Growing the family tree

One of Crewe’s most prestigious factories was the backdrop for a romance that started Diane Dyer‘s family, but it was the passing of loved ones that encouraged her to delve deeper into her family’s history. Her quest for information saw her become an integral part of a society that seeks to preserve the past for future generations…

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a Diane Dyer 6x6“The first 20 years of my life were spent around the West End, living on Goulden Street, Barnabas Avenue and finally on Burlea Close. After school I wanted to be a nurse, following in mum’s footsteps. She had trained at the old Memorial Hospital on Victoria Avenue. She called the newly built Leighton Hospital a ‘biscuit factory’ because people were processed, in one door and out the other. So she wanted me to study at North Staffs, but I discovered that I’d have to move over there to complete the training. That put me off, as I’m too much of a home bird to leave Crewe. So that was that.”

With travel out of the question it was a case of picking through the limited choices open to young Crewe adults in the mid-1970s. “There weren’t too many options when I left school. You either worked in a shop or an office. I applied to Rolls-Royce but they turned me down – because I was too quiet! I went to General Relays on Underwood Lane, working all day with a pair of pliers making telephone equipment. It was soul-destroying work but it paid £20 a week. Luckily, a month later I got a call from Royce’s asking if I still wanted a job. I was shocked but delighted. It meant a pay cut, but the prospects were much better. So I started in the planning department, then spent a few months in other areas – as all starters had to. Oh, and making tea for hundreds of people formed a large part of the day! I eventually got a permanent place as a typist in the planning area and that’s where I met my husband, Paul. I used to walk to work down Sunnybank, but he’d often pick me up in his mini.”

Married in 1979, the family looked set to grow. But it was the loss of relatives close to Diane that eventually started an interest in the past. “The family research began after my great grandmother’s funeral. She was buried at Crewe Cemetery and there was a huge get-together at The Imperial on Edleston Road. You see so many relatives at those occasions and they seem to know all about you. Aunties, uncles and cousins all say hello and tell you how much you have grown. You remember faces but the details are fuzzy. So I started trying to piece things together, assemble a family tree. It was just our immediate family at first, but I found some of it fascinating and I wanted to complete the bigger picture. I was working at the time and also expecting my first child, so the research was put on hold.”

b nan warwick sIn fact, it would be four years before the project resumed. The death of a grandfather and, soon after, her closest grandmother was a traumatic period but drove Diane to find out more. “My mum went back to work when I was young, so I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She taught me everything from cooking to knitting. Even when I left home and married I’d go and see her regularly. We were very close. It was a shock when she died and it felt as though a piece of me had been taken away. We had been trying for another child and she knew that we wanted a bigger family. So when the twins arrived nine months later we considered them to be a present from her. While they were at nursery school I met a couple of other mums who told me about a local group, the South Cheshire Family History Society. They met on a Friday night at the Christ Church Hall so we decided to make a night of it. To begin with it was a bit of fun, a social thing. People would meet half an hour before the formal presentations and also hang around after to chat and make new friends. They were all really helpful and they pointed you in the right direction to help your research. I hadn’t expected it, but I was hooked from day one.”

c Coppenhall cemetery in autumn, October 07 s

It was a casual arrangement at first, but within a few years Diane became formally involved. “They were always looking for volunteers. Initially, I helped out with some typing, updating details of monumental inscriptions. We’d get hand-written notes from other members and we entered the information onto computer. That was fine because I could do this while the kids were at school. My first proper project was up at St. Michael’s in Coppenhall, and then later I did similar at Whitehouse Lane Cemetery in Nantwich. The headstone inscriptions are fascinating and offer so much more than simple dates and names you find on official registers. So capturing this kind of information is an important source of data that people can reference when looking to make connections from the past. You always have to go back to the original source, and that could be the headstone. It’s so very sad that graves are often left to deteriorate and often disappear altogether. Unfortunately, when families move away, there is often nobody left to tend and maintain the graves. The council has a duty of care to look after the cemetery, but actual plots belong to the families. They are responsible. So what we do is important. You get ancestors from all over the world visiting and looking for information that they haven’t been able to find on the Internet or in books. So the ongoing work to catalogue these personal details is vital.”

The society has operated from three bases since its formation, but always in the heart of town. “In the 1990s I’d say that around 60-70 people attended the meetings at Christ Church. Because the numbers grew they moved to the Salvation Army Hall across the road, but this meant that the night we met had to change and a few people couldn’t attend. So numbers dropped off a bit. Then in 2009 we were given another new home within Crewe library, which meant we were close to more research tools and also accessible to people. We like to call ourselves a learning resource; somewhere people can come and chat. So we’re not quiet. That’s why we’re tucked away in our own room! The group is predominantly older people as they tend to have more time, but we do get younger members coming along – just as I did nearly fifteen years ago.”

d Family History Society at Crewe Library, September 09 (15) s
South Cheshire Family History Society at Crewe Library, September 2009

Although much has been achieved and documented, the work is far from complete. “Being involved with the society has introduced me to a lot of local history, so I suppose my love affair with Crewe has blossomed as I have uncovered more and more. There is no official archive in Crewe, and much of the information, photos and other records are held by private collectors. These people are passionate about the town but the wonderful collections are spread all over the place. If they could be brought together, in a central location, it could be a fantastic resource. So if I have a longer-term objective then it’s to see somewhere created that people can visit, get hold of the details they need and perhaps learn about the people who have made Crewe what it is today. I hope I can help to achieve that.”

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