I'm greatly saddened by news of Tony Benn's death: a great man and that very rare thing, a principled politician. I never met him, but in correspondence with his son Josh a few years ago, I learnt that we had a family connection - and that Tony, as a boy, knew my great-grandfather - a man notorious in their part of Essex. This is the story:
My great-grandfather was Robert Alexander Gray, a man who rose from cabin boy to Master Mariner, owned two significant houses and a London flat, bought a motor yacht as early as 1918, and seems to have had a nasty temperament. Here he is with my much put-upon great-grandmother on a camel somewhere around Karachi (which was still part of India at the time):
That last fragment was more or less all I knew of him until I started researching my family tree. Then I found that in 1918, at an auction in Newcastle, he'd bought a substantial early Victorian house in Alnwick, Northumberland, called ‘Freelands’, which, puzzlingly, he sold in 1922, after less than four years of living in it. I never knew why, or where he went after that - and since Cleadon was once described to me as "the debtors' retreat", I assumed that he must have overshot himself and sold the Alnwick property to restore his solvency.
However, one of the photos floating about has always been of my grandparents and my father standing at the front porch of another house, labelled 'Stansgate' on the back of the snapshot. My father is a toddler here, so this must have been around 1921. I never knew where this mysterious place was until - out of the blue on the evening of March 5, 2006 - I had an e-mail from Josh Benn, son of Tony, asking if I were related to Captain Robert Alexander Gray. His e-mail explained his interest but also provided a huge leap forward in my knowledge about this apparently atrocious great grandfather of mine.
He explained that his reason for asking if I were related to this Captain Gray was because the Benn family bought a house in Essex on the Blackwater Estuary (Stansgate Abbey House) from Capt. Gray’s widow in 1933. Josh's great grandfather had had the house built in the first place, in 1899, but it had passed out of the family until 1933 when Tony Benn's father, William Wedgwood Benn (the postwar Labour cabinet minister who was given the Viscouncy by Churchill in 1941 that Tony was to struggle to renounce), having spent four happy summers there at the turn of the century, bought the property back. (A property they still have to this day.)
This surprising e-mail explained the ‘Stansgate’ photo. And once I’d confirmed that I was both related and interested, Josh Benn e-mailed again to say that he was astonished "that we should re-discover this link after so many years. For my family – the Benn family – Capt. Gray was something of a legend and I grew up on the many stories of his time at Stansgate told to me by my grandmother."
Josh and I subsequently had a long phone call in which he told me that Tony had been delighted to hear he’d made contact with me, since Capt. Gray had indeed been a larger than life figure in his childhood and he had always remembered seeing that when the Grays’ furniture had been taken from the house when he was seven or eight - he was born in April 1925 - a number of pieces were of the sort that screwed to the floor (i.e. they were maritime furniture); but Josh also told me that the house had been built from a kit in 1899 by his great grandfather (rather a grand kit, given that the house was a three storey, double-fronted mock-tudor villa with thatched roof) and that his grandfather had spent a small number of happy summers there in his childhood.
He said too that Captain Gray figured in their family lore because he was such an unreasonable and intimidating person: that on his arrival in the area he had placed an advert in the local paper to say that he would not be held responsible for the debts of his wife and children. He also told me that the farmhouse was adjacent to an abbey that had originally been a 12th Century priory, and that my great grandfather had become so annoyed by visitors calling to ask to look at it that he had had it demolished!
The Benns would only ever visit when the Captain was away on business in London. Margaret, Tony's mother, writes about first encountering the Captain Gray household at Stansgate in 1926, in My Exit Visa: An Autobiography [Margaret Stansgate, London: Hutchinson, 1992]:
‘When parliament broke up for the summer recess , William temporarily put his political anxieties behind him and we went to see Stansgate, the Benn family’s old seaside house. The visit had been planned while we were travelling through Syria. The wide open spaces of the desert had made William nostalgic for the flat terrain of the Essex coast, and so we had decided to visit the place where he had enjoyed many happy holidays as a boy.
‘We had been warned that the owner of Stansgate, Captain Gray, was an unsociable man, but that did not put us off. When Mrs Gray opened the door, William said: “I hope you don’t mind my calling. My father built this house in 1899 and I want to show it to my wife.” Mrs Gray was charmed and William went on to say: “I very much want to bring my mother down next weekend. We’ll stay in a hotel and call next Sunday.” There was a farmhouse in the grounds, and Lady Benn, not the type of woman to be intimidated by Captain Gray, even if his wife and children seemed to be in awe of him, said: “Now Captain Gray, I am going to ask you to let me have that house to rent for the summer for the use of the family.” We used the farmhouse as our holiday home until Captain Gray died, whereupon his widow, wanting smaller accommodation and no longer able to bear the expense of keeping the sea wall in good repair, moved into the farmhouse and sold Stansgate to us. It became our weekend home and played a great part in our lives. William loved going there and enjoyed teaching the boys to sail. We went down as soon as Parliament rose at the end of the week, sometimes on a Thursday evening. When William was a minister he would take his papers with him in the ministerial “red boxes” and work on them over the weekend.’
From 1927 until 1933 the Benns, therefore, were spending summers in the farmhouse on the land while Capt. Gray and family were in the main house. (In 1940 the house was requisitioned for use in the war effort. Towards the end of her life, Margaret had a self-contained flat within the house, where, Tony Benn wrote, ‘a veritable queue of descendants…came to see her.’ [‘An Appreciation’, p.235])
According to Josh, his grandmother and my great-grandmother got on very well; when my great-aunt Vera married, it was William Benn who gave her away; and Margaret continued to correspond with Vera for some time.
When I last heard from him, Josh was looking into his grandmother’s letters and intended to report further. He also had an account - I still haven't seen this - of another local woman’s remembrances of Captain Gray, from a 1977 interview.
My great-grandfather died at Stansgate, on January 19, 1930. He was only 58 years old - nearly ten years younger than I am now - and there's a touch of poetic justice, I suppose, in the cause of death stated on the certificate: he died of cerebral haemorrhage... and apoplexy.