The Slender Chain of Memory

Who is the oldest person you have ever met? I once had the extraordinary experience of meeting someone who was about a century older than me. My mother, born in the 1950s, can remember meeting a man who was a soldier in the Boer War. These rare encounters instantly connect us to distant times. Genealogy helps us to chart and understand such connections.

I have been fascinated by genealogy for as long as I can remember being interested in the past. From an early age, I spoke with elderly relatives about their memories of their early lives and heard first-hand accounts of life in the 1920s and 1930s as well as the Second World War. My paternal grandmother told me about her great-grandfather, Thomas Entwistle, who had been born in Holywell Lane, Shoreditch, in 1853, and died in 1936. His mother, Sarah Tuck, was baptised at St Mary and All Saints’ Church, Kidderminster, in 1810. Therefore only a slender chain of memory links me with the reign of George III and the period of the Napoleonic wars.

St Mary and All Saints' Church, Kidderminster, in 1890.

When I consider the relations that my parents talked to, the chain of memory takes me back even further. My maternal grandfather, a clergyman who died long before I was born, would have known his great-grandfather, Isaac Moon Welford, who is shown living very close to him in the 1921 census in Whitburn, County Durham. Isaac was baptised in 1834 at Lythe in North Riding of Yorkshire, while his parents had both been born in nearby Hinderwell in the 1790s. My paternal grandfather’s father is recorded in 1913 attending the funeral of his wife's maternal grandmother Mary Ann Bolton, whose father was a mariner born in 1791 at North Shields in County Durham.

Yet it is not only people but also places that can link us to the past. My paternal grandmother lived in Peabody Buildings in Shadwell when she was a child, the very same place that her great-grandfather, an engineer named Henry Thomas Bridge, was living at the time of his death in 1880. She was born in Whitechapel, where her 4x great-grandfather Alexander Wood had been baptised in 1761. She knew her maternal grandfather, James Thomas Flowerday, who in 1881 had been living at the same address in Devonshire Street, Mile End, that his great-grandmother Charlotte Elizabeth Wood, daughter of Alexander, had died at in 1875. I was born in the same hospital in London where James Flowerday’s widow had died in 1950.

Devonshire Street, Mile End, on the Booth poverty map, 1899.

Such links may seem inconsequential, but I cannot help feeling that they help me to engage with the past more immersively than many books on historical subjects. As a genealogist and house historian, I am always seeking to find and describe the intricate and complex connections that help us to make sense of previous eras. I hope that what I will write in this new blog will help you to contemplate your own links to the past.