I already knew that my cousin Ray Christison had published Shapeshifter: the strange life of John Hampton Christison, Professor of Dancing 1858-1923 (2017), in fact had read an earlier draft. In various places on my blogs, especially here, I had myself tackled the story. See also these posts. Over Christmas Ray got in touch and arranged to send me a copy — once I had told him my exact postal address! It arrived yesterday.
Merely as social history, even apart from the family connection — John was Ray’s and my great-grandfather, the book is well worth reading. Given that Ray is a trained historical archaeologist with a longstanding fascination with history Australian and Scottish and more, the book is very professional in presentation and in literary style. It is also very well illustrated, not least with photos of John, who would have had a whale of a time in the age of Instagram. Oddly though, this one is missing:
So here we have a man who may have danced before Queen Victoria at Balmoral, who once had a vineyard in the Hunter Valley next to the more famous Rosemount Estate, who was a bastard of a husband and father at times, more than a touch Byronic*, but also apparently in later life a teetotaller, was a serial evader of debts, but who was wounded in action during the Boer War. Ray included a photo of his Boer War medal, now in Ray’s possession. Once when I was about 14 my grandfather Roy Hampton Christison started to tell me something of his father, who had died 20 years before my birth but was never spoken of anyway. My grandmother Ada put a stop to that with a pronouncement worthy of Queen Victoria: “There are some things that are better not talked of!”
- *Euphemism alert!
Ray, fortunately, has not hesitated to talk of them. The result is the portrait of a complex, obviously very gifted and interesting character — who just happens to be our great-grandfather. Ray, being the historian he is, puts the story in historical context, both in Scotland and Australia. John’s career encompassed both countries. In Australia in his lifetime he was in Newcastle, in the Hunter region, in Sydney, in Mittagong, in Tasmania, in Melbourne, and indeed for a while was a station-master in Coolgardie WA! He taught dancing and organised highly praised parties all over the place. What a man!
Not so easy for my grandfather and his siblings though, or for my great-grandmother Sophia Jane, whom I actually remember! My one quibble, Ray, is that the photo of the family including her and my brother Ian on p.58 is said to be taken at Flora Street Sutherland during the 1940s. No, it was 61 Auburn Street — phone LB2271! (Fancy my remembering that last detail; perhaps I was made to learn it in case I ever wandered off and got lost!) Uncle Eric and Aunt Gwen — the former also in that photo — lived in Flora Street in the 1940s. By the way, despite the subsequent home-uniting of Sutherland both that Flora Street house and 61 Auburn Street are still alive and kicking!
Here is another of Sophia Jane (or Jean) Christison in her 90s. Apparently she decorated that cake herself!
If you are intrigued, Ray’s book is available here.
A letter from Sophia Jane, on the death in 1948 of my grandfather Thomas Daniel Sweeney Whitfield:
Oh and another thing. In listing instances of Christisons in Scotland’s past (p.7) Ray does not mention another John Christison who figured in the Scottish Reformation back in the days of Mary Queen of Scots. To quote Andrew Lang, John Knox and the Reformation (1905 and on Project Gutenberg):
But, sometime in April 1558 apparently, a poor priest of Forfarshire, Walter Myln, who had married and got into trouble under Cardinal Beaton, was tried for heresy, and, without sentence of a secular judge, it is said, was burned at St. Andrews, displaying serene courage, and hoping to be the last martyr in Scotland. Naturally there was much indignation; if the Lords and others were to keep their Band they must bestir themselves. They did bestir themselves in defence of their favourite preachers—Willock, Harlaw, Methuen; a ci-devant friar, Christison; and Douglas….
After Parliament was over, at the end of December 1558, the Archbishop of St. Andrews again summoned the preachers, Willock, Douglas, Harlaw, Methuen, and Friar John Christison to a “day of law” at St. Andrews, on February 2, 1559. The brethren then “caused inform the Queen Mother that the said preachers would appear with such multitude of men professing their doctrine, as was never seen before in such like cases in this country,” and kept their promise. The system of overawing justice by such gatherings was usual, as we have already seen; Knox, Bothwell, Lethington, and the Lord James Stewart all profited by the practice on various occasions.
Mary of Guise, “fearing some uproar or sedition,” bade the bishops put off the summons, and, in fact, the preachers never were summoned, finally, for any offences prior to this date.