Sunderland Antiquarian Society and more Herrings

March 1, 2010

I’ve always wanted to join the Sunderland Antiquarian Society (over a century old), and I’m not sure why I haven’t. But now, back in Co. Durham – I refuse to honour the fiction of ‘Tyne And Wear’ – there is no reason why not. So I paid my sub, and made my way to their hideaway in Sunderland Minster (it wasn’t called that when I was a kid), and received a really warm welcome. The archives they have are boxed up every way you look. It will take years to work though.

The very first box I opened – literally, the first – had a photograph of my great-grandfather (and name-sake) on top of the pile. That was an auspicious beginning. There was so much there that I hardly knew which way to turn. I glimpsed a box of nineteenth-century legal documents in envelopes: about a hundred of them. The first one I pulled out of the pile contained a pair of documents from 1848. They were signed by my great-great-great-great-grandfather, William Herring, from whom I get my name as my great-grandfather did before me. He was 84 when he signed them, and he was, at some length, giving his daughter, via her husband – I didn’t know he had a daughter, either, which made it even better – a number of items to have and to hold: a pew in a Monkwearmouth church which he’d purchased; five mortgages on tracts of land, on which he was lending money at 5%; various houses.  Not to mention the appurtenances thereof.

I know now that he had three children, and this one, Mary, is the youngest one I know of (she seems to have had no children, and not to have survived her elderly father very long – he lived until he was 88, in 1852). There is only one Mary Herring from Monkwearmouth, and in the IGI, the sometimes unreliable record made by the Mormons, mainly in the 1970s (not that I wish to be anything other than grateful), shows her father as William Herring, and her mother as Mary Craggs. This now makes it 100% certain that I have been right all along and that William Herring snr had two sons: William Herring jnr, and James Craggs Herring. There is always an itch of doubt when you connect up a family. It is so easy to make a mistake. It looked almost certain that William H jr and James Craggs H were brothers, but this is the fifteenth and final proof I’ve been looking for. Plainly William H snr – Billy, as he was known – passed on his belongings to his children with great care. His own will is short and his estate very slight (and also completely in favour of James Craggs Herring). The signature on both will and the documents is the same; the documents mention William jr. It is almost as if he had a business relationship with one son (William), and not the other, although he spent his last months with James and family. This is a mystery I will never quite solve.

The documents also identify five or six fields amongst other plots of land – which he had leased from the church and from the major local landowner, Sir Hedworth Williamson. For the first time I can see on an 1820 map some of the areas of what is now Southwick in which he had interests. And the suspicion grows that they are just the start of it. His grandson James – the leader of Sunderland’s Liberal party – was also a major property-owner in Southwick, although the article about him passed to me by another toiler in the boneyard two years ago, says that James ‘was not a local’. This is despite his living in Southwick. I’ve been assuming it meant he was from further afield, but I think it just means the next suburb along: Monkwearmouth. I must keep reminding myself how finicky North-Easterners are about the precise place from which they come (and Southwick fought a long battle to stay separate which lasted until 1928).

So here it is: my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s hand. I wonder what else I am going to find. Now that I am (an) Antiquarian.

William "Billy" Herring's signature

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Great x 4 grandfathers

May 26, 2009

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.