Since last week’s post about my great grandfather David Leslie and the Kirkcaldy potteries, I’ve revisited the family tree and found more ancestors who were employed there.
Before her marriage, David’s wife, Isabella Gourlay worked as a pottery dresser. The 1891 census shows that that most of Isabella’s household was similarly employed. Her mother, Mary Gerrard was a pottery transferer; her brother Thomas a pottery painter and her youngest sister Mary also a pottery dresser. Only Isabella’s sister Elizabeth Gourlay was employed elsewhere – as a flax mill worker.
Mary was the head of the Gourlay household in 1891 – her husband Rankine Gourlay having been admitted to the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum. The income earned by Mary and her four oldest children was all the family would have had. It occurred to me when I was reading the census return that any problems in the pottery industry — or even in one particular company — would have hit this family particularly hard.
In those days before trade unions, pottery workers were generally employed on “piece rates” – that is paid according to their output, rather than by the hour. While this may seem reasonable, the employer set the rate and was able to change it without notice, reduce the amount of work they offered staff, or even terminate employment without the worker having any real recourse or rights. Labour was totally casualised, and any drop in orders could result in mass layoffs. For a family like the Gourlay’s that could have been disastrous.
In 1893, there was a dispute at the Methven pottery — where I believe the Gourlay and Leslie families worked — over the rate being paid for a particular line of merchandise. While it doesn’t seem that my ancestors were directly involved, reading about the case has provided me with some really useful information.
The dispute was settled in the Kirkcaldy Sherriff’s Court with the average wages and working hours for pottery workers forming part of the evidence.
It seems that the for skilled job of manufacturing potteryware (jugs in the case that went to court), a worker was paid around 23-24 shillings per week (the equivalent of about £106 in today’s money). This was for a working week of 60 hours.
I don’t know whether my ancestors’ jobs would have been considered to be as skilled as those making the objects, but if they were, it means that the family had a weekly income of — at most — around £4 12s per week from the potteries, plus whatever the daughter in the flax-mill earned.
Given that three of the four Gourlay pottery workers were female, it is likely that they were paid less than their male counterparts, so the above estimate could easily be a bit high. Even if it’s basically accurate, the calculator at measuring worth. com puts their £4 12s weekly income at around £420 in today’s money.
Being in New Zealand, I’m not sure how easy it would be to feed, clothe and house a family of six on £420 a week, but I’m guessing they would not have been living in luxury. And of course, before the NHS and welfare benefits (however miserly they seem now), any sickness or injuries would have been an enormous drain on the family finances; not only necessitating doctors bills and medicine but potentially leading to a loss of wages as well.
I’ve always known that I’m descended from mainly working class stock, but it’s not until I start collecting tangible evidence of their lives that I can begin to really appreciate how hard their lives really were.
I’ve been researching my Leslie family roots a bit, and discovered that my great grandfather David Leslie, worked as a kilnsman in one of Kirkcaldy’s potteries.
It seems that most of my ancestors were working class – with many being involved in the flax and jute weaving industries, or working in Fife’s coal mines.
I knew vaguely that Kirkcaldy had potteries – my Cruden great grandparents lived in Pottery Street when I was a child (although at the time, I associated the name with pottering around – the way old people do) – but I didn’t realise until yesterday that Kirkcaldy was quite an important centre in the Scottish ceramics industry.
According to an extract from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical* (which has been scanned and is available online), in the 1880s, the potteries employed around 500 workers. This is a relatively small number, compared to the weaving, coal and iron industries, but the town still sustained four separate potteries.
It’s likely that my great grandfather would have started work in the 1880s, probably when he turned 14. All subsequent records for him (marriage, census, death certificate) give his occupation as Kilnsman.
I don’t know which of the potteries he worked in, although I do know that the family lived around Links Street, at the southern end of town. The largest pottery was David Methven and Sons (Kirkcaldy Pottery) in Links Street, while the other three potteries were located around Dysart and Sinclairtown. It would make sense that he lived close to work (they rented their home so there were fewer barriers to moving), so I’m guessing he probably worked for Methven & Sons..
The Kirkcaldy Museum has exhibits relating to the potteries including photographs, so this is definitely somewhere to visit while I’m in the UK!
* Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.
I hadn’t thought about it too much until recently, but I am definitely a family historian rather than a genealogist. While I’m interested in tracing and recording my lineage, I’m much more interested in understanding the lives my ancestors led and the societies that shaped them.
This realisation has come about in part because of a conversation I had with my dad a couple of days ago. It’s a major source of disappointment to him that, to date, none of his grandchildren have his surname. Although I’m not married – so still use the “family” name – my partner and I chose to give our son his surname rather than mine.
I also have two brothers. One of them changed his middle and surnames years ago so his three children don’t meet with Dad’s approval either. My other brother has recently adopted a child and my father was jubilant because he finally has a grandchild with the “right” name.
My relationship with my dad is prickly at the best of times, and I have to admit to feeling quite pissed off with him. He probably didn’t mean it, but it really sounded like his biological grandkids were somehow second-best because they won’t carry on “the name.” Our conversation reminded me that when I first talked to him after my son’s birth, he was decidedly sulky over the naming of my baby.
I was wondering if that’s maybe why I haven’t made much of an effort to trace the Leslie branch of my family, so I went back to my family tree and noticed that it is 146 years today since the birth of my great grandfather David Leslie.
David Leslie was born on July 23td 1867 in Auchtermuchty, Fife, to George Leslie and Janet Trail (who sometimes appears in the records as Jessie, and with her surname sometimes shown as Traill or Jrail).
David appears to have been the fifth of seven children born to George and Jessie, although it seems that Jessie also bore a daughter, Christina Trail, the year before her marriage to George.
The 1871 census shows the family living in Auchtermuchty, with Jessie as the head of the household.
I found this record a while ago, and had assumed that George must have died. Since then however, I’ve found his death certificate – dated 1902. George also appears alongside Jessie in all the subsequent census records up until his death.
A search on Scotland’s People shows sixteen people called George Leslie in the 1871 census, and given what I know about George, six of these are possible matches. At the moment, I’m not keen to use up credits trying to find him, so until I can get to the library and use Ancestry, his whereabouts on census night will have to remain a mystery.
By the 1881 census, the family had moved to Kirkcaldy. The family consisted of George and Jessie, plus Jessie’s daughter Christina, George jr. William, Elizabeth, Isabella, David, John and Jessie jr. The three younger children were all at school, though it’s likely that my great grandfather would have left at fourteen to go to work. George seems to have spent his working life as a labourer.
By the 1891 census, David was working in one of Kirkcaldy’s potteries as a kilnsman. This is the occupation also shown on the extract of his marriage certificate in 1892, when he married Isabella Gourlay. David’s mother Jessie was one of the witnesses to the marriage, along with Isabella’s brother Thomas Gourlay. I know that Isabella’s father Rankine Gourlay would not have been at the wedding, as he was a patient at the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum at the time.
David and Isabella had six children; my grandfather David being the fourth.
David Leslie sr. died in 1940 when my father was eight years old. My great grandmother Isabella died in February 1961, just months before I was born.
As always, the more information I have about ancestors, the more I want to know. But I can’t say that I am any more interested in the Leslie family than any other branch of my tree. I do want to know why George wasn’t at home on census night 1871, and I’d like to know when he made the move from Elgin to Dundee. I’m curious about whether he had siblings and who his parents were, but I’m not driven by any need to prove some sort of lineage. My research will, I think, always be guided by how interesting I think characters are and how much I can learn about their stories.
I can’t help thinking my dad would probably disapprove of this too.
My hunt for Nicholson ancestors has made significant progress since I found Mary Todd, wife of Alexander Nicholson and my 3x great grandmother – in the 1851 census.
Between the 1841 and 1851 censuses Mary gave birth to five more children, including twin girls. who both died in their first three years. She also buried her mother Margaret, in October 1846 and her husband of twenty years, in November 1848. On a happier note, her eldest living daughter, Ann, married Alexander Campbell, a Railway Overseer, in April 1848.
At the 1851 census Mary Todd was living at “Country Road, East Side, Dysart”. Her household included her children Joanna, 18; Jemima, 15; Alexander, 16; William, 14; Andrew, 12; Isabella, 10; Jean, 9; Christian, 6; and Mary’s father James Todd – a retired Carter aged 74 (according to the census).
There was also a lodger called Robert Greig, who went on to marry Jemima Nicholson in July 1854.
The presence of Mary’s father James Todd in her household at that time gave me my first ancestor I could firmly place in the 18th century, and told me that he was born in Dysart. Mary’s birth and death records also tell me her mother’s name was Margaret Sinclair (death record)/ St. Clair (birth record).
I also have James Todd’s death record from Scotland’s People. It shows his parents as James Tod and Margaret Stewart. This is a wee bit at odds with the birth record I found (the only James Tod born at around about the right time), which show his parents as James Tod and Helen Stuart. The different spelling of Stuart/Stewart is to be expected, but the first name difference bothers me a bit.
I’m sure the death extract from Scotland’s People is for the correct James Todd – because his occupation and address are consistent with other information I have, and because the informant of the death is given as his grandson Andrew Nicholson (my 2x great grandfather). I’m guessing that Andrew (who was unlikely to have even been born when his grandfather’s parents were alive, may have mistakenly given the wrong name – his grandmother’s rather than his great-grandmother’s?
There is a wee bit of evidence for this hypothesis of a mistake in the reporting. James Todd and Margaret St Clair had three children together – Helen in January 1798, Jean in February 1802 and Mary (my 3x great grandmother) in June 1803. If James’ mother’s name had been Margaret, I would have expected to find a daughter with that name.
James Tod senior and Helen Stuart were married on 21 November 1767 in Dysart. I don’t yet know how old they were at the time, but assuming they were at least 18, that means they were alive – albeit children – at the time of the Battle of Culloden. It’s also possible that their parents were born before the Act of Union of 1707 and thus were born citizens of Scotland, not the United Kingdom.
Having come to a dead end in my attempt to trace the Susans in my family back beyond Susanna Fowls ( I’ve written about that search here), I decided to try and sort out the collateral information I’d gathered on the way.
Much of this relates to the Nicholson family, into which Susan Forbes married in 1860.
Susan’s husband was Andrew Nicholson – the seventh of thirteen children born to Alexander Nicholson and Mary Todd (my 3 x great grandparents).
I’ve been really fortunate with the amount of information I’ve found about Alexander and Mary. This is, I think, largely because they seemed to have lived their entire lives in Dysart Parish, and because Alexander’s occupation – land surveyor – was sufficiently well-paid that he was entitled to vote (like his future son-in-law David Forbes). He is listed in the 1835 Register of Voters as “Land Surveyor, Proprietor houses in Gallatown.”
The family also had a burial plot in the Dysart Barony Cemetary – with a headstone – so I’ve been able to get quite a lot of information from the headstone inscription.
Of the couple’s 13 children; I know that at least four died in childhood.
Their firstborn, Mary (b. 1827) died in 1835 and is buried in the family plot. Both the OPR record for her death and the headstone inscription confirm this. The headstone inscription also refers to a son who died in 1840 aged 10 months, and two more daughters, Margaret (died 1847 aged one) and another Mary, who died in 1850 aged 3 years, 8 months. Margaret and the second Mary were twins.
The headstone inscription also refers to an Aunt, Ann Nicholson, who died in 1845 and is buried with the family. As I haven’t yet managed to find out who Alexander’s parents were, this could prove to be a useful clue.
Alexander died in 1848 – aged 44. His widow Mary, survived for another 35 years, and seems to have spending her last few years in the household of her son Andrew and his wife Susan Forbes (my 2x great grandparents).
The census records for Mary (particularly those for 1851 and 1861) have proved to be quite useful in terms of leading me in new research directions, but I think I’ll save those stories for another day.