The gardener, TV presenter and writer uncovers a troubled cleric and a marmalade magnate…
Monty Don lives in the Welsh borders, where he works his organic farm. His roots, though, are in Middle England, where he was raised in a house built by his great-grandfather. “We were very comfortably off,” says Monty. “Everything was in its appropriate place, and had always been so.”
But this “rather permanent, established world broke up” apart in the 1970s when his brother and sister had a serious car crash, and his mother suffered a heart attack. To cope with this, Monty says he “exiled” himself from the place he grew up in. Tracing his family history is therefore a way to re-connect with his past. “It’s personal,” he says of his research.
Monty first heads for the Hampshire village of Weston Patrick, a place strongly associated with his mother’s side of the family, the Wyatts, renowned architects. Monty grew up hearing stories of the Wyatts, but what about his other forebears?
Visiting his brother David, Monty sees papers relating to his maternal great-grandmother, Charlotte Augusta Hodge, including a disapproving letter about one of her brothers “living too fast a life”. Monty resolves to find out more about the Hodges, research that focuses on his great-great grandfather, Rev Charles Hodge.
In archives held at the University of Nottingham, Monty sees a transcript of one of Charles’s sermons, given at St Saviour’s Church, Retford, where Charles confidently read the riot act to parishioners for not attending services. He also sees a letter from 1857, where Charles complains about an “exiled and impoverished” life in New Zealand. What happened?
► Family fortunes
Gradually, Monty pieces together the story. In 1850, Charles’s wife, Ann, emigrated – on her own, which would have been highly unusual in this era, especially as she left behind her children. In Monty’s words, “She did a runner!”.
Charles eventually joined Ann, along with four of the couple’s children. However, in 1859, he returned to England aboard the Royal Charter. Just off Anglesey, the ship was caught in what’s reckoned to have been the worst storm to hit Britain in the 19th century. She was wrecked and Charles was among more than 450 souls who perished, reportedly while leading a prayer.
Monty, who discovers in the course of his research that he’s long owned a mis-identified portrait of Charles, hasn’t warmed to a “sanctimonious” cleric who probably wasn’t much good at pastoral care. However, having found out more about Charles, he at least understands a “complicated, muddled, rather anguished man”.
Monty also wants to know more about his father’s ancestors. His paternal grandmother, Leila Keiller, belonged to a Dundee family that made a fortune from what’s believed to have been the first commercial brand of marmalade, Keiller’s. So why did she live in Esher, Surrey? And where’s the cash?
The Keiller connection comes through William, Leila’s father. He owned a quarter of what was once the largest confectioners in the UK, yet correspondence suggests a strained relationship with his brother and later his nephew, who eventually took over the company.
Through research in Edinburgh and Dundee, Monty learns that William ran the Keillers’ operations in the Channel Islands, where the firm could avoid mainland sugar taxes. Eventually, a wealthy man, he retired to Wandsworth, London. A picture of a put-upon younger brother has been succeeded by one of someone who took “strong action” in leaving the family firm when his position there became untenable.
Monty also understands more about a sense of Scottishness he saw in his grandmother, who thought of herself as an exile, even though she was actually born in London. This sense of yearning for a lost homeland is something Monty now realises he hasn’t inherited, despite his strong connections to the country. “I think the truth is I don’t feel Scottish,” he says. “I’m not exiled.”