A few days ago I got a message from a very distant relative by marriage.
It seems that this man’s great uncle was married to Henrietta Balsillie, the half-sister of my 2x great grandmother, Isabella Wallace.
Isabella and Henrietta were both children of Jane Morrison.
Jane Morrison has, to date, been a shadowy figure in my family tree. I know she married my 3x great grandfather Donald Wallace in 1861, had five children and was widowed in 1872. She married John Balsillie in 1873 and went on to have another five children – Henrietta being the youngest.
My correspondent asked me about the photo above which I’ve written about here – speculating about the identity of an old lady in the picture. Jane Morrison was one of the possible candidates. My conclusion was that the old lady in my photo WASN’T Jane, but only on the basis of the plausibility of one family story over another. I didn’t have any real evidence.
So, feeling rather pleased with myself recently for finding a research technique that seems to work for me and produce good results (see recent posts about the Ramsay family), I decided to don metaphorical Inverness cape and Deerstalker hat and throw myself, Sherlock-like, into the life of Jane Morrison.
One of the best lessons I’ve learned recently is to start at the end – with the most recent information available. For Scottish records (and all my ancestors are Scots), this means birth records that are at least 100 years old, marriage records 75+ years old, and death records that are 50+ years old.
What I already know
Jane Morrison married in 1861 and gave her age on the record as 22. That means her death record should be available (assuming she died in Scotland). However, despite trying various spellings of Balsillie; wildcard searches, and using her maiden and first married names to search on, I haven’t been able to find a death record for Jane Morrison / Wallace / Balsillie.
This could mean she died outside of Scotland, changed her surname (perhaps a third marriage), or that the person indexing the records transcribed her name in such a way that the Scotland’s People algorithm doesn’t recognise it as being a possible match for Balsillie.
So I tried census records. There is no record of an appropriately aged Jane Morrison / Wallace / Balsillie in the 1911 census of Scotland – but in the 1901 census I found Jane living at 2 Lawrence Street, Dundee. She was a widow, aged 57 and the head of her household which included four adult daughters:
Bessie aged 26, a jute weaver
Bella, 25, (actual name Helen, not my 2x great grandmother Isabella) occupation confectioner “on own account”, which I presume means self-employed or a business owner
Mary, 20, a jute weaver
Henrietta, 18, also a confectioner on own account
Also in the household were two boarders, Peter Young, 22, a telegrapher; and Andrew Balsillie, 22, a railway worker.
Going back 10 years to the 1891 census, I found Jane’s second husband, John Balsillie, still alive and head of the household at 5 Stewart Street, Dundee. The family consisted of:
John Balsillie, 66, a grain weigher and contractor
Jane Balsillie, 47
Christina Wallace, step-daughter (Jane’s youngest child by Donald Wallace), 16, a jute warper
Betsy Balsillie, 16, jute weaver
Helen Balsillie, 15, jute weaver
Mary Balsillie, 13, scholar
John Balsillie, 11, scholar
Henrietta Balsillie, 8, scholar
The 1881 census shows the household living at 5 Pitfour Street, Dundee. It consisted of:
John Balsillie, aged 53, shore labourer
Jane Balsillie, 37
Ann Wallace, 18, sheeting weaver
Maggie Wallace, 16, cop winder
Isabella Wallace, 14, sheeting weaver
Christina Wallace, 9, scholar
Betsy Balsillie, 6
Helen Balsillie, 5
Mary Balsillie, 3
John Balsillie, 1 month
In 1871 Jane Morrison was living with her first husband, Donald Wallace at Woodside, St. Madoes, a village in Perthshire. The couple had four children, Ann, aged 8; Margaret, 6; Isabella, 4; and James, 2. A fifth; Christina was born on December 23 1871.
Widowed with five children
Donald Wallace died on January 23 1872, aged 40. He was a farm servant, and his death record gives the place of death as Castle Huntly, Longforgan – about 10 miles from St. Maddoes. Castle Huntly is now a prison, but in the nineteenth century, the area was part of an estate owned by the Patterson family. It is likely that the Wallace family would have been living in a cottage tied to Donald’s job, and if so, his death left Jane and her five children – including one month old Christina – not only without a husband, father and breadwinner, but also without a home.
I know that Jane Morrison married John Balsillie on 21 March, 1873 in Dundee – fourteen months after the death of her first husband. John was 49 and a widower. Suspecting that Jane would have become homeless (and almost certainly penniless) after Donald’s death, I wasn’t surprised she remarried so quickly. What I did wonder was why she had moved her family to Dundee.
Work? And perhaps a place to stay
In the nineteenth century, Dundee was one of the most important industrial centres in Scotland. The textile industry was central to the city, with both linen and jute weaving.
It seemed possible that Jane moved there after her husband’s death in order to look for work (for herself and her older daughters) in the jute mills. Checking the census records, I also found that Jane had been born in Dundee, so even more likely, she was returning to a place where she may have had family members who could help support her, if not financially, at least emotionally.
Jane’s early life
Jane’s marriage records gave her parents’ names as Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips. Peter’s occupation was shown as ‘weaver’, and both parents were deceased at the time of her first marriage in 1861. Whether she had siblings, and other family members in Dundee, I didn’t know.
I searched Scotland’s People for a birth record for Jane Morrison. When she married Donald Wallace, her age was given as 22 which would have meant she was born around 1839-40. The ages she gave on later census returns would have put her birth around 1844, so I searched the records for the years 1835-1845. I also searched the whole county of which Dundee is part, and allowed for quite broad variation in her surname (even searching on her mother’s maiden name) – but with no success, so I broadened the search to include all of Scotland. Strange as it may seem, I have yet to find a birth record for a child born in the right time period to Peter Morrison and Betsy/Elizabeth Philips/Morrison – let alone one called Jane.
Returning to census records, I found that in 1861 Jane was living as a domestic servant for the Lion family in Moneydie, Perthshire. Her place of birth is (as on other census returns) shown as Dundee. Donald Wallace is also listed on the same census record as a ploughman at the Lion farm. Jane’s age was given then as 20; Donald’s as 28. Moneydie is a village in Perthshire; about 30 miles from Dundee, and also about 30 miles from Donald’s birthplace of Kirkmichael, Perth.
I’ve tried to find Jane in the 1951 census, but this is proving difficult because I don’t know where she might have been living. If she was around 20 in 1861, it is reasonable to assume she was a child in 1851 and living with family. However, I have found no records for a family comprising Peter Morrison, Betsy Philips and Jane Morrison – or even one of the parents and Jane.
It is of course possible that Jane’s parents died before 1851 and she was living elsewhere, but with the information I currently have, there is no way to really know that.
I could search death records for people called Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips/Morrison, but according to Scotland’s People, there are 19 OPR (Old Parish Register) death records for men called Peter Morrison (exact spelling) between 1835 (my earliest guesstimate of Jane’s birth) and 1854 (when statutory records were introduced); plus a further 34 Peter Morrisons in the statutory records for 1855-1861 (when Jane married).
On the other hand, for the same period, there are no OPR (Old Parish Register) death records for women called Betsy Philips, but five for women called Elizabeth Philips, 43 for Elizabeth or Betsy Morrison and 106 statutory records for Elizabeths and Betsys Morrisons or Philips.
And that’s without allowing for any misspelling or variation on the names.
With so many possible matches, I’d need to spend a fortune on Scotland’s People credits even trying to identify my ancestors.
So I am left knowing only a little more about Jane Morrison than I did at the beginning. My next step is to follow the trail of her children to see if this can shed any light or provide clues.
One of the first things I noticed looking at the 1871 and 1881 census records was that James Wallace, age 2 in 1871 did not appear on the 1881 census alongside his sisters.
James Wallace died in Dundee on 5 February 1873 – barely a year after his father’s death. He was aged 4 years one month. The cause of death was croup – a respiratory infection.
Another postscript, of sorts
I began this post by describing Jane Morrison as a shadowy figure, and I end it feeling much the same. I don’t know when or where she was born, or when and where she died. I do know that she was orphaned before she married – possibly when she was still a child. She buried a husband and son within 13 months, during which time she also probably became homeless and moved with her children to Dundee. She married an older man, bore another five children and was widowed for a second time in her 50s.
To us, living in the early 21st century, remarrying so soon after a spouse’s death may seem somewhat heartless, but for Jane Morrison, there may have been few other choices. I wonder then if her second marriage was a happy one? Was John Balsillie a good step-father to her children? Did the couple care for, and perhaps love one another?
I can never know these things.
I do however know that my 2x great grandmother Isabella Wallace – who was seven when her mother married John Balsillie – gave two of her daughters Balsillie as a middle name. Whether that was a mark of some respect for her step-father I don’t know, but I’d like to think so.