Strawberry Bank

This is a true story, or a set of true stories. At least, as true as I can make it out. The basis is recollections written in old age, along with photographs and other odds and ends, certificates and death notices. By the time it came to my attention a few years ago, descendants had added a little more genealogical information.

It fascinates me because the chronicle of this large family, with its multiplying branches, forms a human insight into historical events. It gives colour to what we think we know: about migration, from a faraway countryside to the heart of industrial Yorkshire, and the shorter-range movement of colliers to new workings: and about life in an unforgiving place, in poverty, with poor and cramped housing, employment fraught with danger, child labour. And so it goes on.

But that is not all. The bare outline course of events, a headline and a known date, is dull to recount. Far more difficult is station-rd-c-1910understanding the significant that is concealed: what exactly occurred, why people made certain choices in their lives, how much they would go with the general flow, or instead decide on a course more demanding. Another layer emerged, too, of sensitivity about occurrences long in the past, feelings which, it turns out, lived on into recent times. Certain affairs and personalities were little spoken about, and differently recalled, perhaps at second or third hand. As new evidence came to light, documented and revealing, I came to understand just how a family’s past, the actions and misfortunes of parents and grandparents, will linger and disturb some of the children who follow.

Spen Valley is where I grew up, and I still think of it as home and know it well. The Strawberry Bank story set me off into new places – new historical places, at any rate. I’d not appreciated how important coal-mining once was there, nor known much about the agricultural depression of the 1870s which displaced so much of England’s rural workforce, nor comprehended the level of destitution that faced widows even after Lloyd George’s pension reforms. My own process of discovering is written into the story, to give context – indeed, so that it can be understood at all.

Strawberry Bank proceeds in several directions, historically as well as in real (writing) time. So it shows how the research is going, the process of investigating history, at the same time that the narrative reveals itself. The work is intended to have immediacy, published in episodes as I write it (as fast as I can). Because it’s in blog format, I recommend reading from the very bottom, though a Pick’n’Mix approach is possible. The first entry, ‘The Here and the Now’, will, I hope, fast disappear out of sight as more episodes are added. Keep watching.


Gill Cookson

14 September 2016