While waiting, rather than pretend to be working at the easel, I sat at my desk, switched on my light-box and began to sort through a bag of slides – photographs taken more than 50 years ago on our ‘grand tour’ of Europe.
I downloaded a slide-copying app and, over the following week, snapped through more than 1000, keeping them for posterity in a form that may not be consigned to the skip when I am no longer around to save them.
As a consequence of this sorting and filing, I have made about half-a-dozen online photobooks of our travels, which I have named appropriately: The Road to Morocco, La Belle France, Our Greek Odyssey, Deutschland Uber Alles, This England and so on.
I have since discovered that quite a number of friends, colleagues and people I know/don’t really know on Facebook have been doing the same thing. Artists have been cataloguing their life’s work, going through their plans drawers and putting everything into some kind of order, just in case.
COVID-19 really put the wind up so many of us who are of a particular age, who had thought we were untouchable but soon realised how vulnerable we had become because of the accumulation of our years.
I shut my studio door for the second weekend of Open Studios 2020, took down my banner and we locked ourselves in.
The pandemic has proven to be a very productive time for many. The hardware stores, nurseries and garden suppliers have had a booming trade. People have relearned how to cook. Sourdough bread making has become the thing to do, forcing supermarkets to ration flour and other essentials.
I relocated some photocopies I had made several years ago of my great-grandfather’s diary of a trip he took to the west coast of America in 1915. Along with these diaries was another, kept by my grandfather of a trip he took to the goldfields of Western Australia in 1902-03.
I had never met either of these men, and had little knowledge of their lives, other than the fact that both lived in Golden Square, were both God-fearing Methodists, both worked in the underground mining profession and, judging by their photographs, both looked like the rest of my family.
I began to transcribe both diaries.
My grandfather, William Edward Hocking, had handwriting that was not very neat. His spelling and capitalisation of random letters made transcription a creative process. His father, also named William Hocking, wrote in a copperplate hand, a result of a primary school education in the Victorian era. Although, there was one thing not taught him and that was the value of the paragraph. His diary entries simply rolled on over more than 100 pages of looping copperplate.
It took me more than a week to read through, interpret and type them up.
The most confusing thing was that my forebears were not very creative when it came to family names. Apart from my father’s father, William E, his grandfather was also William, and his great-grandfather was also William (John), who married Elizabeth Hocking from two streets away in the Cornish village of Tuckingmill. I don’t know whether they were cousins, or even related at all, but they certainly were from the same tribe, just different huts.
There are names that circulate with unnerving regularity in this family history: James, Richard and John, Elizabeth, Jane and Grace. They didn’t look much further than the English royals when it came to choosing Christian names.
There are also surnames, which I know were common in Bendigo once upon a time, that are leaves on our family tree: Mayne, Williams, Nankervis. In the middle of all this trying to sort out who was whom, I paid my subscription to an online family tree search engine and, to my surprise, discovered that a branch of my mother’s family tree had been grafted on to my father’s. A great-granddaughter of my maternal grandparents had married a great-grandson from the other side. The family tree had dug itself firmly into the soil after three generations – creating an unbroken circle of which we were not aware.
If this is difficult to follow, imagine how frustrating it was to stare at two diaries, written more than a century ago, by two men both called William Hocking. It was only when I read that William, the one that went to America, was standing by his mother’s grave in Calumet, Michigan USA, that it dawned on me these were diaries written by two different men. I should have known this by the handwriting, but I had assumed one was written ‘in the field’, and its roughness could be attributed to that, while the other had just been tidied up for posterity.
Once I had made this discovery, I began to assign different colours to their names on the screen just so I could keep track of them.
Grandfather William E went to the west in 1902; apparently to save up enough money, quickly, ready to marry upon his return to Golden Square. He meticulously recorded every penny earned, and spent, and after a year of toil, underground in the heat of the mines around Kalgoorlie, he sailed home and married his sweetheart, Emily Jane Nankervis. Within two months of their wedding in the Methodist Church at East Brunswick, they sailed off to New Zealand where he worked in the mines of Otago and Nelson.
I have a photograph of Will and Janie standing in front of a snow-covered cottage they had rented in Nelson – one of my aunties, then just a baby, in a crib between them. Since making a small book out of these diaries, one of my cousins has told me that, quite unbeknown to him, he had stayed in that very cottage, now a B&B, when he was on a holiday in NZ. Serendipity or what?
When my great-grandfather took himself off to the USA in 1915, he was retracing his steps. It was during a period of economic decline in Cornwall that, with his mother and father and brothers, they had left England to work in the copper mines in Michigan in 1874-76. There was quite a diaspora of Cornishmen to America, and other mining centres, at that time.
When he went back in 1915, he first visited the great San Francisco Exposition. It was just six years after the great earthquake and fire that destroyed most of the port city and the Expo was built to show to the world the power and progress of American arts and industry. Great-grandfather William was fascinated by all things mechanical and records in his diaries details of everything he saw.
He records his impressions of American cities and is dismayed at the lack of public conveniences. He did not approve of the American practice of heading into stores to use their lavatories and took it upon himself to let a policeman in the street know that things were much better back home in Golden Square.
At a fair held on the banks of the Great Lakes, a stallholder informed him there was “another Cornishman at the fair, over there, with a large model of a working mine”. William took himself off to inspect this model only to discover that its maker was his wife Grace’s cousin from Tuckingmill, who no one had heard from in 40 years.
The Cornish, who made up a large part of Bendigo’s early mining history, seem to be found down holes all over the world. William visited a brother in Grass Valley, California, another in Butte, Montana, and an aunt in San Francisco.
He re-acquainted himself with friends and families who he had known from home. The one thing I have discovered from his diaries is that there must be blood-relatives somewhere over there who bear the same name, the same history and probably look just like the rest of us. I wonder who they are.
My great-grandfather did not carry a camera in 1915, so there were no photographs along with his written memoir, just one or two newspaper cuttings. However, I was able to find a photograph of almost every mine he had described, thanks to Mr Google. It is interesting to see how the mine-heads of Michigan differ greatly from the ubiquitous poppet head we know from around Bendigo.
At the conclusion of his diary, he wrote how glad he was to be back in Bendigo and that he had given a copy of his diary to the Bendigo Advertiser in the hope that it may be published. I don’t know whether that happened, but it has now.
In the end, I had a small number of books made up – just enough for the family. There are about 30 first cousins left. None are named William. After all these years, and several generations in Australia, it has come down to one small boy named Levi James, my youngest grandson, the only descendant to bear the family surname into the future. I trust that he is comfortable with his responsibility.