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Saturday 28 June 2014


I am about to get rid of a family heirloom. It’s a large Persian carpet, 8’6” by 10’6”, woven for the British market at the start of the twentieth century. My grandparents probably bought it new at the start of their married life together in 1915.

My parents inherited it from my widowed grandfather, probably around the time of their marriage in 1956. Their home was an old one and the carpet lay over uneven floorboards in their drawing room. Years of footsteps wore the pattern away in faded straight lines where the floorboards met in warped ridges.

After my parents’ divorce my father kept the house and the carpet. He was not a fastidious housekeeper, and as coarse grime collected in the carpet’s fibres it acted as an abrasive, rubbing away more of the colour.

By the time he passed it on to my wife and me in 1993, to furnish the first house we owned, it was already threadbare. Since then it has been with us in three subsequent homes. Time and our own erratic housekeeping have further weathered it and now it is so worn that chair legs catch in its loose strands. It’s time to say goodbye.

It’s not just its passive presence under the feet of three generations of my family that makes it an heirloom. This carpet has played a rather more active part in the life and death of the family. Some years ago I was showing an aunt a photograph of my wife at home, when the aunt exclaimed, “Oh! It’s that carpet!”

One June evening in 1950 my grandmother was doing a bit of spring-cleaning in the family home in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire. She decided to roll back the heavy carpet – this carpet – to sweep up the dust underneath it. My grandfather had a wooden leg and couldn’t help. As she crawled strenuously across the floor on her knees in the act of rolling it up, she suffered a massive heart attack which killed her in the instant. She was seventy.

My grandparents, Eleanor May Castle and Frederick Gurney Salter in the garden of Little Hill, Nettlebed, Oxfordshire in the 1930s

The story goes that my grandfather, realising that she was dead and that nothing further could be done for her, went to bed as usual that evening. He reasoned that the chores and consequences of death could keep until morning. It sounds heartless, but perhaps it was just pragmatic.

I had heard the story long ago, and never suspected that the carpet in question might have remained in the family. But I never knew my grandmother, and even after learning of its role in her death I have kept the carpet so far: even that morbid connection with her is precious. Perhaps my father and grandfather did so for the same reasons. Or perhaps they were just pragmatic. A carpet is still a carpet, whoever rolled or walked on it.

Saturday 21 June 2014


My ancestral cousin Talfourd Salter QC appeared in many cases heard at the Old Bailey in London, and verbatim transcriptions of many of them can be found online. For those not heard in the Old Bailey, we rely on newspaper articles; and I’ve just found this all too typical case of Breach of Promise reported in clear, concise prose in the Teesdale Mercury of Wednesday 3rd August 1881.

The Teesdale Mercury is still printed in Barnard Castle, as it has been since 1854 (this advertisement is from 1935)


At the Croydon Assizes, the cause of ‘Miller v Sadler’, which was an action to recover damages from the defendant for the breach of his promise to marry the plaintiff, came on for trial before Mr Justice Field and a special jury.

Mr Talfourd Salter QC and Mr Gore were counsel for the plaintiff; and Mr Kemp QC and Mr Willis QC appeared for the defendant.

Mr Talfourd Salter stated that the plaintiff, Mary Emma Miller, was about 35 years of age, and the defendant, who had formerly been a brewer, was about five years older. The husband of the plaintiff died six or seven years ago, and he left the plaintiff with one child about five years old, and some small means, but not sufficient for her maintenance.

The defendant advertised for a housekeeper, and the plaintiff answered the advertisement, but nothing came of the correspondence. In the following year the defendant again advertised for a housekeeper, and the plaintiff again came into communication with him, and in the result the defendant engaged her at a very handsome salary to act as his housekeeper.

The Teesdale Mercury in Barnard Castle today – if George Sadler was originally a Teesdale man, it would explain the Mercury’s report of his trial

Soon after, on a promise of marriage, an undue intimacy took place between the parties, but though the plaintiff expected to become a mother, defendant refused to redeem his promise. The learned counsel proceeded to state that although the parties no longer lived together, a constant correspondence was carried on between them, and he read several letters that were written by the defendant to the plaintiff, in which he addressed her as “My own dear wife,” and used language of the most affectionate kind, assuring her of his fidelity and love. The plaintiff, in her letters to the defendant, always addressed him as “My dear George” or “My dear husband,” and in one of them she begged him not to pay any attention to anonymous letters that might be shown to him by a certain person, as “she” would, no doubt, do all in her power to make mischief between them.

Mr Justice Field inquired who “she” was.

Mr Salter said he hardly knew, but he believed it was the defendant’s mother. He then went on to say that in this letter the plaintiff appeared to have requested the defendant not to leave it in his coat pocket. (A laugh.) The learned counsel read several other letters that had passed between the plaintiff and the defendant, and he said that at length the plaintiff earnestly pressed the defendant to marry her at once, and thus restore her to her proper position.

The plaintiff went to Herne Bay, where she resided in the house of a medical man until the birth of the child, which did not take place until December 27. Immediately after the birth a telegram was sent to the defendant, to inform him of the fact, and he in reply wrote to the plaintiff, addressing her as “My own dear wife,” and stating that on the receipt of the telegram he thought his heart would have stopped beating, but when he opened it and found what the contents were he felt the greatest happiness at finding that she was out of her trouble.

A young mother and her pram on Marine Parade, Herne Bay

At this time the defendant was at Nice, and it was proposed that the plaintiff should join him there, and that the marriage should then take place. It turned out, however, that by the law of that country it was necessary that the parties should have resided there three months before they could be legally married, and it was then proposed that the marriage should be celebrated at the British Embassy at Paris.

After this, however, the defendant then refused, either through the interference of some of his relatives or from some other cause, positively to fulfil his promise; and the plaintiff had, consequently been compelled to bring the present action to recover compensation for the injury she had sustained in consequence of the defendant’s breach of the contract he had entered into.

Mr Justice Field, at the close of the speech of the learned counsel, said it appeared to him impossible to doubt that there had been a promise of marriage, and the defendant had certainly refused to fulfil that promise. He suggested, therefore, that it was a case in which the parties might come to some arrangement.

The learned counsel on both sides accordingly conferred together for a short time, when it was announced that the defendant consented to a verdict for the plaintiff, with £500 damages.

The Old Palace, Croydon, in which judges like Mr Justice Field stayed while hearing the Assizes

I’ve been unable so far to learn any more about the fates of Mary Emma Miller, George Sadler or their unidentified child. £500 was a large sum in 1881, which George seems to have offered readily; and I hope it cushioned the child’s childhood against the absence of his father.

Saturday 14 June 2014


The reputation for accuracy of the Gurney shorthand system invented by my 5x great grandfather Thomas Gurney was won in the law courts of the eighteenth century. I wonder sometimes what Thomas would have made of the fact that the system which he developed in order to record Baptist sermons proved itself in the reporting of sensational court hearings, which Thomas’s children Joseph and Martha then published to pander to the public’s lust for lurid detail.

Joseph Gurney (1744-1815)

Between 1772 and 1786 they published over twenty accounts of the more scandalous trials of the day. The fullness and accuracy of their transcriptions won them a good name for difficult work, and the family firm began to be engaged either by interested private organisations or by the government to record proceedings in parliamentary enquiries and committees. In time this led to the family firm’s appointment as official shorthand writers to the Houses of Parliament.

One of the first such trials to be recorded by Joseph Gurney was that of Frederick Calvert, 6th Baron Baltimore (1731-1771). His formal title was “The Right Honourable The Lord Baltimore,” but there was absolutely nothing to honour in this despicable man.

Frederick Calvert, 6th Baron Baltimore (1731-1771)

Educated at Eton, Calvert inherited the proprietorship and governorship of the colony of Maryland at the age of twenty, on the death of his father. The Barons Baltimore had owned Maryland since the time of Frederick’s great great grandfather Caecillius Calvert. He, the 2nd Baron, named the settlement of Baltimore in the colony after the family’s manor in Ireland. Frederick County in the state is named after the 6th Baron, who took no other interest in the colony at all. To him it was just a source of income to fund his extravagant, rakish lifestyle in Europe.

He had as little regard for women as he did for his responsibilities in America. His marriage was a failure, and his wife of five years died in 1758 from injuries sustained when she “fell” from an open carriage in which her husband was also travelling. Foul play was suspected but not proved.

In Constantinople, James Boswell recorded, Calvert “lived luxuriously and inflamed his blood … and was constantly taking medicines …he is living a strange, wild, life, useless to his country, except when raised to a delirium, and must soon destroy his constitution.” He was thrown out of Constantinople on suspicion of keeping a private harem, and on his return he built one in part of his London home. He kept a string of mistresses, one of whom later wrote Memoirs of the Seraglio of the Bashaw of Merryland, by a Discarded Sultana. In it she claimed that he was as ineffective in bed as he was in Maryland. But he left a trail of illegitimate children, none of whom he supported.

Sarah Woodcock Forcibly Introduced to Lord Baltimore –
a contemporary engraving of Frederick Calvert’s crime

The event that brought him to court in 1768, and to the shorthand skills of Joseph Gurney, was the alleged abduction and rape of a London milliner called Sarah Woodcock. Like many rapists, his defence was that she had consented; and the jury agreed that she had not tried hard enough to escape. Calvert was acquitted; but his reputation in England was destroyed and he left for Europe, never to return.

His arrival in Vienna is recorded: “In 1769 my Lord was travelling with eight women, a physician, and two negroes, which he called his corregidores, who were entrusted with the discipline of his little seraglio. When the chief of police requested him to declare which of the eight ladies was his wife, he replied that he was an Englishman, and that when he was called upon to give an account of his sexual arrangements, if he could not settle the matter with his fists, it was his practice to set out instantly on his travels again.” He died of a fever in Naples two years after that, aged 39, mourned by few. The Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine reported:
His Lordship had injured his character in his life by seduction, so that the populace paid no regard to his memory when dead, but plundered the room where his body lay the moment it was removed.

The TRIAL of FREDERICK CALVERT, Esq., Baron of Baltimore, in the Kingdom of Ireland FOR a Rape on the Body of Sarah Woodcock, AND OF Eliz. Griffinburg, & Ann Harvey, Otherwise Darby, as ACCESSARIES Before the Fact, for Procuring, Aiding and Abetting Him in Committing the Said Rape
(an Edinburgh publication of a transcription of the trial)

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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