On unknown lives, early deaths and many more unanswered questions

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

Margaret Bisset and Alexander Black, great, great grandparents. Headstone in Dysart Cemetery, Fife, Scotland. The existence of two boys who died in infancy was an extra, and unexpected piece of information. Photo: Leslie family archive.

Every family historian knows that headstones can provide a mine of new information; this one has helped me not only document lives I was aware of, but told of two more I hadn’t even suspected.

Margaret Bisset and Alexander Black were my great great grandparents. I’ve written a little about their origins in the past, but hadn’t documented their family.

Their daughter Catherine was my mother’s maternal grandmother, and a presence in my early life. I’d long known from my mum that my great gran’s mother had died at a young age, but I hadn’t been able to find a record of the death.

This photo, which mum gave me last year, gave me the information I needed to find Margaret Bisset’s death record. Mum was right; Margaret was only 45 when she died on April 2, 1900, leaving a husband,  two adult daughters and three children under 16. The cause of death was uterine hemorrhage and heart failure.

Alexander Black died on February 6th, 1926, having lived long enough to see his daughter Catherine marry and bear four of her five children.

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. My grandmother, Margaret Simpson Bisset Cruden (named after her maternal grandmother) and Stewart Cruden. Photo: Leslie family archive.

What was “extra” on the headstone was information about the existence of two boys — siblings to my great grandmother — who had not survived infancy.

This branch of the family tree should now have two extra twigs. When I went looking for them, I realised I hadn’t really documented this family well at all.

Progress so far

Alexander Black and Margaret Bisset were married on 7 April 1879, in Scoonie, Fife. Alexander’s occupation was listed as Labourer of (something I can’t read); his age 20 and his address Leven (Scoonie is the parish in which Leven is located). Margaret’s occupation was given as Flaxmill worker; her age 22 and address also Leven. I know from their birth records that Margaret was born on 19 April 1856 in Leven, and Alexander on 5 May 1856 in Kinglassie (which would have made him almost 23 — not 20 as on the marriage record).

The 1881 census shows the family the family living at 2 Henderson Street, Leven with a year old daughter Helen.

The 1891 census shows that the Blacks had moved to Dysart — about eight miles down the Fife coast. By then the family had grown to include Caroline, age 8; James, 5; Catherine, 2; and four month old Janet. Alexander’s occupation was given as coal miner.

By the time of the 1901 census, Margaret had died and Alexander was living at 17 East Port, Dysart with his five children. He was still working as a coal miner. The three eldest, Helen, Caroline and James were all working. Helen is listed as a housekeeper (perhaps for the family itself), Caroline a linen weaver and James an apprentice cabinet-maker. Both Catherine and Janet (Jessie) were at school.

The 1911 census shows Alexander, still working down the mines, living alone, but next door to his daughter Catherine and her husband (my great grandparents).

The children

Helen Black was born on 12 June, 1879. Margaret was obviously seven months pregnant when she married, but this seems to have been quite normal for the times. After the 1901 census, Helen was no longer living with her father. I don’t know if she married; a search of the marriage records in Scotland’s People hasn’t revealed any likely matches, but with no real detail beyond her name, this is a dead end for now. I will ask my mother if she knows anything about her great aunt.

Caroline Black was born on 20 May 1882 at South Street, Leven. She married Thomas Duncan, of 21 Rosslyn Street, Gallatown on December 2nd, 1904. He was 21 and worked as an iron turner; she was 23 and a linen weaver. The 1911 census shows the Duncan family living at 12 West Sommerville Street, Burnt Island (about eight miles down the Fife coast). The couple had three daughters; Margaret, 6; Euphemia, 5; and Caroline, 1. That census was the first to record how many children a woman had borne; Caroline Black is recorded has having had six children – so obviously three had died – presumably in the “gap” between Euphemia and Caroline. The census also shows that Caroline’s brother James was living with them at the time. He was single and also working for the railway company as a carpenter.

James Black was born on 26 July 1885 at South Street, Leven. He married Margaret Heigh Wilson, on 20 December 1912, in Burnt Island. His occupation is shown as journeyman joiner. I have only found a birth record for one child so far; Alison Lawson Wilson Black, born in 1915.

Catherine Simpson Bisset Black was born on 5 May 1889 at South Street, Leven. She married Alexander Cruden of 17 Lockhead Crescent, Coaltown of Wemyss on 27 March 1908. He was 17 and a coal miner; she was 18 and a housekeeper. I’ve written about Catherine and Alexander — my great grandparents — elsewhere.

Janet Bisset Black was born on 3 December 1890 at 75 High Street, Dysart. So far I haven’t been able to trace her in the 1911 census or find a marriage record.

So where do Thomas and Alexander fit in?

Given that both names are quite common, I started at FamilySearch rather than spending Scotland’s People credits trying to identify the “right” Thomas and Alexander. On the off-chance that either boy had been born before the couple married, I set the date range between 1876-1900 and the location as Fife. This search produced no children at all for Margaret and Alexander Black.

I then searched Scotland’s People and to narrow down the results looked for births registered in Scoonie parish between 1879-1890; and in Dysart between 1890-1900.

Thomas Bisset Black was born on 22 October 1887 at 23 South Street, Leven and died on February 25th 1888, aged four months. The death record says “probable cause of death enteritis with perforation.” This is an inflamation of the small intestine and is usually accompanied by diarrhea, dehydration and fever.

Alexander Black has proved more difficult to locate. There were nineteen children of that name born in Fife between 1888-1900. While only one was in Scoonie, and one in Dysart, neither of these turned out to be “my” Alexander.  Given that I know from birth and census records where the Black family was living during Margaret and Alexander’s marriage, it seems unlikely that they would have had a child born outside of either Scoonie or Dysart. Seven children (aged 0-6) called Alexander Black died in Fife between 1888-1901, but again, none of these is the right child. I’ve tried spelling variations on both names, but with no success. I did wonder – given his mother’s cause of death – if Margaret had perhaps died giving birth to this child, so I extended the date range to 1901 (on the basis that he doesn’t appear in the 1901 census), but this has proved fruitless too.

I’m left wondering if Alexander was a stillbirth? These were not recorded until 1939 so I’m not going to be able to know for sure.

Going back to the headstone which sparked this search, it says “died in infancy” of both boys.  While it is nice to be able to document lives, the fact that these children existed and were honoured and remembered by their siblings who erected the headstone – that is enough.

My great gran, Catherine Black and her sister Caroline. Photo taken at my great grandparents Golden Wedding anniversary. Also in the shot my great grandad, Alexander Cruden and (far left) his brother in law, James Fowler. Photo: Leslie family archive.

My great gran, Catherine Black and her sister Caroline. Photo taken at my great grandparents Golden Wedding anniversary. Also in the shot my great grandad, Alexander Cruden and (far left) his brother in law, James Fowler. Photo: Leslie family archive.

 

 

Six word Saturday: getting a telegram from the Queen

On the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary, my great grandparents got a telegram from the Queen. Many thanks to my cousin Lorraine Cruden for sharing this image.

On their 60th wedding anniversary, my great grandparents got a telegram from the Queen. Many thanks to my cousin Lorraine Cruden for sharing this image.

Not bad going for pregnant teenagers

My great grandparents, Alexander Cruden and Catherine Simpson Bisset Black got married on 27 March 1908 in the Manse, Dysart, Scotland. My grandmother was born about six weeks later. Their marriage lasted 62 years, until my great grandfather’s death in 1970 (on growing old together).

My gran’s old cookbook

My grandmother's cookbook - or what's left of it.

My grandmother’s cookbook – or what’s left of it.

Since I agreed to become the family archivist, my mother has been sending me photos and objects that are somehow associated with our family. Given that her flat is scheduled for re-modelling soon, I suspect her motives are more about de-cluttering her place than preserving the past, but I’m grateful that she’s not just chucking everything into a skip.

Tablet (yum). photo credit: David McKelvey via photopin cc

Tablet (yum). photo credit: David McKelvey via photopin cc

The latest parcel to arrive included a cookbook that belonged originally to my maternal grandmother. I remember it being used when I was a child – mostly by my dad for making tablet. For anyone who doesn’t know, Scottish tablet is like fudge only much, much better.

Zebo ad, from my grandmother's cook book

Zebo ad, from my grandmother’s cook book. Do the clothes and furnishings date the book to the 1940s?

I have no idea what the book is called or when it was published. For as long as I can remember, it’s been missing the cover and probably a few other pages. From the look of the illustrations, it’s probably from the 1940s.

I love old cookery books and this one is an absolute gem. I doubt I’m ever likely to make Potted Hough (a hough is the leg or shin of an animal), and I doubt the Big T would appreciate the recipe for Fried Steak which recommends cooking the meat for 15-20 minutes (until tender!), but judging by how stained the jam making pages are – these recipes are obviously really reliable.

An indication of my family's collective sweet-tooth; the jam and confectionery recipe pages look well-used.

An indication of my family’s collective sweet-tooth; the jam and confectionery recipe pages look very well-used.

Like a lot of old books of this type, it’s not just about cookery. There is a section on laundry – including care of your mangle, wringer and boiler (Chocolate Fish to anyone who can remember what a mangle even looks like), and even instructions on how to iron knickers (as if).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is that it is completely devoid of “personality.” It contains no illustrations of the food, no anecdotes about the recipe and even without a cover to tell me its origin, it feels institutional – not personal. This is not a book which celebrates food; and that more than anything places it in more utilitarian times.

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.

Fearless females: Margaret Cruden (my Gran)

Inspired by Lisa Alzo at the Accidental Genealogist, I’ve decided (belatedly) to acknowledge some of the fearless females in my family, and where better to start than with my gran; Margaret Cruden.

While I had two grandads when I was little, I’ve only ever known one grandmother  – my mum’s mother.

One way or another, I’ve written about her quite a lot in this blog and other places and she’s the ancestor of whom I have the largest number of photos. So here they are, along with a wee bit of biography.

Margaret Simpson Bisset Cruden (11 May 1908 – 1 May 2006) was the eldest child, and only daughter of Alexander Cruden and Catherine Simpson Bisset Black. My great grandparents were very young when she was born; Great Gran was 18, Great Grandad still 17. Margaret had four younger brothers; Stewart, Alexander, James and George, the youngest of whom was born just a few months before Margaret herself became a mother.

Margaret was born and raised in Dysart, Fife, and lived all her life in Dysart and Kirkcaldy. She married my grandad (David Ramsay) in 1927, when Grandad was 25 and she was 18. Grandad was a coal miner.

They raised six children; a son David, and five daughters – Catherine, May, Margaret, Elizabeth (my mum) and Sandra.

After my grandad died in 1973, my grandmother left the UK for the first (but not the last) time. She travelled to New Zealand to visit my family and to Australia to see her brother Alexander and his family. During the next thiry years she travelled again to Australia, to Zimbabwe while it was still Rhodesia and in the midst of civil war, and to Switzerland to see my cousin. She also travelled around the UK visiting family.

I only really got to know my gran in my late twenties and thirties while I was living in the UK. We spent hours together drinking tea and gossiping. She was quick-witted,  a good story teller and could be very funny.

I’m glad she got to meet my son before she died, even though he was only a toddler and barely remembers her. I’m sad that she died two months before we were due to go back to the UK for a visit. My son was eight by then and would certainly have remembered that encounter with his feisty, fearless, four foot ten great gran.