Running in the Family

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?

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Goodbye Dolly Gray

Many conflicts have a song or a tune which has come to symbolise it, WW1 and “Tipperary” comes to mind, as does “Brighton Camp” for the Napoleonic Wars and for the Boer War the popular song was “Goodbye Dolly Gray”.

These days two great wars have separated us from conflict in South Africa which dominated the years bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it was a hugely influential time. It was the first time The Empire was really challenged and it was the first “popular” war, when men flooded to the colours in a rush of patriotism.

The short comings of the army which were shown up by the tenacity and courage of the Boers led to the reforms which would produce the BEF which went to France in 1914.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because a while ago we were approached by a lady who was the owner of a diary, or at least part of a previously unpublished diary from the Boer War and she wondered if we as representatives of The Victorian Military Society would be interested in it. It covered a year of his service in South Africa during 1900.

What she gave us was a day by day account of an ordinary soldier on campaign and I have had the privilege of being one of the transcribers and it has been a riveting and fascinating insight into the life of an ordinary man who lived in extraordinary times. Someone once said that war is long periods of tedium punctuated by short moments of terror, Charlie (author of the diary), was a very lucky man, because all he got for the duration of the diary was the tedium.

So why was this so interesting?

What has made transcribing this document so enthralling?

And why is The VMS going to be publishing it?

Because while there are endless accounts of battles and officers careers, there are very few about the day to day life of a ranker at this time. Charlie tells us what they ate and what they thought of it. Where they slept and what they did to entertain themselves. He also tells us what he thought of the great events which were taking place near him or which he got news about. Views which are often very modern in their outlook.

We know a bit about Charlie Holmes, gleaned from odd bits and pieces he mentions. He was a reservist, called back to the colours and had served in the Far East. We know where he was born and when, but what we don’t know for certain is if his surnames was Holmes. As if often the case when searching military records, the one you want is missing.

“The Boer War Diary of Charlie Holmes” will be out soon.

The picture is an Imperial Yeoman c.1900 courtesy of “Scarlet Gunner”.

Boer War