Tag Archives: 20th century

Interview: John Broom, author of “Fight the Good Fight”


With the First World War 100th anniversary commemorations ongoing, I’m welcoming John Broom, author of Fight the Good Fight: Voice of Faith from the First World War to Essex & Suffolk Surnames. His book examines the way that faith and war combine – how one person’s faith might prompt them to seek after peace, whilst another’s inspires gung-ho nationalism. John looks at the experiences of people from many countries involved with the First World War, and uncovers previously untold stories of belief and bravery in the face of unparalleled destruction and despair.

His second book, about faith and the Second World War, will be out in April 2016.

So I asked him a few questions…..

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At sea & in the air: Wivenhoe’s Green boys


I’ve mentioned Grandma’s photo album before, when it turned out that the unnamed WW1 soldier posing in a Brighton studio was in fact her Uncle Bill. The photo above, of Grandma on a family seaside outing, interested me as it showed two of her cousins, and aunts of hers who I knew nothing about. She had written on the back identifying the people in the photo as:

  • back row: left to right – Aunt Rose, Aunt Elsie, Mum
  • front row: left to right – Eileen, Amy (my grandma), Jack, Les, Ron

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The Strawbridges: a 1930s motorcycling family


Last year, I wrote about the headstones in St. George’s, Harborne, and mentioned the unusual monument to Freda Strawbridge, a young woman who died in a motorbike accident in 1936.

I’ve recently been contacted by a couple of people from the Strawbridge family – Pam, Freda’s niece, whose father was Freda’s brother. He himself was a motorbike fan too, and was injured in an accident a year before his sister’s fatal crash. Pam explained that her family really loved their motorbikes, and she sent me some wonderful photographs of the Strawbridges (see below the fold).

And not long after Pam contacted me, another Strawbridge – Karl – got in touch. Karl’s father was Freda’s cousin, and he keeps an eye on Freda’s resting place and her unusual memorial.

It’s nice to have an update – thank you, Strawbridges!

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Review: The Game


I’ve lived in Birmingham for several years, long enough to get confused sometimes when my brain forgets what the new Bull Ring shopping centre looks like when I round the corner at the end of New Street. “Where did this all come from?” it wonders for a split-second, before the buildings in front of me coalesce and I remember where I am. I still call House of Fraser by it’s old name: Rackhams. And I just can’t get used to the new Library of Birmingham (not surprising as it’s hardly open due to budget cuts).

So there I was, sitting down to watch BBC Two’s new Cold War thriller The Game. After much joshing ‘The Game is afoot! Well, nearly, iPlayer is still buffering!’ I found myself in 1970s London. Well, it’s supposed to be, but I immediately recognised Birmingham. Specifically, MI5’s headquarters, which is brutalist masterpiece Central Library. Loved and loathed, the haters are winning because the Library of Birmingham was built a year or two ago to replace it and poor old Central Library, John Madin’s concrete masterpiece, is, as I speak, being pulled down.

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The Wivenhoe Poltergeist

Transcribing headstones at Greensted.

Transcribing headstones at Greensted.

What I’m about to write has nothing to do with genealogy, although it’s something that happened to me and a friend of mine in Wivenhoe, so it’s vaguely relevant. Of course, spending time in churchyards and cemeteries, amongst the relics of the past, does rather open you up to the sometimes-restless existence of the dead. Also, it’s Hallowe’en, which seems like as appropriate a time as any to write this, and news that Guy Lyon Playfair’s book This House is Haunted, about the Enfield poltergeist case, is being dramatised, has brought back memories which I cannot quite forget. But don’t blame me if it gives you nightmares.

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How to date a photograph… perhaps

The Ashworth/Harris group with Elizabeth Shrimpton at the centre.

The Ashworth/Harris group with Elizabeth Shrimpton at the centre.

I’m very lucky that so many photos of my relatives have survived. The above is one of my favourites – a family group – and I have been trying for some time to identify all the sitters. On the back row on the left, we have my great-grandfather, John Henry Nunn (1862-1936). On the middle row, third from the left, we have John’s wife – my great-grandmother Frances Louise, née Ashworth (1876-1961). The older lady sitting on Frances’ left was identified by my grandad’s cousin Dorothy (1912-2011) as Elizabeth, née Shrimpton (1840-1915).

Dorothy remembered Elizabeth (her grandmother) as an elderly, bedridden lady, who didn’t seem to mind her young grandchildren romping about on her bed.1)Dorothy was remembering something that happened to her as a toddler, which might make people scoff, but I have oddly vivid memories from that age myself – snapshots of being at playgroup before I started school, and of my brother’s birth when I was three. Elizabeth was the mother of nine children, and grandmother to many more. Her life story is quite interesting – it turns out that she was never actually married to her second husband, James Thomas Ashworth (1849-1890), and as a teenager, she hung about in a London park with an uncle, a soldier invalided out of the Army during the Crimean War. She was illegitimate and it seems that she moved from Chesham in Buckinghamshire (where she was washed under the pump every morning in the yard outside their cottage, even in the middle of winter) to London with her aunts.

But aside from that – I wanted to see if I could date the above photograph (which might help me identify the people in it), and so analysed it for possible clues.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Dorothy was remembering something that happened to her as a toddler, which might make people scoff, but I have oddly vivid memories from that age myself – snapshots of being at playgroup before I started school, and of my brother’s birth when I was three.

The Taylor family album


Somewhere on the West Somerset Railway steam line.

In July, I went to Somerset to visit my dad, and we ended up in the Smuggler’s Cave in Watchet. There’s all sorts of treasures to be found here – antiques, mid-20th century bits and bobs, from grand polished dining tables to boxes of bent cutlery. I was rummaging through some photos and 1950s receipts, when I struck up a conversation with the chap who runs the shop.

“If you like old photos,” he said, “You’ll love this old album I got the other day at a car-boot sale.”

Off he went and came back with a dark green album, which at the beginning was full of late Victorian and Edwardian family photos, with first names added. Family sat outside a house, a line of Edwardians strung together as they ascend an icy mountain, horse-riding in Ireland. Following these were page after page of very old postcards, mainly of churches and cathedrals. At the back, there were newspaper clippings from WW1 with photos of soldiers who had been killed – Thomas Eland Clatworthy and Harold Richard Taylor. Further on, there was a programme for an evening of genteel entertainment at Flook House in Taunton, and photos of someone in… India? All the photos have been glued in, so there’s no chance of peering behind to see what might have been written on their backs.

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Further afield…

Today, I went for a wander around the churchyard at St. Peter’s in Harborne, a suburb to the west of Birmingham. No, not in Essex or Suffolk, but a wonderful old place to rummage about in nonetheless. The church has a 14th century tower, but people have probably worshipped there since Saxon times, or before – it is where St. Chad of Mercia (to whom Birmingham’s Pugin-designed Catholic cathedral is dedicated) preached. This corner of Harborne has a distinctly “village” vibe. The cricket club is just across the road, and an ancient lime tree avenue runs across the pitch, from the church to Harborne Park Road.

18th century headstones at Harborne St. Peter's

18th century headstones at Harborne St. Peter’s

It’s a splendid churchyard, with stones dating back to the late 18th century with fairly legible inscriptions (which I’ll write about in later blogs). It is canopied by tall, ancient trees, so that it always seems to be in an M. R. James half-light, a liminal space where history is breathing at your shoulder.

There are several ways into the churchyard: we entered from the gate by the junction of St. Peter’s Road and Old Church Road. The graves here are from the early twentieth century, so might be an extension of the original churchyard.

We were met at once by an extraordinary memorial, which is right up by the churchyard wall, to 17-year old Freda Strawbridge, who died in 1936, “result of a motor accident”. I don’t know when this was erected, but I had always assumed that a headstone like this – well – is a bit early 21st century. Sociologists seem to attribute the fad for headstones with drawings of steam trains, aeroplanes, teddy bears and cars on them to our post-Princess Diana mindset (before 1997, I don’t remember the British leaving floral tributes at the site of fatal accidents, but nowadays, it’s a national past-time). So this stone really stuck out, and when I read the dates on it, I was actually amazed that it is so comparatively early. 1936, really?

Freda Strawbridge's unusual memorial at Harborne St. Peter's

Freda Strawbridge’s unusual memorial at Harborne St. Peter’s

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