There is no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ family any more than there might be ‘ordinary’ people. We all have our tales to tell as individuals. So it is with families.
Although in later years one can look back at them, and see a glimmer – just a glimmer mind you – of truth.
So I never fully believed the RCMP story. To add further to my scepticism, I was told that he went to Canada having been expelled from his school for striking and knocking out a teacher who was apparently bullying one of his brothers. To a somewhat shy schoolboy as I then was, striking a teacher was something I could barely contemplate. That did not prevent me from being excited by the thought of someone going to Canada and joining the Mounties. And it did hold some credence: my great-grandfather was keen on boxing, and paid for each of his sons to have lessons. So perhaps Charles really did give an over-enthusiastic uppercut to his teacher.
"He went to Canada having been expelled from his school for striking and knocking out a teacher."
My father (b 1903) was away during the war and I was sure that scraps of information about him from my mother had been honed and exaggerated. Therefore when I heard that he had been a wrestler as well as a footballer, oarsman, and boxer, I took it with more than a pinch of salt. To make it even more unbelievable, I was told that he had wrestled and had beaten a man called Black Butcher Johnson. “He was a black man,” said my mother unnecessarily. In those racially naïve days, I had never seen a black man. I had heard of them, but none lived anywhere near us. They were in Africa, or somewhere like that, and I dismissed as ridiculous the notion that my father could have actually wrestled one. He hadn’t even been to Africa.
"She was a missionary in India."
I recall hearing about a cousin’s funeral. She was in a branch of the family with whom we had little contact but I was told that they were strong Salvationists and that one of them was a missionary. Again, bearing in mind my mother’s fanciful nature, I found this difficult to believe. My knowledge of The Salvation Army was limited to a local hall where they screened Chaplin and Buster Keaton films on wet Saturday afternoons. Admission was one penny. As for missionaries...well they were usually eaten weren’t they? So I soon dismissed this notion.
"Why Russia? Why not Bognor, or Bournemouth, or even Belgium?"
Mother said my great grandfather (b 1817) had walked from Langley Burrell, Chippenham, to London. I have since established that in 1845 he worked as a cheesemonger at 37 Kingsgate in Central London. Later, he opened his first butcher’s shop at 151 Drury Lane. As a child, I frequently had to accompany my grandmother (b 1870) to the local Sainsbury’s. She would not shop anywhere else. It had a reputation for hygiene. There was a sparkling mosaic floor sprinkled with fresh sawdust, seemingly ice-cold marble counter tops, and the smells of bacon, cheese, meat and ham, combined to produce an aroma that even now I can recreate at will. Apart from this, was there another reason for grandma’s unflinching loyalty? I was told that my great grandmother (b 1827) and Mrs Sainsbury were close friends and used to chat when they were closing the blinds at the end of the day’s business in Drury Lane. So she knew Mrs Sainsbury? Oh, yeah. Of course.
"He had been a wrestler as well as a footballer, oarsman, and boxer."
Did my father ever wrestle the dreaded Black Butcher Johnson? Well, I do now have a photograph of one of his brothers (also a wrestler) striking a pose with a gentleman who certainly was not native to this country, so I have to give mother the benefit of the doubt.
Around 1980 I came across the order of service for the funeral of Brigadier Mary Ann Palmer (first cousin once removed), who was a missionary in India. With the same impulsiveness that was later to serve me well with the RCMP story,
I telephoned the Salvation Army Headquarters in London. “Yes,” they said, “She was a missionary in India.” They gave me the name and telephone number of a high-ranking officer who had served with her in India.
Apparently my cousin spoke the local dialect fluently, had a great sense of humour but was also a strong disciplinarian. Her very close friend, who could have told me so much more, had died the previous year.
And what about the relative who was sent to Russia? I’m not sure, but in a completely separate anecdote my mother told of another relative who was ‘in the employ of the Tsar of Russia’. “Yes,” I used to tease her, “Clearing the snow away, most likely.” She was not amused. My mother never seemed to connect this anecdote with the one about unrequited love, but it seems certain that there would have been a connection. I have tried to track the family name in St Petersburg without success. So far.
"His horse had been blown away from beneath him."
Alas, I have made no progress about the ‘gentleman smuggler’, and I have not being able to find any record of his marriage or death. I’d love to know how he came by those £5 notes. Forged them, perhaps.