The An­ces­tor’s Tale:

Katie Jarvis al­ways knew she had a 19th cen­tury luthier for an an­ces­tor, whose love of mu­sic has been passed down the gen­er­a­tions. But who ex­actly was James Brown of Hud­der­s­field? She con­tacted ge­neal­o­gist Ben Ni­cholls to try to dis­cover more

Cotswold Life - - AUGUST -

Katie Jarvis tracks her fam­ily back

The pho­to­graph has been hang­ing in the back­ground of my life for ever.

A con­stant pres­ence - this el­derly man in his sepia work­shop - who watched from the wall as I greeted my bur­bling brand-new brother, brought home from hos­pi­tal in his white cro­cheted blan­ket; who looked on as I bar­relled into the house, un­wieldy vi­o­lin-case in hand, af­ter an achingly long day at school; who lis­tened as I played duets in the mu­sic room, me on piano, my mum on cello.

And some­times I looked back at him, won­der­ing. He sits, stock-still to my busy­ness, one el­bow on work­bench, sup­port­ing a wise old head; the other arm on his knee, clutch­ing some sort of screw­driver (I think). Is that saw­dust on his trousers, where his white apron falls away? Is that a scowl on his face, or a look of stud­ied con­cen­tra­tion as he poses for an art as new as his was old?

On the wall be­hind him hangs a skele­ton: the bare bones of a vi­o­lin he is mak­ing. There are tools; cut-outs; a fin­ished, fine-look­ing fid­dle ready to play a jig in a pub or the lead in a phil. On the floor is… what? A cello? A dou­ble-bass, for which he was well known? I’d have to ask some­one bet­ter in­formed than I. But I do know that the ca­sual board I mis­took for some piece of scrap (now I look more closely) is marked with the dis­tinc­tive five lines of a stave.

And why is he out­side? (It cer­tainly looks as if he is.) Did he work out here, in the yard, on sunny days? Or did he la­bo­ri­ously set this shot up, cart­ing the tools of his trade – planes and clamps and chis­els - out through a hid­den door to catch the flood­ing light within the square lines of a huge box cam­era?

I don’t know. But I do re­mem­ber be­ing taken, as a small child, to a mu­seum in Hud­der­s­field where, care­fully sus­pended on the back of a door, hung a tiny vi­o­lin. A per­fect minia­ture. An in­stru­ment for a per­for­mance by one of my dolls – Ton­da­leo, maybe - or Ed­ward Bear.

“That,” I was told, as I stared, ut­terly charmed, “was made by your great-great-great grand­fa­ther, James Brown of Hud­der­s­field.”

Ben­jamin Ni­cholls is a de­tec­tive. A cold-case de­tec­tive, as far as I’m con­cerned. (Though some­times his searches in­volve warm, living flesh: sep­a­rated sib­lings; par­ents lost to adop­tion; fam­i­lies who trun­dled off down a branch track, when the main line con­tin­ued ahead.)

We’re lean­ing over the kitchen ta­ble, at his house in Quedge­ley, por­ing over pho­to­copies of spi­dery old doc­u­ments.

“So this is the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate of Martha Ann Brown and Wil­liam Henry Dyson, from 1865,” Ben says, trac­ing a fin­ger over the neat ital­ics that joined 22-year-old Wil­liam with his blush­ing 20-year-old bride.

“It tells you, for ex­am­ple, that at the time of his mar­riage Wil­liam is a carver and gilder. And that Martha Ann de­scribes her fa­ther, James Brown, as a piano maker, which is the first time we’ve seen pi­anos in­volved.”

The first of­fi­cial doc­u­ment I’ve seen that ever men­tions my great-great-great grand­fa­ther.

But pi­anos? Not vi­o­lins or vi­o­las or dou­ble basses?

“Yes, pi­anos - but this is the only ref­er­ence to him mak­ing pi­anos.”

So Martha Ann might have made a mis­take? “That’s a pos­si­bil­ity.” My co­nun­drum is this. I’ve al­ways known that, way back in the fam­ily, I had an an­ces­tor worthily men­tioned in the an­nals of mu­sic-mak­ing. A luthier, whose dou­ble basses are cited to this day as ‘in­ge­nious’ in their design; whose vi­o­lins still com­mand re­spectable prices when

they oc­ca­sion­ally come up at auc­tion.

And I’ve been in­trigued – in­trigued by his pho­to­graph that hangs on my par­ents’ wall; by the legacy he left in the form of a love of mu­sic that re­sulted in my grand­fa­ther and my mum be­com­ing pro­fes­sional cel­lists.

But also by the puz­zle. Mine was not a rich or an ed­u­cated fam­ily. How did some­one from a small North­ern town, prob­a­bly of very mod­est up­bring­ing and means, be­come a re­spected mem­ber of the high­fa­lutin mu­si­cal fra­ter­nity? Strange. Cu­ri­ous. Which is why I’ve turned to Ben, whose busi­ness – Foot­steps – re­searches fam­ily his­tory and sto­ries; con­nects and re­con­nects fam­i­lies. Fam­i­lies not just sep­a­rated by dis­tance, but by time.

“What’s even more in­ter­est­ing,” Ben says, as he pro­duces an en­try from the cen­sus of 1841, “is that here is that same James Brown, aged 36, a shoe­maker in Wake­field. And in 1851, he’s still living there, but as a boot-maker.”

Shoes to boots. Is that go­ing up in the world?

“Pos­si­bly more leather – I don’t know…”

He rus­tles and shuf­fles other bits of pa­per, be­fore lay­ing in front of me some­thing both sim­ple and fas­ci­nat­ing. “And then – in 1861 – there you have it.”

Manch­ester Road, Hud­der­s­field. James Brown, head of the fam­ily, aged 56.

“Mu­si­cal-in­stru­ment-maker.” At last.

Ben­jamin Ni­cholls didn’t en­joy chem­istry at school. Ex­cept that his sci­ence teacher had a friend in forensics. “And when­ever he felt he was start­ing to lose us, he would tell us sto­ries about the cases this friend had solved. I was ab­so­lutely rapt.”

So seeds were sown. But it was a gap in his per­sonal fam­ily his­tory that fi­nally drew him into solv­ing a mystery of his own. “I never knew any­thing about my dad’s dad, apart from his name and the fact that he had died when my dad was young – he was 77; my dad was nine. I also knew my dad had a half-brother – but that was about it.

“My dad wanted to know more. He had idolised his fa­ther, as a child; thought of him as a su­per­hero. And I wanted to know more, too.”

A stu­dent in Lon­don at the time, Ben be­gan to search the records avail­able in the capital - and came across his first bit of luck: Robert James Ni­cholls was born three months be­fore the 1881 cen­sus; so there he was, along with his mum, dad, and other fam­ily mem­bers.

“Not only had I found my grand­fa­ther, but I was al­ready back a gen­er­a­tion fur­ther.”

It wasn’t just dusty files that in­ter­ested Ben. His next port of call was with living rel­a­tives; Ben turned his at­ten­tion to trac­ing his dad’s half-re­mem­ber half-brother, Bob – only to dis­cover, to his dis­may, that he had died. But the trail didn’t go cold; Bob’s wi­dow,

Win­nie, was still alive and well, and able to pro­vide a few more clues.

“She told me my grand­fa­ther had lived on a farm in Pul­bor­ough, West Sus­sex, in the 30s – in­ter­est­ing, but noth­ing spec­tac­u­lar.

“And then she said to me, ‘Did you know about the sis­ters?’ “And I said, ‘What sis­ters?’” The bomb­shell Win­nie had dropped was news to them all. In fact, Robert, Ben’s grand­fa­ther, had been mar­ried twice be­fore, and had fa­thered two daugh­ters. Win­nie had no idea of their names – but Ben was on the case.

“So I went back to the be­gin­ning and started look­ing for a mar­riage for my grand­dad from the turn of the cen­tury – and found one. He had mar­ried a lady with a Ger­man sur­name, which helped be­cause it was un­usual. And there were the girls’ birth cer­tifi­cates: Mary Ernes­tine and Hen­ri­etta El­iz­a­beth, known as Molly and Betty.”

Piec­ing to­gether all the clues he could find, Ben traced these half-sis­ters his dad knew noth­ing about to their last days to Selsey and - noth­ing loathe – drove straight there to knock on doors. Thrillingly, sur­viv­ing neigh­bours re­mem­bered the ladies, which fur­nished him with some small vignettes.

But it was an­other flash of in­spi­ra­tion – trac­ing their wills – that brought a sec­ond shock. Rather than both sis­ters dy­ing with­out is­sue – as Ben had be­gun to be­lieve – it turned out that Molly had had a daugh­ter – but in Scot­land, which is why no chil­dren had shown up on English records.

What’s more, there were four grand­chil­dren, too.

In short, thanks to Face­book, the fam­ily is now com­plete and de­lighted to be in touch, de­spite be­ing dis­trib­uted around the world – in Perth, and Rio de Janeiro. For Sally, one of those ‘lost’ grand­chil­dren, it was a par­tic­u­larly poignant con­nec­tion.

“Af­ter my grand­dad had walked out, his first wife never al­lowed any­one to speak of him again. So for Sally, who had never met her grand­dad, he had sim­ply dis­ap­peared off the radar. When I came along, 50 years later, and said, ‘This is what hap­pened,’ it gave her com­fort to know the end of the story.”

Of course, any dis­cov­ery risks pit­falls along­side the plea­sures. What about Ben’s dad, who wor­shipped his su­per­hero fa­ther? The fa­ther who, as far as we know, aban­doned a wife and two small girls.

“Yes, and I think my dad has strug­gled with that. Though we can’t judge, all these years later. As far as I’m con­cerned, I was sim­ply look­ing to un­cover the truth, warts and all. Some of it has been dif­fi­cult; some of it has been a re­lief.

“But what’s in­ter­est­ing is how fam­ily his­tory gives us an in­sight into the per­sonal side of ma­jor events. Given that my grand­fa­ther’s first wife was the daugh­ter of a na­tion­alised Ger­man - and we’re talk­ing just slightly pre-war – it sud­denly isn’t sim­ply a case of the Al­lies ver­sus the Ger­mans. Could the pres­sure of be­ing mar­ried to a Ger­man have told on her re­la­tion­ship with my grand­dad? Could it have af­fected his busi­ness in some way?

“We may never know.”

There’s no magic win­dow into the past; just glimpses in the cracks that we try to peer through. And these, Ben and I do peer through. He’s clever; just as Sher­lock de­duced from the rem­nants of cigar ash or the im­pres­sion of teeth in an ap­ple, so Ben ex­am­ines the minu­tiae.

We search through the cen­suses for James Brown’s neigh­bours, at var­i­ous points, to see if we can de­duce his so­cial sta­tus. At Wake­field, as a boot-maker, he’s rub­bing shoul­ders with an en­graver and a per­fumer; one nearby res­i­dent has a house ser­vant.

Later on, in Hud­der­s­field, there’s a coal mer­chant, a gro­cer, and a com­mis­sion agent for oil and tal­low. Hardly the in­tel­li­gentsia, but not the slums, ei­ther. Mer­chants; skilled trade.

It’s still a puz­zle. How did a man who started out in life mak­ing boots for fac­tory work­ers end up fash­ion­ing in­stru­ments for an elite world of the phil­har­mo­nia? Cer­tainly mak­ing them well enough to move to Hud­der­s­field, a mu­si­cal cul­tural cen­tre of the North, where the cho­ral so­ci­ety was fa­mous through­out the world; where The Phil re­mains one of the coun­try’s lead­ing and ear­li­est non-pro­fes­sional or­ches­tras.

I want to know more. More about the genes that meant my great grand­fa­ther listed his work, on cen­suses, as a painter and dec­o­ra­tor; but who – in the evenings – played his beloved cello at pri­vate gath­er­ings and con­certs.

Or his son, Al­bert, the grand­fa­ther I knew and loved, a pro­fes­sional cel­list with the BBC North­ern, who once played the cello for an episode of Coro­na­tion Street. He had to play it badly, more­over, be­cause the char­ac­ter was sup­posed to be learn­ing. “Hard­est job I’ve ever done,” he said. I re­mem­ber go­ing to Peter Pan, the pan­tomime, star­ring Wendy Craig, be­cause grandpa was play­ing in the orches­tra pit.

Or my won­der­ful mum, who stud­ied at the Royal Col­lege and taught the cello at schools through­out Glouces­ter­shire. And then Ben calls. He’s been mak­ing en­quiries: at Hud­der­s­field University;

in news­pa­per ar­chives; at the mu­seum. And he’s found some­thing. An ar­ti­cle by Dr Ed­ward G Hellewell, writ­ten for the Hud­der­s­field & District Fam­ily His­tory So­ci­ety Jour­nal, Vol 24, No 4, 2012, en­ti­tled “James Brown – Hud­der­s­field’s Vic­to­rian Luthier”.

I fall on it as manna from heaven. It tells of how, in the early 60s, Dr Hellewell played dou­ble bass in the fa­mous Hud­der­s­field Phil – and how he first came across the name of James Brown.

Full of de­light­ful de­tail, it sur­mises and clar­i­fies. Brown was born some­where be­tween March 31 and Oc­to­ber 1, 1804 – prob­a­bly – and bap­tised at All Saints. Wake­field, on Oc­to­ber 29 of that year.

He mar­ried Chris­tiana Fawcett – a help­ful name for ge­neal­o­gists – in Septem­ber 1826 and had seven chil­dren, in­clud­ing Jonathan, who be­came a pro­fes­sor of mu­sic (prob­a­bly, in real­ity, a sim­ple mu­sic teacher), and the mes­meris­ingly-named Zil­lah.

Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing specifics are quotes from Wil­liam Hen­ley’s Uni­ver­sal Dic­tionary of Vi­o­lin and Bow Mak­ers, which cites a vi­o­lin bear­ing the in­scrip­tion: ‘Made by J Brown 56 Manch­ester Road, Hud­der­s­field No 23 from 1877 hav­ing been then a maker 50 years, July 1878’. In other words, not long af­ter he and Chris­tiana tied the knot, he took up his ‘true’ metier, at least part-time. Did she en­cour­age him? Did his pas­sion for her free him to pur­sue his other pas­sion? We don’t know.

His vi­o­lins, Dr Hellewell points out, sel­dom won prizes: “vul­garly bold and hefty-look­ing af­fairs”. But his re­demp­tion came in the form of his dou­ble basses. A fine ex­am­ple was sold to a player in Nor­way for £20,600 in 1998. In 2012, he es­ti­mates the value to be nearer £60,000. To­day? Any­one’s guess. Cer­tainly enough to raise James Brown’s whitened eye­brows.

And then we learn of his fi­nal days; dead of epilepsy at the age of 81, on Oc­to­ber 1, 1885, his oc­cu­pa­tion recorded (iron­i­cally, con­sid­er­ing what’s just been said) as a vi­o­lin-maker.

It’s not a huge amount. But it sur­passes my ex­pec­ta­tions. At last, I know a lit­tle more about James Brown of Hud­der­s­field. And per­haps, at the same time, a lit­tle more about me.

For de­tails on Ben Ni­cholls and his work at Foot­steps, phone 01452 489571 or visit foot­steps­fam­ily.co.uk

Left: James Brown of Hud­der­s­field Be­low: Katie’s grandpa, Al­bert Dyson with her mum, Pamela Wil­son, both pro­fes­sional cel­lists, play­ing trios with her brother Charles, 1970s

Ge­neal­o­gist Ben Ni­cholls who has been re­search­ing Katie Jarvis’s an­ces­tors The mini vi­o­lin

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