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As Time Goes By: Down To The Roots

Here's a welcome to a new contributor to the pages of Open Writing. Eileen Perrin has been digging down into her family roots - roots which reach down to 1759. Episode by episode, in fortnightly installments, she will tell us what she finds there.

In her first offering Eileen recalls the surprising answer given when a girl was asked why she and her sisters had clean and shiny hair.

In Islington in the year 1900 three sisters stood in front of the giggling class. The goffered frills on their freshly starched white pinafores stood up round their shoulders as they looked up at their teacher, hands demurely clasped together in front of them.

"Now turn around girls and show the class."

Their long fair hair hung down to their waists. Flo's button boots were grubby, but Kit and Alice took more pride and even their black woolllen stocking-heels were neatly darned, should they have to show them.

"There, you see children, how nice and shiny their hair looks, because it's clean.'' Turning to the nearest sister she asked what their mother used to wash their hair in.

"She washes it in the copper water, Miss."

This amusing story of sisters born over a hundred years ago has passed down the generations to my grandchildren. We are all fair in our family, and I look like my mother and grandmother.

Now why, when we look at newborn babies do we seek a resemblance to the parent? Being told as a small child that I looked just like my mother I grew up to resent it. I wanted to be me. Then came the wondering 'who is me?' and 'why am I here?'

There was an experiment we did at school with a runner bean seed, pushing it down the side of a jam jar between the glass and a blotting paper lining, then we added water and watched the bean germinate and grow. First a tap root went down and then the shoot climbed up into the air above the jar rim. That was illuminating and I realised that to discover what makes us what we are, first we need to go down to our roots.

Later on in 1980, I began an enthralling search into my family history. In no time at all I was back a hundred and forty years to my great-grandfather who had been discharged from the Army as a Chelsea Out-Pensioner in Norwich. He had served in the Punjab for 16 years with the Light Dragoons.

Sixteen years later I was back another 79 years to Suffolk where my great-great-great-grand-parents married in 1759. This was before photography so I could not know if I might resemble my ancestors.

Bits and pieces fell into place. Old parish registers and census returns revealed facts and there were half-remembered tales of an uncle going to Australia, of shoe makers in Norwich, concert parties raising money for charity, carpenters, gardeners, my Father's long walking holidays.

As a child Dad took me to the circus every year; he was especially keen on the Liberty horses. Now I found a connection with the Chipperfield Circus. I have an exercise book he started in 1914 in which he copied favourite poems. It began to make some sense. Knowing some things from my family background I realised some traits had come through.

Although I do look like my mother and have traits inherited from her, all my research has been on my father's side and now I have a little more insight into how the past has affected my character.


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