Out Now!

Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Letters from South Africa

Not a troopship, but the photo (Liverpool Landing stage) evokes for me the moment Sergeant John Keyton went to war with the Royal Irish Rifles.

I've always been nosey. Every nook, cranny, or unexpected surface was always explored. It was in this manner my brother and I found our father's Service Revolver. We were children, still fighting World War II in our minds. Our mother came in to find me pointing the gun at my brother's head and pulling the trigger. I remember the click and my mother's cry of alarm. Luckily that particular chamber was empty and the gun was whisked away from us. It was never seen again.

One other thing I found was a small packet of letters in the cupboard-drawer of our living room. Something completely instinctive prompted me to copy them. Unfortunately I never finished. My dad came in and caught me reading one of the letters. These were private, I was told, and they were burnt. I feel a residue of guilt publishing them now, but I think they tell you more about the man and the time than any harm to his name.

When I read them now an old music hall song comes to mind: 'Soldiers of the Queen' It evokes an Imperialist past. The tune is both jaunty and melancholic, and even now can bring a tear to the eye.

There is love in the letters, a touch of gentle sarcasm in the second letter, but the third captures the nitty gritty of conditions in the field. Things don't change much in the British army.

By the way; the 'Mike' referred to in one of the letters is not me! I'm not that bloody old, or so biologically flexible.


My Dear B
I have received your letter and can only conclude that you are ill. Why do you not tell me what the matter is? If I have to take a dose of nasty medicine, I like to take it all at once. Now for goodness sake my dear B. Do not keep me in suspense. Let me know exactly how you are.
The has been some fighting outside here but the Boers.........? It will be something all the way to Pretoria.
Things are getting a little cheaper here, so I will be able to send you a little money. I am sending two pounds...wish you to buy something for yourself with it. I daresay with a few....you can write a long letter now as I must try and get to the Field Post Office as soon as it opens, or you may have to dream of your money. I might be detailed for duty as soon as it opens, so I will now conclude, giving my best respects to you mother Mary and Phil, Mike and Doris and family, Tom and Lizzie and family, and all enquiring friends, and write soon to your Affectionate husband.
2232 Serg. J Keyton
H.Company1/ The Royal Irish Rifles. South Africa Field Force.

May 14 1900

My Darling B
I have just received three letters from you. I had given them up for lost as the Boers had captured some of our mail. I have not received Mike's parcel, but that is nothing to be surprised at, as the major portion goes astray.
About bringing you out here, I find that I shall be able to come home but then I shall have to pay for my own passage out again, and that will leave a big hole in the thirty pounds allowed if I should remain in the country.
I recieve a house grant of lands and one shilling per diem for five years, and must put in 14 drills a year. But I will see how things are at home first. You say that a Warehouse man sounds like a Porter. There is a slight difference. The Porter gets about 8/-6d a day and the Warehouse man 15/- So there is a slight difference.
I am glad to hear that you are alright. I expected all the time that there was something the matter with you, and you might as well have told me about it. You would at least have been more in pocket for I should have sent you everything....

May 21 1900

My Darling B
Just a few lines to let you know that I am alright, in good health and spirits, hoping you are the same, and not forgetting the yonkers.*(children)
There has been some fighting here. We lost about 140, and last night they tried to burn us, but the grass here is about one foot high, sometimes higher, and they set it on fire. All the country was on fire for miles. It was a beautiful sight, but we stopped their little scheme by making another around our camps, and let it burn back. Everything, even the wind was against us, and we had a very hard battle with the flames but eventually succeeded.
The cold at night is fearful, the water frozen in our waterbottles and no chance of ... until the sun comes out and thaws it. We get our rations raw and it takes us about two hours to boil a canteen of water. We have only grass to make a fire with, no wood to be got anywhere, and the amount of grass it takes to boil a quart of water is so surprising. I am trying an experiment with cow dung today. I will tell you in my next letter how I succeed...Our blankets are about worn out. We have two a man and they are no thicker than newspapers, and at nights under them on the frosty veldt is something not to be forgotten in a hurry.
We marched to this place, stopping at Winburg...look around for ...and rifles. We had some very stiff marching. We have no news whatsoever of the... outside world. I sent you five quid (£5) and lost the receipt, so that if it went on the Military, you have a good chance of losing it.
I was expecting to be home for Whit Sunday but there is not much chance now, and I am considering whether I shall be home Christmas. It is rumoured that we leave in October. I have only on envelope so if I cannot send.....

This is the last letter we have. Sergeant John Keyton died in July of that year, leaving two children, one he'd never seen, and a very strong woman who loved beautiful things.
The next posting will tell the story of Bridget Agnes Keyton.

Liverpool Pierhead at the time of Agnes Keyton.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Sergeant John Keyton

Where John Keyton lived

When I was younger, on those days I didn’t have money for the pub, me and my friend Keith Davies would haunt Spiritualist meetings. Why? I have no idea: the curiosity of youth, fun, just a searching for weirdness perhaps, and spiritualist meetings were downright strange - at least to the arrogant and curious and young. I attended a big one in the centre of Liverpool hosting a spiritualist show straight from America. They came on a like James Brown with the Supremes as Backup. The black guy would holler and stomp, raising his hands to the ceiling pulling down spirits at random, and the ‘Supreme’s would chant in counterpoint.

“There is someone here - he wants to speak to you - oh he badly wants to speak to you. He needs to speak to you!” And the guy would point at some luckless, or lucky, depending… member of an audience, an audience already swaying to the pumping of exultant organ music. “He needs to speak to you!” the ‘Supremes’ shrilled, all three of them along with the sequinned medium pointing at one confused and excited face. The message was usually rubbish and vague but elicited bemused acceptance and ecstatic ‘Amens’ Me and Keith tried to edge our way to the front, desperate to be chosen, but on this occasion we were unlucky.

On another occasion I struck gold. It was a wet October evening and we went to a small spiritualist church in Anfield, or thereabouts. The room was small and quite narrow with wooden floorboards and wooden, foldaway chairs. There was a kettle steaming away at the back of the room, and at the front two middle-aged ladies were talking earnestly, their voices hoarse, and loud enough to be heard halfway down the street. The Medium was lost - couldn’t find her way - but she’d be here soon - in the mean time we could all have a cup of tea.

When the Medium eventually arrived she got down to business right away. In a thick scouse accent, she said: “There is somebody here…. a military man…. You brother, can you stand up?”

I had struck gold. She was talking to me. I hesitated.

“Yes, you brother. He’s standing behind you.”

I stood up in a flash. “I’m getting the name, John…does John mean anything to you.?”
I shook my head mutely.

“No matter…he’s a strong man, a soldier. He will protect you. He is looking over you.”

In retrospect and fancy, that was my first introduction to Sergeant John Keyton.

Sergeant John Keyton was born about 1866 in Bridgend, Glamorgan, Wales. We don’t know why, Bridgend, I mean. His father was similarly called John, his mother, Mary. They were born in Ireland. He had a sister, Mary A Keyton born in 1873, and a brother, William Keyton born about 1878. They all lived together with a 76 year old lodger called Mary Michinson at 10 Ho 6 Court, Whitley St. Liverpool. That’s the dry stuff out the way.

A lot can happen in five years.

In 1896 he married Bridget Agnes Tobin. As the name suggests, she was also Irish and born in Cork. In 1899 they had a daughter, Doris Keyton and in 1900 my father, Cyril was born. Sergeant John Keyton was killed in the Boer war the same year - and he never saw my dad.

He left behind Bridget Agnes who was thirty years old and a son he had never seen. In the 1901 Census they are listed as living in 15 Othells Street in the Parish of Kirkdale, Liverpool. She lived quite close to her parents in law John and Mary Keyton, who by this time were about 58 years old and lived as boarders in 27 Rockingham St. Kirkdale, Liverpool.

A photo, the word of a geographically challenged medium, and a few letters are all that are left of John Keyton. I shall publish the letters tomorrow.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Aristocracy derives much of its strength from memory and ancestors should be remembered. I often think of mine, imagining their pride, their love, impatience and sometimes how aghast they must be at our sins and mistakes. One day I will be amongst them. The Chinese knew more than we imagine when they worshipped their ancestors - or at least respected them.

I want this to be a memory of our ancestors, a memory that might grow as others in the family chip in and share what they remember. Different eyes see different things.
All our ‘stories’ were told by the fire, sometimes told while bread was toasting on an old, extendable fork. However long you extended it, the fire always seemed to burn your hand before the toast was done.

Neighbours, family, friends would drop in and we would listen - sometimes under the table when we were feeling shy, or involved in a dark and tortuous quest involving goblins, secret tunnels, later Germans. (By ‘we’ I refer of course to me and my brother. There was never enough room for our parents)

Our families now are scattered like dandelion seeds, prolific and geographically adventurous. ‘Stories’ are no longer told and names are without faces.
This is just one branch of the story and I am blogging it:

a) Because I want to write more than about myself (though I’m sure I’ll figure quite prominently) and because it’s the most efficient way for others to contribute how they remember things.

b) I’ll be writing for strangers, as anonymous as any later descendents, but with none of their interest in the doings of the Parry’s and Keytons, the Macdonalds, Thomas’s and Henrys, and God knows who else. So goodbye self indulgence and hello the discipline of keeping the story going and as interesting as I can make it.
c) My niece, ‘the doctor’ (she comes along much later in the story) is already working on a family tree. This might give her stories and pictures that she can add to it…fruit for the tree.

For me, the story begins with Sergeant John Keyton, pictured above.