Like most people, I have, as far as I know, four great-grandmothers and eight great-great-grandmothers (unless there is some scandalous cousin marriage that no one has talked about).
On average, 6.25% of our genes come from every one of our great-great-grandmothers. In a very real sense, part of each of us is those long-dead ladies.
I started thinking about this when I was trying to find any ancestors who signed the Women’s Suffrage Petition in 1893, when we were working on the He Tohu Exhibition a couple of years back. The idea (which I still think has legs) was to start a crowd-sourcing project to get people to look for their ancestors on the petition, and fill in the huge missing gaps in our information about the signatories.
Not all of my ancestors were in New Zealand then, of course. My mother was actually born in Argentina, but her family are Scottish back to the dawn of time, so they were all out. On my father’s side, I thought for a moment that my proto-feminist great-grandmother Lilian might have signed. I was lucky enough to meet her as a very old lady in the early 1970s, and remember her battling the Wellington northerly on her way back to her house in Clifton Terrace. But it turned out she was too young, and hadn’t arrived in New Zealand yet anyway.
In the end I found two who did sign.
Maggie McLean was my great-great-grandmother on my father’s father’s side. She was born Margaret Gordon in County Monaghan in Ireland. She came out in the 1860s with her widowed mother and nine brothers and sisters, and lived in Whanganui, where she met my great-great-grandfather, who had come here from Roscommon, a couple of counties over.
It’s an unfortunate fact that it is much easier to find out about the husbands and brothers of our great-grandmothers and great-great grandmothers than about the lives of the women themselves.
I have read some of my great-great-grandfather’s diaries, and I feel sorry for Maggie. Robert McLean was an anxious, unhappy and disturbed man. He had a moderately successful grocery shop on Victoria Avenue. He tried to get into the cartage and haulage business with Maggie’s brother; but after an accident when a horse kicked him he couldn’t work, went bankrupt a number of times, and seemingly took to drink. A Robert McLean, I presume my great-great-grandfather, is mentioned in court reports in 1885 for cruelly whipping a horse that was blocking an intersection.
I have a feeling Maggie must have been pretty tough though, and held the family together while Robert went into a decline, because I also read bits of the diary of one of their sons, and he seemed cheerful enough.
In 1893 Maggie was 47. She signs with a very strong, almost jagged hand. Proudly Maggie, not Mrs R McLean or any of that nonsense.
Clara Smith was my great-grandmother on my father’s mother’s side. She was 35 in 1893. She too signs in a strong hand. She was born Clara Newbigin (a wonderful emigrant name) in a village near Newcastle, in northern England. She also came out to New Zealand in the 1860s, as a young child, with her father and siblings, but not, it seems, her mother. Her father died not long after they arrived, and I don’t know who looked after the little Newbigins. One brother, Edward, worked as a labourer in a brewery in Hastings. He ended up owning the business. Papers Past has stories of Edward being fined for avoiding excise tax. The brewery thrived though, eventually becoming Leopard Breweries, which was later taken over and ultimately closed by (of course) Lion Breweries. The law of the jungle at work.
Clara lost her wonderful name when she married Frederick Smith. She raised a family, including my grandmother Ruahine, in a nice street on the hill in Napier. Given that the WCTU were the big sponsors of the petition and the brewers its bitterest enemies, I can’t help smiling to think of frosty Sunday dinners 125 years ago in 1893 with Edward and Clara not talking about the war - which the women were about to win.
— James McLean