Welcome, friends and neighbours. Take a seat near the fire. Help yourself to some punch, or tea, and of course a slice of this fine cake.
The sun’s set this Christmas Day and, as you know, in the time of our ancestors this was when people gathered round the fire to tell stories. Often ghost stories. And the Christmas tale I have to tell has many grisly moments. But it certainly is a story about a Christmas.
Picture the scene. It’s Sunday, 30 March, 1851 in a small house in Gwynn’s Place, Hackney Road, in the poor area of Bethnal Green, east London. Are we getting a whiff of Dickens?
The Harrington family is being enumerated for the new census. There are my 3x great-grandparents, Thomas, a local man, hard and muscled from his work as a dock labourer. His wife Julia, a year older, from Ireland originally but with her bloom worn off by childcare and misfortune. And their girls, Hannah, a dressmaker aged 16, schoolgirl Rebecca, 14, and little Celestina Christina, 5.
Or… that’s what you’d think, looking at some transcriptions and family trees. But look more closely.
That’s right, it’s not Celestina Christina, it’s Celestina Christmas. A different surname. She’s a visitor. A cousin or a friend’s little girl, perhaps. She’s too young to be 14-year-old Rebecca’s playmate.
Well, that was the end of the story of Celestina for me, for a while. I was too preoccupied with finding Gwynn’s Place (I did) and working out just when and how Rebecca, my great-grandmother, left Hackney for New South Wales (I haven’t yet).
But Celestina, as we’ll find out, may be easy to put away, but not so easy to keep hidden.
Refill your glasses, friends, and come back soon to find out just what I mean by that…