By Betsy Everett

JANE Ritchie is perhaps best-known as the woman who inherited a £9 million fortune and, after paying the taxman and buying a new hat, gave most of it away. She built a state-of-the-art learning centre, The Work Place in Newton Aycliffe, and set up a charity to support good causes in Wensleydale and beyond.

After a lifetime’s work in the careers service in County Durham – not an obvious choice for a southerner with a Cambridge degree and a background of wealth, property and privilege – a spot of indulgent idleness might have been on the cards: the 65-year-old scourge of bureaucrats and bullies had nothing to prove and nobody to please. Except her late and remarkable mother, Margaret Ritchie, herself the daughter of a Cambridge professor, Bill King, still remembered in Wensleydale as a kind and gentle man who wore his exceptional talents lightly.

“I promised my mother I would tidy up her papers,” says Jane. It is a miracle of understatement: Margaret’s extensive archive presented a massive challenge, and forms the basis of Grit in the Oyster, the book by Wensleydale farmer and writer, Mike Keeble, which tells the story of the generations of farmers, bankers, mill owners, merchants, professors and public servants who people Jane’s past and have shaped her life.

It is an extraordinary tale, with two central characters: Jane herself, and her cousin, Margery Freeman who died in a Leyburn nursing home 10 years ago, just weeks short of her 101st birthday. It was Margery who, having bequeathed £1 million to around 40 benefactors, told her solicitor, wearily: “Give the rest to Jane.” The rest, which Jane thought with a bit of luck might pay the funeral bills, was the totally unexpected £9 million. With her canvas plimsolls and well-worn clothes, Margery’s frugal existence had given no hint of the vast wealth that had accrued to her.

The two women are descendants of Thomas Other (1769-1834), co-founder of what was to become the Swaledale and Wensleydale Bank, and his wife Jane. It takes a cattle breeder – which Mike Keeble is – to understand and map the complex genealogy thereafter, and it’s a weakness of the book that there is no family tree to guide you through the tangled forest of cousins and aunts, grandparents and in-laws, deaths, second marriages and step-children. It doesn’t help that so many of the men are called Christopher, and the women Ann(e). Or that there is no clear path through the dense thickets of information as he charts nearly 400 years of the family who eventually came together, spread out and ultimately returned, to their Wensleydale roots.

But every so often you reach a clearing in the wood which makes the trek worthwhile. We meet cousin Margery herself, who left the family home in Redmire, to fulfil her mother’s wish that she should be a musician. At the Royal School of Music she excelled at the violin, returning to Wensleydale to form the Aysgarth Choral Society, better known now as the Aysgarth Singers.

There’s the exotic Henrietta Mabel Lister (Mabel), who married Margery’s half brother, Will, went to the Slade School of Art in London and then took up motor racing. The Aston Martin she raced at Brooklands was maintained by one Jack Waters – later the actor, Jack Warner, who found fame in the ‘50s as Dixon of Dock Green. Mabel then reinvented herself as the exotic dancer, Henrietta Listacova. When she married the staid Will Burrill-Robinson, life seemed to lose a little of its savour. “She could paint, dance, race cars and drive trucks . . . but her married routine limited her to formal dinners, unexciting parties and luncheons, all attended with Will,” writes Keeble. Poor, dull Will, is the implication.

But perhaps most incredible of all is the long-suffering Dots Passingham, Jane’s maternal grandmother, and wife of Professor King. With an American father she never knew, an older brother, Chap, given up for adoption in the late 1800s and later accidentally shot dead with his own gun, she was taken by her mother to South Dakota in pursuit of a divorce from Charles Gillig. Dots remembered her sixth birthday spent in a mid-Atlantic storm aboard a cattle steamer: the crew had made her a special cake. Two years later she would be sent to Switzerland to live with a family of strangers, and when that didn’t work out, to Germany.

Dots’ scrapbooks, which Jane found by chance as she sorted through her late grandmother’s belongings, provide a rare insight into a fascinating life. Theatre programmes, concert tickets, drawings, paintings, cartoons, pressed flowers and newspaper cuttings tell of a life well-lived despite a miserable childhood.

And yet – there are also dozens of unidentified photographs, a lasting regret to the otherwise ever-cheerful Jane Ritchie.

“I’d have liked her to talk me through them but she never did. She was very happily married to my grandfather and I think everything before that was just too painful to recall, so she never did,” says Jane.

Grit in the Oyster is published by the Elm House Trust at £12 and is available from Tennants (auctioneers), Leyburn, all Yorkshire Dales National Parks’ outlets, Jane Ritchie, or from All proceeds will go to the Elm House Trust.