Hardy folk, part two: lives and deaths of my male ancestors

david leslie with craig leslie 1964

David Leslie; with grandson c. 1964. Photo: Leslie family archive.

A while ago, I was inspired to look at my family’s mortality (as you do). I began by looking at my female ancestors, and though it’s taken a while I have now repeated the exercise for the men in my tree — to my 3x great grandfathers. Beyond them I have only scant and less reliable information.

On my father’s side

My paternal grandfather

My paternal grandfather David Leslie (1899-1964) died when I was very young, but he lived with my family for a time before his final illness so I have very strong memories of being the focus of his attention, and feeling much- loved and very special. He died of lung cancer, complicated by bronchitis, on Boxing Day 1964.

Great grandfathers

My dad’s paternal grandfather, David Leslie (1877-1940), died aged 73 of arteriosclerosis and cerebral thrombosis. He had spent his working life as a kilnsman in the potteries of Kirkcaldy, Fife.

Dad’s maternal grandfather Thomas Elder (1874-1929), died aged 54, of colon cancer which had metastasised to his liver. He had been an ironmonger most of his working life, and there is a family rumour – which I haven’t been able to verify – that he suffered gas poisoning in World War I.

2x great grandfathers

George Leslie (1822-1902), is one of the mysteries in my family tree; a man whose early life (probably spent in the counties of Banff and Morayshire) is largely un-documented. With the introduction of statutory records to Scotland in 1855, I am able to trace his later life with more certainty. He died at his home in Kirkcaldy, with 79 given as his age on the death certificate.  Cause of death was recorded as senile decay and acute bronchitis. He had worked as a carter and labourer.

Rankine Gourlay (1845- 1903) lived a relatively short but interesting (for a family historian) life. He joined the Merchant Navy as a fourteen year old, and I know from maritime records that he sailed on several occasions to Sydney, Australia, and Valparaiso in Chile. He contracted syphilis during this time and was admitted to the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum in July 1889, after threatening behaviour towards his wife and one of his daughters. He was discharged to the Kirkcaldy Combination Poorhouse in October 1891, where he remained until his death, aged 57, in July 1903. Cause of death was recorded as general paralysis and syphilis.

William Elder (1844 – 1933) was born Dysart, Fife. In the 1861 census, his occupation was listed as pottery labourer. Three years later when he married Elizabeth Penman in Dunfermline, Fife, he was listed as a colliery engine driver. This is the occupation he seems to have maintained until the 1891 census, when he was listed as Colporteur – or a travelling salesman of books, particularly bibles and religious tracts. He seems to have maintained this line of work for the rest of his life, being described as a travelling salesman on his wife’s death record in 1920 and a commission agent on his own death certificate in 1933. He was 89, and his cause of death was given as bronchitis, fracture of femur and cardiac failure.

Andrew Nicholson (1838-1894) also lived most of his life in Dysart, except for a period during the early 1860s when he and his wife Susan Forbes moved to Glasgow. Andrew’s occupation on the 1861 census was given as Engine Smith. After the family returned to Fife (prior to the 1871 census) he seems to have begun working in his wife’s father’s grocery business.  His death certificate records him as a “retired grocer and engineer” and shows cardiac disease as the cause of death. He was 56.

3x great grandfathers

John Leslie (dates unknown). The only records I have that mention John Leslie relate to his son George.

George was baptised twice; the first time on 3 August 1822 in Portsoy, Banff and the second time in New Spynie, Moray on 31 August 1822. The first baptism was in an Episcopalian church; the second church of Scotland. John is named as his natural father on both records. The Episcopalian baptism refers to him as a “farm servant to Captain Cameron in Banff” and this is the only clue I have to his identity.

When George Leslie married in 1857, John is named and shown as living. He doesn’t appear to have married George’s mother Elizabeth Robertson, and without more information, I haven’t been able to trace him through census, church or statutory records.

William Trail (1789-1867) was born in Perthshire but lived most of his adult life in Auchtermuchty, Fife. He worked as a handloom weaver and died a pauper aged 67. His death certificate lists cause of death as “general debility from ?? life”. I’m unclear what the missing word is, but it could be widowed?

traill william death certificate

Death certificate, William Trail. Cause of death “general debility from ….” Record accessed from Scotland’s People.

Thomas Gourlay (1809-1867) lived his entire life in Abbotshall, Fife. He was a master tailor, probably learning his trade from his father George. Thomas died aged 58; his death certificate lists cause of death as “accidental death by falling into a well.” The local newspaper report described the incident as taking place very late in the evening as Thomas was visiting a neighbour. In the dark he apparently fell into the neighbour’s well, and although rescued, died shortly afterwards.

gourlay thomas newspaper report of death

Fifeshire Journal, 31 October 1867. Report of the death of Thomas Gourlay. Image: British Newspaper Archive

Alexander Gerrard (1803-1883) died aged 80 of bronchitis. He had worked in his early years as a handloom weaver, but by his forties had become a gardener/labourer. This was shown as his occupation on his death certificate.

Thomas Elder (1809-1894) died aged 85 of senile decay. He had lived his entire life in Fife, most of it in Dysart. He was a weaver, working first of all on a handloom – probably from home with other members of his family, then later in a linen mill. The 1871 census records him as still working – aged 71.

Robert Penman (1816-1872) died of smallpox, aged 56. He was born in Dalgety, Fife and died in nearby Dunfermline. The occupation – from census records and his death certificate was coal miner.

Alexander Nicholson (-1848) Alexander achieved a considerable rise in wealth and status in what seems to have been a relatively short life.  When he married Mary Tod in 1827 his occupation was shown as weaver. By 1835 he appears on the Register of Voters as a Land Surveyor and land owner.  At the time of his death – of typhus — he had accumulated a considerable portfolio of real estate and held the positions of Inspector of the Poor and Baron Baillie in the parish of Dysart. I am not certain of his birth year, but the 1841 census gives his age as 35 (which means between 35 and 40) and his obituary suggests that he was a relatively young man.

David Forbes (1807-1861). Like his daughter’s father in law (and apparently his friend) Alexander Nicholson, David Forbes also died relatively young (age 54). His cause of death was liver disease, which may have been related to his occupation as a publican and spirit merchant.

My mother’s male ancestors

My maternal grandfather

Mum’s dad, David Skinner Ramsay (1901-1973), was a diabetic, who lost both lower legs to gangrene. My strongest memory of him is of vying with my cousins to sit in his lap while he propelled his wheelchair around. I don’t have a death certificate for him, but I believe that his death was related to his diabetes.

Great grandfathers

David Skinner Ramsay (1877-1948), was a coal miner who died aged 71 of a spinal tumour. I know very little about him, but in the photographs I have he was always smiling.

ramsay great grandparents at their wedding anniversary small

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

Alexander Cruden (1890-1970). Because he died in 1970, I haven’t yet been able to access my great grandfather’s death certificate. I know that as a very young man he worked as a coal miner, and that he was seriously wounded in WWI. He had one leg amputated above the knee and spent many years as an occasional in-patient at the Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. During the 1930s and 1940s he ran the Fife Arms pub in Milton of Balgonie.

2x great grandfathers

Stewart Cameron Cruden (1863-1934) Stewart worked as a factory hand and labourer, moving his family from Dundee, through various addresses in Fife until they settled for a time in Dysart where he became a coal miner. Sometime in the 1920s Stewart, his wife Isabella Wallace and their youngest son (also Stewart), emigrated to the United States, where they lived in Bayonne, New Jersey. The family had returned to Scotland by 1934 when Stewart died of a cerebral haemorrhage and cardiac failure, aged 70.

Alexander Black (1856-1926) died at the age of 69 in Dysart, Fife. He was born in nearby Kinglassie and had spent most of his working life as a coal miner. He was a widowed at the age of 43 and did not remarry. He died of chronic hepatitis.

John Ramsay (1854-1905) died aged 51 in the Fife & Kinross Asylum, Cupar. His cause of death is recorded as general paralysis and acute congestion of brain. Both incarceration in the asylum and the cause of death are reminiscent of Rankine Gourlay (above), who was hospitalised in the same asylum with a diagnosis of syphilis. It seems possible that John Ramsay was similarly infected.

George Fisher (1858-1934) died aged 76, suffering from colon cancer. He had been widowed twice, and had spent his working life employed in the linen factories of Kirkcaldy, where he lived his entire life.

3x great fathers

David Skinner Ramsay (1817-1871) died aged 54, of typhoid fever.  Compared to many of my ancestors, his life was more varied – both geographically and in terms of his work. He seems to have progressed from agricultural labourer as a young man, to a Master Miller with his own mill by his mid-thirties. This career was short-lived and he was bankrupt by the age of forty. He subsequently worked as a grain agent, but by the time of his early death, he was a Carter

The father of 2x great grandmother, Isabella Westwater is unknown.

John Fisher ( – 1888). John’s birth and early life are a bit of a mystery. The first record I have of him is the OPR record of his marriage in 1848 to Margaret Lindsay. From that, I know he was a flax-dresser, of Dysart parish. His death certificate shows his age as 62, and cause of death as bronchitis. His occupation was still flaxdresser.

Peter Westwood (1824-1893) was born in Glasgow, but seems to have settled in Fife by his mid-twenties. He remained there until his death aged 70. Cause of death is recorded as liver disease. He had worked as a shoemaker.

Alexander Cruden (1839-1896) was baptised in Moneydie, Perthshire and seems to have lived most of his life between Perthshire and Dundee. Census records show he progressed from working as a weaver, to a lathe operator, eventually becoming a cabinet maker. He was married three times and died aged 56, of heart disease.

Donald Wallace (1830-1872) was a farm labourer, born in Kirkmichael Perthshire. He died of pneumonia aged only 41, leaving behind a wife and five small children. The youngest was born only weeks before his death.

James Black (1820-1897) worked as an agricultural labourer around the rural area of Kinglassie, Fife. He died aged 77 of chronic bronchitis, his death certificate shows that he was still working.

Thomas Boswell Bisset (1831-1902) about whom I’ve written a great deal, died aged 70 of catarrh and pneumonia. He worked as a carter.

Some reflections and conclusions

Doing this exercise made me incredibly grateful for excellent Scottish record-keeping – in particular statutory records, which began in 1856.

When I looked at the age-at-death data for my female ancestors, I was struck by how many lived very long lives. Two made it into their 90s 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.

For my male ancestors, such longevity was a little less frequent. None made it into their nineties, although (appropriately) two of my Elder ancestors came close. Thomas Elder (3x great grandfather) made it to 89, while his son William Elder died aged 85. Sadly, their descendants — my great grandfather Thomas Elder and his daughter, my grandmother Susan Elder – both died relatively young; at 54 and 50 respectively.

The average age at death across the four generations of men I looked at was 66 years (72.5 for the women), and the median age 69.5 (73 for the women).

Causes of death ranged from accidents to “old age”, with bronchial conditions proving to be the most frequent cause, closely followed by cancers, heart and liver disease and strokes/cerebral hemorrhage.

With few exceptions, these men were born into poor, working class, landless families. Most were engaged in manual labour of some kind, though a few were skilled craftsmen and several ran businesses. Only four were listed on their death certificates as retired.

Of the twenty five I have birth data for, all were born in Scotland and 18 were born in Fife. Of the remaining seven, five were born in the neighbouring counties of Angus or Perthshire. Only Peter Westwood and George Leslie seem to have arrived in Fife from further afield; Lanarkshire, and Banff in the northeast of Scotland respectively.

I have place of death data for twenty eight out of thirty. Of these, twenty six died in Fife – twenty one in and around the town of Kirkcaldy. Only two died out of the county; one each in Angus and Perthshire.

Almost without exception, these men lived their entire lives within about a 40km radius of Kirkcaldy. As far as I know, only five ever left Scotland for any time, and for three them, it was to fight in World War I.

In many ways, there is nothing extraordinary about my assorted grandfathers. They lived fairly typical 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 end.

Tall tale? Or true?

fort hare gordon memorial

Memorial to John Gordon (1808-1850), a brave man who died trying to save a comrade. 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.

On breakthroughs and more bricks: Alexander Cruden’s war

alexander cruden catherine black 60th anniversary photo 1968

60th wedding anniversary, Catherine Black and Alexander Cruden, March 1968. Image: Leslie family archive.

As I child I remember being told that my mother’s maternal grandfather, Alexander Cruden (1890-1970), had served in WWI and had a leg amputated. I’m not sure if I was also told he’d served in France, or if I just assumed that to be the case.

Like so much family history research; this story starts with just that one nugget of information.

Mum thought he may have served in the Gordon Highlanders, and she knew for sure he’d spent time after the war at Edenhall Hospital in Musselborough. She gave me photos of him and other ex-servicemen from Edenhall, possibly taken in the early 1920s.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. Alex Cruden is seated 3rd from left. Image: Leslie family archive

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. Alex Cruden is seated, third from the left. Image: Leslie family archive.

But that was all she knew.

Without being sure of great grandad’s regiment, searching for his service records proved difficult. Alexander Cruden is not an uncommon name in Scotland, and about 40 percent of British WWI records were destroyed during the Blitz of WWII.

Recently though, I had a breakthrough.

Silver War Badge (SWB)

I found out about the Silver War Badge (SWB). This was given to WWI military personnel – like my great grandfather – who had been discharged because of wounds or illness. The records of Silver War Badge recipients are available on Ancestry.

These records show only one Alexander (shown on the record as Alex) Cruden as a recipient of the SWB. The age shown is consistent with my great grandfather, and the regiment he served with was the Gordon Highlanders.

The SWB record showed that Alex had served overseas and provided a service number – S/1891.

From the blog Army Service Numbers 1881-1918, I could confirm that S/1891 was an actual service number for the Gordon Highlanders, and that the S/ in front of the number meant it was a wartime enlistment – rather than someone joining the regular force.

I also learned that this number would have been issued in the first weeks of the war, between August and September 1914.

The Fife Free Press

Knowing that local newspapers in New Zealand published lists of those who enlisted to fight, I wondered if Scottish papers did the same thing, and searched the local Kirkcaldy newspaper, The Fife Free Press, for August-September.

Sure enough, on Saturday September 12th 1914, under the headline The Call to Arms  Kirkcaldy Recruits Still Rolling Up, I found my great grandfather’s name amongst the Gordon Highlanders.

Given the Scottish propensity for naming children after grandparents and parents, finding the name doesn’t automatically mean the report referred to my great grandad, and if it had been any other member of my family, I would have known much more research was involved.

But the Cruden family was relatively new to Fife, having come from Dundee when great grandad was a child. I checked the 1911 census (using quite wide search parameters), and found that my great grandfather was the only Alexander Cruden of enlistment age in the county of Fife, and the only Cruden in Kirkcaldy.

Armed with these bits of information, I was able to find Alex Cruden’s medal cards, which told me that S/1891 Cruden, Alexander was a Private in the Gordon Highlanders who was awarded the Silver War Badge, The Victory Medal, the British Medal and the 15 Star (properly known as the 1914-15 Star) [1].

It also confirmed that he served in France, arriving on 10 May 1915.

The Victory Medal record lists him as having served in the 8th Battalion, which I know to have arrived in France on May 10th, as the Regimental Diary notes:

A beautiful crossing was experienced and we arrived in Boulogne at about 1pm.

None of this is absolute proof that S/1891, Cruden, Alexander was my great grandfather, but it seems highly likely.

A short interlude to celebrate

However. My real interest is in finding out about great grandad’s war. When was he wounded? Where? What experiences did he have that he had to carry with him until his death in 1970?

Neither Ancestry nor FindMyPast has a service record for Alex Cruden, so it’s likely to be one of the thousands destroyed in the Blitz. Without that, I have to rely on secondary sources — in particular newspapers which carried casualty reports, and the Regimental Diaries of the 8th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders. The National Archives has digitized these diaries and made them available to download.

The Diaries fall into two parts; the first May 1915-April 1916; the second April 1916-November 1918. This coincides with the amalgamation, in April 1916, of the 8th and 10th Battalions.

I know that Alex Cruden held the rank of Private, so it’s unlikely he would be named in the Diaries (unless he was court-martialled perhaps), but I did hope that by understanding when the Battalion was on active service, it would narrow the time-frames during which he might have been wounded.

When I began reading, I discovered that in the first months of the Battalion’s tour in France, daily casualties were listed in the Diary. For “other ranks” the information included their surname, service number and rank, and whether they were killed or wounded. In some instances, the cause of their wound/death was recorded.

This changed in late September when the Battalion was engaged in the Battle of Loos. For that period, only the total numbers of dead and wounded were included.

For example, the entry for September 27th states:

Sept 27th the total casualties from 25th to 27th September (?) were 17 officers and about 500 men.

I’m almost at the end of the first Diary, March 1916, and I have found no record of Alex Cruden. I’ve also searched both the Fife Free Press and the Scotsman (which published casualty lists for all the Scottish regiments, as well as those of colonial forces, including NZ). Again, I have found no mention of Alex, and the service numbers recorded next to the names of dead and wounded are climbing steadily into five digits.

Did my slightly built, 5′ 2″ great grandad survive almost a year at the Front without being wounded? Have I missed his name on a casualty list? Or did it somehow get left off such a list?

Or more worryingly, have I got it completely wrong and S/1891, Cruden, Alexander is someone else altogether.

I’ll keep looking.

su christening photo

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden. Image: Leslie family archive.

 


[1] Both the British War Medal, 1914-18 and the Allied Victory Medal seem to have been awarded to all officers and men of the British and Imperial Forces who either entered a theatre of war or entered service overseas between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918.

The 1914-15 Star was awarded specifically to all who served in any theatre of war against Germany between 5th August 1914 and 31st December 1915, except those eligible for the 1914 Star.

… another brick in the wall?

david leslie with craig leslie 1964

Descendants of George Leslie, my grandad David Leslie, and my brother Craig. Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. Mar-Apr 1964. Photo: Leslie family archive.

I’ve been working on my surname line for a while but have struck a brick wall at my 2x great grandfather, George Leslie.

While I’m confident I have accurately documented George’s adult life – certainly from his marriage in 1857 — information about his parentage and early life is sparse and less certain.

One of the great things about Scotland’s statutory records is that details of parentage are generally included on marriage and death records, as well as (more obviously) those of births. Oh what joy when the information on these sources is present and consistent!

Unfortunately, when George died in 1902, his son (also George), reported his grandparents by surname only – both Leslie — and both deceased.

The only record I have then which names George’s parents is that of his marriage to my gg grandmother, Janet Traill. They are named as John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson. John’s occupation is shown as flax dresser, and the record indicates that both parents’ were alive at the time.

Looking for evidence

Without corroborating evidence, I had to assume that the names on the marriage record were largely correct in order to search for traces of George’s birth and early life.

George’s age at death was shown as 70, which would have made his birth year 1832. However, this is inconsistent with other records, including his marriage and census returns.  George’s age may have varied across records, but he consistently reported his place of birth (in census records) as Elgin, in Morayshire.

I used both FamilySearch and Scotland’s People; and searched for children named George Leslie (or Robertson) – born between 1810 and 1840 – where the father’s name was John and the mother’s Elizabeth.

I allowed for name variations and misspellings with wildcard searching, and in Scotland’s People, searched both OPR (Church of Scotland) records, and those of other churches.

Search results

Ultimately, three records were returned – two in Morayshire, and one in neighbouring Banffshire.

  1. George Leslie born 20 May 1833, baptised 27 May 1833; in Rothes, Morayshire to John Leslie and Elspat Riach in 1833.
  2. George Leslie, baptised 4 August 1822; in Portsoy, Banffshire, to John Leslie and Betty Robertson
  3. George Leslie born 3 August 1822 and baptised 31 August 1822, New Spynie, Morayshire; 1822 to John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson.

Hunches and deductions

I’m confident that the Rothes-born George is not my ancestor, for several reasons.

  • While his birth date is not entirely inconsistent with the age given on George Leslie’s death record, it is much later than any of the records created in George’s life-time –which would have been self-reported.
  • While the mother’s first name is a variation of Elizabeth, the surname is different. Though it is conceivable that an error was made on George’s marriage record, one of George and Janet’s children was given Robertson as a middle name, and I can find no other source for that name than George’s assumed mother.
  • Finally and most importantly, census records consistently show this man living in Rothes with his family, when I’m confident my 2x great grandfather was in Angus and Fife.

But here is where it gets a bit complicated.

I believe that the second and third records actually relate to the same person – and here’s why.

The August 4th baptism took place in the Episcopal church of St John at Portsoy in Banff. These records aren’t available through Scotland’s People, and I found this on FamilySearch.

The records of the St John’s Church in Portsoy are held at the University of Aberdeen, so I emailed the Special Collections Librarian who kindly photographed and sent me the appropriate extract of the birth register. Copyright conditions mean I can’t publish this photo, but I can transcribe it. The extract reads:

August 4th 1822 Leslie     George son of John Leslie, Farm Servant to Capt. Cameron, Banff, born in fornication by Betty Robertson, Forres. Sponsored Adam & (Ian, Jm??) Wilson, Square Wrights, Portsoy

The baptism register from the Church of Scotland kirk at New Spynie  reads:

1822 Leslie           George natural son to Elizabeth Robertson and John Leslie was born 3rd and baptised 31st August 1822. Witnesses George Stewart and Alex (Alan?)  Stewart.

The case for one George, two baptisms

As I noted above, my search had quite wide parameters, yet returned only three hits across a 30 year period – and two of those births were in the same week in 1822.

  • The New Spynie register records the child’s date of birth as 3 August. The Portsoy baptism took place on 4 August, which was a Sunday. According to Stewart Brown’s book History of Everyday Life in Scotland 1800 -1900, “baptism was to take place in front of the congregation during a time of regular worship, and as soon as possible after a child’s birth.” (p.126).
  • The parent’s names are virtually the same in both records (Betty being a variation of Elizabeth)
  • In both baptism records, George is noted as illegitimate (“born in fornication …”, “natural son … ”)

Why two baptisms?

Before statutory records, the Church of Scotland was the “official” keeper of BDM records. Parishes were also responsible for poor relief (welfare). I have found several instances of children being baptised in the parishes of both parents. I think this was a kind of insurance, so that if poor relief was ever required, the child was “of the parish” and therefore eligible. I think it likely that this child was baptised the second time in New Spynie, in the Church of Scotland, for those reasons.

I am though at a loss as to why the kirk at New Spynie was chosen for a second baptism, when the Portsoy extract says that the mother, Betty Robertson, was from Forres — another parish in Morayshire.

It is of course one thing to argue that the same George Leslie was baptised twice; another to argue that this child was my 2x great grandfather. I think that there is some support for that hypothesis:

  • The parent’s names exactly match those my gg grandfather George reported at the time of his marriage
  • The parish of New Spynie is about 2 miles from Elgin; the place George consistently reported as his birthplace. If George lived in New Spynie as a child he may have assumed it to be where he was born.
  • 1822 is at the early end of possible birth dates derived from other records of George’s life. However, I’m going to make the entirely unscientific assertion that adults more often shave a few years off their age, than add a few years on.
  • The 1841 census shows Elizabeth Robertson, aged 45 and George Leslie, aged 15, as the occupants of a dwelling at Front Street, Bishopsmill, New Spynie Parish. Elizabeth is recorded as of independent means and having been born in the county (Morayshire). George is shown as an agricultural labourer, born outside the county.

Dazed and confused

As always, I have more questions than answers: why New Spynie? Why the Episcopal church? Was John a member of the congregation? Or perhaps his employer Capt. Cameron was.  Who was Capt. Cameron? Was Betty Cameron also a servant of the Captain’s? What happened to John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson after the birth of their son?

I’ve been working on this for a while and am beginning to feel that I wouldn’t recognise resolution if it danced naked in front of me. So I’m turning to you my blogging whanau. Any thoughts on my logic (or lack of)? Suggestions for further research?

Cheers.

Su

 

June 7th, 1917: Battle of Messines

Robin, Wallace and Eric Gray c. 1896. Both Wallace and Eric served in WWI. Eric was wounded at Messines on 7 June 1917, and was killed in action on 27 March 1918 in the Somme Valley. Image: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Robin, Wallace and Eric Gray c. 1896. Both Wallace (the boy-child’s great grandfather) and Eric served in WWI. Eric was wounded at Messines on 7 June 1917, and was killed in action on 27 March 1918 in the Somme Valley. Image: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Messines; a World War I offensive by Allied troops that formed the prelude to what later became known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

Although the ten day Messines Offensive was regarded as a military success (unlike the later Ypres campaign), it still resulted in around 25,000 Allied and a similar number of German, casualties (1). That included 3700 New Zealanders –700 of whom died (2).

One of those, non-fatal, New Zealand casualties was Eric Andrew GRAY — a great grand-uncle of the boy-child on his father’s side.

Gray family portrait c. 1902. Standing: from left Ethel, Robin, Eric, Wallace. Seated: Doris, Emily Ann (nee Oliver) holding baby Mavis, Aileen (toddler). Photo: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Gray family portrait c. 1902. Standing: from left Ethel, Robin, Eric, Wallace. Seated: Doris, Emily Ann (nee Oliver) holding baby Mavis, Aileen (toddler). Photo: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Eric was the fourth child and youngest son of Andrew Gray and Emily Ann Oliver. He was born on 20 October 1895 at Hororata, New Zealand and was killed in action on 27 March 1918 near Auchonvillers, in the Somme Valley, France. Before enlisting, in April 1916, Eric worked as a farm labourer for Selwyn County Council.

Almost all of what I have learned about family members’ wartime experiences has come from their military records. For Eric’s experience at Messines however, I have an extra layer of knowledge. While recovering at Brokenhurst Hospital in England from his wounds, Eric wrote to his sister Doris back in New Zealand. Although I’ve written about the letter before, (in the post “We got dug in about five feet deep by dinner time and then Fritz started to shell …” ) I thought it worth reproducing here, as it gives a quite detailed account of one man’s experience of that day, exactly 100 years ago.

Dear Doris

Just a line or two to let you know that I am getting on all right.

I received a letter from you the night before we went into the trenches and never had time to answer it.

We left camp with all our gear and I tell you we were loaded up at nine o’clock Wed night and arrived at the trenches at half past one in the morning.

We had to carry our equipment and forty eight hour rations, water bottle full, rifle and 120 rounds of ammunition and me being a bomber had to carry fifteen bombs each weighing two pounds and one big one weighing fourteen pounds for dropping down dugouts. We also had our oilsheet, a cardigan jacket, towel and soap shaving gear and a pair of socks in our pack and two gas helmets, so you see we were well loaded up.

Well when we were going up the trenches Fritz put over a lot of gas in shells. He fires them over and they don’t explode they just break open and the gas comes out and floats whichever way the wind is blowing.

Everything was very quiet while we were waiting for the word to go over but just when time was up a big mine was exploded under Fritz’s line which rocked the ground so you could hardly stand up.

As we went over our artillery opened fire into Fritz’s trenches and as we advanced they lengthened their range so we were on to him before he knew the guns were firing past him. We took three lines of trenches before we got to Messines and tunnelling uphill all the time.

Before we went in we had been shown maps and pictures of the town and each platoon was given its part to clean up but when we got there it was just like a broken brick heap. You couldn’t tell where the streets were or the square or anything. Our artillery was great. The Germans in the town were full up of fighting. They came out of their dugouts and surrendered without a word. Our corporal and I got twelve out of one dugout and then we went down it and there were eight more in the corner. They could easily have shot the two of us but as soon as they saw us they put their hands up and started to yell for mercy and so we took them out too.

We came across a case of soda water in bottles and didn’t we get into it as we only had out water bottles full to last us for perhaps two days until the water carriers could get up.

Well our job was to clean up our part of the town and then go about one hundred yards past and dig in.

The first brigade that is the North Island men were to go four hundred yards past us and dig in and in the afternoon the Australians went eight hundred yards past them and dug in again. So you see we were not so badly off as we were not in the front line.

We got dug in about five feet deep by dinner time and then Fritz started to shell and for an hour or two it fairly rained shells but it wasn’t until about half past three or four o’clock when I got my smack. A small shell burst in the trench near me and the flame of the explosion burnt my neck and a piece went in the back of my right shoulder and now I am here but the only thing that I am worrying about is that it will be better too soon.

Ernie Page got a bit of a smack before we got to Messines but I don’t know whether he is in England or not. You know that Jerry who was working in JB Jones when he enlisted he came with the 16th Rifles, well he was killed. I am in No.1 NZA General Hospital HANTS ENG but my mail will be addressed at the base post office so you won’t have to alter the address at all. Are you still at Dunsandel, you will be getting quite used to being away from home I suppose it is winter there now it is midsummer her. I have just stuck the right time to come to England. I must close now so I remain

Your aff brother

EAG

Before leaving New Zealand for the Western Front, Eric had his portrait taken with two of his sisters, Ethel and Doris. He was just 20 years old and within two years would be dead; buried alongside other young men in the Martinsart British Cemetery, France.

WWI enlistment portrait: Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 - 27 March 1918), with sisters Doris and Ethel Gray c. 1917. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

Enlistment portrait: Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 – 27 March 1918), with sisters Ethel (left) and Doris Gray c. 1917. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

Fuller accounts of Eric Gray’s war experiences (and of my research) can be found at:

Eric Andrew Gray: following the trail of a young soldier

Six Word Saturday: “… just like a broken brick heap …”

On a soldier’s death, and feeling grateful for good record-keeping

Death of a soldier: 27 March 1918

____

(1) Battle of Messines (1917), Wikipedia

(2) NZ casualty figures from New Zealand History, 1917: Arras, Messines and Passschendaele.

Some random musings on sharing our social lives

Black & white wedding photo, April 28 1920. A double wedding in the Gray family. Ethel Gray (bride standing) married William O'Brien (seated to her right) and Doris Gray (seated) married Fred Wright (standing to her right).

April 28 1920, a double wedding in the Gray family. Ethel Gray (bride standing) married William O’Brien (seated to her right) and Doris Gray (seated) married Fred Wright (standing to her right). Photo courtesy of Peter Duncan.

When the Big T and I attended a wedding on New Year’s Eve, it didn’t take long before photos of the event started to appear on guests’ FaceBook and Twitter feeds — including mine.

FaceBook post documenting a wedding. Su Leslie, 2016

Covering the wedding, FaceBook-style.

At this particular wedding, there was no “official” photographer; instead guests captured the event on their smartphones or cameras, then shared widely,with much tagging, liking and commenting.

It’s an often-made criticism of social media that platforms like FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter are filled with the minutiae of people’s lives; cute pet moments, a new dress or shoes, meals and drinks — what, where and with whom. Events — from kids’ play-dates to weddings — are photographed and shared with friends, family and followers around the world.

For some, this is over-sharing. Too much content spilling, uncensored, into too many other lives. And when we compare this very public exposure of everyday life to how (and with whom) we shared memories even fifteen years ago, it does seem that social media has provided a brand new platform for the public dissemination of trivia.

But it’s not really new. Lately, I’ve been reading newspaper social columns from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For a country with a very small population, New Zealand had a surprisingly large number of newspapers for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of these have been digitised as part of a project called Papers Past, managed by the National Library of New Zealand.

While social columns I’ve seen in more contemporary newspapers seem to focus on major events and on celebrities or prominent people, these earlier papers covered not only the major touchstones in people’s lives — like weddings — but also much less momentous events; parties, kitchen teas, even people visiting friends and family, or going on holiday.

social

Press, Volume LXXII, Issue 21762, 20 April 1936. Found at Papers Past.

social round from papers past 1

Social column from The Press (Canterbury, NZ); 26 March 1925. Sourced from Papers Past

Accessing this very large and easily searchable archive of newspapers has proved really useful in helping me research my son’s paternal ancestry. The article below, about the marriage of two of the Gray sisters in 1920, has helped confirm familial relationships and put faces to names in the wedding photograph above.

doris-and-ethel-gray-double-wedding-1920-papers-past

DOUBLE WEDDING AT HORORATA: Star, Issue 19944, 10 May 1920. Image: courtesy of Fairfax Media/Papers Past.

But more than that, the social columns have provided insight into the millieu in which ancestors existed — much as FaceBook, Instagram etc. do today. Sports club memberships, community involvement, even golfing victories and assertions of various ancestors’ “popularity” and attractiveness were all reported  — not to mention (sometimes very detailed) descriptions of the women’s clothing.

Thus I know that the bridesmaids in the photo above were wearing dresses of “vieux rose” (a sort of dusky pink) and “heliotrope” (a pinkish-purple). FaceBook of course, would have provided me with photos, but given variation in lighting and camera quality, these may or not have represented the colours accurately.

The newspapers were also remarkably candid in reporting people’s whereabouts;  presumably with their knowledge and consent. For example …

“Mrs F. G. M. Raymond (Beverley Road) left yesterday on a visit to her mother …”

… seems to my jaded twenty-first century sensibilities practically an invitation to burglars. Most people I know are quite cautious about sharing holiday posts and photos on their social media accounts while they are still away, but perhaps folks were more honest in those days.

Perhaps the biggest difference between old and new is in who decides what is newsworthy.

While I’ve identified a number of ancestors in the Christchurch area during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, only a few families appear in the newspaper social columns. They lived in the Hororata area and would probably be termed “prominent” families.

Whether on FaceBook or in old-fashioned print, newsworthiness is socially constructed. The difference is that the social columns were created by third-parties;  journalists operating in a commercial environment, with time, space and social constraints. In the press, news is what sells papers (and advertising).

By comparison, anyone with a social media account can make their own news — and anyone whose friends or family have an account can, willingly or not, become part of that news.

Screenshot of the blogger's FaceBook profile picture.

#OMG #oneforthealbum. Is this how I’ll be seen by future family historians?

 

Another road leads back to Scotland

James Gray and Isabella Thompson. Photo c. 1890. Source: Peter Duncan / Gray family archive.

My son’s 3x great grandparents, James Gray and Isabella Thompson. Photo c. 1890. Source: Peter Duncan / Gray family archive.

Since I wrote the most recent post about my son’s paternal line (Opening the door on a new journey), I have been contacted by two relatives from the Gray branch of that family. Both have provided me with useful background information and in one case, photographs.

We knew that Andrew GRAY was the only one of my partner’s great grandparents not born in New Zealand. My father-in-law believed that his grandfather came from Scotland, probably from around Glasgow, but wasn’t really sure.

Arrival in New Zealand

From New Zealand Yesteryears I was able to find details of Andrew Gray’s arrival in NZ at the age of four. The passenger list shows that he traveled with his parents, James (farm labourer aged 36) and Isabella (aged 34), and his sisters Isabella (7), Agnes (2) and Ann (10 months) aboard the ship Matoaka, arriving in Lyttleton on December 1st, 1860. They had sailed from Bristol on September 2nd

Although the ship’s manifest shows Isabella’s surname as Gray, I know from James’ Will that her maiden name was Thomson.

Marriage of James and Isabella

The only likely record I’ve found for a marriage between James and Isabella was in Glasgow in 1852. The OPR record (from Scotland’s People, below) says:

Gray   James Gray, Carter in Glasgow, Isabella Thomson residing there, married 16th July by Mr John Graham, Independent Minister in Glasgow.

 

Marriage record, James Gray and Isabella Thomson, 1852, Glasgow. Source: Scotland's People.

Marriage record, James Gray and Isabella Thomson, 1852, Glasgow. Source: Scotland’s People.

To corroborate this, I searched for birth records the Gray children listed on the Matoaka’s passenger list.

The children

The eldest, Isabella, was shown as aged 7 in December 1860, so was probably born around 1853. However, a search in Scotland’s People didn’t find any records — in Church of Scotland, Catholic or other parish registers of any children called Isabella (or name variants) born to James and Isabella Gray/Thomson (name variants included here too).

I did have more luck with Andrew (born 1855), Agnes (born 1857) and Anne (born 1859). All three birth records show the same parent details, and the two older children were born at the same address — Crofthead Cottage in the parish of Cadder, about 7km north of Glasgow. The address for Anne’s birth is “Bishopbridge (Bishopbriggs?) in the District of Cadder.”

Statutory record-keeping

1855 was the year in which compulsory civil registration of births began in Scotland — taking the place of parish registers. As all the birth records I found for the Gray children are post-1855, I’m wondering if perhaps James and Isabella’s children weren’t baptised (at least not in churches for which records have been digitised).

Records for 1855 are particularly interesting as, for that year only, the birth register recorded some additional information:

  • Other children and whether they were living or deceased
  • Ages of both parents
  • Birthplaces of both parents
  • Parents’ usual residence
  • Baptismal name (if different)

Andrew’s birth registration tells me that James was aged 33, a mining labourer and born in Garnkirk, a settlement near the southern border of Cadder parish. Isabella was aged 30 and had borne two other children: one girl, living — Isabella; and a boy, deceased.

Isabella Gray Maiden name Thomson ?? 3rd child 30 Years, Muirkirk??? From birth record, Andrew Gray, 1855. Source: Scotland's People.

Isabella Gray Maiden name Thomson ?? 3rd child 30 Years, Muirkirk??? From birth record, Andrew Gray, 1855. Source: Scotland’s People.

As to her place of birth: I’m having trouble reading the hand-writing on the record. It looks like Muirkirk — a small town in Ayrshire.

What do you think?

Where to next?

My usual method for unraveling ancestors’ lives (certainly those born in the 19th century) involves beginning at the end — with death certificates. In Scotland, these include the deceased’s parents’ names, father’s occupation and whether the parents were alive at the time of their off-spring’s death.

Because James Gray and Isabella Thomson left Scotland in 1860, their deaths occurred in New Zealand.And while that may be convenient, death certificates here are costly to obtain and, in my experience, contain very limited information.

I have searched Scottish records for James and Isabella’s births, and have found several possible matches for each. However, in the absence of any corroborating evidence (parent’s names for example), it isn’t possible to be sure which (if any) of these records is correct.

I will have to “bite the bullet” and order their NZ death certificates and hope that they are more informative than others I’ve accessed.

In the meantime, I plan to work forward, from their arrival on the Matoaka, to the lives they and their children built in their new country.

Opening the door on a new journey

small merle wright

Merle Wright, c. 1916-18 Photo kindly sent to us by a descendant of friends of the Wright family.

Like me, my partner has memories of knowing three of his four grandparents. In fact, he was in his teens when all three died. Yet, as seems universal with children, he learned little about them as people. So little in fact, that when I asked him once what his (paternal) grandparents were called, his reply was “er, Nana and Pop?”

nana_pop_dad

“Nana and Pop” — Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray (middle and right), with my father in law Roger. c. 1956. Photo: Gray-Dove family archive.

That throwaway line was the beginning of a slow and rather tentative search. The first thing of course was to replace “Nana and Pop” with Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray, who married on October 2nd, 1926 at St. John’s church Hororata, New Zealand.

The Wright and Gray families

Wallace Gray was born on 21 December 1892. He was the second child of Andrew Gray (1856? – 1915) and Emily Ann Oliver (1860?-1945).

Andrew Gray had arrived in New Zealand as a small child, aboard the ship Mataoka which docked at Lyttleton on December 2nd 1860. His parents, James Gray and Isabella Thompson travelled from England with three other children as well; the youngest only a few months old.

Emily Ann Oliver was the second child born to William Oliver and his wife Emily (maiden name unknown). Their first child, a son, was born and died aboard the ship Glentanner on the voyage from England to New Zealand. Emily Ann was the first of eight Oliver children to be born in New Zealand.

Andrew Gray and Emily Ann Oliver had seven other children together.

Newspaper report, wedding of Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray, 2 October, 1926, Hororata, Canterbury, NZ. Image courtesy of Papers Past/Fairfax Media.

Newspaper report, wedding of Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray, 2 October, 1926, Hororata, Canterbury, NZ. Image courtesy of Papers Past/Fairfax Media.

Robin Douglas Gray, born 1889. He married May Chapman in 1913, and died in 1967.

Winifred Olive Gray, born 1890, died 1891.

Eric Andrew Gray, born 1895. Also served with the NZ Expeditionary Force in France. He died 27 March 1918 during the Third Battle of the Somme. I’ve written about this here and here.

Doris Emily Gray, born 1897. She married Fred Nathaniel Wright (Merle Wright’s brother) in 1920.

Ethel Fyllis Gray, born 1899. She married William O’Brien in 1920, in a double wedding with her sister Doris (see clipping below.)

Aileen Annie Gray, born 1900. Married Reginald Rees in 1923.

Mavis Isobel Gray, born 1902. Married William Patterson in 1928.

***

Merle Matilda Laura Wright was born on 23 August 1904, to Sidney Robert Wright and Jessie Susan Harris. They married in 1890, in Timaru and had eight children together.

Both Sidney and Jessie had been born in New Zealand. I’ve written about this part of the family here. Since then I’ve learned more about the immigration of these families to New Zealand, so will cover this in a later post.

Their eldest child, Harry Marshall Wright, born 18 August 1891, was killed in action during WWI — on August 7th, 1915 in the Sari Bair offensive at Gallipoli.

Margaret Wright, born 1892, died only nine hours after her birth.

Fred Nathaniel Wright, born 13 December 1894, also served with the NZ Expeditionary Force in WWI. In 1920 he married Doris Emily Gray — a sister of his future brother-in-law, Wallace Oliver Gray.

Alice Vera Wright, born in 1896, never married. She died in Christchurch, NZ in 1954.

Sidney John Wright, born 1893. Died aged 3 days.

Clara Duffill Wright, born 1906. In 1929 she married Arthur Edward Perkins. They divorced in 1957.

Frank Robert Wright, born 1910. In April 1936 he married Joan Ellis Luxton in Christchurch. Frank died in 1992; Joan in 1996.

Like his brother Eric, and brothers-in-law Harry and Fred Wright, Wallace Gray served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWI. He was wounded in France, in December 1917 and evacuated to England. While there, he contracted a serious illness and was deemed unfit for military service.

Bringing the characters to life

While it is satisfying to add names and dates to the family tree, the real pleasure in researching Merle and Wallace’s lives has come from the rich detail provided by newspaper cuttings found in New Zealand’s online newspaper archive, Papers Past.

Merle Wright and Wallace Gray lived during a time when newspapers not only flourished, but devoted considerable column inches to reporting social events — in much the same way we use social media now. Weddings, bridal showers, birthday and coming-of-age parties; all sorts of social occasions were reported — often in rather flowery detail. From these, we have added depth to my partner’s knowledge, particularly of his grandmother.

We found a number of clippings recording her involvement in organising social events in Hororata prior to her marriage, while later we find numerous references to her golfing abilities — golf tournament results obviously being a regular column.

merle-gray-golf-photo-1936

Merle Gray, 1936. Press, 8 October 1936. Image courtesy of Fairfax Media/Papers Past.

On a practical level, these stories have also helped identify new family members, narrow down search dates and confirm relationships between individuals. For example, from the newspaper report above, I know that Merle’s sister Clara wasn’t married at the time of Merle’s wedding, so I could confine my search for her marriage record to later dates.

It was common to list all of the attendees at social functions, so it becomes clear that courtship very much took place within the small community — these young men and women were very likely to marry the boy or girl “next door.”

social-event-report-wright-family-21-feb-1924

As well as members of the Wright family, this event was attended by Wallace Gray and his sister, and members of the Oliver family (cousins of the Gray’s). Image: Fairfax Media/ Papers Past.

When Wallace Gray married Merle Wright in 1926, they were already related by marriage. Wallace’s sister Doris had married Merle’s brother Fred in 1920, in a double wedding where another Gray sister, Ethel was also married.

doris-and-ethel-gray-double-wedding-1920-papers-past

DOUBLE WEDDING AT HORORATA: Star, Issue 19944, 10 May 1920. Image: courtesy of Fairfax Media/Papers Past.

The end of the (official) road

Merle died in 1979 and Wallace in 1981. They had raised three children together; Patricia, Shona and my father-in-law Roger. We know that Wallace ran the local garage in Hororata for many years and that during the 1950s the couple moved to Hamilton, then Auckland before finally settling in Timaru; electoral rolls and street directories help map their movements over the years.

But beyond that, public records have no more to offer.

When I set about answering that initial question about “Nana and Pop”, my partner had fairly limited interest in his family’s history. As I uncovered more and more — and particularly since finding Merle’s photograph in Papers Past — his interest and enthusiasm have grown. It is now time to visit the few remaining members of the family and ask the questions we didn’t even know we had.

It’s time to close the circle.

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.

 

Donald Wallace: the outline of a life cut short

Kirkyard and Session House, Kirkmichael, Perthshire. Resting place of Donald Wallace's family, but not Donald himself. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013

Kirkyard and Session House, Kirkmichael, Perthshire. Resting place of Donald Wallace’s parents, but not Donald himself. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013

The metaphor inherent in the term family “tree” is apt in many ways – not least because some branches seem to bear more fruit than others – or at least more fruit that can be harvested.

Such is the Wallace branch of my tree. Donald Wallace was my 3x great grandfather. He died at the age of 41, and so gets written out of the story quite quickly, but in trying to learn more about him, I have begun to uncover rich and complex stories about other members of his family. Indeed, I’ve spent so much time pursuing these, that Donald himself has been somewhat neglected.

Like many (probably most) of my ancestors, Donald Wallace left little trace of himself in written records, although, having been born in 1830, the an outline of his life does appear in census and statutory birth, death and marriage records.

Birth

Donald’s birth is recorded in the Old Parish Register (OPR), for the parish of Kirkmichael in Perthshire. It reads:

Donald lawful son of James Wallace in Balnald and Ann Cunnison his wife born 13th and baptized 14th October 1830.

OPR birth record, Donald Wallace. Source: Scotland's People.

OPR birth record, Donald Wallace. Source: Scotland’s People.

The same parish register records that James Wallace and Ann Cunnison married on 28 September 1828.

Ann Cunnison had given birth to another child, Ann Symon, two years before her marriage to James. While birth record shows the father’s name as Charles Simon, there is no evidence he and Ann Cunnison were ever married. Ann Symon seems to have lived her early life in the Wallace household, and died quite tragically at the age of 58 – and event I’ve written about here.

OPR records show that ten children were born to James Wallace and Ann Cunnison, all in the parish of Kirkmichael. These were Robert, born 1829; Donald, b. 1830; Spence, b. 1832, Elizabeth, b. 1835; Alexander, b. 1837; Thomas, b. 1839; Charles, b.1841; John, b. 1844; Margaret, b. 1845; Christian, b. 1848.

1941 Census: Kirkmichael, Perthshire

The 1841 census shows Donald Wallace living at Balnald in Kirkmichael parish, with his parents and six of his siblings. This census contains a lot less information than those carried out later, but it does show that James Wallace was a shoemaker.

1851 Census: Craig of Solaire, Kirkmichael, Perthshire (probably)

While I haven’t been able to find a record for Donald in the 1851 census that I’m totally confident of, there is a Daniel Wallace, of the right age and birthplace, working on a farm in the parish of Kirkmichael. I’ve checked the OPR records for Kirkmichael for the period 1815-1840 (a huge window that would allow for age discrepancies on the census return), and there were no children named Daniel Wallace baptised in the parish during that time. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that Daniel is actually, as not all children were christened and therefore entered in the OPR. However, given that Kirkmichael was a small rural parish with otherwise pretty comprehensive OPR records, I think it is ok to assume – until I learn otherwise – that it was Donald Wallace who worked as a farm labourer for tenant farmer John Fleming at Craig of Solaire, Kirkmichael.

1861 Census, Moneydie, Perthshire

The 1861 census shows Donald Wallace living at Kinvaid Farm, in Moneydie, Perthshire.

The household consisted of the tenant farmer – whose surname is unclear on the census but may be Line (or Lion)– his wife and two sons, plus seven servants; six men, including Donald, and Jean Morrison, whom Donald married later the same year.

Donald is listed as a labourer, living in the bothy (1), while Jane is listed as domestic servant.

1861: Marriage to Jane/Jean Morrison, Dungarth, Perthshire

Their marriage record, in the District of Dunkeld, Perthshire, shows the date of marriage as 13 December, 1861, at Dungarth. Donald was 28, and a labourer. His address is shown simply as Dunkeld (a small town in Perthshire). His parents were named as James Wallace and Ann Kinnison.

Jane’s age was shown as 22 and her address as Dungarth. Her parents were listed as Peter Morrison and Betsey Philips – both deceased.

I can’t find a place named Dungarth in Perthshire, so I’m thinking it may have been the name of a house – perhaps where Jane was employed. Dungarth is also shown as the address the marriage took place.

The witnesses to the marriage were Andrew Kinnison and Margaret Rutherford. The latter name is totally unfamiliar to me, and while I don’t yet know who Andrew Kinnison was, I am working on the basis that he was a relation of Donald’s mother Ann – a brother or nephew perhaps?

Jane Morrison is one of the ancestors about whom I’ve learned quite a lot – and have written about here:

Chipping away at the Wall

More Information and Lots More Questions

Two steps forward

… so I’ll not retell her story here.

1871: Census, St Madoes, Perthshire

The 1871 census was taken on 2 April. It shows the family’s address as Woodside, St Madoes Donald’s occupation was listed as farm labourer, and the household consisted of Donald, Jean and four children; Ann, Margaret, Isabella (my 2x great grandmother) and James.

I know from FamilySearch and Scotland’s People that Donald and Jane had six children together:

Ann Kinnison, born Auchtergavin, 1862

Margaret, born Auchtergavin, 1864

Isabella Simpson (my 2x great grandmother), born Pitfour, St Madoes, 1866

James, born St Madoes, 1868

John, born St Madoes, 1870

Christian, born Longforgan, 1871

Neither Christian nor John appeared in the 1871 census because Christian was born later that year, in December; and John had died of bronchitis, aged five months, in February 1871.

As a sad aside: James Wallace died of croup in February 1873, aged 3 ½. Both boys died in wintertime of respiratory illnesses – as did their father.

1872: Death, Longforgan, Perthshire

Donald Wallace died on January 23rd 1872 at Mill End, Castle Huntly (now an open prison), Longforgan, Perthshire. He was 41 years old, and died of pneumonia. His occupation was shown as farm servant; probably for the Castle’s Laird, George Frederick Paterson. (2)

The informant on the death record was Donald’s younger brother Charles Wallace, who gave his address as 62 Cross Lane, Dundee. Donald’s parents James Wallace and Ann Kinnison; were both still living at the time of their son’s death.

For me, family history research is about sharing stories. I’ve had this post about Donald Wallace sitting unfinished for a while because, while I have been able to research the skeleton of his life, I don’t feel that I have much of a story to tell about him.

Here was a man who lived his life in a relatively small area; moving from place to place as his work took him. He and his family probably lived in housing provided by his employers, and his death left his widow and children not only without a breadwinner, but homeless as well. Barely a year after Donald’s death, Jean Morrison married again — to a widower named John Balsillie.

Elizabeth Cruden (nee Brown), Alexander Cruden, David Ramsay, Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden), Isabella Cruden (nee Wallace).

Isabella Wallace Simpson, third daughter of Donald Wallace, seated far right. Next to her her grandaughter (my grandmother), Margaret Ramsay, Margaret’s son David Ramsay (the young boy), Isabella’s elder son Alexander Cruden (my great grandfather) and Alexander’s step grandmother, Elizabeth Reoch Brown. Photo: Cruden-Ramsay family archive.

It’s tempting to say that Donald Wallace lived and died so long ago it’s hardly surprising that his story lacks detail and texture. Yet his daughter Isabella, who was five when he died, lived until 1944, and was very much a part of my mother’s life. My mum has great knowledge of much of her family, but this Wallace branch seems sadly bare, and it’s unlikely that will ever change.

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(1) Wikipedia Bothy

(2) Wikipedia Castle Huntly