Sunday, 29 August 2010

A Partridge in the family tree?

LEFT: A scene from rural Devon.

There is no denying that Devon is a pretty place and the countryside in which Elizabeth Mashford was born is some of the prettiest. I wonder did she pine for those lush green fields during the heat of an Australian summer's day? Or did she leave it all behind; simply grateful to be free in a new country with little or no class system and far, far greater opportunities for her children?

One thing is sure, it is unlikely that the little girl had much time to play, let alone sit back and admire scenery. But who knows. Perhaps she bathed in a stream or washed her clothes in one and in the doing found respite from a life of constant drudgery.

In that changing way of mind which seems to be part and parcel of this process, I am now thinking that Partridge is a more likely 'surname' for our bastard Elizabeth.

The reasons are two-fold: a. the name Haynes did not appear until she married Edward Atkins and b. there is a Partridge family which has had a presence in Devon since the 16th century. They are not 'noble' in the truest sense, but they are certainly an 'old' family and compared to the Mashfords were no doubt very wealthy.

The family story handed down by my father and numerous other relatives,  of a 'noble' family, may have really been a story of a 'rich' family. The Mashfords were pretty much as 'poor as church mice' from what I can see so 'rich' in their terms may not have been 'rich' in real terms. It did not take much to be the 'betters' of the Mashfords. And time and distance can embellish the truth quite nicely.

The Partridge family were farmers and clearly quite well-off given the lands they owned in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Nymet Mills,Hawkridge Farm,Park Mill, Parsonage Farm or Easington in the Nymet Rowland/Lapford/Coldridge areas  were where the Partridges lived and farmed in the 1700-1800's.

ABOVE: Parsonage Farm, Winkleigh Devon. Now an acclaimed B&B.

And one of these holdings, Parsonage Farm,  was situated in Winkleigh, Devon. The Partridge family has a long history in Winkleigh and this is where I found a record of an Elizabeth Mashford's birth with mother Elizabeth Mashford and father ? Partridg(e). The lack of a christian name for the father is unusual and the fact that the child took her mother's name is a good bet she was illegitimate.

Checking the parish records for the birth is likely to be the only way this can be confirmed. In the meantime, in that 'jigsaw' way of things, our 'maybe' looks a bit more of a 'likely' given that our family story can be made to 'fit' the time and the place.

And while the Partridge's were not 'noble' in the sense one would give to that word, they certainly had 'noble lineage' and would have been seen to be amongst the 'better classes' in the little village of Winkleigh in the early 19th century when Elizabeth Mashford (Lewis) Atkins was born.

LEFT: Winkleigh around 1900. No doubt recognisable to Elizabeth Mashford (Lewis) Atkins even after fifty years.

So, not much chance of anything 'grand' to be found in the Mashford past. And it is a reminder of how the way that we 'interpret' words influences what we believe. I am sure, living in the wilds of the Wirrabarra Forest, surrounded by the anarchic drift of Australian bush, that a large farming estate in Devon could have seemed pretty 'grand' to the illegitimate Elizabeth. Or perhaps, like so many illegitimate children, what was important to her was keeping the memory alive of a father she never knew and a life which had been denied to her.

But times change for everyone and these days Parsonage Farm, in Winkleigh, bordered by the Rivers Torridge and Okement, is a family dairy farm which offers B&B accommodation. It's an ordinary looking house by today's standards, but Elizabeth's story is not about today's standards but about the world in which she lived. To the poorest of the poor in the early 19th century it would have seemed a very grand house indeed.

Did Elizabeth's mother work there? Probably. There would not have been much opportunity for a servant girl to meet the son of a wealthy farmer... or perhaps the wealthy farmer himself .... otherwise. The other possibility is that she worked for a trader and delivered goods to the house.

Whatever the truth it is unlikely that Elizabeth Mashford (Lewis) Atkins was brought into being through much more than a momentary encounter. Any father she had would have been only in a biological sense, although that, in the times, as today can count for quite a bit.

And perhaps, as she talked to her children about the world she had left behind, the truth became even more prettily embroidered until it became a tale of a child, born to be a 'lady' but denied it because of her birth?

What is interesting is that Elizabeth Mashford (Lewis) Atkins clearly did talk to her children about her birth or it could not have been handed down through her descendants. The shame of illegitimacy was great and yet she still felt compelled to talk of it. Perhaps, so far away, on long nights, beneath star-glittering inky skies, she felt it did not matter if her children knew .... or for that matter, her husband.

Our family story also says that the wife of Elizabeth's  father was actively involved in having his bastard removed from sight. Given that she was in her late twenties when she took ship for Australia, this is probably unlikely. Unless of course she grew up to be such a mirror image of her mother that 'painful' memories were triggered in Mrs Partridge and she took action to remove them forthwith.

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