Notman II: This Time, it’s Personal.

Posted by in General Collections, Skills for the Future

As readers can perhaps gather from the title of this post, a familiar name reared its head from the dark recesses of the Main Store last week: William Notman, a Victorian Edinburgh-based architect, whose collection we had previously spent several weeks sorting, cataloging and re-housing during our time in Collections (for our adventures, catch up here). The boxes we tackled this time around contained probably the most interesting section of any collection – the juicy personal stuff! Prior to this our experience of William Notman had been almost entirely professional, save for a couple of school exercise books and anonymous paintings; indeed, this had caused some identification problems for us during our first attempt on the collection (see our previous post for details!). Now, we had boxes and boxes of unsorted and uncatalogued letters, family documents and family trees – meaning we got to take an all access journey into the intricate, and sometimes scandalous, history of the Notman family!

So what did we find out? Well, the documents firstly solved one mystery that had been puzzling us during our work on the first collection: the exact connection between the Notman and Williamson families, whose name frequently came up amongst the documents in the first part of the collection. John Knight’s notes detailed that William Notman had married into the wealthy Williamson family, and had inherited his family house at Northfield, on land owned by the Williamsons, from an uncle. However, we could not reconcile an uncle on the Notman side owning a Williamson house. Enter the letters archive: using this, coupled with some research on and other like genealogy websites (including information from a still-living relative of the Notmans called Jan, who provided us with her family tree – thanks Jan!), we were able to establish that William had indeed married into the Williamson family, and that he was seemingly following a family tradition – his mother Margaret’s sister, Barbara, had married Thomas Williamson in 1785 (as evidenced by a marriage certificate in the new archive) and was subsequently the grandmother of William’s wife (also Barbara). So, that cleared that up!

Of the other family tales we unearthed, there are two we believe deserve to be told most. The first concerns Margaret Williamson, aunt of William’s wife Barbara. Margaret and her sister Susan were left the Williamson estates by their father Thomas, and seem to have run it efficiently, collecting rent and carrying out repairs consistently. However, suddenly, in the early 1840s Margaret is listed as having been committed to a lunatic asylum in Morningside. Why is unclear from any records we came across, but she appears to have remained there for some time, and reduced to being heavily in debt due to the costs of keeping her at the facility. Susan appears to have taken over the sisters’ estates and business single-handedly, with the help of family solicitor John McAndrew, and it seems probable, judging from a later letter from McAndrew, that Margaret died within the asylum’s walls. The discovery of this left a lasting impression upon us – it added an extra dimension to the family, a tangible peek into a sad and difficult adversity that affects many families still.

The second tale is a little more mysterious, and features all of the components that comprise a rollicking family legend – a missing person, a lost fortune, exotic lands, and a scandalous conclusion. This story concerns William Kemp, brother of William Notman’s mother Margaret, and rather excitingly, it is recounted by Notman himself in a series of letters, and filled in additionally by a letter written by Kemp to his sister Margaret. William Kemp set sail as a young man around 1801 for the New World, arriving in Demerera in British Guyana sometime in the early 1800s; his letter details how he works on the ‘Kitty’ plantation there, of which he would later become manager. In 1809, Kemp returned  to Scotland to visit friends and family, at which point, so Margaret claims to her son, he stated that he wished to leave his estates and worldly possessions to her. After this visit, he simply disappeared, with the Kemps appearing to have assumed that he drowned en route.

HOWEVER, in a classic Victorian twist, intrigue occurs when we fast forward to the 1870s, and his nephew William’s attempts to uncover what happened to his uncle, and to his late mother’s presumed inheritance. William receives a copy of Kemp’s last will and testament, which reveals that Kemp did not, in fact, drown in 1809 as was thought; on the contrary, he lived until 1822, dying aged 40 in Demerera. This confused and intrigued William Notman, as it did us – why would someone, who appears to be professionally successful and have a strong and affectionate relationship with his sister judging from letters between them, allow their family to believe they had disappeared, even died? The answer may be to do with Kemp’s life in Demerera, a life which it is unclear if his family ever knew about. For there, Notman tells us, Kemp was in a relationship with a woman – not just any woman however, but one of his former slaves, a black woman named Lucy. Kemp appears to have lived with her as his wife, and fathered two children, Andrew and William – and it was to this family, rather than the promised sister, that he left all of his estates and possessions upon his death. An understandably miffed Notman recounts this tale with an air of annoyance at his uncle, but we think it stands as a testament to Kemp’s extraordinary, if mysterious, character. The nature of slave/master relationships during the new world slave trade is complex and much disputed, but by and large formal inter-racial relationships, and particularly the legal recognition of children fathered with a slave (usually these children were raised alongside their mothers as slaves too) was rare in the early 1800s. It is impossible to say for certain how Lucy and William’s life together played out; however, it is perhaps evidence of Kemp’s affection for her that he would make Lucy and their children sole heirs to his estate over his family, in opposition to contemporary society’s rules and attitudes on inter-racial relationships and the equality of those with African descent. Furthermore, a letter to Margaret from William prior to his final trip home mentions a new housekeeper he has acquired, whom he says is quite “one of the loveliest girls” he has ever seen…

Whatever his motives for doing what he did, Kemp however appears to have defied convention and expectation quite drastically; but his story is just one that truly realized the life of William Notman and of his ancestors and descendants for us. The scope of the letters ranges from the late 18th century to the early twentieth, and details the births, deaths, marriages, possessions, employment, relationships, and events experienced across several generations. The personal nature of the documents meant we were able to achieve a tangible sense of these people beyond the physical legacy of Notman architecture, and to understand, perhaps, a little more about the men and women behind the monuments and the mortar.

If you would like to read more about the Notman family for yourself, the collection is now AVAILABLE for reference at the archive at John Sinclair House. If you would like to keep up to date with the other exciting nuggets of history we uncover, follow us on:

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