Ruscoe Chronicles – vol. 03/2

February 2003 (original June 1998)

Great Aunt Sarah - Only 99!

One of the most rewarding features of Family History research is the serendipity which turns up happy coincidences, unknown relations, and encounters with some quite delightful and friendly people. In a previous article I mentioned the link provided by a postcard sent during the first world war. [“A Postcard Keeps in Touch” Shropshire F.H. Journal Vol. 17 Part 1, March 1996; Bedfordshire F.H.S. Journal Vol. 11 no 4, December 1997] This served to emphasise that you should overlook no available evidence, and not be afraid to contact strangers - as some family details in this case came from an old lady who had been approached only because of her surname. The present article illustrates the value of telephone directories, press cuttings and guide books to country churches!

My interest in the family tree was raised in my teenage years, when my mother took the opportunity, on her weekly visits, of talking to her mother about the family history of the KELLEYs and LEGGOTs in the Moss Side area of Manchester back to about 1850. We drew up a tree, and naturally recorded what was known of my father’s side also. He was able to tell me about his grandfather George RUSCOE, a sailor in the Royal Navy, and a number of the same generation in North Shropshire, born at Prees - (great) Uncle Jim from Spoonley, Uncle Bill from Peplow, Aunt Sarah from Crewe and others.

It is, of course, a great benefit when you are pursuing an uncommon name. I knew that there was one other boy of the name of Ruscoe in the Manchester Grammar School - he happened to be in the same year, though I never recall meeting him. My sister also when in the sixth form at the Manchester High School was aware of a new girl in the first year of the same surname - but only remembers now that the father of this girl became treasurer of the PTA.

In December 1989, and again in early 1992, I was out of work for a short spell, and while pursuing leads (for work of course) in the library, I took the opportunity to go through the telephone directories for the UK, noting all the Ruscoe and related names and addresses. This confirmed that the majority of families were in Shropshire, Cheshire and the nearby industrial areas.

My interest had lain dormant since the 1960s when I had collected all the known Ruscoes from the Shropshire Parish Registers. Many were printed, but for Prees I had to visit the church and read the originals, where I found the baptisms of John (1831), Harriet (1833), Sarah (1835), George (1837), Abraham (1839), Hannah (1842), James (1844), Eliza (1846), Thomas (1848) and William (1852). There were our Sarah, George, Jim and Bill, and a few others I did not know of. They were all the children of George and Ann whose marriage I then had to pursue - and found eventually at her parish of Cheswardine. They settled in Moreton Say, his home parish, where I was lucky enough to find the banns for the marriage, and later they moved a short way across the parish boundary into Prees before starting their family.

At this time I made a number of visits to Shropshire on holiday with my father, mainly to the southern hill country, noting a cycle shop bearing the name of Ruscoe in Church Stretton. It must have been in the early 1960s when watching “Doctor Who” that I more than once noticed an entry in the credits for Christine Ruscoe, Designer, and wondered who she might be. In 1969 I married, and took my new bride to the Stretton Valley a couple of times and then it must have been that we purchased a church guide at Wistanstow. This was deposited in the box of guide books which many of us keep, just in case we visit the place again!

Twenty years passed, our daughter Hazel grew up, and I did no more research - after all there was no Ruscoe son in our family to carry on the name. Then my sister pointed out an article in the Radio Times about Sybil Ruscoe, at that time working on Radio 1. It seemed that she came from Wem in North Shropshire and began work on the Shropshire Star as a reporter. Perhaps she might be related, so I wrote off to Broadcasting House. There was no reply, but after some time I received a letter from her sister Hazel Ruscoe at Wem, expressing interest in the notes I had sent. My daughter thought it very spooky that there was another young lady of just the same name! This was really the spur that revived my interest in family history, although so far we have found no relationship.

In the 1990s we began to make further visits to the Stretton Valley, and I wondered if there were still any Ruscoes in the area. My telephone lists showed only a few, which I checked in the latest book. But I was reluctant to make contact - after all what had we in common except the surname? Then the magic of serendipity struck. On a whim I got out the box of guide books to see what we had for the area. Amongst a number of guides was a thin stencil-duplicated quarto booklet about the church at Wistanstow, which turned out to be nearby, and it must have been produced about 1970. The front was adorned with a hand-drawn picture of the church, surrounded by decorative motifs. Looking inside the back cover I was amazed to read:

Cover designed by Norman Ruscoe of Strefford from his own original drawing, using designs from the nave roof.

I rechecked the telephone list. There was only one suitable entry: N.F.S. Ruscoe, White Cottage, Strefford. I sat down and typed a letter, introducing myself, and asking if they happened to be interested in their family history. I quote from Ann’s reply:

Norman Ruscoe (my husband) is indeed the artist of the Wistanstow guide - but he hasn’t been well for the past 3 weeks and so I have taken on the task of replying to your letter. As it happens we have done a lot of research - not only into the Ruscoe family, but into both sides of both our families, and we will be pleased to show you what we have done so far when we see you. I do the research in the winter and the garden in the summer, but due to us both now being 78 years old, our efforts are limited. We moved here from Derbyshire in 1970 after Norman had partly recovered from a very severe coronary thrombosis, and I think it was a good move - as we are both still here! Before that the Ruscoes were in Manchester and district from c.1858 ... John Edwin Ruscoe (Norman’s grandfather) was born in Manchester 6-8-1858.

She added a postscript:

If you watched R. Rendell “Master of the Moor” on ITV last Friday - our daughter’s name Christine Ruscoe was on the credits - she was the Production Designer (she is married, but has always worked under her “maiden name” - on BBC and ITV).

Well that put paid to any idea that they were part of an ancient South Shropshire family - it seemed that they too had come from Manchester, via Derbyshire. We arranged to visit them in October, and one afternoon in the hamlet of Strefford (just off the old Roman road, the A49) we found the White Cottage, tucked away behind another cottage. Norman was a typical Ruscoe - short and stocky, and we were made very welcome. He knew that his ancestors came from North Shropshire, and remembered visiting Prees, where the policeman’s house was pointed out. He had been born and met Ann in Manchester where they lived at Irlams o’th’Heights. There Christine had been born.

She had attended the Manchester High School, where Norman had been Treasurer of the PTA, and gone on to the Manchester College of Art, specialising in interior design. She had applied to the BBC and went to work for them, designing for a number of children’s programmes including “The Secret Garden” and “Doctor Who” with Tom Baker. Later she moved to Southern, and had worked in recent years mainly on the Ruth Rendell series.

It seems that she inherits her artistic flair from her father. He was a frustrated architect, studying to become a surveyor, and working up a large practice when they lived in Derbyshire. However, he had overworked his heart, leading to the attack that caused him to retire to Shropshire in 1970. Here he had been able to take up his art again, and indeed the cottage was full of his paintings. I am now pleased to have a couple of “Ruscoes” on my wall. This had proved effective therapy, and they had spent many happy years in the cottage. In discussion, it turned out that he had been employed as a government surveyor during the war, and spent some time in Bedford, where we now live, and we knew many places in common. He apparently designed the layout of the Elstow Storage Depot, including an earth bank at the northern end to protect the town from any major explosion if the munitions were ignited!

The conversation began to take a more detailed turn as we looked at his family tree, and he spoke about his father, and grandfather. He hoped to reach a good old age, as he had a good precedent on both sides. His great-grandma from Crewe had lived to be 100 - he showed us the King’s telegram. He remembered visiting her as a child, and told of her idiosyncrasies. They had a number of press cuttings, one of which was headed: “99 - BUT THOUGHT HERSELF 100”. This struck a chord - I was sure my father had spoken of his great-aunt Sarah being “Only 99”, and I had to go to the car and get out my files. There was my press cutting about great-aunt Sarah celebrating her 100th birthday in Crewe! On comparing the various cuttings there was no doubt that she was one and the same Sarah Pearson, in 1935 the oldest inhabitant of Crewe at the age of 100, and a native of Prees in Shropshire. Since her husband died in 1919 she had lived with her companion, a widow named Mrs Holland, who was a sprightly 86. Sarah had lived in Crewe for 65 years, her husband having come from Manchester to be a boilermaker in Crewe Railway Works.

Norman and Ann had assumed that she was previously married to a Ruscoe, and had married Joseph Pearson later, leaving her son in Manchester when she moved to Crewe. It now seemed that she was born a Ruscoe and Norman’s grandfather was probably born out of wedlock. This would have been quietly forgotten by Norman’s parents, if they knew of it, but Norman and Ann, being now very modern octogenarians are quite willing to accept it. It was interesting that none of the several press cuttings that their family had kept showed any reference to her maiden name, although they said she came from Prees. The cutting kept by my father said that “she was christened and married at Prees, and was employed at Marbury Hall Whitchurch, during which period her father, the late Mr George Ruscoe was a gardener at Hawkstone Hall. He died in 1872, and it was in the same year that Mrs Pearson married.” This tallies exactly with my records, and confirms that we were talking of the same person.

It also incidentally means that Norman and I are third cousins, as George and Ann are great-great-grandparents to both of us. In one visit we had identified the girl from my sister’s school, the TV designer from Dr Who, and from Ruth Rendell, and found a third cousin for me, and a fourth cousin for our respective daughters. So if you have a whim to contact someone of the same surname, even if only from the telephone directory, a school directory, or some other tenuous source, like a church guide book, take the plunge. At worst your letter will be ignored. At best you may find a lost relation, and more details of your family tree.

We have a family bible, given to great-grandfather George (the sailor), by his eldest brother John. The deaths of John and his wife Catherine are recorded in the bible. The census shows that John (b1831) was a 19 year old farm labourer living with his parents George and Ann in 1851, but by 1881 John aged 49 was Superintendent Police Sergeant, living at Woodville Cottage, Prees with his wife Catherine. So that was Norman’s “Policeman’s house”.

Oh, and why did Sarah go to Manchester in the first place? Maybe it was to hide her disgrace when the baby was born. But I am lucky enough to have a notebook kept by my great-grandfather George, her brother, when he was in the navy about 1880; at the back are one or two addresses of which one is Mr Abraham Ruscoe, 166 Bolton Road, Pendlebury, Manchester. From the 1881 Census he appears to have come from Shropshire, and is probably the younger brother of Sarah and George. We know that George first walked to Manchester and found work on a ship, only later joining the Royal Navy. Maybe Abraham had also gone there to work, and Sarah joined him, as her descendants also lived in this same North Manchester area. So don’t neglect any little notes in old diaries either!

A postscript: In 1995, Norman and Ann moved to Winchester to be near to their daughter Christine. Norman was already ill, and his condition deteriorated over the next few years, but we were able to visit them in their new home. Norman died at Christmas 1999, but Ann is still living in Winchester, with help and Christine to keep an eye on her. In fact like me Christine officially reached retiring age last year. She was busy during the autumn making a series of "Midsomer Murders", but I think she has now finished TV work.