When things aren’t quite what they seem … the pauper daughter of a colonial administrator?

Helen Low (5 December, 1814 – 7 May, 1887)

About three months ago I received a comment on this blog, suggesting information about my Ramsay and Low ancestors. It came from a man who is researching the Governors of Penang, Malaysia, and who pointed me to a family tree that showed Helen Low – my 3x great grandmother – to be a daughter of a Captain James Low, who had quite a distinguished career in the British Army in South East Asia.

Naturally, I Googled James Low and discovered quite a lot about him. He was a career soldier who spent much of his life on the Malay Peninsula. He was Acting Governor of Penang Island (then called Prince of Wales Island) in 1838, wrote a book called The British Settlement of Penang in 1836, and was the subject of another book Low’s mission to Southern Siam, 1824 (2007) edited by Anthony Farrington. He died in Portobello, Edinburgh in 1852.

Low, James. 'The British Settlement of Penang', 1972 ed. Photo credit: Amazon.com

Low, James. ‘The British Settlement of Penang’, 1972 ed. Photo credit: Amazon.com

The family tree I was sent was quite comprehensive, although inaccurate as regards members of my more immediate family.

Part of me wanted to say “hey, cool; I have an ancestor who has left a real trace in the historical record, let’s get researching”, but I was also slightly dubious. My doubt was caused mainly by the fact that I knew Helen Low died in the Poorhouse, and that didn’t seem quite right for the daughter of a high ranking military man. It turns out I was right to have doubts. While the family tree information I was given is more or less correct for Helen Low’s marriage and children,  and as it turns out, the names of her parents – it seems that the James Low who was my 4x great grandfather wasn’t the same man who lived in Malaysia.

Here’s why I think that

I’m learning that one of the best ways to trace a life is by starting with death – at least deaths that occurred after the introduction of statutory record-keeping. In Scotland, this was in 1855.

Helen Low’s death record (in her married name of Ramsay) tells me:

  • She was the widow of David Skinner Ramsay, a carter.
  • She died on 7 May 1887 at the Dysart Combination Poorhouse, in Markinch, Fife, aged 71.
  • Her cause of death was paralysis and senile debility
  • Her death was reported by David Campbell, Governor of the Poorhouse.
  • Importantly, it also tells me that Helen’s parents’ names were James Low and Elspeth Robertson, and that both were deceased at the time of her death. James’ occupation on the form was given as Joiner.

From this it would seem that Helen Low was born in 1816 (or thereabouts – for ages are notoriously inaccurate on 19th century records).

Given Helen’s age it seemed likely that her marriage to David Ramsay had taken place before statutory records. OPR (old parish records) provide a lot less information than the later statutory records, and I couldn’t be sure where the couple had married, so I used census records to build up a picture of Helen’s life.

 1881: 298 Rosslyn Street, Gallatown, Fife. Household consisted of Helen, 67, outside worker, two unmarried adult children; Elizabeth, 40, factory worker and Peter, 20, carter, as well as two grandchildren; James, 15, labourer linoleum factory, and Robina, 8, scholar. Helen’s place of birth was given as Kettle, Fife.

1871: Kirky Road, Dysart, Fife. Household consisted of David Ramsay, aged 53 a carter, born Dysart; Helen, aged 56, born Kettle, Fife; daughter Elizabeth, aged 30, unmarried, an outdoor worker born Strathmiglo, Fife; son Peter, 10, scholar, born Dysart; and James, aged 5, a grandson born Dysart.

1861: Glenfoot, Abernethy, Perth. Household consisted of David Ramsay aged 43, Grain Agent, born Kirkcaldy, Fife; Helen aged 45 born Kettle, Fife; daughter Elizabeth aged 20 agricultural labourer, born Kettle, Fife; daughter Jane aged 17, agricultural labourer, born Strathmiglo, Fife; son John aged 6, born Abernethy, Perth; and son Peter aged 3 months, born Abernethy, Perth.

1851: Fargs Mill, Abernethy, Perth. Household consisted of David Ramsay, aged 34, Master Miller, one employee, born Dysart, Fife; Helen, 36, born Kettle, Fife; son James, 14, scholar, born Strathmiglo, Fife; daughter Elizabeth, 10, scholar, born Strathmiglo; son David, scholar, born Strathmiglo; daughter Jean, 7, scholar, born Strathmiglo; son William, 4, born Strathmiglo; James Stewart, 17; servant; Helen Matthew, 17; servant.

1841: Pityomie, Strathmiglo, Fife. Household consisted of David (Rumsey in index) agricultural labourer, aged 20; Helen (Ellen in index), 20; James, 4, David, 2, Elizabeth, 3mth.

From this information, I searched for a marriage record in the 1830s in Fife. I found two – both in 1836, both for a Helen Low and David Skinner Ramsay and both in the district of Cupar, Fife. One was for 15 May 1836 in Collessie; the other 30 May 1836 in Strathmiglo.

Parish church in Strathmiglo, Fife. Photo credit: British Listed Buildings

Parish church in Strathmiglo, Fife. Photo credit: British Listed Buildings

Collessie and Strathmiglo are about six miles apart, but because the census records showed David and Helen’s children as born in Strathmiglo, I retrieved that record from Scotland’s People first. The record says:

May 30 David Ramsay in the parish and Helen Low in the parish of Collessie were married.

As it was unlikely there were two David Ramsays marrying two Helen Lows in the same month, I wondered whether the duplicate records meant that the marriage took place in Collessie on 15 May and was simply re-recorded in David’s parish church register two weeks later, or whether the couple had two ceremonies – one in each parish. Curious, I retrieved the Collessie record too – hopeful that if it was in Helen’s parish, it might name her parents. Sadly it didn’t.

The Collessie entry says:

May 15 David Ramsay in the parish of Strathmiglo and Helen Low in this parish were married.

Helen’s birthplace in the majority of census records was given as Kettle – which is about six miles from both Collessie and Strathmiglo.

Putting all the information I had together, I looked for a birth record for Helen Low, in Fife; hypothesizing that it would probably be in one of the villages in the district of Cupar, between about 1815-1822 – parents James Low and Elspeth Robertson.


I found a Helen Low, born in Kettle, Fife on 5 December 1814 to parents James Low and Elspet Robertson.

Old Parish Register birth record; Helen Low, 1814. Source: Scotland's People.

Old Parish Register birth record; Helen Low, 1814. Source: Scotland’s People.

The OPR records says:

December 5th was born Helen lawful daughter of James Low Wright in (I can’t read this, but it looks like Maltree) and of Elspet Robertson his wife and was baptised the 5th January.

As I have only one source (Helen’s death record) which indicates parents’ names, I also looked for other children named Helen Low born in the area around the same time. I wasn’t able to find any others, so I’m fairly confident that this record is for the correct Helen.

Old Parish Register marriage record: James Low and Elspet Robertson, 1811, Kettle, Fife. Source: Scotland's People.

Old Parish Register marriage record: James Low and Elspet Robertson, 1811, Kettle, Fife. Source: Scotland’s People.

James Low and Elspet Robertson seem to have had seven children together between their marriage in 1811 and 1825 – all of them born in Kettle, Fife. Since Captain Low was apparently exploring southern Siam (Thailand) at the time of the last birth, it would seem to rule him out as my ancestor.

My next task is to find death records for James and Elspet, and perhaps census records (if they lived to 1841). These could help me find their birth records – although given that they lived in the late 18th and early 19th century, it is entirely likely that I won’t be able to find any definitive trace of them, at least not within the resources that are available on the internet. Perhaps I’ll have to add them to my long list of ancestors whose lives will either remain shrouded in mystery, or require another trip back to the UK!




27 thoughts on “When things aren’t quite what they seem … the pauper daughter of a colonial administrator?

  1. What a fascinating investigation, Su. And oh, that initial excitement of a possible big nugget of history in your tree. You do have to shoulder the disappointments and keep trawling, don’t you. I admire your dogged, methodical pursuit.

    • Thanks Tish; I’m not naturally methodical, so this process is challenging. But as I’ve dupes covered too many times, shoddy or hasty research just has to be redone – and that’s soooo boring!!

    • Me too! You’re right about the ever-growing volume of stuff online, but there is still so much more “off-line” – and there is nothing like the thrill of holding a book with ancestors’ names handwritten in it — and in one case I discovered they had been written by another ancestor.

      • I understand that. I spent time last year reading the Minute Books for the Dysart School Board looking for references to my father’s grandmother Annie Nicholson. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but did discover that her older brother was the Clerk of the Board and wrote the Minutes. I also discovered a reference to a gg grandfather on my mother’s side whose daughter wasn’t attending school. My gg grandfather was hauled before the Board to explain!

    • Thanks — it’s a shame that this one can’t be decided by popular vote. I’m now wondering what caused the paralysis. Another ancestor who also died in a Poorhouse had a similar COD, but his was caused by syphilis.

  2. Great research—I love following your train of thought. It’s very instructive. Now a question: are you going to tell the person who provided you the incorrect information that it was incorrect? Always a touchy issue, I’ve found. Some people get very defensive, others are very grateful.

    • Hi Amy. Thank you! I have emailed the man who gave me the original information. I felt that was the right thing as I was going to post it, and he initially found me though this blog. Also, it’s not his family tree and I think he found the information online from another source. I have found that on a bulletin board, and will probably message the person with my findings. I’m trying to be constructive about it; hopefully we will both benefit. But I totally understand what you are saying – it is a tough one and this in uncharted territory for me. Cheers, Su.

      • Good for you! I certainly would want to know if I had a mistake on my tree, but some people can be prickly and just want to add names whether right or wrong!

  3. [gasp !] I positively faint at your industry, Su – how you do it is quite beyond me. You’re now VERY good at it all: perhaps you could start up an on-line business instructing people how to do this kind of thing …?

  4. I don’t know if it will further your research much but I read the name where Helen was born as Waltree and the closest name to that on the map is Welltree – which is marked on old maps but on Google Maps seems to be just a junction where the A914 meets Freuchie Mill Road. There are some references to Welltree by Freuchie/Fruchie in old directories.

    • Thank you so much; I struggle with the old writing. This makes sense, and gives me another point of reference. Things like this — and discovering Pytomie is probably Pitgorno — are what allow me to move forward quite often. Thanks again. Cheers, Su.

  5. You’re more than welcome, I hope it does help.
    I always breath a big sigh of relief when I see documents written in beautiful legible script. Trying to decipher chook scratchings is an art I haven’t yet mastered.

  6. Pingback: David Skinner Ramsay (1817-1871) | Shaking the tree

  7. Pingback: David Skinner Ramsay (1817-1871) – Shaking the tree

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