Friday, August 14, 2009

A Family Six Pack : Part 2 Enoch Burnett

Enoch Burnett 1878 - 1950
The second figure from the left in the old family photograph has a somewhat ghostly countenance, looking as though he was not a part of the solid world of those around him. The reason for this is quite simply that he wasn't. When the photograph was taken in 1917 Enoch was away at the front. As was common at the time, a space in the family group was left for him and his image was later "burnt-in" from a pre-existing photograph. During the height of that most deadly of wars such techniques were necessary to preserve the illusion of family unity.
Enoch was born in Bradford in 1878, the second son of John Burnett, a weaving overlooker who worked in the Bradford woollen mills. An "overlooker" in the textile industry is a less grand designation than in many other trades (he "overlooked" a group of machines rather than a group of workers), but nevertheless young Enoch's upbringing was probably free of the grinding poverty that afflicted so many of his working-class neighbours. And the Burnett family seemed to be a family on the "up" : Enoch's father was an overlooker, his eldest brother was a butcher and his younger brother was destined to become a mechanic. But it appears that Enoch was the wild spirit in this most proper Victorian working class family. Tradition says that when he was 14 he ran away from home and joined a travelling circus. If this is true, his time on the road was short-lived for by the time he was 20 he was back in Bradford, married and with a child on the way.
His roaming youth did not succeed in robbing him of a trade. Whilst in the early years of his marriage he is listed as a "mason's labourer", later records record him as being a "window cleaner", then a "Master window cleaner" and then a "Master Window Cleaner / Watch and Clock Repairer". This latter somewhat strange combination of trades was always explained as a seasonal arrangements : Enoch didn't mind cleaning windows in the summer but preferred the inside of a clock in the inside of his house during winter months.
One of the best photographs I have of Enoch shows him with his donkey and cart and his set of ladders. The picture must have been taken in about 1907 but with a typical Burnett love of historical tradition the cart proudly proclaims "Established 1906"! Enoch was a character, what the Victorians and Edwardians used to call a bit of a "card". The story of the donkey in the photograph has long been handed down through the family. Enoch noticed that its days seemed numbered and shrewdly sold it to a chap from Little Horton. Holding the money tightly in his hand, Enoch watched as the man led the donkey away. When they got to the corner of Town End, the donkey promptly fell down dead.
Despite his lack of formal training, Enoch had a mechanical aptitude. He would take in clocks and watches from his window cleaning customers and repair them (his window cleaning activities no doubt gave him an advantage over his competitors when it came to spotting whether a clock was working or not). I remember going to my grandmothers house long after Enoch had died and finding the room (there was generally only one room in those days) crowded out with clocks in various stages of disrepair. He was the type of person who enjoyed the process of mechanical dissection : when presented with something new there was nothing he liked more than to pull it to pieces to see how it worked. And occasionally he would put things back together again. My father used to tell the story of being sent, when he was a young boy, to get some cigarettes for his father from an early prototype of a mechanical vending machine which stood outside the Fish Shop at the bottom of Arctic Parade. My father fed his two pennies into the slot but nothing came out and he returned home to my grandfather in tears. Enoch picked up his tool bag, and proceeded to take down the machine from its position outside the shop. With the help of a couple of passers-by he lugged the great heavy machine home and proceeded to take it to pieces. He discovered how it worked, extracted the packet of cigarettes he was owed, repaired it, oiled it, reassembled it. and by the following morning it was back in its position outside the Fish Shop again.
Enoch died in 1950, two years after I was born. I am sure I must have met him but I can't remember. But I somehow know him better than many of the others in that old photograph. The stories, the anecdotes, the memories all inject a life force into what otherwise would be a collection of dates and census records. But I also know Enoch through my father and my brother, both of whom inherited his technical and mechanical abilities (they did not pass through my line of the family : I still need to check in a book to know which way to turn a screwdriver). I would have liked to have finished with a final picture of Enoch but at this late stage I am not sure how I can position it this far down the post. Now if Enoch had been here he would have known. And if he didn't he would have taken the computer to pieces until he discovered how it was done.
To read previous installments of this mini-series see :


  1. Once again, a wonderful story. Wish we'd kept records of our ancestors. All we knew was that one great grandfather had a peat barge business, a corner shop and a pub, but used to spend a lot of his time in the pub at the expense of the other businesses, which ended up ruining the lot.

    Another great grandfther owned a bakery, but became a religious nutter and died in a Dutch Reformed Church lunatic asylum. It turned his daughter off religion for the rest of her life.

  2. At first, I thought that was a photo-shopped picture of yourself, made to look old. Sounds like Enoch had an interesting life...especially joining the circus! I wonder what he did while he was there. Maybe you had to be a bearded lady or something strange to really make it a lifetime carrier. Nice post, Alan...I'm enjoying this series a lot!

  3. Love the anecdotes about the donkey & the cigarette machine. A very engaging profile!

  4. Anonymous7:22 PM

    Enoch did sound like quite the "card", Alan. And a tinkerer, as well. But to go through all the trouble on that vending machine; and for two pennies...( yes, I realise it was a tidy sum back then ). Too, the donkey story-LOL! Shrewd indeed! Fantastic series and snaps. Staying tuned for more, yes?

  5. Anonymous7:24 PM

    Ooh drat! My auntie did the photo thing with 5 generations( 'tis hard to tell unless you know ). Tho' they were all living( at the time )they couldn't be to-gether, so this was the next best thing. I may post it...some day.

  6. Bill : With ancestors like you describe I am surprised you have turned out as sane, objective, measured and level-headed as you have!
    Betsy : Until you pointed it out I hadn't seen the resemblance in the poses of my Facebook picture and the picture of Enoch. But now you mention it ...
    John : Thank you kindly good sir.
    Sub : I had not thought about burning myself into a photo of my ancestors, what a good idea. Do post the one of your Aunts.

  7. Anonymous8:18 PM

    Alan, as soon as I remember where the snap is, wot? GAH! Will look o'er the week-end. Cheers!

  8. Yes,I Imagine Enoch would have been a Blogger too had Tinternet come about a bit earlier!Imagine the ciggy machine! A modern equivalent would be a Cash point??!!!
    I didnt know about them airbrushing people into photos! An early photoshop? It,s Stalin -In-Reverse!!!
    Yea, blogger always posts a photo to the top of the can always copy& paste lower down the text before pressing "post".
    Yea, so you have Bradford roots! I taught in Bradford for several years (Shelf).Bradford had + has quite a unique athmosphere....It still seems to me an overgrown Town/Village compared with its fancy neighbour Leeds.Long May It Be So!

  9. HA! "athmosphere" ! Now you know why so many people in Bradford cant spell these days!

  10. Really enjoying this series - I love hearing stories like these (and you tell them so well). You are really bringing your ancestors to life! Love the donkey story - Enoch was a very interesting character indeed!!

  11. Tony : Whilst I was born in Bradford I spent most of my early life in Northowram which is as you know next to Shelf. Small world and all that. Nilats is Stalin in reverse.
    Kabbalah : Glad you're enjoying the series. The next one will be a challenge as I can't think of one story about my grandmother.

  12. fascinating pics and stories in this series...the circus!


Black Friar

For a time, during the late 1970s, I had a job leading parties of foreign visitors on tours of historic London pubs. One of my favourite sto...