Caught in a sadness I can’t quite shake

photo credit: kudaker via photopin cc

photo credit: kudaker via photopin cc

About eighteen months ago, I discovered the truth behind a long-held family story of an aunt who “died of a broken heart”.

The story concerns my great, grand aunt, Mary (May) Cruden; my beloved great grandfather’s youngest sister. The bare bones of the story – which I wrote about here (When the truth contradicts the family folklore) –  are that she died on 3rd February, 1921 in Edinburgh Royal Maternity Hospital. The cause of death was eclampsia – seizures which occur in pregnant women and can be fatal to both mother and unborn child.

May Cruden was nineteen at the time of her death, and a children’s nurse. Her death record shows that she was single and, while she died in Edinburgh, her usual address was Coaltown of Wemyss, in Fife. The informant on the death record was May’s father Stewart Cruden.


Death record; May Cruden. Source: Scotland's People.

Death record; May Cruden. Source: Scotland’s People.


I searched for a birth record for May’s baby, but found none. This led me to believe that the child had also died, but I couldn’t be sure.

Widening the search

A few months ago, I discovered that the Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA) holds patient records for the Edinburgh Royal Maternity Hospital and I sent off an email asking if it would be possible to access May’s records. The wonderful archivist at LHSA said yes, and set about finding the relevant documents. The caveat was of course, that the material sent to me could only relate to May herself – all other information would be redacted because the records relating to her child are closed for 100 years. However, Laura, the archivist did tell me that I could apply in writing to have these records released. This I did.

In the meantime, I learned a little more about May,  including the answer to a question that had been troubling me since the start. Since May Cruden lived in Fife, why did she give birth in a hospital forty-odd miles away, in Edinburgh?

History repeating?

Edinburgh Royal Maternity Hospital is now called the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavillion. In 1961, I was born there.

Like my Cruden relatives, my parents lived in Fife, but my mum was admitted to Simpson Memorial prior to my birth because of a concern about complications with her pregnancy. Knowing this, I wondered if May Cruden had found herself in a similar situation and had been transferred.

It was Laura from LHSA who answered this question for me by pointing out something that would have meant nothing to me, but everything to an archivist from Edinburgh. May’s address on admission to the hospital was 3 Lauriston Park. This, according to Laura was “a home for unmarried mothers very close to the ERMH.”

In the course of researching my family history, I’ve found many children conceived (and sometimes born) out of wedlock. In some cases the parents married each other; in others the illegitimate child was raised by the mother’s husband as part of the family. In 1894, a great grandmother on my father’s side of the family bore a son who was seems to have been raised by his grandmother – but still had close ties to his mother and half-siblings. In all of these cases, the children seem to have been integrated into their mother’s family  – even when the identity of their father was not recorded.

May Cruden’s was the first case I’d found where it appears that the child might not be kept within the family. I haven’t been able to find out very much about Lauriston Park itself, but it is my understanding that it was relatively common for women who entered such homes to give their children up for adoption.

So why was this nineteen year old girl sent away to have her child? Was the child’s father either unable or unwilling to marry her? Did she refuse to marry him? Was it her desire to give the child up and start a new life, or did her parents insist on this? I can never answer these questions because there is no-one to ask. I do know that the year after May’s death her parents and younger brother emigrated to the US, where they stayed for ten years before returning to Fife.

May’s case notes show that she was already suffering symptoms of eclampsia before she was admitted to the hospital on February 2nd:

Admitted at 11.o am: two fits before admission 4 after admission ; very marked oedema of legs and face : small quantity of urine and little albumen ” market Hydramnios : os admitted one finger : manually dilated to three fingers. No more fits after 1.45 pm.  1/2 gr morphin given ; 1/4 gr two hours later : (can’t read word) 3/4 pint blood drawn off and 1 1/2 pts of saline given : delivered 11pm. Slight improvement after delivery but did not last. Died 2am 3/2/21

I’ve given birth once; in my confident, articulate thirties, in a modern hospital with my partner beside me. It was a long but relatively straightforward labour and birth, but one I would not have wanted to experience without the Big T’s presence and support. What must it have been like for May? Young, alone, stigmatised – and desperately ill.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot; trying to imagine how she must have felt. Then a couple of weeks ago a package arrived in the mail containing hard-copies of the hospital records relating to the birth of May’s child. This is the final piece of actual information that I’m ever likely to have about May’s life and death.

I now know that May Cruden gave birth to a daughter at 11pm on February 2nd and that the child was stillborn.

May died three hours later. I would like to think that somehow the hospital had got in touch with May’s parents, and that she didn’t die alone. I suspect that is unlikely.

As with so much family history, I’m left with more questions than answers. And because most of those questions are not about what happened, but why, I’ll never know the answers. So I’m caught in a sadness for a young woman who died too soon, and a family that had to bear not only grief, but perhaps guilt as well.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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