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Wednesday, 23 December 2009


The Gurney family’s attitude to my 5x great grandfather Thomas Gurney is full of contradictions. On the one hand he invented the system of shorthand by which the family made its name; and they celebrate his ingenuity, his piety, his religion, his character, his geniality, his family leadership and his first wife their common ancestor.

Thomas Gurney (1705-1770)
twice-married inventor of the Gurney system of shorthand

On the other hand there is his second wife – not I hasten to clarify a bigamous relationship, but the woman he married some years after the death in 1756 of his first. Of course it’s quite common for the children of a first marriage to resent a second (although I ought to make it clear to my own half-siblings that this wasn’t the case for me!). But the opprobrium heaped on her head in the biographical memoirs of his grandson Brodie Gurney is quite shocking to see in Victorian print.

Where his first wife Martha Marsom was “an excellent and sensible woman”, his second was a homewrecker so beyond the pale that Brodie Gurney can’t even bring himself to name her, and she is referred to only as Miss R. As he tells it, when his grandfather remarried, his children left home and his property was dissipated to gratify her habits of intemperance. In other words she drank the family silver.

Thomas and Miss R had a daughter, Rebecca; and Brodie Gurney denies us the chance to find out what happened to her by telling us only that she married a Mr F of Hertfordshire. That marriage produced two children – Martha, still alive in 1845 and living in W, wherever that is; and Thomas, who had died by then leaving five children.

That’s all Brodie Gurney gives us, which I think is shameful given the elaborate lengths he goes to in extolling the virtues spiritual and temporal of the descendents of Thomas’ first marriage. Maybe Miss R was a drunk, but that doesn’t seem like Thomas Gurney’s type given his hard-working life and staunch non-conformist religious convictions. And even if she did drink, marrying her was his call and perhaps his consolation late in life. And even if she did wreck the family home, it’s no reason to erase her child and grandchildren from the family history.

1 comment:

  1. I fully agree, we can never choose our ancestors, but that is what they are, like it or not!


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