About a year ago, I resolved to write the life story of one of my relatives – George Jennings Collis – over a series of blog posts. As I said at the outset, “At this stage, I’m not sure how many blog posts his story will need; I can see the horizon, so to speak, but I’m not quite sure how I’ll get there. In any event, it isn’t a sprint and let’s hope we enjoy the journey along the way, week by week.”
Well, now the task has been completed it’s time to reflect back. I’ll start with a confession: I had hoped to keep to the rhythm of writing one instalment each week, but alas, I couldn’t match the chapter-a-week discipline of Charles Dickens’ part works. Life managed to get in the way, as they say, and also some of the research took rather long than I’d expected. However, I got there in the end – telling George’s story over ten blog posts between June 2015 and August 2016.
So, what did I learn in the process? Here I share five top tips for blogging a life story.
Continue reading Reflections: 5 Top Tips for Blogging A Life Story
This is the tenth (and final) instalment in my biography of George Jennings Collis, but – now that he has arrived at Evenwood, County Durham in 1908 – the story has come full circle. When I first began my research – in those early days before Google searches and online records – George had been something of a mystery. He’d simply disappeared from the records in his home town of Leicester. The one clue that finally nudged me forward was spotting mention in his father’s probate records to “George Jennings Collis of Evenwood Vicarage, Bishop Auckland in the County of Durham, Clerk in Holy Orders, the son of the said deceased…”. It was this reference to Evenwood which really put me on his trail.
Evenwood is a former coal mining village; the main pit, Randolph Colliery, was very much flourishing during George’s time there, employing over 1000 men at its peak in 1914. It was quite a move from his previous appointment in the market town of Morpeth, some 50 miles away. Ancestry helps set the scene with the 1911 census, providing a snapshot of domestic life at Evenwood Vicarage.
The life of a village vicar wasn’t so bad, it seems, as there are two domestic servants as well as a nursery governess for the three children. I decide to get in touch with the present incumbent, to see if I could find out more about George’s life and work in Evenwood; Rev Canon Jane Grieve refers me on to local historians, Roy and Val Proud and Kevin Richardson, who certainly come up trumps, providing me with a series of notes and photos. I’ll let Kevin take up the story with these extracts from his fascinating book ‘Evenwood Remembers’:
Continue reading George Jennings Collis: an Evenwood crusader (1908-1918)
Tuesday 5th May 1908
It’s a rainy evening in Morpeth, and yet a large number of St James’ parishioners turn out to the church hall to bid George Jennings Collis farewell. For the past three years he has served as senior curate in the parish and they wish to give him a good send off. A collection has raised sufficient funds to buy four silver candlesticks.
Cups of tea are served from a trestle table at the back of the hall, ready to warm those attending as they arrive. The rector, Rev J J Davies, brings the proceedings to a start – “Ladies and gentlemen, if you could please take a seat and settle down” – and the hubbub slowly quietens.
“Thank you for coming this evening, and I bid you a warm welcome. As you know, we’re here to make a presentation to our senior curate, George Collis and Mrs Collis, as they head off to Evenwood. Before I came here to Morpeth a couple of years ago, it’s fair to say that I had heard a great deal about Mr Collis; from what I heard, I gathered that he had won his way into the hearts of the people, and in their affections.” Someone pipes up “hear, hear” from the audience.
Rev Davies continues: “Such had been the experience of Mr Collis as an assistant curate that you, I am sure, wanted him to fill the place I fill at that moment. I’m sorry that you did not get your wish satisfied.” Laughter fills the hall. On the raised platform, George smiles.
Continue reading George Jennings Collis: Farewell to Morpeth (1908)
After three years service in Berwick Upon Tweed, George moves 40 miles or so southwards along the Northumbrian coastline, to settle as curate of Holy Trinity Church in Embleton village.
He’s following in the footsteps of many notable and literary incumbents in the parish. Most famous of all was the Rev Mandell Creighton, the vicar of Embleton in 1875-1884 who later became Bishop of London. It was whilst at Embleton that Creighton wrote his History of the Papacy, The Life of Sir George Grey, and collected material for the Northumberland County History, of which he was one of the founders.
Creighton’s daily routine provides an insight into the life of a late Victorian clergyman. Each weekday morning, he spends four hours reading in the vicarage library. In the afternoons, he visits – with his wife, when possible – the homes of their parishioners, listening to them, giving advice, offering prayers, conducting services for the housebound, and, on occasion, handing out home-made medical remedies.
Continue reading George Jennings Collis: coastal walks and the curate’s egg at Embleton (1897-1905)
Sunday 16th December 1894. It’s a chill winter’s day in Newcastle. George Jennings Collis is preparing for his ordination at the Cathedral. It’s a big move, in a grand building, yet George is certain this is the pathway determined for him; he’s rock steady in his Christian faith.
The Bishop of Newcastle – Ernest Wilberforce – officiates at the proceedings. Having taken holy orders, George is ready to start his new life as a curate in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland. Prayers are said to bless him in his work. George’s fiancé Florence Ingamells smiles over to him from the front pew. The choir sings heartily as the procession parades out of the Cathedral.
Being a curate is not George’s first job after graduating from Clare College; two newspaper snippets from the Stamford Mercury reveal that he’d spent some time – a couple of years – as a master at Boston Grammar School. A cutting from November 1894 records his move from the school:
Continue reading George Jennings Collis: from Boston to Berwick-upon-Tweed (1894-97)
We last saw George Jennings Collis in the summer of 1889, being cheered by his fellow pupils at Wyggeston School prize day for gaining a place to study at Cambridge. And so it is, on a Saturday in autumn of that year, that he goes up to Clare College at the start of Michaelmas term. Having taken a train from Leicester, he arrives at Clare with his trunk of books, clothes and other belongings. He stands in Trinity Hall Lane, with the chapel towering above to the right. A few steps on and he’s through the gatehouse into the central quad, the Old Court.
Established in 1326, Clare is the second oldest college in Cambridge. It’s a prestigious place for George to have earned a scholarship. A few students stride purposefully through the courtyard – freshmen like him, settling into their new life – but otherwise it’s a hushed enclave, a home of learning for the bookish, bright and privileged.
Continue reading George Jennings Collis: going up to Cambridge (1889-92)
After seven years at boarding school in Ardingly, George Jennings Collis is back in Leicester. It’s Thursday morning, 25th July 1889 and he approaches the stage at Wyggeston Boys’ School. It’s school prize day and he – along with Atkins [the son of the science master], Berridge and Forth – is being cheered by his fellow Wyggeston pupils for being one of “four of our number going to the Universities this year”. In October, he’ll be going up to Clare College, Cambridge.
As headmaster the Rev James Went points out, “Though Collis has not been here a long time, he has done excellent service, more especially in connection with the cricket team, and has been an efficient captain during the year. We shall be sorry to lose his services in the cricket field, but the University of Cambridge shall have the benefit of them, and we shall all feel that Collis has too much sense to go to Cambridge and devote all his time to cricket.”
Continue reading George Jennings Collis: a summer of cricket with Wyggeston Boys (1889)
Fast forward a few years and it’s time for the 1881 census. The Collis family has moved from the North Bridge Inn to the Hinckley Road Brewery. It’s a fine-looking place, standing at the junction of Hinckley Road and Great Holme Street, a spectacle for those approaching town along the Narborough Road.
Almost everyone is there on the night of 3rd April 1881: father John George Collis, mother Emmeline and children Cary (16), Emmeline (12), Walter (5) and Amy (2). But George Jennings Collis is missing; he’s not tucked up in bed at home like his siblings or staying with relatives elsewhere in Leicester. He’s 150 miles away, trying to sleep in a dormitory at St Saviour’s School near Ardingly, Sussex.
Unique amongst his siblings and cousins, George appears to be the only Collis sent away to school. Maybe his parents had particular aspirations for him as the eldest son? His mother Emmeline had been a pupil teacher for several years before she married, so perhaps she’d spotted signs of early promise in his academic studies? There were many other independent schools closer to hand, so why choose St Saviour’s so far away?
Continue reading George Jennings Collis: servitors and soxing at Ardingly (1881)
“Leicester had a child mortality rate which was twice the national average and on a par with London, Manchester and Liverpool”, explains Ned Hewitt in his excellent book ‘The Slums of Leicester’. Each summer, an annual epidemic of diarrhoea killed many of the elderly and very young. “By 1871 this yearly scourge was killing one in four Leicester children before their first birthday.”
Statistics can often feel rather dry; put them in the context of a particular family, however, and they become more meaningful. George Jennings Collis was one of ten children, four of whom died in infancy. It’s a reality that’s unimaginable by today’s standards, but in 1870s Leicester it was the norm.
Ned Hewitt continues, “The cause of this annual [diarrhoea] epidemic was hotly debated. Summer heat, gas from the sewers and lack of ‘mothercraft’ on the part of women working in factories were all blamed. However, the real reason was the town’s inadequate sewers and the resultant insanitary conditions.”
To be exactly sure of the cause of the Collis boys’ deaths would require ordering four death certificates – an expensive business – and so at this stage I’m surmising that the lack of clean water and poor sanitation were contributory factors, if not directly the cause of their death; the Collis family home at the North Bridge Inn was sandwiched between the River Soar and the Leicester Canal, in the thick of it. What is clear is how precarious life was when George Jennings Collis was an infant in the 1870s. He was lucky to survive, with four brothers dying either side of him.
Continue reading George Jennings Collis: foul floods and four lost brothers (1870s)
We’ve all done it; in the excitement of pursuing an ancestor we gallop through the census returns, from one decade to the next, without giving them more than a cursory look. Yet census returns can tell us so much – they represent a dovetailing of person, time and place. Use them along with old maps, trade directories and local history resources and you can soon develop a clearer sense of life on your ancestors’ streets.
It’s late March 1871 and the Census enumerator pays a visit to the North Bridge Inn. He’s dropping off a form for the householder to complete; as the Leicester Chronicle describes it, “The nation is about the ‘count noses'”.
The schedule requires John George Collis to write down details of all of the people staying under his roof on the night of Sunday 2nd April, including any visitors and servants. “Each enumerator will have about 200 houses on his list,” explains the newspaper report, “and he will be required to fill up the schedule himself in case there is no member of a family able to write. The census papers will all be collected on Monday, April 3, their contents copied into books, and the results calculated, upon which the Registrar-General will compile his aggregate return.” It’s a colossal undertaking, spanning the entire country.
Continue reading George Jennings Collis: counting noses and the whiff of bleach (1871)