May 122009

The internet is ruthless with the secrets of the past. I discovered the extent of the power of the internet to reveal our secrets as I turned my attention to the Bray family. I noticed, as had other Bray researchers, two mysterious Emma Brays who were, according to census returns, living with my great-great-great grandparents William Bray and Betsey Bath.

William and Betsey were married in Michaelstow, Cornwall in Mar 1850. Shortly after their marriage (the journey to Canada most often began in the spring), they emigrated to Canada and settled in Hope Township in Durham County, Ontario.

In the 1851 and 1861 Ontario censuses, an Emma is listed as a daughter of William and Betsey. However, she is quite a bit older than their next eldest daughter Anna Maria. Emma disappears from the 1871 census and it is uncertain what happened to her, although William purchased a grave at Welcome Church in 1868. This is, perhaps, Emma’s grave. It is also possible that Emma married and simply disappeared into life with a new last name.

Because Emma was born in 1844, six years before William and Betsey’s marriage, it seemed unlikely that she was their biological daughter. I assumed for a long time that she was simply the child of a sibling who, for some reason, could not look after her. Eventually it occurred to me (OK, I know: duh!) to search English baptismal records for a Emma Bath (Betsey’s maiden name). Sure enough, Emma Bath was the “bastard” child of Betsey Bath, baptized in Trevalga, Cornwall in 1844. (This is most certainly our Emma as Betsey was from Trevalga and can be found living there with her family in the 1841 census.)

Family of William Bray and Betsey Bath
Family of William Bray and Betsey Bath circa 1870. Back row, left to right: Thomas, Sarah, William. Middle row: Anna Maria, William, Betsy, Adelaide. Front row: Annabelle, Harry, Eliza.

The existence of Emma came as a complete surprise to us. Her life seemed somehow obscured and possibly even hidden. She was not present in any family photos or on an elaborate family tree that had been completed in the 1950s. I find myself wanting to make some assumptions about the plight of an illegitimate child, but I am wary of jumping to conclusions. But I am fascinated to say the least. What did this mean for Emma? What did it mean for Betsey? Was William Betsey’s saviour? Were they motivated to emigrate so that this “sin” could be erased from the memory of the community where they lived? Or was this a commonplace event, understood to be something that happened and that should be survived in some way or another?

This story does not end with our Emma born in 1844. Interestingly enough, another mysterious Emma Bray is living with William and Betsey according to the 1881 census. In this case, it was rather easy to discover that Emma #2, born in 1873, was the illegitimate daughter of Sarah Jane Bray, William and Betsey’s daughter. Emma #2’s birth was duly recorded by an (undoubtedly sour and judgmental) Ontario bureaucrat. We do know that Emma #2 was raised by William and Betsey as their daughter. She died at the age of 16 of a bowel obstruction. Again, this Emma does appear in a photo nor is she is listed on a family tree. But I am inclined to believe that this Emma was much loved as she is buried beside William and Betsey in Gardiner’s United Cemetery in Cavan, the headstone engraved with her nickname Bena. I find this to be a tender gesture.

Wait! There’s more. A couple of weeks after I discover the birth certificate of Emma #2, I looked more closely at it. I discovered that the illegitimate child born one month after Emma and listed beside Emma’s entry is also a member of my family! This child is the daughter of Mary Ann Johnson who was the sister of my g-g-grandmother Martha Johnson. Martha married William and Betsey’s son Thomas Glenfield. The Brays and the Johnsons lived next to each other on Concession 3 in Hope Township. To top it off, a third illegitimate child was born near this concession that summer and is also listed next to the Bray and Johnson children on the birth record. (This third child is not on my family tree, but two out of three isn’t bad!) What was happening that year on Concession 3 in Hope Township? Were three local girls seduced by a rural Ontario Lothario? Was there a serial rapist afoot? Or were the harvest festivals of 1872 simply out of control? Now this is a tantalizing mystery worthy of much more of my attention, I would say!

The discovery of the two Emmas has made me think about how we understand families and how we draw boundaries around the family unit based on cultural rather than biological ideas of relatedness. The Emmas fell off of my family tree because they were culturally unacceptable relations, products — most likely — of scandal and “untoward” behaviour. This deliberate forgetting was aided and abetted by time and distance, forces which could not be overcome by the communications technologies of the past. But these secrets are easily revealed again by the forces of mass digitization and indexing. My ancestors’ hidden lives (and hidden children) are laid bare thanks to the penetrating power of Google, and now that illegitimacy is no longer an embarrassment, these family members can be reclaimed and joyfully added to the family tree. As a parent, I would like to think that this brings some comfort to the souls of Betsey and Sarah Jane, the mothers of the two Emmas.

  4 Responses to “The tale of two Emmas”

  1. […] tale of the two Emmas in the Bray family left me with a vague impression about the lives of illegitimate children in the 19th century. I had […]

  2. Hi there
    I was just trying to find a bit of info, but it’s hard sometimes when you don’t have a lot to go on. My now deceased mother-in-law was born Emmaline Bray & given up for adoption when she was around two. Her mother & father (who were married)had split,by the sounds of it, & the grandfather would not take the mother back unless the baby was given up for adoption. I have the adoption papers here somewhere,& may be able to find the mother’s name as it is a legal document. My mother-in-law found out she was adopted when she was around 21. Thought you might have heard of something like that happening while researching the Brays. Interesting stuff!

    • Hi there,

      I hadn’t heard of any Emmaline Bray, but I have learned that these things were not talked about. Do you know where she was born? Was it Ontario? Sounds like an interesting search!

      • Hi—–sorry I am so long answering. No..all I know is the parents were married and something happened and they split. I assumed (and pretty sure) she was born in Manitoba. I think the birth mother’s name was Elizabeth and her married last name was definitely Bray. This baby was born May 8, 1909. I’d like to try and pass on some of this info to my kids.

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