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Thursday, 23 April 2020

The Case Against Conceptual Art




In an impressive piece of recent autobiographical fiction, the narrator of Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking (2017) repeatedly sets herself the task of identifying a work of art - usually a work of conceptual art - which relates to the topic she is currently thinking about. Frankie, the narrator, lists and thumbnails each work in separated paragraphs which always begin with a formulaic phrase on the pattern of Works About Killing Animals, I test myself:

Some of the works are well-known like Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) and Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking (1967), but most are more obscure. Though Baume at the end of her book (pages 303- 307) urges us to go to the works ourselves, I suspect she has actually and accidentally already illustrated a main weakness of conceptual art: you don’t have to see it, or otherwise experience it, in order to talk about it. You just need a description which spells out the idea, the thought, which the work illustrates.

A great deal of what is called conceptual art is illustrative, and that means that as art it is almost certainly weak and banal. Often enough, the realisation of the idea may be elaborate and costly, and sometimes fleeting, but it is all pretty much irrelevant except as an illustration of how easy it is to waste time and money. We can debate the Concept all night with only a nod to the work which illustrated it. There is really no need for us to confront the work itself, if indeed it still exists to be confronted. Frankie/Baume effectively says as much herself:

Works about Time, I test myself: Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010. A 24-hour film, a collage of extracts… Each extract represents a minute of the day … I have never seen it for real. Right the way through from beginning to end. I don’t imagine many people have. Nevertheless, I love this piece. I love the idea. (p 181)

We would simply laugh at someone who said of Baume’s novel I have never actually read it from beginning to end. But I love this work. I love the idea.  You can’t love a novel if you haven’t read it, not even if it’s Ulysses, so how can you love a work of art if you haven’t seen it? All you can love is the idea. That’s almost certainly enough; it would almost certainly be a waste of your time to watch it, even from the comfort of YouTube. You won’t need twenty four hours to get the general idea.

Back in 1997, as part of the Turner Prize show, London’s Tate Gallery projected Gillian Wearing’s Sixty Minutes onto a large screen. This is a video in which a group of people are lined up and asked to stand stock still for sixty minutes while they are filmed by a completely static camera. It would have caused a log-jam in the gallery if visitors had paused for sixty minutes to watch. The gallery correctly assumed that everyone would give it at most a few minutes, to get the general idea and then move on. I sat cross-legged on the floor (no seats provided) for nineteen minutes, outlasting every other visitor in that period by at least seventeen minutes. What would we say about a cinema film which could not hold its audience for more than a few minutes, after which they would all leave because they had got the general idea? But Gillian Wearing was awarded the Turner Prize for her effort.[1]

Suppose Sara Baume had simply made up the majority of the many conceptual art pieces to which she refers, and in a work of fiction, who could object to that?  There would have been no loss of idea. However, this thought experiment does suggest a way of thinking about possible justifications for the embodied element in actual works of conceptual art.

Since Duchamp’s urinal, the actual work is meant to secure by means of a certain outrageousness both attention and discussion; the embodied side of the work is a provocation of a kind which few of us would be bold enough to offer. One philosopher of art, Elisabeth Schellekens, singles out this audaciousness - nerve and cheek - as a central aspect of conceptual art installations and performances[2]. But in highlighting this aspect, the argument does connect the world of art to the world of pranks though Schellekens herself only makes the link to jokes and satirical cartoons (page 86). Another contributor to the volume of essays in which Schellekens develops her argument, Margaret Boden, does however reference (page 228) the rather embarassing case of Alphonse Allais, a nineteenth century Parisian prankster who got there before the po-faced artists of the twentieth century, already in the 1880s exhibiting a canvas painted entirely white and titled Anaemic Young Girls Going To Their First Communion Through a Blizzard.

I think reflection on the Allais case does allow an understanding of much conceptual art. I think most of it does belong to the broad category of Pranks. Pranks usually involve someone in quite a lot of prior thought, maybe mixed in character and motive, and are realised by means which are intended to discomfort or shock some individual, group or institution. The pranks performed by conceptual artists can, however, generally be distinguished from the broader category of pranks by two important features: a general humourlessness and the artist’s sense of entitlement to public funding and/or access to public exhibition space.

So Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) is a contemporary prankster but not a conceptual artist because he aims to make people laugh. And only as a prank would a prankster like Borat seek public funding or an academic job or space in the Tate Gallery. In contrast, conceptual artists feel entitled to all those things. This is consistent with the claims of an institutional theory of art, which is also used by other philosophers as justification for treating conceptual art as art - for example, by Dominic Lopes at page 241 of the same collection of essays to which I have been referring. The institutional theory says that Art just is what institutions like art galleries and art dealers say is Art. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

The crossover case would be that of an artist who has a sense of humour and a distance from the institutional world of art. The crossover is perfectly illustrated by Banksy who produces things which are provocative, which are often funny, which are every discussable, and which Banksy tries to keep at a distance from the “art world”, most strikingly in a recent prank at Sotheby’s auction room. One of his works had just been sold for a very large sum, and as the auction participants still gazed at the work, it self-destructed before their eyes - the coup de théatre achieved by a remote controlled device.

But I think my general claim remains generally true. Conceptual art fails as art when it invites us to respond to it without experiencing it. Art is something you have to experience at first hand in order to respond to it appropriately.

Not so long ago, I wrote a critical piece [3] about a painting by a Dutch portrait painter, Simon Maris, which had been re-titled by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; they had changed its title from Young Negro Girl to Young Girl with a Fan. From the museum’s online images, I was able to argue that both titles missed the fact that the “girl” was wearing a plain gold band on the ring finger of her left hand. Though re-titled, with much attendant publicity, no one appeared to have looked at the painting. Several other relevant claims could be made on the basis of the reproduced images. But then I travelled over to Amsterdam to look at the painting itself. As I entered the room in which it was displayed, there was an immediate and fairly dramatic shock awaiting me. What had looked like a cheerful yellow bonnet in all the reproductions now suddenly dazzled as if it was a golden halo. In consequence, what I had hitherto thought of as a fairly formal portrait, albeit an unusual one, suddenly took me in another direction, towards the tradition of what are called “Black Madonnas”, portraits or statues of the Virgin Mary with a haloed black face which are found in several, maybe most, European countries.

The sight of the halo reminded me of my own conviction: a painting has to be seen. It’s meant to be seen and there is really no other way of seeing it - properly, so that we can appreciate scale and the effect of natural light - than by standing in front of it. In Painting as an Art, Richard Wollheim (1987) said that he was only going to write about paintings which he had not only seen but spent time with; he gave a three hours per painting guide figure. That bears some thinking about in a world where a prize-winning sixty minute video in the Tate Gallery holds the attention of viewers for two minutes at most, and Baume’s narrator Frankie can claim to love a work she has never watched from beginning to end.

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My puzzlement about conceptual art dates back to the early 1970s when Michael Corris and a colleague from the US Art & Language group visited me in my rural Devon cottage and solicited a contribution for their new journal The Fox of which three issues appeared and are now collectors’ items. Well, I didn’t really have anything which I felt appropriate but I mentioned a draft study of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which would have been my cover story for a second year in Paris as a student with Roland Barthes had I stayed on after my first year. But I had decided to return to England and a job, and so it had never been worked up or shown to Barthes though a version in French existed. Anyway, to my surprise it was accepted for The Fox and appeared in issue 2 with small editorial additions which irritated me. But for the life of me I did not understand how my essay fitted into their project.

That digression does lead to a final point. Perhaps the core weakness of most conceptual art is that the links between ideas and embodied work are so weak or so opaque, and the ideas themselves so often confused, that really all we are offered (in most cases) is an invitation to free associate. So I think it likely that I got an essay published in The Fox for no good reason because there was no editorial clear thinking about what they were about and free association was the order of the day.

It is notable that in the collection Philosophy and Conceptual Art, from which I have quoted above, even though contributors have been asked to reference at least some among a number of selected works of conceptual art, that no one attempts a serious, say, thousand word piece of criticism which brings to life and understanding a particular piece of conceptual art in its specificity. It’s my belief that most  works of conceptual art could not bear the strain of sustained critical reflection and that is a main reason why it does not happen. Of course, there is plenty of humourless prose produced around conceptual art, which regularly provides satirical material for Private Eye.

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Sometimes people know exactly what they are doing. At other times, they haven’t a clue.For an artist, not quite knowing what you are doing is not such a bad place to be. It can mean that you are in the middle of some genuine exploration. Part of my problem with conceptual artists is that I'm not convinced that they are not quite knowing. Either they know exactly or they don't know at all.



[1] For a long critique, see my “The Turner Prize 1997” at www.selectedworks.co.uk
[2] Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens, editors, Philosophy and Conceptual Art (2007)
[3]“Young Girl With a Fan?” in Trevor Pateman, The Best I Can Do (2016)

Monday, 13 April 2020

Veryard: From Hawkchurch via Castle Cary to Tottenham


In Victorian England, everyone was on the move, from rural to urban areas, from country to town. The land could no longer offer employment to all the numerous children of agricultural labourers and, even when and where it could, pay was low and conditions hard. After the repeal of the Corn Laws, agricultural prices collapsed. Meanwhile, commerce and industry thrived. So an explanation for the great migration of the time seems straightforward. But each individual had their own reasons for leaving, for when they left, and for where they went to. Where they went to was often enough dictated by knowing someone who had already made the move and who could provide initial help in a strange place, perhaps even helping with accommodation or finding employment.

My great grandfather Thomas John Veryard moved to London from the small town of Castle Cary in Somerset where he was born in 1854. He moved away after marrying Susan Ridout in 1873 She was born locally in Alford in the same 1854 year as Thomas and lived until 1938 even though she gave birth to a dozen children. He lived until 1932. They have many direct descendants all over the internet.

There were Veryards who stayed put and the surname is still to be found in Castle Cary. Had Thomas stayed, he would not have become one of my great grandfathers. Why did he leave? Well, he had gone to school and probably did a bit better than his peers; he had enough talent to become a typesetter and in later life was self-employed in that skilled and much-in-demand trade. The censuses record him variously as a printer-compositor and letterpress printer , latterly at 79 The Crescent, Tottenham in north London - he can be found in trade directories. But he could have typeset in Castle Cary; there would always have been things which needed printing in a busy small town. Yes, busy small town but small enough for your history to be known.

Thomas was the only living child of a woman who never married, and he kept his mother’s name as his surname. His mother Eliza Veryard, born in 1825, had two children out of wedlock, not in itself unusual in Victorian England. The first was Thomas Morton/Moreton Veryard born in 1849 died in 1852, father unknown but perhaps coded into the child’s middle name. The surname Morton / Moreton is still found in the area notably in nearby Shepton Mallet. On his death certificate, his mother is described as a factory woman. But the child died and left no other mark in history than baptism and burial records. On his baptismal certificate the child’s surname is given as Verriott, as if some disguise is being attempted, but on his death certificate it is Veryard. The slippage is important because Eliza had been born in Hawkchurch, Devon where the Veryard name emerged suddenly around 1731, seemingly the work of  a Verriott family who decided to change or allowed their name to migrate into Veryard which, as it happened, was a more prestigious variant.

There were Devon Veryards in the past who had gone to Oxford before becoming vicars or doctors; one of the medical doctors studied in Holland at the universities of Leiden and Utrecht, travelled extensively for fifteen years, and wrote up his travels in an enormous book published in 1701 and still being printed on demand at Amazon. There were so many Veryards (with spelling variants) in 17th and 18th century Devon and Dorset that it has so far proved impossible for me to conclude that Dr Ellis Veryard ( 1657 - 1714 ) is an ancestor who would falsify my lifetime belief that I was the first ever member of my family to go to university:


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To return to Thomas John Veryard,  Eliza's  second illegitimate child, his middle name matching the first name of the man who is pointed to as the father in the internet sources I have consulted: John Paul Donne born in 1829 and dying in the year of Thomas’s birth. So Thomas never knew his father who was buried alongside other family members in nearby Shepton Mallet.

Now it’s possible that Eliza hoped to marry John and was thwarted by his death. She may have turned into a melancholy Miss Havisham; certainly, when Thomas moved to London with his young family he took his mother with him and she remained in his household until she died in Tottenham in 1905, aged eighty, and still unmarried. Thomas gave his mother’s name to  one of his children and she became my grandmother Eliza Kate Veryard, born in London in 1886 and alive when I was a child. She must have had some contact with the Castle Cary Veryards: when my parents married in 1938 they honeymooned in Somerset and spent time in Castle Cary.

But there is more to the story of the first Eliza and John Donne and it suggests that there could not have been a marriage and maybe that the situation was distinctly uncomfortable.

Eliza had come to Castle Cary with her parents from Hawkchurch where by the time of her birth in 1825 the Veryards were well-established and more or less all employed in the dominant local industries based around making ropes and twines, using flax and hemp, and all much in demand in busy local ports like Bridport which was then a significant harbour. On her birth certificate the occupation of her father Thomas Veryard is given as Twine Spinner. Her mother is as usual without occupation, and was Ann Chalk before her marriage, which took place in Dilton Marsh, Wiltshire in 1822. Eliza was a second child when she was born in 1825.

In 1828, when she was three years old, Eliza’s father was convicted in Exeter crown court of a theft regarded as serious enough to merit a whipping and three months in prison (the Exeter House of Correction) with three weeks of that in solitary confinement. Then in 1831, he was convicted of assaulting a constable and sentenced to six months hard labour. Both convictions would have affected his subsequent employability. He was probably rescued from the worst consequences by the death of his father, another Thomas Veryard and another twine spinner born in 1764, who moved to the Bristol area and married a Hannah Bailey who pre-deceased him. The widower Thomas died intestate in 1829. As eldest son born in 1798 Thomas was tasked - on his release from prison and after the law’s usual delays - with winding up his father’s affairs. That indicates some property or money, and Thomas’s final share may have enabled him to move away from Hawkchurch and his damaged reputation and take his family off to Castle Cary.

But having extricated himself from Hawkchurch, Thomas died suddenly at the age of forty five in 1843 when Eliza was eighteen.This left her mother Ann with several children including two younger ones born after the move to Castle Cary: James in 1834 and Solomon in 1842. In the 1851 census, twenty six year old Eliza is at home with her widowed mother and two year old Thomas Morton, still alive. She is working as a shoe thread puller which may have been outwork done at home. By 1861 Eliza  is in lodgings at 87 Mill Lane Castle Cary with second son Thomas John, now six, both of them living just three doors away from her own mother; the son is already a scholar which means simply that he goes to school and so is on track to become literate. In the census, 1861 Eliza is a shoe thread baller.

All of this history points to one conclusion: Eliza Veryard would not have been a suitable wife for John Donne, for he was a son of Castle Cary’s principal employer Thomas Salisbury Donne (1798-1862) who owned the Higher Flax Mills which worked not only with flax but linen, tow, twine - and shoe thread which Eliza Veryard was pulling for him in 1851 and balling in 1861. She was the low-paid outworker of a wealthy and powerful local employer. When she registered the birth of Thomas John in 1854, she signed with a cross; she was illiterate.


If John Donne was indeed Thomas John Veryard’s father, then he is one of my sixteen great great grandparents and connects me to the Donne family. But apart from his parentage, I know nothing about him and since he died aged 25 there may have been little to know. It’s a pity no one asked Eliza Veryard or passed on the tale.

About Ellen Ridout, Thomas John’s wife, I also know nothing, except for part of her line of descent backwards through rural Somerset families: Ridouts, Foots, Lentorns/Linthornes. When her husband decided to move to London, she went with him, and they took her mother in law with them. That’s the main thing.
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It is because Thomas Veryard at some point moved his family to 79 The Crescent Tottenham (the Crescent no longer exists) that his daughter Eliza Kate met Albert William Pateman, born in 1885, who was living at 143 Tottenham High Road and working as a chandler’s assistant when he married her in January 1910 at the Edmonton Register Office  - the first Register Office wedding I have come across in my family history. Kate’s oldest sister Ellen was witness, though she had married and was now E J Whatmore. Albert’s older sister Florence was the second witness. Both bride and groom had both parents alive and living locally, so the marriage may have been disapproved of. The bride does not appear to have been pregnant though there could have been a miscarriage before her first child William John was born at the beginning of 1911 and her second, my father, Albert George, eighteen months later.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Turner: Millwrights in Westmoreland, Buckinghamshire, and Kent - and Emma Budd of Hillingdon


If there is a Victorian paterfamilias in my ancestry it must surely be my great grandfather John Turner. He was a brute who killed two wives and several children. That is one way of reading what the archives tell us about his life. But just to balance things up, his first wife Emma Budd left her own baleful legacy which continued into my mother’s mother, my mother and me.

Let’s look at the basic facts.

John Turner was born 1831 and in June 1852 married Emma Matilda Budd born in 1830. They have ten children:

1.      1852 George (date of birth indicates conceived before the marriage) who lives to 80
2.      1854 Richard who dies  within three months of birth
3.      1856 Sarah who dies within six months of birth
4.      1858 Emma Matilda who dies aged three
5.      1860 Ellen who lives to 80
6.      1861 Eliza who dies within six months of birth
7.      1862 Walter  who reaches adulthood
8.      1866 Eliza [taking a dead child’s name] my grandmother who lived to 74
9.      1867 Godfrey who lives to 79
10.  1869 Abraham who lives to 79

The mother of these children dies in 1883 at the age of 53, my grandmother Eliza is  17 at the time.

John Turner re-marries on 10 December 1885 to Agnes Mason who is twenty years his junior - he 54 she 35. On 14 August 1886 and therefore the probable result of a wedding night pregnancy, John Turner becomes father to


11.  1886 Christopher who lives  to 75
and so it continues:
12.  1887 Harry who reaches adulthood
13.  1889 Alice who reaches adulthood
14.  1891 Clara who reaches adulthood
15.  1892 Emma who dies within three months of the birth as does her 43 year old mother; she may have died in childbirth along with the child but the records don’t go into such details.

John Turner did not marry a third time, but his unmarried dead wife’s sister who was already living with them stayed on to care for the four surviving children of his second marriage. Eliza from his first marriage - my grandmother - had already moved out of the house and gone to live locally with her older sister Ellen and her family. Eliza went to work and in the 1891 census is a 24 year old paper mill worker.  John Turner died in 1904, aged 74.

John Turner was a very skilled artisan, a millwright specialising in maintaining the wheels of water-powered flour mills and paper mills. In this he followed his very successful father, about whom more in due course.

It was through his work that John Turner no doubt met Emma Budd. He had been born in 1831 in Wycombe or Wycombe Marsh, Buckinghamshire - now we tend to speak of High Wycombe - and by  1851 had moved out of his father’s home to live with his older brother’s family ( that’s what the census says), but around that time he also went to work in Hillingdon - think Uxbridge, Middlesex - a short distance east. Hillingdon was home to a dozen flour mills and John must have worked on at least one of them.

Since Emma Budd was the daughter of a flour miller, George Budd, it was no doubt through his work that they met and after marrying her he took her back to Chepping Wycombe where he is established in the census of 1861 with his wife and three living children. Whether John had gone up a bit in the world by marrying George Budd’s daughter or she had gone down a bit, I am not sure - I would need to know more about George Budd of Hillingdon.

Between 1854 and 1861 Emma lost four children in infancy, dramatic even by the standards of the time. I think she fell into depression and more precisely into a melancholy which then infused a religious faith - whether already existing or not, I do not know - of a stern and threatening character. She heaped blame on herself for the death of those four children and she felt she deserved to suffer.

It so happens that Emma Budd is the first of my ancestors who has left any written trace now in my possession. In 1882, a year before her death, she inscribed a British and Foreign Bible Society New Testament to her fourteen year old son Godfrey and this is what she wrote:


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Thanks, Mum. That’s a really nice present!

But it may be that Emma Budd was also preparing herself for her own death the following year. She may have been ill and known it. I have a photograph on cracked glass which I think may be of her - the facial look is that of her daughter, my grandmother Eliza shown underneath from a 1919 wedding photograph in which she would have been the same age as her mother at death.







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My grandmother Eliza remained faithful to her mother’s memory and, like her, strongly believed in punishment for wickedness; she may have disapproved of her father’s second marriage, though he signed as a witness at her marriage in 1892. But as part of her fidelity, Eliza Turner also married her own brute, my grandfather Thomas Redsell Stevens with whom she had seven children who survived and one (according to my mother - but there is no record anywhere) which did not. My mother was probably correct: she would remember the fact not least because she had a miscarriage and a stillbirth before I was born and blamed herself for both. Her melancholy was extreme and she spent four long periods during her life in mental hospitals, preparing to meet a very punitive God.
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John Turner’s energy and ambition had taken him out of Wycombe to Hillingdon. Later, it took him to Kent. In 1871 he and his wife are installed with their six living children at “Hawley, Sutton at Hone, Dartford, Kent”. That complicated address uses the names of three localities strung out along the fairly short River Darenth as it flows south to north into the Thames through the chalk downlands of Kent. The Wikipedia entry for the River Darent - that is apparently the modern spelling but I always use Darenth - lists no less than 29 water mills of one kind or another which once lined its banks.

Half a dozen are familiar to me as places where members of my mother’s family and my mother herself worked, usually as mill hands, one as a papermaker, and in John Turner’s case, as a millwright. Once he has moved to the Darenth valley, John Turner stays there - in 1881 he is living in Sutton at Hone, the same in 1891, and in 1901 in “Darenth (St Margaret’s Parish) Dartford". His children work in the paper mills and it would continue that way for another generation: my mother became a mill girl when she left school at thirteen or fourteen in 1921. The mill was just down the road from the Shirehall Road where she lived with her mother Eliza Turner and father Thomas Redsell Stevens.
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John Turner’s millwright father probably set his son a high threshold for achievement. Richard Turner, my great great grandfather, was born in 1798 in Westmoreland but it seems that there were southern connections already existing and Richard marries in West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, in 1818. His wife is Sarah Hall born in 1798 in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. (Winchcombe was notable for paper making, the Postlip Mills  best-known, so it's likely that they met in some connection with Richard's work). Both of them end their lives in Wycombe, Richard in 1861 and Sarah in 1878. 

But in between, Richard’s work takes him away from Wycombe and most notably also to the Darenth valley. The census of 1851 has him in Sundridge, a village near Sevenoaks, where he is living with his wife, four children, a grand daughter aged 3 with no attributed parent, a visitor, three servants, and an unclassified paper maker. All eight adults have the word “paper” in their characterisations (two of the servants are paper maker’s daughters), and Richard heads up the household described as a foreman in paper factory, aged 53.

This is clearly some household, and in Sundridge there was only one paper mill. But it was no ordinary mill and in consequence Richard Turner no ordinary foreman. The internet tells me that the mill produced paper for the Bank of England. 

But Richard Turner returned to Wycombe sometime before the 1861 census, perhaps because he was in poor health. In that  census his Wycombe household contains only himself, his wife and two unmarried sons. Richard is working as a dairyman. 

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Thanks to Gillian Cable for the genealogical work

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Redsell: An Old Crayford Family all over St Paulinus churchyard



It makes life a bit easier to have a relatively uncommon name in a family tree. The 1891 census for England and Wales recorded only 123 Redsells and 102 of them were in Kent and probably all related one way or another. They didn’t exactly go forth and multiply; the name remains uncommon.

My mother’s father was Thomas Redsell Stevens (1861 - 1925), his mother’s maiden name dropped into the middle of his. My mother said her father had a bad temper and that he got it from his mother and she got it from being Irish. There is no evidence of Irishness that I have yet uncovered, but she may well have had a temper - and she was certainly economical with the truth.

Emma Redsell (1826 - date of death unknown) was baptised in the parish church of St. Paulinus, Crayford in 1829 and married Charles Stevens in the same church on Christmas Day 1847. She had actually been born in Camberwell, Surrey four months’ after her own parents married there in 1826 , but her father Thomas Redsell had been baptised in Crayford in 1803, again in St Paulinus. But he married in his wife’s place of residence and probably stayed there until their child was born. His wife Agnes Bennett (1804 - 1860) was buried in St Paulinus churchyard; she lived to see Emma married.

Emma’s son Thomas, my grandfather, ran away to sea in 1875. Emma ran away from her husband Charles sometime in the 1870s, taking their two youngest children. She set up home some miles away in Plumstead with a much younger man and appears to have knocked twenty years off her age in order to get closer to that of her partner. In the census of 1871 living with her husband, they are both 44. Ten years later in the census of 1881, living with her 29 year old partner Emma is 34;  ten years later again this has been adjusted up to 53, though her actual age then was 64. She appears to have no children with the new man, as one might expect from her real age at the time of leaving her husband. By 1891, the year her son Thomas marries, she is living alone with her Plumstead partner. Whether she attended her son’s marriage, I do not know (The bride's father was a witness, but the other witness was "Ida Gardiner" whose relationship I have yet to establish). Charles her husband died in 1887 so he didn't.

It may be that the real temper problem was not with Emma but with her husband Charles. Emma’s parents seem to have been a stable enough couple. Her father Thomas was a cowkeeper, what we would now call a dairyman: someone who kept cows and sold milk, no doubt locally in Crayford. She was the first child, but there were six more ending with twin girls born in 1844 both of whom ended up making good enough marriages for their late husbands’ Wills to go to probate, one twin collecting from two husbands.

Though Emma’s mother Agnes died in 1860, her father Thomas continued to live locally with two daughters still at home in 1871 and still describing himself as a cowkeeper.. He dies at the cusp of 1876 aged 71 and is buried in St Paulinus churchyard. So he lived long enough to see his grandson Thomas run away to sea and maybe to see his daughter Emma leave her husband for a younger man.

Thomas the cowkeeper’s own father John Redsell died in 1854. In the 1851 census he was a 69 year old master cordwainer - a shoemaker - with two apprentices. He was living in Crayford with three children still unmarried in their thirties, though there is also a grand daughter who may well be the child of one of the unmarrieds. His wife had died long before, in 1835 at the age of 54. She had been Elizabeth Finch and he married her in 1802 in St George, Hanover Square, Westminster. But John their son had been born and baptised in Crayford (St Paulinus again) in 1782 and he lived in Crayford all his life, always working as a shoemaker.

The same is true for his father ,Thomas Redsell baptised in 1749 and marrying Elizabeth Cranwell in 1780. This Thomas - my great great great great (4G) grandfather - was also a shoemaker and a prosperous one, taking on apprentices in the 1780s and 790s. He and his wife were both buried in St Paulinus: he in 1813 she in 1834.

The repetition of names continues back to the final stage I have been able to chart with the help of Gillian Cable: when 4G Thomas Redsell was baptised in 1749, apparently in nearby Dartford rather than Crayford, his parents were 5G Thomas Redsell and Elizabeth, maiden name unknown.

The Redsell in me comes from a family local to Crayford and its environs; it remains to research those they married: a Bennett, a Finch, a Cranwell.


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An Old Crayford Family, the Stevens






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Our past is another country; everything was different then. There is no way back.

Mine was a local childhood, the borders of my country drawn by my mother and determined by bus routes which offered access to her brothers and sisters. A few times, we caught the train up to Charing Cross and so into London. Occasionally we crossed into other territory enabled by my father’s car conveying us to rare weeks by the seaside, as far away as Bournemouth and Weymouth. And once my father even took me abroad, on the MV Royal Daffodil which offered foot passenger day trips from Folkestone to Boulogne and for which only a one day passport - no photograph, hand back on return - was required. It was 1958, I was eleven and I came back clutching a French toy car in my pocket, afraid that it would be seized by Customs as contraband. It was my only experience of foreign travel until I went off on my own at seventeen.

My mother’s territory was known as North West Kent but even then it was disappearing under South East London which steadily encroached. The ambiguity was marked by the buses: we had both the red buses of London Transport and the green buses of London Country. They sufficed for our whole territory.

My mother was the youngest of seven siblings and I was by far the youngest of their small number of offspring: they managed just six between them, the others already grown and moving away when I was still very small. My mother was born a Stevens and the Stevenses, my mother said, were an old Crayford family though only her brother Goff and his wife Lena lived in a house which was Crayford, Kent when you addressed your Christmas cards to 42 Green Walk. We visited by the 480 green bus. For a year (1961 - 62) my mother and I lodged there because we were otherwise homeless.

My uncle Godfrey Stevens worked shifts (including nights) in the nearby Dartford paper mill where he was now a gatekeeper, light duties for men who were too old for the demands of the factory floor. He walked to work. His wife Lena was a nurse in a Dartford mental hospital, Stone House - once the City of London Lunatic Asylum - and went to work on the 480 bus.

My mother’s father Thomas Redsell Stevens had been born in Crayford in 1861 and started out in life by running away from home, falsifying his age to make himself sixteen and thus eligible to join the  Royal Navy in 1875 and remaining a sailor until 1887. He died in 1925 so I never knew him except from my mother's stories. After the Navy, he worked for the Crayford munitions firm of Vickers - but as a gun tester, out on the firing range at Sutton at Hone. He lost an arm in an accident there.

My grandfather's own father Charles Stevens was born in Crayford in 1826 and became a carpenter. Crayford had (and still has) a very old Anglican parish church, St Paulinus; it was restored in the 1860s and my mother used to say that this grandfather of hers (who died before she was born) did the carvings. But I was never curious enough to go and look and nor was my mother, even though she also knew that there were Stevenses buried in the churchyard including her oldest brother Tom (Thomas Turner Stevens). He is shown here in his 1919 wedding photograph, his father on the left in the photo, his mother sitting in front of her husband, my mother sitting in bottom left corner aged 12:



Click on Image to Enlarge

But St Paulinus wasn’t our church. In Dartford, there had been the East Hill Methodist church directly opposite where we lived. My mother found it both convenient and congenial and I attended with her and sometimes went independently to Sunday school. In Crayford, St Paulinus sat at the very top of the High Street; the Methodist church was only half way up and we avoided the hill climb and attended there.

I joined the 4th Crayford Methodist Scout group which met in the church hall; I remained a scout until my sixteenth birthday in 1963 at which point I decided I did not want to move up to the Senior Scouts. I enjoyed camping and exploring but I wasn’t hardy and I couldn’t swim.

There were Methodist Girl Guides who met on a different night. But at some point probably in 1962 someone had the idea (a Swinging Sixties effect?) to bring Scouts and Guides together for a disco. I went and showed off my ability to do the Twist which I had seen on TV. My recollection is that my display was performed without a partner. But afterwards I got my first teenage kiss off a girl guide and maybe she got hers off me - I forget who took the initiative and I forget her name. But the kiss took place as we exited the hall into the rather dark alleyway which ran down the right side of the church and provided separate access to the hall - the church itself was accessed by a main door directly onto the high street.

I went online to check that bit of geography and was pleased to discover from the very first image Google displayed that I had got it right: there was Crayford Methodist church - a modern, detached red brick building of simple symmetrical design facing west onto Crayford High Street, side entrances on either side.


But then Google went on to display lots of other images which I did not recognise. I was puzzled; why only one image? Why all these irrelevant ones? I checked the neighbouring images. Crayford Methodist church is now Crayford mosque: detached, side entrances but glassed in, rendered and painted white with three green and gold domes atop and extended at the back to accommodate five hundred worshippers.



The white rendering is recent; a little more research told me that until a few years ago, the mosque made do with the original red brick and the original side entrances over which hung black and yellow signs in road sign style BROTHERS ONLY and SISTERS ONLY. Google had close-ups. I can’t see them repeated on the new exterior and there may be a reason for that. In 2014, five members of Britain First, four men, one woman and led by Paul Golding, entered the mosque without asking or taking off their shoes, and confronted the elderly man who happened to be doing the caretaking at that time and demanded that the signs be taken down within a week or else they would be removed by direct action. They are sexist, said Golding, and in this country we have equality.

It sounds spurious. We have always had  Christian schools for Boys Only and Girls Only and still do. And on Victorian school buildings built for both boys and girls one can still see the carved signs BOYS ENTRANCE and GIRLS ENTRANCE. As for the mosque, my guess is that the old signs were replaced by more discreet interior ones when the church façade was made over. My other guess is that the mosque has not yet experimented with a disco.

Paul Golding and Britain First had been quite successful in and around Crayford; he had even been elected a local councillor. Part of me wants to say that they are just the misguided voices of  a disappearing First Nation of which I am technically a part. My grandparents Thomas Redsell Stevens and his wife Eliza Turner put into the world seven children  but those seven children could only manage to produce six between them not the forty nine which would have matched their parents' industry. And though all but one of the seven remained within bus rides of each other, none of their children remained within the original territory. 

The mosque basically tells me who took the empty seats.  The Stevenses illustrate the truth that there was a point when my bit of the First Nation simply did not produce enough children. The First World War played a part, so did the Spanish Flu of 1918, and perhaps the Depression of the 1930s. But similar and sometimes worse things had happened in the past without deterring reproduction. So it looks like a cultural change; people had had enough of having large families which exhausted them and children who they often could not feed properly.

When is a first nation actually a First Nation? Usually, there is some group which was there before those who claim to have got there first. It’s a repetitive story which simply shows that we punctuate history to suit our cause. The Stevenses may have been an old Crayford family, as my mother put it, but actually not that old at all. My grandfather Thomas and great grandfather Charles were both born there and that takes the Crayford Stevenses back to 1826. But go back another generation and I find that my great great grandfather Henry Stevens was not born in Crayford but in Beddington, Surrey in 1798. Charles was the first of five children of Henry’s second marriage which took place in 1825 in Newington, Surrey to Elizabeth Smith born Wallington, Surrey in 1804. But this first child was baptised in Crayford because Henry has arrived to work there as a printer. This is clarified in the archive material  as copper plate printer in 1828 and in 1841 as waistcoat printer. 

From the last especially, I conclude that Henry Stevens worked in the Swaisland calico and silk printing factory, a major local employer with large premises located down by the riverside in the centre of Crayford.  Abundant water was indispensable to processes which produced a wide range of printed cottons, some of them beautiful: Swaisland’s pattern books have been conserved in museums and the Royal College of Art and so we know what the products looked like even if few actually survive.

Henry Stevens died in 1847 just three months’ before his son Charles, the carpenter’s, marriage. It’s possible that his early death was connected to the stress he must have been feeling that year. Faced with a downturn in trade, Swaisland sought to cut wages by half. A strike was called, and strike breakers called in from the north of England; the strike lasted until the end of the year. There was Chartist agitation in Crayford to add to the conflict, though whether Henry Stevens was more for the management or for more for the men by this point in his life I do not know. After his father’s death one of his sons gives his father’s occupation for purposes of the marriage register as manager in cotton printing factory. But he may have been bigging up his father’s occupation a bit - it sometimes happens on marriage certificates when bride or groom wants to impress the other side’s family.

Still, Henry Stevens was a skilled artisan doing interesting work in an interesting factory and it was the work which attracted him from Surrey. Nowadays, those place names previously evoked - Beddington, Newington, Wallington - are pretty meaningless. Those country villages are now buried under London’s southern sprawl. It makes more sense to think Croydon than to think Surrey. But when Henry Stevens moved what we would think of as the short distance from Surrey to Kent, he was making a big move. He and his wife were migrants drawn by the prospect of a job secure enough to turn the Stevenses into an old Crayford family.

It was their son Charles who consolidated the family’s position by marrying a local girl, Emma Redsell, on Christmas Day 1847 in the church of St Paulinus. She gave birth to my grandfather Thomas Redsell Stevens and so is one of my great grandmothers. Emma was born in 1826 the daughter of a Crayford cowkeeper - a man who kept a cow or cows and sold their milk, what we might be more likely now to call a dairyman.

Maybe the Redsells were also an old Crayford family. Time to find out….    
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I have written a memoir of my 1947-1965 childhood, I Have Done This in Secret (degree zero 2018) available online (as a hardback only) at Amazon and Waterstones.