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January 14, 2010updated 25 Jan 2016 6:48pm

Family Fortunes

By Clive Aslet

Inspired by his own Viking heritage, Clive Aslet ponders the fruit that falls from the family tree

THERE HAS BEEN a lot of excitement in our household following the discovery that we’re Vikings. This has almost given my children, all of them boys, a new sense of identity, allowing their piratical and predatory urges to be understood in a cultural, if not genetic context.

Any Nordic preference or trait I might evince – appreciation of the Orkney Isles, self-assertion in restaurants — is met with the comment, ‘It’s the old Viking in you, Dad.’ The evidence — an email from my brother directing us to a website detailing the supposed origin of English surnames — is not of the kind quoted in doctoral footnotes. But it’s enough for us.

‘One doesn’t want to make a song and dance about one’s ancient lineage, of course,’ observes Bertie Wooster in The Code of the Woosters, ‘but after all the Woosters did come over with the Conqueror, and were extremely pally with him.’ Did they, though? I remember a friend of mine telling me in detail about the derivation of his name from Norman French, and explaining how his signet ring bore a rebus that made a clever medieval pun on it.

That was when he was eighteen. Twenty years later, he walked into a restaurant and found that a woman of the same surname had booked a table. She turned out to be his aunt. In what must have been an epiphanic moment, he discovered that the story of his antecedence had been entirely invented by his father to disguise the fact that they were really Jewish refugees who only came to Britain in the 1930s. I have looked with suspicion on undocumented family histories ever since.

But some families have their paperwork in order. One of them has just been recorded with aplomb in Jobs for the Boys, a history of his own family by Hew Stevenson. It is a fascinating tale. The Stevensons — this lot, at any rate — originate in Ayrshire. During the Napoleonic Wars, they began cotton-spinning in Paisley. Needing bleach for their business, they came to realise that alkali would be in high demand, and set about manufacturing it in South Shields.

Considered by a contemporary rhymester ‘the filthiest place/On old Northumbria’s dirty face’, it was hardly inviting territory for the Stevenson ladies, but they knuckled under, and the family concern became the biggest producer of soda crystals in the world. No wonder one of the many James Stevensons was nicknamed Croesus.

OTHERS, FUNDED BY dividends, became African explorers, MPs, sportsmen, convivial country-house hosts, and proto-feminists.  The most celebrated was John James Stevenson, who came down to London and became an architect, prominent in the Queen Anne Revival, displayed in various country houses as well as school buildings; it was even translated into interiors for the Orient Line steamships.

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A founder member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he had progressive ideas, not least about domestic priorities. ‘You ought to advise your client to have a bath,’ he wrote to George Gilbert Scott Junior. ‘It saves servants labour, is much jollier to use and would make the house sell better.’  

Quite a few extravagantly moustachio-ed Stevensons ended up in the army, one of their flighty wives provoking the Malta Horsewhipping Case. (An unfortunate equerry had to confess to indiscretions seemingly perpetrated by Queen Victoria’s second son, the Duke of Edinburgh, with the result that he was horsewhipped on the quayside in Valetta harbour.)

Croesus bought the smoldering island of Vulcano, off Sicily, for the sake of the sulphur, but his investment went up in smoke, literally, when the volcano erupted — a symbolic end to the golden times. But they had been fun while they lasted.

There must have been many families like the Stevensons, keeping the cogs of trade oiled and the Empire on an even keel. Despite the scallywags, they did more good than bad in the world, demonstrating a certain grit and toughness, as well as independence of thought. Presumably they were like this because of family characteristics transmitted through the generations, though having an industrial fortune to provide background heating must have helped.

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s used to assume that such fortunes were the stuff of history, as little likely to be created in the Britain of our own day as the return of the great bustard to Salisbury Plain.  How wrong such pessimism was.  The great bustard is being reintroduced, and we are back in the Victorian age, as regards concentrated wealth.

THE SONS AND daughters of the new billionaires will grow up to develop idiosyncrasies, hobbies and even talents, unconstrained by the need to hold down a job or oil up to government. George Orwell thought we might end up under the thumb of Big Brother, our thoughts and behaviour dictated by the state.

He did not predict the appearance of a new rentier class. If they are like the Stevensons, they won’t submit to being bossed around. They could be civilization’s last hope.

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