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Lesley Garrett

Lesley Garrett

Musical heirs

Lesley Garrett was born in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, in 1955, into what seemed on the face of it a typical working-class family. Yet when she peered beneath the surface and embarked on some family history research, she discovered that a talent for music appears to have run in her family for several generations. She was delighted to learn that the musical gene stretches far back in her family, but was startled by another revelation about one of her ancestors.

Black sheep

The revelation concerned Lesley's great-great grandfather, Charles Garrett, who was a butcher, farmer and prominent member of Thorne Council. For years all knowledge of him was kept secret both from Lesley's father and from her.

Then Lesley's research into her roots revealed a sorry tale. It seemed that Charles might have killed his wife, Mary. He seems to have poisoned her with carbolic acid, which he gave her instead of the medication she should have been taking for her illness.

A coroner's report recorded a verdict of accidental death, but Lesley's research pointed to a somewhat different conclusion. She discovered that, despite his exoneration, his son Tom and daughter-in-law Mary cut off contact with him.

Talented musicians

The story of Lesley's maternal grandfather, Colin Wall, is also a fascinating one, though less dramatic. One of eight children, he was born in 1897 with a chronically weak chest. His father, William Wall, discovered that his weak chest would prevent him from performing manual work - virtually ruling him out of most suitable jobs in the future - so William took sheet music out of the library and taught himself how to teach his son to play the piano.

In December 1915, at an extraordinarily young age, Colin won a silver medal in the London School of Music exams. He went on to make a good living playing the piano with a small orchestra that accompanied silent movies at cinemas in the Sheffield area.

The end of the silent movie era also spelt the end of the bands that accompanied the films, however, and Colin lost his trade almost overnight. This coincided with the economic depression of the 1920s, and work was scarce. But he was determined to make his living as a musician, and by sheer persistence he obtained a job as piano-player at the White Hart Hotel in Thorne.

It was a bit of a come-down for Colin. He had been used to playing to well-dressed, well-behaved audiences, and here he found himself playing in a boozy pub. Lesley says that in order to make the job more fulfilling he would start work early, and play his favourite concertos and overtures to an empty bar, before the drinkers drifted in. Time passed, and so too did word of these impromptu concerts. Soon music lovers from across the area were making the trip to hear this talented musician play.

Lesley's grandmother, Elizabeth, was also from a musical family. Her father, Frederick, was a travelling musician. He travelled across the north of England in the 19th century, playing to workers in packed pubs and clubs in places such as Whitehaven and Maryport. He also appears to have lied about his age so convincingly that he was conscripted during World War One and was allowed to entertain the troops on the piano.

Once his itinerant days were over he settled in Rotherham, where he sold pianos. These were no longer luxuries, they were a common item in all but the poorest households, the source of an evening's entertainment and the focal point for the whole family.

Lesley was fascinated to find out about her musical inheritance, but she also discovered how, in amongst the intriguing and interesting bits of a family's history, it is often the discovery of a black sheep - with a story that could be lifted from the pages of a novel - that makes family history so exciting and surprising.

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