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How your ancestors can take on new life.

Byline: By Jane Hall

Before the advent of the welfare state, the only option open to those who had fallen on hard times was the workhouse.

This was the fate that awaited Charlotte Davies in 1881 when, as a terrified seven-year-old, she found herself incarcerated in such an institution in Bedford.

As a teenager she was sent into service with an upholsterer and his wife.

Sold into domestic servitude, Charlotte could only dream of living the luxury lifestyle enjoyed by her wealthy employers' above stairs.

Yet by the 1920s, Charlotte was chatelaine of her own large house, boasted a wardrobe full of fur coats and was the proud owner of a motor car.

Her remarkable transformation from servant to lady of the manor might have remained a secret, however, but for the efforts of Susan Lynn.

It was while tracing her family tree that the 57-year-old former mayoress of Gateshead discovered the truth about her paternal grandmother.

"I was always told that she was an orphan and that she had been raised in an orphanage attached to a nunnery. Then through my research I discovered she had in fact been sent to the workhouse in 1881," Susan explains.

"It was a real surprise to turn that bit of information up ( the story I had been told was so different from the truth.

"It was obviously something that people were ashamed of, however. In those days the workhouse was the only place for you if you had no family or found yourself on hard times.

"Great efforts seem to have been made to gloss over my grandmother's early life.

"I was 15 when she died in her 90s, so I can remember her fairly well, but this was something I knew nothing about."

Susan has as yet been unable to trace Charlotte's history beyond 1881, so is unsure why her relative ended up in the workhouse. But she did have a mother and father. "Charlotte was not illegitimate, that I do know," Susan says. "As to how and why she was sent to the workhouse, there was a big depression in England in the 1870s, so that may be the reason.

"I am incredibly proud of Charlotte. She was able to turn her life around through diligence and determination."

Charlotte's dramatic change in fortune seems to have occurred when her master died. "Her mistress came from Gateshead and that's how my grandmother came to be up here.

"She met my grandfather, Joseph Gunn, who was a wharfinger (wharf owner) in North Shields, and they married, having one daughter and four sons, including my father Harold.

"In the 1920s they seem to have decided they could secure a better river frontage if they moved from Shields to Gateshead. By this time she and my grandfather were very affluent. It would be fair to say my grandmother had come a long way from very humble beginnings."

It's the sort of story that anyone researching their family tree would love to turn up, although Susan admits when she first began digging into her past four years ago she harboured dreams of finding the odd lord or duke among her ancestors.

"But I think we are from a long line of sturdy peasant stock," she concludes with a laugh.

Susan, who is married to Gateshead Labour councillor and former mayor David Lynn, 64, and has two children, Nathan, 28, and Fiona, 30, who live near their parents in Winlaton, was first encouraged to start investigating her family when her own mother died six years ago.

"People start talking about things and you realise how little you know," Susan says. "My father died when I was in my 20s but my mother only died six years ago.

"When we were sorting through her things we found my maternal grandfather's First World War medals, and that sparked an interest in me to know more about my past.

"It's unfortunate that you often only become interested in these sort of things when there is no-one left alive to ask.

"I found myself becoming increasingly interested in what my ancestors had done for a living ( and how they had lived."

Susan, who retired in February this year from her job as an insurance broker, was born in Gateshead and raised in Gosforth, Newcastle, before returning to the south side of the River Tyne when she married David 35 years ago. His family hails from County Durham.

Her research ( which takes up two to three hours of her time a week ( has revealed that her family has been Tyneside born and bred for generations, with its roots lying firmly in North Shields.

"My father's side were wharfingers and my mother's side were block and mast makers ( Harcuss & Stroud, based in Liddell Street, North Shields. It was Mr Harcuss who provided the third wooden dolly for North Shields in 1864 situated next to the Prince of Wales pub on the fish quay.

"A custom grew up where all the sailors used to take a chip of wood from the dolly of the day as a good luck token before a voyage."

Susan has so far traced her ancestors back to the early 1800s, and plans to present her findings in two books to her children.

She has found the internet as well as parish records and the information offered by the main libraries in both Newcastle and Gateshead, indispensable.

"The internet is wonderful as you can get the census returns, and from there send away for birth, marriage and death certificates which have more information on them.

"Once you get back to 1831 you have to start using parish records. There are also directories of businesses which help if you know your family ran their own firm.

"It does get harder the farther back you go, and there will come a point where I can't trace back any more, but all the effort is worthwhile."

Susan's interest in her family has also opened up a new post-retirement avenue. She has found herself becoming increasingly interested in Gateshead's past, and is a member of both Winlaton local history society and the Friends of Blaydon Burn.

Last year she also trained to be a guide, and this week led her first 90-minute walk along Gateshead quayside as part of the borough's local history month.

The initiative offers the chance to find out more about the history of areas such as Birtley and Wrekenton. Events between now and the end of May include a Local and Family History Fair, the chance to have a go at making rag rugs, Prominent Victorians of Low Fell and What's in a Name ( the story behind some of Gateshead's street names.

Gateshead Council and the local police will also be under the microscope in History of Local Police Forces and the Mayors of Gateshead Council.

There's also the chance to trace the history of your house ( another area of historical research many are becoming increasingly interested in ( as well as the gruesome sounding Graves, Coffins and Plague walk starting at St Mary's Church on May 14.

Susan believes Gateshead's local history month is an important event. "I think there is this need these days to know about our past.

"People move around such a lot now, often hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their family, and it's good to have a sense of place, a sense of belonging, and to know where you come from."

* For more information on Gateshead Local History Month and events planned call either (0191) 477-5380 or (0191) 433-2420. You can catch one of Susan Lynn's walks on either June 4 (Gateshead Quayside) or June 10 (Blaydon Burn).
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 6, 2006
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