A Tale of Two Sisters, Margaret

22 April 2017: Atlanta, Georgia.

Margaret Smythe never wanted to be a bad mother. When she married Thomas Seely in Bishopsgate in 1834 she anticipated many years together and a houseful of healthy, happy children. When she learned she was pregnant, she felt the future was wide open. Billy’s birth made her the happiest she had ever been and Margaret foresaw many years with Thomas raising their family.

Thomas was killed in an accident at the docks when Billy was barely two-years-old and not long afterward, Margaret met Niles Gunnerson, a Norse seaman who answered an ad she placed for a lodger. Gunnerson paid on time and was quiet and kept his room tidy but Margaret always felt there was more between them than just a friendship. One evening, she looked in on him just before bedtime and they allowed things to go much further. Their affair began in late September 1837 and concluded a couple of months later, when he shipped out for points unknown. A month after that, Margaret discovered she was pregnant.

Margaret found herself unmarried and pregnant by a man who was no longer in the picture, a bad combination for early Victorian England. Her daughter with Gunnerson was born on Coronation day, June 28, 1838. Being a believer in signs, Margaret named the girl Victoria. Since Margaret had never married Gunnerson, Victoria could not have his name, so she became Victoria Seely. The local parish refused to baptize Victoria, but kindly old Reverend Drake performed the ceremony in the church rectory after evening services had concluded.

Margaret soon discovered the severe stigma attached to women who had children out of wedlock. English law at that time laid all the blame on the mother and no longer required the fathers to support the children, a moot point in Margaret’s case since she didn’t know how to find Gunnerson. She found it hard to get work, even doing laundry and the neighbors who had been so kind to her when she was a young widow now shunned her and her bastard daughter.

Margaret held up for as long as she could, but at last took to the bottle to relieve her misery. As resources became scarce, she resorted to the final indignity, taking men into her bed for money. Two years after Victoria was born, Margaret found she was pregnant again. This child, born late in 1840, she named Amanda, after her sister.

As Margaret continued her spiral into booze and prostitution, the children were neglected, and it frequently fell to kind-hearted neighbors to look after them. Education was out of the question, except for Billy who attended a local poor school sponsored by the church, where he was taught the basics of reading and writing and how to add and subtract and little more. The girls grew up ignorant and unloved, shunned by a society which vilified them. Billy did the best he could to look after his sisters, but there’s only so much a young boy could do. As she got older, Victoria displayed a talent for music and was always humming or singing snippets of songs she’d heard around town.

When Victoria was eight, Niles Gunnerson returned, explaining to Margaret that he’d been traveling around the world and that this was his first opportunity to get back to her. She curtailed her drinking and they resumed their physical relationship and made plans to marry. Gunnerson was happy to learn of Victoria and to Margaret’s delight, was willing to take responsibility for Amanda as well. On one of his visits, he gave Victoria a wooden flute which she learned to play quickly. Some neighborhood boys took it from her, prompting Billy to chase them down and beat them until they returned it with apologies.

It was the happiest Margaret had been since the time she had been with her husband, and for the first time, she made an attempt at being a mother to her daughters as well as her son. Then in March of 1848, a few weeks after Margaret learned she had another child on the way, Niles collapsed in the living room of Margaret’s house and was pronounced dead by the doctor who arrived to tend to him.

Margaret’s remaining months were spent preparing for the new baby by drinking a lot and lying in a near-catatonic state on the sofa in the living room. The events of the past few years kept swirling around in her head and the conclusion she finally came to was that her life had started to go wrong when Victoria was born. She made sure she shared this insight with Victoria whenever her daughter was within earshot. By the time the new baby was due, Margaret had formulated a plan to rid herself of the causes of all her problems. Then she and Billy could start anew somewhere else.

Victoria welcomed the arrival of her little sister, named Sarah, a few months after her tenth birthday, but the joy was short-lived as Margaret announced about a month or so after Sarah came along that she’d given the baby to an “agency” which would take good care of her. In fact, she had paid Jackson and Hendricks, two malcontents she knew from the pub to help her dispose of the child. The following day, she marched Victoria and Amanda down to the local orphanage and left them on the steps with a note that read, “Do what you want with them. I don’t care.”

Margaret headed back to the house and went on a drinking binge to celebrate the start of her new life. Two days later, Billy found her dead on the floor of the kitchen. Because he was old enough and already a very strong boy, Billy was sent to a workhouse. It would be several years before he would see his sisters again.

Leave a Reply