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8 Feb 2014

The exclusion of the sisterhood

When Ellen Smith married at the pretty, remote, church of St Lawrence in 1874, it was pretty final.  She kept in touch with her sisters, who fled the area around the same time, and whose holiday snap at Clacton ten years earlier tells of the closeness between them.

But the address book slammed shut on the others.  The death of Mrs Smith in 1867 had been followed by an unpopular marriage of the father.  One-by-one the three girls left their former home and for them it never became their home again.  The eldest girl made rapid vows at 18 as did the boy a year later, who not only married an older lady but apparently emigrated too.  There remains a shadow over the character of the father, Henry, and his role within the family.

The dust had long settled by the 1920s when Ellen was living in some comfort in North London and penning a letter to her very pregnant daughter and musing on old times.  From now on, all that mattered were her husband children and family plus of course those dear sisters.  The editing pen had been viciously active over the Smith family and we didn't get the full picture for many years.

1986 and I get a Smith family tree through the post - well it was for Ellen's family by marriage but the Smiths got a mention.  I can't figure out the hand - my uncle, his mother?  On it the sisters feature of course but not so much the brothers.  One version has an enigmatic '?' while another puts the boy's name down, William.

This family were great at deleting people they didn't want to remember, or claimed not to remember.  Yes let's remember the happy 1920s Christmases at the house in Muswell Hill with nice tidy children and Edwardian elegance.  But what about a few miles down the road?

Arthur Smith, the brother-who-never-was, had produced 12 children and now grandchildren who weren't bank managers and couldn't always find work and were not so well-off but did alright - in Bermondsey.

Did Ellen fear a door-knock and her ancient Suffolk past catching up with her.  Not one brother, but TWO elided from the tree.  And then her nephew's children going into care as well.  No wonder she repressed a gasp in 1921 when she opened the door and out stood her niece, Miss Daisy Skinner looking quite confident in the autumn cool.  For a moment Ellen wondered what the lady wanted.  She was ready to close the door.  But Miss Daisy had done alright.  She was getting herself together.  While Daisy may genuinely have been fond of this uptight old aunt, there was a business perspective to her visit.  Who knows how she'd spent her twenties - dancing, clerical work, or dressmaking - but she was now about to buy a little hotel by the sea, and family members would be useful income for her.

Whew.  Ellen allowed her grip to unravel from the newel post of the staircase at the house in Hornsey.  It hadn't been her brothers' family.  It was only Sophy's girl.  She'd been married over 40 years and still the inconvenience of her brothers and father bothered her.  What had William been doing in America, was he going to come back?  Arthur had broken a gasworks strike and subsequently done a runner.  He wouldn't be back, but his family - could find her at any time.


Suspicion clouded her mind but not a whisper of this reached her daughter.  The ability to compartmentalise the story is extraordinary.  Ellen remained fond of her sisters, and even went down to Bexhill to see them at Daisy's hotel, exactly as Miss Skinner had forecast.  She loved the place of her birth - the Old Hall at Mulbarton and several times she would speak of it, in the happy years before she lost her mother.  Even my own grandfather knew the family only as 'blue-blooded' and 'from the Hall'.

This is a peculiarly Victorian story.  The rise from solid working-class to middle-class was a precarious one for the rider.  Whilst the wife of a Methodist minister's position was fairly secure, she had duties to educate her children and ensure they made the right choices in life.  Knowledge of close family members who were not known to have made this rise would have been most alarming to her.  The advent of opportunities for wide travel - leaving not only the county (Norfolk) but the country (England) could split up even the closest of familial bonds.  Add into the mix, a disrupted childhood (death of mother, move to another isolated rural community, growing deafness of father and finally his remarriage), the importance of status or money over family and increasing mobility and the ground was set for divorce.

Ellen protected herself and her family and ironically was similar to her runaway brother in prizing everything more highly than her family of origin.  I feel she could have been closer as a mature married woman, to her brother in America, but the opportunity wouldn't have arisen.

The father Henry's paralysing deafness was the lynchpin that failed to link the family together.  His siblings were close - Richard, Harriet and the children of Sarah were still in touch into the twentieth century and did what they could for Henry.  Can anything sinister be read into his daughters' turning their back on him?  The uncle at Mulbarton had been quite specific that his wealth should go to Henry's *wife* and not to him, but this was standard practice for clued-up testators.

Another mystery is the photograph of Clacton-on-sea from, I thought, 1860, when the town wasn't founded till 1871 and railway line didn't get there till late 1860s.

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