My dear demented sister (DDS) can’t resist a sisterly lark. So, on my last day in the UK, after her victory in the kitchen the day before, she generously offered to drive me to the Wirral to dig up the relatives, both dead and living. Aged Parent waved us off. We could tell he was thinking “at last I’ve got rid of those damn daughters”. We felt like school children on an outing.
On discovering that the Mersey got in the way of my proposed route DDS summarily dismissed me from my duties as the map-reader and turned on the GPS. Her bloke, “The Soul of Patience” had it set to one of those irritatingly sultry voices designed to appeal to men, “Bosoms Galore” as we refer to her. As she issued her instruction to: “take the third exit at the next roundabout” in that sensuous but commanding tone that suggested sadomasochistic practices might result if you disobeyed, I began to think fondly of New York, where more in tune to modern sensibilities, taxi cabs have taped every New York "character", from Woody Allen to Mayor Bloomberg, delivering wise cracks in a thick Brooklyn accent to get us to “Buckle up”. That said, Bosoms Galore did her job efficiently, whipping us along to Port Sunlight in under an hour. And of course as it was raining buckets. So what else could we do but take cover in the Museum Shop and Tea Rooms and tuck into a plate of toasted teacakes dripping with butter?
We had come to find Gt. Grandma Holden and her husband Thomas. Thomas and Elizabeth were first cousins and descend from a long line of Holdens who sailed the Mersey on Flats. Thomas was first mate on the barge that brought William Hesketh Lever down the Mersey in search of a site for his new Lever Bros soapworks. He also brought the party from Liverpool for the laying of the first sod of Port Sunlight village. Lever took a liking to him and offered him the job of captain of the company barge “Lifebuoy”. Newly wed, Thomas and Elizabeth moved into one of the first five houses built in Lever’s model village.
Lever had an eye for architecture and the enlightened belief that beauty is important in peoples daily lives. The architects were given free rein and as a result my Gt. Grandparents had the good fortune to live their adult lives in a beautiful setting. Three generations grew up in a security that was unprecedented among their Penketh clan. I have read extensively about Lord Leverhulme and, for me, William Hesketh is a paragon of virtue. Although his favorite saying was reported to be “we won’t argue, I’m right” his autocratic approach was nevertheless benign. His respect and care for his workers is evident and tangible everywhere in Port Sunlight. Lever gave back to those who worked for him entering into a paternalistic co-partnership with those who created his wealth. All CEOs should be made to read his biography and speeches. I love him to bits and keep his picture in my apartment.
Armed with family photos and census records we engaged the staff at the museum shop, who excitedly tried to put us through to the village historian. Unfortunately, he was out for the day, so we decided instead to photograph each of the houses that Thomas and Elizabeth had lived in. They started out at 2 Bolton Road. #2-6 were hit by a bomb in WWII that missed its designated target: the glycerine end of the soap factory operation. Their neighbors houses however remain. Edward Wainwright, the soap boiler who invented the famous Lifebuoy, lived at #3. Edward knew the value of his lather and kept his soap recipe a family secret passing it along to his son. Across the street at #1 on the corner of Greendale Rd lived the civil engineer, Ralph Vickers who built the Lever Bros factory.
A few years later, Thomas and Elizabeth and their elder children moved along the village perimeter to 27, Greendale Road. As their family expanded they moved again to 11, Bath St. a Dutch looking terraced house with a village green out front. We have a postcard of this group of houses taken by the village photographer George Davies. However, as Davies had a tendency to place his own family members in his photographs, it is not clear if it shows Elizabeth. Their next home was just around the corner at 1 Riverside drive and it is here that Thomas died at a relatively young age of a head infection despite the fact that Lever had provided Port Sunlight with its own cottage hospital and the village had health statstistics far superior to those of the surrounding area.
When Thomas died, Lever stepped in and gave Elizabeth and her elder children work that allowed them to stay in the village. My grandmother, Maggie, became a soap wrapper, her elder sister, Nelly, worked in the cardboard box department, and her younger brother, Thomas became a toilet soap trimmer. The family moved to 16 Windy Banks immediately opposite the site where the Lady Lever Art Gallery was later to be constructed.
Building the Lady Lever Art Gallery was a magnificent gesture that WHL made in remembrance of his childhood sweetheart and wife, who he had met in kindergarten back in Bolton and loved deeply. It is a beautiful building and was constructed for the noble cause of betterment of his workers living in the village. However, I struggle to find anthing good to say about its contents and I can’t help wondering if perhaps he also wanted to get rid of all that dreadful stuff out of his living room. William Hesketh is absolutely my kind of man, I would marry him on the spot, but his wife deserves a medal for living with his appalling art collection. My paternal grandmother took me to the art gallery when I was seven and, although it was most worthy of Nine to do so, it nearly ruined my love of art – all those heavy overbearing Victorian furnishings, frightening black sculptures and consumptive Burne-Jones women. And that is before we get to the famous dying goat. As a child I hated it and thirty minutes in there was enough to tell me my feelings haven’t changed. DDS and I did a swift tour, made a guilty donation out of respect for what WHL had done for our family, but decided we preferred real graveyards to this mausoleum.
We entered the church gate and suddenly it became clear: this was the church in the one surviving photo of our parents wedding. Although Mum twittered on forever about Port Sunlight somehow she forgot to tell us why the place mattered to her and only after she died did we piece it together. From photos and records we rediscovered that her Grandma lived here, her mother grew up here, and that she herself, went to school and married all within its secure boundaries. When she died my father produced a picture of her as a young girl sitting on the mall with her bicycle and our distant cousin, Paul, gave us another of Uncle Norman at Windy Banks with the Art gallery in the background.
We found Thomas and Elizabeth in the graveyard lying next to a yew tree with their sons: Albert, disabled since infancy, who died a year after his mother, and poor young Horace. Lord Leverhulme, ever the paternal guardian, lay close by with his wife. Seven hundred men from Port Sunlight signed up for the WWI madness. Four hundred perished in the mud of the Somme. Horace made it back alive but died unexpectedly the day before he was to due to return home from a military hospital in Aberdeen. Horace is etched on the war memorial.
As the afternoon drew to a close we set off for Penketh to find Elizabeth’s parents, John and Mary Holden, her sister, Alice, and her grandparents, Sam and Alice Chatterton. Bosoms Galore performed magnificently, parting the Mersey like a greek sprite, to bring us to Gt Sankey, the burial site of the ancients. The Holdens were nothing if not prolific. There are currently over 16,500 Holdens in the UK and 1.3 million world-wide not counting those clandestine Holdens, like us, who descend from the female line disguised by other surnames. All Holdens in the world trace their ancestry to this small area of Lancashire. Their men are lanky Lancashire lads, "long drinks of water" as they say up here, who die young. In contrast, their women are as strong as oxes and live to receive the queens telegram. The Holden tale is therefore one of formidable young widows working as washerwomen raising dozens of children by the strength of their backs.
With no cemetery map to guide us, we divided up and systematically scoured every headstone. DDS found them all, each one bedded under a thick carpet of bluebells. And here is where the desecration began. Aflame with success DDS became insatiable. She wanted more Holdens. Holdens to rise from the dead! “Come Out Ye Holdens” she shouted trampling through the bluebells, sweeping them aside to reveal the names of occupants of every plot. For sure the Holdens below were cursing their offspring. Fortunately the ominous weather kept the neighbors indoors so that I could drag her off before we got arrested.
We drove on to the church. The parish records show that this tiny graveyard holds hundreds of Holdens in unmarked graves going back to the 1600s. It is in fact “Holden Heaven” and I have visited it a ghostly fashion from New York via Google Earth on many occasions - always with an eerie disquieted feeling of “there they all are” and “so this is where it all ends” in a rainy plot of Lancashire smaller than a football field. The old churchyard had been landscaped but we found ancient Holdens lying about on the church path strewn among their neighbors the Athertons their headstones used as paving. A few large raised tombs had been preserved at the edge of the churchyard and just as we clambered up to read their names the minister appeared. He had come to investigate what these strange looking women were up to and, seeing we were a pair of middle-aged old hags, clearly suspected sorcery might be afoot. It didn’t help that at this point DDS hid behind a shrub, nor that I blathered out that I was from New York and, in true American style, had twenty minutes to track down every Holden on the planet. Detecting my Cheshire accent he expressed some skepticism about this explanation - remembering I had my work ID badge I pulled it out in proof - at this he chuckled, got into the spirit of project and gave me the number of the village lay preacher and local historian. This was just as well as DDS chose precisely this moment to scream like a banshee from behind the bush “THERES MORE OF THEM OVER HERE”. He laughed and abandoning all Holden souls to the clutches of their offspring returned to the vestry. We should all be so sought after in death!
Having done what we could to resurrect the dead we set off to meet the living. Our distant cousin, Paul, shares the same Gt. Gt. grandparents. We had never met before but have emailed twice a week for two years in the common pursuit of our kin. Paul descends from Elizabeth’s sister, Alice, and has given us pictures from her photo album. He is an absolute wiz at tracking down headstones, local newspaper articles and generally great at putting flesh on our ancestors bones. Remarkably, despite our common gene pool, Paul shows no signs of the madness that concentrated itself in our particular branch. For example, he has escaped the alleles for wearing strange hats needing to live on barges. In fact, he was delightfully normal all round. We had a nice chat with Paul and his wife who kindly took us on an evening tour of Penketh cottages where our clog-making cobbler, lock-keeper, barge-sailing captains and washer-women relatives lived. As the dusk gathered we waved goodbye and set Bosoms Galore to guide us home though the night to Congleton.