Anne Symon 1825-1883: a “melancholy death”

Anne Symon (Simon) was my 3x great grand aunt; the elder half-sister of my 3x great grandfather, Donald Wallace. She died in 1883 under quite mysterious circumstances — suffering exposure (hypothermia) trapped under a mill-wheel.

I discovered Anne Symon’s rather sad death by accident; a by-product of trying to flesh out my knowledge of Donald Wallace and his family. Scottish death records are extremely comprehensive and I use them a lot to corroborate other information.

On Anne’s death record, the cause of death was recorded as “supposed from exposure”, while the ‘Where and When Died’ column read “between 7 pm on Second of November and 9 am on 4th November. Found dead under water wheel of thrashing mill at Borland.”

Anne Symon, record of death, 1883. Source: Scotland's People.

Anne Symon, record of death, 1883. Source: Scotland’s People.

I found it really odd that if her body had been found under a water wheel, the cause of death wasn’t drowning, and I wondered (as you do) how she came to die in such a way.

The useful (I hesitate to say “good”) thing about unusual or violent deaths is that they are subject to coroner’s inquests and are often reported in local newspapers — as Anne’s was.

In Scotland, the Procurator Fiscal’s Office performs the function of a coroner in other jurisdictions (1). The record of Anne’s death contains a marginal note that says “For Report of Precognition of Death See Reg Cor Ent Vol 1 p 13.”

I learned that Scottish law requires the registration of a death within 8 days of it taking place (or the body being found). In cases like Anne’s, the cause of death may not be known when it is first recorded. Once a record has been made in an official register, it cannot be altered, so a Register of Corrected Entries (RCE, or Reg Cor Ent above) is kept and reference to that is made on the original record. (2)

The RCE record for Anne Symon, shown below, is quite unhelpful; confirming only that the cause of death was exposure. This was certified by James Neilson, a doctor of Blairgowrie.

Register of Corrected Entries, report into

Death of Anne Symon, Register of Corrected Entries. Source: Scotland’s People.

Anne’s death was reported in the Dundee Courier and Argus under the tagline ‘Melancholy death of a woman’. The article appeared on November 9th, and like the death record, raises more questions for me than it answered.

Dundee Courier and Argus, Friday 9 November 1883. Image: British Newspaper Archive.

Dundee Courier and Argus, Friday 9 November 1883. Image: British Newspaper Archive.

The first thing that struck me was the reference to a “man from Glenisla” who reported:

“hearing cries of a woman in a field near the Blackwater Road. On going up to her she asked him if he could direct her to Mr Campbell’s house. The man, being a stranger, told her he could not, but directed her to the nearest light and said the people there would direct her, but she never landed at the house.”

If we assume that the man’s testimony is true (and accurately reported), and that the woman he met was Anne Symon (who had lived virtually her entire 58 years in and around the village of Kirkmichael) it seems a little odd to think she was simply lost. The report doesn’t suggest that she was drunk — which seems an obvious possibility, and hardly something newspapers shied away from. Other possibilities are that she had fallen and hit her head, or that she was ill and disoriented. If this were the case, I suppose she might have sat down by the mill, fallen asleep or lost consciousness and been dragged under the mill lade. I do struggle though to work out how she didn’t drown.

I’ve tried to locate the various places mentioned in the article on a nineteenth century ordnance survey map of the area. I cannot find Brae of Dounie (Anne’s home) on any map, but the article reports that “workers at the turnips on a field at Easter Dounie” initially raised the alarm, so the house must have been in sight of that. The ordnance survey map shows Easter Dounie to the south of Mains of Dounie and Croft of Dounie, so I assume that Brae of Dounie is in the same vicinity. All are within about a mile of each other.

Ordnance Survey map, Kirkmichael area. c. 1860s. Source: screenshot, Scotland's Place.

Ordnance Survey map, Kirkmichael area. c. 1860s. Source: screenshot, Scotland’s Place.

The witness, whom the woman assumed to be Anne asked for directions, was on the Blackwater Road – which runs east-west, to the north of the various Dounies. The mill at Borland where Anne’s body was found, is just north of this road.

The article stated that was a dark night — not surprising for early November in 19th century rural Scotland. There would have been no street lights, and only oil lamps and candles to provide light within houses, and I find it really sad thinking of a woman wandering alone in the dark, disoriented and unable to find her way home. This of course assumes that the witness testimony was true, and that Anne Symon wasn’t attacked and possibly killed, rather than dying accidentally.

Thinking about Anne Symon’s sad end has made me want to learn about her life. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Birth

Anne Simon (the Symon spelling first appears in the 1861 census) was baptised in the Church of Scotland in Kirkmichael on 2 July 1825. Her OPR (Old Parish Register) baptism record reads:

 Anne Daughter Charles Simon, Ashintully and Anne Cunnison, Whitefield born 2nd and baptised 18th July 1825.

Anne’s death record states that she was illegitimate. However, while other OPR records I’ve seen describe illegitimate children as “the natural child of …” this is not the case here. I don’t know if this was an oversight or if perhaps Anne Cunnison and Charles Simon were married. If so, I have not been able to find any record of this.

In 1828, it seems that Anne Cunnison married (or at least intended to marry) James Wallace (my 4x great grandfather) in Kirkmichael. The OPR record reads:

James Wallace in Balnald and Anne Cunnison Whitefield both of this parish, were proclaimed three times on Sunday 28 of September 1828 in order to be married.

Until recently in Scotland, it was required that a couple intending to marry had this intention proclaimed (called reading the banns) in church for three successive Sundays (3). The interesting thing in James Wallace and Anne Cunnison’s case is that it seems that this requirement was waived — and the banns were “proclaimed three times on Sunday 28 September”. Anne was pregnant at the time with the couple’s first child, Robert, so it is possible that this had an influence on the way the marriage was proclaimed. Apparently, the proclamation of a marriage isn’t a record of a wedding taking place, and in some cases, it didn’t. (4)

If Anne Cunnison and Charles Simon had been married, Charles had presumably died. Even today, Kirkmichael is a very small rural community, and it is highly unlikely that a marriage could have been proclaimed between Anne and James unless both were free to do so. I looked for a death record for Charles Simon (or Symon — as is found in some records), for the period between the time Anne Symon would have been conceived and Anne Cunnison’s marriage to James Wallace, but have found none. In fact, I have found no records at all for a Charles Symon or Simon which contain sufficient information for me to believe they relate to the “right” Charles — so he remains a mystery figure for now.

Anne Symon’s siblings

Robert Wallace, the first of James and Anne’s 10 children together was born on January 12th, 1829. My 3x great grandfather Donald was born in 1830, followed by Spence in 1832, Elizabeth in 1835, Alexander in 1837, Thomas in 1839, Charles in 1841, John in 1844, Margaret in 1845 and Christian in 1848. All but John Wallace survived childhood.

Census records

The 1841 census shows the Wallace family — minus Ann Symon — living in Balnauld. James’s occupation is listed as shoemaker.

I’ve searched for Ann elsewhere in the 1841 Scottish census, and have found two possible matches. One, Ann Simon, is listed as a 15 year old servant to a family called Geddes in the parish of Nigg, Kincardineshire (over 130 miles from Ann’s birthplace). I can find no obvious connection between the Geddes family and the Symon’s, so for now, I’m assuming this is not “my Ann.”

The other possible match, indexed in Scotland’s People as Ann Symon, is shown as living in Pitcairns Court, Dundee. At face value, this would seem a much more likely possibility. Dundee is only around 30 miles from Kirkmicheal — a much more likely distance for a young woman to travel — and the town was home to a very large number of mills and other industry that attracted thousands of workers from rural Scotland, and indeed Ireland.

There is however, one troubling matter. While the indexer for Scotland’s People has interpreted the handwriting on the census return as “Ann”, the indexer for FreeCen has seen the same name as “Susan”. I’ve looked at it repeatedly and can’t decide. What do you think?

Ann, or Susan Symon? 1841 census record. Image: Scotland's People.

Ann or Susan Symon? 1841 census record. Image: Scotland’s People.

It looks likely that I will never really know what became of Ann Symon during her early years. After 1851 however, there is more information available about her.

1851: Anne, age 25 was living with the Wallace family. Her occupation is described as house servant, and her relationship to head of household is daughter.

1861: Anne was living as a boarder in Strathardle with a woman named Mary McGlashin and Mary’s infant son. Her occupation is given as dressmaker.

1871:Mains Farm, Persie, Perthshire. Anne is listed as a Housekeeper, living in home of James McFarlane, ploughman, along with his family and other servants.

1881: Brae Of Dounie. Anne is shown as a domestic servant for James Campbell, Shoemaker. This is the same address and employer as in the article about her death.

It seems that Anne Symon never married, nor had children, and spent most of her life working as a domestic servant in other people’s homes. At the time of her death, both parents (and her step-father James Wallace) were deceased, and the informant on her death record was her sister Margaret, who lived about 13 miles away in Blairgowrie.

She was buried in the Kirkmichael churchyard with no headstone. But in the words of  the Dundee Courier and Argus:

The deceased was a native of the glen, and much regret is felt at her untimely end.

 

__________

(1) Wikipedia: Procurator fiscal

(2) Scotland’s People: RCE Help

(3) University of Glasgow, Scottish way of Birth and Death: Marriage

(4) Who Do You Think You Are, Marriages in Scotland

 

 

 

Six word Saturday: so much information on one page

Information provided by Wallace Oliver Gray, 1892-1981, when he joined the NZ Expeditionary Force in WWI. My starting point, not only to try and understand his war, but also to map out this branch of the Big T's family. Image: Archives New Zealand.

Information provided by Wallace Oliver Gray, 1892-1981, when he joined the NZ Expeditionary Force in WWI. My starting point, not only to try and understand his war, but also to map out this branch of the Big T’s family. Image: Archives New Zealand.

Ephemeral traces of lives past

Invitation to my great grandparents 50th wedding anniversary party. Image: Ramsay-Leslie family archive.

Invitation to my great grandparents 50th wedding anniversary party. Image: Ramsay-Leslie family archive.

For archivists, ephemeral has a specific meaning. Ephemera refers to a class of documents which are not originally intended to be preserved.  Invitations, postcards, tickets, pamphlets and greeting cards would all fall into this category.

That many of these items are preserved (in collections of ephemera) is due to the fact that they can offer valuable historical insights — and are often incredibly interesting. Who has never rummaged amongst the old postcards in second-hand shop and wondered why Jock and Mary thought Eileen worthy of a postcard from Ostend? Or opened a library book, found a first class British Rail ticket from Stevenage to Edinburgh and wondered about the person who made the trip (actually that was me, going to visit a sick aunt).

Over the last few years, my mother has been sending me photographs and other items that she has treasured over the years. Since I’ve become the family historian, she feels happy to pass them into my care. The invitation above is one of the things she gave me.

My great grandparents, Catherine Black and Alexander Cruden got married as pregnant teenagers (he was 17, she 18). They remained married for 62 years, until my great grandad’s death in 1970. I’ve written about them in the past (Getting a telegram from the Queen, On growing old together), partly because I have quite a lot of information about them, but mainly because they were around when I was a small child and I remember them with enormous affection.

It’s lovely then, to have this little piece of ephemera from their lives. The invitation is addressed to my grandparents David Ramsay and Margaret Cruden.

I also have a couple of photos from the event; one of my great grandparents, the other of my mother and a couple of cousins. These provide not only interesting insights into social customs (cups and saucers at a party — these days I’d expect wine glasses), but are also precious memories of people I love.

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

Photo taken at my great grandparents Golden Wedding anniversary. Left to right James Fowler (husband of my great grandfather’s sister Betsy), my great grandad, Alexander Cruden, my great gran Catherine Black and (far right) her sister Jessie. Photo: Leslie family archive.

Also taken at my great grandparents anniversary party; Elizabeth Leslie (nee Ramsay) with niece Margaret Ladyka and nephew Robert Guthrie. Photo: Leslie-Ramsay family archive.

Also taken at my great grandparents anniversary party; Elizabeth Leslie (nee Ramsay) with niece Margaret Ladyka and nephew Robert Guthrie. Photo: Leslie family archive.

This post was written for the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: ephemeral.

Ephemeral

Death of a soldier: 27 March 1918.

The Spring Offensive, 1918. New Zealand soldiers who had fought in the area around La Signy Farm, Somme; close to where Eric Gray was killed in action a few days earlier. Photo Ref: 1/2-013089-G, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Ninety seven years ago today, the Big T’s great uncle, Eric Andrew GRAY was killed in action during World War I.

I’ve recently written a couple of posts about Eric Gray, prompted in part by being sent a letter he wrote in 1917 after the Battle of Messines. You can read the letter here, and what I’ve learned of his military service here.

I originally began researching Eric Gray’s life on behalf of my father in law. He had talked often of his uncle who had, he believed, “died at Ypres.” When I obtained a copy of Eric’s service record from Archives New Zealand, I found that although he had fought and been wounded at Messines (considered the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres), he actually died in the Somme valley.

What his service record says

Eric Gray’s death is recorded on the first page of his service record. Details are shown below:

Notes relating to the death of Eric Andrew Gray, from the record of his service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, World War I. Obtained from Archives New Zealand.

Notes relating to the death of Eric Andrew Gray, from the record of his service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, World War I. Obtained from Archives New Zealand.

The first line of text says:

Killed in action March 27th 1818. This is dated 8.4.18

In a different hand, the following has been added:

Buried corner Railway Line & Road Tunnel. 57D. Beaumont Hamel Front Q. 15. C. 90. 40

Reported by Rev. S.J. Roberts at 1st C.I.B. (Canterbury Infantry Battalion) NZEF (New Zealand Expeditionary Force) undated G318/80

The source of these lines is given as GRU (Grave Registration Unit)

In a third hand (also listed as GRU), the final entry says

Isolated gravesite southwest angle of crossing of Auchonvillers Mesnil Road & Rly. 10 yards south Rly 18 yards W. of road. 4 ½ miles north of Albert Dept??? Auchonvillers. 00-1- S.S.P 3193/29

Interpretation: why was he there?

It took me a while to decipher both the writing and meaning of the text above, but even from the dates, and the reference to Beaumont Hamel, it was clear that Eric’s death was unrelated to the Battle of Ypres (which ended in November 1917).

Knowing little about WWI, I had believed that the battle of the Somme had taken place in 1916, so I wondered how he came to die there in March 1918.

Military service records identify key events in an individual soldier’s life (postings, disciplinary matters, wounds, etc), but don’t provide much of a context. To understand how Eric’s regiment came to be in the Somme Valley in March 1918 I needed a broader historical perspective.

New Zealand History is a website produced by the History Group of the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Designed principally as a resource for schools, and written by historians, it provided me with a basic overview of the political and military context of the battles that took place in the Somme in 1918. It is worth quoting from the article Western Front in 1918 here:

At the beginning of 1918, events had seemed to be turning the war in the favour of Germany. The collapse of Russia’s resistance following the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 allowed the Germans to transfer more than 50 divisions to the Western Front. On the back of this influx of troops, the German high command launched a massive offensive with the goal of ending the war before the full might of the United States (which had entered the war in April 1917) could be brought to bear.

The German spring offensives which began on 21 March 1918 created the biggest crisis of the war for the Allies. In Operation Michael, 60 German divisions attacked along an 80-kilometre front between St Quentin and Arras, punching a hole through British defences on the Somme and almost destroying the Fifth Army. In some places they advanced as much as 60 km, an incredible feat after three years of mostly stationary trench warfare.

Retreating British troops set up a last line of defence around the city of Amiens, a vital logistics link between the Somme, Flanders and the Channel ports. Its loss would force the British to abandon the Somme, opening a massive gap between themselves and the French armies to the south, and cutting off the remainder of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in Flanders.

The New Zealand Division, recovering after a difficult winter in the Ypres Salient, was among forces rushed south to the Somme on 24 March. Attached to General Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army, the New Zealanders moved into the Ancre Valley, taking up positions on the Somme battlefield of 1916. Over four days of desperate fighting around Mailly-Maillet, they managed to stabilise their section of the front, repelling a series of German attacks at Auchonvillers Ridge and Colincamps, and capturing 300 prisoners and 110 machine guns at La Signy Farm. These actions cost the New Zealand Division some 2400 casualties, including more than 500 dead.

So my initial question was answered, and I set out to learn as much as I could about the circumstances under which Eric Gray came to be one of those casualties.

For this I have again found Ferguson’s History of the Canterbury Regiment (1926, digitised and available free via the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection) incredibly helpful. It documents the movement and actions of the Regiment in chronological order.

Events began on February 23rd with the regiment transported from Ypres to the village of Caestre, about 30 km away. There, the troops were engaged in training for almost a month. When the German offensive began on March 21st, the Battalion was (somewhat hastily) called to the front.

Ferguson describes it thus:

The railway journey was by way of Calais, Boulogne, and Abbeville, and it was originally intended that the brigade should detrain at Edgehill, a railway siding to the east of Amiens, and about half way between that town and Albert. But when the first train arrived at St. Roch, on the outskirts of Amiens, at 1 a.m. on the 25th, the Brigadier was informed by the French railway officials that the train could go no further, as the track near the town had been destroyed by an enemy aircraft attack. At 4 a.m. orders were received that brigade headquarters was to detrain at St. Roch; and at 7 a.m. motor lorries arrived, and took the troops to Chipilly. a village on the Somme between Corbie and Bray. On arrival there, it was found that no accommodation was available; but orders were received from Division that the brigade group was to go on to Morlancourt and Ville-sous-Corbie, midway between Chipilly and Albert. The Division was now attached to the VII Corps, which formed part of the Third Army.

It seems that fighting was heavy, and by the 26th, the Allied forces were forced to hold an increasingly long front line against a determined German advance. The Canterbury Regiment was part of a detachment holding a line east of the villages of Englebelmer and Auchonvillers, north of the town of Albert.

At 2 a.m. on the 26th the first battalion of the Division arrived at Hédauville. .. After a short rest of four hours, this battalion was sent on to occupy Englebelmer and Auchonvillers and the intervening country, so as to cover the advance of the rest of the Division. There were at this time only four battalions at the disposal of the General Officer commanding the Division—the 1st Auckland and the 1st and 2nd Canterbury Battalions and the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade. These battalions were formed into two brigade groups, the two Canterbury Battalions forming the 2nd Brigade Group, and the other two battalions the 1st Brigade Group. To each group was attached one machine-gun company. The groups were ordered to move forward at noon, and to fill the gap between Hamel and Puisieux.

The map below shows the positions of the different battalions involved. From his service record, I know that Eric Gray was attached to No. 1 Company of the 1st Battalion of the Canterbury Regiment – in position 1C on the map.

Map showing positions of Allied troops during offensive. Source: www.pap-to-pass.org

Map showing positions of Allied troops during offensive. Source: www.pap-to-pass.org

Events of the 27th March

Citing once again the regimental history:

About 9 a.m. on March 27th the enemy began to shell the 2nd Brigade’s (to which Eric Gray belonged) line with field guns and light howitzers. The shelling was light at first, but it gradually increased in intensity, and extended to the battalion in support. By the end of the morning the shelling was heavy, and the enemy had added to its intensity by using light trench mortars and “pine-apple” grenades against the front line trenches. At noon the enemy attacked along the whole brigade front.

The attack was heaviest in the centre, against the 12th and 13th Companies of the 1st Battalion and the 1st and 2nd Companies, and others up the communication trenches, but they were beaten off by rifle and machine-gun fire; and although some parties succeeded in getting within bombing range, none reached our trenches, and the surviving attackers retreated to their original position. Several prisoners and three light machine-guns were captured.

During this attack the brigade on the right of the New Zealand Division evacuated Hamel, and fell back till its forward posts were as far back as the 1st Canterbury Battalion’s support line. In order to restore the line, the 1st Battalion had to take over another two hundred and fifty yards of trench to its right.

The shelling eased off at 1.30 p.m., and practically ceased at 2 p.m. During the afternoon there was much movement in the enemy back areas: but though a further attack seemed imminent, the remainder of the day passed quietly. The 3rd Brigade of the New Zealand Field Artillery arrived late in the day: and its guns were placed in position that night, and registered at dawn on the 28th. Throughout the day their shooting was excellent, and interfered greatly with the enemy’s freedom of movement: and the feeling of confidence, inspired by the knowledge of artillery support, did much to keep up the men’s spirits.

There were no further enemy attacks during the rest of the month of March. This was no doubt in part due to the rain, which began to fall on the afternoon of the 28th, and continued over the end of the month. The trenches became in a very bad state, and there was a great risk of trench feet becoming prevalent. The front line troops took advantage of the lull in hostilities to block the saps, up which the enemy had advanced in the previous attacks.

There is no way of knowing now exactly what actually happened to Eric Gray on the day of March 27th 1918. From the historical documents, I can see on a contemporary map the reported position of his company, and the remarkably detailed location for his burial provides reference points that might also be located on Google Maps.

Contemporary map of Canterbury Battalion's location during offensive. Google Maps

Contemporary map of the area in which the companies of the Canterbury Battalion were positioned on March 27th 1918. Google Maps

I have assumed from the burial information, and the fact he was later disinterred and reburied, that the initial burial would have been close to, or where, he fell.

Eric Gray now lies in Martinsart British Cemetery, alongside a few other men from the Canterbury and Otago Regiments, as well as many British and Irish servicemen from a huge range of regiments, including the Highland Light Infantry, Lancashire Fusiliers, London Regiment, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Royal Scots, the Cheshire Regiment, Sherwood Foresters, Royal Irish Rifles and even several men from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. The vast majority of these men died in 1916, during the earlier Battle of the Somme.

Postscript: in praise of archives and archivists

When I began researching Eric Gray, I was also studying for a Masters in Information Studies and doing a paper on Archives. For one of the class projects — an “elevator pitch” about the value of archives, the boy-child and I made this video about how archival information had helped me learn about this young man who went to war — and like so many others — did not return. I include it mainly as a thank you to archivists and historians everywhere whose work allows us to remember, but perhaps more importantly, ensure that we don’t forget.

Chipping away at the wall: Jane Morrison – another elusive ancestor

The overgrown lawn can't compete with a day spent looking for ancestors. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

The lawn — no matter how overgrown and in need of mowing — can’t compete with a day spent looking for ancestors. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

The dry spell finally broke and yesterday was wet and very windy. A perfect day to stay inside (sorry lawn-mower, our date is off) and work on the enormous pile of family history puzzles, brick walls and apparent dead ends.

Jane Morrison, a 3x great grandmother, has been in my “more questions than answers” pile for too long, so seemed a good candidate for a bit more research.

Jane Morrison belongs to my Cruden family. Alexander Cruden, my mother’s maternal grandfather, was Jane’s grandson – the eldest son of her daughter Isabella Wallace.

I began my family history project by looking into the Cruden line, largely because my mother was very close to her granddad, and I really enjoy being able to share my findings with her. Writing about the family has also introduced me to new cousins on this side, and to reconnect with others I’ve been out of touch with for many years.

Jane is a fascinating character; twice married, twice widowed. Mother of eleven children – two of whom died in early childhood. Born in Scotland, she emigrated to the United States in her sixties and died in Detroit. Her name has been carried down the generations in granddaughters and great granddaughters on both sides of the Atlantic.

I know a lot about her life from 1861 – the year she married my 3x grandfather, Donald Wallace, through to 1901 – the last Scottish census in which she appears. I also have some records relating to her emigration to the United States, and recently found her death record. But Jane’s early life has consistently eluded me. And that’s the puzzle I set myself for the day.

Death record for Jane Morrison, 1914.

Death record for Jane Morrison, 1914.

Jane Morrison’s 1861 marriage record shows her age as 22, and her parent’s as Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips (both deceased).

As birth dates in old records are frequently unreliable (because people deliberately gave a different age, genuinely didn’t know, or through clerical errors), I cross-checked against census returns and the record of her second marriage, in 1875, to John Balsillie.

At her second marriage, Jane gave her age as 30 – about six years younger than she would have been if the first marriage record was accurate.

Given that Jane was a widow with four young children at the time of her second marriage, it wouldn’t be surprising if she shaved a few years off her age. Her first husband had been a farm labourer, and when he died in January 1872, Jane and the children lost not only a husband and father, but the tied cottage that was their home as well. Jane moved the family to Dundee (where census records show she had been born) sometime soon afterwards. I know the family was living in Dundee by February 1873 because Jane’s son James Wallace died then, and his death is recorded as occurring in Dundee.

Subsequent records, including her death certificate in 1914, show fairly consistent “ageing” from what was recorded on her second marriage.

Although in 19th century Scotland, the minimum age for marriage for girls was 12, it seems to have been quite uncommon for very young women of the working class and rural poor to marry until their twenties; usually after a period in which they had been “in service.”

What all of this means really, is that Jane Balsillie was probably born sometime between 1836 and 1846.

In the past, I’ve searched without success in both FamilySearch and Scotland’s People for births of people named Jane Morrison. I’d tried broadening the time-span, searching the whole county of which Dundee is part, allowing broad variation in her surname (and searched on her mother’s maiden name). I even broadened the search to include all of Scotland, and strange as it may seem, I could not find a birth record for any child born in the right time period to Peter Morrison and Betsy/Elizabeth Philips/Morrison – let alone one called Jane. I tried removing the parents’ first names from the search and still had no real success.

Ridiculously, I had never before checked the records of Catholic churches in Scotland. My family seems to have been staunch Presbyterians for so long that it simply hadn’t occurred to me that I might have Catholic ancestors (yes, the noise you hear is my palm slapping my forehead).

You know where this is heading, right?

I found a record in the Catholic Parish Registers for a child called Jane Morrison, born in 1842 to Michael Morrison and Elizabeth Philips. Jane appears to be the second child of this couple. They had a daughter, Catherine, born in Dundee in 1838, while in 1844 a third child, Patrick, was born, but this time in Perth.

As this is the closest I have so far come to finding any likely candidates for Jane’s family, I decided to investigate a bit further.

The 1841 census shows Michael, Elizabeth and Catharine Morrison living at Milnes East Wynd, Dundee, alongside 11 other people. I found this record on Scotland’s People, but also looked it up on the wonderful site FreeCen. While Scotland’s People provides original records, FreeCen is transcribed data – which is particularly useful when the handwriting on original documents is difficult to read. With FreeCen, it’s also possible to easily look at the records for adjacent properties. This gives both a flavour of the area and can often reveal extended families living close together. And of course, best of all, FreeCen is free.

The property where Michael and Elizabeth were living seems to be adjacent to a jute mill, where Michael – a weaver – almost certainly worked. Jute weaving was one of the principal industries in Dundee during the period, which is why many Irish migrants arrived in the city. Both this record and those of adjacent households show a large proportion of residents born in Ireland – including Michael and Elizabeth.

Morrison family, 1841 census. Screenshot from the wonderful FreeCen site.

Morrison family, 1841 census. Screenshot from the wonderful FreeCen site.

Sadly, here the trail goes cold. I cannot find Michael Morrison, Elizabeth/Betsy Morrison/Philips, Catherine, Jane or Patrick Morrison in the 1951 census. In the 1861 census I can only find Jane, and she was living in a farm household in rural Perthshire, working as a servant. Her soon-to-be husband, Donald Wallace is also listed in that household as a farm servant – so I guess I know how they met!

I have found a death record for a man called Michael Morrison in 1851. The record shows him as a weaver, born in Sligo, Ireland and his place of death is shown as Millars Pend, Scouring Burn – virtually the same address as that shown for the Morrison family in the 1841 census. While these suggest it might be the same Michael Morrison shown in the 1841 census, the age of the dead man is given as 51 – a discrepancy of 10 years, and the burial record is in a Presbyterian OPR – not a Catholic one.

I’ve gone around in circles with this one and I think it is yet another mystery that I’ll have to park until more records come online, or I find someone else who is approaching the problem from a different angle who might have information I don’t.

Frustrating yes; but a lot more fun than mowing the lawn.

Eric Andrew Gray: following the trail of a young soldier

Troops going up to the front past ruined building in the Ypres sector of the front during the 3rd Battle of Ypres probably late September 1917.  Photo: New Zealand National Army Museum

Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 – 27 March 1918)

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that the Big T’s great uncle Eric served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWI, and was wounded on the first day of the Allied attack on the town of Messines, in the very north of France, on June 7th 1917.

His account of the attack, and of his injury, is contained in a letter sent to his sister Doris back in New Zealand. We were recently sent a transcript of this letter, which you can read here.

I’ve been trying to piece together an account of his military service from a range of sources that I’ve been able to access, including the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Auckland War Memorial Museum Cenotaph database and Eric Gray’s service record, obtained from Archives New Zealand.

I’ve also found the History of the Canterbury Regiment, by Captain David Ferguson. Published in 1921, incredibly useful for providing context. This book has been digitized and is available free via the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection, which is part of the Victoria University of Wellington Library.

Eric Gray’s service record is largely a series of chronologies; dates that had significance for the military administration. In many cases, they raise rather than answer questions. But this is the structure of Eric Gray’s life as a soldier.

4 April 1916: the first date that appears on any of the records. It seems that on this date, Private Eric Andrew Gray – then aged 20 – became a member of the First Company, 1st Battalion, Canterbury Infantry Regiment.

26 July 1916: embarked for overseas service from Wellington, NZ.

4 October 1916: arrived in Devonport, in Plymouth, England. The record says “marched into Sling.”

Sling was a military camp next to the town of Bulford, on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. In 1916 it was principally occupied by NZ troops. [source: Wikipedia] As Sling is over 130 miles from Devonport, and Google Maps show it as a 45 hour walk, I assume that soldiers were transported by train or truck to the camp.I wonder what a young farm labourer from the South Island made of his trip though southern England?

20 October 1916: departed Sling for France.

Sling Camp and the Chalk Kiwi c.1919. Photo: Christchurch History Society / Wikipedia

3 November 1916: service record notes that on that day he was recorded as being “improperly dressed on 4.30pm parade. Punishment 2 days C.B. [confined to barracks]”. The location shown on the record was Etaples, in the Pas-de-Calais.

The town of Etaples was used by various Allied forces as the location for military camps, hospitals and war cemeteries (FirstWorldWar.Com)

8 November 1916: Eric Gray’s service record shows two entries on this date. One reads “joined Battalion and posted to No.1 Company.” The authority for this entry reads “Pii O No. 34 Rouen 23.11.16”. Further through the document another entry reads “joined 2nd Bn C.R. [assume this is Canterbury Regiment], Field.”

From Ferguson’s History of the Canterbury Regiment, I’ve learned that at the time Eric Gray arrived in France, the battalions were recovering from very heavy loss of life during the Battle of the Somme, fought between July and October of 1916. In total over 1100 soldiers from the First and Second Canterbury Battalions had been killed during that time.

For the next few months, these troops were involved in a number of small offensives, but were periodically relieved by other New Zealand, Australian and Scottish Battalions in order that the men have some rest periods away from the Front. The Battalions seem to have been billeted in towns and villages close to the city of Lille, including Sailly, Estaires and Nieppe.

This period of relative calm continued until March 1917, when the Battalions were moved north-west toward the village of Messines, which had been held by the Germans since the Second Battle of Ypres, in April-May 1915.

Preparation for the Allied offensive took place from March, until the first attack on June 7th – the day Eric Gray was wounded.

Eric Gray’s Casualty Form (Army Form B. 103) – which forms part of his service record, contains quite a lot of detail about the days following his injury.

7 June 1917: wounded. In a letter to his sister dated 13 June, he described the circumstances:

… 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 …

On that day he was transported to No. 11 Casualty Clearing Station. According to The New Zealand Medical Service in the Great War 1914-18, by A.D. Carbery (1924), this was located at Baillieul East – about eight miles from the front, and “… used for lightly wounded from our Corps.”

Carbery went on to say:

In the casualty clearing stations, at Baillieul, there was great congestion, so many of the wounded required operation; the surgical teams could not keep pace with the incoming casualties. In order to relieve the pressure, 100 stretcher cases, mostly gunshot injuries of the head, were despatched by M.A.C. to the New Zealand Stationary Hospital at Hazebrouck, where they arrived at 4 a.m. on the 8th. During the first day this unit had admitted 10 sick and 187 wounded.

8 June 1917: under the care of 77th Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, Eric Gray was transported from Baillieul to Boulogne.

9 June 1917: he was repatriated to the UK and admitted to Brokenhurst Hospital, Hampshire. This was the principal hospital of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in England during WWI.

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A postcard of wounded soldiers and nurses at the New Zealand Military Hospital at Brockenhurst, England, taken in 1918. Photographer unknown. Photo: North Auckland Research Centre, Takapuna Library Archives

28 August 1917: he was transferred to Codford Depot on the Salisbury Plain. Properly called the New Zealand Command Depot, soldiers were sent to Codford for rehabilitation before being returned to their unit.

21 November 1917: returned to Sling. This means that Eric Gray had been deemed fit to return to active service.

13 December 1917: the record simply says “left for France.”

16 December 1917: It appears that Eric Gray was sent to the New Zealand Infantry and General Base Depot at Etaples. He remained there until 6 January 1918 when he was posted to the 1st Battalion, Canterbury Regiment.

During the period that he had been convalescing in England, Eric’s regiment was engaged in the terrible, protracted Third Battle of Yrpes, of which the famous Passchendaele offensive was one of the bloodiest in WWI. The village of Passchendaele was finally captured on November 6, after more than three months of fighting and terrible loss of live.

The capture was a hollow victory however. The Allies had moved their enemy back about 8 kilometres, but the territory gained no longer had strategic value (NZ HisHistory: Passchendaele). The overall casualty figure for this three month battle is still uncertain, but on one day alone – October 12th – the tiny nation of New Zealand suffered 3296 casualties. In the first four hours of that day, 846 Kiwi soldiers lost their lives. For a nation of just over one million people, that loss was particularly horrendous (Passchendaele Society).

26 January 1918: the record reads “Det/Dep to Division Signallers.” Location is given as “Field.” From the Regiment’s history it seems that on the night of 22 January, the 1st Battalion had returned from a period in reserve a few miles back from the front line, and was to spend some time undergoing training.

3 February 1918: record reads “rejoined battalion.

During this period – the middle of winter – soldiers endured frequent enemy shelling as they tried to consolidate the positions they held. The Regimental History describes conditions:

The trench warfare in the Ypres salient differed from the Division’s earlier experiences at Armentières only by the greater discomforts with which the troops had to contend at Ypres. The trenches were muddy and were as a rule without duck-walks, which meant that the feet of the garrison were almost always wet. There was very little weather-proof sleeping accommodation; and though hot food was sent up from cook-houses behind the line, it usually arrived fairly cold, on account of the long distance it had to be carried.

The final date in Eric Gray’s service record is 27 March 1918. The entry contains just three words “Killed in Action.”

There is more to say about this young man, who travelled across the world from his home in rural Canterbury to die in France. But I think that deserves a separate post.

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

A destroyed German observation post at Messines, June 11, 1917.  Photo: On This Day in Military History, Messines Ridge, 1917.

A destroyed German observation post at Messines, June 11, 1917. Photo: On This Day in Military History, Messines Ridge, 1917.

Private Eric Andrew Gray, who was wounded on the first day of the Allied Assault on Messines (7 June, 1917), later wrote in a letter to his sister:

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.

The day before the assault began, Major General Charles Harington, Chief of Staff of British Second Army, said to correspondents during a press conference:

Gentlemen, I do not know whether or not we shall change history tomorrow but we shall certainly alter geography.
(On This Day in Military History, Messines Ridge, 1917)

Wordless Wednesday: “… A small shell burst in the trench near me …”

ANZAC Field Dressing Station at Battle of Messines, 7, June, 1917. Photo: Queensland State Library via WikiMedia Commons.

Wounded soldiers at an ANZAC Field Dressing Station, Battle of Messines, 7, June, 1917. Photo: Queensland State Library via WikiMedia Commons.

The Big T’s great uncle, Eric Gray, was wounded at Messines on 7 June, 1917, and would have been sent to a dressing station like this one — indeed, perhaps this one.

He wrote to his sister Doris:

.. 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 …

“We got dug in about five feet deep by dinner time and then Fritz started to shell …”

Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 – 27 March 1918)

Having begun researching the story of the Big T’s great uncle, Eric Gray, I’ve been trying to find out more about this young man who served in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWI and was killed in the Somme Valley in March 1918.

I have been working through his military service records, and in an effort to add context to the story, have also been reading the History of the Canterbury Regiment, by Captain David Ferguson. Published in 1921, this book has been digitized and is available as part of the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection – an initiative of the Victoria University of Wellington Library.

From what I’ve seen, NZ military service records are clear and comprehensive. They are however, institutional documents and only record actions and decisions in relation to an individual’s relationship with the organization. From Eric Gray’s record I know that he served in the Canterbury Regiment, was posted to France in November 1916, wounded in June 1917 and repatriated to England to recuperate. He returned to France at the end of 1917, and was killed in action on 27 March 1918.

Brokenhurst Hospital, Hampshire, England. Used for NZ casualties during WWI. Photo: Digital NZ.

Brokenhurst Hospital, Hampshire, England. Used for NZ casualties during WWI. Photo: Digital NZ.

This might have been all I would ever know, except that recently the Big T’s aunt sent me a photocopy of the text of a letter Eric Gray wrote to his sister Doris, while he was in Brokenhurst Hospital in 1917. I am unsure whether it is the original letter, or — more likely — a transcription made by someone (probably T’s aunt). I suspect the latter, based on the last few lines on the final page which have obviously been added later, but look as though they are in the same hand.

Even if it is not “an original”, this document is fascinating.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917. Image: Gray family archive.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917 – page 1. Image: Gray family archive.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917 - page 2. Image: Gray family archive.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917 – page 2. Image: Gray family archive.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917 - page 3. Image: Gray family archive.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917 – page 3. Image: Gray family archive.

Transcription:

Brokenhurst Hospital

June 13, 1917

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

On the bottom of the letter it says

Eric or ‘Toby’

1557 Private EA Gray

1st Coy 2nd Battalion

Canty Infantry Brigade

NZEF

Born 20.10.1895 Killed in France 27.3.1918

I’ve read this letter many times now, and wonder how difficult it was to write. He speaks quite dispassionately of his own and others’ injuries, and even death — I guess trying not to worry his family even more. His line “the only thing that I am worrying about is that it will be better too soon” is all that suggests a (very realistic) fear of returning to the Front.

There is so much more I want to know about this young man; having his letter and other documents will make my searching easier.