I sold my mother’s house just before the weekend. Sentences like ‘sold’ and ‘house’ don’t often appear in the same sentence, of course, so there is a real sense of change, of ending, of beginning, of oddity. Since I was nearly three – when we moved to Cleadon, which is halfway between Sunderland and South Shields (and contested by both: my mother, who lived there for over 80 of her 84 years, saw it as part of Sunderland) – I have thought of Cleadon as ‘home’. It has been slipping away for nearly two years ago, and I suppose that now, it’s almost gone.
By one of those weird coincidences, the 1911 census for Durham was finally made available online on the same day, and I was able to solve a Cleadon problem which has been nagging me since 1993. My great-great-grandfather had an affair with his housekeeper, who was about twenty or more years younger, and she gave birth to a son (his ninth child) in 1901. He was still, a prominent shipowner, aged 59, living with his wife and his unmarried daughters, of whom there were three, and he seems to have continued to do so until about 1903. At this point, 106 years ago, he moved to Cleadon – it’s not very big, but I don’t know where, where he bought some land, and built – had built, I should say – a house called Woodside Cottage, completed in about 1907. His first wife, who had high-tailed it to Harrogate with the daughters, died in 1905 (as did one if the daughters, a year later). He duly married the housekeeper, Jane Johnstone (who seems to have had a daughter, Ethel, by another man, some 17 years earlier), and his young son thereafter became Greenwell.
But what I have never known is whether he actually lived with this second wife and child (Evelyn), or whether he was simply doing the decent thing and legitimising him. It must certainly have been a scandal at the time – and two or three of the Johnstone sisters were already the mothers of least three illegitimate children, so I expect that was also a subject of gossip in Cleadon, then very small. The new marriage did not last long: his second wife died in her forties, in the house he had built. I tracked down for certain which house it was about four years ago – it was two minutes from where I lived from 1955 onwards, and in the same road as my houses later bought both my my grandfather (father’s father) and his sister.
But here, just as I have no further purchase on Cleadon, is my great-great-grandfather, in 1911, a widower living, at the age of 68, with his nine-year-old son. So family rumour, which was highly hostile to him, to the extent that his name was hardly mentionable, and most pictures of him erased – I found six, one in a Manchester loft, two in a trunk in Lincolnshire, three in an album in Gloucestershire, and they took some looking for – has been found wanting. He did live with his second wife, and with his son. At the same time, my mother’s parents also moved to Cleadon, and they too show up on the 1911 census – living in the same road as the one in which my mother died.
The moneyspinners who have bought the rights to digitise the 1911 census charge a fair whack, and when you buy, you do not get to see sections of the same street (or perhaps you do if you look for the enumerator’s records, in which case, you have to pay twice). What I have is the schedule, signed by my great-great-grandfather, who incidentally refuses to fill in the box requiring him to state how many children he had. This is the first time the actual schedule has been available.
So, just as Cleadon slips away from me, so its history turns up a couple of tiny trumps. My mother’s father and my father’s great-grandfather are part of the same small village. What an odd feeling not to be able to call it home any more.