My mum’s family tree is leafy with knights, confidantes of kings, pirates, explorers and lost deeds to ruined manor houses. For them it seemed to be a endless whirl of parties, port, roast beef and (presumably) gout until the middle of the 19th century. On the 1851 census, two brothers own a successful iron foundry in Halifax. Ten years later, they are working as humble labourers in the same business, now owned by someone else. A Cookson-esque financial calamity that I intend to get to the bottom of one day, along with those deeds.
The paternal side is much quieter – publicans, miners, blacksmiths, millworkers and farmers. My Dad is tracing his bit of our pedigree, which is why we were poking around in the graveyard of a church near Knaresborough a few weekends ago looking for tombstones with our surname on. Our branch of the family left the land in the early 1800s, heading off to become cogs in the great machinery of the industrial revolution. A good number of them were christened, married and buried at All Saints’, Spofforth. They wouldn’t have known the church as it is now – the then rector, James Tripp remodelled it into its present gothic style in 1848, without permission from the Bishop of York who was so enraged that he (vainly) sent a gang of armed horsemen down to halt the work. All Saints’ is ancient – about 1200 years old, though not mentioned in Domesday – as evidenced by the yew trees creaking and whispering by the East window.
A few feet from our lot is the grave of the intriguing John ‘Jack’ Metcalfe. Jack was a huntsman, horse trader, guide, fiddle-player (much in demand at dances in Harrogate) ace bowler, card player and recruiter for the Knaresborough militia raised to fight Bonny Prince Charlie. He went with the troops to Scotland where he infiltrated the Jacobite army, got captured and was lucky to be released. Back in England, he flirted with smuggling, ran a stagecoach and tried his hand – unsuccessfully – in the cotton trade. By the 1760s he was building turnpike roads; surveying the land, calculating the cost of materials and labour and holding all the details in his head. He also took on contracts in Cheshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire, constructing something in the order of 180 miles of the first proper roads built since the Romans and earning an astonishing £65,000 in the process. At the age of 77 he walked from Spofforth to York (in his 20s he’d walked to London and back), where he dictated his life story to a publisher. He died in 1810 aged 93, leaving four children, 19 grandchildren and 35 great-grandchildren. Quite a full life – especially if you consider he’d been completely blind since the age of six.