CONTEMPLATING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHS
As we approach the turn of the year, I am thinking of recent ancestors and the visual records they have left. This photograph is of my paternal great grandmother was taken by a professional photographer in the first decade of the twentieth century. You can see that it has been carefully posed. This is before the era of family snaps, let alone selfies. Being photographed is an occasion.
At that time the family were tenant farmers in East Lothian, Scotland, and the photographer was based in Haddington, the county town. I am sad to say that I know very little about my great grandmother as an individual, of who she really was. In her picture I read both dignity and diffidence. A certain natural stillness, perhaps, and inner strength. In a sense she was the matriarch of an family group in which the tenancy was largely worked by two sons, one of whom had a family of his own, though I am not sure of how far she filled that role.
I feel frustrated by my lack of knowledge and understanding even as I write, and I’m trying not to default into writing about my great grand father instead. I do know a bit about him – strong traditional Presbyterian, Elder of the Kirk, political Unionist whose Unionism extended to the whole of Britain and Ireland. I do imagine my great grandmother as being in the slip stream of all this. She didn’t live long enough to be a voter; I don’t even know how she felt about this. She did live long enough to know my father and his sister as children and there is an indirect link through them, though they didn’t actually say much about her to me. The picture below is from 1909, with the two children looking dressed up and solemn.
I do not have to go far back in family history to find myself in an unfamiliar cultural landscape, and to appreciate that I am an outsider to my own family members. I was given little family information about these days when growing up, and the very aspects of pre-1914 history and culture that I have studied or engaged with were ones that didn’t enrol my great grandparents. They were the older generation, defined by both their immediate culture and the reign of Queen Victoria, only recently ended.
The world of these photographs was not to last. When my great grandfather, predeceased by my great grandmother, died in 1916, the tenancy ended and neither of his sons negotiated a new one. My grandfather, grandmother, father and aunt moved to Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, and became a corn merchant. His brother emigrated to Australia. The heavy duty politics and religion were ameliorated. A way of life had gone. My father, born in 1907, moved to England in 1929 and I was born in Somerset in 1949, much closer to my mother’s family who came from Exeter in Devon. The years have continued to roll on. 1949 was only forty years on from the picture of the two children. There have been seventy one years since, which is food for thought in itself. Looking at her portrait, I understand that whilst I do not know, and will never know, my great grandmother, I can appreciate her through the image that’s presented, without narrative information, and also without mythology or romance.
Interesting to think about these long-lost and unknown ancestors. I don’t know much about my family either, and I don’t really know where to start. My grandparents never spoke much about their parents, preferring to live in the present. I have links to Northern Ireland and the West Midlands, and Staffordshire where I grew up, but that’s about all I know.
Thanks for this comment. I believe it’s this way for a lot of people in the UK – focused on present and future in a way that somewhat neglects the experience and memory of earlier generations.
I was lucky enough to know my great grandmother, she died when I was 5. I know she must have had a hard life, working in the cotton mills of Lancashire and giving birth to 13 children, only 3 of whom lived to adulthood. Her husband would often go off, working his passage on cattle boats to America, where he spent all his money and returned – and presumably got her pregnant again! I remember her, dressed in long clothes, pinafore, clogs and shawl, as a kindly presence who would bring me an orange or a bar of chocolate and nurse me on her knee. I was heartbroken when she died while I was seriously ill in hospital with measles.
Looking at her photograph I feel a strong connection and blessing to have her as an ancestor.
Thanks for sharing your great grandmother’s story Linda. You bring her alive with it.