Is it just me or can family history be quite a roller coaster? A while back, I heard, just in passing you know, that my great-granny had been cut off without a shilling… by her own dad.
But wait up a minute – why hadn’t anyone told me that before? Yes, I know I’m supposed to ask all my relatives questions – and I have. I asked my granny (the now possibly black sheep great-granny’s daughter) about her favourite subjects at school, how much pocket money she got as a child, her favourite toy and proudest moment. I asked her about kitchen appliances she had when she first got married back in 1944. But somehow or other, the question, ‘And tell me about the ancestors who were cut off without a shilling’ never came up. The story goes that my great-granny wanted to leave her family and her home in Scotland and follow the young man of her dreams to South America. And this set my imagination whirring…
I saw the young love-lorn girl tearfully dashing upstairs, stuffing her floaty white 1920s dresses into a sturdy brown suitcase, casting her eyes over her childhood bedroom, carefully stowing her beloved violin in the case too, then tearing off out of the house, and into an unknown future – all this before you could even say ‘Once upon a time’.
Now for some facts. I turned over in my mind the details that I did know and took at look at my family history records. Turning to passenger lists I could see the chap of her dreams travelling to South America several times from around 1911 (with a gap while he served in the British Army in the First World War), and there I could also see my great-granny, travelling to Brazil in 1920. And this is where my imagination proved to be so wrong. Looking across the passenger manifest I noticed my great-granny’s age – 32. So not quite the giddy girl I had supposed. And as I looked through the records further, my hasty little vision faded further. I noticed that my great-granny’s mother had died in September 1918, barely two years earlier – so perhaps her widowed father’s threat was made out of a fear that he would lose the companionship of his daughter too.
Starting to feel a lot less sure of myself, I texted my own dad, to see what else I could discover. My dad went on to say that he thinks the father had wanted to go and join his daughter abroad, but never did. And my dad also remembers his granny (my great-granny) playing her violin.
What did she play? Traditional folk tunes from Scotland.
I’m now on the trail of my great-great-grandpa’s will, to see, out of curiosity, what he actually did decide to do with his will. But whatever happens, I’m holding off judgement. And although I’ll find it very hard to stop making up fanciful stories to myself about my ancestors (Can’t you just see the old man, staring out over the ocean thinking of his daughter thousands of miles away? And can’t you feel the melancholy in the young woman’s violin playing?), I will try in future to be a better and more thorough family historian.