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Saturday 25 July 2015


My grandmother May Salter née Castle died before I was born, and yet it is through her that I have some of my best ancestral material. She was close to her widowed aunt Ada, and often visited her at Frome Lodge in Bristol. When Ada’s last surviving daughter Mary died in 1940, May was one of Mary’s executors. She inherited the writing case belonging Mary’s father, May’s uncle Charles Castle, which contained a hundred letters written by family members in the mid-nineteenth century. When May died in 1950, the case passed to her son my uncle John; and after John’s death in 1984 his widow gave the contents of the case to me, along with a wealth of May’s own correspondence and photographs.

So May is very much alive to me, although I know very little of her life beyond her role as wife to my grandfather. I have childhood letters between her and her brothers. But what was her education? How did she spend her time before her marriage at the age of thirty-five?

Eleanor May Castle (1880-1950), centre, and friends, c1900

One source I have for clues is her books, many of which I found in my father’s library after his death in 2008. He idolised his father at the expense of his mother, whom he once described to me as “a jumped-up grocer’s daughter who married above herself.” But his bookshelves contained many volumes once owned by her or given by her to his father. People of my grandparents’ pre-television generation were in general better read than we are today, but it looks as if my father’s literary education owes at least as much to his mother as to his solicitor father.

Her interests were broad. I know she liked contemporary literature in the form of the Russian authors newly translated into English; and contemporary verse such as the emerging Georgian poetry movement. Her brother Tudor was himself a poet and friend of the Bloomsbury Group, and it was through Tudor that May met her future husband Fred Salter. You could say that it was a marriage founded on poetry.

In contrast to her modern tastes, May also owned a beautiful edition of a book first published in 1650. More than any other of her books it hints at her character, inasmuch as it is a pious book of instruction for moral living. It is The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living by Jeremy Taylor, still regarded as one of the finest examples of prose writing in the English language more than 350 years after it first appeared.

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), title page of the 1900 JM Dent edition of The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living

Jeremy Taylor was chaplain in ordinary to Charles I (in other words, official chaplain in the king’s household), a position which got him into trouble under the puritan regime which followed the Civil War. He was imprisoned several times both before and after the publication of Holy Living, but produced a steady stream of work throughout those years. Eventually he was allowed to live quietly, a safe distance from power and influence in London – first in Wales and later in Ireland where, after the restoration of the monarchy, he became bishop of Down and Connor, and vice-chancellor of the University of Dublin.

I’m no literary critic, no theologian, not even a Christian; but Taylor’s text flows easily. It is prescriptive but not thunderous, firm but compassionate. On chastity for example he writes:
Chastity is either abstinence or continence; abstinence is that of virgins or widows, continence of married persons. Chaste marriages are honourable and pleasing to God; widowhood is pitiable in its solitariness and loss, but amiable and comely when it is adorned with gravity and purity; … but virginity is a life of angels, the enamel of the soul … ; and being empty of cares, it is full of prayers; being unmingled with the world, it is apt to converse with God.

May Castle’s copy of The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living

May signed and dated her copy “EMC Easter 1905”. It’s a two-volume edition produced by J.M. Dent in 1900, and printed in Edinburgh by Colston & Co Ltd. Colston deserve some recognition. There had been Colstons trading as stationers and printers from the same address at East Rose Street in Edinburgh since at least 1715, and they continued to trade well into the twentieth century. If May’s copy of Taylor is anything to go by, they were excellent craftsmen: her two volumes are bound in beautiful olive-green leather embossed in gold with an owl, the symbol of wisdom. The spines are dried and cracked with much use and contemplation, but the fine lettering spelling out the title and author is still legible 110 years after May first read them.

Saturday 18 July 2015


Paul Brasier, who first brought the Brasier family to Ireland, is an ancestor by marriage. (His great grandson Kilner Brasier married Elizabeth Massy, a granddaughter of my 8x great grandfather Hugh Massy!) Paul was part of the Ulster Plantation, the largest of the mass settlements of Protestant Englishmen and women in Catholic Ireland for the purpose of suppressing revolt against British rule, which took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Apart from his place in the family tree we don’t know a great deal about Paul. He arrived in Ireland in 1611 and settled in Coleraine, a fortified town founded by his fellow settlers (known as undertakers because they undertook the settlement mission) on behalf of the Corporation of London. Operating as The Honourable The Irish Society the corporation established the new city of Londonderry at the same time. 

One of sixteen archive boxes containing the remains of the Irish Society’s Great Parchment Book

Much of what we do know comes from an extraordinary survival. Most of the Irish Society’s early records were destroyed in a fire in London’s Guildhall in 1786. A survey of the Society’s estates in Co Derry undertaken in 1639 survived, but its parchment pages were so badly warped, shrivelled and damaged as to be completely unreadable. Despite that, it was kept in the archives because of its rarity and historic value.

In 2010, as the quatercentenary of the building of Londonderry’s defensive walls in 1613 approached, an ambitious project was launched to restore the Great Parchment Book and make it readable. Restoration alone could not smooth the crumpled pages enough. University College London developed some innovative corrective imaging techniques to straighten out the text digitally, finally revealing detail of the lives and works of the undertakers which had been lost for over two hundred years. The whole thing, images and transcriptions, is available online with an index of people, places and organisations – a wonderful resource. 

Paul Brasier’s name occurs several times in the book, principally as a member of a consortium commissioned by the Crown to build a riverside wharf in Coleraine. The book records in some detail the terms and conditions of the commission. It must be a minimum size,
from the full sea or high water mark down into the said river sixty foot at least and twenty foot at least in breadth, and the said quay or wharf shall be walled on the outsides next the water with good, sufficient, and strong timber
and the consortium must not use cheap materials; they
shall laid forth and expend in and about the building and making of the said wharf forty pounds sterling at the least.

Coleraine quay c1890

In return for building this commercial asset to the town, the consortium could run and develop the quayside facilities
at their proper costs and their dues, to make, erect, build, and fully finish one crane and cranehouse on any such part of the aforesaid wharf as shall be most convenient
and thereby, it was to be hoped, make their money back; they
shall have and hold all profits, commodities, duties, and payments belonging to the said quay, wharf, and crane for the term of one and twenty years from the feast of Phillip and Jacob now last past, for and under the yearly rent of forty shillings sterling for the last twenty years of the said one and twenty years payable unto his Majesty, his heirs and successors.

Coleraine quay c1980, before redevelopment as a branch of Dunnes Stores

So the King was getting his cut. And that was the purpose of the Great Parchment Book. Charles I, whose predecessor James VI/I had started the Ulster Plantation, needed money and confiscated the Irish Society’s Ulster holdings after accusing it of not paying the Crown its due. The book was a record by the King's Commissioners of what was taxable, what could (in today's terms) be monetised. Undertakers now found themselves with meaningless titles and astronomical rents to pay to the Crown, and many returned to mainland Britain in disgust.

It sounds as if Paul Brasier and his partners were hoping to profit by doing business with the new regime. It is certainly true that, at the same time that disillusioned undertakers were leaving the plantation, the Brasier family’s land holdings now began to increase. In 1649 he received a further grant of land in Ulster, presumably not from Charles I who had been beheaded in January that year but from Charles’ executioner Oliver Cromwell. It is tempting to speculate that Paul was being rewarded for having survived the gruesome massacres of Protestant settlers in the Irish uprising of 1641 – an uprising which my 8x great grandfather Hugh Massy helped to suppress, and massacres for which Cromwell would exact a terrible revenge.

Saturday 11 July 2015


I am frustrated by Richard William Ralph Sadleir (1819-1876) and his family who, in a century obsessed with leaving its mark for posterity and recording everything, have left almost no record of themselves. Worse than that, it is beginning to appear that they left almost no descendents either. Can it really be that I and my few siblings are genetically all that remain of my great great grandfather?

His was a family on its way down. In 1854 he was forced to sell the family’s estates in County Tipperary following the collapse of the Tipperary Bank – a financial disaster caused by his own cousin John Sadleir’s reckless and fraudulent dealing in bogus shares. The impoverished and embarrassed Sadleirs moved to England to begin a new life on Merseyside. My great great grandfather invested unwisely in the new chemical industry of the region. When his business partner fled, the former Tipperary landowner ended his days as a bank clerk in Toxteth.

Sadleirswells, where my great grandmother was born,
home of the Sadleirs until 1854

Of his five children, my great grandmother Eleanor Octavia Wilhelmina Sadleir had three children, only one of whom (Eleanor May Castle) had children of her own – three again, of whom only my father Charles Henry Salter had children. RWRS’s other two daughters Margarita and Alicia never married, one son Richard married too late in life to have children; and the other, Eyre, died single and down on his luck in Belfast in late 1901.

Or so I thought. I went in search of Eyre and found him in the April 1901 census, unmarried, a paying guest at an inn in Walsall. Then I looked for a death date, and found it, late 1901, among the BMDs - the Births, Marriages and Deaths columns. Typical Sadleir, I thought, decessit sine prole – died without issue (which is how genealogists say died childless) like the rest of my great grandmother’s siblings.

Only, it wasn’t a D, it was an M. In fearing the worst I had found what I was looking for, not what was there. In the final quarter of 1901 Eyre Cooper Sadleir got married, not buried. His new wife was Elizabeth Dawson Milligan (b. 1883), a Belfast girl half his age who worked like the rest of her family in Belfast’s internationally important linen industry.

 Ewart’s Linen Factory, Belfast, 1897
Steam power turned its wheels and shafts

Eyre was by trade a steam pipe fitter, and it was surely this that took him from his native Lancashire to Belfast. The linen mills needed power, and they got it from steam engines. It was the city’s expertise in steam engineering which helped it to become a major centre for ship-building by the beginning of the twentieth century. I don’t know precisely when he moved to Belfast, but it made sense to move to a city of such opportunity. If the move came after the April 1901 census (when he was in Walsall), it would make for a whirlwind courtship of Elizabeth. From Walsall pub in April to Belfast marriage in December is only nine months, and I fear it may have been a shotgun wedding.

A single-cylinder steam engine used in the linen industry,
manufactured c1900 by Victor Coates & Co, Belfast
[now in the wonderful Steam Museum at Straffan, Co Kildare]

It’s surprising to find Eyre ten years later on the April 1911 census, still in Belfast, describing himself as an unemployed steam fitter. Demand for his skills can never have been higher than then. Mass-produced cotton goods didn’t begin to threaten the city’s linen industry until after the First World War; and the shipyards were busier than ever. In December 1908 the city’s (and the world’s) biggest yard, Harland & Wolff, began work on a new commission from the White Star Line, the construction of three Olympic class liners. At the height of their construction over the next six years the yard was employing 15,000 men. Surely there was work for Eyre on the Olympic, the Britannic or the Titanic?

Steering engine for the TSS Olympic – her sister ship the Titanic had two such steam engines – to turn a rudder which weighed over 100 tons. Other even larger engines drove the propellors themselves.

Eyre died in Lisburn in 1920, having made, as far as I can tell, no other mark in life than his census returns and his marriage. But I’ve been wrong before. And there is one way, I now know, in which he did leave a legacy. In the 1911 census return Eyre Cooper Sadleir declares that as well as being an unemployed steam fitter, he is a father – to two children both then still living, cousins of my grandmother. Perhaps I and my siblings are not alone after all.

Saturday 4 July 2015


The nineteenth century is the century when we became obsessed with keeping records, marking our achievements and our contributions to society. It’s all wonderful material now for anyone researching their nineteenth century ancestors. The fact that I can find almost nothing about my great great grandfather Richard William Ralph Sadleir (1819-1876) is frustrating in the midst of so much readily available data. It seems almost an insult to his sketchy memory. But for the time being I know I am beaten when – in any Google search of his name – it is only articles from this blog that come up!

His immediate family have been no easier to flesh out, not even Eleanor, the daughter who became my great grandmother. As for the next generation, Eleanor’s four siblings were not only obscure but unproductive of descendants. Her two sisters Margarita (c1850-1930) and Alicia (1855-1921), like so many of their era, were required at home as companions to their widowed mother and stayed on the shelf after she died in 1906. Then both in their 50s, they remained maiden aunts until their deaths.

St Silas Church, Toxteth, 
bombed 1940, demolished 1954, consecrated in 1865 
around the time the Sadleir family moved to the area

Of her two brothers, Richard Ralph lived a bachelor’s life with (I suspect) some adventures. Growing up in Toxteth on Merseyside, he was by the age of 17 a ship’s broker’s apprentice, before frustratingly disappearing from the radar. Forty years later in 1911 he re-emerged in County Wexford, still unmarried, describing himself as a retired prospector! Where had he been? What had he done? I cannot find him anywhere.

But surprisingly in 1913 he finally got married, at the age of 59. He was back on Merseyside and his 50-year old bride Mary Elizabeth Frances Louise Kennedy had been in the same position as his sisters, stuck at home with a widowed parent. Mary’s mother  died only the year before her wedding: Mary was free at last to marry, and one wonders how long she and Richard had waited for this opportunity. Were they childhood friends? In 1871 during Richard’s apprenticeship Mary was living in Sheffield, eighty miles away, so perhaps not. But were their families old friends? Mary’s parents were married in 1849 in Clonmel, County Tipperary, just thirty miles from Sadleirswells, the Sadleir family home which Richard’s father had to sell in 1854 (the year Richard was born); and the families were certainly in the same social circle.

Sadleirswells, in Co Tipperary

1849 was an interesting year to be in Clonmel. It was the focus of international attention when it became the scene of the trials of the Young Irelanders whose rebellion at the height of the Great Irish Famine the previous year had failed. The uprising, known locally as the Battle of Widow McCormack's Cabbage Plot, was not on the same scale as other European revolutions of that year, in Budapest, Paris and elsewhere. In Clonmel the local police force defeated the rebels, but Mary’s father Major Hugh Kennedy, an officer in the Royal Marines, may well have had a hand in their suppression. 

Mary and Richard’s late wedding was very much a family affair. All four of the couple’s parents were dead; but the officiating minister, in Christ Church in Birkenhead, was Mary’s reverend brother Hugh. And the witnesses were William Henry Castle (Eleanor’s husband, Richard’s brother in law, my great grandfather), Alicia Sadleir (Richard’s sister), Alexander Kennedy (another of Mary’s brothers) and Kathleen Mary Knight (who I’m guessing was the matron of honour).

Christ Church, Claughton, Birkenhead as proposed in 1846 – slightly amended, it opened for worship in 1849, the year Mary Kennedy’s parents were married. Mary Kennedy and Richard Sadleir were married there in 1913.

Marrying so late in life, there were naturally no children from Mary and Richard’s union. And so it seemed that I and my brothers and sisters were the only living descendents of my great great grandfather Sadleir, because Eleanor’s fourth sibling, Richard’s younger brother Eyre, died, like his spinster sisters, unmarried.

Or so I thought. Then this morning I discovered a transcription error in my  research notes about Eyre. More in the following blog!
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