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Forgotten Lives

Alison Baxter

It was not until Grandmother died that I discovered that she had a sister. Now Amy’s sapphires flash from my fingers as I type, a constant presence at the edge of my consciousness. I treat them carelessly – after making pastry I find fragments of dough lodged under the stones, dulling their blue glow. As I scrub the ring, it conjures up a glimpse of its owner.

I see her in the kitchen of her parents’ hotel, in a high-necked blouse and long skirt covered with a white apron, hands dusted with flour. ‘Amy Smythe,’ it says inside the front cover of her notebook, in looped, fine-nibbed black handwriting, ‘Balcarres, Echt’. And on the first page, ‘Household Cookery, 12th October 1895.’ The contents echo those of my Penguin cookery book: solid British dishes like steak and kidney pie, tomato soup, shortbread. Amy’s scones are almost identical to mine, although more than a hundred years separate us. Perhaps she too had to clean scraps of dough from the sapphires.

Amy was sixteen when she started this book. Born in Aberdeenshire in 1879, she was named after Amy Cunliffe-Brookes, the English wife of the eleventh Marquis of Huntly. The Marchioness, herself childless, wrote a gracious note to her former maid Martha Smythe:

‘Mrs Smythe I am very glad you and the little baby are going on well … I hope you will not receive this letter too late for I am quite willing you should call the baby after my Christian name, & hope she will continue to thrive.’


Martha probably hoped that her daughter would benefit from the patronage of a great lady; she might even absorb some of the graceful serenity that made Millais’s portrait of Amy Brookes such a success when it was shown at the Royal Academy. But Amy Smythe was a tomboy.

Another image appears, sepia tinted this time. The two sisters are sitting together on the sofa in the drawing room. Amy is showing small Jean the photographs in a morocco-bound album with brass clasps.

‘Look, Jeannie,’ says Amy, ‘this is my favourite. It’s the great Sargano. When I grow up I’m going to be a lion tamer like him.’ Sargano Alicamousa is a powerfully built black man in tight trousers, high boots and a leopard skin tunic; he has a resolute expression, like his eleven-year-old admirer.

It was 1890 and Lord George Sanger’s Circus had arrived in the small town of Huntly, perhaps on its way to entertain the queen at Balmoral. The grey streets were filled with colour and noise as Mrs Sanger led the parade dressed as Britannia, reclining on an ornate gilded carriage next to a shabby, toothless lion. The circus camels were housed overnight in the stables of the Smythes’ hotel. Amy crept out that evening and climbed into the long manger that held their fodder. She travelled from end to end, feeding and petting the unexpected guests, who gazed at her in haughty surprise and bared their yellow teeth. The circus people said it was a wonder she hadn’t been bitten to death by the ill-tempered creatures, but Amy was fearless.

Lion taming was not, however, a realistic career for a young lady and Amy prepared for a suitably feminine future. In 1896 she graduated from the School of Domestic Economy in Aberdeen with a certificate stating her qualification to teach dressmaking ‘in all its branches’. A contemporary photograph shows a girl with dark, wavy hair and the ridiculously small, corseted waist of the time. Her sleeves, puffed out like satin lanterns, have uncomfortably tight cuffs quite unsuited to an active life.

Family albums are full of ghosts that peep out of the shadows to tease us with hints of where we have come from and who we are. Reading Amy’s notebook, I am looking without much hope for some insight into her feelings; although Jean became a published poet Amy was not a writer. But after Lemon Curd and Victoria Sandwich comes a blank page, and then Love’s Melody: a heading which surely cannot refer to a pudding. I read on.

A year ago, but one short year,

We stood beneath the old oak tree,

And I spoke words of love to thee

Which thou wert glad at heart to hear.’

If Amy hoped marriage would compensate for a lost life of adventure, it was not to be. The lines continue:

Life is all of love bereft …

And now our love is with the dead

I look down at the blue stones on my right hand. Tell me, Amy, did you copy this verse from a book or did you write it yourself? Who were you thinking of? I rub the smooth gold band of the ring but no answer appears. Amy’s lost love is identified only by the initials WMW inscribed below the poem, and a date: 27/5/99. There is no one left now to remember the young man who gave her the sapphires: Walter? Wilfred? I imagine a tall, straight-backed soldier on his way to fight the Boers. He never came back; Amy never had a home and kitchen of her own. But she carried on cooking, and must have found some comfort in the activity, for the notebook ends not with regret but with Crystal Palace Pudding and Tea Cakes.

Amy faced the future with her usual courage, watching her younger sister grow up, take her place in local society, and meet potential suitors. A dusty collection of postcards and photographs is all that remains of the light-hearted correspondence between Jean and Andrew Ritchie Williamson, a student at Aberdeen University. Sometimes, I realise, the ghosts we glimpse are strangers with their own stories to tell; like coins lost down the side of a sofa, they appear when we are looking for something else.

Andrew’s first card is dated 1904, the year Jean left school with her Higher Certificate but no clear plans for the future. His photograph shows an ascetic looking young man with wire-rimmed glasses, wearing an academic gown and holding a plumed mortar board. Perhaps he was a member of the informal club that met in the Smythes’ hotel on summer Saturdays, when the parlour would fill with the smoke of a dozen pipes. Arts and medical students, lawyers, bankers, accountants, commercial travellers and trawl-owners cycled out from Aberdeen to the village of Echt to enjoy a glass of ale or a dram of whisky and settle the affairs of the nation in a gathering presided over by Jean’s father.

Like Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict, the young couple trade insults that conceal a growing attraction. The morning after a party, an ironic note arrives.

‘I do hope you enjoyed your little self at the ball. Was there anybody nice there? Anybody to suit your fastidious taste? Anybody to keep your sarcastic tongue between your teeth for three minutes on end?’

I imagine Andrew approaching Jean to request a dance. His stiff collar matches his rigid demeanour; he is not a confident dancer and anticipation is making him nervous. She is fanning herself after a strenuous eightsome reel.

‘Oh dear, Mr Williamson,’ she says. ‘I’m afraid you are too late. My card is full. You need to be quicker on your feet if you’re going to catch me.’ And she laughs.

Andrew must have forgiven her, however, and continues to write. On a picture of the well-known Gaiety Girl Marie Studholme, who poses with an enticing curl over one eye, he scribbles a request:

‘NB the curl. Please imitate.’

This earnest young man has literary aspirations and in a letter enclosing two ‘exercises in versification’ he conceals his anxiety about Jean’s verdict on his efforts, claiming to have chosen the paper because it is ‘easily burnt’. But his stronger feelings emerge.

‘I can’t rave in letters – print’s too frigid & lacks the glance, the expression, the encouragement or the opposite that means everything – but at any rate let me remain, yours ever.’

Did Jean show the letter to Amy and ask her advice? There seems to have been a cooling in the friendship and after a long gap, a note arrives in February 1908 on notepaper headed Christ Church Oxford. It concludes ambiguously, ‘Yours as ever (whatever that may mean) Andrew R Williamson.’ He had passed for entry to the Indian branch of the Civil Service and while Amy would have relished the opportunity to ride elephants and hunt tigers, Jean must have had doubts about setting off for Bengal. In the end she did not have to decide.

The ambitious son of a Scottish schoolmaster, Andrew probably struggled to fit into the alien culture of Christ Church, that supremely aristocratic college with links to Eton, known to insiders as ‘The House’. He was a classicist who had graduated from Aberdeen with first class honours and four prizes in Latin and Greek, so it was galling to find himself treated as a provincial nobody. How could he show that he belonged at Oxford? On 2nd May 1908, the river Cherwell was still swollen after the freak snowstorms of the previous month. The floods that had covered the meadows where cattle usually grazed were receding but there was still a lot of water. Andrew, ignoring the weather conditions and the fact that he was unable to swim, invited three fellow students to go punting.

They hired a boat from Salters’ boat yard and worked their way up the Cherwell as far as Magdalen Bridge. Andrew was punting and the other three using the paddles. Suddenly they were caught by the current and one end of the boat hit a stone buttress with a huge jolt, swinging it round broadside to the river. It capsized, throwing all four occupants into the water. Two of the young men swam clear, while Andrew and his friend William Mackie, another non-swimmer, clung desperately to the hull of the punt. As it filled with water they lost their grip, grabbed hold once more, but were again swept off. Mackie was saved by one of the swimmers, who pushed him towards a willow tree that he used to pull himself out onto the bank, but Andrew Williamson had disappeared from sight. People on the bank of the Botanical Gardens watched in helpless horror while other boats rushed to the rescue, but in vain.

May morning in Oxford is known for its tragedies, when high-spirited students fuelled with champagne jump from Magdalen Bridge, breaking limbs and sometimes their necks. Andrew was equally reckless. At the inquest, a waterman employed by the University Humane Society testified that he searched for Mr Williamson until all hope was gone. He and his colleagues went on dragging the river for another eight days before the body was finally retrieved from Iffley Lock, a couple of miles downstream. A verdict of accidental death was returned with the Coroner commenting that:

‘The men were at a time of life when, perhaps, their conduct was more characterised by courage than caution.’

Andrew was 24 years old.

Jean, like Amy, mourned the loss of her first love, but settled into a quiet domestic routine, comforted by the presence of her older sister. In 1911 she met a young English engineer and after some months they announced their engagement. The sisters had started to plan the wedding when suddenly one evening Amy complained of a sudden headache and collapsed. She started vomiting and was put to bed. Her anxious sister sat beside her, holding her hand, reassuring her that she would soon be better. The doctor was summoned but Amy grew rapidly worse, losing the use of her limbs and drifting into unconsciousness. Shortly before midnight she died. On her death certificate the cause was given as ‘spinal haemorrhage’: a bleed into the brain. It was Christmas Eve.

At the age of 32 Amy was gone and Jean was left to face the future without her sister. In 1913 she married her engineer and moved south to London. My grandmother never spoke of her loss, but she kept the sapphire ring close for the next sixty years.

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