A brief family history
[and why I love textiles!]
My beautiful great grandmother, Sarah.
A sketch, made circa 1850-60?s.
You can just see the top of her bodice, with lace ruffle around her neck.
Sarah looks down on me every day and I have a great bond with her. It was Sarah that first inspired my interest in antique textiles. But I go too fast. My interest in needlework and sewing began far earlier.
I have Sarah’s diary of 1856. She seemed so serious for one so young……….
‘From my dear home, forlorn I go
No hopes no joys my steps attend
Without a solace to my woe
But thoughts of death, the mourners [friend?]
Alas that woman’s love should cling
To heart’s that never feel it’s worth
As prarie roses creep and fling
The richest bloom upon the earth.’
[Extract from Sarah’s diary, 1856. Poem author unknown]
But she does have a sense of humour. She writes a poem also about her Doctor, Butcher & Tailor, none of whom she has a high opinion! Sadly too faint to scribe here, but I do know that the tailor was making her stays!
Sarah married my great grandfather, Charles James and they had three children. Charles James was a post industrial revolution ‘self made man’. He did not live with his parents as a child, but with a relative, and was left several houses when his carer died. Within 20 or so years he had become a wealthy man, owning mines & properties throughout the area. He was also highly respected, and played a part in ‘good works’ of the local society.
Extract from and previously from ‘People of the Potteries’ Henry Allen Wedgewood. 1970 Pub: A M Kelley.
The couple had three children: Two boys and a girl.
Charles James clearly loved his children, as you can see in this inscription to his son, Frederick, when he was a young child:
But, sadly, the marriage failed. We will probably never know why. Charles James went to live with his mistress, taking one of his sons with him. Together, he and his mistress went on to have 4 further children. He and his ‘new’ family lived at the extraordinary ‘Caverswall Castle’ [You can Google this!], a castle with centuries of history and until recently at least, used as a fabulous wedding venue!
Poor Sarah! No matter what the cause of the marriage failure, she was left in the tenuous situation of being a woman alone in the 1870?s, with two young children to care for. I do have a private letter from Charles to Sarah, saying that she would receive no further money from him unless she behaved ‘appropriately’.
But further tragedy was to strike Sarah, in the very same year as my great grandfather left. Her only daughter Laura, at the age of 17, died from a horse riding accident. Here is who I have always thought of as Laura, looking so fashionable with her 1870?s piled high hair. I have never understood this picture, which appears to be half photograph, half sketch. But as my great aunt, she lives with me, along with Sarah, her mother:
Sarah’s later diaries show that she was never poor exactly. She had a chestnut horse and others, and regularly records the people who come and go to do services for her; delivering groceries, cleaning and chopping wood; but the romantic young girl is lost in the later diaries. Entries are practical, without embellishment, lifeless.
So, the family torn apart, never to re-unite, Sarah bought up her one remaining son, Frederick, on her own. When Charles James died in 1893, all of his wealth was split between the family of his mistress, and the son who went with him many years earlier.
It is said that Sarah ended her life living as a semi-recluse, living in a house with many, many cats. [Anyone see a link here!!!???]
But what of Frederick? Frederick, whose papa had loved him, but who chose to stay with his mama?
Frederick was my grandfather! And although I never knew him, he is the next one in the family who has fascinated
me since a young girl.
Frederick married Charlotte in the late 19th Century, and they had no less than 11 children. I know little of him, have no photographs, but like him enormously. He appeared to have no interest in wealth lost or bitterness. Family stories tell of a man who kept a snake and became a lay preacher. He certainly cared for his mother, and the grandchildren, all 11 of them, seemed to love and protect Sarah in her later years. I am told that my grandmother Charlotte was a lovely and loving woman, and she needed to be, because they lived, all 13, in a Victorian terraced house with just three bedrooms and no bathroom.
It seemed to matter not a jot. Of my father’s bothers and sisters, those I remember, which are many, they were without fail the most loving and close family with an unfailing sense of humour and joy of life.
My beloved father, Albert, [they were all named after Royalty!] was youngest of the 11. By the time he was born, many of his siblings were already adults. Despite being extremely clever, the family could not support his further education and he went to work as a weaver at the age of 14.
My wonderful dad Albert, as a young boy.
At the start of the 2nd World War, he, a sensitive and kind young man, like many others, was conscripted to the army and spent almost all of the war in the Middle East. He wrote so many letters to my aunt, some completely unreadable because of censoring, and we still have most of them. My aunt was a second mother to him after the death of Charlotte, and she remained in the Victorian terraced house that the family had been reared in, for the rest of her life. My aunt was called Charlotte, Lottie to everyone, after her mother, and throughout her life, she bonded this large family together like glue!
Lottie did not have an easy young life. As a child she caught polio and one leg never grew. I always remember her wearing Victorian leather boots, one ‘stuffed’ with wadding so that she could walk un-aided. Then she had a tumour on her brain, and she used to ask us to trace the holes across her scalp where the surgeons had cut her open from forehead to back crown. How she laughed when we squirmed! Without a trace of self pity, Lottie became a dressmaker so that she would become self-sufficient.
The house, which I grew to know so well, was – mmmmm, unusual! There was the large treadle sewing machine, the boxes and boxes of haberdashery, the yards and yards of fabrics – here for a wedding, there for a man’s suit, buttons for repairs, scissors large and scissors small depending upon the job. And all sitting aside the finest furniture, all cut down one way or another to be squeezed into this small terrace, and the remains of Sarah’s fine belongings. Well used tea spoons sat in a drawer beside silver spoons. Odd bits of crockery nestled amongst the finest dinner sets [or what was left of them!]
One of Auntie Lottie’s tins of thread, still much as she left it, circa 1960’s. [Note the biscuit tin! You could NEVER go to Auntie Lottie’s without being plied with biscuits and chocolate. Lemon tarts came out as we entered the door!]
With a toilet ‘down the yard’ and a big kitchen sink that served as her washing and grooming bowl as well, no one had less airs and graces than my auntie Lottie! She never married, she worked till she dropped without any idea of how to run a business: ‘Oh, just give me 3 shillings’ she would say to a customer who called for her wedding dress, fully made by hand! But in her youth she was startlingly beautiful – can you see Sarah in her?
Auntie Lottie ‘Charlotte’ in the 1920-30’s.
But, hold on! I haven’t been born yet!
When my dad left the services, he went home to Auntie Lottie, and met my dear mum, Jean, whom he married. They made such a fine couple in post war society. Look at my mum’s shoes!!!!
Dad became a manager of a ribbon factory, owned by a Swiss firm, who invented Velcro! But it was the ribbons I loved, when as small children, my sister and I went with him to check the premises at weekends. Full of huge looms, the interior seemed to simply gush ribbons; tartan one’s, satins, those with flowers, spots, the vibrant colours of reds, burgundy, purple, greens, blues; every colour was there…. as well as the factory cat, seemingly endlessly having litters, all nestling in the large boxes of ribbon that fell off the loom once woven. How could I not love textiles?
But it was not my dad, or my mum, bless her, that taught me how to sew. It was Auntie Lottie of course! Ever curious, delving into her tins of haberdashery and counting her buttons. Watching, watching as she sewed on that huge ‘Singer’, it wasn’t long before she gave me a ‘spare’ machine, not a treadle, but an equally old table top version. I was AWAY!!!!! She taught me to crochet, [never quite got the hang of it] to knit, to knot, to applique; never as lessons, but simply by my questioning and her showing.
My smocking machine, circa 1980’s. This didn’t smock the fabric, but it pleated it up, ready for the exciting bit!
By 1985, I was completely immersed in sewing as a hobby. Doing my degree late in life, with two young children of my own, I would take them to the Victoria & Albert Museum for hours upon hours. This sampler was designed freehand from one I found at the V & A, dating to the 18th Century. I amended the verse to suit my own feelings:
I wish I had done a prettier border! But counting thread without any template was painstaking! I have always been too impatient.
And so, this abridged story of my love of textiles is nearly done [Hurray, you say!]
But not quite. We are not yet full circle.
When our dearest Auntie Lottie died, at a grand old age, I was by then living in London. My family asked me what I would like from the menagerie of her house, packed full of family history [‘You will have such fun searching through everything when I am gone’ she used to laugh]. I didn’t stop to think for a second. ‘I would like some books, some pictures of the family, and please, some of the textiles.’
And when they arrived, kindly bought down by my brother-in-law who loved Auntie Lottie so dearly, the final textile link was made. For there, amongst the wonderful memories, were some of Sarah’s clothes. Nothing expensive, nothing ‘rare’, but Sarah’s.
And in that moment I knew, above all else, that no matter how much we admire the fine clothes, the stitches, the fabrics and embroidery, it is the HISTORY that binds it. The family, the people, the lives. The joy and the sorrow. Textiles can only really have meaning when we understand how very personal they were.
Thank you, Great Grandmother Sarah. Thank you.
POST SCRIPT: Do you think I may have also inherited my finesse for poetry from Sarah? [Ha ha!]