Josephine Elizabeth Grey was born at Milfield Hill, in the county of Northumberland, on April 13th, 1828. She was the fourth daughter of John Grey, and of his wife Hannah Annett. In her Memoir of John Grey of Dilston, she writes thus of her birthplace and family.
It seems to me that any life of my father must include, to some extent, a history of the county in which he was born, lived and died. He loved the place of his birth, sweet Glendale. His affections were largely drawn out to that Border country; not only to the living beings who peopled it, but to the scenes themselves—the hills, the valleys, and the rivers. All through his life there will be found evidence of the heart-yearnings towards them; and these are shared by his children, to whom there seems no spot on earth like Glendale. This attachment to our native country is perhaps stronger among us than among some families, because for so many generations back we were rooted there. Greys abounded on the Borders; they were keepers often of the Border castles and towers, living a life not always very peaceful in regard to their Scottish neighbours.
Glendale is rich in romantic associations: every name in and around it brings to the mind some incident of war, or lover's adventure, or heroic exploit recorded in English ballads, or sung to sweet Scottish tunes, or woven later into the poems of Sir Walter Scott. It is a very beautiful range of hills which skirts Glendale to the west; their very names, Yeavring Bell, Heathpool Bell, Newton Torr, Hetha, Hedgehope, and Cheviot—were delightful to my father's ear. Directly in front of our old home, Milfield Hill, lies the scene of innumerable fights between Scotch and English, Milfield Plain, and from its windows might have been seen the famous battle of Humbledon Hill.
Flodden Hill, about a mile north of Milfield Hill, hides beneath its soil traces of the great battle of 1513: broken pieces of armour of men and horses were sometimes dug or ploughed up, and brought to the house, to be treasured up as relics. Many a time did my father recite to his children every incident of that battle, as he rode or walked with them over Flodden, sometimes resting at the "King's Chair," or by "Sybil's Well." His memory was so good that he could go through almost the whole of Marmion, and other poems relating to that woeful day,
When shivered was fair Scotland's spear,
And broken was her shield.
His dislike of the Stuarts was great, but he would tell, with a sorrowful sympathy, how the "flowers of the forest," the noble youth of Scotland, "were a' wede away."
After the battle of Flodden the Border warfare degenerated into a system of recriminative plunder, which continued till comparatively recent times. It is only a few generations back that our Northumbrians used to watch the fords all night long, with their trained mastiffs, to prevent the Scotch from carrying away their cattle. At one of the early meetings of the Highland Society at Kelso, my father said: "There was a time, and that at no distant period, when, had it been possible for such animals as we have seen to-day to exist, it would have required the escort of our honourable Vice-President, Sir John Hope, and his cavalry in bringing each lot to the show-ground, to secure it against the chance of being roasted among the heather of the Highlands or boiled in the pots of Cumberland."
But the time came for this fair Border country to wake up to new life. Probably no part of England has undergone so rapid a change as Northumberland has done in the last eighty or ninety years. The half-barbarous character which I have been describing clung to the people long after it had given place to civilisation elsewhere. The soil and climate were rugged, and resisted for a long time the first efforts at cultivation; but its inhabitants, rugged too, were energetic, and the impulse once given, it required not many years to place Northumberland at the head of agricultural progress.
The part which my father had in bringing about this great change in Northumberland, and in the progress of agriculture generally, was not inconsiderable. How great the change must have been, in a short time, those of us can imagine who have witnessed the rich harvests of the last twenty years, and the merry harvest-homes on Tweedside and Tillside. Not less striking, perhaps, was the change brought about later on the banks of the Tyne. When he migrated thither in 1833, Tyneside, which is now so richly cultivated, presented in many parts miles of fox-cover and self-sown plantations of fir and birchwood.
John Grey was born in August, 1785. He was the son of George Grey, of West Ord, on the banks of the Tweed, and of his wife, Mary Burn. He himself thus writes of his ancestry, in answer to a question addressed to him by a friend.
"He [an antiquarian] imagines that he brings the Greys down from Rollo, whose daughter Arletta was mother of William the Conqueror; but I think their Norman origin is doubtful. Undoubtedly, however, they were derived from a long line of warriors, who were Wardens of the East Marches, Governors of Norham, Morpeth, Wark, and Berwick Castles in the old Border days, and were also dignified by great achievements in foreign wars. Sir John Grey, of Heaton, 1356, was valorous in the army of Henry V, and gained, or had conferred on him, castles in Normandy, and the title of Tankerville, which is now an offshoot of the old stock. His figure is given as a knight of great strength and renown, and he was distinguished by the capacious forehead which is said to have marked the race through all ages; see the late Charles Earl Grey for its full development. [The writer was not less remarkable for this feature than any who bore the name.] A son of Sir John Grey, Governor of Morpeth Castle 1656, gave offence by a marriage with a buxom daughter of a farmer, at Angerton. In the records it is shown that he had an annuity from the family estate at Learmonth. From this offshoot comes our degenerate tribe!"
My mother's parents were good people, descended from the poor but honest families of silk-weavers, driven out of France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. They were in the habit of opening their hospitable doors to everyone in the form of a religious teacher, of whatever sect, who happened to pass that way. One of my mother's earliest memories was of being lifted upon the knee of the venerable John Wesley, a man with white silvery hair and a benevolent countenance, who placed his two hands upon the head of the golden-haired little girl and pronounced over her a tender and solemn benediction.
In 1833 John Grey was appointed to take charge of the Greenwich Hospital estates in his native county, and moved to a new house built for him at Dilston, in the vale of the Tyne.
Our home at Dilston was a very beautiful one. Its romantic historical associations, the wild, informal beauty all round its doors, the bright, large family circle, and the kind and hospitable character of its master and mistress, made it an attractive place to many friends and guests. Among our pleasantest visitors there were Swedes, Russians and French, who came to England on missions of agricultural or other inquiry, and who sometimes spent weeks with us. It was a house the door of which stood wide open, as if to welcome all comers, through the livelong summer day (all the days seem like summer days when looking back). It was a place where one could glide out of a lower window and be hidden in a moment, plunging straight among wild wood paths and beds of fern, or find oneself quickly in some cool concealment, beneath slender birch trees, or by the dry bed of a mountain stream. It was a place where the sweet hushing sound of waterfalls, and clear streams murmuring over shallows, were heard all day and night, though winter storms turned those sweet sounds into an angry roar.
I have thought that the secret of my father's consistency lay in the fact that his opinions had their root very deep in his soul and affections, that they were indigenous, so to speak, not grafted from without. God made him a Liberal, and a Liberal in the true sense he continued to be to the end of his life. In conversation with him on any public questions, one could not but observe how much such questions were matters of feeling with him. I believe that his political principles and public actions were alike the direct fruit of that which held rule within his soul—I mean his large benevolence, his tender compassionateness, and his respect for the rights and liberties of the individual man. His life was a sustained effort for the good of others, flowing from these affections. He had no grudge against rank or wealth, no restless desire of change for its own sake, still less any rude love of demolition; but he could not endure to see oppression or wrong of any kind inflicted on man, woman, or child. "You cannot treat men and women exactly as you do one pound bank-notes, to be used or rejected as you think proper," he said in a letter to The Times, when that paper was advocating some ill-considered changes, beneficial to one class, but leaving out of account a residue of humble folk upon whom they would entail great suffering. In the cause of any maltreated or neglected creature he was uncompromising to the last, and when brought into opposition with the perpetrators of any social injustice he became an enemy to be feared. Some who remembered him in early manhood have described his commanding presence when he stood forth on public occasions as the champion of Liberal principles, "unsubdued by the blandishments of his partisans, and unabashed by the rancour of his opponents." There was seldom to be found a flaw in his argument or a fault in his grammar on those occasions, when "he carried confusion and dismay into the enemy's camp." Yet the force which his hearers acknowledged lay in his love of truth, his clearness of judgment, and the known innocency of his life, rather than in rhetoric. The true key to an occasional bitterness against those whom he thought wrong-doers lay also in his great sensitiveness to wrong done. There was no self-satisfaction in his denunciation of evil; the contemplation of cruelty in any form was intolerable to him. He would speak of the imposition of social disabilities of any kind, by one class of persons on another, with kindling eyes and breath which came quickly; but he always turned away with a sense of relief from the subject of the evil-doers, or the evil done, to the persons who suffered, whose position his compassionate instinct would set him at once to the task of ameliorating. His children remember the large old family Bible, which he used punctually to bring forth every Sunday afternoon and peruse for hours, and his appeals to them to listen to the grandeur of certain favourite passages, which he often read aloud. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah was a great favourite, and his love for such words as the following, which he often quoted, was an index of the complexion of his mind: "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?"
The Greys were a loving family, but of all the family Josephine's life-long favourite was her sister Harriet, afterwards Madame Meuricoffre. In her she realised the perfect fulfilment of Christina Rossetti's lines—
There is no friend like a sister In calm or stormy weather; To cheer one on the tedious way, To fetch one if one goes astray, To lift one if one totters down, To strengthen whilst one stands.