Chapter Fifteen

Fifteen: God permitt me life till I come home


We were parked in front of a piano, bare-kneed, while the teacher kerplunked the keys. We had done our version of “The Keel Row”, although a little less heavy on the treble than Kathleen Ferrier. The air was heavy with industrial polish, and it was the end of the school morning.

Bobby Shafto's gone to sea,
Silver buckles on his knee,
When he comes back he'll marry me,
Bonnie Bobby Shafto!

It was one of those North-Eastern songs that you're obliged to sing, although the words always seemed on the soppy side to me. I wasn't going to get married to Bobby Shafto. Why was I singing this rubbish? Why couldn't we sing “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” Uh-oh, second verse.

Bobby Shafto's bright and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair;
He's my own for evermair,
Bonnie Bobby Shafto!

There are at least four more verses, but I will spare you the jingle. He goes to court, wins a race, throws his money about, and gets a baby, which has the surreal makings of a morality tale. Sometimes, incidentally, he is fat and fair. According to the Opies, he has a rival in the shape of a Willie Foster, who also has silver buckles etc. and appears in a song quoted in Sir Walter Scott's Redgauntlet . What with his blonde, kiss-me-quick hair, and whether or not his face was pudgy, Bobby Shafto appears to be a sort of eighteenth century pop idol. Which is in fact not a million miles from the truth.

The song itself almost certainly predates the eighteenth century, but it was used as a political gimmick in 1760, when one of a long line of Robert Shaftos stood successfully for election as M.P. for Durham (both his uncle and father had been M.P.s before him, as indeed was his son in the nineteenth century). The song was used in his campaign, and the usual round-up of local legends has it that it refers to the unrequited love of a Mary Bellasis, who was rather hoping her Bobby would pop the question. He didn't. He married someone else, and she died of a broken heart. Violins and 'cellos, please!

None of this would have interested my grandfather.

Or at least, none of it would have done, unless he'd discovered that Bobby Shafto's great-grandfather had been in partnership with a certain William Greenwell in the last decade of the Elizabethan era. And that this same William Greenwell had been the sheriff of Newcastle in 1591 (as his partner Robert Shafto was in 1607), and indeed a highly successful merchant whose name featured prominently in a number of late sixteenth-century wills. This William Greenwell would have appealed to my grandfather as having been made of the right stuff - the folding stuff... The link between the Greenwells and the Shaftos was coal. Coal, and wives. The Shaftos had leased one of the three collieries near the Tyne during the Elizabethan era; one of the Shafto men had married into a family called Fenwick, and so had one of a slightly distant branch of the Greenwells (in the person of Ralph Greenwell of Corbridge). William Greenwell had himself married into the prosperous Shafto family, and it would seem that he had a brother, John, who did the same. In other words, two branches of the Greenwell family had married into coal in the mid sixteenth century in exactly the same way as my great-great-grandfather had married into the shipping business. Having married into coal, they were, as it were, in the black in a big way. Big enough to start trading with the profits. There were Bobby Shaftos going to sea from Newcastle long before the rhyme was nicked as promo material for Parliament; and there were Greenwells sailing in their slipstream.

It was the internet again. From many of its virtual interstices, you will find dangling little snippets of family sapling, cuttings, or sometimes colossal, upside-down forests of family business. Towards the end of 1999, I had left a few messages on various “rootsweb” sites, where I had encountered such entertainers as Harvey Franklin Greenwell, an American stalwart of the Greenwell message-board. Some time during the war, in Italy, Harvey had been taken for a ride by a well-spoken Englishman of the same surname, who described to Harvey the details of “Greenwell Castle”, a supposedly imposing and well-turreted building, belonging to the descendants of Scots nobles. I felt pretty diffident about explaining that there was no such place. I left a fairly feeble piece of history on the site (largely cobbled together from my grandfather's aunt's cuttings, which had excited my grandfather), and which another Greenwell called Marty Greenwell pasted unacknowledged on to his web-site. Suddenly, three years later, a message popped up in my in-box. The author was William Hart, a bio-technologist from Melbourne, but born in York. His grandmother had been a Grace Greenwell.

And using Grace's father's notebooks, William Hart had been able to trace himself all the way back - to Greenwell Hill, the tiny hamlet just next to where my grandfather had so optimistically bought a cottage. To verify this William had foraged through scores of wills and settlements and records, had visited Greenwell Hill and Greenwell Ford, and kept up a correspondence with the Greenwell denizens of Debrett's and Burke's. He knew who was whom, and he had the pedigrees to prove it. He was able to describe a conversation with a Greenwell who was a fifteenth cousin . And on the way, he had identified quite clearly what had happened to the various branches of Greenwell family.

The messages and manuscripts he sent me perked up an inner ear. Corbridge. My grandfather had gone on about Corbridge, and about there being “four families of Greenwells”, three in Durham, and the fourth - the Corbridge one - being just over the border in Northumberland. The Corbridge Greenwells attracted my grandfather. I had long ago wondered why: for after all, hadn't he lectured me about Wolsingham? The answer was very simple. After all his search for a Wolsingham connection, he had discovered that the owners of Greenwell Hill were the bespoke Greenwells descended from the Corbridge cousins, after an interval of three hundred and fifty years. They hadn't had it for long. They had bought it - sentimentally, one assumes - from the last of the lineal descendants of the Greenwells who had hung on to the original homestead, although, as we'll see, it's a little more complicated than that. This brand of Greenwells, the Corbridge connections, had long since migrated to London.

In London, they joined one of the original group of Greenwells from near Wolsingham - in this case from Thornley. One of them (yet another William) was one of the founders of the East India Company. In the colonial scramble in the far east, the East India Company was the key force in annexing India, and dislodging the Dutch and Portuguese. By 1650, one of the Greenwells - a George, so we needn't be surprised - was the factor at Bantam in Java, the site of the first trading outpost in the Far East.

It was these Thornley Greenwells, the merchants in the Far East, who originally had obtained the shields and crests and various armorial gubbins. The William who had gone south had been well-placed at court, so well-placed in fact, that he had been a steward for the Merchant Taylors. Indeed, he is recorded as the man who kept the accounts in 1607 for a little spread laid on for James I, his queen, Anne of Denmark, and their eldest son, Prince Henry, then fourteen. The light repast featured sixty-three stones of beef, seventy-nine stones of mutton, five and half calves, seven lambs, seventeen swans, and other meagre supplies of food, like three gallons of gooseberries. The meal cost more than £900. That's a few hundred years pay if you were a Greenwell way down the food chain, making swill.

My grandfather never properly got to the bottom of all this, as he tried to track back. All he knew to start with was that there were two families in Debrett's, one a baronet, and in the 1940s he assumed, falsely, that they were as close as could be, and presumably from Greenwell Ford. Of course, his talk of “four families” is a quiet nonsense. His definition of family was “landowners”, and he had hooked himself at first to a line that was connected to Thornley. He had made a speech at a Thornley parish church jubilee, in which he had referred optimistically to his local ancestors, mentally cutting himself into the heraldic action. (Somewhat later, he had put in a bid for a house in Wolsingham itself, only to be gazumped. He had shown my parents round the prospective property, the loss of which seems to have put the lid on his ambitions for good.) All he left behind was a rumour, still available in Thornley, that he was a “senior” Greenwell, as I found when I stopped to ask directions to Greenwell Hill, nearly thirty years after his death.

The first figure who shuffles into the Greenwell limelight is actually a priest, William, or, as the Boldon Book has it, Gulielmus Presbyter. It is 1183, and Stephen is on the throne, although he will soon be succeeded by Richard I, he who took his crusading holidays in the Middle East. It might be reasonably presumed that William was of Norman descent, since most of his fellows at the court of Bishop Pudsey of Durham were of Norman extraction. William's sons - yes, his sons, any vows of celibacy being of little significance in the Catholic priesthood in the twelfth century - James (or Jacobus), and Richard, are also listed as being “of Greenwell”. They turn up as signatories - witnesses - on several charters issued by Pudsey.

The first Greenwells were survivors. They tucked themselves up for the main part in the little farms, hamlets and villages of Weardale, south-west of Durham, and produced sufficient sons to stop their family name from drifting into oblivion. They spread through Greenwell, Bowlees, Thornley, Wolsingham, and, to the south of the river Wear, Hamsterley (where the Baptist community that helped bring Sunderland's squabbling lot into existence was founded in the early eighteenth century), and Witton-le-Wear. Perhaps some of them travelled further afield. The Dominican Friars at Bamburgh, some seven hundred years before Clare, David and I made it our summer stamping-ground, were given permission in 1266 to purchase a four acre area called Grenewellflat to build a chapel. But then, perhaps the name “Greenwell”, which does seem to be composed of such an obvious pair of rural by-words, may have described a place rather than a family. The spelling of Greenwell in any case varied - Grinwell, Grenewelle, and so on. It is often misheard and miscopied as Grenville, too - Polly Hindley's son, Richard Greenwell Hindley, was called Richard Grenville Hindley on his death certificate in 1945. And anyone whose surname begins Green.... will recognise the cavalier attitude that the world has to their second syllable. I was known at school as Greenhill, although I have to admit that this was a pun on my tendency to go into trance mode (“There is a green hill far away...”). There is also a Stevie Smith poem which begins, entertainingly enough

I am a little frog.
I live under a spell.
I live at the bottom
Of a green well.

But I digress, and right at the point where confiscations and public executions are in the offing.


By 1377, when Bishop Hatfield's comprehensive survey took place, the Greenwells had lost the lease of Greenwell Hill to the Earl of Westmoreland, one of the aristocratic Neville family, and the Neville family had in any case taken over the land from Henry de Beaumont, through the marriage of a Beaumont daughter to a Neville. Somewhere along the line, the Greenwells had made way for a wedding present, and were reduced to leasing a few acres, rather than a hundred, at two adjoining estates called Park Wall and Park Gate. At Greenwell Hill, they were sub-tenants only. Just as the coal-connected Greenwells would later establish themselves by keeping on the right side of the master, so the first Greenwells established themselves as necessary sidekicks. They collected the rent for the Nevilles (one of whom had his head chopped off in York in 1469, during the wars between the houses of Lancaster and York. The local Nevilles were Lancastrians.) The Greenwells kept their heads screwed on, and set about multiplying, which is always a better guarantee of immortality than arguing the toss. One of them, Lawrence of Greenwell, was fined in 1429 for keeping some of the rent for himself. In fact, he is regularly in trouble, for trespass, and for failing to turn up to court to answer the charges. Otherwise, no public blame seems to have been apportioned. And Lawrence himself set about founding an allegedly separate line of Greenwells, when he took over the land at Bowlees. Bowlees is a quarter of a mile from Greenwell Hill. Just how separate can you get? Nevertheless, this is what the armorial boffins think - that there was no intermingling of this line with their neighbour cousins from 1394 onwards. And it was this line that produced the sheriff of Newcastle, William, who mixed it so successfully with the Shaftos, and who lived in the imposing street “The Syde” in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

By 1600, it is easier to think of there being five “principal” families of Greenwell, although there were of course many Greenwells who had migrated to the larger cities, including the father of the John Greenwell who was destined to sail for America as early as 1635, an indentured servant who married twice, and whose successive wives let loose a posse of sons who eventually settled in Kentucky. But in England, the property-owners divide up like this:

1. The Greenwells of Bowlees, able to pop their heads over the boundary into Greenwell Hill, but biologically separate (no kissing cousins!) after 1394 - the family from which the coal-owners, and subsequently the East Indian traders descended

2. The sub-tenant Greenwells of Greenwell Hill, working the land around Wolsingham, including Greenwell Hill. This branch had already established themselves as the senior branch from an armorial point of view, before falling on hard times.

3. A more ambitious and closely related family who settled in the next village, Thornley, in about 1550, and whose most successful son William managed to get the right to a coat of arms (this is the steward in London), although his brother Thomas mismanaged his way into debt. His will rather touchingly asks that my body shall be buried, if God permitt me life till I come home, in the church or churchyard of Woolsingham, where I have bene this long time a parishioner, referringe the charge of my funerall to the discretion of my executors. His executors faced claims of over fifty pounds of debt from relatives . It is not clear how this was solved when he “came home” to rest in 1607.

4. A family who had moved north to Corbridge. They were related to the coal-owners of Bowlees, through the Shafto family, although they may have had no professional connection. They later diversified into soldiering and medicine. In 1904, a descendant of this branch, the grandly named Sir Walpole Lloyd Greenwell, was awarded a baronetcy. His family had moved to London in about 1800. He too had been a high sheriff, this time of Surrey.

5. A branch of Greenwells who moved north to Satley and Stobilee in the mid-fourteenth century, before establishing themselves first on the south side of the river Browney, and then upon the north side, where they bought an estate at Ford - now known as Greenwell Ford - just outside Lanchester. Some of this family remained at Satley, halfway between Wolsingham and Lanchester, in a settlement (described as “a handsome modern mansion” in the nineteenth century) at Broomshields.

But Greenwell Hill belonged to none of them until the Nevilles' luck finally ran out. This happened when they staged a very poorly planned uprising against Queen Elizabeth I in 1569 - grandly titled “the Rising in the North”, and not very cunningly publicised as an attack, not on the monarchy, but upon those about her who had “overthrown the catholic religion... and seek the destruction of the nobility”. If they hoped to be subtle about their pro-Catholic sympathies, they rather lost the plot by rampaging through the city of Durham, trampling the English bibles and prayer-books underfoot, and celebrating a Roman mass in the cathedral. The rebellion faltered when the principal actors discovered they had insufficient money to prevent their soldiers sloping off. Sixty-six were executed in Durham itself in 1570. Exemplary executions were also carried out in the villages from Wetherby to Newcastle. Four were from Wolsingham, and one from Broomshields. History does not record whether they were Greenwells. Perhaps not. We appear to be a slippery bunch. But we would have been properly overawed by the carnage, as was the explicit intention, since the first wave of executions included those “of the poorer sort”. The Broomshields Greenwells, a father and son called Thomas, were forced to suffer crippling fines. Surtees' history suggests that whatever was executed, it was not justice. Villagers everywhere had their possessions and probably bodies plundered. He quotes a contemporary account:

There hath bene such an universall disorder of spoyle as well of thinnocent as of the giltie committed by disordered and unruly souldiours, as we shal not be able to make accounte of the [tenth] penny of that which is due to Her Majestie.

The Neville family lost their lands, which were given to the City of London. After a generation or two, Robert, one of the Bowlees Greenwells, doing well in London, bought the Greenwell land near Wolsingham back. It was during the run-up to the English Civil war. The land was now back in Greenwell hands for the first time since the thirteenth century, four hundred years earlier. Robert Greenwell then sold the land back to his distant cousins in Greenwell itself, and the land stayed in this family until it ran out of male puff towards the end of the nineteenth century. The land had once again to be sold. It was purchased by the descendants of the Corbridge Greenwells, fully half a millennium after their ancestors had moved up over the Tyne. No matter how you look at it, this is a remarkable story, not of guts, but of blood. Three branches of the Greenwell family have played pass the parcel of land with Greenwell Hill. All of them are descended from the same priest and his son.


So where did this leave my grandfather, who had certainly fixed his own ambitions at first on the Lanchester branch (thereby missing the point entirely)? And above all, where on earth had his great-grandfather, George the Haldanean Baptist really come from? My grandfather had lined up a George Greenwell who had died in Wolsingham in 1785, but there was a problem with this. There was no sign of the sister, Jane, the witness at the wedding. There should have been a sister.

There are two lines of attack if you decide to go backwards, and for once, I followed them. But they both rely on acts of considerable faith. The first was to see if the Jane Greenwell who had presumably been George's sister had married between 1811 and 1837 (before registration). My grandfather had had the registry after 1837 turned upside down looking for Janes. There are four recorded marriages of a Jane Greenwell in county Durham during these 26 years. All four are illiterate women, and this seems slightly unlikely to me, since I was looking, after all, for a Jane Greenwell who had once written her name in the cover of a book, and whose brother was plainly very well read indeed. It seems more likely that she died in the period I was searching through, and it is records of death that are most frequently missing. Her brother George's death is not recorded. The same might be true of her.

The alternative tack was to look for a brother and sister called Jane and George, born in the 1780s or thereabouts. The leaps of faith involved in this case are that there are no other siblings lying about unrecorded; and that the main index, which is the Mormon IGI, is correct - which it isn't in every case. And there is indeed a pair of siblings called George and Jane Greenwell (who have an older brother called Alan). They are baptised in Lanchester in 1770 and 1771. Their parents are Ann Ornsby and Alan Greenwell; his parents are William Greenwell and Mary Sanderson, who married in 1734. William Greenwell was born in 1706 to Ann Byerley, and William's father was Michael Greenwell, born about 1680.

If this was right, then my grandfather could have traced himself back to Greenwell Ford, which is where Michael Greenwell came from; but not to Wolsingham in the first instance . But they are all merely names on lists with no images, personality or penumbra. And besides, the four volumes of Surtees which my grandfather swiped from his club print a pedigree of the Greenwell Ford family. Their George married a Mary Askwith from Ripon; and their Jane died aged sixteen in 1797. So once again, a blank is safely drawn. It is time to draw a discreet veil over the past, which would be unlikely to come to the eternal witness box on such circumstantial evidence, let alone convict my grandfather, or indeed me, of being born under a Latin motto. It is true that there is a likely candidate for the missing George Greenwell in Wolsingham itself, although apparently with no sibling called Jane. He was one of the sons of the butcher, and born in 1785. Wolsingham is near Hamsterley, where the most successful early Baptist community existed - the one that provided Sunderland with its opening speaker, Charles Whitfield. What is more, there were four or five butchers called Greenwell in Sunderland in the 1830s, according to the trade directories. George may have been related to this collection of cleavermeisters. If so, we are still stumped by the identity of the witness Jane Greenwell. It is notable that she is one of the very few female witnesses to Sunderland marriages not only to insist on signing the register between 1800 and 1820, but also able to write her name with confidence:

The signature of the mystery witness at the 1811 marriage of George Greenwell and Mary Wilson.



But my grandfather wasn't looking for butchers, bakers, or tallow-makers. His notes only excite themselves over the word Gentleman. Going backwards, when all is said and done, is a retrograde step, a mug's game.

Besides which, there is something decidedly foggy about this coat of arms, which has three crowns and three bars, and which seems to combine armorial features associated respectively with Tynemouth and Hylton (now a suburb of Sunderland). Why on earth are the Greenwells credited with such an unlikely set of credentials? When the Corbridge branch put in for their mark of extreme respectability, the grant was based on the confirmation of an ancient right to hold arms at Greenwell Hill itself. However, there is no record anywhere of this original grant. The man who authorised the Corbridge branch was a William Camden, whose credit with history is good. Yet it was not hard in the sixteenth and seventeenth century to buy yourself a bogus armorial kit and caboodle. The Greenwells are now the only Durham family with a branch which still owns the land originally awarded them by the Conqueror and his progeny. It is a more than credible irony that the arms my grandfather craved were actually a forgery, a fiddle, and smoothed by some palmfuls of medieval grease.



The Sunderland to which George Greenwell came in 1808 (or at least, where he is first recorded) was considered at the time one of the criminal hotspots of the country. This was still considered to be the case forty years later, when it was estimated that one in every 123 of its inhabitants was a criminal (as against places like Wolsingham, since in Weardale the figure was only one in 907). One woman in every 430 was convicted and imprisoned in Sunderland in 1852 for crime, in most cases, one assumes, for prostitution. “These places are a prolific source of crime, vice, and human misery, being frequently crowded with persons of both sexes and all ages, without regard to decency, comfort or ventilation,” claims Fordyce. Riots were common, as they always had been. A report at the end of the nineteenth century was to paint a similarly grim picture, this time using infant mortality as its index - about one in four, compared to one in six in large towns elsewhere.

Yet in 1852, the year Mary (Wilson) Greenwell died, and one hundred years before I was born, Sunderland and its rather well-heeled twin, Bishopwearmouth, was beginning to make great advances. The town already had a Corporation Gas Company, which, after heated debate, had been established in 1844 (Maud Kitts' uncle and adopted father, Joseph Kitts, was to become its secretary at the end of the century). Its first public bath-houses had opened in April 1851; Mowbray Park was opened in 1857; a public library (for reference only) was opened in 1858; and by 1861, the town's appalling sewers had been replaced. Trade, after a slump, was beginning to boom again. By 1853, the number of ships being built in its 72 shipyards had once again reached the 150 mark, and the town vied with the port Shields for third and fourth placed port in England (after London and Liverpool).

The town had also contributed to the Great Exhibition, with everything from a model of an improved clothes-mangle to a variety of working models of ships, railways, and a clock in the shape of Sunderland Bridge, with two tiny human figures advancing across the bridge as the hours one to twelve ticked away. When the opening ceremonies were over, the Sunderland visitors to the Crystal Palace were confused to find no sign of what they had sent. When in doubt, ask a policeman. They tried that, repeatedly, but to no avail. Eventually a superintendent advised them to “look in the United States”. The organisers, having run out of space, had placed Sunderland between Michigan and Massachusetts. It took a while for the exhibitors to see the funny side of this.

The brothels were not closing, but the theatres were opening, and the newspapers increasingly provide a picture of a town a lot less careless of its life and culture than statistics might suggest. That this is the case emerges clearly from the local newspaper in the 1870s, when the council debates, recorded in detail, are increasingly thoughtful (as are the paper's editorials). My great-great-grandfather starts to put in an appearance in the early 1870s, as a young member of the Sunderland Shipowners Society, at that time involved in heated concern about the reforms to shipping and loading proposed by Samuel Plimsoll M.P. (as in the Plimsoll line). The veteran owners ask for new blood on the committee, and he provides it at their monthly meetings, confining himself to discreet secondings of motions, or one line comments on the conversation. At this time, he owned two ships, and over the next forty years, about twenty would pass through his hands, most of them acquisitions rather than commissions.

The newspaper itself, the Sunderland Daily Echo , records its events with an interesting civic pride that extends to national social issues. Like all daily papers, it records murders and the consequent executions. However, it takes an atypically strong line against capital punishment, and its disdain for the national executioner, Macklin, is evident. When the murderer Charlie Peace is hanged, what Sunderland's journalists get aggravated about is the appearance of a street sideshow commemorating the event. There are also curious crazes that sweep the town, perhaps the most illuminating being the obsession with spelling bees. In the late 1870s, the import of the spelling bee from America - a sort of surrogate interest in education - is noted. Within months, every single organisation in Sunderland has been swept up in the fashion for competitive spelling, to the extent that results are published regularly. There is even an angry letter about an officiating reader at a spelling bee pronouncing phial as vial , and thereby depriving the rightful victor of the prize. Surreally, even the deaf and dumb society holds a spelling bee.

Here is a town that no longer suffers any identity crisis. It celebrates itself and its remarkable shipping successes with great enthusiasm. Perhaps the most telling feature of the local newspaper stories towards the end of the nineteenth century is their increased interest in leisure - in sport, in particular; in leisure; and even, although rather uncertainly, in reports of the latest ladies' fashions. In the area where my great-great-grandfather had established himself - the seaside suburb of Roker, on the north side of the river - there were increasing crowds on the beaches. This was much to the horror of Sir Hedworth Williamson, who actually sued the town council to prevent its setting up refreshment stands. His intervention was treated with amused disdain by the local newspaper.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Robert and George were already forgotten figures. Robert's eldest grandson, my great-grandfather Willie, emerges into the limelight at about the time (1890) that Robert died. He is the star of the show at the regattas, the captain of the Sunderland Amateur Rowing Society, winning a great number of silver trophies quite possibly made by his uncle. He slips effortlessly away from his father's business after a brief stint, and makes his name with the ship-repair yard which opened at the outset of the Edwardian era. That he was an astute businessman is shown by the ability of his yard to prosper sufficiently to sit out the depressions of the twenties and thirties.

To begin with, he leased two dry docks from the council on the south side of the river Wear, but by 1925, he was able to preside over the opening of a new dry dock which was 500 feet long and 75 feet in width, and with electric travelling cranes. Before the Second World War, his workmen had already proved their dexterity, and he had proved his business acumen, by the announcement of plans to build an even larger dry dock. During the war, and despite a blitz attack which set Greenwell's oil tanks alight in May, 1943, the yard continued to earn its reputation by carrying out reconstruction jobs which others had thought impossible - for instance of the local steamer Stakesby . As the book Where Ships Are Born concludes, it was for the range of its conversions and repairs that the yard became known - “destroyers, corvettes, naval escort vessels, tank landing ships and craft, beach protection craft, boom defence vessels, salvage and dredging craft, floating cranes, merchant ships”.


My great-grandfather did not live to see the new dry dock opened, although he had been closely involved in its planning. He missed the opportunity to see not only a major spectacle taking place, but also another piece of family squabbling enacted. Two years after his death in 1948, Greenwell's embarked on a massive expansion, which culminated on October 3rd 1952 with the opening of the largest dry dock in the world - 675 feet long; the extension to 565 feet of the No. 2 dock; and the extension by 200 feet to 800 feet of the quay. There were three ceremonies, none of which were helped by the rainy weather which had swept Britain for about a month beforehand, and which had led the local paper to record a roaring trade in umbrellas.

My grandfather had already brought my father into the yard and on to the board of directors earlier in the year. I had also turned up myself, carrying my great-grandfather's name, exactly a month before the occasion, although I was anchored at home on the day. The first dock was enabled to prove its scale by having the onlookers watch as the 28,000-ton tanker British Realm , the largest ship ever to berth on the Wear, was floated in. There were a number of speeches to be made, and my grandfather handed one of them to my father. In so doing, he by-passed his sister's husband, another director, who consequently never spoke to my father or grandfather again, and whose family moved away within a couple of years. His daughter Rosemary - who never met my father again, although she stayed in touch with Pamela, my aunt - was the one whose revelations about my great-great-grandfather started my absurd researches. Sibling rivalry, in the raw. The dry docks opened with a fanfare, and the Greenwells fell out. But not, of course, before my recent and fortuitous arrival into the world had been the subject of a toast.

Halfway through the twentieth century, only three of the missing George Greenwell's grandchildren had descendants still in the town, and many of them were starting to leave. Some of his elder son's children were now in Canada and the USA, or working in Birmingham, London, the South Coast. His younger son's descendants were in Australia, or across the Pennines in Carlisle, in Bristol, Leeds, in Detroit, most of them happily unaware of one another's existence. It was to be only twenty-one years until I would pack up and go, as well. I would have at least one credential: my Sunderland FC Cupwinners mug. I was to be interrogated about this by another staffroom expatriate when I started work as a teacher. “Have you got your mug?” he asked, suspiciously, when I said I was from Sunderland. But of course I had. I'd even been to the Cup Final, having bought my ticket from an improbable tout - a football player who some years later turned up on television as the only prisoner captured by the Argentinians in the Falklands conflict.

Otherwise, drifting through Sunderland from time to time, I felt about as local as a fish in a tree.

The signatures of George Greenwell and Mary Wilson from the 1811 marriage register


Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Appendix One
Appendix Two - 1
Appendix Two - 2
Appendix Two - 3
Appendix Two - 4
Appendix Two - 6
Appendix Two - 7
Appendix Three
Appendix Four
Appendix Five
Appendix Six