Friday, 15 May 2015

Kate Dobson -- a stranger in a photograph

I haven't 'investigated' any photos for ages, so at the weekend I dipped into the drawerful of old photos that I got from my Mum and picked one more or less at random -- this is it, above. It was the second one I looked at and I stuck with it because it had a name written on the back.
The name was Kate Dobson and there was a date, October 1877.
     I should say that these photos weren't particularly valued by my Mum. When I was sorting out her house, they were in the damp stone outhouse in the garden, in rotting cardboard boxes and covered in black smuts. I think they must have been inside something she bought at an auction, a writing box, perhaps, and she wasn't that interested in them but kept them anyway. But they weren't family photos, just random images from who knows where. Mum lived in Richmond, Yorkshire.
     So the idea was to find out, if possible, who Kate Dobson was. In the photo, Kate looked as though she was in her early thirties, I thought, so I searched on the Ancestry website for Kate Dobsons living in or near to Darlington (where the photo was taken) and born around 1845. It didn't take too long to identify her as Kate Mary Ann Dobson, born in late 1853. That makes her actually only twenty-four in the photo. I think she looks a little careworn for her age, don't you?
 I knew I had found the right Kate Dobson because she had filled in the 1911 census return as head of household and her handwriting was identical to that on the photo.
     What else could I find out about Kate Dobson? She was christened Kate, rather than Catherine, which seems relatively unusual. Her full name, as you can see, was Kate Mary Ann Dobson. She was born in Leyburn in Wensleydale, a lovely little Dales town not far from Richmond.
We used to go quite often when I was little, to Tennant's auction house, which is still going strong and is very highly regarded. Also, my singing group (Bel Canto) went to compete in the Wensleydale Festival music competition which was held there.
     Kate's paternal grandfather was Matthew Dobson, a 'landed proprietor' born in 1774 and resident of Grange Hall, Heighington, near Darlington, where his family had lived since at least 1628. Grange Hall was registered as a non-conformist place of worship in February 1780 so the family were almost certainly non-conformists. In August 1810 Matthew married Martha Stapylton, a native of Leyburn, and they moved to Grove House, in Grove Square, just off the main marketplace. That house was built in 1757 and is still there today. It's a bed & breakfast place now. Matthew and Martha had eight children and Matthew doesn't seem to have had to work, probably living instead from the income from his 'land and houses'.
The way into Leyburn marketplace from Grove Square around the end of the 19th century
      Their eldest son was Ralph Stapylton Dobson (born 1813) and he established himself as a wine and spirit merchant in Leyburn. He married a local girl, Mary Ann Fryer, in late 1844 and they had seven children, of whom Kate was the fourth. The wine and spirit shop must have been very successful because the family moved from one house to another, over the years, starting at 'Railway Villa' and ending up in 'Brentwood House', right in the marketplace, and he was able to afford to send his sons away to Bishopton Close school near Ripon. Two of Ralph's three sons ended up taking over the business. Ralph often served as a juryman at the Assizes, along with other respectable citizens.
     But there was a major falling out between Ralph and his siblings over their inheritance from their mother. The Yorkshire Post carried a long and detailed account of a court case heard in Lincoln's Inn in December 1868. It's so complicated that I can't understand it properly but it comes down to Ralph being accused of stealing his mother's will (and, possibly, destroying it?), so that he could inherit half of her property rather than having to take only a one-sixth share. He was accused of being 'a villain and a perjurer' by the lawyer representing two of his sisters. He said, in court, that 'up to the present time he had lived respected in the neighbourhood in which he was born [...] and he was now charged with a deliberate fraud upon his aged mother, with a view to injure his sisters and deprive them of their just rights. If, therefore, the jury decided against him, he would go forth from the court a disgraced, ruined, perjured man.' Unfortunately it took the jury just fifteen minutes to decide against him.
     Kate Dobson was fifteen when this calamity struck the family, and who knows what effect it had on her. Both she and the youngest child of the family, Maria Margaret (born 1859) remained unmarried and they seem to have become inseparable. They continued to live at home for many years until, eventually, in the 1891 census (when Kate was 38) the two sisters had moved to Richmond (my home town) and were lodging at Clyde House at the top of Frenchgate. Kate was earning a little money as a music teacher and Maria was listed as a 'fancy wool worker'. I'm not sure how much money there was in that. Their next door neighbour was a widow, Jane Whitelock, who was 81 in 1891 and seems to have been supporting two daughters and two granddaughters on the income from running a lodging house. Perhaps this inspired the two sisters for, by the next census, in 1901, they had set themselves up as lodging house keepers at 30 Maison Dieu, Richmond, right opposite the house I grew up in.
30 Maison Dieu, Richmond, Yorkshire
I don't think it can have been terribly profitable because, ten years later, when Kate was in her late fifties, they had moved again, to 22 Windsor Terrace in Darlington, which, being near the railway line (as far as I can work out -- it's gone now) was something of a come down. They only had one boarder. No further censuses are open to scrutiny, so I haven't been able to track them any further.
     Kate and her sister Maria are buried together in Darlington West cemetery. Kate died in 1933 and Maria in 1936, both spinsters. When I discovered that they shared the same gravestone, I felt sad that they had only had each other for most of their adult lives and also in death.
     That's all I've been able to discover about Kate Mary Ann Dobson -- oh, apart from the fact that Kate trained as a first aider in 1891. If anyone is researching her as part of their family tree, they're welcome to copy her photo. As they lived opposite the house I grew up in (and, actually, that tall red-brick house partly visible in the photo above was my great-grandmother's house where my mum spent most of her childhood), Kate and Maria feel like neighbours now. I had no idea when I pulled Kate's photo at random out of the drawer that she would have lived so nearby.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Language of the Silent World

On my Instagram feed I recently posted an image from an Edwardian booklet on British Sign Language, 'The Language of the Silent World'. This was first published in 1914 and the last edition was printed in 1929. Until it was superseded in 1938 by a new pamphlet published by the National Institute for the Deaf, this was the mostly widely available source of information on sign language.

It's interesting for the choice of words given and also for the way they are signed, which in some cases may show a sign that was a good 'cultural fit' at the beginning of the twentieth century but which may now have been altered (for example, the sign for 'punish' seems to be based on caning, as rainbowhomevintage noted on Instagram). But a lot of the signs are still the same, commentors said -- I don't have any knowledge about this myself.
     I think it's very strange that the last page of the book is a set of animal shadows as this seems to make very light of anyone who relies on sign language to communicate. I don't think you would find those in a sign language book today.
 One of the big questions I have about sign language is how the grammar works? Evidently there are nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, but how do they combine reliably to make complex sentences, how do tenses come across, and different constructions such as conditionals or commands? Perhaps someone will add a comment or two below.
unfortunate placing of wormhole...

     As there was quite a bit of interest in the booklet, I've scanned all the pages for anyone that's interested. My copy has some bookworm holes in it! So if you notice some strange little holes, that's what they are.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Last day of Open Studios 2014

Today is the last day that my studio will be open for Herts Open Studios 2014. There's still time to pop round (until 6pm tonight -- see details at It's been great being 'forced' to spend hours on end in here and I've found it quite stimulating. I finished the 'dream' collage above this morning and I'm going to work on another two this afternoon.
     What I won't miss is the weird feeling of the studio and, by extension, the house, being open to the public. I find I'm hypervigilant, looking up constantly to see if anyone is coming down the path, jumping at sounds -- ridiculous, really. Especially as there hasn't been a constant stream of visitors so most of the looking and jumping is quite pointless.
     I've enjoyed showing people what I do and everyone who has come has been very nice but I'm not sure what I do is to most people's taste. It's strange, because I don't think what I do is very 'difficult' or 'way out' but I think a lot of people have a relatively narrow 'bandwidth' of what they like when it comes to art -- and I don't think Open Studios is a good way to sell paintings or anything that you want to charge more than a few pounds for. In terms of my experience this past month (which is, admittedly, very limited) people are not coming in looking to spend wads of cash. But I have sold some cards and prints and have broken even on the money I invested in joining the Open Studios scheme (ie going in the brochure and getting some 'Open Studios' bunting to put up) -- so all good. But this time sitting surrounded by my very eclectic artwork has focused my mind somewhat -- if I'm going to have a goal, going forwards, it's to try to get into a gallery or even more than one. We shall see if I manage to do this...

Sunday, 14 September 2014

I'm in my studio

I'm in my studio again for Herts Open Studios 2014 (my listing is no 53). My Swedish man in the moon lantern is smiling away to welcome people (though it's too late for crayfish) and I've just had my first visitor of the day.
     Manning the studio for the advertised hours has brought it home to me that actually I don't spend as much time in here as I could. It's stimulating just being in here, surrounded by all the stuff I've accumulated over the years. Yesterday I got my box of beach pickings out and just handling these strange bits of detritus makes ideas come.
I suddenly seem to be doing several things at once. I'm making a piece from the fragments of reflector I've picked up over the last couple of years -- I still need to wire the pieces to the metal grille:
And I'm working on a little collage which seems to be taking on a rather dark theme. I don't think it will look much like this when it's finished, though.
Nothing is stuck down yet. The moment where you start to stick is the moment of commitment. Not there yet. I'm enjoying myself.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Hertfordshire Open Studios -- my first time!

End wall of my studio
This afternoon at 2pm I'll be opening the gate at the side of our house and pinning up the signs to point people down to my art studio. It's the first day of Herts Open Studios 2014 and my first ever open studio session.
     I've got tea and biscuits (most importantly) plus loads of paintings, collages, prints and cards. There are the mugs I've designed too. I really hope someone comes and buys one of those as I like them so much.
Framed prints start at £10 for the little ones, going up to £25.

But absolutely no obligation to buy anything, of course. It will just be great to see people.
     These are the times when my studio will be open:

     And if you're in St Albans during September, there's a 'Secret Postcard' art sale by members of Herts Visual Arts Forum, including me, at Courtyard Cafe. Lots of little original artworks, all priced at £20, to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Care. The postcards are on display in a back room, so do ask if you don't immediately find your way to them.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

All the old toys in the world?

We've been up north for a flying visit this week, partly so that we could drop off a couple of boxes of our tin toys at Vectis in Stockton-on-Tees. Vectis is the largest toy auction house in the world and while we were there we were lucky enough to be shown round.
It was breathtakingly vast -- just one huge room after another piled high with toys of every description. It made our tin toy collection seem very insignificant but they were happy to add it in to the vast stock waiting to be sold.
They generally have one or two sales a week and you can go there to bid in person, but it seems most people bid online. When we were there, the day's sale had just finished and they were starting the massive job of packaging all the sold lots up for dispatch to their new owners.
I couldn't linger too long taking photos as I felt we shouldn't take up too much of the (lovely) staff's time. It was very kind of them to take us round (thank you, John). I didn't know where to look next -- there was so much to see. I'll finish with a few more pictures.

John said that old dolls like these are no longer so sought after -- I'll have them...

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Back from our hols

A perfect idea of a holiday -- in Canterbury (not my holiday, though....)
We've had our summer holiday. It's over. In fact I've been back at work for a week. It was good to have a break, and we did lots of interesting things, but it didn't really match the idyll that I have in my mind when I think of summer holidays (no reading in boats, for a start).
We went for a shabby-chic sort of English holiday, down in Kent. The faded bunting was out in force, the cupcakes, the vintage shops, the cafes with mismatched crockery and wobbly chairs -- all lovely, don't get me wrong, but it does sometimes feel that shabby chic is taking over the country, so that it will become as ubiquitous as the boring old style it was intended to shake up. We rented a house near Folkestone which was lovely in every respect apart from the fact that it was suffering from 'Keep Calm and Carry On' overkill -- every mug and cushion emblazoned with 'Keep Calm and Relax'; three identical canvases in the kitchen with slogans about the Queen and cream teas; driftwood hearts and so many rustic seagulls and fishes on stands that we had to hide a few of them away. The strings of miniature wooden flipflops on the landing were almost the last straw but we bore their febrile clatter with gritted teeth -- we kept calm and carried on.
funny window display in Rye -- I covet that Pinocchio...
Even though lightning lit up the house on more than one occasion and monsoon rain drew us to the back of the house to stand under the corrugated plastic roof and listen to the amazing noise it made, we managed to dodge the bad weather and never actually got rained on (apart from a very ill-advised five minutes on the beach in a storm discovering that none of our raincoats are actually waterproof).
Sad union jack and lucky horseshoe in Rye
I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow account of the holiday, you'll be relieved to hear: I think hearing in detail about other people's holidays is probably nearly as boring as hearing about their dreams (although I've been very guilty of the blow-by-blow holiday account myself, I know. I've learnt). I'll leaven the mix with plenty of photos.
Cut-out clown at the amusement arcade in Hastings
We just had a nice time going to a different town each day and raking round. First we made a beeline for Paul and Karen Rennie's beautiful Seaside Modern shop in Folkestone's Creative Quarter. The last time (also the first time) I was here, it was the weekend of my 'Holiday with Martin Parr' courtesy of the School of Life and Martin Parr himself came in while I was enjoying a conversation with Paul Rennie. As he wanted to take Paul's photo, the conversation came to an abrupt halt, so I was pleased to find Paul in the shop again this time and to be able to introduce D as well (the kids lurked outside). I don't know whether Paul remembered me from the last time, perhaps with a sinking heart. He is a very charming man and D and I revere him to the point of fandom but he was in a somewhat dark mood, it seemed. My attempts to strike up suitably aesthetic topics of conversation kept turning black -- it might have helped if we had bought something from the shop but we are trying to divest ourselves of some of our accumulated stuff at the moment, not acquire more. I don't think it was us (at least I hope not) but rather the sombre days we're currently living through.
The Towner in Eastbourne
Our next beeline was to the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne to see the Peggy Angus exhibition. Before we went in we had lunch in the cafe and bumped into a friend from my book group with her family. It doesn't matter where we go on holiday, I always seem to bump into someone I know. I suspect the odds can't be as long as I think they are of this happening or it wouldn't happen so frequently -- but I love the feeling of weird coincidence.
I've borrowed this photo from -- very nice blog, worth checking out
I enjoyed the Peggy Angus. The photo of Peggy in her Camden Studio was almost my favourite thing -- the above magazine spread was the only copy of it I could find. The picture hanging on the wall in the photo was in the exhibition and somehow looked better in the photo than in the flesh. Angus wasn't an absolutely first-rate painter but she belongs in with Bawden and Ravilious and sits well alongside them. She really found her gift in her wallpaper, fabric and tile designs which are strong and rhythmic and very fresh. She was also an inspirational art teacher and did some very ambitious murals with her pupils. Her life was one of socialist leanings, shading into the slightly naive communist sympathising that so many idealistic young people shared early in the 20th century. From the photos of her in the show and the events that she was involved with, she seems to have been a genuine egalitarian and an instinctive feminist during a period when women didn't always manage to be treated as equal to men. I came away having added a new name to my list of loved early-20th-century artists.
Also while we were in Eastbourne we stopped off to see the poor pier, ruined by fire.

Hastings is almost my favourite of the south-coast towns. If you like vintage (and I do, I do, in spite of my outburst above), it has the best vintage shops, including the excellent and unusual Hendy's Home Stores (closed on the day we visited).
We went to a very strange cafe for lunch -- Fawlty Towers-esque in its struggle to serve a simple meal. I won't name names but the soup was off, the jacket potatoes were off, there were no rolls, no chicken ... the list of what was off was longer than what was on. I was going to have a tuna mayonnaise sandwich and clearly the mayonnaise was nearly off too as we saw our waitress sprinting out of the cafe and returning a couple of minutes later with a big jar of mayonnaise! As we were asked to pay without being given a bill or a receipt, I cooked up a whole fantasy scenario about the waitress and chef having opened up the place while the boss was away to try to make a bit of cash on the side, but without buying any supplies. Just my over-active imagination, though, I'm sure.

Best secondhand shop in Hastings was Robert's Rummage, complete with grumpy Robert spouting sexist stuff about his wife and women in general -- quite entertaining if you don't get offended by such things.
I really like the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings too. They have a good drawing exhibition on at the moment (until 15th October 2014). And I like the rattly little miniature train that goes by underneath the gallery windows and the views out to the blackened beach where the old boats are pulled up.
Not everyone loves the Jerwood, it seems
We discovered that Hythe was a good place with interesting military history and a canal that was designed to keep Napoleon out of England. Now it has water lilies growing on it.
Hythe war memorial was particularly moving, with its low-relief sculptures:
We walked along the canal to Sandgate (halfway to Folkestone). There was an interesting pop-up museum about H.G. Wells, who came to live in Sandgate for his health and had a house designed by Voysey built for him there. Lots of interesting writers came down to visit him, including George Gissing, after a character of whose we named our daughter.
Superior sandwiches and drinks at Loaf in Sandgate -- worth a stop. Finding the loo is like immersive theatre...
A man having his ears looked at in Sandgate:
There was Rye, too. Rye is gorgeous but just a little too aware of that fact. It is so Mapp-and-Lucia-ed up it can barely breathe. Enough already! The place needs to let go a little.
Old plank in Rye -- now you've spoiled it...

There was a great vinyl place in the centre of Rye, Grammar School Records. I could have spent all day in there.
Nearly all our forays involved trundling along the A259 where, on a fairly sharp bend near Brookland you'll see a sign for 'brocante'. This is 'Hoof Salvage', a wonderfully strange place straight out of a Scandi-noir set but actually full of French secondhand stuff. Very nice owner who commutes between Kent and Central France. Mostly open towards the end of the week and weekends, I think.
     We had a special meal out at Rocksalt in Folkestone and sat in the window right beside a huge bamboo structure that was being built for Folkestone Triennial, which is about to start. It's called the 'Electric Line' and is by Gabriel Lester. I have to say I don't like it at all -- I find it forbidding and over-busy, a cage for jungle prisoners. While we were eating our meal, some big naughty boys had climbed inside and were delighted to be watched by us. Later on they left, giving us the evil eye as they went past the restaurant -- it spooked me. The local paper doesn't seem sure about the sculpture either.
     Well that's nearly all I have to tell, apart from the fact that we had one hour in Rochester on the way home and one hour was nowhere near enough to see all that was to be seen in a wonderful old town. I'll definitely have to go back, if only for Baggins Books, a vast secondhand bookshop.
 I would like to spend more time in Kent with less of a feeling of panic about too much to see and too little time to see it in: more reading in boats, less rummaging next time.