A VISITOR TO ST. GILES
Some time in July I had to go to the church to check up on something (as Churchwardens do from time to time), and met a man at the Blanche Lane end of the churchyard path. I said “hello” and he, strangely, responded by asking if he was trespassing – his accent was from North America, so maybe he wasn’t used to our more relaxed ways (!). I explained that this was a public footpath, and that he was welcome to come through. He was admiring the large Austen tomb with the urn on top and the skull and crossbones on the side.
However instead of asking if this was the memorial to a famous pirate (as younger visitors sometimes do) he explained that he had stopped off at South Mimms on his way to Edinburgh, because his name was Mimms, and he was interested to see the place he guessed his ancestors had come from.
So being a fugitive from work and all the things I ought to have been getting on with, I asked him if he wanted to look inside. And, having a church key, I let him in. He was gob-smacked at the rich beauty of the church interior. (As a digression, I should say that not everyone is. I have met several people who find the overt Catholicism of the decoration, started in 1877 and enhanced in much of the last century, quite abhorrent to their Puritanical souls).
I gave him a brief guided tour, explaining when various parts of the church or its furnishings dated from. He said that seeing things which were so old gave him goose-bumps, they were over-awing. We Brits sometimes forget that people from other parts of the world have a much shorter history, at least for people whose origins are similar to ours. North American “Indians” now known as “First Nations” have had a history longer than English folk, going back thousands of years, but it is not recorded history, and anyway most Americans of European origin have only been around in America for 400 years, so I guess that explains why he was so awe-struck at seeing things about 800 years old.
He said he had done a lot of research into his family history, and the first person with his surname came to the colony of Virginia around 1650 (mind you, I can’t trace my family name further back than 1750 – however). This person, called Mimms, was an indentured servant, who had managed to buy his freedom, and later on his family spread around several of the eastern colonies, later states, of what is now the USA.
Just pause on that word “freedom”. This was a white man who could not call his life his own. He was not exactly a slave. Slaves were not technically people at all, they were property, although throughout history slaves have sometimes been given their freedom at some point, (particularly in ancient Roman society, where many people who we would consider professionals, such as doctors, tutors and so on, were actually slaves and therefore the property of their owners). But in times past in Europe many crafts people were indentured workers, not free to come and go as they pleased, but bound over to work for a master. (There’s a character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, Frederick, who was due to be freed from his indentures as a trainee pirate on his 21st birthday; only it turns out he was born on February 29th in a leap year...).
So when the issue of slavery is raised in the media and by pressure groups, it is salutary to bear in mind that white people also were not all free. Life is uncomfortably complicated most of the time.
This American did not say what his ancestor was indentured as, and as he eventually bought his freedom (note “bought” – this was no act of charity) his family grew and spread. Indeed this was not the first person called “Mimms” who has visited St. Giles to seek out their roots - the last came about 20 years ago. I got him to sign our Visitors’ Book, and – another surprise – he spelled his name Mimbs! He explained that his various relatives over the years had settled in both Northern and Southern states, and he was from the South. Now in the American Civil War (1861-1865) members of the Mimms family in the South wished to disassociate themselves from their relatives in the North, and so altered the spelling of their surname, from Mimms to Mimbs. One could speculate whether these 19th century Mimbses were in support of slavery, despite their descent (probably not fully known to them) from a white man who was not very different in status from a slave. However, I did not try to discuss this with our visitor!
The very next day I had another visitor who wanted to see inside the church, but he was much more mundane – a teacher whose hobby was to photograph and create panoramic views of lots and lots of churches all over the country. But apart from what he did and where he came from (Luton) he didn’t have an interesting back story. It’s fun sharing our piece of history with passers by!