Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ever have a deja-vu that you can never shake?

Ever experienced deja-vu that was so real you could taste it?

Family trips to Melton Mowbray were always something special for me. Whether to the swimming pool, where my sisters and I learned to swim, our Dad swimming sidestroke but teaching us the right way to go, or on special days during the school holidays, to Melton's cattle market, to see all the livestock from bantam chickens to huge bulls, squealing pigs, and gentle sheep and cows. Or the stalls on the streets of the town, selling cheese and clothes and all the sweets in the world, and the old pork pie shop and the bakers' scenting the air with freshly-baked, crusty bread.

Just a bus trip away from Syston, it's not really a surprise that the town became a hang-out for my teen friends and I, even more so as we all started to attend Melton's College, even before several of us moved there and rented a little terraced house with an outside loo and a cat called Oedipus. (We were drama students. It explains almost everything.)

We used to explore places that we shouldn't; tumble-down buildings that were scheduled for demolition, like the big house to the left of the bridge in this photo of old Melton; empty, abandoned, why couldn't it be made safe and pretty again?

There were other, less grand, abandoned houses that we explored, mostly around the area that is now paved over and rebuilt, the area of town that Norman Way now runs right through. These were terraced houses, workers' cottages, rundown, tumbledown, empty of the people who once called them home. Curtains behind broken glass, peeling wallpaper, a broken teacup; doors creaking in the breeze.

One day, I walked through the door of one of these abandoned, Melton Mowbray homes, and was struck with such a feeling of deja-vu that I can remember it to this day. The scent of the damp wallpaper and the cold soot in the fireplace. The way the light fell through the window. The sensation of moving through low doorways. The holes in the plaster ceiling. The floor, maybe it was flagstone, maybe quarry tile, I don't think it was wood. Being in a very a small room, and then another, out to the back of the house. Like I'd been there before, but I had never, ever opened the door to that house on an old street in Melton.

It's a strange feeling, that depth of deja-vu. Unnerving, even; yet somehow comforting, too. A bit like going home.

It wasn't until many years later that I obtained a copy of a little book about Syston's history. I was already researching the family tree, and was reading everything I could find about the town, and the copy of the book was already second-hand. The booklet is Syston As I Remember It, by Chris Gregory, published in 1992 and I think reissued in 2006, ISBN 978-0850223330. On page 12 is this picture:


I turned the page and saw this photo... and had the deja-vu, all over again. That was the house! That's the one that I remembered in the house in Melton! But why?

The houses don't look the same; the one in Melton was a red-brick terrace; this, an ancient cruck cottage, with a thatched roof and wooden beams. But... I saw this photo, and the sensation came back, even stronger than before.

I had never seen this photo before.

The cottages to the left of this photo were on Lower Church Street and would have faced the main door in the tower of St Peter's and St Paul's church. The cottages are long gone; they were replaced by the church hall and its car park. The cobble pavements are gone, replaced by tarmac and concrete. I had no memory of these cottages from my childhood or teen years, and I was on that street at least once each and every week of my youth. And yet: seeing this photo triggered what must be my earliest memory.

I was being carried through a tumble-down house; the smell of damp, peeling wallpaper, a forgotten picture on the wall, an old fireplace smelling of soot; curtains behind broken glass, a stooped doorway, a home empty of its people.

Grandad Fred Toon had a vegetable garden on the land which later became the car park for the village hall. The cottages were demolished very, very early during my lifetime. I think my Dad carried me through the abandoned cottage, to visit his father who was working in his garden. Maybe my pram was left in the street, in front of the cottage, and he just picked me up and carried me through, a short-cut to Grandad Fred.

That's where I think the deja-vu came from.

I could be wrong; this might all be my imagination, or someone else's story. All I know: I knew that cottage, and at some point in this life or another, someone carried me through it.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Continuing the family business: Fred Toon

Fred Toon obituary
Grandad, Fred Toon (1884-1975), eldest child of William and Annie nee Cook, carried on the business as painter and decorator. I wonder if he had any choice in his career; if it was what he dreamed of becoming, when he was a child? Did he want to do what his father had done, or did he have other expectations, cut short when his father died, leaving him the man of the house?

He played cricket on the village team. He was a member of the Syston council. He was in the British Army and went to India, sometime between the first and second world wars, leaving his wife Sarah Toon nee Riley at home to raise the children for several years, and then he came back home, and they made more babies. There is a photo, somewhere, of Fred Toon in his pith helmet, Army shorts and his ever-present moustache, somewhere near the Afghan border... I'll have to find that one again.

Grandad Fred (Frederick) Toon and grandma Sara Elizabeth nee Riley (1882-1962) had eleven children; Edward (Ted) being the youngest, born in 1928, father to my sisters and I.

High Street, Syston, 1890?
I always thought of the house on the Green, Syston, as being the Toon family home, because that's where all my childhood Toon memories are, but Ted Toon told us that no, that was only a later house; he and his ten siblings had grown up in a house next to the (newer) Methodist Chapel on High Street, Syston. The house had been demolished, and was once where the Methodist Hall now stands.

I found a photo of that house--or rather, the Methodist Chapel historians did, it's on their website, together with a history of all the Methodist chapels in Syston, including the one on Chapel Street where great-grandma Annie was caretaker. The chapels which at one time were considered "dissenting" because they were not Anglican, Church of England--more on that later, in a story about Richard Toon and Syston schools.

Fred Toon's and Sarah nee Riley's home was to the left of the chapel in this photo, on the corner of High Street and Upper Church Street, Syston. I wonder if that row of children in front of the chapel contains Toons? Wouldn't that be amazing!

William Toon, Annie Cook, and the painters of Syston (part four)

Blue ridged glass bottle for arsenic, Europe, 1701-1935 Wellcome L0057809

If you haven't read the other parts of this story, begin here at Part One and continue here at Part Two and Part Three.

William Toon, painter and decorator, died on 27th January, 1900, aged thirty-nine.

The story goes: he died of arsenic poisoning.

My inner, precocious eight-year-old, and probably yours too, goes all Agatha Christie. After all, together with cyanide, arsenic was her favourite method of killing people; more so than belladonna, strychnine, ricin or any of the many other poisons that the pharmacy-assistant-turned-author used. There's even a book all about Agatha Christie's use of poisons and a good review of it here. Think Miss Marple and 4.50 from Paddington. Think mystery and suspense and in the library by Colonel Mustard with a blue bottle of poison. Think murder!!! But... whoever would have wanted to murder my great-grandad William, father of ten growing children, in the village of Syston, Leicestershire, in 1900? And why?

It turns out, it's a lot more mundane than an Agatha Christie story. It's very much more likely that he was poisoned by the tools of his trade.

Arsenic was definitely a risk to a painter and decorator. In Victorian times, arsenic was used both in paint, and in wallpaper, to make vivid, beautiful emerald green. Green wallpaper contained it, though by 1900 it was pretty clear that this wasn't a very good idea. It's rumoured to have killed babies, children and Napoleon, so without doubt a risk to someone who worked with paint and with wallpaper every day of the week. (Today you can buy a paint called Arsenic Green, but I don't think the "lively, mint green" matches the original, and it doesn't contain the poison. This colour green feels more like it.)

Arsenic wasn't the only danger: another risk to a painter was lead. Banned in paint in France, Belgium and Austria by 1909, banned by the League of Nations in 1922, and phased out of household paint in the UK by 1960, I still remember my dad emphatically telling me to keep right away from the pink primer that he used on raw wood, because he worried that it still contained traces of lead. Everyone, everyone!!! knew that lead in paint was dangerous. Everyone. So imagine my horror when purchasing my first home in California, to discover that any "old" house was at risk of having lead in its paintwork. ("Old" meaning as recent as 1978. 1978!!!!!) Really. I still find that ridiculous... but then again, the USA is the country that in 2017 doesn't believe in global warming, either, so that explains a lot.

Great-grandad William Toon wasn't poisoned by anyone. He was just poisoned.

Death certificate, William Toon, Syston
I have his death certificate. It says that the cause of death of William Toon, Master Painter, was chronic plumbism, (chronic lead poisoning), uramia (indication of kidney failure), and convulsions (could indicate either lead poisoning, or arsenic poisoning, or both). I can find no record of an inquest, which would have been held very soon after a sudden death, and most likely would have been held in a local public house, as happened in the story of the Butchers of Syston. But a search of the newspapers, and the death certificate give no sign of an investigation. William's poisoning was chronic, not acute: it happened over a very long time. Annie Toon nee Cook may have been caring for a very sick husband well before the day that he died. Maybe she had more on her plate than we ever imagined.

Arsenic poisoning? It's much more likely that great-grandad William Toon, founder of the Toon painters and decorators business in Syston, was poisoned, over time, by lead and by lead alone. But as far as I'm concerned, arsenic isn't ruled out, and it still makes for a good, family, Agatha Christie mystery.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Willey now William, Toon, Annie Cook, and the painters of Syston (part three)

If you haven't read the other parts of this story, begin here at Part One and continue here at Part Two.

Willey, later William, Toon and Annie Cook were married in 1882, with first son Frederick, my grandad Toon, following shortly afterwards. Then, all the others: Alice Annie in 1883, Tom in 1884, Joseph Horace in 1886, Maggie, also in 1886, Walter in 1889, Mary in 1891, Lucy in 1893, Bertha in 1895, Olive in 1896, Alfred Walker (who the family called "Walker", carrying on the family name of his grandmother, Mary Walker) in 1898, and Albert, the youngest and final child, in 1900. Tom died in infancy; Bertha, when less than a year old. The other ten all lived to be adults, several to a good old age, including my grandad Fred Toon (1882-1975). By 1891, the family were living in a house on Chapel Street in Syston, I believe at the High Street end, close to the Wesleyan Methodist chapel building, as great-grandmother Annie was the caretaker of the chapel building later in her life. Living in William Toon's home on the evening of 5th April, 1891, were Willam, a painter by trade, his wife Annie and her sister Lizzie--a cap maker, together with William and Annie's children Fred, Annie, Horace, Maggie and Walter, a niece of Annie's aged one, also called Annie Cook... and baby Mary, William and Annie's latest daughter, who was just three days old! (And which was probably the reason for Lizzie Cook's visit, to help look after the family when the baby arrived.)

Here is the whole family, a few years later:


That's Annie Toon nee Cook seated at the front, Fred the eldest at the back with the moustache. I think the back row is Mary, Maggie, Fred, Horace, Alice, Walter and at the front, Olive, Alfred, great-grandmother Annie, Albert and Lucy. Though I might have mixed up Olive and Lucy, and possibly Maggie and Alice. The photo was taken on the day of Frederick's wedding to Sarah Elizabeth Riley of Queniborough, Leicestershire, on 6th June, 1907.

I first saw this photo several years back, shared by one of the Toon cousins but I had no clue who everyone was... recently another cousin shared it again and told me, that's Annie and all her children! Thank you!

 (And again... I have no clue who took this photo. If you have any info regarding ownership of the copyright, please let me know so that I can attribute it and beg forgiveness.)

William, Fred's father, Annie's husband? He is not in the picture. He's not in the picture, because he died on 27th January, 1900, aged 39, leaving Annie a thirty-eight-year-old widow with ten children to raise, not one of whom was of full age, and a Painter and Decorator's business to run.

In the 1901 census, great-grandmother Annie is listed as a Painter of Houses; son Fred, aged 19, is a "worker". Alice is 18 and a waitress in a cafe; Horace is an apprentice tailor. Maggie, aged 14, is an upholsterer's apprentice. They were not just working to make money; every one of them was learning a trade. The other children, aged 12, 8, 5, 2 and just one year old, were all either at school, or at home. I think we are safe in assuming that Annie Toon nee Cook had a lot on her plate. And yet... look at the photo above. A few years later, and all the children are growing up healthy and well cared-for, with natural, happy faces for this photo. I think she did a very, very good job.

But what happened to great-grandad William, to cause him to die so young? That's where the poison comes in. Wait for the next part of the story to find out more!

Click here to read Part Four!

If you haven't read the other parts of this story, begin here at Part One and continue here at Part Two.

Can anyone date this photo, or name the photographer? Syston in Leicestershire, England

Undated photo of Syston High Street from Pinterest (c) whoever owns the copyright
The photo is of the centre of Syston, Leicestershire, looking down High Street, the Fox and Hounds on the right, a water trough where the memorial was later placed and even later removed. The tall house on the right would one day become Todd's chemists' and then eventually morph into another business.

I wonder who the people are. Who the children grow up to be. Who their parents are. And what that strange device is in the middle of the street.

This photo was found on Pinterest here. I have used an image search to try to find the origin, with no success. It's not one of the Francis Frith collection--it is from way earlier than that, possibly from the time of this story about the butchers of Syston, and what happened in the Fox and Hounds, and it looks like it might even have been taken on the same day as the print that I have in my own collection, whose origin too is unknown. The boys are wearing the same white collars. The window boxes on the pub look the same. The awning over what-would-become-Todd's-where-I-would-later-work is open in both photos.

Can anyone identify the date, or the photographer, or another copyright holder? I would very much like to attribute the photo ASAP.

Does anyone have a higher-resolution scan of the original--this one pixellates when you try to zoom in, and I'd love to have a go at restoring it a little more. Contact me if you have any more info.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Willey Toon, Annie Cook, and the painters of Syston (part two)

If you haven't read the other parts of this story, begin here at Part One.

On 3rd April 1881, William -- I'll call him William from now on -- was living at home with his dad Richard, on Brook Street in Syston. Less than a year later, in February 1882, William was living on Northampton Street (or does it say Southampton Street?) in Leicester, a couple of doors away from his wife-to-be, Annie Cook, and they were married at Saint George's Church in the city of Leicester. At first glance, it looks like neighbours who fell in love and married.

That's what I thought, until I remembered to count.


My grandad, Frederick Toon, was William and Annie's firstborn. He was born in Syston, Leicestershire... on 14th March, 1882. Ooops. Yes that's just two weeks after William and Annie were married. Don't ever let anyone tell you that sex-before-marriage only happened after the 1960s. It's just human nature, and by British law, any child conceived or born outside of marriage becomes "legitimate" the moment the parents marry. In case anyone, anywhere is ever still worried about that--which I hope you are not!

Here's Frederick's birth certificate:


So how did William and Annie meet, if they were not simply neighbours in Leicester?

Annie Cook was born on 29th April, 1861, the eldest child of James Cook (1835-1914) and Mary nee Litchfield (1836-1910), in the village of Slawston, on the edge of Leicestershire, Rutland and Northamptonshire, quite a way from Syston. But her father James was a waggoner, driving a horse-drawn cart, possibly delivering goods around the county. Maybe he delivered wool from the farms of rural Leicestershire and Rutland to the new, growing factories in the cities. Maybe he delivered to and from Leicester. Maybe Annie rode with him one day to see the sights, or to look for work, and met her future employer, or maybe her dad arranged the work for her, because in the 1881 census, Annie Cook, born in Slawson, is living in Syston, and working as a domestic servant and cook at Wakefield House on the Fosse Road. She is working in the household of Robert Rowley, a hosiery manufacturer who was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, his wife Elizabeth, and their family of five children. I can't find the house on street maps today. (There is no street number on the census, just the name, which seems to have been forgotten. If you know, please let me know where it was, or is. I wonder if it was 99 Fosse Way, which is now a care home?)

Maybe William Toon was hired to paint the Rowley's house, and there met Annie? That would make sense... But then why were they both living on Northampton Street in Leicester at the time of their marriage, when it seems that all of William's life had been in Syston, Annie was working in Syston, and they were back there in time for Fred's birth?

Maybe Robert Rowley took care of them.

Robert Rowley had also established a business as a young man: his hosiery company was begun in Leicester, on Queen Street, in 1867. (Robert Rowley's father had moved to Leicester from Wisbech with his son, and worked in a wood yard sited on the same street as Robert Rowley's first factory. Was it a Walkers' wood yard? Because that would then connect not only with Annie's job, but also with William's mother, Mary Walker. Saving that idea for another story.)

St George's church, Leicester
St George's Church, Leicester
(c) NotFromUtrecht CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
And guess what? Queen Street, where the Rowley factory was, runs parallel to Southampton Street. Queen Street is right next to St George's church. Northampton Street is just on the other side of the church. Northampton (or Southampton) Street is where William Toon and Annie Cook were living on the day of their wedding.

Given that Robert Rowley was, by then, a very wealthy man--he left £813,931 in his estate when he died in 1936--it's quite feasible that he owned property on Northampton and/or Southampton Street, where the two could have been lodged for their wedding banns and marriage, just in time for Fred Toon's arrival. I'm only guessing... but it makes a nice story. A kind and rich benefactor for my expectant, unmarried great-greats.

(The night of 5th October 1911, the timber yard, Rowley's factory, and St Georges' church were all seriously damaged in a huge fire. The business recovered. You can read the story here.)

That's part two of the story: part three coming soon! It includes poison!!!

Click here for Part Three.

Willey Toon, Annie Cook, and the painters of Syston (part one)


For almost anyone who has spent time in Syston, Leicestershire, the name Toon is synonymous with "painter and decorator". (And cricket. Don't forget cricket!) An internet search will still find at least one Toon still involved in the painting trade... over 130 years!

When I was a child, I'd often see Uncle Cecil or Uncle George cycle past, caps on their heads, A-shaped ladders somehow safely tucked under their arms, a bucket of paint on the handlebars... or later, more likely driving a van with the family business name on the side. The house on the Green in Syston had a paint store in the back yard--the old stable--and an office at the front, with all sorts of things that I wasn't allowed to touch. Wallpaper rolls. Grandad Fred Toon's collection of sign-writing inks. He wrote several of the signs in the parish church, all gold calligraphy on black.

Grandad Fred wasn't born until 1882, way too young to have established the company in 1884. The story begins with his father, my great-grandfather, Willey or William Toon, and later with his mother, Annie Cook.

Willey (that's what he was baptised, and how his birth was registered), was born on 24th August, 1860, in Syston, Leicestershire, the youngest son of Richard Toon (1801-1886) and his second wife, Mary Walker (1824-1881). Richard was 58 when Willey was born; his youngest daughter, Mary Matilda, was born two years later. I believe that between Mary nee Walker and his first wife, Catherine nee Cooper, Richard fathered fifteen children, but there may have been one or two more, or one fewer. There's a four-year gap in children between Emma (1851) and Arthur (1855), and given that there had been a child at least every two years during each of his marriages, the gap must tell a story. Also, Fanny Toon, born about 1860, is listed as Richard's granddaughter in the 1871 census, but I haven't yet discovered her parents--she might be his daughter? **Update: Fanny is likely the daughter of son Henry, born 1830, a drum major.

3 Brook Street, Syston, dated 1686.
Photo copyright Alan Murray-Rust (cc-by-sa/2.0)
Richard and his family lived on Brook Street in Syston; Richard was a gardener. I don't know where he gardened, or if he was a flower gardener or a market gardener, but that's the profession that is listed on the censuses.

Most of the houses from that time are gone now, and I don't know the exact location of house on Brook Street where Willey was born (the censuses do not give a house number), but I imagine it was a cottage like this one which still stands at number 3 Brook Street, a small home which housed Richard, his wife, and as many of the children as fit and who had not yet left home. The house would most likely have been thatched: slate roofs were added later.

In 1861, the first time Willey appears on the census, there are five children at home; in 1871, five children of Richard and Mary's, plus Fanny Toon. By 1881, when Willey (now William) is 21 years old, there are only Richard, now a widower again and aged 80, William, daughter Ellen and granddaughter Kate (Catherine) Blankley, aged 22, daughter of Richard's daughter Charlotte (1836-1902) living in the house on Brook Street.

In 1881, William Toon of Brook Street, Syston, is still single and is already working as a painter. That's the beginning of the story of the Toon painters and decorators of Syston, before William marries and raises his own family.

For Part Two, click here!