As one of Britain’s greatest ever middle-distance runners, the young Sebastian Coe was too “buried in competition” to worry about family history. Today, as Lord Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee for the 2012 Olympic Games, that’s changed. “I’m probably at that stage of life [where] I’d like to know what shaped me,” he says.
In particular, Sebastian wants to know more about his mother’s side of the family. His “impeccably dressed” grandmother, Vera, who had a “slight air of Margaret Thatcher about her but without Margaret’s political beliefs,” often talked about being descended from minor aristocracy.
At the time, Sebastian suspected this was “granny going off on one”, but could there actually be some truth in what she said? A visit to a cousin, Anna, reveals that Vera, a former dancer, was a “bit of a tearaway” as a younger woman. Sebastian also sees an old photograph of the family seat, Hyde Hall in Cheshire, a grand country house demolished in 1857.
To find out more, Sebastian heads north to meet genealogist Eileen Butcher. Here, he discovers his forebears were local industrialists. He also discovers more about his 4x great grandfather, Hyde John Clarke. A Royal Navy officer, he campaigned to raise funds to build a local church, St George. Seb, always “drawn to people who have contributed” is delighted to see a handsome memorial to his forebear at St George.
Clarke was born in Jamaica and Sebastian’s next journey is to the Caribbean. Local birth records reveal that he was illegitimate, the son of George Hyde Clarke and Sophia Astley. Sophia was the daughter of a fashionable painter, John Astley, whose will refers to George as an “exorable villain”. “You can fee the vitriol and bile coming through the legalese there,” says Sebastian. Another will refers to George’s wife, Catherine Hussey, as “unhappy and much injured”. It’s not a flattering portrait.
Researching George’s life further, Sebastian discovers that he was a member of the plantocracy, the 18th century ruling class in Jamaica, who owned sugar plantations where slaves worked the land. Gradually, a picture builds of a fabulously wealthy man whose slave workforce alone was valued at £700,000 in today’s money. And perhaps, considering he sired at least six illegitimate children by different women, a man rich enough to ignore conventional morality. For Sophia, there was at least a respectable ending: she later married in London.
After visiting the site of George’s former home, Sebastian muses on what he’s learnt. Although he’s seen glimpses of decent behaviour, the “horror” and “brutality” of slavery are inescapable. He’s glad he hasn’t inherited wealth from the trade: “I don’t have to enter that moral maze.”
It’s time to go still further back in time and head for the east coast of the USA. George’s father, Edward Clarke, came to the West Indies as a military man from North America. He was the son of George Clarke (1676-1770), who became Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1736, when the area was still under British control.
Back then, New York occupied the southern tip of Manhattan. It was a settlement, Professor Graham Hodges tells Sebastian, that was “small, not that prosperous, but very, very promising”. In 1741, it was also a settlement in the midst of terrible violence following a series of arson attacks. George, Sebastian learns, was a key figure in suppressing what locals saw as an uprising by slaves.
Seb has one last place to visit: Hyde Hall in New York state, built by George’s son and now a National Historic Landmark. George’s descendents lived in the mansion until the 1940s, although it’s now a museum. Sebastian is suitably impressed. “I do at this momentroundly apologise to my grandmother,” he says. Clearly, her stories of important ancestors weren’t “delusional” at all.