My father’s birth certificate gives us information about his father, Walter. His place of birth was listed as Rochdale in Lancaster, England. At the time of my dad’s birth in 1931 his father was 53. He married my grandmother later in life and became a dad when his contemporaries were welcoming grandchildren. My grandmother, much to the chagrin of her family initially, was twenty years younger than her groom. She insists she wouldn’t have changed a thing about their marriage. They were happy and had a quarter century to enjoy each other before he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 70. My father was a senior in high school. Walter never met his son’s beloved, my mother. He didn’t have the opportunity to play with his grandkids. Apart from family stories, Walter was lost to us. On this side of heaven we know people by physical place but my grandfather claimed no physical corner of my life. We gave our second son the middle name of Walter to honor the man we had never known. In our Nourishing Roots journey, Rochdale figured importantly.
We pulled into town around noon on a Friday. A stunning old building was marked as the town hall. Offering public parking, we took advantage of that and headed into a nearby pub for lunch: The Flying Lion. Assessing our options we saw a dish on the menu that cried out to us: Rag Pudding. That had to be a historic recipe! No self-respecting chef would give that name to a dish today. Sure enough, it’s a recipe that dates back to the 19th century when peasants would wrap a mix of ground beef and some spices into an old rag to give it some shape while it cooked. Think of it as meatloaf wrapped in phyllo but you remove the phyllo at when finished to reveal a savory dish served with brown gravy and a mash of peas (that’s a very popular menu item here, we’ve noticed). Nowadays, pushing poverty aside, the meat is cooked with a crust around it. We had no choice but to order it. We were meeting Walter through our food.
We know, from the copied page of an 1881 census, that Walter lived with his parents and maternal grandmother at 6 Broadley Place. His mother’s maiden name is Broadley. One couple sitting in our corner of restaurant looked approachable. They acknowledged that they were locals. Since our GPS didn’t pull up a location with the Broadley address I asked them if they had heard of it. Never. But she gave us crucial information. At an art gallery/local museum/archive office we could dig through artifacts from 125 years ago. It was within walking distance. After savoring our Rag Pudding (so-so, sorry to say) we headed to Touch Stones to try out our luck with the local data base.
However we didn’t get far because we were drawn into the local town hall that was across the street from the pub. There are so many buildings on this trip that are so grand and spectacular that we have felt pulled inside. An older gent sitting behind the reception desk told us that the spacious entryway was the only part of the building that we could explore. In all other areas the Rochdale government was in process on just another business day. They do offer tours but not on the day we were there. To give you an idea of the size of this building, the tours were 2 ½ hours long! My sister disapeared and returned wtih a woman who was willing to do the 5-minute tour! We happily followed her and she led us into an incredible banquet hall that is open to community members for celebrative events. Construction was completed in 1871, seven years before my grandfather was born. It makes complete sense that he would have been here with his parents or maybe his grandmother, Mary Broadley. We were already beginning to place Walter.
We walked on to Touch Stones and saw the needed bureau tucked back to the right of the entryway: Local Studies Centre. While my sisters explored the displays that comprised the Rochdale Museum (don’t you love small town pride?) I pried the very helpful women who sat behind computer screens near the entryway. My personal investigation quickly became their project. I had several questions I was hoping they could answer through the stacked and piled resources in the small office. Are there any baptismal records for Walter Chapman or his parents, Thomas and Maria? Could we pin down their home church? Are there records of any other Chapmans in local cemeteries? Could they help us find 6 Broadley Place listed as their address in 1881? One woman went one way and plopped onto the floor in front of some very large books. The other started shuffling through enormous plastic sleeves that held maps from the past. Soon we had some answers!
According to a map from 1892, 11 years after the census data, there was no Broadley Place. But there was a “Broad o’ th’ Lane Place. This could have been a longer version of the same street name. The archivist said that buildings in that area would not date back to the 1870’s but assured us that it was still a residential area. She gave us the needed post code for our GPS and we moved on to the next issue.
The Protestant church in town was St. Edmund`s. The Local Studies Centre had the records from the other churches in town but not that one. They gave me the email address I can use to track down those records. But there was something they found that indicated that the Chapmans were a part of that congregation. When we looked at the 1892 map we saw that the suspected neighborhood of my grandfather as a small child was within walking distance of St. Edmund’s. The pieces were fitting together even if they weren’t backed up with a paper trail yet.
Final issue: burial. I knew that my great grandparents and my grandfather are buried in New England, where we will travel in August. So I wasn’t looking for their final resting places. I was looking for traces of my family from earlier generations in this English town.There was only Chapman listed in their records: Thomas Chapman of Low Mill who died August 5, 1839 at the age of 54. This would probably put him a couple of generations before my great grandfather, Thomas and three generations before Walter. His name was listed in a tedious book that only an archivist could navigate: Schedule and Inscriptions—Disused Burial Ground, Drake Street (St. Chad’s New Burial Ground). This was the parish whose spire towered over the Town Hall with a daunting set of steps climbing up to it. She explained that a grave from that long ago was probably located in an enclosed area that housed historic markers that were no longer intact or standing. She was too polite and professional to use the word “creepy” but that’s really how she was describing the historic cemetery on the grounds of St. Chad’s. It would be nothing short of a miracle to find any evidence today of an earlier Thomas Chapman but at least we knew where to look.
Armed with postcodes, email addresses and vague indications of neglected tombs, we left Touch Stone with the obligatory books from their gift shop that could give us even more information about my Grampa Walter’s birthplace. We were ready to place Walter, the grampa we had never known.
We knew that St. Chad’s Church was in the general direction of the car, if you add a steep climb up a hill and subsequent descent. So we started hiking along a path and stairways that must have been there for close to 100 years. Of course our thoughts were always whether this was a pathway that might have been traversed by our very young grandfather nearly 140 years ago. St. Chad`s is a stunning cathedral that has a great view of Rochdale. We looked unsuccessfully for the abandoned graveyard. It didn’t really matter. We weren’t altogether sure that this Thomas was an ancestor and, if he was, it felt holy to simply walk among the other graves and know that he was buried out of this church almost 180 years ago. The tiled walkway that surrounds the church is a block mosaic of marking stones with inscriptions bearing names and dates: final love letters to the saints beyond. Just as we saw in the floor of so many ancient churches, the rectangular stone that sealed each tomb was laid right next to another so that the stone path we walked on was a stone quiltwork of Rochdale’s dead. We looked for the name of Thomas Chapman to no avail. We know that Walter’s grandfather perhaps lived his days in this town and was buried at St. Chad’s in a place marked only by history.
We returned to our car and plugged in the address given for the supposed residence. It took us away from the town center into an area that appears to be home now to hard-working laborers. We found ourselves on a street that presently is called Molyneaux. We parked and wondered if we had placed Walter correctly. I got out of the car to take some pictures and noticed that the string of homes where we were parked bore the even numbers stretching between 2 and 18. There was a tan home whose door was ajar: number 6. This could be the place! It wouldn’t have been the same buildings but it would have been the same street. The layout of the homes from the 1892 map looked similar to the long strings of tenements that stretched along the streets of this modest neighborhood now. When I turned back toward the car, having captured the desired pictures on my phone, I saw a stone tower looming above the rooftops. I shot a picture of that as well and joined my sisters in the car. I shared the news with them that the street number lined up for Walter’s 1881 home. My sister had pulled up a google image of St. Edmund’s Church so that we could hunt for that. When she showed me the Wikopedia image, it lined up perfectly with the tower I had seen over the homes! We got out of the car and started walking to church, right along the path, we imagined, of Maria, Thomas, young Walter and Grandma Mary. Once again we felt like we were placing Walter.
The walk to St. Edmund’s was easy. This would have been a natural choice for a spiritual home in an era when people walked to church. It was another impressive structure that dates back to 1873. Walter was born in 1878. We walked around the church which had a locked gate forcing us to keep our distance. Was our grandfather baptized here, welcomed into the faith that he would pass on to his children? Did he squirm in his mother’s arms as she invited God into her life for another week? We may find out definitive answers from the data base we can access by email in the town records. For now we wonder. We walked all the way around it, placing Walter in this sacred spot that now is used for community events and addiction outreach. Sadly it was closed for worship in 2007 and bears no signage that indicates an ongoing purpose apart from what we read on line. Though the Word is no longer preached in this place that perhaps welcomed my grandfather into the Christian faith, the Spirit moved from his life to my dad (who was ordained more than 50 years by the time he died) and later to me. Fortunately our faith is not reliant on places but on people who invite the Spirit to be their guide. The Word takes root not in real estate but in human hearts.
Although we didn’t have the hard data we might have liked for our grandfather’s past life in Rochdale, we left very contented that we had finally placed Walter!