Wednesday 8th March, 1961

Leonard to the family:

Dear Alec June Susan & Carol

Thank you very much for another budget received on Tuesday just as we were about to leave the house for the station – I read it in the train after leaving Yatton. What lovely drawings from Susan & Carol and one of them in a separate envelope with a stamp on it. Thank you both for sending them to us. This time I see you drew a little girl appearing on T.V. or was it Andy Pandy?

Now to your letter – it was a surprise to hear car had failed test. The orange coloured reflectors were on car when I first had it but with the use of that particular shade for the ‘winking’ indicator lights I suppose it is only right that they should be changed for red reflectors. The other fault is a new one to me and I must speak to Payne about it first opportunity. At the moment I cannot see the logic of it. However I hope it is alright now but will it cost you two fees of 15/- in addition to charges for the alterations?

Whilst on subject of cars Heel called to me over the garden fence today (this is unusual to start with) and asked me round to see his new car he had had delivered Monday night. Apparently he had just taken his other in for servicing (to a garage on Bristol Road) and the Hillman arrived whilst he was there. Jokingly the proprietor asked Heel if he wanted to exchange his car for another and after some haggling a deal was effected, although when he left home he had no idea of changing.

Well we had a pretty good day yesterday – trains late in the morning because of fog. Saw Don at Durston for about a minute. Arrived Exeter 12.30 p.m. (20 late) and went straight out to Heavitree where we found everything in order*. Mum picked from our garden and took down Daffodils – Narcissi and Anemones which quite filled the vase. We had a snack lunch in Cross Park and then back to the City to look round the shops. The road in the main shopping centre is torn up for half its width and for about half a mile in length making transport a bit chaotic. Caught the 3.35 p.m. Exeter and 4.35 p.m. Taunton and indoors by 6.30 p.m.

At Taunton on the way down I saw Sam Squire who was en route to Bridgwater. Said he saw you a little while ago. He is retiring in June having reached 65.

Note your method with the L.D.C. representatives what about the Yard Master? Does he not get a dose also?

The route to Ruislip – we do not go through Maidenhead – Godfrey’s house is very much this side of the town and our journey thence via Bisham cuts Maidenhead right out. Things should be different of course when Maidenhead’s bypass is available.

Mum and I think you must be mistaking Miss Weeks for Mrs Salway. The latter moved from the Avenue before Susan was born and has only been back on odd occasions for an hour or so.

Have not seen Aston since he was due to see his Dr again early this week so do not know how he got on.

Mum very annoyed with the deckchair suggestion & will probably comment on this later in bulletin.

Note your visitors last Sunday included two young children who could keep the girls busy – a bit late for them to be going home surely?

Peter evidently likes your wine. I have started the parsnip going this end and shall put yeast in tomorrow – Mum will bring some back from the baker’s.

Sorry you upset the coffee when typing letter. Could make one or two suggestions to avoid this but no doubt they have already been made.

Noted you will not require any more Chrysanth cuttiings. We shall pick out the best of the Jersey Beauty apples & bring along and they are lovely for eating just now. Can of course be used for cooking but I think you may prefer them for eating purposes.

Am afraid I must now continue the Gardener’s Gazette as other news now pretty well exhausted. After the rain at the weekend it has been lovely again with sharp frosts and fogs early morning but hot & sunny from about 11.0 a.m. Have managed to get a row of peas in but ground was very rough. Also have put in onion sets. Tomatoes sown in greenhouse still now showing but about 20 seeds put into a pot and brought indoors and stood on water heater are all up lovely. Must try and get some potatoes in this week. Our last season’s supply now running out and we shall be buying for the weekend. Have a hundredweight on order from Durston but do not know when we shall receive them. Have dug the two long trenches for runner beans and now putting all waste vegetable matter into them to make compost. The garden generally is looking fairly tidy again now if can only manage to keep weeds down. Should think your soil has had a chance to drain if not dry out by now.

Yours gallon of Bravery’s Jungle Juice will not be ready in time for me to taste it but I hope it turns out alright. I think the two bottles of plum I’m bringing up are of the first grade – the labels have disappeared so cannot be absolutely definite. The orange in my opinion is really good and the Elderberry up to the standard you had before.

Tried to start the motor mower on Monday without success so when I left car at the garage yesterday morning took sparking plug of motor mower down and asked them to clean it out as I could get no spark**. Grass too wet this afternoon after a very wet fog early this morning so have not yet made a second attempt.

Am still waiting for Norman Baker to bring pony along to cut/eat grass in field. I saw him the other day and he said he would bring it along shortly but I hope it won’t be before Easter now.

Saw Ching last night on train from Yatton to Clevedon and he said he is under Soole on research work and that Soole is under Gallacher(?) & Burt. Not a very healthy atmosphere by the sound of it.

Well I think this is the lot once more – hope you are continuing to keep fit.

Al, our love to you both and lots of kisses for our dear little Susan & Carol.

Mum & Dad.

[*Although Leonard isn’t clear here, this is certainly a visit to his parents’ grave(s); they had both died in Exeter, Emily only two years previously and Thomas in 1941.]

[**This is Leonard all over, expecting other people to sort out his problems for him – especially ‘tradesmen’. It was an attitude that prevailed in the family well into succeeding generations and speaks to a class-consciousness that has still not completely disappeared from the world.]

Letter from Eva to the family on the remaining three quarters of Leonard’s sheet of paper:

Dear Alec June Susan & Carol

Many thanks for your letter & contribution towards the picture gallery. There is quite an expression on the big girl’s face looks as if she had been up to something.

I like the idea of me directing operations from the deck chair. My manual labours would be missed if they discontinued believe me. There seems to be an unusual weed this year & plenty of it, expect the exceptional rain has brought that one out. The flowers I took down to Exeter were really nice. None of them had come out four days ago but I picked them & brought them in the kitchen where they all opened. I did that before Xmas with the chrysanths (outdoor) & had flowers for weeks.

The shops looked nice at Exeter only needed the L.S.D. I bought Dad a 5/6 wove tie dorn to 4/1 at Horne’s. I see they have a Barnett-Hutton shop there* didn’t know they were down further than Bristol.

I was going to throw away the Xmas cards but Dad says perhaps the children would like them if so we cabn bring them plenty of scribbling space on them.

Mr Heel’s car is not so long or wide as ours & he has no wireless in it either so he is claiming rebate on his £1 licence.

They are renovating the promenade wall where the people sit so I expect they have had a few heavy weights on it at times.

No more now will close with love to all from

Dad & Mum

[*Apparently this was a chain of ladieswear shops owned by Hide & Co which in 1965 was taken over by Tootal but was not part of the deal when Tootal sold Hide & Co to House of Fraser in 1988. Hide & Co was put into liquidation in 1988 and the inference from this must be that Tootal still owns the Barnett-Hutton brand.]


Bill of Sale

As Leonard’s letter to the family, written on Thursday 8 December 1960, seems not to have arrived until Monday 12 December (i.e. the day after Alec usually replied), and has apparently not survived*, here instead is a curious item that presumably dates from the time when Tom accepted the posting to Cross Keys. It’s terribly sad that he and Emily had to part with so many of their household possessions, but it was probably much simpler and cheaper to do so than to try and transport everything to their new home – and they may, of course, have been going into furnished accommodation anyway.

It’s entirely possible, however, that this was the event which produced the packrat tendency in later generations of the family – which is in turn the reason for this blog’s existence in the first place. When so much had to be discarded or disposed of, the desire to hold onto what could be held on to may have become more tenacious, which is the reason why my spare bedroom is full of storage boxes the contents of which I have barely scratched the surface of.

This is not going to be a small task, readers, and we aren’t even a tenth of the way through it yet.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

[*I don’t rule out the possibility of its having been misfiled into a different year, but if you could see the volume of these letters and the way they’re stored you’d probably forgive me for not hunting for it!]

[**As a lifelong editor, I want to go back and make that compositor add a comma after ‘neighbourhood’ – among other things!]

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!

Friday 4th December, 1959

Leonard to the family, once again on the reverse of Timetable 179, Leamington Spa, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bormingham, Stourbridge Junction, Kidderminster, Bewdley, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Wellington:

Dear Alec June Susan & Carol

Many thanks for your letter received on Tuesday and you should have had Mum’s the same morning. I see by date above it is five years ago today you were married. Congratulations to you both and very best wishes for the future. It’s also five years off the payments for house and although very little difference as yet in your pay packet it is that much further towards the place being your own. That was a splendid effort of Susan’s and the drawing shews she can put her ideas on paper. Noted they both keep you on your toes. They used to say “Boys will be boys” but we must alter it to “Girls will be girls”. Good job the hand bell was used in Sunday School as presumably she was not allowed to bring it home. Yes we heard from Geoff that you had called on them having lost your way when out in car shopping. They were pleased to see you and said “How the girls have grown.” Stella was apparently away working in Watford (query in Marks and Spencers). Geoff made his usual annual visit to Ireland last week* but crossed over one night and recrossed the next – cut the trip by two days this time. I also see British Railways dispensing with their Christmas [illegible] cards this year – about time too.

Thanks for information re your Parcels effort at Paddington – the electronic computer will save hours of calculating work by the sound of it. So manning has gone to Euston – query whether he would be an applicant to get back on WR when suitable sideways vacancy occurs. Don’t think I’m a Job’s comforter but things like this happen all too frequently. Note your remarks re garage and I agree the arrangement of the door on garage at Whittlesea is an ideal one but must obviously cost more*. I believe Don & Geoff fixed it between them but it’s a job I should not like to tackle.

Yes we heard Bill Harper had finished and am wondering how he will pass the time as he has no known hobby and no garden on house – he lives in Brislington not so very far away from the Newmans who we visit two or three times a year.

I nopte re: apples and will pick out some nice ones from the Bramley Seedlings [sic] and Jersey Beauty – the former are the best cookers and can be used from November onwards whilst the Jersey beauty is eater and cooker but must be kept for a while as at the moment they are very hard. Should keep until February or March in good keeping season but you must keep your eye on them as season not so good. Weather here has been pretty bad but not so foggy as in your area.

We went to Weston on Tuesday and although we came away again about 7.0 p.m. had to run through blankets of fog for most of journey.

Apart from sawing wood up for logs and chopping for firewood have not done very much out of door work since I last wrote because of wet state of ground. The pond filled with water overnight but soon returned to normal level (top of deep part) when it stopped raining – have not yet been able to mend leak although have had a couple of goes at it. House next door still empty and garden now looking like a piece of waste ground. I notice the broad beans Cornish put in for me on Nov 5th are breaking through the soil and about 25% of my spring cabbage plants look as if they may recover in due course. There is still a lot of white fly about in spite of frost and torrential rain and greenstuff generally is going to be scarce later on. We are using cabbage which normally would not be cut until towards end of January.

Am glad to say Mum is much better although still troubled with a cough – these appear to be very common at present – she will write to June in reply to her letter later. I’m still getting on alright but as mentioned above have not done any serious gardening yet – fortunately the weather would have stopped me in any case.

Shall be looking forward to seeing you next week and you must let us know time due Yatton or Clevedon.

No more now – all the best once more and lots of kisses for Susan & Carol.

Dad & Mum

*’Whittlesea’ was the name of the house in which Emily lived before she began her peripatetic lifestyle (see ‘The Mother Problem’). It was in the immediate vicinity of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital premises at Wonford in Exeter but I have been unable to establish whether or not it’s still in existence. The derivation of the name is an interesting one; it was named for the town in Victoria, Australia, where Emily’s sister-in-law Mary ended up living. Mary is an interesting character whom we’ll be meeting in more detail at a later stage. At any rate, it sounds as if a segmented sliding garage door may be what Don and Geoff installed on the premises, and what Alec was craving. When he did get one, many years later, he decided it was more trouble than it was worth.

Emily and Tom

Tom and Emily are the parents of Leonard, Donald and Geoffrey. (And therefore the grandparents of Alec and great-grandparents of Yours Truly.) It’s clear from the photos that Leonard took after his mother and Donald his father, in particular, while Geoffrey was a satisfying blend of both.

This is Emily (Beacham) Atkins, the focus of ‘The Mother Problem’ as described in the correspondence between her sons. This photograph was taken at Christmas 1946.
Here’s her husband Tom (front row centre). On the back of the picture are these words: For Alec from Grandfie Atkins taken on his retirement from the post of stationmaster at Cross Keys Mon. Oct 27th 1928. Alec would have been three years and four months old at the time.
And this, clearly, is Cross Keys station from which Tom was retiring, although this was taken slightly earlier in 1922. According to Wikipedia Cross Keys – near Ebbw Vale – was open in its original form from 1851 to 1962, and was presumably then demolished and rebuilt (on a slightly different site) in 2008. Take that, Dr Beeching!