Faces from an unexplored past

eft: Jessie Susan Harris, born 21 March 1868 Christchurch, died 13 June 1923, Hororata aged 55 right: Alice Margaret Wright, born 12 October 1872 Kaiapoi, died 10 August 1930 Washdyke photo by Eden George, Christchurch. From This photograph album was owned by Jack Thomas Frederick Baker until his death in 2003. It was previously owned by his mother Clara Elizabeth Harris (1873-1945).

Great grandmother, Jessie Susan Harris (left), and sister in law (?) Alice Margaret Wright. Photo by Eden George, Christchurch. From photograph album owned by Jack Thomas Frederick Baker, son of Clara Elizabeth Harris (1873-1945). With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for sending me the link to Clara’s album (canterburyphotography.blogspot.co.nz), and others.

We can’t help ourselves. We look at family photos and can’t help trying to find some resemblance between those we know and love, and the the faces in pictures.

The hallway in my house has become a rogues gallery of family photos and there is much pleasure to be had watching visitors scrutinize them, trying to establish who’s who. My son is regularly mistaken for his father in one photo, and an older cousin in another; while I increasingly see myself in the faces of my maternal aunts.

For family historians, photographs are the ultimate treasure. We spend so long trying to put flesh on the bones of our ancestors, that to see the faces of these long-dead men and women is a sweet pleasure indeed.

My partner is fortunate to share in a large collection of photos (now digitised) from his mother’s side of the family, but until very recently we had virtually none from his father’s side.

Roger Andrew Gray with his parents, Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray. c. 1956. Photo: Gray-Dove family archive.

Paternal line. Roger Andrew Gray with his parents, Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray. c. 1956. Photo: Gray-Dove family archive.

This changed when a fellow blogger (Belinda Lansley, at Great Grandma’s Wicker Basket) recognised the Big T’s paternal grandmother, Merle Matilda Laura Wright as a friend of her own great grandmother, Dorothy Lord. In Belinda’s collection of family photos were several of Merle, her sister Clara and other members of the Wright family. These she generously shared with me.

Dorothy Lord, Clara Wright, May Lord, Merle Wright early 1920s. With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for allowing me to reproduce this image.

Dorothy Lord, Clara Wright, May Lord, Merle Wright early 1920s. With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for allowing me to reproduce this image.

Belinda also sent me the link to a photograph album belonging to another member of Merle’s extended family (Early New Zealand Photographers), and it is through these sources that we have begun to learn a little about this branch of the family.

Merle was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1904, to Jessie Susan Harris and Sidney Robert Wright. The couple married in Timaru in 1890, and had eight children; Harry, Margaret, Fred, Alice, Sidney, Merle, Clara and Frank (Source: Births, Deaths and Marriages NZ)

Jessie Harris (shown in the first photo with Alice Margaret Wright) was born on March 21st, 1868, in Christchurch, twin sister of Henry Richard Harris.

The photo below is Jessie’s brother Henry, with Sidney Wright — Jessie’s husband. It appears that both families lived in Ohoka, a small rural settlement near Christchurch, and would presumably have known each other. Did Jessie marry her twin’s best friend?

Jack Baker's album page 5

Henry Richard Harris (left) with Sidney Robert Wright. Photo by Eden George – Christchurch. With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for sending me the link to Clara’s album (canterburyphotography.blogspot.co.nz).

Sidney was born three weeks after the Harris twins, on 9 April 1868. He was the third of six children born to Robert Marshall Wright and Matilda Ann Baker (married 1859: source BDM New Zealand).

Another photo in the same album shows Jessie and Henry as small children with their mother, Sarah Ann Duffull. A note with the photograph indicates that Sarah was born in Croyden, England. Her marriage, to Nathaniel Harris, took place in New Zealand in 1867. The couple appears to have had 10 children, including two sets of twins (source: BDM, NZ).

I haven’t been able to find New Zealand birth records for Nathaniel Harris, Robert Wright or Matilda Baker, so it would appear that all four of Merle Wright’s grandparents were born outside of New Zealand, and immigrated either as children, or young adults, making the Big T a fourth generation Kiwi.

Sarah Anne Duffull with her children Jessie Susan and Henry Richard Harris. c. 1871

Sarah Anne Duffull with her children Jessie Susan and Henry Richard Harris. c. 1871. Photo by Eden George – Christchurch. Grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for sending me the link to this photo.

Far left, Jessie Harris, middle seated, May Lord. Other's unknown. Image courtesy of Belinda Lansley.

Far left, Jessie Harris, middle seated, May Lord, family friend and great grand aunt of Belinda Lansley, who has kindly shared this photo with me. The identity of the other women and the children is unknown.

One of the great joys of genealogy blogging is meeting distant relatives and others with shared connections to the past. When Belinda generously shared photos with me, she gave my family the chance to see the faces of men and women who helped shape the people that my partner and son are today. For that, I am extremely grateful.

This post was written for Ailsa’s Travel Theme at Where’s My Backpack.


On letter-writing, or how will the future remember you?

Bygone days. Sitting down with a cuppa to read the news from home. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Bygone days. Sitting down with a cuppa to read the news from home. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

When was the last time you wrote a letter? A proper, personal (dare I even say, handwritten) letter — on paper?

I suspect the last time I did was in 2006; to my grandmother not long before she died.

I don’t even send all that many greeting cards anymore. Like letters they have been replaced with phone calls, Skype, emails and FaceBook messages.

For family historians, letters are invaluable. They are the “Sunday best” of information sources; the snapshots and snippets of past lives that reveal character as well as information. If public records provide a skeleton of our ancestors and clothe them in the uniform of their time, personal letters (and diaries) show us something of the colour and texture of a life. They are the ribbons and shawls that hint at personality and individuality.

Since literacy became widespread, letters have been a lifeline between family members and friends separated by distance. And with migration a feature of most nations’ histories, the number of people writing and receiving letters must have been huge. Within my family alone, I’ve found ancestors and relatives who left Scotland for every outpost of the British Empire, including my parents, who emigrated to New Zealand.

As a child I remember getting letters from my grandparents and aunts back in Scotland, and having to be chivied by my mother to reply. Well into my 20s I was still writing to my great uncle Tom, my paternal grandfather’s younger brother. I wonder now what he made of my letters — domestic details and tales of student life from someone he hadn’t seen since I was five. His letters to me always smelled of cigarettes; something I would normally hate, but actually made me feel close to him.

A rare photo of the Leslie side of the family. My dad holding my brother; me sitting on my great uncle Tom's knee.

Great Uncle Tom. A funny, wonderful man whom I utterly adored. Photo taken in Carshalton, Surrey, c. 1966. Leslie family archive.

In the last few years, my mother has given me a collection of family documents she has saved. Mainly photos, there are also a few letters, including two that survived an air crash (which I’ve written about in On Touching History), and the letter my grandmother wrote to tell Mum that my grandfather was dying. The telegram is postmarked two days later, and simply says:


Over forty years later, I can’t hold these flimsy pieces of paper in my hands without crying.

Letters from home, a telegram and a note of condolences from my mother's employer on the death of her father. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Letters from home, a telegram and a note of condolences from my mother’s employer on the death of her father. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

In June 1917, The Big T’s great uncle Eric wrote a letter to his sister from an English hospital. He had been wounded on the first day of the Battle of Messines — the beginning of the terrible Passchendaele Offensive, and his letter describes the circumstances of his injury. The letter’s tone is light — partly to get past the censor, but probably also to protect his beloved sister from the terrible  realities of the war. Only once does the “mask” slip. He wrote:

... the only thing I am worrying about is that it will get better too soon. (1)

Eric Gray died on March 27, 1918 near Auchonvillers in the Somme Valley (written about in Death of a Soldier).

Aside from a few letters from the Big T and some greetings cards that I think are particularly funny, I’ve kept no physical, written correspondence with family and friends. And aside from the greeting cards, I don’t think I’ve received physical, written communications through the post in years.

The growth in cheap telecommunications has diminished the volume of written communication, and that which is not spoken is increasingly electronically composed and transmitted. As life is increasingly experienced — and expressed — electronically, those traces of us that once survived long sea voyages, aircraft crashes and years tucked away in shoe-boxes at the back of the wardrobe, are disappearing.

So what will family historians of the future make of us? How will the depth of love of a woman for her husband be known without the letter to a distant child telling of grave illness? What will a sister hold on to when her soldier brother does not come home? And beyond the content of letters, the richness of personality revealed in handwriting, grammar, spelling, even the paper used; these will not be available to historians in the future.

We’re told our digital footprint is permanent, and perhaps that is true. But does that mean we will be known by our Instagram-d dinner snaps and FaceBook selfies rather than the carefully thought-out and laboriously written words our ancestors shared. Scary thought!

This post was written for Ailsa’s Travel Theme at Where’s my Backpack. The theme was Letters.


(1) The full letter can be found in We got dug in about five feed deep by dinnertime and then fritz started to shell ...

Donald Wallace: the outline of a life cut short

Kirkyard and Session House, Kirkmichael, Perthshire. Resting place of Donald Wallace's family, but not Donald himself. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013

Kirkyard and Session House, Kirkmichael, Perthshire. Resting place of Donald Wallace’s parents, but not Donald himself. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013

The metaphor inherent in the term family “tree” is apt in many ways – not least because some branches seem to bear more fruit than others – or at least more fruit that can be harvested.

Such is the Wallace branch of my tree. Donald Wallace was my 3x great grandfather. He died at the age of 41, and so gets written out of the story quite quickly, but in trying to learn more about him, I have begun to uncover rich and complex stories about other members of his family. Indeed, I’ve spent so much time pursuing these, that Donald himself has been somewhat neglected.

Like many (probably most) of my ancestors, Donald Wallace left little trace of himself in written records, although, having been born in 1830, the an outline of his life does appear in census and statutory birth, death and marriage records.


Donald’s birth is recorded in the Old Parish Register (OPR), for the parish of Kirkmichael in Perthshire. It reads:

Donald lawful son of James Wallace in Balnald and Ann Cunnison his wife born 13th and baptized 14th October 1830.

OPR birth record, Donald Wallace. Source: Scotland's People.

OPR birth record, Donald Wallace. Source: Scotland’s People.

The same parish register records that James Wallace and Ann Cunnison married on 28 September 1828.

Ann Cunnison had given birth to another child, Ann Symon, two years before her marriage to James. While birth record shows the father’s name as Charles Simon, there is no evidence he and Ann Cunnison were ever married. Ann Symon seems to have lived her early life in the Wallace household, and died quite tragically at the age of 58 – and event I’ve written about here.

OPR records show that ten children were born to James Wallace and Ann Cunnison, all in the parish of Kirkmichael. These were Robert, born 1829; Donald, b. 1830; Spence, b. 1832, Elizabeth, b. 1835; Alexander, b. 1837; Thomas, b. 1839; Charles, b.1841; John, b. 1844; Margaret, b. 1845; Christian, b. 1848.

1941 Census: Kirkmichael, Perthshire

The 1841 census shows Donald Wallace living at Balnald in Kirkmichael parish, with his parents and six of his siblings. This census contains a lot less information than those carried out later, but it does show that James Wallace was a shoemaker.

1851 Census: Craig of Solaire, Kirkmichael, Perthshire (probably)

While I haven’t been able to find a record for Donald in the 1851 census that I’m totally confident of, there is a Daniel Wallace, of the right age and birthplace, working on a farm in the parish of Kirkmichael. I’ve checked the OPR records for Kirkmichael for the period 1815-1840 (a huge window that would allow for age discrepancies on the census return), and there were no children named Daniel Wallace baptised in the parish during that time. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that Daniel is actually, as not all children were christened and therefore entered in the OPR. However, given that Kirkmichael was a small rural parish with otherwise pretty comprehensive OPR records, I think it is ok to assume – until I learn otherwise – that it was Donald Wallace who worked as a farm labourer for tenant farmer John Fleming at Craig of Solaire, Kirkmichael.

1861 Census, Moneydie, Perthshire

The 1861 census shows Donald Wallace living at Kinvaid Farm, in Moneydie, Perthshire.

The household consisted of the tenant farmer – whose surname is unclear on the census but may be Line (or Lion)– his wife and two sons, plus seven servants; six men, including Donald, and Jean Morrison, whom Donald married later the same year.

Donald is listed as a labourer, living in the bothy (1), while Jane is listed as domestic servant.

1861: Marriage to Jane/Jean Morrison, Dungarth, Perthshire

Their marriage record, in the District of Dunkeld, Perthshire, shows the date of marriage as 13 December, 1861, at Dungarth. Donald was 28, and a labourer. His address is shown simply as Dunkeld (a small town in Perthshire). His parents were named as James Wallace and Ann Kinnison.

Jane’s age was shown as 22 and her address as Dungarth. Her parents were listed as Peter Morrison and Betsey Philips – both deceased.

I can’t find a place named Dungarth in Perthshire, so I’m thinking it may have been the name of a house – perhaps where Jane was employed. Dungarth is also shown as the address the marriage took place.

The witnesses to the marriage were Andrew Kinnison and Margaret Rutherford. The latter name is totally unfamiliar to me, and while I don’t yet know who Andrew Kinnison was, I am working on the basis that he was a relation of Donald’s mother Ann – a brother or nephew perhaps?

Jane Morrison is one of the ancestors about whom I’ve learned quite a lot – and have written about here:

Chipping away at the Wall

More Information and Lots More Questions

Two steps forward

… so I’ll not retell her story here.

1871: Census, St Madoes, Perthshire

The 1871 census was taken on 2 April. It shows the family’s address as Woodside, St Madoes Donald’s occupation was listed as farm labourer, and the household consisted of Donald, Jean and four children; Ann, Margaret, Isabella (my 2x great grandmother) and James.

I know from FamilySearch and Scotland’s People that Donald and Jane had six children together:

Ann Kinnison, born Auchtergavin, 1862

Margaret, born Auchtergavin, 1864

Isabella Simpson (my 2x great grandmother), born Pitfour, St Madoes, 1866

James, born St Madoes, 1868

John, born St Madoes, 1870

Christian, born Longforgan, 1871

Neither Christian nor John appeared in the 1871 census because Christian was born later that year, in December; and John had died of bronchitis, aged five months, in February 1871.

As a sad aside: James Wallace died of croup in February 1873, aged 3 ½. Both boys died in wintertime of respiratory illnesses – as did their father.

1872: Death, Longforgan, Perthshire

Donald Wallace died on January 23rd 1872 at Mill End, Castle Huntly (now an open prison), Longforgan, Perthshire. He was 41 years old, and died of pneumonia. His occupation was shown as farm servant; probably for the Castle’s Laird, George Frederick Paterson. (2)

The informant on the death record was Donald’s younger brother Charles Wallace, who gave his address as 62 Cross Lane, Dundee. Donald’s parents James Wallace and Ann Kinnison; were both still living at the time of their son’s death.

For me, family history research is about sharing stories. I’ve had this post about Donald Wallace sitting unfinished for a while because, while I have been able to research the skeleton of his life, I don’t feel that I have much of a story to tell about him.

Here was a man who lived his life in a relatively small area; moving from place to place as his work took him. He and his family probably lived in housing provided by his employers, and his death left his widow and children not only without a breadwinner, but homeless as well. Barely a year after Donald’s death, Jean Morrison married again — to a widower named John Balsillie.

Elizabeth Cruden (nee Brown), Alexander Cruden, David Ramsay, Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden), Isabella Cruden (nee Wallace).

Isabella Wallace Simpson, third daughter of Donald Wallace, seated far right. Next to her her grandaughter (my grandmother), Margaret Ramsay, Margaret’s son David Ramsay (the young boy), Isabella’s elder son Alexander Cruden (my great grandfather) and Alexander’s step grandmother, Elizabeth Reoch Brown. Photo: Cruden-Ramsay family archive.

It’s tempting to say that Donald Wallace lived and died so long ago it’s hardly surprising that his story lacks detail and texture. Yet his daughter Isabella, who was five when he died, lived until 1944, and was very much a part of my mother’s life. My mum has great knowledge of much of her family, but this Wallace branch seems sadly bare, and it’s unlikely that will ever change.


(1) Wikipedia Bothy

(2) Wikipedia Castle Huntly