Tuesday 16th May, 1961

Leonard to the family:

Dear Alec June Susan & Carol

Many thanks for another newsy letter and drawing (from Susan) received today. Thank you very much Susan – it is such an important day for you isn’t it? Five years old today – how do you feel? We have been thinking of her quite a lot and pictured her telling all her school friends “I’m five years old today”.

So you have all but finished the cupboard in front room and find it is a good alternative storage place for wine – have you put a lock on it? You would want one if you kept it in Cornish’s house here. He knows where to find it and does when Mrs Cornish is out shopping etc.

Noted June not keen on broad beans – I must have misunderstood your previous reply on the subject. Am hoping we shall have a few carrots ready for the girls – its those I’m bringing on in one of the frames.

Yes you seem to be having a very busy time in the Work Study Section and I expect you are looking forward to your holiday – which reminds me the weather this week although dry so far is very much cooler and not nearly so pleasant as when we were away. Hope it will improve by the time you start off.

To get to Exmouth from Clevedon I suppose the shortest route – and the one we took a couple of years ago – would be via Cullompton, Pinhoe and Countess Wear (near Whittlesea)* but another way is via Honiton then on the Sidmouth road as far as Sidford then turn right to Newton Poppleford then left to get on to the Budleigh Salterton route. I reckon it would take 2½ to 3 hours direct Clevedon to Exmouth. Yes Tiverton to Exmouth is an hour’s run – 26 miles – but one has to get through the City of Exeter which at times can be very difficult.

So you have had mussels – I hate the things but enjoy cockles. Frankly a bucketful does not go very far once they are shelled but it’s worth it to go out and gather them. The best time to go out is about three hours after full tide has turned when the cockles are left stranded. They quickly burrow down about four inches and remain there until the tide returns. Incidentally as soon as the water has left them uncovered the gulls get busy as usually at this moment the shells are open and cockles feeding.

Regarding the sketch I sent you I meant ti have indicated that from the point shewn where you enter the area until you reach Morton Road** the distance is approximately one mile perhaps just under. Yes there are plenty of facilities for the children and given nice weather I’m sure you will enjoy the holiday. It is a place Mum and I like very much and you may remember Mum telling you it was her first place away from home – in Tuckers a big shop near the main shopping area.

No I don’t think Mrs Cornish had any cause to examine the fruit trees. At the moment the horse is away on the farm doing a little work but we expect it back any day now to get on with the job of clearing the grass.

So Susan was not very energetic when she went to the front on the first occasion – thought she liked washing. How is school going? You did not comment this week.

Can remember the name of Clegg at the wedding but am afraid I cannot picture Mr & Mrs Clegg now. There were quite a lot present including all the Uncles and Aunts and it would be difficult to recall them all. Still we expect you were glad to see them once more although perhaps did not anticipate seeing them at that particular time.

Note more friends visiting you this coming weekend. As you know Geoff and family are coming down on Whit Monday. Down on the 9.5 a.m. Paddington and back on the 4.35 Taunton – a very long journey each way and only just over five hours here but we shall be very pleased to see them.

Glad to hear you think three of the rose cuttings are pulling through. Fresh shoots should however be soon showing. Am afraid the slugs ate most of that clump of Chrysanths you gave me but it is possible I shall save one.

Since writing the above Norman Baker has brought back the horse so have been down the field to see him in safely.

Not a lot of local news this week again. Had local election on Tuesday last and the Labour candidate got in for this ward although the Conservative candidate polled more votes than the Conservative winner last year.

Your rhubarb brew should be alright – there is quite a lot of the yellow variety about but generally it is not quite so sweet as the red or raspberry kind. The addition of lemon balm leaves would improve it in any case. I’ve strained off my parsnip wine into the two sweet jars you gave me – filled one up and nearly filled the second. It is clearing very quickly and the taste is quite good.

When I next write Don & Joan – later this week – will tell them we shall be calling on them, as invited, on the afternoon of Wednesday 7th June. We asked them to look up this week while Don still on leave but they say they are very busy but would like to run up later on.

Bill Aston went on outing last Saturday and said that the happiest people present were the retired members – all the others were grousing about this and/or that. The lunch was not up to standard either. However he had a most enjoyable time and got back about 10.0 p.m.

The ground here is still like lumps of concrete and I’ve used hosepipe a lot to water runner beans and keep bath full. The greenhouse takes a lot of water carrying. It does not look as if I shall get much success with my second row of peas – not up yet and they should have been showing a week ago. I am fairly certain the soil is too rough altogether this year but must try once more. Picked peas are better than those you buy in a tin.

Found a thrush nest last week with young ready to fly – in fact they went next day. The nest is in the hedge between Heels and our garden within about four feet of the house. I had noticed the parent birds about for some time and thought nest was in Golden Privet hedge but could not find it. Anyhow unless Heel removes it shall have at least one to show Susan & Carol although the birds have flown.

Well I think this is about the lot for another week.

All our love to you both and lots of kisses for Susan & Carol.

Mum & Dad

[Scrawled at top of first page as if in afterthought: “?Time at Wincanton 27th May”]

*’Whittlesea’ in this context is the bungalow where Leonard’s parents/Alec’s grandparents, Tom and Emily Atkins, used to live. Its name was not taken from the railway station in Cambridgeshire, but instead from the town in Victoria, Australia, where Tom’s sister Mary Maud lived with her Chinese market-gardener husband and their descendants. It’s impossible to know when contact between the two branches of the family was lost, but as Mary Maud and Tom died within six months of each other (she in late 1940, he in April 1941) it would be fair to suppose that it was at some point during the war. Alec did have vague recollections of ‘packages’ from Australia being delivered during the war, but in later life treated the ‘Chinese relatives’ as a bit of a silly rumour incapable of proof. As far as I know his researches never uncovered the existence of that particular branch of the family, nor indeed of Mary Maud herself.

**I suspect this would be the first ‘two centre’ holiday we had. We stayed one week with a Mrs Le Dieu, presumably in Morton Road, and this looks very much the sort of establishment we were in – although obviously very much improved since those days.

Emily outside ‘Whittlesea’, about 1936

Eva to the family, on the remaining three-quarters of a sheet of Leonard’s writing paper:

Dear Alec June Susan & Carol

Very nice drawings this week. I believe we’ve got nearly twenty altogether. We have been very busy tidying up this week. This weather is lovely & hope it will last for your visit to Exmouth & here.

Spencers have not sold their house yet, it seems to hang fire somehow. I believe they are asking too much for too little. Gibsons have not moved into Drewetts house yet although they are doing extensive operations inside the house. All the Capels have gone to Holland & Germany for a holiday.

Somebody has got me on cleaning the lectern for a few weeks while they are busy. Mrs Cummings is out of hospital but can’t do much yet so may be doing the mags again this time.

We had a good journey to Morlands Rug factory at Glastonbury. The first five minutes was a bit revolting as we visited the tannery but after that it was A1. The loveliest rugs & bootees & slippers, they didn’t slip us any only a few samples of sheepskin all colours. Some were going to make puffs of the pale colours. They gave us a nice tea however.

On June 1st we shall be going to Cannington Farm Institute then on to Taunton for rest of time & Maynards & tea.

The horse is back with a difference, he has had a fourpenny all off & looks a bit bald after what he was.

Well I think this is the lot. Note that I have allocated the singles for the girls so you will not need the cot mattress.

Love from Mum & Dad


Christmas Day: Expect the Unexpected!

I’m not sure what most people expect when they start on family history research. In my case there was a lot I already knew, and plenty of well-trodden ground, so I was fairly confident that except for ferreting out a few quirky details I would probably not make much new progress.

I had never in my life imagined that I would end up acquiring, and investigating, a whole group of distant (both in family terms and geographically) Chinese and part-Chinese relations, who would open up the hitherto staid and predictable landscape of yeomen and minor clerks to present me with gold miners, coal trimmers and market gardeners on the other side of the world.

I’m acutely aware that I haven’t yet produced a family tree so you’re going to have to take my word for this for the time being. However, let’s do it this way: Alec Atkins (1922-2001) was my father (I’m one of the awful manipulative children he complains about in his letters). Leonard Atkins (1897-1986) was his father. (Leonard has a story all his own; his diary of the First World War was featured in Michael Portillo’s Railways of the Great War.) Leonard’s father was Tom (1869-1941), who hasn’t appeared very much in these posts so far, and Tom’s wife/widow was the Emily of The Mother Problem.

Tom’s mother was Mary Jane (1845-1910). We don’t know who Tom’s father was, because Mary Jane was never actually married – although she did have two children. This was a surprise to me; I only found out accidentally that Tom had an older sister, Mary Maud, and whether my father knew or not is unclear. However Tom does seem to have been in contact with her until the end of her life.*

Mary Maud (let’s call her Maud, from now on) appears on the 1881 census living in Frome and working in a factory there. However by 1885 she’s in Australia, married to a Chinese market gardener, and having her first child – Violet. Maud married twice, in fact, both times to men of Chinese origin, and had two sons and two daughters. One of the boys died as a baby, and the other son remained unmarried, but in due course both daughters married (one twice within the Chinese community, one outside it) as a result of which there are numerous Chinese and part-Chinese second cousins of my father and third cousins of mine to be tracked down. I’m not including any names here, because (a) some of these people are still alive and (b) I’ve discovered through being in contact with two of Maud’s great-grandsons that they are a little bit reclusive and publicity-shy. I don’t know their reasons for this, and I’m not going to speculate; I’ll simply take them at their word. The family history information quoted above is a matter of public record, however, and if anyone else cares to spend time and money investigating they could easily come to the same conclusions as I have.

I mean no disrespect to people of Chinese origin when I say that, fascinating though it is, this is proving a very difficult area of research. Names have often been transcribed incorrectly, for example, and usually by people with little or no understanding of Chinese languages or naming conventions. Also, they seem to have considered ‘China’ to be sufficient description of where the individuals were born, whereas even a province name would have been more helpful; China covers 3.7 million square miles but has always had a very efficient bureaucracy – tracing these men’s exact birthplaces might almost have been possible if we’d only had a little more information to go on.

What’s puzzling me at the moment is when and how Maud travelled to Australia. (Her name does not appear on any of the passenger lists I’ve been able to consult.) It’s likely to have been as part of a charitable endeavour, with people from underprivileged backgrounds being recruited to start a new life on the other side of the world, not unlike the later Child Migrant Programme. Whether Maud was satisfied with her decision or not is impossible to say unless any correspondence from her comes to light – which could well happen, as there are family archives held by another second cousin of mine that I hope one day to be able to access. How Maud met either of her husbands is also a fascinating question; knowing where she landed in Australia – probably Melbourne or nearby – and what work she did after arriving might be useful in that respect.

I had only really scratched the surface of this investigation ten years ago when I suddenly found myself running a small business which proceeded to eat up most of my time. Now that the business is being wound-up, I’ve returned to the research with better resources and a clearer idea of what I’m looking for – but with much less energy. However, although I plan to continue sharing the letters, photos, clippings and diaries that I have in my extensive collection, I’ve decided to confine any future new research to those relatives on all sides of the family who went to live in Australia – including the one who eventually came back with his tail between his legs. If I ever get to the end of this line of investigation, I’ll return to the Huguenots on another branch – just as well-documented as the Chinese, but suffering from the same difficulty of being strangers in a strange land and often having their names transcribed incorrectly.

Watch this space, as the saying goes, for future updates as and when they become available!

*That correspondence between Maud and her brother continued at least until the mid-1920s (and probably longer) is borne out by two pieces of evidence. The first is that Tom and Emily’s bungalow in Exeter was named ‘Whittlesea’, the name of the town in Australia where Maud and her family lived. The second is that one of Maud’s great-grandsons sent me pictures of Leonard and Eva’s wedding and of Alec as a baby – the latter one that I had never seen before but of course recognised him instantly. This means that in about 1924-25 there was still an exchange of correspondence, and as Maud did not die until 1940 I can see no reason why it wouldn’t have continued for at least another decade. If the packrat tendency extends to the entire family, there may still be letters in an attic somewhere that could shed considerable light on some of these unanswered questions; if only my second cousin Sara would get in touch again, we might be able to join forces to find out!