The lure of family history

To be perfectly honest, I’ve virtually mined all the seams of my family, gone as far back as I care, come forward as far as I need. I have a couple of postscripts, however, to my earlier sequence of posts about searching for Frank Frail. I found his children, who have been living about ten miles from where my mother lived since about 1931, and they were as welcoming as you can’t imagine. So now I have two more relations: two who never expected to meet anyone with their surname, Frail. It turned out that Frank Frail, who had married in India, and come back to this country with his children and wife (a wife who had never been out of India) went back and forth to work in India until 1940, when he made a very risky sea-journey home to the North-East. He died in 1956.

About two years later, my own grandfather, Frank’s cousin, died, and there was an obituary in the paper which gave the address. Frank’s son spotted this, and went over to where my grandfather had lived, looking for the house. He couldn’t find it. So he wrote a letter instead. It was never acknowledged. Presumably the wall of privacy my family had built up around themselves by then had grown impenetrably tall. Anyway, it’s an irony: Frank’s son looking for my grandfather, when I was only six. Fifty-one years later, I go to see him.

Frank Frail in about 1950

Frank Frail in about 1950

For some people, family history is alluring because it involves detection: find that name, and file it. There is a bit of that in me, I admit, but the bigger treats are always the conversations. On my way back from the North-East to Devon, I stopped off at my third cousin’s house. Her grandmother kept a cache of photographs – we’re talking about 500 – and some of them are very rare, including the only pictures of three of my great-grandfather’s siblings. When I started, it was a case of photocopying (even colour photocopying was then very rare). Now I decided to try digitising the images, but I would have had to have been there a week, so I’ve borrowed them. Many of the pictures are of a Sunderland family called Stack, to which I am not strictly related – my great-grandfather’s brother married one of four sisters called Stack in the 1890s. And I know one of the descendants of one of the other sisters, who is in fact my third cousin’s third cousin, but not mine. (This is perfectly feasible if you will only put your mind to it.)

The pictures at my cousin’s house are startling, including one of her (Stack) great-great-great-grandmother. So I have had a shot at putting the Stack family tree together. In 1994, when I started, this would have entailed several costly visits to London, not all of them successful. I’ve put almost the whole tree together in a day (rather a surprise to have a tree which includes not only Pat Phoenix’s boyfriend, but also Simon May (the composer of the ‘Eastenders’ theme), and also the current commander of the British forces, but there we go.

Pat Phoenix (Pilkington) and my father's second cousin, early 1950s

Pat Phoenix (Pilkington) and my father's second cousin, early 1950s

Suddenly there are little additions to my own family. Today I’ve talked to someone who knew my third cousin’s grandmother and her Pat-Phoenix-inamorata friend, and I’ve discovered that Helen Greenwell, as she appears on my tree, was always known as Auntie Nelly. I’ve also started to put names to faces in the photos (Nelly’s daughter, their owner, did sometimes write on the back of them), and work out who is whom.

If you are the descendant of either Margherita Isabella M Harnet Stack later Newman, or Florence Evelyn Marjorie Harnet Stack later Bowden, let me know. I have some photos to share!


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