A Life Well Lived

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(An assignment piece)

The jam jar sat on top of Gran Chapman’s mantelpiece. Everyone who visited her was shown her gall stones, removed during her first ever operation when she was in her 70s. They were her showpiece.

Gran Chapman was my mother’s maternal grandmother, my great grandmother. She was a gentle, caring lady with a peaches and cream complexion and not a wrinkle in sight.  She looked me in the eyes and touched my hand when I spoke to her as though whatever I was saying was the most important thing in the world at that moment.

When I was 15, I secretly entered a competition in the “Evening Times” newspaper.  It was early December and the prize was a Christmas hamper sent to a person of choice.  I had to write about someone deserving of the hamper so I wrote about Gran Chapman.  I was so thrilled when I found out she had received it although she never knew where it came from.

My story explained why I thought she was deserving of the hamper but I can’t remember what I wrote.  I must have sensed her life hadn’t been easy.  It wasn’t until years later when I began to take an interest in my family history that I decided to find out a bit more about her life.  I realised then I had never actually known her name.

Her birth certificate informed me she was born Jemima Taylor. That made me smile.  I had named my daughter Tayler.  The next thing to bring a smile to my face was to see on her marriage certificate that she was then just 17 and worked as a biscuit icer.  After that I found very little to smile about.

From various documents I learned that Gran was born in 1886, married in 1904, had five children and died in 1977 at the age of 90.  A life well lived but it told me very little. When I placed her dates on a timeline, a bigger picture began to emerge.  She had lived through two world wars, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Depression, the sinking of the Titanic and other major world events. I began to see her in a new light.  My gentle, caring great grandmother had lived through some of the world’s worst tragedies but it was her personal tragedies that rocked me.

We visited family often but, as a young person, I didn’t really give much thought to the relationship between my aunts and uncles.  I didn’t consider them to be sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.  It wasn’t until I started researching that things began to fall into place.

My mother talked about her own mother who had died at the age of 51 from heart problems soon after she and dad were married.  I remember her telling me that I first kicked in her womb at the precise time my grandmother died.  Perhaps that has something to do with why I reminded my mum of her own mother.  Connecting the dots, I actually gave some thought to the fact that my late grandmother was Gran Chapman’s daughter and how sad she must have been to outlive her. The many family get-togethers of my childhood would have had an element of sadness, of someone missing, that I was completely oblivious to.  I wonder how many times my mother, Gran Chapman, my aunts and uncles looked at me and my two sisters, mourning the fact that their mother, daughter and sister never got to meet us.

Gran Chapman outlived her husband and three of her five children.  I assumed that my great-grandfather had died in a war but his death certificate told a different story.  The similarities were there.  He was also 51 when he was killed in his taxi after suffering a heart attack.  Gran lived for another 42 years without him.

I never knew about their little girl, Maimie, who passed away at the age of two.  I desperately want to know that story, to find out what happened to her but, so far, have found no records.  Recently, after listening to a lecture, I turned the issue around and asked myself ‘why would a young child die in the Gorbals in Glasgow in 1911?’ I then read that, back then, 145 out of every 1,000 babies died in that one area due to social problems and diseases like diphtheria, TB and typhoid.  My family were quite poor and the Gorbals area was known to be dirty and overcrowded.  It links too perhaps with the fact that Maimie’s brother, my Uncle Bill, contracted polio around the age of seven and had his leg amputated.   As a grown man, he got around on crutches, worked as a watchmaker, and he and his wife, Mary – also a polio survivor who had callipers on both legs – often enjoyed nice road trips in their little mini car with hand controls.  I believe, in the end, it was his heart that let him down too.

Gran Chapman would have nursed her young children through these diseases.  She was just 25 when she lost her baby daughter and 28 when Uncle Bill had his leg amputated. Later she would have to deal with, amongst other things, another son being badly injured in the war and losing two grandchildren to still-births.

The irony of this story is that when Gran was in her eighties, she was diagnosed with gangrene in her leg and had it amputated.  As she approached her 90th birthday she was told she was to lose her other leg. I remember visiting her in hospital just before her second operation. When I bent to kiss her cheek, she looked me in the eyes, held onto my hand and whispered “why won’t they just let me go?”  It still brings tears to my eyes.  I felt so powerless.  She had already suffered enough.

What lies ahead?

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‘Writing Family History’ is the course I am currently studying.  We are being encouraged to write concisely and, so far, assignments have had a maximum word count of just 250 words.  We are also learning about turning names, dates and facts from the census, birth certificates and other documents we discover in our research into flesh and blood; trying to get a feel for, and understand, the person involved.   So, for this week’s assignment, I challenged myself to do some creative writing in an attempt to capture  my husband,  John’s great grandmother as a young woman….

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The driver pulls on the reins and the horses slow to a stop outside a double storey building with an upstairs veranda. The blue paint is peeling and the building is in need of repair.

“This is it,” my mother puts her hand on my arm gently.  My stomach sinks. I had always dreamed of coming to Sydney, but not like this.

We alight from the carriage onto the street, muddy from the constant stream of horse vans and the occasional motor car.  I hold onto my mother whose face is pale. Tears sting my eyes.

“It will be fine dear.  I will be staying close-by.”

As we approach the front door, we are confronted by a sign and I drop my head in shame.  Inside a plump woman in a nurse’s uniform greets us.  My mother gives my name, in hushed tones.

“How old are you dear?” the nurse asks me.

“Seventeen,” my mother answers for me, “she was born in December 1893.”

“And how far gone is she?”

I start to cry. I can’t believe I am standing here in a Mission Home in the city, miles from our home.

“Hush now,” my mother scolds but gently.

I’m scared. I know I have to live here for the next six months.  Mother says she will raise the baby as her own.  No-one will ever know.  But I’m scared.  I don’t know how to have a baby.  I don’t know what the future holds. I’m just so scared.

My Grandpa

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This is a short assignment piece submitted for a course I am studying. The focus was on changing place.

My grandfather was 18 when the First World War broke out and he left his life as a farmhand, and his home in a little cottage in Montrose on the East Coast of Scotland, a small farming community set amongst the greenest fields.  He came from a long line of farm servants and cattlemen on his father’s side and domestic servants on his mother’s: a hard-working family that loved the land.

What followed was four years of hell as he fought with the Black Watch on the front line as a machine gunner in hot and unfamiliar places like Mesopotamia.

Grandpa returned to Scotland intact but a broken man all the same.  He rebuilt his life in the city of Glasgow where the work was, renting a house on a busy street, and finding work as an Inspector on the tram cars.  As the years rolled by he continued his work as the trams became buses.

Behind his house, Grandpa created a beautiful garden, his piece of country, his solace, where he grew magnificent roses and sweet peas. I have fond memories of my sisters and me raiding the peapods when we were sent to pick them for dinner.  Yum!  He tended his garden in the type of clothes he always wore – checked shirt, breeches with braces, a tweed jacket, tweed cap and working boots, and with his pocket watch in his waistcoat.

In his heart, Grandpa never left the country, he never left Montrose.

Giving thanks for a modern world

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Recently, when I rang my children’s grandmother to tell her the exciting news that my son and his girlfriend are expecting a baby, I was very surprised by a comment she made.   Once she had asked me the appropriate questions about when the baby is due and so on, she said “I do hope he makes an honest woman of her”.  I was momentarily speechless and confused by what she said as my brain tried to sort out what she meant.  It has been a long time since I heard that expression.   Despite her 86 years, I was shocked at this old fashioned point of view from her.

The comment stayed with me as I thought about her life and the unhappy lives of some of the women in her family.    I thought too about others I have found in my family trees: the two bigamists who made “honest women” of all the mothers of their many children; the young girls who had their children taken from them for adoption or taken by the family and raised as a sibling.  What shame and guilt marred their lives because of society’s idea about what made a woman “honest”.    (No mention, of course, about honest men).

I decided to look back through the dates of my female ancestors to see if any of them had been made into “honest women”.   No surprises there.  I lost count of the number of women who married when they were two or three months pregnant, perhaps some to men they did not want to spend the rest of their lives with.  Of course, those women who were err….. dishonest….  and went ahead with the birth without a husband, had the word “illegitimate” stamped clearly on their baby’s birth certificate for all to see – to, not only add to the mother’s shame and guilt, but also to inflict it on the innocent child.

I would never say anything to my (ex) mother-in-law but I would be very happy for this beautiful, young mother of my first grandchild to make her own choices in life. Whether she ever takes on the label of my daughter-in-law or not, our lives will be intrinsically linked by a very happy occasion.  And I am sure this will make my female ancestors smile.

The Year of the Blog

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I was shocked to find, when I logged onto this blog, that I haven’t written anything since 2013. That would give the impression that I had lost interest or didn’t want to research my family history any longer but nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact I have just recently started an online course on Writing Family History through the University of Tasmania which I am enjoying and learning from.  I have also spent time sorting out my trees online and filing hard copies of certificates and information into a better system as it was getting too big to manage.

Last year I took a trip overseas and spent a month in Scotland.  I only had a window of a few days to do family tree “stuff” but I made the most of it and walked the land of my dad’s family.  I spent time in many of the little villages where my father’s family lived in the 1700s and 1800s mostly as domestic and farm servants. I can’t imagine these villages have changed much over the years.  I could almost hear the horse and carts on the cobbled stones.

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3678The most exciting part was discovering the gravestone of my great-great-great paternal grandparents at Dunnottar Cemetery (near the Dunnottar Castle above).

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Unfortunately, when I returned home, I found, in the pocket of my case, a list of cemeteries and addresses I had planned to visit while in Scotland but I  had completely forgotten.  Perhaps I need to start saving again. There is so much more to find both on my dad and my mum’s side.

I see a few people have very recently started following this blog and this has motivated me to make sure I update it regularly.  2016 will be my year for making great progress with my family trees!  It will be my year of the blog.

Family Bibles

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In recent posts, there was comment about the lack of “evidence” of our ancestors, particularly those who came from a life of poverty.  Other than some facts found on birth and death certificates and the census, it is difficult to find anything else that would tell a story of a life, “put the meat on the bones” .  There is always the hope of finding war records, medals, family bibles, photographs and so on.

Although we do not have a family bible, nor has there ever been one that I know of, I am pleased to say I have my own bible, given to me on my Christening in 1959.  It doesn’t give much information – just my name and date of the Christening, but it is something I can pass down to my children.

My Bible

My Bible

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I am researching my children’s father’s family, the Kents, and recently I was given a family bible to keep for my children so that it can be passed down the family.  It is not terribly old – it was given to my children’s great-great grandfather and great-great-grandmother on the occasion of their marriage in 1898 and has some of the family tree inside.

Kent Family Bible

Kent Family Bible

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Kent Family Tree

Kent Family Tree

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There is much now to be added to the family tree in the bible, but I hesitate to add it in as my hand writing is terrible and I would hate to spoil the lovely old bible. Perhaps I will just type it out on paper and slip it inside.

It was exciting to be given the bible and then to find the family tree inside. There were a few bits and pieces also inside including a couple of certificates, a newspaper cutting which I believe was from 1934 about the 24th anniversary of the accession to the throne of King George V. Also inside was a material postcard (for want of a better description) of RMS Marama. I found some information on the ship and it seems to have some relationship to the Titanic. I can also find some passenger lists. However, I have not been able to work out the connection as yet. I believe William Long and Dorcas Dunn, the original owners of the bible, met on board a ship en route to Melbourne. But the dates don’t match up so I doubt that has anything to do with their first meeting plus it is a Royal Mail Ship.  Looks like I have some more digging to do.

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I feel honoured to have had the bible passed to me for safe keeping until my own children have a home of their own where they can treasure it and keep it safe. While I have it here, they can enjoy looking at it when they visit without the responsibility!

Grandpa Smith’s War Years – Still Lost

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I have spent the past few months researching my paternal grandfather’s war years – but to no avail.  I believe only 30% of the First World War records survived a fire and it looks like his may not have.  With no service record, military number, medal, newspaper articles or documents to go on, I don’t think I will ever know that part of his history.

I began in my usual manner, putting what information I knew into various genealogical websites.  I was told if Ancestry.com did not have the information, I might as well give up.  It didn’t and I didn’t.

What made things a little harder was that I traced my grandpa through the Census until 1905 in Maryton, Angus but then he disappeared.  He was a teenager then so I tend to think he moved away from the family for work but I don’t know yet if he stayed in the area or moved perhaps to Glasgow.  My gut feeling is that he stayed in Angus maybe with another farming family.  So I am not entirely sure where he enlisted.

I turned to the Great War Forum and put in the details there – William Smith, born Maryton on 23.8.1896, Corporal Machine Gunner in the Black Watch, fought in Mesopotamia.  I had a huge response.  Historians and ex-military personnel (I assume) with an interest in the war, replied giving me what information they could.  Some went to a lot of trouble trying to find him and I was very grateful.  In the end, it was a process of elimination.  There were so many William Smiths in the First World War but we were able to rule some out due to age, place of birth, regiments and so on.

I managed to come up with a list of William Smiths I could not eliminate.  The gentlemen on the Forum were able to help me here.  It seemed the regimental number gave an indication of the soldiers’ battalions and many of these were discounted because their battalions did not go to Mesopotamia.  Apparently the only battalion from the Royal Highlanders’ Black Watch that did serve there was the 2nd so I was able to narrow down the number of William Smiths quite a lot.  However some of the Battalions changed their number when they moved or merged with another regiment and some members of the Black Watch were moved from one regiment to the Machine Gun Corps.  All very confusing for me especially as when this happened, the soldiers were given different numbers.

In an earlier post, I told the story about my grandfather’s Princess Mary Christmas Tin and I mentioned this on the Forum.  Apparently that narrowed it down to either the 1st, 2nd or 5th battalion so the 2nd was still looking hopeful!

In the end, I have one William Smith left that I cannot eliminate.  That is William
Smith, 11863/61734.  I do know that this soldier’s war records did not survive the war but he did.  I think this is my grandfather but I can’t be positive so, for the moment, I am at a dead end.

What I do know is that the soldiers who fought in Mesopotamia had a terrible time with the freezing cold, lack of supplies and being outnumbered by the Turkish army.  Very few survived and I can only be grateful my grandpa did – or I would not be here!

A postscript to this is a very strange coincidence.  One of the members of the Great War Forum told me that he knew the area of Maryton very well as he lived close-by.  My grandfather also lived in Dennistoun, Glasgow for a while and he also knew that area.  After exchanging messages and information over a few weeks, the gentleman wrote to me to tell me that while looking at my grandpa’s details he realised that he had actually lived in the very same house in which my gran and grandpa married!  That gave me such a thrill.  Even though I wasn’t able to confirm that I had found my grandfather, this news gave me a sense of being very close to him.

The only photo I have of my grandfather taken in 1956 in Glasgow

The only photo I have of my grandfather taken in 1956 in Glasgow

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