Lesley Garrett thinks of herself as a “driven” person. For the famous soprano, tracing her family history is a way of discovering where her determination to succeed springs from. Looking back in time, she certainly finds plenty of examples of Yorkshire grit as she investigates her family’s roots in Thorne, near Doncaster.
Less expected, she also discovers a dark scandal. It’s her father, Derek, who alerts Lesley to a story concerning her 2x great grandfather, Charles (1841-1913), who was said to have poisoned his wife, Mary (1841-99). Can this really be true?
Mary’s death certificate seems to confirm the story, recording that she passed away after taking “carbolic acid, accidentally administered”. A report on the coroner’s inquest, published in the local paper, adds more details. Charles, whose story was completely accepted, said he mixed up two bottles, accidentally giving Mary the antiseptic instead of her medicine. Charles added that he smashed the bottles to make sure such a mistake never occurred again. Mary died within 20 minutes.
When Lesley tells her father what she’s found, Derek says he thinks it explains why his own grandparents, Tom and Mary Garrett, cut themselves off from Charles. In doing so, they also cut themselves off from family wealth because Charles was a landowner – enough of a bigwig to be a local councilor.
Instead, Tom lived in more modest circumstances and ran a local butchers. It was, thinks Lesley, probably “a hard and difficult life”. Not that Tom and Mary come down the years as people scared of hard work. Mary was an active member of the temperance movement, a proto-feminist who valued thriftiness and self-reliance. She was known in the family as “the duchess”.
Nevertheless, the schism did lead to Tom and Mary’s children enjoying a less privileged background than might otherwise have been so. Arthur (1909-94), Lesley’s grandfather, went to work on the railways. Derek too started his career on the railways before later becoming a teacher.
Arthur married Kathleen Appleton (1911-99), whose own father, Frank, was a miner. Through her great uncle Bill, Lesley hears how Frank was once out cold for 10 days after being hit by a prop in a pit accident.
In a local working men’s club, Lesley learns more about Frank from local union men. Frank was a campaigner who believed in the ideals of communism. He was involved with the 1926 general strike and emerges from history as a romantic, idealistic figure. “That was fantastic,” says Lesley of the meeting, adding that she feels a “complete link” with Frank.
Another link from the era of the pits comes through music and the brass band tradition. Lesley’s maternal grandfather, Colin Wall (1897-1980), was a piano player, who was taught by his own father, William (who, incredibly, couldn’t play piano himself). In the 1920s, Colin led an orchestra that accompanied silent movies, a well-paid job during this era.
The coming of the talkies hit Colin badly, says Lesley’s mother, Margaret. He was forced to take a job playing bar tunes at the White Hart Hotel in order to support his children, a job he hated. Before starting work, Colin would sometimes practice classical pieces. People even began visiting the hotel specifically to hear his impromptu recitals. Where Lesley had the chance to leave Thorne to study music at the Royal Academy, Colin had to stay for the sake of his family.
It’s another example of Yorkshire grit, of overcoming adversity simply by going on, not giving in. For Lesley, such examples show why tracing family history is so valuable. “It challenges you to write your own story,” she concludes.