Wednesday, January 27, 2016

All Over the Place about Ancestors

 Reverend John Forster, my great grandfather
And Emma Cowen his (second) wife.


I belong to a monthly genealogy writing class and it's quite a treat.

The stories contributed by my fellow members each meeting are simply brilliant.

They are colourful snapshots of Canadian social history, with quite a few fun stories about eccentric 'maiden' aunts (yes, they really existed); as well as informative tales about resourceful businessmen who made a real contribution to our economy; and, lest we forget, many, many war stories.

In our group, we try to encourage the quirky tale or the mysterious tale. Family myths are fun but family truths are what really interests us.

We don't want to believe the glossy obit, we go deeper.

Oh, and we post these stories, some of them, anyway, on genealogyensemble at Wordpress.

Lately, I have been contributing stories about the Canadian suffragists, a history only obliquely related to my ancestors. I am writing a book, Service and Disservice, about the Canadian suffragists and their involvement in the 1917 Conscription Crisis.

But, today, I discovered my paternal great-grandfather online. He's John Forster, a primitive Methodist minister from Yorkshire, UK and I think I may write him up for a future meeting.

Now, I've written a great deal about my grandmother, his eldest daughter, Dorothy Forster Nixon, who survived WWII at Changi Prison.

Indeed, I've written an entire play about here:  Looking for Mrs. Peel. I used her war diary. It all sounds an awful lot like Tenko, the 1980 BBC series about women prisoners of war in the Far East. I guess they go it right, back then.

I found Dorothy on the 1911 UK Census, but she was at boarding school (Quaker, co-educational) and that didn't tell me anything about who her dad and mom were.

All I knew, from family lore, was that her father was as Methodist minister and that he got Alzheimer's in his later years and woke up one night and said to his wife, "Woman, what are you doing in my bed?"

(His daughter, Nora, also got Alzeimer's and so did his grandson, my father, Peter. Alas.)

Today, I looked up the 1901 UK census to find Dorothy in Middleton-on Teesdale, just 5 years old and her father John and mother, Emma, listed with her.

(John and Emma. Hmm. Looking for Mrs. Peel. LOL)



Then looking up "primitive Methodist minister" and "John Forster" on Google, I found a web page devoted to his memory - and to others like him. My Primitive Methodist Ancestors.

Apparently, great-granddad John was an itinerant minister, son of a farmer, who was extremely well-read but didn't throw that fact in the face of his parishoners.

(Dorothy, before being interned, was librarian at the Kuala Lumpur Book Club.)

John Forster also liked to write essays and poems. I found some titles online: "Heredity in relation to morals." "Primitive Methodism and the Labour Question." "The industrial problem and its solution."

Hmm. I can see where we all get our Windbagism. But, I jest.

His poems are very good apparently. (I wish I could read them.) A book of verse, Pictures of Life in Verse was published in 1922, the year my father, his grandchild, was born. That's also the year T.S. Eliot's the Wasteland as published, ushering in modernism.



As someone who also loves novels and who read How Green Was My Valley in late elementary school, I have long preferred to believe that I come from coal miners.

It's not such a leap: there was lots of coal mining in the North of England.

But, no.

 It seems I come from the commercial class.  Emma Cowen is from a family, whose father, John was an auctioneer on the street below. As far as I can see, his father, Joseph was a grocer in Bishop Auckland. One of his sons worked as a truck driver at a colliery at one time.

Eliot Street in Crook, where my great grandmother, Emma Cowen Forster, was born.

Now, you have to be careful with genealogy. At first I thought the John Cowan who was her father was born in Blaydon, in the manor there.

That would have made him a relation of Joseph Cowen, the radical Liberal MP.

I thought this because that was the only entry for  a John Cowan born in Durham at the right time.

 Then I realized there was another entry, misspelled Cowin, where the father, John, was born in the right place, Holthorpe Mill.

He's the son of the grocer. Grocer, MP, eh...He's my ancestor, if no one cheated.

All these places are only 30 miles apart.

Blaydon had a lead mine at one time, and then the area got a coke facility, coal/coke not Coca Cola.  It was run by Babcock-Wilcox, an American company I know well.

The husband of Kathleen Weller, a member of the executive of the Montreal Suffrage Association, was the Canadian head of that company.

A little before WWI broke out, Mr. Weller went to England (submarines?) and Kathleen tagged along. While in England she hung out with the suffragettes and attended a meeting in London's East End with Sylvia Pankhurst. Then she came home to Montreal and gave a speech supporting Pankhurst's violent methods. Oh, my!

This will be all in Service and Disservice.  I didn't have Mr. Weller going to Blaydon, but I guess I will now!

Funny how things work out.

Anyway, I can see that John was preaching in Helmsley in 1912. That's the town where Dorothy's husband, Robert Nixon, was born. His dad was a delver, a rock digger. (I've also seen their home, an plain brick industrial townhouse.)

So, that explains why I am here, blogging about these dead people.

Robert, who worked as a footman a first, (so Downton Abbey)  went to Malaya in 1912 but returned in 1916, probably to find a British wife. The rubber companies wanted it that way. Women were 'civilizing' influences.

Dorothy followed  him to Malaya, but only in 1921, after spending the WWI years working as a land girl in forestry, leading Clydesdales and their loads of logs  through the forests.

When she got to Malaya, she found he still had an Asian 'mistress.'  Still, she got pregnant immediately with my father. (I did the math.)