Family Stories!

November 14, 20183:11 pmLeave a Comment

My darling and sadly missed Aunty Sybil once described my great-uncle Colin as a ‘bit of a rapscallion’.  Isn’t ‘rapscallion’ a wonderful word?  The dictionary defines it as “a disreputable person; rascal or rogue”.  I feel this might be a little harsh for my great-uncle as, although I know very little about him, his claims to rascality seem to stem from his (allegedly) having something to do with the management of the theatre/concert hall at the end of Cleethorpes Pier!

Colin may also have been a performer as there are references in the Stage (available through the British Newspaper Archive which is free to access at Surrey History Centre) to a Colin Wood of 56 St Peter’s Avenue, Cleethorpes a ‘burlesque dancer’ wanting work.  This sounds like my great-uncle as the address is correct, although it seems an unlikely profession for someone who was a former trawler skipper and hailed as a hero in the First World War for fighting off an attack by a German submarine.  Oh well, we all do what we can and following the family business of fishing was a hard life.

We all have family stories in our armoury of genealogical sources and some we can take at face value while others may need to be taken with a large pinch of salt.  Have you noticed that illegitimate children appearing in our family trees are invariably fathered by the Lord of the Manor or a member of the aristocracy?  That one of our family may have dallied with the milkman or the second footman seems to be less likely (ahem!) whilst the suspicion of a bit of blue blood made the slight mis-judgement on the part of our great-great grandmother more forgivable to her contemporaries!  I don’t think anyone now is the slightest bit bothered by the illegitimacy bit – but it is frustrating when we simply want to know who the father is!!

So – family stories!  Do we believe them or not? Well, I think there is usually some truth in all family stories but perhaps not the whole truth.  We may have been told that we had an ancestor who fought at the battle of Waterloo but perhaps it was simply that he fought in the Peninsular wars?  Waterloo is the one battle everyone has heard of and it would be an easy form of family history shorthand to assign that particular ancestor to that battle.

This leads back to my great-uncle Colin! My mother (bless her, not the most reliable teller of family tales) told the story about Colin going to sea as a child with my great-grandfather, a trawler captain, and being (and I quote) “…shipwrecked on an island off Iceland where he was washed ashore, was rescued by the islanders and lived in an igloo for 2 years before being rescued and returned home to his mother, who fainted away when she saw him.  Her hair had turned white overnight”.  Incidentally, I think everyone has an ancestor whose hair turned white overnight – it seems to have been a fairly common phenomena!

In her slightly imperious way, mother commanded me to find out a bit more about this story.  This being before the days of online newspapers, I accomplished by visiting the old British Newspaper Library in Colindale and ploughing through newspapers covering Grimsby and Cleethorpes.

I found the information – but yes, you guessed it – not quite as it had been relayed to me!

Firstly (and rather shockingly I felt at first) the reason the trawler had run aground was that my great-grandfather was drunk at the time and subsequently lost his Master’s Ticket for 3 months.  I was less shocked at this when I found that being drunk in charge of a fishing trawler was a fairly common offence and many skippers were busted down and then re-stated after their 3 months suspension.  However, more shocking than this was that the crew had scrambled to safety and then remembered that they had left Colin (only about 10 or 11 at the time) on the boat and had to return to fetch him!

Secondly, the ship wasn’t wrecked as such – merely stuck on an outcrop of land and was able to be re-floated and released after about a week.  Presumably they had to wait for some type of tug or similar to pull them off at high tide (you can tell I don’t know a great deal about sea travel).

Thirdly, the crew were indeed offered very generous hospitality by the islanders – in houses (not sure where the igloo thing came from – possibly in my mother’s eyes anyone living further north than the Orkneys lived in igloos) for two weeks (not years!) and then sent on their merry (well hopefully not that merry) way again.

It seems more likely that my great-grandmother fainted away at the thought of what might have happened rather than what had actually happened and since she was a formidable individual, I suspect that she gave her husband what-for when she found out what happened.  I imagine that 3 months suspension was probably the least of his worries!

So you can see how there was a grain of truth in that story – but just a grain.  Over the years it had been added to, embroidered, sanitised and made just a little more exciting.  However, evidently my great-uncle Colin never forgot the kindness of his hosts in Iceland and sent them Christmas cards every year.

The moral of this tale is to listen, enjoy and research those family stories but remember to keep an open mind and feet firmly on the genealogical floor!

Happy Researching!

PS:  If you are a resident of Surrey you may well have heard that Surrey County Council has launched consultations on a range of services and wishes to hear the views of as many people as possible by Friday 4 January 2019 to help it to shape those services for the future and set a sustainable budget.

The Libraries and Cultural Services consultation includes the work done by Surrey Heritage (archives, archaeology and conservation). Your views are vitally important in determining the future direction of our service and we would really appreciate it if you would complete the short survey:

At present the proposal is to reduce the Cultural Services net expenditure on its Cultural Services (covering Libraries, Heritage, Surrey Arts, Adult Learning and Registration) from £8.7 million to £4 million over the next 2 years.

We would particularly draw your attention to questions 2.1 and 4.3 in the survey where there is space for you to express your views more fully on the county’s Heritage service and its future shape and role in meeting the Council’s priorities.

For further information about the Consultation on Council services, please go to:

Thank you for your support.

Written by Jane Lewis

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