I was having a lunchtime pint with a mate of mine yesterday and the conversation came around to the idea of a sense of belonging. We are both from these parts and we agreed that we would have difficulty in moving away. I was saying that, for me, that sense of belonging was not just with people and that diverse diorama we call culture, but with the physical built environment. Step through almost every door and there is my family, lift every grave stone and there is my history.
So let us take a gravestone at random and tease out the story, for below every gravestone lies a story far more powerful and resonant than any pile of decaying bones. The following gravestone can be found in the churchyard of St Martin's Parish Church in Brighouse. When I took the photograph last week, I had no idea who Lydia and George Mitchell were. They are neither part of my extended family nor possessing of any particular fame and fortune. But they are part of the shared history and the shared environment that I belong to.
This is one of those exercises that would have been too troublesome and too difficult before the dawn of the digital age. But now we can access family records, census information, books and newspapers with ease. So all we need to do is to press a few computer keys and George and Lydia begin to come back to life.
George was born in 1801 in Kirkheaton, a few miles south of Brighouse where he later was to settle, marry and bring up his family. On the census records of 1851 and 1861 he is listed as being either a cord maker or a cordwainer. A cordwainer is the old name for a boot and shoe maker. He lived on Commercial Street in Brighouse and his two sons, William and George were also listed as being cordwainers. As we can see, George eventually died in 1877, but by then his children had taken over the business, and Mitchells continued to be the main shoe and boot maker in Brighouse well into the twentieth century. The following description of the business is taken from W.T Pike's 1895 book "An Illustrated Account of Halifax, Brighouse and District" and relates to the time when the business was under the control of George's son, who was also called George.
Mr George Mitchell, Boot and Shoe Maker, 30 Commercial Street, Brighouse.
An old established connection in the boot and shoe trade of Brighouse is held by Mr George Mitchell, whose business was commenced about forty-five years ago some four doors from the present site, which was then occupied by his brother, William Mitchell. On the latter leaver these premises after twelve years residence, Mr George Mitchell removed to them. At that time they were two small shops with dwelling houses, which he afterwards, as a consequence of the growth of the trade, converted into one large business establishment, transferring his residence to South View, Clifton, some little distance from the town. This enabled him to devote the whole of these convenient premises to the purposes of his trade. Their capacity may be noted from the following brief description. There is a large workshop in the basement, the ground floor comprising a substantial and well appointed shop with plate glass windows and large fitting and stock rooms at the rear. On the upper floors, nine rooms in all are fully occupied as store rooms etc. The situation is admirably adapted to the trade, and during the thirty years of Mr Mitchell’s occupation, it has become the accredited centre of this particular trade, with a good general family and better class connection. He keeps in stock leading lines of special gentlemen’s, ladies’, and children’s boots and shoes. As a hand sewn bootmaker, he has the largest trade in the town, and is noted for first class repairing. The bulk of the goods are kept in boxes on neatly arranged shelves, both in the front shop and stock rooms. There is a very large stock of children’s shoes, slippers, boots and gaiters, selected from the very best makers. All the minor goods of the trade are stocked, and hand sewn boots are an important branch. The windows form a very suitable index to the stock, enhanced by very tasteful arrangement. The shop is lit with electric light, it is almost opposite the General Post Office, and has a very fine appearance. The large lamp and signboard, with gilt lettered windows, demoting the name and trade. The staff of hands employed varies according to the requirements of the seasons, but Mr Mitchell has gradually increased his business since its commencement thirty five years ago.
I can half imagine my great-grandfather entering the shop and perusing those neatly arranged shelves of boots, shoes and accessories. I can almost imagine my Great Uncle Israel Burnett, who was a butcher, chatting with George Mitchell and speculating about trade. My grandfather Enoch may have cleaned those plate glass windows. That is belonging.