Family History

This story grew out of a collection of stuff I inherited. A sort of family archive. There was a photograph taken about 1900 in Liverpool and there was a will. There were other things, too, but the photo and the will were what engaged my attention.

In the photograph, Jack, Harry and Charlie Mullaney are dressed in their Fancy Dan best, smiling, off on the razzle. The will was twenty years later, and their Aunt Margaret’s. When she died in 1920, she left her house in Dublin to one favourite niece and her clothes, jewellery and shares in Arnott’s Department Store to another. The rest was shared around. Harry got ten pounds, which would have been welcome. He was forty-five now, supporting  a wife and a son on what he earned collecting insurance payments door to door. Another ten pounds for Jack, still unmarried at forty-seven. In his case, it went on a new suit, a hat, shoes and a cane. Not to wear in the ironmonger’s shop where he worked behind the counter; if you’d met Jack in the evening you’d never have guessed how he earned his living and he certainly wouldn’t have told you. He was a bit of a dandy, Jack. What was left of his ten pounds bought concert and theatre tickets and a few brandies.

For Charlie, there was nothing. Not even a mention. As far as Aunt Margaret was concerned, Charlie had ceased to exist.

In the photograph, the three brothers look close. You might imagine they’d help Charlie out. Slip him a couple of quid each out of their windfall. They didn’t. If they’d wanted to, they couldn’t have because they no longer knew where he was. Charlie had been cut out of their lives as surely as he had out of Aunt Margaret’s.

Unravelling what happened to Charlie ninety years ago took a little time. Looking at the other two took even longer. I had to start further back, with their parents. John Mullaney and Sarah Humphries.

John Mullaney was born in Bray, County Wicklow in 1839. Oscar Wilde once owned a house in Bray. Three years before John’s birth, a man called Henry Humphries had died in Surrey. His Will, like Margaret’s, left someone out. What it said was: “I have thought proper to leave out my eldest son Henry Humphries from sharing any of my property, he having had his share during my life, but I desire he has five pounds given to him for mourning.”

Well, fair dos, and a fiver certainly wasn’t peanuts in the eighteen thirties; but Henry is not being entirely straight here. I was about to learn that not being entirely straight was the Humphries way. Henry Junior was not the only son left out of the will. He was excluded because he had already had what was due to him, but William Humphries also got nothing.

William might have escaped if he and the man in the dock with him had got their stories straight, but one told the policemen he had gone into the bushes in pursuit of his small dog and the other because he had been taken short, which could explain why his trousers were round his ankles. The policemen didn’t believe these stories, and neither did the Court; William was convicted of Unnatural Practices and sentenced to six months imprisonment, after which he disappeared from sight. He appears in no census; his father never spoke his name again; there is no record of his death. Did he change his name? Emigrate? Both? Who knows?

What happened in another family so far away might not have mattered in Bray. But John Mullaney left Ireland for Liverpool where he set up as a druggist and, in 1872, married Sally, and Sally was the niece of the disgraced William Humphries. The Irish are a tolerant people, at least where the English are not concerned, and the peccadilloes of such as Oscar Wilde had never troubled them. The Humphries clan, too, had learned to be more forgiving.

They had had cause to. Sally’s brother Fred had been in enough scrapes for a whole family – this stockbroker’s son reinvented himself as a poor boy raised by gypsies; fathered two children on a woman in Australia while still married to his wife in England; changed his name and awarded himself a professorship; declared himself a veterinary surgeon and set up practice in Sydney; fought in the Boer War; was scandalously divorced; and wrote a book about horses that is still in use today. Another brother was acquitted of a charge of fraud at the Old Bailey, and anyone reading the transcript will be excused for thinking that he got away with it. Arthur, the youngest, was so tired of being pointed at in the street and ignored at social gatherings that at the age of twenty-eight he boarded the SS Umbria for New York. His family never heard from him again.

Sally’s sister Harriet married the widower Henry Labory. Henry lied repeatedly about his age. All we know for sure is that he was anything from ten to sixteen years older than her. He lied about other things, too. And he was mean. But Harriet was nineteen and in rebellion against strait-laced Surrey. When Henry bought a new waistcoat so that he could propose marriage without gravy stains on his protruding belly, she accepted.

Henry’s late wife, Fanny, had given him two children. Harriet bore him five more, the eldest of whom was Theodore, who married Florence Bailey and fathered Ted Labory – advertising executive, disc jockey, spy and novelist. The blurb on Ted’s novels told how his father, an officer in the Black Watch, died of his wounds only hours before the Armistice. It was a nice story, and probably helped sell more books than the truth would have. The truth being that Theodore survived the war, became a cotton trader and died at sea of some unnameable illness contracted in the Gold Coast, with the crew keeping as far from the sick bay as possible. So, as we see, to be a Humphries was to be easy with facts when alternative versions offered greater rewards.

The three children Sally gave John Mullaney were the Jack, Harry and Charlie we began with. This branch of the Humphries tree was not the most prosperous, and in 1891 Jack (seventeen) was working as an ironmonger’s assistant; Harry (fifteen) was filling shelves and emptying boxes in a chain of grocery shops and Charlie (thirteen) was an office boy.

And, once again, the Humphries talent for invention reveals itself because there was in Liverpool a grocery chain named after the Mullaney family that owned it. Those Mullaneys were not these Mullaneys, but Charlie let people think they were. And, a few years later, obtained credit by using their name. Well, why not? It was his name, too.

That discovery came like a Eureka moment. Here, surely, was the reason for Charlie’s abandonment by the family. He obtained money by fraud and they wrote him off.

Likely, but not true. Fraud was not, after all, unknown to this family. In any case it was not, as it turns out, his deeply English Humphries relatives who rejected Charlie. It was the Irish Mullaneys. For them, Charlie had committed an offence far worse than importing bananas on someone else’s credit.

In 1903, Charlie had married a girl who, if she was anything at all, was a Protestant. Her father wasn’t actually an Orangeman but as far as the Mullaneys were concerned he might as well have been.

So there it was, the reason for the breach. Except that, once again, it wasn’t. When the Catholic Irish crossed the sea they brought their priests with them. Father Brendan O’Driscoll treated Charlie’s wife as a project sent by God. He called on her once a week, did everything he could to convert her to Holy Mother Church, tried to get her to attend Mass (but Charlie didn’t so why, she reasoned, should she?) and to raise her children as Catholics.

Charlie’s Irish granny joined in. Her wedding present to the couple was a picture of the Sacred Heart which spooked Charlie’s wife, who put it in the attic, and when the children were born she marked their birthdays with books that proved that the Pope was God’s representative on earth, and that Protestants would burn for ever in hell.

This harassment, as Charlie’s wife regarded it, continued for ten years. Then, on the very eve of the war to end all wars, Charlie caught his wife in the act with her girlhood sweetheart.

There were well established Irish Catholic ways of dealing with this. They began with beating the living daylights out of the adulterous wife, but they did not embrace termination of the marriage. What God had brought together, no man could put asunder. Charlie saw things differently. He loved his wife too much to hurt a hair on her head. She no longer loved him. She wanted to be free. He gave her what she wanted, as he had done since the moment they first met.

His family never spoke to him again. Fraud, they could accept. A marriage outside the Church was unfortunate, but these things happen. But divorce? A Mullaney becoming a divorced Irish Catholic in Liverpool? Quite possibly, at that time, the only one there had ever been? With his ex-wife taking custody of the children? The disgrace was public, and it was insupportable.

Harry had his wife and, although it was clear that things between them were not as they might have wished, they kept it in the family. Harry would do.

And everyone agreed that Jack was a saint to give up a normal life to care for his sick mother after his father died. He must have had his chances, for Jack cut a striking figure. Of course, he’d always been a man’s man. Always preferred the company of his own sex to the gossiping flibbertigibbets of the other. A question is only a question if someone asks it and, very carefully, no-one did.

But when his mother died, and Jack married within three weeks, the question became inescapable. What kind of man makes a life out of caring for disabled women? Disabled women who are much older than him?

Really, they knew the answer. But Jack never talked about it, and so no-one else needed to. If Jack was not, in fact, a man’s man, he at least kept it to himself. If he was a mother’s boy who would like to summon up the courage to be a gay mother’s boy, no-one need be told. Not that people then used the word gay in that way.

Whatever Jack did, he did in private. He never disgraced his family as Charlie had, and so he was tolerated while Charlie – whose offence was to love a woman more than he loved himself – was ruthlessly cut.

Three decades later, Harry’s ten year old grand-daughter Abby would see a woman walking down the street Abby lived on to visit a friend. The friend’s daughter said the woman’s name was Josephine Mullaney, she made her visits every Friday, and Abby thought it interesting, but no more than that, that they shared a surname. No-one told her that Josephine was the reviled Charlie Mullaney’s daughter, and therefore her aunt. Her father knew, but said nothing; her mother knew, but said nothing; and Josephine knew, but not once did she even smile at the little girl in pigtails who watched her pass. Family mores run deep. What happened, what people did, were of little account. What mattered was what was publicly known.

But things change, and revulsion is an excellent agent of change. It was through Abby that I came into possession of the photograph and the will. Abby, the fourth generation of a family that never if it could be avoided told the truth, was incapable of telling even the whitest of lies. She hated any kind of dishonesty. Educated by nuns, she never now went near a church. The evasive half-truths of politicians offended her.

And she couldn’t stand the sight of a priest.

This story, as is probably clear, is based in historical fact though I have changed the surnames. I hope you enjoyed it. If you’d like to see what else I write, you’ll find it here:

A Just and Upright Man
Sharon Wright: Butterfly
Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper
The International Sales Handbook

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