Finding Mitchell Street
by Sarah Jasmon
Location: Mitchell Street
I spiral in with my research, because, by making my approach in this way, I will catch the facts by surprise. You have to not want it too much. If I pretend not to care, then maybe secrets will come tumbling out at my feet, as if I have pulled the winning arm on the fruit machine of history.
So. Wikipedia. Roots.com. The Library Archive Online. The turn of the century feels like a good place to begin. My hidden background is a story of industry, of narrow streets crammed with clogs and shawls and factory bells. I hover, unseen. If I look hard enough, my great grandfather might come into view, but the air is dirty and clouds my view. And, anyway, how would I recognise him?
I click and lean and pore over these pages. I am from mill country and, from this virtual world, the mill chimneys rise up to inspect me. The Mills: a widespread family. Murray Mill was the first, and then Victoria Mill and all the little Millses:
The Wellington, the Brunswick and the India mills.
Lonsdale, Phoenix, New.
Lloydsfield and Sedgewick, Paragon and Pin.
Cousins and aunties in every back street. My birth name was Victoria and, for a moment, I feel a sense of kinship. I too was born within sight of the mills. This is where I come from, I am part of this family. They just don’t know it. They will never know it.
It’s time to zoom in a little, so I scroll on through the decades until I reach the time between the wars. On the way, I meet Mr Francis Crossley, my godfather if you will, who makes his money in engines. He founds a mission for the souls of his workers, refashioning a dance hall for his conversions. Star Hall. He hopes, no doubt, to turn the eyes of his men from carnal embrace towards words of the Lord. Within those plain walls, though, the heat of hot skin and music must linger. A maternity hospital is built alongside. The home for unmarried mothers crouches behind. The paternal Mr Crossley is covering all the bases.
I click on an image. By the time of this photograph, Crossley’s baton has been handed to the Salvation Army. They, too, keep the dance hall’s name. Star Hall. There it is in front of me, with red brick walls that push at the limits of their triangular plot like a flat iron dealing with humanity’s creases. Behind crossings of tram wire, the flat front edge is chimney tall. It holds words. The Salvation Army. Entrance. An arrow points to the left, jaunty feathers speeding us in. The and Army are set on an angle. Salvation runs downwards. You can’t fit salvation across a narrow space.
The maternity hospital is a legitimate enterprise, so most of the babies use the front entrance in Pollard Street . They enter held within the triumphant swell of a belly and leave, blanket-wrapped, to be welcomed by all of those aunties and cousins. I come across a story I like. An expectant father causes so much disruption as he waits that he is given an oilcan and sent to oil the hinges on the hospital doors. Imagine being the cause of such joy.
I, however, was one of those who was sneaked out of the back door: I followed the hidden route for secret babies. My birth certificate tells me that I was born at No. 15 Mitchell Street. No photographs remain of this entrance. It wasn’t the place to pose for a snapshot to be pasted into the family album. My mother must have passed the mission hall as she left, empty-armed. I stare at the picture of Star Hall, until the screensaver covers it up, then I move the mouse and stare again. I was here. I feel numb.
I contact the Sally Army Archive at their London headquarters, but my mother has disappeared again. Demobbed. Out on Civvie Street. I like to think that she is still alive. Does she remember my birth date every year? The birthdays of my own children can be slippery. I have to stop and think when I am asked to fill in a form. But then my children are here, in three dimensions. I buy them cards. I will, one day, make cakes for my grandchildren. I turn on my computer to look again at Star Hall, and this time I click on the button and fill in the numbers to order my own copy.
It’s in my hand today, now, as I make my way to the place where I was born. I am alone, but all around are my shadowy adoptive siblings. We come to the place on our birth certificates like divers feeling their way down a rope in dark water. I have to press against the weight as I walk out of Piccadilly station. Turn right down Store Street. Keep going onto Old Mill Street. Paving stones look the same wherever you are: grey, offset, and dappled with old chewing gum. My breath is almost gone as I cross over the canal. Star Hall has also gone.
I knew this already. Google was its efficient self, it gave me the bare bricks of the dance hall’s fate. I knew this, but still expected, somehow, to see…something. The hospital is gone as well. The home for unmarried mothers has been rebuilt as a refuge for the homeless, the dispossessed of other things. Mitchell Street itself no longer exists. Where does that leave me? Have I been born at all? I stand on the empty corner, imagining that the arrow from Star Hall is above my head. It points, not to an entrance, but to home. I am outside, not inside. In the air, not under water. The tram lines remain, and they run into the distance. I take a picture of the space where Star Hall once stood, and I turn away. I don’t need to be here anymore.