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An Autobiography

A Beginning At Seventeen
Perhaps my turn for economics was partly inherited from my mother, and emphasized by
my father having been an unlucky speculator in foreign wheat, tempted thereto by the
sliding scale, which varied from 33/ a quarter, when wheat was as cheap as it was in
1837, to 1/ a quarter, when it was 70/ in 1839. It was supposed that my father had made
his fortune when he took his wheat out of bond but losses and deterioration during seven
years, and interest on borrowed money--credit having been strained to the utmost--
brought ruin and insolvency, and he had to go to South Australia, followed by his wife
and family soon after. It seems strange that this disaster should be the culmination of the
peace, after the long Napoleonic war. When my father married in 1815 he showed he was
making 600 pounds a year, with 2,000 pounds book debts, as a writer or attorney and as
agent for a bank. But the business fell off, the book debts could not be collected; the bank
called up the advances; and for 24 years there was a struggle. My mother would not have
her dowry of 1,500 pounds and other money left by an aunt settled on herself--neither her
father nor herself approved of it--the wife's fortune should come and go with her
husband's. My father first speculated in hops and lost heavily. He took up unlucky
people, whom other business men had drained. I suppose he caught at straws. He had the
gentlest of manners--"the politest man in Melrose," the old shoemaker called him. My
paternal grandfather was Dr. William Spence, of Melrose. His father was minister of the
Established Church at Cockburn's Path, Berwickshire. His grandfather was a small landed
proprietor, but he had to sell Spence's mains, and the name was changed to Chirnside. So
(as my father used to say) he was sprung from the tail of the gentry; while my mother was
descended from the head of the commonalty. The Brodies had been tenant farmers in
East Lothian for six or seven generations, though they originally came from the north.
My grandfather Brodie thought abrogation of the Corn Laws meant ruin for the farmers,
who had taken 19 years' leases at war prices. But during the war times both landlords and
farmers coined money, while the labourers had high prices for food and very little
increase in their wages. I recollect both grandfathers well, and through the accurate
memory of my mother t can tell how middle-class people in lowland Scotland lived and
dressed and travelled, entertained visitors. and worshipped God. She told me of the "dear
years" 1799 and 1800, and what a terrible thing a bad crop was, when the foreign ports
were closed by Napoleon. She told me that but for the shortlived Peace of Amiens she
never heard of anything but war till the Battle of Waterloo settled it three months before
her marriage. From her own intimate relations with her grandmother, Margaret Fernie
Brodie, who was born in 1736, and died in 1817, she knew how two generations before
her people lived and thought. So that I have a grasp on the past which many might envy,
and yet the present and the future are even more to me, as they were to my mother. On
her death in 1887 I wrote a quatrain for her memorial, and which those who knew her
considered appropriate--
HELEN BRODIE SPENCE
Born at Whittingham, Scotland, 1791.
Died at College Town, Adelaide, South Australia, 1887.
 
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