May Cottage revisited

The first few scenes in my book The Worst Country in the World are set in a cottage in the village of Fiddleford, in Dorset, where my ancestress Mary Pitt was living, with her five children, when she made the momentous decision to emigrate to New South Wales in 1801.

May Cottage is a Grade II listed building and it still exists. However when I tried to visit it back in 2008 the current owners would not allow me past the back gate. All I had to go on, apart from official records, was the testimony, and some photos and floor plans, from a previous owner, the lovely – and now late – Olive Hall.

I knew May Cottage as a picture-postcard, two-storey thatched cottage with pink-washed walls. Two living rooms and a kitchen down, two bedrooms up. Not a lot of space for a family of six.

May Cottage in Olive Hall’s time

Then a few weeks ago the current owner, Phil Leahy-Harland, contacted me through the Pitt family history website to say he was restoring the property to its original glory and I was welcome to visit any time. For the first time since I set out on my family history adventure I was able to actually set foot inside my ancestral home – which, incidentally, my family never owned – and patch together some kind of biography of May Cottage, thus:

The house was originally built in 1684 and was known as the ‘Trout Alehouse’. It was leased to Mary’s husband Robert Pitt in 1766, and it was licensed up until 1770, the year he married Mary and when, presumably, it changed its name to May Cottage. The cottage was owned by the local squire, Lord Pitt Rivers, and at the time of Mary’s emigration she and her five children were living there ‘rent-free’ – presumably because the family was on hard times; hence their emigration to make their home in a penal colony.

Up until 1968 the house was unmodernised. The elderly couple who owned it did not use the upper floor; they turned the smaller of the two rooms downstairs into a bedroom and showered – with cold water – in the kitchen. Their toilet was an ‘elsan’ outside the back door. Olive and her husband added a bathroom on the upper level, and at some point the two downstairs rooms became one. An extension was added in 1992.

May Cottage might look immaculate from the outside but according to Phil it was almost falling down when he and his wife Sam bought it in 2015. The garden was a jungle and none of the previous restorations had been done properly. Gaps had been filled with Blu-tak, beams that had split had not been replaced, the walls and ceiling had moved several inches and were bulging in places. Fortunately for anyone who cares about these things, and especially for the Pitt family, Phil is now spending every spare moment restoring the place, with huge and painstaking care.

May Cottage, August 2020. If you look closely you can see the pink rendering on the left part of the building, which Phil is removing to expose the brickwork beneath, which he is restoring and pointing.

So was it what I expected?

Well the first thing that struck me was its size, and how Mary and her five children fitted into two bedrooms. The ceiling beams on which her cousin and patron George Matcham hit his head (in my book) isn’t quite as low as I had claimed, but the stairs leading to the upper floor were every bit as steep and uneven as I had been led to believe. Like all old cottages the windows are small (see below), so the place is dark, as I had correctly imagined.

Thrillingly, Phil discovered, carved into the brickwork, the initials ‘W P’ – not once, but three times. Who was ‘WP’? Well he could be anyone, but I like to imagine he was Mary’s eldest son William Pitt (who vanished to America and subsequent oblivion).

They have also discovered, in the hedgerows and in the skirting board, various items such as a fragment of an 18th century coffee cup and a one penny coin dated 1797, both of which may have belonged to Mary.

We are lucky, the Pitt family, that so many of the places our ancestors lived in – both in England and Australia – not only still exist but have been or are in the process of being properly restored. It warms the cockles of my heart to think that Mary and her descendants still exist in the fabric of the houses they lived in and the cups they may have drank out of.

Patsy Trench
August 2020

What is the purpose of family history?

Why are so many of us devoting so much time and energy into researching our family history?

When I recently Googled ‘What is the purpose of family history?’ the most common responses that popped up were along the lines of ‘It helps me to understand myself’ or ‘I want the younger generation to understand their heritage’.

There are myriad reasons behind the family history addiction, as I call it, but I have to say those two above don’t quite fit mine. While we are all naturally curious about where we came from and who we think we are and why, my motivation stemmed from an emerging fascination with the context of my ancestors’ lives. The reason I decided to write about my four times great grandmother (The Worst Country in the World) was because she was one of the earliest free settlers to migrate to the colony of New South Wales, in 1801. It was the story behind her migration, and behind the colonisation of that far-flung country in the first place, that grabbed me.

Family history, broadly speaking, is about ordinary people.

Traditional historians tend to focus on the famous, the ones in the foreground of the picture so to speak. Family historians are more likely to be looking at the people in the background, whom nobody outside the immediate family has heard of. That doesn’t make them unimportant, or boring. It’s the ordinary people who keep the wheels of everyday life turning. Your ancestors needn’t have done anything remarkable to make them worth writing about.

Coorah c1907
My family, c1907

 In the blurbs of the two books I’ve written about my family I rather grandly claim I’m ‘looking at Australian colonial history through the lives of my [fill in appropriate ancestor/ancestress]’. I am unwittingly taking on the role of historian, and perhaps wittingly trying to avoid the term family history because who is going to read a book about my family except, well, my family? It wasn’t just because I wanted to sell more books that I broadened my sight lines; it was because I believe history told through the eyes of ordinary people is every bit as valid, and revealing, as history told about the heroes and the VIPs.

But what about the gaps?

The further back you go in time the less likely you will have access to images of your antecedents, or clues to their characters. Their legacy depends almost entirely on what they did, or more to the point, what they did that was recorded. (Which tends to balance things in favour of the men, needless to say.) Famous people may well be written about during their lifetime – you can probably get an idea of the kind of people they were by other people’s descriptions of them. With ordinary people this is less likely. So what do you do?

You can make it up. It’s generally easy to know when, where and how our ancestors did what they did; but what about the why? Unless they wrote letters or diaries (in which case lucky you), it’s down to guesswork. That’s guesswork informed, of course, by weeks and months and maybe years of exhaustive research, not just into your relative but into the world that relative inhabited.

For example I know when and how my ancestress migrated, but I don’t really know why, so I have assumed. I know who her offspring married but I don’t know how they met, so I’ve made it up. I’ve even invented characters in my latest book (A Country to Be Reckoned With) to represent the sort of people my convict ancestors may have worked for. Of course I go to some pains to explain what’s fact and what’s imagination, it isn’t hard to do. The purpose of the fiction is to throw a clearer light on the fact, to bring it alive; all with the ultimate purpose of creating a book that will appeal to a wider audience beyond my immediate family.

Over to you:

Why are you researching your family history and what does it do for you?

This blog post appeared first on the blog in October 2018:​

©Patsy Trench