Caught in a sadness I can’t quite shake

photo credit: kudaker via photopin cc

photo credit: kudaker via photopin cc

About eighteen months ago, I discovered the truth behind a long-held family story of an aunt who “died of a broken heart”.

The story concerns my great, grand aunt, Mary (May) Cruden; my beloved great grandfather’s youngest sister. The bare bones of the story – which I wrote about here (When the truth contradicts the family folklore) –  are that she died on 3rd February, 1921 in Edinburgh Royal Maternity Hospital. The cause of death was eclampsia – seizures which occur in pregnant women and can be fatal to both mother and unborn child.

May Cruden was nineteen at the time of her death, and a children’s nurse. Her death record shows that she was single and, while she died in Edinburgh, her usual address was Coaltown of Wemyss, in Fife. The informant on the death record was May’s father Stewart Cruden.


Death record; May Cruden. Source: Scotland's People.

Death record; May Cruden. Source: Scotland’s People.


I searched for a birth record for May’s baby, but found none. This led me to believe that the child had also died, but I couldn’t be sure.

Widening the search

A few months ago, I discovered that the Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA) holds patient records for the Edinburgh Royal Maternity Hospital and I sent off an email asking if it would be possible to access May’s records. The wonderful archivist at LHSA said yes, and set about finding the relevant documents. The caveat was of course, that the material sent to me could only relate to May herself – all other information would be redacted because the records relating to her child are closed for 100 years. However, Laura, the archivist did tell me that I could apply in writing to have these records released. This I did.

In the meantime, I learned a little more about May,  including the answer to a question that had been troubling me since the start. Since May Cruden lived in Fife, why did she give birth in a hospital forty-odd miles away, in Edinburgh?

History repeating?

Edinburgh Royal Maternity Hospital is now called the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavillion. In 1961, I was born there.

Like my Cruden relatives, my parents lived in Fife, but my mum was admitted to Simpson Memorial prior to my birth because of a concern about complications with her pregnancy. Knowing this, I wondered if May Cruden had found herself in a similar situation and had been transferred.

It was Laura from LHSA who answered this question for me by pointing out something that would have meant nothing to me, but everything to an archivist from Edinburgh. May’s address on admission to the hospital was 3 Lauriston Park. This, according to Laura was “a home for unmarried mothers very close to the ERMH.”

In the course of researching my family history, I’ve found many children conceived (and sometimes born) out of wedlock. In some cases the parents married each other; in others the illegitimate child was raised by the mother’s husband as part of the family. In 1894, a great grandmother on my father’s side of the family bore a son who was seems to have been raised by his grandmother – but still had close ties to his mother and half-siblings. In all of these cases, the children seem to have been integrated into their mother’s family  – even when the identity of their father was not recorded.

May Cruden’s was the first case I’d found where it appears that the child might not be kept within the family. I haven’t been able to find out very much about Lauriston Park itself, but it is my understanding that it was relatively common for women who entered such homes to give their children up for adoption.

So why was this nineteen year old girl sent away to have her child? Was the child’s father either unable or unwilling to marry her? Did she refuse to marry him? Was it her desire to give the child up and start a new life, or did her parents insist on this? I can never answer these questions because there is no-one to ask. I do know that the year after May’s death her parents and younger brother emigrated to the US, where they stayed for ten years before returning to Fife.

May’s case notes show that she was already suffering symptoms of eclampsia before she was admitted to the hospital on February 2nd:

Admitted at 11.o am: two fits before admission 4 after admission ; very marked oedema of legs and face : small quantity of urine and little albumen ” market Hydramnios : os admitted one finger : manually dilated to three fingers. No more fits after 1.45 pm.  1/2 gr morphin given ; 1/4 gr two hours later : (can’t read word) 3/4 pint blood drawn off and 1 1/2 pts of saline given : delivered 11pm. Slight improvement after delivery but did not last. Died 2am 3/2/21

I’ve given birth once; in my confident, articulate thirties, in a modern hospital with my partner beside me. It was a long but relatively straightforward labour and birth, but one I would not have wanted to experience without the Big T’s presence and support. What must it have been like for May? Young, alone, stigmatised – and desperately ill.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot; trying to imagine how she must have felt. Then a couple of weeks ago a package arrived in the mail containing hard-copies of the hospital records relating to the birth of May’s child. This is the final piece of actual information that I’m ever likely to have about May’s life and death.

I now know that May Cruden gave birth to a daughter at 11pm on February 2nd and that the child was stillborn.

May died three hours later. I would like to think that somehow the hospital had got in touch with May’s parents, and that she didn’t die alone. I suspect that is unlikely.

As with so much family history, I’m left with more questions than answers. And because most of those questions are not about what happened, but why, I’ll never know the answers. So I’m caught in a sadness for a young woman who died too soon, and a family that had to bear not only grief, but perhaps guilt as well.



46 thoughts on “Caught in a sadness I can’t quite shake

  1. This kind of story makes me glad I live in a time when all the guilt for an illegitimate child is not heaped on the mother and the child isn’t stigmatized either.

    • Me too. It’s terrible to think of what women went through, right up until quite recently. My partner has a sister who was born before his parents married and adopted out. She’s only a couple of years older than me! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  2. Such a poignant story and most likely, so typical of this era.

    My own maternal grandmother, though she didn’t die of a broken heart, was forbidden to marry the man she loved (who was Catholic). She married a good Protestant (my grandfather) but was never happy and developed such severe post-natal depression that she was hospitalised and died in an institution. A harrowing yet true story.

    Thank goodness for living in less discriminatory times! 🙂

    • Hi Lee-Anne. That is such a sad story. I’ve had post-natal depression and even with the love and support of people around me, it was still an awful experience. How much worse for your grandmother being institutionalized. That is truly awful.

  3. It’s a very moving tale, Su – and one that your admirable research has unearthed to bring you sadness. I suppose this might happen quite often in your work; but I hope not. I am full of admiration for what you’re doing, and how professionally you’re doing it; and I hope this latest episode will not cast you down too deeply.

    • Thank you. It has helped actually writing it down. I’ve been “sitting on” the documents for a couple of weeks, not quite ready to commit to writing about it. I would love to know more about May’s parents and their part in the story. I wonder if sending her to Edinburgh was their idea, and how they must have felt when she died. So many emotions. I feel myself judging, but I have to remember that we are all a product of our times and I have to try understand my ancestors’ actions in light of the world they live in, not the world I occupy. 🙂

  4. So very sad. My great grandmother died 10 days after giving birth to her 9th child who was adopted out of the family, she was married twice and engaged three times. Her first three children were born out of wedlock then one during her first marriage then my grandmother was the daughter of her fiance who was killed in WWI before they married. She then married again and had three more children before the birth of the last child. She was lucky that she got to keep her children but I think that was partly down to having a good sister who helped to look after her and because at least two of her first three children were fathered by the man she went on to marry. Such different times now.

    • Wow! What an extraordinary woman. It does seem that when family were willing to help out, women were able to keep their kids. In Scotland too, children became legitimate if their parents married after the birth, so perhaps there was less stigma. The cases I’ve found where children didn’t live with their mothers were between the 1890s and 1920s – perhaps there was a hardening of morality then. Or perhaps my traditionally working class ancestors were becoming a bit petit bourgeoise and trying to emulate a set of morals they considered their “betters” to have? But as you say, such different times now – thankfully.

      • Sadly her second and third children died young and her third child she had originally registered as if she and the father were married but had to amend the birth certificate several months later despite the fact he had died at 6 weeks old. Her fourth, sixth and eighth children all died young too. Very sad.
        She was having children between 1905 and 1924. I know that in England and Wales the legitimacy act of 1921 allowed parents to re-register the births of children born to parents who were not married at the time of the birth (initially provided that neither had been married to someone else at the time). I think there has always been a tough history for illegitimate children, but I always dislike stories where women were sent away to have their children and go home without them, being forced to have them adopted.

        So sad that she lost her baby and ultimately her life. Perhaps that’s why the story came to be about her broken heart?

      • It must have been heartbreaking to bury so many babies. My mum lost her first child (he was stillborn) and I’ve always felt she never really got over that. She’s talked about the way his birth/death was handled at the hospital and it sounds barbaric; and that was only in 1960.

  5. Terribly sad. But at least the house she was sent to cared enough to take her to hospital. I wonder if anyone was kindly and buried mother and child together. Most likely her parents wanted the best for her and they thought they were doing the best by sending her to Lauriston Park. The Edinburgh Royal Maternity Hospital sounds as though it was quite enlightened right from its inception.

    • Thank you; I think the thing I find most difficult to cope with was that May’s story was not uncommon. The existence of homes like Lauriston Park demonstrates how women were stigmatised for a pregnancy, while the men got off scot free.

  6. Such a moving post. I think there is beauty in learning stories like this and then sharing them. A beauty that comes from your love and compassion for a young woman going through her most desperate hours. Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful post about May.

    • Thank you so much. I do believe that in sharing the stories of individuals, we can understand and feel compassion for many who experience the same things. My aunt May and Emily Keeling – an Auckland girl who was fatally shot by a lover in 1886 – have become for me symbols of the terrible things that happen to women the world over. Sorry to be so maudlin, thanks again.

  7. This post is so moving that I had to sit on it a while before responding. It makes me angry not only about the way women were trapped in the past, but also about how they are trapped today as we in the US see our personal rights compromised. I am also really impressed by how you found this—your detective skills are remarkable.

    Thanks for sharing this heart-breaking story—one that we know was more common than anyone talked about back then.

    • Thank you Amy. The details of women’s oppression may change, but so many of the attitudes and power relationships our ancestors experienced are still being played out in different ways around the world now.

      And thank you for the praise; I’m doubly delighted to hear that from you, since reading your blog shows me that your detective skills are superb!

  8. Another tragic story from the past. How terribly sad. I am so glad you found out what happened to her baby and I hope she never knew her baby was still born. Wonderful research Sue.

    • Thanks Lynne. I’m glad to have closure too; this one has been sitting in the back of my mind since I made the original discovery. The Lothian Health Services Archive has been amazing; lots of really useful records and unbelievably helpful and knowledgeable archivists. I can’t speak highly enough of them 🙂

      • I must re-look at my ancestor although her baby survived and went on to have a happy life. My husband’s father grew up believing his mother was his sister and grandparents his parents. When he discovered the truth it started in motion a chain of events that brought misery to a lot of people. So sad.

        • Oh Lynne, I can imagine how that would change a person’s whole world. It seems to have been quite common for mothers to raise their daughters children as their own, and it must have been a shock for those children to discover they weren’t quite who they thought they were! There is a lot to be said for the openness we have now.

        • Absolutely. Secrets are so damaging. At least people like us are letting the skeletons out of the cupboard and giving them a voice. Keep up the good work Sue. I’m sure they are all smiling in heaven!

        • Thanks so much Lynne 🙂 I hope everything is going well with you. Are you still “on the road”?

        • No have been back 3 weeks but feel like we were never away! As well as a travel blog, I started a private Flannery family tree blog – private because of the effects on family of what we were talking about. John and I searched for information and found quite a bit, spent hours taking photos in cemeteries, at historical societies and walking the streets his ancestors walked. John wasn’t that interested before but got hooked and it was fun. Desperately waiting for a death certificate which I hope (but doubt) might give us an important piece of the puzzle. John’s grandchildren learned about Anzac Day at school and were very interested in some war photos and details we had discovered.

        • Sounds like you had an amazing time. Great that the grand-kids have taken an interest too. Hope you get over the post-trip low soon 🙂

        • Thanks Sue, I am now planning a trip to Scotland next year to do some more research – just like you did! I need something to plan and look forward to. I so enjoy all your posts and you inspire me. Take care.

        • Fantastic! I hope you have a wonderful time and make lots of great discoveries as I did. There is nothing like being “on the ground” and being able to go to original sources. I loved the time I spent at the Fife Archives with the Dysart School Board Minutes books and also wandering around cemeteries. I didn’t always find what I was looking for, but always found things I didn’t expect that took me on new journeys. Good luck and happy planning. I’m looking forward to reading about it in your blog 🙂 Best regards, Su.

  9. There is a wide chasm between the what and the why, isn’t there? I’ve been caught in that sadness too after making a genealogical discovery about ancestors lost tragically or too young.

    I’m sure poor May and her little daughter were re-united in heaven.

    Thank you for sharing their story.

  10. Hi Su, so very sad like so many of the stories of our ancestors. In reading your post I was immediately “judging”; then while reading the comments I found one of your responses; “I feel myself judging, but I have to remember that we are all a product of our times and I have to try understand my ancestors’ actions in light of the world they live in, not the world I occupy.” Then I felt a little ashamed. We just cannot judge unless we have walked in another’s shoes; regardless of the time, place or circumstance. Hope you are well. Colleen

  11. Hi Colleen, thanks so much for your comments. It is so difficult not to judge and to feel anger, and I’m glad not to be the only one struggling with those feelings. I am well, thank you. I hope you are too. All the best, Su.

  12. Hi Su, I came across your post when googling Dr Haig-Ferguson. I am his great grandson, and a recently retired GP.
    I certainly never met him myself but having an interest in our family history have found out quite a lot about him. It is clear that he was a very compassionate guy. He wasn’t a great orator but took great care in his record keeping and patients certainly seem to have respected him and held him in warm esteem.
    Medical knowledge and available treatments were very different then from now but I suspect his respect for and compassion towards all his patients was considerable. Very sad indeed about the story of your ancestor .
    All the best. David Haig-Ferguson

    • Hi David. It’s lovely to hear from you. I also did a bit of googling of your great grandfather, and he sounds like an amazing man. I was really interested that he’d collaborated with the Russian doctor Stroganoff (I can’t help having a very juvenile giggle at that name) on the treatment of eclampsia, particularly as several of my friends suffered pre-eclampsia in their pregnancies. My great grandfather was May Cruden’s elder brother and my gran was only about six years younger than her aunt who apparently was more like a big sister. May’s death seems to have had quite a big effect on my gran; and my mum has spoken of it quite a lot. The family story, which my mother told me, is that May “died of a broken heart.” I do wonder to what extent my gran knew the truth, or whether she believed it. I find myself looking back at my great great grandparents and wondering how they must have felt. Cheers, Su.

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