This photo may work better as an idea than as an actuality, but this week Paula at Black & White Sunday gives us the prompt of ‘layers’, and here (for me at least) there are many layers, not only of light and shadow, surface reflections and leafy river bed, but also of present and past, the stones that my maternal ancestors may well have stepped on for nearly two centuries.
So goes the family tale anyway, the story my great grandmother, Mary Ann Fox, passed on to my grandmother, Lilian Hickling, who passed it on to her daughter, my aunt, Miriam Wilkinson, who passed it on to me. The photo, then, could be taken as a physical rendition of Chinese Whispers since, and as with all such family histories, there are bound to be distortions as word passes from generation to generation – omissions, elaborations.
But there are certainties too.
Mary Ann was born and grew up at Callow Farm on the hill above the River Derwent, just outside Hathersage in the Derbyshire Peak District. (The field path from the farm house to the stepping stones is still marked on the Ordnance Survey map). And so in later life, perhaps as a young wife and mother living in the close and gloomy streets of industrial Manchester, she conjured her old life, telling her three town-born children how, if she wanted to go to the shops she would have to cross the Callow fields and take the stepping stones over the Derwent to Hathersage.
Other scraps of tales have also reached me: my grandmother’s pronouncement to my aunt that her mother was ‘a sad woman’ (she was widowed twice: at 30 and at 41); that the waft of her black silk dress as she moved about the inn that she kept after the death of her first husband carried the scent of lily of the valley to cover the smell of gin.
My feeling is that as a young woman, Mary Ann, called Merian by her family, was headstrong and passionate, and in consequence made bad decisions. At twenty she went against family wishes and married Thomas Shorrocks, a Bolton spindle manufacturer, and widower with a young son. How she met him is still a mystery to me, although I have my grandmother’s acid remark etched in my mind: that her mother fell for the first man she saw wearing a stove-pipe hat, that she was a country girl swept off her feet by a townie. Grandmother said she scarcely knew her father, intimating that he kept away from home until they were asleep, staying on at his works or at his club. In 1893-4 his family firm went bankrupt, and he died aged 39.
Mary Ann’s first married home on Kildare Street, Bolton – a modest terraced villa with a small front garden – was a far cry from the sweeping high moors vistas around Callow. She did have a servant girl, however, to help with the children, but it is hard to imagine how she adapted to the dramatic change in circumstances. Did she try to fit in? Probably not. Grandmother related that the ever darkly clad Bolton women looked askance at Mary Ann’s bright print dresses. In my mind’s eye I see the colourful flash of free-spirited obstinacy that brought her to that place. It’s like the light flickering through the trees and onto the Derwent stepping stones.
The death of Mary Ann’s first husband coincided with her father’s decision to leave Callow Farm where his family had been tenant farmers for four generations. Derbyshire farmers were having a hard time in the early 1890s: prices for crops were low, and rents were high, and landowners unwilling to compromise on the rents. It seems likely that some of the proceeds of the farm sale of stock, crops, horses and household belongings were used to secure the licence for the inn in Hollinfare, Cheshire, where Mary Ann began a new life as innkeeper.
My aunt said the Fox family had decided that taking the inn was the best means of securing a home and living for her with three young children and an adolescent stepson. It stood on the south bank of the great Manchester Ship Canal, which linked the vast industrial heartland of northwest England with the port of Liverpool. It was only recently opened in 1895 when she took over the inn, and doubtless the Foxes thought they had made a wise move, anticipating plenty of passing trade.
Mostly what it brought, it seems, was another marriage to another widower – one Charles Rowles, a ship’s pilot on the canal and a former sea captain. My grandmother disliked him, although she adored her young stepbrother, Giles, born a year later. She said that it was only once her mother had married, that Charles Rowles produced two teenage daughters from his first marriage, the said young women moving into the inn and thereafter trying to rule the roost. This would not have gone down well with my grandmother. If there was any ruling of roosts to be done, she was the person to do it.
For various reasons I’ve tried to discover more about the Rowles family. Scouring the census returns, I discovered that it rather looks as if Mary Ann’s younger brother, George Fox, eloped with one of his sister’s new stepdaughters. Louisa Rowles was possibly only 15 when she married George, although she claimed to be older. He owned a large pub in Manchester, but she, too, was left a young widow, and in the 1911 census is listed as a servant, working in another Manchester pub. What happened to her remains to be discovered.
As for Mary Ann, in 1905 she was widowed for the second time after ten years of marriage, and she herself died at the age of 46. So, as grandmother said, a sad woman indeed. As I took this photograph, these were some of the thoughts running through my head. It is all too easy to look back to Mary Ann’s growing up at Callow Farm and see a rosy past. It’s how we tend to view things: the glamour of an imagined rural idyll – the stepping stones back to happier days. I had hoped to be able to cross here too, and get a closer view of the farm, but there had been a heavy rainfall in the night and there was too much water in the river to attempt to cross without rubber boots and a stout stick. A quest, then, for another time? Perhaps.
Mary Ann Fox (1863-1909) sometime before her marriage, and before her father sold her pony. He had threatened to do this if she persisted in jumping the farm gate on horseback. She did not listen.
Copyright 2016 Tish Farrell