Blurring the lines between “good” and “bad”

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My grandfather never said much about his mother; he never even mentioned her name. All he ever told us was that she was an alcoholic and regularly beat him viciously, which is partly why he ran away from home at the age of fourteen.

I never gave her much thought beyond that and certainly when I was young and viewed the world simply in black and white, she was one of the “bad” ones. Recently, I researched one of my grandfather’s siblings and came away shocked at what I discovered about their mother. Genealogy, yet again, forced me to realize that I simply can’t judge my ancestors through my comfortable 21st century lens.

My great-grandmother, Mary Cullen, was born in 1881 into the slums of Liverpool.i She married my great-grandfather Jamesii shortly after he returned from the Boer War,iii where he witnessed, and likely took part in, some gruesome and traumatic events. They were dirt poor and probably were alcoholics, which wasn’t uncommon where they lived. The Liverpool slums were notorious for poverty, violence and unsanitary living conditions and were known to be among the worst of all European slums.iv

Beginning in 1904, James and Mary had three children in quick succession.v Then, over a period of 8 years beginning in 1908, Mary gave birth to seven children and buried six of them.vi They ranged in age from 3 weeks to just over a year old and the causes of their tragic deaths were most likely a direct result of their living conditions in the slums: broncho pneumonia, enteritis (inflammation of the intestines, most often caused by contaminated water or food), and marasmus (severe undernourishment).

Ethelreda’s and Margaret’s deaths, separated by seven years, must have been particularly devastating. Both just a few weeks old, they died when Mary did what so many mothers do, then and today, with their newborns: sleep with them. Ethelreda and Margaret “accidentally suffocated whilst in bed with the Mother”.vii

My grandfather Alfred was the only child born during those eight years who survived. His next eldest sibling was three years older than him, likely old enough to get outside, out of their mother’s way. But during those eight years of birth and death, my grandfather would have been a growing toddler, and was probably always under Mary’s foot, not understanding her grief, her anger, her dependence on alcohol. He would have been an easy target for her rage.

Four more children arrived after this period and three of them lived to adulthood.viii Herbert, however, died at ten years of age from pneumonia, likely the result of a serious head injury.ix The cause of his injury is a bit of a mystery: some family believe he hit his head while playing in a park; other heard that a police officer had hit him with a billy club.

All in all, my great-grandmother gave birth to fourteen children, half of whom died in infancy or childhood.

It would be easy for me to say she was a terrible woman for beating my grandfather and no doubt it was devastating for him. I’m not excusing her behaviour, but I can better understand it thanks to these birth and death records. Mary had no access to proper health or mental care; no support or time to grieve for her dying children. She was pregnant most of the time and had several living children to care for on next to no money.

The one and only thing my grandfather kept from his childhood and carried with him across an ocean to a new life in Canada, was a photograph of his mother, Mary.x Maybe he himself understood why she did what she did and perhaps even forgave her. I now look at her photograph in a whole new light, incredibly sad that she and her children had to suffer as they did.


Sources

i St. Joseph’s Church (Liverpool, Lancashire, England), Mary Teresa Cullen baptism, 9 September 1881; digital image, “Liverpool, England, Catholic Baptisms, 1741-1916,” Ancestry (http://ancestry.com : accessed 24 March 2019), image 394; citing “Reference Number 282 JOS/1/5,” Liverpool Catholic Parish Registers, Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool, England.

ii“Liverpool, England, Catholic Marriages, 1754-1932,” database, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com : accessed 30 May 2018), entry for Jacobem Eduardum Page and Mariam Teresiam Cullen, 20 June 1903, Liverpool; citing “Liverpool Catholic Church Registers,” Liverpool Record Office, England.

iii “UK, Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1949,” database, Ancestry (http://ancestry.ca : accessed 27 March 2019), entry for E. J. Page; citing “War Office: Campaign Medal and Award Rolls 1793-1949 (General Series); The National Archives, Class WO 100; Piece 362; The National Archives of the UK, Kew, Surrey, England.”

iv John Belchem, Irish, Catholic and Scouse: the History of the Liverpool Irish, 1800-1939 (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 58.

v St. Francis Xavier (Liverpool, Lancashire, England), Gulielmus [William] Page baptism, 21 July 1904; digital image, “Liverpool, England, Catholic Baptisms, 1741-1916,” Ancestry (http://ancestry.com : accessed 24 March 2019), image 66; citing “Reference Number 282 SFX/1/7,” Liverpool Catholic Parish Registers, Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool, England. Also, St. Joseph’s Church (Liverpool, Lancashire, England), Florentin [Florence] Page baptism, 16 July 1905; digital image, “Liverpool, England, Catholic Baptisms, 1741-1916,” Ancestry (http://ancestry.com : accessed 24 March 2019), image 658; citing “Reference Number 282 JOS/1/8,” Liverpool Catholic Parish Registers, Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool, England. Also, St. Joseph’s Church (Liverpool, Lancashire, England), Jacobus Edwardus [James Edward] Page baptism, 26 October 1906; digital image, “Liverpool, England, Catholic Baptisms, 1741-1916,” Ancestry (http://ancestry.com : accessed 24 March 2019), image 802; citing “Reference Number 282 JOS/1/8,” Liverpool Catholic Parish Registers, Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool, England.

vi General Register Office, “England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915,” database, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com: accessed 29 May 2018), entry for Ethelreda Page, 1908, image 8 of 8; citing “England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes,” London, England. Also, England, death certificate (certified copy) for Ethelreda Page, died 7 June 1908; registered 10 June 1908, West Derby District 8b/311, Everton South Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London. Also, General Register Office, “England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915,” database, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com: accessed 29 May 2018), entry for Alfred Page, 1909, image 1 of 36; citing “England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes,” London, England. Also, England, birth certificate (certified copy) for John Gerard Page, born 28 September 1910; registered 18 October 1910, Liverpool District 8b/9, Scotland Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London. Also, England, death certificate (certified copy) for John Gerard Page, died 19 October 1910; registered 20 October 1910, Liverpool District 8b/6, Scotland Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London. Also, England, birth certificate (certified copy) for Mary Teresa Page, born 21 September 1911; registered 6 November 1911, Liverpool District 8b/36, Scotland Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London. Also, England, death certificate (certified copy) for Mary Teresa Page, died 24 September 1912; registered 25 September 1912, West Derby District 8b/619, South Everton Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London. Also, England, birth certificate (certified copy) for Arthur Page, born 5 November 1912; registered 2 December 1912, Liverpool District 8b/1022, Scotland Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London. Also, England, death certificate (certified copy) for Arthur Page, died 11 January 1913; registered 13 January 1913, Liverpool District 8b/106, Abercromby Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London. Also, England, birth certificate (certified copy) for Walter Page, born 6 October 1913; registered 17 November 1913, Liverpool District 8b/48, Scotland Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London. Also, England, death certificate (certified copy) for Walter Page, died 1 March 1914; registered 2 March 1914, Liverpool District 8b/151, Abercromby Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London. Also, England, birth certificate (certified copy) for Margaret Page, born 15 December 1914; registered 12 January 1915, Liverpool District 8b/103, Exchange Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London. Also, England, death certificate (certified copy) for Margaret Page, died 14 February 1915; registered 16 February 1915, Liverpool District 8b/67, Exchange Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London.

vii England, death certificate (certified copy), Ethelreda Page, April quarter 1908, West Derby District 8b/311. Also, England, death certificate (certified copy) Margaret Page, January quarter 1915, Liverpool District 8b/67.

viii General Register Office, “England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1916-2007,” database, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com: accessed 29 May 2018), entry for Veronica Page, 1916, image 15 of 82; citing “England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes,” London, England. Also, General Register Office, “England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1916-2005,” database, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com: accessed 29 May 2018), entry for George Page, 1919, image 18 of 102; citing “England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes,” London, England. Also, General Register Office, “England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1916-2007,” database, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com: accessed 29 May 2018), entry for Albert Page, 1922, image 13 of 92; citing “England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes,” London, England. Also, General Register Office, “England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1916-2007,” database, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com: accessed 29 May 2018), entry for Herbert Page, 1924, image 14 of 84; citing “England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes,” London, England.

ix England, death certificate (certified copy) for Herbert Page, died 18 November 1934; registered 19 November 1934, Liverpool North District 8b/580, West Derby Sub-district, Liverpool; General Registry Office, London.

x Page, Mary Teresa (Cullen). Photograph. Digital image. Privately held by Marie Palmer, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] British Columbia, Canada. 2019.


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