Home again

Open for business after all the diversions of the summer period, I find myself reflecting once again on ‘home’. Working at home is a great privilege. This week I read a short obituary of a famously pioneering archivist, Freddie Stitt, who lived with his family ‘over the shop’ at the William Salt Library in Stafford, as the resident custodian: it sounds idyllic to me. But wouldn’t it be worrying every time you set off the smoke alarm cooking, knowing that you might be putting at risk collections of national importance? Maybe I’d rather leave the priceless stuff behind, and work on digital images of documents at home with my pot of tea and seasonal window of apple-laden trees.


As I’ve said before, a lot of my work is about ‘home’ too. People want to know “where they’re from”. It’s a deep need: we imagine that our ancestors had a more settled life than ours. Some did. But the many did not: we know well enough about the great population disruptions of history – the Potato Famine, the Holocaust, the Highland Clearances, the Slave Trade, the Great Trek – but my own researches tell me that permanence is and often has been illusory.

Rose cottage0001

My father’s family come from Cheshire, as do all the English Fodens. After a family bereavement, I discovered a sepia photograph of their cottage. My great aunt reminisced about it:

Rose Cottage – thatched roof – whitewashed – the big hawthorn tree (in which I have sat many hours) by the fence but our orchard and another big orchard was at the back. The barn in which lived families of hens – known by name by Auntie Lizzie & further down the orchard & past the building was the well – good spring water but very sandy, many bucketfuls of which I have carried to the house, & of course the only toilet – the outside W.C.

I recall many forgotten memories. One of my most vivid ones is of pulling along our wagon (4 wheels, latticed sides & a long handle) into which went all our luggage for 4 of us children & Mother & we took turns to pull it up the hills from Prestbury station to Mottram St Andrew. It certainly was heavy but we loved it, & then it carried the younger ones, like a pram, when we walked up to Lee Hall from Rose Cottage.

I imagined generations drawing that sandy water from that well and picking those apples, but it didn’t take long to realise that this was a tied cottage: Granddad was the wheelwright, Grannie the laundress, at Mottram Hall. The terms of the lease must have been generous enough, as the tenancy continued for the lifetime of their unmarried daughter – the Auntie Lizzie of the chickens – but even so, it was the family home for only about 80 years in all. We have never discovered that elusive ‘family seat’.


Anglesey is ‘home’ for my wife and children. It’s the island of most of their Welsh ancestors, and their place of hiraeth – ‘longing’. On holiday this summer, we tried to find some of the cottages and farms where they had lived. Luckily, Anglesey is a hotspot for online genealogy: Findmypast provides access to images of Anglesey parish registers, the National Library of Wales to pre-1858 Welsh Wills, and Cynefin to all the Tithe Maps of Wales (the latter a crowd-sourced work-in-progress). Another invaluable tool is a subscription to Ordnance Survey Leisure Maps: for only about £25 you can download 1:25000, 1:50000, OS base maps and aerial surveys for the entire country. OS base maps tell you the names of many outlying cottages, which can easily be cross-referenced to the ‘abode’ column in post-1812 parish registers. Since the fixing of patronymic surnames about 200 years ago, house names have been used more or less as second surnames by Welsh families who share about a dozen surnames between them all.

We already knew of one ancestor who failed to settle down: Harry Peters, we were told, never stayed long on any of the farms where he worked, nor ever got a farm of his own, because of his ‘bad wife’ Jane, who ‘painted her face’. It’s rumoured that Jane was a witch. So they farm-hopped across the island from north to south until his last job as bailiff of the Trefarthen Estate on the Menai Straits. But in truth, none of the family had ever stayed a generation in the same cottage, and farm-hopping seems to have been the rule, not an embarrassment to be explained by scandal. Stability came in the twentieth century when tenants got the chance to buy their holdings from the big landed estates. One of Harry’s brothers, ‘Ned Borthwen’, acquired a fine farm over looking the sea which gave him his customary epithet; a sister married into a family of tenant farmers in the wild north-west of Anglesey whose descendants eventually settled on Holy Island and bought their homestead from the Bodior Estate.


We drove by some of the ancestral cottages, now homes to strangers, some of them modernized, more like bungalows than the preserved thatched cottage Swtan at Church Bay, which we may imagine is more like their 18th and 19th century homes. We cannot say that any one of them peppering the map is Bethan’s ancestral home, but the ancient spirit of Mon, Mam Cymru still tugs us back again and again.

Summer holiday outings to historic houses, whether National Trust, Cadw, English Heritage, or privately-owned, can also feed, but never satisfy, this hunger for ‘home’. They are the scenes of stories: we listen and absorb. But what, I wonder, is the collective impact of this aspect of Public History?


Our last ‘improving outing’ was to the Forest of Arden, Shakespeare’s playground in As you like it. Baddesley Clinton and Packwood are both Elizabethan houses, both now National Trust ‘showhomes’. Both set off by formal gardens and parkland with the vestiges of the Forest all around. Both are frozen in the mid-twentieth century. Neither has a story of national or international importance to tell; neither was typical of their period. But both were places of escape and fantasy – the one for a Family obsessed about themselves, the other for an enigmatic Bachelor ambitious to entertain Royalty and High Society without revealing too much about himself or his family. In our imaginations however, by the end of the afternoon, Graham Baron Ash (Mr, not a Baron in the feudal sense, by the way) was no longer an enigma. In two decades he had constructed a surprisingly authentic character study of himself in second-hand brick, stone, oak and tapestry. I confess we didn’t warm to him, but he was only doing what we all do with our homes, ‘dressing the set’ of our life-drama.










3 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Booth says:

    Very good Peter. Which Mottram was the family home? Paul.


  2. Paul Booth says:

    I found Freddy Stitt to be a very unusual county archivist when I first visited Staffs. Record Office. He came to see each reader – particularly new ones – and had a chat with them. Quite unilke Sharpe France at Preston, for example.


  3. Peter Foden says:

    I strongly believe that the role of an archivist is to connect people – present with past, researchers with one another and with their sources – so I wish I’d met Freddie Stitt. He was often spoken about fondly when I started working in archives in the midlands, he having then recently retired. Someone should write about the people who gathered up, preserved and opened up so much documentary heritage in the mid-twentieth century. We know many of the names and a few of the anecdotes, don’t we Paul?


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