Great x 4 grandfathers

We have a lot of great-great-great-great grandparents – sixty-four, unless there are duplicates (i.e. cousins marrying in the recent past – Prince Charles, for instance, has fewer, because both his parents are the great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and that’s just the start of it). So we have, normally, thirty-two great x 4 grandmothers and thirty-two great x 4 grandfathers. I think I can name about twenty-five of my great x 4 grandfathers (I can name all sixteen of the great-great-great-grandfathers). This is what happens when you lead the secret life of a family historian.

Normally speaking, this level of ancestor is out of photo-range (although I have a photographic image, taken late in her life, of one great x 4 grandmother). You might get a picture if you’re very lucky, or Prince Charles, and I’m neither. Honest.

But I have now discovered some words allegedly spoken by – it’s the second time this has happened, even more amazingly – a great-great-great-great-grandfather. Or if you want me to be precise, my father’s father’s father’s mother’s father’s father (that’s the new one – the other is straight up the male line all the way, which is, I am afraid, often the way with family history. The surnames of the women are harder to locate).

The gentleman in question was born in 1764, and his name was William Herring. He is the reason I am called William (I had traced the passage of my name only as far as his son, another William, until last week) – and actually, he was known as Billy Herring, but that’s a coincidence. To my absolute and utter amazement, an exceptionally nice woman called Pam Tate has turned up an edition from 1877 of a magazine called ‘The Alderman’, published in Southwick, a semi-autonomous area of Sunderland (it fought for a century not to be swept up in the town, which pronounces it to rhyme with Mouth-pick, when Southwickers say ‘Suthick’, or ‘Suddick’). The lead story is about my great-great-grandmother’s brother James (keep up at the back), but it refers to his father William and grandfather Billy.

Billy Herring was a landowner and shipowner, and lived to be 92 (oh I hope I have his genes). He was also a sharp-eyed speculator in land, since he managed to purchase fields and ‘closes’ of sand, in about 1810, on the north side of the Wear. Within thirty or forty years, this was land on which shipyards started to spring up (as well as streets). And he was known for being, how shall we put it, fiscally prudent. In about 1800, he purchased a horse and trap, for business and pleasure. He went out with the horse one day, but came back on foot without it. His son, William junior, asked where the horse was.

‘Sold him,’ said Billy Herring.

His son asked him, as you would, ‘Why?’

His answer (offered with ‘impressive solemnity’, according to the article) was: ‘William, he ate meat at nights.’ Sixty or seventy years later, and thirty-five years after Billy Herring’s death, this story was still being repeated in Southwick, as an example of (I guess) extreme fastidiousness for the balance of income and outgoings.

Yes. I am descended from – and named for – a genial old skinflint, who would rather leg it about the place than pay for a horse’s food, but who wasn’t above twitting his son in the process.

What the hell he would have made of my second-hand VW Polo, I do not know. Especially as, after a fashion, he paid for it.


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