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

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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:

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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