Daniel George Thorn. Author’s photograph.
One day, I don’t know why I was struck by a moment of curiosity, I asked my father about my great-grandfather. I had probably just realised that I had one, once. Who had been my grandfather’s father? In fact, where did my grandfather come from? Where therefore did I come from? Does it matter? Probably not, but it can give a person a sense of history and belonging. In the slowly smoldering flame igniting curiosity, a time came when he and his life and family became real.
Coming out of childhood, into adolescence and on to more meaningful aspects of life, you may bring with you odd names and stories, people who are just benign ghosts. Aunt Alice, Aunt May, Aunt Bertha, Uncle Jack, Uncle Jimmer. Who were they and what were their lives? Questions and discussions about these people would occur at odd times and lead to keen enquiries. The facts scarce and speculative would fade in and out not quite disappearing and be brought out into conversation again sometimes. In fact, I knew much more about my mother’s side of the family. Family history was much more cherished in their memory. I have just begun to realise that and wonder why.
So, in about 1985, maybe a little while after Jess, our father’s father died we coaxed Dad into driving up to see what we could find of the Thorns of Buckland Common. We parked by the Green. Dad told us how he had taken Jess there a short while before his death and he met one or two people who he had known and enjoyed some conversation. It was a tender thought.
I seem to remember that Dad searched out one of these people who took us along Parrotts Lane where there was, and still is a row of small houses and a tiny Baptist Church. We spoke to the owner who took us round the side of the Church and showed us a very small graveyard and there was the grave of my great-grandfather Daniel, who died in 1934, his wife Mary and one of their daughters. I asked Dad what Daniel had been like but all I can recall was that he told me that the family would go up to see him and there he would be lying in bed, with a long white beard and looking like Methuselah and everyone was in awe of him. Very patriarchal by the sound of it.
So there it was, three generations ago, where I had come from. I liked it. Apparently, my great-grandfather was Daniel George Thorn, a turner of chair legs, a ‘bodger’ from Buckland Common. Such a life might be thought of in increasingly romantic terms as our society has moved away from the land into factories and offices. But it probably was not like that if you actually were a bodger in that time and age. Since I was child the recurring theme of my life has been nature and wildlife and its conservation. So after my career as a nurse, I found my way out into the woods and now I manage a hazel coppice a few miles away towards Chesham. I sometimes wonder if Daniel would be pleased or whether he would look mockingly at me and say, ‘You might think it is ‘romantic’ my boy, but not if you made your living six days a week all year round kicking a pole lathe’. Oh, how I wish I knew how he spoke. In every census I search, Daniel is described as a turner in wood making chair legs.
Daniel at work – date and location unknown. Author’s photograph.
At present I have joined a research project called Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes. As the title suggests, one aim of this project is to research the lives of woodlanders of the area. My great-grandfather may be a good individual focus for such researches. Why? Well there is someone who is interested in him, me, and also, by recent report, my long-lost cousin Stephen and his daughter Emma, still unmet. Also, Daniel lived a long life in the area.
What information may be found with which to describe a life? What are the sources, the anecdotal and the documentary? Both seem sieves of information but the first is worn to shreds and shreds of memories are all it will retain, the small, remembered details and fortunate anecdotes passed on. The big stuff, the documentary – the documents where they are found are more substantial. They retain structured information, a useful matrix in which to relate a life story. So far, apart from in the census, my great-grandfather Daniel has not made any appearance in the life of the area.
Of what is a life made? Parents, extended family, birth, siblings, kith, education, pastimes, sport, spiritual life, romantic life, marriage, children, employment. Did he ever own a horse on which to travel? Also, how was his health and general wellbeing and in particular his mental capacity? Being a bit of a romantic, I’d like to know when did he first kiss Mary? Were they childhood sweethearts? After all they grew up together in the same small community and were married for 43 years and raised eight children. Did he play cricket? Who was his best friend? Did he ever see the sea or maybe he never visited London? A question that has been in my mind is “Who was his dentist?!” I heard of an eminent person when asked the question “What age would you like to have lived in?” wisely answering “Not before the development of modern dentistry.” Quite so.
Sensibly it is accepted that some things may never be known, but in my next article I will write about the things I have been able to find out about Daniel and the local environment and events that could have influenced his life. Daniel’s history was not lived alone, as he had many relatives living locally, so he had an extended family and probably many influences, as I had, and all of them good I am glad to say. Also, from the census I counted that 114 people lived in the Cholesbury parish in the 1850s when Daniel lived there. What characters might he have known? And how might his life have been affected by the infamous bankruptcy of Cholesbury village in the early 19th century?
I will return to these questions and more in the next part of Daniel’s story, to follow.