Fish in a Tree

Chapter One

One: Practically Certain

The bomb blast took the fifth, sixth and seventh floors out. It also blew the roof off. But the main force was downwards, as if some giant child had stamped a deliberate heel on the front of the building, squashing the five floors below into the basement, and opening up the palatial frontage to the early morning air. The sea swilled aimlessly about on the other side of the road, beyond the promenade.

Tons of masonry crumbled like dry biscuit, and the air filled with a choking mixture of dust and smoke. Some of the guests - it was a hotel - fell with the rubble into the emptiness created by the explosion. A couple from the fourth floor fell further than a couple from the second floor, and lay trapped six feet further down in the middle of the fractured masonry, broken furniture, shattered glass, and twisted pipes from which water began to burst. Alarm bells sounded fruitlessly. Out of the air came cries for help - from people trapped in the upper floors, or pinioned beneath parts of wall, ceiling, floor.

In the hotel bar - it was quarter to three in the morning - someone had just been ordering champagne when the dull boom of the explosion was heard, the walls disintegrated, and fragments of debris flew through the room. The elegant foyer was trampled. Out of the corridors, down the fire-escapes, through the gaping windows came a procession, orderly, stunned, of men and women in night-clothes and blankets, or, from the bar, in dinner-jackets and evening gowns. They congregated on the front. Someone set out deckchairs, and, in the autumn darkness, some of the shaken victims occupied them, in complete disbelief.

It was early on a Friday morning in Brighton, on October 12, 1984. An IRA bomb planted some three weeks earlier in room 629 (the occupants of which, although injured, survived) had nearly succeeded in wiping out the political leaders of Great Britain, who were preparing for the final day of their party conference. Delegates had heard promises of changes to the Rent Act, speeches against unilateral disarmament, and an attack upon militant trade unionists, promises that more industries would be taken out of public ownership. Now many of them stood, whey-faced, on the Brighton front, not yet aware how close the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had come to being assassinated, nor realising, as the emergency crews set to work, that Norman Tebbit, one of the party's most populist orators, was trapped in a foetal position beneath the wreckage.

The local branch of Marks and Spencer's was contacted, and opened. About a hundred of the conference members, deprived of access to their wardrobes, selected off-the-peg items of clothing to start the new day. It was a strange and surreal experience, the well-spoken army of itinerant Tories wandering through the spiritual retail home of Middle England, still in its pyjamas. Amongst them was someone for whom the Brighton conference was effectively the pinnacle of her political achievement. She was chairing the conference, presiding over the introductions to the motions and speakers, taking charge of announcements, guiding the political worthies through their paces from her place on the platform. It was my aunt, Pamela Hunter, who had been sleeping only a few doors away from Margaret Thatcher when the detonation ripped out the prime minister's bathroom. Pamela's husband, Gordon, had leapt over her protectively, a wartime reflex, or a gentlemanly instinct, or both.

The Newcastle Journal , looking out for its local notables, noted her appearance on the Brighton platform the next day, having parked one of its political staff in front of the television. It did not report her opening remark, which had the helpful - although accidental - effect of drawing the sting from the tension still palpable in the conference hall.

“Welcome back to Blackpool,” she said.


My aunt Pamela - my father's sister - celebrated her golden wedding in some style. There was a marquee. There were ushers. There were speeches and toasts. My mother represented our own, slightly more modest branch of the family - my father had died some years earlier - and amongst those she met again after an interval of some years, was my father's first cousin, Rosemary Bowmer. By this time my aunt was a fully-fledged Dame - she was awarded the DBE on the same day as (the only other recipient) Celia Johnson, although in my aunt's case, the honour was for services to the Conservative Party. Nevertheless, it was a brief encounter of sorts that captured my mother's attention. Rosemary, Pamela and my mother were discussing the Greenwell family. Like many families, it had a recent history of arguments and sibling rivalries. My grandfather, for instance, had fallen out with his sister, Rosemary's mother, at some point in the 1950s.

Rosemary at some point in the discussion raised the interesting issue of my grandfather's grandfather. After fathering eight children, and at the age of 58, he had committed something of a faux pas . This little social misjudgment had taken place in 1900, and consisted of his bedding the family housekeeper. My aunt thought this sort of tattle on the improbable side. However, he hadn't just bedded her, said Rosemary, he had also got her pregnant. When you're one of the bigger cheeses in the Sunderland Shipowners' Society, and you have launched not only a host of vessels but your family into the upper echelons of North East society, this would have been, if true, more than a mere blunder. But my aunt didn't believe it was true. Oh yes, said Rosemary. And what is more, the child had been a boy .

And - and - my grandfather's grandfather had not only caused a boy to be born, he had also married the housekeeper, and the boy had thereby been legitimised as a Greenwell . “But that's impossible!” announced my aunt.

The great thing about my mother was that she was a sneak, at least where I'm concerned. She passed this conversation on to me the same week.

Now it was a curious fact that my great-great-grandfather had somehow vanished from the chain of immediate forebears. There was a portrait of my great-great-great-great-grandfather (that was what was written on the back of the picture) just inside our front door. My great-great-great-grandfather was portrayed above the canteen of knives and forks and silver spoons which lay handily outside the dining-room. My great-grandfather was well-represented, not least by my own full name, which was a replica of his. My grandfather - well I'd met him, hadn't I? He had died when I was fourteen years old. But of my great-great-grandfather, not a trace, not a dicky-bird, not a pair of cufflinks. I knew his name: it was Thomas George Greenwell. The name “George” had always struck me as imposing when I was a child, probably because of the run of kings with the same name. It is a name that invites a basso profundo to sing it.

However, it was the Thomas part of the name that attracted my interest, because I was just the most recent in a run of Redundant Thomases. Here was my great-great-grandfather, a George, but apparently needing a nugatory forename. He had called his son Willie to his face, but Willie was a Thomas William. And “old T.W.” - he was like some mysterious character in a children's novel, gruff, well-intentioned, either a magician or a seer or possibly a badger - had called his own son George. But named him Thomas George. My father was Tony (Thomas Anthony), and I was Bill, mysteriously unable to match my name to my initials - I was Thomas William Greenwell. So where was the man who had started this trend? Why were there no pictures of him anywhere? And what about this curious episode involving him in the late production of a ninth child, a boy?

I was living on my own at the time. It was 1993. A day-trip to London from my home in the South-West seemed not out of the question. Besides, I had always had a sort of residual interest in family trees. At the age of nine, I had received some sort of school commendation for sticking together several sheets of squared paper, and drawing, in an uneven and inky way, a royal tree from Egbert to Prince Charles. I knew how many children Queen Victoria had had. I knew about Edgar the Atheling. I was well-informed about the death of Prince Arthur, who copped it in 1203 at the age of 15, and whose name the royal houses have always come within a triumphant ace of installing on the throne in a way calculated to revive folk-memories of Avalon. There were the unlucky non-inheritors of the monarchy - the Black Prince, an Edward who missed out on being Edward IV by perishing (as his son had already avoided being Edward V by perishing earlier, too). And then there was the potential Frederick I, whose death by cricket-ball to the head (so my history book said) had caused George II to be succeeded by his grandson George III, Frederick's son.

Family trees. They involved rulers of both sorts. You had to leave gaps here and there to enable everyone to fit snugly in. And besides, my grandfather had been keen himself, hadn't he: or so he'd told me. When I was ten, I'd been treated to a little lecture about the names of fathers and sons . He'd promised to leave me the family tree he'd drawn up himself, although my father had snaffled the papers, and I had only taken possession of them when he died. I hadn't had the time to look at what was there, any more than my father had had.

So I went to Somerset House, at that time still the place where wills after 1858 were located. It was impressive. Huge ledgers were arranged in a beautifully panelled room. This was the system. You looked up a death in one of the ledgers, which turned out to be indexes, then you hoiked the index over to an imposing desk, and filled in a form. My great-great-grandfather had died in 1922. The form was rigorously checked against the entry in the index, and then returned to you with a vague instruction about where to pay. I had been ready to invest a reasonable sum in this will, so it was with happy incredulity that I discovered that looking at the will was only going to knock me back 25p (with a further 25p if I wanted it copied and posted to me). It was amazing value (not any more, incidentally. It is currently £10, and looking at it first is a thing of the past).

I took the form back. The man at the desk was burly, as if he had been employed to bounce undesirables out of the place. I sat at a polished desk, quietly minding my own business whilst a hunt was initiated, reading the various notices that forbade you to use ink.

There was a frantic hush in the room. I seemed to be the youngest person in the building by some way. This wasn't the sort of enterprise someone recently turned 40 was supposed to be undertaking. And then there was a stentorian bellow: “Thomas George Greenwell!” They were calling, not my name, but that of my long-dead, possibly randy great-great-grandfather. I presented myself at the desk. The man eyed me. He handed me a stiff folder containing the will, and turned with a shrug.


I was standing in The Strand in a phone-box, ringing my mother. “It's true!” I yipped.

My great-great-grandfather's will (written in 1920, and proved in 1922, the year he died) was explicit. After the usual legal blether about revoking codicils, and the unpunctuated legal morasses of the opening sentences, there came this:

I bequeath to Edward Evelyn Greenwell son of my late wife five thousand five hundred pounds (£5500) free of all death duty in trust until he attain the age of twenty five years the trustees having liberty to invest same in buying and stocking a farm should he desire them to do so and they think it is prudent to do so but not until he attains the age of 21 (twenty one years) they keeping deeds or title of same until he attains the age of twenty five years the interest of said money or profit of farm to be for his benefit to the extent annually deemed right by said trustees until the age of twenty five.......

People are easily infected by this sort of stuff they being said charlatans lawyers deemed to be doing service to attain attain attain. As a language it is a cross between Joyce, mumbling and Medieval Budgerigar. But what it meant here was that, yes, Thomas George Greenwell had indeed bonked his housekeeper, that she had had a son, and that they had later married (I knew that his first wife had died in 1905). Suddenly I had the first glimpse of the missing Thomas, and the nice whiff of scandal in my nostrils. Ours is an age that would rather have the skeletons out and about and dancing in the boulevards.

This was the first will I'd seen, and it gave me much more information than I'd expected. It mentioned Edward Evelyn's date of birth (7 July 1901), and gave a small bequest to a “Jessie Johnstone sister of my late wife”. So the second wife was dead. It seemed a fair bet that she had been called Johnstone; and therefore that Evelyn - as I later discovered he had been called - was born Johnstone. At that time, the births, marriages and deaths were still in St. Catherine's House. This was just a couple of streets away.

St. Catherine's was not just less prepossessing. It was grubby. The ceilings were low. And it was teeming with people, clonking enormous indexes with metal spines on to reading surfaces, hitting each other, elbowing each other. Some people had children with them (“You go and look for 1868 Marriages, go on Keith.” “Yes mum.”). I sidled, still high on Edward Evelyn Greenwell, The Family Secret, over to 1901 births (they come in quarters, and three years before the beginning of World War One, they give the mothers' maiden names). I went straight to the third quarter, looked for J, and yes, there he was: Edward Evelyn Johnstone. I was floating by this time. The sleuth. The sherlock. I flicked through the 1906 marriages. Greenwell and Johnstone, South Shields, no sweat. I went to the paying desk, filled in a form to get the birth certificate posted to me (the originals are all in Southport), paid the mandatory fiver or so, and moved back through the baying crowds of family-hunters.

When the certificates arrived, I had a further glimpse into the mystery great-great-grandfather and the world he inhabited. When Evelyn had been registered, his mother, a gardener's daughter called Jane Johnstone, cunningly gave the father's name as Johnstone, too - “George Johnstone”. Evelyn had been passed off as a legal Johnstone at birth. The marriage certificate - and be fair, he had married her the moment he could - also told a whopper. Thomas George Greenwell, now aged 63, gave the occupation of his father as “shipowner”. I didn't know much about Robert Greenwell, he who had looked down on the canteen of cutlery, but I did know that he'd never owned a ship in his life. My great-great-grandfather had reinvented his father. His housekeeper/lover (how many housekeepers had not become pregnant, that was the unworthy thought) had reinvented her son's identity.

And I thought, my grandfather must have known about Evelyn. His sister had known. His niece Rosemary had known. What about my father? His sister, my aunt, had denied even the possibility. But my father was dead, having bitten the bullet (as he had characteristically put it) of lung cancer at the age of 65, after a lifetime of Senior Service and Embassy fags (there were still blue vouchers, systematically bound in elastic, in his chest of drawers when he died). So what had happened to my great-great-grandfather after this moral shocker? He'd died in Falmouth in Cornwall, I knew that - my father had once found the grave. But was I right? Had he really been airbrushed out of the archives? Or had his photo gone astray?

There were several false leads. Cleadon, the village between Sunderland and South Shields where my mother had been born, and where my grandfather and father had lived, and where me, my sister Clare and brother David had been brought up, hosted a slide show in the church. The speaker had identified someone with a beard, on a horse and cart, as Thomas George Greenwell. At this point, it was impossible to say, although my mother dredged up a memory of being told that he had been a “dapper” man. The horse and cart figure seemed an unlikely prospect. Would we ever find a picture of him? Or indeed Evelyn? (1)

I was just beginning to get hooked.


I was born in Sunderland, as were each of the redundant Thomases before me. The gynaecologist who cut me out of my mother's womb had a stutter, so that my father, like a figure in some obscure comedian's patter, had to sit through “It's a - It's a - It's a - It's a - It's a -” for a while before the word boy surfaced. All three of us - my sister Clare and brother David, who followed at two-year intervals, were Caesarean. This coloured my view of how babies were born. I mean, I'd seen the scar. I was fourteen before I realised that children had not only an alternative, but actually a more traditional entry into the world. It came as quite a shock. My father timed his sex education talk to perfection. I was being accompanied to a new boarding school at the age of 13. He rustled his Telegraph gently, and I rattled my handcuffs in response. “Ever been told about a Thing called The Facts Of Life?” he enquired casually, like a doctor asking a patient the colour of their stools. “Oh yes,” I breezed, a complete lie. We'd been summoned into a headmaster's sitting room at the previous lock-up, and told quite a good deal about rabbits, but I hadn't made all the right connections. “Well that's all right, then,” he said generously, “I don't have to,” and he returned to the shocking cuts in the navy that were (as far as I could tell) all the rage in early 1966 (he'd been a Dartmouth cadet at the equivalent age).

Sunderland is an addictive town (a city, now). It is an obligation on you that you follow the football team on its many downward spirals, that your bones burn with What Happened To Willie McPheat, a player whose career was cruelly foreshortened by a deliberate foul, that you are prepared to swear on your family bible, or rent-book, that Jimmy Montgomery's save in the glorious 1973 Cup Final was frankly a better blow for civilisation than those celebrated on VE and VJ Day, and that a trip to South Shields or Newcastle is only undertaken in extreme circumstances. I lived until I was nearly three just across from Bishopwearmouth Cemetery, where my grandmother wheeled me - perhaps, who knows, my memory's not that hot, past the Greenwell grave I discovered a little later. But of course I was a kind of stranger there, too, spirited away at the age of eight to be educated in the deep south (Yorkshire), and we had anyway moved three miles north to Cleadon, which is so frankly posh that it likes to be known as Cleadon Village. It is said that Dickens met a jilted man there who gave him the idea for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations , although, let's be candid, Dickens seems to have had this flash of creative inspiration in innumerable places across the British Isles.

I did not know really who I was. “From Sunderland” disguises the fact that I led a privileged existence. In the year I was born, Sunderland was the biggest builder of ships in the world, and in the heart of the shipbuilding area of the river Wear, there was a highly successful ship-repair yard, T.W. Greenwell and Co., which had the largest dry dock in the world, and which you approached in a Jaguar over the world's first aluminium bridge. “Old T.W.” had founded this firm in 1901. The second Redundant Thomas had done well, well enough for me to be in the third generation at least of well-off Greenwells. My grandfather (the third R.T.) was a Colonel. His car number was GR1(2) . He lived in the sensationally posh ground floor of Whitburn Hall by the time I knew him, which really I didn't. He had contracted Parkinson's in the mid-fifties, and had to be helped in and out of his chair. He didn't speak much to me, except about family history, in which I assumed him to be expert. Apparently we came from Wolsingham in Weardale. He had a faintly plausible idea that Greenwell was a corruption of grenouille, the French for a frog. Grenouille, Grenwelle, Greenwell. Being the French for a frog is paradoxical enough in itself (lucky we weren't French for a toad, I used to think - crapaud). But the essence of his inventive (and probably faulty) etymology was that we, that is, the Greenwells, were in a direct unbroken succession from Norman nobility. We'd been given land by a grateful Conqueror. There were posh Greenwells in Who's Who , and Burke's Peerage , both of which he showed me. They lived at a place - a place ! - called Greenwell Ford, and were Bart.s and had a crest and a motto and London clubs and recreations and ranks in the army - like my grandfather, in fact! In fact, he was in Who's Who too! Blimey!

The dining room at Whitburn Hall (which I falsely assumed he owned(3)) had ornate, carved wooden walls, with a door that blended into the wall when it was closed (when they demolished the Hall in the 1970s, the dining room walls were taken to the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, although I've not been back to see them). Whoever sat at the head of the table had a bell he could ring by just pressing his foot. Clare and David and I used to run round pressing bells whenever we could, although I seem to remember that this was frowned on.

We were the Greenwells of Greenwell-land. We behaved very well at my grandfather's house. I was taken occasionally to the family firm, and shown to an office, patted firmly and manfully on the head, and given a ginger ale. I didn't like ginger ale, except at Greenwell's. I liked it a lot then. Perhaps my father, already the managing director, wondered if I would be a ship repairer, too (the speciality of the yard was cutting ships in half and inserting a middle). If so, it was lucky I didn't go for it. The shipbuilding industry, and with it the ship repair yard, has long vanished. South Dock, where the yard was, has been concreted over. Sunderland - We Build Ships (or, Where Ships Are Born) has become Sunderland - There's A Big Nissan Factory. I can honestly say that I can only remember one remark my grandfather ever made to me, apart from the family history bit. When I was 13, I invested in a pair of purple hipster flares. It was the penultimate year of his life, which was dominated by his passion for Dr. Finlay's Casebook and Laramie. I wore my legs with pride to Whitburn Hall. He glanced across at me. “I see you've joined the Bengal Lancers,” he said.


I took out the files my grandfather had left, and my father had stashed on top of a wardrobe, and which I had failed to poke my nose in, and started to look through them properly. This was after Somerset House. I suddenly realised that he'd had quite an obsession with the Greenwell family. Indeed, he'd been to Wolsingham and transcribed the parish registers - and had them typed up, too, with carbon copies. On March 1 1657, a swillmaker called George Greenwell had gone to the pig-sty in the sky. There were a lot more Greenwells here than I was expecting. What was he up to?

And then a file of letters appeared. He'd hired a genealogist! Indeed, he seemed to have employed two of them. He was engaged in a desperate effort to get back. However, the two hired hands, a Miss Sylvia England and Miss Freda Podmore, characters surely from a novel by Henry Green, were not in at the beginning. They take their places in 1948 and 1950 respectively. The first letter in his eccentrically-indexed files is dated 13 May 1944. It could be argued that his mind should have been on other things, since at this stage, my grandfather was not only the managing director of his father's ship-repair yard. He was also the National Conservative M.P. for West Hartlepool, after winning a by-election in 1943.

It is a formal letter, and it shows that he has already come into possession of the record of the marriage of Robert Greenwell and Ann Henderson in 1839 in Sunderland. Robert is the father of the first Redundant Thomas (the reprobate).

Dear Sir
he asks The Registrar General at Somerset House

(hello, he's doing what I did - looking for his great-great-grandfather)

I shall be obliged if a general search can be made for the registration of the death of GEORGE GREENWELL, who is believed to have died between the 15th August 1839 and the 30th June 1857.

He was the father of ROBERT GREENWELL and his name appears on the Marriage Certificate of that latter man on the 15th August 1839, where in the occupation of a Shoe Maker he appears to have been living at Bedford Street, Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland, in the County of Durham... he would probably have been born between 1785 and 1795...

He looks to have been lucky. General registration did not begin until July 1837, so if he's found a relevant document in 1839, then he's going to be able to go back just that little bit further. So: my great-great-great-great-grandfather was a George Greenwell, and a shoemaker. I remembered this bit. My grandfather had mentioned it.

He sends off a cheque for five shillings, for the search, and promises the 2/7d for the certificate. By the time nine days have elapsed, however, his patience is wearing thin. He writes a shirty reminder, requesting an acknowledgment and “some indication of how long the search I requested is likely to take." This is on the 22nd May 1944. This letter has certainly been written from the House of Commons, since it is to the House of Commons that someone from the General Register Office in Southport replies the next day . Anyone would have thought there was a peace on. For the utterly fantastic fee of fifteen shillings, they have searched every death register from 1839 to 1867 (ten more years than he'd asked for) but found no mention of any George Greenwell whose particulars match the criteria he's given them.

The third Redundant Thomas is not daunted. The postal system is working quite well, since he gets the letter from Southport on the 24th, and is back on the case by the 25th May. He writes a two-sider (or rather, has it typed by his Commons secretary). Tanks and trains and lorries loaded with British and American soldiers are trundling southwards in ever-increasing numbers, whilst Eisenhower scratches his head in his caravan near Portsmouth over the weather predictions for the coming invasion of Normandy. Thomas George Greenwell M.P., however, writes back to the General Register Office with a cheque for a pound to defray existing debts, and to cover a new search from 1867 to 1882 (there is no significance in the date - he is paying for three 5-year searches). He argues - he's doing this for himself, not for them, unless he is under the delusion that they're interested - that (a) George Greenwell, his great-great-grandfather is not described as “deceased” on his son's 1839 wedding certificate, and that (b) he must therefore have died after that date.

By the 10th June, Allied forces are well past Caen and on their way through France. The beaches are secure, the local people bewildered but serene, and the body count appalling. Thomas George Greenwell is wondering what has happened to his cheque for a quid.

It is now a fortnight since I wrote to you, and not having heard from you at all, I am wondering whether you have ever received my letter, and am particularly anxious to know the fate of the cheque, so that if you have not received it I may have it stopped at the Bank.

Your early reply will oblige.

He gets his acknowledgment on 14th June, and then - how his heart must have leapt in his medalled breast - another letter on 16th June, telling him that they'd found the death of a cordwainer called George Greenwell, at the age of 85, in Chester-le-Street, in the fourth quarter of 1870, and he can have the certificate if he lashes out another 2/7d. End of story! Great-great-grandfather found!

Except of course that he hasn't found him. He had been taking a lot for granted, not least, that the absence of the word “deceased” means “alive and up for the nuptials early, plenty of vim in me, because I've at least another 31 years to live”. This simple trust in the accuracy and fidelity of marriage certificates was to cause my grandfather problems with his researches for the next six years. The other problem was his complete and utter ignorance of the documents into which he was asking other people to look. His cheques for half-a-guinea here and 6/- there fly ever more freely, but he runs in to the ground time after time because he is so sure that not writing down that your father is deceased means that he is alive.

1944 sees several further exchanges between my grandfather and the registry of births, deaths and marriages. There is a strange, footling enquiry about the location of his own grandfather's grave in Falmouth, which he follows up with a blistering complaint that the records list the wrong informant - it was his father, it wasn't him. Wearily, the bureaucrats thank him for the detail, but decline in this instance to amend the records. At the same time, he begins scouring the Wolsingham registers for likely ancestors, hoping for a sort of genealogical pincer movement on his quarry, the errant George Greenwell, erstwhile denizen of Wolsingham. His motives, other than idle curiosity, seem rather confused at this stage of the game. By 1945, his energy is rather sapped, it seems. And besides, there is by then the small matter of a general election to fight.


My grandfather's election to parliament came about more quickly than he had expected. In March 1943, the incumbent Conservative MP for The Hartlepools (West Hartlepool and Hartlepool - there is no “East Hartlepool”), a man called Howard Gritten, announced that he would not be standing as a candidate in the next election, which was neither expected to occur, nor did occur for another two years. Gritten had nearly seized the seat as an Independent Unionist in the three elections of 1910 (one was a by-election. Fighting three elections in eleven months is still a British record, even if he did lose them all). At the end of the First World War, he had a clear victory; four years later, with no Labour Party candidate standing, he had been edged out again. He was re-elected, now as a National Conservative, in 1929, by a wafer-thin majority. In 1931, he trounced a single Labour opponent; he had held on easily enough in 1935 against Labour and what was by then an ailing Liberal Party. There had been no elections since then, because of the outbreak of war. The closeness of the various elections in the first thirty-five years of the century shows that a victory by any of the three possible competitors could not be ruled out. Five of the contests had been decided by fewer than six hundred votes, and in one case, by only forty-four.

Howard Gritten gave no reason for his announcement, but less than a month later he died, so it seems likely that he was aware of a poor prognosis. A new member's services were required. The Northern Daily Mail pressed the local party's chairman for a name. “No name has been put forward, or even suggested,” he pronounced. However, one reader of the paper - who must have been impressed by the late Mr. Gritten's claim to have been descended on both sides from Hereward The Wake - was already putting his feet in the starter's blocks. And what is more, he must have realised that, barring utter disaster, the new Conservative candidate would be, for the first time ever, a shoo-in. What my grandfather knew was that there was a wartime pact between the three parties - in coalition government - to let the incumbent party have a clear run in any by-election.

Colonel Thomas George Greenwell was duly adopted as the National Conservative candidate for The 'Pools on Wednesday May 5th 1943, in St. George's Hall. Accompanied by my grandmother, my aunt and my father (then a sub-lieutenant in the Navy, and who never once mentioned attendance at any election meeting anywhere), he spoke at length in support of Churchill, and indeed, of Churchill's illustrious forebear, the Duke of Marlborough (how he must have wished...). “I would remind you,” he added, “that I have to get my bread and butter in this district the same as all the rest of you here tonight.” He promised everyone “a fair crack of the whip” - one of my father's favourite phrases in later life. And he praised, with proper Conservative caution, the welfare proposals in the Beveridge report, which had recently been published.

However, although Labour and Liberal candidates duly did not enter the contest, three others did. One nine-month-old organisation, the Common Wealth Party, a left-of-centre outfit that did eventually gain a couple of parliamentary seats, put up Miss Elaine Burton. Then an Independent Progressive candidate, a Mr. W.R. Hipwell, presented himself as a potential member. And last, but not least, a former Labour mayor of West Hartlepool, Alderman Oswald Lupton, announced that he was standing as a People's candidate at what must have been a bizarre open-air meeting on Stranton Green. Bizarre, because he was preceded and succeeded onto the makeshift platform by a local Communist, Dave Goodman, who advised the crowd to vote for the National Conservative, the second speech drawing a loud protest from the microphone of the Independent Progressive, Mr. Hipwell, who had driven along for the occasion. With three left-wing candidates fighting for the socialist vote, against the advice of the local Labour Party and local Communist supporters, my grandfather could hardly have lost any sleep. Mr. Hipwell was the most combative of his opponents, and called my grandfather “a retired blimp”. My grandfather called his campaign “comic relief and claptrap”, and dismissed Miss Burton as a communist who had “pledged to set up a Soldiers' and Workers' council.” Alderman Lupton was a truce-breaker, and should be called “Lonely” Lupton. All of the candidates claimed that they supported the Beveridge report more surely or more sensibly than the others. One of my grandfather's supporters, an M.P. called Donald Scott, offered the good people of Hartlepool what must surely rank as one of the worst slogans ever devised: “Think well, work well, vote well, and return Greenwell.” Dear God. Here was a man who would never have made it in advertising.

On a predictably low turnout (less than 40%, only partly explained by the absence of service men and women), my grandfather steamed home with a “smashing” majority just short of 10,000 votes. It was, for what it's worth, the largest majority in a World War Two by-election. For the record, Miss Burton of the Common Wealth party polled a healthy 3,364 votes, and, unlike the other two candidates, rescued her deposit. For my aunt, who (unlike my father) was present at the count, it must have been an inspiring moment. It was about time my grandfather gave her some inspiration. When she had done well in her school matriculation, he had failed to mention for some hours that her envelope, which he had opened, had arrived, and then, with a dismissive “By the way, you've passed”, cut short any congratulation, and moved on to whatever business was then preoccupying him.

The general election of 1945 was not going to be such an easy nut to crack. The Labour Party candidate, a Welshman called David Jones, had been adopted as the prospective candidate in 1938, and was an experienced councillor and unionist (he was a railwayman). But there again, he was a councillor in Pontypridd, not in Hartlepool. By contrast, the Liberal candidate, Russell Vick, was born in Hartlepool, and had had success there as a rugby player with Hartlepool Rovers. He was also the Recorder of Newcastle. My grandfather was at least from the same stretch of coastline; and he had fought in the first world war in the same Siege Battery as some local lads. A fourth candidate, a local independent called Harry Lane, appeared at the last minute.

Election flyer from the 1945 General Election.



There had been no general election in Great Britain for ten years, and what that, crucially, meant was that there were thousands of voters in their twenties who had never cast a vote in a national contest. It was to be an unusual election, too, because the outcome was not to be declared for three weeks, some constituencies voting on different days. All four candidates would have to sweat it out in the mean time.

At his adoption meeting, my grandfather struck the political anvil with all the predictable hammers. He dismissed Harry Lane, and then trained his sights on Russell Vick. Mr. Vick, he said, was an extremely nice man, with a charming wife, and his legal training and “glib gift of oratory” would doubtless be used. But what was the point of the Liberals? (Their fortunes were indeed at a very low ebb, and the tide would run further out over the next twenty years. A Liberal vote was then a very sentimental vote indeed.) Now he took on his real opponent, the Labour man. He went for the gullet. The man was a decent union man, but he was Welsh. Welsh, in Hartlepool. He was a Socialist. So was Hitler. Not that Mr. Jones was a Nazi, but all Socialists, Hitler included, tied you up in red tape. And the Labour leader. Clement Attlee, was a clockwork mouse. My grandfather wound up with a stirring speech in praise of Churchill, and against nationalisation. “I am a North Country-man,” he declared. The crowd sang “For he's a jolly good fellow,” and the contest got under way.

The campaign was generally rather less eccentric than the by-election. The Liberals were constantly described as redundant by my grandfather and by Councillor Jones. Most of the speechifying reported at length in the Northern Daily Mail is about as platitudinous as you might expect, although pretty worthy and increasingly respectable on both sides. Councillor Jones had something of a fixation with what Churchill, then a Liberal, had said in Dundee in 1908 (he had lambasted the party he was now leading). My grandfather hinted that Harold Laski, the Labour Party's economist, was a danger to human existence. Councillor Jones raised the spectre of a return to the unemployment of the 1930s - my grandfather was certainly unwise to have hinted at one stage that there might be less work after the war. Churchill was much-praised by my grandfather, and not much dispraised by the cautious Councillor Jones. Jones played up the common sense of Labour proposals; my grandfather hinted that he would vote against the government if it did not support the shipping industry. Nationalisation was presented either as a vague threat, or a tentative promise. The speeches betray a great sense, not of argument, but of care not to get into an argument. The Liberal was not so lucky. He managed to embroil himself in a minor row over his treatment of some trade unionists.

Not until the end of July did the four candidates re-assemble. It was obvious at the count in Hartlepool Town Hall that the Independent and the Liberal were out of the running, and both conceded as much. But the tension was evident in the faces of George Greenwell and David Jones, as they watched the ballot papers spilling out of the battered black boxes in roughly equal numbers. Sometimes, it looked as if Labour were ahead, sometimes as if it were the Conservatives. As the Northern Daily Mail put it, “Shortly after eleven o'clock, it looked as if Colonel Greenwell might just succeed in retaining his seat.” This is journalese for He Lost . But it was closer than that. The first count put David Jones ahead by 278 votes. This is what you might call a nasty number. It is too close to zero to rule out error. But it is also too far from zero to hold out much hope. There were no hanging chads in Hartlepool.

The counters were allowed a breather, and the chance to stretch their fingers and thumbs. Deep down, my grandfather must have known that he'd lost, must have also stretched, as all humans do, for that last, manky straw of optimism. The returning officer had ordered a complete re-count. At twenty to midnight, they started leafing through the papers again, finishing in the early hours. My grandfather garnered only three new votes. He was back in the real world of general elections, back in the world Howard Gritten had known only too well in 1910. After two years, my grandfather bowed out with the usual courtesies, and the usual promises that he would return. It was Labour's first ever victory in Hartlepool. But to tell the truth, my grandfather, however I may grimace at his attitudes, had done pretty well. By the next morning it was clear there had been a Labour landslide, and that the first proper Labour majority was in place. To have come so tantalisingly close in what had always been such a marginal seat, and in such circumstances, was a victory of sorts. But I write with the dunce-cap of hindsight on my head. The words on his lips - “a most clean election which it has been a pleasure to fight” - must have fallen back like limpets onto his craw. What else did he say? “We have all had a fair crack of the whip.”






The candidates for the neighbouring seats of The Hartlepools and Stockton, George Greenwell and Harold Macmillan. One of them was going to be Prime Minister one day.




The general election seems to have knocked all the genealogical stuffing out of my grandfather. However, the letter I now realise he had been expecting arrived. It was late 1947. The letter galvanised him into a new and determined frame of mind. It was the letter he had been anticipating three years earlier. He had been nominated to be the High Sheriff of County Durham, with about three years notice. High Sheriffs do not have tin stars and drunken deputies (well, there again...). Nor do they chase outlaws through the woods, although as a matter of fact, ensuring that ten itinerants were chased off some land is listed as a major recent achievement by the shrievalty in one county. The office is Saxon in origin, and carried major clout a thousand years ago. Now the office is a one-year ceremonial one (it changed significantly in 1908). The High Sheriff is responsible for looking after High Court judges when they visit, and undertaking any jobs delegated by the (permanent) royal appointee, the Lord Lieutenant. In other words they get to wine and dine the judges, and to dress up in cocked hats and breeches. And carry a sword.

And - this was the big one for my grandfather - carry a coat of arms. So when Sir Algar Howard K.C.V.O, C.B, M.C. (initials in impressive excess of my grandfather's alphabetic collection, the Garter Principal King Of Arms), dropped my grandfather this line, he was both excited and bothered.

Dear Sir
As you have been nominated as a Sheriff of your County I should like to be able, in accordance with an ancient custom, to record your Armorial Bearings in our “Sheriff's Roll of Arms”. If Armorial Bearings have been duly registered here to one of your paternal ancestors, then it would only be necessary for your male descent from such an ancestor to be recorded here. If Armorial Bearings have not been recorded to your family, they can be assigned to you by Letters Patent under the hands and Seals of the Kings of Arms. Should you be interested...............

Interested? Were they kidding? Ancient customs.... paternal ancestors.... male descent...... This was what my grandfather was breathing for. Indeed, he had gone one major step further. The fons et origo of all Greenwells was a tiny settlement called Greenwell, near Wolsingham, and even closer to a small Weardale village called Thornley, Thornley and Greenwell being mentioned in the same sentence in “The Boldon Book” - the Domesday Book of the North (1183 - the original had carelessly failed to count the oxen, asses, acres, rods, poles, perches, tithes, etc. etc. in Northumberland and Durham).

The area in Weardale which attracted my grandfather. Greenwell and Greenwell Hill are tiny dots of red on the map above, between Thornley and Wolsingham. Inset: the cottage my grandfather bought in Thornley, pictured in 1948.



My grandfather had bought a small cottage there in 1948 (he had actually intended, having inherited from his father, the purchase of, and a whoesale move to 'Bishop Oak', a grand house to the west of Wolsingham, stil standing: but he was gazumped, and opted instead for a 'house in the country'). He was staking his right to the great fiefdom of Greenwell by moving in as close to next door as he could. Now here was a proper call to Arms. As yet, however, my grandfather had not even managed to connect himself properly to a shoemaker who might or might not have been at his son's wedding in 1839. He had had the indexes turned inside out looking for likely candidates, and the closest - and one can't help feeling, the most unwelcome candidate, in his case - was an ancient pitman from Chester-le-Street, neither socially desirable, nor actually very probable. Shoemakers who are fiftyish do not suddenly switch careers and go down the pits.

After some chewing of his small moustache, Colonel Thomas George Greenwell, T.D., J.P, but no longer M.P., went for the vaguely positive response, which he sent tactically from Thornley itself:

Dear Sir
....I would briefly outline my position to you. My country dwelling at Thornley, which is only a small house, is, together with a small parcel of land I have bought there, a recent acquisition by me, but up to the time of my great-great-grandfather, my family had lived there for some hundreds of years. Although I cannot go back further, with certainty, than about 1713, I have good reason to believe that lands in Thornley, bought by Robert Greenwell, a merchant of London, in 1623 as the result of divisions by the Crown of land seized subsequent to the Northern Rebellion, were held by a direct ancestor of mine.

There is quite a lot of fibbing here. He still hasn't a clue where his great-great-grandfather came from, and he certainly hasn't gone back anywhere near 1713. He just has a long list - a very long list - of Greenwells in the Wolsingham church register with whom he may in a vague way be connected. The “direct ancestor”, the Abraham of the Greenwell family, is a mythical figure, to whom anyone called Greenwell could lay claim. Still, there is another card to play, having established that he has a bona fide “country dwelling”.

The lands of Greenwell which are now held by Captain Sir Peter Greenwell, Bart., are only just a mile away from my home, and I am practically certain that the Robert Greenwell mentioned was a branch of this family, and I believe it was he who, as a Cadet of the family, was granted a confirmation of the Greenwell Arms in 1601 by the College of Arms.........

This is a desperate attempt to connect himself to the posh Greenwells in Burke's Peerage. His recent purchase turns quickly from a “country dwelling” to a “home”. He is living in the lap of the echt Greenwells (in fact, their land. They lived in the Home Counties). But he must have known it was a very dubious application - good reason, practically certain, I believe ....... Surely they wouldn't fall for it?

Two days later - by return - Sir Algar Howard pops his reply in the post. He thanks my grandfather for his “very interesting” letter. He corrects - this must have been embarrassing - the name of the successful applicant in 1601 from Robert to William (“of Fenchurch Street, London”). But the Thornley trick had paid off, in a way.

The [Greenwell] pedigree also mentions a Thomas Greenwell of Thorneley, brother of the above William, who died in 1617 leaving issue six sons and two daughters. It would be very interesting to prove your connection with this family, and if it were done, the Arms could be granted and confirmed to you in exactly the same way.

Just one sting in the tail, alas.

If you care to send me a note of your pedigree as far as you have been able to trace it, and also the evidences in support you may have, I shall be very pleased to go further into this and advise you further in the matter.

But that was the problem. My grandfather had no evidences at all. There is no record of his having even acknowledged the letter - it would have been too shameful. Instead, he set to work with a vengeance on what he had dropped in 1944 - finding where and when his great-great-grandfather had died, and, more importantly, where he had been born.


At least now my grandfather had something else to go on. He had discovered that his great-great-grandfather George Greenwell, the shoemaker, had married a Mary Wilson on April 16th 1811, in Sunderland. The copy of the registry entry (3) provided nothing else, except the apparently minor detail that one of the witnesses to the marriage was a Jane Greenwell, and that the other was Mary's brother, Alexander. He also knew that George and Mary had had three children - another Jane, in 1812, who had died as an infant in 1814, and two sons, Robert (from whom the Redundant Thomases were descended) in 1814, and George in 1816. Apart from that, he could only hazard his way backwards in the direction of the family to whom he had to link himself, thus to capture the piratical booty that was the coat of arms. His researches at Wolsingham had given him enough Greenwells to fill his imagination, and a zigzag through the nineteenth century had given him plenty of George Greenwells to choose from. Dozens, in fact. All he needed were the damn links in the chain to prove his birthright, to sup not from the mess of pottage (or pottage of lentiles, as the Bible has it - mess is a later invention), but from the crest-inscribed plate of goodies at the Great Greenwell Banquet.

The three children of the “missing” George Greenwell,
and their Baptist minister uncle, Alexander Wilson.
Robert Wilson Greenwell was my grandfather's great-grandfather.
Mary Wilson's father was a Robert Wilson.


And now, out of the blue, came another discovery. He was talking to the deputy harbourmaster of Sunderland, Percy Raine, when Percy idly mentioned that they were second cousins. My grandfather must have replied with keen interest. Percy told him he'd always known they were cousins. His grandmother had been a Greenwell, a Lizzie Greenwell. She had been the sister of his grandfather (the first redundant Thomas), and indeed of a local silversmith, William Greenwell. What's more, Percy's mother, Ethel, let alone his grandmother, was buried in the Greenwell family grave in Bishopwearmouth cemetery. Just next to Aunt Polly, another Greenwell sister, who had been looked after by his mother. In fact, after Aunt Polly had died, Percy's mother had inherited the Greenwell family bible (5). It had a list of names written in the front. Would Colonel Greenwell like to see it?

See it? He wanted it. He was desperate for it. You can have the bible, if you like, said Percy blithely. My name's not Greenwell. My grandfather can hardly have believed his luck. Every day he travelled to the ship-repair yard. Every day, as it transpired, his car had been passing Percy's daughter Aline on the way to work. And he hadn't known! As it happened, Percy's wife Lilian wasn't overly chuffed when Percy came home that night with his decision, but my grandfather wasn't to know that. Percy was a man of his word. He delivered the bible the next day.

That my grandfather took to calling “Hello, cousin!” each time he passed Percy thereafter, and indeed stopped when he passed Aline to give her a lift, was a sign of the immense satisfaction this acquisition gave him. For the bible held a clue: a puzzling one, but a clue nonetheless. Tucked inside it were a couple of photographs, one of which was of a recently married couple, and marked “to Ethel, with love from Winnie”, and a list of birthdates for each member of Robert Greenwell's family (alas, it didn't go back a generation further). But most interesting, most exciting, most salivatingly tantalising of all, there was a print of Nottingham cemetery, and on the back of this print, someone had written in pencil “the cemetery where dear Grandmother Greenwell was buried”.


What was she - for thinking about it, it must be Mary Wilson who was buried there, the wife of George Greenwell - what was she doing in Nottingham?

The cheque was in the post immediately. My grandfather instituted an immediate search from 1837 to 1867 for a Mary Greenwell who had last seen the light of day in Nottingham. Rather surprisingly, the General Register Office turned up no trump (surprisingly, because she is certainly there). Nothing daunted, my grandfather was on to the office in Nottingham where the cemetery records were stashed. This time, the result was positive (there must have been a tetchy letter to the General Register Office, but if so, it does not survive). Yes, in grave number 10261, there were indeed the remains of Mary Greenwell. She had died in May 1852. On the cemetery certificate, she was described as “the widow of the late George Greenwell, Baptist Minister, of Hetton-le-Hole in the County of Durham.” She was 73. The informant on her death certificate, which repeated the idea that George Greenwell was a Baptist minister, was her son, also a George. Both had been living in Pilcher-Gate, Nottingham.

My great-great-grandfather Thomas George and three of his siblings. This shows the relationship between my grandfather (bottom left) and Percy Raine (bottom right)


My grandfather did a quick sum. This Mary Greenwell had been born in about 1779, then. This was a nuisance, because it did not fit with some other calculations he'd been making about a George and Mary Greenwell, putative parents of the George who married in 1811, whom he'd come across in Wolsingham's registers. Yet the evidence that this was the right Mary was considerable. The woodcut in the bible said she'd been buried in Nottingham. Here she was in Nottingham. And George - the late George, so he'd died before her, thus narrowing the field - had certainly been a Baptist. He knew that. He knew that his immediate ancestors had been Baptist. It pleased him to think that the AWOL George had been a minister. This was more promising: a shoemaker turned minister, rather than a shoemaker turned pitman. It looked like the right class of Greenwell, all right.



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•  (1) About twenty years later I discovered that, in the same room as we discussed this in 1994, there was a postcard with a picture of Evelyn it in a book about Cleadon. Its caption called him Evelyn Well (it also attached the name to another boy).

•  (2) The GR is nothing to do with the GR in Greenwell - it was the new series of Sunderland car numbers issued in 1933.

•  (3) It was in fact part of the large residence formerly occupied and owned by Sir Hedworth Williamson, as it had been by his ancestors for several generations. Williamson was the owner of most of the land north of the river Wear, and a force to be reckoned with in Sunderland in the nineteenth century - he was for a while one of its Conservative M.P.s as well. The owner of much adjacent land was William Herring, the father of Ann Herring, who left my womanising great-great-grandfather in 1903.

(4) The entry my grandfather had was a typed copy - he never saw the original.

(5) Almost certainly this was not “the Greenwell family bible”, although it contained leaves from a Greenwell bible. Some of the details in it suggest it had been the possession of a Maria House, later Hallewell, who was harbourmaster Percy Raine's great-grandmother, and whose son had married a Greenwell.


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 - 5
Appendix Two - 6
Appendix Three
Appendix Four
Appendix Five
Appendix Six