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Saturday 29 March 2014


I am part of the diaspora of the Tough family. In various spellings and pronunciations, the name comes reputedly from Norman knights called De Touche who fought alongside William the Conqueror. The name may have been given to the knights by their English opponents – one source suggests it comes from an Old English word “toh,” meaning “vigorous, steadfast or stubborn.” I’m proud to be toh.

By the fourteenth century their descendants had settled in the northeast of Scotland around Aberdeen. It was there, at Kirkton of Tough, that Aberdeen Angus beef cattle were first raised. Through time my ancestors began to spread southwards in search of work, and my own direct line echoes the experience of working men and women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Kirkton of Tough, near Alford, Aberdeenshire

First they became tenant farmers in the fertile plains of Stirlingshire. Later they adopted the new technologies of the industrial revolution, becoming roadside blacksmiths, enginemen and ironworkers. As education spread among the working classes, so my great grandfather John Scott Tough became a clerk in the ironworks instead of a manual worker. And his son Jack became a doctor, a pioneering plastic surgeon.

Other branches of my Tough ancestry acquired new trades. The family of the surgeon’s cousins moved into the city of Glasgow and pursued a related career, as butchers! Residents of Clydebank still remember the slogan over the shop door on Kilbowie Road – “If it’s Tough’s, it’s Tender!” And of course they sold Aberdeen Angus beef.

Tough’s the butcher was on Kilbowie Road in Clydebank near the Singer railway station (which is on the left in this 1930s view) – perhaps it was that striped awning on the right

Tough is a great name for a slogan in some businesses, perhaps not others. The butcher turned it to his advantage; and for Alexander Tough & Co, of the Clyde Ropeworks in Greenock (opposite Clydebank across the River Clyde) it should have been a positive boon to its advertising. In fact the family firm, founded by Alexander Tough in 1796, seems only to have woken up to the fact in 1961, the year they changed their name to Tough Ropes.

By the time Tough Ropes closed down in 1979, it was the last firm in Scotland making ropes for marine and land-based industry. It remained in Tough family ownership throughout its 183 year history, surviving and adapting to the changing demands of the shipping world. In its lifetime it saw high-rigged sailing ships vanish in favour of steam; coastal shipping decline with the advent of trains and motor cars; hemp give way to nylon; and wars once fought by navies being conducted by air forces.

Clyde Ropeworks were one of several along the Clyde estuary which grew to serve the ship-building industry there – these ones were at neighbouring Gourock

The Second World War was perhaps its finest hour. By then Alexander Tough’s great great grandson George Hughes Tough was at the helm. The demand for naval rope was at its highest, while the supply of raw materials from the Far East was disrupted. The Clyde estuary was a frequent target of German air raids and both Greenock and Clydebank suffered enormously from blitz bombardment. The Clyde Ropeworks were themselves damaged in May 1941 (and elsewhere their London office and their Cardiff stores were completely destroyed). But within two days they were back in production, using substitute materials when imported ones were no longer available and – their justifiably proud boast – meeting every order placed with them, with not a single coil of rope rejected. Toh indeed!

Saturday 22 March 2014


Thomas Woollgar was my great aunt Helen Verrall’s great great grandfather and a man after my own heart, so fascinated by so many things that he found it hard to settle on any one thing. His was a constantly enquiring mind. A draper to trade, he taught himself medicine and natural history in his time off and was a compulsive student of the past and present of his town, Lewes in Sussex.

Lewes, Sussex, painted by JWM Turner in c1796

He wrote everything down. His observations of local botany, his transcriptions of monumental inscriptions and ancient records, even the names and trades of everyone living in Lewes – the surviving notes in his neat handwriting, bound in huge leather-bound volumes, are now in the care of Sussex Archaeological Society. The books, known as Specilegia Lewensis (a Lewes Miscellany), form a priceless snapshot of the place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Only a generation after the pioneering naturalist Gilbert White, Woollgar's botanical collections were the earliest studies of the area’s ecology and fossil-rich geology. A year after his death his friend and fellow naturalist Gideon Mantell named a locally occurring ammonite, Collignoniceras woollgari, in his honour.

Collignoniceras woollgari, discovered in lower chalk deposits around Lewes by Gideon Mantell in 1822

Thomas was a founder member of the Lewes Library Society, one of the thirteen people who on 1st January 1786 chipped in half a crown each (12.5 pence) and a monthly subscription of a shilling (5p) to set up nothing less than a temple to the arts and sciences built of printed words. Members could nominate books for the library to purchase with their subscription fees, and by 1824 the collection contained some 3400 volumes for a membership which now numbered 92. Gideon Mantell signed up in 1789.

From the start it had lofty aims. No type of publication was expressly excluded, but as Gideon noted in 1824,
A taste for light reading seems rather to have gained ground among the members, which is perhaps mainly to be attributed to the excessive popularity of the works of “the author of Waverley.” [The first of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels appeared in 1814.] It is to be hoped that the leading members of the establishment, will always exert themselves to prevent the character and importance of the collection from being lessened by too great an influx of works of mere imagination. That this institution should ever become assimilated to a common circulating library, would be a matter of sincere regret.

1839 Fisher edition of the Magnum Opus, the collected Waverley novels: pulp fiction to Gideon Mantell, but they did look good on the shelves

Thomas Woollgar served as the library’s second president from the early 1800s until his death in 1821. By then the joining fee had risen to six guineas (£6.30), and the monthly subscription to five crowns (£1.25). Thomas’s tenure was marred by unproven accusations of his financial impropriety. He was succeeded by a Lewes upholsterer, William Verrall, another founder member of the society and another ancestor of my great aunt Helen.

And lest you think that it was all dry-as-dust high literature and learned non-fiction for those early readers, I can tell you that romance blossomed among the shelves of their first-floor library in Lewes High Street. It was announced in 1794 that two founder members were to wed – Thomas Woollgar and Anne Webb, “a woman of most amiable character” according to Gideon. Thomas was made a partner by his employer as a wedding gift, but four years later resigned to pursue knowledge fulltime. Anne died in 1815, and "her removal [wrote Gideon] caused a blank in Thomas’s enjoyments that even time could not supply." They were reunited by Thomas’s death only six years later. The Society continued until 1897 when its books were donated to Lewes's new public library.

Saturday 15 March 2014


My great grandfather’s cousin Alice Maria Grey was the only surviving child of parents who had both died before her eighth Christmas. She was 87 when she died and must have made a life and a world for herself. But the blunt outline of her life in dates and places is a sad and solitary one.

She was an orphan who bounced from pillar to post for the last eighty years of her life, with no roots or family of her own. She is, in the available census returns,

  • 1861, a nine-year old schoolgirl boarding with the widow Blunt in Hackney
  • 1871, with her half-sister Helen visiting Helen’s maiden aunt Martha Kingsbury
  • 1881, visiting her cousin William Gurney Jameson
  • 1891, in her own home in Lambeth
  • 1901, visiting William’s unmarried sisters Alice and Evangeline Jameson
  • 1911, in her own home in Leatherhead
In 1896 she was one of the Guardians of the Lambeth workhouse. We know this because she made the pages of the Daily Mail that year. The article on Monday 26th October, headlined THE PAUPER’S PIPE – LIFE IN LAMBETH WORKHOUSE, examined the problem of universal benefit, ten years before Liberal reforms ushered in the welfare state in Britain. Being a Daily Mail article it also sought to inflame its readers’ passions with the spectre of squandered ratepayers’ money.

Lambeth Workhouse

Men in the workhouse were not required to do work beyond the age of sixty. But in fact many of them were still able to do so with useful skills, and they were granted a perk in the form of a ration of tobacco. In time the perk was extended to all men over sixty, whether they could work or not. There was a further accidental extension of the franchise because elderly-looking men in their late fifties also began to claim the benefit. And then non-smoking sexagenarians felt they were losing out and started to claim the tobacco and to sell it on.

Next, the old women of the workhouses complained that they were not eligible, and were granted a comparable perk in the form of snuff, which they called “the sneeshin’ stuff.” The snuff-taking habit then spread amongst the older women; and then young women learned the habit by association, giving the non-snuff-taking older women a ready market for their claimed but unwanted snuff allowance. As the Daily Mail reporter observed to one of Alice Grey’s fellow Guardians, “So, as one might say, you have established an Academy of Snuff-Taking?” “Something unpleasantly like it,” the Guardian replied.

Women in the Lambeth Workhouse

The cost of supplying the snuff and tobacco had risen in the course of just three years from £120 per annum to £290. More efficient policing of the claimants would require extra staff, “and then the ratepayers would have their backs up immediately.” Nearly 120 years later as the NHS is crippled by staff cuts in the name of the taxpayer, how much has changed?

The intrepid Mail reporter then turned to Alice Grey, “a lady of generous instinct and of sound common sense,” who was in favour of a means- and needs-tested approach. She believed that “men who have drunk themselves into the workhouse are entitled to food and shelter but not to luxuries.” She thought snuff-taking a dirty habit and was a supporter of the workhouse board’s Rev Jephson, who advocated giving sweets instead of snuff. “Indeed,” she noted, “Sweets versus Snuff was a subject of keen debate for a time.”

Alice was altogether against handing out snuff. “When it was first mooted at the Board meeting a few years ago, I had just got upon my feet to oppose energetically the encouragement of the habit. Fortunately I saw just in time that a large snuff-box was passing down the table from member to member, and so, of course, I sat down and said nothing.”

Was her own childhood, boarded out to Widow Blunt, the reason she became a workhouse guardian? One of the best known former inmates of Lambeth workhouse was a very young Charlie Chaplin, born in 1889, who was there at some point between 1896 and 1898 and certainly came under Alice Grey’s guardianship. The Lambeth workhouse buildings now house the Cinema Museum.

Saturday 8 March 2014


This is a sad, small story. My 3x great aunt Maria Gurney was born on 14th August 1823, while her father William Brodie Gurney was otherwise engaged. He was the official shorthand writer to the Houses of Parliament, and at the time of the birth of Maria, the last of his eleven children, he was reporting on the sittings of a royal Commission in Dublin (then still part of the United Kingdom). He didn’t get to see the new baby until December.

Fathers were much more hands-off then of course. Gurney was by the standards of his day very much a family man, as his grandson (my great grandfather) recalled in describing one of the great jovial Victorian family Christmasses which Gurney used to host. Following his wife’s death in 1828, in a time before photography, Gurney commissioned a popular watercolourist of the day called Clack to paint portraits of all eight of his surviving children.

Amelia Gurney (1820-1893) and Maria Gurney (1823-1858)
painted by Clack in around 1830
Of those eight children five were girls; and of those five, three married reverend gentlemen. Gurney was as active in the nation’s religious life as in its political one. He was a devout Baptist and office bearer in many of the principal Baptist institutions of the day including the board of Stepney College, which trained at least two of his sons-in-law for the cloth.

Maria, as if to make up for being the youngest, married not one but two ministers. In Brixton on 11th Oct 1848 she tied the knot with the Rev Henry Campbell Grey, the vicar of St John’s, Trent Vale near Stoke on Trent. Grey was a learned man, with an MA from Corpus Christi, who had begun his ecclesiastical career as a deacon in Durham Cathedral, serving later the northeastern parishes of Wooler in Northumberland and Jarrow in Co Durham.

St John the Evangelist, Trent Vale, consecrated in 1844,
the year before Rev Henry Campbell Grey became its vicar

Grey was not a Baptist but what Baptists called a Churchman, a member of the Church of England. Nevertheless he found favour with Gurney as a son in law through his father’s reputation. Henry Grey senior was a prominent Scottish Presbyterian minister, a staunch Protestant who had joined the Free Church of Scotland after the schism of 1843. At that time Grey resigned from his charge of the beautiful St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh’s new Town, and built a new church elsewhere in the parish for worship according to the Free Church doctrine. Gurney approved of him because he was a man of principle, particularly in his support for the abolition of slavery in the West Indies, a campaign very close to Gurney hearts.

Maria and Henry junior settled into vicarage life in Trent Vale, where their daughter Alice was born in 1851. But a year later, Maria lost her second baby, a son Henry; and a year after that her husband died suddenly in St Leonard’s on Sea, Sussex having recently taken up a post as vicar of Watling, perhaps to escape the unhappy memories of the death of his son. Both his parents outlived him.

Rev Henry Grey the elder (1778-1859)
who outlived his son Rev Henry Campbell Grey (1814-1854)
Following the death of her son and her husband, Maria’s father William Brodie Gurney died only a year later in 1855 – her mother had died when she was five. In 1856 on the Isle of Wight Maria remarried, becoming the wife of another Church of England vicar, the Rev Thomas Luck Kingsbury.

Luck was his mother’s maiden name. He served a succession of parishes in Wiltshire, and their daughter Helen Mary Kingsbury was born in Savernake Forest in that county in 1858. But during Helen’s birth, poor Maria died. Luck was not hers: in the space of five years she lost a son, a husband, a father and her own life.

Maria Gurney sketched in 1847, a year before her first marriage

Kingsbury never remarried, and died in 1899 (by coincidence in the same Sussex town as Maria’s first husband). Helen survived her birth and accepted the fate of so many spinster daughters of widowed fathers, staying at home to care for him until his death. She died unmarried in 1929. Alice Maria Grey, Maria’s first daughter, lived until 1938. She too never married, and hers is perhaps the saddest story of all, living till nearly ninety but orphaned before her eighth Christmas. But in 1896 she made the pages of the Daily Mail, in a story which you can read in another post, here.
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