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.

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3 thoughts on “On chasing ghosts

  1. touching story thank you for sharing, i had much the same experience when i discovered how my 6th great grandmother died, it was unpleasant but i try and focus on the positive!

  2. Yes; there is so much to enjoy about researching family – not least the fact that I appreciate my own life so much more when I look at it in context.

  3. Pingback: On names as an echo of a long-distant past | Shaking the tree

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