5 years ago | Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor | 10th April 2018
Five years ago, I found myself on a local history Facebook group, in a conversation with a regular poster who knew a surprising amount about our family history. It led to the sharing of an old family secret that’s now available for anyone to read, for many years to come…
Stan Aspinall was the Facebook poster at the centre of this story. Stan is a retired teacher turned town historian who, it turned out, was in the process of writing a book about the history of Standish. As the former Deputy Head of Standish High School in its early days, he was also very well-acquainted with my grandma, Marjorie Bentham, a leading voice in the campaign to build the school and its first Chair of Governors.
We swapped a couple of stories about her and then it occurred to me that I had a couple of nuggets of information that I was sure would be of interest to Stan. The story I had in mind was a little delicate in nature so I warned Stan that it wasn’t really my story alone, to share so as long as there were no living relatives beyond our family, I was happy for him to include it.
A year or so previously, I’d become interested in genealogy and set up a family tree on Ancestry.com. As a result, I’d discovered all sorts of long-forgotten tales: the fact my Grandad had two older brothers who’d died in infancy (both called James – which is why he wasn’t); the story of Harold Latham who was killed in the First World War just over a month before the Armistice; and the story of Charles Ford Asbrey who left Standish, was called up in Australia and died in France after the War had ended, probably of ‘Spanish Flu’. I’d also begun to take note of several verbal recollections within the family.
And it was one of these whispered recollections that was the story I thought would be of interest to Stan. It concerned Ernie Bentham (1877-1945), my great-grandfather… …and his long-term extra-marital relationship.
In 1924, Ernie opened a Cinema in Standish – ‘The Palace’ – which stood where ‘The Hoot’ bar can be found today. Next door, was the sweet shop, run by a young lady called Hettie Charnock, who was almost twenty years younger than Ernie – and his mistress.
By all accounts, it was an ‘open secret’. In a close-knit village (it seems odd to use that word for Standish today but my Grandma always called it “the village”), everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business and anything as scandalous as adultery was almost impossible to keep secret. So why did the relationship last so long? And why did my great-grandmother, Margaret (1877-1955), appear to tolerate it?
One reason suggested was that Margaret had been left with “a disability” following a cart accident, around the time she was pregnant with my grandad’s younger brother Sydney. The story goes that she was aware of – and perhaps even gave her blessing to – her husband’s need to ‘stray’, as a consequence of it.
Had Miss Charnock gone on to have a family of her own, I don’t think it would have been fair to expose this story – at risk of being accused of besmirching a woman’s name, based on little more than rumour. But two things happened to remove such a concern. First, Stan was already well aware of the ‘affair’ and second, Hettie died, aged 100, in 1996, still known by her maiden name. That she lived for so long and never married suggests that she may have really loved Ernie, even decades after his own death. If I’d known all this, I could have even asked her myself – until the age of 23. That sort of realisation starts to make seemingly ‘ancient’ history suddenly begin to feel very real.
And so, with no reason not to publish, the story found its way into Stan’s book and a copy sits today on my bookshelf, waiting to be unearthed in decades to come by someone else who’d like to know a little more about their forebears. Far from being kept in the shadows out of mis-placed judgement and shame, I’m grateful to Stan for including the story – I found it helpful to my understanding of my ancestors and in a hundred years from now, I’m sure that sense of connection will remain just as strong.
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