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: 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.

before I leave christenings

My christening; four generations of strong women. My mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and - as it turns out - me.

My christening and four generations of strong women. My mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and – as it turns out – me.

While I’ve been on the subject of babies, christenings and naming ceremonies, I found these photos and wanted to include them. The photo above shows Katherine Black, Margaret Cruden and Elizabeth Ramsay – the maternal line that led to me (the cute one all wrapped up in white).

Looking back, it seems to me that the lives of these three women were not dissimilar, but very different to mine. My great-grandmother and grandmother both married at 18; my mother at 19. Katherine (great-grandmother) and Margaret (grandmother) were pregnant at the time of their marriages;  my mum had to wait four years for a child, and then my older brother was stillborn. Katherine raised five children, Margaret six, my mum three. Weirdly, both my great grandmother and grandmother had husbands with prosthetic legs. My great grandfather was wounded in WWI; my grandfather suffered from diabetes and lost both legs to gangrene.

I don’t know how much formal education my great grandmother or grandmother had, but I know my mum had to leave school at 15 because her father thought any more education would be wasted on a girl who “was only going to get married”, and besides, the family needed her wages. Until she married she was a weaver in Nairn’s linoleum factory in Kirkcaldy. On Katherine’s marriage certificate it says she was a housekeeper. My grandmother’s occupation on marriage was listed as shop assistant.

Although I also left school young (major rebellion at 16), I studied at night school to get University Entrance and have ended up with two post-graduate degrees. I have one child, born when I was 36 and have never married his father – though we’ve lived together for almost 22 years.

I look more and more like my maternal ancestors as I get older and feel a greater kinship with them then ever before, so perhaps the fact that my life has been so different to theirs says a little bit about the gains feminism has made –  at least for my generation.

Alexander Cruden and Katherine (nee Black); my great grandparents with my at my christening.

Alexander Cruden and Katherine (nee Black); my great grandparents with me at my christening.

Basically, I just love this one. I love the fact that I look so adoringly at the old woman holding me and that my great grandfather looks so lovingly at me. Admittedly, great gran looks a bit underwhelmed; but I guess by the time I came along, she was probably totally over babies . Who can blame her?

 

On trying to put flesh on the ancestors bones

I’ve blogged in the past about the invisibility of my largely working class ancestors, and researching my great grandfather – Alexander Cruden – has shown me that even in recent times, ordinary working folk don’t leave behind them a long paper trail.

Great grandad was a much loved and definitely larger-than-life figure in my early years.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

He had an artificial leg, wore a hearing aid that he tended to turn off quite a lot so he couldn’t hear my great grandmother, and had a huge bulbous nose, which my mother always said was because he had run a pub when he was younger. One of my brothers was named after him, and my son too carries his name.

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

What I remember most about great grandad was that he always had a bag of peppermints tucked down the side of his chair, and being given one of those was a huge treat. Even now, the taste of peppermint takes me back to him.

Great granddad died when I was nine. My family had emigrated to New Zealand several years before, and my mother wasn’t able to go to the funeral of her favourite grandparent. I think that was the first time she had ever really felt the distance we had put between us and the rest of her family.

From my mum’s stories, I always felt that I knew a lot about Alexander Cruden, yet when I came to try and document his life, I found that actually, I didn’t. What I had were rich, emotionally powerful memories of him, but very few facts.

One of the really distinctive things about my great granddad was that he had only one leg. I was told that he’d lost the other one “in the war.” I now know that was World War One, but when I asked my mum recently about her grandad’s military service, all she knew for sure was that he had spent time afterwards in a hospital in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh. She remembered visiting him there in the 1940’s which suggests that his injury continued to trouble him for many years after he sustained it.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920's.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920’s.

I’ve learned that the hospital was called Edenhall East of Scotland Limbless Hospital, and that there don’t appear to be any surviving records going back to World War One.

What I don’t know of course, is how he ended up there. I have no idea when and where he served. My mum thought he might have been in the Gordon Highlanders, but there doesn’t appear to be a service record that matches him. This of course isn’t surprising given that only around 40 percent of service records survive for servicemen in WWI.

A couple of years ago I researched my husband’s grandfather and great uncle who both served in WWI as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. We knew that Tony’s uncle Eric had been killed, but no more than that. From Archives New Zealand I was able to get copies of their service records and by putting the information in those records together with a history of his regiment  that was available through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection (part of the Victoria University of Wellington Library), we ended up feeling that we understood quite a lot about this young man whom none of us had ever met. Elated by this find, I even used the example in a video I made for a university assignment.

Of course, from statuatory records I have learned a lot about Alexander Cruden. I know he was born in 1890 in Dundee, the second of seven children and the eldest son. I know that his eldest sister disappears from the Scottish records after the 1901 census, and probably (if I have the right person) reappears in Middlesburgh in 1924 when she seemed to marry a man called Cecil Leach.

I know that great grandad’s youngest sister died aged 19 of eclampsia in the Royal Maternity Hospital in Edinburgh, and that his only brother Stewart died aboard HMT Shera in the Arctic Sea in 1942; part of the Arctic Convoy which carried supplies to Russia in World War II.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

I know too that Alexander Cruden married Catherine Simpson Bissett Black on 27 March 1908, six weeks before their child (my grandmother Margaret Cruden) was born.

Alexander was 17; my great grandmother 18.

They were married for 62 years and raised five children. During the 1930’s and 1940’s he was the publican of the Fife Arms in Milton of Balgonie, Fife and by the 1960’s he was living in Dysart, Fife.

Alexander Cruden died in 1970, aged 80.

I know the bones of his life from BMD and census records, but little to put flesh on those bones. It seems that his military records – both of service and his subsequent disability – no longer exist, so I will probably never know how he came to suffer an injury that required the amputation of a leg; an injury which seems to have given him sufficient on-going pain that he continued to spend periods of time in hospital for years afterwards.

While I’m sad that there is so much I will never know about my  great grandad, I feel lucky to have memories of him and stories that I can share with my son. And this particular search has made me all the more grateful for every shred of documentary evidence I do find about my ancestors; for every piece of information that puts flesh on the skeletons of the past.