How To Get Hooked (and How Not To Start!)

How far back in your family can you remember? Parents? Grandparents? Because she lived to be ninety-four years old, I am lucky enough to remember my great-grandmother quite well.

I recall a tiny, wizened old lady, cherished by her ‘dresden-china’ unmarried daughter, our Great Aunt Emma. Great-grandma wore her silvery hair pulled straight back, and topped by rather frivolous little caps, trimmed with lace and ribbon; and kept off the draughts with a multi-coloured crochet shawl, called an ‘Afghan’! Her house was full of treasures, because great-grandpa had been a sea captain, and the one I most adored was a stuffed parrot in a glass case. This I’ve good reason to remember, because to my mother’s horror, she left it to me, and it lived in my bedroom until the moths finally demolished it.

The odd thing is that I never thought of her as anything but that old lady. I never wondered when she was born, what she remembered, or what strange events had changed a baby born in eighteen thirty into the cherished old lady I remember in nineteen twenty-four. Not even when I was given her tea-set – which I recalled had always to be washed up by Aunt Emma in a papier-machébowl, for fear it should be damaged – as a twenty-first birthday present.

Her elder daughter, my grandmother, told us snippets of the past from time to time. There was a portrait, for instance, of a great great-grandfather, who died “saving lives in the great snowstorm”. “His horse,” she always ended solemnly, “went back to Brighton without him.” Why on earth didn’t I ask “What great snowstorm?” or “whose lives?” There was a good deal told us, too, of ‘Uncle Julius’, whose odd name was apparently ‘Julius Caesar’, and who had played cricket for England in the very first teams to go to Australia and America. You’d have thought that was enough to arouse interest, but it seems to have been taken completely for granted.

It wasn’t until years later, when my grandparents, with their precious store of memories, were dead, that I happened to be reading a book which mentioned a Sir Julius Caesar at the court of Elizabeth I. Convinced that this must have some connection with our Uncle Julius, and determined to find out, I began to investigate all I could about him.

It seemed he had been a member of the Inner Temple, and they, when written to, were most helpful. They showed me his portrait, and all his family entries in their records; and even produced a fascinating book called ‘The History of the Caesar Family’, which I hadn’t time to copy out. Our local library, however, produced a copy (from a Mechanics’ Library in the north, of all places – what can they have wanted it for?) My Uncle later bought two copies, one for himself, and one for me.

I devoured the whole book avidly, but it ended in stalemate. The family, it said, was extinct in the year of publication – eighteen twenty-seven. But a footnote produced a gleam of hope. There was, it seemed, one survivor. A lawyer, in Cambridge .. alive in the year of publication, clearly, but not to be traced further. I could find neither his marriage nor his death.

Baffled, I started again. This time, the proper way, that is, working backwards. This seems easy, to begin with, but gets harder as you go back. So long as you know approximate dates, a visit to St Catherine’s House will produce birth, death, and marriage certificates as far back as 1837. For anyone my age, this takes one as far as the marriages of one’s great-grandparents. But for their births, you’re thrown back on the Parish Registers.

The snag then is that you have to know where their parents were living at the time. I wasted a great deal of effort, having heard that “great-grandmother lived at Shere”, searching Shere registers for great-grandmother Caesar. Since you look under the initial letter you want, I failed to find great-grandmother Jarlett, who had lived there. A subsequent visit, when this little matter had been sorted out, was entirely successful.

A bright suggestion from a cricketing friend meant a letter to Surrey County Cricket Club, and they kindly gave me the place and date of birth of the elusive Uncle Julius. His family came from Godalming, and a trip there produced his family complete – five brothers, and the one sister who became my great-grandmother. A bonus the cricket people threw in was the knowledge of a whole series of pictures of great-uncle, at the Lords’ Taverners’ headquarters – and even a Staffordshire figure – which I was able to photograph.

I’d always heard that the little old lady I remembered had been brought up by a Quaker aunt. The Parish Registers at Shere showed why. Her mother died when she was four, and her brother (of whom I’d never heard) three. Later, her father evidently remarried, but this marriage I still can’t find, as I don’t know where it took place; not at Shere, anyway. The Quaker aunt lived at Crawley – her name was Sarah Robinson (née Pennifold). She founded a school in Crawley and one still bears her name.

Great-grandfather on the other side had a similar background. Born in eighteen twenty-two, his brother Henry arrived in eighteen twenty-four, and twins, James and Sarah, in eighteen-twenty-six. A few days later, they, and their mother, died.

Of course, children and parents died at very early ages in most families, but you find some very odd facts about your own family when you start this kind of ‘digging’. For instance, when William Linfield and Anne Caesar married in eighteen-fifty, the marriage certificate gives the same address for them both. On enquiry, I found the street, which no longer existed, had consisted of ‘rather sordid lodging houses’. They were both twenty-seven years old at the time, and as the Register wasn’t signed by anyone from either family, it seems a little strange. It got even odder when I looked up the eighteen fifty-one Census for Godalming, the Caesar’s home town, to see whether Uncle Julius was still living there at that date. For there was Anne, registered under her maiden name, apparently innocently housekeeping for her eldest brother George, a widower, a year after the date of her marriage at Brighton. I wonder what the penalty is if your great-grandmother falsified a Census? The birth of their first child wasn’t registered till eighteen fifty-four. I would simply love to know what happened to the pair of them in those four years – but I doubt if I ever will.

Our other great-grandmother, herself brought up by an aunt, in turn brought up two nieces. Their father, mother, brothers of thirteen and ten, and their little sister aged two, were all drowned in the ship ‘Diamond’ in the gales of eighteen sixty-nine. The two survivors had been left at home to recuperate from measles.

One thing, the family legends one unconsciously drank in stood up fairly well to investigation; even some of the more startling proving true, like the tale of the great-grandfather who died in “the great blizzard”, and whose horse “went back to Brighton”. It all happened, as the local paper of the date finally proved, in eighteen hundred and six, when he died of exposure, at Portslade, after helping two ladies in difficulties in a post-chaise. Moreover, he had “two hundred and eighty pounds in notes and cash” in his pockets when found – quite a sum, for those days.

But the often claimed descent from a “Huguenot minister who came over from France in sixteen eighty-five” still lacks proof. The Huguenot Society can trace no such minister. So we can only go back with certainty, on the Jarlett side, to a book called ‘The Whole Duty of Man’, given to ‘Richard Jarlett, 1775′ by ‘– Bray’ (the corner is torn here) of Shere, and containing a list of all the Jarlett family from seventeen eighty-one to eighteen hundred. Henry, born in seventeen ninety-six, was my great-granny’s father, and village constable of Shere (though he appears as ‘Tailor’ on her wedding certificate). Oddly enough, there are still Brays at Shere, where they have been Lords of the Manor since Henry VII. And even more oddly, my daughter and her family later lived there.

On the death of an aunt, I was left some fascinating family belongings. Three silhouettes, great great-grandmother and grandfather (her profile uncannily like my own), and little Anne Caesar, born the only girl in a family of boys, aged about eight. A tiny, miniature ivory of the same Ann, aged perhaps two. Round grey eyes stare at me – like those I see in my father, myself, my daughter, and now, my grand-daughter. A tea-pot that belonged to the family so tragically drowned on the ‘Diamond’. A photograph, very stiffly posed, of the old lady I remember, scarcely middle-aged, but already wearing the cap … and a pair of ear-rings I still wore myself ( until we were burgled).

This delving into the personal past has the same mixture of fascination and frustration – laced with moments of triumph when some clue suddenly clicks into place – as crossword puzzles and jigsaws. One gets addicted. And obviously, it can be a hobby for life. So far I’ve only tackled father’s side. There’s still mother’s. And my husbands!

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