Christmas Past

We are told that, in the past, 25 December was a popular day on which to marry, it being a holiday.  I decided to go through my various family trees on my RootsMagic program and create lists for the 25 December:  there were a number of deaths occuring on that day,  but I was quite surprised to find only three weddings.

On Christmas Day 1836 David George and Mary Burrell married in East Dereham.  In 1871 Henry Wakefield married Elizabeth Coleman at St Mary’s Finchley, and in 1890 George Wakefield married Sally Smith at Holy Trinity East Finchley. None of them would have experienced the weeks of commercial build-up that we have to endure these days!  I wonder what Christmas presents they gave and received?

I remember the year I had a scooter for Christmas:  it seemed huge, shiny and red and was parked just inside my bedroom door when I woke on Christmas morning.  Perhaps I was 6 or 7 years old?  There was always a Blue Peter annual to look forward to.  Sometimes a new game or doll.  I still have my Tiny Tears.

We never had a big Christmas tree, but two decorations on it always fascinated me:  a bell and a pink bird.  They had come originally from the ‘big house’ where my great grandfather worked – West Grinstead Park in Sussex.  I think the family occasionally gave their employees items they no longer required.  These two decorations are on my parents’ tree again this Christmas.  They must both date from around the 1890s and are made from painted glass.

Glass bird tree decoration
Glass bird tree decoration


Glass bell tree decoration
Glass bell tree decoration




One more item from Christmas Past is the Father Christmas  figure which is always on Mum and Dad’s Christmas cake.  He is as old as my Mum as he came on a Christmas cake which my granny bought the year my Mum was a baby as she didn’t have time to make one.  He had a coat of paint the other year, but is otherwise still going strong.

Father Christmas cake decoration
Father Christmas cake decoration

It’s good to remember that the simple things can be the most enjoyable at this time of year, and it’s a time to create good memories as well as remembering Christmas Past.

Happy Christmas!


Picturesque Sussex

Lewes Castle
Lewes Castle

Visiting Lewes Castle last year we discovered that the Sussex Archaeological Society have a very good secondhand bookshop there. I selected a couple of Sussex-related books, including one called ‘Picturesque Sussex’ by Clare Jerrold. The author (despite a name which might indicate otherwise) appears to be male, and a quick google search reveals that he was also the author of a number of books about Queen Victoria.
This particular book was given to ‘Edmund’ as a birthday present by ‘S.B’ in August 1912 and I would think was published not long before that. It gives a fascinating whistle-stop tour of Sussex before the outbreak of WW1, and includes a good number of black and white photos. One other interesting fact I discovered on the title page was that it was published by S Combridge of Hove. Now Combridge is a family name on my husband’s side, and is rarely seen, originating I believe in Kent. A search on the 1911 census reveals that Cornelius Combridge (staying in a hotel in London on the night of the census) is likely to have been the publisher, but why ‘S Combridge’ I am not sure.
The preface refers to the “new King’s Sanatorium, near Midhurst” which it was hoped would prove “the curative value of Sussex air”. I presume that this institution then became the King Edward VII hospital, which has now sadly closed and been redeveloped as housing.
We regularly visit Brighton, where one of my daughters is currently living. I was therefore particularly amused to read this description of the town: “People walk gracefully here; here are no hurrying, crowded omnibuses, no streams of workers marching with unceasing tramp to this or that point, no jostling or pushing in the eager desire to be first”. Mmm. Some places have changed beyond recognition! I am told that the Brighton buses are so crowded with students attending one university or the other, that they are frequently completely full. There is a lovely photo of the pier and entrance to the aquarium, which both look remarkably unchanged, but of course now there is the addition of the Brighton Wheel and the absence of the many horses and carriages seen in the photo. Another photo of the (now burnt) West Pier shows Edwardian ladies in long dresses with parasols.

Palace Pier and Aquarium Brighton


Photos from ‘Picturesque Sussex’ by Clare Jerrold, published by S. Combridge, Hove, in The Shire Series, around 1911.


Brighton from the West Pier



On a recent trip to Brighton we thought we’d go up to the Devil’s Dyke. The fog was so thick that you could barely see a few paces ahead, which was a shame as the views are amazing. In the book’s descriptions of the Devil’s Dyke we learn that there used to be a railway to take sightseers to the top where various attractions awaited them. The author seems to have taken rather a dim view of this entertainment, where visitors could “amuse themselves on the swings and roundabouts, exclaim over the ‘camera obscura’, drink tea and ale, be carried down into the Weald and up again on the steep-grade railway and then go home satisfied”.
Most of my Sussex ancestors lived in West Sussex, but five generations back one Lucy Mitchell married Edward Buckwell in Brighton in 1828. They would have seen Brighton Pavilion, completed in 1817, but would not have experienced the aforementioned attractions of Devil’s Dyke. Perhaps instead they were able to appreciate the “loneliness and the upspoilable beauty” of the place if they ever ventured up there. As for us, we’ll make another attempt to appreciate the views on a less foggy day!

Brighton pier today

Ancestral pub number 2 – The Leather Bottle Lewknor


The Leather Bottle, Lewknor

When we drive north on the M40 I always look out for the Red Kites.  I love seeing these majestic birds, and just where the concentration often seems greatest – just after the Chilterns – is junction 6.  If you come off at this junction you quickly find yourself in Lewknor –  a lovely little Oxfordshire village.

This pretty little village has a Church, a school and a pub, and that pub is the Leather Bottle.   Sophia Neighbour, my 4 x great grandmother, was for many years the landlady of this pub.  I feel that Sophia must have been a woman of some stamina and resilience.

Aged 19 she had an illegitimate son Richard in 1805.  However, five years later she married one James Hawkins with whom she eventually had four more children.  By 1841, aged 55, Sophia was running the Leather Bottle pub in Lewknor together with James, but  my examination of the Licensed Victuallers Records within the Quarter Sessions Records at Oxford History Centre (QSD/V/1,2,3 and 4) for the period 1753 – 1822 have revealed that a Hawkins was running this pub from as early as 1758.  The licence was held by a Richard Hawkins, and then his widow Hannah Hawkins, and then their son William Hawkins.  William’s widow Alice in turn was then the licencee from 1786 – 1790, before their eldest son Richard then ran the pub from 1792 to at least 1812. His brother William took over the running of the pub around 1816 and held the licence until at least 1822. There is then a gap where I don’t know for certain yet who ran the pub, but by 1841 the licence had passed to James Hawkins.

Lewknor; Leather Bottle
Inside the Leather Bottle

The relationship between James and the Hawkins family mentioned above is unclear, but there has to be some familial connection I feel sure.

The ten yearly census returns then help to fill in the picture and we see that by 1851, aged 65, James was additionally farming 70 acres.  It was quite common for a pub to have land attached, and small-scale farming would have supplemented the family income.

James Hawkins died in April 1860, and the next census shows Sophia, now aged 75, still running the pub (!) and her son John running the farm.  Two of her daughters, Sophia and Louisa, are both living with her, and Louisa is herself a widow.

Amazingly, in 1871, aged 85, Sophia is still the innkeeper and son John is still running the farm.  But four years later, aged 89, Sophia died and was buried at Lewknor church, with James.  Their grave can still be found on the south side of the church.

Lewknor; Hawkins; Neighbour
Grave of James and Sophia Hawkins

At this point Louisa Guy, the widowed daughter of James and Sophia, took on the running of the Leather Bottle, as seen in the 1881 and 1891 censuses.  Louisa had a son Thomas, and when he died in 1880, his widow Eliza Annie and their 2 year old son James came to live at the pub too, and lo and behold the 1901 census shows that Annie Guy is now the publican – making her the third widow in a row to hold the licence! The 1907 and 1911 Kelly’s Directories for Oxfordshire indicate that Richard Whiting took over the licence and the 1911 census confirms this, showing Richard and his wife Ellen at the Leather Bottle. I have no evidence that they were related to the Neighbour/Hawkins/Guy families at all.

Today the pub sign says “Leathern Bottle” rather than “Leather Bottle”.  I’m not sure when the change in name occurred, or whether in fact it had always been somewhat interchangeable.  The pub sign also gives Brakspear as the brewery, but apparently that brewery was taken over by Wychwood in 2002, brewing at Witney.  (Brakspear ales were originally brewed in Henley).  Unfortunately Brakspear have failed to reply to my emails asking if they hold any additional information.

Leather Bottle pub sign







Continuing to take advantage of my subscription to the British Newspaper Archive, I found this wonderful snippet on goings-on at the Leathern Bottle in 1839:

Leather Bottle


Oxford Journal – Saturday 21 September 1839


These photos were taken on our visit to the ‘ancestral pub’ just over two years’ ago.

Lewknor; Leather Bottle
The Leather Bottle, Lewknor
Lewknor Church

The runner bean


Runner beans

Well I guess that’s the start of winter then – we’ve taken down the runner beans!  They have been leaning at a precarious angle since we had all the strong winds, but now we’ve had the first frosts it’s time for them to be dismantled.

Last week we assisted my parents to dismantle their beans.  “I don’t know whether or not we’ll be growing beans next year”.  Really?  No beans?  This is the home I grew up in, where runner beans have been part of the yearly cycle for as long as I can remember.  Not grow runner beans?  Well, yes, I guess we have to face reality:  failing strength can mean accepting we can no longer do the things we used to do.  But bean-growing is the last remnant of a once-productive fruit and vegetable garden.  Well, I suppose there’s still the apple tree that I grew from a pip when I was about seven years old.  It had a bumper crop this year.

We love growing vegetables in our own garden, too.  Runner bean crops vary.  One year we tried climbing French beans instead, but there’s always a wigwam of poles; it wouldn’t seem right without.

I was fascinated, though, to learn from Monty Don’s series The Secret History of the British Garden, that runner beans were not to be found in a 17th century British vegetable garden.  Originating from Central America, runner beans were not grown for culinary purposes until the 18th century.  Funny to think that those ancestors who currently reside at the top of my various family trees probably knew nothing of runner beans!  Though Monty may be looking at the gardens of some rather grand houses, it gives one a fascinating glimpse into this area of social history and perhaps a clue as to what our ancestors did grow in their vegetable plots.  Because, even if they worked long hours as agricultural labourers for the local landowner, they undoubtedly grew their own vegetables, not mention keeping chickens and possibly a share in a pig too.

There may not be much room for a pig in our garden, but there’s room for beans.  Even our friend Elsie, who turns 100 today, still grows a few runner beans in a small parcel of earth.

Give up growing beans?  I hope not!

Garden in Croydon, possibly with my great grandmother Elizabeth George
Probably the same garden in Croydon with my great grandfather David George
Mitchell; West Grinstread
My grandmother, Emily Mitchell, in her family garden in West Grinstead, Sussex