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
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