It is five weeks since we Gathered in Thanet and I’ve been trying to recall everything but, in a way, it’s a bit of a blur. Did it really happen or was it a dream?
My brother John Jefferys (known as JJ) and I were due to meet Team Emptage members Tim Emptage and Pat Johnson at 3pm at St Peter’s Hall in Thanet on Friday 7th September. We had seen photos but it was the first time any of us would see the hall where we were to hold the Gathering’s inaugural meeting and buffet lunch the next day.
Thankfully, with no motorway holdups, JJ and I arrived at the car park in St Peter’s in good time. Pat and Tim arrived just afterwards, with Tim’s wife Alida and another Team Emptage member, Tessa Towner. We all went across to the hall where I went to introduce myself to Simon, the administrator, whilst the others looked around.
I had made an attempt during the summer to go and see both the hall and the restaurant where the Saturday dinner was to be held but had to abort my journey when I got stuck for two hours in the tailback of an accident on the motorway, on one of the very hottest days of the summer. So I had been somewhat anxious about both venues.
I needn’t have worried. St Peter’s hall was everything that we could have wanted. We planned how the chairs would be arranged, where the tables for the family trees would go and the buffet tables. Pat, who had spent many hours planning the buffet, was impressed with the kitchen facilities. We left, planning to reconvene at 9 am the next day to set everything up.
That evening, as I was leaving the hotel to go and collect JJ from where he was staying, I passed an older man heading for the lift. I continued on my way towards the door when a voice behind me said “Susan?!” I turned to see the man looking after me. It was Colin Emptage. He had recognised me because I was wearing the same jacket that I wore in the photos on the website of the dedication of the memorial stone to the crew of the lugger Victory. I haven’t got the words to describe how it was to meet with my mother’s baby brother (who is just nine years older than me) except to say it was wonderful. We hadn’t seen each other since I was just a toddler.
Being recognised by my jacket was the first of several surreal moments over the weekend.
After extracting a promise from Colin to join us in the bar later and having collected JJ, we walked into the bar/restaurant where Pat and several others were already ensconced. Over the course of the evening it became quite an animated corner.
I tried to act as the host and greet people as they arrived but that meant that sometimes I left conversations a bit abruptly as more and more people arrived. I gave up trying to introduce people and left them to introduce themselves. It was good to put faces to all the names I’d been listing over the previous weeks. There were lots of hugs with complete strangers but yet, as somebody said, nobody seemed to be a stranger. We were all family.
When Colin joined us, I introduced him as Mum’s baby brother, saying that I was not allowed to use the U word. Apparently, the next day at breakfast, Michele’s husband Ian greeted Colin with “Good morning Uncle.”
Some people came from the other hotels they were staying at but most were already at the Premier Inn. I think I can safely say that a good but noisy evening was had by all.
I seemed to be the last to leave the bar and walked into a scene in the hotel reception which made me stop in amazement. It was full of a large group of people all talking at once. The hotel receptionist was watching with a very bemused expression. I had told her about the Gathering when I registered that afternoon and she knew there were several Emptages staying there. However, I doubt that sort of scene happens very often.
I saw Pat and the others in the throng and then saw a tall chap wearing a Stetson. Aha! The five members of the Ohio contingent had arrived back at the hotel having been out to dinner with some Emptage contacts whom they already knew.
I finally made it to bed, all the organising stresses, including the nightmare of having not one but two printers breaking down in the previous two weeks, forgotten.
And then I was up bright and early to get to St Peter’s Hall at 9am, with attendees due to arrive at 10.30.
Pat said later that before leaving the hotel she had received a text message saying the food order would be ready to collect from M&S at 12 o/c. Hmm. Not if Pat had anything to say about it! She geared up ready for battle but, thankfully, when she arrived at 9am it was ready for her.
Planning how to transport and display the family trees had been the subject of much thought over the previous weeks and I had decided to divide them into panels: three trees with three panels and one with two panels, plus two smaller trees and mount them on display boards. Each panel was 33 inches tall by 23 inches wide.
I had left the trees, boards and other paraphernalia in the car overnight, hoping they’d be safe. There had not been time to mount the trees on the display boards before leaving home so once at the hall, Tim and Michele took on that job.
Unfortunately, though there were no indications to the contrary on the directions for use, the spray mount interacted with the foamboards and cause the trees to bubble. Luckily I had taken double sided tape as well so Michele and Tim resorted to using that.
Of course, I’d known for months that descendants of all four trees would be at the Gathering and that everybody would be able to find their line of descent on one of the trees but actually seeing the trees lined up along the wall and seeing those descendants arriving was a bit overwhelming.
As requested, some people came early to help set chairs and tables up. Every time I looked around it seemed to be a hive of activity.
JJ had set up a table near the door with the badges and lanyards laid out, together with the descendants’ packs, which included their individual lineages/potted histories from the top of their respective tree, a map of Margate and a chart so that people could work out their relationship to anybody with a common ancestor. As they arrived JJ ticked people off the registration list and let them collect their badge and pack. The badges included the attendee’s name, followed by Team Emptage if applicable, and the name of the tree from which they are descended.
The colour theme of the weekend, used in the badges, the napkins, and the decorations at the restaurant was turquoise and orange, the colours used on the website. Turquoise represents the sea around Thanet and its complementary colour, orange, is used for the headings to the articles.
Michele’s husband Ian had set himself up with a table and chair on the stage next to the audio visual controls. He had slides for Michele’s talk and Mark had brought slides for his DNA talk on a memory stick, which he gave to Ian. The screen was ready. Ian and Michele had made an introductory slide featuring old photos of St Peters. Ian asked me if I’d like a welcome message put across them, which he then did. Brilliant idea.
We’d asked for attendees to arrive at 10.30 but some were early. Several asked if there was anything they could do to help. Pat and Alida had taken up station at the serving counter in the kitchen, greeting people as they arrived with coffee, tea and biscuits. It was a good way to say hello to people.
JJ was absent from his registration post at one point and I saw some new arrivals pick up his clipboard, mark themselves as present and help themselves to their badges and descendant packs.
10.45 and time to call for everybody to take their seats. It was a tight schedule and Tim was sat in the front row to time the speakers so we didn’t go over schedule. I kept an eye on the clock on the wall, not wanting to be the one to be told to finish my talk, NOW!
As I stood out front and looked at them all (35 including me) the opening part of my planned welcome speech went straight out of my head. I just said, out loud “WOW!”
Having explained that DNA test results show that all of us there who are direct descendants of the Emptages are cousins, I asked all the Emptage descendants to stand up and meet their cousins. I was delighted to see two attendees reach across the aisle to shake hands. And I thanked their partners for giving their support.
It was with much sadness that I explained that David Emptage, who had done so much work on the family trees and without whose work there wouldn’t have been a Gathering, was quite ill and that he and Jo were devastated at having to cancel their trip from Melbourne, Australia. During the weekend a lot of people expressed their regret and said how much they’d been looking forward to meeting David and Jo.
I explained that it was David who had persuaded me to go to the dedication of the memorial stone to the crew of the lugger Victory in April 2013 and that I’d met Pat and Tim there. And that I had mentioned the website to them then because once I’d told them publicly I knew I couldn’t back out!
David had been due to talk about some of the problems he’d encountered in developing the family tree and so I referred to the problems with other people’s Ancestry trees. David had found James of Sheppey on some of those trees where, although he was noted as having died in 1841, James rather miraculously reappeared on some as listed in the censuses for 1851, 1861 and 1871.
I explained how we get back beyond the civil registration (1837) and censuses (1841) to the parish registers and how we sometimes have to develop hypotheses but that I will always make it clear when it is a hypothesis. I admitted that we don’t always get it right (thinking of the Henrys!) and pointed out that it is team work. We need others to be able to see what we don’t. I said there was a certain person there who I now call eagle eyes because she spotted a flaw in one of my arguments. (Michele later said that she ummed and ahhed for ages before plucking up courage to tell me she thought I’d got it wrong.)
I talked about the time difference between David in Melbourne, Australia and me in Cambridge, England, saying that I had no self discipline. This meant that I’d read his emails just before going to bed but then I’d stop and consider the puzzles he posed. And I’d think…I’ll just have a quick look… and how, actually, there is no such thing as just a quick look in family history. And that several hours later I’d stagger off to bed having emailed my reply to David.
I said that it is now Pat who is David’s right hand woman, helping him with the conundrums as well as digging around in Margate cemetery (records). And I referred to Tim being our roving researcher and military history specialist.
Then I handed over to Michele Martin-Taylor who is descended from the Barbadian branch of the Emptages/Emtages. She took us through the likely origin of the family in Barbados, the dropping of the ‘p’ in Emptage so that the name became Emtage and talked about what it was like to be looking at the old records in Barbados and how fragile they are.
The third speaker was Mark Emptage, guiding us through the results of the DNA tests, which show that the descendants of the four Emptage/Emtage trees all have a common ancestor, one who was probably born within the last 400 to 500 years.
Then it was time to go next door to see St Peter’s Church where so many of our ancestors from at least the mid 1400s had worshipped, had been baptised, married and buried.
It is an incredible building but, like all these old churches, it takes an incredible amount of money to maintain it. Copies of Gill Hogben’s book ‘The History of St Peter-The-Apostle-Church in Thanet’ were available to buy, with all proceeds going to the church funds.
For the group photo, we gathered on the village green opposite the hall. Andrew Emptage is a professional photographer and took charge. He set up his camera and tripod, with delayed timer and then ran around the group so he’d be in the photo too. People in the front row knelt down and displayed their lanyards and badges.
Then it was back to the hall to partake of the wonderful buffet. Pat had done a terrific job planning the spread, taking into account any attendee’s stated dietary needs or allergies. Alida helped her in the kitchen and they laid it out in the hall. The paper plates were interleaved with turquoise or orange napkins. It was a lovely spread and, as promised, there was a rather good looking chocolate cake though sadly, I didn’t find time to have any as I was too busy answering questions from people to eat much.
People were sat or standing in groups, chatting animatedly over their lunch, with groups forming and reforming. They were reading their descendants packs and looking at the trees lined up along the wall, pointing out their lines to others.
It seemed that everyone had arrived in good spirits, was prepared to join in the event and to enjoy themselves. The buzz of conversation, the knowledge that every one there was talking about their or their partner’s ancestry was everything that I’d hoped it would be and more. It made all the preparation, the organising and the hard work very worthwhile.
When time came to finish at the hall, I asked everybody to put their chairs back against the walls. I boxed up the display boards and people helped return the tables to their storage area. Without any prompting, I saw Jenny Sanderson wielding the floor mop.
We finished the clear up in good time for us to get back to Margate by 3pm, for the next event of the day, the visit to the lifeboat.
All the photos in this article were taken by team member Andrew Emptage.