On chasing ghosts

Increasingly in my research, I’m stumbling across ancestors I didn’t know existed – a great uncle born out of wedlock, children who appear on one census only to disappear by the next. In these cases I’ve been looking at records (like the census returns) and found “extra” names. But yesterday something different happened. I went looking for someone purely on the basis that they should exist.

Let me explain. I was tidying up some details relating to my paternal grandfather, David Leslie, who was born in 1899. I knew that his parents had married in 1892, and that my great uncle Rankine was born in 1895. I knew too there had been a daughter, Mary, in 1897.

My grandfather, David Leslie

My grandfather, David Leslie

Me, age 5, with my great uncle Tom Leslie; the coolest, most fun uncle and greatly loved.

I’ve done enough research into my largely working class family to know that during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, where couples had children at all, they tended to start coming very early in the marriage (within weeks in many cases). I also know that mostly my family observed Scottish naming conventions, whereby one’s parents’ names are given to offspring – and done so in a particular order, with the first-born son usually named after the paternal grandfather.

On that basis, it seemed odd to me that my great-grandfather David Leslie and his wife Isabella Gourlay should have been married three years before having a child, and that their apparently first-born son was named Rankine – a Gourlay family name.

One of the first things I realised when I started using Scotland’s People is that the most efficient way to trace ancestors’ siblings is though census records. Unless you know someone’s Christian name, it’s difficult (not to mention expensive) to find birth records based only on a surname and a rough date range, especially as women might easily have been bearing children across a 20 or more year period as some of my ancestors were. I knew from the 1901 and 1911 censuses the names of the Leslie children, so it seemed that if there had been a child (or children) before Rankine, it was likely that they had died. And sadly, that’s the case.

Because I was searching  a very limited time period (1892-1895) and knew that the Leslie’s lived at the same address in Abbotshall in Fife for many years, it was possible – and economically viable – to look for a child who may not even have existed. I was fortunate; I only got five hits, including George Leslie. As George was my Leslie great, great grandfather’s name, I paid my five credits and found that I had the right child.

I’ve worked as a researcher for most of my life and pride myself on professional detachment. Sod that! This is family I’m talking about and researching them is an unbelievably emotional journey. So my excitement at “a find” and my pride in being clever enough to think to go looking were tempered by the certainty that my next search would be for a child’s death certificate. So …

George Leslie 1893-1901

First-born child of David and Isabella, big brother of Rankine, Mary and my granddad David (and who would, if he’d lived, also been brother to Thomas and William). Died 2 February 1901, aged seven, of meningitis.

I’m still processing this. Part of me is trying to be practical and remember that child mortality was higher in those days and that families probably expected to lose a child, but the other part of me is a mother and I think I’ll go and give my son a hug.

On finding missing uncles and caring about their lives

I wrote a few weeks ago I posted a photo of my great grandmother, Annie Elder (nee Nicholson). Actually it’s the only photo of her I have and I love it because she looks like such a strong capable woman.

My great grandmother, Annie

I know that she was a teacher in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, but haven’t been able to find out at which school she taught. She married in 1898 and would almost certainly have had to resign on her marriage, so I have clues about the timing of her employment, but not the location. A second cousin recently told me that she remembers a teacher in her youth who’d worked with my great grandmother, but so far the name in the school minute or record book has eluded me.

What my cousin also told me is that Annie Nicholson had a son before her marriage to my great grandfather. His name was Andrew, and he was born in 1894. As was the practice at the time, his birth certificate labels him “illegitimate” – and has only a blank where “father’s name” would appear.

My family history is full of marriages that took place just weeks before births were recorded, but illegitimacies are so far rare, and so much more interesting because of it. Why did those particular men not “do the right thing” and marry my pregnant fore-mothers? Were they already married? Did they die? Get cold feet? I would love to know.

My cousin says that she remembers Uncle Andrew and his wife in the 1950s, visiting from the US, where he had emigrated to. She had always assumed that Andrew lived with his mother and my great grandfather, as her mother had spoken of her older brother frequently and fondly. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. In the 1901 census, Andrew was recorded as living with his grandmother and uncle, a few streets away from where his mother lived with her husband and their child – my one year old grandmother. By the 1911 census, Andrew would have been 16 so it’s  not entirely surprising that I can’t find a record of him. I have a suspicion that he may have joined the merchant navy, and this is my next project.

I don’t know if he was in the merchant navy during World War I, or if he served in the military. I know he married in 1918 and emigrated to the US in 1923. He appears in the 1930 and 1940 censuses in Dearborn, Michigan, so was probably an auto-worker. I know he had no children and died in 1973, when I was 12 years old.

Two weeks ago I had never heard of Andrew Scott Nicholson, son of Annie Kinnell Nicholson and big brother to my grandmother (and namesake) Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. I still don’t know him – only fragments of his life from official records and (thankfully) my cousin’s recollections. But I care about him. I want him to have had a good life, fulfilling work, a strong marriage, fun and friendship. I desperately want him to have overcome the fact that his father wouldn’t or couldn’t acknowledge his birth (at least legally) and that his mother’s husband didn’t seem to want him.

I want him to have been happy.