A little family history

Travelling north recently I drove along the M5 through the western outskirts of Birmingham, and then toward Manchester along the M6.

Not you might think the most romantic of journeys. But it had its own magic, and set imagination and memory running.

Reading Alison Light’s marvellous Common People I’ve learnt a lot about how one branch of her family made its way in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were needle-makers, one part of that remarkable network of industries small (there were also nail, pin, screw, chain and washer-makers) and large that made Birmingham famous around the world.

Another branch of her family were bricklayers and Baptists, and made their way from Wiltshire to Portsmouth, where one of their number became a building contractor, at a time when the city was growing fast, and contractors established themselves as middlemen, and bricklayers were unionised, and organised labour set itself up against the employers.

Alison Light’s ancestor also built churches.

Why did this strikes a chord with me? Because my ancestors, the Colliers in Leigh in Lancashire, were also builders, as early as the 1850s. And if they didn’t build churches then building contractors on another side of my family, the Adkinsons, did do so – only one to my knowledge, the Methodist church that dominates the centre of my home village in Cheshire.

Nonconformism and bricklaying and building went hand in hand. The Church of England lived and died by the old social hierarchies. As a Methodist or a Baptist you were part of a vibrant and supportive communities, and need feel inferior to no-one.

You get little sense of the old Black Country from the M5, and the M6 takes through open Staffordshire country. But look to the right as Cheshire approaches and on the far horizon there’s the hilltop village of Mow Cop, where in 1800 the prayer meetings which led in time to the founding of the Primitive Methodists were first held. There’s a magic about Mow Cap, and Alan Garner in his novel Red Shift captures that sense of a place apart.

It’s right on the edge of where I explored as a child, and each time I catch sight of Mow Cop on my journeys north I feel like I’m coming home. Liminal in place and in imagination. And I will head north again soon, to explore further just who the Colliers and Adkinsons really were, who and where they were before they took to bricks, and when they found religion.

The irony is that I’ve never laid brick on brick, never built anything in all my life. My ability even to put a shelf up straight was – quite unjustifiably! – queried recently. Maybe the two genetic lines simply cancelled each other out.

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