Textures Of My Ancestral Landscape

P1000999

These are some of the landscape textures that my maternal ancestors, the Fox family of Derbyshire’s High Peak would have known well – windswept moors and weathered scarps of millstone grit. They were yeoman farmers and lead miners, and they made a living from this bleak and beautiful country for hundreds of years.

Family legend has it that the Foxes arrived in England with William the Conqueror, but Fox is a name with Germanic origins so they may well have been Saxons, belonging to the conquered rather than to the conquering forces. The earliest records for Foxes in the Hope Valley, and Offerton in particular – where my Foxes farmed until the end of the nineteenth century, are around the thirteenth century, although I and my fellow Fox researchers are yet to establish direct lineage from these times.

There were centuries of prosperity when various family members lived in large stone farmhouses, made ‘good’ marriages, and owned land and lead mining concessions, but by the early twentieth century there was only one member of my Fox line left in the area, and he was living modestly in Eyam. The family farm of Callow where he was born, and by then owned by the Duke of Devonshire had been relinquished with a farm sale in 1892.   High rents were besetting many Derbyshire farmers at this time. The Mr Fox mentioned in the sale advertisement is my great great grandfather, George Brayley Fox:

 

The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent

Saturday 29 October 1892

Callow Farm Sale

Important Sale of 23 cows, heifers, steers and calves, two horses and foal, 30 sheep, hays stack, three wheat stacks, seven oat stacks, farm implements etc.

Mr Hattersley has been honoured with instructions from Mr Fox who is give up the Farm, to sell by Auction on Wednesday, Nov 3, 1892, the very superior LIVE and DEAD FARM STOCK, as briefly enumerated below:

Black Mare, believed to be in foal, excellent worker;

Valuable Brown Horse, six years old, with splendid action, believed to be sound, and quiet in all work;

Roan foal by Bedford;

One Cow in calf for December 25th, four in-calf cows for April, two barren cows in milk, four very choice heifers in calf for April, two barren heifer stirks, five strong bullock stirks, five spring-reared calves, 11 superior stock ewes, six fat sheep, one two-shear ram, 12 strong lambs, two very fine ducks, one fine drake.

Samuelson’s 2-horse combined mower and reaper, nearly new with additional shafts; wood tippler, horse rake, Cooke’s wood plough, set of wood harrows, nearly new; set of three harrows, swingtrees, fallow drag on wheels, stone roller, with shafts, horse turnip hoe, sheep troughs, joiner’s bench and tools, quarry tools, hay rakes and forks, 2 1-horse carts, winnowing machine, wheel chopper, with rising mouth, in excellent condition; corn chest, cart gears, stone cheese press, lever ditto, cheese rack and boards, nearly new; vats, garths etc, cheese pan, two brewing tubs, two oak chests, and a portion of furniture.

One stack of very prime new hay, three stacks of wheat, five stacks of white oats, two ditto of black oats and a quantity of table and other turnips.

Sale to commence 12 noon.

*

Every item here tells of great intimacy with the land. Just to read this notice gives me a painful sense of roots yanked up. I feel the touch and then the loss of the fine ducks, the strong lambs, the black mare in foal, the oats and the stone cheese press; even the turnips and the quarrying tools. But I would like to think, too, that somewhere in my bones are still traces of that High Peak millstone grit, the hardiness and courage that it took to carve a living from these uplands, and in my lungs the sharp, clean air of the moors of Longshaw where earlier generations of my family, so it is said, grazed four hundred sheep on their own run, and also owned the shepherd’s byre, that dating from 1399 was later sold and expanded into a handsome house for the Duke of Rutland’s agent, and is now the well known inn, Fox House, just outside Sheffield. Somewhere within this sturdy stone carapace is the earlier shepherd’s dwelling of quite another texture.

P1010003

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 

This week at Black & White Sunday, Paula has given us the theme of ‘texture’. She also included a quotation by novelist British Paul Scott, which is very much responsible for my take on the challenge:

“The past becomes a texture, an ambience to our present”

P.S. Paul Scott served in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army in India during the World War Two. He wrote the phenomenal Raj Quartet, set in India during these years, and which was made into a very excellent TV serial back in the 1980s. The TV version is available on DVD, and with its all star actors is well worth watching. But read the books too.

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

P1000972

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:

IMG

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