Beatrice and George: a love story, a young family and a great loss.

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My grandparents, George MacFarlane and Beatrice Bentley, met in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) sometime in 1914 or 15 and married in Market Harborough in 1920. I know that statement probably raises more questions that it answers, but I’m afraid I don’t really know very much more than the bare bones. George, newly qualified, had been sent out to work as a chemist in Kandy, don’t ask me why, but there is a theory that it had something to do with taking medicines out there to help fight an outbreak of plague which had taken place in the country round about this time (which I CAN verify thanks to Wikipedia!). In true Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are fashion, I have found him listed as a passenger on board the P&O steamer SS Malwa which set sail from London on the 7th of April 1911, calling in at Colombo, Ceylon. However that’s where the WDYTYA similarity ends because I can’t find him on any returning voyage, nor is there a team of helpful experts ready to tell me where to look for evidence of how George would have spent his time in that far off outpost of empire. So we’ll just have to imagine – think elephants, temples, tea plantations…

As for Beatrice, she was 17 when she set off from Liverpool on the 10th of December 1914 on board the SS Leicestershire. She is listed as a governess, accompanying Mr and Mrs WG Wishart and Miss Jessie Wishart. Miss Jessie was probably only a year or two younger than Beatrice herself. The return journey was made by the three intrepid ladies in December of the following year on board the SS Gloucestershire, William Wishart no doubt remaining behind to pursue his business interests.

So, we can only speculate about the 25 year old George and the 18 year old Beatrice falling in love during that year when she was out in the far east. Did they maybe meet at an afternoon tea party, dance together under the moon, share their hopes and dreams, make plans to be reunited back in Blighty and then write letters to each other during the months and years they were apart. I have no idea. All I know is that the next we hear of them is their wedding on the 8th of September 1920, so SOMETHING must have happened!

The young couple settled in Fort William, where George took over the family chemist business from his widowed father, Peter, and they lived with him in the commodious flat above the shop at 50 High Street. It wasn’t long before the family began to grow, and at last I have some pictures to show you – here’s a wee slideshow. I particularly like the ones where the children are grubby… and that one with the whole family out with the pram, doesn’t John remind you of “Just William”?

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I am named after my paternal and maternal grandmothers, Beatrice and Margaret. I know little about my mother’s mother, Maggie Hynes, though I’m working on it… But it was always going to be on the cards that my dad would call his eldest child after his beloved mother, for she died when he was only 11 and that loss affected him deeply for the rest of his life, I think he never really stopped longing for her.

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As a child, you don’t always appreciate what it means when you are told that someone in a previous generation died before you were even born – it seems like the natural order of things. Now of course, I can understand what a tragedy it was that this grandmother of mine died of TB in 1932 at only 35 years of age. It’s quite a shock to realise that had she lived she’d only have been 57 when I was born in 1954. It is also painful to know that a diagnosis of TB in the 1920’s and 30’s was more likely than not a death sentence, as antibiotics did not become widely available until the 1950’s.

Beatrice left behind the three cherished children, John aged 11, Mary aged 8, Donald aged 6 and her distraught husband George, who was probably singularly ill equipped to deal with this bereavement given that he had lost his own mother when he in turn was only 6. His wife died far from home at the Tor-na-Dee Sanitorium, Aberdeen and due to a mix up, the telegram notifying George was delayed by three days. It’s said that he wept inconsolably when he heard the news. I rather think he found himself unable to be of much comfort to his children and I’ve heard that they became rather neglected and that George took rather more refuge in the bottle than was healthy.

Beatrice spent at least two extended periods in sanitoriums being treated with rest and fresh air, the prescribed therapy at the time. The family wouldn’t have been able to visit as the disease was so terribly infectious. So, starting in May 1931 George made sure that John, Mary and Donald wrote letters to their mother every Sunday, many of which are still in existence, though as far as I know none of the replies from Mama. Here are the first couple of letters sent by Mary to her mother. Reading that second one especially, you get a strong sense that Mary felt as if she had just gone out of the room for a short while.

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All three children wrote regularly, the letters of the older two being full of all the things they were busy with – how they were doing at school, what games they were playing, what cousins they were visiting, how tall they were, the excitement of the talkies coming to Fort William…. and so on. Donald, being only 5 or 6 would dictate his letters and either George or Mary would write them out for him (John didn’t seem to have the patience!) and he would fill up the rest of the page with kisses, letters or numbers …. like this. (Mary has added the explanation, but Donald has signed his own name at the bottom.

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I suppose over the months the children gradually grew more used to not having their mother at home. She was still absent by Christmas, and I have to say it’s heartbreaking to read their letters wishing her a happy Christmas and telling her about the presents they received. I’m sure she wept many tears over those words. There’s a gap in the letters once we get into 1932, but I’m not sure if Beatrice was allowed home for a while, or if it’s just that those ones are missing. I’d like to think it was the former. At some point she was transferred from the Sanitorium at Kingussie to Aberdeen. The letters have got rather darker by the autumn and George seems to have gone for a visit in September as Mary writes to him asking how Mama is doing. (He couldn’t visit much, as he had the business to run and the household to supervise, also he didn’t have a car.)

All the children talk more about how they were praying for her. John’s final letter to his mother was written just five days before she died, and I find it very touching that he was finding a little comfort from sleeping in her bed…

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Beatrice Headstone

Beatrice is buried at Cille Choirill Graveyard, Roybridge, where many MacFarlanes have been put to rest. Many decades later, her daughter Mary’s ashes were scattered at her mother’s grave by my cousin Michael, who, like me, would have been one of Beatrice’s 16 grandchildren.

 

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A Poem from Wartime

I mentioned before that my father was in the RAF during WW2. He was a radio operator and was posted to South Africa, Italy and North Africa. These are his service medals.

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Dad never really talked much about his war experiences and the photographs he brought back are mostly of his pals – Tommy, Vic, Skip, Roy… Here’s a slightly hazy one of him in Egypt in 1945, still managing to look quite dapper in those shorts.

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Going through my mum’s papers, I found that she had kept a poem he wrote when he was stationed in South Africa. It was written in pencil and rather faded, so she copied it out, noting “Poem written by my darling John during a thunder storm in South Africa during World War 2”

The sun is hidden, undecided;  /  The clouds torment the trees,  /  Thunder lurks, loose, yet undivided  /  By the faintest breath of breeze.

The coming storm is longed for, hoped for  /  To ease the electric atmosphere,  /  There is no time now to stop the downpour,  /  Let it come, yet still I fear.

Long streaks of light create a chaos,  /  Rivers swell and oceans roar.  /  Death, destruction, killing, fire,  /  The earth is shaken to the core.

Filled with dread, yet never doubting,  /  This terror comes in the murk of night.  /  But after night will come a dawning  /  Of beauty – breathless, fresh and white.

Another thing he gave her from those days was this little plastic aeroplane (it’s just a couple of inches long) which he had made. I found it safely tucked away along with the half crown he put in her hand at their wedding.

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Sisters, sisters……

Take a good look at these six photos – notice anything?

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That’s right, we are all wearing the same First Communion dress! And of course me being the oldest (Beatrice, 1961) I got to wear it new, AND I probably got to choose it too – tough luck little sisters! I think that by the time it reached Eleanor in 1971 there had been an invisible mend or two (Mum was good at those – she had to be) and the veil seems to have totally disappeared. In fact if you look at Jane, 1970, that’s not the original veil at all. I’d love to know what happened to that hardworking outfit – maybe we could resurrect it for a new generation, these things never really go out of fashion, do they?

The other thing I notice about this array of pictures is that it not only graphically illustrates the hand-me-down nature of being a family of six girls, it also tracks the movement of our family over the years. My first communion picture was taken outside St Anthony’s Church in Govan, which was where our family lived in a tenement flat within hooter distance of Fairfields Shipyard on the Clyde. In 1963 when the frock had been passed on to Ann, we had gone up in the world and were having our pictures taken outside the front door of what became our much loved family home in the West End of Glasgow. As you can see from Mary, 1964 and Grace, 1966, having your picture taken at the front door became something of a family tradition, and carried on long after our dear Dad left us in 1981 and the life of the house carried on without him. Here are a couple of examples from my own collection, and I know that members of the family will have many more…

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It was a momentous event for us when we came to sell 8 Kersland Street in 2014. Mum had lived there for a total of 50 years,  half a century since we had migrated over the river and taken possession of what seemed to us a palatial home on two floors, not to mention a garden, compared to the room and kitchen with tin bath and loo on the landing that we were used to in Govan. I still remember the wonderful imaginative games we used to play together downstairs in the “big room”, including one where we had to traverse the room by climbing over the furniture – anyone who touched the floor was out, and many arguments ensued over whether this one or that one’s foot did or did not make contact with the floor. And we did argue, of course we did, like any family. We would split into factions – The Big Ones, The Wee Ones, The Babies… I’m afraid I used to resent terribly always being made responsible for the behaviour of my sisters and I would often lead the daily crocodile to school “hold hands with your sister” in a bad mood and would walk too fast for the wee ones, and hold their hands too tight. I hope it’s not too late to say I’m sorry.

But you know, mostly what I remember about growing up in our little corner of the West End is the feeling of closeness with my sisters, of knowing that this was our own little world that we could rely on and feel safe in. My memories of all the things we did together come in random waves – Mum taking us to the Botanic Gardens and the Art Galleries: watching Doctor Who from behind the settee: counting how many times you could run round and round the back garden; standing for hours watching our Dad tinkering with “Victor”, the car, occasionally being allowed to hand him a tool; days out at the Trossachs where we would light a fire and cook sausages for tea and spend a lot of time poking sticks in streams; going down Byres Road to Woolworths to spend our “Saturday penny”; the summer we went to Church Street Baths every day and learned to swim… I could go on and and on, and yes, all these memories are of sunny days!

One last recollection is of my “Give a Show” projector, a kind of magic lantern toy I was given for my birthday when we were still living in Govan, so I must have been 9 or younger. I used to love this toy, and would line up my sisters on top of the coal cellar cupboard we had in the hall of our tiny flat, with a sheet hanging over the front door for our screen. I’d then make them watch the entire collection of 16 slide shows, doing all the voices in fine dramatic style, everything from Cinderella to Popeye – “Avast ya swab, leggo my goil!” This of course continued once we were in Kersland Street in our more commodious auditorium (the aforementioned Big Room), the audience enhanced by the addition of Jane (who had been just a baby when we moved) and Eleanor (who arrived in a bit of a hurry the following year).

They say, don’t they, that your position in the family affects who you are. Oldest children are supposed to be smarter and more successful than their siblings. Well, I don’t know about that (I’m not), but I certainly think my leadership qualities (bossiness) and organisational skills (desire to be in control) do stem from those early days of being the oldest. This picture says it all really …

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The years – in fact the decades – pass, and our siblings gradually transform into real people, and wonderful friends who are always willing to understand and forgive you in a way no-one else can. At least mine do, and for that I am very grateful. Here we are all together celebrating Eleanor’s wedding day in 2011: not a hand-me-down in sight!

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A Glasgow Wedding, 1953

Here’s the wedding party gathered at the Grand Central Restaurant in Jamaica Street for my Mum and Dad’s wedding breakfast. I wish that the photographer hadn’t made them wait so long with their ankles daintily crossed and their smiles fixed. You just can’t help feeling that they were all taken unawares when the flash bulb finally did go off and captured – slightly the wrong – moment. But I suppose setting up your camera with its flash bulb, etc, was a lot more of a palaver in the 50’s than today’s profligate age of digital photography and you just had to take what you could get! I do have a better, more smiley photograph of just the bride and groom you’ll be glad to know.

My cousin Catriona remarked that the priest (whose name I think might be Father Kavanagh) looks like someone out of Father Ted, and I can see what she means – poor chap’s probably wondering when he’s going to get his cup of tea, or something stronger. And my Uncle Donald (standing, far right) certainly looks a bit shell shocked. Though mind you, at that point young Donald, his firstborn, was only about 9 months old, so maybe he and wife Mary (seated, far left) had just been up all night with the son and heir.

It could also be that my Dad’s other sibling, Mary (standing far left) had also recently done a night shift as I believe she was training to be a nurse at that time, in Helensburgh. In fact, apart from the priest and the seated Auntie Mary, I don’t think any members of this group actually hailed from Glasgow. The other individuals in the front row comprise George MacFarlane, Dad’s father, his sister Winnie Chisolm and his wife Jessie, all from the Highlands. The people in the back row are, I think, Mum’s relatives from Ireland, though I’m ashamed to say I can’t just at the moment say which is which.

Looking at the handsome young man in his uniform (Dad joined the Merchant Navy as a radio officer after he was de-mobbed from the RAF after the war) and the pretty woman on his arm, I am reminded of the story of John and Nellie and how they met. Nellie had come to Scotland from County Mayo in Ireland in the late 1940’s. She had taken a position as housekeeper/nanny to a family of six children, the MacFarlanes at 50 High Street in Fort William. Jessie was George’s second wife and the children were the offspring of this marriage. Dad, Mary and Donald were the children of the first marriage and had grown up and left home by the time Nellie arrived. I’ll tell the rest of the story in the words of my sister Mary:

‘Nellie thrived in her new life in Scotland. One day around 1951 at 50 High Street, she heard a man’s voice calling down the stairs, “Who is staying in my room?” It was John MacFarlane, the oldest son of the first family, returning home for a visit. The two fell deeply in love and were married on 18th March 1953 in St Joseph’s Church, Clarkston’

Which is where we come in with our photo … If Jessie was annoyed at losing her marvellous mother’s help, she’s managing to hide it very well! By the way, I have the invoice here in front of me, and the bill for the entire breakfast, including 14 persons @ 6/6d a head; Rental of Rooms @ £1.1s; Wedding Cake @ £4.10s and Sherry, Port & Beer @ £2.14s comes to a princely £12.16s. That’s about £340-odd in today’s money, still a modest little celebration and nothing like the lavish amounts spent on weddings today. I suppose that brings it home to you just how different were those years of austerity following the Second World War, not to mention people’s expectations. It really does seem like a lost age, even though it’s not even 100 years ago.

Mother’s Day 2017

So, Mother’s Day will be here soon. My dear Mum, Ellen Hynes MacFarlane, has been gone two years now, but somehow she’s as much with us as the day she died, age 92, in 2015.

She had slipped away gradually over the previous two or three years, a process of becoming physically and mentally frailer, as her marbles, her memories, gradually and inexorably rolled away from her, leaving her with only the need to hold on ever tighter to those she loved and she knew loved her. She may have often forgotten our names, but she always knew who we WERE, and reached out to us to seek the comfort of our love, especially in her final days. And she never stopped being herself. One of the last things to go was “Danny Boy.” When she could no longer remember the house she had lived in for 50 years, she could sing Danny Boy, note and word perfect, from beginning to end. She probably sang it on this, her 90th birthday celebration.

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Arranging her funeral, though naturally sad, was in many ways a joyous task, and I think enabled we six sisters to express our love for this tiny indomitable Irish woman, not always easy to live with but so full of vision and determination for her family. I think maybe the very best thing was my sister Mary’s inspired idea to hold the funeral reception in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Galleries, where Mum was a guide for many years. She would have so loved this unique tribute and it really did feel that she was with us when we mourners gathered together in the great hall while the magnificent Kelvingrove organ resounded to the strains of – what else? – Danny Boy. The memory still brings tears to my eyes.

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