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.

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6 thoughts on “On trying to put flesh on the ancestors bones

  1. My grandmother was born in Dundee in 1890 – I wonder if they knew each other! And I have ancestors from Dysart in Fife – The Sutherlands and the Fyfes.

    How frustrating is it to feel you know so much about someone and then when you want to put it onto paper and organise what you know, you can’t find the facts you need to make it complete – or as complete as it is ever going to be? It is mostly anecdotal evidence you have. On the other hand, having all the facts but no stories is just as bad. This is a frustrating interest we have!

    I keep an eye on the Scottish Genealogy facebook page in case someone is researching my family. I noticed someone had put up some information about Fife including a list of surnames. None of my ancesters was on there. Neither was Cruden but there were some Simpsons, Blacks and Bissets but not them all in one name. Sometimes I see so many genealogy websites I don’t know which way to turn.

    I love your story and your photos. Even though you don’t have all the information you are looking for yet, your ancestors live on through you and your research. I always get motivated when I read your blogs.

    • The address on my great grandad’s birth certificate is 4 McGill Street, which is near Baxter Park, and looks like it might be a carpark now!! I know the family moved around a lot during great grandad’s childhood. In the 1891 census they had moved around the corner to 103 Albert Street. Three years later they were in a wee village near St Andrews called Denhead. By 1898 they’d moved to Edenside, another village in Fife, and by the 1901 census they were in Kinghorn. By the time great grandad got married (at 17!), they were in West Wemyss and eventually ended up in Kirkcaldy. Great-great grandad seems to have had as many jobs as addresses, most of which seem to be variations on labouring, so I guess they moved with the jobs. It must have been a bit of a mission – they had seven kids!!!

      Do you have an address for your great grandmother?

      I haven’t had a look at the Scottish Genealogy FaceBook page, so thanks for that.

      And thanks for reading my blog. I love getting feedback, and I must admit, I’m often inspired to write after I’ve read one of your posts. Our searches seem to take us in very similar directions, and I guess there are lots of parallels in the families too.

  2. Thank you for sharing this story! its sad that the documents are lost but im glad you got to meet your great grandfather. I’m the opposite I never met any of my great grandparents with the exception of one of my great grandmothers who died when i was very young. I do however have a lot of census records for them!

    • Thanks. I am glad I knew my great-grandad. I feel very fortunate that there were so many “older folk” in my childhood. I cherish those memories.

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