Two: You'll Be Wanting A New One
It occurred to me, reading through my grandfather's correspondence - all neatly typed by one of the secretaries at the shipyard, Hilda Thompson (only the third female employee since the firm's foundation in 1901, and obliged to do some of the family research work at home) - that, worryingly, I might be getting a little bit like him. Here was I, looking for my great-great-grandfather (I still wanted a photograph of him); there was he, looking for his great-great-grandfather. And yet most people had seen him as something of a cold fish. My mother used to dread the Sunday visits to his house, everyone ship-shape and on their best behaviour. He was certainly no conversationalist, except with an old army mate, a cheerful old codger whom we all called “Uncle Bert”, although he was no relation. My grandfather had fixed it that Bert and his wife, Muriel, were living in the lodge at the entrance to the hall whose wing he was renting. He and Bert were avid campers. When the Greenwell family went on holiday in the 1920s to Alnmouth, just up the North-East coast, my grandfather would take off in a tent with Bert, and pay occasional visits only to the rest of the family - my grandmother, her sister, various nephews and nieces, and their respective nannies, housekeepers and any other bottle-washers on the family payroll. He also used to go camping with the T.A. before the Second World War. One of the young soldiers, Dick Reed, used to laugh at his pretensions. They bivvied down like soldiers. But not Thomas George Greenwell. His tent had a floor and a carpet installed - a floor driven down for the purpose by the long-suffering employees of the shipyard. “He was a snob,” said Dick. Oh hell.
His one triumph was my grandmother (towards whom Uncle Bert was always over-solicitous, thereby causing some local frost in the colossal drawing-room). She was warm, generous, and called her grandchildren “ducky”, a word I later realised was more what you'd expect to hear in a green room. She had been a North-East society beauty. I most associate her with fur coats and wraps and muffs and travelling rugs. My grandfather had a liveried chauffeur (he was unable to drive because of the Parkinson's, but I suppose he might have had one in any case), and each Christmas we would be driven to the long-distant and foreign country of Newcastle to pantomimes starring the likes of Jimmy Logan, or Lenny The Lion (a large, camp, ventriloquist's sidekick, with eyelashes as thick and luscious as Cliff Richard's quiff). When she died in 1967, of breast cancer, he survived her only by weeks. He lost whatever strength had gone into fighting the Parkinson's, and, once the penny dropped that she was gone, he dropped with it. The last time I saw him, he was being driven by my father to see her in hospital. My grandfather began to fiddle cack-handedly with the knobs on the radio. My father leaned over and turned it firmly Off.
So this helpless man was the one whose Family misfortunes I was tracking. Was I like him? I certainly enjoyed lists and family trees and the sleuthing required. On the other hand, why hadn't he done more of this himself? He did not write letters; he dictated them. The one thing he'd managed on his own was the first transcription of the registers, although my aunt Pamela's hand is involved, and it is tempting to think that her distaste for my later rummaging in the family attics and outhouses had something to do with being frogmarched round a cemetery or two.
After the sensation of finding my great-great-grandfather's will, and his marriage certificate, I felt like doing more. However, I was less interested in following my grandfather's footsteps, the more I thought about it. It occurred to me that the best way to find a photograph of my great-great-grandfather was to track sideways across the family tree. According to my grandfather's rather sketchy plans (often inaccurate, as it turned out, since he was heading remorselessly backwards to collect that shield, which had a dragon on it, three coronets, and VIRESCO - I flourish - underneath it), my great-great-grandfather was one of ten, and my great-grandfather was one of eight, or rather nine when you added Evelyn in. I was up in Sunderland with some time on my hands. Instinct took over.
The one name I had was A.P. Raine - Percy, although I didn't know he was called that then. Captain A.P. Raine. I drove down to the harbourmaster's office. The North Sea was prowling over the beach beyond, but there was a party mood. All the bosses were off, and there was one of those playfully good Sunderland moods, one which is 90% gossip to 10% banter. Had they heard of a Captain Raine? In the 1950s? I apologised. It was four decades later, and no-one there was over 50. I explained rather lamely (why and how had I got myself into this?) that I was looking for him - because - because -
“Raine. Raine. Jack, have you ever heard of a Captain Raine? No? Well, who would know? No, it's this gentleman here, excuse me, pet, what did you say? HE'S LOOKING FOR A RELATION OF HIS. I know. I know. Eee, Brian would know. What d'you think. Hang on there, pet, I'll give Brian a ring, he used to work here years back. Hello BRIAN! HELLO! It's Shirley ringing from the office. Aye. It is. How are you, pet? Are you? Long time no see. It is. It is. Aha. Aha. Brian, can you remember a Captain A.P. Raine? Yes, yes. Oh, did he?”
I waited, faintly embarrassed but quietly excited, while they let their conversation run. She put the phone down.
“He says he retired in the sixties, pet. He had two daughters, and he lived up the Hurstwood Road.”
I know I didn't eat at all. I drove to the city centre, and went to the Town Library. Hurstwood Road, they told me, was out near Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. I went to look at the electoral rolls, expectantly. Lists. Lists of names, hardly people at all. I was enjoying the lists. I was becoming my grandfather again. I found Hurstwood Road in 1960, and started up and down it, searching for the name Raine.
There were no Raines in Hurstwood Road. None at all. I went back a couple of years: still nothing. It was at this point, sitting with a long string of unfamiliar names, that I first nearly packed it all in as a silly game. And then I thought, hang on , Bill. When someone lives “up the Hurstwood Road”, that doesn't mean that Hurstwood Road is their address, does it? It means that's the region, the area, the rough location. So, starting for the first time to ferret in earnest, I started to look at all the adjoining roads. Suddenly, there it was: Eden House Road, 1965, Albert P. Raine and Elizabeth Raine. It had to be him. I took down the next year, and then the next year - I was so new to this, I never even thought of skipping a few years. In 1975, A.P. Raine's name vanished from the list. It would seem that he'd died. I followed Elizabeth through the succeeding years. I was getting nearer and nearer to 1993, the most recent list. But in 1986, she too disappeared.
Oh well, I thought. I stood up, stretched, put the books back on the shelf. My eyes felt bruised and bulbous. The space in front of me seemed like a mirage. I began to wake up to the practicalities. Daughters would be married, and they'd be hard to trace. They'd have different names. For the first time for a few hours, I took notice of the quiet rumble in my stomach.
I was a Perry Mason fan as a teenager. I read so many of Erle Stanley Gardener's novels that I didn't care (and couldn't tell) whether or not I was reading them for the first or fifth time. What would Paul Drake, Mason's hired private investigator have done? (He would in fact have sat down sideways on a chair, with his legs sprawled over the edge, but Sunderland Library doesn't encourage this kind of languorous posture). “Della,” I said to myself, “tell Perry that.......” I didn't. But I did have a bright idea.
In Sunderland, everyone is intensely interested in everyone else. You can (and must, and do) strike up conversations with strangers at bus-stops, without being classified as a complete nutter. If the fortunes of the football team are on the up, you can discuss tactics with grandmothers in the queue - I remember a particularly intense one about whether manager Bob Stokoe was playing Billy Hughes, the winger in Sunderland's epic cup run in 1973, in the right position. I also remember another one in a shelter in Cleadon, a few hours after Armstrong and Aldrin had landed on the moon. My companion was adamant about the lunar voyage. “They don't want to go up there,” she insisted. “They'll put the light out.”
So - if Albert and Elizabeth Raine - they were known as Percy and Lilian, in fact - had lived in Eden House Road, they would have had neighbours, and neighbours would surely know what had become of the daughters. And the names of the neighbours would be - in the electoral rolls. My stomach abandoned its signalling, and I went back to the books. I went through the years, looking at the neighbours on either side. One set vanished rapidly, but the other, Arthur and Marjorie Cairns, persisted. Indeed, they were still there in 1989, 1990, 1991. In 1992, there was only Marjorie Cairns. The next book was the last. Marjorie Cairns was still there. Okay, I reasoned, I go round to Marjorie Cairns' house. It's a short drive - in fact, it was very close to the hospital where I'd been born, which itself was within boomerang distance of where Robert Greenwell, my great-great-great-grandfather had lived. I was outside Marjorie Cairns' house in five minutes flat. I practically pushed my finger through the bell.
But there was no answer. When I stepped back, I saw the FOR SALE sign sticking out from the house. I sat in the car, fingering a tatty piece of A4 paper on which I'd doodled a family tree. I give up, I thought, and started the engine. Wait a minute. By Paul, Della and Perry, wasn't I ringing the bell of the former neighbour of Captain A.P. Raine? Why didn't I ring the bell of the house where he'd lived himself? There was nothing to lose.
I must have looked barking, wall-eyed, shambolic, eyes red-rimmed, clothes creased, the kind of dishevelled stranger you just don't need at your door, any day of the week. The door opened, and an anxious-looking woman appeared. I began to stammer. You see, the harbour office, my grandfather, looking for, second cousin, probably wild goose chase, Captain A.P. Raine. She looked at me. “You'd better come in,” she said. “I'm his daughter.”
As it turned out, she was also Marjorie Cairns, who had lived next to her parents, and was just in the process of selling her own house to move into theirs. The neighbour I had been carefully hunting down was my father's third cousin (and therefore, since this is how it works, my third cousin once removed). Shortly after that, her daughter Alyson (my fourth cousin) and her grand-daughter Sarah (fourth cousin once removed, I was getting the hang of this) arrived. It was a good moment, so good I forgot that I was carrying a camera. Marjorie started explaining her family to me. The piece of paper, fantastically covered in symbols and scribbles, became even crazier. “You'll be wanting a new one of those,” said Alyson dryly.
Marjorie's sister was called Aline, and lived about a mile away. She had a daughter, too. Percy - well, Percy had been one of five. Winifred, Percy, Wilf, May and Mollie. The first three were dead - indeed, Winifred had died in 1938. But May and Mollie were both very much alive - May lived in Southport, and Mollie, less accessibly, in South Africa. “You need to speak to May,” advised Marjorie, and dug out her address. May was plainly the pivotal figure in this part of the family. The whole family went to see May. The whole family. What a strange word, I thought. And: was I part of this family? These were my relations. What sort of relationship would this be?
Families are notorious for quarrels, for spats, for fallings-out, for door-slamming, for petty jealousies and guilts. Siblings quibble. Parents recoil. Children desert. And of course there are the happy ever after mobs, as well. But most families rarely stretch beyond second cousins, and sometimes not even that far. As it happened, I had no second cousins (as far as I could tell) in the Greenwell department, but I did have second cousins through my grandmother, who was a Catcheside. I'd met four of them (there were ten) as a child, and, looking back, it occurred to me that a second cousin was a safe cousin. There was nothing much you could do to each other that would offend. Now here I was with a fourth cousin (Alyson), and the promise of at least three more. In a curious way, the experience was moving because it was so unthreatening. What did we have in common? Great-great-grandparents who were siblings. That wasn't going to rock the boat.
Over the phone, I talked to May and to her daughter Jill. May was the grand-daughter of Lizzie Greenwell, who had married a ship's captain called Robert Hallewell. Lizzie had had a son and two daughters. It was the younger daughter, Ethel, who was May's mother, although, since Ethel had died in 1919, when May was only 13, she could tell me only a little. At this stage, I came away with the information that my great-grandfather's aunt had had three children, and that one of these had had five more. Besides, as May and Jill told me, the person I really needed to speak to was Robert Raine, May's nephew, and the son of Wilf Raine. Wilf had emigrated to Australia in the 1920s, and had never seen any of his siblings again. However, Wilf's grandson Brian had paid May a visit a few years earlier, when working in London for two years. “I don't know who you are,” May had said, “but come in anyway.” Robert Raine was my man. He was keen on family history. Unfortunately, they'd mislaid his address in Australia - was it in Brisbane? Perth? Darwin? They couldn't remember. But they did know someone who would know - May's sister Mollie in South Africa had a daughter called Pat Reay. She would know. I wrote her a letter. There was no immediate reply.
The five children of Ethel Raine née Hallewell, and their relation to my great-great-grandfather, whose sister Jane Elizabeth (Lizzie) heads this chart. Not all the grandchildren of Ethel Hallewell are shown. Rosalie Raine, who appears later, is Robert Raine's wife.
Sometimes, I let normal life swallow me up again. But I was being tempted - not to emulate my grandfather's route march to an imaginary, chivalric age, but to find out more about my great-great-grandfather. I still had no mental image of him, and I wanted one. To trace his brothers and sisters seemed to me one of the best ways of proceeding - or to trace his children. One of these - my father's godmother, in fact, and the penultimate survivor of the eight children he had with his first wife (Ann Herring) - was Laura Greenwell. Out of my grandfather's folders of documents came a small sheaf of letters from Laura. One of them actually dated from 1938, but the others started in the annus familius, 1944, and persisted until late 1953, a few months before her death (indeed, in her last letter Laura congratulated my grandfather on the arrival of a “delightful and splendid young grandson”. Me!) There were seven in all, and they were all patently answering the same question - what do you know about the Greenwell family history?
Or more precisely, about George Greenwell, the missing great-great-grandfather.
Laura was retired in Bournemouth. Sometimes, quite pardonably, she is confused, just as my grandfather was himself confused. To begin with, I made all the same mistakes as my grandfather did. I believed everything she said. It was naive optimism, the very reason why I was Greenwell Of A Further Education College, and not Greenwell Of The Yard.
“Robert Greenwell, my grandfather [she writes] had a brother called George and I only saw this great uncle once when he came to wish us all goodbye as he was going off to America with his daughter Dora (called after the poetess). This George Greenwell used to preach and he also wrote poems. I saw an old book of poems by him, full of classical allusions, amongst father's books once, but they looked dry.... My father once told me his grandfather came from Wolsingham, and I dare say they settled in Sunderland. When my father was a boy, his parents lived at Seaham Harbour .....Robert Greenwell started some glass works with Candlish, whose monument is in the Sunderland Park....my old grandmother always seemed to have a knife into this man, and used to say it ought to have been erected to Robert instead of him. She always said he behaved very badly to Robert, and when passing the statue she used to wax very wroth and would say “my Robert ought to be there, instead of him.” But I dare say Candlish was a good sharp business man, and Robert was a gentle, simple sort and perhaps no use in the business and so he got him out of it and became a rich man whilst poor old grandfather had to strike out in a new line for a living - they had 8 children and were poor enough so at one time he became a blacksmith - or something, I really can't say - but my father was annoyed with him for going on in this trade, and made him retire - I think he (my father) kept the old people later on....Grandmother told us she used to drive [as a child, from Hylton (1)] in a dog cart to school. She was a little woman with a spinal curvature which made one shoulder higher than the other and rather a hump on her back, but she was very sharp and intelligent - good brains - who perhaps passed on her quick temper and sharp tongue to one or two in her family.....Grandfather came to tea every Sunday to our house, and was a meek, quiet sort of man - we children liked him as he always brought a much appreciated bag of pear drops. He had a very deep voice; and a weak chest. They were very religious people (2)."
It was a lot to take in. Candlish was one of Sunderland's favourite sons: I was to find out more about him later. There is a sudden flash of my great-great-grandfather, my quarry (“my father was annoyed with him”) which suggests that he was unhappy with his father being ostensibly of a labouring class, although “blacksmith” does somehow sound wrong for a man who was at one point busy starting a glass works (Sunderland was a major centre for glass factories, as it was for pottery). The passage about the younger brother George interested me. So he was a poet. And he had emigrated to America with his daughter. For my grandfather, the crucial sentence must have been the one about Wolsingham. This was the sentence that had sent him round the graveyard twist, in and out of the church registers. Otherwise, what was most interesting was that Laura's letter was (and remains) the only existing pen-portrait of my great-great-great-grandfather. Laura does not say much about her own father, the housekeeper-molester, except in passing. She touches on three of his sisters, and two of his brothers. The number eight excludes two infant deaths, but includes a detail about one son who was named for his father (whose full name was also Robert Wilson Greenwell).
This boy Robert Wilson Greenwell born in 1849, died at 8 yrs of age.
We were often told about him - he had a large head & was most precocious for his age, could repeat most of the New Testament & psalms from memory. They say he died from water on the brain.
I was later to find a death certificate that confirmed this. What was clear is that this was an educated family of some sort, with profound religious convictions, although this did not prevent the rot of squabbling siblings.
My errant great-great-grandfather, whom Laura elsewhere describes as having taken after his mother, not his “gentle meek father” is clearly one of the “one or two” to have inherited her temper and tongue. Her father had it in for the eldest sister, Aunt Polly (whose proper, married name was Mary Hoskins), and so does Laura. Aunt Polly was “that deaf queer old thing...the deaf peculiar person...Father, tho' he helped her with money, never spoke to her or saw her, as he had a hatred of her. She was stone deaf, but had a great penchant for keeping any records or papers about the Greenwell family -”
My grandfather and I perk up, fifty years apart.
“dear knows where they all went after she died, probably were burnt.”
We sit side by side with our heads in our hands. Oh dear, here's another theory.
“I believe your Mother told me once that Ethel Greenwell, Uncle Willie's 2nd wife, possessed some interesting Greenwell records - she evidently nabbed them when Uncle Willie died. You haven't much chance of seeing those. They were, I believe, amongst Aunt Polly's things when she died.”
This needed a little sorting out. I knew the names from the family bible my grandfather had got from Percy, but there were too many of them. One, we had Mary, a.k.a. Aunt Polly, who was a deaf and eccentric collector of Greenwelliana. Two , we had Thomas George, who had inherited the lashing tongue of his mother, wouldn't speak to his sister, and had fathered nine children, one by his housekeeper, thereby breaking up the family. Generous, moody, mean. Perhaps I wasn't so keen on finding his trail after all. Three , and not mentioned by Laura, we had Lizzie, who was Percy Raine's grandmother. Four, there was a silversmith, “Uncle Willie”, whose second wife Ethel had appropriated the documents. Five, there was Robert, the prodigy who had died aged eight. That left three, according to the bible: Alexander, who had died aged 22; Margaret; and Emily. Emily - Emily Knight, as she had become - did rate a footnote in Laura's recycled letter. She had moved to London, and her father Robert had died at Emily's house in London, from where his body had been returned to Sunderland for burial in a family plot purchased by his son, Thomas George.
Robert Greenwell's eight children (excluding two infant deaths), and their cousin Dora.
The mention of Dora Greenwell - "named after the poetess" (this later turned out to be impossible) - may have struck my grandfather keenly. For the poetess Dora, whose hymns are still sung, was one of the “Greenwells of Greenwell Ford” to whom my grandfather wished to attach himself. He may found some crumbs of comfort in the postscript, too, designed as it was to soften the hammer-blow of the title “blacksmith”. “Though the Greenwells were not rich, they always seemed quite comfortable - the two daughters [this must be Margaret and Emily] lived at home till they married & an older widow one too [Aunt Polly]. They were quiet refined people but unpretentious & not of the working class - I can't be sure he worked as a blacksmith. He may have run a forge and employed a man.” Better yet, she enclosed some yellowing documents, including the indenture as an apprentice potter of her maternal grandfather, Thomas Henderson - the man, it would seem for whom the Redundant Thomases were named.
And even more fantastical, she sent a tiny diary from 1752, with “Jane Greenwell Book 1808” written in pencil on the inside cover.
But there was no further news of George Greenwell, the shoemaker whose death-date had disappeared so comprehensively from the records.
1752. How much my grandfather must have wished he knew the full provenance of this tiny (two inches by one inch) book - more properly a calendar than a diary. It had been saved for its freak value. 1752 was the year in which eleven days were cancelled (September 3rd to September 13th) as the country brought itself into line with the Gregorian calendar. Its effects are still with us in a most peculiar way. New Year's Day was at that time still celebrated on March 25th, and if many had taken to thinking of January 1st as the first day of the year, many of the important institutions still adhered to the old way.
It did not take much of a mathematician to work out that 354 days in a tax year was a con more comprehensive than decimalisation could ever later prove to be. There were small riots about the theft of eleven days. The civil service of the day came up with a smoothly calculated compromise. The tax year would henceforth begin on April 6th. They even threw in an extra day as a palliative. We are still stuck with this little peculiarity 250 years later.
As we will see, the name Jane rather gripped my grandfather's imagination, particularly when the second of his hired genealogists got stuck into the thorny problem of how to connect the sturdy young branch of my grandfather to the Wolsingham sap. Here too, Aunt Laura had laid it on with a trowel, reciting the digest of Important Greenwells from a pedigree she had been handed at some stage (and which was repeated in spades in the huge edition of Robert Surtees' four-volume History Of Durham , published in stages up until Surtees' death in 1833, and tantalisingly comprehensive except for the area around Wolsingham including Greenwell Hill). My grandfather's copy is from case number N, shelf 38 of the Carlton Club, London. Oh, surely not ...
One of the mystery sisters, Margaret, was listed in the bible as having married in 1883, but as having died in 1885. She had become a Mrs. Kitts. A clapper started up in the big bell of my head. Kitts, Kitts, Kitts. If I had been a medium, my thought processes might have run something like this. I see a bathroom, a green bathroom with tiles. Your father has placed a glass of gin on the edge of the basin, and you have poured it away, thinking it was water. Your father is not very pleased with you. You are four, and have blundered. The bathroom at my parents' house: it had four paintings in it, signed “E.M.Kitts” - pleasant little watercolours of the sea at Seaburn. Seaburn is Sunderland's seaside resort, next to the village of Whitburn. My father had once asked a plater at the shipyard where he was going on holiday. “To Burns country,” replied the plater, surprising my father with images of haggis, cabers, the whole kilt and caboodle. “Whitburn, Seaburn,” continued the plater.
So E.M. Kitts was another relation. All those hours I had spent watching the water flow in and out, listening to the gurgle, sticking my toes in the plughole and avoiding soap, and - worse - Johnson's Baby Shampoo, I'd been gazing at paintings created by - well, who, exactly? Something clicked in my head. I went back to the will I'd retrieved from Somerset House. My great-great-grandfather had specified that
To the children of my late sisters I leave one thousand pounds to be equally divided amongst these except Maud Kitts receives two hundred and fifty pounds the others one hundred and fifty pounds each And his father's will, which my grandfather had collected with his other trophies, specified that his silversmith son William (my great-great-grandfather and Percy's grandmother Lizzie appear to have been excluded from his will - why?) should pay by annual instalments five pounds to my grand-daughter Emilie Maud Kitts.
So Maud Kitts (it had already become apparent to me that most of the nineteenth century characters were known by their second name. Like the Redundant Thomases) must be the daughter of Margaret Kitts - and there looked like a strong possibility that Margaret had died in childbirth - certainly not long after. And since she was the only granddaughter mentioned in one will, and given special treatment in another, perhaps she attracted particular sympathy as an orphan. I also spotted that one of the executors in the earlier will was a Joseph George Kitts. Who was he then? The widower?
Once again, the mathematics was beginning to get to me. There had been four “late sisters” - for I knew this much, my great-great-grandfather had outlived all his siblings - Mary (Polly), Lizzie, Margaret and Emily. Lizzie had had three children, I knew that from Percy's daughter. Aunt Polly, sitting in her sepulchral silence with family bits and bobs, did not sound to me as if she'd had any children. Margaret had had one, and died. So that meant Emily must have had two.
The best way I could think of tracing Maud Kitts, who was apparently unmarried at the age of thirty-five (the gap between her mother's death and the writing of her grandfather's will), was to assume she had remained unmarried, and to see if there was a feasible number of Kitts in the Sunderland telephone directory. At that stage (1994), telephone directories were a whole lot more helpful to a researcher than they are now. There was no stiff competition to British Telecom. The mobile phone was still to come. Comparatively few people were ex-directory. Only four years later, using the phone book as a means of finding someone would become a practically pointless exercise.
There were very few people called Kitts in the Sunderland phone book, according to my mother, who read me the numbers down the line. For once, all my assumptions held up. The second call took me to Hilda Kitts, who had known Maud Kitts well. Hilda was the widow of one of her nephews - well, it was a little more complicated than that. Maud's mother Margaret had indeed died in the aftermath of childbirth; Maud's father, John Tate Kitts, a missionary, had disappeared back to Shanghai. The Kitts family story was that he had never returned, having become an opium addict. This was unprovable, of course, but it did subsequently transpire that John Kitts had never been entered in the register of deaths in this country, or as a British subject overseas. However, Hilda had another little surprise - she had an old family photograph, and some other documents. Next time I was in Sunderland, why didn't I go round and look at it?
John Kitts and three of his sons. My great-great-grandfather's sister Margaret, who died in childbirth, is on the right. Her daughter Maud was brought up as the sister of the three cousins to her left. Hilda Kitts married the grandson of another son, Jonathan.
Visiting Hilda Kitts gave me one of the greatest kicks of my odyssey round the far regions of my family. It wasn't just that she was hospitality itself, which she was: she had perhaps the most sensational photograph I've discovered. I had been expecting a small family group, with Maud in it as a child. Maud had been adopted by her uncle (the Joseph George Kitts in the will), and brought up as a sister to her cousins. But the photograph, in which there are twenty-one members of the Kitts family, surrounding a patriarchal John Kitts senior (Maud's paternal grandfather), was dated 1884. And in the top left of the picture, clearly pregnant, was my great-great-grandfather's sister Margaret, doomed to die only a few months later, her dapper husband leaning towards her. It was a moving moment, a sudden knitting of family across over a hundred years. This was the first of Robert Wilson Greenwell's children I had seen. She had flitted through the Kitts history like a ghost, yet leaving an imprint on all time with this extraordinary image of her eighteen-month marriage. Here too were people my great-great-grandfather must have known; here was the executor of my great-great-great-grandfather's will. Here was a curtain half turned aside, here were the blinds that would be drawn, here were the bricks and stones that would outlast them. It did not seem so very long ago, at all.
The Kitts family in 1884. Right: detail of Margaret Ann Greenwell. Her husband John is on her right. Standing to the far right is Joseph George Kitts, who would bring up her daughter Maud as his own child. It was a tragic picture in other ways, too. Three more of the twenty-one carefully composed faces had died within four years of the photograph. This was a world familiar with grief.
The picture is taken in Tatham Street, Sunderland.
So if I could find a photograph of Margaret Greenwell Kitts, and by such luck, surely I could find a picture of my great-great-grandfather himself? One obvious solution presented itself. He had a surviving granddaughter, Mollie Greenwell, who lived in Lincolnshire. Nobody had seen her for years, although her brother Alan had been (mysteriously) the agent with whom my father insisted I insure my car. It was never explained to me by my father who Alan was, merely that he was a member of the family we should support because he was “hard up”. The miserable pittance that consisted of his cuts of our insurance policies cannot have put much bread on his table, but we went along with it. Alan, however, had died in 1984, a few years before my father. I wrote to Mollie, explained what I was doing, and rang her. She had only been 12 when her grandfather had died - and of course he'd died in Falmouth, not Sunderland. As far as I could tell, he'd been in Falmouth for some time, too. Mollie could remember almost nothing. However, she did conjure up a memory of playing in a room in house. He had placed all the chairs in the room round the side of the room, to give her a greater playing area. It was small beer, but it was to be the only first-hand recollection I had of Thomas George Greenwell, senior.
Four of my great-great-grandfather's nine children. My great grandfather is on the left. Evelyn, the son by the second wife, is on the right. Note that he is younger than the “uncles” shown here.
About six months later, I paid her a visit. She lived in an upstairs flat in a small village called Alford. It was a nice meeting. I was trying not to be too tactical, but I did eventually and gently steer her round to the subject of photographs. “Would you like to see them?” she asked. I affected a muted interest. I was desperate to see them. She opened a trunk, and produced a series of photo albums. They had belonged to her mother, who had married one of my great-grandfather's brothers, Harold. Their wedding photograph is a curious affair, staged in front of a slightly skewiff hanging, with bride and groom standing on a strange selection of carelessly rucked-up rugs. Near the hem of the dress is a tortoise, a live one. No-one has yet been able to explain this to me.
The wedding picture of Harold Greenwell and Edith Shadforth, in the 1890s. Harold was my great-great-grandfather's fourth child - my great- grandfather's brother. Note the mystery tortoise. Harold died at the age of 48, not least because he was a heavy drinker.
There were also photographs of Alan, his father Harold - and Evelyn. Evelyn, the son by the housekeeper. Child number nine. It suddenly turned out that Evelyn had been more than looked after in his father's will. He had remained friends with Alan and Mollie (technically his nephew and niece, although he was younger than Alan by four years) for the rest of his life. Suddenly this threw a new light onto the Greenwell family. My mother knew nothing; my father knew nothing. Yet my father paid his car insurance to Alan, and I knew that Alan had been to stay with my parents on at least one occasion.
“Who's that?” I asked, as she flicked over the pages. It was an old, rather dapper man, standing in the doorway of a house overlooking the sea. Next to him there was a young man in uniform - it looked to me very much as if this was a picture taken in the first world war. Then another picture of the same man, standing next to Evelyn, who looked about 15 or 16. That would indeed make it the first world war. It had to be my great-great-grandfather, Thomas George Greenwell. “That's your grandfather,” I said to Mollie. “It could be,” she said.
That was it! End of story! I'd tracked down a picture of the errant Redundant Thomas. Mollie seized a paper knife and began to dig the picture away from the page. A small hole started to appear in it. For a moment it looked as if one of the only known snaps of my great-great-grandfather was going to be sliced up. “Why don't I have the page?” I asked, holding my breath. “All right,” said Mollie.
The first sighting of my missing great-great-grandfather, Thomas George Greenwell. On the right of the photograph is his ninth child, Evelyn.
As the narrator of Henry James' The Turn Of The Screw remarks, How can I re-trace the steps of my endless obsession? Actually, sometimes I was beginning to act as twitchily as that notable neurotic. I was dreaming family. Their half-told tales pestered me. But still, I had achieved my main aim, and that would suffice.
I was in the local library looking up something to do with work. There was a section entitled Genealogy. I wandered over. There was an index of genealogical interests, and, much as you might scan the surnames you share with others in a telephone directory, I looked up Greenwell. There was a code next to it, which I didn't understand, although the reference was to Sunderland. Idly, I tried Raine. It had the same code next to it. It took me a while to puzzle this out. Then I realised that the codes were connected to an index of researchers. Someone was researching Raine and Greenwell. Who? How?
There it was, at the back. R. Raine, Perth, Australia. The name I'd sent to South Africa for, but had not yet heard back about. Robert Raine, the nephew of Percy and May! There was a telephone number.
I sat up that night waiting for the time difference to sort itself out, and then dialed the international number. Even when you know it's no problem, that there is no longer an army of telephonists whacking jack-plugs in and out of sockets, and speaking into bakelite mikes, it is still surprising to ring Australia and hear a ringing tone. The quiet burr of the Perth telephone echoed in my ear. And then: an answering-machine. It was a letdown. I left what sounded to me like an incoherent message for Robert.
The red light was blinking on my own answering-machine when I got back that evening. I listened to the messages. “Hello,” said the third message. “This is Rosalie Raine. I'm the one who's doing the family research, not Robert, who's my husband. I haven't done any research on the Greenwells for quite a bit now, but I did make contact with Nancy Shaw in Queensland. Her grandmother was a Dora Greenwell, and her father was a George Greenwell -”
The tape ran out. I sat on the irritable carpet. It didn't look like I was finished yet.
(1) Laura may have been wrong about this, as she was wrong about other details. Hylton would have been South Hylton, a suburb west of Bishopwearmouth, and her father was a partner in a pottery there; and her maternal grandparents, called Gillias, were supposed to have operated the ferry across the Wear at South Hylton. However, Ann [Henderson] Greenwell always gives South Shields as her place of birth in the censuses.
(2) This passage is edited together from four of the seven letters Laura Greenwell sent. Each of them goes rather laboriously over the same ground.