Samhain approaches, and thoughts turn to the dead. They have made their presence felt more strongly this year than ever before.
We meet the dead in the questions and demands they leave in us. More than this: they are those demands; this is their post-mortem existence. We live in a perpetual karmic embrace with the dead. They need us to help them die more fully and offer us a possibility of living more fully when we recognise our misperceptions in their questions and demands. (This is fully explored in Liber Pisces [Geur 2020]).
To do this work you must know your dead. Other people’s dead lack a strong enough connection to leave questions and demands. Some of our dead are ancestors; others are connected not by DNA but through their impact on our lives. Some may be cultural, spiritual, or intellectual figures we may never have known personally, but their works have shaped us. Others have an almost angelic status or may never actually have lived as individuals; Daniel Foor describes them as “a collective embodiment of ancestral consciousness” (2017: 40).
To connect better with my genetic ancestors, I signed up to a family history website. I dived towards the distant past, resisting the urge to trace siblings (apart from the most recent generations) but following directly the female bloodlines back through my grandmothers, and the male bloodlines through my grandfathers.
I discovered what I had dreaded: the history of my ancestors is merely a slow percolation of genetic material about the villages of the English midlands.
Along all four bloodlines the story is the same: generation after generation of the English, rural working class. They were mostly agricultural labourers and then, as industrialisation took hold, they mostly worked in shoe manufacturing – the main commercial activity of Northamptonshire, the county in which most of them lived and where I grew up. An exception was Alfred Vorley (1855-1917), on my paternal grandmother’s side, who clawed his way up from agricultural labouring, through iron mining, to owning a fish-frying business. But whatever spark of entrepreneurship he possessed, it had fizzled by the next generation.
As research brought my ancestors into view, I realised how much I hated them. I was sneering at them through my attitudes towards wealth, work, and class. Yet those attitudes do not emerge from nowhere. They, too, are the whispers of my dead: We are insignificant. We are contemptible. There is nothing for you to find here. Look away.
Through the cultural dramas of Enclosure in the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth, and the twentieth century’s two world wars, these were folk who hunkered down and endured. Their tactic for survival was to slip beneath the glare of history. “Along the cool sequestered vale of life / They kept the noiseless tenor of their way” (Gray 1751: 75-76). Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is all about my dead.
They followed the track laid down for them from field to factory, avoiding the horror of the workhouse that awaited those who faltered, a horror whose echoes persisted even into my grandparents’ generation. By being born at just the right times, my bloodline predecessors coasted through the world wars virtually unscathed. Luckily for them, passing unnoticed was an option. No one took them away in ships and sold them as slaves. No one singled them out for ethnic or religious persecution. So they stayed put and circulated their homogenous DNA quietly about the vicinity.
They may have weathered the brunt of history but did not escape the pain of human life, the dramas that define our lives yet leave few marks on the historical record. In what meagre records survive it is possible sometimes to catch faint echoes of suffering.
The 1841 census shows Susannah Palmer (1772 – 1845), wife of William Ward (1772 – 1853), my four-times-great-grandfather, no longer living at Kislingbury with her husband. Their marriage record in 1796 indicates she came from Hinton. Her death record states she died in Brackley, close to Hinton-in-the-Hedges. These bare facts suggest she returned to her birthplace, dying there in 1845, yet she was buried in Kislingbury. William seems to have had her body transported back across the twenty miles that separated them when she died. In the 1851 census he is listed as “widower”. There is probably no chance of ever finding out whether Susannah fled an abusive relationship or walked out on a marriage that did not suit her. Maybe some other obligation drew her back to Hinton. When William ferried her body back to Kislingbury, where the Ward family lived for many generations (Tutchener 2000: 143), was this because she was the love of his life, or was it a final exercise of control? Of ancient pain and trauma these questions are the faint ripples that remain.
Even before the work of cataloguing my forebears was properly underway, one morning whilst meditating I heard a man singing and striding in from the open countryside came Badger. Imagine a seventeenth century mendicant with a floppy hat and haversack. Badger is the village cunning man gone walkabout, with poached coneys dangling from his belt, and dog-eared pamphlets in his pockets prophesying the True Commonwealth of England. Taken aback I asked him: “Where have you come from?”. Matter-of-factly he replied: “1650”.
Badger is what Daniel Foor describes as an ancestral guide, one who “resides beyond remembered names and living memory, in the realm of the older, collective dead” (Foor 2017: 119). The oldest bloodline ancestor I can trace with certainty is William Barford (1699 – 1744). In a record of William’s baptism his parents are named as Lawrence and Frances, but that is the extent of all now known about them. Sure enough then, 1650 is the moment in my lineage when oblivion falls upon the preceding ancestors’ names.
Another ancestral guide appeared a few weeks later. She wore a veil and was richly dressed in a Tudor-era gown. She was a lady in waiting, secretly well-versed in witchcraft, perhaps the reason she did not give her name. She was young, dark-haired, possibly of Spanish descent. Embroiled in political and relational intrigues, she conveyed a strong impression of knowing how to stay safe.
These are both the kind of ancestors I am proud to have behind me. I understand them not as individuals who lived but as manifestations of a spiritual rather than genetic legacy. They appeared vibrant, energetic, and well – not bad for a couple of dead people. I would happily trust Badger as a guide, but the young witch I would need to understand better. Never rush to trust a spirit that will not give its name.
Ancestral guides “mirror back to us our own potential and responsibility to be exemplary human beings” (Foor 2017: 97), and “they can understand and treat dysfunctional family patterns at the source, no matter how far back in history the troubles are rooted” (Foor 2017: 98). The feelings I harbour towards my dead are a symptom of those dysfunctional patterns. I can sense but do not yet fully understand the trauma and pain lurking along my bloodlines.
My maternal grandmother was born outside of marriage. Her mother, my great-grandmother, Annie Dahlia Maycock (1881 – 1951), was an unconventional woman. My grandmother was one of three sisters so physically similar they were obviously born of the same father. As well as her own three girls, Annie provided a home to children who had no parents, bringing them up as part of her family. She was paid for doing this, yet it seems she provided them all with a loving environment. Some of my mother’s happiest memories are of time spent with Annie.
She raised her children with no husband in a time and place where this was socially unacceptable. The shame of it was so great that although my grandmother and her siblings knew who their father was, they took his identity with them to their graves. My mother and my uncle asked questions, of course, but grew used to being rebuffed or misdirected.
One of my great-aunts claimed that she and her sisters’ father was John Garforth (1889 – 1912). His surname is also rendered as Garfirth, Garforte, and Garfield. Although my ancestors made a good job of avoiding history, other families were not so lucky. In 1912 John Garforth had decided to emigrate to Canada with his friend George Patchett. They were due to set sail from Liverpool on 5 April aboard the Empress of Ireland, but had to abandon their plan when, due to a coal strike, their train was delayed and ran only as far as Manchester. They returned home disappointed, but revised their arrangements and embarked five days later from Southampton – on the Titanic.
At least one person on the genealogy website I was using has taken my great-aunt’s fable as truth and has cited John as the father of Annie’s girls. But in my view, weaving John’s tragic death into the Maycocks’ family history is a misdirection, a cunning use of the dazzle of history to hide a less glamorous truth in its shadow.
That said, I was surprised to discover the Maycocks and Garforths lived right next-door to each other on Hinwick Road in the village of Wollaston. Doing the maths, John would have been 16 when the first Maycock sister was born, whereas Annie was 24. Not impossible, but perhaps unlikely when it is considered how two more siblings appeared over the next several years.
John had an elder brother, Herbert, who was 20 at the birth of Annie’s first child. Maybe he is a more likely suspect, especially as the census shows he and Annie not only living next door but both of them working at home during the day. Of Herbert, little is known. He died unmarried, five years after Annie’s death. This contradicts other family rumours that the girls’ father was a married man with another family elsewhere.
The mystery endures, but so does its effects. My grandmother had rigid views on who was the right sort of person and who was not. Snobbery was her way of dealing with the shame inflicted upon her. My mother processed this in more indirect ways, and me – more indirect still, but maybe the impact is just as palpable. My contempt for my ancestors is the case in point.
What if there were a form of snobbery that just rolled on and on until no one on earth was good enough? Indeed, another way to avoid shame might be to renounce self altogether. The attempt to avoid being someone altogether is a trope I can recognise across various areas of my life.
The impact of the dead, the intergenerational aspect of the psychological baggage we all carry, should not be underestimated.
Encyclopedia Titanica (2020). Mr John Garfirth. https://tinyurl.com/yxbm92k8 (encyclopedia-titanica.org). Accessed October 2020.
Foor, Daniel (2017). Ancestral Medicine: Rituals for Personal and Family Healing. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company.
Geur, Frater (2020). Liber Pisces. Brighton: Heptarchia.
Gray, Thomas (1751). Elegy written in a country churchyard. https://tinyurl.com/jogz (thomasgray.org). Accessed October 2020.
Tutchener, J.V. (2000). Kislingbury: A Glimpse at Its Past. Kislingbury: Sunningdale.