Sunday, 17 April 2011

A Criminal Waste of History

I have no idea whether every family has a vulture but certainly we do. In their dotage this couple have no greater interest than visiting some even older and/or more infirm individual. By the time the latter has gone to meet their maker they have managed to get their name on the both the will and have volunteered to see to the house clearance.
Their inheritance is often "disappointing" yet can top this up by selling the odd antique to make a few pounds. I have no problem with this, they probably spend as much clawing their way into the will as they ever get out of it. However it has come to my attention their house clearances also include a little bonfire, where letters and bills are incinerated along with the wanton destruction of every photograph.
This horrendous act of burning old photographs was justified with "they are only personal photographs of people nobody knows" and proceeded to open an old tin bursting with black and white snaps. I began to browse through the contents, almost none of the photographs were larger than 3" x 2" and most were half that size.
They were quite correct. Snap after snap of sombrely-dressed strangers in uncomfortable poses. The occasional name, place or date written on the reverse helped not one iota until I came across two photographs of the same rather dapper gentleman. On the reverse I found noted Great Yarmouth on one and Lake Taupo on the other, along with the man's name - Mr Kempson. This was no stranger, this man was known to me.
During the first decades of the 20th century Maitland Kempson was a very successful businessman. Indeed he could afford the luxury of at least two domestic staff, a chauffeur and a children's nanny - the former was my grandfather, the latter he was to marry. Maitland Kempson (wonderful name) also enjoyed his retirement to the full, travelling the world in luxury aboard some of the world's most prestigious liners.
His travels are not well documented (as far as I know), although he made at least one trip to New Zealand - for Lake Taupo is a lake in the crater of a volcano in New Zealand. I also know he made at least three voyages to North America for his name is listed as one of the survivors in a book covering the last of those voyages.
Returning to my grandparents for a moment, although I cannot remember my grandfather, my grandmother often told me stories of her time in domestic service and how handsome John looked in his uniform. She also spoke of a large trunk, one which was given to them as a gift when John finally left his employ. This trunk was itself of interest for it was said to have been saved (along with its owner) from the Atlantic when the Titanic sank. Even at a young(ish) age I remember this story troubling me, for it simply did not make sense to bring a large trunk on a lifeboat when so many were doomed through lack of space.
Hence I dismissed this narrative and not until these photographs came into my possession did I consider doing any research. However research was not difficult, for Maitland Kempson is a most unusual name and his status made him quite easy to trace. Both trunk and owner were indeed fished from the sea, however this was not a ship sunk by an iceberg but another famous sinking during the First World War when RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland on 7th May 1915. It sank in 18 minutes, with the death of 1,198 of the 1,959 on board. This event is held to have brought the United States into the war.
Maitland Kempson died shortly after the second photograph was taken, the Great Yarmouth trip was to prove his last holiday. The trunk was sold to a collector around the time I was born. This was the second time I found family memories to be misleading, my genealogical research was inspired by such - maybe I shall relate that story another time.
Most importantly it shows how the wanton destruction of photographs is criminal and should never happen. Agreed few will be of any interest, yet they can be useful tools in genealogical searches, and as historical documents are irreplacable.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Walking the canals around Fradley Junction, Staffs

Continuing to research a number of local walks, I headed this week to Fradley Junction. Just north of Lichfield this marks the point where the Trent and Mersey Canal meets the Coventry Canal. There are a number of recommended routes, four of these are set out on the official Walks leaflet also available online. I leave the choice of route to the individual - we opted for that which took in Alrewas (pronounced so it rhymes with 'walrus') and the village of Fradley - each has a flavour of its own.

Around the junction itself are six posts where, at the touch of a button, information on the history of the place is readily available. One thing which did catch my eye was found at one of these posts above the basin where the two canals meet and below the upper lock. Here we see the ingenuity of the engineers and the rivalry between the respective canal owners.

Each segment of a canal contains a certain amount of water. As boats pass through the locks the water can only flow downhill, streams and reservoirs are managed to provide water to top up the loss, while when the brow of a hill is crossed and no natural water source is available, the topmost stretch has water pumped up to replace the loss. All this takes ingenuity and not a little expense, hence the water was a precious commodity and when each stretch was owned by a different company it made sense to ensure the water they had strived so hard to utilise stayed under their control.

On the Trent and Mersey there is a lock above the basin where the Coventry and Trent and Mersey meet. Above this lock a leet takes the excess water deposited from the upper lock and runs it down alongside the canal, under the car park of the White Swan public house, through a reservoir and back into the Trent and Mersey below the bottom lock. Hence all that can be lost to the Coventry canal is the water from the one lock.

Our walk of 4.5 miles can be split into four distinct and fairly equal sections. Firstly the tow path along the Trent and Mersey takes us as far as the River Trent, the surrounding land is farmland and thus open and is very flat. Next came the outskirts of Alrewas and pastureland with a couple of stiles to negotiate. A series of fields negotiated brings us to Fradley and the third stage where the grass beneath our feet is replaced by less pleasant man-made surface. Lastly another tow path, this time the Coventry Canal sheltered by well-established hedgerows on both sides - that on the far bank allows only occasional glimpses of the remaining hangars of the World War II airfield, now an industrial estate.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Walking the National Forest in Leicestershire

Monday saw me wandering more pathways. The morning mist added to the beauty of the drive to Oakthorpe in Leicestershire, although by the time of my arrival the spring sunshine was already burning this off.

These pathways, now a part of the National Forest, was a part of the Leicestershire Coal fields. Indeed these were some of the deepest shafts sunk in the county. Records of coal being extracted and brought to Leicester Abbey by packhorse can be traced back to the thirteenth century and some would undoubtedly have come from here for although the first surviving record dates from 1412 there is much evidence to suggest this was well-established by then. Over the next three hundred years landowners and yeomen farmers hereabouts earned a living from mining and agriculture. In 1606 it is shown that some 3,000 tons of coal were removed by 20 employees, without the aid of machinery. We also know the woodland had been cut down for timbers to support the mines were brought in from neighbouring Derbyshire. Mining continued until 1885, most of the coal being shipped out via the Ashby Canal (this stretch now filled-in) for by the time the railway arrived large scale mining had ended.

Today the mines are capped, only the stone markers reveal where the mine shafts were situated. Now landscaped, this area is a mixture of grassland, pathways, wild flowers, managed woodland, with still some of the original hedgerows and copses. The opencast workings towards Willesley Wood and the golf course have flooded, providing a haven for wildlife.

I took a circular walk which took in part of Donisthorpe, however there are much shorter routes. Considering the noise, grime and spoil heaps which would have dominated this area throughout centuries of mining, the idyllic modern greenery is little short of miraculous.