Vacuuming ancestresses

by , under life

Because I don’t have a cat to vacuum, and I’m a bit stuck in the edit. Also, I have the Cold fom Hell, or rather at this stage the Cough from Hell (and I hope it’s gone by Christmas or I won’t be able to sing in the services), which is so exhausting that I can’t really concentrate and all my thinking is desultory. It also didn’t help that as soon as I started the speculation it gave me a nasty earworm of Mary Hamilton (“there was Mary Beaton and Mary Seton and Mary Carmichael and me”) which I complained about not being able to sing on account of not having a voice, but a Twitter friend offered to sing it for me so that’s all right.

I tweeted:

And I’m inordinately and perversely proud of that eighth, much as Lord Peter Wimsey’s uncle Paul Delagardie boasts of being (exactly as) French. So I couldn’t help thinking about the woman who gave me that piece of Englishness. I livetweeted my thinking process, and actually made a storify of it but that service seems to be down (it’s saved but won’t let me see it). So I’ll summarise, comment and correct instead.

[ETA: the storify is gone, alas. But it was thinking aloud all right. It definitely needed editing.] I will not name names except Mary’s, and a couple of first names from my grandparents’ generation. Most of this is not exactly fiction but speculation, filling in pieces between faint and wavering lines.

The only actual facts I know are that my great-grandmother in the unbroken female line (mother’s mother’s mother) was one Mary Robinson from Liverpool, my great-grandfather’s first wife, who bore him five daughters. There is a picture in existence of Mary and all her daughters, which must be from 1904 or early 1905 because the youngest is a baby. Mary must have died in 1905 or 1906 (I thought 1901 at first but that’s a different notable family date) because then he married his second wife, his next-door neighbour, a widow with five daughters all roughly the ages of his daughters and one son, the youngest. In the late nineteen-seventies I spent a couple of days in Liverpool at the city archives doing research, armed with what I knew then (probably a bit more now-forgotten anecdotal evidence from my gran, who was still alive at the time) but didn’t find her, probably because Robinson was a very common name in Liverpool in the nineteenth century and just about every family had a Mary, many of whom married sailors, even Dutch sailors.

I thought at first that Mary must have been born around 1850, because my grandmother, born in 1892, was her youngest daughter. Someone remarked it could have been later and that set me thinking again: seeing that between the eldest and the youngest there were 12 years the eldest must have been born in 1880, making Mary’s birth around 1860 much more plausible.

Then I realised that Gran (Jo) must have been her eldest daughter, because at Gran’s funeral in 1983 I met the youngest sister, my great-aunt Bet (or Bets, not sure; anyway short for Elizabeth) who Gran had always said I reminded her of. I was very pleased, because this great-aunt looked exactly like Gran when she wasn’t quite as old yet, meaning that I’d probably look like that when old, too! (But now, in my fifties, I’m the spitting image of my father. Ah well.) That Jo was the eldest daughter was even more clear because I have “the [something] of eleven children” in my head for her, and that can’t have been “the youngest” because I knew her stepbrother was the youngest of the whole family. (Goodness! TEN older sisters! And still that uncle grew up more pleasant and normal than my other half’s uncle who happened to share a first name. He’s the grandfather of a moderately successful actress with that family name.)

Another calculation. We have Jo born in 1892 (eek! dates in the 19th century are hard to type) when Mary may well have been very young. Bet was the last, born in 1904. I tweeted about Mary’s birth “not likely much before 1860 or after 1875. First child at 17 or last at 45 seems equally likely.” — but I do expect it to be much closer to 1875 than 1860 because if people marry and go on to have 5 children in 12 years, they’re probably not starting late (like I did; I had three children in less than two years in my mid- to late thirties.)

Jo, incidentally, sort of eloped with her fiance, an apprentice draughtsman, to the Dutch East Indies in 1908. He was nineteen, she a couple of weeks short of sixteen. But that’s another story.

Now I could seek out the Cousin Who Does Genealogy– I’m pretty sure my family has one, every family has. But none of my grandmother’s generation are alive, and few of my mother’s generation, and I just plain don’t know them. Sometimes I meet some of them at a funeral and get embarrassed at all the “oh, you’re one of X’s then” or see a name mentioned and realise that it’s a distant cousin. I’d have to explain myself, picking up connections that are so tenuous as to be almost nonexistent, and I’d have to have much more of a cause than “I got interested and thought you might know”. Genealogy is not my hobby– making things up is.

  1. Pete Bleackley

    I’m the last of five children, and my eldest sister is twelve years older than me. But my Mum started late! In fact, she was 47 by the time I was born.

  2. Adrian Morgan

    I have an Uncle Who Does Genealogy, and because I have a 2011 digital copy, I can look it up right now.

    Hmm. Only one relative is recorded as having been born in Liverpool, and her husband’s mother — the daughter of one of my direct ancestors — wrote the following about her in 1899:

    “My son married a bad woman who died last December and He has been in America some years. I thought He was dead but He turned up last Easter and staid a week but kept very close in case his wife should turn up – so we got a Friend to take a Journey to find out and we were thankful to find she was dead, and now we are expecting him for Xmas and He will be free.”

  3. Sara

    I was really lucky; I knew both my maternal great-grandmothers. One died when I was in high school, the other after I’d moved to the Netherlands. Both were amazing ladies, but Great-Grandma Rose was the stuff of legends. She ran away from the farm on North Dakota to Wisconsin when she was 14. An elder brother was sent to bring her back….and he ended up staying too. She never went back to ND.

    She outlived three husbands and one serious boyfriend. She dated Frank for two years before bringing him home to meet the family, because she didn’t want him (a younger man!) to realize how old she was. She dyed her hair and was quite active (they met while walking the malls at 5am), and it’s one thing if your DAUGHTER has stopped dyeing her hair and is wholly grey, but it’s another thing if your GRANDDAUGHTER also doesn’t dye her hair and is wholly grey.

    Grandma Rose taught me to gamble when I was ~8-9, playing 31 with me for dimes. She was not the sort of grandmother who would play gently because you were her grandchild.

    We all know her as “Rose”, but there are some tantalizing hints that her birth name was “Rosalia”, which hints she would NEVER address. I, my sister, and one of our cousins all have daughters with a middle name “Rose”. Another cousin legally changed her middle name to “Rose”.

    She was amazing.


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