My great grandfather, Alfred Harris was a story teller. He was very good at it, and while never sinking as low as fabrication (unlike his great granddaughter) , he could take a small nugget of fact and spin it like a politician with an election to win. These stories have become Harris family legends, believed implicitly by several generations and handed down as “hand on heart, it’s true as I live and breathe” truths, never to be questioned.
I’m a story teller. I make no pretensions to literature, I know what I am, a spinner and a weaver of whimsy, one step away from the old men and women who sat by the fire in the cave and told tales to keep the night away and stop the kids making a nuisance of themselves. Over the years I’ve sat in warm kitchens and back parlours and listened as the old people drank tea, smoked endless cigarettes and remembered. I’ve heard all Alfred’s stories told by his children and his grandchildren and I’ve given up on the “pinch of salt” where they are concerned and substituted a fist full instead.
Having said that, I have to give Alfred his due, he may have being stretching the truth until it pinged, but sometimes, there was a grain of truth in what he said, a much abused grain, but it was there. Like how the family once lived in Jerusalem…he was right, we did once live in an area of a small Surrey town which was colloquially and ironically know as “Jerusalem” on account of its undesirable reputation. This part of the tale was, of course, omitted and the impression of sand, heat and holiness allowed to grow and grow. I swear there were times when I could smell the gefilte fish and hear the muezzin call from The Dome of the Rock.
The one about us being descended from Spanish Gypsies makes me very suspicious, but one the other hand, genealogical research as proved a direct ancestor was born at sea in about 1800. There is no more information so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out Spain is involved some where. I have strong doubts about the gypsies, if there is anything in it, it will probably involve a cargo of something very dull and a delayed voyage.
One of the other favourite family stories was how a Harris, back in the good old days, fought Tom Cribb, the famous bare knuckle boxer whose fight with Molineaux is a legend in pugilistic circles and familiar to any reader of Georgette Heyer. My grandfather, Alfred’s youngest son, was very fond of this one and would tell it the second boxing was mentioned.
Pinch of salt? Please…pass the cruet.
However, on my genealogical travels down the branches of the family tree, I discovered that Alfred’s mother-in-law (deceased long, long before he met her daughter) was the child of a stonemason and came from a little town in Herefordshire called Fownhope.
One day in 2009 The Military Historian and I happened to be on our way to somewhere in Wales the long way round and we chanced to see a sign pointing to Fownhope and on the spur of the moment we decided to go and have a look.
It is a charming village and has two pubs, The New Inn and The Green Man. We decided to have lunch in The Green Man and on the wall is a large notice telling all about a former resident of the town and the pub …wait for this…was a former famous bare knuckle fighter called, not Tom Cribb, but Tom Winter. Not only that, but later research showed my ancestor lived in the old mews behind the pub and had several brothers. What are the chances of a couple of small boys not taking the opportunity to beg for a chance to spar with the great man?
Look Tom Winter up, my long ago ancestors didn’t get to take a swing at Tom Cribb, but he did.
The story of fighting with a famous boxer had obviously been told to Alfred’s wife by her mother and she in turn told it to her husband and great-grandfather couldn’t resist adopting and embellishing the story and making it a Harris legend.
Is there a moral to all this? Well yes, a couple – the first being don’t take family stories as gospel. I hear a lot of them at genealogical fairs, all too often preceded by the words “you’ll be interested in this”, which, believe me is very rarely the case and I can’t help wondering just how much truth there is in them. Are they “Jerusalem” stories or is there some truth underneath?
The other thing, and this is the one I like best, is never let a good tale go untold. After all, there’s Granny’s Crown Derby Tea Service to be explained, and the day Aunt Grace’s husband came looking for her with the gun, and who exactly was George Clement Smith?