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Saturday, 27 August 2011


I have precious little to brag about in my family tree when it comes to sporting achievement. But, clutching at straws, I can claim a great great uncle by marriage who got pretty much to the top of his game.

James Frew (born c1900)

James Frew’s father was a miner in the Ayrshire coalfields, and naturally he too started down the pits as a young man. In 1919 he married local girl Jean Piper of Sorn. Like most lads he played football in his spare time, and demonstrated such a talent for it that he played regularly for Nithsdale Wanderers down the road in Sanquhar (pronounced Sanker, if you’re not from round here!).

Nithsdale was a club on the rise. In 1920 they moved to Crawick Holm, a new ground with a stone grandstand just outside the town, and in 1923 they were invited to join the new Scottish League third division. In 1925 they won the championship (and promotion to the second division) with an 8-0 victory over Montrose in the last match of the season.

If Jimmy Frew played a part in the momentum which led to these successes, he was not around to enjoy the results themselves. In 1922 he was spotted by a talent scout from no less a club than London’s Chelsea FC. It is hard to believe that they were keeping an eye on teams like Nithsdale, but nevertheless Jimmy made his debut at Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea ground, on St Valentine’s Day 1923 in a 3-1 win over Everton.

Chelsea FC, 1925-26 season
(Jimmy Frew, new father, back row, second from left)

Although his professional football career is quite well documented I can’t find any record of what position he played. I am guessing it was defensive because in 43 games with Chelsea and 58 with his next club, Southend United, he never scored a goal. If such things are genetic, it’s worth noting that his son Billy (born during his last season at Chelsea in 1926) was himself a good amateur goalkeeper.

Jimmy played his last match for Chelsea on 24th April 1926 and moved to Southend in Essex for two seasons from 1927 to 1929. He finished his pro days back up north as captain of Carlisle United, playing his part in the club’s triumphant double trouncing of Barrow, the local derby rivals, in the 1929-30 season (2-0 away, 7-1 at home). Not bad for a miner’s son from Kilmarnock.

Where it all began -
Nithsdale Wanderers and the Crawick Holm stand, c1921
(Jimmy Frew back row, second from right)

Saturday, 20 August 2011


I’m constantly delighted by how much information is now available online for historical research. There are those who claim that the internet is the lazy option and that it’s killing the art of “genuine” research somehow. I don’t agree on many levels. It certainly eases the process of going through the growing body of online archive material; so perhaps it is lazy in the sense that the invention of the plough killed the back-breaking art of digging fields by hand and made farmers lazy!

It’s not lazy, it’s just easier!

Almost all the contents of this blog over the past two years I’ve tracked down online, or from archive material in my own possession. I live in Edinburgh. I don’t have the luxury of time or money to be able to travel the country or the world to consult local documents. So I’m enormously grateful for the online material posted by others, and I hope I’m returning the favour just a little by setting some of it in context here.

By and large, as I say, I’m amazed at how much it’s possible to find out about the long-dead. I have a folder three bulging inches thick holding details of the life of my great great grandfather the Rev William Augustus Salter (1812-1879). But just occasionally I draw a blank. What I know about WA Salter’s almost exact contemporary Richard William Ralph Sadleir, another great great grandfather of mine, would not fill a single sheet.

I wrote up what little I knew about him here back in December 2009, and precious little more has come to light since. But tiny snippets all add to my picture of him. Following what few clues I had, I tried to track down John Kean, the partner in his failed business venture, a chemical works in St Helens near Liverpool.

Globe Alkali Works, St Helens, c1900 –
the New Street Works were probably a much smaller affair

I now know that the works, New Street Chemical Works, were registered under the Alkali Act of 1863, legislation passed just before they set up in business and an early example of environmental regulation. That gives a hint about the nature of the chemicals they were producing or working with. Apart from that there is almost no record, online at least, of the New Street Works, except for a document held in the St Helens Archives. It’s an agreement about the use of a railway siding in the town, dated to November 1864, which suggests they were either receiving raw materials or dispatching finished goods by rail.

I’ve also unearthed a third partner, William Holden. The chemical business lasted less than three years, 1864-66, before failing. In 1868 both Holden and Sadleir were declared bankrupt. Kean however was not! What’s more, he disappeared from the records for a while – no sign of him in the 1871 UK census, for example – before resurfacing in 1881 hundreds of miles away to the north in Glasgow. There, in the rapidly expanding industrial district of Possil Park, Kean’s occupation was listed once again as Manufacturing Chemist. The Argyle Oil Mills and Chemical Works stood (until 1914) jus a few hundred yards form his given address. All but his two oldest children were born in the Glasgow area within eight years of the census.

St Rollox Chemical Works, Glasgow c1880 –
the nearby Argyle Works in Possil were smaller

I have to remind myself that it’s not John Kean I’m interested in! But his disappearance and his movements do shed a little light on my great great grandfather’s life and the events that shaped it. Was Kean a shrewder businessman that Sadleir? Did he dupe Sadleir and Holden into carrying the can for the failure of the business? A few years earlier Sadleir had sold off thousands of acres of the Sadleir family estates in Tipperary – was he a cash-rich turkey ripe for plucking?

It’s too tempting and too dangerous to speculate wildly on the basis of a few more tiny facts. But I know a little more than I did 21 months ago! New information comes online all the time and I keep checking. But I think that sooner or later I am going to have to go to St Helens and see what I can find for myself on the ground.

Saturday, 13 August 2011


Russell Manners was a brother-in-law of my cartoonist cousin Charles de NoƩ. Although a great many of my ancestors made their mark, good or bad, here on Earth, Russell is as far as I know the only one to have an extra-terrestrial legacy.

Russell Henry Manners (1800-1870),
a Manners on the Moon
(picture from

His career was in the Royal Navy, but his interest was in astronomy. His enthusiasm led to his election to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1836 where, although not a practicing astronomer, he proved himself an administrative asset to the Society. He served for ten years as its honorary secretary and in 1868 was elected its president. When the time came to hand out names for features on the Moon, he had earned his place in the queue.

It turns out that there are rules for this sort of thing, administered by the International Astronomical Union. Planets are named after Gods and Goddesses, and their moons after the offspring of those gods. For example Mars  is named after the Roman god of war; its two moons are called Deimos and Phobos, the sons of Ares, the Greek god of war (something which would probably have my father, a classical scholar, turning in his grave; that mixing of Greek and Roman traditions would offend his purist soul!). Deimos means Panic and Phobos means Fear, two inescapable products of War. Comets are named after their discoverers, and it is possible for more than one person to discover a comet simultaneously – hence Comet Hale-Bopp, discovered and reported separately on 23rd July 1995 by both Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp.

The features on our own moon are reserved for those who have explored the moon, either in person or through telescopes as astronomers. So for example three small craters near the Apollo 11 landing site are named Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong in honour of the pioneering crew of the first manned mission to the moon. And, only 100 miles to the north-west across the Mare Tranquillitatis from Apollo 11's historic Tranquility Base, you will find the rather larger Manners Crater.

The Sea of Tranquility:
Manners Crater (M) and the Apollo 11 landing site (A)

As I write these words, I’ve been staring at images of it all afternoon; and I must say it’s becoming rather beautiful to me! Manners is a perfectly circular crater about 15km in diameter and 1.7km deep, with a distinct mountain in the centre of it. It’s a banded crater, which means that it has streaky sides – illustrating I think the movement of material outwards at the time of impact.

Any further technical description would be well beyond my comfort zone or qualifications grade. I’m just pleased as punch to think every time I look at the Moon that one of my ancestors has made his mark there.

Manners Crater (the large crater on the right)
photographed from Apollo 10 in 1969

Saturday, 6 August 2011


It’s my 100th post here! I try to be eclectic in my choices of subjects – family name, period, occupation, home – and not to be too judgemental. I’m fond of them all, and quite sure they all did the best they could according to their own situation and the morals and conditions of their times. It’s one thing to regret the mistakes of former days; but I think it’s pretty meaningless to judge them by modern standards, or indeed to apologise for acts committed and views held by our ancestors centuries ago. I suppose I see my mission simply as keeping these memories of my ancestors alive.

I try to celebrate their achievements, not their weaknesses. No doubt it is because I’m a writer that I am particularly drawn to literary or educational contributions to society. But there does seem to be a strong strand in many branches and in every generation of my family tree: the urge to communicate, be it by book, poster, classroom or pulpit.

Thomas Gurney (1705-1770)
A great communicator, quill always to hand

A good example of this is my 5x great grandfather Thomas Gurney. He was the son of a Bedfordshire miller, driven by his Baptist faith and a belief in the worth of knowledge. By the age of nineteen he had not only founded a school but developed a shorthand system which would remain in use for two hundred years in the highest offices in the land. Communication was the key to redeeming, useful self-improvement for Thomas.

Here is the story of his early years, as told in a biography by his grandson William Brodie Gurney in 1845, some 120 years after the events.

[Thomas Gurney’s] indisposition to his father’s business, however, still continuing, he left his home, with his father’s consent, at the age, I apprehend, of nineteen, if not earlier, and opened a school in a neighbouring village, employing his time much in reading. It must have been when he was very young that he attended a sale and purchased a parcel of books, one of which was on Astrology, in which he was at the time much interested. The lot was described as “sundries;” and I think he purchased it for 1s 6d or 2s [7.5 or 10p].

One of these books was “Mason’s Shorthand,” a system which had been practiced, but had fallen into disuse in consequence of its complexity. This immediately engaged his enquiring mind, and he determined to simplify it, for the purpose of enabling himself to take down sermons; and I have a book of sermons taken by him at Ridgemount in Bedfordshire, in 1722-23. This purchase must have been before he left his father’s house; therefore he could only been only seventeen or eighteen years of age when he began taking these sermons.

One of the books, I have stated, was on Astrology. This subject had excited his attention, and, while it afforded him amusement, it gave him, among his neighbours, the character of a man of wonderful knowledge, and occasioned his being consulted more than once on matters of interest. One anecdote, while it displays his judgment in making the best of a thing, shows also the disposition to magnify that which fell from the wise man.

A lost cow is nothing new
(Farmville game on Facebook notwithstanding)

A woman having lost her cow went to my grandfather to learn whether she should ever recover it, and what means she should employ. After hearing her detail, taking down his great book he shut himself up or a few minutes; and then, returning with some figure he had drawn, judging from her account that the cow had not been stolen but only strayed, he told her very gravely that she should see it again shortly. In the evening the cow returned; and then the woman raised his reputation to the highest pitch by informing her neighbours that Mr Gurney had told her in the morning where the cow was gone  and had enabled her to trace he animal in all its wanderings, and to ascertain beforehand the very time of its return.

Quite how a great book of astronomy could be imagined to give insight into the random movements of a cow, is open to question. But it’s a wise man indeed who knows what works in making an impression! The use of shorthand to record and disseminate Baptist sermons was significant at a time when religious intolerance was still rife and non-conformity was a radical, subversive alternative to the establishment Church of England. When Thomas’s great great grandson William Henry Gurney Salter joined the family shorthand business (by now the official medium of record of the Houses of Parliament), he practised his skills by recording the sermons of his father, the Baptist minister William Augustus Salter. So Gurney shorthand came full circle for another two generations of communicators.
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