This post is about my English grandmother, Dorothy Bulmer, nee Dorothy Hermon Hughes.
Dorothy was born in Bangor in 1897. My father, Ralph Bulmer, was her eldest son.
Dorothy was very proud of her ancestors. Thanks to her, I know a fair amount about my family tree.
Two little girls
My story starts with two five-year-old girls arriving in the British Isles, 131 years apart. One is me.
The other is a little half-Indian girl called Charlotte Coostriah Denman. Charlotte Coostriah was Dorothy’s maternal grandmother. She is the outlier, the wild card in my British ancestry.
In a family full of solidly English and Welsh people, she’s the only person who wasn’t born in the UK. Charlotte was born in Mumbai (Bombay). She defied the odds to become my great-great grandmother.
It was raining heavily in the small town of Bangor, in North Wales. A sailing ship bound for Liverpool paused to let off two passengers, a man and a five-year-old girl.
William Denman and his daughter Charlotte Coostriah had been on board ever since India, and they were longing to step onto firm (if not dry) land. Charlotte was small and slim, with long dark hair, olive skin and bright brown eyes.
Charlotte and William were pelted with rain as they rowed ashore with their trunks.
They walked up the hill into Bangor, where Charlotte’s father hired a carriage to transport him and his daughter to his family home in Denbighshire.
William’s wife, Lasimal Coostriah, had died in India. He was bringing Charlotte to live with his father, Rev John Denman, and with William’s unmarried sisters, Elizabeth and Charlotte.
Charlotte had never met her grandfather or her aunts, and she had no idea what to expect of her new home.
Charlotte’s life of secrets began as soon as she arrived in Denbighshire. William Denman told his family that Charlotte Coostriah’s mother had been the daughter of the Spanish Ambassador. He produced a mantilla and comb, which he said had belonged to Charlotte’s mother.
Leaving Charlotte in Wales, William returned to India, where he worked for the East India Company. Charlotte never saw her father again. William Denman died later that year in India.
During World War 2 my grandfather, Kenneth Bulmer, visited Mumbai. He tracked down Charlotte Coostriah’s birth certificate. It stated that her mother had been a “native woman”. Also, there was no Spanish Ambassador in Mumbai in 1830.
I don’t know if Charlotte remembered anything about her life in India. If she did, she didn’t pass it on to her daughter (who was also named Charlotte).
At Easter weekend, the Northern Star ocean liner docked at Southampton. Amid the hundreds of passengers who had made the six-week voyage from New Zealand were three little children and their mother, a small American woman with blonde hair in a long plait.
The mother left her three youngsters on the dock, sitting on top of their navy blue trunk, while she went to retrieve the rest of their luggage from the ship’s hold. The eldest, Alice, was five years old. That was me.
My three-year-old brother, David, sat quietly on the trunk. But our little brother, Kenneth, was only 18 months old. I had to grab hold of Kenneth, to keep him from crawling to the edge of the dock. He cried and struggled, but I didn’t let go.
My aunt Rosemary came to meet us after we’d gone through Customs. She drove us to her home at Thornbury, near Bristol. We made a memorable detour to Stonehenge (because my mother was an archaeologist).
My father, Ralph, joined us at Rosie’s place. He’d been presenting an academic paper at a conference in the USA, thus escaping several weeks of ocean voyage with three children aged five and under.
I met my jolly Liverpudlian uncle, Ross Pownall, and my lively and friendly cousins, Ruth, Rachel, and their older half-brother Paul.
That night my brother David and I slept top’n’tail with Ruth (aged three) and Rachel (aged two) in their bunk beds. I’d never had so much fun in my life.
And then it got even more exciting! I received my first Easter eggs. We woke at 5am and started munching chocolate.
A car full of chocolate
After breakfast, my grandparents, Kenneth and Dorothy Bulmer, arrived to take us to stay with them at their home in Shropshire.
My grandfather had recently retired from his bank manager job and treated himself to a new car. It had cream leather seats.
On the way to Wem, I regurgitated chocolate Easter egg all over the back seat of my grandfather’s new car. It was excitement, plus chocolate, plus motion sickness in a car being driven fast along winding English lanes, plus the haze of cigarette smoke.
There was nothing I could do to make it better. I had let the side down.
I couldn’t eat chocolate for more than ten years after this.
Needless to say, my grandfather and I didn’t get off to a good start. I don’t think our relationship ever recovered. Neither did my grandfather’s car seat.
My grandmother didn’t mind so much about the car, but anything that upset my grandfather was stressful for her. In retrospect, I think he was having a post-retirement life crisis.
Shoeless in Shropshire
At the time I thought it was all my fault. But there were plenty of other factors that were likely to make this first meeting with my very conventional English grandparents awkward for all concerned, not just me.
One was our lack of footwear. My brothers and I had spent the six-week voyage from New Zealand running around barefoot. Our preoccupied parents had neglected to pack shoes for us. We probably also didn’t have other appropriate clothing. But the lack of shoes was the most embarrassing.
New Zealanders are very relaxed about footwear. But we quickly learned that nobody in England goes barefoot. People in the main street of Wem stared at the scruffy New Zealand urchins. A small boy pointed at us and said loudly, “Why don’t those children have shoes, mummy?”
The other elephant under the carpet was that this was the day my father introduced his new, exotic, American wife (my mother, Sue) to his parents.
When he’d last been in the UK, eight years previously, Ralph had still been married to his first wife, Ellaine, an impeccably middle-class Englishwoman. Since then, there had been a divorce – probably the first my conservative grandparents had ever encountered. (Like the Queen, they were going to see many more in years to come.)
Ralph had intended to present his new family to his parents with pride and dignity. Instead we were a throng of wild colonial children, scruffy, puking, shoeless and lacking in middle-class British table manners.
However, my grandmother managed to keep calm. My mother, Sue, felt welcomed by Dorothy, and described her as “sweet and gentle”. NB those are not words that anyone would ever use to describe Sue!
I saw Granny a few more times during that year, and on a couple of other visits to the UK. But I didn’t have long periods with her. I never found out if she was the kind of grandmother that I could have hung out with, played games with, and maybe sat in her lap.
Throughout my childhood and teenage years, she was thoughtful and consistent about sending birthday cards with loving messages and small gifts of money, deposited into my father’s National Westminster Bank account.
Finally I was able to spend extended time with Granny at Christmas 1980. By then she was in her 80s, a frail figure sitting in a big Edwardian chair. There was usually a tea tray on a small table alongside her, with a steaming teapot under a tea cosy, a bowl of sugar lumps, and biscuits.
Dorothy’s small living room was crowded with huge pieces of furniture that belonged in larger spaces. A vast portrait of her illustrious ancestor, the Archdeacon, glared out from one end of the room (there’s more about him later in this post).
I discovered that it was easy to talk to Granny, because she adored talking about family history. She was full of stories. And I was keen to listen.
At some stage I started taking notes. That was before I went to journalism school and learned shorthand. I kept the random messy pieces of paper in a cardboard box for years. I wish I’d been more systematic.
My cousins Ruth and Rachel lived next door and saw Granny every day. According to Rachel, she was a “lovely, cheerful and entertaining Granny and, while I sometimes pretended not to, I used to love going around to her house and listening to her stories.”
Ordinary and extraordinary
I’ve realized I know more about Dorothy’s ancestors than I do about her personally.
I don’t even know why she was called Dorothy.
Dorothy was known in my family as “Granny Wem”, after the small Shropshire town where she lived. Calling grandparents after their hometown seemed to be a custom in my father’s family. His grandparents had been “Granny and Grandad Holyhead” and “Granny and Grandad Bangor” respectively.
Dorothy was ordinary and conventional, by the (somewhat eccentric) standards of my extended family. She felt overshadowed by her clever, witty, intellectual parents. She didn’t think of herself as intelligent – she described herself as a “dunce” at school.
She did have musical talent. As a young woman she was a skilled pianist. But like many middle-class women of her generation, she gave it up when she got married.
Dorothy doesn’t seem to have aspired to be creative, adventurous or ambitious.
However, her three children, Ralph, Rosemary and John, were all remarkable individuals.
Ralph went to the highlands of New Guinea before settling in New Zealand. Rosemary (often called Rosie) was a midwife for the Flying Doctor service in the Australian outback in the 1950s and visited New Zealand at the time of my birth, before returning to Britain to accept a proposal of marriage and have her own family. John was a professional musician, a bassoon player, who emigrated to Canada, where he got married and had children.
A genius for friendship
Dorothy’s superpower was relationships and friendships. She was a people person, who thrived on social connections. She had a genius for making and keeping friends.
However, Dorothy had a severe shortage of close family to be connected to. I think this partly explains why she cared so much about her illustrious ancestors.
Dorothy was not just an only child – for most of her childhood she was the only child of her generation in both her parents’ families.
Her first cousin Annie, daughter of her father’s younger brother Arthur and his wife, Isabel, had died of diphtheria at the age of four, in 1900.
After several miscarriages Arthur and Isabel adopted Katherine Agnes, always called “Joy”, who was 15 years younger than Dorothy.
My Granny stayed in positive and consistent contact with her sons’ wives and ex-wives over the years, and consequently, with her far-flung grandchildren. This was no small feat.
I imagine that if she was alive now and half a century younger, Dorothy would be thriving on social media, happily hosting Zoom meetings and Facebook groups.
Dorothy was born in Bangor in 1897, the only child of Harold and Charlotte Hughes. Harold Hughes was an architect and archaeologist whose family had land in Dyfed, around Aberystwyth and Borth. His work included restoration projects on some of the great castles of Wales, and he also published papers on Welsh traditional cottage architecture.
Dorothy’s mother, Charlotte, was a clever, well-educated woman who had no outlet for her intelligence in Bangor. She used to spend all morning in bed, and according to my aunt Rosie, she was very jealous of her husband’s all-absorbing interests.
Charlotte wasn’t very maternal. Dorothy was raised by her Welsh-speaking nurse, Lizzie. Dorothy could understand Welsh, but was forbidden by her parents to speak it. In those days, children were beaten at school for speaking Welsh.
After Dorothy grew up, Lizzie married and ran a sweetshop in Conway. Dorothy kept in touch with Lizzie and also with her daughter Arwen and her granddaughter Cheryl Parry, who lived in Liverpool.
The war generation
Dorothy’s generation were young adults during World War 1. Dorothy spent the war years working for a government department in London. She relished the independence and the socialising – it was “half a lifetime of fun and games”, as Rosie described it. Dorothy complained that her parents were always trying to get her to come home from London. They would send telegrams claiming her mother was sick.
But after the war Dorothy had to return to her parents’ home in Bangor. She worked as her father’s secretary. Dorothy didn’t have a good relationship with her mother, according to Rosie. She wanted to get away from her parents.
But Dorothy’s prospects of getting married were greatly reduced. Many young men of her generation had died in the war. Also, according to Dorothy, her protective father chased off a string of boyfriends. He threatened to horsewhip one dashing but unsuitable suitor. Another time, he sent Dorothy off to farm college to stop her getting attached to a particular man.
Dorothy meets Kenneth
At the age of 24 Dorothy met a very attractive young man who worked at the local bank. A mutual friend introduced them at a dance.
Kenneth Bulmer was barely 16, handsome and charming. He was “enthusiastic about everything” and particularly interested in natural history.
Kenneth was the eldest of five sons of Julian and Caroline Bulmer, of Holyhead. Julian was the captain of the mailboat between Holyhead and Dublin.
I know enough about the Bulmer family to write another post. My great-uncle, John Rubens Bulmer, who was Kenneth’s youngest brother, worked on family histories for many years. Luckily for me, he also documented Dorothy’s family tree.
After a romance, then a three-year engagement, Dorothy and Kenneth were married in 1927. Kenneth was 21 and Dorothy was 28.
Not a domestic goddess
It quickly turned out that Dorothy wasn’t destined to be a domestic goddess. She found domesticity very difficult. It was partly because she had never learned how to cook or do housework. (This is something Dorothy had in common with my mother, Sue!)
Dorothy’s baking was a long-standing, unkind family joke. Her cakes always sank in the middle. Her signature recipe was a no-fail slice known as “fudgy biscuits”, a delicious concoction of brown sugar, butter and oats.
Dorothy and Kenneth settled in Hereford, where Kenneth worked for the National Westminster Bank. They had three children: Ralph (my father), born in 1928; Rosemary, born in 1931; and John, born in 1937.
Kenneth’s family suffered a terrible tragedy in 1930. Two of his four brothers died during a family holiday in Cornwall. Francis got into difficulty while swimming, and Cecil went to rescue him, but both drowned.
Dorothy had to stay in Hereford, caring for baby Ralph. She felt huge regret that she was unable to go to Holyhead to support her husband’s family and share in their grief.
Dorothy used her connections to get her sons into Christ’s Hospital, a famous Bluecoat charity boarding school. Ralph went off to boarding school at the age of 11. John followed, at the even younger age of 8.
Rosemary stayed at home and went to local schools, and kept her mother company. Her parents didn’t consider education was as important for girls.
Over the years Dorothy and Kenneth moved home several times, as Kenneth was promoted to different bank branches. At the time of his retirement he was branch manager of the National Westminster Bank in Wem.
After Kenneth died in 1970, Dorothy moved to live in a semi-detached flat next door to my aunt Rosemary and her family. It was in Gloucestershire, way out in the country. Granny didn’t drive, and she didn’t have any friends nearby. She was very dependent on my aunt. This caused huge strain on Rosie, who was also trying to hold down a job as a district nurse, raise a family and look after her husband. Dorothy died in 1982.
My cousin Rachel commented, “She [Granny] did not have an easy time of it, being so isolated – she was a very sociable person – and she and my dad used to clash a lot, particularly around table etiquette. She was determinedly middle class, and he was proud of his working class roots. I remember they used to battle over what to call the evening meal; to Granny it was supper, to dad it was tea.”
Both Dorothy and Kenneth had Welsh heritage. Dorothy’s father, Harold Hughes, had family ties in Dyfed, in the area around Aberystwyth. Kenneth’s mother Caroline’s family (their surname was also Hughes) came from Anglesea.
Harold Hughes’s father, Rev Richard Hughes, and his grandfather had both been Anglican ministers. His Welsh great-grandfather, Archdeacon John Hughes, “The Archdeacon”, was a famous preacher and local landowner.
However, Harold was the family rebel. He had no calling to be a minister. He trained as an architect rather than following his father and his brothers, Arthur and Cecil, into the Anglican church.
Dorothy was very fond of her aunt Bertha, Harold’s sister. Bertha Hughes, who never married, was a talented watercolour painter. My cousins Ruth and Rachel have several of her paintings.
Dorothy also had Anglican ministers on her mother’s side of the family, including the Denmans and the Bakers (more about them later on).
As the only direct descendant of Richard Hughes, Dorothy inherited family land in Wales.
However, in the 20th century when successive governments brought in land taxes and inheritance taxes, most of the family property had to be sold. The biggest and most valuable family farm, Llwyn Glas, near Borth, was sold to the distant cousins who had been tenants for generations.
Argoed Fawr, near Machynlledd, where my first cousin Ruth lives with her husband Phil Hughes and their son Arthur, is one of the few remaining pieces of family land.
Dorothy’s maternal grandmother was Charlotte Coostriah Denman, who was introduced at the start of this post.
Charlotte was raised in Denbighshire by her maiden aunts, Elizabeth and Charlotte. Her grandfather was yet another Anglican minister, Rev John Denman. The family was middle class, but not wealthy enough for the aunts to have dowries and get married.
I’m not sure how Charlotte Coostriah supported herself as an adult, but she certainly wasn’t languishing as a governess. According to my grandmother Dorothy, Charlotte Coostriah was part of the Empress Eugenie’s court (possibly as a lady’s companion and/or language teacher) when the French empress was in exile in England.
In 1887, at the age of 36, Charlotte Coostriah Denman married London architect Arthur Baker. Arthur was eleven years her junior. Dorothy’s mother, Charlotte Elizabeth Baker, was their daughter.
According to Dorothy, Charlotte Coostriah lied about her age to her husband, saying she was five years younger than her true age. He found out after she died.
Throughout her life, Charlotte Coostriah was careful to cover her face with pale make-up. Dark skin was very disapproved of in middle-class Victorian England.
Rosie said she thought the reason Charlotte Coostriah took so long to find a husband was prejudice about the colour of her skin.
Arthur Baker was described by my grandmother as a “very unworldly” man. When his daughter was getting married, he suggested she could just turn all her old clothes inside out for her trousseau.
Charlotte Coostriah inherited the Denman family jewels, being the only child of her generation in her family. She donated them to the Irish famine appeal. Her husband Arthur, on the other hand, gave bibles. (His father had been yet another Anglican minister.)
Dorothy’s father, Harold Hughes, was apprenticed as an architect to Arthur Baker.
Harold Hughes boarded with the Bakers. He proposed to Arthur’s daughter Charlotte after sitting in her living room listening to her reading from David Copperfield, the part where the character Dora dies.
The Hermons were the most entrepreneurial and financially successful branch of Dorothy’s family tree.
Richard Hermon was a prosperous plumber, glazer and builder who moved from Nottinghamshire to premises in London’s West End. His son Edward was even more successful.
My Granny used to say the Hermons had invented the flush toilet, but my aunt Rosemary thought it was more likely that they installed a lot of toilets, in the days when these were new, high tech luxury items.
Richard Hermon and his wife Susanna Owtram were the parents of Dorothy’s paternal grandmother, Agnes Matilda Hermon, who married Rev Richard Hughes.
Agnes Matilda was sketched by the famous painter GF Watts when he was 14. GF Watts came with his piano tuner father to the Hermons’ house.
I’ve inherited from Dorothy (via my aunt Rosemary) a couple of Hermon family heirlooms: a set of miniature paintings of my Hermon ancestors, plus a gold brooch which I’m pretty sure is worn by Susanna Owtram in the painting.
Rosie told me she thought I resembled the women in the paintings, with my fair-skinned, strawberry blonde colouring.
Sources for this post
The information in this post is based on notes I took during conversations with my grandmother Dorothy in 1980; with my aunt, Rosemary Pownall, in 1986 and 1988; and with my father, Ralph Bulmer.
Big thanks to my cousins Rachel Harvey and Ruth Hughes, who read an early draft and made helpful suggestions and corrections.
I am indebted to my great-uncle, the late John Rubens Bulmer, for his family trees with accurate names and dates.
There are also pieces of family lore from Dorothy that I can’t substantiate. Like, the family connection with Fred Astaire. I’ll include that in an update if anyone can show me some proof!
More about grandmothers
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