LIKE many readers of the Craven Herald’s ‘Nostalgia’ page, I have succumbed to an all-absorbing passion for family history.

Hours can be spent scouring parish registers and census returns in pursuit of ancestry, which so often ends in uncertainty.

Records can be missing or may never have existed, but occasionally the unexpected can provide a new insight into the past. Such is the case with a battered exercise book and a lock of hair.

Both could so easily have been thrown away – and I would not fully have understood the triple tragedy suffered by my great-grandmother Mary Joy.

Mary was the daughter of James Hanby, a blacksmith in the Cleveland village of Great Ayton. She was aged 29 when in May 1876 she went to Skipton Register Office to marry my great-grandfather, 48-year-old farmer Anthony Joy of Hebden. There is no record of how they met, but she would certainly be aware of past strife shown only too clearly in the battered exercise book. In neat copperplate writing it reveals a dispute of monumental proportions over the painful subject of inheritance.

Along with three brothers and four sisters, Anthony had grown up at Garnshaw Farm on the Grassington side of Hebden. When their parents died, the sibling rivalry was such that agreement could not be reached over a fair division of family assets. In a bizarre and sorry turn of events, it was decided that the only way forward was to auction not just the livestock but also the entire contents of the farmhouse.

The resulting cash could then be divided equally with any of the siblings having the opportunity to bid for what they required. It must have been a poignant occasion when all eight along with curious villagers gathered to see an auctioneer work through over 300 lots, listed in the exercise book down to almost the last teaspoon.

Anthony successfully bid for three items. It meant that in terms of today’s money, Mary married a man who had spent £38 on a gun, over £100 on a large Family Bible and as much as £1,000 on a grandfather clock.

She may have pondered over such an odd assortment when they took the tenancy of Coppergill Farm at the top of Hebden bank, but any doubts were soon to give way to the demands of a growing family and then utter dismay.

The Family Bible came into its own, recording in quick succession the birth of a daughter Alice, two sons including my grandfather Richard and another daughter Maria. Help on a farm was always welcome and Anthony would again celebrate when a third son was born in July 1882. Less than a year later, he and the two youngest children were all dead.

The then far more serious disease of scarlet fever was sweeping the locality and seems likely to have caused the triple tragedy. After enduring the burials of her husband and two infants in Burnsall churchyard, Mary followed Victorian custom and sought comfort by placing a small packet in the Family Bible.

Inscribed ‘Lock of Hair of my Dear Daughter’s head, Maria Joy, Coppergill’, it remains there to this day. For the rest of her life, she never broke the habit of walking to Burnsall with a scrubbing brush and pail to ‘wash the children’s faces’. It was a touching expression for ensuring that the gravestones were kept clean.

Mary left the farm to live in Hebden village, where she made a point of describing herself in the 1891 census as ‘living on own means’. She found some solace as her three remaining children grew into adulthood.

Alice married Henry Bowdin, carter for the local grocer, and they had eight sons and one daughter. Mary’s eldest son remained a bachelor farmer.

My grandfather broke new ground by marrying a Lancashire lass and it was their son, Richard Clapham Joy, who at the age of 17 was working as a reporter on the West Yorkshire Pioneer, the paper that later merged with today’s Craven Herald. It was the start of a journalistic tradition followed by the writer of this ‘Nostalgia’ page.

It was not until 1961 when Russia stunned the world and put the first man in space that Hebden finally got mains drainage. Mary’s home was in a row of cottages that shared outdoor privvies.

If using one of them and she heard someone approaching, she would cry out: ‘Go back, go back, whoever you are, the Queen is on the throne!’ Regarded as ‘a lovely old lady’, she died in April 1931.

A single gravestone in Burnsall churchyard carries her name below that of her husband and two youngest children, commemorating the tragic events 48 years earlier. Quite what happened to the gun and grandfather clock bought at the most unreal of auction sales is now unknown, but at least the Family Bible, the lock of hair and the battered exercise book have survived to provide an insight into the past.

The author has recently written a memoir Mostly Joy: A Dales family down the ages, which is on sale at the Stripey Badger bookshop in Grassington. The complete contents of the battered exercise book are now on the excellent website: