Research into the background of my wife's family, the Hadmans, brought me up against an obscure wall in King's Cross Station. Anna's father reckoned that the Hadmans were related to the poet John Clare, who came from Helpston, a village near their own. Our investigation drew many previously unknown Hadmans from the ground where they had lain, undisturbed, for hundreds of years. They were known to each other, some of them, but unknown to us: lives summarised by uncertain dates and incompetent transcriptions of that surname. Church records had been chewed by rats, inscriptions on gravestones erased by wind from the fens. Most of the Hadmans never made it beyond a day's walk from their starting point, the now disappeared settlement of Washingley (on the ridge above Stilton in Huntingdonshire). Two, we discovered, had ventured further afield. One, Oscar, booked passage for America. He registered his destination as 414 West First Street, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Unfortunately, his third-class ticket was for the Titanic. The other, 'Hadman E.', was recorded among the columns of the dead on the King's Cross war memorial. Heroic efforts by Anna, trips to Kew, Clerkenwell, days trawling the internet, established a connection. Hadman E. was Ernest. From Stilton. A railwayman in Peterborough, an 'acting porter', Ernest died on the Somme in 1917 and is listed on the Thiepval Memorial. There was indeed a remote kinship with Anna. Her great-great-grandfather and Ernest's great-grandfather were brothers. Enough to leave her in tears and send her on an expedition to the station memorial. I needed to come to terms with this episode in my own fashion: by walking a circuit of London's mainline stations, checking on the visibility and continuing presence of the war dead. How does a preoccupied city remember them, the missing faces of a lost generation? How long do those memories survive the fret of contemporary life?
LRB 18 August 2005 | PDF Download