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The numbers tell the stories

This year I'm making an effort not to enter into a frenzy of panic-induced conspicuous consumption - each year it gets worse - how much plastic do kids need? How many gift sets can be sold? How many utterly useless gadgets? So I decided instead to be much more thoughtful and for gifts not to be about money. So for the adult siblings I decided on researching and presenting our family tree. It's my thing - rooting around the family closets - and so this made sense. I started with my Mum's Dad: Thomas Henry Sanders (14-02-1896 - Feb 1954). A veteran of World War 1 he signed up in 1914, aged 18, and stayed until 1920 without ever rising above the rank of Private. He left with a limp courtesy of shrapnel. The fact that he survived at all is astonishing. When he entered the army he was already married, having wed at sixteen to a woman called Margaret Hargrave.

My Mum knew about this first marriage - yet she had always referred to her as 'Jean Cosgrove'. What she didn't know - and perhaps her Mother hadn't either - was that Thomas Henry married again - in 1932 - to a Jane Glennen, a jeweller's daughter.

By the time Thomas Henry met my grandmother, Mary Fitzgerald, he was forty-seven - and she was twenty-nine. It was, perhaps, an age at which a single woman from rural Ireland (Cork) had given up on having children and getting married. Although another thing that has been steadily dispelled during my genealogical travails is that women always had children young and the men were always older. Not true at all. But in 1944, in the last year of WW2, Mary was working as a barmaid at the Dog & Partridge pub at the Stretford end of MUFC. It was here she met the cellar man, Thomas, who also worked as a joiner. He who had been through war before may have reassured the younger woman who had not, as air raid sirens went off on long evenings. My Mum's birth certificate states her as Joan S Fitzgerald. The 's' presumably standing for Sanders. She believed her parents had married not long after her birth. Another myth. In fact they hadn't married until January 1954 when Mary Fitzgerald was pregnant with their seventh child. In February, days after his 58th birthday, he sent his oldest, my Mum, to the shop. When she returned he was dead. One week later his seventh child was born.

My Mum said her Dad came from Devon and distinctly remembers his ... She asked me what it was. I said it was a 'burr'. 'That, a Devon burr', she said.
When I started looking I searched for his name and birth year for Devon but nothing arose. Then his name was listed as being born in the district of Stockport. Some burr, I thought. She described him as a strict man - a Protestant, possibly Methodist, with a - and here she'd pat her crown. 'Pate', I'd say. 'Yeah, a bald pate,' she'd add. It turns out that whilst he hadn't been born in Devon, his roots there went back through North Devon for centuries. But whilst Thomas had listed 'John Sanders - joiner' as his father on his marriage certificate - it turns out that John was his uncle. John's sister, Mary Ann, a glove-maker who had learnt her trade in her home town of Torrington, also the glove making capital of the 19th century, had followed her brother and his new wife from Devon to Hyde, in Cheshire. And perhaps falling for the first man she met, got pregnant, whilst Thomas's father scarpered. So he has only a line for a father. It's questionable whether Thomas knew that John wasn't his father but his uncle. His mother doesn't seem to have stayed around either and I can find no record of her in censuses. Thomas was brought up by his uncle John, alongside his cousin, Herbert Henry, although it remains to be seen why both Thomas and Herbert both had Henry as their middle names. Herbert Henry ended up in a regional newspaper in 1933, for blowing himself up during an attempt at making a firework, leaving behind four sons.

It's astonishing what my Mum remembered of her dad, given that he wouldn't have had the Devonian burr, but was something she had long associated with him.

What's also surprising is that, whilst only a couple of years younger than her Mum when she had her first - my brother Sean - (27) - but that like her Mum she would also have four boys and three girls within the same time period. And not get married until they were all born. And my dad, like her own, had their birthday on 14th February. My Dad's actual birthday was 10th but he was called Valentine and he was baptised on that day and we knew no different for years. My dad's side has its own irregularities. Not only those coincidences - but my youngest brothers, twins, were born on 23rd February, but my dad registered their birth as 24th because he wanted them - like him even though it wasn't really - to have a 4 in their dob. That's only remarkable when you realise that Mary and Thomas's seventh child - my aunt Georgina who was born a week after her Dad died - was also born on 23rd February - but it was registered as 24th.

Anyway - back to North Devon. I've reached back to late 1500s so far and have names such as Smale and Mithall, and Liverton, Gliddon and Burd and Lake. And towns and villages such as Great Torrington, Woolfardisworthy (Woolsery) and Dolton. And I have a story yet to be revealed as to why five of my forefathers - all Gliddons - all died on 24 July 1757 in Trier, Germany.

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