Saturday 25 February 2023

Displaced clergy


The settled policy of this and other dioceses is that a newly retired priest should not be given ‘permission to officiate’ for six months.

The idea is, I’m sure, that facing the reality of a loss of role, status and utility should be fully experienced rather than softened or denied by a rapid accumulation of things like liturgical leadership and feeling useful.

Those of us who may have had even as much as forty years in which our only experience of Christian community has been one of influence and visibility (to put it no more strongly) could well be a liability suddenly disturbing the quiet power dynamics and/or collaborative structures of a new place.

‘I am not sure who I am,’ I’ve written to a few friends, ‘so it must be working’. 

I find I remain hungry for priesthood (which is a good discovery, I think) and deeply suspicious that I’ll simply revert to type when the six month sabbatical comes to an end rather than become freshly servantful (which is a troubling discovery, I realise).

Offers have already come for me to have Canon Emeritus status, to join the Trustees of a local educational charity, potentially to assist in some diocesan training, and to begin to develop a provisional agreement about a minimum level of ministry in the Parish Church I now attend – and I am still only four and a half months in.

With some time on my hands I have found that exploring and writing up things that interest me has come to the fore.  Just some of this (parts of my relating to the neighbouring art gallery and museum, exploring local countryside, and making use of my Ancestry subscription) have made it into this Blog.

And now I’m spending time with stories of other displaced clergy – those given small pensions as they were ejected from dissolved monasteries in the Sixteenth Century.  It is research about one in particular which started me off, but it is others who are the focus of my attention now.

A 1554 Exchequer survey of all those being paid these pensions is the rich seam.

Canons of Thornton Abbey / College (which interested me so much when I lived nearby) pop up as the incumbents of neighbouring parishes at Barrow, South Ferriby and Wooton, and only a little further away at Louth, Welton and Withcall. 

The displaced Dean of Thornton himself had a pension of £50 p.a., and was bringing in another £37 p.a. as the Rector of both Haxey and Laceby, where he was paying former Thornton colleagues just £6 (a sort of minimum liveable wage) and £1 6s 8d (one and a third pounds, or one pound and half a mark) to act as working curates on the ground.

But it is the smaller stories which are most touching.

Two north Lincolnshire pensioners were married to each other.  Anne Castleforth was the former Prioress of tiny Gokewell Priory near Broughton (the Priory site is on the edge of the Scunthorpe Steelworks), and has £4 p.a.  Robert Stayton had been the priest of a chantry at Althorpe eight miles away, and has £2 9s 6d.  He was now serving as the Curate of Broughton itself for £6. 

William East had been priest of a guild in Louth now with a pension of just £1 p.a.  He was ‘celebrating from time to time’ (covering services in local churches) for fees of about £4 p.a., and working as a weaver. 

John Brampton had been a monk at Bardney Abbey now with a pension of £1 6s 8d.  He was married and ‘said not to be in holy orders and working as a tanner’. 

Meanwhile, having mentioned the Amarna Letters in an earlier post, the picture is of one of them in the British Museum which I searched out when in London overnight a few weeks ago.

Thursday 9 February 2023

Seeking identity


A long and personal story, but I’m wanting to write it, and this seems the only place to put it.

For what feels like most of my life, I have been seeking to identify a man who I have gradually come to realise was a serial sexual predator in and around Ross-on-Wye in the 1920s.  He would have been my grandfather.

On my father’s side, I’ve always known an unusually comprehensive amount about my family history.  My father valued and shared what he knew.  As a boy with him, and later on my own, I’ve read, recorded, researched, and transcribed in archives, attics, churchyards, record offices, and a whole trunk of material my father preserved.

But on my mother’s side, there was a blank.  She would speak of her grandparents bringing her up in  Ross.  Nothing else was said, and the strange absence included that of any photograph or relative.  Somehow my brothers and I simply knew not to ask.

In my early twenties, being driven back to University along the M40, without being prompted, my father did quietly tell me that my mother did not know who her father was, and did not want to know.  I guess he realised that it was inevitable that I would find this out at some point.

In those pre-internet days research had to be done in person at Somerset House in London.  I did find my mother’s birth record.  There was blank where her father’s name could have been written.  Assuming my mother must have been orphaned, I looked for, but failed to find, a record of her mother’s death in the late 1920s or early 1930s.  I didn’t do any more.

In my early forties, having left things at that for so long, I was finally travelled near Hereford and went into the archives there.  Here searching of the parish registers was done on microfiche.  I found my mother’s baptism record, also with a blank where her father’s name could have been written.  Again I failed to find a record of her mother’s burial in the years in which I expected to find it. 

Then I was stunned to scroll on and find her marriage, and thus also the name of a step-father who my mother had never mentioned.  I sat in silence for quite a while.  It was to turn out that he died quite quickly, that my grandmother remarried much late in her life, and that she did not die herself until I was a teenager.

By now the internet and a large amount of luck helped me find this all out.  I also managed to identified what turned out to be the only child of that marriage, an elderly half-sister of my mother’s, and her address.  I made tentative contact.  With some trepidation, I went to meet her at her home in the Forest of Dean.  A house full of her curious relatives was there.

The story which came out was not an uncommon one.  Someone brought up as the youngest child in a large family learning (in my mother’s case, at the age of seventeen when she needed next-of-kin consent to join up under age during the War) that what she assumed was a much older sister was really her mother.

There was a sad element.  Soon after the War, my mother moved away to train as a nurse.  She never made contact with her family again.  The opening page of my mother’s oldest photo album is indeed of the camaraderie of that training cohort in Birmingham – clearly a new Year Zero in her life.

There was also a sinister element.  My mother’s half-sister told me that she had asked her mother from time to time about my mother’s father.  She became obliquely aware that my mother had not been conceived consensually.  She knew that he was one of the people they saw very occasionally on the street when she was a small girl, and that he was ‘a nasty man’.  She did not know his name.

Soon Ancestry and related DNA testing became a possibility and then a bit of an obsession.  It identified for me about twenty people with whom I share enough DNA for it to be likely that each is a third cousins or something like that. 

My comprehensive knowledge of my father’s family meant I could rule out about half of them as being related to me that way.  My use of Ancestry meant I would trace and rule out those to whom I am related via my mother’s mother.  Just two remained, and the site showed that they were related to each other.

I thought it would be simple to take their family trees back five generations and find the ancestors they had in common, and from whom I must be descended via my unknown grandfather.

A’s family tree was most comprehensive, and I quickly focussed on the Prosser family in Ross itself.  The oldest brothers in the family had moved away at the beginning of the century to work in mines thirty-five miles away in south Wales.  The surviving younger brothers remained local and were of the right sort of age.

B’s family tree was comprehensive on her mother’s side, but none of her ancestors shared a surname with any of A’s, so I was sure I had to look on her father’s side.  Here her information was much sparser.  Worse, it led back to a network of Davies, Evans and Jones across the same south Wales valleys which proved an impossibly challenging thicket to investigate.  I laid it all aside.

Now, in my early sixties, three things shifted.  Ancestry began to show through which of our parents one of us has a DNA connection.  Unexpectedly I turn out to be related to B via her mother’s side, so the south Wales thicket was irrelevant, the information I had ought to be enough.  And newly retired, I had time and distance to pick it all up again. 

But let me mention the third thing first.  An additional  DNA match to A, B and I showed up.  And he shared much more DNA with me than I do with A and B.  If I could read off his four great-grandfathers then one would be the man I was looking for, probably with a surname which overlapped with either A or B’s known ancestors.

The first three great-grandfather’s names didn’t match at all.  I looked eagerly for the fourth.  I was stunned for a second time in this journey to find he was unknown.  Not just unresearched, but absent from his daughter’s birth certificate.  She was born the year after my mother and not far from Ross.  I was no nearer knowing who my grandfather was, but I did now know that he had done it (at least) twice.

Meanwhile, B had shared a query about one of her ancestors with me, so I buckled down to address both this and the lack of common surnames between A and B’s ancestors five generations back.  I quickly clarified the answer to A’s query about her ancestors James and Mary Jones in the village of Garway on the Welsh border (about ten miles west of Ross) in the 1861 census returns.  I also put my notes about her ancestors generally in some order.

The following day, I thought I might as well put my notes about A’s ancestors in some order too, and, in the process, spotted that years ago I had written the place name Garway.  I looked for the person concerned in the 1861 census and was astonished to find myself on the same page I’d been looking at the previous day.  James and Mary Jones (ancestors of B) lived next door to John and Ann Prosser (ancestors of A).

A few more clicks and I found someone had listed James Jones and Ann Prosser as brother and sister, although I can’t see her evidence for doing so.  This would make their parents Thomas Jones and Penelope Jones (nee Arthur) the common ancestor of A and B (and of C and I), one generation further back than we’d been able to look before. 

In theory, my unknown grandfather could be any of Thomas and Penelope Jones’ great-grandsons.  There are a few, but not that many, and most had not ended up near Ross.  But here on the page of the 1861 census in front of me was John and Ann Prosser’s son George, aged 5.  He would become father of the brothers in Ross who had seemed to be strong suspects all that time ago.  I needed to work my way over all that was known about the three of them.

On Sunday, I was stunned for a third and final time.  I had cross-checked my notes with each piece of information Ancestry had on each of them.  In the process I eventually clicked on the ‘hint’ button by each of their names on the website just to double check there was nothing there I’d failed to find when entering search terms for each of them over the years and that day.  For one there was a record which I am sure I had not seen indexed before.  It was a court record.

Ernley William Prosser (33), a brewer, was tried at Hereford in 1921 on two counts of the ‘carnal knowledge’ of a named fifteen year old in Ross at the beginning of the year.  He was acquitted. 

Of course, I cannot prove that he then went on to father children on (at least) two other women in Ross later in the 1920s, neither of whom wanted to record his name on their daughters’ birth certificates.  But the cumulative evidence is that he did, my search is at an end, and he was my grandfather.  A descends from one of his brothers.

He had married in 1915 while on leave from the Army Service Corps having served very briefly in France, and then later served in Salonika where he contracted malaria.  He had two sons (so half-brothers of my mother) born the year before and the year after his trial, who seem to have children themselves (half-cousins of mine – they will be older than me and may not still be alive - just perhaps one of them is and will take a DNA Ancestry test one day).  He had been widowed and married again before he died, still in Ross, in 1949.  Anyone with any adult memory of him would need to be in their mid-90s by now.

Meanwhile, the plant on my window sill has flowered this morning.