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”?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.