Compelling family history for esteemed local author, 84

by Len Lear
Posted 10/9/20

Elizabeth “Betty” Anderson, a highly respected volunteer for a number of Chestnut Hill area causes over the years is “a young 84-year-old and very active gardener,” according …

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Compelling family history for esteemed local author, 84

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Elizabeth “Betty” Anderson, a highly respected volunteer for a number of Chestnut Hill area causes over the years is “a young 84-year-old and very active gardener,” according to her son, Richard, a graphic artist who has been drawing the “Arnie” cartoon in the Local for 34 years! She is also the author of an extraordinary new book, effusively praised on amazon.com, that was 10 years in the making.

Betty, who has BA and MA history degrees, respectively, from Wellesley and Columbia Universities, worked at the historic house, Wyck, in Germantown for many years. She was also a member of the Chestnut Hill Tree Committee in the 1990s.

“For the past decade,” Richard told us, “my mother has worked on a book about our maternal Grant ancestors of Inverness, Scotland, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1807. They first lived in Philadelphia before permanently settling in Illinois in 1818. I posted my family history online many years ago, and a distant Canadian relative contacted me, saying she had several early 19th century letters written by my Grant ancestors. They were letters to their relatives back in Scotland describing their new life in Philadelphia and Illinois.”

Betty's subsequent book, “Cloth: A Fateful Compromise with the Cotton Trade,” released July 30 this year, tells the story of John Grant, son of a poor Scottish Highlander, who made a fateful bargain with those exploiting the weakness of others. In choosing to become a cloth merchant, he hid from himself the appalling treatment of the powerless. The letters of this multi-generational family, previously unpublished, reveal the profound dislocations created by British efforts to mass-produce cotton cloth, the generator of the Industrial Revolution. The legacy of these violations would exact a price from the Grant family and many other families.

A review of the book on amazon.com by Emilie C. Harding of Gwynedd, a prolific travel writer, says in part: “Anyone with an urge to write a family saga should read Elizabeth Anderson’s 'Cloth' to learn how to craft a narrative, use compelling details and make scenes immediate ... This is an extremely well researched work and not one with the sugarcoated prose of so many family sagas.

“Anderson has made a point of scouring records in all the places where Grant had lived and thus provides many poignant details of life in rural Scotland, Glasgow, London and the American Midwest. Without revealing too much of the end, fate takes over and pushes Scottish rectitude aside. That makes the book all the more a realistic portrayal of the times.”

A native of Bethesda, Maryland, Anderson taught high school history and Latin in Massachusetts and was then head of the history department at Rosemary Hall in Greenwich, CT, before her first son was born. While raising her family, Anderson worked on the architectural drawings for “Preserving and Maintaining Your Older Home” by the late Nancy Hubby and Shirley Hanson. She studied art at Temple's Tyler School of Art, then Landscape Architecture (L.A.) at the U of PA and finally at Temple. She earned a degree in L.A. from Temple in 1994 and taught L.A. at Temple as an adjunct professor for the rest of her working life.

In researching “Cloth,” Anderson visited Scotland in 2006 and the Highland Centre Archive in Inverness, where “helpful librarians ... said because there were so many John Grants in Inverness, I would never find out who mine was. I heard of the Grant letters the next year. I benefited from the scanning of the stacks of old libraries, parish records, land sale records, etc., and particularly from genealogybank.com.”

What did Anderson discover in her decade of research that surprised her? “The central role of Scottish cotton plantation owners in the Caribbean, as opposed to the minor ones of English and other Europeans. Scottish gratuitous cruelty to slaves has been recently revealed by David Alston, shocking contemporary Scots, who are learning of this closely-guarded history for the first time. The Scottish experience is ironically parallel to that of Americans’ currently learning of the historic practices on American plantations and the debilitating effects on present-day Blacks. My book has become timely with the recent Black Lives Matter, though it wasn’t at the beginning of my research in 2007.”

Anderson and her husband, Andy, have been married for 59 years after meeting as students at Columbia. Andy, a Boston area native who “has journeyed with me through a multitude of situations,” is quite accomplished in his own right. He practiced law for four years and then, after graduating from medical school, was a psychiatrist for the remainder of his working life. The Andersons' children —Richard, John and Mark — all live in the Philadelphia area.

To obtain “Cloth” in paperback or ebook, visit amazon.com and search “Anderson cotton trade.” Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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