Couple’s labour of love uncovers the secrets of a seafaring family’s past

Caroline and Michael Rochford
Caroline and Michael Rochford
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WHEN Caroline and Michael Rochford walked down the aisle of a Yorkshire cathedral on their wedding day last year, it was a typical beautiful white wedding.

The bride wore a gorgeous strapless dress, Michael was suited and booted and the service was followed by a hotel reception – all expected of modern-day weddings. But the seeds of this young Wakefield couple’s relationship and marriage were sewn nearly a century before. And the history behind the present day bride’s tale is a bittersweet love story with undertones of Edwardian snobbery, social aspirations, shame and the rigid class system.

Millions of people love period dramas such as the current ITV hit, Downton Abbey, along with the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? where celebrities trace their family trees. We are gripped by the lives and loves of the aristocracy and those below stairs, as they cope with the rigid social mores of the day.

Like so many people inspired by such programmes, Caroline’s family was researching its ancestry when in 2007 Michael rented a neat terraced house from Caroline’s aunt. At the time, Caroline’s parents, Christopher and Ruth Brooks, were tracing the maternal line of her family history. Ruth’s ancestors’ illustrious past were well documented and, more importantly they had a stash of papers and diaries to show it.

Graphic designer Caroline, 27, knew her great, great-grand father Arnold Jabez Hargrave was a sea captain who was part owner of a schooner, The Western Lass, despite living in land-locked Wakefield. In 1905, he took his son Arnold junior – then aged just 14 – on a year long sea-faring expedition around Europe and as far as Canada. The young Arnold kept a diary of what must have been a true boy’s own adventure, penning on May 17, 1905:

“This morning at 8am, we were rounding Cape, St Vincent, having had a splendid run from Uushant, North of France. One day we registered 202 miles by the Long, I assure you it was splendid going. At 8 bells, our Captain came on deck and ordered the Mate to shorten sail so it was, ‘pull, boys, pull,’ until the work was done and then the Captain said, ‘The watch can go below’. So it was into my bunk I jumped and had a good sleep, and what surprises me is that I have not yet felt any sea sickness.”

As they enter Cadiz, he noted: “A great number of Spanish people here speak very good English so there is not much difficulty in getting about as one can always get an interpreter.

A few days later, he reveals: `We have got our ballast discharged and on Thursday morning we commenced taking in a cargo of salt (7am) and I can tell you that the Spaniards know to heave salt on board with wooden shovels. It was an exciting day and very hard work. We finished loading at 4pm having taken in 86 lastres of salt. A lastre is equal to 2 ½ tons. Yesterday (Friday 26th) I was on shore again.”

By the end of July they were in Herring Neck, an island near Newfoundland, Canada, and he quaintly explained:

“We encountered dense fog for about a week and passed numerous icebergs and arrived here on July 6 having been 40 days at sea. Herring Neck is a fine harbour formed by islands and arms of the sea spreading in various directions. The Merchant has large stores for the Fishery, also a factory for tinning salmon and lobster. There is a nice church (Church of England), a Wesleyan Chapel and a Salvation Army Barracks. The people are homely when you get to know them.”

After a year at sea, father and son returned home and following a brief stint at school, young Arnold trained to be a plumber. So far so good for Caroline’s search. But just as Michael got to know her and her family, he heard Caroline’s dad talking about the impasse he had reached in his research. “By now, Caroline and I had started dating, after being introduced at a family party. I quickly fell in love with her and as we chatted one day, I just said, ‘I bet I can find your ancestors’,” explains Michael. “We had a week’s holiday and within days, I had it all mapped out. I found it easy and fascinating. I think it helps that I have a good memory.”

The young couple unearthed a love story that was probably typical of many across Edwardian England. The Hargraves were lower middle class, living in a sturdy red-brick Victorian semi in Wakefield, appropriately called The Anchorage, and employed at least one maid. The wider family was wealthy, owning houses and even a large clothing store in the city as well as having a square named after them.

But the socially aspirational Hargraves were shocked when Arnold junior fell in love with a factory girl, Lilian Hant, who – to add to the shame – was illegitimate.

“After marrying in 1915 at a local chapel, Arnold was disinherited from the family’s wealth,” says Caroline. “But he was a principled man and while working and raising his two children, he was also a local city councillor,” reveals Michael, 31. “But they were poor and we have since been told the more senior Hargraves softened and would buy good quality shoes for Arnold’s two children but I think they continued to shun Lilian.”

Arnold kept diaries sporadically throughout his life and one from the early 1930s, just as the Depression seeped across the UK, could well be written today. Work was sparse for Arnold and with an already impoverished family to keep, he notes on August 5, 1930: “Signed on at Labour Exchange. Got five days work at Curry’s.”

The couple were married for 59 years before Lilian died in 1966 and Arnold in 1974.

“Despite all they had going against them, they remained together till the end,” says Caroline.

Michael, who gained a theatre studies degree at the former Bretton Hall drama college, was stuck in a dead-end office job while he decided what he wanted to do as a career. “I was bored rigid but unsure what way to go.”

Caroline says: “He was so good at doing our genealogy that I suggested he have a go at doing it for other people so we started going to craft fairs. That’s where we got our first order.”

By now, they were living together in Wrenthorpe but Michael was hesitant about giving up a secure job. “Then a close aunt of mine died and she left me some money – I used that to set up the company – another example of our ancestors threading their lives into ours today,” he says.

Caroline came up with the name for the business – Heir Line – which specialises in genalogiocal searches as well as probate work, like that seen on BBC’s Heir Hunters series. Business gradually took off, enough for Caroline to come into the company using her creative skills to set out clients’ family trees in hand bound books if they wish.

Michael says people are more interested in their family history now than ever before: “We all want to know where and who we come from. Stigmas such as illegitimacy, poverty and marrying out of your class are part of history now. It’s easier than ever to track your family tree though people come to me because they get bogged down about where to look or don’t know how to go about it.

“From my home office, I now help people from all continents trace their origins. The world has become a much smaller place.”

The couple made their partnership official in all senses when they wed in September 2010 at Wakefield Cathedral. And in a twist worthy of any TV drama, they have since found out more family information. “It turns out that Lilian’s ancestors worshipped and were baptised at the cathedral so where we stood to make our vows was probably the spot that many of Caroline’s once-maligned ancestors had also been,” says Michael. “It was a nice feeling – family life came full circle that day.”

For more information, see www.heir-line.co.uk or contact 01924 314363.