Fish in a Tree

Chapter Four

Four: I am unaware what the precise procedure is


Now my grandfather began in earnest to instigate a search into his baronial origins. It seems clear that he had discussed very little of this with his father - for otherwise, why pester Laura, his father's sister? And it looks like no coincidence that his change of gear coincided with his father's death in 1948. Perhaps his father, who had had to suffer the public indignity of his own parents separating when he was thirty-three, of his mother hightailing it to Harrogate with at least two of his sisters, and all this in the very years when he was set upon making his own mark on the shipyard industry, was particularly antipathetic to the idea of family. As the eldest child of a man who had been canoodling carelessly with a housekeeper, and as the possessor of a new brother when he himself had already fathered his only two children, the impropriety is unlikely to have amused him very much, even though he was known as a man who liked hilarity.

The first genealogist my grandfather hired was Miss Sylvia L. England, who had been recommended to him by the superintendent of the Reading Room of the British Museum. Their correspondence lasts from the end of October 1948 until April 1949, during which time he dictated eighteen letters to her, sometimes three pages in length.

His first inkling is to follow a wild goose. He had obtained the will of a John Greenwell of Sunderland (dated in 1839, and proved in 1840) which named a George Greenwell as his son. This George Greenwell was named as living in Surrey. Was he a shoemaker? The hope here was that John might be the grandfather of Robert, perhaps particularly because this John Greenwell had left a reasonably substantial will. Miss England (who charges a minimum of half-a-guinea) finds no record of any such George Greenwell. Before going any further, he suggests that, since he will be in London, they meet at the Lansdowne Club. Unfortunately, the hapless Miss England gets her diary in a muddle, and turns up a day late. For a stickler like my grandfather, this must have been insufferable. He composes an icy letter, and receives a grovelling response (“I can truly say this has never happened to me before in my life” - there is some further excuse about her bouts of anaemia).

Sylvia England, like the General Registry in 1944, is not fast enough for my grandfather. Within five days, he is asking for a result. Her reply cannot have been encouraging. “I had not realised you were in any hurry” - hurry! - “so of course have not touched it so far.” She has “a large number of clients, all of whom have to take their turn.” My grandfather replies by return. He is in “very great hurry”. He sends a cheque for £2.3s.0d, and urges her to think of other lines of inquiry. At this stage, he has convinced himself that John Greenwell is his man, because John Greenwell has had a daughter called Jane, subsequently a Mrs. Johnson, but by 1839 a widow (1). He is banking on this daughter being the Jane who was the witness at the wedding in 1811 - and perhaps even the Jane who wrote her name in the tiny diary (although not at the time). I suspect it did not inspire confidence that Sylvia England referred to her in her reply as Johnston.

By December, my grandfather is stretching credulity like faulty elastic. He is prepared to buy up every certificate of every George Greenwell who died between 1841 and 1885 (by which time his putative ancestor would have been in his nineties, and would have certainly died within the memory of his father, his aunt, indeed of a whole host of living relatives). He wishes Miss England a Merry Christmas, and she reciprocates so quickly that she has to apologise for smudging her signature. She sends a list of every George and Mary Greenwell she can find in the deaths index.

Before the old year is out, Sylvia England had received further instructions. My grandfather had obviously been busy over the festive season, taking no interest in his turkey, scrutinising the list, and eliminating all the unlikely candidates on the basis of their age. Now he makes a surprising admission. Although he has been in the genealogy game for over four years, he is completely in the dark about what the procedure actually is:

You of course appreciate that I am unaware as to what the precise procedure is in conducting researches, and, therefore, I do not know whether you are only allowed to see the calendars or whether you can see the actual registers.

Just the indexes, mate, I found myself telling him when I read this. Just the indexes.

It was at this point, having settled on a George Greenwell who died in 1870 at the age of 85, once again ignoring the fantastic unlikelihood that no-one had noted this in the family bible, that he received the letter from Nottingham about Mary Greenwell, the widow of the Baptist Minister, and realised that he was backing not so much a wrong horse as a three-legged donkey dressed in a jester's outfit. Sylvia England's letters at this time are constantly apologetic about illness, bureaucracy and blots. It seems a mercy that she and my grandfather never met: her jittery moods and his acerbic manner are a less than suitable match. He may have derived some comfort from the fact that he had actually, thanks to Percy Raine, made much more progress than she had. But he is still blithely insistent that George Greenwell, the missing link, was alive in 1839, because his sons' marriage certificates do not list him as “deceased”. Several guineas' worth of cheques had by now been lashed out on this increasingly slender premise.

By March 1949, he has hit on a new idea: searching the 1841 census. Why had this not struck him before? Unfortunately, he has no idea how censuses are arranged either, and is startled to find that they must be gone through district by district, the age of the CD-ROM and of online searching not yet being upon the world. Wearily, he assents to a search through Hetton-le-Hole, then Nottingham, and then Sunderland. His nervy toiler in the family vineyards has further bad news to break to him in April, which is that even local census returns are not organised alphabetically. (“I am amazed that there is no index to any of these lists of returns, but I suppose that each book is at least arranged in alphabetical order,” he had written.) In his fervid imagination, he must have conjured up an army of clerks, writing out copperplate lists under each letter of the alphabet, carefully checking that any (for instance) retired honorary colonels in search of emotional bullion would be able to check in and check out with the correct info for a two-shilling fee. (He would have approved of H.G.Wells' A Modern Utopia, which sees just such a colossal operation taking place, and envisages a ceaseless card-indexing operation on an international scale.)

And worse, once Sylvia England had finished working her way through the census for Sunderland, she found only a handful of Greenwells, none of them a relevant George or Mary. As it happens, this was careless of her, since Mary Greenwell is clearly listed - I was to discover this some fifty years later. My grandfather is also struck, in retrospect, with the odd absence of any of his relatives in her search. What about his great-grandparents? Indeed, what about his great-aunt Mary, the “peculiar deaf lady” known as Polly? She had been born in 1840. Clearly, he tells Sylvia England, the census returns must be sketchy. Privately, perhaps, he had concluded what I had - that Miss England was not especially competent, whether my grandfather's demands were reasonable or not. After six months, she has not moved him any closer to the armorial grail. He decides to chalk Miss England's guineas up to experience, and closes his correspondence.


Not until November 1949 did my grandfather return to the fray. By this time, he would have been keenly awaiting the prospect of an election, since the Labour-led parliament was coming close to the end of its term. Nevertheless, the drowning man felt the need to clutch again at a family straw. He contacted the Genealogical Society (which he had by this time joined), and they recommended him his second aide-de-camp, a Miss Freda Podmore, of South Kensington.

Freda Podmore is a much more businesslike individual. She works on the basis of six shillings an hour, and is not prepared to countenance fewer than seven hours' work at the least. She also begins by asking her client to provide her with a note of “all possible relevant data, including odd and unconnected theories - or even unsubstantiated theories”. Well, there were plenty of them. She obviously had a strong clue about the kind of man she might be dealing with. This time he too wanted to make sure he was not about to enter into the kind of higgledy-piggledy agreement he had had with Sylvia England. His two letters of reply suggest that they meet - the Landsowne Club is the prospective venue once again, and he promises to write something down before they meet. This time, he is able to meet her, in early December.

It is New Year's Eve, 1949, when he posts her material further to that which they have discussed. This consists of six biographies, biographies that he is pleased to have written, beginning (rather pointlessly, from a genealogical point of view) with my father, then only 27, and continuing backwards through the next five generations of males. After he has described himself, and commended his father (“He devoted himself to his family and business and took a great interest in sport”), he proceeds to his grandfather. Plainly, he will not be telling the whole truth in this case.

There is a curious description of the religious background of my great-great-grandfather: Baptised: Not baptised. Family were then Baptists . However, this isn't quite the nonsense it sounds; my great-great-grandfather had been born into a family that passionately opposed infant baptism. What this indicates is that, although born a Baptist, he had not followed the religion. My grandfather treads carefully:

At the time of his eldest son's marriage he was living in the house “Glenville” at Roker, in Sunderland, but the family broke up from that dwelling, and he subsequently lived in various houses in Cleadon, Sunderland, Haslemere, Falmouth and Bournemouth, eventually dying in Falmouth .

This makes him seem a remarkable itinerant. Now comes the moral judgement, and it is as dismissive as it can possibly be in the circumstances:

He took no part in public life or military service, was not interested in any sport or games and had no hobbies of any sort other than reading and gardening.

That is to say, he was not like his grandson (M.P and Colonel), or his son (a champion oarsman), and as dull as ditchwater. His actual hobby, the one that got him into hot family water, is discreetly elided. I started to like my great-great-grandfather again when I read this. If my grandfather really had such little time for him, he couldn't be all bad, could he?

He adds some more about his various theories, one of which is that the missing George Greenwell (still presumed to be alive in 1839 at his son's wedding, because not shown as “deceased”) went to Hetton-le-Hole as “Pastor” after the death of Hetton's Baptist minister, William Greatrex in 1844 (2). He sketches in his latest theory, based on research undertaken in the field, i.e. Wolsingham's registers. He also blends in the shoemaker-turned-pitman theory, as well, which is a throwback to earlier research. He suggests that this pitman called George was the son of a couple called George Greenwell and Mary Gibson, who were married in Chester-le-Street in 1758, and who had two sons called George and Robert who were baptised in 1769 and 1771 in Lanchester. He further connects this to another Robert who married in Chester-le-Street in 1755. These theoretical links are of advantage to my grandfather. Hetton-le-Hole lies between Sunderland and Chester-le-Street. But the baptism in Lanchester represents much cannier thinking, because Lanchester was where some Greenwells in Burke's Peerage had moved - had moved, indeed, in the early seventeenth century, not far from the tiny hamlet of Greenwell itself. It is striking that the date 1713 (my grandfather's original, alleged achievement) is not mentioned at all.

My grandfather wrote seventeen letters to Freda Podmore. His frustrations start to make themselves felt in this introductory biography, when he notes that “there were a good many George Greenwells littering up the county at that time”. She in her turn is principally interested in the faint possibility of George Greenwell being mentioned in someone else's will; and in the witness at the 1811 wedding, Jane Greenwell, the presumed sister of the bridegroom and presumed owner of the tiny diary. The stuffing is gradually knocked out of my grandfather. Firstly, he fails to recapture his parliamentary seat in early 1950, and he accepts Freda Podmore's condolences gratefully, although he cannot resist adding “every one in the North expected me to win” (3). Secondly, Freda Podmore does not buy his idea that a couple married in Chester-le-Street would dash over to Lanchester to baptise their children (even he admits that this is a “strange thing”). Finally, he arranges for Freda Podmore to come to Durham, to be put up at The Three Tuns hotel in July 1950, thereby enabling her to search the local records office and to make a personal approach to a particular vicar, whom he describes as the “slackest of them all”. Several local incumbents must have started to dread his requests, although one at least was well-rewarded with a cabinet made by the joinery department at the shipyard.

In the event, my grandfather falls ill, Freda Podmore is besieged by clients and cannot spare the week until late autumn. In her final letter, in December 1950, by which time he has admitted that he doesn't fully accept everything his aunt Laura has told him about Wolsingham anyway, she congratulates him on having been nominated as sheriff. After that, there is no further correspondence, and, having been unable to prove the grand ancestry of which he had been dreaming for seven years, he shuts up the family tree shop entirely. No motto, no shield, no crest. Just a grandson in the offing to whom he could repeat the whole saga with some enthusiasm some dozen or so years later.

He never did get any earlier information about George Greenwell, other than that he was married in 1811 to Mary Wilson.


The phone call from Rosalie in Australia upped the ante. I had started by looking for an answer to the mystery of my great-great-grandfather, and for a photo of him. I already knew much more about him; and I had the photographs from Mollie, which I enlarged. But other worms, as it were, were out of the can. I had no desire at all to repeat what my grandfather had been doing - travelling along a line until I was absolutely certain it had reached oblivion (or indeed, 1811). However, I had become interested - it was the Kitts family photograph, more than anything, which did it - in knowing a little more about the immediate relations of my great-great-grandfather. This I could only do if I located some of their great-grandchildren, and some of them I had already, almost without trying, discovered.

But Rosalie was talking another generation further back. She was, I discovered, a pro - she worked for Western Australia Genealogical Society (as some wags must have named it). She was moving steadily back on all fronts through her own family and her husband's (her husband Robert being Percy Raine's nephew), in a sort of fan formation. In Australia, where family-hunting has become a national pastime, it is called, according to Rosalie, “having the genie bug”. At that time, neither of them had been to England. “After all, as Robert says,” remarked Rosalie, “ ‘why should I travel thousands of miles just to follow you round the cemeteries?' This is a total lie. I do not spend my whole time walking round cemeteries - half the time I'm in the library...” Rosalie had so much hard copy in her house detailing relations that she had had to annex an extra room. Her family information sheets were terrifyingly detailed. I'd been content with a year of birth. She wondered if I could provide exact birth and baptismal dates for her. This was so admirably scrupulous, I could hardly speak for terror.

What it meant, in effect, was that I could set myself a new goal. I could do exactly the reverse of what my grandfather had done - look for all the descendants of George Greenwell and Mary Wilson. As an enterprise, this was not doomed like my grandfather's. Or at least, that's what I thought. My brain's hard drive was already crammed with memory, and some of it was certainly random access. I was like some Texas Ranger following several trails at the same time, and with no Tonto. Leave aside the issue - in both senses - of George Greenwell's second son, George, I was now trying to chase up all the following:

As my alter ego, Henry James's governess remarks - the whole of that short novel now started to appear in my brain - “There were times when I had to shut myself up to think”. My approach was unsystematic, illogical, enjoyable. I started with William Greenwell, the silversmith. And it was about now that I decided to see if he had any great-grandchildren. He did. But he also had a living grandchild, Alec Innes Pottinger, to whom, in one of only two forays, my father had written, having heard from one of his fishing companions that he was a relation. He had received an effusive reply. But that was more than ten years earlier. I introduced myself tentatively over the phone to his wife, who fetched my new victim to the phone. His first sentence was a teaser.

“I was born in Tientsin in 1909 on the day Blériot flew the Channel. And you?”

It was just into the new year. The voice on the end of the phone was courteous, unflappable, agreeable. I was lying on a scrub of carpet, scuffing an elbow, trying to hook the receiver under my chin whilst I scribbled in another notebook. I had no idea what had been happening when I was born, although mental arithmetic suggested I had been conceived in the dying days of George VI, was a pea-sized amoeba when palace officials were calculating the cost of the necessary trip to Treetops.

His voice had a slight, ironic rise and fall. He was enjoying this. I stared through the scumbled windows in my makeshift flat, and enjoyed it back. His mother, he said, had married the brother of his grandfather's wife. I tried to draw this as a diagram, without anything resembling success. So - wait, wait. “She went out to China to marry him. All the way from Sunderland. When she got there, he'd shot himself, just managed to miss his heart. Probably a touch of panic. She met a German on the boat going over, and taught him English. With a Wearside accent.”

“Say that again.”

“My mother, May” - another May! - “married the brother of my grandfather's wife, Ethel. When my grandfather's first wife died, he married again, and when May - my mother - met Ethel's brother, Bill, they got together. Probably it was all done by correspondence, because he went out to China. To Tientsin.”

I tried to imagine the proposal arriving in the post, the strange stamps, the reaction.

“Did you ever meet your grandfather?” He'd been a silversmith in Sunderland, sufficiently far up the social pecking order to have a telephone number (Sunderland 663). His best trade was in the months leading up to Christmas. He'd died in 1914.

“Oh yes. We came overland on a train, right across Russia. I remember him rather dimly. There were steep stairs up to where he lived, above the shop, and he chased me up them, laughing. Can't remember much else, sorry.”

But there it was, a memory, a memory that included a flight of stairs, something stamped on a child's imagination, and now - it was eighty years later - moving fluently down the telephone wires. It was my first contact with someone who remembered that generation first-hand. His grandfather had been the younger brother of my great-great-grandfather, and so he was - some quick computations - my second cousin twice removed. This is a flashy way of describing someone as your grandfather's second cousin.

Alec Innes Pottinger - he was known as Peter - was William the silversmith's grandson - his only grandchild, in fact. Once I had grasped the complications of his immediate ancestry, which meant that his grandfather was his uncle, his father was his mother's brother-in-law, and his aunt was his step-grandmother, he regaled me with any number of complex, interwoven stories. His mother May had not only known Maud Kitts, but briefly shared a house with her in Sunderland; May had also known the children of Emily Knight, and Peter himself had met not only Maud Kitts (in whose extraordinary will he featured), but Winifred, Emily's daughter, when he coming back to England in 1920 from via Winnipeg.

Three of the youngest of my great-great-great-grandparents children, including May Greenwell, later Pottinger. Her husband Bill is the brother of her father's second wife, Ethel.

Now the names turned into people. I went to stay with Peter and his wife Marjorie in Birmingham. He had a photograph of his grandfather, a cheerful, bald and smiling man with an impressive moustache (which meant I had pictures of two of the Greenwell siblings). He had a photo of Maud Kitts. He even had two Knight photographs, one of Emily's son Bert Knight, and his sister Winifred Knight with her husband, whose name at that time I did not know. However, I did recognise the picture. It was one of the photographs tucked in the family bible, with the message “from Winnie to Ethel with love” on the reverse. Now I saw who Ethel was: Ethel Hallewell Raine, daughter of Lizzie, mother of Percy and May and their siblings. Ethel, the very last person to be interred in the family grave, had plainly been a linchpin in the Greenwell family. I also suddenly recognised the photo of Bert as well. He was the young man in uniform who had been standing beside my great-great-grandfather, in one of the pictures I'd found in Lincolnshire. The pieces were starting to fit.


May, the silversmith's daughter, had even dictated a little list to her daughter-in-law explaining the Greenwell family (she had done this not long before she died in 1962). This started to put some leaves on the bare branches. Aunt Polly (Mary), it says, had had a son who died; her husband had died shortly afterwards. She had gone home to look after her parents, but the experience had left her not only (as Laura had repeatedly said) deaf, but also bald. She wore a black wig, with lace down the middle. As children, she and her cousin, the other May, had made fun of the old woman (the second May was May in Southport, Percy Raine's sister - the families were beginning to link up). And then she came to my great-great-grandfather - Thomas. She had called him Thomas. This was the first inkling that the top Thomas on the tree had not been Redundant after all, as I'd been brought up to believe, as surely as I had also been brought up to believe that the previous four generations of Redundant Thomases had had it in for cats. Catapults for my great-grandfather, stones in the pocket for his father (according to mine, also a committed ailurophobe).

The no longer redundant Thomas, said May Pottinger née Greenwell, had lived for years in the same house with his eight children. He and his wife, she recalled, whom he had married for money, never spoke. Messages were passed up and down the table from one child to another, until they reached the other end. An appalling vista opened up to my imagination - an image of desperate contempt and loathing. How must the eight children have felt? How did the ebullient Willie, the eldest boy, deal with this - indeed, was that why he was ebullient, was that why he would never speak? Laura at least betrayed some warmth for her father in her letters. Harold, Mollie's father, had actually, according to the local almanacs, worked out of the same shipping office in Sunderland as late as 1916. The young Harold, married with the mystery tortoise at his feet, had been employed by his father. But May's notes had him down as an alcoholic - this was a story I'd heard twice before, and from the bloated image in Mollie's photograph albums, it looked to be true. What had Mollie said to me? “Grandfather closed the shipping business, and got Harold to run a farm. He didn't like that.” No indeed - in fact he had died two years before his father, whose will promised the ninth child, Evelyn...a farm. Yet Thomas had (according to my grandfather) moved “up and down the country” before settling in Falmouth. Was he some kind of ogre-figure?

Thomas's other children had had similarly tragic lives. I had already discovered from Laura's letters that her brother Ernest had died after catching a chill at the age of 30 when out boating in 1905 - after his mother had moved away. Of the daughters who moved with her, one, Louisa, had died under a year after her mother. The other daughter Maud had also pre-deceased her father, in 1917 (I later discovered that she had been anorexic, and had had an abortive engagement to an “Egyptian” called Hector). This only left Mabel, the youngest of the original eight, and Arthur. Mabel had kept in touch with Laura in later life - my mother had been introduced to Mabel in Dorset on her honeymoon, and had fretted about the paranoid orderliness of the household, the very-well-folded sheets.

The eight children of my great-great-grandfather and his first wife Ann Herring.


May Pottinger glossed over Arthur. But I had already discovered something about Arthur Bell (4) Greenwell, a small matter that May did not mention. Which was this: he had committed suicide.


Arthur Greenwell's suicide is the one tangible nugget of his history that survives, other than a stick-child drawing of him in one of his eldest brother Willie's letters written when he (Willie) was at a boarding-school in Harrogate at the age of about 12, and in which he is referred to either as “Jimie” or “Tinie”, although another relative wrote of him years later as “Moss”. I had heard about his suicide from Rosemary, my father's cousin - the one who had accidentally sent me to Somerset House in the first place.

I knew that he had died near Weeley, in Essex, in 1940. Perhaps there would be a newspaper report. There was: in the East Essex Gazette for 13 July 1940. This is what it disclosed. Shortly after the first world war, Arthur (who was married, and had no children) retired from his work as a marine engineer. At that time, however, he was only just over forty years old, so he must have felt very secure indeed financially. He retired at about the same time his father died (he did not attend the funeral), which is perhaps the reason for ceasing work so spectacularly early. At the inquest, it is said that he had been suffering from heart and lung trouble; certainly, he had had two operations in 1928.

On the evening before his death, he had gone to bed at 10.30. He had been bright - as bright as usual, in fact, because he was a very very cheerful man. “Always he had been cheerful”. At quarter-to-nine the next morning, he had got up, and had his breakfast - his usual breakfast. Everything was fine. He'd been bright the night before, as he always was, and now, at breakfast he was, if this was possible, “in even better spirits than usual.” About quarter-to-ten, he had gone out. This was a man who had no financial worries (his wife). He had never had any moments of depression (the servant, Dorothy Jane Howard). He was certifiably cheerful as recently as ten days earlier (his G.P., Dr. Frank Atthill).

However, this is what happened between 9.45 and noon. Arthur Bell Greenwell walked over to an old disused mill that stood about 70 yards away from his house, and which fulfilled functions like storing firewood, old crates, lengths of cord. He got hold of a four-feet-high crate, and placed it under a beam. Then he looped a length of cord over the beam and secured it, as perhaps would have been easy for a marine engineer. He made a noose. He stepped up onto the crate, and, in the shadow of the beam, he placed the noose around his neck.

And then he jumped off.

Jump is a supposition of course. He may have stepped. He may have waited for an hour and then leapt. But jump is the word used by the police constable, C.W. Goldsmith, who was summoned to the scene. And, as it happened, he too had known Arthur Bell Greenwell. From what he knew, said P.C. Goldsmith, it did not seem likely that the act was premeditated.

Dorothy Howard had made the discovery, having gone for firewood. She had fetched his wife, May, and shown her the hanging body. Doctor and constable came next. The coroner, reviewing the case, which he said was very sad, concurred. “I am satisfied,” he pronounced, “that his act was not premeditated, but due to a sudden impulse.” After all, had his wife not told him that he had never threatened to take his life, nor given any reasons why he should do so? No. So Arthur Bell Greenwell had gone to bed sunny side up, woken rather after the lark, but in a particularly good mood, had fed himself, drifted off for a morning stroll to get some fresh air into those suffering lungs, and then decided, on a whim, a sudden impulse, that he might as well kill himself.

His wife hazards that - as the headline announces - he was Worried By War And Health. Although the events took place shortly after Dunkirk, however, it all has the ring of total and utter fabrication. The death of Arthur Bell Greenwell (of whom no identifiable photograph survives) is given a curious, sanitised coating by everyone - from his wife to the coroner, there seems to be a conspiracy to prevent us suspecting that he might have been more than a mite depressed. He too has been almost completely airbrushed from memory.


This blurred picture is the only verifiable picture of Lizzie Hallewell nee Greenwell. It comes from about 1910, when she was in her sixties, and had eight grandchildren.


May Pottinger's list moves next to Lizzie Greenwell (full name, Jane Elizabeth). Here there is a gnomic remark: “Thyroid. Like jelly. Lots of children.” What did his mother mean, I asked Peter, who is as mild as a chicken korma. “That she liked jelly, I expect,” he replied. But what May unkindly meant was that she was large. The phrase “lots of children” threw me somewhat - I had already worked out that she had had only three. She was Percy Raine's grandmother, and his daughter had told me.

So much seems to have happened in such a short time, looking back, that it is impossible to explain events in sequence. For a while I was spinning family tops like a professional on strong amphetamines. I went to meet May (Mabel) Raine, Percy's sister in Southport, where she lived with her only daughter Jill and her family. This was a sunny, exceptional day, and the house was so easy to find that I missed it completely, a sort of gormless talent I have for misdirection. I had talked to May on the phone several times, and she had described her recollections of William (the silversmith, Peter's grandfather) and “Aunt Polly”, his sister, to me. May had been born in 1906. She could clearly remember William giving her half-a-sovereign and an orange. She also remembered crawling under a bed and coming across a hatbox. She opened it. Inside there was something large and hairy and appalling. She retreated as fast as possible, terrified. It turned out to be one of Aunt Polly's “transformations” - a wig.

In fact, it turned out that Aunt Polly had lived with May's mother Ethel at the end of her life, had been looked after by her. Ethel (I realised at once that this was the Ethel to whom the photo in the family bible had been sent by “Winnie” - Winifred Knight) seems to have been another linchpin in the family. She was tough, resourceful - although her youngest daughter, Mollie, did not recall her with affection, like May. In looking after Aunt Polly, Ethel was doing a service for which Aunt Polly's brothers were grateful. The brothers were silversmith William and my great-great-grandfather. As a token of thanks in 1912, William had made a silver tea-service, and presented it to Ethel. This was a much-prized and controversial piece of family booty. I realised that every member of the Raine family I had met so far had mentioned the tea-service. It had had a chequered career. Ethel had died young in 1919, leaving five children to a husband, Albert, with whose feckless attitude to family she had frequently had to take issue. Albert was an obsessive Congregationalist, the organ-player at the Lindsay Road Baptist chapel, a fusser-round in matters of church business, a sort of ecclesiastical entrepreneur (in real life, he was a buyer for a coal company). He would later become a leading local figure in the moral rearmament movement. He was also a bowls obsessive, never happier than when testing the rub and tilt of the local green. On one celebrated occasion, however, Ethel, who was raising five children, looking after Aunt Polly, and half-minding her own mother (Lizzie) as well, became sick of it all. She swept down to the chapel, and tossed in Albert's pyjamas, adding some choice words about his order of priorities

Ethel was also said to be gifted with premonitions. Percy was on two boats that were torpedoed in the First World War; she is said to have told her husband it had happened before the official notice came. When Ethel, an industrious mother, died, Albert remarried a socialite relation of Sir Theodore Doxford, one of the Sunderland magnates. The issue arose fairly quickly about the destiny of the silver tea-service. Probably there was some debate at the time, but Winnie, the eldest daughter, was awarded custody of it. Since she too died young, there was some argey-bargey about who its rightful owner was. Percy? May? Mollie? (The fourth sibling Wilf was safe from this property crisis in Australia.) Winnie's husband, who also remarried, boxed the tea-service and put it under his bed. There it was to remain, despite suggestions that it should be split up (Percy's wife was quite vociferous about this). As with all families, small issues take on strange, implausible significance. Winnie's husband became so rattled by the constant altercation that he finally made a decision in the early 1960s that it should go to May. His son Colin (by his second wife) was ordered to get on his motorbike and drive the tea-service to Southport.

And there it was, at May's. Never used, of course. No tea had gone near it. It was the item that I was to be asked about time and time again as I met more of the Raine family. Had I seen the tea-service? That was the burning question. When Jill and May showed it to me, it was quickly clear that the lid of the teapot itself had never been so much as lifted. In fact, still tucked inside it was the letter from the silversmith, William, explaining that it was in gratitude for what Ethel had done for Aunt Polly some eighty years earlier. “It is a special present,” wrote William, “from your uncle Tom & myself, something to remind you of our gratitude to you all for the very great kindness & care you have bestowed upon poor Aunt Polly during all these months of her illness.”

Percy Raine and Mollie Raine, his youngest sister, in 1934, on her twenty-first birthday.


Uncle Tom. My great-great-grandfather. Not just a proper, unredundant Thomas, but an Uncle Tom.

Mollie was only six when her mother Ethel died, and had no clear recollection of her. She was
brought up by her father's second wife, Ada, and was the most committed to her of the five
children. She moved to South Africa with her husband Alfred Spencer, where she died in 2000.


Aunt Polly had not been forgotten for quite another reason, too. When she was about eight (which would be 1848), someone had sketched her, and coloured the sketch in quite prettily. She was wearing a thin red ribbon round her neck, and a cobalt blue dress with a flared skirt. In her hand was a basket of flowers, and she stood sideways to the viewer in front of a high urn. This little drawing - it looks like the drawing a mother might do - had been preserved and treasured. It too was in Southport, as indeed was a photographic plate of the sketch, which had been made by Ethel's husband, Albert. This memento had travelled the same journey as the tea-service. It had once belonged to Winnie, Ethel's eldest daughter, and during the Second World War, it had (obscurely) been kept under the stairs at the house in which she had lived. During the blitz on Sunderland, when the sirens sounded, Winnie's daughters and their bereaved father had hidden under the stairs. The family slang for sheltering from bombs had been “looking after Aunt Polly”.


Mary Greenwell (1841-1913) - “Aunt Polly” - sketched in the late 1840s


Albert Raine was not just a bloody nuisance as a husband. He was also an expert amateur photographer. When May produced her photograph albums, she produced crisp and well-composed images of her family, of Winnie in particular, but also of outings with the Sorley Street chapel to which her father belonged. One of these had even found its way into a local history of Sunderland in photographs, although it had been wrongly dated.

The “lots of children” May Pottinger had reported belonged not to Lizzie Greenwell, but her own children and grandchildren - or, more specifically, two of the three (the middle child, Annie, had no children). Ethel had five; her elder brother William had four. These nine had all had children themselves. The descendants of Tom Greenwell had been less than profligate with their seed, had rather gone in for childless marriages, or fulfilment on their own. In my own generation, as I was to find, there were just nine descendants of kind old Uncle Tom who had hated Aunt Polly so much that he left it to his brother William to write the Christmas letter. And three of these had no children. But in the parallel generation of Lizzie's descendants, I was to discover at least twenty-seven.

At least twenty-seven, because, in my dumb-cluck way, I uncovered a secret. May was in her late eighties, and I confused her with my idle chatter about my great-great-grandfather's illegitimate child. Brooding on this afterwards, she thought I had discovered what Jill, her daughter, did not know - that she had herself had had a child, another daughter, Doreen, nine years before Jill, and before she had married. This child had been discreetly adopted in 1934. No father (since I could not resist looking up the certificate) was named. It is impossible after all this time to know what took place, other than that the pregnancy was a source of shame. What was perhaps more predictable, given what had transpired in Tom Greenwell's case, was that it wasn't quite the secret Jill imagined. Her older cousins, Percy's daughters, were well aware of the story. Doreen remains a mystery.

Another prized possession in May's house was a portrait of a man with large, staring eyes: Daniel Hallewell, the father-in-law of Lizzie Greenwell, and a master mariner in the early nineteenth century. This picture was another travelling artefact. It had come from Percy, and Percy had gained it from a cousin of his, Lilian Hallewell. It was to be a while before I cracked this branch - the descendants of Ethel's brother William - but when I did, one of them remembered the picture with some terror. Increasingly, the eddies and currents, the squabbles and separations, the slights and disagreements and rows, the forgetful partings of relations began to take shape in my head. It is the natural drift of families. They fragment. They move on. They forget. It transpired that Winnie's daughters, Dorothy and Kathleen, had themselves fallen out over a stepmother, and had not spoken for thirty years. Blithely I saw them in consecutive weeks, one in the North-East, one in the Midlands. I sat in a room in Nuneaton with Kathleen, the elder sister, who had never seen pictures of Dorothy's family. She wanted to see, to know. By complete and absolute chance, intruding into their lives, I had found the name of an unknown sister for one of Lizzie Greenwell's great-grandchildren, and put two of the others back in touch.

It felt like a responsibility. I wondered if my family boots were becoming too big, were clodding into other people's lives with insufficient respect. At the same time, I was experiencing a huge sense of belonging. This was my family, wasn't it?


There were two immediate loose ends on my side of the rapidly expanding family tree. My great-grandfather Willie had had eight siblings. I knew about Laura (the letter-writer), about Mabel (she of the fanatically clean and tidy sheets), about Harold (who had drowned his sorrows with alcohol once too often), about Arthur (the suicide), about Maud (the anorexic), about Louisa (who had died in Harrogate after her mother's flight from scandal), and about Evelyn (the housekeeper's child). Only Harold had had children; and his children had been childless. That left Ernest (“poor Ernest, lying in that grave all by himself,” as Laura had written).

The other mystery was what had happened to the housekeeper between her marriage to my great-great-grandfather, and his death in 1922, by which time she had died. Where was Jane Johnstone?

Ernest had caught a chill and died within a couple of days, after rowing on a lake. He had died between the birth of the illegitimate child to his father, and his mother's escape. She did not come to his funeral in Sunderland. That must have been a stilted and tragic occasion, a family reunion no-one wanted. Father Tom had purchased a capacious plot, not far from his own father's grave. In the event, Ernest had indeed been the only inhabitant of the space set aside for all the siblings, whose expressive directions were that they should be buried elsewhere. “There's room for eight,” the superintendent of Bishopwearmouth cemetery told me. The others, however, had apparently gone to some lengths not to exercise the option.

My father had once foggily referred to “other Greenwells in Manchester”. That was as much as he knew. That was as much as he said he knew. The original will I had purchased in Somerset House gave me plenty to go on - I knew that the missing grandchildren belonging to Ernest were called Mabel Kellett and Geoffrey Greenwell. I havered between three approaches. If I could find their birthdates, I could back-calculate which the appropriate death certificates were. Perhaps I could go back to the wills. Or I could start searching for Kelletts and Greenwells in the phone books in the local library. I decided to do all three.

Plate-spinning wasn't in it. I was now jumping through wild and fiery hoops in full family commando gear. Dates and places and names and paper danced in recklessly synaptic rhumbas across my brain. A perpetual recitative threaded along a tongue in each ear. Some of the family lines fell like drizzle, some like monsoons. I was soaked in the energy of it all. What had begun in Somerset House, what had taken hold in the harbourmaster's office, had now assumed monstrous significance. I was a crazy Jack, a dibbler in the archives. But at least I was coming forward, forward. It was like throwing a party over the phone. The postman was starting to heave mail through my door. It was amazing.

Naive researchers like my grandfather and I assume that there is a certain clerical exactitude in the recording of births, deaths, marriages. I looked repeatedly for Geoffrey Greenwell in the births section at St. Catherine's House. Plainly, he must have been born about the turn of the century, because his father had died so soon afterwards. The possibility that he might have been called Jeffrey, or, as it transpired, that the registrar might have written his name down as Jeffrey, did not cross my mind. I also let myself forget that most of the Greenwells I was coming across had a redundant first name. Eventually, the pennies fell, and I found him - Ernest Jeffrey Greenwell, born in 1899. I moved through the sections at St. Catherine's House like a phantom, lugging notebooks, beginning to join in the barging and shoving like a professional (by which I mean, seasoned amateur). I guessed the date of his marriage, and found it. I also discovered Mabel Kellett's marriage, and the subsequent birth of her son, Geoffrey Spurley Hamer Kellett. In the meantime, however, Plan B was bearing quicker fruit.

It was a hunch. I knew by now that Robert Ernest Greenwell had married a Helen Harnet - I read it initially as Harriet - Stack, and from their marriage certificate, I knew that her father was a Maurice Stack, who filled in the “occupation of the father” section of the certificate with the words “of independent means”. That sounded like sufficient moolah to guarantee a will. Perhaps this would then tell me more about the grandchildren. There were four Maurice Stacks. This, as I've said, would have cost me £20 now, if I'd ordered them all. Then, it was £1 at the most - 25p if I called up the right one first. Which I did.

Wills are often a good read. I urge you here and now to make yours interesting, as well as to insist on punctuation. Throw in a memorable remark. Cheer up the executors. Pamper the family sleuths who are trawling through them for clues. Go mad and add a few codicils. Major Maurice Harnet Stack did: indeed, there is every sign that he died in an apoplectic rage. It was curmudgeon and dudgeon in equally combustible parts.

He left his estate to two daughters, the first of whom was down for almost the full whack. The second of these was Helen Greenwell, so I'd been right to look. Her slice was comparatively tiny, and the will stipulated that, if she wanted his furniture, she would have to pay the other daughter £80. However, Major Stack, who had a ramrod back and wore a monocle, had had four daughters, and the other two and their families were expressly excluded from any inheritance whatsoever. There must have been some doubt in the Major's mind whether this instruction would be followed to the letter, because there is a ranting codicil to the effect that, if they try to take any legal action against his exclusion of them (what on earth had they done?), then ipso facto , their claim would be null and void. In the last few days of his life, Major Stack had another go at controlling business from beyond the grave. The first daughter, set up to reap her just reward for remaining out of disfavour, is suddenly banned from being an executrix, and the surviving executor is expressly instructed to give her money only in monthly instalments, because of her apparent incompetence with financial affairs.

Sunderland was not so large, either, I discovered. One of the excluded daughters was a Marjorie Punshon. I realised that I had known her son, a tall and amiable doctor called Guy Punshon, and it also came back to me that he had once mentioned something about a family connection when I was about fourteen. Indeed, Helen Greenwell - Helen Stack, as she had been born - was connected through two marriages to my mother's bridesmaid, as well as to my father, not to mention the wife of Simon May, the composer of the Eastenders theme tune. Dr. Punshon had also been my great-grandparents' doctor, and had once earned a severe reprimand from my great-grandmother (wife of the champagne-drinking, western-reading, uproarious Willie) for placing his bag on her bed. She was obsessed with cleanliness, and a doctor's bag might well have been anywhere. He had his revenge. On his next visit of mercy, he expressed aggravation that his turn-ups had filled with fluff whilst walking up her stairs, and suggested she berate the maids.

The good news in the will, from my point of view, was that it gave Helen Greenwell's address as Chorlton-cum-Hardy. This began to look like the fabled “Greenwells from Manchester”. Plan C, a tedious plod through the telephone directories, now came into its own. I looked up all the G. Kelletts I could find in England. There were at least fourteen, and my eyes were beginning to swim. I began to ignore swathes of the country, where further G. Kelletts were doubtless lurking. I went away and Optrexed my eyes for a while. I was going to have to start cold calling, and the best first bet was a G.H. Kellett in Manchester. Best first bets are often terrible wastes of enthusiasm in this game. Besides, the disorder gene was beginning to work its bad magic. There were too many notebooks, too many scraps of paper (were they feeling all right?), too many spidery sketches of ascent and descent.

I psyched myself up one evening and rang Manchester. It was the right number. I was speaking to my third cousin, Helen Kellett, although I had missed her father by a tragic few months - he had died that very year, after a career on the stage. Helen and her sister Sara were living next door to each other - in Chorlton-cum-Hardy. It sounded to me like I had missed out on a wonderful conversation with her dad - known generally as Ben. His first marriage, and there's nothing like a little sensation, had broken up because or just before he had had an affair with Patricia Pilkington, with whom he'd watched the TV broadcast of the queen being crowned in 1953. He had had a few brushes with the film-world. She became better known as Pat Phoenix, or Elsie Tanner, the first femme fatale of Coronation Street , the most successful TV soap series ever.


Geoffrey Kellett - known as Ben - in the 1950s, with Pat Phoenix. His mother, Mabel Greenwell, was the daughter of Ernest, who'd died young. She married Thomas Frank Kellett, an actor and director and writer whose stage name was Eric Thornber. He was their only child.



Pat Phoenix gives him affectionate space in her autobiography, All My Burning Bridges . They had been in rep together in Chorlton. One play had required them to have an onstage embrace, during which she was wearing an expensive (and borrowed) black taffeta dress, which a button of his caught in, ripping away the fabric before a delighted audience. “We were both spotted by movie moguls and invited to make a film,” she writes. John E. Blakely, a Manchester film-maker who had made his name by directing George Formby's first film, had snapped them up for a Sandy Powell vehicle called Cup Tie Honeymoon . This film was the first to be made (in 1947) at the Manchester film studio Blakely founded in a converted Methodist chapel in Rusholme. The opening on May 17 attracted a big crowd - Powell, Formby, and the legendary Mancunian comedian Frank Randle were there. The film was partly made at Maine Road, Manchester City's football ground, and the opening was delayed until the start of the 1948/49 season, to cash in on the footballing theme. No complete print of the film, alas, which was shot on 16mm, seems to survive. The relationship between Pat Pilkington/Phoenix and Ben Kellett lasted at least until the mid-fifties, when both were lured across the Pennines to a company in Keighley, take part in a stage version of Wuthering Heights , in which the future Elsie Tanner was an improbable Cathy.

Helen knew about her other Greenwell cousins, second cousins, although they had lost touch. I was looking for a Tony Greenwell - another one, the same name as my father - with daughters called Judy and Jane. It occurred to me that one source might well be the dreadful “World Book Of Greenwells”, one of those woeful fantasy publications that consist of identikit explanations of genealogy, a quick whip through the alleged origins of the surname in question (Green + Well = somewhere Green, where there was a Well), a family crest (VIRESCO!) and a database culled from some phone books in the UK, Ireland, Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and (for some reason) Austria. Nowhere else. There were no Greenwells in Austria. There were a lot of Greenwells in the North-East. There was a slew of Greenwells in Kentucky. There were about 5,000 Greenwell families (how do they deliver the World Book Of Smiths? By pantechnicon?) But there was a Judy Greenwell. Worth a shot. She was friendly, no obvious relation at all, and had reassuringly been doing some foraging into Greenwells in the Public Record Office. “I did once see another Judy Greenwell on television,” she said. “She was abseiling out of a helicopter on the Late Late Breakfast Show.”

As it happened, the nerveless, abseiling Judy Greenwell turned out to be the right one. It took me a while (more phone directories) to find the Tony Greenwell my father - a Tony Greenwell himself, and born only two years earlier - had never heard of. Not surpisingly, he was known by his second name (he was a John Anthony) - like his father and grandfather. At that time, he lived near Leominster, and I went to see him. He had just retired from running a pub.

Tony was tall, affable, and he called me “old boy”. Here we were, two fairly close relatives, with almost no inkling of one another. The rumour mangle had done its business, however - Tony and his wife Beryl, and his daughters Jane and Judy, had come to believe that there had been a Sir William Greenwell, and that there was a Guy Greenwell mixed up in all this. I quietly detached the non-existent knighthood from my great-grandfather, and also removed the Greenwell family doctor - Guy - from the parade. Once again, the way the seams in a family rip and tear, the way the family wardrobe is culled of its well-worn relatives, the way the cloth of family becomes threadbare and shapeless - all these became apparent. Although it transpired that his aunt in Chorlton (Mabel Kellett - the Mays and Mabels were confusingly numerous) had photographs of his grandfather Ernest, the oarsman who had caught the fatal chill, Tony had never seen them, and later that year, I was able to show him. He did not even know that his cousin Ben, the actor, had recently died.

“The Manchester Greenwells” - descendants of two Greenwell brothers.
Sara, Helen, Judy and Jane are my third cousins.





Tony's father Geoffrey had, it turned out, sat down and written his life story. Time after time I was to discover that this was the case, that snippets had been scrawled, or exercise books filled, tiny twigs of family tree scratched on the backs of pieces of paper, memories jotted down, or diaries retrieved. May Pottinger had kept notes. Laura Greenwell had written repetitive letters. Wilf and Percy Raine had written out snippets. Old Aunt Polly had hoarded material. My grandfather had stockpiled it. Now I was able to find out why the “Manchester” Greenwells had gone to Manchester. And I also had a little vignette of Sunderland at the turn of the century, when Geoffrey had been born, the second child of a father he was later led to believe was “a bit of a playboy”. Geoffrey could remember “the slap of bare feet on pavements”, and worms coming out of the cold water taps. He could still smell the middens, where a spadeful of lime was thrown onto the nightsoil in the earth closets in the back lanes.

The clang of riveters' hammers rang continuously over the town from the long lines of shipyards. The riveters, and indeed the whole of the shipyard workers were deaf as a result....Street cries were heard daily.“Sixteen a shilling caller herring” was one sing-song from fishwives bearing loaded basket skips upon their heads. “Any jobs for the cooper, any tubs to mend, tubs to mend” was another. Clothes- prop makers also sold their products vocally, as did “poss-stick” makers (a device like a three-legged stool at the end of a broom handle, to beat the dirt out of clothes on washing-day). Straw strewn deeply on the cobbled road outside a house signified an occupant was ill and needed quiet. Horses through the summer months wore straw sun-bonnets, through which their ears protruded. At the back of most horse-drawn vehicles could be seen small boys enjoying the thrill of a free ride, and often came the spoilsport cry of someone on the pavement - to the driver who was unaware of his extra load - “whip behind!”

As a child aged two or three, Geoffrey was led by his father Ernest (a shipbroker) on to the ships berthed on the river Wear. Ernest seems to have shared his brother Harold's fondness for drinking, and cheerily used Geoffrey as bait. The toddler was word-perfect in the poem Casablanca (“The boy stood on the burning deck”), and at the climax of his tiny act, crewmen threw a cascade of pennies at Geoffrey. Ernest smilingly pocketed these, and paid for a few drinks for himself (twopence a pint) on the way home.

At school, Geoffrey had an insight into another institution still very much in place at the start of the twentieth century - the workhouse. The towering schoolroom in High Barnes, with its towering teacher, Miss Sinclair, and her equally colossal cane (five feet, eight inches), was brought to order each morning promptly, with Geoffrey and the others ready to write on their slates with slate pencils, for the purpose of sharpening which, sandstone sills were set into the walls. And then, five minutes after the class had been brought to order, the workhouse children were marched in, in crocodile, boys and girls alike with their hair cropped short, dressed in the same rough fustian, the girls with additional pinafores, and carefully seated together as if they were segregated.

One of Geoffrey's earliest memories was of being introduced to Charles Parsons, the inventor of the steam turbine which in the 1890s had revolutionised shipping by tripling the speed of the ships - by 1911 every steamship, including the Titanic , used the triple propellor shafts Parsons had invented, and at the time he patted the head of little Geoffrey Greenwell, Parsons had pulled a brilliant stunt with his tiny ship Turbinia at Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee review, at Spithead, of the Royal Navy. His ship dashed illegally into line to join the royal procession at such speed that the backwash nearly capsized the boat sent to pull him out.

But the death of Ernest left Geoffrey, his sister Mabel, and his mother Helen as yet more pensioners on the books of Thomas George Greenwell, his grandfather. By my reckoning, Tom Greenwell was now supporting two widowed sisters (Polly and Lizzie), one widowed daughter-in-law (Helen) and her family, and four unmarried daughters, as well as his soon-to-be-orphaned ninth child, Evelyn. This was in addition to managing the relative incompetence of Harold, his second son, whom he had taken into business. He could at least relax in the knowledge that his eldest, Willie, was already cannily making a mint with the ship-repair yard, which he had secured backing for from some of Sunderland's most powerful shipbuilders - Robert Thompson and Sir James Marr. With their investment, Willie pulled away from the Greenwell fleet as if he had been fitted with a Parsons turbine himself.

But for Helen, life was not so easy. The thirty shillings her father-in-law provided her, and any income she received from her disagreeable father, Major Stack, did not keep the wolf from the door. She moved, with her children, to Newcastle, and took a job as a ladies' hairdresser. Her sense of dignity would not allow her to stay on Wearside. And she took her independence seriously, bringing her children up with frugal zeal. Certainly, Geoffrey and Mabel had happy childhoods, away from the rather less happy remnants of the Greenwell family still in Sunderland. Geoffrey remembered waking early to pester the soldiers of a cavalry regiment, the Northumberland Hussars, for a bareback ride on a horse, before going to school. He remembered bowling an iron hoop, roller-skating, and cramming marbles into one pocket and a spinning-top into the other. And then finally the family finances ran to a rusty, second-hand bike, which his mother bought from a chimney sweep. Geoffrey treasured it, burnishing the yellow cane wheel-runs with liniseed oil.

The free-spending Greenwells back in Sunderland lived in high style, while Helen kept her family proudly together at a distance. Occasionally there would be postcards from Uncle Harold, in Falmouth on business for his father, but the connections were always loosening, loosening. While Helen scrimped, her brother-in-law Willie, the ship-repairer, bought himself a ship of his own, and began to dabble in his father's trade. Willie's son George, the same age as Geoffrey, was being prepared for private education in Norfolk at Gresham's School in Holt, a slightly quirky independent school whose alumni include Auden, Benjamin Britten and Lord Reith. George was also being groomed for the profitable ship-repair yard. For Geoffrey, a clerical life beckoned. He learned shorthand, and racked up Pitman's certificates. He also joined the scouts and amassed badges, including a Cook's badge that required the aspiring badge-holder to eat what he had cooked. Geoffrey chose boiled rice, and managed to keep it down long enough for the examiner to make his award and leave the room.

George and Geoffrey were gradually inhabiting different universes. The inventory of the house in which George grew up runs to several pages, and the establishment includes well-furnished quarters for the maids. Geoffrey grew up with a horror of debt, scrimping in everything, aware how carefully his mother was keeping one step ahead of the hire purchase merchants. He consciously saved threepence a day by walking the five-mile round trip to school, until he could lash out on a pair of boxing gloves (seven shillings and sixpence, or one month's walking). He carried round with him for life a childhood memory of having spent an extravagant tenpence on scrambled egg, toast, and a custard for his lunch, and going without lunch for the next three days in horror at what he had done. In later life, he carried a terror of being considered mean, consciously buying the first round on every occasion.

The 1911 Education Act came to the rescue of Helen Greenwell and her family, since it had established a policy of free meals in schools for the poorer children. The point here is not that Geoffrey (now twelve) got to eat for nothing. Helen saw an advertisement for, and successfully gained a job as the organiser of the free meals department - in Manchester. It was early 1915. Mabel, two years older than Geoffrey, was soon working at the Manchester Evening News ; Geoffrey earned ten shillings a week working for a National Relief Fund, whilst waiting to sign up for the war (his two attempts to deceive them about his age came to nothing. He had to wait until 1916). The Greenwells are now within six years of their major dispersal from one another, which will happen when Thomas George Greenwell, my great-great-grandfather dies, in 1922. If he was unpopular in Sunderland, he was held in high esteem in Manchester: the old man had continued to support Ernest's widow and children long after Ernest's death.

While George (my grandfather) was commissioned into an Artillery regiment - subsequently, he joined the Royal Flying Corps - Geoffrey went as an infantryman to the front as a member of the 29th Division of the Royal Fusiliers. After the war, they met only at my great-great-grandfather's funeral. Geoffrey flourished in the world of youth employment and training, for which he was eventually awarded an MBE in 1948. He possessed the knack of working with politicians of any persuasion, and, although he always felt he might have been just that little bit more ambitious: well, he settled for the considerable reputation his department had. In 1967, restlessly retired, he could not resist writing a letter to his cousin George, having seen in the paper that my father had been promoted in a shipyard re-shuffle. He was not to know how ill my grandfather had become, and, although my grandfather carefully kept the letter, it seems unlikely that he replied. Both had sons called Tony, neither aware of the other. Both men died within months of each other, only dimly and distantly aware of the worlds they inhabited. It was all down to Geoffrey's father's, Ernest's reckless day on the river with the oars - otherwise, they would doubtless have known each other better. Whether they should have agreed upon anything at all is an altogether more difficult proposition.


Ben Kellett and Pat Phoenix - then Pat Pilkington - in one of the Manchester-produced films


This left the mystery of my great-great-grandfather's second wife. Plainly she had died between 1906 (her marriage) and 1920 (his will). I searched the sixty-odd registers quickly. Nothing. I searched them slowly. Nothing. I searched them with an imaginary toothcomb. Again, nothing, unless it were a Jane Gladstone Greenwell, who had died in 1910 in the right area. Gladstone? Gladstone? It hadn't said that on her marriage certificate, nor on her son Evelyn's birth certificate. I invested anyway: it seemed the only possibility.

Yes. The Gladstone was just another clerical bungle (I was into grandfather-think again), a mis-heard Johnstone. So the marriage had only lasted four years, and Evelyn had lost his mother when only nine. It was impossible to say whether my great-great-grandfather had lived with her during this time (5). However, one thing about the death certificate was very striking. The address at which Jane Johnstone Greenwell had died was Woodside Cottage, West Park Road, Cleadon. That is to say, in the house opposite the one that my parents had shared from 1955 to 1987. In the house in whose flowerbeds I had buried my brother. In the house just down the road from my grandfather's house, which he had lived in since the 1930s. In the house just down the road from where my grandfather's sister had lived.

They had known about it. They must all have known about it. The secret had been stashed in the family sub-conscious, and the stories of Jane and Evelyn had been wrapped in layers of forgetful wool. My mother turned into Victor Meldrew. “I don't believe it!” she pronounced. Which means, of course, that she did.




(1) Years later, I was able to put his research to some use when Georganne Ishii, a genuine descendant of the John Greenwell to whom my grandfather wished to be connected, contacted me. Her forefather did indeed have the impeccable credentials and pedigree so evidently missing in our own, more precarious branch.

(2) This theory, toyed with by my grandfather, seemed almost certainly correct to me. But he abandoned it because it could not be proved, and only what could be proved was of any value to his aspirations. And it was an idle and incorrect speculation on both our parts, it eventually transpired.

(3) He lost by over 5000 votes in the largest turnout Hartlepool had ever seen - 87.5% - and, by contrast to 1945, he was never in serious contention. This was at least in part due to the collapse of the Liberal vote (the Liberal lost his deposit).

(4) Arthur Bell Greenwell, after his mother's sister, Mary Herring, who had married a prosperous coal-owner called William Bell, and who was known as “Aunt Bell”, to distinguish her from the other Mary.... “Aunt Polly”.

(5) The electoral roll and local trade directory subsequently proved to show him with this address in 1909, however, so it would seem that he did, and this is further suggested by the fact that I have - in 2007 - finally found which house it is, and seen the deeds, which are signed 'Thomas Greenwell', confirming that he was known by his first and not his second name. The deeds show that he had the house built on land in which he had invested earlier, and that it was not completed until August 1907. He is described in the deeds as 'of Cleadon', so it seems logical to assume that he lived with Jane and Evelyn elsewhere in Cleadon between their marriage in the spring of 1906 and the completion of the house. Jane also seems to have been known as Jennie.


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