Studying family history as a woman, my personal experience

The picture is of my maternal grandmother: Grace Grayling, nee Sommerville.

I never studied history at school, I gave it up at age 13 because it never engaged me at school – I was far more interested in science and maths and the future.  However as I have grown older I have become more interested – not in kings and queens, but in social history; in how people lived and worked.  That’s why doing my family tree over the last few years has fascinated me.  I have had a chance to look at the history of real people.

One of the things that has fascinated me while I have been doing my family tree is the women in my past.  Take Emily Donkin, my maternal Great Grandmother.  When her husband died suddenly in 1912, she found herself going from quite a comfortable life to struggling to raise five children on very little income.  Or Mary Joyce, born in 1756 she outlived three husbands, had at least seven children and has a vast array of descendants.  Or Jemima Hinds, who, aged 19 in 1861 was working as one of four servants in a vicarage.

One of the things that makes this difficult is the lack of recorded information on women.  The early census’s record very little information on women after they are married.  Their occupations are subsumed into the occupations of their husbands.  It is only as a single woman, or widow they are included. Take Jane Crudge, for example.  She married John Heyman in 1815 in Somerset.  By 1841 they are living in London.  Neither the 1841 nor 1851 census record her occupation, although her husband’s is recorded.  In 1861, after her husband’s death, her occupation is recorded as Needlewoman.  Was she not employed in the earlier census years?  That seems unlikely as, in 1851, her daughter’s occupation is recorded as dressmaker.  More likely is that she, and her daughter, worked together, but, as a married woman, her occupation just wasn’t recorded.

And tracing women is more difficult as well.  Unless you can find the marriage record, women can get lost.  Take Mary Saunders.  She married Thomas Grayling in 1837, had three children and then seemed to disappear from the records after her husband’s death in 1854.  It was only by tracing one of her sons that I found her again.  She remarried a William Phipps and her surname changed again.

As a woman myself, it is the lives of these women that resonate with me.  I find it easier to picture them, to empathise.  This is one thing I hadn’t considered when taking on a one-name study.  By its nature a study on a surname is the study of men.  While the research and analysis is no problem, I’ve started to worry about whether I will be able to connect with the people in the same way.  But it has been brought home to me that there are still wives and daughters who are essential to the research.  Take Betsy Ann Grayling; imprisoned in 1870 at age 18 for 2 years for “Endeavouring to conceal the birth of a child”.  By looking at the lives of these wives and daughters of the Grayling family I should be able to find the personal connection that I need.

The tale of Emily Donkin

Born in 1865, she was the third of seven children born to master bookbinder William and his wife, Eliza Wilkinson.  By the time she married accounting clerk George Sommerville her parents managed to afford to employ a general domestic servant.  Her husband was an ambitious man.  His parents were Alfred Sommerville Smith, a Birmingham business man who owned several factories and ran a thriving pen manufacturing and merchant business and Eliza Mondon, a Belgian woman who became his second wife after having been his mistress before his first wife’s death.  George was their third son, but only the second legitimate son.  Both his eldest illegitimate brother, Alfred, and his father’s main heir, Albert, worked with their father in his business.  However, it seems George was determined to make his own mark.  He became an early pioneer in the film industry as a Director of the company Haydon and Urry, manufacturing cinematic projectors and branching into films to show on them.  He then went into business with Richard and James Monte who had previously been their filmmaking employees.

One of Haydon and Urry’s films that still survives was called “The Bride’s First Night”, a comedy showing a groom, on his wedding night, looking through the keyhole of a door, watching his new bride undress to his increased excitement!

The family had been living a very comfortable life.  Then George died suddenly in 1912.  Suddenly Emily’s fortune changed.  Left alone with 5 children she discovered she had no money.  Whether the money was stolen by Richard and James Monte (as my grandmother always believed) or had been spent by George living beyond his means (the 1912 census records him as an employee again rather than an employer) is unknown.  Either way, life became tough for the family and Emily had to struggle to raise her family.  More tragedy struck when her eldest daughter, Emily Mabel, died in 1915 and her eldest son, Alfred, in 1918.

Emily lived to 83 years old, dying in 1943.  Her remaining three children also lived long lives, Uncle Perce died aged 90, Uncle Bert age 82 and my grandmother, Grace, died age 95 having lived to see the new millennium.


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