quite sure how much that contributed to my decision not to go through the process myself, but for years after I was haunted by the images of that film and the things my grandmother told me.

Like most couples, my grandparents had their daily and weekly rituals. Tea and biscuits round the fire before bedtime; Grandad doing his football pools on Saturday afternoons when Grandma and Mum came back from shopping in town, complaining about their feet killing them; ‘mince and tatties’ on Fridays – and always with dessert and custard. When we were very young, Grandad read us nightly stories from my mother’s big red fairy tale book or made up tales about two naughty little girls who only years later I discovered actually existed (they were his great-nieces). He had a range of Grandad-jokes that were brought out with the digestive biscuits, often involving cultural references that passed us by – his Harry Lauder impression was one of these. However, the thing that drove us most crazy was his sayings. A place for everything and everything in its place, and You’re going to the right place for tired girls were particularly subject to our groans. I sometimes wonder how he could have been related to my mother, who has never followed those maxims herself.

And so it was that I found myself discussing this topic with my mother a few days ago. What have we inherited from our ancestors and what did they in turn inherit from those who went before them? Grandad loved making up stories (which is why he ditched that fairy tale book), as well as looking after his plants (I remember him showing me how snapdragons got their name), and unbeknownst to me was fascinated by Japan. So is it more than a coincidence that storytelling and gardening are two of my passions and that I used to live and work in Japan? And is my mother’s work as a textile artist due to the fact that my grandmother was a qualified seamstress who was able to do the most beautiful detailed work, skills which she also imparted to the next generations? 

My Mother with one of her creations

Yet my mother also loves history and storytelling – although gardening is just ‘outdoor housework’ to her! So next month I will be publishing a potted history of the life of my maternal great-grandmother, which my mother researched and wrote after I’d returned from London in the mid-eighties, full of my discoveries as a genealogist working for a firm of heir hunters (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born).

I look forward to sharing it with you!

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2021

 

 

 

 

Foxed Mirrors and Fairy Tales: Part 1

My Scottish Grandparents, 1920s

Grandma and Grandad were plastic milk tokens and sealing wax, Valentino and Houdini, foxed mirrors and fairy tales. Their interwar four-in-a-block house in Edinburgh had things we did not possess in our modern sixties’ bungalow – a wireless and a kitchenette, a lobby and a press – and every drawer and cupboard and bookcase held remnants of the last fifty years. I was fascinated by the scraps of rich velvet containing rustling dry lavender, the ornate hat pins in the button tin, the old books with their in-plates commemorating regular attendance of school and Sunday school in the earlier part of the old century. And if those dark and sombre books were opened, the strange and alluring perfume of the past slipped out like a genie from a bottle. Then it was possible to imagine the house spinning back through time until the garish red and yellow carpets were replaced with rugs and linoleum and the ugly electric bar fires spirited away to allow the empty fireplaces to return to the more glamorous task (to my mind) of burning coals.

I don’t possess any specific memory of my grandparents and their house until sometime in the late sixties, when I was around three or four and they were knocking on the door of early old age. The first concrete image I have is of sitting on the sofa with my grandmother’s mother and of using a long-handled brush as an oar in a pretend boat in which we were sailing away. I remember, too, that I had no idea of the purpose of this brush which lived in the bathroom and was presumably a back scrubber; but I loved its transparent turquoise colour, and this was what had possibly put me in mind of boats and the sea.

Four Female Generations in my Grandparents’ Garden, 1964

Perhaps more interesting now is the memory of Great Grandma, who was born in 1874, and who I remember vaguely as small and stout, and often dressed in dark shapeless clothes, her grey hair in a bun. By the 1960s she’d already had numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so I was possibly nothing to get excited about, although I still retain a feeling of love and safety emanating from her solid frame and the knowledge that she was enjoying being part of my boat fantasy that day.

Although I loved the watery look of the turquoise brush, which looked like something Neptune might possess, I hated the rest of my grandparents’ spartan bathroom with the tiny, frosted glass window set up high in the outside wall, and the cold enamel bath which dominated the narrow space. But to be fair, as an indoor bathroom had been luxurious in 1935, they had possibly not wanted to tempt fate by making it any more appealing than it had to be. This might explain why they both still washed daily in the kitchen, scrubbing their armpits with flannels over the large Belfast sink, bathing only weekly, as if they were still in the wartime business of conserving water.

As a relatively spoilt child of parents who’d benefited from the post-war economic boom, I also could not understand how my grandparents were able to happily share their garden with the family upstairs, and never felt truly comfortable playing outside in this space, watched by the elderly couple from their back windows. However, I did love the fact that I could just jump over the low fence and play with the children next door – and jump over their fence to reach the next set of children, as well as the fact that we could then all play out together in the quiet streets. This was mainly because at that time so few of the neighbours owned cars, but also that there was a large cul-de-sac at the top of the road where we could set up elaborate skipping games. In the quiet neighbourhood in Ayr where I grew up, everyone lived more sedately behind their hedges and fences and there was not the shared feeling of community that I sensed in the suburb of West Edinburgh where my grandparents lived.

My McKay Grandparents in early old age

Today my mother lives a ten-minute walk away in a  ‘posher’ suburb. Yet when I visit her we rarely walk to the house where my grandparents lived for half a century and where my mother grew up and spent all her pre-married life. When we occasionally do go, we always end up noticing what has remained and what has changed in the neighbourhood. Front gardens have been swept away and superseded by utilitarian car parks; the original thirties doors and windows have been replaced with a hotchpotch of modern equivalents ; the shared gardens are now divided into distinct halves by boundary markers.

Whenever I happen to pass my grandparent’s old house, I look for the botch-job tarmacked stones on the front path which used to fascinate me as a child. Just one strange ugly section of lumpen molten tar over rocks, but to me it is a link with the days when I used to strut from the house to the street in my grandmother’s old-fashioned court shoes, or when I used to drag out the old turkey rugs from the lobby press to play on. Laying them over the misshapen path I used to pretend they were magical flying carpets, transporting me back through the years rather than to distant lands, and I could almost see my mother sitting on the outside coal bunker (which by then held only wood scraps) on the day she tore her dress jumping off for a dare.

I knew this story because I’d been told it many times whenever I asked about the naughty things my mother had done when young. I felt sure there must have been much worse, perhaps kept hidden from me, and one day I would find out the truth. But it seems in the naughtiness stakes, my sister and I were the outright winners, not having endured the same kind of strict 1940s upbringing of my mother (despite her being a long-waited for, only child).

To be continued next month.

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2021

 

 

Messy Boxes

Nowadays, thanks to the internet, there are collectors around the world who try to find the descendants of long-lost family albums and ‘orphaned’ photographs. I am not sure if they have a particularly high success rate, but they persevere in the belief in the intrinsic value of the project. The albums and photographs are unearthed in junk shops, garage sales and house clearances, the family keeper of memories (for there is always one, and it is usually a she) having no doubt passed away without a worthy heir to inherit the role. The images, which are posted on the web in the hope of reuniting with their descendants, are sad and silent. They are sepia reminders of our own mortality, and the fact that we too in turn will soon be forgotten about. Many of the photographs come from the heyday of the studio Cabinet Card, where the sitters’ expressions were rigid from the immobility that was necessary for the length of the exposure, unaware that future generations will simply judge them to have been grim and stern. These images can usually never reflect the reality of the period, and often confer on their subjects a grandness that would have been absent in their daily lives.

A further limitation of these photographs is that they mostly only cover a certain time period. It is unusual to find a picture of the father as a child, and then later as a grandfather. For that you must have a chronological album spanning decades – a luxury denied to most of us. Or even a big messy box still waiting to be catalogued. I am lucky that my mother has the latter. Several messy boxes, in fact. Most of them started out life containing now defunct brands of goods from the 1940s, and for the last half a century have housed an eclectic mix of photographs from the Scottish side of the family, spanning well over a hundred years.

The Photograph Boxes

I remember the first evening my grandmother brought out the photograph boxes, their outdated look already exciting me with the intimations of a yesteryear of which I was not a part. I must have been around seven or eight then – the perfect age to be initiated into the delights of the family album, particularly for such a morbid child as I was. After that visit, it became a ritual: every time we went to stay with our Scottish grandparents there was always one evening set aside for the albums and the endless questions they generated. At first I couldn’t quite believe that it was possible to possess photographs that were so old. Surely cameras were too modern an invention to have been around during the century before I was born? And those strange clothes looked terribly stiff and uncomfortable. I hadn’t quite made the connection that the outfits I saw on the BBC’s Sunday afternoon children’s period dramas had actually been worn by normal people, some of whom were related to me.

My sister and I always had our favourite pictures that we searched for first: one of these was of our two ‘youngest’ great-aunts (whose Christian names were now our middle names), outside their tenement flat in a cobbled street in Edinburgh’s Dumbiedykes area, around 1920. They are both in grubby pinafores and tackety-boots – in contrast to the smart look of their older neighbourhood friend, with her lace collar and cuffs. 

Ann and Mary Neilson and Friend, Dumbiedykes, Edinburgh c1920

It was hard for us to reconcile these wary-looking little girls with the strong characters they had become, over half a century later. Thus through such photographs, we were able to see our relatives in ways we’d never imagined before, and learn about the others who had gone before, but who still touched the lives of those who’d once known them.

In the coming months, I hope to investigate some of the photographs in those messy boxes and discover more about the people they portray, as well as the times in which they lived. In this way I will put together the history of a Scottish family which encompasses much more than just a genealogy. Indeed, I intend its scope to include an investigation into the very nature of photography itself, something that grew out of my interest in discovering more about my London family (see A London Family).

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2021