Tall tale? Or true?

fort hare gordon memorial Memorial to John Gordon (1808-1850), a brave man who died serving his country. Probably not my 4x great grandfather though. Many thanks to Anne at Something Over Tea, who took this photo and included it in her post ‘The University of Fort Hare.’

When I last posted about Thomas Boswell Bisset, my over-riding question was “why did he begin using the surname Bisset part way through his life?”

I am confident that my 3x great grandfather, who was buried in 1902 as Thomas Boswell Bisset is the same man who:

  • Was baptised Thomas Gordon in the parish of Weymss, Fife, in May 1831
  • Is recorded under the name Thomas Gordon in the 1841 census living in West Gallatown, Dysart, Fife in the household of Bossel (Boswell) Gordon, 65, agricultural labourer; along with Boswell’s wife, Hellen Gordon (nee Drummond); and Robert Gordon, 23 (Boswell’s son by his first wife Helen Moyes).
  • Is recorded in the 1851 census under the name Thomas Gordon living in Pathhead, Dysart, Fife in the household of Henry Wright, railway labourer, his wife Elizabeth and their children William, Jessie and Ratchel.
  • Married Helen Laing Simpson in 1851 in Dysart, Fife using the name Thomas Boswell Bisset
  • Is recorded in the 1871 and 1881 census returns as Thomas Gordon, living with Helen Gordon and their children in Henderson Street, Leven, Fife.
  • Is recorded in the 1891 and 1901 census returns as Thomas Boswell Bisset, living with his wife Helen Bisset and several of their children in Henderson Street, Leven, Fife.

The above are the only official records I have for Thomas, but between them, there is enough consistency to give me confidence that I am looking at the same person.

But why the change of surname?

Of the three official records relating to Thomas Bisset in which his parents are named, the only one actually completed by Thomas himself was his marriage record. It reads:

Thomas Baswold Bisset, labourer son of Archibald B. and Helen Simpson daughter of John S. both of this parish were contracted and after proclamation married.

The record is dated 31 May 1851; and is in the Dysart Parish Church register in Fife, Scotland. This is also the first instance of Thomas using the surname Bisset.

If this young man, who had presumably been known to his community – not to mention his fiancée – as Thomas Gordon, was prepared to stand up in church and name himself Thomas Bisset, son of Archibald Bisset, he must have believed it to be true.

Since I wrote the original blog post about this (A Tangled Web) I’ve pondered, hypothesised and done more research. I had reached some tentative conclusions, and then a few weeks ago I was contacted by a descendent of Boswell Gordon who added some new information to the story and offered his theory – which is essentially matches mine. With the extra confidence that comes from someone else looking at the same data and reaching the same conclusions, I put forward our theory for your consideration and scrutiny.

A story (which may or may not be true)

In the autumn on 1830, a young woman called Elizabeth Grieve becomes pregnant. The father of her child, Archibald Bisset, is a farmer in Carnbee, Fife. He is married, and possibly her employer.

When the time comes for her to give birth, she does so in the parish of Wemyss, Fife, and names John Gordon as the natural father of her child. John Gordon is a son of Elizabeth’s step-father, Boswell Gordon, and is a sergeant in the British Army (91st Argyllshire Highlanders).

Eight years later, Elizabeth marries Henry Wright in the parish of Balingry, Fife, and the couple have four children.

It isn’t clear where Thomas spends his childhood, but in 1841, he’s recorded as living in the household of Boswell Gordon and his wife Helen Drummond in the parish of Dysart.

Helen Drummond is Elizabeth Grieve’s mother.

In 1845 Boswell Bisset dies; Helen Drummond follows three years later in 1848.

In December 1850, John Gordon, by now a Lieutenant, is killed in action in South Africa. News of this is reported in Fife newspapers in March 1851.

By March 1851, Thomas is living with his mother Elizabeth, step-father Henry Wright, and their children in Dysart. He has met Helen Laing Simpson, also of Dysart, and they marry on May 31st 1851.

With her mother, step-father and Thomas’s declared father all dead, Elizabeth decides to tell her son the truth about his parentage.

Whatever his reaction to her news, on his marriage in 1851, Thomas adopts his biological father’s surname and his (now) step-grandfather’s Christian name and calls himself Thomas Boswell Bisset.

The evidence behind the story

The mother

Although there are considerable gaps in my knowledge of Elizabeth Grieve, I do have her death certificate, several census returns, and birth records for her children with Henry Wright.

Elizabeth died in 1867, at a reported age of 57.  That would have made her around 20 years old when Thomas was conceived. Her parents were named as Thomas Grieve, gardener, deceased and Helen Drummond, deceased.

I have not been able to find a birth record for Elizabeth, but do have a marriage record for a Thomas Grieve and a Helen Drummond. This took place in April 1806 at Canongate, Edinburgh. The record says:

Thomas Grieve weaver and Helen Drummond daughter Alex. Drummond Farmer at Orwell gave up their names for marriage. Josiah Moir and James Carstairs (witnesses?)

I have nothing that positively confirms this marriage is that of my 4x great grandparents, but it is worth noting that Orwell (the home parish listed for Alexander Drummond) is in Kinross-shire, the county Elizabeth Grieve listed as her place of birth in the 1851 and 1861 census returns. Kinross-shire is Scotland’s smallest county, and I haven’t been able to find matching records for any other women called Elizabeth Grieve

Frustratingly, I can’t find a definitive death record for Thomas Grieve. I have assumed that he died before 1819 when Helen Drummond married Boswell Gordon, but this may not be the case.

It is clear that in 1819, Boswell Gordon, a widower, married Helen Drummond in Burntisland, Fife. They appear to have had no children together, although Boswell was father to eight children by his first wife Helen Moyes, who died in 1815.

If Elizabeth was born around 1810, this would have meant she was about nine years old when her mother married Boswell Gordon, making eleven year old John Gordon her step-brother.

The named father

John Gordon was born in 1808, the fifth child of Boswell Gordon and Helen Moyes. He enlisted in the 91st Regiment Argyllshire Highlanders in December 1825, at the age of 17. His occupation at the time was listed as shoemaker.

I have found some regimental records which suggest that John may have been posted to either Canada or Jamaica from December 1829 until June 1831, which makes it highly unlikely he was Thomas’s biological father.

So, when Elizabeth found out that she was pregnant, was the absent John enlisted (knowingly or unknowingly) as her baby’s “father” to partially shield her from the censure of the Kirk?

At that time, it was usual for parishioners who transgressed in any way (fornication was a common transgression) were called before the Kirk Session and made to account for their sins. Thomas’s birth was recorded in Wemyss parish, and the Kirk Session Minutes for that parish still exist. These could help clarify the details of Thomas’s birth and parentage, but they are held at the National Archives of Scotland, and paying a genealogist to search them for me is a little outside my current budget.

Throughout his life, Thomas cited Wemyss (specifically Kirkland within the parish) as his birthplace Kirkland. The exception is the 1851 census which was completed while he was living with his mother – who likely provided the information. In that record his place of birth is listed as Carnbee, Fife,

Enter Archibald Bisset, farmer of Carnbee

Luckily for my research, Archibald Bisset is a relatively uncommon name, so I had no trouble finding a likely candidate for Thomas’s potential father.

Born in Carnbee in 1784 Archibald Bisset lived his life in that community, as a farmer in Wester Keltie. He married Mary Grieg in 1822 and had two (legitimate) daughters, Mary, b. 1824 and Elizabeth b. 1827.

As a farmer, he would have employed labourers. The 1851 census shows that he farmed 131 acres and had four labourers, including three living in his household. It is entirely possible that Elizabeth Grieve could have been one of those labourers.

So, tall tale? Or true?

It is incredibly frustrating to have so many missing pieces in this story.

Without Elizabeth Grieve’s birth record, I have only her death certificate and circumstantial evidence to say that she was Helen Drummond’s daughter.

Without the Kirk Session Records, I don’t know how the Elders reacted to Elizabeth’s claim that John Gordon was her child’s father.

The regimental records for the 91st are incomplete (literally, a missing page), and I can’t be absolutely 100% sure John Gordon was overseas, however likely is seems.

With census records only starting in 1841 I can’t know if Elizabeth Grieve actually was a farm labourer, let alone employed by Archibald Bisset.

So my story is logical, but whether it is entirely factual? Perhaps I’ll never know.

A tangled web

IMG_6996

Tangled webs. Image: Su Leslie 2018

“Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice  …

Sir Walter Scott (Marmion, 1808), ended the line with “to deceive”, but in the case of my three times great grandfather, Thomas Boswell Bisset (1831-1902), I’m not sure.

Why did the man baptized Thomas Gordon and married under the name Thomas Baswell (sic) Bisset, have his children baptized with the Bisset surname, and yet simultaneously appear in census returns (1841-1881) as Thomas Gordon? (1)

I don’t know the answer, but I’m hoping if I lay out the facts to date, you might have some ideas.

So, to begin at the beginning; which is actually the end

The last official record for Thomas was his death certificate, dated 30 June, 1902. In that, his name was recorded as “Thomas Boswell Bisset or Gordon.” His wife was named as Helen Laing Simpson, his age 70, his occupation carter, and his address 10 Henderson Street, Leven, Fife, Scotland.

Thomas’s father was named as Thomas Bisset, farmer, deceased” and his mother as Elizabeth Grieve, afterwards married to Henry Wright, crofter, deceased.” The informant on the record was Thomas’s son, William Reekie Bisset.

At that point, things seemed fairly straightforward. I found only one matching Bisset/Simpson marriage record — in the OPR (old parish registers) for nearby Dysart parish:

31 May 1851 Thomas Baswell Bisset, labourer, son of Archibald B. and Helen Simpson, daughter of John S. both of this parish, were contracted and after proclamation married.

This matched other information I had (2), except that Thomas’s father was named as Archibald, not Thomas, as on his death certificate.

While I love the detail in historical Scottish death certificates, they’re obviously not self-reported, so I assumed that son William simply didn’t know his grandfather’s name was Archibald.

Surely Thomas’s birth record would clear things up

In both the 1891 and 1901 census, Thomas reported his age as consistent with a birth year of 1831, and his birthplace as Wemyss parish in Fife.

Eighteen boys named Thomas Bisset (or variations on either of those names) had their birth recorded in Scotland between 1820-1840 (allowing for a wide margin around 1831), but none had parents named Thomas and Elizabeth or Archibald and Elizabeth, or any likely variation on them (3).

Changing the surname to Gordon produced 68 results. Fourteen had fathers named Thomas, but not mothers named Elizabeth (or variants); and none had fathers called Archibald. But I did find a Thomas Gordon, born to John Gordon and Elizabeth Grieve. The birth was recorded in 1831, in Wemyss parish, Fife.

The record says “May 16 Thomas natural son of John Gordon and Elizabeth Grieve in Kirkland.” (2)

The year and place of of birth and mother’s name matched Thomas’s death certificate; but now I had to add John Gordon to the list of Thomas’s recorded fathers.

One of those weird light-bulb moments

I had found Thomas Bisset easily in the 1891 and 1901 censuses, but in none prior to that. Confused, I’d tried searching instead for some of his children. I knew he and Helen had a son named William, and daughters Barbara, Charlotte and Tomina (listed in the 1891 census). In the statutory birth records, I found a total of 14 children born to Thomas and Helen: Margaret, Henry, Thomas Boswell, Elizabeth, Helen, John, William Reekie, Rachel, Jane, Barbara, Catherine, Charlotte, Tomina Howden and David. (4)

Knowing the children’s names, and that they were all born in the Leven, Fife, didn’t help me find census records for the family. So, although it seemed unlikely, I searched using the surname Gordon.

Et voila!

The 1871 and 1881 censuses show the entire Bisset/Gordon family living in Henderson Street. In the 1861 census Thomas is absent, but Helen is listed as “wife of Head”, so presumably Thomas was simply away from home on census night.

Why Gordon?

When Thomas married Helen in 1851, he did so as Thomas Bisset. All his children had the Bisset surname and he completed the 1891 and 1901 census returns as Thomas B. How could he simultaneously be a Gordon?

Thomas and Helen married just weeks after the 1851 census was taken, so I wondered if finding him on the eve of his marriage might help.

I found a record for Helen Simpson, in Dysart, living with her father John Simpson, 50, handloom weaver; her mother, Janet, age 50; and four siblings, Margaret, John, Charles and David.

This was where their marriage took place, so I assumed that Thomas Bisset/Gordon probably lived nearby. A search produced three Thomas Gordons around the right age, and only one in Dysart; a 20 year old carter living as a boarder with Henry Wright, his wife Elizabeth and their children William, Jessie and Rachel.

The right Wright?

Could this be the Henry Wright named on Thomas’s death certificate as his mother’s husband?

I believe so. I found an OPR marriage record (November 1839) that matches (the only Wright/Grieve in the time-frame), a death certificate for Elizabeth Wright nee Grieve, and birth records for four children born to the couple: William b. 1840; Helen, b. 1842 (d. 1846); Janet b. 1845; and another Helen b. 1849.

If the 1851 census record IS for the man I know as Thomas Bisset, he was living as Thomas Gordon a few weeks before his marriage, which took place in his local church.

At this point I have so many questions.

Why did Thomas Gordon use a different name when he married?

Why did he complete census returns with his old name? Especially as his wife and kids WERE by birth/marriage Bissets. Did they even know how the returns were being recorded?

And most importantly, why Bisset? Why not Gordon, or Grieve, or Wright?

Bisset is a name used extensively in my mother’s family; my grandmother was Margaret Simpson Bisset Cruden, her mother Catherine Simpson Bisset Black and her mother was Thomas Boswell Bisset‘s daughter Margaret Simpson Bisset. They were named to honour parents and grandparents, so I really need to know who Mr Bisset was and why Thomas wanted his name.

Any thoughts, ideas and suggestions about how to proceed? I would welcome them.

margaret simpson bissett headstone 1900 small

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

 


  1. The entire Gordon/Bisset family used the Gordon surname in each of the 1861, 1871 and 1881 censuses, despite the children all being baptised Bisset.
  2. Helen’s death certificate, issued in 1914, named her parents as John Simpson and Janet Whittock, and I had census records that connected Helen to John and Janet.
  3. Given that OPRs weren’t always meticulously well-kept (or preserved) it is possible that Thomas was born to a couple called Archibald Bisset and Elizabeth Grieve or Thomas Bisset and Elizabeth Grieve and either it wasn’t recorded, or the record has disappeared or been really weirdly indexed. If that’s the case, I will probably never know.
  4. Although Thomas and Helen were married in 1851, I couldn’t find any birth records prior to 1856, but these would  have been parish records, and some parishes were better at record-keeping than others. I know that the couple did have at least one other child — Boswell — born in 1854, as I found a death record for him dated 1857. Four of the other children; Thomas Boswell, Elizabeth, John and David also died in childhood.

Friday flip through the archives

David (left) and Ron Leslie, at David’s wedding to Elizabeth Saunders in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland November 1956.

My photographer son had a little time on his hands recently and restored some family photos for me. He’s also experimenting with colouring images, including this of his grandfather and great uncle David.

On finding out how deep my Fife roots actually go

place of birth pedigree chart su leslie

Pedigree chart, by ancestor place of birth.

After reading Amberly’s post (at thegenealogygirl) about creating a pedigree chart based on ancestors’ place of birth, I commented that mine would be pretty monochrome. All of the ancestors I’ve traced were born in Scotland, and even if I broke birthplace down by county, I’d still only have four colours; one each for Fife, Perthshire, Angus and Banffshire.

So I’ve gone to village level; back to my 3x great grandparents. And even then twenty four out of the thirty eight ancestors whose birthplaces are known to me were born in what is now Kirkcaldy, Fife. This includes Dysart, Abbotshall, Gallatown, and Kirkcaldy itself — an area of about seven square miles.

Su Leslie Birthplace Pedigree Chart Template (pdf file, in case anyone is interested).

Now I’m off to try and fill in the missing birthplace information. I may have to change my colour scheme though; I’m running out of shades of Fife green.

 

Wordless Wednesday: Hogmanay

Although I'm fairly sure this photo wasn't taken at Hogmanay, this time of year will always be associated with my parents and their wider families. Being Scots, Hogamany is far more important to them than Christmas. In this photo: from top left my dad's uncle Bill, my mum, dad, dad's cousin's wife Jean, my great aunt Bessie (barely visible), Dad's cousin Ann, my uncle David and his wife Pat. Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. late 1950s.

Although I’m fairly sure the photo wasn’t taken at Hogmanay, this time of year always makes me think of my parents and their families. Being Scots, Hogmanay is far more important to them than Christmas, and they used to have huge parties to celebrate the new year. In this photo: from top left my dad’s uncle Bill, my mum and dad, Dad’s cousin’s wife Jean, my great aunt Bessie (barely visible), Dad’s cousin Ann, his brother David and his wife Pat. Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. late 1950s.

Six Word Saturday: fifty years since my grandad died

Grandad, with my younger brother Craig. Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. Mar-Apr 1964. Photo: Leslie family archive.

Grandad, with my younger brother Craig. Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. Mar-Apr 1964. Photo: Leslie family archive.

On Boxing Day, 1964, my grandfather David Leslie lost his battle with lung cancer. He was part of my life for such a short time, but left me with lots of wonderful memories.