Discovering the Gent Family
When I was a child in Manchester in the 1950s I used to spend weekends at my grandparents. I would travel with my sister Valerie from our council house in Woodhouse Park on the 102 bus to Garswood Road, and walk down the passage to Demesne Road to my grandparents' large Victorian villa in Manley Road, Whalley Range, Manchester. The contrast was arresting. An old house, full of old furniture, with attics, and prewar decorations. There was a scullery, and large cellars, and a garden with chickens and fruit trees. We sometimes slept in the attic, in what had been Philip's room, with a fanlight, and a very old-fashioned wallpaper, full-blown pink roses on a black background. Opposite was the tank attic - there was a large slate water cistern here - which contained more treasures: a child's wooden sailing boat, a small dolls' house, a low door that led under the eaves. Here there was an old pram, and a large Victorian painting of an elderly clergyman, in an ornate, gilded frame. Also in the tank attic was a bookcase, containing forgotten books. The complete works of H. Rider Haggard - I was to read them all, when they went down to Devon - and works by other, once popular authors; I recall E. Phillips Oppenheim. Also here I found a large, handwritten notebook belonging to my great grandfather. I remember lifting it down, and struggling to read the pages. I must have been ten years old, and it was the first time that I realised there had been other people called Gent besides my immediate family, that even my grandparents had had parents and grandparents too, and that there were such things as family trees and coats of arms. I found the History of the 2/3rd East Lancashire Field Ambulance, with a section written by my grandfather, recounting his experiences as a prisoner in the Great War. I discovered the Life of Thomas Gent, a namesake who had lived nearly three hundred years ago, complete with his portrait, and lots of difficult words. I started visiting public libraries after school, first of all Moss Side Public Library, and then the great Central Library in St Peter's Square, reading volumes of the William Salt Society, and other books on Staffordshire history, and family history.
When I was about fourteen I borrowed my mother's bicycle, bought a cheap cotton tent, and cycled through Cheshire to Staffordshire. I camped at a farm at Meerbrook, near Leek, explored the church, where that elderly clergyman, the Rev. James Turner, had once been Perpetual Curate, and sheltered in the church from the miserable, wet weather. There was still a clergyman living in the rectory in those days, and I chatted to him. I copied family graves in the churchyard, and the brass tablet in the church to the Turner family. The Turners provided a large number of clergyman for North Staffordshire, including the Rev. James Turner, godfather and namesake of my great grandfather, the family historian. It was his portrait and bureau that I knew. The Turners had also provided a daughter to marry our ancestor Joseph Gent in 1757, and brought with her the oak mule chest. I cycled into Leek past the site of Dieulacres Abbey - William Gent was on its rent roll in 1543 - and spent time in the Nicholson Institute, studying an annotated copy of the History of Leek by Sleigh. It was also a good place to shelter from the cold and wet. Back in my tent that night it was so wet I had to abandon it, and spent the rest of the night sleeping in a deserted chicken hut. Deserted - except for creepy crawlies. Cycling back past Biddulph on the high, misty hills, I passed the prehistoric stones and descended to the flat Cheshire Plain.
Another expedition, I cycled to Astbury, camping overnight at Alcumlow Hall, birthplace of Dr Henry Gent, where the friendly farmer showed me his office, and complained of spending more time there than on his farm. This was the early 1960s, before the Common Market locked him permanently in there. I found the graves in Astbury churchyard of John Gent, Joseph and Mary's son, and his wife Sarah Booth, as I also found the graves at Knutsford of Henry, Esther, their daughter Mary Sarah and Henry's sister Mary.
Quite a few family mementos were in the Rev. James Turner's mahogany bureau that stayed at Manley Road when we went to live there and my grandparents went to live at Mons Hall, in Devon. Here was Henry Gent's note book, dating back to about 1817, with copies of poems he wrote, and love letters he circulated to unresponding ladies. Mary Sarah Gent's school copying book was there, with copperplate headings that made us marvel. In the eight small drawers of the bureau were locks of hair, children's, Sarah Booth's, Henry's beard, and countless other personal items: war medals, photographs, a wallpaper trimmer, lots of mementos of Randle Gent. They are still there, gradually added to by each generation.
My interest in family-things led to relations giving me more. Auntie Dora gave me the oldest letters, my grandmother gave me my grandfather's war letters, along with many other items that she intended otherwise to burn. I copied old photographs - photocopying had just become available - and was given a large bundle of extremely mouldy old photographs that had caught the damp whilst stored in a box in the hall at Mons Hall. Barry Shaw, my father's cousin, gave me more, and let me copy other letters in his possession.
Now I have this collection, and hope that this booklet will be seen as a thank you to everybody, past and present, who has helped me accumulate this special family archive. I hope this will help my family understand what kind of people were these Gents and their related families and what kind of lives they led. The outline of the family history is simple. The Gent family were farmers in Leek from before the Reformation. They made careful marriages over the next two hundred years, eventually moving to better farmland on the Cheshire Plain. With the wars against France and Napoleon their wealth increased and they moved up the social scale. Then the magnet of Manchester drew them. And the story continues. I hope to share more when I get the chance, and that you will enjoy finding out about them.
There are a few anniversaries. Thomas Gent was born on 4th May, 1693, three hundred years ago. I hope to print a limited edition copy of his autobiography. William Gent married Rebecca Janney on 17th September, 1694, also three hundred years ago. I have written about that here. Also on September 17th, but in 1873, Henry Gent had his furniture sale - a copy of the poster is printed here. Dr Henry Gent was born two hundred years ago on 24th October, 1794 - a bicentenary. That's enough excuses to justify this booklet.