Thoughts on my 5th-great grandfather (September 2016)

What’s on my mind? Why, some thoughts on my 5th- and 6th-great grandfathers, from the book I’ve now spent almost 6 years working on, without an end in sight, that’s what. The very regrettable thing is that, by and large, it’s the male side which is commemorated; from genealogical records – rather than personal family letters and other papers – I know far more of the lives of my male antecedents than the female ones. Inevitable, I fear, but sad nonetheless.

The parents of Samuel Somes, as far as can be deduced, were Richard and Elizabeth Somes, of Maudlin’s Rents, in East Smithfield, just to the east of the Tower of London. Records show that 5 of the couple’s 6 children, Sarah, Elizabeth, Rachell, Samuell, and Richard, were christened and/or buried at the church of St Botolph Aldgate. The records do not reveal where, or indeed if, their other recorded child, Henry, was christened, but it is likely also to have been in St Botolph’s.

The known facts for Richard and Elizabeth’s children are:

  • Sarah was christened on August 28th 1677; her parents’ address was given as ‘East Smithf.’.
  • Elizabeth was christened on July 14th 1682, ‘Elizabeth Solmes, daughter to Richd Solmes by Elizabeth his wife’, with the same address given.
  • Rachell was christened on November 11th 1684, ‘daug. to Richard Solmes by Elizabeth his wife’, same parental address, and was buried on July 11th 1686, ‘daughter of Richard, Maudlens Rents’.
  • Samuell’s christening (as shown by the picture above) was carried out on January 15th 1686/7, ‘Son of Richard Somes by Elizabeth Maudlins Rents’.
  • Henry died in 1691, and was buried in April that year, ‘Son to Richard Maudlin’s Rents’. The timing of the other children’s birth and christening suggests he was born between 1687 and 1691.
  • Finally Richard, the youngest known child, was born in 1693, and christened December 27th that year, ‘Son of Richard and Elizabeth Somes, Madlins Rents’. He was buried on January 18th 1701/02; his family’s address then was given as Sunn Yard.

With my daughter close by me, I sit here writing about the life of her 6th-great grandfather, born 328 years before. One thing I wanted to explore is why the generation gap in my family has been so consistently great, in several branches of the family. The two world wars explain a bit – but only really the first half of the 20th century. Eight generations in 328 years makes an average of 41 years per generation. I have, thanks perhaps to the inheritance of a double dose of laissez-faire attitude, exceeded that average by a full ten years, but I am by no means solely responsible for the average. I am still no closer to understanding why, though.

Thinking of Richard Somes, then, sitting at home with the 3-month old Samuel, in late winter 1687 in Maudlin’s Rents, Wapping, just as I am sitting with Genevieve in Fawley, Hampshire. Far more than 70-odd miles and just over 3 centuries separates us. As Macaulay observed, I could not recognise the Fawley, or the Wapping, of that era, were I suddenly to be transported there. And while Richard would recognise my house and garden as just that, with the exception of the books, he would not immediately comprehend one in a hundred of the things that surround me now. Many of them, in fact, are so far removed from his reality that he might not even classify them superstitiously as ‘magic’; possibly he would fail even to register them as things at all.

I sit surrounded by a library of books, with a host of electronic devices connecting me to most of the people in the world I could wish to speak to, and many more that I don’t, with the full sum of all human knowledge freely available to me within seconds. One of the things it allows me to do is to peek, almost vicariously, at his life, or the few fragments of it that remain. His family likely lived in one room, or perhaps a pair of rooms, lit by candles and maybe an open fire; a rough wooden table and a couple of chairs; coarse wood or pewter plates, maybe a thick coat or cloak and hat hung on the inside of the door. With that behind the door, a few tools of the waterman’s trade ready for the following day’s harsh excursion. If he could read and write, he probably rarely got the chance to exercise either skill, beyond the bare minimum – which is not to say he was primitive or unskilled, of course. But overall, the modern conveniences of my life would be completely lost on him, as would the reasons for my having them.

The list of differences between us is almost infinite. So what instead is our common ground? I sit with my daughter, feeding her, making up little gibberish rhymes and songs to keep her amused. Her hand, though dwarfed by my little finger, grasps it strongly, as she chuckles, laughs or cries. So, perhaps, Richard did with young Samuel to amuse him, as they waited for Elizabeth to prepare the meal or finish attending to the other children. Perhaps he had brought something for the child; a scrap of Flemish cloth as a cover for the baby in his crib, or a battered foreign coin, a little gift of curiosity. And right there is our common ground. Hope. Optimism. Curiosity and wondering.

As I watch her feeding, or gently sleeping, I wonder what her life will be; so must he have done. I have long since given up trying to project myself onto her, to mould her in my own image; whatever she does, I hope she’ll do it with spirit – that’s all I ask.