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The family papers – a night of revelation and shocks

Tom Winnifrith
Saturday 27 February 2021

The Mrs and the children are breaking lockdown rules with her parents and so left to my own devices I stayed up into the small hours combing the family papers picked up from my late father’s house last week. It was a night of shocks and revelation and having discussed the matter with my father’s sister L, I wonder what I should reveal. Perhaps all.

I start with a reminder of who we discuss. My grandfather was Sir John Winnifrith, christened Alfred John Digby and born in 1908. His father Bertram was a Kent Vicar, son of a vicar, Alfred, and brother of two other vicars, Douglas, a hero of the first war, and Alfred, who was defrocked and sent to prison for perjury. Grandpa’s mother Edith Maude is a woman of mystery of whom more later. My grandpa had a number of siblings of whom the most interesting was Joan who became the actress Anna Lee, a singing nun in the Sound of Music. She could not sing that well and was not cut out to be a nun as you will see.

My grandmother, Lesbia Cochrane, was the daughter of Sir Arthur Cochrane, a herald, and Margaret Ilbert, daughter of Sir Courtenay, of Ilbert bill fame. The Cochrane’s were originally from Co Donegal and indeed with one gap retained ownership of Edenmore, the family home until the 1950s. However, Sir Arthur was brought up at Etwall in Derbyshire where his father was also a vicar and in charge of the alms house

Where to start on the shocks. Well as an aside it seems that I voted against my cousin-in-law at the last election. Aunt L and I agree that this part of the family is so shameful that it is better not discussed for now.

Before I leave the Cochranes, my grandmother wrote an account of her life up until the late 1920s. I can see why it stopped there as the 30s saw her brother David die in Greece falling down a mountain and her sister Tilly kill herself the year after. At least she got married in 1935 although it seems that her father and my grandpa’s mother were by then almost not on speaking terms. The reasons were partly that Edith Maude wanted Grandpa to marry another, my grandmother’s cousin Joan Young, and partly that Sir Arthur was digging into her bogus back history which she resented greatly.

One little item from Granny’s memoir concerns one of Sir Arthur’s thirteen siblings, a girl born horribly deformed and blind. Maybe that is a throwback to all that inbreeding in Donegal among the Protestant squirearchy, of which there was a great deal. Maybe it is just one of those things. But this poor girl was kept locked up in a separate part of the house for her entire life which ended shortly after the first war by when she would have been in her fifties. I guess it is not just the Bowes Lyons who have such secrets. These things happened.

The richest of Sir Arthur’s siblings was Alfred Cochrane. Another Alfred. Like both of the great writers of the twentieth century, he attended Hertford College Oxford. He wrote poetry and I have a book of his, not utterly inspiring, verse and by the time my father knew him he was an incredibly fat man. He is reputed to have clambered onto one of those scales you used to find at railway stations in later life only for it to say “one at a time please”. This is, I suspect, a family myth. But in his youth he was a sportsman playing for Oxford University, the Gentlemen and for Derbyshire. At about 12.30 last night I found a card with the photos of the Oxford XI from 1885 with him on it. He once bowled out WG Grace.

Granny’s memoirs cover her path from Tory privilege to the socialist cause. She was, at one point, a researcher for the Fabians and discussions with Gaitskell and others crop up. Her horror at the plight of the miners in the 1920s and at the poverty others suffered is all too apparent.  Her father’s horror in her beliefs is also clear.

More on the Cochranes and also the relationship with the Young’s which came full circle when my father married my stepmother, his second cousin Helen Young (Joan’s niece), at another time.  The father of Joan (Sir George) played an interesting, and rather shameful, role in the events after the death of Uncle David and that I shall document at some point.

My grandfather spent some time on the Winnifrith family tree and took it back to the 1600s. I was last night able to reach out to a young lady, Emma Winnifrith, who contacted me many years ago to ask if we are related. I now know that we are, distantly, and exactly how.  My grandmother was, for all her socialism, a thorough snob and was not terribly interested in generations of shoemakers, farm labourers and blacksmiths.

It was my grandfather’s grandfather Alfred who was the first to clamber out of the working classes. He obtained an Oxford degree and became an utterly respectable clergyman, a high Church, staunch Tory and campaigner against the evils of drink. He was a good man and would not have been happy to discover that his grandson had established that he – like others in the family – was born the wrong side of the sheets, that is to say three months before his parents married. Again, there will be more on him at another point.

But my grandfather’s obsession was his mother’s heritage. There are just stacks of papers relating to this and his work is methodical and truly impressive. I regret bitterly that I never discussed this with him as he was clearly gripped by this mystery. His mother lied about her past and, as Grandpa dug more, in her final years she burned all her papers and photos. Worse still one album of photos which escaped to America with Anna Lee was also destroyed in a house fire in Texas.

What we do know is that Edith Maude was brought up by a Colonel Macfarlane and his wife Ellen (nee Blake) in Bath and they were referred to as her parents for some time. But it is clear that they were not. For starters there is the matter of inheritance. The Colonel, who appears to have been a total jack the lad, died in 1916 leaving all to his wife who died in 1939. At this point, everything, a couple of thousand pounds mainly the house, went to EM. The taxman inquired as to whether she was related to her parents by blood as this affected the tax rate. EM wriggled and squirmed.

Perhaps more convincingly there is evidence gathered by grandpa showing that in the 1881 census Edith Maude was NOT living with Macfarlane or with Ellen Blake (aunt Nellie as she was known). At this point she would have been six. Her birth certificate, giving the name Blaker, was, by the way, a clear forgery with the date of birth being the only constant in all the years of deceit. The parents on that certificate just did not exist. 

So where did EM live? She stated at various times that as a girl she lived at Sherborne castle home of the Wingfield Digbys. Grandpa corresponded at great length with Simon Wingfield Digby, the MP for West Dorset who lived at Sherborne and who was also a friend of Anna Lee who visited the castle several times in the 1930s. Simon agreed in letters, I now have, that Grandpa’s grandmother was Edith Wingfield Digby (1848-1935), his aunt.

Edith Wingfield Digby grew up at the other WD family home in Coleshill but in 1874, her father resigned as rector of Coleshill and moved, quite out of the blue, to Bournemouth taking Edith with him. Was this to hide an embarrassment?  Edith never married herself but spent her later years and money establishing homes in Dorset for “fallen women”. She clearly had an interest in the subject. So is there other evidence?

There is the question of money.  The Macfarlane’s did not have that much yet twice Ellen wrote out very big cheques to assist her “daughter.” The first was to buy a school in Hythe shortly after Edith Maude married Bertram in 1897. The second, in 1906, was to buy the living of the parish of Ightam in Kent.  The living was not owned by Edith Maude but by her “mother”. This cost £2350 and meant that when the ageing vicar died a year later, Bertram got the job, the house and the income that went with it. Quite simply Ellen Blake did not have access to that sort of money. It must have come from somewhere else and someone with quite a bit to spare.

On the subject of money, in 1933 or 1934 Edith Maude went to Bournemouth. She came back with a suitcase stuffed with photos, letters (since burned) and £100 notes. This is something Anna Lee, but also her sisters Margaret and Ruth, remembered clearly. Less than a year later Edith WD died.

Anna Lee and her sisters vaguely remembered some of the photos including one that Edith Maude kept by her bedside. One photo showed a man Anna Lee subsequently recognised when in Dorset as being Edith’s father holding a baby. This could, of course, have been any old baby but why would Edith Maude have the photo if that was the case?

Then we come to names. That Edith Maude is called Edith is one coincidence.  But what of my grandfather? His Christening mug is engraved AJW but he was actually christened Alfred John Digby Winnifrith. There are no Digby’s at all in Winnifrith family history though plenty of John’s and Alfred’s. Grandpa recalls in his papers that he asked his mother about this and she replied that it was just an afterthought, a late decision.

Anna Lee visited Sherborne with her friend Simon who, she noted, had fingernails just like hers. She claims that Simon’s father showed her a portrait of an old man (Edith’s father) saying that is the “grandfather you and Simon have in common.”  Or was it the great grandfather the Rev John Digby Wingfield Digby. Anna Lee was unsure. She also recalls quizzing an aged WD aunt about Edith asking her if she had a hidden love life or words to that effect and was told “that’s a secret we are not meant to talk about.” When at Sherborne, Anna Lee did see one or two old photos which were the same as ones Edith Maude had kept.

I am not sure that I have a case that is watertight. There are other items to relay when I have gone through the papers many more times but nothing can be proven. For that I need a member of the Wingfield Digby family to do a DNA test to solve this once and for all. But I know that my grandfather, like Simon WD, and like Anna Lee was entirely convinced that Edith WD did get pregnant, fled to Bournemouth to have the baby and probably got a Sherborne servant to look after it while staying close. In the end though it got too much and Edith Maude was fobbed off on the Macfarlane’s in return, one suspects, for cash. But Edith WD did not forget her daughter and, I believe, provided massive financial support three times (1897, 1907 and just before her death).

One final revelation which might shock you is about Anna Lee. My grandfather was very fond of his sister but she was very different from him, “always getting engaged” and then marrying on a serial basis.  In a letter late in her life, Anna Lee confessed to her brother that she has forgotten the Christian name of his handsome brother-in-law who was killed in the war but just wanted reminding as, back in 1935, when herself married for the first time, she had “an ardent and surreptitious affair” with him.

Well well, that was uncle Francis whose own marriage in 1938 was a bit of a mystery but that too can wait for another day. Notwithstanding this, Anna Lee shines out as a loving sister and quite a scholar in her own way.  

If there is a Wingfield Digby reading this who is prepared to do a DNA test please feel free to get in touch. My grandfather was obsessed by this. So too in his later years was my father. Interspersed in the sheets of Grandpa’s notes is the odd letter from Dad to the Bronte Society or a note on the Vlachs which must have just fallen into the pile. Now it is my turn not to give up.

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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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