Mark continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo is now eleven months old.
I don’t believe in ghosts but, if I did, I would hear them in every creak of the floorboards, I would meet them on the stairs every day.
Our house would be loud with them.
How could it not be when there has been so much life lived here?
This brave white-stuccoed house on the top of a hill has stood – loved and, at times, unloved – for 170 years.
In its long history, it’s had its share of ups and downs. It’s been both proud and humble: it was a home to polite middle-class Victorian families; it served eighteen years as a small school for small boys; it’s been converted to flats and to students bedsits.
And astonishingly – thanks to the long hours I’ve spent poring over parish and Census records – I know something about very nearly every person who has ever called it home.
I don’t believe in ghosts but, if I did, I would know them all by name. They are old friends to me now.
Let me introduce you to just a few of them.
It’s 1846: William Hall, proprietor of land and houses, removes his burnished top hat and proudly surveys his newly-built home. It’s one of a semi-detached pair on a road that cuts across the crest of the Downs. It’s a bold move to build this high up the hill – and across the way, sheep make the point, bleating complaints at the loss of pasture.
At William’s side, trying to keep the building-site mud from the hem of her silk dress, is Mary, his long-suffering wife. She has become resigned to frequent house moves in their fifteen years together. She suspects they will not stay in this particular home for very long either. In that, she is proved right: they move again a few months later.
It’s 1851: By the white marble fireplace in the drawing room, stands Joseph Stevenson, the private tutor, every inch the gentleman in his frock coat. He’s been away from his native county for some years now – but you can still hear Yorkshire plainly in him.
And there, beside him, is Elizabeth, his doting wife of just two years.
Both must have thought the chance of happiness had passed them by: he is thirty-six and she a year older. Now though, the flush in her cheeks tells that they are harbouring hopes of a family.
But Elizabeth’s happiness is to prove short-lived. She does have a child – a son, Morley, who goes on to become Principal of a college – but two years later her beloved Joseph dies suddenly of a fever.
It’s 1854: And, at the dining table, another tutor, the Reverend Thomas Naish and his wife, Eliza, sit listening to stories of old Calcutta that they’ve heard a hundred times before.
The narrator is Thomas’s mother, Eleanora Felicia Talencina, still as exotic as her name suggests, at the age of sixty-three. They could counter with stories of their own from their more recent time as missionaries in Barbados, but they choose not to. They know it will only encourage her, and already the candles are burning low.
Upstairs, their son, six year-old Thomas Merfield Naish, who was born during their time in the West Indies, tosses and turns in the sea of his bed, dreaming of the long voyage home to England and his days of freedom aboard ship before being confined to his father’s classroom. Tragically, Thomas dies before he is eleven years old.
It’s 1856: And the house resounds to the thunder of the feet of seventeen small boys as they come clattering downstairs for breakfast and the start of the school day. The oldest, eleven-year-old Richard Crowther, leads the way; six-year-old Arthur Moul brings up the rear.
Waiting for them are the schoolmistresses, Eliza Clark and Louisa Nettlefold. They have lived together, worked together for five years – but this is their first venture outside East London.
But at least the boys are familiar to them – they have all come with them from Hackney.
And Eliza and Louisa harbour such hopes for these boys – particularly Henry Richards, the three Crowther boys, and the older Moul brother, Alfred.
But they could not know then, the extent to which those hopes would be fulfilled.
That Richard, John and James Crowther – one a tourist agent, the next a spice merchant and the last a stationer – would each go on to become millionaires.
That Henry Richards would outdo them all as a barrister and Queens Counsel.
And that Alfred Moul would rub shoulders with the stars of stage and screen as the manager of The Alhambra Theatre in London’s West End and as a pioneer of the British film industry.
It’s 1877: And eighty-year-old Anne Lydia Robertson, sits in silence in her chair by the window as the sun dips. But the view she sees through misty eyes is not of a February English street – but of the Bengal she knew as a girl. She nurses her memories, cherishes them: they keep her warm through the long winters.
It’s 1901: And the brothers Dalzeil – George and Edward – say goodnight to their house guest and set off struggling up the stairs.
Edward teases George: ‘Get a move on, old timer!’
George’s laughter rumbles in reply. He is 85, Edward is just two years younger.
They’d enjoyed the evening with their young guest – young to them, although forty-four years old – regaling him with stories of some of those they have worked with in their long career: William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler, Edward Lear, Charles Dickens.
And that’s naming just a few.
The premier engravers of their age, and celebrated artists in their own right, George and Edward had been sought out by them all
And the guest they’d said goodnight to?
That was the artist, Francis J Barraud. Whose painting, known to us all, is His Master’s Voice.
It’s 1915: And a clumsy-fingered child is picking his painful way through his weekly piano lesson. Sitting next to him, Norman Richards, music teacher, smiles and patiently shows him the way. In his head though, he doesn’t hear the tortured notes – instead there is the swell of the church organ, the soaring voices of his beloved choir.
I don’t believe in ghosts, Theo, but if I did, these would be just a few of those I would introduce you to at this house where you come to visit often.
I like the idea that there has been so much life here – and that you are another new life being watched over by these old walls that have seen so much.
I like the idea that so many feet have climbed these stairs, so many hands, young and old, have run along the bannister. That the front door – still miraculously the same front door – has opened and closed on so much change. New faces, new voices, new fashions. A new world.
And, having worked in education, and my wife having been a teacher, it pleases both of us that so much of the history of this house has revolved around the classroom.
You see, although I don’t believe in ghosts – I do believe that the past can send echoes through the years.
Joseph Stevenson and Thomas Naish taught the sons of clerks and shopkeepers and instilled in them, I hope, a love of learning. Eliza Clark and Louisa Nettlefold brought the best out of those boys from East London. Norman Richards, meanwhile, shared his love of music with so many.
And when the children they inspired grew up and had children of their own, they will have passed on precious gifts. A love of words, books, numbers, ideas; a love of music.
And so too in turn did their children. And their children.
That’s how what began here, in this house, goes on echoing through the generations.
And I like to imagine that somewhere in a classroom right now a child is joyfully writing a poem or solving an equation. Because of Joseph. Or Eliza.
And somewhere there is a piano playing. Because of Norman.
Can you hear them, Theo? Can you hear the echoes?
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