Sarah Woodall

My marginalia and some of the things that I do

just a doodle

Appropriate verse

In Hull on Friday for the funeral of my lovable though sometimes difficult aunt, who was keen on poetry, and particularly on the local product. Which set a recurring theme for the day, starting with one cousin’s reading at the crematorium,

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said …

and ending, after many hours of revisiting family history and several bottles of good red wine, with a spontaneous rousing chorus of

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Not that it was a morbid day. There were spring flowers everywhere and we basked in spring sunshine, and there was a new baby to admire. And a great deal that was very good to celebrate in the family history, too.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

I’m very glad I went. I don’t see my cousins often, but they are important to me, and it’s lovely to see the next generations of their families flourishing (so far nobody other than me has actually followed Larkin’s advice on the question of reproduction). The whole day formed a fitting send-off for a vivid, complicated and often wonderfully entertaining aunt. A hangover the next morning seemed a small price to pay.

Déjà vu

These are notes for what might become an essay one day. It’s a big theme and I’m not sure I will ever write it up properly. The elements are:

  • Chapter 12 of Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: ‘In oval mirrors we drive around’: on experiencing a sense of déjà vu;
  • My own experiences of revisiting, after an interval of three(?) years, the half-remembered city of Lecce (‘I went in there—I’m sure I did—and there’s something to see in there, something quite grand, I think …’);
  • A visual illusion—an infinite regression—caused by two not-quite-parallel mirrors (see photo), which in turn reminded me (déjà vu!) of …
  • The downstairs front room in my grandmother’s house, long ago: the ‘shop’, as it was still called, though it hadn’t really been one for years—where there was just such an arrangement of mirrors, endlessly delightful to small children, and presumably also, though in a quieter way, to the ladies of Abergavenny in former days as the fit of their tailored costumes was altered (Granma with a mouthful of pins, measuring, tugging, adjusting with a confident hand—as she still did for us as children, though I never saw her with her paying customers).

Family history

[ I haven’t posted much lately. Lots going on but it’s not really blog material. Meanwhile the following might be of interest. I wrote it a few months ago for one of my nieces, who was doing a school project on family history. I’ve checked with my immediate relatives and nobody can think of any reason not to post it here. ]

I heard you’re doing a project on family history and I’ve been thinking about what sort of thing you might want to know. Here are some of my thoughts. Remember that these (especially the “general ideas” that I’ve written first) are only one person’s ideas, and other people might have different ideas. It would be good to check with other people rather than just believing everything I have written.

General ideas about our family

In this section I’m going to write down some general things that I think are unusual about our family when I compare it with some other families. I’m very interested in patterns, so when I am thinking about history I look for things that happen over again in similar ways, so that they make a sort of pattern in time. (Sometimes I might go too far with this, though – I might think that things are following a pattern when actually they aren’t.)

I don’t know the whole history, of course, but I have heard quite a lot of stories about people from four or five generations of the family, so these ideas are based on those stories.

Moving to new places

The first unusual thing is that our family doesn’t have its roots in one special place. Some people, when you ask them to tell you their family history, will talk about a place (or perhaps a few places). They’ll say “That’s where we come from.” Even if they live in a different place themselves, they feel that there is a special place (a house, or a village, or a city) where their family really “belongs”.

Our family isn’t like that. In most generations, after our ancestors grew up they decided to move away to a different place to live. Nowadays lots of people do this, but in past times it was not such a normal thing to do. Our family was ahead of the times! I like to think that this is because they were clever people. They looked around at the world, and thought about what they could do best themselves, and moved to a place where they could make the best use of their own abilities.

Of course, the sad thing about all this moving around was that quite a lot of the children grew up without having relatives nearby. In other families (like part of my husband’s family, for example) there were cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents all living a short walk away.

On the other hand, a good thing about it was that they had relatives a long distance away, so they could go and visit them, and learn about how things were different in other places.

Here’s a suggestion for your project. Make a map of Britain and mark all the places where people in our family have lived. You could even draw arrows from one place to another to show how people moved. This might be quite an interesting bit of the project.

Women who do interesting things

In many families, the family history is really a history of just the men. The women only come into the story because they are the daughter, or the wife, or the mother of a man who did something interesting. They didn’t do interesting things themselves. In our family it’s not like that. The women were often in charge and made the decisions about what to do. I like that (because I’m a woman!).

Getting involved with politics

Several people in our family, particularly on Granddad’s side, have been very concerned about things that don’t seem to be fair (there are lots of examples of this kind of unfairness, such as some people having more money than others, and so on). Rather than just saying “that’s the way things are and there’s nothing you can do about it”, many of us have tried to make things better. Quite a few of us have done this by joining the Labour Party. Others didn’t agree with all of the Labour Party’s ideas but have still tried to make things better in other ways.

Of course, we haven’t solved all the problems of the world! But there are some things that we can point to, some changes that have happened that really have made things a bit better for everybody, where we can say “I helped to make that happen – maybe if I hadn’t bothered to get involved, it wouldn’t have happened at all”. This is very satisfying.

Stories about particular people

I expect you’ve already looked at the family tree and been given a list of who is who. These are just some extra stories to fill in the details. Please ask me if you need more information to understand how these stories fit into the big picture. I haven’t written about all the interesting people because I didn’t have time – it would fill a whole book!

Murdina Alice Crown (later Murdina Alice Winter): Grandma’s mother

Her family came from Sunderland, and I’m pretty sure that her mother was Irish. (Check this with Grandma because I can’t quite remember!).

She preferred to be known as Alice. I think she didn’t like the name Murdina because it’s an unusual one and she was a no-nonsense kind of person who preferred names to be more ordinary. She didn’t like “making a fuss” about things. I think it’s rather a nice name – it’s an ancient Scottish/Gaelic one originally. If it had been my name, I would have used it!

She must have been a clever girl, because after leaving school she trained to be a teacher. In those days very few girls went to University and you would only be able to do that if you came from a rich family. Training to be a teacher was the next best thing.

She married a man called Thomas Winter. He had various different jobs but didn’t earn a lot of money, so it was very lucky for the family that she was a teacher, because this gave them a home as well as money. The teacher in a village school in those days would be given a house that went with the job, so they lived in the School House, first in a village called Cliff, and later in a village next to the sea on the east coast of Yorkshire, called Atwick. Atwick was a very small village, so the school was very small too, and children of different ages sat alongside each other – there weren’t enough children to have separate classes for different ages.

(Murdina) Alice and Tom had two children, Margaret (your Grandma) and her elder sister Jean. Both of them went to the village school, so they were taught by their own mother until they were 11 years old. After that they would go to Bridlington on the bus, to the High School. It was a long bus ride, too far for children younger than 11.

When Murdina Alice got too old to work any more, she retired. By then there were even fewer children living in the village, and the education authority decided to do something different about teaching them (I’m not sure what happens now – perhaps they get a bus to somewhere nearer than Bridlington). So the school house wasn’t needed any more, and they let her and her husband stay there. They lived there for the rest of their lives. The school itself stood empty for quite a long time, but eventually it was converted into a community centre for the village.

There was an article in the local newspaper about her when she retired. Ask Grandma about this – she’s got a copy of it.

She was very musical, and used to play the piano and also the church organ. She was very good at knitting and crochet as well.

Frederick Woodall: Granddad’s grandfather

He grew up somewhere in the Midlands (Stoke-on-Trent, maybe?). I don’t know a lot about him (Granddad can tell you more, I’m sure). He was a tailor and also a Quaker. He moved to London.

He used to make tailor’s chalk (a special kind of chalk that is used for drawing lines on cloth so that you can cut it out accurately). He made white tailor’s chalk for normal use and a blue version for drawing on white cloth because white marks don’t show up on white cloth. He invented a way of making the chalk into solid pieces like little cakes, by pressing it into shape in a cylinder and then squeezing it out and chopping pieces off. To give the pieces an edge so that they could be used for drawing, he would rub them on pieces of white cloth.

One day he washed out some of the white cloths that he’d used for making an edge on the blue tailor’s chalk, and he noticed that they seemed to come out a very bright, clean-looking sparkling white. He realised that the blue colour in the blue tailor’s chalk made white cloth look “whiter than white”. He mentioned this to a man he met in a pub, who paid him £10 for it. This other man then went to a company called Reckitt and Coleman, who made washing powder, and sold them the idea. For many years afterwards they sold a special blue washing powder called Reckitt’s Blue, which was based on this invention. Ten pounds doesn’t seem like much money for such a good idea, but this was a very long time ago and money was worth much more then, so actually, thinking about it now, it doesn’t seem like such a very bad reward.

I don’t know anything else about him or his wife.

He had several children, and they all (as far as I know) went into the tailoring business. Some or all of them moved to Eastbourne, on the south coast of England. They were all Quakers. There were two daughters who never got married, and lived to be very old. Younger people in the family called them “The Aunts” and were quite scared of them – they used to boss everyone else around. I met them once when they were very old and I was a very little girl (younger than you are now). Ask Granddad about them.

There was also a son in this family, who was…

Henry Woodall: Granddad’s father

I never met him. He died just before I was born, but I have heard quite a lot of stories about him.

One of the special things about being a Quaker is that Quakers refuse to join in when there is a war. They won’t join the army, the navy or the air force, because they don’t believe that being violent is ever the solution to any problem. They even refuse to join when the government is telling everybody to join, which happens sometimes in history (not very often – only when there is a really big war going on). This is called being a Conscientious Objector.

When Henry Woodall was a young man, the First World War happened, and he was a Conscientious Objector. Instead of joining in with the fighting, he decided to do something to help make things better, so he joined with other Quakers who were organising an ambulance service to rescue injured soldiers from the battlefields. He had to be very brave to do this, because it was very dangerous to go onto battlefields where there were lots of bullets and bombs. He probably spent more time in those dangerous places than a lot of the soldiers did, so he was quite lucky to come out of it alive.

He was given some medals later on for what he did with the Quakers’ ambulance service. (Your Dad has got these medals now – ask him to show you). Another interesting thing happened because of this later on, after the war was over: one of the men he had worked with in the ambulance service had a father who was called Ramsay MacDonald. About six years after the war ended, Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister (he was the first ever Labour Prime Minister), so Granddad’s father got to go to a party at number 10 Downing Street for all the people who had worked on the ambulance service.

He lived on for another 40 years after the end of the First World War. As well as being a tailor, and carrying on being a Quaker, he was very good at playing bowls. He won a lot of cups and trophies for this.

He was married to…

Evelyn Avis (later Evelyn Woodall): Granddad’s mother

I don’t know much about her early life or her parents. I think her family didn’t have very much money. She was quite clever but she had to leave school quite young to get a job and start earning money. She started work as an apprentice tailor in the Woodall family’s business, and this is how she met Henry, who later on became her husband. I don’t know whether her family were Quakers or whether she became a Quaker after meeting him, but anyway she was one for all the rest of her life.

She and Henry set up a tailoring business together in Eastbourne. They lived in a tall house. The ground floor was the shop, where customers would come to be measured and to choose the materials for their clothes. At the back, behind the shop, was the workroom where they would cut out the clothes and sew them together. Upstairs were the living rooms and bedrooms.

Henry was a very skilled tailor but he didn’t have the ability to manage a business, and would not have been able to do it on his own. The business worked well because both of them worked at it together. A woman came in to help in the house and look after the children so that Evelyn had time to work at the tailoring business. (I suppose the proper word for a woman who does that sort of job is a “servant”, but I think that gives the wrong impression because they weren’t the kind of rich people who you think of as having servants – they just needed somebody to help out because of the business).

The Second World War caused a big change in their lives. They were too old to need to worry about being involved in the war itself (only young adults get told to join armies and navies etc usually, and by this time they were middle-aged, not young any more), but the war still caused them big problems. Because Eastbourne is on the south coast, German bombers would fly over on the way to London, so lots of their customers moved away and went to live in places they thought were safer. Now there were not enough people left in Eastbourne who wanted to pay to have their clothes made, so the tailoring business stopped making enough money to pay for the family to live. Evelyn and Henry therefore had to move.

They decided to go and start again in a town called Abergavenny in South Wales. It must have been difficult for them, starting up their business all over again in a new place where nobody knew them. I don’t know why they chose Abergavenny. There were very few Quakers there, and most of the other people were Welsh. They must have felt very left out to begin with. But eventually it worked out alright, and they found enough people who wanted to pay to have clothes made. They also found a house that was arranged in the same way as the house in Eastbourne had been, with a shop and a workroom on the ground floor, and the living rooms upstairs, and they stayed there all the rest of their lives.

Lots more people…

Oh dear! I’ve been typing all day nearly, and I’ve left so much out. I’d better stop now and get some work done. If I have time, I’ll write again and fill in some more facts about other people.

Some things on the Web

Here are some things you can find on the Internet about people in our family.

Granddad has done lots of research work in computer science and mathematics. Here you can see a list of some articles he has written. Actually that only shows a few of them, just the most recent ones. There is a famous computer science textbook by Donald Knuth called The Art of Computer Programming. Granddad is mentioned in this! His name is in the index. Maybe you could include a photocopy of that bit of the index in your project.

Here is a bit about the village of Atwick. (There is a caravan site at Atwick. You could go and see what it’s like. The sea there is very cold!)

Here is a website about the Quakers.

By the way, if you want to know anything about me, you can look at my personal website.