It is possible to go back in time, whatever the scientists tell you. You can’t do it in a time machine but we can do it through the memories of old people.
Back in the early 1980’s I worked in a day centre for elderly people. Amongst the attenders were several people in their late 80’s and 90’s. One old lady from the East End of London used to work in a wet fish shop before the First World War run by a man called Alf Hitchcock.
His nephew was Alfred Hitchcock, the famous film director. At that time however, he hadn’t even started in that career. “He was such a good-looking young man” she told me “and very good with figures”. He used to come over to the shop every week and do the accounts. Then there was Emily Bird. She was 97 when I knew her, so old in fact that her son [who was 70] also attended the day centre. She told me that her father was skipper of the Cutty Sark [one of the last square-rigged tea-clippers]. Finally there was old Bill Smith.
Bill was born in 1888 and joined the Hussars in 1906, because he loved horses. Inevitably he had to serve in the Great War [where he won the Miltary Medal] and was present during the British retreat from Mons, where thousands died in chaotic circumstances. He shook his head and said “it was terrible”, horses and men blown to pieces all around him. He miraculously survived and after his discharge in 1918 became a rubbish collector until his retirement.
These links with the past pale into insignificance in comparison with those of a social historian I read about some thirty years ago. He had a conversation with his Grandfather who’s own Grandfather had been present at the Battle of Austerlitz. That took place in 1805, during the Napoleonic war. I don’t have any personal stories that date back as far as the beginning of the 19th century but I was confronted with my own history some years ago when researching my mother’s family in a Somerset village.
The village of Draycott lies at the bottom of the Mendip hills, facing Sedgemore with Glastonbury hill peeking over the horizon. My Great Grandmother Annie Hollier left the village in the 1870’s to enter service and eventually ended up as a cook for Colonel and his wife in Elgin Crescent, Notting Hill. The family were farm labourers for the most part and her older brother William continued living in the village until his death in 1907.
I am the youngest of my generation and all members of my mother’s family in the generationabove mine had died by the mid 1980’s, so it seemed that the only way I would be able to find out anything about my family would be through dry records found in church vesteries and the County Record Offices.
It was getting dark as I was paging through the records of births, marriages and deaths still on display in Draycott parish church. Suddenly the door opened and a thin, elderly man entered. He was the Churchwarden, come to lock up the building for the night. “Doing some family research?”he ventured. I replied the affirmative. “What’s the family name?”. Hollier, I replied. “That would be Hunter Hollier’s family, then”…
I was staggered. My Great-great Uncles nickname was “Hunter” Hollier. He died in 1907 and as far as I was aware, the last member of the family to live in the village [his widow Sarah] had died in 1927, sixty-years previously. Aparently, this man’s father [a local farmer] had employed “Hunter” , a local character who had aquired his nickname due to his reputation as a poacher. We chatted for a while and he promised to introduce me to his older brother who might have personal memories of him. We did meet up the next day but unfortunately he could remember nothing more than the name, spoken of by their father.
It was a small thing, a sliver of my history kept alive in the mind of someone I had never met before. It reminded me however that Willam Hollier had been a real, living person who had grown up, married, grown old and died. I remember my mother saying that her father [Wesley Hollier Wright] used to stay in Draycot as a child and had gone poaching with his favourite Uncle. What stories my Grandfather might have had to tell me but he died when I was only two-years old. A great shame.
After my Uncle died [the last survivor of his generation] in 1984, his daughter presented me with a small box of black and white photos that he had wanted me to have. “I don’t know who all these people are” she said and I puzzled over them for weeks. There was a family wedding but whos, we didn’t know. At the time it was taken everyone knew whos it was, so it wasn’t necessary to write it down. Then everybody died and no one knew…”]
I eventually worked out it was the wedding of my Great Aunt Helen but who are all the other people in the picture? I can guess but I’m not 100% certain…
Here is a final picture. It is the wedding of my Grandparents in 1917. To the right of the bride is my Great Grandmother Annie Wright [nee.Hollier], sister of William “Hunter”Hollier.