Thursday, 29 October 2009

Family History

In recent weeks I have hit the Family History trail again, this time following up my dad's mum's line in the South Hams in Devon. Via Genes Reunited, I was delighted to discover a new 2nd cousin (our g. grandfathers were brothers). She has just sent me a lovely parcel of family photos and certificates, including my g. grandfather's death certificate. That has given us both quite a shock, as we discovered that he had committed suicide, by drowning.

I was gardening yesterday afternoon, and as I weeded the very overgrown bed I was able to give this much thought, and came in and wrote this poem to his memory. He had been widowed in 1904, when his wife died aged only 37 (and quite probably of the bowel cancer which claimed her daughter, my gran, at the age of 41) and was left with two little girls to bring up alone. He became a publican for several years, but this obviously all came to an end during the First World War and on his death certificate his occupation was "sawyer, Journeyman", which I believe means he was paid by the day, however skilled he was (he had originally been a Journeyman Baker).


The tide sucks at the river, making boats lurch and sway,
Eddying round the ladder clamped to the stone wall,
Reflecting the moon like Van Gogh's' Starry Night,
Ripping the stars to shreds in the current
As it argues its way down the leat,
Spreading like a silent scream of watery echoes,
Edging busily up the brickwork, lifting the tangles
Of seaweed like a mermaid's tresses.
Combing them with salty fingers and leaving them to float.
It beckons to the silhouette on the footpath,
Writing his name in immortality, promising
A future where there can be none. Weak flatterings and
Blandishments it makes to him, cajoling, enticing,
Coaxing movement from that lonely figure,
Offering one last embrace, no questions asked.


  1. Lovely poem and a wonderful tribute. My Great Grandfather was a journeyman carpenter, which I understand means that he had served an apprenticeship. His skills definately run in the family.It's all rather addictive isn't it?

  2. The river in this instance took on a living personality; I can almost sense an unspoken dialogue between the weary tormented man and the moving water which offers him a release. We wonder in these cases how the outcome of several generations might have been changed if the impulse to death had been resisted. I've also pondered what too early death, not chosen, hands on to the survivors in a family. I think that my late mother's whole life was very affected by losing her own mother when she was nine years old. Three generations of women in that family line had "died young" leaving children. A sad legacy.
    Your poem makes me imagine your g-grandfather's last few moments--wavering perhaps in his decision, then resolved to end his life. I hope that he was at peace in his last awareness.

  3. Thankyou MM - that was my intention. I think to his tormented desperate soul, it welcomed him with a mother's embrace. If you stack up what gives meaning to your life, gives fulfilment, and then see those very qualities taken away, usurped by the struggle of day to day living, sometimes there must seem so little left to weigh in favour of the balance of staying? In his photograph, he looks a sensitive soul. In the event, his elder daughter was soon to join him, just five years later. I am trying to find out now whether her sister predeceased her and perhaps proved the catalyst of his final decision.

    Kath - he began his working life as a Journeyman Baker, then until 1919 or thereabouts (I have just discovered) he was a publican, and finally the Journeyman Sawyer. Needs must I guess. And yes, FH is VERY addictive - like a detective story.

  4. Hullo BB,

    Thats a well written and vey emotive piece of poetry. It must have been hard to write. Not sure I could have done anything like that.........

    I agree about the genealogy comment. It can be very engrossing. I did a load many years back visiting the Scottish records office on my day off for months and pouring over microfiche machines. Its all online now of course so maybe I should try and do a bit more.

    Oh dear, you may have started something here.....



  5. What an emotive piece ...I envey your ability.

    I have just discovered a 3rd cousin today ...we share GG Grand parents ... what fun.