My mum showed me this photo for the first time recently, and I was first of all struck by the fact that the man in the front – my great grandfather David Skinner Ramsay – always looks incredibly cheerful in photos. Great grandad was about 64 when this photo was taken. He was born in Dysart and seems to have spent his whole life there, working as a coal miner and dying in 1948 at the age of 71. He and his wife Mary Fisher were married for 50 years and raised seven children – six sons and a daughter.
He was a coal hewer - one of the men who worked at the face, cutting coal from the seam. Even by mining standards, it was considered a dangerous job.
His sons, including my grandfather (also called David Skinner Ramsay), followed him in to the pit, and it is my grandfather who is also in the picnic photo. He too looks happy – holding court with his family.
I recognise some of the others in the photo. My grandmother (holding the baby – my Aunt Sandra) is next to the pram and my great grandmother is the lady in the had with her back turned. I don’t know who the lady in the patterned dress or the girl on the far right are, but I’m sure the two little girls are my mother and Aunt Margaret and the girl in the dark dress holding the cup could be my Aunt May.
The other thing that stuck me about this photo is that the family is having their picnic in the middle of a field, surrounded by passersby and people just milling around — and they seem totally unselfconscious. Off to the left there are three women; hats, gloves and possibly a fur — obviously staring — and the Ramsays just carry on with their picnic.
It made me think about my childhood picnics and wonder what my parents were thinking.
My father loved picnics and even built a very clever portable table out of ply and timber. When opened out, this was large enough to seat our family of five and when folded away it had space inside for the little camp stools he also built, and the whole thing fitted in the boot of the car. Ingenious; but not exactly the wicker basket and tartan rug that other people seemed to manage with. I think at one stage we also had a little camp stove and kettle, so our picnics more resembled children’s tea parties than the “real” picnics” we kids had read about in stories.
Of course the other problem with the table-thingy was that it was really heavy, so we always had to picnic very close to where the car was parked (often actually in a carpark), with a consequent lack of atmosphere – not to mention privacy.
I think the era of the fold-out picnic table co-incided with my brother Craig and I entering our teen years, when family outings are a source of unendurable embarrassment anyway. I suspect that my mum really didn’t like picnics (sitting on the grass, bugs in the coleslaw, germs generally) and that they were a result of it being too expensive to take us all to eat in a cafe. The table was probably my dad’s attempt to make the experience better for Mum. For us it was social death.
During the “shoe down the river story“ sessions with the boy-child, amongst his favourites were my stories of family picnics. I suspect he thought I was making them up. After all, how many families really picnic right outside the Thames Fire Station – just in case an engine comes out? Or on the edge of a field where a game of cricket is in progress (because that’s where we could park the car – not because any of us was even slightly interested in cricket).
So looking at the Ramsay family, happily enjoying their sandwiches in the middle of the field, I found myself admiring both their lack of self-consciousness and the fact they seemed quite contented just sitting on the grass.
But for me, the best picnic ever was on top of Mt Hobson with the Big T; a bottle of wine, baguette, cheese, grapes and some very sticky chocolate cake. And not another soul in sight. Perfect!
Hurry: Roy Rogers waits for no-one
Since I agreed to become the family archivist, my mother has been sending me photos and objects that are somehow associated with our family. Given that her flat is scheduled for re-modelling soon, I suspect her motives are more about de-cluttering her place than preserving the past, but I’m grateful that she’s not just chucking everything into a skip.
The latest parcel to arrive included a cookbook that belonged originally to my maternal grandmother. I remember it being used when I was a child – mostly by my dad for making tablet. For anyone who doesn’t know, Scottish tablet is like fudge only much, much better.
I have no idea what the book is called or when it was published. For as long as I can remember, it’s been missing the cover and probably a few other pages. From the look of the illustrations, it’s probably from the 1940s.
I love old cookery books and this one is an absolute gem. I doubt I’m ever likely to make Potted Hough (a hough is the leg or shin of an animal), and I doubt the Big T would appreciate the recipe for Fried Steak which recommends cooking the meat for 15-20 minutes (until tender!), but judging by how stained the jam making pages are – these recipes are obviously really reliable.
Like a lot of old books of this type, it’s not just about cookery. There is a section on laundry – including care of your mangle, wringer and boiler (Chocolate Fish to anyone who can remember what a mangle even looks like), and even instructions on how to iron knickers (as if).
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is that it is completely devoid of “personality.” It contains no illustrations of the food, no anecdotes about the recipe and even without a cover to tell me its origin, it feels institutional – not personal. This is not a book which celebrates food; and that more than anything places it in more utilitarian times.
Mystery solved? Sort of …
Well done everyone who spotted the likelihood of this photo showing women in period costume. It seems the picture was taken in 1950 and shows a group of women from the Waikaka Branch of the Women’s Division, Federated Farmers. The Big T’s mother’s family farmed in Waikaka from the late 19th century until very recently, although I don’t recognise any of the names above as belonging to family members.
So although I know who the women in the photo are, I’m not sure why it was in the family album. Another mystery perhaps, of just one of those things?