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Advent serendipity


In this special Advent tale, Frances Thompson tells us about her serendipitous birth on the first day of Advent in 1970 and about a surprising find in Oxford’s famous Bodleian Library

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Being Together This Advent

I’ve always known that I was born on a Sunday afternoon. I remember my mum telling me how I was born at home and that I arrived just in time for tea. We lived in the Warwickshire town of Rugby in England and I was born on the first Sunday of Advent in 1970; I was overdue and they thought I would never arrive. That was all I knew, as my mum died, far too young.

John and I married in 1995, we started a family, and by then my Auntie Judy (mum’s sister) and I were writing regular letters to each other. Judy told me about hundreds of family letters, written between the 10 siblings of my great-grandfather’s generation, which were then continued by my grandpa and his cousins. This 80-year stream of letters were collectively called the ‘Family Budget’, and are now stored in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Whilst on holiday in England I acquired an access card to the Bodleian Library (no mean feat) and started reading. Documents in the Bodleian aren’t accessible on open shelves – you can’t just pick what you fancy. The majority are stored, underground, in climate-controlled store rooms. You have to order what you want to read in advance, and you can only have one box out on your reading table at a time. In one box, I discovered my grandpa’s letter, proudly telling his cousins about my birth.

Leslie and Joan, my grandparents, were Anglican all the way through. They could not have been more involved at their local church, St Mary’s, Humberstone, on the outskirts of Leicester in the middle of the UK. In 1962 Leslie enclosed a copy of his parish magazine in the Budget, amused at how often the names of his family appeared in it. Leslie was a church warden, one of three parish treasurers and a sidesman. He and Joan were both members of the PCC (Parochial Church Council). Joan and Judith were bell ringers (a few years later Judy became tower captain at the age of 18) and Judy was also in the choir and served as a Sunday School teacher. My mum, Jenny, didn’t have a role at church at that time, as she was away at college. It is actually quite staggering to see how many other names are listed – all these people involved in some way, in the life of quite an ordinary 1960s English parish church.

Leslie and Joan, Frances’ grandparents, Leicester, 1985

In the letter describing my birth, my grandpa tells his cousins about the Humberstone Choral Society, in which my grandparents and Auntie Judy sang, and which rehearsed in St Mary’s church hall. They had performed Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at another church earlier in November 1970, and were due to sing the Christmas portion of ‘Messiah’ at 4 pm on Sunday 29 November to mark the beginning of Advent. I was overdue, and Grandpa was hoping I would arrive so he could announce my birth in his letter to his cousins, before posting the Budget on to the next cousin on the list.

On 3 December he finished his letter, announcing serendipitously, “While Joan, Judith and I were singing “Unto us a Child is born” from ‘Messiah’ (quite literally and truthfully), Jenny produced Frances – a real whopper of 9lbs 2 oz.”

The letter from Frances’ grandfather, Leslie, announcing Frances’ birth in the ‘Family Budget’ in 1970

Recently I realised that my 50th birthday falls on the first Sunday of Advent this year, just as the day of my birth fell on this special day in our liturgical calendar. On Sunday 29 November, the first day of Advent and my 50th birthday, I sang with the Cathedral Singers for the Advent Procession service at St John’s Cathedral. We did not sing Handel’s ‘Messiah’, as my grandparents and auntie did in 1970, but we sang equally glorious choral music. The Cathedral’s stone walls resounded with beautiful harmonies as the choir processed round the building, marking the beginning of Advent.

I’ve been reflecting on the similarities and differences of Anglicans both in the UK and in Australia. Many things have changed, and there is sadness at some of the changes, especially the reduced numbers in many Anglican churches. But we still have parishioners who are thoroughly involved in the life of their churches, just as my grandparents once were. Today we still have church wardens, treasurers, welcomers, church council members, bell ringers, musicians and leaders of children’s church. These are just some of the roles that people still undertake today in the life of their local church. Anglican churches may have changed, but the wheels keep on turning.

My mother died decades ago, as did my grandparents; my Auntie Judy died earlier this year and I miss her immensely. My dear Dad is slipping away into dementia. But on Sunday 29  November as I sang in the choir in the Advent Procession, I remembered family members who taught me by example, instilling values in me, taking me to church and teaching me to love music, especially my gentle Grandpa, with his peculiar sense of humour.

Jenny and David Thompson with their three children, including Frances far right, Ankara, Turkey, 1974

I am thankful that he wrote to his cousins announcing the birth of his granddaughter, and thankful at my good fortune in being able to find and read his letter in a library decades after his death. I also thought of my dear Auntie Judy, who encouraged me to go and visit the Bodleian Library and read the Budget letters, so I could then tell her all about it.

Frances and her Auntie Judy, Brisbane, 2009

I produce a podcast, 100 Years of Cox, where I read my family’s historical letters dating back to 1906, bringing to life the stories, adventures and opinions of a fascinating family.

This is the first episode, which explains what the Budget is. This is a recent episode, where the siblings discuss votes for women, suffragettes and the General Election of 1918, when some women first got the vote, and one sibling wrote a first-hand account of the end of World War I and Armistice Day at the school in Plymouth where he was Headmaster.

St Mary’s Church, Humberstone, Leicester – Humberstone Parish Magazine, 1962

St Mary’s Church, Humberstone, Leicester – Humberstone Parish Magazine, 1962 (page 2): three Cox family members noted, Mr Leslie Machell Cox, Mrs L.M. Cox (Joan Cox), Miss Judith Machell Cox

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