Fish in a Tree

Chapter Six

Six: A genial and much-loved companion


Robert Hallewell, the seafaring husband who had married my great-great-grandfather's sister Lizzie, was a rogue. There seemed to be complete agreement on that when talking to the descendants of his daughter Ethel. They took the same kindly pride in him as Australians often do about convict forebears (there was in fact a Greenwell on the First Fleet, and one involved in The Gunpowder Plot, but obviously my grandfather's researches had not taken him that far, since criminal Greenwells did not fit his view of the world). The facts were unanimously these. In 1864, at the age of 24, he had married an Elizabeth Ann Wilkinson. At this time, he was sailing as a mate, although he would soon gain a master's certificate. One of the witnesses was twenty-year-old Lizzie Greenwell, most probably a cousin of Elizabeth Wilkinson. (1) But Elizabeth Wilkinson's life was over only six months into her marriage. While Robert was at sea, she died of consumption at her mother's house in Brougham Street (2), Bishopwearmouth. Less than a year later, Robert had married Lizzie Greenwell, and they had three children, Willie, Annie and Ethel. About Willie Hallewell, the eldest, I knew nothing at all, apart from a photo in May Robinson's possession in Southport - a thin, fearful-looking individual. The second sister, Annie, had stayed close to Ethel, and had married a tall, generous individual called Ramsay Paxton.

Robert Hallewell had never seen his children grow up. The son of a master mariner, Daniel Hallewell, who had long experience of sailing merchant barques to the Mediterranean, Robert had gained his own master's certificate in 1866. His career had not wanted for incident. His first ship, the Heroine , had been lost in October of the same year, and he had also been not only reprimanded for the loss of a pocket book, but also obliged to explain, in writing, exactly how he had come to be on one ship when listed on another - also in 1866. There is a suggestion perhaps of devil-may-care about Robert. While his son Willie was still learning to walk, and his second child Annie was in the womb, Robert had sailed to the Baltic and back on his third ship, the Margaret . In 1870, he was transporting coal on the Margaret from Sunderland to other coastal ports, and spent only 60 days at home, during which time he fathered his third child, Ethel. Failing to get a command, he signed on as a mate for a Baltic trip in mid-1871. On his return in mid-July, he gained another job as master of the s.s. Fairy Dell . He left Sunderland for Rochester, with eleven other men on board. About twelve miles off the Yorkshire coast, east of the river Humber, the Fairy Dell was hit by a force 12 storm, and foundered at sea. Robert was one of the only five survivors. Perhaps it should be said that such incidents were not rare. Robert's father had two lucky escapes. One of his ships, the Hannibal , took its next master and the whole crew to death by yellow fever. Another, the Blakely , foundered with the loss of all hands in the Bay of Biscay. (Daniel Hallewell had purchased a painting of the Blakely , which hung in successive Hallewell houses for seventy-five years, confusing the descendants into thinking it was the ship in the story that follows. But it had long since hit the seabed). It was a mild pleasure, too, when researching these ships, to see John Candlish lose a ship in the 1870s, and the cargo of 50,000 bottles it carried. Doubtless my great-great-great-grandparents were not much bothered by this loss.

Robert Hallewell's next ship was a Sunderland-based ship, a barque called the Belted Will . This time, his commission was to travel to the Far East, to China, again as part of a company of twelve. The Belted Will was used to such journeys. But Robert was away for eighteen months at least, with a crew composed of five Englishmen, one Dutchman (the first mate), a Russian, two Swedes, a German, and, at least after the first year, a Chinese cook and Chinese cabin-boy. It seems probable that the length of his journey gave his owner the jumps, and that Robert used the protracted voyage to make deals of his own. We do know that he carried 1971 chests, 5238 half chests and 5437 boxes of tea (“Finest First Crop Kaisow Congous, Choicest Souchongs & Scented Pekoes, Moyune Gunpowder and Young Hyson, Choicest Scented Caper Tea”) from Foo Chow to Sydney in 1873, a journey of eight weeks. But when he finally landed back in Sunderland in late April 1874, he was already in trouble again. A Marine Board in Sydney found him guilty of drunkenness and other unspecified “misconduct”, and suspended his master's licence for a year, at a hearing which he evaded, although a thorough searach of the town and ships was made for him (3). The owners of The Belted Will hired another captain; Robert had to make his own way home. Now, after his succession of sea-journeys away from Sunderland, after nearly drowning in the North Sea, after being blacklisted as a master, he perpetrated a remarkable swindle. Charged with sailing a ship to Buenos Aires, unloading its cargo and returning, he decided to masquerade as its owner. How many of his crew were in on the idea is uncertain. But when he arrived in Buenos Aires, he took an interesting gamble, and sold the ship. He made enough from the proceeds to buy himself a small hotel, and left the crew to their own devices. It took several months before the story surfaced again in Sunderland, since he contrived it that a message be sent that the ship had sunk without trace. Lloyds paid out the insurance. Exactly when Lizzie first heard she was a widow is not clear. It must have been a shock to the placid and mild-mannered Robert Greenwell to learn that his second daughter had been deceived so grievously. The owners of the ship sent a private detective to Argentina, a round trip of several thousand miles. When they got there, their quarry had moved on. The hotel had also been sold. The only evidence that the hotel's owner had been the captain of the missing ship was this: Robert Hallewell had once damaged a hand when a rope ran through it. The hotel owner had had a damaged hand.

By this time, however, Robert Hallewell had melted into history. There was no trace of the man at all. It seems likely that Lizzie's brother, Tom Greenwell, helped her out. He could afford to be pretty free with his cash, because he had married an heiress, Ann Herring. Her father's will roams over several pages, disbursing property, land, goods to his children. He seems to have owned most of the land between Cleadon and Sunderland, to have had a stake in the Southwick area where shipyards where still being built, as well as shops in Durham. He and his eldest son were shipowners, too, and his eldest son appears in the Sunderland papers of the second half of the century as a local worthy - being easily elected, for instance, to the Board of Guardians. A portrait of Ann's father depicts him as stern, unsmiling. Tom Greenwell had stepped up in local society, and his own father, a bankrupt and pious man, may have been surprised to find such a budding and instantly successful capitalist in his eldest son. The Married Women's Property Act lay some years in the future, too, so Tom Greenwell effectively owned his wife's considerable inheritance. He transmogrified into a shipowner (he had started out as an apprentice at an iron works in Middlesborough, before returning to Sunderland to help his father out). The house he purchased as his family grew - it was called “Peareth” - was a sizeable affair with considerable grounds, looking out over the sea at Roker. Perhaps this leg up the social ladder distanced him from his siblings.

Lizzie Hallewell's son Willie was the next object of my search. This time I had only names to go on, including some faintly remembered forenames provided by May Robinson in Southport, including a memory that his youngest child was a Bert. My only way forward was through the thickets of the indexes. By this time, I was becoming a more accomplished, if anoraky researcher. It reminded me, the numbing process of writing down every entry, however likely they were to be false, of the happy pastime in which I had indulged at Bamburgh on those repeated summer holidays. The first thing I wanted was a notebook. I used to stand on the corner, car-spotting. Car-spotting must rank as the least fruitful hobby ever undertaken. It consisted of writing down the numbers on car number-plates, moving or stationary. The object was to spot every car in the country, I suppose. It was an impossible object even by the exacting standards of Big Chief I-Spy of Wigwam-By-The-Water, but it may have been one of those harmless hobbies of which parents think Well at least it keeps him off the streets . Or in my case, on them.

If you've never seen an index of (say) births, this is what you face. For each quarter of the year, there is a ledger, or a number of ledgers, as the years roll on and the population starts to go into exponential mode. The ledgers are arranged in alphabetical order of surname of the person busy being born. In the older registers, the maiden name of the mother is not provided - this information is available only from 1911 onwards. The registration district is provided, together with a code, a page number and an entry number. My first job was to work out when William Hallewell was born. This was pretty easy - Hallewell is a usefully perverse version of the more usual Halliwell or Helliwell. Having found his name in the index, the option in this case was to confirm that it was the correct person, by filling in a form with all the available details, and paying about a fiver. In a sporting concession to punters, you get the chance of half your money back if the certificate for which you've applied does not match any details you can supply - in this case, it would have been the names of the parents.

Certificates, however, take a few days to arrive. If you're pretty sure about the entry in the index, then you look for the next certifiable occasion, and move over to Marriages. Allow Willie Hallewell to age eighteen years, and then look for Willie Hallewells who get married over (say) a ten-year period. It is easier to trace a woman's marriage, because she tends to marry where her parents live. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, most marriages were within the local community. I was looking for a William Hallewell to get married in his early twenties in Sunderland. I found one. There was a marriage to a Catherine Dryden in the early 1890s.

It's an incremental, tedious process. It's like looking for a needle in a hayfield. After a while, you get the hang of certain tricks. For instance, siblings are often witnesses at each other's weddings. Get one marriage certificate, and you may not need to waste so much time looking through other births. Some names are much more prevalent in some parts of the country than others. Children are also often named after relatives, or given a family surname as a forename (Willie and Kate Hallewell called their first son John Dryden Hallewell, for instance). In my case, manoeuvring forwards, I only needed to make my way to someone who was alive. Then they could fill in the missing names. And there was always Somerset House to nip across to, to see if a quick-fix will could name names. The census returns in Chancery Lane also helped, as long as you were prepared to grind your way through acres of microfilmed print, and as long as you were looking for something over a century old.

One way or another, I came up with four children for Willie and Kate Hallewell: Ethel, John Dryden, Catherine Lilian, and Robert William (Robert was the Bert remembered by May - not the last time a Bert turned out to be a Robert rather than a Bertram). The names respectively reflect his sister; her surname; her forename; his father's name and his own. Each of them seemed then to have had, respectively, two children; one child; three children; no children. (This wasn't right, as it happened, but it was close enough). Ethel had been the biggest gamble of the four, but she was right. She was the first child of Willie Hallewell, had married a John Daniel Settle, and then had one, perhaps two children. There was a Helliwell/Settle child in Sunderland at the right date. That looked wrong-right to me; I was wising up to misprints. The second child was John Malcolm Settle. Settle looked a useful name to me - not too usual. I thought I could make some headway with the phone-books, and came up with comparatively few.

Cold-calling is very hard, when you feel hyper-energised, and the person on the other end of the line is potentially likely to file you just underneath central heating salesmen as the source of welcome conversation. But Pat Settle, John's wife, whom I located in Deal, in Kent, was exceptionally friendly. She had no need to be. John was dying in the local hospital. Suddenly again, I felt I was gatecrashing other people's lives. Innocently, I had not foreseen this. And I should add, I have never in the end found the people with whom I've connected to be anything other than positive, once they had established what brand of lunacy had seized me. In Pat Settle, I found a tremendous generosity.

John - he had been known as Malcolm as a child - sent me his regards; Pat put me on to his aunt, Rhoda, a cheerful former nurse now in her nineties, and, almost immediately, the whole line from Willie Hallewell came alive. There had been four children. One of them, the youngest, and another Robert – Bert Hallewell - had been the chief fixer for the building magnate, Lord MacAlpine, and a drinking crony of the famous cricketing Bedser twins. As the works manager, he'd overseen prestigious projects like the construction of the multi-storey Odeon at Marble Arch. He'd also been a hard nut, having once had his own son Gordon fired from a building project in Newcastle, for failing to turn up on time. Willie Hallewell's four children had between them had ten children (including an infant brother of John's who had died before he was born, and about whom he had not known - I had been right to suspect the Settle/Helliwell misprint). The ten children had had thirteen children of their own, which is to say, there were thirteen in my generation, including two with the same birth-year. The phone-lines once again began to hum like discombobulated bees.

The children of Willie Hallewell, the eldest child of missing mariner Robert. His sister Annie had no children; Ethel's five children - including Percy Raine - have already been mentioned. Of the four children, Ethel had one son, Malcolm - also known as John -, who had five children: Paula, Joseph, Andrew, Veronica and Patrick. Jack had one son, Bill, who had one daughter, Carol. Lilian had five children: Billie, Mollie, Kitty, Stewart and Pat, who have between them had nine children: Colin, Lilian, Steve, Chris, Pauline, Heather, Valerie, Karen, Ian. Bert had two sons, Gordon and Robert, and four grandchildren: Karen, Mark, Rachel, Adrian. There are 37 in this generation of descendants from Lizzie Greenwell - as against a mere nine in the case of her brother Tom's descendants (of whom I'm one).


Willie Hallewell had originally worked as a tailor, and then as a caretaker at the Baptist chapel in Lindsay Road, Sunderland (this was also where Ethel and John Settle had met). In the 1920s, he moved into the licensing trade through his sister Annie's husband, Ramsay Paxton. I was familiar with Annie and Ramsay Paxton through the photographs taken by Willie's other brother-in-law, Albert Raine. In fact, it now became clear to me that Annie had maintained contact with her brother and sister separately. Ethel, the one who had been given the tea-service for minding Aunt Polly, hadn't seen eye to eye with her big brother. Fairly soon, Willie was managing a wine and spirit's shop called Fenwick's in Sunderland's High Street.

1908: L-R, May Raine, Percy Raine, Ethel Raine née Hallewell, her sister Annie Paxton née Hallewell, Winnie Raine, Wilf Raine, Ramsay Paxton (Annie's husband). Inset: Willie Hallewell, Ethel and Annie's elder brother



This branch of the Hallewell family also knew about the missing ship. In fact, they had a more interesting spin on the story. Willie had grown up obsessed by his father's disappearance, to the extent that he scoured the News Of the World for notices of unclaimed money. In the mid-1920s, standing behind his counter, he was surprised to see a stranger approach the counter, make sure the coast was clear, and then tell him, “This is a message from your father. He wants you to know that he is alive and well.” There are two versions of this story in the Hallewell family, and where they vary is in the account of Willie Hallewell's reaction. The first version says that he could not speak, that he was as stunned as if a soft, explosive stone had landed on his head, and that the stranger turned and left him, still gawping. The second version says that Willie Hallewell told the stranger to bugger off.


Willie Hallewell and his wife Kate had eventually lived with their daughter Lilian and her family of five. It was here that the picture of the father of rogue runaway Robert, Daniel, had hung. Lilian's younger daughter Pat had been frightened by its staring eyes. This picture had also wound up in Southport (where the silver tea-service was), after Lilian's death. Percy Raine - the assistant harbourmaster, who'd given my grandfather the bible - had kept in some kind of contact with Lilian. In fact, it was becoming clear to me that Percy had inherited his mother's talent for being the pivotal figure in the family. Percy had not only known Lilian; he had also known Maud Kitts, the orphaned painter; and he had also, of course, come to know my grandfather.

Willie himself had kept canaries, and a parrot. His wife Kate, who waited hand and foot on her husband, a tight man with the purse-strings, had a routine to summon him to his breakfast - shouting up the stairs “Willie! The bacon's ready!” The parrot learned the routine off pat. It took to calling Willie down for his bacon whether or not it was ready. One of Willie's proudest possessions was Daniel Hallewell's sea-chest. This sea-chest had the same totemic significance in the Hallewell family as the silver tea service had in the parallel Raine family. The chest had landed up with Kitty Johnson, Lilian's middle child, and there were one or two Hallewells who thought it had travelled the wrong route. The question of her right to possession turned up at a family funeral. Kitty looked her cousin in the eye, and gave it to him straight: “I bought the chest, so that my grandmother could get herself drink .” (Her grandmother had sold the picture of the Blakely for the same reasons.) Kate Hallewell seems to have frightened some of her grandchildren. “She looked like a witch to me,” said one. “Black skirt, white blouse, thick socks, a heavy tippler.” The image of the heavy-drinking battleaxe was also applied to Lizzie Greenwell. “That's why he ran away with the ship,” I was once told.


The great-great-granddaughter of Lizzie Greenwell with the great-great-grandson of her brother Tom Greenwell: Heather Johnson (born 1952) and Bill Greenwell (born 1952), in 1994.

Mary, Tom, Lizzie, William, Margaret, Emily - the six nineteenth century Greenwell siblings who made it well into their twenties. There was no record of Alexander at all - he'd scarcely made it out his teens - except on a gravestone, and in the 1871 census, from which we learn that he was working, at the age of eighteen, as a chemist. I'd found the first five survivors. This left Emily Knight, and this was going to be more tricky. I knew that her father, my great-great-great-grandfather, Robert, had died at her home in Walthamstow. Her husband Walter had gone to Canada, with her two children Winnie and Bert. Emily, it transpired, had died in London in 1900. The usual difficulty surrounded locating Winifred's birth certificate: she was an Annie Winifred. How was I going to trace two children, and perhaps their children, when their surname was the distinctly unpromising Knight, and it was ninety years since they'd gone abroad? I knew that Bert Knight had come back for the First World War - his photo had surfaced in Birmingham and Southport, and he'd turned up in Lincolnshire, too, next to my great-great-grandfather in what was still the only snap I had of him. (I hadn't found his birth certificate, either - another case of assuming Bert was short for Bertram, instead of Robert. Emily had named her children after her parents).

Another will - a remarkable one - gave me a clue. Maud Kitts, whose mother Margaret had died in childbirth, and who had known Peter, the silversmith's grandson, and whose paintings I had stared at abstractedly when playing in the bath as a child, had made a small splash in the Sunderland papers when she died in 1967. Peter sent me the cutting and the will. She left £30,000 (net) to charity. Except that “charity” rather understates the case.

Emilie Maud Kitts left bequests to The British and Foreign Bible Society; The Millions Inland China Mission; The Bethesda Free Chapel; a Norwegian charity of a friend's choice; The Royal Lifeboat Institution; Grange Church; The Mission To Seamen; The Guild Of Help; The Salvation Army; The Friends Relief Fund; The Universities Federation Of Animal Welfare; Doctor Barnardo's Children's Homes; The British Empire Cancer Campaign; The Royal Eye Hospital; The Mildmay Mission To The Jews; and the exorbitantly titled Society For Distributing The Holy Scriptures To The Jews.

Emilie Maud Kitts in about 1904

The range of Maud's bequests reflect what was plainly a pious and generous disposition, and, in the Chinese case, perhaps an acknowledgment of her missionary father, who had supposedly gone back to Shanghai and hit the opium. All her life she had been in special receipt of money because of her unique status as an orphan. She had led a very private but happy life, too - although she was murder to share a house with, as May Pottinger, the silversmith's daughter, had discovered. She was a parsimonious soul, who slept near a street-lamp, and used its light to read the psalms. She had in fact helped to run a Dame's School with her cousins-become-sisters, and visited local schools on missionary crusades. On one occasion, she held an elementary school contingent so spellbound with her account of the crucifixion that one lad, looking up with shocked eyes, gave the definitive response to the climactic events of the New Testament. “The buggers!” he said.


Whitburn, Seaburn, and Sunderland in the distance: one of Maud Kitts' watercolours - with which I grew up, unaware who she was.


Maud Kitts' will also started to solve another problem. She left a small legacy to “Elizabeth and Robert Knight (children of my cousin Robert Greenwell Knight) of 8A 3240 Lake Shore Luire, Chicago, Illinois”. This was a start - although Luire was a misprint for Drive. It looked like I could rule out Canada. Nothing like cutting a continent down. The middle name Greenwell threw me. At first I thought I was looking at the grandchildren of Bert Knight. I might have gone on thinking this had Peter not retrieved another letter from his archive. He had received it in response to a thank-you letter he had written for a message of condolence on the death of his mother May in 1962. I particularly liked its opening: “Yes, I am Robert Greenwell Knight!” It went on to give a quick sketch of his children, and his sister Winnie's daughter and grandson. Winnie had just died. The Knight address was no good to me - I had already tried international directory enquiries with the address in Maud Kitts' will. But the additional names gave me some breathing space. Maybe.

Winnie's daughter Margaret had married a Eugene Cole, and they had had a son, Ron. Ron had been born as recently as 1945, and he was said to be living in Long Beach. I tried a very long shot indeed, and rang international directory enquiries again. It was a hot day, and I was barking, sunstruck, soft in the numskull, away with the fairycakes, and up the creek without a pedalo. You are the international operator, and this ninny is asking for a Ronald Cole in Long Beach ? Do you have an address, she asked, politely and efficiently bored. No, I didn't. There were a lot of Ronald Coles in Long Beach (I had not even bothered to look up how large it was). She gave me one of them.

Ron Cole was Australian. You could hear that loud and clear. Very friendly, very Australian, and very definitely no relation. I'd had lucky breaks before, but this was a silly line of enquiry. I looped back into thinking. All this information. Nothing to show for it. Then a small sunbeam played across the centre of my thinking cap. I had the number of a Ron Cole, an Australian of no remote connection, in Long Beach. He'd been apologetically matey. I gave him another call. I found myself repeating a familiar line: “This is probably going to sound ridiculous, but.......” Yes, he would. He read me through all the R. Coles in his telephone directory, and I carefully wrote them all down. On the second call, I got Ronald Cole, the great-grandson of Emily Knight.


Emily Knight née Greenwell, and her husband Walter . Emily was Robert Wilson Greenwell's youngest child, and he died at her Walthamstow home . She survived him by only a decade. Walter emigrated to Canada shortly after her death in 1900; he himself died in 1912.


Ron had the addresses of Robert (Illinois) and Elizabeth (New Jersey), the brother and sister mentioned in Maud Kitts' will. I rang them both. They had visited Maud Kitts in England with their father - later, they would send me pictures. The picture filled itself in for me quickly. Remarkably, Bert - Robert Greenwell Knight - had called his son Robert Greenwell Knight, too. Bob - the second Robert Greenwell Knight - had then called his son Robert Greenwell Knight. Bert had married after the death of his father; so had Bob. The Greenwell name was being quietly perpetuated in Illinois, long after any clear knowledge remained. There was a Knight family story that Emily's father had objected to her marriage to Walter Knight. On the face of it, this couldn't be true.

Walter Knight's father was a close friend (and executor) to Robert Greenwell, and shared the same religious convictions. (They were both in turn close to Maud Kitts' stepfather-uncle, Joseph Kitts). I wondered where this story had started. It occurred to me that my great-great-grandfather Tom might be the culprit. It also struck me what a melancholy marriage Emily must have had, her sister Margaret having died in childbirth only a few months earlier.




August 1950. Emily's grandchildren, Bob and Beth Knight in Sunderland with Maud Kitts, then 65.


Both Americans sent me photographs of Emily. Suddenly I realised that I had put together, for the first time in perhaps a century, an album of pictures. The sketch of Mary; the tiny photo of Tom; the blurred image of Lizzie; the cheery portrait of William; the astonishing image of Margaret; and now Emily, too. Only eighteen months earlier, I had had no image of any of them. It was a family reunion, of sorts, however sad and complex.

So where did this leave me? In one sense, I had long since discovered what I had endeavoured to find - more about my great-great-grandfather, including his photograph. Since then, I had also added two more notches to my tally-stick of his life. I went to Falmouth, and found his grave (it was my second attempt), in the Swan Pool Cemetery, not far from where he had lived out the very end of his life. The house he had lived in - it had the banal, predictable name of Sea View - no longer existed, although its shadow did, since it was one half of a semi-detached house. His half had been a squatters' paradise in the seventies, and had fallen into ruin. Demolitionists and re-builders had matched it to the surviving half. To my even greater surprise, his death had rated a tiny article in the local paper, the Falmouth Packet . It described his last hours in the same, rather remote way that characterised the later suicide of his son Arthur.

“Deceased,” it begins, laconically, “seemed to be in his usual health on Saturday morning, and about ten o'clock, after breakfast, he went into one of the rooms, taking a newspaper with him. He was reading the newspaper when he suddenly collapsed and died within a few minutes of heart failure. He was passionately fond of the sea and ships, and although of a rather a retiring nature, all whom he admitted into the circle of his friendship found in him a genial and much beloved companion.”

Am I imposing a subtext on this? Does he emerge from this as a shy man - shy? the man who was so reckless? - or as rather a cold fish? His funeral was certainly not well-attended, as The Falmouth Packet apologetically makes clear. “Owing to inability for cablegrams and telegrams to reach them in time, the majority of the deceased's relatives who are travelling abroad, could not be present at the funeral.” The only relatives are Willie (my great-grandfather), Laura (his sister), Evelyn (his son by Jennie Johnstone), and his nephew Geoffrey (the “Manchester Greenwell”). Everyone else has stayed away. The idea that they were all swanning about the continent is absurd. Even in the account of his death, which is obviously dependent on what the reporter has been told, there has been a smooth lather of lies applied.

The other discovery I had made about him was altogether more mundane, if slightly peculiar. His great-grand-daughter Rosemary suddenly produced a memory of what her mother had said about him: that he would never eat meat when it was cold, had an aversion to it in fact. An image arrived in my head of all those silent meals, Tom at one end of the table, Ann at the other, the frost thick and mean and palpable. The hot meat lies in generous slabs, although Maud picks at hers, while Harold and Ernest banter, and Laura talks to Willie (who is dreaming of rustlers and squaws and six-guns). Louisa is invisible, near her mother. Arthur is worried. The housekeeper bustles here and there, avoiding the lustful eyes at the head of the table. Behind the scenes, the maids complain about the waste (they have been asked to throw the meat away).

To counter this image of my great-great-grandfather as a thriftless tyrant, there is also a story that, on Christmas Day, he spent his time visiting the sick in the local hospital, and taking them food. Well, why not believe this? Christmas, the ultimate festival of family, must have been murder for him.


In fact, there were two more sources of photographs. Shortly before Christmas, Helen Kellett, my newly discovered third cousin in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, went up to her loft to fish out Christmas lights for her tree. She found a box marked Greenwell. “Have I got a Christmas surprise for you!” she trilled down the phone-line. There were sixty photographs in the packet she sent me (they had been collected by her grandmother Mabel Kellett, Geoffrey Greenwell's sister). Could I identify any of them? Yup. I could identify nearly all of them by now, having built up a colossal archive - perhaps a thousand photographs had come my way. These ones were amazing. They gave me the first clear view of the errant Thomas George - it was a posed picture, taken in his sixties, carrying a wide-brimmed hat. On the back, Mabel had written - “Grandfather Greenwell - father of nine!” The ninth had been Evelyn. The exclamation mark was not censorious at all: a nice change. However, there were other surprises, including pictures of four of my great-grandfather's siblings - Maud (a spectacular beauty), Ernest, Harold, and Mabel, the youngest girl. The pictures of Ernest were especially poignant. He looks out nervously from one; in another, he poses awkwardly in a Dick Whittington outfit (awkwardly, because he is certainly in his late teens or twenties at the time).


Maud and Ernest, two of my great-grandfather's siblings. Ernest died from a chill caught whilst rowing, at the age of 32. Maud died aged 42 in 1917 from the effects of anorexia. Their father outlived them both, as he was to outlive four of his nine children.



More extraordinary still was the inclusion of a picture of my own parents, in a cutting from the Sunderland Echo snapshot of their wedding. So Mabel, one of the missing Manchester Greenwells, had quietly kept a weather eye on her family back in Sunderland, chronicling their images some forty years after she had moved across the Pennines. It is sometimes said that women keep photographs, and that men do not. This hadn't always been the case, as far as I could tell, but it was more often true than not. Indeed, her brother Geoffrey seemed to have handed down almost no photographs to his son, Tony - who had never seen the pictures of his grandfather or great-grandfather at all. Once again, I was acting as a go-between, travelling from one strand of the family to another like some pedlar of relics.

Rosemary, my father's cousin, also lent me a book of photographs. She had been the very first person I'd asked about images of Thomas George Greenwell - she hadn't thought she'd possessed any. But here he was again, and in Sunderland, too, helping to celebrate the engagement of my grandfather's sister, Nancy (Rosemary's mother). He was now in his seventies: it is 1916. The sun is in his eyes: he looks a little uncomfortable about the photographs, one of which is captioned “Three generations of Greenwells!” - Nancy, her mother, her grandfather. In this picture, someone has plonked Nancy's fiancé's peaked army cap on the old man's head. His discomfiture looks evident. Whit, the fiancé, is also pictured next to my grandfather, who is stern and unsmiling. His sister has enjoyed this caption: “He hasn't seen the joke!” My grandfather wouldn't have seen the joke in the caption, either, or so I guessed.


It would have stopped here - once again, the trail had reached a potential vanishing point. Of all Robert Wilson Greenwell and Ann Henderson's descendants, only two eluded (and still elude) me - the sons of one of my great-grandfather's sisters, Mabel, one of whom had gone to Canada in the late 1950s, and one of whom had (according to his mother's will) been married. I could find no trace of the marriage, and wore my fingers out on the registers. On May Pottinger's notes, the word “Africa” appears next to this son's name, which might explain this. Mary (Aunt Polly) Hoskins had had one child, who had survived for less than a year. My great-great-grandfather Tom had had nine children, eight grandchildren, six great-grandchildren (the line was dwindling gradually), nine great-great-grandchildren. Margaret had had one daughter, Maud Kitts, who never married. William had had three children, one grandson (Peter), two great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren. Emily had had three (including one I hadn't known of, but who had died in infancy) children, three grandchildren, three great-children. There were two great-great-grandchildren, although the Knights were lagging behind the other generations somewhat (keep up!!). The exception was Lizzie, the falsely bereaved wife of the rascal mariner, two of whose three children had produced nine grandchildren, twenty-two great-grandchildren, and forty-six great-great-grandchildren (one of whom was already a grandmother). Was this a prolific family, or were the others the slouches?

I had photographs of all but a few. They were in New Zealand, South Africa, Bahrain, Thailand, Australia, China, Italy, Canada, both sides of the USA, all over England, but none at that time in Wales, Ireland or Scotland. They were engineers, teachers, computer software designers, builders, farmers, even working for MI5. One of them was the head honcho of a famous television programme. Nothing bound them together other than remote kinship, and their proximity in my ever-expanding collection of notebooks. They corresponded, sent Christmas cards, kept me up-to-date with the births, marriages and deaths. I seemed to have created an epicentre, and I enjoyed standing in it.

At the base of the tree, I was now able to provide my children with the names of fifth cousins, with whom they shared only two of sixty-four great-great-great-great-grandparents. As Steve Jones, the geneticist, shows in his book In The Blood, fifth cousin is no big deal, really. Margaret Thatcher and John Major are fifth cousins, which must have come as something of a shock to the researcher who discovered it. The average relationship is probably not much more than sixth cousin.

Try the multiplication - it's fairly straightforward. Assume that a century contains three generations, which is a little bit on the generous side. Use up the first third of a century on yourself, and that leads you to two parents and four grandparents once you've travelled back a century. Go back two more centuries, and the four has become eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four, one hundred and twenty-eight, two hundred and fifty-six. You are now at 1700. By the time you've taken it back one more century, your ancestors number 2,048. We've been overgenerous with the length of a generation, so let's make it easy and call that 2,500. The year is 1600.

Go back another three centuries. As they say on the game-shows, the numbers start to go up pretty quickly from now. By 1300, they have reached about a million. By 1200, the number is eight million, and in 1066, as William The Bastard is fixing it so that his nickname is The Conqueror, you have apparently acquired about the same number of ancestors, sixty-four million, as there are currently adults and children in the UK. Of course, the problem here is that the other 63,999,999 souls also have sixty-four million ancestors. And there's that other teensy conundrum: in 1066, there were only one and a half million inhabitants of the island in any case. The Black Death in the fourteenth century helped to peg any major growth, in any case . The fact is that we are all intimately related: we just don't know it. DNA tests established a lineage of 7,000 years between a “prehistoric” female skeleton and a local schoolteacher in Cheddar in Somerset. The journal Science recently claimed that nearly all the population of Europe could be traced to ten individuals.

We are all family.


Thomas George - Tom - Greenwell, my great-great-grandfather, of whose image there was no trace in our immediate family. He was said to have been “dapper” - the pose is certainly self-conscious. On the back of this picture his granddaughter Mabel Kellett has written “Father Of Nine!” - the first eight being the sons and daughters of Ann Herring (below, probably in the 1860s, before marriage). She moved to Harrogate in 1903, two years after the birth of the ninth child to her housekeeper Jennie Johnstone. She died there in late 1905.



The challenge for me lay in that answering-machine message from Australia, the one in which Rosalie Raine had explained that she'd found the granddaughter of Dora Greenwell, who featured briefly in the letters my grandfather had had from his aunt Laura. She had the address - it was on the outskirts of Brisbane. Her name was Nancy Shaw.

Perhaps it was now that I noticed how often Laura used the word “perhaps”, or “I think that was the name.” According to her account, Dora, her father's cousin, had come with her father George to say goodbye to the Sunderland family, before going to America. But here was Dora's granddaughter in Australia. Suddenly, it looked to me as if Laura had - pardonably - picked the wrong continent. I knew nothing about George Greenwell, my great-great-great-grandfather Robert's brother, nothing except the fact that he had emigrated, and that he had written poetry. Very dry. Full of classical allusions . That's what Laura had said. I didn't mind. I wrote poetry myself.

I wrote to Nancy Shaw.








My grandmother, born Mabel Winifred Catcheside in 1896. This photograph would have been taken at about the time Tony and Pamela were born

Above , my father, Thomas Anthony - Tony - Greenwell (1922-1987), pictured in the 1940s.


Below, his sister, my aunt, Pamela (1919-2001), pictured in the 1920s on Alnmouth beach in Northumberland.




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(1) Lizzie Greenwell's mother, Ann Henderson, had a niece called Mary Wilkinson, according to the 1851 census. Mary's father was an earthenware manufacturer, William Wilkinson, from Newbottle, south of Sunderland; her mother was Ann Henderson's sister. Henderson and Wilkinson are too common as names to allow for certainties, but it seems likely, given the age difference of five years between bride and (the only female) witness, that there is a family relationship between Lizzie Greenwell and Elizabeth Wilkinson, and that they were first cousins. The witness at Robert and Ann Greenwell's wedding in 1839 was a William Wilkinson, the name of Elizabeth Ann Wilkinson's father, which starts to make it even more likely that the two men are one and the same.

(2) Brougham Street runs parallel to Blandford Street, where both Robert and his father Daniel lived at the time; the next street in parallel is Holmeside, where the silversmith William worked some twenty years later. Brougham Street exists in name only now - it is on the edge of an area bombed to rubble in World War II. All three would now be considered to be in the centre of Sunderland itself.

(3) The news was not officially reported in the shipping pages of the Sunderland Daily Echo until August 1874.


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