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Saturday 31 March 2012


My 5x great grandfather John Templeman was from Torryburn in Fife, just west of the ancient Scottish town of Dunfermline. He was a damask weaver, in an area which had been a centre for the trade since the fifteenth century. Linen weavers from the French town of Tournai first brought the skill to Dunfermline; and although Scottish damask (or “dornick”) never quite matched the continental fabric for quality, its weaving was for nearly 600 years a trade to be proud of.

Damask is any cloth with a woven pattern which can be viewed from both sides of the material. These days damask is usually linen and usually, although not always, single-coloured. It gets its name from Damascus, an important trading and manufacturing city in the early Middle Ages, standing on the Silk Route. It first appeared in Europe (in France) in the 14th century, so the Dunfermline industry, kick-started by those Tournai craftsmen, was quick off the mark.

Abbot House Museum in Dunfermline
tells the story of damask’s contribution to the town

Traditionally, women did the spinning and men did the weaving, although by John's grandchildren's generation things had changed - his granddaughter my 2x great grandmother Agnes Mitchell was a damask weaver too. For centuries before her time both operations were carried out by hand. Linen thread is spun from flax, which was grown in the fields around Dunfermline, but not in sufficient quantities. The local harvest was augmented with imports from Danzig – modern-day Gdansk in Poland – shipped to the nearby ports of coastal Fife.

Dunfermline damask was supplied to the Scottish Royal Household, and the industry suffered after the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603 when the Royal Household moved south to London. A fire which destroyed much of Dunfermline in 1624 also contributed to the decline. Damask production drifted south across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh and the surrounding area.

An industrial-scale damask hand loom (date unknown)
(picture from the Gazlay Family History site)

But a clever piece of industrial espionage brought the trade back to Dunfermline in 1718. A Dunfermline weaver called James Blake gained the confidence of the workers in a new Edinburgh damask mill at Drumsheugh, by passing himself off as a simpleton with whom they saw no harm in sharing their sophisticated weaving techniques. In a move reminiscent of a footballing injury, Blake promptly “regained” his senses and returned to Dunfermline with a complete plan of the Drumsheugh loom in his head, a design far more advanced than that of any traditional looms still working in the town. By 1766 there were 600 looms in the town, and by 1792 (when John Templeman was probably entering the industry as child labour) that figure had doubled. In the same year, mechanized spinning came to Dunfermline thanks to a water-powered spinning mill at Brucefield.

The earliest powered weaving loom mills began to appear in Dunfermline around 1835, when John was already in his 50s. So John was part of the last generation of weaving men to make damask by hand. The ancient guild, the Dunfermline Weavers Incorporation to which he and his fellow skilled craftsmen may have belonged, was wound up in 1863, just four years before John’s death. By then there were at least four spinning and weaving mills in the town, employing around 6000 workers.

Jacquard-style mechanised damask loom - an early example of computer programming, a Jacquard loom used punched cards to deliver a repeatable pattern
(picture from the Craigavon Historical Society)

The Dunfermline damask industry survived into the 1930s. But laundering, starching and ironing table linen was hard work and the decline after the First World War in the employment of domestic servants to do that work led to the eventual closure of the mills. The mechanised process lasted a little more than two hundred years in Dunfermline. But the handworked tradition, of whose final chapter my 5x great grandfather was part, had a Scottish history nearly 400 years long. Its roots in Damascus stretch back 500 more.

Saturday 24 March 2012


It’s been a while since I wrote about anyone called Austin Cooper – there are dozens of them in my Cooper tree, all taking their name from the celebrated 17th century founder of the Irish family dynasty.

Austin Cooper (1759-1830), father of Rev Austin Cooper (1804-1871), grandfather of Austin Damer Cooper (1831-1900) and great grandfather of Austin Nathaniel Cooper (1853-1898)

Austin Nathaniel Cooper’s father, grandfather and great grandfather all bore the name, although sadly ANC was the last of his particular Cooper line – his only child, a daughter, died in infancy. Austin died at the early age of 44, outlived by his father, and to be honest I don’t know much about his life. But I have been able to find more than the one widely recorded professional position which he held.

Austin Nathaniel Cooper, born 9th December 1853,married late in life. On 6th October 1893, just ahead of his 40th birthday he wed Mary Thom of Tamworth. Their only daughter died two years later on 20th November 1895, and Austin himself passed away less than three years after that on 11th July 1898.

The Royal College of Surgeons, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

The British Medical Journal of 12th August 1882 reports that Austin was one of 30 gentlemen who, “at the Court of Examiners, held on Monday July 24th and following days, … having passed their final examinations for the letters testimonial, and having made the declaration and signed the roll, were admitted licentiates” of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.

He was 28. He went into medical practice, we know, because on 29th March 1890 he is recorded as a doctor, arriving in Southampton on board the RMS Don from Buenos Ayres. The Don, formerly the SS Corcouado, was a 2400 ton ship built for the Royal Mail in 1875. It plied between Britain and South America, the West Indies and the Portuguese coast for 30 years. (Her 1890 trip from the River Plate back home was her last under Captain P. Rowsell. Was he the same Captain Rowsell who lost his life a year later when he was the last man making for shore from the Royal Mail Steamer Moselle, wrecked off Panama, from which he had heroically and safely evacuated all its passengers and crew?)

Austin Nathan Cooper on the passenger list of the RMS Don, 1890
Age 40 an exaggeration! Single, and a Doctor in Medicine

I don't know whether or not he was the ship’s doctor. (I notice that James Leeson, next on the list, is “ditto.”) But it would make sense, if he was, of his later position – Surgeon to the Great Southern and Western Railway Company of Ireland.

The GSWR ran the Dublin-Cork and Dublin-Waterford lines and operated a chain of railway hotels too. The name was preserved when, with the emergence of the Irish Free State, all the railway companies operating south of the border with Northern Ireland were amalgamated in 1924 under the banner Great Southern Railways. Much of the GSWR’s network survives as part of Iarnr√≥d Eirann’s Intercity network today.

The arms of the Great Southern and Western Railways Company

It may seem strange for a railway company to employ a surgeon, but in the days before a National Health Service it made sense for employers to take an active interest in the health of their staff. Although I can find no references to GSWR’s need for Austin’s skills (thank goodness!), there was a landmark case during his lifetime involving the GSWR which set a precedent for health in law. In Byrne v The Great Southern and Western Railway (1884), courts took their first tentative steps towards the recognition, and the evaluation, of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which had previously been regarded as too intangible for law or the medical profession to assess and value.

As usual an ancestral story raises as many questions as it answers. I’m afraid I don’t know the details of poor Byrne’s suffering. I don’t know what caused Austin’s early death. Who was his travelling companion and fellow doctor James Leeson? And what became of his wife Mary? What became of Captain Rowsell? Sometimes the interconnectedness of all things drives me mad!

Saturday 17 March 2012


I’m a rotten businessman, and if I were a bookseller I would specialise in the entirely unprofitable area of old family bibles. Besides being big beautiful old books in their own right, they are often invaluable sources of information for those researching their family tree. The fly leaf of the family bible was where you recorded births, marriages and deaths, particularly if (like my forebears) you followed a non-conformist branch of Christianity, outwith the recognised Church of England. Sometimes those hand-written notes are the only surviving evidence of the lives they report.

Of course in these secular and highly mobile times it’s almost impossible to match an old bible with those who might be interested in any of the knowledge within. People die; property is dispersed; families relocate. In my wilder and even less profitable daydreams I imagine starting a central repository or database for old bibles to help genealogists find their biblical roots. Needless to say however, this stems mostly from a selfish interest. I want to find my own family’s Holy Book.

John Salter’s 1939 transcription of the family bible entries

I am however in the tremendously lucky position of not needing to, because in 1939 my uncle John borrowed the bible from its last known owner, my great great aunt Emily Katherine Salter. Although the book itself has disappeared, I have John’s carefully typed 1939 transcription of the entries in it, eighteen family events between 1728 and 1832. Regular censuses in England didn’t begin until 1841 and information of this sort from before then is priceless.

The entries name and date four generations of my ancestors from my 5x great grandfather John Salter of Coleshill to my 2x great grandfather William Augustus Salter. In several cases the notes record wives by their maiden names. This was one of the earliest documents to set me off on my family trail, and it was a comprehensive one, opening up lots of avenues for exploration.

Eight of the entries are for deaths, including the first – “Stephen Salter, son of John Salter of Coles hill near Ammersham Bucks born 5th November 1728. Died at Watford Herts 8th June 1807 and Buried in Family Vault in Watford Baptist Meeting House.” A family vault! Seven named in the bible are buried in it or in a “new vault adjoining the old family vault of the Salters.” I just had to visit, and finally arranged a trip in 2008.

Beechen Grove Chapel, Watford (erected 1878)

The first Baptist chapel in Watford was founded in 1707. My 3x great grandfather Samuel Salter, whose birth and marriage are both recorded in the bible, served as a deacon there; and his son William Augustus Salter, raised a Baptist, was ordained as a Baptist minister. (WAS's birth is also noted in the bible.) The Watford Meeting House was renamed Beechen Grove Chapel in 1868 when a second chapel opened in the town; and the original Beechen Grove building was replaced by the present grand structure in 1878.

Unfortunately the chapel’s burial ground, and all its vaults, were demolished in 1963 to make way for a very 1960s institution, the Harlequin Shopping Mall. I would like to think that someone had at least photographed the monuments before destroying them, but repeated enquiries to Watford’s archive department have not been answered. I do know that the remains of the deceased were gathered up and reburied not far away, in the town’s sprawling Vicarage Road Cemetery.

The Salter Family Grave,
Vicarage Road Cemetery, Watford.
Not a vault.

A modest plaque is engraved: “The remains of those buried between 1721 and 1860 in the graveyard of the original Baptish church, Beechen Grove, Watford, were reverently re-interred here in October and November 1963. Further remains, being those of David Salter and his family were re-interred here on the 18th March 1974.” For the record, and according to uncle John’s transcription, the Salter remains included:
Stephen Salter (1728-1811)
John Salter (1756-1812) [son of Stephen]
Sophia Salter (1807-1808) [dau of Stephen’s son, deacon Samuel]
Stephen Salter (1809-1811) [son of Samuel]
Martha Davis (c1771-1811) [sister of Samuel’s wife Sarah]
William Salter (1770-1821) [Samuel’s brother]
Sarah Davis (c1770-1832) [Samuel’s wife]

No doubt deacon Samuel, who died in Watford in 1842, is also buried here. David Salter, who died in 1848, was William and Samuel Salter’s brother – he founded almshouses in Watford. Presumably he, his unknown wife and his two children Sarah and Samuel are all interred here now. The deaths of both Stephen the elder’s wives are recorded in the bible without burial sites, but they may well be here too – Elizabeth Lewin (d.1756), mother of John; and Sarah Groom (c1733-1798), mother of William, David and Samuel.

Sarah and Martha Davis had a sister, Maria, who married John Salter. So perhaps Maria Salter nee Davis is buried here too. Martha herself died a spinster, and it’s a sign of the closeness of the two dissenting families that she was interred in the Salter vault. That’s all I know about Martha, and it’s all thanks to the entry in the family bible.

Saturday 10 March 2012


At Christmas in 1848 my 3x great grandfather William Brodie Gurney celebrated the birth of half a dozen new grandchildren that year. This was quite a tally, even for a man who eventually had 62 of them, and 1848 became known mock-memorially in the family as The Year Of The Six Babies.

Catherine Gurney (1848-1930)

One of them was my great grandfather William Henry Gurney Salter’s cousin Katie Gurney. A deeply Christian woman, she first made her mark by starting a Bible Class in Wandsworth Prison in the early 1870s. A chance remark from one of the policemen who made safe her journey from Wandsworth back to her home in Notting Hill – “What? D’you think a police officer has a soul?” – led her to found the Christian Police Association in 1883. To accommodate the Association she opened London’s first Police Institute, a drop-in centre for comfort and conversation.

In 1889 she helped an ailing officer find a place in a convalescent home, only to see him check out again when he found his neighbour in the next bed was a violent criminal whom he had put behind bars. Katie realised the need for a dedicated sanctuary for policemen recovering from injury or illness, and founded the Southern Provincial Police Home in Brighton the following year.

St George’s House, Harrogate c1898
soon after being opened as the Northern Police Orphanage

The institution began to serve a second purpose as a home for the orphaned children of policemen, for which it soon became clear there was a very great need. Children were being sent to the south coast orphanage from as far away as Manchester in the north. In 1897 Miss Gurney arranged the purchase of St George’s House in Harrogate and a year later opened the Northern Police Orphanage there. Within the grounds she then built the Northern Police Convalescent Home.

All these institutions were paid for through the personal fund-raising efforts of Catherine Gurney amongst her friends, family and other wealthy patrons in the north and south of England. Where funding fell short, she arranged loans on which she paid the interest herself. She remained closely associated with them throughout her life. She was on hand to show him around when the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, opened a new chapel at the southern Home in 1923, and shortly before her death in 1930 she was awarded an O.B.E.

Catherine Gurney (right) with the Prince of Wales (centre left)
at the opening of the new Southern Police Orphanage chapel
27th November 1923

735 children passed through the doors of the Southern Police Orphanage from its founding in 1890 until 1939. (No doubt even more followed before its closure in 1947.) The first was James Henry Archer, five years old, from a family of seven in Leicestershire. The first admission to the Northern Orphanage in 1898 was a little girl from Sunderland called Minnie Smith; she was followed by 643 others before the institution closed in 1956.

Thousands of police officers have benefited from the convalescent homes, and continue to do so through the St George’s Trust. Attitudes to orphanages have changed, but the fatherless children of policemen are still cared for in Britain by the Gurney Fund.

Memorial to Catherine Gurney
in the chapel of the Southern Police Orphanage

Katie, who never married or had children, was born in an age when women were seen and not heard. She ignored that dictum. With the support of her relatives, and the example of her ancestors (for example her great grandmother Rebecca Brodie and her great great aunt Martha Gurney of whom I have written here), she made a difference. She still changes lives.

Saturday 3 March 2012


Thomas Cooper Gotch is today an overlooked pre-raphaelite, impressionist and realist painter, who doesn’t even gain an entry in my Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists. But during his life he was a successful artist and influential member of the Newlyn art colony in Cornwall and the New English Art Club which challenged the conservative authority of London’s Royal Academy.

Thomas Cooper Gotch (1854-1931)
Self-Portrait with Two Square Brushes (c1880)

Thomas’s 2x great grandfather was my 5x great grandfather, John Davis of Little Missenden - making TCG some sort of contemporary cousin of my great grandfather, although I don’t think they knew each other. Thomas was born in Kettering and travelled widely in Europe and Scandinavia. He lived and studied in France for a while and it was on his return in 1885, with fellow students including Stanhope Forbes, Frank Bramley, Walter Sickert and John Singer Sargent, that he co-founded the NEAC.

Forbes and Bramley were also involved with Gotch in the Newlyn School, established at around the same time. As Wikipedia puts it, “Newlyn had a number of things guaranteed to attract artists: fantastic light, cheap living, and the availability of inexpensive models.” The Newlyn group was one of several from France to California at the time who rejected studio-based painting (working from sketches made on location) in favour of painting in the open air, an art movement known by the French translation, en plein air.

A Golden Dream (1893)
by Thomas Cooper Gotch, painted en plein air

Newlyn, a small fishing village on Cornwall’s south coast, boasted tremendous natural light of course – all that sea and sky – and also provided interesting outdoor scenes of working life. Thomas was a superb painter of figures, and frequently used his own family as models in his work. But his imagination ran beyond simple real-life scenes to paintings rich with symbolism; in the aspirational A Golden Dream, the gilded apples were achieved with most unnaturalistic gold spraypaint.

Gold symbolized purity, unspoilt by the world, and Gotch often associated it with youth, as in the portrait of his daughter Phyllis, The Child Enthroned. He was a master colourist, whether working in the sharp realism of his middle period or the tonal impressionism of his final decades.

Qua-Qua (1912)
south of Johannesburg,
painted during a tour of South Africa

I’m no art critic, and too big a fan of Gotch’s work to try to do justice to it in a short blog post! Instead, I cannot recommend too highly The Golden Dream, the biography of him by his 21st century champion Pamela Lomax. It’s extremely readable, full of illustrations and very detailed about his life and work. I’m very proud to be even a remote cousin of this finest of fine artists.

The Child Enthroned (1894)
by Thomas Cooper Gotch
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