You might think you know who your family are, and where you’re from, but a few days diddling about on the internet can turn what you knew, what you thought you knew, inside out.
I was born in Guildford, son of Alan Marchant, in 1958. Alan wasn’t a great bloke, as it goes, and I wrote about him in ‘Something of the Night.’ He was born in the Surrey village of Bramley, but he grew up in the next village along, which is called Shalford. My Mum’s maiden name was Bulbeck – I knew she was born in Rudgwick in Sussex, but she grew up in Ewhurst, in Surrey. I’ve always thought I knew that I was from Surrey, and that so were my family.
My Mum’s Dad was called Albert Bulbeck, and he wasn’t a great bloke either. He buggered off when my Mum was about 7, in 1940, but not before he had brutalised my Mum, physically and emotionally. I wrote about him in my book ‘The Longest Crawl. For her whole life, my Mum has suffered from a recurring nightmare that her Dad would come back. She wasn’t sure, until very recently, whether or not he was dead.
Three or four years ago, my wife Hilary joined one of those internet genealogy sites, and did some initial batting around. She found my grandad Albert, and established that he had died in Ipswich in 1980. And that he was born in Albourne in Sussex in 1901. Albourne is the next village to Hurstpierpoint. After a great deal of careful detective work in birth death and marriage records and the old Newspaper Library in Colindale, some hugely clever intuitions, and the aid of a Lowestoft phone book, she tracked down my previously unknown Uncle Alby; one of the children of Grandad Albert’s second marriage. My Mum’s half-brother, who she never knew existed. He’s a sea captain, living in Wells-Next-The-Sea, and he and my Mum were thrilled to be put in touch, and have become quite close. Job done. One of the things I particularly liked about Hilary’s research was to learn something about my great grandmother, Louisa Knight. She lived with my Mum and Grandmother when my Mum was a kid. My Mum didn’t like her much. Mum used to watch her Grandmother sitting pissing into a galvanised bucket whilst smoking a clay pipe – my great-grandmother, that is, not my Mum, though she had to piss into the same bucket, because it was all they had for the purpose. My great-grandmother was born in Hurstpierpoint in 1871, and in her researches, Hilary found suggestions that she was of Romany stock. Which made me very happy, and wanting to know a bit more. Googling Hurstpierpoint, I came across this, ‘A Fine Day in Hurstpierpoint’ by Thomas Marchant. A nice coincidence, I thought, and bought the book. It’s a translation of old Thomas’s Diaries, written between 1714 and 1728, paintakingly transcribed by the Hurst History Society, and published by them in 2005. The editor, Anthony Bower, is an eighth generation grandchild of Thomas.
Time passed. Hilary, having solved the mystery of what happened to my maternal grandfather in spectacular style, let her membership of the genealogy site lapse.
Last weekend, the site offered 24 hours free membership, and Hilary was looking for a quick project, (she can’t do much with her family, since they were born in Northern Ireland and before that Ireland, and the records before 1922 were destroyed in a fire). So I said I wantd to find out if my paternal great grand mother had commited suicide, as Alan had told me the last time I saw him. He gave me a tiny photograph of her, maybe a centimetre across. Hilary started hunting, and very quickly she hit a motherlode of Marchant family stuff, and we forgot about the fate of my poor great grandmother. Up until Hilary found this site all I knew was that my grandfather was a builder in Shalford, my great grandfather, a baker in Bramley.
The first figure to swim into some kind of view was my great-great grandfather, Elkanah, born in Hurstpierpoint, a publican in various spots across Sussex. He married twice (the second time to a woman thirty years his junior) and had fathered two familes – my great-grandfather Thomas the baker was the eldest son of his first marriage. Elkanah lived to be 90, and died in 1931. My Grandfather Charlie was born in 1900, so I guess my grand-father knew his grandfather, but I don’t know for sure.
At this point, Hilary noticed that the site she was using had links to this fascinating site http://www.thetreeofus.net ; she called me over, and I sat and peered over her shoulder. We clicked the links, and were taken into a vast archive of Marchant family history. The first thing we did was simply to click back in time – Elkanah, son of Thomas son of John, son of William son of Thomas, son of William son of Thomas son of William son of Thomas, son of Richard son of Miles son of William. In a few minutes we were back in 1520, when the earliest of my ancestors we could trace, William Marchant, had been born in Preston.
Preston, I thought! I’m not just an adopted Lancastrian, I have Lancastrian roots! None of it. Different Preston. Preston village is now a pretty suburb of Brighton; the A23 runs through it, and many years ago I played the Brighton Urban Free Festival in Preston Park. I have deep Brighton roots, and I am pleased. Within a couple of generations, though, they had drifted six or seven miles north to Albourne and Hurstpierpoint – and there they stayed. My Father’s family and my Mother’s family all come from Hurstpierpoint and the neighbouring village of Albourne.
I got to thinking. It’s a bit of a shock. Hurstpierpoint trembles on the verge of being an actual suburb of Brighton, and it’s only the Downs in between that stop it from quite happening. Certainly, it’s one of the nearest commuter villages to Brighton, a place I’d never given any thought whatsoever. A village centre with shops selling Farrow and Ball paint, some old cottages that would cost you the best part of a million quid, and some nice looking wholesome sixties/seventies new built commuter homes. Not a terribly sexy spot, is how I felt.
But tonight, Hilary had another look, a closer look. And she has established, pretty much beyond doubt, that one of the Thomases, the great-great-grand-father of John, who was Elkanah’s grand-father, was in fact Thomas Marchant the diarist. And that, what’s more, I am the eldest son of the eldest son in an unbroken line all the way back to Thomas the Diarist. He was a land-owner, a well-to-do farmer, and a successful fish breeder. And I am his heir.
Here’s some stuff about him from ‘Highways and Byways in Sussex’, by EV Lucas, published in 1904
‘Less than two miles west of Hurstpierpoint is Albourne, so hidden away that one might know this part of the country well and yet be continually overlooking it. The western high road between Brighton and London passes within a stone’s throw of Albourne, but one never suspects the existence, close by, of this retired village, so compact and virginal and exquisitely old fashioned. It is said that after the execution of Charles I Bishop Juxon lived for a while at Albourne Place during the Civil War, and once escaped the Parliamentary soldiers by disguising himself as a bricklayer. There is a priest’s hiding hole in the house.
The … drive brings us to Hurstpierpoint, or Hurst as it is generally called, which is now becoming a suburb of Brighton and thus somewhat losing its character, but which the hills will probably long keep sweet. …
To Hurst belongs one of the little Sussex squires to whose diligence as a diarist we are indebted for much entertaining knowledge of the past. Little Park, now the property of the Hannington family, where Thomas Marchant, the diarist in question, lived, and kept his journal between 1714 and 1728, is to the north of the main street, lying low. The original document I have not seen, but from passages printed by the Sussex Archæological Society I borrow a few extracts for the light they throw on old customs and social life.
“October 8th, 1714. Paid 4s. at Lewes for 1/4 lb., of tea; 5d.for a quire of paper; and 6d. for two mousetraps.
October 29th, 1714. Went to North Barnes near Homewood Gate to see the pond fisht. I bought all the fish of a foot long and upwards at 50s. per C. I am to give Mrs. Dabson 200 store fish, over and above the aforesaid bargain; but she is to send to me for them.
“October 30th, 1714. We fetched 244 Carps in three Dung Carts from a stew of Parson Citizen at Street; being brought thither last night out of the above pond.
“October 31st, 1714 (Sunday). I could not go to Church, being forced to stay at home to look after, and let down fresh water to, the fish; they being—as I supposed—sick, because they lay on the surface of the pond and were easily taken out. But towards night they sunk.”
The Little Park ponds still exist, and although fish-breeding is not what it was, many of the Sussex ponds are still regularly dragged, and the proceeds sold in advance to a London firm. Sometimes the purchaser wins in the gamble, sometimes the seller.The fish are removed alive, in large tanks, and sold as they are wanted,chiefly for Jewish tables. But we must return to Thomas Marchant:—
“January 16th (Sunday) 1715. I was not at church having a bad headache.
“January 25th, 1715. We had a trout for supper, two feet two inches long from eye to fork, and six inches broad; it weighed ten-and-a-half pounds. It was caught in the Albourne Brook, near Trussell House…. We staid very late and drank enough.
“April 15th, 1715. Paid my uncle Courtness 15d. for a small bottle of Daffey’s Elixir.
“July 18th, 1715. I went to Bolney and agreed with Edw. Jenner to dig sandstone for setting up my father’s tombstone, at 5s. I gave him 6d. to spend in drink that he might be more careful.
“August 7th, (Sunday) 1715. I was not at church as my head ached very much.
“November 22nd, 1716. Fisht the great pond and put 220 of the biggest carp into the new pond, and 18 of the biggest tench. Put also 358 store carp into the flat stew, and 36 tench; and also 550 very small carp into a hole in the low field.
“November 24th, 1716. Fisht the middle pond. Put 66 large carp into the new pond, and 380 store tench into the flat stew, and 12 large carp, 10 large tench, and 57 middle sized tench into the hovel field stew.
“June 12th, 1717. I was at the cricket match at Dungton Gate towards night.
“January 24th, 1718. A mountebank came to our towne to-day. He calls himself Dr. Richard Harness. Mr. Scutt and I drank tea with the tumbler. Of his tricks I am no judge: but he appears to me to play well on the fiddle.
“January 30th (Friday), 1719. King Charles’ Martyrdom. I was not at church, as my head ached very much.
“February 28th, 1719. We had news of the Chevalier de St. George, the Pretender, being taken and carried into the Castle of Milan.
“September 19th, 1719. John Parsons began his year last Tuesday. He is to shave my face twice a week, and my head once a fortnight, and I am to give him 100 faggots per annum.
“September 30th, 1719. Talked to Mrs. Beard, for Allan Savage, about her horse that was seized by the officers at Brighton running brandy.
“December 5th, 1719. My Lord Treep put a ferral and pick to my stick. [My Lord Treep was a tinker named Treep who lived in Treep’s Lane. My Lord Burt, who is also mentioned in the diary, was a farrier.]
“July 28th, 1721. Paid Harry Wolvin of Twineham, for killing an otter in our parish. [An otter, of course, was a serious enemy to the owner of stews and ponds.]
“February 7th, 1722. Will and Jack went to Lewes to see a prize fight between Harris and another.
“September 18th, 1727. Dined at Mr. Hazelgrove’s and cheapened a tombstone.”
Thomas Marchant was buried September 17, 1728.’
There is no doubt that my ancestor the diarist was well-to-do, but it looks as though his grandson William was straightforwardly rich. He was an apothecary, Dr Marchant, and Surgeon to the Royal Powder Mills in Waltham Abbey. As well as Little Park (the house and land in Hurstpierpoint that Thomas the Diarist farmed) he owned property in Cheshunt and Edgeley. There are records of how much property tax he paid. The kind of chap bound to do well out of the Napoleonic Wars. A baronetcy, at the very least, beckoned. Sadly, he was killed in Waltham Cross in a coach accident on the 13th December 1790. (The 13th of December was my Dad’s birthday, incidentally).
His eldest son John was 14 at the time of his Father’s death. We can’t say that he inherited a vast fortune, but it was a fair old bit. We can’t say for sure how John might have turned out if his Father had lived. But we do know that John lost the lot through gambling, and that he died in Brighton Workhouse in 1848. His grandson Elkanah, my great-great grandfather, would have been seven at the time.
And tonight, I can’t help but think about what I’d like to say to John, which is this – YOU FUCKING WANKER! You blew it on fucking horses, just like my fucking Dad. You fucking fucknut! I am the eldest son of the eldest son, all the way back. Little Park Farm, Hurstpierpoint, which you spunked away on cards, should be mine! MINE I TELL YOU! I should be a public schoolboy, a member of the Rugby Club, a well-to-do decent County chap born, like pretty much all my ancestors, in Hurstpierpoint. My life has been interesting, but perhaps I wouldn’t have minded being dull and rich. I would have liked the choice, great great great great Grandpa John, you useless cunt. At the very least it would have given me more to kick against.
But maybe if your Dad had lived, if the coach driver had taken more care, you’d have been fathered properly, and kept the Marchant Gambling Gene under control. If your Dad had lived, I feel sure that he would have thrived in the war, and you would have gone on to be Sir John Marchant, 2nd Baronet, MP. And I would have gone to Eton, and Oxford, and I could have been the one to blow the fortune, which I would have enjoyed a great deal. It just shows, you can’t be too careful on the roads.