Wordless Wednesday: siblings

The Ramsay sisters - and brother with their partners.

The Ramsay sisters – and brother – with their partners.

My mother is one of six children; five daughters and a son. As in most families, relationships between the siblings are complex, so I love the way this photo captures five young couples starting out life together bound by ties of love and kin. My parents are in the middle.

Not exactly wordless, but brief.

Ten things Tuesday: people from my tree I’d like to invite to dinner

uncle toms back garden001

With my favourite uncle; my grandad’s brother Tom Leslie. With us is my dad and baby brother.

1. My great uncle Thomas Gourlay Leslie. My paternal grandfather’s younger brother was a widower without children. He was kind and funny and always willing to create adventures for me. He owned a Messerschmidt “bubble” car and lived near a canal in which we went fishing. Even after we moved to New Zealand, he remained an important part of my life, writing witty, newsy letters which often contained money. They always smelled of his cigarettes, and even now, the whiff of tobacco on paper or clothing reminds me of him. I’d love to be able to invite him to dinner and introduce him to my son who is named after him. I’d hope that he would be proud of the person I’ve become.

2.Susan Forbes, my great great grandmother. I’m named after my grandmother Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder, who was in turn named after her grandmother, Susan Forbes. I’ve managed to learn quite a lot about my 2x great grandmother, and she seems like a strong, hard-working entrepreneurial woman. She bore at least eight children – three of whom died in the first weeks of their lives – and raised her daughter Anne’s illegitimate son. She died in 1912, aged 72, leaving a comprehensive and slightly mysterious Will. I’d love to meet her and find out who the men she named as Trustees of her Will were, and why she appointed them. I’ve long suspected that one of them was the father of her daughter’s child.

3. My great grandmother Catherine Black. I’ve written quite a lot about my formidable great gran and although I have strong memories of her, I would love to have her to dinner and be able to ask her all the questions I have now that I would never have thought of, or been able to ask when I was a child. She was a very resourceful woman, with an incredible sweet tooth so I’d ask her to bring dessert.

4. My great, great grandmother Isabella Simpson Wallace. Born in rural Perthshire in 1866, her father died when she was only six, and she had to move to Dundee with her mother and siblings. Her mother remarried and bore several more children. I don’t know if Isabella had a good relationship with her step-father, but several of her children bear his surname as a middle name, so I like to think so. She married my great, great grandfather Stewart Camerson Cruden in 1886 and seemed to spend the rest of her life on the move. The family had multiple addresses in Fife, and at one stage emigrated to the United States where they lived in New Jersey for about 10 years. Isabella experienced several tragedies, in addition to the death of her father. She seems to have suffered several stillbirths; her youngest daughter died, aged 20, of eclampsia and her younger son, Stewart drowned in the Barents Sea while serving on the Arctic Convoys. From the photos I’ve seen of her, she seems like quite a dour woman (maybe not surprising), but I’d love to meet her. I think as well as being interesting in herself, she could also have answers to lots of questions about that branch of my family.

5. Elizabeth Robertson, a 3x great grandmother. Elizabeth was born in 1798 in Dallas, Morayshire. At the age of 24 she bore a son, out of wedlock to John Leslie. That son, George Leslie, was my 2x great grandfather. I know quite a lot about George’s marriage and later life, but his early life is a mystery. I’ve also been spectacularly unsuccessful at finding John Leslie, and thereby tracing my surname back beyond the early 19th century. But apart from wanting to know about Elizabeth’s relationship with her son and his father, I would also like me meet her. It appears that she never married, lived most of her life in Elgin, and died aged 83 in the Poorhouse.

6. Thomas Boswell Bisset – 3 x great grandfather and man of mystery. Thomas Bisset seems to have been born Thomas Gordon, in Wemyss, Fife in 1831. He was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Grieve and John Gordon. Like George Leslie, Thomas’s early life is a complete mystery to me. From his marriage to Helen Simpson in 1851, he becomes a little more visible and towards the end of his life the recorded evidence of his existence mounts up. But it is confusing; not least because his birth, marriage and death records all contain different names for his  father. And where does Boswell come from? My family seems to have adhered quite strictly to the Scottish naming pattern, and I can’t find a Boswell connection anywhere. Apart from all that, Thomas fathered at least 13 children, and I can’t help thinking of him as a bit of an old goat with a twinkle in his eye – and hopefully a few good stories to tell.

7. Alexander Gerrard; a 4x great grandfather about whom I know little except that he was a handloom weaver from Abbotshall, Fife. I suspect that I may not ever get to know much about this man from official records. Like many of my working class ancestors, he has left little trace in the archival record. It would be fascinating to meet a man who lived his entire life in a small area of Scotland that I know well, though I doubt we’d recognise much of what the other was talking about.

8. Susanna Fowls is a 4x great grandmother, and the first Susanna I’ve found from whom the rest of us are descended. She was born in 1786 in Portmoak, Kinross and in 1806 married John Forbes in Abbotshall. I like the idea of having the Susan’s well-represented at the dinner table, and hopefully she can tell me who she was named after – allowing me to delve further into the eighteenth century.

9. David Skinner Ramsay, a 3x great grandfather who seems to have been one of few ancestors who could be described as having been affluent. He’s described in the 1851 census as a Master Miller. Although he’d been born in Dysart, Fife, the family seemed to live in Abernethy, Perthshire for many years, where the household included a couple of servants. He died in his 50s, in what looks like reduced circumstances. His sons seem to have become coal miners, so I’d like to be able to ask him about the turns his life took.

10. Jane Morrison Cruden. My great grandfather Alexander Cruden had an older sister called Jane (or Jean). She was born in 1887 in Dundee and appears in the 1891 and 1901 census records alongside her parents and siblings. After that she disappears from the Scottish census records. My mum, who was very close to her grandad and his family, had never heard of an older sister. She could tell me a great deal about great grandad’s other siblings, but Jean was a mystery. The only  traces I’ve found of Jean Cruden are a record of a marriage to Cecil Leach, in Middlesborough in 1924, and the birth of a daughter – Jean Morrison Leach in Middlesborough in 1926.  I’d like to invite Jean to dinner, partly to find out why she left home and apparently didn’t return, and partly because I’m also inviting her sister-in-law and grandmother, and it might be nice to have a family reunion within a family reunion. Or not!

Tombstone Tuesday: Lance Corporal Thomas Boswell Bisset, 1st/6th Bn. Black Watch

Aubigny Communal Cemetery Extension, Pas de Calais, France. Final resting place of Thomas Boswell Bisset (9 November 1890- 2 April 1917). Photo credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

For last week’s Tombstone Tuesday I posted a photo of great great grandmother, Margaret Bisset‘s, headstone.

The photo piqued my interest, and in trying to find out more about this branch of the family, I stumbled upon a reference to Lance Corporal Thomas Boswell Bisset.

Thomas Bisset, Scoonie Parish War Memorial. Photo courtesy of The Scottish War Memorials Project (http://warmemscot.s4.bizhat.com/warmemscot-ftopic2687.html)

Thomas was Margaret’s nephew; the eldest son of her brother William Reekie Bisset and his wife Susan Miller Thomson. This makes him my first cousin, three times removed.

From the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, I discovered that Thomas served with the Black Watch, and died on 2 April 1917. He is buried in Aubigny, Pas de Calais, France.

Assuming that Thomas was buried in Aubigny because he was killed nearby, I Googled the date and location to see what military action was taking place at the time of his death.

What I found was the Battle of Arras; a major offensive involving British, Canadian and ANZAC troops which took place between 9 April and 17 May. Thomas’s death is recorded as occurring a week before the battle began, but it seems that prior to the offensive itself there were significant casualties on both sides as each army prepared for the battle both knew was coming. It is estimated that the six week offensive cost 160,000 allied troops their lives – as well as those of a similar number of German soldiers.

Thomas Bisset is the second member of the family we’ve found who is buried in a War Cemetery in the Pas de Calais region. The Big T has a great uncle who was killed in March 1918 at the 3rd Battle of the Somme. Private Eric Andrew Gray was a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and served in the Canterbury Regiment. From Archives New Zealand, we were able to get a copy of his war record which told us a little about a man the Big T had grown up hearing about. The records didn’t tell us anything about Eric’s death – except the date –  but we did manage to piece together some understanding of his final days from the Regimental War Dairy which is available online through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection – an initiative of Victoria University of Wellington Library.

I have been to the Black Watch Museum website to see if they hold something similar, but no joy, so I will have to try and piece together the movements of Thomas Bisset’s Battalion through other sources, and with luck I will be able to find his war record on Ancestry.

A week ago, I knew nothing of the Bisset family. But by becoming interested in a picture of a headstone, I have climbed a branch of my family tree that has so far produced a war casualty, a man with at least two surnames (and three different “fathers”) and a connection to a 1920s tourist attraction. Watch this space!

Tombstone Tuesday: another family in Dysart Cemetery

Great, great grandparents in Dysart Cemetery, Fife, Scotland.

Great, great grandparents in Dysart Cemetery, Fife, Scotland.

My mum gave me this photo recently. Margaret Bisset and Alexander Black were her great grandparents – and the parents of my formidable great gran. I feel very fortunate to have the photo, with its clear and informative inscription and handy map reference at the bottom.

Catherine Black and her husband Alexander Cruden with their two eldest children, Margaret Simpson Bisset Cruden (my grandmother) and Stewart Cruden.

Catherine Black and her husband Alexander Cruden with their two eldest children, Margaret Simpson Bisset Cruden (my grandmother) and Stewart Cruden.

Every leaf on the family tree is precious, but I definitely feel a stronger connection to some more than others. In the case of the Black family it is because Catherine Black – this couple’s third daughter – was a very real presence in my early life. I’ve written about my great gran before (On Growing Old Together) as a woman that I admire tremendously. But while I feel I know quite a lot about her husband’s family (the Crudens), my knowledge of the Black and Bisset families is very sparse. I know that the Alexander Black originally came from Kinglassie, and I was fortunate enough to find his parent’s headstone in the Kinglassie Cemetery (Tombstone Tuesday: the Black Family in Kinglassie).

Since being given the photo, I’ve done a bit more research into this family.

Alexander and Margaret were married on 12 April 1879 in Scoonie, Fife – which is about 15 miles east of Kinglassie. He was a labourer, she a flax mill worker. Both gave their address as Leven (which has kind of absorbed Scoonie).

Margaret’s birth record shows that she was born on 19 April 1856 at High Street, Leven. Her father was Thomas Boswell Bisset, a carter and her mother Helen Laing Simpson. Margaret seems to have been the second of 13 children (including two sets of twins). In fact, Helen Simpson may have borne even more children or at least had more pregnancies, as there are gaps of several years between a few of the children.

Helen Simpson and Thomas Bisset married in 1851 in Dysart. She was originally from Auchtermuchty – where a branch of my dad’s family (the Traill’s) also lived. I haven’t yet been able to find a record of Thomas’s birth – despite having his parents’ names from his death certificate and a place of birth from a census record. It is possible that one or more of these is incorrect, or that there’s been an error in transcription and I’ll need to try a wider and more imaginative search.

Sometime after their marriage, Helen and Thomas moved to Scoonie, where they remained until their deaths. It’s interesting to me that of all the towns and villages in Fife, the same few seem to pop up in so many different branches of my tree.

Margaret and Alexander began married life in Scoonie, but had moved to Dysart by the 1891 census where Alexander was working as a coal miner. He continued to live in Dysart after Margaret’s death, appearing in both the 1901 and 1911 censuses. By the latter census, he was living next door to his married daughter Catherine and her family (my great grandparents), and still working as a miner.

Margaret Bisset bore at least seven children; Helen, Caroline, James, Catherine and Janet – who all lived to adulthood, and the babies Thomas and Alexander whose passing is noted on the headstone.

Margaret Bisset died in 1900 aged only 45, of some sort of hemorrhage (I can’t read the writing on the death extract) and heart failure. Her father Thomas died the following year, while her mother lived until 1914, and Alexander Black died in 1926.

As always, when I find out a little about a branch of my family I want to know more. It seems that scratching the surface is also creating an itch that begs to be scratched some more.

I think it’s going to be a long night.

Tombstone Tuesday: a small serendipity

Monument to John Lazar, Hokitika Cemetery, Westland, NZ. Photo: Su Leslie 2008.

Monument to John Lazar, Hokitika Cemetery, Westland, NZ. Photo: Su Leslie 2008.

I took this photo five years ago in the cemetery in Hokitika, on New Zealand’s West Coast. One of the Big T’s aunts had once lived in the town, and we’d gone for a little tiki tour to see if he could find her house.

Hokitika isn’t a big place, so it wasn’t long before we found ourselves on the edge of town; on a hilltop at the cemetery gates.

I love cemeteries; T hates them. So it probably tells you all you need to know about my partner that he was willing to spend the twilight of a summer’s evening in a graveyard.

I didn’t know who John Lazar was. I took the photo merely because – as we were walking back to the car – a last finger of sunlight rested briefly on his monument and it made for a nice shot.

It has taken me five years to wonder “who was John Lazar”?

The answer made me smile and think about the nature of co-incidence. John Lazar was born in Edinburgh in 1803; 158 years before I was born there. He emigrated to New Zealand in the late 1860s; my family did the same in the late 1960s. And John Lazar was a life-long Freemason – like my father.

He also sounds like an interesting character.

Born in Edinburgh, but brought up in London, he was Jewish – the son of a clothier turned stock broker and a German mother who died when John was relatively young. He worked as a commercial traveller and then a silversmith and jeweller in London before emigrating to Australia with his wife and children in 1836. Three of his ten children had died in infancy in England; three more died on the voyage. [Source: West Coast Times, June 1879]

Before moving to New Zealand he lived in South Australia where he was the the Mayor of Adelaide (1855-1858) and was an actor and impresario – owning theatres in Sydney and Adelaide. He was the first Town Clerk of Hokitika, rising also to hold the positions of County Treasurer and then Provincial Treasurer. [Source: NZ Electronic Text Collection. The History of the Jews in New Zealand, Chapter XV A Ghost Synagogue.]

John and his wife were were apparently well-known, and much loved members of the local Jewish congregation – and of the wider West Coast community. It was said of him that he “combined the rare qualities of immaculate dignity and witty joviality.” [Source: NZ Electronic Text Collection. The History of the Jews in New Zealand, Chapter XV A Ghost Synagogue.]

A report in The West Coast Times from 1873 describes him performing a comic song or two at the closing concert for the Hokitika Exhibition – in which he is described as “The Jolly Town Clerk.”

It seems that Lazar’s ties to Freemasonry were long-standing. He had held high-ranking positions in Lodges in Australia and in Otago before becoming the first District Grand Master of the District Grand Lodge in Westland. When he died in 1879, the costs of his funeral and the rather beautiful monument were met by his Masonic brethren. [Source: Lazar Lodge]

I found this wonderful photo of John Lazar at Early New Zealand Photographers. The photo itself is in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.

“Mr John Lazar, D.G.M. of Westland by Rudolph Haigh Reference: REF:natlib.govt.nz:tapuhi:1/4-006809\G Alexander Turnbull Library National Library of New Zealand”

I also found his obituary from the Hokitika Star which begins with the words:

“Today the remains of Mr John Lazar, the Right Worshipful District Grand Master, under the English Constitution, were interred in the cemetery with every mark of respect, and were followed by perhaps the greatest number of persons ever seen in a funeral procession in Hokitika.”

… while his obituary in the West Coast Times ends with:

“It may truly be said of him, that he was one of Nature’s gentlemen, an honest, conscientious, and noble-minded man, and one who will be missed in society for many years to come.”

If there is a point to this story – other than to celebrate a New Zealand pioneer (and that is a worthy point), it is to say thank you to the institutions and people who work tirelessly to make historical information available online; so that everyone from dedicated family historians (of which group I consider myself to belong) to the mildly curious (which is all I really was in this case) can know more about the characters who populated our past, and the events that shaped them.

In particular I want to acknowledge:

The District Grand Lodge of South Island whose website gave me my first glimpse into John Lazar’s life

Papers Past; a wonderful initiative of the National Library Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa which is working in conjunction with libraries, historical societies and others to digitise New Zealand’s newspaper archives.

New Zealand Electronic Text Collection – Te Pūhikotuhi o Aotearoa, part of Victoria University of Wellington Library. This wonderful initiative contains both digitised historical texts and born-digital materials relating to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

Phoneography Challenge: fade to black (and white)

Tombstone Tuesday: a trip to Kirkmichael


Four weeks ago I was in Scotland; in the Perthshire village of Kirkmichael to be precise.

I was there because I knew that a distant branch of my family had lived in the village for most of the nineteenth century (and most likely well back beyond that), and I wanted to see if I could find any trace of them.

It took a couple of attempts to find the local cemetery – signposts for the church took me to one long abandoned and apparently without a churchyard.

Eventually, back in the village I found what I was looking for. It’s not a large cemetery; but an old one full of the plain headstones apparently favoured by Scots Presbyterians. I spend quite a lot of time in cemeteries these days, and have noticed definite “fashions” (or at least trends) in headstones. Not only are the Scots’ headstones usually quite simple shapes…

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Shoe-down-the-river stories and other backwaters of family history

Bath-times with the boy-child in days gone by.

Bath-times with the boy-child in days gone by.

I saw this and it reminded me of a time in the boy-child’s life when bath-time was a supervised, highly social activity. These days, if I accidentally stray within twenty feet of his bathroom whilst he’s abluting, it’s a capital offence, so you’ll understand that the time I’m talking about is long, long, ago.

Anyway, back in the day, when bath-time involved me sitting on the floor, making sure the boy-child didn’t drown and did actually get washed, we developed a kind of tradition where I’d tell what I hoped were amusing anecdotes from my childhood. He called these the shoe-down-the-river stories, after an incident where my little brother “borrowed” my shoe to use as a boat and floated it off down a river. Retrieving the shoe involved several men – including my father – getting comprehensively soaked and not a little grumpy. And I so hated those shoes.

The boy-child had a fairly endless appetite for such stories, though to be fair, this was probably a stalling tactic to avoid things he wasn’t that keen on. He spent years engaging me in conversation in the hope that by the time I’d finished talking, I’d have forgotten what it was I wanted him to do.


I suppose I’m fortunate to come from a family in which everyday life was sufficiently challenging that even the simplest activities could find us in situations that were at best ridiculous, at worst, slightly tragic. My father’s attempts at household economy alone could probably support a career in stand-up, had they not been driven by the reality of my mother’s spendthrift habits. Instead, my brothers and I have a fund of childhood stories involving useless household gadgets, trailer-loads of sweetcorn and exploding spaghetti.

The actual story-telling tradition comes from my mother. I know very little about my dad’s childhood, except that it was much more impoverished than my mum’s and perhaps it’s never stopped being too raw to joke about. My dad is actually a very sociable person, and quite a good storyteller; it’s just that the stories never cast him or his life in an even slightly negative light.

My mum on the other hand, although always the quieter half of the couple, has a wealth of silly stories which she happily re-tells. When I spent a few days with her recently, I found myself doing a version of the boy-child’s thing. I wanted her shoe-down-the-river stories – and over three nights and a couple of bottles of wine, I got them.

And I am so glad. To me, this verbal ephemera is as valuable to family history as any serious account of people and events. Our funny stories – especially those we share within families – help define us and strengthen the ties to our familial world. And as a family historian, I think collecting and recording the silly and the apparently trivial is absolutely vital.

And if all of this sounds like I’m justifying spending all those bath-time hours telling the boy-child about the time Grandad had to redecorate the neighbour’s bedroom ‘cos Uncle Craig drew all over their wallpaper with Grandma’s lipstick , well hey.

Of course, I hope my son will remember the stories, but even more I hope he will feel them as a blanket, enveloping him in the warmth that is family – past and present. And most of all, I hope that one day he will want to share the little memories of his own childhood.

I also hope that families everywhere collect and preserve the stories of their small, silly moments; the things that connect us and make us human.