The actress and singer uncovers her family's secret relations as she traces links to the cotton industry
The women, says Jane Horrocks, are the driving force in her immediate clan. “I’d like to find out why the women in our family are so obsessive,” laughs the star of Little Voice and Absolutely Fabulous, “because I’m the same – control freak, ball breaker, anal retentive, pain in the arse, that sort of thing.”
It’s a search that centres largely on her great-grandmother, Sarah Cunliffe. In order to learn more about her, Jane heads for her own childhood home, Rawtenstall in Lancashire, to stay with her parents, Barbara and John. Today, it’s a quiet spot, but in the 1870s it was a busy town dominated by the cotton-weaving industry. It was also a town where Methodist influence, and the temperance movement, were strong.
The extended Cunliffe family, recalls Jane’s aunt, Molly, lived on Whitehead Street, named for the owners of the town’s two mills. Sarah, says Molly, was “little, forceful, kind”. She had only one child, Doris, because she married late. From the age of 12, suggest family stories, Sarah had to look after her two brothers because her mother had died.
But can these family stories necessarily be relied upon? As Jane begins her research into Sarah’s life, it’s clear some of the tales have at the very least been romanticised, embellished. At Longholme Methodist Church, Jane learns that Sarah was 29 when her father died – and 31 when her mother passed away. Census records throw up further surprises. Sarah didn’t just have two siblings, she was one of eight children.
These included one boy, Thomas, who died aged just three years old, in 1864. He was among many children who perished in the so-called ‘cotton famine’, which affected the north-west when cotton imports – and thus work in the mills – dried up because of the American Civil War. Despite the real hardship it caused, workers in the area supported Abraham Lincoln’s stand against slavery, something that makes Manchester’s statue of the president seem particularly evocative.
Secrets and scandals
For now at least, Jane has finished tracing the Cunliffe side of her family. What about the Horrocks clan? Is Jane related to John and Samuel Horrocks, aka the “Cotton Kings”, Preston mill owners who made their fortunes in the late 18th century? A meeting with the Reverend Joseph Gilbert, who spent two decades researching the Horrocks family tree, reveals a mutual ancestor in Adam Horrocks (1665-1725).
But while John and Samuel became rich from cotton, Jane’s own paternal grandfather and great-grandfather toiled as bleachers. Thanks to a combination of dangerous chemicals and poor ventilation, this was one of the worst jobs in the industry.
It’s time to go on the trail of Sarah again. An answer to the inconsistencies in Sarah’s story may lie in her marriage, to John Taylor. Seven years her junior, he was the son of Rawtenstall’s postmaster and thus a member of a prominent local family. It appears that Sarah, who worked as a weaver, was perhaps embarrassed about her background.
She would certainly have been worried by one particular family story, that of a ‘cousin’ who emigrated to Australia in 1910. Ernest, it turns out, was in fact one of Sarah’s brothers. Fetching up in Toowoomba, Queensland, he became a billiard marker. Especially for a Methodist family, this would have been a scandalous profession because billiards was associated with gambling. An opal he sent back to the UK as a present to Doris Taylor, Jane’s grandmother, might well have been won in a bet.
Despite her aunt Dolly’s disquiet at learning about Sarah’s ‘secret’ siblings, Jane is still glad she’s traced her family tree. “I find it settling rather than unsettling,” she concludes.