A chance discovery last year, in one of our registers inspired NRS Registration casework officer Rachael Lloyd to investigate the life of Malvina Wells – born into slavery in Grenada, and later making a life for herself in Edinburgh in the 1800s.
Little did Rachael know that while she was researching her article Frances Macdonald, an amateur researcher living in Edinburgh, had also been investigating her family history and had found a wealth of information on Malvina’s life.
Frances spoke to Rachael recently and explained how piecing together stories from the past can be complex and confusing, full of false trails and loose ends, but ultimately very rewarding – even if history can sometimes force us to confront some harsh realities…
Into The Past
I knew from my own research Malvina Wells was born into slavery around 1805 on the Island of Carriacou in Grenada and at some point before 1851, she moved to Edinburgh, working as a lady’s maid for a family by the name of Macrae.
From the census, I discovered she had her own independent household in 1861 and ten years later, she was once again working as a servant.
My research was largely limited to using ScotlandsPeople with some archival material. When Frances saw my article and contacted me however, she told me she’d been investigating for a lot longer with considerably more success.
“Think of it as a jigsaw,” Frances says of her own research. “You have to start with what you already know. You are the first piece. Look around for something that fits – a letter or photograph or a rumour which mentions a place and ask, “Why?”
Frances began researching her family history in the 1990s, trying to establish how two of the exotic tales she’d been told about her family were true.
She visited the Aberdeen and North East Scotland Family History Society Library and found mostly elderly people “excitedly buzzing about, eager to help with inquiries” – genealogy was quite the new craze at the time.
There, she found a copy of History of the Clan Macrae by the Reverend Alexander Macrae which traces the various branches of the Macrae families.
One of the family stories Frances remembers is that an ancestor had been the Governor of Grenada. The Clan Macrae book contained plenty of information about this part of Frances’ family tree including her great, great grandmother Joanna McLean – later Joanna Macrae – who, with her elder sister, was born and lived on the Dumfries Estate in Carriacou, Grenada.
Frances also made visits to the library at Aberdeen University, to read about slavery and plantations and to check the list of Governors of Grenada – no relative appeared there, but a Dutch relative had been Governor of Demerara!
She also visited the General Register Office of Scotland – one of the organisations that later amalgamated to become NRS.
“It was very well organised with staff dedicated to helping beginners,” she said. “I was taken into the magnificent large circular document library and shown the relevant Sasine volumes from which to make notes by hand of property ownership, and I was able to call up wills and have copies made.
“After ScotlandsPeople came online in 2002 it was so much easier. I could order copies of necessary documents – births marriages and deaths, and the Census.”
“Family History is made up of ‘lightbulb’ moments as well as false trails”, Frances says, talking about her research into Malvina Wells. “My grandmother knew and talked about ‘Mally’ who was nanny to both her father and grandmother. She said they were very fond of her.”
“My grandmother told how Dorothea and Mally would go out painting together in the country, both being competent artists.”
When Frances found the same census entries I had, she was able to put them in context of what she already knew.
“…When I looked at the 1851 census for my great, great grandmother Joanna Macrae (nee McLean) I saw the name Malvina Wells aged 48, born in Grenada, occupation Servant.
“I knew Joanna and her elder sister Dorothea had also been born in Grenada and I had heard that my uncle had inherited a share of the Dumfries Estate, in Carriacou, Grenada. I thought there must be a link between Malvina and Dumfries.”
Frances was also able to piece together a far more complete picture of Malvina’s life using genealogy web forums, which can be a helpful source of amateur and expert advice. With the help of users of one forum, she established that part-ownership or shares in several plantations in Grenada were passed down through one branch of her family tree, the McLeans, who knew John Wells, Malvina’s father.
She discovered that not only had the McLeans been substantial plantation owners, but Joanna McLean’s father-in-law, Colin Macrae (youngest son of Farquhar Macrae of Inverinate), had been a smaller plantation owner in Demerara, who, she later learned, had voiced his objection in Parliament to the immediate abolition of slavery. And she also learned how Malvina came to enter her ancestors’ service.
In 2004, Frances had a stroke of luck – via the internet, she encountered another group of people researching the Wells family who had found an entry for Malvina Wells in the 1817 register of slaves. It was confirmation that “Mally”, beloved nanny to two generations of her ancestors, had been born into slavery.
Of all the records Frances pored over in her research, this single entry was one of the most striking and stark. She discovered Malvina had been listed as a slave owned by brothers George G Browne Mill and John Mill, Grand Bay Estate, Carriacou.
The entry reads:
No.124 Malvina, Mulatto, Creole, 13 years, no marks.
Frances told me she found learning more about the legacy of slavery and its place in her own family history difficult, but also rewarding.
“I have benefited from a greater understanding of how the past affects the present, by background reading of the slave trade which some of my ancestors were part of.
“It was a difficult moment… reading the names of slaves – people listed like tools of the trade, defined by scars and disabilities, and owned by other people.
“We are not responsible for the actions of our ancestors, but we need to reflect on the motives behind their actions and the inevitable consequences.
“The real challenge is how to apply what we learn and to be aware of the prejudices which are subtly handed down to each generation by parents, teachers and of course the media, tied to particular beliefs which go unscrutinised.”
Faces from the past
In an unexpected stroke of luck, Frances then learned much more about the personal lives of her ancestors with the discovery of family letters kept in the attic of an old mansion, coming to light when a distant cousin was doing a Family History Tour.
“Some of these letters mentioned Mally in glowing terms of affection. I was comforted to know she was so loved.
“We still wonder if Malvina ever considered herself to be a free Scottish woman and member of a family, whose occupation happened to be nurse, nanny, companion… Or if the concept of being someone else’s property was instilled so strongly when she was a child, that allegiance to her employer dominated to the end.
“Did she ever have a choice?”
Finally, as well as the letters, Frances was shown a photograph of a painting of the teenage McLean sisters and Malvina herself. It is by an unknown artist, undated but most likely from around 1830, when Malvina would have been in her mid-twenties. Written on the back of the painting is “Dorothea and Joanna with their nurse Malvina”.
Frances says she was thrilled to have finally put a face to someone who had for so long only been a name. “It was the most exciting and moving moment of my entire research”, she told me.
Having begun my own research into Malvina from only a name myself, I understood exactly what she meant.
You can find out more about Frances’ research and her discoveries about the lives of her ancestors and Malvina Wells here, including Malvina’s later life in Edinburgh, in her full interview with Rachael.
You can begin investigating your own family history online today using ScotlandsPeople, our ancestry research service.
NRS is Scotland’s national archive and you can search our huge collection of official and private records online using the NRS catalogue.