Using the internet in search of something or other, I came across the reminiscences of an elderly chap in Australia. With his parents, he’d long ago emigrated to that land of warmth and sun, leaving behind a small coastal town on the slightly less clement north-east coast of England.
Amongst his recollections this first generation Aussie remembered the top end of the sweeping sandy bay in his former home town, inhabited by a collection of families who spoke what he described as a rough, almost Scandinavian dialect that few in the area found easy to understand. Not that this mattered much he said. The village children were told to avoid these fringe inhabitants, and that close-knit community seemed to want little to do with their neighbours, other than to sell them fish at least. I rather enjoyed this account. That collection of fishing families, the Dawsons, Robinsons, Storeys, and Armstrongs, most immediately the Armstrongs, are my family.
This tale from the other side of the globe didn’t surprise me much either. My Grandfather always claimed his own father knew the Danes and Norwegians who shared the North Sea much better than the ‘town’ and ‘mine-end’ inhabitants of Newbiggin-by-the-sea. Despite his gregarious and caring nature, I suspect he quite enjoyed this reputation as misfits.
I have to admit I’m more than a little proud of these self-sufficient ancestors too. Who wouldn’t be impressed by men who took open boats out into the North Sea to make a living. Or the women who, summer and winter, would wade into the surf twice a day to haul those boats out and then haul them in again, heading home once done to hang their wool skirts over the fire to dry. The press were once quite impressed too. A 1941 issue of Illustrated magazine carried a patriotic and rousing cover showing these wives, mothers and daughters (with varying numbers of greats, my grandmothers, aunts and cousins) at work on the beach, suggesting these were the toughest women in Britain.
I have to admit, once the faces are lost, I’ve never really been much for family history. Go back a few generations, and the lack of detail to go with those bare names can be quite frustrating. But I have followed the Armstrongs back.
For a number of reasons this isn’t actually that easy. For a start, as I’ve mentioned, these fishing families living at the north end of the bay really did keep to themselves. With only half a dozen surnames to work with, things can soon become quite tangled. And these fisherfolk weren’t noted for their exuberance and inventiveness in forenames either. If William or Sarah did for one generation, it would do for the next too.
I think I’ve managed to wend my way back reasonably successfully though, at least as far as the late 1600s. There you find Ralph Armstrong (yes, Ralph), born: Newbiggin. Occupation: Fisherman.
So when I push a canoe into the sea, to set out in search of a cod or bass dinner, I’m very aware that in my own small and inconsequential way I’m continuing this tradition. It also might help to explain why, once I’m anywhere near water with a boat, particularly when I have some task to fulfil, I enjoy the whole experience so very much.