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The Scrivener: Echoes Of The Ancestors

From his father's side Brian Barratt inherited an enthusiasm for books, and from his mother he inherited Roma (gypsy) blood.

In Brian this intoxicating mix has produced a writer with an insatiable curiosity about people and what makes them tick, and a gift for words which makes his readers feel lucky to have his thoughts as their companions.

For more of Brian’s brilliant columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit his Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

In 1744 John Barrett [sic] was admitted as bibliopola, a bookseller, at Oxford University. His descendant Thomas Barratt, bibliopegus, a bookbinder, was admitted in 1798.
Thomas's son William was a bookseller in London. He died in 1842 at the age of only 26 along with two infant daughters. This was the period when cholera swept through London and burial grounds were literally overflowing. His son, my grandfather, survived. He was a book collector and serious reader.

Thus on my father's side I have 'books in my blood'. My mother's forebears, however, were farmers and agricultural labourers. Through her Armstrong line I can also claim to have Roma (Gypsy) blood. It took years of detailed research to ratify this belief.

Photographs of my mother in the early 1920s show her as a strikingly beautiful girl with high cheekbones and long, straight, black hair. One of my uncles aroused my boyhood curiosity — I wondered about his swarthy complexion and his 'foreign' features, and assumed that we must have Indian blood. Later, I heard about the family legend.

It was said that one of my mother's ancestors was a Gypsy, perhaps a groom. He worked for a gentleman who was a 'lord of the manor' in a nearby village. And he ran off with one of the gentleman's daughters. Horrors!

Tales of forbidden romance and elopement with a Gypsy are not uncommon. With only a few clues, from a brother, a sister, and a second cousin, I could not confirm that our legend was based on fact. Had my mother still been alive when I really started asking questions, she would have told me off or at least changed the subject. I recall how, with a worried look, she used to lock our tall back gate whenever Gypsies were in the neighbourhood in the 1940s.

When I celebrated my 65th birthday by hooking up to the Internet, the real search could commence. It led back to my great-great-grandfather Thomas Armstrong. According to the records on genealogical websites, he married a Charlotte Diner in 1827.

There were no families named Diner in the Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire area. The name was pretty well confined to the south of England. Fortunately, a clue appeared in the name of one of the witnesses to the wedding, Ralph Fretwell.
In 1820, Ralph Fretwell married Elizabeth Ordoyno at St Mary Magdalene's, a church of cathedral-like proportions in Newark on Trent. In another line of research, I had discovered that there are Ordoynos in our ancestry. The name is very unusual but, once I started digging, Ordoynos appeared all over the place. I found many distant cousins in the Ordoyno line, including one who lives just a couple of suburbs away from me here in Melbourne.

Elizabeth Ordoyno was a daughter of botanist Thomas Ordoyno, author of 'Flora Nottinghamiensis' (1807), the seminal work on the flora of Nottinghamshire. He was a prominent figure in the community, living in a mansion at the village of Coddington and owning several properties in Newark. Elizabeth's wedding, at least, was at the magnificent parish church of Newark.

Charlotte Diner's wedding was in the small parish church of the village of Hawton. Websites list the witnesses as Ralph Fretwell, Charlotte Armstrong and Charles Vaile. None of my records showed a Charlotte Armstrong who was of an age appropriate to be a witness. Official registration of births, marriages and deaths did not commence in England until 1837 so I was delighted when Nottinghamshire Family History Society was able to send me a copy of an 1827 entry in the parish records of Hawton.

Whoever first transcribed the details for the Internet misread the names of the witnesses. There were only two: Ralph Fretwell and Charles Vaile. It can be seen from the different styles of handwriting and the positions of the names that 'Armstrong' was written by the church clerk as part of 'The mark of Armstrong', where Thomas has shakily inscribed his 'X'. Charlotte did not sign. The clerk wrote 'Charlotte' without a surname. Charles Vaile witnessed another wedding on the same day — he was probably a churchwarden or clerk, not a relation.

The Ordoynos lived at the village of Coddington, east of Newark. Hawton is a similar distance to the west of Newark. The distances would have been in effect greater in the era of horse-drawn carriages, horse-riding and walking, far enough to retreat in a clandestine elopement. Charles Fretwell's presence at the marriage proves an Ordoyno connection.

Thomas Armstrong, a labourer, would have had a rural, perhaps clipped Romani, accent. Charlotte, who didn't even sign the entry, might well have whispered her surname. As Ordoyno is such an unusual name, not found in that area, the humble clerk could well have misheard it and written 'Diner'.
There is no absolute proof, but these and other clues point to Thomas Armstrong being the Gypsy in the family tree. I started writing books when I was about 12, just because I wanted to. In my early teens, interested in fortune telling, I wrote a book about palmistry, just because I wanted to. Echoes of the ancestors on both sides reverberate through the centuries.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008


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