Sins of the Family
This journey began years back, when my mum started researching our family history. What she found was a tale of strength, courage and redemption against incredible odds. She went on to write a book which tells the story of five strong women in my family, from my great-great-grandmother to mum herself, exploring how my family came to terms with and dealt with the sins of our past.
Originally titled Guard a Silver Sixpence, and re-released as Sins of the Family in 2016, the book was a massive success – it even appeared on best seller lists. For me personally, it allowed me to explore my own roots, and cultivate a greater understanding of both my childhood and the man I became.
These starring women are compelling figures, people we come to identify with as much as we do any of our favourite literary characters. They are complex, with the potential to play both the role of heroine and villainess – just like the rest of us. Complex characters like these draw us into their story and make us root for them, leaving us changed for the better when we turn over that last page.
The story of Emily Swann, my great-great-grandmother, is particularly fascinating. Born in 1861, she married a glassblower called William when she was young. William, unsatisfied with his lot in life, was an abusive drunk who put Emily through hell. It didn’t help that they lived in a 19th Century mining town in West Yorkshire called Wombwell, where life for the working class was generally hard.
Emily eventually had an affair with her lodger, a man from Newcastle called John Gallagher. I won’t tell you everything (read the book or watch the documentary to find out all the gory details), but I will say that Emily was accused of murdering her abusive husband alongside her lover and after being found guilty in just 30 minutes, they were both hung at Armley Gaol.
Emily’s tale caught the eye of producers at the BBC series Murder, Mystery and My Family. The series looks at historic cases where there may have been a miscarriage of justice, examines the evidence and determines whether the verdict was valid. It also looks at these cases through a modern lens, questioning whether a modern jury would have come to the same conclusion.
The resulting documentary, which aired on Tuesday 2nd April 2018, was a gripping one. Throughout the show my mum, as well as the legal professionals who were re-trying the case, spoke to a range of experts to figure out both how Emily’s status as a battered woman living in misogynist Victorian England influenced her actions, along with whether the evidence really holds up against scrutiny. We didn’t get the verdict we wanted – the judge held that the trial had been conducted fairly – but this documentary shed light on the plight that women like Emily face and still do. That’s enough for me.
A personal journey
This episode of Murder, Mystery and My Family served as the next stage of our journey. By looking back into the past, it helps us get a better picture of what happened, providing closure. It’s like we’re closing one chapter and starting another in this journey that we’re taking, and this chapter looks like it’s set to be the best in the book yet!
Watch series 2, episode 7 of Murder, Mystery and My Family on BBC iPlayer now.