Friday, November 14, 2008

Uncle Thomas

I thought you might be interested to hear the next instalment in the not-my-family-tree saga. When I last wrote at length, I was immersed in a murky Regency divorce case, trying to find the source of the legacy which set the sons free to leave home and marry well-connected women. Just like a Jane Austen novel!

The slightly-down-at-heel relatives of a landowning family are small-time tenant farmers living on a windswept but well-watered hillside of about 20 acres. Their cousins have inherited the big money and the titles, married their fancy cousins from neighbouring estates, have started running up massive debts and have filled their libraries with the latest works of literary and musical merit. Each rank downwards on the family social ladder marries their equivalent from the same few families, ensuring social stability and continuation of the family name, passing on land, tenancies and debts through the generations. In the 17th and 18th centuries a few are recorded as members of the Society of Friends, Quakers, attending local meetings and ensuring their positions in the local hierarchy. These are dark times, with children being forcibly baptised (or “sprinkled” as the records say) against their families’ wills. The local history is full of “beatings on the Moss”, abductions, imprisonment, accusations of witchcraft. Talk about pressure to conform! A few emigrate to the New World to escape religious persecution. But this family is sufficiently well-connected to be re-absorbed into the new order. They become Freemasons. They attend church. They are “good people” living a quiet country life. But they are going nowhere, they know their place.

Enter Uncle Thomas. Uncle Thomas was a Baillie of the Auld Toon, a fine upstanding member of society who invested in the new-fangled linen and woollen-mills, gave money towards the establishment of an Infirmary, helped fund the development of the new city of Aberdeen. But he never married. And when he knew he was dying, he drew up a Will and divided up his Inventory “to prevent dispute between family members”. I am still not sure why he chose this family group to benefit from his wealth. There were plenty of others to choose from! But there they are, second in the list of beneficiaries: the children of the deceased John of Latch. Each son inherited £200 (the sum Jane Austen writes would set a man up in life) and there was £50 for each daughter. So John Jnr. goes to University and becomes a Reverent; Arthur the Freemason marries a girl in Kingston, Surrey and emigrates to Australia; and Jean becomes Mistress of a London Choir school. It was too late for the older girls who had already married weavers and farmers within a few miles of home. But for the younger children, it was life-changing.

The character of Thomas comes through so strongly in his Testament. Near the end of his Inventory he mentions his female servant, Nellie, and leaves her £20 “for her troubles”. But a year later, with only days left to live, he asks his advocate to draw up an Addendum, leaving Nellie “the bed from the kitchen and all its bedding”, and instructing that it “be delivered to the place of her choosing at no cost to herself”…“in recognition of the great care she has taken of me during my long illness”.

These are photos of Thomas’s memorial, in the graveyard of St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen. He is tucked in by the side wall of the cathedral, protected from the wind and the rain. I truly believe he rests in peace.

1 comment:

RooKnits said...

This is so exciting! Can't wait for the next installment.