The historian Jay Winter defines ‘second-order memory’ as the collection, organisation, exhibition and cataloguing of memory – the natural process of remembrance as those who knew the dead pass away.
I thought nothing had survived in our family that connects us with Lionel Morris, other than my dad’s memories, and one photograph of Morris's mother Lil. So the most distant of links rediscovered has sweetness and poignancy. In the spring of 2016, my dad’s cousin Terry handed me a faded red volume with a spine that was falling apart. It was a birthday book that belonged to his Reid grandmother, Morris’s own Aunt Lily. These little reminder volumes have gone out of fashion, now that we’re all using our mobiles to store everything but the cat – but what lovely family heirlooms to pass down. A tatty little repository of memory like this is priceless for family historians. It’s literally a whiff of the past, with its musty leather cover and leaf-thin pages.
Physical items like Lily Reid’s birthday book are loaded with significance for the next generation. Smaller than a mobile phone, Lily’s book has a frontispiece of Scotland’s Bard and a title page “Birthday Chimes from Burns”, with every day of the year given a snippet of poetry to accompany the owner’s annotations. In some ways it’s preferable to a diary; the scarcity of details leaves imagination plenty of space to create unknown histories. Names themselves are evocative (Ada Hobbs and Evie Pinkherd are my favourites), and amongst the relatives and friends there is an entry for February 23rd: “Lill. Died 24th” – Morris’s mother’s birthday and death dates recorded on the same page, with one day and eighty years between them. There’s other similarly bare entries: “Geoffrey, born 1911, died 1911” and “Daddy, died 1938”. I have another birthday book, given to my great-grandmother as a Christmas present in 1905, this one a compendium of Robert Browning’s work and wisdom. Although I have scoured it in vain for mentions of the Morrises, it does have one unidentified scribble that conjures up a whole world of lost memories: the birthday on November 14th of “our fairy godmother”. Who was she? And what were her magical qualities?
Andy Arnold, whose detailed work on Carshalton’s war dead was one of my first sources for Morris, told me about some of the mementos kept by other families for generations: “The main ones are medals and death pennies, followed by photos and documents/letters. One family had a commemorative ‘scroll’, these were mass produced and the soldiers’ details could be added. Another had an original photo of their relative’s grave, plus a matchbox holder that belonged to him… other common items can include trench art and war ‘souvenirs’ such as shell cases. There are even some instances of families having the original wooden grave markers, which were offered to them when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission replaced them with stone.”
I know of other physical items associated with Morris that have long since disappeared. Some may still be out there. I live in hope of discovering others. And since I began researching his life, there are objects that have, quite wonderfully, reappeared.
But I’ll save them for the book.
If you have any treasured mementoes in your family, I’d love to hear about the stories behind them.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
Archives By Date (For Archives by Topic , click here.)