Getting things wrong

Partly this was inspired by seeing an old photo in a Durham shop – unnamed, Victorian, male, all dressed up with nowhere to go but the photographer’s – and feeling sorry that no-one would ever know who he was. Partly, though, it was the run of the 12th-13th-14th February birthdays which used to exist in my family, and which I wrote about a year ago, focusing on the Valentine Day birthday, which belonged to the housekeeper, Annie Bowes, who worked for my wealthy grandparents (my father’s parents). Looking back at it, having just done a little research into her family, I am truly amazed how many mistakes there in what I wrote a year ago. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, having done some biographical research: if there is one thing of which you can be sure, it’s that you can never trust a given age.

I said that Annie Bowes was born Nancy, and hated it. Not so. She was born Annie, and called herself Nancy for a while in her teens and early twenties, and continued to be called Nan by my gradmother’s sister’s family. I also said she was born in 1900. But she wasn’t. She was born in 1898 (which means that I sent her an 80th birthday card on her 82nd birthday). She just used to kid on that she was as old as the Queen Mum, because her name was Bowes, and the Queen Mum was a Bowes-Lyon. (You need to understand that Bowes is an exceptionally common name in Co. Durham, as indeed is Greenwell.)

I also said that her father was a colliery manager in North West Durham, in Stanley, which was geographically wrong, because Stanley is in mid-Durham (I was confusing it with Stanhope, which is deep into Weardale), and factually inaccurate because her father was a deputy colliery manager of Pontop colliery (ironically enough working for the major coal owning company of Newcastle, John Bowes, no close relation at all). And I also reckoned her mother had died in childbirth, which she hadn’t, although Annie can’t have remembered her mother, who died when she was not quite two. That’s a lot of mistakes to make. All the product of kidology and hearsay. I think I may have told this next tale before, but what the hell … When I was seven, and it was my father’s birthday, which fell on a Sunday that year (I could check this, and I have, and I was right for once), he was listening to a radio request programme, possibly Two-Way Family Favourites, and shaving, when Peggy Lee came on and sang ‘Mr. Wonderful’.  He made a song and dance about this because my mother had requested it. We were very impressed.

When my mother was 84, and within touching distance of death, I happened to mention this odd memory to her, and she laughed and said, ‘No I didn’t. He made it up.’ I’d have gone on believing it till my own dying day, and would probably have committed it to paper (I have plans).

Researching Annie’s branch of the Bowes family was perilously easy. It’s not really research: just some brain-work and the quick flicker of the fingers between census indices, pre-1837 baptisms and marriages, and the birth marriage and death index. You can be an armchair genealogist with ease these days. Her father was married not twice but three times, in each case within about nine months of the previous wife’s death. He was Thomas Bowes, and his wives were successively Annie Elizabeth Lee, Lucy Henderson, and Alice Green, by each of whom he had children, and each of whom lost children as infants. I can count ten children, but it is likely that he was the father of about fifteen. His youngest daughter Blanche was a full thirty years younger than her eldest half-brother, who was called Joseph Bowes, and was a surveyor in Malaya by 1918, and two children called Gladys and Clement. The effect of these infant deaths is impossible for us to imagine properly, as is the sheer threat of death in childbirth.

But ironically, I was right in a way about Stanhope. Annie’s grandfather, another colliery worker – an overman, with responsibility and respect, as his son was to become, was from St. John’s Chapel, Weardale, and his father and grandfather were from Stanhope itself. Almost certainly – note how carefully I am treading – they were lead miners, since Stanhope was at the heart of a lead mining area long before coal became the dominant reason for mining. Her grandfather’s father died in his thirties: it is easy to speculate that he was an industrial victim, but hard to prove before 1860.

But I would like to try. The past is filled with an army of the forgotten. Sorry: that was a bit sententious …

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