A story of an old mansion and my great-great-grandparents


A daydreaming friend bumped into an estate agent's website advertising the sale of a beautiful old mansion house near where she is from. She emailed me and a few other friends suggesting we buy the house and open a yoga retreat. Always comes up with the most practical plans, that one. I volunteered to run the group for extremely unbendy people with back problems. But yoga retreat plans aside, I immediately recognised the house.

Some time ago I got in touch with a second cousin who is researching our family history and this house came up in the story. With the papers he sent me, the family tree and trusted Google as my resources I decided to write the story of my great-great-grandparents Matias Filemon and Emma Wilhelmiina.

Matias Filemon

Matias Filemon descended from a long line of farmers from both his father's and mother's side. His mother had inherited the family farm as there was no male heir. The family had lived on the farm for 12 generations and over 300 years. Matias's father was from a larger farm - they called them cavalry farms, because they were contracted to equip a horse and a soldier at times of war for the King's army. He probably was a younger son because he left his home farm, married Matias's mother Maria and took her name.

They had many children. Those days people almost had to, because so many would die as infants. Lack of contraception may have played a part. Matias, born on 1851, was the seventh out of the total ten they had, so he left the farm to make his fortunes elsewhere. The farm eventually went to one of his younger brothers.

In his late twenties and early thirties Matias Filemon was working as the land agent in a large estate called Koiskala.  In the early 1880s Matias met young Emma Wilhelmiina, a local blacksmith's pretty daughter. I have no idea if she was pretty actually, might have been ugly as sin, I haven't got any pictures of her as a young woman, but just for the purposes of the story, humour me.

Koiskala mansion where Matias Filemon worked as the land agent
After their wedding they lived at the Koiskala estate and in 1882 their first child was born, a daughter, Laina, my grandmother's mother. Soon after Laina's birth they left the estate to build a life of their own. They rented a large state owned estate called Selkee, a beautiful house with a proud history as an official residence to high-powered military men. This would be the house they'd make their own, farm the lands and raise a big family to fill the many rooms.

Happily settled in the big white house Emma soon gave birth to a second child, a little boy who they named Toivo (=hope in English). And a year later she was pregnant again. But before the third child was due, little Toivo sadly as so often happened those days, died. The records don't say of what.

Selkee mansion

Two months later another boy was born. They called him Usko Toivo. Faith Hope. It didn't work, the boy died 6 days before his first birthday.

The big sister Laina (controversially her name means "Loan" but it looked like she was a keeper) was 4 years old. And again the only child after the brief appearances by the two little brothers.

Burying his second son Matias Filemon didn't know that he only had 5 months to live. He died as a young man at 35. The records are unyielding. Tuberculosis maybe. Emma was pregnant again and without a husband by her side she gave birth to a summer baby, a plump little girl with golden hair, Ellen Lempi, Ellen Love. A sweet girl to mend a mother's broken heart.

The pretty (yes, I'm sticking with it) and affluent young widow, just 25 years old with two beautiful girls, one as blond as the other was dark, in the big house was soon flooded with proposals. Laina, now 5 years old told her mother not to take the one with the hunched back. The merciful records don't reveal who the spinally challenged suitor was.

But Emma was no fool and knew she needed to marry. Luckily among the suitors there was an appropriate one with acceptably straight back. On the eve of Ellen's first birthday Emma married Oskari, 3 years her senior. "Strong and earnest, kind and well-meaning with a friendly spark in his eye and a gentleman's manners" - Oskari moved to Selkee to help Emma manage the estate and became a well-loved step-dad to the two fatherless girls.

Years later in 1995 a boy, Paavo, was born to Emma and Oskari. The older sisters adored him and he became a lifelong friend to Laina.

Emma Wilhelmina in her later years as the formidable mistress of the house.

Emma's second husband Oskari - Strong and earnest

Emma and Oskari were very involved in the life of the village in different societies and committees, particularly Oskari, it was after all a man's world. But Emma's name comes up here and there in official memos and records. Emma was also an energetic and possibly bossy mistress of the house. My great aunt remembered her sitting very fat in her rocking chair giving orders to the maids with a spot of knitting or mending in her hands.

The two sisters, Laina and Ellen grew into beautiful young ladies. For their generation they would have been relatively well educated having been sent to the girlschool in the nearby town. The 18 year old Laina caught the eye of an entrepreneurial and politically active local man, Juho, 12 years her senior, Despite the age difference he would not be refused. The families were neighbours and knew each other well. For all we know Laina might have been playing around naked in Juho's paddling pool.

Juho was a bit of a local celebrity. He'd been to St. Petersburgh as the local representative in a delegation to deliver a petition to the Russian Tzar Nikolai II. It's a long story, but in a nutshell, like so often throughout our history, Russia was being a gigantic pain in the ass and these brave men went to tell the Tzar to stop being such a shitty little bully. The Tzar, shitty little bully that he was, or maybe majestically misinformed, which came to cost him dearly, didn't receive them, but luckily he didn't send them to one of Siberia's famous labour camps either, maybe they were all already full, so the men returned home unharmed.

So you see, Juho must have had a certain je ne sais quoi about him and Laina of course fell head over heels for the whiskered, straight backed man of the world and they married in 1900. But that is another story with nine daughters, two sons, scarlet fever, revolution, bankruptcy, world war, tuberculosis, suicide, but also children, love, and a family that goes on.

Two sisters - the blond Ellen who would die at 20 and the dark Laina, mother of 11 to be
- photographed in Vyborg when Ellen was visiting Laina in her new married home in Karelia. 

Selkee only features in a few more records linked to my family. After Laina and Juho's adventures took them to the mythical and ancient Finnish Karelia, Ellen visited her sister and they went to the neighbouring great city of Vyborg (Viipuri) to have their picture taken.

Selkee - reception roon

Selkee - study
Sadly sweet Ellen died on 1907 at the age of only 20. The cruelty of history is such that we know nothing more of how this happened. We assume the mother and sister were heartbroken, but there are no records other than the cold statement for place and time of death.

Emma and Oskari's son Paavo stayed at Selkee managing it for his aging parents.

Laina kept visiting Selkee with her family and there is a record from the summer after the Civil War in 1918. During the war Laina and Juho's home was burned down by the revolutionaries and afterwards the children were sent to Selkee for the summer to stay with the grandparents while Laina and Juho were trying to rebuild a life for their family.

In 1927  the family gave up Selkee. Emma and Oskari moved to the nearby village. Emma died 1929 at the age of 68. Oskari followed her wife less than two years later at the age of 73.

Did they all sit down for tea here?

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