B & W Sunday ~ Stronghold ~ The Telling Of Family Tales


Most families tell tales about their origins: legends of high-born connections, of inheritances lost or missed-out on, of forebears famous or notorious somewhere in the family tree. These stories, the ideas of who we are become strongholds of sorts; a defence against times when others make us feel ‘not good enough’, or just plain dull.

I seem to remember when I was eight or nine telling one very competitive school friend, and as a piece of deliberate one-upmanship on my part, that one of my ancestors was a well known poet and buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Mother had told me so.

Indeed, Mother told me lots of family stories about her Derbyshire Fox and Bennett antecedents, and because a) she still had her own childhood interpretation of what her own mother had said, and b) was framing them in a way she thought I would also understand, the ensuing narrative, much like Chinese Whispers, came out more than a little garbled. In other words, our family connection to the poet ancestor is probably so much tosh.

From time to time I have little delving sessions on the internet in a bid to clear up the maternal myths, and last year came across two fellow searchers into the Fox family of Derbyshire’s High Peak. It turned out we were each descended from three siblings William, Robert and Deborah Fox, all born at Callow Farm in the manor of Highlow, in the 1770s. And it’s odd, but I find I treasure this present-day, albeit tenuous blood connection, almost more than anything I might find out about our mutual family past. I mean, well, who would have thought it; without the internet, we never would have found each other.

The Fox siblings’ father, George Fox, came from many generations of farmers. Over the years the family appears to have owned several pieces of land in the parishes of Hathersage, Longshaw, Eyam and Abney (one was a sheep run, others were possibly both farms and lead mine workings), but the Foxes, certainly in recent centuries, were mostly the tenants, first of the Eyres at Highlow Hall (pictured above), and later of the Dukes of Devonshire who came to rule much of Derbyshire from their own dynastic stronghold of Chatsworth.

If the Eyre name rings bells, well it is true (just to add another story thread) that Charlotte Bronte was staying with her friend Ellen Nussey in Hathersage in 1845, around the time she was writing Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Hall is said to be drawn from another Eyre family stronghold, North Lees Hall. She and Ellen went visiting there. Other local features are also present in the book, including Hathersage itself, which was apparently the model for Morton, the village where Jane Eyre ends up after running away from Edward Rochester.

My Fox ancestors, it seems, were also good storytellers – fact mixed seamlessly with fiction. When Robert Fox’s son, my great, great grandfather George Brayley Fox was forced to sell up his possessions at Callow Farm in 1892, this piece appeared in the Derbyshire Courier:

Derbyshire Courier 25 March 1893

My own feeling about this ancestral yarn is that it was a bit of a face-saving exercise for a family that had indeed been part of the local scene for generations. Some of the details may well be based on some misremembered version of reality. Early medieval charters of the 12th and 13th centuries certainly have Foxes farming in pretty much the same location. Now, I and my two fellow Fox hunters are trying to tease the facts from the myths.

But one thing I do know (because I have the photo), my great grandmother, Mary Ann Fox, rode her pony along the winding lane from Callow Farm. She would have ridden past Highlow Hall on one of her regular missions. Grandmother said she went to Chatsworth Hall to deliver the farm tithe in eggs to the Duke of Devonshire. Here she is c1880s in her late teens, before she was silly enough to run off with a Manchester spindle manufacturer and, at thirty, end up the widow of a bankrupt with three young children and a stepson to support:


And here is Callow farmhouse, the photo taken by a family researcher in the 1970s. It sits on a hillside below Highlow Hall, and looks down on the River Derwent and the small town of Hathersage. If there is a house of 1391 here, as the newspaper article suggests, then it is very well hidden inside a very much later exterior:

Callow Farm, Hathersage c 1970s

But if I said that these images and family tales have not affected how I see myself, then this would not be true, although it is only recently that I have seen this. For some reason, too, in my later years, these particular maternal ancestors seem to mean more to me.

The thing that speaks most loudly is not so much the gentry connections – real or imagined – but the sense of landscape, of the bleak uplands, the rugged scarps of millstone grit, the arcane, but tough world of lead-mining in which all classes toiled from the Eyres downwards; the fact that men and women worked so hard in this land, lived on oat cakes and homemade butter, cheese and ale, reared often very large families, and (in a surprising number of cases) lived into their eighties and nineties.

Somehow the more I uncover of my ancestors’ world, the more it becomes my stronghold, the mental hinterland wherein I am truly rooted.  I stand up more strongly, look out across those moors with their prehistoric stone circles, and ancient burial cairns, the stone walls, and the sheep fields. The wind is in my face. My gaze broadens and lengthens. It is like standing on top of the world, looking down the endless spiral of time of which I am a part, and forever will be.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Reference: For more about the Peak District

Black & White Sunday: Stronghold  Go here to Paula’s to her and others’ strongholds

48 thoughts on “B & W Sunday ~ Stronghold ~ The Telling Of Family Tales

  1. 🙂 You stand up more strongly remembering your ancestors – this is the most thorough account of a stronghold I could hope for. Thank you kindly, Tish, for this special post.

  2. Shivers up the spine, especially from the last paragraph. I absolutely relish the way you take a challenge and gallop with it, hair flying (metaphorically speaking). I’m interested in the way you’re living in the territory of your ancestors, and I love your scepticism about family stories. Another fascinating post.

    1. Actually my hair has been doing a lot flying lately. Even Graham noticed. 🙂 But that’s a very interesting observation though – the galloping. I did have a sense of lift-off. Though it could be too much caffeine this morning. I must hie me to the allotment and calm down among the bean seedlings. Hope you’re having a good Sunday en famille.

    1. Funny you should find that, Robin. I had seen it, and dismissed it. But I’ve been wondering recently how this site might fit in with Callow Farm – if at all, as it’s on the other side of Hathersage. But Callow Bank was a metal working site, and I’m wondering if the name was used again here to denote ownership. Callow is quite a common name, but it seems a bit odd to have it replicated in the same parish. And we have yet to pinpoint the location of land that the Foxes owned. The family wills very annoyingly do not explain, on the assumption everyone knows where everything is. Thanks for giving me this link. I shall go back and ponder 🙂

  3. I have not one single famous or notorious ancestor. There might be a few notorious ones, but the perpetrators where never convicted, though they may have been privately hanged 🙂

  4. Fascinating post Tish! I wish I knew about my ancestors…things not so well documented up in the north. But since I can’t, I can imagine anything 🙂

    1. I have found out quite a lot from the internet, which I have to say feels odd, But it’s intriguing to find 2 eagle-eyed researchers on the same quest. The free Mormon site Family Search has loads of stuff on it. I don’t how far their net extends worldwise though.

      1. I have tried…the archives in Finland and Sweden where I have to look, are still work in progress in terms of online access…

    1. Paula’s prompt was indeed a cracker, Jo. As to photos, I wish I had more from gt grandmother’s time. This is the only one. My grandmother was an obsessive thrower-away, so it’s extraordinary that it survived. But I do have some good photos of the next generations. Hm. Rather a lot of thwarted women, now I think about it.

  5. Tish, I am envious of your rich family stories. I have nothing as close to even share. And as always you tell your stories so beautifully.
    Have a pleasant evening, friend

  6. Tish, I like your reference to your maternal ancestors. So often the women are lost in history without a paper trail, unless they are writers or kept a diary. Thanks for the post.

    1. Hello Elfrieda. Didn’t I write you an article years ago – on how I started writing in Africa. Thank you for your comments. And yes, I do agree about how women become lost from history. And when one’s researching, everything tends to be through the patriarchal line. And if they ever owned anything it all, on marriage it becomes their husband’s possession and so they remain invisible as you say.

  7. What an interesting post. I like the way you have woven your story together from hearsay and facts. Piecing together the family history is a fascinating pursuit.

  8. Like Meg that last paragraph touched me. It talks so loudly of your love of your country and your place in it. I think one of my regrets is not talking more to my Mother about her past. She was 41 when I was born and I left for NZ when I was 18. At that age I had not developed a sense of country and hereditary. I have no idea about my background at all. I love reading about your research, fascinating…

    1. Yes, there is always that regret of not asking more questions. My aunt was the best family historian, but she used to tell me things out of context, assuming I’d logged the things she’d told me years earlier. Much of my gt.grandmother’s story I have pieced together since from census records, and snippets in newspapers. It’s amazing what can be found.

      1. I believe it can become quite addictive chasing down all the family history. How exciting it must be to be able to trace so far back

  9. So much here that resonates with my own recent explorations of family history. In particular, I am surprised to find our long-lived some of my ancestors were, despite the harshness of their environment.

    1. It often seems to be when people move to work and live in cities that life expectancy becomes markedly reduced. We’ve been given the impression that life in the past was brutish and short, but I’m not sure that this is always very accurate. I discovered a similar picture of longevity in pre-colonial East Africa. Kenyans told me that it was not unusual for their rural grandparents to live into their 80s and 90s. Anthropological studies have also demonstrated this.

      1. Indeed! My Scottish country ancestors seem to have lived long lives, yet when the family came out to NZ, the family members didn’t live such long lives.

      2. Hm. That’s interesting. Home sickness perhaps, which can affect longevity, and perhaps feelings of being cut off, which again would stress the immune system.

      3. Years ago I saw a TV documentary about Asian migrants going to the US and succumbing to heart disease. The medical man presenting it, believed it was nothing to do with cholesterol etc (something that is finally coming to be realised anyway), but that literally people were dying of broken hearts from being separated from their homeland. Our psyches, especially the subconscious, appear to be the absolute key to our physical health. It’s all fascinating stuff. Psychiatrist Dr David Hawkins had a lot to say on the matter.

  10. Beautiful piece, Tish. When we search for our ancestors, we search for missing pieces of ourselves. I, too, feel a greater connection with the ancestral landscape rather than some vanished gentry status.

    1. Thank you, Julie. It’s interesting this sense of connection with territory. Until recently, my feet thought they were still in Africa, and now they seem to be firmly planted in Derbyshire where I have never lived and only rarely visited. It’s more than a little strange 🙂

  11. I’ve always envied your beautiful town and countryside and the stability and rootedness of it. You’re lucky to have made all these discoveries that deepen those roots for you. I suppose I treasure those old family stories too. But mine go back maybe a hundred and fifty years and to someplace in Poland I’ve never seen.

    1. I often have a little debate with myself as to whether knowledge of one’s ancestral roots is important or not – to one’s inner life that is. All I know is that by starting the digging it felt like pathways were opening up across the landscape – the sense of multiplying connections however faint. I also started learning some actual history about the times these past relations lived in. On the other hand, once you’ve started stirring things up, one can also have a sense of being haunted. Thank you for that thoughtful comment, Stephen.

      1. Yes. It’s something I think about too. Although, like I said, the Bumba family tree is not much more than a four or five generation bush, so there isn’t that much to think about, so maybe that’s good. Still, everyone loves those family stories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.