It started with an ‘X’: How my family came to read and write.

My grandmother’s great grandmother, Mary Treeby, signed her name with an ‘x’ on her wedding certificate in 1794. Her name is from Old English meaning a curve in the river, dating from a time when people had toponymic names. She was marrying Joseph Daw a shipwright working in Devonport dockyard. I see from the records they had eight children. She most likely didn’t have much time or need for letters and figuring things out doesn’t need paper and a pen. The education act didn’t come in to offer all children a free education until 1875. Ten miles from where Mary and Joseph were married, across the river Tamar in Cornwall in my childhood home we have a sampler stitched by her daughter Eliza Daw in 1832. It has words sewn in tiny stitches: ‘Children to your creator God your early blessings pay, while vanity and youthful blood would tempt your thoughts astray’, a verse from a popular hymn at the time. Her great granddaughter my grandmother Lucy Jasper, learned to read and write in a room above the Callington West End chapel in the 1890s. She probably started working full time in the family bakery when she was twelve. She didn’t use long words in her weekly letters to me. She didn’t need to say things like ‘delightedly’ or ‘constructive’. She wrote on lined paper and she mentioned what she’d cooked for dinner, what the neighbours had been doing, and if she’d plucked a goose. And no we didn’t write about her feelings, ambitions, or fears.

Her son my father, drew letters in a tray of sand, then learned to write on a slate before progressing to copperplate script holding a pen he dipped in an inkwell. He milked cows before school and left lessons to work on the land at fourteen. He rarely wrote in his adult life but when he did, it was in an elegant cursive hand. Here is a flyleaf from my birthday present of a flower book when I was eight.

My mother from London studied for a degree after the war and had already trained to be a secretary like her mother. Her mother worked for an M.P. in the houses of Parliament, and used the civil service, ‘sit up and beg’, steel clacking typewriters. Mum inherited it when they were upgraded. She used it for five more decades and the steel letters hit the platen so hard, Mum could turn out a sandwich of four carbon copies. She liked to use a pencil for notes saying she could think better with a pencil. In the 1950s I was taught those looped copper plate letters too, but not with any enthusiasm. That style was falling out of fashion. At ten years old we all had to learn to use a fountain pen for our ‘joined up writing’. The pens with names like Schaeffer and Parker with their gold nibs were new technology and had to be filled from a bottle. We bought ‘Quink’ ink from the newsagents in Fore Street and carried the pen clipped in our top blazer pocket. I think in a way they were a badge to display our skill at mastering the written word. The new tech. of filling the pens apparently baffled some people when it first replaced the dipping pen and inkwell. Then we all began using the cheap ‘bic’ biros, the ballpoint pens invented in France by Marcel Bich. At college in the early seventies I learned to use a new plastic covered portable ‘Olivetti’ typewriter. When our children were teenagers, we bought a word processor which meant we could edit sentences, and that was a huge luxury. Then of course came home-computers, and now I even can speak to mine and it will write down exactly what I say… 

All mist correctly …

What would Mary Treeby have wanted to write to us from 1794 if only she had been able to. Far away, yet so close. It’s strange to think she may have handled the stitched fabric we still have in the family.

Published by marycane

A PhD student at the Elphinstone Institute Aberdeen Scotland. I am studying the experience of being a contemporary grandmother. In particular I am interested in how those grandmothers, whose family live far away, are passing on their family history.

One thought on “It started with an ‘X’: How my family came to read and write.

  1. Very powerful and how fortunate you are to have information like this about your forebears. This would make a lovely wee mini drama or video. We do take for granted that we can write our thoughts down for others to read.

    I can think……. I can write…….. I can read


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