Following the Female Line

The three women in my immediate female line: my mother Kathleen Phillips (centre), grandmother Hannah Brown (right), and great grandmother Sarah Lee (left).

‘As I watched a tallow candle burn in a seashell, I tried to sense the ancient life of the cavern and its early inhabitants. And something strange happened; a connection opened between the caves and my own deep layers of memory. Their shadowy depths seemed to generate wisps of recall, floating streams of impressions that came from a realm beyond my conscious grasp. The Great Mother had stored the memories of her former children here and, even though I could not capture them distinctly, I received fleeting glimpses of the manifold life she had contained in her rocky womb, of the times when both beasts and humans lived within her shelter. The memories of the lives she nourished are still alive there.’

I was visiting Kents Cavern, an extraordinary set of caves entered through a clifftop, near Torquay in Devon. Passing through the unassuming door in the visitor centre, I stepped from the everyday world back into ancient times, entering the darkness of Stone Age, where humans and wild beasts lived in uneasy proximity. I was writing my book The Circle of Nine, about feminine archetypes, and what could have been more symbolic for my chapter on the Great Mother? The opening quote of this blog is taken from this. And, in a more general sense, the experience also linked into my long-term quest to explore my mother’s line of ancestors.

A rock formation in Kents Cavern, which looks rather like the head of a woman. And visiting the caves at a later date with my granddaughters Martha and Eva.

Discovering your female line
For women, and very possibly for men too, reconnecting with the female line can be an empowering experience. We emerge from our mother’s body, as she emerged from her mother, and so on, back to our earliest female direct-line ancestor. We can find ways to sense this lineage with only a few facts at our disposal, but through the excellent family history research tools available now, we may be able to get acquainted in more detail with individual grandmothers back through the generations, whose existence we knew nothing of before.

My research into the female line was triggered by my mother’s death, in the year 2000. She was 87, and although I knew that she couldn’t last much longer, I hadn’t take the chances that those last few years offered. Suddenly, I had no living link to my mother’s line of ancestors, and I longed to know more. Following family history research up the mother’s line, sometimes called rather condescendingly ‘the distaff side’, is a quest with a particular challenge. Most modern societies are patrilineal, which means that it’s the father’s surname which is usually passed down through the family, and thus women often change their surname in every generation. Once the oral history link is broken, the female line can all too easily slip into the shadows.

My mother Kathleen as a little girl (centre) with her parents Hannah and Bernard, sister Maisie and brother Neville

Maria and the Army
But nevertheless, approaching family history through historical records can reveal things that our mothers and other close relatives may never have known. My first great thrill, when I took up the research, came when I discovered that my 3 x gt grandmother, Maria Owens, had travelled with the army. It’s on record that she accompanied her soldier husband Edward to Sicily in the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, and gave birth to a daughter there in 1812. Possibly she was with him earlier, in 1809, at the battle of Corunna too. I was inspired to read up about ‘camp followers’, a disparaging term for the wives who were often desperate to stay with their army husbands, and might indeed become destitute if they didn’t. There was a cruel system on some campaigns, where the wives had to travel to the ports of embarkation to take part in a lottery, in order to become official followers. Although I don’t think my grandmother had to do this, just as an example in her case this would have meant travelling from mid-Wales to Plymouth, a huge distance on difficult roads. Those who failed to win a place had to make their way home, sometimes hundreds of miles, with no travel or living expenses awarded to them. Some women jumped into the sea, rather than face this.

But Maria made it one way or another – many women ‘followed’ unofficially, and often had a hard, if adventurous time, unless they were officers’ wives. Maria was married to a foot soldier, so no luxury would have come her way. Female camp followers struggled to find food to eat, and worked as unpaid cooks and laundresses. It must have tested her courage to the full.

Female camp followers of the period, travelling with children in tow.

The Travelling Urge – I visited the ruins of the little stone cottage in mid-Wales, to which they returned when soldiering days were done, and imagined her leaving this remote, rural environment for the army life in faraway foreign lands. Did this influence the family line ever after? Her grandson, David Owen, my mother’s grandfather, definitely had a roaming urge. His calling as a Baptist minister took him from Wales to Devon to the USA and back to the English Midlands. It’s said in the family that he sought a more open mindset than he could find in rural backwaters. One of his daughters, my Auntie Blanche, wrote to me that she had an adventurous turn of spirit which she attributed to growing up in America. And I’ll confess to a restlessness in my own moves around the country, and to a strong urge to visit many far-flung places abroad, such as the Silk Road, Siberia, and Easter Island. Perhaps if Maria had never decided to go with Edward, that spirit would not have been embedded in the family, on my mother’s side.

The remote hillside where Maria and Edward Owens lived after their return from the army, in Bwlch-y-Sarnau, in mid-Wales. This is the site where their cottage once stood.

Seeking a better life
A very different 3 x great grandmother of mine, who is the earliest known grandmother in my direct female line (ie mother’s mother’s mother etc), is another Maria but in this case a Maria Adie, born into a different kind of life at the end of the 18th century. She came from a family, who were silk weavers and miners in the Midlands town of Bedworth. They were poor, as all such workers were, and lived in the humblest terraced cottages in the town. Her daughter Jane, my 2 x great grandmother, started work as a ribbon weaver when she was a child, though she was at least able to learn how to read and write. The Bedworth trade of weaving decorative silk ribbons for ladies’ gowns and bonnets sounded glamorous, but the weavers themselves and their families worked long hours for a pittance. The Adies, and the Lee and Brown families which succeeded them, must have struggled desperately to stay afloat when the bottom fell out of the silk trade around 1840. (This was due to ill-advised import duty changes by the government.) Their town became known as ‘Black Bedworth’, rife with famine and violence. Many families were offered charity places on boats travelling to the USA and Canada, and emigrated from the area.

The images show patterns for the ribbons that were woven from silk, and how they might be used on ladies’ attire

But Jane’s own daughter Sarah (my great-grandmother) found a means of escape with her miner husband Henry. He made a shrewd sideways step, and took a job on the railways. This was a passport to moving elsewhere, something very difficult to do for working people at the time. In their case, it took them to a more secure way of life in Northamptonshire. Here Henry became first a porter and then a signalman at Althorp station, the train halt for Althorp Park, later the home of Princess Diana. Not all the traumas of their previous life were left behind, however, as two of their children died of a diphtheria outbreak due to a polluted water supply.

Below you can see my gt grandmother Sarah Lee, standing with her daughter Sophie who kept the Post Office at Great Brington, near Althorp in Northamptonshire. And here am I, sitting in exactly the same place about 100 years later!

Following down the female line, from Althorp my own grandmother went into service in ‘the big house’ as a lady’s maid. She told her children tales of her time there which, sadly, have never come down to me. I know that she worked at either Althorp itself or Holden House, but the rest is a mystery. My mother, eventually, did what her grandmothers could never dream of, by training at Homerton College, Cambridge, to become a teacher. Here she met my father, as an undergraduate.

My parents on my father’s graduation day in Cambridge (early 1930s)

Connecting with the grandmothers
So much for family history, and the pictures that it can paint of your grandmothers. But what about those grandmothers who you cannot trace this way? In my book The Circle of Nine, I’ve suggested some exercises, as other ways of re-connecting with the grandmothers of your line. An imaginative approach can be rewarding, as we discovered at a women’s camping weekend on the theme of ‘Generations’.

The outdoor site was on a gentle slope. We took a rope roughly sixty feet long and tied it securely to a tree trunk at the top of the slope, leaving the bottom end loose. The rope, representing the matrilineal line, was knotted at six points. The first knot, at the bottom of the slope, represented the maternal grandmother. Moving up the rope, the second represented the great-grandmother, and so on up to the knot representing the five-times great-grandmother closest to the tree. One by one, each woman was blindfolded and handed the free end of the rope. From there, she worked her way up the slope, hand over hand on the rope with a helper each side to support her. As each woman pulled her way up the rope, she paused at each knot and greeted the grandmother of that generation. By the close of the exercise, she had travelled roughly 200 years back in time, “meet¬ing” maternal ancestors, most of whom she had previously known nothing about. When we shared our impressions, however, most of us felt that we had had real communication with these unknown grandmothers.

If you don’t have the facilities to try this exercise – and it does indeed take some setting up! – you could create a much simpler version. Simply substitute a length of cord that will stretch across the room, with enough to spare for knot-tying as above, and a loose end for holding. Secure one end of the cord to an anchor point such as a door handle. Ensure that you have a clear passage across the room, and with your eyes closed, hold the end of the cord and make your way from one knot or ‘grandmother’ to another, as just described. Keep the action gentle, without too much physical force. This could be done alone or with other women in turn.

And you can even do a completely internalised version: imagine yourself holding that knotted rope, and feeling your way along it to pay tribute to each grandmother. Find a way that works best for you, for instance by just invoking a tactile sense of the rope, rather than seeing it as an image. Or you can picture the rope as it was in our outdoor exercise, stretching up a grassy hill to an old, ancient tree beyond, to which it is safely tethered. Feel free to experiment and see which is the most evocative way for you to connect with the grandmothers.

Washing clothes in the 18th century: Remembering the everyday activities which both we and our great grandmothers carried out can also be a way to connect to their line – even if methods have changed!

There are simple everyday activities which can also connect a woman to her female ancestry. Just bring your grandmothers to mind as you do the same simple things that they would have done – picking blackberries, washing clothes, stirring a pot on the stove. Our lives have expanded greatly now in terms of professions and occupations, but there are core tasks that we still do, which haven’t changed so very much. Pick up ordinary objects, such as baskets, combs, saucepans, spoons, and spades – let your mind run back up that female line, and enjoy the moment of sharing activities passed down from mother to daughter.

Picking blackberries – something that never goes out of fashion! Painting by Myles Birket Foster

The grandmothers who surprise us
Returning to family history research, you may stumble across female ancestors whose lives were just that bit different. As well as my globe-trotting grandmother Maria, I’ve also discovered a 4 x grandmother in Ireland who was abducted by her cousin at the age of 13. She was carried off by an ‘raiding party’ from Waterford to Wales, from Wales to Scotland where they got married, then from Scotland to Brighton and thence to Paris, with the magistrate’s men hot on their heels. I’ll be telling her story in my blog next week, so catch the next episode here!

So at last my mind could now run up and down the storylines, feeling both compassion and admiration for my grandmothers who struggled to provide a better future for their granddaughters-to-be. I relish knowing that some of my grandmothers had adventures, probably facing more challenges than I have ever had to, in our much-expanded way of life today. I’m thankful that they persisted, sometimes against the odds, and kept their line going.

My own family group – myself as a baby with my brother Richard and parents Kathleen and Ormonde, taken in about 1950

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested in:

A Tale of Two Samplers

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

3 thoughts on “Following the Female Line

  1. Interesting read Cherry. I’ve traced my mother’s line for a while, and have a nice three-generation photo like yours! The family resemblances are interesting. I can see your face in your mother, and more faintly in your grandmother! Also that cave looks really interesting! Have to visit when we can again!
    Rod

    Like

  2. This is a fantastic post. I love the idea of the rope – although I may only manage the internalised version. You also mention in the caption “everyday activities” and I know that I do things my grandmother’s way in the kitchen. Similarly, people are often surprised that I can manage a vegetable garden competently, and I feel that it’s just in my blood. I’m absolutely delighted to find that my daughter has an interest in learning “the ropes” in the garden.

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