Life story shared by Nick Cooksey
I first found out that I had a relative buried in Reading Old Cemetery in November last year. Georgina, a family friend, had been researching my dad’s side of the family and discovered that my Great Great Uncle Frank Cooksey and his wife Alice, had lived in a house in Hamilton Road in the late 19th Century. Frank was an auctioneer and estate agent and in the 1890s and had premises at 17 Market Place in the centre of Reading.
As they had lived so close, it occurred to me that it was possible that Frank and Alice had been buried in the cemetery, so I made an enquiry with the Bereavement Services and was informed that there was indeed a family grave there. However, I was surprised to learn that it belonged to neither Frank or Alice but to an Ellen Rose Florence Cooksey who I hadn’t heard of and hadn’t previously been known to any other members of my close family.
One Sunday in December 2022, my dad, my brother, Georgina and I, visited Reading Old Cemetery and located Ellen Rose’s grave. We were somewhat surprised and disappointed to discover that it had no headstone and appeared to have no inscription either. It seemed to consist solely of a rectangular border of thin stones that had sunk into the surrounding turf.
Following our visit, Georgina researched further into the story of Ellen Rose. In her words, ‘She seems to have had a sad little life. She was born in Hackney. Her brother died at birth. Her mother (Ellen Margaret) died when she was 8 and her father (Thomas) died when she was 11. It seems likely that she was then taken under the wing of her uncle Frank Cooksey and Alice who had no children of their own. At the age of 13 she was a boarder in a school in St Giles Reading and by the age of 16 she was dead.’
It would seem apparent that Ellen Rose was Frank and Alice’s niece and that they had taken custody of her and that they had sent her to a boarding school. After more research we discovered that this was Summerbrook School in Redlands Road.
Rose was listed on the 1891 St Giles district census as resident at Summerbrook School aged 12, along with 25 other students and 2 domestic servants. It is likely that she started there in 1890 after her father died in December 1889.
According to Georgina, the 1881 Census had revealed that the school had a head mistress, 2 English governesses, 2 music governesses, 1 music teacher, 1 housemaid, 1 cook and 34 students, all boarders. It is interesting that 10 years later the teaching staff were no longer listed as resident at the school. By the late 19th Century many schools for middle class girls had introduced subjects such as maths and science to their curriculums, but there was still an emphasis on subjects such as language, music and art. Therefore, we at least have an idea of the kind of activities that could have been occupying much of Ellen Rose’s time.
Summerbrook House was one of a string of fine houses that once stood along the east side of Redlands Road behind the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Greenlands, Lower Redlands, Sedgehill and Hollington neighboured Summerbrook until they were all demolished to make way for the expansion of the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Intriguingly, sections of their front walls would appear to survive on the east side of Redlands Road.
The crumbling length of wall bordering the site of Summerbrook could be a tantalising fragment of a place where Rose spent much of the time leading up to her death and this started me thinking about how little it would likely be possible to discover about her life. All we had so far were tiny pieces of her story and I wondered how many more it would be possible to find.
As Frank and Alice died childless, they left no legacy of memory, no heritage for later direct descendants to look back on; no photograph albums, no letters, postcards or diaries….
In contemplating this, I was reminded of the words of the heritage writer R.R Archibald. He wrote, ‘We really do not know a lot about the past. The evidence that has survived is only accidental compared to the thoughts and actions of every human being who has ever lived, it is just a few sherds.’
In an attempt to find at least another ‘sherd’ of Ellen Rose’s life, I searched the archives of the Berkshire Chronicle from the last decade of the 19th Century. I hoped to find at least a notice of her death but was disappointed to discover no mention of her at all. However, her guardians Frank and Alice had several mentions including one from November 7th, for their parts in the Earleigh Musical Society’s concert at the Victoria Hall in Reading Town hall.
There is so much humanity and warmth revealed in this glimpse into 19th century Reading society, but could it possibly contribute in any way to Ellen Rose’s story? Could she have been there with Frank and Alice, perhaps? We know that she was resident at Summerbrook School at this time and that November 7th 1891 was a Saturday. Would she have been at home for a weekend? Would she have been allowed to go? Would she have wanted to go? We know that music would have been a significant part of her education, but maybe she hated it? Would she have been made to go anyway? These questions are of course just being asked from a 21st century viewpoint, looking back into the past with the sensibilities and morals of our time. It is even sadly possible that Frank and Alice could have simply placed her in the school and that they had no contact with her at all. It is possible that she was one of the crowd packed into the Victoria Hall that evening, but of course we are unlikely to ever know.
As far as stories go, Rose Ellen’s, at least so far, isn’t much of one. So far nothing has been discovered about her ‘thoughts’ and precious little about her ‘actions’. There are around 120 thousand graves in Reading Old Cemetery and so many of them are as yet anonymous. Each one contains a story, a possible novel even, yet research into the life of a person, especially one with such a short life as Rose Ellen, can only reveal fragments. Like the sherds of a broken pot scattered around an archaeological site, it is unlikely that many of the pieces can ever be found and put back together and so many of the pieces will forever remain missing.
In order to locate one of the few missing pieces of her story that I knew could be easily found I decided that the next step could be to locate Ellen Rose’s death certificate. I had very mixed feelings about doing this: on one hand, the certificate could reveal something significant about her life that would add to her story, but on the other, to seek out the manner of her death felt somehow morbid and an intrusion that I wasn’t sure that I had the right to make. When we view our family trees we often see a succession of interesting names receding though the generations, but when we attempt to discover the ‘thoughts’ and ‘actions’ of these long dead relatives, research and visit the spaces and places in which they lived their lives they become a real person whose life and more significantly whose death should be considered sensitively and with respect. Despite these misgivings I contacted the Registrar’s Office and after a couple of weeks of suspenseful waiting, the certificate finally arrived in the post.
Ellen Rose died of tuberculosis at the Cooksey residence in Hamilton Road on the 24th of January 1894. The certificate had indeed revealed something that I felt was very significant to her story, in that that she did at least spend some of her life at the home of Frank and Alice. It also revealed that her death was caused by one of the many incurable diseases that were so tragically common at that time and that she was just 15, rather than 16 as we had originally thought.
Some weeks later, after researching an unrelated topic on the British Newspaper Archive’s website, I decided to try a quick search for some trace of Rose Ellen. In the Deaths Section of the Reading Mercury from 27th January 1894, I found the following entry.
Cooksey. On the 24th inst., at 32, Hamilton Road, Reading, Ellen Rose Florence (Rosie), orphan child of Thomas and Nellie Cooksey, aged 15.
I was struck by the lack of mention of Frank and Alice but touched by the fact that the notice had revealed the name that she was known to members of her family by. It was also heart -warming to see the use of the informal name of her mother, Ellen Margaret Cooksey. Perhaps Frank and Alice had been keen to honour her real parents, rather than their brief part in her life? Did the use of the word ‘orphan’ suggest that she was never officially adopted by her Uncle and Aunt, or was its use simply a way of telling something of her story in the few allotted words in the notice? Again, we are unlikely to ever know; just more sherds and more missing pieces.
It has been surprisingly moving to research Rosie’s Story. Her grave in Reading Old Cemetery had been simply an overgrown and forgotten piece of our collective heritage for almost 130 years, but to be able to reveal at least some small fragments of her life has enabled her story to at least become an individual part of history, however small and insignificant it might be.
History and heritage are perhaps as much about what we don’t know, the missing pieces, the gaps. They are perhaps about what is lost as much as they are about what can be discovered. We have inherited the gaps alongside the knowledge and they are equal parts of our heritage. Perhaps it’s the gaps as much as the knowledge that make us fascinated by the past: after all, wouldn’t it be very dull if we knew everything?
Finally, I must return to the visit to Reading Old Cemetery on that Sunday last December. My dad, my brother, Georgina and I had been initially disappointed to find that Rose Ellen’s grave had seemed to consist solely of a rectangular border of thin stones that had sunk into the surrounding turf. However, after further investigation we found an inscribed granite cross in the centre of the grave that had been obscured by the undergrowth.
This article is dedicated to the thousands of people who currently lie forgotten, in overgrown graves in Reading Old Cemetery, but most of all, of course, to Rosie.
‘Rosie’. Ellen Rose Florence Cooksey – 1879-1894.
Division 34. Grave Number 10928