If my house was on fire and I knew the Big T, the boy-child and the cats were safe, I think the only thing I’d try to rescue is my much-treasured collection of family photos.
In these faces live my history – and perhaps wisps of my future. I see my nose and cheekbones, my son’s hair, eyes and his half-smile (one of those omg moments). I also see our temper, stubbornness and our shared sense of humour. These are the men and women whose genes – and experiences – helped shape the woman that I am, and the man my son is becoming.
These photos are also one of the main reasons I began this journey to research and document my family history. More precisely, this is the photo that began it all.
My mother gave me this quite a few years ago and it sat in a box with other “bits and pieces.” It was only when the Big T and I renovated our house and finally had the wall we’d always wanted for a “family photo gallery” that this one was dug out and framed. That’s when I realised I could only identify three of the people in the photo; my grandmother, Margaret Cruden, her son David Ramsay, and her father Alexander Cruden.
A quick phone call to my mum told me that the other two – older – women were Alexander Cruden’s mother and grandmother. It was an odd moment. I knew that my grandmother was born in 1908, so I figured that her grandmother had to be at least 40 years older than her, and that the very old lady in the photo was probably at least 20 years older again. Suddenly, I was catapulted back in to the middle of the nineteenth century and I wanted to know about these people.
I’ve written quite a lot before about my grandmother (Fearless Females: Margaret Crudenand Not a kiss, but another celebration of marriage) and great grandfather (On Growing Old Together, On trying to put flesh on the ancestors’ bones) but next to nothing about the other women in that treasured image.
So here is what I know
The woman on the far right is Isabella Simpson Wallace. She was born on 2 May 1866 in St Madoes, Perthshire, the third child of Donald Wallace and Jane Morrison. Donald was an agricultural labourer, originally from Kirkmichael, Perthshire (Fade to black (and white)). Jane had been born in Dundee, but at the time of her marriage she was a domestic servant to the Lion family of Herverd Farm, Moneydie, Perthshire – where Donald Wallace was also employed.
In 1869, a fourth child, James was born and in 1872, Donald Wallace died – aged only 42 leaving his widow pregnant with a fifth child, Christina.
It seems that Jane took her children back to Dundee, and in 1873 married John Balsillie and bore him five children.
The 1881 census shows the family living at Pitfour Street, Dundee. Isabella, age 14 is working as a sheeting weaver, along with her two older sisters Margaret and Ann.
In 1886 Isabella married Stewart Cameron Cruden in Dundee. Together they had seven children – Jean, Alexander (my great grandfather), Betsy, Elizabeth, Isabella, Mary and Stewart. The family moved about quite a bit – leaving Dundee sometime after the 1891 census for the first of several addresses in Fife. By 1911, they had settled in Wemyss where Stewart snr. worked as a coal miner. I don’t know exactly how long they lived there – but I do know that in the 1920s Stewart, Isabella and their younger son Stewart jr. emigrated to the United States. They appear to have all travelled separately, and I have only been able to find passenger records for Isabella (in December 1924), but all three appear in the 1930 US census living 34/155 West Third Street, Bayonne City, Hudson, NJ. Isabella returned to Scotland in October 1932. Both Stewarts obviously returned to the UK at some point; the elder died in Kirkcaldy, Fife on 9 January 1934, while the younger Stewart was killed during WWII when the ship he was aboard sank in the Barents Sea with the loss of all but three crew (The fate of HMT Shera: “Closed until 1972”)
I know that two of Isabella’s daughters – Elizabeth and Isabella – also emigrated to the United States, and seem to have stayed there. Betsy and my great-grandfather lived out their lives in Fife, while I recently discovered that Mary died in 1921, aged 19, of eclampsia, a few hours after giving birth to an illigitimate child (When the truth contradicts the “family folklore”). I am currently waiting to see if the wonderful people at the Lothian Health Services Archive (Family mystery about to be solved) can gain access to the child’s birth record so that I can find out whether Mary’s baby survived and what happened to him or her.
Last but not least …
My mum had told me that she was named after the old lady in the photo. She says that she remembers visiting her great, great, gran as a child, and that that this women had witnessed the aftermath of the Tay Bridge Disaster which occurred on 28 December 1879.
As I’d been told that the photo above was of “five generations”, I assumed initially that the old lady was Isabella’s mother – Jane Morrison. The problem with this is that my mother’s name is Elizabeth, so my assumption immediately seemed unlikely. I haven’t been able to find any record of Jane Morrison’s death, so it is possible that she actually is the old lady and that my mother is mistaken about it being the woman she was named after. However, it seemed just as likely that the woman might be Isabella’s mother-in-law, so I began looking at the records for Stewart Cruden’s father – Alexander Cruden.
And there I hit pay-dirt. Elizabeth Brown married Alexander Cruden in 1892, when he was fifty two and she was 41. Elizabeth was a spinster and prior to their marriage, was Alexander’s housekeeper.However, while it was Elizabeth’s first marriage, it was Alexander’s third and although the couple had one child together – George Alexander- born in 1894, Elizabeth was the step-, rather than biological mother of Stewart Cruden.
I suppose if I were more interested in lineage than history, this might matter. It might somehow “devalue” my five generations photograph. But of course it doesn’t! Elizabeth Brown joined my family by marriage; her son is my second great, grand uncle, and most importantly, she must have been much loved for my mother to be given her name.
I’ve talked a lot about the concept of whanau – a Maori term that encompasses all those with whom we feel kinship. I feel kinship with Elizabeth Brown, and I treasure my photo of her.
Making use of Uncle John’s catch?
After Wednesday’s photo of the rabbit hunt (Wordless Wednesday: a good day’s work), I remembered being told that the Big T’s grandmother had made use of rabbit pelt in the clothes she made for her children. These beautiful fur-trimmed outfits are almost certainly the result of Isabella’s labours and talents.
I guess it’s the nature of family history that it’s much easier to find out about some ancestors than others. It’s not only that before statutory records, all information is a bit patchy, but that some people lived and died leaving little or no trace in the documentary record. The converse of course, is that when we do find some record of an ancestor’s life, it affirms their existence and makes them that little bit more real.
My great grandfather, Thomas Elder has always seemed one of those will o’ the wisp ancestors about whom I knew little and wondered much.
The bones of his life are laid out in the BDM and census records. He was born on 23 February 1874 – exactly ninety years before my brother’s birth. He was the fifth of eleven children born to William Elder and Elizabeth Penman. The family lived in Dysart, Fife and somehow managed to avoid having any member of the family working in the mines. By the age of 17 Thomas was employed as an Ironmonger’s Assistant. At the age of 24 he married Annie Nicholson, four years his senior and already the mother of a three year old, illegitimate son who lived with his grandmother but was – certainly in later years – part of his half-siblings’ lives and not hidden away.
Thomas and Annie had three children together, my grandmother Susan, great aunt Elizabeth (Bessie) and great uncle William.
The 1905 valuation roll shows the family living in a house owned by Annie’s mother.
By the 1901 census Thomas has become an ironmonger and the manager of the business. In the 1911 census he is described as a “traveller, hardware”, and when his daughter – my grandmother – marries in 1923, his occupation is given as “storekeeper.”
Thomas Elder died on 12 February 1929, aged only 54, of colon cancer.
A cousin of my father’s – Aunt Bessie’s daughter – says she heard that “Papa” Elder was gassed in WWI and his health suffered greatly afterwards. I have tried to find his service records, but without success. I have little to go on; Thomas Elder is not an uncommon name and I have no idea which regiment he may have served in. Not only that, but his records may not have survived the Blitz (during which over 50% of WWI service records were destroyed).
So to my random moment of delight: earlier today, on a whim, I typed “Thomas Elder Ironmonger Kirkcaldy” into Google and found the newspaper clipping above. I now know that sometime after 1901, when Thomas was an employee (albeit a manager) and 1910, my great grandfather was for a few years a partner in the firm of A. Beveridge, Son & Company. Now I can search the company name and and the other partners.
The question is of course, why did Thomas ‘retire’ from the business at the age of only 36?
I love Lothian Health Services Archive
Lothian Health Services Archive