The Story of a ‘Fallen Woman’: Reflections on Family, Narratives and Archival Sources

As oral historians, we are often confronted with the scepticism of those who use conventional archival sources and to some extent rightly so. Historians, who use oral history research, including this project team, are aware of the myriad problems a respondent’s narratives can create.  A tendency to nostalgia, misremembering exaggeration, and the influence of the interviewer on the respondent’s storytelling through to an individual’s attempts to compose their memories to allow them to feel comfortable within themselves and about their past in an interview situation are just a few of the issues. What are less likely to be acknowledged are the ways in which oral histories can reveal the problematic nature of archival material, as the story of Mary McKenna demonstrates.

The telling of Mary’s story has been passed through several generations of my family and is in itself a construction of her past shared between Mary’s sister, her daughter and myself, her granddaughter. My mother, Mary’s daughter Ann, recounted how her mother was born in 1899 in Glasgow to second-generation Irish Catholic parents who lived in the south side of the city. Her father had a small coal merchant business and was an illegal bookmaker which allowed the family to live in relative comfort. Mary’s brothers worked alongside their father. However, Mary’s mother died when she was just sixteen years old and from family archival records I know that she had left home by the time she was twenty, perhaps even before then, and that she was employed as a waitress in Glasgow city centre.

Very little is known about Mary’s life because she died when my mother, Ann, was only ten years old and Mary had also become estranged from her family. Ann recollected how she had nursed her mother through cancer, and was initially in her father’s care but his behaviour meant that she was subsequently removed from his custody. Her father, who drank before his wife’s death, seemingly turned to alcohol to get over the bereavement. He was also taking male friends home and Ann was sexually assaulted. She was then sent to live with an aunt who claimed that she was an unruly child and placed her in the care of Nazareth House orphanage. Ann remembered with sadness how her father had passed by her window at the orphanage every evening until he died when she was fifteen years old.

Ann knew that Mary had been married twice and had obtained this information from her birth certificate which listed her mother as a divorcee. However she was told by her mother’s sister that Mary had been given a special Catholic dispensation to divorce her first husband to marry Ann’s father. Ann was not really sure why the first marriage had ended but believed that cruelty was involved.

Being a historian of domestic violence and marriage breakdown I was curious and therefore I sought out some archival material relating to my grandmother. The archival records pertaining to Mary McKenna tell a somewhat different story from that narrated by my mother and her aunt. Mary had married her first husband, William Jack, a Protestant Scot, in the Church of Scotland in 1921. She seems to have been living at his address, although because of Glasgow’s tenement structure and the large number of lodgers amongst the working classes, it is difficult to say whether they were residing in the same home and if so whether they were cohabiting. She was certainly not living at her parental home and the marriage does not seem to have been condoned by Mary’s father as it is her older brother James whom she cites as her father in the first marriage certificate.


An accidental find in the archives allowed me to see that the marriage seems to have been an unhappy one from the outset. The couple did not reside together as man and wife until six months after their wedding when they took possession of a rented house in Parkhead, in the east end of Glasgow. Whilst living there, Mary was prosecuted and jailed for thirty days for the crime of reset or rather possession of stolen goods. After her release from prison the couple moved to Dovehill Street in Glasgow’s city centre, a slum area. In all they resided together as man and wife for eighteen months until they finally split in October 1923. According to William Jack’s testimony, Mary was associating with other men and this is what led to arguments and the final breakdown of the marriage.

In 1924 Mary approached Govan Parish Council and made a poor law application for relief which stated that she was a deserted wife, was destitute and pregnant and that she had converted on her marriage to Protestantism. In Ann’s telling of her mother’s story she identified Mary as having been a Catholic all her life. She was aware that her mother had had two stillborn children but she assumed that the children were her father’s, Mary’s second husband. This is not to suggest that Mary did not have two stillbirth children to her second husband but that a part of her pregnancy history may have been concealed from Ann, my mother, because if the testimony of William Jack is to be believed, the child was not his.

William Jack was contacted by Govan Parish Council in 1924 and although he claimed that his wife was adulterous, he had paid the rent for the room she was lodging in for several months in advance but he had also refused to give her any money for food and necessities because they were no longer living as husband and wife. Mary, on the other hand, claimed that the marriage was unhappy because of her mother-in-law’s interference. Certainly her husband worked and resided with his mother and they seem to have been very close. However from these records apparently the couple had remained in contact after the supposed break-up. We can only assume that sometime thereafter Mary found employment or some other means of sustaining herself because William Jack was not compelled by Govan Parish Council to maintain his wife.

Knowing that it was more difficult for Catholics to divorce, I deliberately targeted this divorce record as part of our sample of separation and divorce records for the Working-Class Marriage project. The divorce record corroborated the idea that Mary was adulterous during the marriage. It seems that she had moved to Greenock sometime between 1924 and 1931 where she met and was cohabiting with James Smith of 46 Weir Street. Her husband and two witnesses testified to this effect and Mary admitted this in the divorce action. The divorce record also states that there were no children to the marriage.

However, this archival record is riddled with lies and inaccuracies. There was no James Smith because shortly after the divorce Mary married James Armstrong of 46 Weir Street, with whom she had been cohabiting for at least over three years. In Scot’s law the guilty party of an adulterous marriage was not allowed to marry the person they had had an affair with. It seems likely that William Jack and Mary collaborated in the lie because they both wished to escape the marriage.

It is also unlikely that there was a Catholic dispensation to divorce given to Mary as narrated to Ann by her aunt. It was William Jack, not Mary, who filed for the divorce on the grounds of adultery. In addition, James Armstrong and Mary were married by a minister of the Church of Scotland at Ladyburn Manse in Greenock, so she was moving from one ‘mixed marriage’- as these marriages were known – to another ‘mixed marriage’, neither of which would have been recognised by the Catholic Church because the ceremony was not conducted by a priest within the sacramental rites of Catholicism. However the second marriage certificate indicates that Mary may have been reconciled with her family as her father’s name, Peter, rather than that of her brother James, appears on the section of the marriage certificate identifying the father.

It is also unlikely that Mary converted to Protestantism as the Govan Parish records suggest based on information Mary had given them because whether unbeknown to her husband, James Armstrong, or not, Mary had her only child baptised Catholic and was buried after her death in a Catholic ceremony. Yet, irrespective of this, their child was raised to all intents and purposes in the Protestant tradition of her father until her mother died and she was removed from her father’s care to that of her Catholic relatives.

Because Mary did not contest the divorce, her version of the marriage remains untold so that we can only read between the lines of her marriage breakdown and subsequent marriage to James Armstrong. Nor do we know whether Mary carried the child she was pregnant with in 1924 full term and had it adopted or whether she lost the child to miscarriage or stillbirth, and we do not know if the father was indeed William Jack as they had remained in contact. Ann died apparently unaware of these ‘facts’ about her mother whom she idolised. What little she knew of her mother’s relationship history had been created by her Catholic aunt, her mother’s sister. In the narrative that her aunt and then Ann composed, Mary became a victim of abuse from a nameless, faceless man and the Catholic Church sanctioned her escape, allowing her to marry a man whom she loved and who cherished her and all the while she was apparently able to maintain her Catholic faith.

However I, Ann’s daughter, was not so fortunate. I had been raised with a romanticised and nostalgic view of my dead grandmother Mary. She was presented as a perfect personification of womanhood and mothering that fitted with feminine expectations from her historical era. Therefore the material from the archives was initially difficult to come to terms with. I experienced some shame and I was slightly embarrassed because I had made my grandmother’s hidden history public amongst my colleagues, yet I also felt a deep pity and sadness for a woman whom I understood to have had a difficult life, but also a woman whom I had never known personally, although she was my grandmother.

So my grandmother was apparently a ‘fallen woman’ destitute and a criminal too! Why should this concern me: I am a historian of marriage and marriage breakdown and a feminist and so I should reject such discourses as far too simplistic? Indeed she was to all intents and purposes a wonderful mother and she had had cohabited and was then married happily to my grandfather from 1927 to 1950 when she died. Moreover, Mary’s story of a complex relationship history is not that exceptional as our research has uncovered.

However I also realised at this point the difficulties respondents might face in revealing such personal family histories in a public forum when perceptions prevail that unhappy marriages, adultery and marriage breakdown were far less common in the past than they actually were, especially those that are further complicated by historical ideas about good woman and female virtue. In fact we have used a wide variety of archival records and we have published numerous articles which show that bigamy, cohabitation, adultery, family desertion, separation, divorce and illegitimacy were very much everyday experiences for a significant number of men and women in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Scotland.[1] Indeed desertion and bigamy were regarded as the ‘poor man’s – or in Mary’s case, woman’s – divorce and often involved cohabitation with a new partner, and therefore adultery, and frequently what were called ‘adulterous children’ or rather illegitimate children because many people could simply not afford the costs incurred by a divorce.

What I also came to appreciate is that, while the narrative of Mary’s life provided comfort for a child who had lost her mother, the untruths allow us to consider and unpick the inter-relationship between religion, gender, class and inter-generation in the re-telling of family histories of marriage and marriage breakdown. Indeed a part of me wonders whether my mother did know the ‘truth’ about her mother’s past and was perhaps, given her own upbringing, too ashamed to reveal it even to her own children, especially her daughters.

The family narrative was full of half-truths and inaccuracies, but so too were the archival sources. This highlights the importance of triangulation and subjecting all sources to the same rigorous treatment that oral history narratives are exposed to. As well as historical ‘facts’, we also have to seek out of the archival material and the oral narratives the ‘untruths’ to evaluate their significance to our understanding of the past as Mary’s story demonstrates.


If you have stories of broken families for the period from 1850 to the 1970s and you wish to share them with us, please contact either Andrea Thomson or myself, Annmarie Hughes, at the following:

[1] See, Eleanor Gordon, ‘Irregular Marriage: Myth and Reality’,  Journal of Social History, 47 (1) (2013), pp. 1-19; Annmarie Hughes, & Jeff Meek,  ‘State Regulation, Family Breakdown, and Lone Motherhood: The Hidden Costs of World War I in Scotland, Journal of Family History 39,  2014, pp. 364-387; Eleanor Gordon, ‘Irregular Marriage and Cohabitation in Scotland, 1855-1939: Official Policy and Popular Practice’, The Historical Journal Volume 58 / Issue 04 / December 2015, pp 1059-1079; and Rosemary Elliot, Annmarie Hughes and Jeff Meek, ‘Working-class family breakdown and the First World War in Scotland, Scottish Labour History, Vol.50, 2015, pp.141-159. Please note there are also a series of workshop papers delivered by the team which are available by clicking the link to our dissemination page.

Header image: ‘The Outcast’, Richard Redgrave, 1851