A hero in the family tree

By Keith Newbery

Published on Friday, December 28, 2012 - 11:15


THIS ISLAND LIFE If you are fortunate enough to be an Islander, you will no doubt have been teased plenty of times about inter-breeding and the consequent predominance of mono-browed banjo players in some West Wight villages.

Such jibes are a price well worth paying for the privilege of hailing from God’s own acre — but I’ve discovered they may be closer to the truth than previously thought.

After all, it’s not often you’re lucky enough to discover the existence of a long-lost cousin.

It’s even more unusual to discover you have known, and liked, that long-lost relative for the best part of 40 years, while being entirely unaware of any family connection.

Perhaps I should explain.

John Laws is one of those people about whom no-one has a bad word to say. We played cricket together for Havenstreet for years and shared many a pint and even more laughs.

I would like to say we also shared many a long stand out in the middle but I’m afraid that would be stretching it a bit, on account of the fact he could bat and I couldn’t.

Our partnerships at the crease were, at best, fleeting.

But it was a pleasant surprise the other day when he sent me an e-mail, the gist of which was: "Oi mate! I think we must be related!"

It all began when one of John’s cousins, Keith White, visited Havenstreet and mentioned in passing one of his relatives, a certain Granny Newbery, whom he correctly believed to be buried in the village churchyard.

John’s ears perked up, the conversation developed, and things reached a surprising conclusion.

"It would appear," John told me, "that your great-great-great-great grandmother was also my grandmother’s grandmother!"

Now, that’s an enormous number of grandmothers for the human brain to absorb (and the number of eggs they could be taught to suck beggars belief).

But, if there are any expert genealogists out there with a few minutes to spare, Mr Laws and I would love to know how many times removed as cousins we actually are.

In the meantime, he has been quizzing his other cousin Keith for more details about our antecedence — and it would appear we come from sea-faring stock.

I have long suspected as much, because Brook churchyard is full of Newberys, whose names are just about discernible on lop-sided, lichen-covered gravestones.

Some cursory research has also revealed those whose surname is spelled 'Newberry’ are also likely to be part of the extended family, because grammatical accuracy was not all it should have been among the working classes in the 19th century and it was quite common for the odd 'r’ to go missing on official documents.

However, Cousin Laws has carried out more research and it would seem the aforementioned Granny Newbery had a daughter, Granny Hayes, who was John’s great grandmother.

Keep up at the back, because I’ll be asking questions later.

This is where it gets particularly interesting because Granny Hayes had a sister, Martha, who was married to a chap called William Rufus Cotton — who turns out to be an ancestor of whom John and I can be justifiably proud.

While not averse to a bit of smuggling, Rufus (as he was better known) was also coxswain of the Atherfield lifeboat, which played a key role in what has since been acknowledged as one of the bravest rescues ever carried out off the coast of the IW.

In 1892, the SS Eider, a luxury, steam-powered German vessel, carrying a crew of 167 and 227 passengers, ran aground on Atherfield Ledge in dense fog.

Rufus and his crew sped to the rescue but the skipper refused their offer of help because he felt sure his vessel — with the help of a few tugs — would ride off with the tide.

Early the following morning, Rufus had another go at making him see sense by warning the German skipper severe weather had been forecast.

His response was to ask the lifeboat to take some mailbags ashore, rather than the passengers.

The weather then took a turn for the worse and severe gales made rescue attempts increasingly hazardous, while all the while the ship became ever more deeply embedded on the rocks.

However, in an operation which lasted more than two days and involved immense bravery, the lifeboats from Atherfield, Brighstone and Brook saved everyone on board — with ten tons of gold and silver.

All the lifeboat crew received letters of thanks and congratulations from Queen Victoria and the three coxswains, including old Rufus, were each presented with a gold watch from a grateful German emperor.

I suspect it will take a genealogical wizard to pinpoint the precise relationship between me, Cousin Laws and the gallant Rufus — but either way we’re proud to claim him as one of our own.

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