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Kaye McGann
Features Writer
10:50 AM 6th June 2021
fiction

The Watson Connection

Sheep farming - Image by Adina Voicu from Pixabay
Sheep farming - Image by Adina Voicu from Pixabay
In my ‘Grandad and Friends’ series, I’ve written something about the Watson family already, so my readers will know that Granddad’s mother-in-law had been born Sarah Watson. Other than Sarah’s dramatic elopement and marriage, there are many other tales of the Watson connection, taking us right up to the present day.

The family had been Baptists from time immemorial. Each church was, and is, completely autonomous and self-supporting, with all its officials, including the Minister, elected by the members – both men and women, since the denomination’s foundation in 1612. Unfortunately, for Baptists, other Non-Conformists, and Catholics, until 1828 the Act of Uniformity meant that all persons had, by law, to attend a Church of England service, and use the Book of Common Prayer. Everyone, too, had to pay a tithe of ten per cent of their income to the church, even after the Act was rescinded, until 1836.

This caused a lot of ill-feeling and resentment, which persisted long after the practice ended. It led to a lot of people deciding to move to another country, where they would have freedom of worship. The Watsons were no exception.

In 1861, James Watson, Sarah’s uncle, together with his wife Grace Fielden, who was the daughter of Todmorden M.P. John Fielden (known as ‘Honest John’, to distinguish him from other M.P.s, or at least how they were perceived – plus ca change….), set out on the long sea voyage round the Cape of Good Hope to New Zealand. The journey took six months. They had one child when they set off, and two by the time they arrived. They were ill-prepared for what they found. Both James and Grace had grown up with servants, and had no notion of the heavy work which would be required. They took a piano, but no axe.

The family at home had to wait over a year before they heard of their safe arrival, and of what had happened once they got there. Firstly, they had to leave their piano on the beach. (A film has been made about this, which is entirely fictitious, apart from the abandoned piano.) James had to buy an axe and other tools from a trader. He wrote home (and my cousin Gillian Watson has the letter), ‘Imagine taking your axe, and going into Towneley Woods, and cutting down trees to make a house, a church, and a school.’ They called their new church ‘The Church of Christ’, signifying it had no other head but Christ – no Bishop, no authority other than the members together, in the Spirit.

They acquired land to do all this, with more besides, and established a sheep-station. A community grew up, which took its name from the initials of the early settlers. It was called Wellsford, and the W is for Watson – the first letter for the first settler family.

James and Grace, arriving with two children, went on to have seventeen (or it may have been eighteen; I’m not sure.) The younger children were of an age with Sarah’s children, and Betsy, my Grandma, became the penfriend of James and Grace’s daughter Rhoda, on the far side of the world. It was a friendship which was to last all their lives, and which still has its effects today.

Letters took six months, so rather than wait until one was received, each girl wrote at least one letter a month.

I think I mentioned in another tale that there was T.B. in the family. Of my Great Grandma Sarah’s two living brothers, the younger, John, developed it when he was a young married man with a daughter, Ruth. It was decided he should go out to his Uncle James in New Zealand, in the hope that the clear unpolluted air there would be beneficial, and hold up the progression of the disease. His wife and child remained at home.

He arrived safely, and his health improved. But then he fell in love, absolutely, distractedly. What was he to do? Remain in New Zealand, and forget his wife and child? Or renounce the one he loved?

He had grown up with a strong Christian faith, and could see only one honourable course of action. He returned to England, knowing it would be his death warrant. It did not take long for his health to deteriorate, and he died. It was reported that as he lay dying, he suddenly sat up, his face shone from within, and he exclaimed, “Safe in the arms of Jesus!”, and fell back, dead. This may have happened.

Worse was to follow. His daughter Ruth was the same age as my Grandma Betsy, and her best friend. They sat next to each other at school, on a long bench. They were sitting reading quietly, when Ruth suddenly pitched backward onto the floor. She was dead. No cause was found, but I have wondered since if it was epilepsy, which is also in the family.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of the New Zealand Watsons prospered, whilst those of the Whitworth Watsons declined.

We move on a few years. Rhoda, Grandma’s pen-friend in New Zealand, now a young woman, met an Irishman, Thomas O’Shea, who was, I believe, over there learning about some of the farming techniques. It was a love-match, and despite Rhoda remaining a staunch Protestant, and Thomas a Roman Catholic, they married, and Rhoda went with Thomas to start her new life at Anner House, near Clonmel, in Southern Tipperary. One of her first actions there was to invite her cousin Betsy to visit. The two young women’s friendship was cemented.

Rhoda and Thomas O’Shea had three children, Maunsell (known as Monty), Lucy, and Victor. Anner House, their home, was a big manor-house-cum-farm on the banks of the River Anner. Betsy found it very different from her small terraced house in Rochdale, though not so different from her Watson grandparents’ house at Facit. By the time of the First World War, in 1914, Betsy and John had two daughters, Hilda Irene, known as Renee, and my mother Vera. Visits to Ireland came to a halt.

The War’s end saw a global pandemic, known now as Spanish ‘Flu. It was well after this that visits between to two branches of the family resumed. Grandma and Grandad’s house was too small to accommodate Rhoda and her family, so the traffic was one-way.

My mother, in particular, fell in love with Ireland. As soon as she was deemed old enough, in her late teens, she would travel there independently, catching a train to Manchester, changing stations, and then continuing to Holyhead. From there, she took a night crossing to Dun Laoghaire, followed by a train into Dublin. Next was another train to Thurles, followed by a last train to Fethard, where she would be met, either by car, or by pony and trap, which took her the last seven miles or so to the village of Cloneen, and thence to Anner House.

She was a favourite with ‘Aunt’ Rhoda (as she was known), and had her own room, always known as ‘Vera’s Room’, overlooking the orchard. I have books she had there, inscribed ‘Vera Lord, Anner House’. When Rhoda’s daughter Lucy married, my mother was her chief bridesmaid, which had meant getting permission from the Bishop, as it was a Catholic ceremony, and my mother was a Protestant. (Aunt Rhoda never changed her religious allegiance, and always attended the Protestant Church of Ireland in Fethard).

My mother loved Anner House, and the life she had there. Her photographs are of picnics up on Slievenamon, of lunches for a dozen or so, sitting at long tables on the terrace at the front of Anner House, hidden from view down the long drive. What a contrast it must have been from the belching mill chimneys and thick air of industrial Lancashire! She had her chance to live there forever, when one of Dr. Coffey’s sons proposed. She really was tempted.

Religion was the problem. At that time, Ireland was a Catholic stronghold, and Church and State were linked. Contraception was both unavailable and illegal, and my mother never wanted children. (If you’re wondering about me, it was always impressed upon me that I was ‘an error’.) She turned him down.

Back home in Rochdale, she met the man who would become her husband, John Kay Booth McGann, (always known as Jack), some of whose ancestors were Irish, from Roscommon. Jack and Vera married in 1940, after the War had broken out, and Jack had enlisted in the Royal Navy. It was 1947 before my patents, with four-year-old me in tow, went to Ireland again.

Meanwhile, throughout the War, the New Zealand Watsons, hearing of food shortages in England, sent food parcels to my Grandma and Grandad, and this continued as long as rationing was in place. I remember in 1947 the excitement of a huge fruit cake arriving, eating some, and being very sick indeed. We were not used to rich food. We existed on basic rations – though we were better off than most, as Grandad kept hens, so we always had fresh eggs. Most people had to make do with dried.

Two other memorable – to me at any rate – things happened in 1947. A cousin, David Watson, came over from New Zealand to visit, and demonstrated the Haka. That is all I remember of him. More memorable is going to Ireland for the first time. I have vivid recollections of staying overnight at the George Hotel on O’Connell Street in Dublin, where I saw a ballroom for the first time, and of seeing Nelson’s Column at the bottom of the street (it is there no longer); of going into a shop, and being able to buy as much chocolate as we wished (rationed at home); and of there being horse-drawn Hansom cabs instead of taxis, I think because of a strike, or petrol shortage, but don’t know for sure.

We stayed for the first two weeks with my mother’s friend and cousin, Lucy, now married to Michael Kane, at their home at Clarecastle. It was a farmhouse, with a ruined castle standing in the grounds, and I played round the stones with Lucy and Michael’s son, Mikey (so-called at the time), who was two years older than me. At some point, we saw Dr. Coffey, and he was shocked by how thin and pale and undernourished we were: the result of years of rationing. He ‘signed off’ my dad from work for another two weeks – it may even have been four – and we moved on to stay with Aunt Rhoda at Anner House.

It was a life of sunshine, and food. There were horses in the stables, milking cows, poultry running freely about the farmyard behind the house. Milk was carried steaming in pails into the dairy, and then taken off to the Creamery in Fethard. I scarcely saw my parents. A nursemaid called Kitty looked after me and Monty’s two children. The river had been dammed to provide hydro-electricity for the house, and this had created a swimming pool, where the grown-ups swam. We went to Cloran House, whose land marched with Anner House. It belonged to Cousin Victor, Monty and Lucy’s brother, and he lived there with his wife Sheila, and their children. Some were born after this date, and the total became six. It was a magical time: picking and eating fruit in the orchard whenever I wanted; watching the cows being milked, stroking Major the Great Dane, who was about my size. When we returned home, Aunt Rhoda travelled with us, to have a holiday with Grandma.

Grandma and Grandad went over to Anner House the following year, whilst we stayed at home. Dad had to look after Grandad’s poultry….It was a long two weeks for him.

We went again, two years later, and would no doubt have continued to visit regularly, but then everything changed. First, Aunt Rhoda had diabetes, and had a leg amputated. Then, she and her son Monty made the decision to sell up, and move to New Zealand. Monty’s wife left first, with their children, and Aunt Rhoda and Monty followed when Anner House was sold. Lucy and family also sold Clarecastle, and moved to Clonmel. Of the three family properties, only Cloran was left – and it was bursting at the seams with Uncle Vic’s large family. There was certainly no room there for us to stay.

I was eleven before my next trip to Ireland, in 1954. We stayed just outside Clonmel, with friends of my parents, Danny and Margot Gough, ‘as paying guests.’ They were owner/trainers, and I remember going with Danny and my dad to Vincent O’Brien’s stables, to see a promising colt. That holiday was when I learned to ride. It was also when, on a visit to Cloran, I became fast friends with Cousin Lilian, the third of Uncle Vic’s children.

I don’t think my parents found the holiday a success. It was not repeated.

Fast forward to 1967. My mother had continued to correspond with the New Zealand Watsons, and there was great excitement: the youngest child of James and Grace, Rhoda’s youngest brother Reuben, was coming to visit England, one hundred and six years since his parents had set sail for their new life on the far side of the world. He was now eighty-seven. He would be arriving on the Angelina Lauro in Southampton.

I was living with my first husband in Newbury at the time, and was expecting my first child. It is a straight run down the A34 from Newbury to Southampton, and we decided on a whim to go to meet the ship. In our little Mini, we trundled through parts of Southampton which still showed the devastation of the Blitz, even then. When we arrived at the docks, we had no idea what to do. We watched as the enormous vessel was secured to the quay, and we were awe-struck by its sheer size. Thousands of people crowded the decks. How on earth could we hope to locate Reuben Watson, who had no idea we would be there?

I found a stevedore. I told him how old Reuben was, and how we were related (first cousin three times removed!); of the Watsons’ journey all that time ago; of how amazing it would be for Reuben to be met by family. With no hopes of success, we watched the man go off to the ship.

The story of the Watsons was relayed by him to a number of people on the ship: its officers, including the purser. It was nearly an hour later that our stevedore friend re-appeared, bringing with him a strong-looking elderly gentleman – my cousin, Reuben!

Reuben was thrilled. He said he could not have imagined anything better, that family would be there to welcome him.

Whilst he was in England, he went up to the North-East, to have a walking holiday in the Cheviots, and to look up some Watson relatives with whom our branch of the family had lost touch. He then stayed with my parents for a while. They’d ‘converted’ a cottage in the hamlet of Lowerfold, near Rochdale (now swallowed up by housing estates), and Reuben went with my mother to the butcher’s at nearby Broadley, where he saw the butcher jointing a lamb. Reuben walked round to the other side of the counter, and told him he was doing it all wrong, and proceeded to demonstrate how to take apart a lamb’s carcass. A life on a sheep station had borne fruit! (My mother was both embarrassed and proud). After this he came to see us again in Newbury, on his way back to Southampton to sail home. My elder son had been born, and Reuben gave me £10 to start a savings account for him.

I had corresponded with my cousin Lilian since I was eleven. She’d boarded at the Convent School at Carlow, along with her older sisters. Her three brothers, meanwhile, had been at Rockwell College, so I knew a bit about them all, but the connection had lapsed as we got older.

We go forward two decades. A lot had happened. Lilian and her husband were living near Wimbledon with their son, when I went to stay with them for one night, together with my younger son, who was at Oxford. Whenever Lilian and I got together, it was as if no time had passed since our last meeting.

I don’t know what happened, and it’s not part of the story anyway, but Lilian and her husband later separated, and she moved to Western Australia, where he brother Bob lives. At some point I lost her address, and the correspondence ceased. My parents were both dead, as was all their generation in Ireland. That might have been the end.

BUT: ‘God moves in a mysterious way…..’

It was 2008. After I was widowed, I had remarried, and my husband and I were living near Oxford. I had a lot of books which had been my mother’s, and decided to take some of the older ones to the Lechlade Antiques fair. I booked a stall, and was enjoying the day when a man looked at the books, and said in an Irish accent, “How much are your Kate O’Briens?” I had five different volumes. I plucked a figure from the air. “A pound each,” I replied.

“I’ll have them all,” he said.

He gave me five pounds, and then said, “I’ve been looking for these for a long time. They’re quite valuable.”

I thought, ‘Now he tells me!’

To distract myself from ideas of possible riches now lost, I asked him, “Which part of Ireland are you from?”

“Galway City,” he answered.

I dredged my memory for something Lilian had told me years ago.

“I think I have a cousin there,” I said.

“What’s your cousin’s name?”

I thought of the Pakistani taxi driver I’d had in Chicago, who recognised my English accent, and asked me if I knew his cousin in Bradford. “Oh, you wouldn’t know him,” I answered.

“Tell me anyway,” the man said.

I remembered the boy I used to play with at Clarecastle when I was four. “He’s called Mikey Kane, and I think he’s a Professor at Galway University,” I said.

“Wasn’t I just talking to him not three days ago!”

I could hardly believe it!

“Are you going to be here long? Could you take a note to him, on the chance you see him again?” I pleaded.

The kind man then went off to the café for a cup of tea, and I wrote the note to Mike, to say who I was.

It was only a week later that the phone rang. I answered, and a deep voice said, “Hello, Kaye. This is your cousin Mike, from Ireland.”

My eyes fill with tears when I think of it.

Since then, my husband and I have gone to Ireland and stayed with Mike and his wife, and they have been over here to visit us. We went up to Lancashire and Yorkshire, so they could see the places Mike’s and my Watson family came from, and also the home of the Fieldens in Todmorden, his Great-Grandmother’s birthplace. We stood by the statue of John Fielden in Todmorden Park. It must have been a proud moment for Mike.

Since then, we have gone to Cloran, and stayed with my cousin Vic who now farms there. He’s the youngest son of Victor O’Shea, and was only three the last time I’d seen him, but that didn’t seem to matter. It was as if I’d known him for ever.

Lilian had moved back to Ireland from Australia, and when their brother Bob travelled to Ireland on a visit, he and Vic came over to England, and stayed here with us. They were a great hit in our village pub!

Then, in 2016, my son Patrick went over to Ireland with me, and we had a wonderful evening at Vic’s with lots of the family present – and a big dinner! (Vic’s wife Joanne is a great cook, and you can’t beat Tipperary beef.) The following year, eight of us met for dinner at the Minella Hotel in Clonmel. Mike and his wife Marian had even travelled from Galway to be there.

The Watson connection is strong again. We are Family!