Sophia C’s story

Born into a seafaring family, Sophia C’s life reflects the Victorian globe-trotting that was possible for women with access to a great deal of money and good connections.

She was born in the 1820s in Valparaiso, a seaside port not too far from Santiago in Chile. Her father was a captain and a mariner, and came from a well-established long-heritage community in Massachusetts, while her mother was Irish. It’s likely that her mother accompanied her father on certain journeys, hence Sophia’s American citizen status but exotic birth, as the rest of her siblings were born in Massachusetts. The family were back in Massachusetts by the end of the 1820s, as her younger brother was born there, but the voyage back to the northern part of the USA from Chile would have been long and involved traveling through the Strait of Magellan.

In the 1840s, Sophia married another seafaring man – one who had started his career on the whaling boats of Massachusetts and was gradually working his way up the mariner ranks. Several years her senior, he came from another well-established Massachusetts family, and had ancestry from the Mayflower.

They settled in the state for a time, but her husband’s career grew in a different direction. He became a shipping agent, and the couple moved across the Atlantic to be based in Glasgow, Scotland. He commanded packet ships for an American company, and ran a large shipping and commission business. They rented a house in a fashionable area of the city for a few years, and were well known in local society – her husband also held a fair amount of property in the area. A female student from Prussia (now Germany) lived with them for a while, as she studied in the city, and Sophia’s brothers and their wives appeared to be frequent visitors.

There appear not to have been any children from her marriage, and Sophia was provided well for by servants, so her life would have been comfortable with a degree of leisure, and probably centred around functions and good works.

Later on, when her husband retired, they moved down the country to London. They lived in a smaller but-no-less-fashionable property with Sophia’s widowed mother, and a servant.

Her husband died on a visit to coastal France, at the age of 64, leaving Sophia a widow at the age of 51. She remained in the UK for a few years, having settled her husband’s affairs and inherited a great deal of money, living on her own on a private income. She then returned to the US.

In later life, she went travelling for pleasure – firstly to Berlin and Leipzig, coming back through the UK, and then on to Switzerland. She describes her role in life as a “matron and housewife”. She eventually went home to Massachusetts “for my health”.

She died back at home in Massachusetts at the end of the first world war, aged 94.

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Zita W’s story

Witnessing Kristallnacht in the heart of Nazi Germany wasn’t in the original plan for Zita W.

A tailor’s daughter from New Zealand, she got a severe case of itchy feet in her late twenties and decided to throw in a career working for an architect for the thrill of solo foreign travel – an unusual prospect for a single woman in the 1930s. After months at sea she arrived in Germany where she taught English at a language school, and was involved in attempts to help threatened Jews to escape the country. She was in Berlin for events like Kristallnacht, but was unable to tell family what she’d seen and experienced until much later when she’d left the country.

Spending WWII in the UK, she undertook a variety of jobs before joining the WAAF. Despite standing five foot nothing in her stocking feet she convinced them to let her drive large lorries around the country, reputedly by standing on tiptoe when she was measured to meet the height requirement, and could barely see over the steering wheel.

She met her husband at the tail end of the war, when he came home on leave from India – he had been a soldier and then managed a tea plantation – and knew she was on to a good thing so married him and spent two years living in India at the end of the British Raj.

Indian independence and partition and her pregnancy with her first daughter occurred concurrently, and she left the turbulence of India on a boat bound for New Zealand, where she gave birth to a premature baby at the late (for the time) age of 35. Two further daughters followed when the family reunited in North London, and she settled into post-war English life to raise her family.

Even in her late 80s she was still cycling around her local area and attending evening classes to further her knowledge. Her letters from 1938 until 1945 now rest with the Imperial War Museum.

Find out more about the women in your family, contact Once Upon A Family Tree.