Following the death our final parent last year, we’ve been investigating and organising their residual possessions. In November, we opened Great Grandfather John Donnelly’s 100-year-old strong box.
Of all the belongings Mum and Dad left us, the most interesting was a chest of photos and documents. These were accumulated across more than a century – stretching back through the old family house at Earlings, the earlier, larger, one at Lufkins, and my maternal grandparent’s previous base in Derbyshire from before 1942.
I was carrying four hemp bags worth of the chest’s contents when I visited cousin Donna in Suffolk, in November.
Donna lives in the former home of great aunt Cynthia and great uncle Hugh. It’s near the coast, about a mile back from the crumbling cliff line, near the site of the former Medieval port city of Dunwich (now swallowed by the waves). The house is a place of earthenware crockery, Hugh’s beautiful oil paintings, and loft spaces filled with the assembled paraphernalia of many foreign adventures.
I arrived on Saturday afternoon, and Donna, her partner, Alexander, and I, shared a hearty lunch of cheese, salad and home-made bread. We toasted absent friends, shared belly laughs, and gossiped about the wedding in May until the sun sank. Then Donna and I took the dog for a walk along the cliffs.
The Night Walk
When I grew up in the countryside, discussion-filled night walks were the vehicle for expressing ideas, receiving wisdom and looking at the stars. As we rambled, Donna and I peeked over the crumbling cliff edge at the dark, wide sea, wandered past the ruins of the 13th-century Franciscan priory, done in in by Henry VIII in 1538, and made our way down a secret route which she knew, snaking through the village. On the far side, Donna shone a torch across a field, where a herd of 10–15 deer stared back at us, their eyes a floating cloud of white mirrors. Our conversation ranged across what we were doing with our lives, moments we’d shared in the past, and recollections about dead relatives.
I was keen to reflect on the experience of sorting through my parent’s chest of photographs and papers, and share what I was learning by categorising, and making sense of, images of ancestors – some long-passed, others well within the edges of living memory. A key character I was starting to learn about was my Great Grandfather (Donna’s maternal Grandfather), John Donnelly.
I pointed-out that – at the age of 42 – I was just coming to understand an accomplished, significant and not-all-that-distant life, which did much to shape my own. Yet, until the previous few months, I didn’t know what he looked like, or really understand who he was.
As this John Donnelly was the main theme of that evening (and this post), and because – discombobulatingly – he shares that name with his father, son and grandson (henceforth: John Donnelly I, III and IV), I’ll refer to my Great Grandfather via Donna’s affectionate moniker for him: “Jon the Don”.
On my mother’s side, we were always close to the extended family. It was from that ecosystem of familial relationships where I inherited much of my original world view, philosophical outlook and prejudices about right and wrong. That environ was largely made up of Jon the Don’s grandchildren, great grandchildren, and their partners. I effortlessly recognise common cultural characteristics between those people. For example, a tradition of political pacifism, a habit of long walks as a vehicle for social bonding, a certain devil-may-care free-spiritedness, and a talent for organising parties and social gatherings. These characteristics were presumably forged in an environment he and his wife shaped.
Jon the Don lived in Lancashire between 1875 and 1928. He was a cinema magnate and successful entrepreneur. He briefly served in the British Army, at the end of WW1, at the age of 43. He travelled extensively around Europe and (allegedly) north Africa – setting an example among his decedents which has endured through three subsequent generations so far.
He often appeared on the stage in Manchester. It was an image of him, dressed up and mid-performance, which most recently brought him to my consciousness. Difficult-to-verify echoes of his life include that he housed Belgian refugees during WW1, he organised work teams of the unemployed during the 1920s, and taught them to sing, and his first experiment with selling movie tickets was a projector in a hall – which led on to a chain of cinemas. He was also an accomplished watercolourist.
Donna recalled a story that, as he died, his last words were to declare that he wished he’d spent less time making money and more time following dreams. During his life, he was normally called “Jack”.
His wife was called Mary Elizabeth Donnelly (1881 to 1924), but her descendants always referred to her via a combination of her nickname and her maiden name: “Mollie Molloy”. One notable thing about the lives of Jon the Don and Mollie Malloy is that they both died young (at 53 and 43 respectively). This loss shaped their children’s lives, and effected their heirs for at least a further generation.
The Don’s Offspring
Jon the Don and Mollie Molloy had five children, one of whom, Dorothea, died in infancy. The four who survived to adulthood were all huge characters who did big things with their lives.
- Their eldest daughter, Bessie (1905 to 1974), my grandmother, parented three siblings following her final parent’s untimely demise. She married a man who, like her father, went on to run a business empire and live an expansive, high-achieving life. During WW2, they moved to Essex and became farmers to support the war effort. They raised four children. In 1956, her husband died suddenly and unexpectedly at a peace conference in Sweden. Then, remarkably, at the age of 50, Bess went from domestic housewife and mother-figure to prominent international peace and human-rights campaigner. She travelled the world, visiting countries including Poland, Hungary, China and North Korea – flying, allegedly, from China to North Korea in the personal plane of Kim Il-sung. I have multiple pictures of her in Pyongyang in the 1950s. In North Vietnam, they named a hospital wing after her. She enjoyed an audience with U Thant, Secretary General of the United Nations and hobnobbed with the likes of Dora Russell, the feminist, social campaigner and former wife of Bertrand Russell. She also ran the local “good neighbours” club, a Quaker Sunday group, was a local councillor and chairwoman of the Colchester International Club for 20 years. By all accounts she also was a superb pianist.
- Their eldest son, John Donnelly III (1911 to 1981), was in the officer training corps at Worksop Collage (public school), where he was the best shot the school had ever seen, winning a cabinet of medals. He studied law at Magdalene College, Cambridge, but bayonet practice disgusted him and he rebelled against the idea of the state telling him who to kill. When WW2 broke out, he registered as a conscientious objector and was prosecuted for cowardice, despite a knife-edge survival of a German bombing raid, during which he was commended for bravery by a British officer. His two fingers to the state earned him six months in Strangeways high-security prison in Manchester. On release, he joined the pacifist movement, farming the land, during which time he met his wife. Before the War he’d circumnavigated the globe, in a tall ship, with a group of adventurers, on an epic two-year journey, sailing between Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic, the Marquesas Islands in the south Pacific, Rio, Cape Town, Sydney, Auckland, Lima, and Panama. There’s a book about it: The Voyage of the Cap Pilar. After the War, he had three children, set up his own legal practice in Colchester, and supported his wife in saving and redeveloping the town’s historic Dutch quarter.
- Their younger son, Brian (1913 to 1955), became a doctor, and ultimately a consultant radiologist, working at St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester, the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital and the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. In 1941, he joined the RAF, during which time he was posted to Karachi, where he planned the radiological department at the RAF hospital. He was later adviser to RAF Base Air Forces in South-East Asia and was demobilised with the rank of squadron-leader. In 1946, he moved to Cambridge where he worked at Addenbrooke’s, specialised in radiodiagnosis of diseases in children, and was assistant lecturer in radiology at Cambridge University. He had a wife and son, and died a tragic and untimely death at the age of 42. A generous obituary in The Lancet, described him thus: “That indefinable quality known as charm was one which he had in full measure and radiated to all with whom he came in contact”.
- Their youngest daughter, Cynthia (1920 to 2008), Donna’s mother, was the only one of these I properly met. When WW2 broke out, she was at Ruskin’s College in Oxford. She, as a conscientious objector, along with the Principal, Alfred Barratt Brown, refused to join the armed forces. Appearing before a tribunal of the army, navy and air force, she was treated more leniently than her male sibling and allowed to also join communities growing food. There followed an immersion in the pacifist social and intellectual movement, which took her around the country, latterly to the Adelphi Centre pacifist community in Langham, Essex, and from there to set up her own community, on 300 acres of land and two huge farmhouses in the Suffolk countryside. She met her husband along the way. The two of them spent 35 years farming the Suffolk countryside, raising four children. Cynthia was a campaigning-networker, activist and mobiliser throughout her life, from the Aldermaston Marches, to anti-Vietnam protests, and latterly to CND and Greenpeace. It was through her that I gained much of my original exposure to environmentalism and politics, habit of having strong opinions, and conviction in the underlying goodness of the world which informs my own analysis of human affairs, The Jolly Pilgrim.
So, Jon the Don, during a life one would now call cut-short, achieved a lot, and did more than his bit in shaping this Earth. He built a fortune, ran multiple businesses, enjoyed notable artistic exploits and had four big-personality, highly accomplished children. He and his wife were the bloodline link anchoring my original cultural universe, and 4 years of my life were invested in a familial tradition of mind-expanding travel that he at least partly inspired. His life clearly and deeply shaped my own – and that’s before you get to the genes. Yet I was just starting to grasp that he existed.
A very appropriate matter upon which to reflect while tramping through moonlight.
Back at the house, Alexander complainingly plucked a pheasant cock while Donna and I cheered him on, drank his wine and looked at old photos from her collection – reaching back to our forebears though a mix of physical evidence and personal memory, reinforcing and complimenting each other’s musings and recollections. We quickly found one on which Cynthia had written “Dad”. A definitive photographic identification of Jon the Don. I realised at once that a photo I’d filed “unknown” in my cataloguing was also of him – a man sitting on a picnic blanket. I knew that bloke looked familiar.
Then we looked in the strong box.
The Strong Box
The strong box was one of several items I was travelling with back to London having, that morning, taken them from the chest of photos and documents (currently in storage). It was a rock-solid, black-iron, rectangular thing – designed to preserve its contents against all but the most outrageous misfortune. I vaguely remember it living, for decades, in a corner of the garage at the old family house. No one had looked in it for ages.
There followed one of the most memorable and moving moments of my recent life, as article-by-article, Donna and I went thought the box’s contents. It was uncannily well-timed, and that rare experience of uncovering unexpected and genuine treasure.
The box contained photographs, marriage certificates, birth certificates, legal documents, funeral notices, a newspaper cutting, a letter, an old Christmas card, a love note, a post card, a child’s diary, a lock of hair and Jon the Don’s passport. Via what we found, Donna and I deducted the strong box’s basic history: it had belonged to Jon the Don, then been passed to his eldest daughter, Bess, who’d added to its contents. Via her, it had come down to us. In it were things Bess and the Don had sought to preserve. After Bess died, the box lay forgotten in a corner of her daughter’s garage.
A full list of the box’s contents can be found at the bottom of this post. A scan of every item in the box can be viewed online here. Through its contents, Jon the Don and his daughter came a little more into focus. Here is some of what we found …
School report of Bess, dated July 1916
Grandmother Bess died when I was 9 months old, so I never knew her. But the most important members of my family knew her intimately, so I feel like I knew her. They talk of Bess with deep affection, as one with a scatty, saintly, magnetic personality, known to many across the world, adored by many and who, when she spoke, could people feel like they were “at the centre of the world”. In many of the photos, she’s either up on the podium or holding the microphone.
Her 1916 school report does nothing to mar this reputation.
“Bessie Donnelly has been a pupil here since 28.8.16 and has completed the course that corresponds to Standard 7. She is an intelligent, capable, industrious girl of excellent personal character – truthful, honest and in every way trustworthy. Robert Race, Head Master”
Newspaper cutting dated from the 1920s criticizing the new fad for slot machines
We found a newspaper cutting, with no explanation, dating from around the 1920s. It was a letter to the paper. Donna pointed out that the clipping can only have been preserved because it was submitted by Jon the Don. It reads as follows:
‘… “Observer” writes: – May I draw the attention of your readers to a pernicious evil growing up in the small shops in the back streets of the poorer sections of Manchester and Salford? I refer to an American gaming machine. The shop’s customers buy a disk for one penny, put it in the machine, then pull a handle. Three drums revolve, and if they come to rest showing certain figures cheques from twopence upwards are obtained. There is not the slightest element of skill involved; it is pure gaming, with the odds heavily in favour of the machine. I am told that these machines often take as much as £20 per week. They are a constant temptation to men, women, and children, fostering the gambling spirit, robbing them of badly needed money, demoralising the shopkeeper for the profit of the owner of this machine which spins only destruction. …”
We guffawed at the tone – neither Donna, nor I, have ever been shy of the odd vice. But we both abhor gambling, regarding it as an outrageous waste of time, money and energy. Not a coincidence.
Jon the Don’s passport
When we found the Don’s passport – such a manifestly interesting item – we knew the bottom of the strong box had not been glanced at for years. Cock-a-hoop as we realised what we’d found, we opened it with mild awe and ginger-ness. It’s inner takes the form of a fold-out A2 sheet. We cooed as we surveyed the stamps corroborating those stories of wide travel. And there was a photo of your man: confident, grinning, leading against a wall. As Donna pointed out, you’d give that guy a big hug.
When describing one’s great grandfather, 1920s passports turn out to be stripped of political correctness:
- Age: 45
- Profession: Theatre Manager
- Birth: Manchester, 25th November 1875
- Height: 5 feet, 3 inches
- Forehead: Broad
- Eyes: Blue
- Nose: Long, straight
- Mouth: Firm
- Chin: Heavy
- Hair: Brown
- Complexion: Fair
- Face: Heavy featured
- National status: British Born Subject
The passport had been issued at the Foreign Office in London on 13th December 1920. Both his sons were listed as accompanying minors in 1924, when John was 13 and Brian 11. There was a total of 44 stamps. Based on those we could make out he visited at least: Switzerland, France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
A letter from Jon the Don to Bess
The final bit of contents I’ll describe was the one I found most moving – a letter Jon the Don wrote to Bess, which she placed in the box. He was travelling in Switzerland with his two sons and two of their aunts. It was written from Montreux, on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva, sometime between 1924 and 1928 (when he died).
Of everything we found, the letter gave us his voice. Three passages – written in a flowing, elegant hand – were arrestingly familiar.
“Montreux is a very fine town and the lake (Geneva) is very glorious – big mountains all around, fine sunsets over the water, and lovely moonlit nights making the whole place a dream of wondrous delight.
Last night … I was walking along the lakeside, alone, the boys were safely asleep in their comfortable beds and the others had also retired. I had the mystical, wonderful gorgeous beauty all to my little self – and words cannot describe the scene or transmit the atmosphere of quiet and peace. The clouds and the moon. The mountains and the water. All shades of beautiful blue.
At 12 p.m., birds singing over the waters, [like] a lovely orchestra playing a quiet waltz from the Kursaal. Soft, warm air, gentle breezes, enchanting music and a quiet mind – all was too perfect.”
- Click here to view the original.
- Click here to download transcript -> JD to Bess letter_full transcript_edited
Ninety years later, I’m sure he means 12am (midnight) rather 12pm (midday). According to Google, it’s possible there were birds singing over Lake Geneva at midnight. I can’t work out what “Kursaal” means, but it’s probably not important, and it’s clear Jon the Don is having a whale of a time. With those passages, he reached-out across the gulf between death and life and showed Donna and I that he was right there inside our psyches and double-helixes.
In Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s masterpiece of popular science about evolutionary psychology – the authors assert that most people on Earth can peer into their family histories clearly for only two generations, dimly for three, and beyond that almost not at all. Such is the feeble searchlight of living memory. A vast chain off humans, and other things, in various degrees of darkness, stretch beyond to the origin of life. With his time box, Great Grandfather John Donnelly briefly, and perhaps deliberately, flashed a light onto a recent link in that chain, and we glimpsed how much of ourselves is back there.
Our written records carry us only a millionth of the way back to the origin of life …
The overwhelming majority of our ancestors are wholly unknown to us.
They have no names, no faces, no foibles.
No family anecdotes attach to them. They are unrecognisable, lost to us forever.
- Carl Sagan and Ann Dryan
The full contents of the strong box
1) The original marriage certificate of John Donnelly I (Jon the Don’s father) and his mother, Elizabeth Ann Blakely, dated 16 November 1867 (view)
2) A picture of Jon the Don aged about 12 (c1887) (view)
3) The original marriage certificate of Jon the Don and Mary Elizabeth Molloy, dated 28 February 1903 (view)
4) 2 pictures of Jon the Don aged about 30 (c1905) (view)
5) The school report of Bess dated July 1916 (view)
6) A Christmas card from Mollie Molloy to Jon the Don, showing Mollie’s handwriting (view)
7) The birth certificate of John Donnelly III (Jon the Don’s son, Bess’ younger brother, my great uncle, the one that sailed around the world and was jailed for being against war) dated 28 April 1911 (view)
8) An original copy of the birth certificate of Bessie Donnelly, dated 29 August 1916, for the purposes of “Elementary Education” (noting that Bessie was born on 26 August 1905 and her birth was registered on 3 October 1905) (view)
9) A picture of Jon the Don, his wife and all four children, playing on a beach, with a boat, on the shore of a lake (view)
10) A postcard-photograph of a wedding party, with a note on the back “To Jack and Molly” from “Annie and Jim” (view)
11) The letter clipped from the newspaper complaining about gambling machines (view)
12) A posed photo of Jon the Don, in full theatrical regalia, on stage, with 9 others (view)
13) Jon the Don’s passport from 1920, with entry and entrance stamps across that decade (view)
14) The funeral notice for Mary Donnelly (“Mollie Molloy”), Jon’s wife, dated 15 January 1924 (view)
15) A lock of hair from Mary Donnelly (“Mollie Molloy”), cut by Bess when her mother died in 1924
17) The funeral notice for Jon the Don, dated 8 December 1928 (view)
18) An unfilled form declaring ownership of Jon the Don’s grave, due to lost or mislaid papers (view)
19) A love note to Bess from her eventual husband, Peter (view)
20) A document from the parish of Valburg (a village in the Netherlands) honouring the “many-sided social work” done my Peter Marsh (Bess Donnelly’s husband) as a member of the Quaker Relief Team, dated 9 May 1946 (view)
21) A photo of a man, a woman, two young boys and a baby – all unknown (view)
22) A portrait picture of the same baby as in the photo above (view)
23) A picture of an unknown man, aged about 35 (view)
24) A picture of an unknown woman, aged about 50, wearing a black gown (view)
25) A picture of an unknown group of schoolboys wearing shirts, ties and caps (view)
26) The original, signed, articles of ownership for the Cosmo Cinema Partnership, between Jon the Don, one Charles Grimes, and one Alfred Ellis, dated 4 April 1913 (view)
27) A draft contract for the vendors of a cinema company to sell the leasehold of its premises to the company – drafted to be signed in 1920 (view)
29) The programme of a play at the school Bedales, where Bess’ children would one day go (view)
We’re all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, people who came before us.
- Liam Callanan