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Saturday 7 June 2014


There are three William Henry Castles in a row in my grandmother’s family tree – her brother (b. 1879), her father (b. 1851) and her grandfather (b. 1810). It is to her father that I owe a great debt of genealogical gratitude.

In the 1980s I inherited a crate of family memorabilia from my late Uncle John. It included a priceless treasure – a pedigree of my grandmother’s family, hand-drawn by her father, my great grandfather, in 1887.

William Henry Castle (1851-1929)

Distributor of fancy goods, and fine amateur penman

Apart from my own juvenile attempts to draw a tree of my immediate family, this was the first time I had seen anything like this – a formal document laying out my ancestral past. And not just any past: I never knew my grandmother, who died before I was born; and my father never spoke of her. So when I received this pedigree, I unlocked a full quarter of my ancestry which I had never heard of.

It’s beautifully presented. The pages of the pedigree are written with a very fine nib in black ink on heavy cartridge paper. The pages unfold to show all the cousins of each generation side by side, and they are full of detail. The names of female relatives are in circles, those of the males in squares. Marriage is indicated by a tiny drawing of a knotted ribbon. Each individual family has its surname and offspring enclosed in ornately looped lines.  And the whole thing is bound with green cotton cord in vellum and decorated with an elaborate mock-medieval title.

Pedigree of ye Castle Family, [motto] Hic Manus Ob Patriam [“this hand for my country”], William Henry Castle hys boke, 1887

The binding is signed by E.H. Greenhill (1887). E.H. Greenhill was a solicitor at 3 Staple Inn, Holborn in London, and perhaps he handled William’s affairs. A celebrated twentieth century bookbinder, Elizabeth Greenhill, was not born until 1907. She died in 2006, having been the first woman member, and later Honorary Secretary and President, of the Guild of Contemporary Bookbinders. I wonder if E.H. Greenhill was an ancestor.
Binding signed by E.H. Greenhill, 1887 

William Castle’s pedigree has received additions over the years by many hands including, I think, my uncle’s. None of them can match the neatness and fineness of William’s penmanship.

Detail from an unfolded page of the Castle pedigree

The pedigree is not his only work. After my father died I found on his shelves several books which had belonged to William, including a copy of a popular book in its day, Rejected Addresses written by the brothers James and Horace Smith in 1812 – reputedly the best-selling book of humour of all time.

On a blank page at the start of the book William has inscribed his name in the manner of an illuminated manuscript, with decorative dots and squiggles of unimaginably fine detail in black, red and blue inks, with his first initial and the arm of the family crest picked out in gold. It is a most elaborate doodle.

William Castle’s name in his copy of Rejected Addresses

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