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.

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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.

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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.

Friday flip through the archives

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Originally posted as part of my 100 Days project. Kirkyard at Kirkmichael, Perthshire, Scotland. Resting place of James Wallace and Ann Cunnison. Image: Su Leslie, 2013

Reading Amy’s account of visiting her Seligman family members’ burial place in Santa Fe, (My Ancestral Town, Santa Fe, New Mexico in Brotmanblog: A Family Journey) made me think about a wet and cold afternoon I spent in a tiny churchyard in rural Perthshire, Scotland, looking for the resting place of my 3x great grandparents James Wallace and Ann Cunnison.

I originally wrote about this in a post called On Stilled Voices and Visualising Silence.

Yesterday my 100 days project word was ‘silence’ — and I have to say it was possibly the most challenging to date.

Partly that might be because I’m away from home, without access to my normal work tools and archives and reliant on my iPad. Partly it’s just because silence is something I find difficult to visually convey.

Eventually I realised that the most profound silence is not an absence of sound, but an absence of communication. Last year, on my trip to Scotland, I visited a number of cemeteries and kirkyards, looking for the headstones of ancestors. I found more than I’d expected and will always treasure those moments with those tangible symbols of my lineage.

But alone in those bleak, quiet places, I also felt the profound loss of lives stilled. I come from ordinary folk who don’t in general leave traces of themselves in recorded history. Once those who knew them stop sharing stories, their lives are silenced.

If I learned anything from my kirkyard visits, it is to speak to family members now; record their stories and share them with the next generations.

Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have seen the point in visiting places just because my ancestors had lived there. But as I have become more and more interested in my family history, I’ve realised the power of any tangible reminder (photographs, objects, places) of those long gone. I’ve learned to listen to those echoes of past lives, and to hear traces of my own voice there too.

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.

 

Faces from an unexplored past

eft: Jessie Susan Harris, born 21 March 1868 Christchurch, died 13 June 1923, Hororata aged 55 right: Alice Margaret Wright, born 12 October 1872 Kaiapoi, died 10 August 1930 Washdyke photo by Eden George, Christchurch. From This photograph album was owned by Jack Thomas Frederick Baker until his death in 2003. It was previously owned by his mother Clara Elizabeth Harris (1873-1945).

Great grandmother, Jessie Susan Harris (left), and sister in law (?) Alice Margaret Wright. Photo by Eden George, Christchurch. From photograph album owned by Jack Thomas Frederick Baker, son of Clara Elizabeth Harris (1873-1945). With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for sending me the link to Clara’s album (canterburyphotography.blogspot.co.nz), and others.

We can’t help ourselves. We look at family photos and can’t help trying to find some resemblance between those we know and love, and the the faces in pictures.

The hallway in my house has become a rogues gallery of family photos and there is much pleasure to be had watching visitors scrutinize them, trying to establish who’s who. My son is regularly mistaken for his father in one photo, and an older cousin in another; while I increasingly see myself in the faces of my maternal aunts.

For family historians, photographs are the ultimate treasure. We spend so long trying to put flesh on the bones of our ancestors, that to see the faces of these long-dead men and women is a sweet pleasure indeed.

My partner is fortunate to share in a large collection of photos (now digitised) from his mother’s side of the family, but until very recently we had virtually none from his father’s side.

Roger Andrew Gray with his parents, Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray. c. 1956. Photo: Gray-Dove family archive.

Paternal line. Roger Andrew Gray with his parents, Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray. c. 1956. Photo: Gray-Dove family archive.

This changed when a fellow blogger (Belinda Lansley, at Great Grandma’s Wicker Basket) recognised the Big T’s paternal grandmother, Merle Matilda Laura Wright as a friend of her own great grandmother, Dorothy Lord. In Belinda’s collection of family photos were several of Merle, her sister Clara and other members of the Wright family. These she generously shared with me.

Dorothy Lord, Clara Wright, May Lord, Merle Wright early 1920s. With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for allowing me to reproduce this image.

Dorothy Lord, Clara Wright, May Lord, Merle Wright early 1920s. With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for allowing me to reproduce this image.

Belinda also sent me the link to a photograph album belonging to another member of Merle’s extended family (Early New Zealand Photographers), and it is through these sources that we have begun to learn a little about this branch of the family.

Merle was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1904, to Jessie Susan Harris and Sidney Robert Wright. The couple married in Timaru in 1890, and had eight children; Harry, Margaret, Fred, Alice, Sidney, Merle, Clara and Frank (Source: Births, Deaths and Marriages NZ)

Jessie Harris (shown in the first photo with Alice Margaret Wright) was born on March 21st, 1868, in Christchurch, twin sister of Henry Richard Harris.

The photo below is Jessie’s brother Henry, with Sidney Wright — Jessie’s husband. It appears that both families lived in Ohoka, a small rural settlement near Christchurch, and would presumably have known each other. Did Jessie marry her twin’s best friend?

Jack Baker's album page 5

Henry Richard Harris (left) with Sidney Robert Wright. Photo by Eden George – Christchurch. With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for sending me the link to Clara’s album (canterburyphotography.blogspot.co.nz).

Sidney was born three weeks after the Harris twins, on 9 April 1868. He was the third of six children born to Robert Marshall Wright and Matilda Ann Baker (married 1859: source BDM New Zealand).

Another photo in the same album shows Jessie and Henry as small children with their mother, Sarah Ann Duffull. A note with the photograph indicates that Sarah was born in Croyden, England. Her marriage, to Nathaniel Harris, took place in New Zealand in 1867. The couple appears to have had 10 children, including two sets of twins (source: BDM, NZ).

I haven’t been able to find New Zealand birth records for Nathaniel Harris, Robert Wright or Matilda Baker, so it would appear that all four of Merle Wright’s grandparents were born outside of New Zealand, and immigrated either as children, or young adults, making the Big T a fourth generation Kiwi.

Sarah Anne Duffull with her children Jessie Susan and Henry Richard Harris. c. 1871

Sarah Anne Duffull with her children Jessie Susan and Henry Richard Harris. c. 1871. Photo by Eden George – Christchurch. Grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for sending me the link to this photo.

Far left, Jessie Harris, middle seated, May Lord. Other's unknown. Image courtesy of Belinda Lansley.

Far left, Jessie Harris, middle seated, May Lord, family friend and great grand aunt of Belinda Lansley, who has kindly shared this photo with me. The identity of the other women and the children is unknown.

One of the great joys of genealogy blogging is meeting distant relatives and others with shared connections to the past. When Belinda generously shared photos with me, she gave my family the chance to see the faces of men and women who helped shape the people that my partner and son are today. For that, I am extremely grateful.

This post was written for Ailsa’s Travel Theme at Where’s My Backpack.

 

On letter-writing, or how will the future remember you?

Bygone days. Sitting down with a cuppa to read the news from home. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Bygone days. Sitting down with a cuppa to read the news from home. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

When was the last time you wrote a letter? A proper, personal (dare I even say, handwritten) letter — on paper?

I suspect the last time I did was in 2006; to my grandmother not long before she died.

I don’t even send all that many greeting cards anymore. Like letters they have been replaced with phone calls, Skype, emails and FaceBook messages.

For family historians, letters are invaluable. They are the “Sunday best” of information sources; the snapshots and snippets of past lives that reveal character as well as information. If public records provide a skeleton of our ancestors and clothe them in the uniform of their time, personal letters (and diaries) show us something of the colour and texture of a life. They are the ribbons and shawls that hint at personality and individuality.

Since literacy became widespread, letters have been a lifeline between family members and friends separated by distance. And with migration a feature of most nations’ histories, the number of people writing and receiving letters must have been huge. Within my family alone, I’ve found ancestors and relatives who left Scotland for every outpost of the British Empire, including my parents, who emigrated to New Zealand.

As a child I remember getting letters from my grandparents and aunts back in Scotland, and having to be chivied by my mother to reply. Well into my 20s I was still writing to my great uncle Tom, my paternal grandfather’s younger brother. I wonder now what he made of my letters — domestic details and tales of student life from someone he hadn’t seen since I was five. His letters to me always smelled of cigarettes; something I would normally hate, but actually made me feel close to him.

A rare photo of the Leslie side of the family. My dad holding my brother; me sitting on my great uncle Tom's knee.

Great Uncle Tom. A funny, wonderful man whom I utterly adored. Photo taken in Carshalton, Surrey, c. 1966. Leslie family archive.

In the last few years, my mother has given me a collection of family documents she has saved. Mainly photos, there are also a few letters, including two that survived an air crash (which I’ve written about in On Touching History), and the letter my grandmother wrote to tell Mum that my grandfather was dying. The telegram is postmarked two days later, and simply says:

DAD PASSED AWAY QUIETLY MONDAY 23RD 910PM  MUM

Over forty years later, I can’t hold these flimsy pieces of paper in my hands without crying.

Letters from home, a telegram and a note of condolences from my mother's employer on the death of her father. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Letters from home, a telegram and a note of condolences from my mother’s employer on the death of her father. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

In June 1917, The Big T’s great uncle Eric wrote a letter to his sister from an English hospital. He had been wounded on the first day of the Battle of Messines — the beginning of the terrible Passchendaele Offensive, and his letter describes the circumstances of his injury. The letter’s tone is light — partly to get past the censor, but probably also to protect his beloved sister from the terrible  realities of the war. Only once does the “mask” slip. He wrote:

... the only thing I am worrying about is that it will get better too soon. (1)

Eric Gray died on March 27, 1918 near Auchonvillers in the Somme Valley (written about in Death of a Soldier).

Aside from a few letters from the Big T and some greetings cards that I think are particularly funny, I’ve kept no physical, written correspondence with family and friends. And aside from the greeting cards, I don’t think I’ve received physical, written communications through the post in years.

The growth in cheap telecommunications has diminished the volume of written communication, and that which is not spoken is increasingly electronically composed and transmitted. As life is increasingly experienced — and expressed — electronically, those traces of us that once survived long sea voyages, aircraft crashes and years tucked away in shoe-boxes at the back of the wardrobe, are disappearing.

So what will family historians of the future make of us? How will the depth of love of a woman for her husband be known without the letter to a distant child telling of grave illness? What will a sister hold on to when her soldier brother does not come home? And beyond the content of letters, the richness of personality revealed in handwriting, grammar, spelling, even the paper used; these will not be available to historians in the future.

We’re told our digital footprint is permanent, and perhaps that is true. But does that mean we will be known by our Instagram-d dinner snaps and FaceBook selfies rather than the carefully thought-out and laboriously written words our ancestors shared. Scary thought!

This post was written for Ailsa’s Travel Theme at Where’s my Backpack. The theme was Letters.

—-

(1) The full letter can be found in We got dug in about five feed deep by dinnertime and then fritz started to shell ...

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