Friday flip through the archives

David (left) and Ron Leslie, at David’s wedding to Elizabeth Saunders in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland November 1956.

My photographer son had a little time on his hands recently and restored some family photos for me. He’s also experimenting with colouring images, including this of his grandfather and great uncle David.

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Hardy folk: researching the lives (and deaths) of my female ancestors

christening four women001

Four generations: My christening, with my mother Elizabeth Ramsay, her mother Margaret Cruden and Margaret’s mother Catherine Black. Image: Leslie family archive.

Luanne at The Family Kalamazoo recently wrote two really interesting posts about the deaths of her grandmothers and great grandmothers (1).

In the first, she said:

I wanted to put all my grandmothers together in one post and thought by sharing their deaths it would shed some light on their lives, at least at the end. I also have a ghoulish fascination with looking them over for the variety of ways I might die myself. After all, their deaths could be a form of inheritance.

It got me thinking about the women in my family and that part of my own genetic inheritance, so I’ve done the same. And the results have surprised me – not least because I was able to find death records for most of my grandmothers and great grandmothers, but also for all eight of my 2x great grandmothers and 13 of my 16 3x great grandmothers.

Grandmothers

I only knew one of my grandmothers – my mother’s mum, Margaret Simpson Bisset Cruden.

Gran died in on May 1, 2006, 10 days short of her 98th birthday. I can’t lay my hands on her death certificate (embarrassed admission), but my mother thinks it was basically written up as “old age.” I’ve described my gran as a Force of Nature – and I suspect that in the end, she just got tired of an increasingly constrained life after a significant deterioration in her eyesight forced her into residential care.

tom with great gran small

One of the last photos I have of my gran; meeting her 25th great grandchild (my son) for the first and only time. Image: Leslie family archive.

By contrast, my paternal grandmother, Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder, died on 11 March, 1950 at the age of 50. The cause of death given in the statutory register was arteriosclerosis and cerebral haemorrhage. I never met the woman I was named after; my dad was only seventeen when his mother died and I know how painful her loss was to him.

susan forbes nicholson elder small

Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. Kirkcaldy High Street. circa 1940s.

elder susan with siblings c edit1915

Susan Elder (centre) with siblings Elizabeth and William. c. 1914. Image: Leslie family archive.

Great grandmothers

Catherine Simpson Bisset Black — my maternal grandmother’s mother – died in 1971. Like her daughter (Margaret Cruden above), she lived a long life; being 82 when she passed away a year after her husband of 62 years,  Alexander Cruden.  I don’t have her death certificate either so am not sure about cause of death.

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Sixtieth wedding anniversary: Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black, 1968. Photo: Ramsay family archive.

My mother’s other gran, Mary Fisher, died in September 1952 of a carcinoma of the gall bladder. She was 73.

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David Skinner Ramsay and Mary Fisher; their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Image: Leslie family archive.

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Mary Fisher with husband and children c. 1919. Image: Ramsay family archive.

On my father’s side of the family, his maternal grandmother — Anne Kinnell Nicholson — died in May 1946, aged 76. Her cause of death was recorded as cardio-vascular degeneration.

nicholson annie portrait c 1937

Ann Kinnell Nicholson c. 1937. Image: Leslie family archive.

Dad’s paternal grandmother Isabella Gourlay was 91 when she died in February 1961. The cause of death was recorded as congestive cardiac failure.

2x great grandmothers – maternal

Margaret Simpson Bisset (19 April 1856- 2 April 1900), died of uterine haemorrhage probably as a result of childbirth, aged 43.

Isabella Simpson Wallace (3 May 1866 – 9 June 1944), died of abdominal carcinoma, aged 78

Jane Williamson Westwood (10 February 1858 – 27 September 1905), died of carcinoma pylorus aged 47

Isabella Westwater (  – 7 December 1924), died of chronic bronchitis. The death certificate states she was 71, but I have not been able to find a birth record for her.

2x great grandmothers – paternal

Susan Forbes (23 August 1839 – 19 April 1912), died of cerebral thrombosis, aged 72.

Elizabeth Penman (12 August 1839 – 8 August 1920), aged 80. Cause of death: diabetes.

Mary Gerard (c. 1835- 7 May 1907). Her age at death was recorded as 72 and the cause of death as enteritis and haemorrhage.

Janet Trail (c. 1835 – 4 March 1913). Her age at death was recorded as 78, and cause of death bronchitis.

3x great grandmothers – maternal

Helen Lang Simpson (14 February 1832 – 25 September 1914), Died aged 82, of arteriosclerosis and senile decay.

Caroline Goodall (c. 1833 – 16 May 1901). Her age at death was recorded as 68, and the cause of death carcinoma uterine.

Jane Morrison (c.1839 – 1914). Her age at death was recorded as 75. I am a bit unsure of the cause because I can’t clearly read the handwriting on the record. It looks like “chronic infestation of parasites.”

Jane Allison (c. 1835 – 2 September 1876). Her age at death was recorded as 41, and cause of death typhoid fever.

Mary Webster (c. 1824 – 16 March 1907). Her age at death was recorded as 83. Cause of death: cardiac arrest, senility.

Margaret Lindsay (27 May 1827 – 1 January 1906). She died aged 78 of ovarian tumours.

Helen Low (5 December 1814 – 7 May 1887). Died aged 72 in the Dysart Combination Poorhouse. Cause of death: paralysis, senile debility.

Maggie? (or Isabella?) Westwater. I know nothing about this woman beyond what is recorded on her daughter Isabella’s marriage and death records. When Isabella married John Ramsay in 1875, her mother was named as Isabella Westwater, deceased. On Isabella’s 1924 death certificate, her mother is named as Maggie Westwater, deceased.

3x great grandmothers – paternal

Ann Kinnell (15 July 1806 – 28 February 1858), died aged 51. The cause of death was recorded as carcinoma, enlarged liver

Mary Tod (7 June 1803 – 1 February 1883), died aged 79. Her cause of death was recorded as old age.

Catharine Cook (c. 1813 – 16 May 1879). Her age at death was recorded as 66, and the cause of death old age.

Janet Mackie (c. 1811 – 25 December 1897). Her age at death was recorded as 86, and the cause of death senile decay

Isabella Lambert (25 March 1804 – 25 December 1851), aged 47. The only record I have relating to her death is an (OPR) Old Parish Register entry relating to her burial. It does not show cause of death.

Elizabeth Rankine (c. 1805 – 10 December 1850). The OPR record of her burial shows her age as 45, but gives no cause of death.

Christian Birrell. I believe that Janet Trail’s mother was born around 1787, but I can find no record of her baptism, marriage or death.  The last census in which she appears is 1851.

Elizabeth Robertson gave birth to George Leslie, my 2x great grandfather, in 1822. Besides his baptism records and an entry in the 1841 census, I have been unable to find any records relating to Elizabeth’s life and death.

Some reflections and conclusions

Doing this exercise made me incredibly grateful for excellent Scottish record-keeping – in particular statutory records, which began in 1856. Because of this, I only had to rely on parish records for information on the deaths of two of the 3x great grandmothers about whom I know.

Three others remain completely elusive; being little more than names on their children’s birth, death or marriage records. I’ve done quite a lot of work on Elizabeth Robertson and Christian Birrell particularly, but they remain brick walls.

When I looked at the age-at-death data, one thing that really struck me was how many of my female ancestors lived very long lives. Two made it into their 90s – one from each side of my family – while five of the 27 I have information about lived into their 80s.

Perhaps more surprisingly, four of those five were born in the first half of the 19th century (1812, 1824, 1832 and 1839), a period during which average life expectancy for Scottish women was less than 50 years.

Of my grannies who died at or below 50 (six in total), two were born in the first decade of the 19th century, two in the 1830s, one in the 1850s, and one — my paternal grandmother — in 1899. So although I think of them as having died young, in most cases, it would not have seemed so at the time.

Within my family the average age at death across the four generations I looked at was 72.5 years, and the median age 73.

Causes of death ranged from typhoid fever to “old age” – with the largest number of deaths being attributed to advanced age. The second most frequent cause of death was cancer, followed by heart disease; both major killers these days too.

Cause of death Frequency (2) Years deaths occurred

 

Arteriosclerosis 2 1914,  1950
Bronchitis 2 1913, 1924
Cancers 6 1858, 1901, 1905, 1914, 1944, 1952
Cardiac decay/disease 3 1907, 1946, 1961
Diabetes 2 1920, 1971
Haemorrhage (not cerebral) 2 1900, 1907
Old age/senile debility 8 1832, 1879, 1883, 1887, 1897, 1907, 1913, 2006
Parasites 1 1914
Stroke 2 1912, 1950
Typhoid 1 1876
Unknown 2 1850, 1851

With few exceptions, these women were born into poor, working class, landless families. Where statutory marriage records exist for them, I can see that prior to their marriages they were in employment – as flax weavers, pottery workers, domestic servants.

They all bore children, usually large numbers of them, and often well into their forties. More than a few also raised the grandchildren born to widowed or unmarried daughters

They ran households dependent on the weekly wages (or not) of husbands working as miners, carters, agricultural labourers, factory workers, and tradesmen – and of adolescent and adult offspring following their parents into the same sorts of jobs.

Most would have had to move house regularly; some from one tenement to another in the same town, others making the move from Scotland’s rural hinterland to the industrial towns of Dundee and Kirkcaldy.

An extraordinary number – twenty out of the twenty seven I have data for — died in Kirkcaldy/Dysart, an area of around 15 square miles.  Three died in other Fife towns, one never left rural Blairgowrie in Perthshire and another died “across the Bridge” in Edinburgh infirmary. Only one died outside of Scotland – in Detroit.

In many ways, there is nothing extraordinary about my assorted grannies. They lived fairly typical (though long) lives for their time, leaving only faint traces of themselves in written records.

But however ordinary, they deserve to be acknowledged and remembered. This post is a very small contribution towards that goal.


 

  1. Deaths in the Family: Women’s History Edition, and More Deaths in the Family: Women’s History Edition
  2. Many of the women had two (or more) medical conditions listed in cause of death. This is reflected in the frequency column.

 

Janet Trail, 2x great grandmother

Having come to a dead end with both my surname line, and my search for Alexander Cruden‘s war story, I thought I’d try and find out more about the elusive George Leslie’s wife, Janet (Jessie) Trail (or Traill).

Like many of my mainly working-class ancestors, Janet Trail left a very light trace on recorded history and I know her only through statutory BDM and census records.

From available records, I believe she was born between 1832 and 1835 (1), and most likely in Auchtermuchty, Fife, Scotland (2). Although parish registers exist for Auchtermuchty for that time period, I have been unable to find any record of Janet’s birth (3).

Parents and siblings

Both Janet’s marriage and death records list her parents as William Trail and Christian Birrell.

I cannot find a marriage record for William and Christian, although it appears that William married a woman named Catharine Imrie in 1814. The OPR marriage record shows that William, a weaver, married Catharine “daughter to the deceased David Imrie late Wright in Auchtermuchty” in Perth, in November 1814.

traill william marriage 1814 perth to catharine imrie

OPR record of marriage between William Trail and Catharine Imrie, November 1814. Source: Scotland’s People

Old parish records tend to be very sparse in the information they provide, but the entry above is a useful exception. Knowing that Catharine Imrie’s father was from Auchtermuchty provides a viable explanation as to how Perth-born William came to live and raise a family there.

William and Catharine’s marriage produced two children, Mary Trail b. 1815 in Perth, and John Trail b. 1817 in Auchtermuchty.

I have been unable to find a death record for Catharine Imrie, so it is possible that she and William parted and that his subsequent relationship with Christian Birrell was a common law marriage. But equally, there seems to be a general paucity of old parish records in Auchtermuchty for this period.

The first Scottish census for which records survive was taken in 1841, when Janet Trail would have been aged 6-9 years old. I can’t find any record of Janet, William or Christian in that census, though Janet appears in each subsequent census until her death.

The 1851 census shows her aged 18, living in Crosshill, Auchtermuchty with parents William Trail and Christian Birrell, and older siblings Mary (aged 34), Ebenezer (25), Christian (22) and David (age 20). All members of the family, with the exception of the elder Christian, worked as hand loom weavers of linen.

trail janet family 1851 census crosshills auchtermuchty

Trail family, 1851 census. Source: Scotland’s People

I cannot not find birth records for Ebenezer, Christian jr or David. I also don’t know if William and Christian had other children; none appear in the records.

Children and marriage

In October 1856 Janet Trail gave birth to a daughter Christina / Christian Trail, born out of wedlock in Auchtermuchty. The birth record does not name her father, but I’ve recently learned that I may be able to obtain this information from Kirk Session records, via the website Old Scottish Genealogy and Family History, so I’ve sent off a request for this.

In August 1857, Janet married George Leslie in Auchtermuchty. The record shows George’s age as 30; Janet’s as 23. Both Janet’s parents, and George’s (John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson), are recorded as being alive at the time of the marriage.

leslie george m janet trail 1857

Marriage record, Janet Trail and George Leslie, August 1857. Source: Scotland’s People.

Janet and George both gave their address at the time of marriage as Dundee, a town about 20 miles away in the county of Angus.

If Janet was living in Dundee at the time of her marriage, she must have moved there sometime after her daughter’s birth the previous year. Janet came from a family of linen weavers, and it’s likely that the move to Dundee was in search of work.

Weaving had become an important industry in Dundee as early as the 17th century, when Master Spinners and Weavers from Flanders were brought to the town to “teach the natives.” The intention was to prevent Scottish wool being exported to Flanders and then re-imported as finished cloth.

By the 19th century, jute had replaced wool as the most important fibre in the Dundee weaving industry; just as large mills with mechanised spinning and weaving looms had largely replaced the cottage industry of hand-weaving.

I found this account of the Dundee weaving industry:

(In the 19th century) over 50,000 of Dundee’s inhabitants were working in over 100 jute mills, with more working in mills for linen.

This booming business in Victorian made many rich jute barons as they were known. But these were the few profiteers of the industry, and the conditions were dire for the vast majority of workers. As many as three-quarters of the workers were women and children, who could be employed for cheaper rates than men. The wages were low, and the risks were high … injuries, accidents and occupational hazards were commonplace. It’s difficult to imagine the working conditions, dust would be everywhere getting in the eyes, noses and mouth. Constant noise from the machines was deafening, and in fact many workers went deaf after spending too much time inside the mill. The machinery also produced lots of heat, grease and oil fumes which led to a condition which was known as ‘Mill fever’. Bronchitis and other breathing problems were also common.

As well as the terrible conditions in the mills, the huge increase in population from 1840 to more than triple within 60 years was not met by an increase in house building. Overcrowding became a huge problem with entire families living in a single room. These conditions remained with 70% of people living in just one or two rooms in 1911.

Wages in Dundee were one of the lowest in Scotland during this time, whereas the cost of living was the highest. Low wages meant little money for food, medicine or other items necessary for a good quality of life.

Dark Dundee: Dundee Landmarks, Workers of the Mills

I can only imagine what it must have been like for Janet to leave her rural home in Auchtermuchty –almost certainly leaving behind her baby daughter too – and work 12 hour days under such conditions.

Sometime within the first year of their marriage, Janet and George returned to Auchtermuchty to live – in the same street as Janet’s parents. Their first child, son George Leslie, was born there in September 1858.

By October 1860, when son William Leslie was born, the couple had returned to Dundee. The address given on William’s birth certificate was South Road, Lochee. Six months later, when the 1861 census was taken, the family was still on South Road (described on the form as “nearby the railway line, prob South Road”). The household consisted of George, Janet, Christine, George, William and two Irish lodgers.

Lochee was known in the 19th century as “Little Tipperary” because of the large number of Irish immigrants who settled there to work in the jute mills.

Certain areas such as … Lochee were especially overcrowded due to the common practice of people living close to their workplaces. … Overcrowding inevitably led to poor sanitary conditions. Diseases including cholera, typhus and smallpox thrived in the city, and together with accidents and other infections and fevers contributed to Dundee having one of the highest death rates in Scotland, and the highest infant mortality rate.

Dark Dundee: Dundee Landmarks, Workers of the Mills

The growing Leslie family did not stay long in Lochee. In July 1862, when Janet gave birth to her second daughter, Elizabeth Leslie, they were living in the small rural village of Inver, in the parish of Little Dunkeld, Perthshire. This is around 28 miles from Auchtermuchty, and a similar distance from Lochee.

George’s occupation on the birth record is ‘Carter.’ I guess the modern-day equivalent of this is “delivery driver.” I have no idea if George owned the horse and cart he drove, or whether he was employed by someone else.

According to the 1868 National Gazetteer’s description of the Parish of Little Dunkeld, “The chief wealth of the parish consists in its oak woods.” Perhaps George worked for a sawmill or landowner, carrying logs or finished timber?

By 1865, the family had returned to Auchtermuchty. The birth records for Isabella Paterson Leslie (b. 1865), David Leslie (my gg grandfather, b. 1867)) and John Robertson Leslie (b. 1871) all show the family’s address as Pitmedden Wynd, off Crosshills, where Janet’s family lived.

George seems to have continued working as a carter, at least for a couple of years after his return to Auchtermuchty. But in 1867, when my great grandfather David was born, George’s occupation is given as  Labourer. The same is recorded on the 1871 record of John’s birth.

George Leslie is missing from the 1871 census record for the rest of his family. The form records Janet (Jessie) Leslie is head of household. His absence must have been temporary, as he is recorded as the informant on his son John’s birth record a month later.

In February 1877, Janet Trail, aged between 42 and 45, gave birth to her last child, Janet Leslie. By this time, the family had moved to Mill Street in Abbotshall, which now part of Kirkcaldy. George’s occupation is listed as Mason’s Labourer, and he seems to have continued to work in a similar capacity until his death, aged 70, in 1902 (4).

Janet outlived her husband by 11 years. She continued to live in Kirkcaldy, with three of her adult children, William, John and Jessie – none of whom had married. The 1911 census shows them at 120 Links Street, Kirkcaldy. William, aged 50 was a labourer in the linoleum works; John aged 40, a pottery kilnsman, and Janet jr. aged 33, a weaver in a linen factory.

Janet Trail died two years later, aged 78, on 4 March 1913.  Her cause of death was recorded as senile decay and bronchitis, and the death was reported by her eldest son, George Leslie.

trail janet d 1913

Death record, Janet Trail, 1913. Image source: Scotland’s People

As with so many of my ancestors, it seems that no matter how much research I do, I cannot really know them. I have no photographs of Janet Trail, her husband, siblings or children; no personal documents or memorabilia. I know from historical accounts something of the life that she and her family led – as craft workers in an industry revolutionized by mechanisation, as factory workers in 19th century Scotland, as permanent tenants, never secure in their homes. The rest, I must imagine.


  1. The 1911 census recorded her age as 76 (implied birth year of 1835); the 1901 census as 68 (1833); 1891 as 58 (1833); 1881 as 49 (1832); 1871 as 38 (1883), 1861 as 26 (1835); 1851 as 18 (1833) and her marriage certificate in 1857 as 23 (1834).
  2. In all found records, her birthplace is given as Auchtermuchty, Fife.
  3. I set wide search parameters, tried as many variations on Janet (including Jenet and Jessie) and Trail (also Birrell) as I could think of, looked Church of Scotland, Catholic and non-conformist church records and even tried scanning all the births recorded in Auchtermuchty for a twenty year period.
  4. The 1881 census lists George as a Land Labourer. In 1891 he’s a Carter, 1891 he’s back to being a Labourer, and his death record shows occupation as Labourer.

On breakthroughs and more bricks: Alexander Cruden’s war

alexander cruden catherine black 60th anniversary photo 1968

60th wedding anniversary, Catherine Black and Alexander Cruden, March 1968. Image: Leslie family archive.

As I child I remember being told that my mother’s maternal grandfather, Alexander Cruden (1890-1970), had served in WWI and had a leg amputated. I’m not sure if I was also told he’d served in France, or if I just assumed that to be the case.

Like so much family history research; this story starts with just that one nugget of information.

Mum thought he may have served in the Gordon Highlanders, and she knew for sure he’d spent time after the war at Edenhall Hospital in Musselborough. She gave me photos of him and other ex-servicemen from Edenhall, possibly taken in the early 1920s.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. Alex Cruden is seated 3rd from left. Image: Leslie family archive

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. Alex Cruden is seated, third from the left. Image: Leslie family archive.

But that was all she knew.

Without being sure of great grandad’s regiment, searching for his service records proved difficult. Alexander Cruden is not an uncommon name in Scotland, and about 40 percent of British WWI records were destroyed during the Blitz of WWII.

Recently though, I had a breakthrough.

Silver War Badge (SWB)

I found out about the Silver War Badge (SWB). This was given to WWI military personnel – like my great grandfather – who had been discharged because of wounds or illness. The records of Silver War Badge recipients are available on Ancestry.

These records show only one Alexander (shown on the record as Alex) Cruden as a recipient of the SWB. The age shown is consistent with my great grandfather, and the regiment he served with was the Gordon Highlanders.

The SWB record showed that Alex had served overseas and provided a service number – S/1891.

From the blog Army Service Numbers 1881-1918, I could confirm that S/1891 was an actual service number for the Gordon Highlanders, and that the S/ in front of the number meant it was a wartime enlistment – rather than someone joining the regular force.

I also learned that this number would have been issued in the first weeks of the war, between August and September 1914.

The Fife Free Press

Knowing that local newspapers in New Zealand published lists of those who enlisted to fight, I wondered if Scottish papers did the same thing, and searched the local Kirkcaldy newspaper, The Fife Free Press, for August-September.

Sure enough, on Saturday September 12th 1914, under the headline The Call to Arms  Kirkcaldy Recruits Still Rolling Up, I found my great grandfather’s name amongst the Gordon Highlanders.

Given the Scottish propensity for naming children after grandparents and parents, finding the name doesn’t automatically mean the report referred to my great grandad, and if it had been any other member of my family, I would have known much more research was involved.

But the Cruden family was relatively new to Fife, having come from Dundee when great grandad was a child. I checked the 1911 census (using quite wide search parameters), and found that my great grandfather was the only Alexander Cruden of enlistment age in the county of Fife, and the only Cruden in Kirkcaldy.

Armed with these bits of information, I was able to find Alex Cruden’s medal cards, which told me that S/1891 Cruden, Alexander was a Private in the Gordon Highlanders who was awarded the Silver War Badge, The Victory Medal, the British Medal and the 15 Star (properly known as the 1914-15 Star) [1].

It also confirmed that he served in France, arriving on 10 May 1915.

The Victory Medal record lists him as having served in the 8th Battalion, which I know to have arrived in France on May 10th, as the Regimental Diary notes:

A beautiful crossing was experienced and we arrived in Boulogne at about 1pm.

None of this is absolute proof that S/1891, Cruden, Alexander was my great grandfather, but it seems highly likely.

A short interlude to celebrate

However. My real interest is in finding out about great grandad’s war. When was he wounded? Where? What experiences did he have that he had to carry with him until his death in 1970?

Neither Ancestry nor FindMyPast has a service record for Alex Cruden, so it’s likely to be one of the thousands destroyed in the Blitz. Without that, I have to rely on secondary sources — in particular newspapers which carried casualty reports, and the Regimental Diaries of the 8th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders. The National Archives has digitized these diaries and made them available to download.

The Diaries fall into two parts; the first May 1915-April 1916; the second April 1916-November 1918. This coincides with the amalgamation, in April 1916, of the 8th and 10th Battalions.

I know that Alex Cruden held the rank of Private, so it’s unlikely he would be named in the Diaries (unless he was court-martialled perhaps), but I did hope that by understanding when the Battalion was on active service, it would narrow the time-frames during which he might have been wounded.

When I began reading, I discovered that in the first months of the Battalion’s tour in France, daily casualties were listed in the Diary. For “other ranks” the information included their surname, service number and rank, and whether they were killed or wounded. In some instances, the cause of their wound/death was recorded.

This changed in late September when the Battalion was engaged in the Battle of Loos. For that period, only the total numbers of dead and wounded were included.

For example, the entry for September 27th states:

Sept 27th the total casualties from 25th to 27th September (?) were 17 officers and about 500 men.

I’m almost at the end of the first Diary, March 1916, and I have found no record of Alex Cruden. I’ve also searched both the Fife Free Press and the Scotsman (which published casualty lists for all the Scottish regiments, as well as those of colonial forces, including NZ). Again, I have found no mention of Alex, and the service numbers recorded next to the names of dead and wounded are climbing steadily into five digits.

Did my slightly built, 5′ 2″ great grandad survive almost a year at the Front without being wounded? Have I missed his name on a casualty list? Or did it somehow get left off such a list?

Or more worryingly, have I got it completely wrong and S/1891, Cruden, Alexander is someone else altogether.

I’ll keep looking.

su christening photo

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden. Image: Leslie family archive.

 


[1] Both the British War Medal, 1914-18 and the Allied Victory Medal seem to have been awarded to all officers and men of the British and Imperial Forces who either entered a theatre of war or entered service overseas between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918.

The 1914-15 Star was awarded specifically to all who served in any theatre of war against Germany between 5th August 1914 and 31st December 1915, except those eligible for the 1914 Star.

… another brick in the wall?

david leslie with craig leslie 1964

Descendants of George Leslie, my grandad David Leslie, and my brother Craig. Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. Mar-Apr 1964. Photo: Leslie family archive.

I’ve been working on my surname line for a while but have struck a brick wall at my 2x great grandfather, George Leslie.

While I’m confident I have accurately documented George’s adult life – certainly from his marriage in 1857 — information about his parentage and early life is sparse and less certain.

One of the great things about Scotland’s statutory records is that details of parentage are generally included on marriage and death records, as well as (more obviously) those of births. Oh what joy when the information on these sources is present and consistent!

Unfortunately, when George died in 1902, his son (also George), reported his grandparents by surname only – both Leslie — and both deceased.

The only record I have then which names George’s parents is that of his marriage to my gg grandmother, Janet Traill. They are named as John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson. John’s occupation is shown as flax dresser, and the record indicates that both parents’ were alive at the time.

Looking for evidence

Without corroborating evidence, I had to assume that the names on the marriage record were largely correct in order to search for traces of George’s birth and early life.

George’s age at death was shown as 70, which would have made his birth year 1832. However, this is inconsistent with other records, including his marriage and census returns.  George’s age may have varied across records, but he consistently reported his place of birth (in census records) as Elgin, in Morayshire.

I used both FamilySearch and Scotland’s People; and searched for children named George Leslie (or Robertson) – born between 1810 and 1840 – where the father’s name was John and the mother’s Elizabeth.

I allowed for name variations and misspellings with wildcard searching, and in Scotland’s People, searched both OPR (Church of Scotland) records, and those of other churches.

Search results

Ultimately, three records were returned – two in Morayshire, and one in neighbouring Banffshire.

  1. George Leslie born 20 May 1833, baptised 27 May 1833; in Rothes, Morayshire to John Leslie and Elspat Riach in 1833.
  2. George Leslie, baptised 4 August 1822; in Portsoy, Banffshire, to John Leslie and Betty Robertson
  3. George Leslie born 3 August 1822 and baptised 31 August 1822, New Spynie, Morayshire; 1822 to John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson.

Hunches and deductions

I’m confident that the Rothes-born George is not my ancestor, for several reasons.

  • While his birth date is not entirely inconsistent with the age given on George Leslie’s death record, it is much later than any of the records created in George’s life-time –which would have been self-reported.
  • While the mother’s first name is a variation of Elizabeth, the surname is different. Though it is conceivable that an error was made on George’s marriage record, one of George and Janet’s children was given Robertson as a middle name, and I can find no other source for that name than George’s assumed mother.
  • Finally and most importantly, census records consistently show this man living in Rothes with his family, when I’m confident my 2x great grandfather was in Angus and Fife.

But here is where it gets a bit complicated.

I believe that the second and third records actually relate to the same person – and here’s why.

The August 4th baptism took place in the Episcopal church of St John at Portsoy in Banff. These records aren’t available through Scotland’s People, and I found this on FamilySearch.

The records of the St John’s Church in Portsoy are held at the University of Aberdeen, so I emailed the Special Collections Librarian who kindly photographed and sent me the appropriate extract of the birth register. Copyright conditions mean I can’t publish this photo, but I can transcribe it. The extract reads:

August 4th 1822 Leslie     George son of John Leslie, Farm Servant to Capt. Cameron, Banff, born in fornication by Betty Robertson, Forres. Sponsored Adam & (Ian, Jm??) Wilson, Square Wrights, Portsoy

The baptism register from the Church of Scotland kirk at New Spynie  reads:

1822 Leslie           George natural son to Elizabeth Robertson and John Leslie was born 3rd and baptised 31st August 1822. Witnesses George Stewart and Alex (Alan?)  Stewart.

The case for one George, two baptisms

As I noted above, my search had quite wide parameters, yet returned only three hits across a 30 year period – and two of those births were in the same week in 1822.

  • The New Spynie register records the child’s date of birth as 3 August. The Portsoy baptism took place on 4 August, which was a Sunday. According to Stewart Brown’s book History of Everyday Life in Scotland 1800 -1900, “baptism was to take place in front of the congregation during a time of regular worship, and as soon as possible after a child’s birth.” (p.126).
  • The parent’s names are virtually the same in both records (Betty being a variation of Elizabeth)
  • In both baptism records, George is noted as illegitimate (“born in fornication …”, “natural son … ”)

Why two baptisms?

Before statutory records, the Church of Scotland was the “official” keeper of BDM records. Parishes were also responsible for poor relief (welfare). I have found several instances of children being baptised in the parishes of both parents. I think this was a kind of insurance, so that if poor relief was ever required, the child was “of the parish” and therefore eligible. I think it likely that this child was baptised the second time in New Spynie, in the Church of Scotland, for those reasons.

I am though at a loss as to why the kirk at New Spynie was chosen for a second baptism, when the Portsoy extract says that the mother, Betty Robertson, was from Forres — another parish in Morayshire.

It is of course one thing to argue that the same George Leslie was baptised twice; another to argue that this child was my 2x great grandfather. I think that there is some support for that hypothesis:

  • The parent’s names exactly match those my gg grandfather George reported at the time of his marriage
  • The parish of New Spynie is about 2 miles from Elgin; the place George consistently reported as his birthplace. If George lived in New Spynie as a child he may have assumed it to be where he was born.
  • 1822 is at the early end of possible birth dates derived from other records of George’s life. However, I’m going to make the entirely unscientific assertion that adults more often shave a few years off their age, than add a few years on.
  • The 1841 census shows Elizabeth Robertson, aged 45 and George Leslie, aged 15, as the occupants of a dwelling at Front Street, Bishopsmill, New Spynie Parish. Elizabeth is recorded as of independent means and having been born in the county (Morayshire). George is shown as an agricultural labourer, born outside the county.

Dazed and confused

As always, I have more questions than answers: why New Spynie? Why the Episcopal church? Was John a member of the congregation? Or perhaps his employer Capt. Cameron was.  Who was Capt. Cameron? Was Betty Cameron also a servant of the Captain’s? What happened to John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson after the birth of their son?

I’ve been working on this for a while and am beginning to feel that I wouldn’t recognise resolution if it danced naked in front of me. So I’m turning to you my blogging whanau. Any thoughts on my logic (or lack of)? Suggestions for further research?

Cheers.

Su

 

June 7th, 1917: Battle of Messines

Robin, Wallace and Eric Gray c. 1896. Both Wallace and Eric served in WWI. Eric was wounded at Messines on 7 June 1917, and was killed in action on 27 March 1918 in the Somme Valley. Image: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Robin, Wallace and Eric Gray c. 1896. Both Wallace (the boy-child’s great grandfather) and Eric served in WWI. Eric was wounded at Messines on 7 June 1917, and was killed in action on 27 March 1918 in the Somme Valley. Image: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Messines; a World War I offensive by Allied troops that formed the prelude to what later became known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

Although the ten day Messines Offensive was regarded as a military success (unlike the later Ypres campaign), it still resulted in around 25,000 Allied and a similar number of German, casualties (1). That included 3700 New Zealanders –700 of whom died (2).

One of those, non-fatal, New Zealand casualties was Eric Andrew GRAY — a great grand-uncle of the boy-child on his father’s side.

Gray family portrait c. 1902. Standing: from left Ethel, Robin, Eric, Wallace. Seated: Doris, Emily Ann (nee Oliver) holding baby Mavis, Aileen (toddler). Photo: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Gray family portrait c. 1902. Standing: from left Ethel, Robin, Eric, Wallace. Seated: Doris, Emily Ann (nee Oliver) holding baby Mavis, Aileen (toddler). Photo: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Eric was the fourth child and youngest son of Andrew Gray and Emily Ann Oliver. He was born on 20 October 1895 at Hororata, New Zealand and was killed in action on 27 March 1918 near Auchonvillers, in the Somme Valley, France. Before enlisting, in April 1916, Eric worked as a farm labourer for Selwyn County Council.

Almost all of what I have learned about family members’ wartime experiences has come from their military records. For Eric’s experience at Messines however, I have an extra layer of knowledge. While recovering at Brokenhurst Hospital in England from his wounds, Eric wrote to his sister Doris back in New Zealand. Although I’ve written about the letter before, (in the post “We got dug in about five feet deep by dinner time and then Fritz started to shell …” ) I thought it worth reproducing here, as it gives a quite detailed account of one man’s experience of that day, exactly 100 years ago.

Dear Doris

Just a line or two to let you know that I am getting on all right.

I received a letter from you the night before we went into the trenches and never had time to answer it.

We left camp with all our gear and I tell you we were loaded up at nine o’clock Wed night and arrived at the trenches at half past one in the morning.

We had to carry our equipment and forty eight hour rations, water bottle full, rifle and 120 rounds of ammunition and me being a bomber had to carry fifteen bombs each weighing two pounds and one big one weighing fourteen pounds for dropping down dugouts. We also had our oilsheet, a cardigan jacket, towel and soap shaving gear and a pair of socks in our pack and two gas helmets, so you see we were well loaded up.

Well when we were going up the trenches Fritz put over a lot of gas in shells. He fires them over and they don’t explode they just break open and the gas comes out and floats whichever way the wind is blowing.

Everything was very quiet while we were waiting for the word to go over but just when time was up a big mine was exploded under Fritz’s line which rocked the ground so you could hardly stand up.

As we went over our artillery opened fire into Fritz’s trenches and as we advanced they lengthened their range so we were on to him before he knew the guns were firing past him. We took three lines of trenches before we got to Messines and tunnelling uphill all the time.

Before we went in we had been shown maps and pictures of the town and each platoon was given its part to clean up but when we got there it was just like a broken brick heap. You couldn’t tell where the streets were or the square or anything. Our artillery was great. The Germans in the town were full up of fighting. They came out of their dugouts and surrendered without a word. Our corporal and I got twelve out of one dugout and then we went down it and there were eight more in the corner. They could easily have shot the two of us but as soon as they saw us they put their hands up and started to yell for mercy and so we took them out too.

We came across a case of soda water in bottles and didn’t we get into it as we only had out water bottles full to last us for perhaps two days until the water carriers could get up.

Well our job was to clean up our part of the town and then go about one hundred yards past and dig in.

The first brigade that is the North Island men were to go four hundred yards past us and dig in and in the afternoon the Australians went eight hundred yards past them and dug in again. So you see we were not so badly off as we were not in the front line.

We got dug in about five feet deep by dinner time and then Fritz started to shell and for an hour or two it fairly rained shells but it wasn’t until about half past three or four o’clock when I got my smack. A small shell burst in the trench near me and the flame of the explosion burnt my neck and a piece went in the back of my right shoulder and now I am here but the only thing that I am worrying about is that it will be better too soon.

Ernie Page got a bit of a smack before we got to Messines but I don’t know whether he is in England or not. You know that Jerry who was working in JB Jones when he enlisted he came with the 16th Rifles, well he was killed. I am in No.1 NZA General Hospital HANTS ENG but my mail will be addressed at the base post office so you won’t have to alter the address at all. Are you still at Dunsandel, you will be getting quite used to being away from home I suppose it is winter there now it is midsummer her. I have just stuck the right time to come to England. I must close now so I remain

Your aff brother

EAG

Before leaving New Zealand for the Western Front, Eric had his portrait taken with two of his sisters, Ethel and Doris. He was just 20 years old and within two years would be dead; buried alongside other young men in the Martinsart British Cemetery, France.

WWI enlistment portrait: Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 - 27 March 1918), with sisters Doris and Ethel Gray c. 1917. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

Enlistment portrait: Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 – 27 March 1918), with sisters Ethel (left) and Doris Gray c. 1917. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

Fuller accounts of Eric Gray’s war experiences (and of my research) can be found at:

Eric Andrew Gray: following the trail of a young soldier

Six Word Saturday: “… just like a broken brick heap …”

On a soldier’s death, and feeling grateful for good record-keeping

Death of a soldier: 27 March 1918

____

(1) Battle of Messines (1917), Wikipedia

(2) NZ casualty figures from New Zealand History, 1917: Arras, Messines and Passschendaele.

“They shall grow not old …”

WWI enlistment portrait: Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 - 27 March 1918), with sisters Doris and Ethel Gray c. 1917. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

Enlistment portrait: Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 – 27 March 1918), with sisters Doris and Ethel Gray c. 1916. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

Today is ANZAC day; the day that New Zealanders and Australians commemorate our countrymen and women who have died in wars, and honour our returned servicemen and women.

What is ANZAC Day?

The date marks the first landing of Australian and New Zealand troops (ANZACs) on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey; 25 April 1915. The ANZACs were part of a larger Allied force comprising also British, French and other Commonwealth troops which aimed to capture the Dardanelles (strategically, the gateway to the Bosphorus and the Black Sea) from its Turkish defenders.

The campaign lasted eight months; cost over 130,000 lives (Turkish and Allied) and ended with the exhausted and depleted Allied armies withdrawing from the peninsula in December 1915, having totally failed to achieve their objective.

Around 8700 Australians and 2779 New Zealanders died at Gallipoli. Although this pales in comparison with losses in other WWI battles (842 NZ soldiers died on one day alone at Passchendaele), Gallipoli has come to symbolise the beginnings of a national identity in both countries. (Sources: The Gallipoli Campaign, and 1917: Arras, Messines and Passchendaele: New Zealand History)

Our boys

When I began researching my son’s paternal (New Zealand) ancestry, I  knew from my father in law that two members of his family had served in WWI: his father Wallace Oliver Gray (1892-1981), and Eric Andrew Gray (1895-1918), Wallace’s younger brother. (see note below on posts about the brothers)

WWI enlistment portrait; Wallace Oliver Gray. c. 1917. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

Enlistment portrait; Wallace Oliver Gray. c. 1917. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

I’ve since discovered that Wallace’s wife, Merle Wright, had two brothers who served also; Henry Marshall Wright (1891-1915) and Fred Nathaniel Wright (1894-1972).

Henry (Harry) Wright’s military service is particularly poignant here, as he died in the Gallipoli campaign — on 7th August 1915, at Chunuk Bair.

Chunuk Bair: “the high point of the New Zealand effort at Gallipoli”

Most New Zealanders will be familiar with the name Chunuk Bair. Geographically, it is a hill on the Sari Bair ridge, Gallipoli.

Map showing Sari Bair offensive, Gallipoli 1915. Source: Sari Bair offensive, August 1915 map, New Zealand History.

Map showing Sari Bair offensive, Gallipoli 1915. Source: “Sari Bair offensive, August 1915 map”, New Zealand History.

Militarily, it was a strategic objective. Troops from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and Maori Contingent were ordered to take and hold the hill against the Turks.

Militarily, it was a five day battle that ultimately failed; costing (officially) 849 New Zealanders’ lives, with a further 2500 men wounded (Counting the cost of Chunik Bair, Stuff, August 8 2015). Overall, there were an estimated 30,000 casualties, Turkish and Allied.

Historically, it was another example of the poor military planning and leadership that characterised the entire Gallipoli campaign. (Counting the cost of Chunik Bair, Stuff, August 8 2015). The objective was unrealistic, promised support did not materialise, the men weren’t adequately supplied with essentials — like water — and poor communication meant that many casualties were the result of “friendly fire.”

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Valley leading out of Chunuk Bair; rocky, exposed, barren and hot. Image Source: Australian War Records Section, Australian Memorial.

Culturally, Chunuk Bair has become synonymous with Kiwi fighting spirit, bravery, and endurance against the odds. It was the only piece of the peninsula the Allies managed to capture beyond what they occupied in the April landings. The Kiwis held Chunuk Bair for two days before being ordered to withdraw.

Harry Marshall Wright

Born in Ohoka, Canterbury, on 19 August 1891, Harry Wright was the eldest of eight children born to Sidney Robert Wright and Jessie Susan Harris (about whom I’ve written a little here). His younger sister, Merle Matilda Wright would become my son’s great grandmother (marrying Wallace Gray in 1926).

When he left for Gallipoli, on 17th April 1915, Harry was a 1st Lieutenant in the Canterbury Infantry Regiment. He had enlisted in the regular army on 24th November 1914, aged 23, having already been a member of the Territorial Cadets since his school days at Christchurch Boys High School.

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Portrait of Harry Wright from the Auckland Weekly News, 1915. Source: Online Cenotaph record.

He had been commissioned as a second-lieutenant in the coast defense detachment of the Canterbury Regiment in 1912 and in 1914,  was promoted to 1st Lieutenant — apparently in preference to another officer  who “should” have received the promotion.

Letter confirming the promotion of Harry Wright, 1914. From Military Service Record, held at Archives New Zealand.

Letter confirming the promotion of Harry Wright, 1914. From Military Service Record, held at Archives New Zealand.

According to his military records, at the time of his enlistment, Harry Wright worked as a treasury clerk for the Christchurch City Council. He was unmarried, five foot nine and a quarter inches tall, weighed 154 pounds, had a dark complexion, brown eyes and hair, and had a scar on his chin.

An account of the offensive from the Canterbury’s Official History

I’ve read several accounts of the Chunuk Bair offensive, including that from the official history of the Canterbury Regiment, published in 1921. At the risk of taking information out of context, I think it is worth quoting from this document which shows the whole assault to be confused and problematic.

The task of the Canterbury Battalion was to … attack the Turkish trenches on Rhododendron Spur from the west … After these trenches were captured, and the two columns of the brigade were in touch, the Canterbury and Wellington Battalions were to attack the summit of the Sari Bair Ridge … with the peak of Chunuk Bair inclusive to Wellington and on the latter’s extreme right.

The time necessary for the Mounted Rifle Brigade to clear the entrances to the ravines having been under-estimated, there was considerable congestion and confusion… so that it was 1 a.m. (on August 7th) before the Canterbury Battalion was (in position) … whereas according to the time-table for the attack … the battalion should have reached the Dere before 11 p.m (August 6th).

There had been no opportunity for reconnoitring the ground over which the advance was to be made … on the afternoon of the 6th. Consequently the advance … was difficult, and the difficulty was increased by the darkness of the night. The battalion lost its way completely in a branch of the main ravine, and had to retrace its steps.

On the battalion turning about, the 12th and 13th Companies, at the rear of the column, received a garbled version of the Commanding Officer’s orders to return to the main ravine, and thinking they had been ordered to go right back to Happy Valley, did so. The remainder of the battalion picked up its bearings again and moved up … to Rhododendron Spur. A great deal of time had been lost, and it was now beginning to get light. Pushing on up Rhododendron Spur, the battalion about 5.45 a.m. came in touch with the Otago Battalion, which, in spite of the fact that it had already been heavily engaged at Table Top and Bauchop’s Hill, had taken three lightly held Turkish trenches on the Spur.

The 12th and 13th Companies left Happy Valley at dawn … and had little difficulty in re joining the battalion on Rhododendron Spur. By 8 a.m. the New Zealand Infantry Brigade had reached positions which were practically on the site of the front line of the trench system held by us on the Spur till the evacuation of the Peninsula—Wellington on the north, Otago at the eastern point, and Canterbury on the south. Here the brigade dug in, under very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, especially from Battleship Hill, and from a trench on a spur north-east of Chunuk Bair.

At about 9.30 a.m. the brigade was ordered to assault Chunuk Bair, and as neither the Auckland Battalion nor the 10th Gurkhas had been heavily engaged up till now, these battalions were selected for the attack. On their advancing at 11 a.m., they immediately came under heavy fire; and though the Auckland Battalion reached a Turkish trench about a hundred and fifty yards east of our most advanced positions, its casualties were so heavy that it could get no further.

At 12.30 p.m. the Canterbury Battalion received orders to hold its trenches with half the battalion, and with the remaining half to support Auckland in a new attack. The 1st Company was left to garrison the trenches … and the remainder of the battalion moved forward and lay down in the open. It at once came under heavy shrapnel fire from the left flank and suffered severe casualties, losing one officer killed and six badly wounded, in addition to three officers previously wounded.

The battalion’s casualties during the four days’ fighting had been very heavy, as the list below shows:—

  Officers. Other Ranks.
Killed 4* 65
Wounded 8 258
Missing 11
  12 334

Like many who died at Gallipoli, Harry Wright has no marked grave.

He is remembered on the Chunuk Bair (New Zealand) Memorial within the Chunuk Bair Cemetery at Gallipoli — a young man with a bright future; a second-generation Cantabrian who volunteered to travel across the world to fight for an empire his working-class grandparents had emigrated from in search of a better life.

A young man who never had the chance to grow old.

The title of this post is a line from the Laurence Binyon poem For the Fallen, (1914) from which one stanza has come to be known as the Ode of Remembrance; recited at memorial services such as ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day.

The full stanza reads:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

__________

(1) I have written about the Wallace and Eric Gray in previous posts:

Anzac Day Remembrance: Gray brothers, Hororata

Death of a Soldier: 27 March 1918

Eric Andrew Gray: following the trail of a young soldier

Six Word Saturday: “… just like a broken brick heap”

“A small shell burst in a trench near me”

“We got dug in about five feet deep by dinner time and then Fritz started to shell”,