Tag Archives: genealogy

Thinking back through our mothers: looking for Zella Malendah Wootton

13 Nov

Those among you who are curious enough to have read my ‘About’ page will know that I named this blog after my great-great-grandmother, Zella Malendah Wootton. I did this partly because I liked the name and thought it was unusual, but also because I liked the associations it held of a maternal heritage. The titular quote is from Virginia Woolf, who wrote that “we think back through our mothers if we are women.” In this post I will be fulfilling this statement, showcasing a selection of photographs from my maternal family tree that my mother recently showed to me.

I don’t know why I feel more of an attachment for Zella than I do for any other [non-living] ancestor on my family tree. Genealogy is an odd pastime – my mother is very concerned with factual accuracy; dates, names, places. I’m more interested in the people behind the names, the stories you can infer from these facts. Studying family history is a microcosmic version of “real” history – you are dealing with births, deaths, and marriage certificates; the everyday life of ordinary people [our family tree has so far thrown up approximately zero celebrities]; running at a seeming distance to the stream of history as a whole, occasionally dipping in its toes; but really forging its lifeblood all along.

What perhaps makes it different to “mainstream” history is the level of personal engagement and attachment you can feel for characters whose lives are convincingly real: their historical record is more than an ‘X’ on a marriage certificate, and you yourself are a part of their historical legacy. We are also able to forge emotional connections with people we will never meet through the trickles of oral, visual, and even written history that traverse generations through story-telling, scrap-booking and heirlooms. The excitement of discovering the significance of a historical “artifact”, of identifying its place in both a personal and a public history, is made available to even the most amateur historian.

The capacity for personal engagement does not, fortunately, appear to exclude the interest of others in family trees completely unconnected to their own. For example, just look at the popularity of programmes like BBC’s Who Do You Think You AreI hope therefore that it follows that those beyond my immediate family will find some interest and entertainment in this post, which is now going to focus on some photographic “artifacts” from my own family history!

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The following are a very small selection of photographs from my maternal family tree, focusing, rather appropriately for this blog, upon its “mothers.” Don’t worry, Mother, there aren’t any embarrassing photos of you as a baby! Over the Christmas holidays I am hoping to undertake the project of digitally scanning a much greater selection of photographs, and I’m also now extremely keen to unearth similar photographs from my paternal family line – however as my parents have said, there’s quite enough to be getting on with for now!

Nana and Pops as I remember them

We’ll start with the most recent photo of the few I have scanned. This shows Nana and Pops [sorry, Granddad to all you non-Americans!] much as I remember them, although Pops died when I was quite young. Looking through the photo albums I was amazed by just how little I knew of his remarkable life, from his youth spent in gymnastic competitions and the RAF to exactly how he ended up working in London with a chauffeur. Oddly one of my most enduring memories of Pops is actually sitting in his car and being driven somewhere, although I have no recollection now where we were going or why the memory has stuck with me!

Nana and Pops - Nana sporting amazing sunglasses!

This photograph is probably from the late fifties. I just love everything about it! I’m hoping Nana still has those sunglasses hidden away somewhere as I would really love to steal them!

Nana and Pops' wedding day, 16th July 1960

This is my favourite picture from Nana and Pops’ wedding album. Canny readers of the caption will discern that I was in fact born on their 31st wedding anniversary! To have your first grandchild born on your wedding anniversary seems like a lovely touch of fate to me; my sister also shares her birthday with Nana! Born in 1940, Nana was exactly a week off her 20th birthday at her wedding. Pretty scary to me now as I am already past 20! [not that I feel it!] I must be practically on the shelf…

Nana working in a sweetshop, 1957

It’s amazing how much you don’t know about the people you are most closely related to. Looking through these photo albums I discovered not only that Nana worked in a sweetshop before she was married, but also that my mum had blonde hair when she was a little girl. What was even more remarkable was that Mother herself had forgotten this fact! We always considered it a bit of an anomaly that my sister has blonde hair, and now it turns out it was perfectly logical all along…Intriguingly in Pops’ photo albums from before he was married [apparently scrap-booking was cool for men then, too] there are a few photographs of girlfriends who definitely aren’t Nana! Scandalous, I say!

Westward Ho, 1956 - 'Mr and Mrs Ascot'

From one scandal to another…yes, you are seeing right, although I can offer no explanation as to exactly what you are seeing beyond the fact that it took place at a holiday camp in Westward Ho in 1956! My Mother informed me Nana and Pops actually met at a holiday camp, I hope it wasn’t at this precise moment! Nana’s mustache could rival Chem’s here…

Nana as a baby and in 1953, age 13

Ella and Brenda

Here we have some photos of Nana in her youth – I’m not sure who the little girl in the dungarees is yet. Out of all the photographs the above one of Nana and her mother, Ella Malendah Wootton [my great-grandmother], is definitely one of my favourites. I really like the colours in it, and I would also like to know what happened to that necklace Ella is wearing!

Here Ella appears again, this time with her sister-in-law Marjorie Osborne Stewart, who we seem to have quite a few photographs of. They were born in the same year, 1914. Ella married Marjorie’s older brother, Colin Alec Stewart [my great-grandfather].

Marjorie and Ella

Marjorie married a man with frankly excellent name of John Percy Percival! There are lots of photos of them together and they always look incredibly dapper. I particularly liked this photo of them together as it feels much more happy and spontaneous than the posed, studio ones. John’s hat is also spectacularly jaunty!

Marjorie and John

Now we have reached the final photo of the selection. To me, both personally and from the perspective of a historian, this is the most interestin of all. At the centre stands a young Ella Malendah [she’s around 25 years old] with her new husband Colin [who looks very tall!]. We are so far unsure who most of the peripheral characters are, however the older lady next to Ella is in all probability her mother Zella Malendah, who would have been about 51.

This discovery was unexpectedly exciting for me – I’d picked Zella Malendah’s name for my blog with the vague idea of her as my great-great-grandmother, but she seemed somehow remote and insubstantial in this figure. I think I was surprised to find that someone as old as that in history could still be evident in photographs – somehow to say “my great-great-grandmother” seems to imply a greater period of time than to say “a lady who was alive 70 years ago.” This is the only photo I have found of her so far, and I don’t know the likelihood of another being unearthed. My mother told me the man standing to her right is likely her second husband, George Harry Godwin, whom she’d been married to since 1934.

So here we have a discovery that is really quite personal to me – cue a second, bringing this microcosmic moment into a wider historical perspective. The wedding of Ella and Colin took place on the third of September 1939 – that’s correct history buffs, the day that Britain declared war on Germany. It’s fascinating to me that a single photograph can encapsulate not only a personally-significant moment of family history, but a moment of greater historical significance that had ramifications for every family in Britain, let alone across the world. It makes me wonder – did they know that war had been declared when the photo was taken?

Unfortunately I don’t know what happened to either of them during the war – where, or if, my great grandfather fought, and how Ella was affected or involved in the war effort. The passing of Remembrance Sunday has definitely made me aware that to remember the sacrifices our not-so-distant ancestors made, we must first know what those sacrifices were; a few days ago a Jehovah’s witness rang my doorbell and began to speak of how God had helped him make sense of the slaughter in the trenches. Here was a statement of history; of one man’s interpretation of the historical events so many lived through – and it really struck home to me that as both my grandfathers have passed I have lost forever the opportunity to ask them how they made sense of it all.

Wedding of Ella and Colin

Seeing these photos has instilled me with the desire to find out more – about these people’s lives, and the part they played in both my family history and the history of twentieth-century Britain. It seems a simple fact to state, but history really is a collection of  “stories,” whether preserved through written texts, images, or simply being passed down from mouth to mouth through generations. Being as this blog is concerned with gender however, I can’t get away with simply searching for a history from these photos – I want the herstory’s too. Most usually in history it is the former that are more readily available – men’s lives were recorded through the social and legal framework that valued their “citizenship” – their right to write, vote, act – as greater than women’s. The second world war was a catalyst for change, as women became more politically and socially visible through the workplaces, and gradually in society as a whole. However, whilst the war gave women a platform from which to be heard, it also created distinctly separate platforms for men and women’s experiences – men fought, women stayed at home. Both experienced the war, but their experiences were different: gender was both an agent of this, and a factor in the different ways that those experiences were recorded.

For example, I could find out through the War Office and written documents much of my grandfathers’  and great-grandfathers’ experiences, but there is no similar organised structure of data to tell me about the experience of  my grandmothers and great-grandmothers.Personal, family, history then is a way of discovering and recording this historical evidence; of making sense of the impact of greater historical phenomena on the everyday life of our ancestors, but also understanding how what happened then has informed the present world that we exist in. I hope to report back in the New Year with many more photos, and hopefully many more stories!