Hardy folk: researching the lives (and deaths) of my female ancestors

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Four generations: My christening, with my mother Elizabeth Ramsay, her mother Margaret Cruden and Margaret’s mother Catherine Black. Image: Leslie family archive.

Luanne at The Family Kalamazoo recently wrote two really interesting posts about the deaths of her grandmothers and great grandmothers (1).

In the first, she said:

I wanted to put all my grandmothers together in one post and thought by sharing their deaths it would shed some light on their lives, at least at the end. I also have a ghoulish fascination with looking them over for the variety of ways I might die myself. After all, their deaths could be a form of inheritance.

It got me thinking about the women in my family and that part of my own genetic inheritance, so I’ve done the same. And the results have surprised me – not least because I was able to find death records for most of my grandmothers and great grandmothers, but also for all eight of my 2x great grandmothers and 13 of my 16 3x great grandmothers.

Grandmothers

I only knew one of my grandmothers – my mother’s mum, Margaret Simpson Bisset Cruden.

Gran died in on May 1, 2006, 10 days short of her 98th birthday. I can’t lay my hands on her death certificate (embarrassed admission), but my mother thinks it was basically written up as “old age.” I’ve described my gran as a Force of Nature – and I suspect that in the end, she just got tired of an increasingly constrained life after a significant deterioration in her eyesight forced her into residential care.

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One of the last photos I have of my gran; meeting her 25th great grandchild (my son) for the first and only time. Image: Leslie family archive.

By contrast, my paternal grandmother, Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder, died on 11 March, 1950 at the age of 50. The cause of death given in the statutory register was arteriosclerosis and cerebral haemorrhage. I never met the woman I was named after; my dad was only seventeen when his mother died and I know how painful her loss was to him.

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Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. Kirkcaldy High Street. circa 1940s.

elder susan with siblings c edit1915

Susan Elder (centre) with siblings Elizabeth and William. c. 1914. Image: Leslie family archive.

Great grandmothers

Catherine Simpson Bisset Black — my maternal grandmother’s mother – died in 1971. Like her daughter (Margaret Cruden above), she lived a long life; being 82 when she passed away a year after her husband of 62 years,  Alexander Cruden.  I don’t have her death certificate either so am not sure about cause of death.

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Sixtieth wedding anniversary: Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black, 1968. Photo: Ramsay family archive.

My mother’s other gran, Mary Fisher, died in September 1952 of a carcinoma of the gall bladder. She was 73.

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David Skinner Ramsay and Mary Fisher; their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Image: Leslie family archive.

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Mary Fisher with husband and children c. 1919. Image: Ramsay family archive.

On my father’s side of the family, his maternal grandmother — Anne Kinnell Nicholson — died in May 1946, aged 76. Her cause of death was recorded as cardio-vascular degeneration.

nicholson annie portrait c 1937

Ann Kinnell Nicholson c. 1937. Image: Leslie family archive.

Dad’s paternal grandmother Isabella Gourlay was 91 when she died in February 1961. The cause of death was recorded as congestive cardiac failure.

2x great grandmothers – maternal

Margaret Simpson Bisset (19 April 1856- 2 April 1900), died of uterine haemorrhage probably as a result of childbirth, aged 43.

Isabella Simpson Wallace (3 May 1866 – 9 June 1944), died of abdominal carcinoma, aged 78

Jane Williamson Westwood (10 February 1858 – 27 September 1905), died of carcinoma pylorus aged 47

Isabella Westwater (  – 7 December 1924), died of chronic bronchitis. The death certificate states she was 71, but I have not been able to find a birth record for her.

2x great grandmothers – paternal

Susan Forbes (23 August 1839 – 19 April 1912), died of cerebral thrombosis, aged 72.

Elizabeth Penman (12 August 1839 – 8 August 1920), aged 80. Cause of death: diabetes.

Mary Gerard (c. 1835- 7 May 1907). Her age at death was recorded as 72 and the cause of death as enteritis and haemorrhage.

Janet Trail (c. 1835 – 4 March 1913). Her age at death was recorded as 78, and cause of death bronchitis.

3x great grandmothers – maternal

Helen Lang Simpson (14 February 1832 – 25 September 1914), Died aged 82, of arteriosclerosis and senile decay.

Caroline Goodall (c. 1833 – 16 May 1901). Her age at death was recorded as 68, and the cause of death carcinoma uterine.

Jane Morrison (c.1839 – 1914). Her age at death was recorded as 75. I am a bit unsure of the cause because I can’t clearly read the handwriting on the record. It looks like “chronic infestation of parasites.”

Jane Allison (c. 1835 – 2 September 1876). Her age at death was recorded as 41, and cause of death typhoid fever.

Mary Webster (c. 1824 – 16 March 1907). Her age at death was recorded as 83. Cause of death: cardiac arrest, senility.

Margaret Lindsay (27 May 1827 – 1 January 1906). She died aged 78 of ovarian tumours.

Helen Low (5 December 1814 – 7 May 1887). Died aged 72 in the Dysart Combination Poorhouse. Cause of death: paralysis, senile debility.

Maggie? (or Isabella?) Westwater. I know nothing about this woman beyond what is recorded on her daughter Isabella’s marriage and death records. When Isabella married John Ramsay in 1875, her mother was named as Isabella Westwater, deceased. On Isabella’s 1924 death certificate, her mother is named as Maggie Westwater, deceased.

3x great grandmothers – paternal

Ann Kinnell (15 July 1806 – 28 February 1858), died aged 51. The cause of death was recorded as carcinoma, enlarged liver

Mary Tod (7 June 1803 – 1 February 1883), died aged 79. Her cause of death was recorded as old age.

Catharine Cook (c. 1813 – 16 May 1879). Her age at death was recorded as 66, and the cause of death old age.

Janet Mackie (c. 1811 – 25 December 1897). Her age at death was recorded as 86, and the cause of death senile decay

Isabella Lambert (25 March 1804 – 25 December 1851), aged 47. The only record I have relating to her death is an (OPR) Old Parish Register entry relating to her burial. It does not show cause of death.

Elizabeth Rankine (c. 1805 – 10 December 1850). The OPR record of her burial shows her age as 45, but gives no cause of death.

Christian Birrell. I believe that Janet Trail’s mother was born around 1787, but I can find no record of her baptism, marriage or death.  The last census in which she appears is 1851.

Elizabeth Robertson gave birth to George Leslie, my 2x great grandfather, in 1822. Besides his baptism records and an entry in the 1841 census, I have been unable to find any records relating to Elizabeth’s life and death.

Some reflections and conclusions

Doing this exercise made me incredibly grateful for excellent Scottish record-keeping – in particular statutory records, which began in 1856. Because of this, I only had to rely on parish records for information on the deaths of two of the 3x great grandmothers about whom I know.

Three others remain completely elusive; being little more than names on their children’s birth, death or marriage records. I’ve done quite a lot of work on Elizabeth Robertson and Christian Birrell particularly, but they remain brick walls.

When I looked at the age-at-death data, one thing that really struck me was how many of my female ancestors lived very long lives. Two made it into their 90s – one from each side of my family – while five of the 27 I have information about lived into their 80s.

Perhaps more surprisingly, four of those five were born in the first half of the 19th century (1812, 1824, 1832 and 1839), a period during which average life expectancy for Scottish women was less than 50 years.

Of my grannies who died at or below 50 (six in total), two were born in the first decade of the 19th century, two in the 1830s, one in the 1850s, and one — my paternal grandmother — in 1899. So although I think of them as having died young, in most cases, it would not have seemed so at the time.

Within my family the average age at death across the four generations I looked at was 72.5 years, and the median age 73.

Causes of death ranged from typhoid fever to “old age” – with the largest number of deaths being attributed to advanced age. The second most frequent cause of death was cancer, followed by heart disease; both major killers these days too.

Cause of death Frequency (2) Years deaths occurred

 

Arteriosclerosis 2 1914,  1950
Bronchitis 2 1913, 1924
Cancers 6 1858, 1901, 1905, 1914, 1944, 1952
Cardiac decay/disease 3 1907, 1946, 1961
Diabetes 2 1920, 1971
Haemorrhage (not cerebral) 2 1900, 1907
Old age/senile debility 8 1832, 1879, 1883, 1887, 1897, 1907, 1913, 2006
Parasites 1 1914
Stroke 2 1912, 1950
Typhoid 1 1876
Unknown 2 1850, 1851

With few exceptions, these women were born into poor, working class, landless families. Where statutory marriage records exist for them, I can see that prior to their marriages they were in employment – as flax weavers, pottery workers, domestic servants.

They all bore children, usually large numbers of them, and often well into their forties. More than a few also raised the grandchildren born to widowed or unmarried daughters

They ran households dependent on the weekly wages (or not) of husbands working as miners, carters, agricultural labourers, factory workers, and tradesmen – and of adolescent and adult offspring following their parents into the same sorts of jobs.

Most would have had to move house regularly; some from one tenement to another in the same town, others making the move from Scotland’s rural hinterland to the industrial towns of Dundee and Kirkcaldy.

An extraordinary number – twenty out of the twenty seven I have data for — died in Kirkcaldy/Dysart, an area of around 15 square miles.  Three died in other Fife towns, one never left rural Blairgowrie in Perthshire and another died “across the Bridge” in Edinburgh infirmary. Only one died outside of Scotland – in Detroit.

In many ways, there is nothing extraordinary about my assorted grannies. They lived fairly typical (though long) lives for their time, leaving only faint traces of themselves in written records.

But however ordinary, they deserve to be acknowledged and remembered. This post is a very small contribution towards that goal.


 

  1. Deaths in the Family: Women’s History Edition, and More Deaths in the Family: Women’s History Edition
  2. Many of the women had two (or more) medical conditions listed in cause of death. This is reflected in the frequency column.

 

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Wordless Wednesday: old family home

Ladybank Cottage, Windmill Road, Kirkcaldy. A former home of my Nicholson ancestors; Susan Forbes and Anne Nicholson. Photo: Su Leslie 2013

Ladybank Cottage, Windmill Road, Kirkcaldy. A former home of my Nicholson ancestors; Susan Forbes and Anne Nicholson. Photo: Su Leslie 2013

Death notice: Susan Forbes, April 1912. "American papers please copy." I wonder why? Notice from Fife Free Press.

Death notice: Susan Forbes, April 1912. “American papers please copy.” I wonder why? A family member living in America – but I don’t know who?  Notice from Fife Free Press.

Stretching back into the 18th century – ancestors who would remember Culloden.

Seems I've had family living in Dysart, Scotland since at least the mid 18th century.

Eight generations: seems I’ve had family living in Dysart, Scotland since at least the mid 18th century.

My hunt for Nicholson ancestors has made significant progress since I found Mary Todd, wife of Alexander Nicholson and my 3x great grandmother – in the 1851 census.

Between the 1841 and 1851 censuses Mary gave birth to five more children, including twin girls. who both died in their first three years. She also buried her mother Margaret, in October 1846 and her husband of twenty years, in November 1848. On a happier note, her eldest living daughter, Ann, married Alexander Campbell, a Railway Overseer, in April 1848.

At the 1851 census Mary Todd was living at “Country Road, East Side, Dysart”. Her household included her children Joanna, 18; Jemima, 15; Alexander, 16; William, 14; Andrew, 12; Isabella, 10; Jean, 9; Christian, 6; and Mary’s father James Todd – a retired Carter aged 74 (according to the census).

There was also a lodger called Robert Greig, who went on to marry Jemima Nicholson in July 1854.

The presence of Mary’s father James Todd in her household at that time gave me my first ancestor I could firmly place in the 18th century, and told me that he was born in Dysart. Mary’s birth and death records also tell me her mother’s name was  Margaret Sinclair (death record)/ St. Clair (birth record).

OPR burial: "1846 October 24th Margaret Sinclair spouse to James Todd, Carter in Gallatown was interred in the middle grave of Alex Nicholson's stone."

OPR burial: “1846 October 24th Margaret Sinclair spouse to James Todd, Carter in Gallatown was interred in the middle grave of Alex Nicholson’s stone.”

I also have James Todd’s death record from Scotland’s People. It shows his parents as James Tod and Margaret Stewart. This is a wee bit at odds with the birth record I found (the only James Tod born at around about the right time), which show his parents as James Tod and Helen Stuart. The different spelling of Stuart/Stewart is to be expected, but the first name difference bothers me a bit.

I’m sure the death extract from Scotland’s People is for the correct James Todd – because his occupation and address are consistent with other information I have, and because the informant of the death is given as his grandson Andrew Nicholson (my 2x great grandfather). I’m guessing that Andrew (who was unlikely to have even been born when his grandfather’s parents were alive, may have mistakenly given the wrong name – his grandmother’s rather than his great-grandmother’s?

There is a wee bit of evidence for this hypothesis of a mistake in the reporting. James Todd and Margaret St Clair had three children together – Helen in January 1798, Jean in February 1802 and Mary (my 3x great grandmother) in June 1803.  If James’ mother’s name had been Margaret, I would have expected to find a daughter with that name.

James Tod senior and Helen Stuart were married on 21 November 1767 in Dysart. I don’t yet know how old they were at the time, but assuming they were at least 18, that means they were alive  – albeit children – at the time of the Battle of Culloden. It’s also possible that their parents were born before the Act of Union of 1707 and thus were born citizens of Scotland, not the United Kingdom.

In search of Nicholsons

Dysart Barony Churchyard; resting place of Alexander Nicholson and family. Photo credit: http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/images/buildings

Having come to a dead end in my attempt to trace the Susans in my family back beyond Susanna Fowls ( I’ve written about that search here), I decided to try and sort out the collateral information I’d gathered on the way.

Much of this relates to the Nicholson family, into which Susan Forbes married in 1860.

Susan’s husband was Andrew Nicholson – the seventh of thirteen children born to Alexander Nicholson and Mary Todd (my 3 x great grandparents).

I’ve been really fortunate with the amount of information I’ve found about Alexander and Mary. This is, I think, largely because they seemed to have lived their entire lives in Dysart Parish, and because Alexander’s occupation – land surveyor – was sufficiently well-paid that he was entitled to vote (like his future son-in-law David Forbes). He is listed in the 1835 Register of  Voters as “Land Surveyor, Proprietor houses in Gallatown.”

The family also had a burial plot in the Dysart Barony Cemetary – with a headstone – so I’ve been able to get quite a lot of information from the headstone inscription.

Of the couple’s 13 children; I know that at least four died in childhood.

Alexander and Mary named two of their daughers Mary. Both died in childhood. This is the record of the younger Mary's burial.

Alexander and Mary named two of their daughers Mary. Both died in childhood. This is the record of the younger Mary’s burial.

Their firstborn, Mary (b. 1827) died in 1835 and is buried in the family plot. Both the OPR record for her death and the headstone inscription confirm this. The headstone inscription also refers to a son who died in 1840 aged 10 months, and two more daughters, Margaret (died 1847 aged one) and another Mary, who died in 1850 aged 3 years, 8 months. Margaret and the second Mary were twins.

Baptism record for Margaret and (2nd) Mary Nicholson, 1846.

Baptism record for Margaret and (2nd) Mary Nicholson, 1846.

The headstone inscription also refers to an Aunt, Ann Nicholson, who died in 1845 and is buried with the family. As I haven’t yet managed to find out who Alexander’s parents were, this could prove to be a useful clue.

Alexander died in 1848 – aged 44. His widow Mary, survived for another 35 years,  and seems to have spending her last few years in the household of her son Andrew and his wife Susan Forbes (my 2x great grandparents).

The census records for Mary (particularly those for 1851 and 1861) have proved to be quite useful in terms of leading me in new research directions, but I think I’ll save those stories for another day.

Progress … but not quite what I was looking for

After a day spent in the public library trying to trace my namesakes back beyond my 2 x great grandmother Susan Forbes, I can report only mixed success.

The only Scottish records available through Ancestry and FindMyPast (both of which are available free at the library) are transcripts of census and voter records which are only really useful for the period 1841 – 1901. I had hoped to find Susan Forbes’ grandparents – John Forbes and Susan Foulis, at least in the 1841 census as I figured they would probably  have been in their 50’s or 60’s and might still have been alive. But no luck!

Some of the census records include individuals’ ages – which, although the accuracy is debatable, at least provide some parameters for further searching . Voter registration records also include the person’s qualification to vote, which, between the first Reform Act of 1832, and the second in 1867, was “men who occupied property with an annual value of £10.”

Both census and voter lists did prove to be useful in learning more about John and Susan’s son David Forbes (my 3 x great grandfather).  Continue reading

Where there’s a will … (part 2)

Where there’s a will … (part 2)

Ok, so the second mystery. It’s not as juicy as the significance of the mysterious John Boyd – but I’m curious all the same.

Susan’s three Trustees were John Boyd, William Nicholson (her youngest child – and given that he was born 23 years after her first child, probably something of an after-thought), and David Forbes Nicholson, Susan and Andrew’s eldest surviving son.

What I’ve learned about David so far is that he was their third or fourth child, and the first to survive more than a few weeks. He was born in 1865 while the family was living in Glasgow. The 1881 census shows 16 year old David as an apprentice bank clerk. He then disappears from the Scottish records until the 1901 census. There is neither a mention of him in the 1891 census, nor a marriage record, although I know he did marry. I suspect he was living in England for at least part of the period (why? I’ll tell you in a minute).

By the 1901 census David has reappeared and is living at Rosslyn Villa, Windmill Road, Kirkcaldy with his wife, Minnie and a servant named Elizabeth Penman (who I’m sure is related to David’s brother-in-law and my great grandfather, Thomas Elder). Minnie’s place of birth in the census is given as Guernsey, Channel Islands. That makes her the first member of my ancestral family that I’ve found who was born outside of Scotland . David’s occupation is given as Inspector of Poor, Collector of Rates and Clerk to the School Board – probably not the most popular man in Kirkcaldy!

In the 1911 census, he and Minnie are still living at Rosslyn Villa, but now have a servant called Helen Marshall. Minnie’s sister Louisa Warry is also living at the address. David’s occupation is now given as Inspector of Poor, Parish Council.

The reasons I suspect that for at least some of the years between the 1881 census and the 1901 census, David Nicholson lived in England are first of all that Minnie is English. According to Susan’s Will, Minnie is actually called Mary Ann Clementine Warry. In those days I don’t imagine single women had the same freedom to travel, so I’m guessing they met closer to Minnie’s home than David’s. Also, a search of the English census records for 1891  in FindMyPast gave me an entry for a David Nicholson, aged 26 (tick), working as a bank clerk (tick) and living as a lodger at 42 Rectory Road, Hackney. The problem is that his place of birth is listed as Kirkcaldy, Scotland and I know that while the family is from Kirkcaldy, David was born in Glasgow. However, the other person listed as living at the same address is also a bank clerk from Kirkcaldy, so it is possible that there was a mix-up in either listing or transcribing the birthplace. I did this search in a rush at the library, so will have to go back and investigate further.

Anyway, I’m curious about David and Minnie. I don’t know when or where they were married, and whether they had any children. There are no children living with them in either the 1901 or 1911 census, but it’s possible they did have one or more kids who did not survive.

One of the reasons I’m interested is that in Susan’s Will she left three portraits in oils to David. These were of Susan Forbes, Andrew Nicholson and Andrew’s father Alexander Nicholson. Since I have no photos of any of these people, I’m utterly fascinated by the idea that there were portraits in existence. Since it seems that neither David or William had surviving children, I wonder what happened to the paintings. My guess is that they’ve been destroyed, and this makes me incredibly sad.

paint brushes

Photo credit: photo credit: deflam via photopin cc

David Nicholson died on 16 January 1946, at a nursing home in Burntisland, Fife. he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and cardiac failure. His brother William is given as the informant of his death, and his usual address was given as Ladysmith Cottage, Windmill Road. This was the house his mother retired to and the house that William lived in, and inherited from Susan. Minnie had died in 1934, and it seems the two – apparently childless – brothers shared their mother’s house after that time.

William died in 1964, at the age of 81. When I mentioned to my dad that I’d been looking into this part of the family (his maternal grandmother’s line), he remembered both his great uncles Bill and David. He’s never mentioned the two great aunts, Elizabeth and Mary – so I guess I’ll have to check them out next.

Where there’s a will …

Where there’s a will …

… there’s a mystery (or two).

Apologies for the terrible pun, but I’ve just been looking through my 2 x great grandmother’s Will. Susan Forbes died in 1912, leaving what seems like (certainly for my family) a reasonably tidy estate.

The first page of Susan Forbes' Last Will and Testament

The first part of Susan Forbes’ Last Will and Testament

1912 being well before the advent of “plain English” Wills, I’ve struggled a wee bit to unpick all the jargon and get to the juicy bits – who got what! In fact, I’ve actually been a bit sidetracked by a couple of mysteries.

Who was John Boyd?
Susan Forbes named three Trustees in her will; her sons David and William Nicholson – and also John Boyd, Teacher, Dysart.

I initially assumed that John Boyd was a son-in-law since, as well as her two sons, Susan had three daughters (Mary, Elizabeth and Annie) who survived to adulthood. All three are named in her Will along with their husbands. Mary married a George Brown, a Joiner; Elizabeth married a David Oliphant, a Grocer, and my great grandmother, Annie married Thomas Elder, an Ironmonger. So no John Boyd there.

The 1911 census shows a John Boyd aged 64, School Master, living at 33 Normand Road, Dysart along with his wife of 34 years – Jessie – and three adult daughters. John’s place of birth was Perthshire, and although I’ve found branches of my family in that region, the Forbes-Nicholson lot seem to have been in Fife (in fact in and around Kirkcaldy) for generations, so there’s no obvious Perth connection. Jessie Boyd, however, was shown as having been born in Dysart.

My next thought was that Jessie Boyd may have been a sister of either Susan Forbes, or her husband, Andrew Nicholson. That didn’t seem to be the case, so I used some of my dwindling supply of Scotland’s People credits to try and find the marriage of John and Jessie. The only one I found that fitted the time-frame (I assumed they married in Fife on the basis that it seemed more likely he or his family had travelled from Perthshire to Fife (like so many others looking for work)  than that she had travelled to Perthshire, married then come back to Fife).

It’s testimony to how much I love a mystery that I actually used up my last credits to see the extract of the Marriage Register. It looks like the right John Boyd;  the age matched the census and his occupation was given as Public School Teacher. Jessie’s maiden name is Watt, and that’s not a name I’ve found anywhere in my family tree so far. John’s mother’s maiden name was Scott. I was about to write that this hasn’t appeared in my family tree either EXCEPT THAT …

… my great grandmother Annie Nicholson (daughter of Susan Forbes of the cryptic Will), had an illegitimate son in 1894, named Andrew Scott Nicholson. His father is not named on his birth certificate and I had wondered where the Scott came from. At the time Annie was a Public School Teacher – the same as John Boyd.

Is it too far-fetched that my 2 x great grandmother named as a Trustee in her Will the married-to-someone-else father of her illegitimate grandson? Susan Forbes seems to have raised her grandson – despite his mother living around the corner with her husband and legitimate children. She also left Andrew £100 in her Will. Actually, she left it in Trust – earning interest until Andrew reached majority (not sure what age that would be – 18 maybe?). The more I learn about Susan, the more I realise she was a very canny woman.

So there’s my first mystery? Who was John Boyd and why did Susan Forbes make him a Trustee?

I know that the Fife County Archive has Minute Books for schools in Dysart that cover the period my great grandmother was a teacher there. If I ever get my UK trip organised, I’ll have a look and try to find out if John Boyd was a colleague. Meantime, I’ll try to think of other connections that I might be able to verify.

Any suggestions about this very welcome!

And so to the second mystery …

where does time go when I’m blogging? Actually that’s not it, but I’ve just seen the clock, and I’ll have to make the second mystery another post.

Bye for now.

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