Dispatches

The Two Lots

Kristen den Hartog

Unlocking the family portrait

For nine years, my sister and I rooted through archives, old newspapers and photograph albums to research and write The Cowkeeper’s Wish, a memoir about our working-class family’s path from the slums of Victorian London to 1930s Canada.

The photograph shown here captures my great-grandmother Emily Ingram and her children, posing with her husband’s parents, Charles and Polly Cartwright, in a suburb of London, England, in 1907. Emily’s husband George is not in the photo because he’s already sailed off to Canada, and is preparing for the arrival of Emily, Little Emily and Little George, and the unborn child Emily is carrying at that point, a boy they’ll name John.

Though she looks perfectly respectable here, with her hair arranged in the popular Gibson Girl style and her baby clad in ruffles on her lap, Emily has only recently been caught stealing from her uncle. She’d been hired to clean his house, and he’d noticed money missing from a locked box in his bedroom. He told the police, who planted marked coins in the box and returned the key to the pocket of a coat, where the uncle always kept it. Emily fell for the trap. A police officer followed her through the streets and arrested her on board a tram, then brought her back to her uncle’s house, where she admitted her crime and pulled the coins from her stocking. “Don’t prosecute me, Steve,” the Kentish Independent newspaper quoted. “I have only had the two lots. I took [it] because I was going to have a little one, and had not money.”

The story was unknown in our modern-day family until my sister and I went digging in the British Newspaper Archive, searching out ancestors’ names. My mother was shocked by the discovery. Emily’s transgression clashed with the grandmother she remembered: a morally superior woman who wore her Sunday best—shoes and all—to the beach. We’d always known Emily was estranged from her own parents, and we’d assumed it was because she got pregnant before she was married. But now a different reason presented itself. What happened in the wider family after she’d been caught? What did George say?

If Emily had been shunned by her own parents, whether for the pregnancy or the theft, she seems to have been embraced by George’s. The photograph suggests a warmth and familiarity between Polly and Charles and their daughter-in-law, and though no one can say for certain now, Charles looks like a kind man; he wears a gentle expression. Polly, for her part, may have come to empathy through her own personal trials.

Four years before this photograph was taken, their son Jack, then seventeen, had been struck by a train. Jack was George’s younger brother, and he had mental and physical difficulties. He was diagnosed with a tumour of the cerebellum. In a letter to Polly the doctor stated that Jack’s case was one of an “incurable nature” and “any suggestion as to his earning his own living is an impracticable one.” But Jack did earn money pushing a barrow through the neighbourhood streets, hawking shrimps and sweets and oranges. He was working the day he stepped onto the tracks. According to the Erith Times, he was “found lying in the permanent way, with one leg broken, head badly shattered, and brain protruding.” The driver later said he hadn’t seen or felt anything “even as small as a cat.” A witness at the inquest said he’d spoken to Jack earlier that day and that the normally cheerful, whistling boy had been crying. Jack told him he’d been sick the night before and that “Mother paid me for it.” The witness said that Jack had complained of being beaten on other occasions, and that sometimes he’d talked about drowning himself.

When the coroner asked Polly if she’d ever beaten the boy she answered no, and though she admitted she’d been annoyed with him for vomiting on the bed the night before, she claimed there’d been no harsh words between them the next morning before Jack left with his barrow. She added her dismay that a rumour had been travelling through the neighbourhood, suggesting she’d not been feeding Jack properly, but the coroner reassured her: “The well-nourished state of the body proves the lack of foundation for any such statement.” In the end the coroner’s verdict was suicide while suffering temporary mental derangement.

After the inquest, Polly told a reporter that she was convinced that Jack’s death had been an accident, and that his tumour had caused him to be unsteady. He was eccentric, she said, but also “perfectly harmless… and an exceptionally good lad.” She claimed she’d been “overawed” by the inquest, and that she’d failed to represent herself and Jack correctly. She knew he wouldn’t have walked onto the tracks on purpose—on the very morning of the accident he’d arranged to dig a garden for a neighbour, and with the money that would bring he planned to buy an incubator and hatch chickens and build a family fortune. That was Polly’s version, anyway—or at least it was the newspaper’s version of Polly’s version. But what was Jack’s? Had Polly beaten him? Had he wanted to die?

In the photograph Emily and Polly wear guarded half-smiles and don’t-mess-with-me expressions, though that may be just me, pressing what I’ve learned into this image of people I never actually knew. I imagine Polly and Charles knew they would not see Emily and their grandchildren again once they left for Canada, and that their son George was already lost to them, since that was the reality of immigration in those days, unless you were among the privileged.

In July 1907, Emily, Little George and Little Emily boarded the Parisian and set sail for Canada. A story remains that Emily went on deck one blustery day to breathe some fresh air—she was pregnant with John by then, and nauseous. The wind whipped around her so furiously that Little Emily was nearly torn from her arms and blown into the sea. Emily hung on, and Little George clung to her skirts. When they arrived at the train station in London, Ontario, George was there to meet them and had hired a carriage and two white horses—for luck, he said, but the luck wouldn’t hold; Little Emily died of pneumonia two weeks after their arrival.

In their own small way, Emily and George prospered in Canada. George found work at McCormick’s biscuit and candy factory, washing windows and tinkering with machinery, bringing home broken biscuits for the children, who numbered eight in the end. Their fourth child was my grandfather, Bill, long dead now. I’m sure he would have been stunned to learn of his mother’s theft, and his uncle’s possible suicide. It’s strange to think of all I know about his parents that he never knew.

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Kristen den Hartog

Kristen den Hartog is a novelist and non-fiction writer whose most recent book, The Cowkeeper’s Wish, was co-authored with her sister Tracy Kasaboski. She lives in Toronto.

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