Tuesday 23 April 2019

Never forget where you've come here from: 100 years of the Long Family

As those readers who follow my Twitter or Facebook accounts will perhaps have seen, I organised and hosted a remarkable family reunion on the Easter Sunday just gone, gathering almost all the living descendants of my late grandparents, Rev'd Walter Long and Amy Denby, who were married exactly 100 years previously, on April 19th 1919. There were forty people present, aged 1 to 87, representing four generations of Longs - here we all are:-

The event, held at Exeter College Oxford (where five descendants, including myself, have studied as undergraduates) was a great success, and although very much a private affair of interest mainly to those attending, there has been much interest and comment from others, such that I thought it worth publishing what I said on Sunday as a blog post. Those who attended can then read what was said, and others, if interested, can learn something about an ordinary couple from East London who lived good lives and raised a lovely family.

So here is my speech, with a few photos to add some context:-

First and foremost, thank you for being here! Forty people from four generations; one child of the marriage, all nine grandchildren, eighteen great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. Eight of us here today were present on a similarly sunny day in April 1969 in Warwick for the Golden Wedding. Here we are back in 1969...

And here's the same crew 50 years later, attempting to recreate that image, although changes in height made it difficult...

There are photos of that which most of you will have seen, and I have just about got over my resentment towards my late mother, who made me and Chris dress formally on a day when everyone else of our generation looked cool and casual. I NEVER wore that wretched short trouser suit again. But it was a lovely day, still quite clear in my mind and it is a huge pleasure to see this still growing family gathered here today, fifty years on.

Diabuddies and first cousins-once-removed
 - me and Elinor 
Let me share a story of how today’s event came to happen: it all started back in February 2018 with a meeting in a noisy bar off Fleet Street in London between me and Elinor Crawley, my first cousin once removed. How we came to be in that bar is a long story relating to she and I being members of a small and exclusive club which we neither of us chose to join - people with Type 1 diabetes. 

In telling Elinor a bit about our shared family history, it dawned upon us that we were approaching the centenary of Walter and Amy’s marriage. The following day, I had arranged to visit my cousin Miranda for lunch and so I shared our realisation about the upcoming centenary with her, and we decided it was an event worth marking with a family reunion.

So here we are, and in case I forget, let me thank Elinor and Miranda for their support, and of course my wife Sue for all the work she has done to help make today happen.

I have been doing quite a lot of digging and researching about Walter and Amy in recent years: I guess it’s an age thing, but with a bit more time on my hands, the stimulus of the TV programme Who do you think you Are? and the ease of online research, it quickly becomes absorbing and enlightening to learn about your family’s heritage.

And although of course we’re all biased, I have to say that by any standards, Walter and Amy were an extraordinary couple, whose story, and that of the generations since, tells us much about the social and economic history of the past century or so.

Most people these days like to claim authentic heritage from the wrong side of the tracks: like the four Yorkshiremen in the famous Monty Python sketch, many folk are fond of talking down their own privilege and talking up their working class, poverty-stricken credentials.

Well rest assured, Amy Denby and Walter Long have impeccable salt-of-the-earth credentials. He was certainly no champagne socialist (he was famously t-total for a start!).They were both born in London’s East End, on the same street in Bermondsey, she one of four children of a tie cutter, he one of twelve children of a wire worker.

Both families had in the previous generation come to London from the countryside: by far the most eye-catching ancestor is Walter’s grandfather, the splendidly named, and even more splendidly bewhiskered Amos Buckle, a shepherd from Wescott in Buckinghamshire. Amos was one of the first recipients of the newly introduced old age pension in 1908 - I have a picture of that event. 28 of us here today are descended from this gentleman, and I for one am very proud to say so. There are 100s of more distant cousins out there if you look on Ancestry.

Amos Buckle
But back to Walter and Amy: that they both knew the harsh realities of working class life in the early twentieth century there can be no doubt. Yet both individually and as a couple, they transcended their humble beginnings without ever forgetting them and through their long and successful marriage fostered the diverse inheritance which is met here today.

They were married on Easter Saturday 1919, at the College Chapel in Stepney Green, East London. 

The Baptist College, Stepney Green (Chapel on right)

The college and its chapel have long since been demolished, but the portal still exists, enjoying listed status yet now totally overgrown with weeds, standing behind security fencing alongside one of the key intersections on the still unfinished Crossrail line. I visited the site a few weeks ago, and found it weird to think I was standing where, 100 years ago, that newly married couple had stood. Sadly, there appears to be no photo in existence of their wedding.

The College Chapel Portal
However, I do have in my possession several boxes of papers and photographs relating to Walter in particular: far less material relating to Amy, but I guess that’s the way it was in that generation - she was very much the supportive Minister’s wife, often alongside him or in the background on photos, yet those of us who remember her as a mother or grandmother will I’m sure share my view of her as a pillar of wisdom and unshakeable good humour.

Walter Long in his prime
Walter’s life is by contrast documented in great detail, and he was truly a remarkable man: not so much a minister of religion, but rather a social worker in a dog collar. Studious and self-educated, gregarious, affable yet slightly stern when necessary, he touched the lives of hundreds whilst raising a family which has gone on to reflect so many of the diverse values which he espoused throughout his long life.

Mr Pastry
His work for almost forty years with the Bell Street Mission in London’s then severely deprived Marylebone district is what stands out, and only the other day I found a very recent entry on an internet a page of memories of Bell Street which fondly recalled Mr Long the Minister, whom the children nicknamed Mr Pastry - do a google image search and you’ll see why - he bore a strong resemblance to the comic character of that name.

The holiday home in Bognor Regis which he set up and helped build took inner city children for seaside holidays of which some fabulous ciné footage survives and is on a DVD I have made. He was a Labour councillor on Marylebone Council for many years, and the Crematorium there in which both his and Amy’s funeral were held was very much his project.

He espoused many causes: unitarian christianity of course, but also pacifism, internationalism, abstinence from alcohol, animal rights and above all a very pragmatic brand of socialism.

"Trust Baldwin"
- Walter didn't
Beyond the facts there are many stories, no doubt exaggerated and improved over time, on which Chris and I were brought up. Among our favourites are that he graffitied a famous Conservative poster from the 1929 election campaign changing it from “trust Baldwin, he will steer you to safety” to “trust Baldwin he will steer you onto the rocks”; or that he heckled Ramsay McDonald, whom he saw as a traitor to the Labour Movement, at a rally to such an extent that a flustered McDonald turned to an aide and said “Who is this man?”

He was a man of principles, yet was also by all accounts a skilled operator who knew how to make friends wherever it was expedient to do so. He befriended engine drivers and persuaded them to make an extra stop behind his allotment to save him the long walk to Wembley Park station; he was skilled at getting extra petrol coupons during the War, on the grounds that he needed them for his essential pastoral work.

But the best story, which I so hope is true is from a visit to Greece which he made in the early 1930s: on presenting his passport at customs in Athens, the official inspecting it looked concerned on reading the page labelled occupation, disappearing into a back office then re-appearing with his superior, who pointed at the passport and said in broken English:

 “You Minister of Religion?
“Yes”, replied Walter.
“McDonald’s government?”
“Yes”, replied Walter, still unaware of what the problem was and thinking that the official was just showing off his awareness of British politics.
“One moment please” said the senior official, asking Walter to sit down.

A short time later, a chauffeured limousine appeared and Walter was invited to sit in it, accompanied by the official, and it was only as he was taken on a guided tour of the city’s sights and churches that he realised that the Greek officials had assumed that he was the government minister responsible for religion. Apparently, he didn’t let on, claiming he didn’t want to cause further embarrassment, yet enjoying his free trip round the sights.

If that sounds a bit dishonest he was also disarmingly honest: he loved his cars, and was more than once stopped for speeding: on one occasion, quite late in his life, he was stopped in a 30 MPH zone by a policeman who asked the elderly clergyman in his Morris 1100.

“Would you mind telling me how fast you were going sir?”, asked the officer, expecting the usual attempt to get away with it by saying “about 33 MPH”. Instead of which, Walter, gloriously oblivious to the speed limit said “Ooooh, fifty or sixty at least!". The cop was so nonplussed by such honesty that he let him off with a friendly warning, especially when told that the reason for speeding was that he was on the way to a hospital visit.

Amy, Ronald, Walter, Arthur - 1921
So yes, a top man, a top couple. It is right and proper that we are all meeting here today to celebrate their lives. And lest I dwell too much on stories, possibly apocryphal, of what he got up to, let us above all remember today a loving couple who raised four children against a background of troubled times, and who embraced the post-war world with grace and enthusiasm, being for us loving and generous-minded grandparents.

Perhaps we should be toasting their memory with a non-alcoholic drink, but let’s quietly forget that for today. 

Please join me in raising a glass to 100 years of a good, long story and in particular let’s drink to those 1919 newlyweds - Walter and Amy.

And now can I ask their surviving son Peter, as the oldest here present, to cut the cake which Miranda has commissioned for today's celebration:

Please take away your cake and also your wedding-style favour: this contains a piece of paper impregnated with wildflower seeds for you to plant, and some words, almost certainly written by Walter himself, which were read at his funeral:

Unto my friends I give my thought.
Unto my God, my soul. 
Unto my foes I give my love. 

These are of life the whole.

Nay, there is something - a trifle - left: 
Who shall receive this dower? 
See, earth-mother, a handful of dust! 
Turn it into a flower!

What lovely words! I hope we will all go home with fond memories and a renewed sense if togetherness.

I hope family members will enjoy reading the words that they heard on Sunday, and others may find something of interest. If you're a reader of my blog posts, you will know that I always give them a title from a song and post a link to it. This one gets it's title from a Take That classic from their early years - Never forget where you've come here from

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