Hardy folk: researching the lives (and deaths) of my female ancestors

christening four women001

Four generations: My christening, with my mother Elizabeth Ramsay, her mother Margaret Cruden and Margaret’s mother Catherine Black. Image: Leslie family archive.

Luanne at The Family Kalamazoo recently wrote two really interesting posts about the deaths of her grandmothers and great grandmothers (1).

In the first, she said:

I wanted to put all my grandmothers together in one post and thought by sharing their deaths it would shed some light on their lives, at least at the end. I also have a ghoulish fascination with looking them over for the variety of ways I might die myself. After all, their deaths could be a form of inheritance.

It got me thinking about the women in my family and that part of my own genetic inheritance, so I’ve done the same. And the results have surprised me – not least because I was able to find death records for most of my grandmothers and great grandmothers, but also for all eight of my 2x great grandmothers and 13 of my 16 3x great grandmothers.

Grandmothers

I only knew one of my grandmothers – my mother’s mum, Margaret Simpson Bisset Cruden.

Gran died in on May 1, 2006, 10 days short of her 98th birthday. I can’t lay my hands on her death certificate (embarrassed admission), but my mother thinks it was basically written up as “old age.” I’ve described my gran as a Force of Nature – and I suspect that in the end, she just got tired of an increasingly constrained life after a significant deterioration in her eyesight forced her into residential care.

tom with great gran small

One of the last photos I have of my gran; meeting her 25th great grandchild (my son) for the first and only time. Image: Leslie family archive.

By contrast, my paternal grandmother, Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder, died on 11 March, 1950 at the age of 50. The cause of death given in the statutory register was arteriosclerosis and cerebral haemorrhage. I never met the woman I was named after; my dad was only seventeen when his mother died and I know how painful her loss was to him.

susan forbes nicholson elder small

Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. Kirkcaldy High Street. circa 1940s.

elder susan with siblings c edit1915

Susan Elder (centre) with siblings Elizabeth and William. c. 1914. Image: Leslie family archive.

Great grandmothers

Catherine Simpson Bisset Black — my maternal grandmother’s mother – died in 1971. Like her daughter (Margaret Cruden above), she lived a long life; being 82 when she passed away a year after her husband of 62 years,  Alexander Cruden.  I don’t have her death certificate either so am not sure about cause of death.

Image-1

Sixtieth wedding anniversary: Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black, 1968. Photo: Ramsay family archive.

My mother’s other gran, Mary Fisher, died in September 1952 of a carcinoma of the gall bladder. She was 73.

ramsay great grandparents at their wedding anniversary small

David Skinner Ramsay and Mary Fisher; their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Image: Leslie family archive.

ramsay family c1920 small

Mary Fisher with husband and children c. 1919. Image: Ramsay family archive.

On my father’s side of the family, his maternal grandmother — Anne Kinnell Nicholson — died in May 1946, aged 76. Her cause of death was recorded as cardio-vascular degeneration.

nicholson annie portrait c 1937

Ann Kinnell Nicholson c. 1937. Image: Leslie family archive.

Dad’s paternal grandmother Isabella Gourlay was 91 when she died in February 1961. The cause of death was recorded as congestive cardiac failure.

2x great grandmothers – maternal

Margaret Simpson Bisset (19 April 1856- 2 April 1900), died of uterine haemorrhage probably as a result of childbirth, aged 43.

Isabella Simpson Wallace (3 May 1866 – 9 June 1944), died of abdominal carcinoma, aged 78

Jane Williamson Westwood (10 February 1858 – 27 September 1905), died of carcinoma pylorus aged 47

Isabella Westwater (  – 7 December 1924), died of chronic bronchitis. The death certificate states she was 71, but I have not been able to find a birth record for her.

2x great grandmothers – paternal

Susan Forbes (23 August 1839 – 19 April 1912), died of cerebral thrombosis, aged 72.

Elizabeth Penman (12 August 1839 – 8 August 1920), aged 80. Cause of death: diabetes.

Mary Gerard (c. 1835- 7 May 1907). Her age at death was recorded as 72 and the cause of death as enteritis and haemorrhage.

Janet Trail (c. 1835 – 4 March 1913). Her age at death was recorded as 78, and cause of death bronchitis.

3x great grandmothers – maternal

Helen Lang Simpson (14 February 1832 – 25 September 1914), Died aged 82, of arteriosclerosis and senile decay.

Caroline Goodall (c. 1833 – 16 May 1901). Her age at death was recorded as 68, and the cause of death carcinoma uterine.

Jane Morrison (c.1839 – 1914). Her age at death was recorded as 75. I am a bit unsure of the cause because I can’t clearly read the handwriting on the record. It looks like “chronic infestation of parasites.”

Jane Allison (c. 1835 – 2 September 1876). Her age at death was recorded as 41, and cause of death typhoid fever.

Mary Webster (c. 1824 – 16 March 1907). Her age at death was recorded as 83. Cause of death: cardiac arrest, senility.

Margaret Lindsay (27 May 1827 – 1 January 1906). She died aged 78 of ovarian tumours.

Helen Low (5 December 1814 – 7 May 1887). Died aged 72 in the Dysart Combination Poorhouse. Cause of death: paralysis, senile debility.

Maggie? (or Isabella?) Westwater. I know nothing about this woman beyond what is recorded on her daughter Isabella’s marriage and death records. When Isabella married John Ramsay in 1875, her mother was named as Isabella Westwater, deceased. On Isabella’s 1924 death certificate, her mother is named as Maggie Westwater, deceased.

3x great grandmothers – paternal

Ann Kinnell (15 July 1806 – 28 February 1858), died aged 51. The cause of death was recorded as carcinoma, enlarged liver

Mary Tod (7 June 1803 – 1 February 1883), died aged 79. Her cause of death was recorded as old age.

Catharine Cook (c. 1813 – 16 May 1879). Her age at death was recorded as 66, and the cause of death old age.

Janet Mackie (c. 1811 – 25 December 1897). Her age at death was recorded as 86, and the cause of death senile decay

Isabella Lambert (25 March 1804 – 25 December 1851), aged 47. The only record I have relating to her death is an (OPR) Old Parish Register entry relating to her burial. It does not show cause of death.

Elizabeth Rankine (c. 1805 – 10 December 1850). The OPR record of her burial shows her age as 45, but gives no cause of death.

Christian Birrell. I believe that Janet Trail’s mother was born around 1787, but I can find no record of her baptism, marriage or death.  The last census in which she appears is 1851.

Elizabeth Robertson gave birth to George Leslie, my 2x great grandfather, in 1822. Besides his baptism records and an entry in the 1841 census, I have been unable to find any records relating to Elizabeth’s life and death.

Some reflections and conclusions

Doing this exercise made me incredibly grateful for excellent Scottish record-keeping – in particular statutory records, which began in 1856. Because of this, I only had to rely on parish records for information on the deaths of two of the 3x great grandmothers about whom I know.

Three others remain completely elusive; being little more than names on their children’s birth, death or marriage records. I’ve done quite a lot of work on Elizabeth Robertson and Christian Birrell particularly, but they remain brick walls.

When I looked at the age-at-death data, one thing that really struck me was how many of my female ancestors lived very long lives. Two made it into their 90s – one from each side of my family – while five of the 27 I have information about lived into their 80s.

Perhaps more surprisingly, four of those five were born in the first half of the 19th century (1812, 1824, 1832 and 1839), a period during which average life expectancy for Scottish women was less than 50 years.

Of my grannies who died at or below 50 (six in total), two were born in the first decade of the 19th century, two in the 1830s, one in the 1850s, and one — my paternal grandmother — in 1899. So although I think of them as having died young, in most cases, it would not have seemed so at the time.

Within my family the average age at death across the four generations I looked at was 72.5 years, and the median age 73.

Causes of death ranged from typhoid fever to “old age” – with the largest number of deaths being attributed to advanced age. The second most frequent cause of death was cancer, followed by heart disease; both major killers these days too.

Cause of death Frequency (2) Years deaths occurred

 

Arteriosclerosis 2 1914,  1950
Bronchitis 2 1913, 1924
Cancers 6 1858, 1901, 1905, 1914, 1944, 1952
Cardiac decay/disease 3 1907, 1946, 1961
Diabetes 2 1920, 1971
Haemorrhage (not cerebral) 2 1900, 1907
Old age/senile debility 8 1832, 1879, 1883, 1887, 1897, 1907, 1913, 2006
Parasites 1 1914
Stroke 2 1912, 1950
Typhoid 1 1876
Unknown 2 1850, 1851

With few exceptions, these women were born into poor, working class, landless families. Where statutory marriage records exist for them, I can see that prior to their marriages they were in employment – as flax weavers, pottery workers, domestic servants.

They all bore children, usually large numbers of them, and often well into their forties. More than a few also raised the grandchildren born to widowed or unmarried daughters

They ran households dependent on the weekly wages (or not) of husbands working as miners, carters, agricultural labourers, factory workers, and tradesmen – and of adolescent and adult offspring following their parents into the same sorts of jobs.

Most would have had to move house regularly; some from one tenement to another in the same town, others making the move from Scotland’s rural hinterland to the industrial towns of Dundee and Kirkcaldy.

An extraordinary number – twenty out of the twenty seven I have data for — died in Kirkcaldy/Dysart, an area of around 15 square miles.  Three died in other Fife towns, one never left rural Blairgowrie in Perthshire and another died “across the Bridge” in Edinburgh infirmary. Only one died outside of Scotland – in Detroit.

In many ways, there is nothing extraordinary about my assorted grannies. They lived fairly typical (though long) lives for their time, leaving only faint traces of themselves in written records.

But however ordinary, they deserve to be acknowledged and remembered. This post is a very small contribution towards that goal.


 

  1. Deaths in the Family: Women’s History Edition, and More Deaths in the Family: Women’s History Edition
  2. Many of the women had two (or more) medical conditions listed in cause of death. This is reflected in the frequency column.

 

Six word Saturday: another Mary who died in childbirth

My paternal grandfather's sister, Mary Allan (nee Leslie), who died on 7 November 1927 of puerperal septicemia, an infection that follows childbirth or miscarriage. Another Mary, another sadness.

My paternal grandfather’s sister, Mary Allan (nee Leslie), died on 7 November 1927 of puerperal septicemia, an infection that follows childbirth or miscarriage. Extract of death record from Scotland’s People.

Grieving husband. A child? More questions.

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.

 

 

Six word Saturday: family mystery about to be solved?

email from LHSA

After reading that the Lothian Health Services Archive held records for the Royal Maternity Hospital, I emailed a request for access to the records of my great, grand aunt who died there shortly after giving birth.  This archive is a wonderful resource for anyone who has had ancestors treated at the many hospitals and other medical facilities in the Lothian area.

I love Lothian Health Services Archive

Note:

Lothian Health Services Archive

… holds the historically important local records of NHS hospitals and other health-related material. We collect, preserve and catalogue these records and promote them to increase understanding of the history of health and for the benefit of all. (LHSA website)

Remembering Emily: an anniversary

Visiting Emily's grave on the 127th anniversary of her death.

Visiting Emily’s grave on the 127th anniversary of her death.

Yesterday I went back to Symonds Street cemetery; this time with two wonderful women friends who also wanted to remember and honour Emily Keeling (and all the other victims of domestic violence) on the 127th anniversary of her murder.

We brought flowers to lay on her grave; we took photos to share with our networks. We left our tokens of love and remembrance and an unspoken promise to remember not only Emily, but all of the victims of domestic violence.

Most of what I have left to say about the experience of remembering Emily is not really family history, so I’ve blogged about it elsewhere. But I do want to add a final thought.

Writing about Emily Keeling has reminded me how fundamentally good people are. Since my first post about her, so many people – men and women – have told me how moved they have been by her story. So it was really special for me to be able to share the anniversary with two such dear friends.

As I grow older I treasure friendships more and realise that, particularly in our modern world where we may be physically and emotionally estranged from family, friendships often provide the bedrock of our existence. For family historians of the future, really understanding the lives we are leading now will involve mapping not only the ties of blood and kinship, but those of friendship too.

A challenge indeed!

And now for something completely different … (with apologies to Monty Python)

And now for something completely different … (with apologies to Monty Python)

I’ve temporarily exhausted my supply of wedding photos, so that theme is back on the shelf for a while. Meantime, something caught my attention the other day that relates not to my family’s story but to that of the city I live in. It also speaks of the on-going story of violence against women. This is particularly in my mind at the moment, I guess mainly in light of the high-profile fatal attacks on women that have made the news lately. For each for these cases, I know there are many, many more that are not reported. Violence is endured daily by so many women in so many places – and most go un-remarked and un-reported.

Text of memorial to Emily Mary KeelingSo … A couple of days ago, I was walking in Auckland’s oldest cemetery – Symonds Street – in central Auckland, when I found a memorial headstone that caught my attention.

Sacred to the memory of Emily Mary the beloved daughter of George and Emily Keeling of Arch Hill who was shot while on her way to the Primitive Methodist Church Bible Class Alexandra Street April 2nd 1886. Aged 17 years.

Symonds Street Cemetary was in use from 1842 until around the 1930s. It contains the graves of many early European settlers to Auckland, and walking amongst the headstones is a lesson in the hardships of life in the nineteenth century, and of pioneer life in particular.

Symonds Street Cemetary; in use between 1842 and the 1930s.

Symonds Street Cemetary; in use between 1842 and the 1930s.

However, New Zealand has always had a reputation as a very safe place, so death by shooting – particularly the death of a young woman – was both deeply sad, and really intriguing. I had to know more. Was she shot accidentally? Or was it a murder?

It was a murder.

Thanks to Papers Past, an initiative of the National Library of New Zealand to digitise New Zealand’s newspaper heritage, I was able to find newspaper accounts of the death of Emily Mary Keeling, which was widely reported throughout New Zealand.

From the articles I read, it seems that Emily Keeling was fatally shot by a man who lived next door but one to her family. He claimed to have fallen in love with her, and had – two years previously – asked her father for permission to marry her. At the time of the proposal, Emily was only 15 and her father had refused permission. In the intervening two years the man, Edwin Fuller, had moved around the Auckland region working in different jobs before returning to the city to pursue Emily again. According to the newspaper reports, he wrote a letter to his family outlining his plans to kill Emily and himself.

So on a Friday evening in April, a month that in Auckland can be beautifully autumnal, Emily Keeling died a few hundred metres from her home; shot in the chest by a man who wrote to his family ‘… I am going to shoot myself tonight. I love Emily Keeling as no-one ever loved before.’

Edwin Fuller did shoot himself – a couple of streets away – having left Emily to stagger across the street to a shop, where she died within an hour.

I’ve been thinking about this story since Saturday night, and it’s affected me on all sorts of levels. Most importantly of course, I feel an overwhelming sadness at the absolute tragedy of it. A young woman walked out of her front door to go to a Friday evening class, and didn’t even get to the top of her street before being killed. Even 120 or so years later when the murder rate in New Zealand has risen alarmingly, such an event is still rare enough to be remarkable.

I am also feeling something that I’m beginning to recognise quite a lot in family history research; what drives me to do research is curiosity and the pleasure of solving puzzles, and yet it’s often the case that the information which helps to solve those puzzles is only available because the people we are searching for have experienced tragedies that brought them into the public record in some way. So my enjoyment is often tempered with sadness.

flowersEmily Keeling was one of two children. Her brother had moved to Australia and she of course didn’t live to bear children of her own. I don’t know then if there is anyone left in Auckland who remembers her – certainly her grave appears (like most of those I saw in Symonds Street cemetery) untended. Tomorrow I’ll take flowers, in memory not only of Emily Keeling, but of all the women who die violent deaths and who are forgotten like Emily.