Monday, 30 December 2013

Ethel Lees Shorthouse – commemorating a family centennial

As 2013 was drawing to a close I began thinking and writing again about my Great Aunt Ethel Lees Shorthouse (1886 – 1966). A hundred years ago in May 1913 she had set out adventurously to change her mundane existence in Manchester, England, an adventure that would lead to, amongst other things, a bigamous marriage and deportation by the Nazis! Her “new” life began in Adelaide, South Australia and ended in Jersey, the Channel Islands.

For a long time Ethel had been this teenager’s vague recollection of a timid old lady on a visit to her sister, my grandmother Minnie, just a few years before her death in the Bellozanne Valley, Jersey. I never thought of her again until Minnie herself died in 1982, and a cache of old postcards was discovered by her daughter, my mother Dorothy. Most of the cards bore messages sent to Minnie by Ethel during the years 1907 to 1915. They provided tantalising glimpses into Edwardian life in Staffordshire and Manchester, unresolved because the responses from her younger sister were clearly elsewhere, or had even been thrown away. I did eventually get to read some of these in 2011, cards that had been saved by one of Ethel’s granddaughters living in Southampton. Then, about 10 years after reading the “Ethel to Minnie” messages, I was lucky enough to be sent a photocopied version of Ethel’s Australian Journal from another Southampton granddaughter. Ethel had called this document “Items of my first voyages”, so, in 1913, she had plainly intended to take up travelling seriously.

These precious resources would enable me to make a first attempt, in 1998, at a kind of family history. I look back at it now and see the gaping holes, but I was untutored and working with little material and mainly faulty, fading memories. Later that year I plundered Ethel’s scant history to produce a final project for my Access to Humanities course. Ethel popped up once more to help me out with a First Degree module. And probably the best piece of academic analysis I created for my 2006 Master’s degree examined Ethel’s psychological state through three lengthy postcard messages she’d sent home from faraway Australia to Staffordshire as World War One broke out. I so wish now that this grateful and humble great niece could have appreciated her great aunt when she had the chance as a teenager in the 1960s.

My latest effort to do justice to Ethel’s memory has been interrupted by Christmas, but the research is done, and a document should materialise in the New Year. In recent years my sister Terri has discovered online archives of Australian newspapers. Contemporary articles exist which describe the rationale behind the emigration of thousands of domestic helpers to the Colonies around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. This was the movement that took Ethel to Australia. We’ve even discovered articles directly linked to events recorded in Ethel’s Journal. So a more three dimensional person is emerging from the family mythology, and the bonds of familial empathy are strengthening in ways we never dreamed.

Next year is another centenary, that of the outbreak of World War One. Whilst I have evidence that Ethel and Minnie’s brothers fought in and survived that conflict, a great uncle of mine, Harry Mattison, brother of my grandfather Bert, Minnie’s husband, died aged twenty, less than a year after the war broke out. I will mark this upcoming anniversary with little pride, rather a sense of frustration – firstly at the loss of so many other young men that, when Ethel returned after the war, she married a man much older than she, a man who, unknown to her, had abandoned his first wife and family and dishonoured himself in his own military service; secondly because the women of that time are often depicted as deliverers of white feathers, or as armaments manufacturers, then perhaps as widows. No-one remarks on those shiploads of young women who’d ventured out into the Dominions at that very time to help build successful societies in Canada, New Zealand and Australia – they provided the support necessary to “liberate” bright, articulate women from domestic chores so that they could found charitable organisations, run newspapers, or campaign for political change. These “new” women of what would become the Commonwealth owed their freedom to women like my great aunt Ethel, who then found themselves marooned abroad, often feeling guilty, and unable to support their own families in the years from 1914 to 1918.