Albert Charles Brackstone couldn’t have been older than 16 when he’d last heard the bells of Sherborne Abbey ring. Now, almost 55 years later, in a radio broadcast, their sound reached him again. The occasion moved him to write a letter to the vicar, Rev. W. M. Askwith, some of which was printed in the Sherborne Mercury on March 12th, 1937.
“It was wonderful to hear the bells once more and your voice was as plain as if you were in my house, and the organ playing and the choir singing. I could really think I was there”, he wrote. He’d never forgotten the sound of the bells. “I have never heard anything like them in all my travels”.
The notice in the Mercury goes on to say that Albert had also written of his father, Charles. He wrote that his father had died in Sherborne in 1890, at the almshouse, and that Albert was now the last of his name. Albert had signed his letter as “Charles Brackstone”, as he’d been using his father’s name (and his middle name) since he left England.
The circumstances of Albert’s flight from Sherborne are not clear. There is evidence to suggest both of his parents were mentally unstable. A newspaper clipping from July 26th, 1872, reports that Sarah, Albert’s mother, had been charged with “stealing several articles from her sister-in-law”, and that she had once “been an inmate of the County Lunatic Asylum on two separate occasions”. A clipping from April 3rd, 1877, concerns a man courting Charles’ daughter, who had “endeavoured to merit his favour by doing odd jobs in his garden”. Coming home one evening, Charles found his daughter with, as he put it, “a strange man”, and he became belligerent. Seeing as he eventually died in an almshouse, Charles was evidently estranged from both of his children.
There is also a story, passed down through the family, that Albert had become involved with a married woman, murdered her husband and fled the country to escape justice. No evidence exists to support this, but versions of it are known to distant relatives, and, in light of what would come, I don’t think it can be dismissed. We are not sure of exactly when Albert departed England and arrived in Canada. By the late 1880’s he found work as a gardener for one Samuel James Sparks just outside Ottawa. Sparks’ wife, Maud, became Albert’s lover.
Rather improbably, Maud left her husband, and their six surviving Sparks children, to be with Albert, making them both, undoubtedly, social pariahs. Canadian census records account for their presence inconsistently in the following years in various locations in Ontario. If Albert was guilty of murder, he might have welcomed their obscurity, but it must have been a burden, materially and psychologically.
Perhaps they could count on the people they met at church. The abbey at Sherborne was, of course, an Anglican church, but there is a record of Albert’s conversion to Catholicism, certainly much more popular among his neighbors. In later documents, he once again identifies with the Church of England. If the particular creed was not important, perhaps the community, and the sense of belonging, was.
In 1921, Albert and Maud visited Bermuda with their two children, Charles Albert and Bessie, sailing aboard the steamship Chaudière. The family would eventually move there. Maud’s side of the family seems to have had some connection to the island. Her mother, Jane Webster, was born there.
Confusingly, son Charles went by his middle name, like his father did. In census records, on birth registrations, and travel documents, Albert’s occupation is always listed as “gardener”. Charles’ occupation is listed either as “electrician” or “engineer”, and Bessie’s, as “clerk”.
Maud did stay touch with her other children, and they would sometimes come and visit her in Bermuda. As far as we can tell, Albert and his family had found some sort of equilibrium. His family in England had come undone when he was a young man, and he’d had a hand in disrupting at least one other family, but with Maud he managed to create a different sort of life for himself. Maud’s ties to at least one of her Sparks children seemed to persist for the rest of her life. In 1941, Frederick Sparks placed a notice of his mother’s death in an Ottawa newspaper.
In the account of Albert’s letter to the vicar, we can perhaps detect a desire for reconciliation – with the past, and with his family in England, certainly, if not with society as such, and with his own conscience. He wrote to the vicar that his father’s name would die with him, even though he’d given it to his son. I think Albert keenly felt a certain lack of continuity. Perhaps he regretted his decision to leave England, and the way his father would ultimately die. Perhaps he recalled the bells so fondly because they reminded him of a time when the world was relatively whole. And perhaps he wrote to the vicar because he wanted to be forgiven.
This family story was contributed by Richard Franklin.