Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Two sides of the coin

With a mixture of amusement and melancholy, I've become aware that my Australian ancestors had indirect links of an anecdotal nature, on both the maternal and paternal sides, to the cotton mills of Preston in Lancashire. But we're talking about the opposite sides of a coin.

My Irish ancestors named O'Keefe and Dixon left their birthplace in County Clare, moved to the Preston region in Lancashire and worked in the mills in order to earn enough money to travel out to Australia. My future great-grandmother Mary O'Keefe was born in the industrial suburb of Preston named Walton-le-Dale on 26 May 1859 (which makes her, incidentally, my only known English-born ancestor on the maternal side).

I jump now to the case of my paternal grandmother's lovely young sister, Irene Marguerite Pickering, born out on a sheep property in New South Wales in 1900.

In 1924, 24-year-old Rita (as she was called) went on a trip to England, where she stayed with her uncle John Pickering, who was the chief librarian in the law courts of the Inner Temple in London. John and his wife Clara lived with their two daughters in an ancient mansion named Cedar House in Datchet, not far from Windsor Castle.

Here's a photo, taken at Cedar House in July 1924, of Rita surrounded by her uncle, aunt and cousins:

I can start, now, to present Rita's remote link to the Lancashire cotton mills. In the above photo, there's a clergyman. His name is John Russell Napier, and he was the 65-year-old vicar of the nearby parish church of Old Windsor. He had been invited along to the Pickering cottage, on this sunny summer afternoon, to make plans for Rita's forthcoming marriage to a 29-year-old Danish businessman named Paul Marvig (no doubt the person who took the above photo, and the owner of the automobile). For reasons that I ignore, Rita's marriage would be taking place, on 30 July 1924, not in John Napier's own church, but in the parish church of the Pickering's village, Datchet. In fact, the two churches, both in the vicinity of the Conqueror's thousand-year-old fortress at Windsor, are only a stone's throw apart.

On that same 1924 afternoon, we see here John Napier standing alongside 73-year-old John Pickering in front of the main entrance into Cedar House. Now, this reverend gentleman was in fact quite a famous personality... in the world of cricket (as I shall explain in a moment). First of all, let me say that he was born in Preston, Lancashire: the same place where my great-grandmother was born. John Napier was born there on 5 January 1859, that's to say less than five months before the birth of Mary O'Keefe. But the comparison stops there. Mary's parents worked at machines in the mills. John's parents, on the other hand, had designed and owned those very machines. He was the son of a wealthy industrialist, Richard Clay Napier, partner in the firm of Napier & Goodier, Lancashire cotton spinners.

Unlike the baby Mary O'Keefe, the baby John Napier was not destined to board a sailing ship for the Antipodes. Instead, he stayed in England, went up to Trinity College in Cambridge, and soon became an adept of theology and cricket. Playing for Lancashire in 1888, he was described by Australian opponents as the best fast bowler they had met in England.

The most frustrating aspect of all these genealogical reconstructions, retrospectively, is the idea—if not a fact—that the individuals of whom I'm speaking probably weren't aware of the information that I possess today. To take the most striking example, I'm not at all certain that John Pickering himself, residing as it were in the shadow of Windsor Castle, could have known that he was a descendant of William the Conqueror. After all, with the gigantic assistance of the Internet, it was only a couple of months ago that I made this discovery.

Finally, there's the more recent Australian context. As a child, I had the privilege of meeting up with Irene Pickering, who struck me as an alert, open-minded and sophisticated individual (where my use of "sophisticated" means both wise and worldly). I like to imagine that great-aunt Rita Marvig (née Pickering) might have run into my great-grandmother Mary Walker (née O'Keefe) one day, in Grafton, and said to her: "Mary, the vicar who married me in England back in 1924 was born in exactly the same town and the same year as you." There's just one hitch in this make-believe but perfectly plausible scenario. Mary O'Keefe died in 1933, whereas my parents didn't meet up until around 1940... whereupon I was procreated in a sunny haze of passion under Bawden's Bridge (so I'm told), on the outskirts of South Grafton.

The basic problem, as I see it now, retrospectively, is that our ancestors devoted so much energy to making love and procreating—Thank God! as Richard Dawkins might think but never say—that they simply didn't have much time left over to write down information and impressions that would be precious for posterity. Who would blame them? If I had to choose between taking out my pencil to draw the family tree, or rather to cuddle in a corner, I would never have hesitated. Consequently, reconstructions such as mine, today, run the risk of being incomplete and/or faulty: that's to say, screwed up.


  1. Hi William,
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  2. My name is Peter Marvig. Rita Marvig was my grandmother here in Sydney Australia. Poul Marvig (my grandfather) became an instrument maker living in Surrey Hills Sydney. This article was randomly found by me whilst surfing the net. I am thrilled to be related to William The Conquerer.

    1. Hello Peter Marvig. I'm thrilled immensely to receive your comment. Please contact me or my Australian relatives and give us your email or postal address. Have you seen my book "They Sought the Last of Lands" on my genealogy? William Skyvington

  3. Hi William. Great that you're back on the net. Please give Peter Marvig my email address, in case he wishes to contact me. I assume he is living in Sydney from his comment?