Gathering histories 31.01.15

I have become lost. Lost in the research into my family’s history. I have become so entrenched in paperwork I have lost my confidence in producing designs. In bed last night I started to think about where I was going with the project, what outcomes I may begin to look for. I was blank. I could produce a design on an artificial limb, embroider a life jacket or cradle wrappings but none stimulate me or feel that I would be telling a story. I also began to realise that I had been so taken with JamesKinnears inventions that I had completely disregarded his wife Helena. What was there to tell her story? Nothing but references on census forms and a newspaper advertisement stating a female attendant was available. This led me to imagine what input she had in their journey from Aberdeen to Sheffield. I knew James was born in Aberdeen and Helena was born in Edinburgh, though I know not why she moved to Aberdeen. Maybe she was instrumental in deciding the move to Sheffield or maybe she followed where James took her. I have no idea of how I would find the answers to these questions so all I can do is imagine what the move would entail for her. She had children and also worked in the shop selling and fitting limbs. I have found no evidence that she already had family in Sheffield so it would have been a move, lock, stock and barrel for them all. The one thing that does sit in my mind is the photograph I have of her shows her to be quite refined in her clothes and her hair is elaborately dressed. Her fate of  being admitted to the work house with her daughter and then the role of servant to others would I feel be a great leap form where she had come from. I am reminded of a quote in an email I received from Lyn Howsam who has written a book about the Firvale workhouse and is th ecurator of the small exhibition still held at the now named Northern General Hospital (formally the Firvale Workhouse) it says;

‘I got a shock when I saw mum; they cut her hair short and she was dressed the same as the other women. A big dark skirt, a large blue and white checked apron and a greyish sort of a blouse.’ My heart broke to think Helena would have suffered such an indignity. By the time I was tired and ready to sleep I wondered if I could tell Helena’s story probably better than James’s, as a woman surely I could empathise with her plight?

When I awoke I still had no idea what direction I could take. I decided after being prompted by a friend to look at old copies of embroidery magazine to see if I could find some stimulus. I came across one article In Embroidery magazine, July/August 2004 called Gathering Histories An insight into the work of american textile artist, Beth Barron by Jessica Hemmings. The first paragraph got me; ‘Gathering histories and memories of the past has long been the work of textile art. In fact textiles have long expressed words that tongues have failed to speak or forgotten to record.’ It brought together my scattered thoughts on what I was hoping to do. I not only wanted to find aspects of my identity from my ancestors but more than that I wanted to tell their story. I became even more interested in telling Helena’s story. But how? I only had her image and written evidence in the form of census forms. I had the addresses she lived at which were no longer standing, I had no oral history of her as my Mother did not have a good relationship with Elizabeth my paternal Grand-Mother so has no stories to tell. I was truly ‘ expressing words that tongues had failed to speak, and had been forgotten to record’.

Listing what I have

  • Photograph of Helena,
  • Census forms from 1881 to 1911

Scant evidence on their own yet I feel more from her. I have no sketches or first hand evidence as yet and have an appointment at Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds on Monday to see their archived examples of artificial limbs from the mid to late 1800’s. I now wonder what use they will be, do I wish to record them? My first thoughts are that I feel I should, they may not be something I use or they may be. At this stage it’s too early to tell.

I decided to look at what Helena would wear as I could see some of her dress on the photograph. I googled fashion in the 1800’s and came across this site one of the illustrations had a square collar like Helena’s. Looking at fashions a little later from 1880 – 1910 the necklines are rounder and leg o mutton sleeves are en vogue. Helena also looks quite young in the photograph so I do think we have the right era for her. I need to know more about her clothes. Here goes the next aspect of the research.

Helena Kinnear

Helena Kinnear



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