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Looking for Esther

Posted by on June 22, 2012

My journey so far has been something of a wild goose chase.  I was interested in my great great great grandmother Esther, who is said to have helped her husband run the first slate quarry in Ffestiniog, in North Wales.  Her portrait hung on the walls of houses I’ve known since childhood.  Her steadfast gaze gave me a sense of the continuity in our family’s life.

Esther Casson, c1780-1852

But when she died in 1852, there was no obituary in the local paper; I found no record of her birth, no information about her father.  A hidden life indeed.  I did find a reference to her in a newspaper account of a dinner, where she had been toasted as ‘a lady whose worth was little known from her unobtrusive life’.  There’s the key – not so much hidden as unobtrusive. She’s like a minor character in Chekhov – hardly any lines but there onstage, contributing to the drama.

My background is in theatre.  I know how an actor builds a character from their given circumstances, what other characters say about them and from other clues;  then begins to think and feel ‘as if’ they are the character.

So I’m giving life to Esther by exploring the time and place she lived in, the people around her, their preoccupations, their prejudices, their passions, as well her own contribution.


4 Responses to Looking for Esther

  1. claret56

    Diana, this reminds me of that lovely sentence at the end of Middlemarch, where George Eliot writes so gently about Dorothea, “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”. Also has resonance with my initial quest to learn more about my ancestor, Polly Dix, of the portrait! A project hopefully not forgotten. Clare T

  2. Diana Devlin

    Thanks, Clare. May well borrow the phrase ‘unhistoric acts’!

  3. snowdoniabnb

    I think most people have someone like this in their family history. The role a woman played was often not mentioned however big a role she played in the family business; whether running a farming estate or a slate quarry. The census returns supports this theory because the head of household would have his occupation given but his wife and commonly the adult children didn’t have any occupation listed because they were working in the family business and / or working from home. This applies to those running big businesses down to home workers such as laundresses.

    If you haven’t done so already, it would be worth checking with the local Archives Centres. For North Wales / Gwynedd county, there is one in Bangor and one in Dolgellau.

    • dianad41

      Thanks for your helpful comment. Yes, I have visited Dolgellau. Have not yet discovered the whereabouts of the company reports for William Turner & Co.

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