The Story of Emma Lee

Emma Lee

Family Mythologies. Haven’t we all experienced them?  You know, the kind of stories that are handed down at our Mother’s knee – or someone’s knee. Stories that we have heard all our lives and truly believe, and then suddenly somehow, somewhere we learn the truth, often when it’s too late to refute the original story because the story teller is long gone.

My mythological home truths came home to roost when I started dabbling in genealogy and found the time to investigate the mythologies and bring them into the light.

All our lives, ever since we were small children, my sister Susannah and I were told that our maternal grandfather’s mother was a Gypsy (or a Traveller as it is now correct to say).  This story was strengthened by our Grandfather’s distrust of the Gypsies when they came every spring in their colorful wagons to our grandparent’s village to work in the fields and sell their trinkets. When questions were asked by enquiring small minds, our Aunt Audrey  said the proof was that our great-grandmother’s name was Emma LEE Harril – “Lee” being the operative word and a known Westcountry Gypsy surname.  We were told that she upped and left Grandfather and his two little sisters when they were 8, 6 and 4, and we should not ask any more questions.

This information was to resonate with me because our Mother placed Sue and I in the Orphanage at 7 ½ and 4 and years later Sue left her own children when Ronnie was 8, Sarah 6 and Gayle 4.  I came to believe that the abandoning of children must run in my family. Indeed it did seem so. But Emma Lee was NOT an illegitimate half –Gypsy child, and while she did decamp, leaving her children to the ministrations of an alcoholic husband and his FIVE spinster sisters, she probably had those six very good reasons.

Emma Lee Byron Harril, born in 1857, was the second child of George Byron Harril and his wife, Annie Aglen. Their first child, Alice, had died the same year she was born.  George was the son of a prosperous auctioneer in Bristol and Annie was the grocer’s daughter in the village of Midsomer Norton. (no murders here)  Their third child, a son, also did not survive infancy.  After that death, George, Annie and Emma Lee moved away from Bristol and their West Country roots to the port of Southampton.  His father having died, George’s elder brother inherited the auction house. George bought an Inn in Southampton and there Annie gave birth to another son, Charles, who not only survived infancy but lived to marry.

When Charles was only six and Emma eleven Annie died.  George now had two children to raise and educate. He married again but that marriage ended in divorce. When Emma Lee was seventeen, William White, (born 1840)  a Somerset solicitor more than twice her age, was staying at the Inn.  He asked to marry her.  Her father George gave her away, probably gladly.  After all, this gentleman was wealthy and well educated – a good catch!

So, Emma went back to the West Country with her new husband, to live at 132 Long Street in Williton, Somerset, where her father-in-law was the Magistrate. She was just eighteen when she married him and my Grandfather was born eleven months later in 1876. Ethel came along two years later, and Helen in 1880.

Henry 8, Ethel 6, Helen 4 when Emma left

I surmise, and one does do a lot of surmising in genealogy to fill in the gaps between the census lists and the birth-marriage-death data, that young Emma was worn down with three small children and the constant interference from her drunken husband’s five maiden sisters.

And along came a young doctor, (born in Gort, Ireland in 1855) James Thomas Macnamara, with his dashing looks and his Irish brogue and the rest is history. They went to London; William divorced her on grounds of desertion and Emma married James.  They lived in a fine house on Lewisham Park and had four children – two daughters and two sons, Aileen, Nora, Cormac and Dermot. Both James and Emma Lee lived a long life together. He died in Steyning Sussex in 1935 and she died in nearby Worthing by the seaside in 1944.

Now, at last, the Gypsy myth is shattered. I wonder, though, if perhaps those maiden aunts referred to her after she left as “that gypsy” using it as a pejorative.  Her forebears were tradesmen, clearly not as educated as the Whites. I doubt if Grandfather and his sisters ever knew the truth about Emma Lee and grew up, like we did, believing she was a Gypsy.

I want to write this story – a true life novel – filling in the blanks and researching the travel, clothing and life during those times.

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