Sunday, 24 January 2016

A Family History Odyssey - Dedicated to the Memory of 'Cousin' Mick Cole

Time passes by quickly. Too quickly more often than not. But pass by it does all the same.

Exactly 3 years ago to this day on the 24th January 2013, I wrote this blog post about finally making the leap into exploring my family history after years of prevarication.

Since then, those tentative first few steps into my own genealogy have turned into a project so vast and never-ending that it has become a significant and very happy part of my life. Shamefully, I have not committed as much of that research and learning down in writing in this blog as I should have, save for the odd irregular article over the past 36 months. I hope to put that write and blog more about this research as time continues moving on.

But 3 years on, it's important for me to remember and commemorate the man who started it all off in the first place.

'Cousin Mick'
As that initial blog post of 2013 stated, it all begun earlier via a photograph of Martletwy Church that my father had taken in Easter 1962 and which I posted here in my blog on its 50th anniversary in April 2012.

Read the comments to that post from April 2012 and you will see that within 2 days, it had garnered a response from a Mick Cole in Barry. Who was this? It was all new to me but I replied days later.

On the 15th April 2012, I wrote...
"I'm hoping to catch-up with a distant cousin Max Cole in Carew who I gather has a family tree of Benjamin's side of the family and am keen to follow that up with a catch-up with cousins on Maud's side who now live in the Loveston/Begelly area".
Of course, like all good intentions, it never happened but then my reply went unanswered for over 9 months and no doubt I would have forgotten about this fleeting connection and been distracted by something else to excuse finally making the leap into the research.

Then, as our conversation thread in the comments re-commenced on 19th January 2013, it turned out that Mick had met my Dad's sister, my Aunty June, down in Martletwy previously. Suddenly, I was alert and intrigued! He not only spoke a good game about Cole family links back to my homeland, but he'd clearly made an effort to make those connections a reality.

So when Mick asked how my own research had been progressing since our previous communication 9 months earlier, my reply was...
"The research hasn't really got going yet such has been the pressure of work commitments but your contact has spurred me on again to look into it".
This time, there was no prevaricating. I started asking my mother questions on Dad's family and thanks to Mick's contact, I was spurred into signing up with within 48 hours, on the 21st January 2013. My first blog post was to follow 3 days later after initial research had been completed.

Researching with Mick
So it's absolutely bang on the money to state that it was Mick's contact that finally pushed me into researching my family links. The comments in the thread mentioned above give a reminder of that and the timescale says so.

But Mick didn't just start the research off - he became an integral part of it.

He had been doing his own research for some time and was keen on more visits back west to Pembrokeshire where he had spent some of his youth around Manorbier. So he did and over the next two and a half years, we would regularly meet up in west Wales to chew over the latest piece of research - to lock our heads together to see if we could make a breakthrough and to visit the locations of our shared heritage.

We first met within a few months in the spring of 2013 on the occasion of Wales Vs England in the 6 Nations Championship decider. We met at the Carew Inn for lunch with Mick's lovely wife Nikki and we moved on to Tenby where we'd all booked in for the night. We watched in absolute delight in the Crown Inn on Lower Frog St, as Wales thrashed the English 30-3 to not only end their Grand Slam hopes, but to steal the championship from under their noses! The Guinness flowed, the banter did likewise and a life-long friendship was well and truly formed.

When we weren't together, we'd send e-mails back-and-forth as we tried to make more progress. Mick was brilliant. He would come up with crackpot theories about what may have happened with various 'lost' family members. I'd learned with the research over time having made my own mistakes along the way, to treat everything with caution. Half the time, Mick's theories turned out to be as crackpot as they sounded. But the other half of the time, he struck Gold. Certificates would be purchased to prove what he believed to be be correct time and time again but his best find was to make a contact with a very distant Cole relation to a family now living in America. His proof was good but I just didn't see it stacking up. I was very cautious and kept batting away his firm opinion on the matter. That was until I found a travel document back to Wales in the 1920s for one of this American family's descendants and it saw her return to the very address in Pembroke Dock where her maternal aunt had lived for decades. Unbelievable - Mick was spot on all along! We since made contact with a living descendant, Ted Wilson in Kentucky who was delighted at our research and connection. We are now firm Facebook friends.

Over the following visits, we'd trudge our way through cemeteries and graveyards, enjoy the odd curry and sup a good pint or three as we spoke about not just old family, but our own families, sport and politics. He'd often rib me about being an Aston Villa fan - couldn't blame him!

Most of our visits centred around Pembroke Dock. Having barely set foot in the place since I was a child, I came to greatly look forward to our get-together's there. At the heart of it were our regular visits to the 'First and Last' and the 'Welshman's Arms'. Beer, live music, banter with the locals and in the latter, Henry the huge Irish wolfhound wondering 'round the bar - what more could you want?! Perfik!

A Lawrenny Family Reunion
Throughout all of our discussions, we'd always had the idea of organising a family reunion of our family back in Pembrokeshire. As the research developed, it was clear that it would take time to organise something of note.

 By Xmas 2014 we had set Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend aside for the venture and booked the marquee at the Lawrenny Arms. Sadly in the interim, Aunty June passed away peacefully aged 79 in the March.

But in her memory and for all of those who had gone before, we continued with the plans and we had a great time as over 30 family members travelled west to meet for the first time in decades if not for the first time ever. New photos came to light and new, unknown corners of the family story became evident as a result. This was particularly so for our Mick.

The two page article republished here is that which I wrote for Pembrokeshire Life on the back of that successful get-together.

Goodbye Cousin Mick
It came as a great shock when I received an e-mail from Mick on Armistice Day last saying that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had only been given 6-12 months to live.

He remained upbeat and was even talking of 'one final trip' back to Pembroke Dock in the New Year. Sadly, it was not to be. Mick passed away peacefully at home in Barry just 7 days later aged 65. I've lost close and dear family members during the past year but losing Mick so suddenly was numbing. The article which I had written for Pembrokeshire Life had just been published in the November edition. I had told Mick of this by e-mail but I never got to send it to him to read in person.

We'd not even known each other 3 years but when it came to the family research, we were as thick as thieves. We were a double act, bouncing ideas off of each other and helping the other with their research. With hardly any warning, he was gone. All of those plans of further joint escapes, were not to be.

His funeral mass in Barry was a lovely service and Nikki and his boys Sam and Jack did him proud. He always spoke so highly of them all when we were together and it has been great to have got to know them all over the past 3 years as well. Sam and Jack spoke movingly and amusingly of their father at the service. I give them immense credit for doing so because when I lost my father suddenly aged 20, there was no thought that I could say something in his service. But not only did Sam and Jack speak of Mick, they also touchingly mentioned his and my friendship over recent years in their eulogy. It was truly humbling to know through them, that their father took as much enjoyment out of our joint ventures as I had done.

To 'Cousin Mick', I miss you greatly. The family history research that began so tentatively after your initial contact has now swollen to make a family tree containing over 11,000 names. didn't just make it happen, you made it fun.

It won't be the same without you Mick boy but I will continue as we would have done and everything I do now, I do so in your memory.

Thank you Mick.