Suffer the children … seeing the consequences of disease

Image: Su Leslie, 2014

Image: Su Leslie, 2014

 Helen Ramsay 1852-1857

While I was trying to decipher the cause of death recorded on the copy of Helen’s Ramsay’s death record, I found myself looking at the other entries on the page to see if they provided any clues to interpreting the handwriting.

What I discovered was really sad, and quite shocking.

There were three entries on the page and all for children who died of ‘Scarlatina’ – or scarlet fever.

The three were:

Christian Robertson aged 1 ¾; died 23 April 1857 at Abernethy. Daughter of David Robertson, salmon fisher and Margaret Robertson (nee Fotheringham).

James Anderson aged 10 ½ years; died 30 April 1857 at Pitcurran. Son of James Anderson, farm servant and Mary Roger.

Helen Ramsay aged 5; died 3 May 1857 at Glenfoot. Daughter of David Ramsay, corn merchant, and Helen Ramsay (nee Low).

Record of the death of Helen Ramsay, aged 5. 3 May 1857. Source: Scotland's People.

Record of the death of Helen Ramsay, aged 5. 3 May 1857. Source: Scotland’s People.

Abernethy, Glenfoot and Pitcurran are all within a few miles of each other and it seemed that there must have been an outbreak of the disease at the time. Naively, I assumed this would be newsworthy (as outbreaks of disease are now), and searched the British Newspaper Archive for more information. Nothing came up, so I rather lazily went back to Google and typed ‘scarlet fever perthshire 1857’.

Glenfoot, Abernethy, Pitcurran - just a few miles apart. Source: Google Maps

Glenfoot, Abernethy, Pitcurran – just a few miles apart. Source: Google Maps

The first hit was a thread in the RootsChat forum. It didn’t initially look interesting, but when I scrolled down I found Christian Robertson mentioned. It seems that baby Christian was not the only child in her family to succumb. Her five year old brother Hugh and sister Mary, aged 3, also died of Scarlet Fever in 1857.

I was already feeling sad to think of my ancestors’ mourning a child and wondering whether my 2x great grandfather John Ramsay – who would have been just three at the time his older sister died – had been ill and recovered or had managed to avoid the infection altogether. Realising that at least four other children had died around the same time – three from one family – has really brought home to me just how precarious life can be.

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.