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Reading the family papers: it is easy to be reduced to tears

Tom Winnifrith
Wednesday 24 February 2021

Among those things I collected from the house of my late father in Shipston yesterday were some ancient photo albums and several boxes of family papers and documents. I have started reading but these things almost make me tearful.  

The photo albums are from the Cochrane’s of Edenmoor and the Tomlinson’s, another Irish family who we married into. They date back as far as the 1850s and while some folks are named, others one must just hazard a guess at.  But they are a view back to life in Donegal and Dublin for the well off Anglo Irish of that era.

I also now have a photo of four daughters of Sir Courtenay Ilbert as little girls. One of them would have been my paternal grandmother’s mother. There are also two editions of Sir Courtenay’s press cuttings, sadly from a rather dull period in the 1900s not the era of the Ilbert Bill. That would be more interesting given this family’s connections with India.

The papers are in no great order and so what comes out is very much at random. There is a lot of work done by my grandfather, Sir John Winnifrith, on his family tree on his father’s side in Kent going back to the 1600s. His rather snobbish wife (daughter of a Cochrane married to an Ilbert) was not so interested in generations of blacksmiths and shoemakers so we never really discussed this with her and grandpa. But it is fascinating stuff. Occasionally you meet another Winnifrith who is not a close family member but as you see how our ancestors bred so enthusiastically over many generations you can see where the links may be.

I also found some touching photos of my grandparents in Israel in the 1960s on a trip which included the river Jordan where Grandpa collected some water which I was baptised in.  You may say: Fat lot of good that did me.

Grandpa wrote up a short life of his father, the Reverend Bertram, who died when Sir John was just 16. It ends touchingly with a note of how good a man Bertram was, a devoted father, brother and vicar and how Grandpa’s only regret was that he may have disappointed him by drinking too much and by becoming a socialist. 

But what almost reduced me to tears was the diary written by a “M Cochrane” in, I suspect, the early 1920s describing a family trip back to Edenmoor, the Cochrane family home in Donegal. Within a few years her two brothers who were on that trip, David (1931) and then Francis (1941) would be dead. But what is more heartbreaking as you read the childish delight and happiness is that M, “Tilly”, was also dead, killing herself in 1933. It is one of those things you do not wish to think about too much and I had to put the exercise book away after my first skim read.

There is much work done by my grandfather, Sir John Winnifrith, trying to establish the parentage of his mother. For various reasons the DNA test taken by a living Wingfield Digby was botched and so we have no proof that his mother was the illegitimate daughter of Edith Wingfield Digby of Coleshill and Sherborne Castle. I am hoping to rope in a cousin who lives near Sherborne to try and find another Wingfield Digby to nail this once and for all. 

What the papers do include is a letter from Simon Wingfield Digby, the custodian of the castle in the 1960s stating that, in his view, Edith – his Great Aunt – was indeed Sir John’s Grandmother.  Included in the Wingfield Digby papers are some notes by my father urging me to keep on digging and to look after these papers. That I will do, dad.

What with the prisoner Uncle Alfred it strikes me that the Winnifriths, Ilberts, Cochranes and Edith Wingfield Digby from 1805 – 1941 might be the subject of a book one day. All I need is one DNA test, someone with better eyesight than me to decipher numerous nearly illegible handwritten letters and some time away from the day job.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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