On ancestry in the making

On ancestry in the making

I’ve been posting about “family history in the making” and then I read Helen Tovey’s blog post on “becoming an ancestor”. It’s made me think about how important it is to document the present (and recent past).

Today is a particularly appropriate day for such thoughts as it’s my son’s 15th birthday. He is my only child, so his birthday is not just a celebration of his life, but of his father and I becoming a family rather than a couple.

I sometimes wonder if our pleasure in that doesn’t almost outweigh the boy-child’s enjoyment of presents, cake and devoted parental attention for the day. And that got me thinking about his day.

Naming Day, Thomas Alexander Gray.

The boy-child with proud parents and god-parents.

We’re not religious, so a christening was out of the question, but when he was born, I remember thinking that it was important to celebrate the significance of his life to us in some way. It took a while to organise (10 months), but on 17 January, 1999 we held a naming ceremony for our baby boy. Continue reading

And now for something completely different … (with apologies to Monty Python)

And now for something completely different … (with apologies to Monty Python)

I’ve temporarily exhausted my supply of wedding photos, so that theme is back on the shelf for a while. Meantime, something caught my attention the other day that relates not to my family’s story but to that of the city I live in. It also speaks of the on-going story of violence against women. This is particularly in my mind at the moment, I guess mainly in light of the high-profile fatal attacks on women that have made the news lately. For each for these cases, I know there are many, many more that are not reported. Violence is endured daily by so many women in so many places – and most go un-remarked and un-reported.

Text of memorial to Emily Mary KeelingSo … A couple of days ago, I was walking in Auckland’s oldest cemetery – Symonds Street – in central Auckland, when I found a memorial headstone that caught my attention.

Sacred to the memory of Emily Mary the beloved daughter of George and Emily Keeling of Arch Hill who was shot while on her way to the Primitive Methodist Church Bible Class Alexandra Street April 2nd 1886. Aged 17 years.

Symonds Street Cemetary was in use from 1842 until around the 1930s. It contains the graves of many early European settlers to Auckland, and walking amongst the headstones is a lesson in the hardships of life in the nineteenth century, and of pioneer life in particular.

Symonds Street Cemetary; in use between 1842 and the 1930s.

Symonds Street Cemetary; in use between 1842 and the 1930s.

However, New Zealand has always had a reputation as a very safe place, so death by shooting – particularly the death of a young woman – was both deeply sad, and really intriguing. I had to know more. Was she shot accidentally? Or was it a murder?

It was a murder.

Thanks to Papers Past, an initiative of the National Library of New Zealand to digitise New Zealand’s newspaper heritage, I was able to find newspaper accounts of the death of Emily Mary Keeling, which was widely reported throughout New Zealand.

From the articles I read, it seems that Emily Keeling was fatally shot by a man who lived next door but one to her family. He claimed to have fallen in love with her, and had – two years previously – asked her father for permission to marry her. At the time of the proposal, Emily was only 15 and her father had refused permission. In the intervening two years the man, Edwin Fuller, had moved around the Auckland region working in different jobs before returning to the city to pursue Emily again. According to the newspaper reports, he wrote a letter to his family outlining his plans to kill Emily and himself.

So on a Friday evening in April, a month that in Auckland can be beautifully autumnal, Emily Keeling died a few hundred metres from her home; shot in the chest by a man who wrote to his family ‘… I am going to shoot myself tonight. I love Emily Keeling as no-one ever loved before.’

Edwin Fuller did shoot himself – a couple of streets away – having left Emily to stagger across the street to a shop, where she died within an hour.

I’ve been thinking about this story since Saturday night, and it’s affected me on all sorts of levels. Most importantly of course, I feel an overwhelming sadness at the absolute tragedy of it. A young woman walked out of her front door to go to a Friday evening class, and didn’t even get to the top of her street before being killed. Even 120 or so years later when the murder rate in New Zealand has risen alarmingly, such an event is still rare enough to be remarkable.

I am also feeling something that I’m beginning to recognise quite a lot in family history research; what drives me to do research is curiosity and the pleasure of solving puzzles, and yet it’s often the case that the information which helps to solve those puzzles is only available because the people we are searching for have experienced tragedies that brought them into the public record in some way. So my enjoyment is often tempered with sadness.

flowersEmily Keeling was one of two children. Her brother had moved to Australia and she of course didn’t live to bear children of her own. I don’t know then if there is anyone left in Auckland who remembers her – certainly her grave appears (like most of those I saw in Symonds Street cemetery) untended. Tomorrow I’ll take flowers, in memory not only of Emily Keeling, but of all the women who die violent deaths and who are forgotten like Emily.

Not a kiss … but another celebration of marriage

David Ramsay and Margaret Cruden celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.

My maternal grandparents celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary in 1951.

The last couple of “kiss” photos I posted got me thinking about the couples in my family, and actually how few photographs I have. None of my parents (without the kids) and only this one of my maternal grandparents.

David Skinner Ramsay and Margaret Simpson Bissett Cruden  were married in on 21 December 1926. Grandad was 25, Gran was 18. He was a coalminer, she a shop assistant. Both lived in Dysart, Fife, Scotland. They raised six children and remained married for 47 years, until my grandad’s death in 1973.

When my grandmother was widowed, she started travelling – to New Zealand to visit us, then Australia to see her brother and his family. She went to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) to visit her only son, and back to Australia. In the last 15 or so years of her life she mainly stayed in Europe, but still managed to clock up an impressive number of miles for a woman who had never left the UK until she was in her mid 60s.

My gran died in 2006 – a week short of her 98th birthday. By that stage she had 17 grandchildren, 26(ish) great grandchildren, and a couple of great, great grandchildren.

She’s the grandparent I knew best and the only one I spent time with when I was an adult. Thinking back on all the hours we spent drinking tea and scoffing coffee meringues (her favourite), I wonder why I never asked her all the questions I now have about her life – her childhood, marriage, parents. Back then I just wasn’t that “into” family.

Now, a mother myself, I’m determined that my son will know more about his ancestry than I do about mine, and in particular the stories of lives and loves and death that make the past alive for us.

Weekly photo challenge: another kiss

My younger brother Derek Leslie and his wife Nya Fogden on their wedding day, July 2006.

My younger brother Derek Leslie and his wife Nya Fogden on their wedding day, July 2006.

Carrying on yesterday’s theme; another kiss that contributes to my family history in the making. My youngest brother Derek, married Nya Fogden on 8 July, 2006 at the St Stephen’s Club, London.

When the telegram came

Strolling ... Stewart Cruden and his mother with an unknown (to me) couple

Strolling … Stewart Cruden and his mother with an unknown (to me) couple

My mother sent me this photo recently. The young man in front is her great uncle, Stewart Cameron Cruden, who died on 9 March 1942 aboard the HMT Shera in the Berants Sea. The ship was a Norwegian whaling boat which had been requisitioned by the British Navy as a minesweeper to protect the Arctic Convoys delivering supplies to Russia. It was en-route to Murmansk on loan to the Soviet government when high seas and pack ice caused the ship to ice up and capsize, with the loss of seventeen lives.

Mum remembers quite vividly hearing of her great uncle’s death. She said that when the telegram came, her parents were at the cinema in Kirkcaldy and that the management stopped the film to deliver the message that they were to go home immediately. Mum wasn’t sure who had sent the message – probably one of her older sisters – but the reason was that they were needed to comfort my great, great grandmother who was ill and living with my mother’s family at the time.

It seems an odd thing to do, but I guess that, in wartime, it was probably quite common. I also occurred to me that for my grandmother, hearing her name called out in the cinema must have been truly awful since my uncle David, her only son, was also serving in the navy and it must surely have gone through her mind that she was being sent home to a telegram announcing his death.

I like this photo. Stewart looks like a confident young man, striding out with an attractive woman at his side. My mum doesn’t know who the young woman in the photo is – or for that matter, the man at the back. The older woman walking behind is Stewart’s mother, Isabella Wallace.

Isabella Wallace, seated, with my grandmother standing beside her. Probably taken around 1933-1934.

Isabella Wallace, seated.

I don’t know when or where this photo was taken but I’m working on the assumption that it was in the late 1930s; based on the younger woman’s clothes, and also the fact that I have this photo of Isabella Wallace (sitting, with my grandmother beside her) in which she looks much younger, and I know that photo was taken after 1932 when she returned from the United States, having spent seven years living in New Jersey.

Anyone with knowledge of 1930s fashion who could help me date this more accurately – all suggestions welcome!

In Lowestoft, Suffolk, there is a memorial to the 2385 members of the Royal Naval Patrol Service who died during World War II who have no known grave. My great grand uncle is amongst them. lowestoft memorial cruden

My plan for 2013; a trip to the UK to, (amongst other family history objectives) take my mum to see this memorial.

 

On chasing ghosts

Increasingly in my research, I’m stumbling across ancestors I didn’t know existed – a great uncle born out of wedlock, children who appear on one census only to disappear by the next. In these cases I’ve been looking at records (like the census returns) and found “extra” names. But yesterday something different happened. I went looking for someone purely on the basis that they should exist.

Let me explain. I was tidying up some details relating to my paternal grandfather, David Leslie, who was born in 1899. I knew that his parents had married in 1892, and that my great uncle Rankine was born in 1895. I knew too there had been a daughter, Mary, in 1897.

My grandfather, David Leslie

My grandfather, David Leslie

Me, age 5, with my great uncle Tom Leslie; the coolest, most fun uncle and greatly loved.

I’ve done enough research into my largely working class family to know that during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, where couples had children at all, they tended to start coming very early in the marriage (within weeks in many cases). I also know that mostly my family observed Scottish naming conventions, whereby one’s parents’ names are given to offspring – and done so in a particular order, with the first-born son usually named after the paternal grandfather.

On that basis, it seemed odd to me that my great-grandfather David Leslie and his wife Isabella Gourlay should have been married three years before having a child, and that their apparently first-born son was named Rankine – a Gourlay family name.

One of the first things I realised when I started using Scotland’s People is that the most efficient way to trace ancestors’ siblings is though census records. Unless you know someone’s Christian name, it’s difficult (not to mention expensive) to find birth records based only on a surname and a rough date range, especially as women might easily have been bearing children across a 20 or more year period as some of my ancestors were. I knew from the 1901 and 1911 censuses the names of the Leslie children, so it seemed that if there had been a child (or children) before Rankine, it was likely that they had died. And sadly, that’s the case.

Because I was searching  a very limited time period (1892-1895) and knew that the Leslie’s lived at the same address in Abbotshall in Fife for many years, it was possible – and economically viable – to look for a child who may not even have existed. I was fortunate; I only got five hits, including George Leslie. As George was my Leslie great, great grandfather’s name, I paid my five credits and found that I had the right child.

I’ve worked as a researcher for most of my life and pride myself on professional detachment. Sod that! This is family I’m talking about and researching them is an unbelievably emotional journey. So my excitement at “a find” and my pride in being clever enough to think to go looking were tempered by the certainty that my next search would be for a child’s death certificate. So …

George Leslie 1893-1901

First-born child of David and Isabella, big brother of Rankine, Mary and my granddad David (and who would, if he’d lived, also been brother to Thomas and William). Died 2 February 1901, aged seven, of meningitis.

I’m still processing this. Part of me is trying to be practical and remember that child mortality was higher in those days and that families probably expected to lose a child, but the other part of me is a mother and I think I’ll go and give my son a hug.

On trying to put flesh on the ancestors bones

I’ve blogged in the past about the invisibility of my largely working class ancestors, and researching my great grandfather – Alexander Cruden – has shown me that even in recent times, ordinary working folk don’t leave behind them a long paper trail.

Great grandad was a much loved and definitely larger-than-life figure in my early years.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

He had an artificial leg, wore a hearing aid that he tended to turn off quite a lot so he couldn’t hear my great grandmother, and had a huge bulbous nose, which my mother always said was because he had run a pub when he was younger. One of my brothers was named after him, and my son too carries his name.

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

What I remember most about great grandad was that he always had a bag of peppermints tucked down the side of his chair, and being given one of those was a huge treat. Even now, the taste of peppermint takes me back to him.

Great granddad died when I was nine. My family had emigrated to New Zealand several years before, and my mother wasn’t able to go to the funeral of her favourite grandparent. I think that was the first time she had ever really felt the distance we had put between us and the rest of her family.

From my mum’s stories, I always felt that I knew a lot about Alexander Cruden, yet when I came to try and document his life, I found that actually, I didn’t. What I had were rich, emotionally powerful memories of him, but very few facts.

One of the really distinctive things about my great granddad was that he had only one leg. I was told that he’d lost the other one “in the war.” I now know that was World War One, but when I asked my mum recently about her grandad’s military service, all she knew for sure was that he had spent time afterwards in a hospital in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh. She remembered visiting him there in the 1940’s which suggests that his injury continued to trouble him for many years after he sustained it.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920's.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920’s.

I’ve learned that the hospital was called Edenhall East of Scotland Limbless Hospital, and that there don’t appear to be any surviving records going back to World War One.

What I don’t know of course, is how he ended up there. I have no idea when and where he served. My mum thought he might have been in the Gordon Highlanders, but there doesn’t appear to be a service record that matches him. This of course isn’t surprising given that only around 40 percent of service records survive for servicemen in WWI.

A couple of years ago I researched my husband’s grandfather and great uncle who both served in WWI as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. We knew that Tony’s uncle Eric had been killed, but no more than that. From Archives New Zealand I was able to get copies of their service records and by putting the information in those records together with a history of his regiment  that was available through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection (part of the Victoria University of Wellington Library), we ended up feeling that we understood quite a lot about this young man whom none of us had ever met. Elated by this find, I even used the example in a video I made for a university assignment.

Of course, from statuatory records I have learned a lot about Alexander Cruden. I know he was born in 1890 in Dundee, the second of seven children and the eldest son. I know that his eldest sister disappears from the Scottish records after the 1901 census, and probably (if I have the right person) reappears in Middlesburgh in 1924 when she seemed to marry a man called Cecil Leach.

I know that great grandad’s youngest sister died aged 19 of eclampsia in the Royal Maternity Hospital in Edinburgh, and that his only brother Stewart died aboard HMT Shera in the Arctic Sea in 1942; part of the Arctic Convoy which carried supplies to Russia in World War II.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

I know too that Alexander Cruden married Catherine Simpson Bissett Black on 27 March 1908, six weeks before their child (my grandmother Margaret Cruden) was born.

Alexander was 17; my great grandmother 18.

They were married for 62 years and raised five children. During the 1930’s and 1940’s he was the publican of the Fife Arms in Milton of Balgonie, Fife and by the 1960’s he was living in Dysart, Fife.

Alexander Cruden died in 1970, aged 80.

I know the bones of his life from BMD and census records, but little to put flesh on those bones. It seems that his military records – both of service and his subsequent disability – no longer exist, so I will probably never know how he came to suffer an injury that required the amputation of a leg; an injury which seems to have given him sufficient on-going pain that he continued to spend periods of time in hospital for years afterwards.

While I’m sad that there is so much I will never know about my  great grandad, I feel lucky to have memories of him and stories that I can share with my son. And this particular search has made me all the more grateful for every shred of documentary evidence I do find about my ancestors; for every piece of information that puts flesh on the skeletons of the past.