Guard a Silver Sixpence by Felicity Davis
In July I spent a few days in Scotland traveling around some of the places where my mother’s parents once lived. I have memories and a collection of facts that I can fit together, but I want to know more, to have a better understanding of the family’s story.
While I was there I picked up a copy of the UK bestselling memoir Guard a Silver Sixpence to read on the train. Felicity Davis tells her own story of life in a complex, dysfunctional Yorkshire family, suffering abuse from her grandmother while her mother and grandfather seemed unwilling or unable to help. The book alternates chapters between Felicity’s life, and the story of her grandmother’s parents and grandparents, which were much more interesting to me, and explain to some extent how her grandmother became such a cruel, hard woman.
Felicity’s great great grandparents, John and Hannah Hinchcliffe, lived in Barnsley in Yorkshire, where John was a coal miner. In December, 1866, two underground explosions rocked the Oaks Colliery and killed 361 men and boys, including the two of the Hinchcliffe’s sons, Henry and Charles. This event was both an emotional and economic disaster for the Hinchcliffes and whole community. John and Hannah were left and six other children, a son and two daughters who were old enough to work and help support the family, and three little children, including six year old Emily and a younger brother and sister.
Little Emily, Felicity’s great grandmother, grew up in a respectable but poor family. She married William Swann, a glassblower with a drinking problem — glassblowing was apparently known as a thirsty trade. Emily and William both drank and had run-ins with the law, and the family sank into poverty and disgrace. At the age of 42, Emily and her lodger and apparent lover, John Gallagher were convicted of murdering William Swan after he had beaten Emily, and Emily and John were executed in a double hanging. Emily left behind eleven children, including four year old Elsie, who grew up to be Felicity’s grandmother.
Felicity Davis was fortunate, in a way, that her family grandmother’s family history revolves around these two well-documented incidents, a notorious mine disaster and a sensational murder case. In both cases, she quotes extensively from contemporaneous sources, with heartbreaking details that bring the story to life.
But what really interested me here is the social and economic history she shares. She doesn’t just tell us that the Hinchcliffes were miners and William Swann was a glassblower, she tells us what that meant at the time, both economically and socially, what the jobs were like, and how these occupations changed over time. Who was on their way up, and who was on their way down? How did families manage to make ends meet during hard times? Which young adults were able to marry and establish their own homes, and who needed to live at home, work, and help support their families? Many aspects of our lives are determined by the economic circumstances of the place and time where we’re born, come of age, and try to make a living and make a life for ourselves and our families. This is an area that I feel I have somewhat neglected in my own family history work, and this book made me want to learn more.
- Putting Pen to Paper — The author’s website
- Revealed: my family’s secret story of murder and misery — Article from the Yorkshire Post, June 23, 2011
- Heart-rending history lesson — Article from the Press, July 5, 2011