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The importance of being Alexander

Alexander Brown with daughter Elsie in 1900
Alexander Brown with daughter Elsie in 1900

theserpentAlexander is my middle christian name. It is my son’s middle name, it is my grandson’s middle name and it is my father’s middle name. A nephew of mine has the middle name of Alexander and, I even have a sister and a second cousin both with the middle name of Alexandra. Families often preserve the Christian names of their ancestors, and just as my granddaughter, Millie Violet Hardy, takes her Christian names from her great grandmothers Millicent Lillian Brian and Violet Jones, all the Alexanders of this family perpetuate the name of one of our family’s richest characters, Alexander Brown.

Alexander Brown was born on 11th August 1858 the son of Joseph Brown and Hannah Simpson Marshall at the family home in Church Street on Hallgarth Square Monkwearmouth Shore, the north side of The River Wear in Sunderland, County Durham. Joseph had married Hannah Simpson Marshall on 9 Dec 1855 at The Parish Church Monkwearmouth in the presence of Margaret Brown and John Taylor.

Joseph Brown was a stonemason having undertaken a five-year apprenticeship with Brothers John and William Ewart of Monkwearmouth beginning in 1833. Joseph’s father, also Joseph Brown, had been a shipwright, firstly at Monkwearmouth Shore and later at Jarrow. Alexander’s mother Hannah, who was 20 years her husband’s junior, was the daughter of John Marshall, a mariner. Alexander had a younger sister called Elizabeth and a first-born brother called Joseph.

Stonemasons were highly respected tradesman and the address reflected the family’s status. Hallgarth Square was bulldozed sometime later but it was one of Sunderland’s prestigious neighbourhoods, in close proximity to St Peter’s Church, the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery and a medieval Benedictine priory founded in 674 AD.

Alexander followed his father’s trade as a stonemason and embarked on a five-year apprenticeship at the age of 16 years; but he failed to complete the term, and I know not why. This would have made it more difficult to find steady work, but he had learnt most of his trade and became a very successful journeyman bricklayer. He worked on the construction of many of the new public buildings erected in the late Victorian age, including Sunderland’s museum and library. As a qualified bricklayer he went to where the work was and travelled across the border to Scotland many times, finding work in the towns around Edinburgh, Linlithgow and Galashields and further north in Dundee.

On the work gangs, Alexander was known as ‘Wee Sandy’ Brown because of his small stature and fair hair. He was obviously not the only Alexander. He recalled working on the construction of the Forth Bridge (1883-90) and said he would not go down in the diving bell to work on the footings even though it attracted extra wages. It was a dangerous job and he had seen many a man come up to the surface and suffer the bends. During the construction of the Forth Rail Bridge over 450 workers were injured and 57 lost their lives. He travelled by train mainly, and recalled that on returning home to the stations at Newcastle and Sunderland how people begging for money always met the trains. The times were hard. He also travelled by ship to the Scottish ports and south to London; these were longer journeys but a considerably cheaper option.


Sometimes it is necessary to draw certain conclusions when researching family history. In the case of Alexander, it is possible that his failure to complete his apprenticeship was a family disappointment. It is said that his mother Hannah was an alcoholic and that the family’s prosperity had waned. In any event, Alexander, far from continuing life in the middle class suburbs, ended up living in the harsh East End of Sunderland where the housing conditions were poor. There were rows upon rows of terraced houses, two rooms upstairs and two down, with gas lighting and coal-fired ranges. Houses were back to back with a small yard in between with an outside toilet. Often these houses were home to more than one family and it must have been a very poor existence.

At the age of 27 years, Alexander was living in one such house at 24 Wear Street when he married. It was on 25th October 1885 at The Parish Church of Hendon Bishopwearmouth that Alexander married Emma Charlton the daughter of Andrew Charlton (a Master Mariner, then deceased). They had four children, Alfred, Minnie, William, and Hilda. Alas, on 3rd July 1892, Emma died. The death certificate stated the cause as haemorrhage and septicaemia following a natural abortion at 3 months. This left Alexander with young children to support and, not surprising for the time, only three months later he married Isabella Scott on 1st October 1892 at The Parish Church St Ignatius the Martyr in Sunderland. They were both shown on the marriage certificate as living at 21 Henry Street, again another such address in the East End of Sunderland.

Isabella was from the family ‘Scott the Pilot’ of Seaham Harbour, a port just south of Sunderland and close to the terminals where the colliers – coal ships were loaded. They came in on the high tide, were loaded with coal, and went out on the following high tide, many bound for London. The harbour at Seaham had been rebuilt in 1831 to relieve the pressure on the congested River Wear and new railways served it direct from the pitheads. The family of ‘Scott the Pilot’ was well known. Their closely guarded maritime skills and knowledge of the shallow waters could ensure a safe passage for vessels sailing in and out of the docks. Michael Scott, Isabella’s father, was deceased at the time of her marriage but he, his father and his brothers and almost every relative were the pilots of Seaham Harbour. Isabella became mother to Alexander’s children by his first wife Emma, and mother to more, Jennie, Elsie, and Thomas.

Isabella sadly died at the young age of 36 years, in February 1902, and this gives rise to some intriguing facts that emerge in family history research; sometimes they concern family genetics. Of all Alexander’s children from both his wives, the boys Alfred, William, and Thomas all died within months of birth but the girls, Minnie, Hilda, Jennie and Elsie, all lived to very old age. Both Emma and Isabella died in childbirth or from a problem during pregnancy, both causes common for a time when life and conditions were hard, however unlikely in today’s world. Let’s split hairs too! Minnie and Hilda inherited the characteristic red hair of their grandmother Hannah, whilst Jennie and Elsie were blond haired like Alexander himself.

For the second time Alexander was left with young daughters to care for. Minnie aged 15 years, Hilda aged 12, Jennie aged 7 and Elsie, only 3 years old (my grandmother as pictured with her father at the top of this chapter – circa 1900), had to grow up fast, often looking after themselves under the watchful eye of neighbours. Alexander now had to rely on work closer to home but sometimes he had to work away. Homecomings were joyous occasions. He was the great provider, a very hard working person, and he was loved and respected by his girls and everyone that knew him. He was always the great raconteur and a man full of political views and advice, especially for his daughters. As they grew older he’d say to them “remember that when some lad comes courting a tuppenny pie is going to cost him four pence”. He’d sit in his Windsor armchair, not too far from the range and if he got up for a single minute there was always someone who would sit in his seat until he returned. He’d joke with them saying, “you wouldn’t jump into my grave so quickly”. Amongst his many stories he would tell them that he was descended from the Squires of Westoe Hall, in the suburbs of South Shields, Tyne & Wear, a fact later proved to be completely false. He was proud to impress them that his family came from Hallgarth Square where successful tradesmen lived.

Alexander loved to go to the theatre and see plays including those of Shakespeare. He related the time he had seen Sir Henry Irving, the celebrated Victorian actor perform. Irving, the first actor to receive a knighthood, made his very first appearance at a theatre in Sunderland in September 1856. Theatre was popular entertainment during Victorian and Edwardian times and when the ‘talkies’ arrived he was persuaded to see a film but thought it too flickery and loud. Similarly, Alexander was not that interested in wireless radio because the reproduction of speech was poor and he was a little hard of hearing.

However, for me, it was this part of Alexander’s work ethic that is the measure of his character. Probably out of necessity, during the First World War 1914-18 Alexander, now approaching 60 years of age, apparently dyed his moustache using potassium permanganate to make it ginger and hide the grey hairs. This was not for the sake of vanity but out of necessity as employers picked younger looking men. In the early 1920s he was still bricklaying at the Kidderminster and Becton Gas Work sites in London. Even at the age of 73 years, in 1931, he got a job on the construction of a new bridge across the River Wear in Sunderland and he was extremely disappointed when they fired him because employers discovered his age. Alexander was a Labour man through and through, and a staunch Union Man with 55 years fully paid membership of the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers of Great Britain and Ireland. Later in life, in recognition of his long and faithful service, he was awarded with Membership for Life Gratis.

From the early 1920s, Alexander, as a widower, lived with his daughter Jennie, even after she married John Robert Faulkner. John was the good friend of Wilfrid Hardy, who you can read about in another chapter, and he was also a staunch union man, an Honourable Secretary of the Sunderland Branch of the National Union of Railwaymen for many years; John and Alexander read the Daily Herald, and it was very much a Labour household.

Jennie and John had a son, Raymond Noel Faulkner – from whom most of this valuable story comes. Noel, as we always called him, was born on Christmas Day 1926, and, from his earliest recollections, his grandfather was always part of the household. “He sat in the same old chair by the range, the warmest spot in the house,” he told me. “He would read the bible and even sing hymns.” Alexander was religious and attended church, chapel or whatever, and when asked of which denomination he was, he would answer,” anything.” Noel remembered cousins Bob and Roger Stewart, possibly the sons of Alexander’s sister Elizabeth, calling at the house from time to time. They chose not to work for a living and, instead, tramped all over Britain relying on friendly farmers for a days labouring in exchange for a meal and a night in the barn. Bob and Roger were always referred to as the family’s ‘Knight’s of the Road’ and Alexander would give them a pipe of baccy and Jennie would give them tea. Noel, as a young boy, remembers that he was always reluctant to sit on Roger’s knee and after the brothers left he told his mother,” they was greasy of the bacon”.

The family moved from Sunderland to Falloden, a hamlet near Embleton in Northumberland, and then to Usworth, a mining village near Washington, back in County Durham. Their homes were tied cottages, supplied by John’s employer, the railway company.

alexanderbrownThe tales about Alexander are many; they are of the very best sort because a living family member recalled them and no better example can be given as a place to start for those embarking on family history research.

Alexander died on 8th March 1942, aged 84 years and he was buried in a grave at Old Washington Village Graveyard. Jennie’s husband John died at the age of 47 years on 12th January 1946 and they share that grave.

So why is it important to be an Alexander? Why do families have a desire to perpetuate a name? Possibly, it’s because the name is one we like, more likely though, it represents an ancestor that we admire and wish to be associated with. Whilst this Alexander never had a surviving son he actually has many ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ named after him because he was such a character.

This chapter is dedicated to the fond memory of Alexander Brown’s grandson – Raymond Noel Faulkner 1926 – 2009

And, since writing this chapter, Anne Alexandra Faulkner, born in February 2011 to Stephen & Jenny Faulkner, becomes the latest descendant of Alexander Brown to proudly carry his name, a great great granddaughter.