Stepping Stones Through Time


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 Williamson Fox of Callow b.1863

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




34 thoughts on “Stepping Stones Through Time

    1. Truly Jude, I didn’t know very much till I started digging around on Google, and then the bits of family nattering surfaced in my brain and started to make sense. My aunt would have been so delighted if she had known all that I’ve discovered via the internet.

  1. What a story, Tish! It was an exciting trip for you going back in the footsteps of your ancestry. Like Jude, I would love to have photos of my ancestors, but they were all destroyed in the last war. Thank you for this touching share.

    1. That’s so sad about the loss of your family photos. I only have this one photo of the Fox family. I often wonder when I’m roving round junk shops if there are family photos lurking there.

  2. Here , the novelist in you ,sorts out in all her strength…!
    Love the historical tale , but love more the way you present Merian and her world….
    Reality may be so sad sometimes!

    1. It does become rather too absorbing an activity – ancestor sleuthing. On the other hand, one does learn some really good general people history along the way – all the intriguing stuff missed out of long ago history lessons.

  3. A lovely post to read….and what a free spirit Mary Ann Fox appeared to be. History is always fascinating but when it has to do with ones own family – even more so….it seems to put everything into perspective. Thank you, Tish:)

    1. I needed someone or thing to hoist me over t’river first. Or some gallant chap to throw down their cloak, and hand me across. I could of course have got myself soaking wet, and arrived on Callow Farm’s doorstep – wrinkly dripping damsel in distress. But then the deerstalker would be ruined 🙂

      1. No, not worth it! You’ll have to try the civilised method, drive round and knock on the door. Wear the deerstalker- you might get invited in for sherry and tall tales. Even short ones would do? 🙂

    1. Yes, she was quite something, but I think she may have been very slight in person, even if amazon in spirit. I have one of her rings, and it is absolutely tiny. Would only fit a child’s hand these days. I’d forgotten about it until now.

      1. Yes, she was likely small. The horse is definitely a poney, under I-don’t-recall-how-many hands. I have a photo of my grand-mother in 1916. Not sure she made it to five ft. How lovely to have her ring. We must always remember who we are and where we come from.

  4. A great, thoughtful response to the challenge, Tish. I think it wonderful that you know so much of your family’s history. I do hope further research will reveal a bit of happiness for Mary Ann. It’s surprising how learning of an ancestor’s troubles can affect us today.

    1. I think that’s so true – learning about a forebear’s unhappiness does rub off a bit. And it opens one’s eyes to situations that one’s not thought about much before. I’d like to find a better story for Mary Ann, but I’m not too hopeful. She’s looks her happiest as a girl on her pony. There’s also a story of her opening the tenants’ ball with the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth – she as the eldest daughter of the longest serving tenant farmer… I think that would have been an exhilarating moment. Chatsworth is one of England’s grandest country houses.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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.