A Bit Of Family History

As I have mentioned previously, I am sporadically tracing my family tree, something I’ve only really become interested in recently. Perhaps it is mainly an older person’s interest, although I don’t think I’ll explore that now. But I’m keen to pass on the information to my children and grandchildren especially, so they can do further research if they feel like it.

As well as the family connection, though, much of my interest is both the exercise of solving a puzzle – it has much in common with a detective story – and to attempt to ‘see’ something of the person behind a list of dates and names. It is comparatively straightforward to accumulate lists of these folk with no more information than a sort of ‘Fred Bloggs born 1750, married Mary Smith 1770 died 1820’ which is really of little interest to me.

But if you know where to look (and how to search) there is often more information available about our ancestors, although you also need a very large slice of luck to dig up interesting details of the lives of the average person. In my research, then, I have found a few folk, of whom I knew absolutely nothing to start with, not even their names, and have been able to build up a bit of a picture of their lives.

That’s what it’s all about, I reckon.

Here, then, is an example:

My Great Great Grandad was Frederick John Platt. He was born in 1826 or 1827; I cannot find his birth record, but all other documents are consistent in his age.

A couple of census entries:

1851 the family are at 2 Wilmot Street, Bethnal Green. They were: William Platt, 49, Handloom weaver, Ann, 59, Frederick J, 24, Sarah Susanah, 22, also William James Platt, 26, his wife Sarah, 28, and William James 4. All bar William James Junior are Handloom weavers.

1861 at 1 Green Street, Bethnal Green. They are: Frederick J Platt, 34, Broad silk weaver, Louisa S, 30, Broad silk weaver, Louisa M, 6, Frederick W, 5, Henry G, 1, George W, 1 month. All were born in Bethnal Green.

So far so good, but then there is a Crisis.

In 1861 Louisa Sarah Platt of 1 Green Street, age 30, died. It must have been very soon after the census was taken (on 7th April) as she was buried on 21st April. I obtained a copy of her entry in the Death Register, and it tells us she died on 14th April 1861 – ‘Found dead at 1 Green Street, Twig Folly Bridge, Bethnal Green’. She was aged thirty and the cause of death was given as ‘exhaustion after her confinement’. You can see on the 1861 census the youngest, George W, is recorded as one month old.

Green Street, Bethnal Green, from Cross’ Map of London 1851. Twig Folly on the right of the map gave its name to the bridge where Green Street crossed Regents Canal.

Then on May 8th 1861 we find the following Poor Law Removal judgement:

Frederick Platt, 34, of 1 Green Street, 5 years last 25 Jan, 3 Parliament Street, Cambridge Road, Mile End, B G (Bethnal Green). Weaver.

Was born at no. 10 Geo. Gardens B G never (ye?) has lived in B G all his life father before him. Had married at St. James the Less 1853, 12 June Co produced to Louisa Sarah, who died 3 weeks ago, Louisa 7, Frederick 5, Henry 17 mos, George 5 weeks, – B G

And then in another hand:

Father pd taxes Harts Lane B G Road about 17 yrs ago and Cranbrook St. about 2 yrs. He lives at 2 Cranbrook St.

I am unclear what the ‘removal’ part of the judgement refers to and can only assume it either means the children were taken from him, or they were all evicted from the property. The final paragraph about his father having paid taxes, I am guessing meant the authorities were then willing to provide some sort of support for the children. He had married Louisa Sarah Whalley sometime between April and June 1853, in Bethnal Green – June 12th according to the Poor Law Judgement – and after she died eight years later, his world seems to have fallen apart. And it seems to have happened so quickly! Less than three weeks after Louisa is buried, this judgement is passed upon the family.

But I suspect the family may already have been in some trouble.

Bethnal Green saw a huge influx of Huguenot immigrants during the late seventeenth and early eighteen centuries, almost exclusively silk weavers. Although I cannot find any evidence to back it up, I was told in my childhood that Mum’s ancestors were Huguenots, and that would suggest the Platts were the ones referred to. Whether Platt is an Anglicized version of a French name, or a Platt had married into a Huguenot family, though, I have not been able to determine. Over the years from the Huguenots’ arrival in Britain, though, various laws were put into effect to protect the British silk industry from foreign competition. However an 1860 treaty with France allowed silks to be imported duty free and very soon the industry was in freefall. Unable to compete in price with the imported cloths, huge numbers of weavers were thrown into poverty.

The next definite sighting of Frederick John Platt is in 1877 when his son, Frederick William, is married. On the form, Frederick John’s occupation is given as undertaker, and Frederick W is a commercial clerk. Clearly, they were no longer part of the weaving community. It is worth noting here that Frederick J’s older brother, William James Platt, has his occupation recorded as undertaker in the 1871 census, having also been a silk weaver prior to this date. It seems probable that Frederick either worked for him, or they were in partnership for a while. William then continues working as an undertaker for the rest of his life

After this, Frederick J seems to again drop off the radar for a while. I have a couple of other possible sightings but cannot find any census record for 1881 that I can be sure are his.

But then on September 15th 1884 Frederick John Platt, widower, 57, marries Sarah Mansfield, widow, 45, at St James the Less, Bethnal Green. By now he is described as a provision merchant of 40 Cranbrook Square.

One way or another, it seems he had managed to rebuild his life.

The 1891 census records a Frederick Platt, 65, ice cream vendor, and Sarah, 52, at 33 Quaker Street, Spitalfields.

And then? A Frederick Platt aged 74 died in Whitechapel, July – September 1899. That seems to be him. If it was, then he seems to have fallen upon hard times again. In January and February 1892 and then frequently from February 1895 through to February 1899 a Frederick Platt, widower, is recorded as being in and out of the workhouse at Stepney. His profession is given variously as wood chopper, labourer, or blacksmith’s assistant, and cause of admission each time as bronchitis or rheumatism.

We don’t realise how lucky we are.

Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.

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An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.

Aggie

Aggie sits smile-chuckling at nothing much on TV today.

She’s made her shopping list,

And tidied her room.

She cried a little when Patrick called her stupid,

But she seems to forget him when children’s TV comes on.

 

It’s on the television screen that life makes sense to her.

 

Aggie, did you put that food in the waste?

No! Aggie is a good girl! Large-eyed-scared.

I smile easily. Soothingly. Of course you are, Aggie.

The same ritual every evening. But I wonder

Just what happened in that huge, rambling institution

She called home.

 

It’s then I think, for the hundredth time,

Of the pages in her file, the report from the hospital,

By the doctors and the clinicians,

With their tests and scans and

‘I can find no evidence…’

 

By all accounts a normal child,

Who, just after the war

 

Got into trouble.

She was sent away for her own good!

 

A cousin, sharp-spiteful,

But who refuses to say any more.

None of my business, or of yours!

 

‘There is evidence of a number of fractures,

The upper left radius, several ribs,

The right fibula, particularly poorly healed…’

 

Have you seen my baby? Asks Aggie, suddenly.

What baby’s that, Aggie?

Distracted-distant.

I have to do the medication, right now.

I’ll talk to you later.

 

‘There appears to be no reason for her disability,

No birth trauma, no accident,

No diagnosis…’

 

It’s Aggie’s seventieth birthday, tomorrow.

What would you like to do, Aggie?

Do you want to go somewhere?

 

Aggie nods.

There is something she’d like to do,

But the words won’t come and the more she tries,

The harder it seems to get, and so

She gets distressed, and cries and runs off

Slipper-slapping to her room.

The door slams.

 

‘Aggie spends a lot of time crying…’