Revealed: my family’s secret story of murder and misery

When Felicity Davis decided to research her family history to find out why her grandmother beat her on a daily basis, she had no idea of the tragedies she would unearth. Catherine Scott met her.

FROM the age of seven Felicity Davis was cruelly beaten on a daily basis by one of the very people who should have protected her – her grandmother.

Her earliest memories are of pain and confusion as she tried to understand why someone who was supposed to love her would abuse her and her mother so relentlessly. A young Felicity also struggled to understand why her mother didn’t take them both away from the violence.

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“All my granddad said was that gran had had a hard life, that she hardly knew her own mother because she did something terrible and had to go to prison and gran never saw her again,” says Felicity.

After one particularly violent incident when her grandmother poured a pan of boiling water over her, Felicity left home. She was 15, with no qualifications.

“I was free,” she explains. “I went wild for a few years. I craved the love I have never had. But my life started to spiral then I woke up one day and realised I was single, 36, with three children and two failed marriages and 20p in my purse. I needed to break the cycle of poverty; I needed to get an education.”

And that’s exactly what she did. Through her drive and determination she gained the qualifications she had never had, including a 2:1 degree and then her teaching qualifications before gaining an assistant headship and leadership role at George Pindar Community Sports College in Scarborough.

But, despite her success, she realised at the age of 50 that she would never be truly free and able to put her past behind her until she got answers to her questions.

“It wasn’t until I was 50 and finally made something of myself that I recognised that I hadn’t ever escaped her completely,” says Felicity.

“The scars caused by my fractured childhood had never totally healed, which meant that at a time when I should have been feeling proud of myself and my achievements, I felt hollow and incomplete. I realised to be totally free, I needed to understand why gran behaved the way she did.”

So in 2007 Felicity started to research her family’s secret past, trying to discover fact from family myth, but nothing could prepare her for what she found.

Through her internet research and trawling through church, library and newspaper records she has put together a fascinating piece of family tragedy and social history.In her book Guard a Silver Sixpence: The unforgettable story of one family’s hidden past, Felicity interweaves her historical discoveries with her own harrowing yet inspiring story of abuse and subsequent success.

“I am the kind of woman who wants to know everything. There were just too many unanswered questions. The research was also a way of dealing with the grief as my mother was dying of cancer.”

With the help of her partner of 20 years, Michael, Felicity spent two years researching and a year writing her book.

It turned out that Felicity’s great grandmother, Emily Swann, was hanged in 1903 along with her lover for the murder of her husband, Bill.

The Wombwell Murder was a notorious case, which had brought shame on Emily’s orphaned children and broke the family apart. Felicity’s grandma, Elsie, had been the youngest of the Swann children and just five when her mother was hanged.

Reading the letters from Emily to her mother Hannah, Felicity was filled with huge sadness but also a sense of injustice.

“For most of her married life, Emily was brutally beaten by her husband, a glass blower, who drank heavily and squandered the family’s money while Emily was left to bring up the children. She was a volatile woman, but in this day and age she would have been protected.”

But at the turn of the century there was no such protection for battered wives. And when Bill Swann’s beaten body was discovered in his own home the finger was pointed at Emily and her lover John Gallagher.

Emily’s own childhood had been hard, Felicity discovered through reading newspaper cuttings of the time that many members of her family had been killed in the Oaks Mining Tragedy in 1866 in which 286 men were killed in an underground explosion.

Had the Oaks tragedy not happened, then Emily’s fate might have been different and Elsie may not have become so cruel.

Emily always denied wanting her husband’s death or being involved in it, but people had already made up their mind about her.

“People made assumptions about her and did not take into account what she had been through during her married life,” say Felicity.

“I do feel that through the book something has been put to rights.”

Before she was hanged, Emily’s sisters and her children travelled to Leeds to visit her in jail. But young Elsie was not allowed in to see her mother as she was deemed too young. Instead, she was left with a prison warden who asked her to guard his silver sixpence as a way of distracting her, hence the name of the book.

After Emily was hanged, Elsie was shunted from relative to relative while being taunted about the circumstances of her parents’ death and became a sullen unhappy child. Despite Felicity’s research, she loses her grandmother until she reappears at the age of 18 pregnant and married to her granddad.

Although not excusing the treatment she then dished out on Felicity and her mother in the years to come, this knowledge has helped Felicity understand more about her grandmother.

Discovering the poverty and hardships of Emily’s life in Barnsley, and the traumas her grandmother suffered as a girl, has helped Felicity see the destructive patterns that had been repeated in her family for nearly 100 years.

“The past will always be part of me,” she says, “but for the first time I feel really positive about the future. It has been very hard at times I have felt very lost, but I am back on track now. There are still some unanswered questions. But I feel more at peace than I ever have.”