Monday, May 10

a family blog - circa 1870.

You know how there are always stories floating around in your family about past generations and their "goingsons"! You know what I mean. The ancestor who was a member of royalty, the German professor at Cambridge, the brewer of poteen who went to jail, [ hang on there that one was true!]. Well one of my favorites as a child was about the relative who was the first Britisher to walk the Wall of China after the Chinese rulers opened  up their country to foreigners. In the bookcase at home in Belfast was one entitled ," Old Highways in China". I didn't think then to read it. It was next to the 12 volumes of Arthur Mee's Childrens' Encyclopedia, and dwarfed by the volumes of The Great War. I had a look at The Seven Pillars of Wisdom which was there as well, and found very little of use in it for my teenage years! So on my last visit back to Ireland I borrowed the book from my sister and read it. I was astounded at the amazing travel story that I read there. The book was written by Isabelle, the wife of Dr. Williamson a relative on my mother's side, and is an account of her travels through a part of China in the mid 19th C.

The photo on the right is the inside leaf with I presume her own neat hand writing. I also presume that she would have been dressed similarly to this woman in the picture found at the back of the book advertising more exciting stories!
How difficult then would it have been to traipse around the tracks and lanes of that area, following her husband in his work. Most of her travelling appears to have been either on a cart or riding a pony.
The vehicle without wheels would have been agony for both the woman and the man and I don't think the cart much better.As we would say in the family, "mind your derriere"! Is the top one the precursor to the sand buggies that we see on the long beaches of our west coast? It would be fun to think so, but this was no fun for Isabelle. Yet in the telling of her story she didn't grumble. 
The area she was travelling in was Shan Tung. Now how often had I heard mum and Aunt Helen talk about "a nice shantung frock", without having the slightest idea that it was silk coming all the way across the world, and a world that was much less available than our one today.
Isn't this fantastic! A wedding couple dressed in their absolute best, just like any couple today, except that these garments had most probably been passed down the generations along with the beautiful jewellry. I suppose that the nearest I got to this was my daughter wearing my wedding veil and my mum's pearls on her day.

Isabelle took notice of every thing that she saw and every situation she encountered. She spoke to the people in their language often surprising those who bad-mouthed her by answering their accusations, and stayed in the same hostels as the rest of the party.She observed the way that the buildings were constructed and watched what the people planted, listing the various fruit and vegetables which were the locals every day fare.
Music,especially the unusual instruments that the Chinese played was all carefully written about. One page reminded me of Gilbert and Sullivan's work, The Mikado, as it was for girls and they had to sing in a high pitched voice. It could have been a bit like those kids on Idol who screech to get their top notes! As the passage says "screaming trebles".

 These landscape prints are etchings I think, showing streets,buildings markets. I wonder if she collected these as she travelled. If so then she was thinking ahead in order to let folk in the west see the life of those she met.
School taught me that the Chinese invented gunpowder and here is a cannon for firing it. Da Vinci eat your heart out.
Here is an officer to fire the cannon.

And this merchant sells his silk and other goods on the silk route out of China.

While the official keeps a beady eye on them all!

So there we have it . The real story of my ancestor Isabelle Williamson. She actually existed. Aunt Helen was a Williamson as was mum and therefore I'm not at all surprised that they were as fiesty as they were, although actually there was none of Isabelle in their blood as she died without giving birth. However there is not a single reference  to her Dr.Williamson having walked the Wall so that may be just a great big family tale. And just like a pig's is really curly!


  1. Gerry! How fascinating. I didn't know there was such a book! I have two volumes of her husband Alexander's books entitled "Journeys in North China," written in 1870. (My brother sent them to me several years ago after trying to read them and finding them "dry as a bone." Thus, I never really tried to tackle them.) In the back of one volume were several clippings about Isabelle and Alexander's deaths. In Alexander's, their "only daughter, Mrs. Paul H. King" is mentioned. Do you know anything about her? I'll try to scan them and send them to you. (They and the books are crumbling, so I don't know how successful I'll be.)

    Anyway, please share more ancestral tidbits!

  2. Linda! great to hear about the other books!I thought that there were no children, so I shall have to change that a bit. I found the book facinating. Partly because Cochrane sent over National Geographic Magazines to mum when I was a child and the further east they went, the more I loved it. So Scandinavia, Russia, India or China and I lapped it up. I loved the stories that mum and aunt Helen told. It would be great to think that he really was the first to walk the wall after China opened up!Kate my grand daughter saw the poteen maker on dad's family tree and was absolutely thrilled. She says she will write a story based on him.I'll try and find out about their daughter for you on the tree. See what I can do.

  3. Gerry, I didn't think they had children either. I will try to research it as well. We have just GOT to get together and compare notes and stories! We have a very colorful family to discuss!

  4. Wow! How fascinating! My Aunt always drew a long bow where the family history was concerned but my Dearest's family is most reluctant to share how Bonnie Prince Charlie ended up in the family tree. Immorally I suspect. Ah well. So far from the source it's all wheat for the mill. ☺

  5. Fantastic. We don't have much in the way of stories like that in our family... I've traced back nearly 300 years... still in the praish! We weren't blessed with the adventurer gene clearly

  6. Great story, I'm looking forward to reading it!

  7. Thanks everyone. As for the Bonnie Prince Charlie story, we think that on mum's side an early female relative was there on Skye at the same time as the handsome Charlie....however we think she was probably a kitchen maid. Still knowing his reputation, maybe there is a bit of his genes somewhere!

  8. lol, It's the red hair gives it away! :D And my oldest ~ he looks like those awful painted portraits. Something in the tilt of the eyes & the chin. Scary actually.

  9. That must be where this generations Isabelle Snape gets her fiestiness (spelling?). When can I read the book? xxx <3

  10. hi Gerry,
    I just wanted to pop over and thank you for stopping by my blog and for your encouraging words. We Tennesseans are still reeling from our recent flood catastrophe and we need all the help and prayers we can get. The positive energy you have sent certainly helps.
    thank you!

  11. Erin, I hope things are starting to get back to some normality, though I know that the people who were flooded in Yorkshire last year have still some folks living in caravans.


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