A bit of water

Gertrude Mary Blackwood was born in Hapton, south-western Norfolk, the third of seven children of William Blackwood and Lucy Ann English and was one of the elder sisters of my paternal grandfather, Leonard Clive Blackwood.  By 1876, when her sister Rosa Lillian was born, the family had already moved from Hapton to Jay’s Green, Redenhall, on the Sussex border.  Her father worked as a miller and he eventually acquired his own windmill.

Gertrude died on 24 July 1942. An inquest was held the next day and the verdict of Donald Flackson, the coroner for the Kings Lynn District, was that ’The deceased threw herself into a bit of water and drowned herself – the balance of her mind being at the time disturbed’.  The death certificate was issued by the coroner and there was no indication of who discovered the body or where she was buried. Her address was given as 451 Norwich Road, Ipswich, her marital status was that of spinster and her occupation was that of Housekeeper (Domestic).

What caught my attention about the apparent suicide was that it did not occur in or near Ipswich, where she lived, but in Harpley, where my grandparents lived.  I have been several times to Harpley and I have never noticed a pond.  There are a couple of large ponds in the centre of Massingham about two miles away, but Harpley has no village pond.  On checking a map of Harpley, I found that there is a pond in a secluded area called Lake Wood, about 300m from the centre of Harpley and my grandparent’s house, and close to the Kings Lynn to Fakenham Road that bypasses Harpley.  Could that have been where Gertrude drowned herself?  Or was it in one of the small livestock ponds that farms tended to have.  And where had she been staying at the time? With my grandparents or was she just visiting?  Her home in Ipswich was not exactly around the corner – it was about 70 miles by the most direct route, and considerably more by public transportation.

Did my father know of the suicide?  It was wartime and he would have been stationed in Northern Ireland during that pre-invasion era.  I find it hard to believe that he was not informed of the death by his parents, either by mail or during a leave to visit them in Harpley.  If he did know, he certainly never mentioned it to me, and he was quite aware of my interest and active involvement in researching my family history.   If he had never been told, what was the reason?

My curiosity was very much aroused and I decided to see if any information regarding Gertrude resided in the public domain. I was not disappointed.

Gertrude was born in Hapton, Norfolk, in the third quarter of 1872. The family moved to Harlesdon and in the census of 1881, Gertrude was listed as eight years old.

  • In 1891 she was employed as a Draper’s assistant, living in the house of William Munford (a Draper) at 21 High Street, Haverhill Essex.
  • On 6 October 1897 she gave birth to Hubert Wilde Blackwood in Kirby Bedon, south-east of Norwich. No father’s name was given on the birth certificate. At the time her address was recorded as 13 Greyfriar’s Road, Norwich, which is close to the Norwich Castle.
  • In 1901 she was living at 51 Grove Road in Lakenham, SE Norwich, and was listed as a visitor and ‘living on her own means’.  The head of the household was Algernon Wilde, a fire insurance clerk.  Also in the same house were his three sons – Frederic (14), Ernest (13) and Hubert (3), the latter who must have been Gertrude’s son. Algernon Wilde was listed as being married, but there was no mention of his wife.
  • On 28 September 1901 at Falkland House, Grove Road, Lakenham, Hubert Wilde Blackwood died of membranous croup. He was only 3 years old. Present at the death was G. M. Blackwood, by occupation a housekeeper.
  • In the 1911 census she was listed as a maternity nurse and living as a ‘boarder’ in the house of Algernon Sidney Wilde, at Ellesmere, Cavendish Road, Felixstowe. Algernon Wilde was now recorded as a house agent and widower.
  • Algernon Wilde died on 10 January 1942 at 451 Norwich Road, Ipswich and the Ipswich probate dated 7 April 1942 stated that his estate of £908 10s 2d was left to Gertrude Blackwood.
  • When Gertrude died six months later, in 1942, her home address was also given as 451 Norwich Road, Ipswich.
  • On 29 September 1942 the probate granted £1724 14s to Leonard Clive Blackwood, organist and Ernest Norman Wilde, electricity show-room assistant.

In 1901 Algernon Wilde was married and most likely separated from his wife, possibly as a result of having had a son with Gertrude. In 1884 he had married Edna Anne Allard in Norwich, and they had two sons – Frederick and Ernest.  In 1896 they had a third son, Leslie Arthur. In 1901 she and her young son were visitors staying with Richard Sharrod in Southreppes Road, Antingham. He was a widower with two teenage daughters aged 21 and 14.

In the 1911 census Algernon Wilde claimed that he was a widower, but that was not true. Edna Wilde was by then living in Acle to the east of Norwich. She was head of the household and in addition to her youngest son she also now had an eight year old daughter, Mary, and two boarders. She was still married and perhaps she refused to give Algernon a divorce, which could explain why he never married Gertrude.  Edna died in Acle in the first quarter of 1942.

When I started this investigation I felt certain that Gertrude was left destitute after the death of Algernon, and that she had gone to my grandfather seeking financial help.  I imagined that he had refused or was unable to help, and in desperation, she committed suicide.  But given her inheritance from Algernon and her own resources, that seemed to have been unlikely. 

It is not likely that I will ever discover the reason for Gertrude’s despair on that summer day in 1942 and it will remain with her in her grave.

Sometimes, all that separates life from death is a bit of water.

Four Generations

I have traced my father’s ancestors back to the late 1600s and without exception, all were born in Norfolk.  My father’s grandfather, William Blackwood (1847-1927), was the first Norfolk Blackwood to be able to read and write.  In his youth he worked as a labourer in a mill in Hapton, but he somehow ended up owning a windmill in Harlesdon.  Prior to William Blackwood, all our Norfolk ancestors were agricultural labourers, and many died in the workhouse, as paupers.

The windmill in Harlesdon

So, it never ceases to amaze me that, with that background, my grandfather, Leonard Clive Blackwood (1881-1965), was an organist at age 19, as listed in the 1901 census, and spent his life as a music teacher in Harpley.  I have no idea of what or who it was that inspired him to a musical career.

His musical interests were classical, and he subsidised his teaching income by serving as organist in local churches.  For some years he was the resident organist at Sandringham, the Royal residence.  And his church responsibilities included training the church choirs.  He ended his career in his early 80s, as organist at the church in Bushmills, near Portrush on the north coast of Ulster.  But he continued to practise every morning, afternoon and evening until the night in 1965 when he permanently fell asleep.

My grandfather conducting a choir c1950.  My grandmother is in the front row, second from the right.

It was my grandfather who taught my father to play the piano and instilled in him the music-reading skills that stood him so well.  But my father had no real interest in classical or church music and when he was 16, in 1935, he moved to London, to take up a position as a trainee-manager with Sainsbury’s, which in that era was an upper-class grocer.  It was in the evenings that he found his true musical love – big bands, such as those of Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Joe Loss etc.  He used to go to the ballrooms in North London, not to dance, but to listen to the bands, to observe, to study their technique.

It was during the early years of the war, when his regiment was stationed in and around Portrush, that my father established himself as a pianist, most nights playing a few numbers with the local bands.  After the war ended, he returned to Portrush and joined the Ernie Mann band.  But I have covered much of this history in a previous article, so I will not repeat myself.

To many, it might come as a surprise to know that for most of his professional life my father never had a piano.  He bought the sheet music, turned up at a venue and played.

He retired from his dance band in the late 1950s to concentrate on his farming business.  But music was his great love, and in the late 1960s he bought an electronic organ, an early version of modern keyboards, and soon was employed 2-3 times a week, playing in local hotels.  For friends and acquaintances, he made numerous recordings on a little tape-recorder.  Following is an example:

He died suddenly in late 1995; he would have been 77 the next day.  We found his music case packed and prepared for a performance that night.

A clipping from a newspaper article, published not long before his death

In my turn, I had no musical training when I was young.  We had no piano at home and neither the primary nor secondary schools that I attended gave any musical tuition.  But I had enough rhythm to fill the role of drummer in a group with some teenage friends. We were pretty awful, but we had fun while it lasted, and when I left school in 1963, Bill McKeown invited me to join the little group that he was forming.  I wrote about it in the previous article that I mentioned earlier.

One of my friends, Raymond Lyttle, who played lead guitar, had real talent, and he went on to join the Delta Showband.  Sadly, he was killed in a car crash in England in 1970.

All my four sons studied the recorder at Lyndhurst Primary School, with some success.  And for a time, John played the cornet and Philip played my old clarinet.  It was only Andrew who continued to study music at secondary school, ending up with an ‘A’ level.  For one of his exams he had to submit his own composition and thankfully I managed to make a recording of him playing it.  He called it ‘Springtime’ and every time that I listen to it, I can hear his interpretation of the four seasons…


Andrew 2013
Andrew playing at a wedding in March 2013

During his school years, my youngest son, Philip, became very much involved in amateur musicals, both in school and with a local junior operatic society.  For a time, he flirted with the idea of pursuing a musical career.  I suspect that one day he will return to the stage, albeit in an amateur mode.

Tom Sawyer photos002
Philip in a local production of Tom Sawyer

So, from humble Norfolk roots, to date four generations of the Blackwood family have studied music, have entertained, have acted.  I write these words so that future generations of my family will be aware of their historical roots, and in the hope that some of them will be inspired to carry the baton for one more lap.

For music is very much in their genes.