Looking out from the past
A photograph of three generations of Harrisons taken in 1914 prompts a look at my fatherâs family who may have lived in Oxfordshire for a very long time.
Letâs start with the gentleman with the beard, thatâs Nathaniel Harrison my great grandfather, an Oxford man. Town not gown.
I can see my father in Nathanielâs face as he looks out at us from the past, with his wife Maria Francis by his side and his eldest son, my grandfather in the boater, Nathaniel William and his family on his right.
Born in 1836, Nathaniel with the beard worked as a rent collector and clerk, then a coal merchant and finally a chiropodist. He lived with his wife Maria Francis in Pembroke Street, Cowley where Nathaniel with the beard did his chiropody.
Nathaniel with the beardâs father was also christened Nathaniel. So, for the sake of clarity we will call the first Nathaniel, âNat senior.â
Nat senior was born in Lidstone near Enstone, and Enstone is where we can trace the Harrisons back nearly four hundred years to one William Harrison, a yeoman farmer born in the village in 1626. It is tempting to step further back in time and guess that if the Harrisons were in Enstone at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the population tended to stay rooted in one place, then there may well have been Harrisons in Oxfordshire for a very long time.
Situated on the main Oxford to Stratford road, Enstone is certainly an old, old place. Just South the village is the Hoar Stone which predates the Roman conquest and there is the site of a medieval village near Lidstone. The church at Church Enstone, built on Saxon foundations, is dedicated to the ninth century Anglo Saxon saint St Kenelm, an uncommon dedication.
Age, though, is no insurance against change. The Industrial Revolution and the coming of the railways diminished the traditional industries of coaching, farming and milling, forcing many villagers to leave Enstone in search of work.
We know that by 1841 Nat senior and his family were no longer in Enstone. From about 1859 until 1870 they lived at Holywell Mill in Oxford where Nat worked as a servant at Magdalen college and as a corn miller.
In 1864 Nat seniorâs third child, Nathaniel with the beard married Maria Francis in Holywell Parish Church. The father of Maria Francis was one William Hart Baxter who was the head gardener and curator at the Oxford Botanic Garden, as was his father before him.
The older Baxter, William Baxter (1787-1871), transformed Britainâs oldest botanic garden from âwretched and inadequateâ to four and a half acres of tranquil beauty. To prevent the garden from being flooded by the River Cherwell Baxter raised its level by ten inches and from 1831 he worked with Professor Charles Daubeny on building a laboratory, rebuilding glasshouses and installing pools and fountains. In one of Tennielâs illustrations in Aliceâs Adventures in Wonderland (1865) we see the dome of Baxterâs glasshouse behind Alice as the Queen of Hearts screams, âOff with her head.â
Between 1834 and 1843 William Baxter published British Phaenogamous Botany or Figures and Descriptions of the Genera of British Flowering Plants. In six volumes Baxter gives detailed descriptions of the flowering plants of Britain with reference to the classics, and to contemporary publications on which Baxter had also worked. The books are illustrated with 509 plates, over 200 of which are by Isaac Russell, a local draughtsman and glass painter. Baxterâs daughters and daughter-in-law were responsible for colouring the illustrations.
So that is the Baxter line. My father, not born when our photograph of Nathaniel with the beard and his family was taken in 1914, recalled visiting âGrandma Baxterâ on Sundays. She was aged 85, he said, and wore black.
Dadâs dad, my grandfather in the boater, was the Oxford architect Nathaniel William Harrison (1865-1944). Born in Holywell, Nathaniel William was the eldest son of Nathaniel with the beard and Maria Francis. Before he married Nathaniel William travelled to the continent sketching traditional architecture as he went. Some buildings that he drew in Belgium remain, other wooden structures in Germany, one suspects, no longer exist.
Nathaniel William was estate architect to St Johnâs College, and in the year our photograph was taken, designed with his brother Gilbert, William Baker House, the five story structure of glass and steel at the corner of Cornmarket and Broad Street which today houses the Oxford branch of Waterstones. During the Second World War Nathaniel William was responsible for collecting the iron railings in the city for the War Effort.
In 1909 Nathaniel William married Jeannie Watt Fulton in Bearsdon, Glasgow, the Fultons (like the Baxters) being a Scottish family. In our photograph we see Nathaniel William with Jeannie and the two eldest of their four children, Janet and Kathleen. Neither of their two younger children, Ronald or my father James, had been born when the photograph was taken.
Nathaniel William and Jeannie both died in 1944, the same year that Ronald died of tuberculosis and my father, James, was injured in Normandy.
The children in the picture, Janet and Kathleen, are both dead now. My father, James, died in 2011. Maria Francis, grand daughter of William Baxter the botanist, may have passed away in the 1920s, and we might guess that Nathaniel with the beard who looks out at us from the past, died first. Like me, my father may never have met his paternal grandfather.
â˘ With thanks to my cousin David Harrison who began his invaluable ‘History of the Harrison Family of Oxfordshire’ in 1978, long before the conception of Who Do You Think You Are.