Saturday, 1 July 2017

ALL MY GRANDFATHERS GREAT: 1. The one who worked with horses, dreamed of sheep and kept secrets

Yours truly at Huggin Carr, Hatfield Woodhouse near Doncaster in 2003, where my great grandfather Thomas Barrass worked as a farm lad in 1871 aged 14

Family history is so giddily glorious! (At least, it is to those of us who have ever been bitten by the genealogy bug!)

Years of trawling round gusty graveyards, scrutinising old photos, traipsing round records offices, perusing births, marriages, deaths, going cross-eyed over newspaper cuttings, chasing up family rumours, and I feel like I know many of my kin from a bygone age.

Can't text them. Can't email them. Can't Skype them.

But I feel like I know many of my ancestors better than I know some of my living friends and family! They run through my dreams. They inhabit my heart. They echo through my writing.

My four great grandfathers are right up there, jostling for attention, to be known and named and nattered about, long after they died in the days before I was born. Like the best of friends, I'd like to introduce them to you. Grab a cuppa - incoming series of four!

First there's Thomas, the one who worked on farms with horses and narrowly avoided causing me to be a Bottom. Thomas Barrass was a man of many secrets.

I have no photos of Thomas. No photographs of my dad's side of the ancestors survived the bonfires kindled by one over-zealous married-in relation who decided, after my grandfather's death, that tidy drawers and clean breaks were preferable to pictures of your husband's unknown Victorian ancestors grinning back at you in sepia.

The family rarely spoke about Thomas. He was born in 1857, in a run-down area of Hull near the docks called Chaffer's Alley, long since swept away by slum reforms. This was where his mother Charlotte's ancestors had been mariners and keelmen, shuttling between the port and the canals and waterways they called home for generations.

Thomas was born under a double shadow. No father was named on his birth certificate. The shame that went with that in the past is hard for us to grasp today. Only a year earlier, his mother had been in the farmhouse when her grandmother, a Yorkshire farmer's wife and daughter of a seafaring man, slit her own throat with a penknife while suffering from 'melancholy' on a cold winter night while lying in bed next to her husband of half a century. That tragedy split and scattered Thomas's family.

His mother hastily married a kind man who seems more than likely to have been Thomas's father, a yeast and bacon dealer, a cordwainer's son from a tiny village near Doncaster, as soon as she was free from the responsibility of caring for her devastated grandfather, after whom Thomas was named. They married at Thorne Register Office in October 1861, a matter of weeks after Charlotte's grandfather passed away. Had the marriage taken place a few years earlier, Thomas's descendants, myself included, would not have inherited his mother's surname, Barrass, but that of his putative father, Bottom. I'm truly thankful for small mercies!

When he was just seven, Thomas's mum died from galloping tuberculosis just before her thirtieth birthday. Little Thomas was like the cuckoo in the nest when his widowed father wed again, going on to have many more children who bore his own blushfully preposterous surname. (Sorry, Bottoms up!)

Thomas worked as a young lad on local farms. He had a special affinity for horses. He had less affinity for writing, as his childlike spidery signature in the marriage register shows. He made up a name for his father (his own name) and put 'tailor' as his father's profession, grasping at the idea, perhaps, because his mother was a seamstress and dressmaker.

He soon felt the wanderlust that ran in his veins, but instead of sailcloth and tide, he followed the call of the earth from his great grandfather's farming blood. Thomas moved away from the flat farmland around Doncaster to the hills and valleys near Barnsley, first to Bolton-on-Dearne, where he married a lass whose relatives were, in contrast to Thomas, chatty, jokey, confident, open.

Thomas and Eliza had ten children, including twins and my paternal granddad. How they all subsisted in a tiny tied farm cottage at the bizarrely-named 'Rockley Bottom' near what is now Worsborough Country Park, is an enduring mystery. In fact, Eliza didn't survive for long. At forty-seven, after another short move to Upper Hoyland, cerebral meningitis snatched her from Thomas's side. This new blow left him struggling to bring up his large family alone. The eldest girl, Blanche, became a mother figure to her younger siblings.

Luke and John (Jack), twin sons of Thomas b 1893

Newly bereaved, Thomas decided, along with many other Yorkshiremen of the day, to seek his fortune at the other side of the world. The Patagonian sheep farming boom was still a draw for struggling agricultural labourers of the Old World. Thomas is listed in the ship's manifest as "Thos Barries", shepherd, travelling steerage to Punta Arenas (as his son Joseph told his own son Joe) on 27th September 1906 from Liverpool on the "Oriana" with many other farmers and shepherds. Eliza had died in April the year before.

It seems an unlikely move for an unambitious soul like Thomas, but life had already thrown all it could to scupper his happiness - suicide, illegitimacy, rejection, widowhood, poverty. He had very little left to lose. So he sailed to Chile's Punta Arenas, bound for Argentina in the early years of the new century to seek his fortune on the sheep farms, opportunities offered as an incentive to emigrate in the local newspapers at the time. But he soon returned to South Yorkshire. The best of the boom was long past. It wasn't the first boat Thomas had missed.

In his declining years, Thomas seems to have been a regular guest at the seasonal celebrations of his children's families, particularly his twin sons' families in Ackworth, a taciturn ghost at the feast, giving little away, of words or goods.

I learned from a cousin of my dad's, one of the twins' children, how Thomas was a man of very few words. No wonder. He had so many secrets to keep, not least suicide and bastardy, which in those days attracted discrimination and judgment from society.

His wife Eliza's family, the Wrights, used to tease Thomas, get him drunk, mock him, emphasising his otherness in their eyes. Dad's cousin, a child in the 1920s, remembers Thomas jingling half a crown in his pocket for ages, a coin his grandchildren thought he was going to give them as a treat before he left for his own cottage. As he left, having eaten and lodged for free over Christmas, he would grudgingly give them just a few pennies instead. They saw only a miserly freeloading old man. As a more distant descendant with the fuller picture laid out in the branches of my family tree, I have the luxury of judging him less harshly.

By 1911, Thomas was living with his son, my granddad, in Goldthorpe, in retirement from his labouring, but he did not stay in one place for long. He moved to his last home on Longfields Crescent in Hoyland, near to where his youngest child, Grace, lived with her husband and children in a caravan, not far from where Eliza had died. Perhaps our love of compact living spaces, be it caravan, cottage or cabin, stems from Thomas's roots living aboard the Humber keels that were home to many generations of the Barrass family. His ancestors founded the keel community that grew up around Stainforth on his Barrass side, and were Thorne mariners on his Pattrick side. Blood and water - canal water, that is - are equally thick in our family!

Thomas died in the building used as the Barnsley Workhouse on Gawber Road, that later became St Helen's Hospital, now part of Barnsley District General Hospital. It was the summer of 1928, and Thomas was 71, suffering from the cardiovascular troubles common in his side of the family. His cause of death was given as valvular disease of the heart.

Many years ago, as I began to dig into our family history, I discovered how deeply hidden Thomas's roots lay. When I asked him the routine starter question about his grandparents' names, my father could only say, frowning in puzzlement,

"I have an idea they were William and Mary..."

That's all Thomas was for many years. Eliza too. Forgotten. Misunderstood. Question marks in the dim distance of time. The ancestors before them, too, were obscured by fogged opaque glass. Tragedy had sent them scuttling for cover, for anonymity, even to their own.

That's why I think telling our ancestors' stories is so healing and so important.

One great grandfather down.

Three to go.

Join me here on 'Pinwheels and Rainbows' tomorrow for the next.

Exploring my waterways roots on the West Cut Bank in Stainforth, near Doncaster, where Thomas's mother Charlotte and generations before and after her were born around the Stainforth & Keadby Canal


  1. Brilliant! It's so fascinating to learn so much about our shared ancestors! Thank you. Now, I can't wait for the next installment! Love, Ruth xxoo.

  2. So lovely to be able to share the ancestors' stories, Ruth! The hardest part is always which bits to put in and aware of such endless interesting stuff left out! With this little series of four I'm trying to keep to a bitesize potted bio. Great grandmothers next, I think! Thanks so much for stopping by and for you comment xxx