Betsy Somerville was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. She was one of the first people I was to find in my hunt for family – and one of the few whose story I could share with my mother before she died. I don’t know what Betsy looked like – there are no photos of her. And it’s no good looking at pictures of her children, for they are very dissimilar. And that’s because – there’s no other way of putting this – Betsy was a bit of a sucker for the men.
When Elizabeth Somerville was born in 1852, she was the ninth of eleven children born to John Somerville and Jean Wallace. John’s quite an important figure in my Somerville history, and I’ll be coming back to him later. A number of villages clustered around Lanark then and the family moved back and forth between them. Carstairs, Carluke and Cambusnethan. They were part of a generation caught up in Scotland’s inexorable slide from agriculture to industry. John’s father had worked the land, but by the time John was grown, he was toiling in the coalfields of Lanarkshire as a winding engineman.
In the 1861 census for Cambusnethan, there’s seven of them living in one room. Betsy and her two younger sisters are recorded as scholars. This should have meant that they attended school on a regular basis. However, parents were often wary of officials and would say that their children went to school when in reality they didn’t.
By the 1870s, Betsy had lost four of her brothers and sisters to consumption, a disease which spread like wildfire in the overcrowded conditions. Three more had settled down and married. But Betsy remained single. Then, in 1879, she had a child who was named for his father, James Morris. He’s a mystery to me is James Snr – all I know of him is that although he gave the boy his name, he and Betsy never married.
Now with a baby son to look after, Betsy moved in and kept house for her widowed father in Cambusnethan, her mother having died three years earlier. Nine years passed and in 1888, she was living in what was to be the first of several addresses in Blantyre. Her father was slowly, agonisingly dying. And Betsy was pregnant again. John, her second son (who would be my grandfather) was born on the 18th of August and Betsy’s father died only a month later. I think it’s significant that Betsy didn’t register the birth of the baby until after her father had died.
My grandfather’s birth certificate was the first document I ever saw. It was at the Public Record Office in Edinburgh in pre-computer days. You had to look up the indices, then place your requests to view (written in pencil – no pens were allowed anywhere in the records office)in a little box. Then you waited. Eventually, a wee man in a warehouseman’s coat would lead you up to the stacks high in the dome of the beautiful Georgian building. Placing the relevant volume on a rickety ledge, he’d find the correct page and stand aside while you copied the record. It was rather thrilling and I rather regret that this hands-on experience has vanished.
Copying John Somerville’s birth record, I saw a note scribbled to the side of the record. It said ‘Entry in Register of Corrected Entries’ and I asked my guide what that was. He grinned knowingly, said ‘Aye…come wi’ me’ and led me off to a separate section of the stacks. What I found in that record left me full of admiration for Betsy Somerville.
Not only was she supporting herself by working as a boot merchant on her own account, she had decided to take baby John’s natural father to court to prove paternity. This was an enormous undertaking for a working class woman on her own. The case was heard in the Sherriff Court on the 10th of November and George Dick, a surface worker at the coal pit from Ayrshire, was decreed to be the father. There was no question of money changing hands for the upkeep of the child – George Dick wouldn’t have had any – just a question of honour. And perhaps a healthy dose of rage – had George tried to wash his hands of her and the baby? George doesn’t appear again in this story, but I traced him in a census three years later. He’s married to one Agnes McCallum – they have no children and are living not far away from Betsy and her boys. And that’s the last we hear of George Dick – or is it?
Fast forward to 1890. Betsy’s now 38. And there’s another baby. Another son. She’s officially a ‘laundress’ – in other words, she’s taking in folk’s washing. Back breaking work but she had little alternative as a single mother with young children. And the name of this new son? George.
Let’s look at the evidence. George Dick is married in 1891, but Betsy’s George is born in November of 1890. No father’s name appears on his birth certificate and there’s to be no taking to court of any man this time.
The final twist is that on the night of the 1901 census, she’s living at yet another address and she has a visitor. George Livingstone, a 29 year old (married) painter from Rothesay. Too young for her? Perhaps – after all, she’s 46 in 1901. But let’s remember that when she had her second boy, John, she was 39 but the father was only 24. A penchant for younger men? I’ll never know.
Most of John Somerville and Jean Wallace’s children were buried with them in a family grave which I’ve visited at Cambusnethan. But Betsy isn’t with them. Her eldest son, James (my great-uncle Jim, who I knew briefly as a little girl) bought a plot for himself and his wife – and there was room for his mother.
I wonder if Betsy kept in touch with her brothers and sisters throughout her life, or whether she was ostracised by the family. If her behaviour was frowned upon, did caring for her ailing father make up for it a bit? Was she then looked on more kindly? I really hope that was the case.
For I’ve a deep fondness for Betsy Somerville, my great-grandmother. She had her weaknesses, plain to see, but by god she paid for them. She never married and her poverty must have been considerable. But she kept her family together somehow until they were men. That took courage and resilience. In some ways, she was a very modern woman.