Number 89: My Welsh Connection

I’ll be off to Wales in three weeks for one of my regular holidays and because I go with my parents too, I got to thinking about family. You see, the house where I stay in Pembroke Dock has been in Mum’s family for over a hundred years.

My granny moved there in 1907 when she was two, along with her four siblings. Back in 1998 when my great-aunt whose house it became died, she left it in her will to me, my sister and our cousins. At the time, none of us were in a position financially to look after it and we decided the most practical thing to do was to sell the place. We none of us could envisage using the house in the future and just thought it would be a burden we could do without. Mum was very upset by our decision and I couldn’t really understand why. “A house is just a house after all, isn’t it?” was my thinking at the time.

Mum and Dad stepped in and bought us out and they’ve been looking after the place ever since. Now, nearly twenty years later and with a family of my own, I totally understand Mum’s distress at the thought of losing the place. I’ve come to realise that I love the fact that four generations of my family have enjoyed staying in the house, visiting the same beaches and doing the same things. Somewhere there are some wonderful black and white photos from the 1920s and 1930s of my granny’s family picnicking on the beach, just as we do now. My boys love going there too and I can see them taking their own kids in twenty years or so.

I’ve always had an interest in history, especially when it concerns people. What people are like and why is just fascinating! I love watching shows like “Who do You Think You Are?” and “Long Lost Family”. As humans we need to know our roots and if we don’t, it can have a profoundly bad effect on us. All those desperate people searching for their birth parents or kids they were forced to give up for adoption tells you that. Who we are as a person is inextricably linked to our family, they are after all our earliest teachers and shape everything about us: our mannerisms, our attitudes and even our prejudices. Hence the big pile of family trees, certificates and reminiscences I have accumulated, so that I can satisfy my curiosity about my own past.

So what do I know of the Welsh side of my family? I know that they were farmers before they moved to the town and entered other professions like teaching, they had a tendency for large families, they endured hardships and created mysteries I want to solve.

My great-grandfather, George Vaughan, born in 1871, was the fifth of thirteen children and was born at The Flags, a farm not far from Walwyn’s Castle, which is a tiny little village near Haverfordwest. His mother Eliza Harries was one of nine children from a local family and his dad, James, was born in Steynton, close to Walwyn’s Castle, in 1844.

George married a lady called Christiana Davies from Mountain Ash in Glamorgan some time in the 1890s and they had five children, Rhys the eldest born in 1898, Margaret, Lillian, Billy and my granny Molly who was the youngest, born in 1905. That’s all I know about George and with good reason: when the kids were still young, he walked out on his family and never came back.

By the time of the 1911 census when my granny was six, he’d gone. I did ask my granny and great-aunt about him but they wouldn’t enlighten me. All I was told was that he left to look for work and never returned. They never talked about him and I can only guess the profound effect on them his desertion had. I’ve searched for him in the census and BMD records but found no trace of him. I’d love to know what happened and why. Was he violent towards his wife and kids and she kicked him out? Was he an alcoholic? Was there another woman? Was he suffering from depression or a more serious mental illness and locked up? It must have been something serious because once you were married in those days you usually stayed together whatever the difficulties, a divorce being very hard to obtain.

By 1911, Christiana had also had to endure the death of six of the eleven children she gave birth to. Her first child, Lillian, died at the age of two after being attacked by a cockerel. It spurred her and an abscess formed in the wound and she died after a week. Christiana also gave birth to girl triplets and a son Oliver, who died shortly after being born, and James, who was the twin of great-uncle Billy, didn’t survive either. That was tragedy enough without her husband leaving and something else that was never talked about. Almost as if it was just too much to think about and best left alone.

How Christiana survived financially after George left I don’t know. She’s simply listed as a “wife” in the census and her husband is absent. There being no social security in those days, someone in the family must have been helping her or she had a job. Maybe George wasn’t as bad as I imagine and sent her money to help out. It’s a mystery that will be very hard to solve.

How strong she must have been to survive all that trauma and bring up the kids by herself. She did a great job as all of them went on to have good careers plus families of their own and appeared to have overcome their difficult childhood. I wish I could have met her because I’m sure we would have got on. For one thing she was a great reader like me, getting through three or four library books a week and it’s what she was doing when she died. She also loathed her Christian name. I wonder what she would have preferred to have been called?

Christiana’s daughter Lill, not only had a difficult childhood but endured tragedy in her own marriage. She married in the 1920s, when she was about twenty one, to William Rees, a widower who had a young son Ronald and they lived in Newcastle. They had a son of their own called David but he died as a baby and not long afterwards, William died of TB.

Lillian brought Ronald back to live with her mother at number 89 and stayed there until she was in her nineties and too infirm to cope alone. Sadly she never remarried, concentrating instead on her chosen career of teaching. She was a lovely lady with a huge sense of fun and a great talker, who should have had children and grandchildren of her own. She loved having my sister and I to visit and it is from her that I have learnt about the family, rather than my granny, who didn’t like talking about the past.

I wish I’d met my great-uncle Billy as he sounds such a character. The ring leader of a gang of boys, he was universally known as “Scorcher Vaughan” around the town as he was so naughty, always playing mischievous pranks on the people of Pembroke Dock. According to Lill, even though he was often in trouble he was a popular kid and not spiteful.

When they were small, the basement kitchen with its range was still in use but Christiana used to get her loaves baked down at the baker’s shop twice a week. One day she sent Billy and Molly to go and get the bread and push it back in the wheelbarrow. Billy was pushing his little sister up the hill towards home and once they neared the house, instead of taking her in, he pushed her into the hall of a neighbour (Deborah Jones, known as “Bora”, a loud voiced woman who sang in the choir and who all the kids were scared of) and left her there in the dark. As no-one locked their doors then, Billy could quite easily walk into her house. Molly was only very small at the time and quite frightened.

Like nearly all of her siblings, Molly, my granny, trained to be a teacher at Lampheter College during the 1920s. Of the five children, Billy is the only one who didn’t become a teacher, going into the navy instead. It was while she was training that she met my grandpa Fred, as they lived in adjacent boarding houses. They courted for years as they wanted to save up enough money to buy a house. As married women weren’t allowed to teach then, they delayed getting married until 1934 when Granny was already twenty nine, quite old for those days.

They married in the church two streets away from where Molly grew up and a copy of their wedding picture hangs on my bedroom wall, Molly showing off her slender figure in a beautiful gown that clung to her hips, carrying a large bouquet of lilies and Fred looking handsome in a smart suit with a stiff collar, carrying some kid gloves in one hand. They look happy and at ease with one another and were married for fifty three years.

The oldest of two brothers from Tiverton in Devon, the younger one dying tragically of TB at twenty, Fred seems to have been embraced into the Vaughan family in Pembroke Dock and spent a great deal of time there. He was part of their gang and together they had all sorts of high jinks. I imagine him and Billy got on well together as they both had the same sense of fun. Lill told me a great story about how he used to terrorise the girls when they were using the outside loo (there wasn’t an inside one then) by taking pot shots at them with his gun. Sometimes he used to get the neighbour’s washing too and she could never understand how her husband’s shirts had holes in them!

Grandpa told me they had a girls’ gang and a boys’ gang and they used to meet up in the attic and have lots of fun. There is a small door in each of the attic room walls which is the entrance to a passage that runs along the eaves. Fred used to crawl along the this space from one room to another and burst out on the girls to scare them. When all of her grown up children were home, Christiana used to hang flags out of the attic windows to inform the neighbours; like a celebration.

The gang also used to go to the beach, usually walking all the way there and back. As the nearest beach is six miles away and some of them at least ten, this was no mean feat. I remember Mum exclaiming how far it was for them and Lill replying that they thought nothing of it and used to sing all the way. I guess only a very few rich people could afford a car in their largely rural, poor community, so if you wanted to go anywhere you had no choice but to walk.

Once Fred had qualified as a maths teacher, he was offered a teaching job in Sheffield and took it without hesitation as this was during the Depression when work was hard to find. My uncle John was born in 1937 and my mum followed some time later in 1944. My grandparents never left Sheffield, making a life for themselves as teachers there but summer holidays were always spent back in Pembrokeshire until my mum had grown up. They had a little caravan which they parked on the dunes behind Freshwater East beach and had the place to themselves. Mum told me she would take her shoes off on the long journey down and never put them on again until they were going home. So began a summer of swimming, picnicking and playing with local friends.

I started coming to number 89 as a very young child with my family for holidays and often my grandparents, Fred and Molly, would be there too. Auntie Lill loved the company, having lived alone since the death of her mother and the chance to go out to the beach. She never learnt to drive and she had a bad leg too (an ulcer as a result of being hit by a cricket ball in the 1930s), so loved being taken out. The scenery along the coastline is just stunning and she never tired of it.

Like previous generations my sister and I loved playing by the sea, having a picnic, visiting Carew, Pembroke and Manorbier Castles and when we were older walking the coastal path with our dog and enjoying lunch in the pub. We would sleep up in the attic like my boys do now and be woken early by the sun streaming through the windows.

It’s from Lill that I learnt how to make bread and butter pudding and also apple pie, on a tin plate but teaching me how to knit and sew was strictly Molly’s job as Lill had always been hopeless at it. She made me laugh telling me how her school teacher was forever ripping out the stitches in her sewing as they were too big, or unraveling her knitting as she’d dropped a stitch or two, whereas her little sister’s were always perfect!

In the kitchen drawer at number 89 is an old metal tablespoon worn down on one side by my great-grandmother, Christiana, as she made her gravy every Sunday. If we ever have to sell the house, that’s the one thing that I want. as a reminder of all the happy times I’ve spent there and to remember the place my family came from.

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