Monthly Archives: December 2014

52 ancestors – Frederick Airey professional builder, amateur photographer, constant worrier

My Great Grandfather Frederick Airey was born in Darlington in 1870, he was the second youngest of 13 children, but sadly only the three eldest and two youngest lived into adulthood. His parents were William Airey and Sarah Sellars. The Aireys came from Preston under Scar where they were largely stone masons but the later generations moved to Darlington where they were quite successful builders, as was Frederick (Fred) and his two brothers John and Joseph. It seems that John and Joseph had one building company and Fred ran his own, but there was no rift in the family as I know my grandmother (Fred’s daughter) regularly spent time with Joseph and his two unmarried sisters Sarah Ann (Aunty Tan) and Selina (who did marry eventually).

Fred married American born Nellie Eaton Willis in 1893, co-incidentally Fred had also visited the USA and worked there for a while, his passenger ticket out from Liverpool to New York in 1891 describes him as a brick layer. He had two teeth removed in order to play a brass instrument (I forget which one) and I think he played in the band on the ship. Interestingly Fred is on the 1891 census taken on 5th April and set sail to America on the 12th April.

Frederick Airey ship

Luckily for future generations Fred was a keen amateur photographer, so we have records not only of the family but also of some of the houses he built and they do look impressive. Apparently he would not use “inferior quality” products and once when one of the builders he employed put “shoddy” locks on the doors of a row of houses, he went and smashed them all in, thus proving I suppose that they weren’t very good. He was only 5ft 4 inches tall so I doubt if he was very strong. He also disapproved of bay windows because he didn’t think they were structurally strong, but his customers liked them because they let a lot of light into a room. (Grandma told me this when we had a house with bay windows).


He won some awards for his photography and I have the hallmarked medals to show for it.

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Grandma also told me about him employing Irish men to work for him, then having to sack them for getting drunk, they would then turn up and beg for their job back and usually got it, for they were good workers when not drinking.

He was also a terrible worrier, Grandma was pregnant when he died, but they never told him because he would have worried about it too much. If Grandma was going out somewhere as a child, he’d say to Nellie his wife, “I’ve got a feeling she isn’t to go.” to which Nellie would reply, “and I’ve got a feeling she’s going.”  Knowing something about plumbing through his work, he worried about how sanitary the water was at Grandma’s school and told her not to drink the water there, along with a whole list of other things she shouldn’t do, until she said.

“Can I breathe in school?”

To which he replied, “Only if you absolutely have to,” he had a sense of humour evidently.

He would talk about things being “sky blue pink” or “sky blue scarlet” with “finny eddy borders”.

If Grandma (who was an avid reader) went missing, he would say she was in the pantry reading the flour packets, (the joke is that these were completely plain with no writing at all). If an item went missing he would say “our Winnie is sitting on it” and having known “our Winnie” in later years sit on my “painting by numbers”, I suspect he was usually right.

From his photographs it is possible to see that he had bright blue eyes and I know he had a fair/pink complexion. He was only 5ft 4 (Nellie liked to wear flat shoes when out with him).

In 1901 they were living at 4 Kingston Street

In 1911 they were living at 5 Mowden Terrace

These may both have been houses built by Fred, apparently they moved house a lot upping and downing sizes according to the strength of the building industry.

This house certainly was built by him:

And these are the interiors of their house, Grandma above the mantelpiece.

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Fred always wanted his name to be spelt without a K, goodness knows why, but because of this my father was named Frederic Norman, oddly Fred always signed himself Fredk.


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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in Darlington, Photography, Uncategorized


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