MOTHERLANDS: The Ties that Strangle

In the end, we’ll all become stories

—Margaret Atwood

It Doesn't Start with You

We never think to connect our personal issue to what’s happened to our parents or grandparents. We’re now learning that traumas experienced by previous generations can be biologically inherited—Mark Wolynn

This is the story of three women. It is the story of a mother and daughter, Ethel and Margaret, who knew each other too well. It is also the story of Margaret and her daughter, Maggie, who knew each other too little.

Whether it was planned or not, Ethel ignited fires wherever she went. Her petite blonde beauty belied the spirit within. Repeating her own history, she pushed her beloved only daughter into an early marriage. Later, a misguided letter torpedoed her daughter into a pit of shame. Yet Margaret remained loyal; she felt she owed her mother.

What could cause Ethel to do such things? What were her choices? Life set steep hurdles before her: the premature death of her own mother, the disappearance of her beloved elder brother, the forced marriage to an abusive husband, and two world wars.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Ethel's childhood home, Butterfield Street, Everton, Liverpool


Ethel’s Story: Liverpool

The Letter


29 August, 1950: Southampton to Montreal

One misguided act, one misdirected letter, catapulted Ethel’s daughter and granddaughter across the ocean – and out of reach.

Margaret shaded her eyes from the sun, leaning on the rail to catch her last glimpse of England. The land she’d called home. The land she’d fought so hard to return to. Now, less than six months later, she’d decided to stick by her husband – as he’d stuck by her. No thanks to her mother, Ethel.

Oh Mother. How could you? How can you do such things? She bent her head, her dark hair tumbling over her burning cheeks. Margaret peered around.

Good, Jeffrey’s still in the cabin. She’d left him watching over baby Maggie who napped. Margaret slipped the unopened letter from the pocket of her slim-fitting skirt and flipped the envelope over. Written in her mother Ethel’s curly script, the address showed Laceby, Lincolnshire. So, they’re back from the Channel Islands job. Well, too late now. She turned it back over. It had been forwarded by the other Mrs J. Fairbrother, her mother-in-law. Unlike the previous letter, this one was unopened.

Margaret tore the letter open and scanned the lines.

‘Why are you going back to Canada? I thought you hated St John. I thought you’d agree. A divorce is for the best’, and ‘What happened?’ Margaret scrunched it in her fist. On second thoughts, she flattened it out and tore it into shreds. She glanced about before throwing it into the wind.

Mother has suffered so much, but why is it my responsibility to uphold our reputation? Haven’t I done what’s expected of a dutiful daughter? Why did I let her push me into marriage so fast? I hardly knew him. Jeffrey’s transfer to Canada took them all by surprise. Then, no sooner was she back in England again, than her mother turned the tables and urged her to separate from Jeffrey.

‘Anyway, we’ll be over to see you in Canada soon,’ were her mother’s last words. Margaret thought at the time, that her mother’s comment was intended to comfort her in a land so far from home. Now she wasn’t so sure.

Wracked with guilt, Margaret knew one thing: her mother would persist until she and Jeffrey submitted to her will, and she was safely back in England for good.

Ethel Taylor Has her Reasons


If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next—if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions—you'd be doomed. You'd be ruined as God. You'd be a stone—Margaret Atwood

Blackpool: January 9th, 1897

On a crisp January day in 1897, Ethel Finch Taylor caught the tail of the Victorian Era, taking her first breath in the resort town of Blackpool—a favourite of the rising working class and the aspiring bourgeoisie.

James Alfred Taylor, Liverpool grocer and Margaret Halstead Ashworth, descendant of respected Lancashire lineage, brought their second child home—this time a daughter—to their comfortable terrace house in Everton, a leafy suburb of Liverpool. She named the child, Ethel, meaning ‘noble.’ With that name, her mother conferred on the infant, the weight of their Halstead ancestry, and her hopes for her future.

December 1910 - 1911: Butterfield Street, Everton, West Derby, Liverpool

‘Come along now. Mother particularly asked to see our monthly reports today.’ Ethel ushered her younger siblings towards the door of her mother’s room; the room she occupied since her illness. Ethel gripped her school report with pride, and scrutinised her siblings, who wriggled under her gaze. She smoothed their fair hair, gave each one a hug; eight-year-old twins Dot and Madge and brother Freddie, who was ten. Those moments with her mother after school each day, were Ethel’s wishful ritual. At a time like this, why did big brother Charlie have to be away so much?

On the other side of the door, she heard the muffled voices of her parents and Auntie Elizabeth. With a ‘Shush’, Ethel leaned against the door, squeezing her hand against the rings on the brass doorknob. After a pause, she heard her mother’s trembling voice.

‘James, Elizabeth, we have to tell the children. Or at least, Ethel. Soon. Because you’ll have to take her out of help out. At least for a while. We all know it. I’m going…I’m not going…to get better.’

Ethel dropped her report and dug her fingers into Freddie’s arms, making him squeal. The bedroom door swung open, and Auntie Elizabeth rushed out. Upon seeing the children, she blinked back tears, sent Ethel inside, and swept the younger children away. Father stood in silence looking down at Mother, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Then he too turned and fled.

Ethel shivered at the sight of Mother’s easel and sketch books, untouched today, yesterday, and all the days and weeks before. She remembered how her mother’s tapered fingers used to stroke the brush across the canvas, and the portraits came to life.

‘You heard us, didn’t you, dear?’

Ethel’s blonde curls hung over her face. Her mother cupped her chin, and the girl raised her slate-blue eyes. Cat’s eyes, they called them; identical to her own. Ethel bit her lip. Mother knew. The girl was holding it in, putting on a brave face.

The ticking of the clock vibrated in the still air. Then Ethel heard her mother take a shallow breath and speak.

‘If you ever need anything, you know you can count on Auntie Elizabeth, don’t you, darling?... and Charlie…’

More silence followed, then Mother spoke again.

‘You’re a pretty girl, my dear. But that won’t get you far in life. Now Ethel, if you remember nothing else, remember what I’m telling you today.’ She paused. ‘After I’m gone…’here she squeezed Ethel’s hand, ‘shush, dear…after I’m gone…stay in school, you hear? And make sure the children, especially Madge and Dot, are educated.’ She paled, took another breath and continued. ‘Another thing, get your own job, have your own money. You open one of those new women’s accounts at Lloyd’s as soon as you can.’

At that moment, Ethel recalled her mother and grandmother's mantra. They had branded on her soul the three essential values for women: education, financial independence, and the pillar of home management—thrift.


By 1910, the Suffragettes were spreading out from Liverpool, occupying London’s Hyde Park and campaigning for women’s rights. Auntie Elizabeth was active in the Liverpool-based Mothers’ Union, and she supported the National Union of Women Workers. ‘Come along, Ethel,’ she said, ‘This is important. You need to know how to vote.’ She took Ethel along whenever she could, both of them juggling Auntie’s infant children between them. ‘We can be ladies, Ethel, but without the vote and without means to support our children, what use is that? – whatever anyone says.’

Ethel saw in her aunt, the rising wave; this gave her hope and strengthened her resolve. In the months after her mother’s death, the local baker noticed how thin Ethel was getting. She often popped out with extra baps or pasties for Ethel and the children when they passed by on the way to school. Regardless of her constant fatigue, Ethel took the responsibility for her siblings in her stride and completed her schoolwork with care. She stood by the promise she had made to her mother.


A year after Ethel’s mother’s death, James Taylor married Annie. In his new wife—a widow and sought-after midwife—he hoped for an efficient housekeeper and a mother-figure for his children. Her reputation for a no-nonsense, take-charge approach preceded her introduction.

‘The poor man...a widower...five children, imagine! He’s at his wits’ ends with his motherless brood.’ Sharp-eyed, she staked her patch, moving from house to house, currying favour amongst the legion of birthing mothers in the surrounding streets.

When opportunity knocked, James believed he had the chance to get both his family life and his business, back in order.

The day their new stepmother arrived, Ethel stepped forward to offer her a bunch of flowers, but the robust woman brushed straight past her. She sized up the Taylor brood in cursory fashion, ushering her two fresh-scrubbed children into the Taylor’s smart Victorian two-storey terraced house. Ethel’s hackles rose, as this midwife formalised her social position, day by day—attaining respectability with a capital ‘R’—and replacing her Liverpool accent with overdone ‘hoity-toity’ cadences.

I’ve had elocution lessons; she can’t even speak the King’s English. She thinks she’s better than us.

A few days later, the maids—two capable farm girls they’d kept for years--were clearing the supper table. At that moment, Annie leaned towards them and said, ’Girls, could we have a word? I’ll pop into the kitchen after you’ve finished.’ Then she tut-tutted, ‘…oops, watch out. Don’t drop those plates or you’ll pay for them.’

What’s she up to now? Ethel felt a cold blue shiver run down her back. She quailed before the iron tone in her stepmother’s voice. The crack of naked power clamped its jaws on her being –- and filled her with the desolate knowledge that she was powerlessness to help the two girls.

Braving her anxiety, when Ethel heard the kitchen door shut, she tiptoed towards it. She put her ear to the door, feeling as taught as a wire thread. Scraps of Annie’s message escaped, ‘…of course, you’ll be paid your wages…up until today.’ She keeps them up in that damp, drafty attic…pays them starvation wages, and they should be grateful? A pause followed. ‘Oh…and pack your bags tonight…no need to make a fuss…if you want a reference…’ Then as the door flew open, Ethel darted into the depths of the cloakroom, narrowly dodging the girls, who charged past in tears.

Early the following morning, Annie opened the front door, letting in a gush of frosty air, which lifted Ethel’s nightdress. White-faced, the two girls filed out silently, into the still dark streets, each clutching their bundle. Annie secured the door and turned to Ethel, who stood shivering on the stairs.

‘What’s the face for, Ethel? Now that they’ve gone, you can have their room. Isn’t that nice?’

That frigid ice-box? Ethel turned on her heels and ran upstairs. Oh, of course. She’ll be moving her darling little Sally into my room – while the twins have to share.

‘You come back now. We’re waiting for breakfast. Bertie and Sally need a good breakfast if they’re to do well at school.’

What? What’s she up to now? Those two fussy eaters! Well, I certainly won’t pander to them like the maids did. Ethel dressed and ran downstairs to find herself directed to kitchen duties. She brought in steaming cups of tea, buttered toast, a pot of home-made marmalade and eggs, and slammed them down. They’ll eat what they’re given…like our lot…or go without.

Annie raised her eyebrows, then passed heaps of buttered toast and two eggs each to her children and herself. ‘Now, then, don’t make those faces. Eat those eggs. You need to keep your strength up,’ she smiled at her children.

And what about Madge and Dot and Freddie? Ethel leaned over and retrieved the remaining toast and marmalade for her siblings. Father was nowhere to be found; he’d already left for the market run. That was clever of her. Pick a time when Father’s out of the way.

As the children left for school, Annie stood in front of Ethel, blocking the doorway. ’No need for you to go to school today. I’ll need the help. I’ve got a busy day today’.

‘But…but…I need to go to school. I promised…’

‘It’s you or the twins. What’ll it be, Ethel?’

Ethel froze. Then she balled her fists. Just today. To keep the peace.

‘I’m sure she’ll agree,’ Annie announced to Father that evening, ‘it’s much better for Ethel to practice her home-making skills.’ Then, as added persuasion, she said, ‘At least until I have my own work situation sorted. Speak to the girl, James.’

Months passed. Ethel sought Auntie’s support; she sought out her father on the rare occasions when he was home, and on his own.

Annie countered this, by monitoring her every move, by sowing doubts about Ethel, undermining her in every way. Behind her father’s back, Ethel’s siblings bore the brunt of Annie’s constant sniping and cadging; she intensified these threats whenever Ethel put up resistance. Finally, Annie took to dragging Ethel off to the dingy, cold attic or the coal cellar and locking her in for hours, until her services were required.

Ethel came to the realisation that she had to be the eyes and ears, looking out for the children, and that she would have to sacrifice herself in order to do that. She decided to try to keep the peace, to bide her time. As much as she could. This can’t go on forever. In short, Ethel did not return to school.

How did Father agree to this? This isn’t fair. She narrowed her eyes and seethed with rage whenever Annie came near. She has no intention of letting me go back to school. Never did, the witch.

Instead, Ethel skivvied for her stepmother and her two cossetted children, her small wiry frame labouring from dawn till dusk. I’m not doing this for her. I’m doing it for Dot and Madge and Freddie’s sakes. I have to believe this, or I’ll go mad.

One day, Ethel came upon a small notebook while cleaning. These reckonings…maybe its Father’s? She flipped through the pages. No, this isn’t his script. Then she gasped, taking in the dates and the figures. They had risen sharply since the maids left; since the day she carried their workload. Maybe I should hold onto it. Show it to Father? But what if Annie sniffs out that its missing? In the end, temptation got the best of her. ‘I wonder whose this could be? Someone who knows about ‘thrift’…’ Ethel held it aloft, in the parlour where Annie was taking tea.

Annie looked up, narrowing her eyes. ‘What would you know about ‘thrift’?’

‘Perhaps it’s Father’s. Maybe I should give it to him…’ Ethel said.

Annie snapped. She slapped Ethel’s face and snatched the book out of her hand. Ethel reeled with the shock. Oh Charlie, please come back soon.

In exasperation at the home situation, however, Charlie stayed away longer than before. ‘Sorry to do this to you, Sis.’ He hugged her to him and kissed her cheek. ‘I’ve signed up down on the port. You know I’ve always wanted to work on the boats, like Grandfather Ashworth.’ Their grandfather had been a leader in the port, a respected river pilot on the Mersey. ‘And…try not to answer back so much. Just stay out of her way while I’m gone. We’ll try to sort something out.’

Day after day, whether on her knees in the coal dust, sweeping out the grate, or looking at her red-raw hands and split fingernails, Ethel comforted herself with thoughts of Charlie’s next visit. She imagined his lively step, his tall, golden presence bounding through the doorway; his arms outstretched to give her a hug and twirl her in the air. She marveled at the way he brushed off Annie’s demands.

As she counted down the days between visits, Ethel bore the brunt of Annie’s scalding temper. She swore to keep the younger children out of her reach. It was harder to shield them from her cutting comments, the way she side-lined them in favour of her own children.

‘What happened to my new dress?’ Madge wailed one day, as she came in for supper. She held the dress up in front of her.

‘How did it get this dirty?’ Dot looked at the stain, then across at Sally.

‘I just borrowed it.’ Sally dropped her eyes. Her brother Bertie, seated next to her, sniggered. Freddie jumped up, ran around the table and swung a punch at Bertie, who let out a howl, clutching his belly. In an instant, the door flew open, launching Annie into the room, Ethel hot on her heels.

‘Get out of here, you little ruffian! Go! Into the coal cellar with you!’ Annie shoved him out of the room. ‘And you Ethel, he’s to have no supper tonight. And not a word out of you two, either!’ Madge looked down, blinking back hot tears, as her sister squeezed her hand under the table. Dot narrowed her eyes. She stared right through Annie, biding her time.

‘Just you wait till your father gets home.’ Annie strafed the room with her eyes, then turned to murmur endearments to her own two children.

Each morning before sending her siblings off to school, Ethel took a few moments to let Madge, Dot and Freddie know that although their mother was gone, someone still loved them. She sought strength from her small daily ritual; she looked into their blue eyes and leaned down to stroke their fair hair.


The 1901 census listed Ethel as four years old, with a brother Charlies aged eight and a one-year-old brother Freddie. The following year, her twin sisters arrived. She scurried around close to her mother, feeling important; she was ‘Little Mother’. Then, over the years, although no words passed between them, she felt her mother’s strength fade away. She became fiercely protective of her younger siblings; more so, once they grew older and faced the hordes of children scuffling in the playground and neighbouring streets.


Now, holding her siblings close, she caught the smell of her mother’s skin. She longed for the sanctuary of her arms, and her guiding words sprang to mind: ‘Stay in school, have your own job and your own money.’

Ethel stood watching the children’s backs as they walked down the street to school. Then she took a deep breath, and surveying the dank scullery, she confronted the mountain of grinding chores. When I used to stop for a chat with the maids, I never really thought much about all this. But at least they had each other.

She had taken to singing to herself lately. Singing helped to cheer her up; she had loved singing with Mother. She noticed Annie’s irritation when she sang her recent favourite, ‘I belong to Glasgow’, and she sang it all the louder. Things can’t get worse, can they? At least Charlie’ll always be there to take my side.

1911-12: Butterfield Street, Everton, West Derby, Liverpool.

Ethel had kept her promise to her mother; she fought tooth and nail to keep the twins, Madge and Dot—christened, Morfory and Dorothy—at school. Her younger brother Freddie was frail, and he struggled. She often tended his schoolyard bruises and scratches and despaired as he withdrew into himself.

At suppertime, when serving up scant portions to her siblings, Ethel gave thanks for the introduction of school dinners. That grasping harridan makes sure her two get their fill. She’s a ‘cute one but I’m onto her. Ethel recalled her favourite Auntie’s words: ‘Ethel! Slang! Where are your elocution lessons? The woman’s not ‘acute’—she’s just plain sneaky and scheming.’

Her Auntie Elizabeth had the children’s best interests at heart when she tried to dissuade her brother from marrying Annie. James had always been too gentle, ‘naïve’, she said. ‘Ethel dear, you must be such a comfort to your father. He’d be at his wits’ ends without you,’ her aunt said. But she was flabbergasted when he announced he planned to go ahead and marry her, anyway. Perhaps it was the five children. Perhaps he thought a midwife should know a thing or two.


Liverpool mirrored Ethel’s turmoil. Schoolchildren were striking in support of the starving children of Birkenhead docks. Ethel cheered her siblings on, when they decided to join in.

‘Here, you can pay their fines,’ Annie flapped the pieces of paper at her. ‘Hmmph, encouraging them to go about with all those guttersnipes.’ Ethel stared her in the face, and snatched the fines out of her hands, sliding them into her apron pocket. That’s a blow, but I won’t give the woman the satisfaction. Auntie Elizabeth will help me, I’m sure.

With each passing day, indignation fueled her growing resistance to Annie’s control. This resulted in her being locked up again and again in the frosty attic—hopping from foot to foot, busting for a ‘tiddle’. Ethel tried in vain, to slip in a moment alone with her father; to complain of being treated like a dog. Before she could catch him, Ethel overheard Annie in the parlour.

‘James, you really must do something about those lads. Apprentice them. Send them to sea. They’re looking for likely lads in Canada.’

The ‘lads’? Ethel stopped in her tracks. Freddie? He’s just a child. And Charlie? Canada? She must really want him out of the way. Ethel shuddered. After she’s rid of him, she’ll have a clear shot at me.

To be continued...what Charlie tells Ethel will change her life...


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