It’s been over fifteen years since I was back in Liverpool where my mother’s side of the family (all Welsh) have been coming and going since at least the early 19th century. The city was a magnet for the Welsh and the Irish and then sent them abroad in their millions over the past two hundred years.
My great grandfather, Peter Daniel Bywater and my grandfather Samuel Thomas Woollam both left here for parts unknown (PD for America, ST for New Zealand) and came home to die (PD at 83 in 1927, ST at 63 in 1930). I was determined to use this latest venture to find them.
Using what scraps of information I had from my mother and my grandmother, along with their death certificates, I tried Samuel first. A librarian at the Birkenhead Central Library, contacted by phone, searched a number of cemeteries in the Wirral and found no trace of him. I had to make a choice: go there myself, yesterday, or try for Peter in Liverpool. I knew he had died at Wavertree in 1927, so there was a good chance he was buried either at Toxteth or Allerton (I’d forgotten my mother had told me Allerton years ago – it came back to me later).
So early yesterday I took the train to Chester from Bangor where we are staying till Saturday, then on into Liverpool Lime Street and the Central Library around the corner to search the Burial Registers. The research librarian on duty convinced me to try Toxteth, and after a series of frustrations – the fiche machine jammed, the roll ran out in 1925 and 1927 was missing – they took me to the reading room and I pored over the original register in white gloves and silence.
He wasn’t there, nothing in March 1927. Feeling a bit defeated, I went back to help desk and the new librarian suggested it was Allerton Cemetery for Wavertree – and a light began to come on. I thanked him, found the right reel, with a the help of another user got the fiche threaded and we rolled.
Then there he was in a tiny crabbed hand at the very bottom of the page and hard to read: Peter Daniel Bywater, Reg. No. 20537, (83 yrs), 1 Ash Grove Wavertree, private service, Order Number 19460, Section 8, Plot 461, Owner: Mary Bywater, Died 2 March 1927. My heart leaped up. Now I had him.
I had a coffee downstairs in this magnificent library, a testament to the social sphere, the public life, and a magnificent refusal of Thatcherism and it’s deification of the private realm of achievement and ownership. I plotted a train journey to South Parkway, the station next to Allerton, sped off on foot to Lime Street and took the train. I was well aware time was against me, it was midday and I still had to search on the ground.
Once at the cemetery, with no sexton in attendance (“This Facility is now Unmanned”) it was hard to locate the specific section, as there were two section 8s! All I could so was try to follow the diagram of the cemetery plots at the gate. I took a picture of it and used it as a map as I walked, zooming in on the image which became increasingly fuzzy.
I spent a good half hour in the wrong place, after getting some directions from a bunch of gravediggers. I began to think I might not find the grave – it’s a huge place. I consulted the map again and headed in what proved to be the right direction – but when I got close, I couldn’t tell which was Section 8.
I headed back to where I thought it was and spotted two more gravediggers. It was starting to rain. One of them (I came to know later was called Andrew) said “It’s over there, go over and I’ll come and help you when we finish here”. Bless him – I had been headed away in totally the wrong direction when I saw him, and I thought to ask again.
I made my way over in the direction he had pointed and came to the Nonconformist section (not C of E, or Catholic); Andrew buzzed over, got off his wee quad bike and started searching the rows. At first, I gave him the wrong number (in the 800s) and so we couldn’t find it – till he said, “I thought you mentioned it was in the 400s?”.
I must have told him the right number when we first spoke; I was tired and confused by then, I guess. So I looked in my pack and found “401” – and he walked towards it, checking the backs of the well worn old headstones. Then suddenly, I saw the name before he got there: Bywater!
I was so overcome, I wanted to hug him. It was pissing down by then, but we took photos, I gave him a fiver for a beer (he refused, I insisted), we shook hands and off he went. Lovely Scouse man.
It poured, it poured on me and all creation: how emotional a sky can be. It may have been over 70 years since our long lost loved ones have had a visit.
On my own, I cried. It was so lonesome, seeing them, seemingly forgotten and neglected there – but I had come, and so they were not forgotten. I prayed, mourned, picked some holly off the nearby tree to put in the urn, took pictures and gave thanks. It was quite a moment.
How would I feel if 85 years from now, I sit here at this desk and wonder, if a 65 year old great grandson from far away came across the world to find my grave and found enough human connection over time to weep for me – a stranger?
So – I was getting wet and cold, and had to leave. I planned to walk from there up to Hunters Lane and the Bluecoat School at Wavertree where my Mum and Nanny had lived. I started off with damp determination – it was about an hour’s walk, I reckoned. Then the rain kept coming down, my shoes and trousers were soaked, so I gave up on that idea and walked back to South Parkway Station near the cemetery and headed back to Lime Street.
I had found great grandfather, great grandmother Mary, my aunt Lillian and my mother’s cousin Anita, known only before as a tiny child in my Nanny’s family album. Anita who died in 1943, whose father the German Jew Carl Hasenburg had been murdered by the Nazis, she who I now knew from the gravestone had married a Christopher Fincken – what was her fate?
The dead may be dead, but they still have a voice, they still have a story – thank God for the power of literacy and the persistence of memory. And now my next stop, Caersws in Montgomeryshire, where PD was born and where (I think) his father John, a local schoolteacher is buried. If I can find him, we will be back to great-great-grandparents and that much closer to ourselves.