Imaginary people

February 28, 2009

I don’t mean the kind that you summon up when a child, although I did write a poem last year about Imaginary Friends, wondering what it would be like if they turned out to be not quite so biddable as such people usually are (I think I did have one, and I think he was called Simon, but this is the kind of occasion when all the fact-checkers are dead). Jackie Kay’s poem ‘Brendon Gallacher’ is good on the subject, and you can hear her read it here.

No, what I’m thinking of is the process which goes through the brain when you’re rooting through obscure offshoots of your family – the Gowlands I mentioned this week. George Hay Gowland and his wife Mary Creasey seem to have had seven children between 1854 and 1864. Since it’s Gowland’s maternal grandfather – a Hay, as in Gowland’s middle name – from whom I’m descended, this really is an exercise in sleuthing-for-the-sake-of-it – although you never know what you will find. A similar exercise with a similarly related family produced a memoir written about┬ámy great-great-grandmother’s sister, which gave a very good idea of the life my own great-great-grandmother had lived. More amazingly, the writer was still alive, and over a hundred.

However, working my way forward (that’s what always interests me), here is a family which is marriage-shy. A son and a daughter die in 1879 and 1883 respectively (aged 18 and 24, so not the victims of infant mortality). One of the brothers vanishes from the records (quite hard to do – it will be a transcription error, I would suspect, although he did have an uncle who went to Louisiana via Liverpool and Canada). By the time they are all nearly or more than forty, three of the remaining four have continued to live with their mother, who moves to Harrogate when widowed, and the fourth has married a man twenty years older, with children almost the same age as herself. There is no sign of any of the others marrying later.

So this is a family which has probably erased its traces by now. One wonders what became of their possessions – did they go to the step-children of the married sister (whose husband had a really unusual middle name – he was Charles Berjew Brooke – there are a few Berjew families, but not many)? Or to the children of George Hay Gowland’s sister, Jane Hay Gowland, who moved to Solihull, and whose children did marry? And what became of his clocks and other chattels (Gowland has papers in the British Horological Institute, so he was plainly a force to be reckoned with)? One hopes they didn’t end up dispersed and destroyed, but that seems as likely as anything.

When I’m researching archive material like this, the people assume faces and attitudes to go with their names. They come alive, even though they are essentially collections of letters on a list, pieces in an inadequate jigsaw. In their large house in Sunderland, and later in Harrogate (the favoured escape-route for well-heeled retirees from the North-East, it seems), how did the ageing siblings get on? What different roles did they adopt?

I know all the answers, but that’s because I am fictionalising them as I go. Somewhere, perhaps, there is a photograph. I’ve turned up stranger things in my time.