My mother’s surname was Frail. She believed (having no Frail cousins, as she believed, or certainly no male ones) that her brother was the last of the line, since he had no sons. It is certainly true that it is a rare name. Only one hundred show up in the English census of 1901, and a disproportionate number are women (this is not a criticism, it’s the rarity of the surname that interests me!); by 1911, the number has dwindled to 75. Certainly my mother had met no-one outside her own family called Frail, although one night, leaving a restaurant with my father, somewhere in the Home Counties, she spotted that guests booked in later that evening were called Frail. (There is also a footballer turned coach called Stephen Frail, but I also have met nobody with the surname, other than relatives, when they were alive.)
But then my mother knew nothing really about either her mother or father, who had cut themselves loose from their original families, almost completely. There were one or two stray aunts and cousins, and they got an occasional mention. Apart from the mysterious re-discovery of my mother’s aunt in 1970 (she died a few years later), the end as far as relatives were concerned had come in about 1960, with the death of her father (1958) and her mother’s cousin shortly afterwards. And anyway, she had, as the youngest sibling by far, no real idea of where these relatives had come from, or gone to, and had more or less been taught not to care.
But her father, as it happened, had not been quite so lacking in the family department as she might have imagined. Although he was himself farmed out by his father and mother to his mother’s sisters (while they kept the two girls – quite an odd arrangement), his father, my mother’s grandfather, was actually one of five. Two of the other four made it out of childhood; but not for long, in one case, after my grandfather’s birth. By the time he was six, my grandfather had one uncle, a Richard Broom Frail, known as Dick, a man only a few years younger than his father. One – and only one – photo survives of my great-grandfather Frail and his brother Dick, taken I’d guess in 1913, and when both men are in their fifties. They are hard to tell apart.
I love rescuing the past, and I have managed to do it with one individual, so I’ll see what I can do with his story. But first of all, I need to tell you what little I know about Dick Frail, who was born, in Sunderland, on the north side of the river Wear, in 1861, the son of a master-mariner, and the grandson of a master tin-smith and wire-maker, who had moved north some twenty years earlier from Camberwell. He may have come north because of the burgeoning ship industry; or he may have had relatives (there are one or two other Frails recorded as living in or near Sunderland at the time); or maybe it was both. Dick was an engineer, and worked on ships (unlike his brother James, my great-great-grandfather, who was an unemployed master mariner at a time when master mariners ought to have had little difficulty in working).
There is no doubt that Dick Frail was a more cultured man than his brother. He had certainly visited galleries, and he was a keen, and not entirely unproficient amateur painter. What he liked to do was to copy contemporary paintings, and one of his efforts survives, a curiously unfinished copy of ‘The Last Match’, painted by William Small in 1887. It’s in the Tate, and it looks like this:
Dick Frail’s version (which I have, and which it was thought fit to frame in my grandfather’s house) omits the sky, and you can see the cheap brown paper on which he was working. But we know that he was impressed by what he’d done, because he’s signed it, proudly, ‘Richard B. Frail’. What’s more, he had a sketch of it (and at least two others he’d done, i.e. I know of two others) turned into postcards. It is dated (I think) 1913, so presumably, if my instinct is correct about the photograph of Dick Frail and his brother James Buskin Frail (more to come on this odd middle name), and it here it is: