Janet Trail, 2x great grandmother

Having come to a dead end with both my surname line, and my search for Alexander Cruden‘s war story, I thought I’d try and find out more about the elusive George Leslie’s wife, Janet (Jessie) Trail (or Traill).

Like many of my mainly working-class ancestors, Janet Trail left a very light trace on recorded history and I know her only through statutory BDM and census records.

From available records, I believe she was born between 1832 and 1835 (1), and most likely in Auchtermuchty, Fife, Scotland (2). Although parish registers exist for Auchtermuchty for that time period, I have been unable to find any record of Janet’s birth (3).

Parents and siblings

Both Janet’s marriage and death records list her parents as William Trail and Christian Birrell.

I cannot find a marriage record for William and Christian, although it appears that William married a woman named Catharine Imrie in 1814. The OPR marriage record shows that William, a weaver, married Catharine “daughter to the deceased David Imrie late Wright in Auchtermuchty” in Perth, in November 1814.

traill william marriage 1814 perth to catharine imrie

OPR record of marriage between William Trail and Catharine Imrie, November 1814. Source: Scotland’s People

Old parish records tend to be very sparse in the information they provide, but the entry above is a useful exception. Knowing that Catharine Imrie’s father was from Auchtermuchty provides a viable explanation as to how Perth-born William came to live and raise a family there.

William and Catharine’s marriage produced two children, Mary Trail b. 1815 in Perth, and John Trail b. 1817 in Auchtermuchty.

I have been unable to find a death record for Catharine Imrie, so it is possible that she and William parted and that his subsequent relationship with Christian Birrell was a common law marriage. But equally, there seems to be a general paucity of old parish records in Auchtermuchty for this period.

The first Scottish census for which records survive was taken in 1841, when Janet Trail would have been aged 6-9 years old. I can’t find any record of Janet, William or Christian in that census, though Janet appears in each subsequent census until her death.

The 1851 census shows her aged 18, living in Crosshill, Auchtermuchty with parents William Trail and Christian Birrell, and older siblings Mary (aged 34), Ebenezer (25), Christian (22) and David (age 20). All members of the family, with the exception of the elder Christian, worked as hand loom weavers of linen.

trail janet family 1851 census crosshills auchtermuchty

Trail family, 1851 census. Source: Scotland’s People

I cannot not find birth records for Ebenezer, Christian jr or David. I also don’t know if William and Christian had other children; none appear in the records.

Children and marriage

In October 1856 Janet Trail gave birth to a daughter Christina / Christian Trail, born out of wedlock in Auchtermuchty. The birth record does not name her father, but I’ve recently learned that I may be able to obtain this information from Kirk Session records, via the website Old Scottish Genealogy and Family History, so I’ve sent off a request for this.

In August 1857, Janet married George Leslie in Auchtermuchty. The record shows George’s age as 30; Janet’s as 23. Both Janet’s parents, and George’s (John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson), are recorded as being alive at the time of the marriage.

leslie george m janet trail 1857

Marriage record, Janet Trail and George Leslie, August 1857. Source: Scotland’s People.

Janet and George both gave their address at the time of marriage as Dundee, a town about 20 miles away in the county of Angus.

If Janet was living in Dundee at the time of her marriage, she must have moved there sometime after her daughter’s birth the previous year. Janet came from a family of linen weavers, and it’s likely that the move to Dundee was in search of work.

Weaving had become an important industry in Dundee as early as the 17th century, when Master Spinners and Weavers from Flanders were brought to the town to “teach the natives.” The intention was to prevent Scottish wool being exported to Flanders and then re-imported as finished cloth.

By the 19th century, jute had replaced wool as the most important fibre in the Dundee weaving industry; just as large mills with mechanised spinning and weaving looms had largely replaced the cottage industry of hand-weaving.

I found this account of the Dundee weaving industry:

(In the 19th century) over 50,000 of Dundee’s inhabitants were working in over 100 jute mills, with more working in mills for linen.

This booming business in Victorian made many rich jute barons as they were known. But these were the few profiteers of the industry, and the conditions were dire for the vast majority of workers. As many as three-quarters of the workers were women and children, who could be employed for cheaper rates than men. The wages were low, and the risks were high … injuries, accidents and occupational hazards were commonplace. It’s difficult to imagine the working conditions, dust would be everywhere getting in the eyes, noses and mouth. Constant noise from the machines was deafening, and in fact many workers went deaf after spending too much time inside the mill. The machinery also produced lots of heat, grease and oil fumes which led to a condition which was known as ‘Mill fever’. Bronchitis and other breathing problems were also common.

As well as the terrible conditions in the mills, the huge increase in population from 1840 to more than triple within 60 years was not met by an increase in house building. Overcrowding became a huge problem with entire families living in a single room. These conditions remained with 70% of people living in just one or two rooms in 1911.

Wages in Dundee were one of the lowest in Scotland during this time, whereas the cost of living was the highest. Low wages meant little money for food, medicine or other items necessary for a good quality of life.

Dark Dundee: Dundee Landmarks, Workers of the Mills

I can only imagine what it must have been like for Janet to leave her rural home in Auchtermuchty –almost certainly leaving behind her baby daughter too – and work 12 hour days under such conditions.

Sometime within the first year of their marriage, Janet and George returned to Auchtermuchty to live – in the same street as Janet’s parents. Their first child, son George Leslie, was born there in September 1858.

By October 1860, when son William Leslie was born, the couple had returned to Dundee. The address given on William’s birth certificate was South Road, Lochee. Six months later, when the 1861 census was taken, the family was still on South Road (described on the form as “nearby the railway line, prob South Road”). The household consisted of George, Janet, Christine, George, William and two Irish lodgers.

Lochee was known in the 19th century as “Little Tipperary” because of the large number of Irish immigrants who settled there to work in the jute mills.

Certain areas such as … Lochee were especially overcrowded due to the common practice of people living close to their workplaces. … Overcrowding inevitably led to poor sanitary conditions. Diseases including cholera, typhus and smallpox thrived in the city, and together with accidents and other infections and fevers contributed to Dundee having one of the highest death rates in Scotland, and the highest infant mortality rate.

Dark Dundee: Dundee Landmarks, Workers of the Mills

The growing Leslie family did not stay long in Lochee. In July 1862, when Janet gave birth to her second daughter, Elizabeth Leslie, they were living in the small rural village of Inver, in the parish of Little Dunkeld, Perthshire. This is around 28 miles from Auchtermuchty, and a similar distance from Lochee.

George’s occupation on the birth record is ‘Carter.’ I guess the modern-day equivalent of this is “delivery driver.” I have no idea if George owned the horse and cart he drove, or whether he was employed by someone else.

According to the 1868 National Gazetteer’s description of the Parish of Little Dunkeld, “The chief wealth of the parish consists in its oak woods.” Perhaps George worked for a sawmill or landowner, carrying logs or finished timber?

By 1865, the family had returned to Auchtermuchty. The birth records for Isabella Paterson Leslie (b. 1865), David Leslie (my gg grandfather, b. 1867)) and John Robertson Leslie (b. 1871) all show the family’s address as Pitmedden Wynd, off Crosshills, where Janet’s family lived.

George seems to have continued working as a carter, at least for a couple of years after his return to Auchtermuchty. But in 1867, when my great grandfather David was born, George’s occupation is given as  Labourer. The same is recorded on the 1871 record of John’s birth.

George Leslie is missing from the 1871 census record for the rest of his family. The form records Janet (Jessie) Leslie is head of household. His absence must have been temporary, as he is recorded as the informant on his son John’s birth record a month later.

In February 1877, Janet Trail, aged between 42 and 45, gave birth to her last child, Janet Leslie. By this time, the family had moved to Mill Street in Abbotshall, which now part of Kirkcaldy. George’s occupation is listed as Mason’s Labourer, and he seems to have continued to work in a similar capacity until his death, aged 70, in 1902 (4).

Janet outlived her husband by 11 years. She continued to live in Kirkcaldy, with three of her adult children, William, John and Jessie – none of whom had married. The 1911 census shows them at 120 Links Street, Kirkcaldy. William, aged 50 was a labourer in the linoleum works; John aged 40, a pottery kilnsman, and Janet jr. aged 33, a weaver in a linen factory.

Janet Trail died two years later, aged 78, on 4 March 1913.  Her cause of death was recorded as senile decay and bronchitis, and the death was reported by her eldest son, George Leslie.

trail janet d 1913

Death record, Janet Trail, 1913. Image source: Scotland’s People

As with so many of my ancestors, it seems that no matter how much research I do, I cannot really know them. I have no photographs of Janet Trail, her husband, siblings or children; no personal documents or memorabilia. I know from historical accounts something of the life that she and her family led – as craft workers in an industry revolutionized by mechanisation, as factory workers in 19th century Scotland, as permanent tenants, never secure in their homes. The rest, I must imagine.


  1. The 1911 census recorded her age as 76 (implied birth year of 1835); the 1901 census as 68 (1833); 1891 as 58 (1833); 1881 as 49 (1832); 1871 as 38 (1883), 1861 as 26 (1835); 1851 as 18 (1833) and her marriage certificate in 1857 as 23 (1834).
  2. In all found records, her birthplace is given as Auchtermuchty, Fife.
  3. I set wide search parameters, tried as many variations on Janet (including Jenet and Jessie) and Trail (also Birrell) as I could think of, looked Church of Scotland, Catholic and non-conformist church records and even tried scanning all the births recorded in Auchtermuchty for a twenty year period.
  4. The 1881 census lists George as a Land Labourer. In 1891 he’s a Carter, 1891 he’s back to being a Labourer, and his death record shows occupation as Labourer.

Chipping away at the wall: Jane Morrison – another elusive ancestor

The overgrown lawn can't compete with a day spent looking for ancestors. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

The lawn — no matter how overgrown and in need of mowing — can’t compete with a day spent looking for ancestors. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

The dry spell finally broke and yesterday was wet and very windy. A perfect day to stay inside (sorry lawn-mower, our date is off) and work on the enormous pile of family history puzzles, brick walls and apparent dead ends.

Jane Morrison, a 3x great grandmother, has been in my “more questions than answers” pile for too long, so seemed a good candidate for a bit more research.

Jane Morrison belongs to my Cruden family. Alexander Cruden, my mother’s maternal grandfather, was Jane’s grandson – the eldest son of her daughter Isabella Wallace.

I began my family history project by looking into the Cruden line, largely because my mother was very close to her granddad, and I really enjoy being able to share my findings with her. Writing about the family has also introduced me to new cousins on this side, and to reconnect with others I’ve been out of touch with for many years.

Jane is a fascinating character; twice married, twice widowed. Mother of eleven children – two of whom died in early childhood. Born in Scotland, she emigrated to the United States in her sixties and died in Detroit. Her name has been carried down the generations in granddaughters and great granddaughters on both sides of the Atlantic.

I know a lot about her life from 1861 – the year she married my 3x grandfather, Donald Wallace, through to 1901 – the last Scottish census in which she appears. I also have some records relating to her emigration to the United States, and recently found her death record. But Jane’s early life has consistently eluded me. And that’s the puzzle I set myself for the day.

Death record for Jane Morrison, 1914.

Death record for Jane Morrison, 1914.

Jane Morrison’s 1861 marriage record shows her age as 22, and her parent’s as Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips (both deceased).

As birth dates in old records are frequently unreliable (because people deliberately gave a different age, genuinely didn’t know, or through clerical errors), I cross-checked against census returns and the record of her second marriage, in 1875, to John Balsillie.

At her second marriage, Jane gave her age as 30 – about six years younger than she would have been if the first marriage record was accurate.

Given that Jane was a widow with four young children at the time of her second marriage, it wouldn’t be surprising if she shaved a few years off her age. Her first husband had been a farm labourer, and when he died in January 1872, Jane and the children lost not only a husband and father, but the tied cottage that was their home as well. Jane moved the family to Dundee (where census records show she had been born) sometime soon afterwards. I know the family was living in Dundee by February 1873 because Jane’s son James Wallace died then, and his death is recorded as occurring in Dundee.

Subsequent records, including her death certificate in 1914, show fairly consistent “ageing” from what was recorded on her second marriage.

Although in 19th century Scotland, the minimum age for marriage for girls was 12, it seems to have been quite uncommon for very young women of the working class and rural poor to marry until their twenties; usually after a period in which they had been “in service.”

What all of this means really, is that Jane Balsillie was probably born sometime between 1836 and 1846.

In the past, I’ve searched without success in both FamilySearch and Scotland’s People for births of people named Jane Morrison. I’d tried broadening the time-span, searching the whole county of which Dundee is part, allowing broad variation in her surname (and searched on her mother’s maiden name). I even broadened the search to include all of Scotland, and strange as it may seem, I could not find a birth record for any child born in the right time period to Peter Morrison and Betsy/Elizabeth Philips/Morrison – let alone one called Jane. I tried removing the parents’ first names from the search and still had no real success.

Ridiculously, I had never before checked the records of Catholic churches in Scotland. My family seems to have been staunch Presbyterians for so long that it simply hadn’t occurred to me that I might have Catholic ancestors (yes, the noise you hear is my palm slapping my forehead).

You know where this is heading, right?

I found a record in the Catholic Parish Registers for a child called Jane Morrison, born in 1842 to Michael Morrison and Elizabeth Philips. Jane appears to be the second child of this couple. They had a daughter, Catherine, born in Dundee in 1838, while in 1844 a third child, Patrick, was born, but this time in Perth.

As this is the closest I have so far come to finding any likely candidates for Jane’s family, I decided to investigate a bit further.

The 1841 census shows Michael, Elizabeth and Catharine Morrison living at Milnes East Wynd, Dundee, alongside 11 other people. I found this record on Scotland’s People, but also looked it up on the wonderful site FreeCen. While Scotland’s People provides original records, FreeCen is transcribed data – which is particularly useful when the handwriting on original documents is difficult to read. With FreeCen, it’s also possible to easily look at the records for adjacent properties. This gives both a flavour of the area and can often reveal extended families living close together. And of course, best of all, FreeCen is free.

The property where Michael and Elizabeth were living seems to be adjacent to a jute mill, where Michael – a weaver – almost certainly worked. Jute weaving was one of the principal industries in Dundee during the period, which is why many Irish migrants arrived in the city. Both this record and those of adjacent households show a large proportion of residents born in Ireland – including Michael and Elizabeth.

Morrison family, 1841 census. Screenshot from the wonderful FreeCen site.

Morrison family, 1841 census. Screenshot from the wonderful FreeCen site.

Sadly, here the trail goes cold. I cannot find Michael Morrison, Elizabeth/Betsy Morrison/Philips, Catherine, Jane or Patrick Morrison in the 1951 census. In the 1861 census I can only find Jane, and she was living in a farm household in rural Perthshire, working as a servant. Her soon-to-be husband, Donald Wallace is also listed in that household as a farm servant – so I guess I know how they met!

I have found a death record for a man called Michael Morrison in 1851. The record shows him as a weaver, born in Sligo, Ireland and his place of death is shown as Millars Pend, Scouring Burn – virtually the same address as that shown for the Morrison family in the 1841 census. While these suggest it might be the same Michael Morrison shown in the 1841 census, the age of the dead man is given as 51 – a discrepancy of 10 years, and the burial record is in a Presbyterian OPR – not a Catholic one.

I’ve gone around in circles with this one and I think it is yet another mystery that I’ll have to park until more records come online, or I find someone else who is approaching the problem from a different angle who might have information I don’t.

Frustrating yes; but a lot more fun than mowing the lawn.

Jane Morrison: more information and lots more questions

Photo: Su Leslie 2014

Photo: Su Leslie 2014

I can’t believe it’s almost a month since I did any real family history research, but I guess that is how it goes.

The elusive Jane Morrison has been much on my mind, and conscious that I’d hit a brick wall at the beginning of her life I decided to take another look at the end.

The last record I had for Jane was the 1901 census, which showed her living at 2 Lawrence Street, Dundee with four adult daughters: Bessie aged 26, a jute weaver; Bella, 25, (actual name Helen, not my 2x great grandmother Isabella) a confectioner; Mary, 20, a jute weaver; Henrietta, 18, also a confectioner; and two boarders – Peter Young, 22, a telegrapher; and Andrew Balsillie, 22, a railway worker. Jane’s age was given as 57, and her marital status as ‘widow’.

I haven’t been able to find Jane in the 1911 census, nor have I found a death record in Scotland for her. Because Scottish statutory marriage records usually show parents’ names and whether they were alive at the time of the marriage, I thought I’d look for Jane’s children’s marriages and see if there were any clues there.

The children’s marriages

I was tempted to just look for the younger daughters’ marriages; those I knew were single in 1901. But in an attempt to be more thorough, I decided to work systematically through all of Jane’s off-spring who survived to adulthood – those she bore to my 3x great grandfather Donald Wallace and the five children of her second marriage to John Balsillie.

The first child to marry was Jane and Donald Wallace’s second daughter, Margaret. Margaret Morrison (b. 20 June 1864) married James Campbell Bennett a journeyman engine fitter of Harmony Row, Govan, on 31 December 1883. Margaret was 19 and a yarn winder. Her older sister Ann was a witness to the marriage.

Harmony Row, Govan. Photo: c. Mitchell Library

Harmony Row, Govan. Photo: Mitchell Library. These days Harmony Row is known for the local football club — the place Sir Alex Ferguson got his start!

The second marriage was that of my 2x great grandparents; Isabella Simpson Wallace (b. 2 May 1866) and Stewart Cameron Cruden, on 31 December 1886 at 5 Stewart Street Dundee (the bride’s address). The groom, aged 23 was a Draper’s Collector; Isabella was 20 and a jute weaver.

Next to marry was Ann Morrison (b. 4 September 1862) – Jane and Donald’s eldest child. Her marriage record shows that on 3 January 1888, at the age of 25, she wed Matthew Kelly aged 33, a factory carter of Lawrence Street, Dundee. Ann’s address on the record was Stewart Street, Dundee. The marriage was witnessed by Ann’s younger sister Christina Wallace and someone called George Watson.

On December 28 1893, Christina Wallace (b. 23 December 1871) married James Ramsay at Logie Hall, Scott Street, Dundee. James was aged 30 and a farmyard skinner of 114 Lochie Rd, Dundee. Christina was 22, and an Assistant Housekeeper of 5 Stewart St, Dundee. Christina’s stepsister Helen Balsillie was a witness, as was William Ramsay.

Mary Jane Bett Balsillie (b. 30 October 1877) married Peter K Young, 25 July 1902 at 25 Milnbank Road, Dundee. He was 23 and a lithographer/printer. She was 24 and a jute weaver. The witnesses were Nellie (Helen) Balsillie and David Young. Peter Young was of course, one of the boarders recorded as living in the Balsillie household on the 1901 census.

Henrietta Balsillie (b. 28 April 1882) married William Aird on 9 November 1904 at 25 Milnbank Road, Dundee. Both were 22. William was an electrician and Henrietta a confectioner. Bessie Balsillie was one of the witnesses. Jane Morrison was shown on the marriage record as being alive at the time.

That leaves Betsy Esplin Balsillie (b. 15 April 1874), Helen Walker Balsillie (b. 25 January 1876) and John Balsillie (b. 18 October 1879) for whom I have not found Scottish marriage records.

Henrietta Balsillie in Detroit

A descendent of Henrietta Balsillie and William Aird got in touch recently and sent me his family tree details. This showed that Henrietta and William’s third child, Mina, was born on 29 November 1907 in Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, USA.

Given that I hadn’t found a Scottish death record for Jane Morrison, I had been wondering if she might have left Scotland. My family (particularly the maternal side, which includes the Cruden branch) seems to have quite a history of migration, so I was quite confident that I would pick up Jane’s trail somewhere outside of Scotland. The evidence that at least one of her daughters had immigrated by 1907 led me to look for Jane in the United States.

Travel records

On Ancestry.com, I found a Mrs Jane Balsillie aged 62, travelling to New York as a second class passenger aboard the Columbia in April 1906. With here were three younger women also called Balsillie: Bessie aged 28; Nellie, aged 21; and Jane aged 18. Given that I hadn’t found marriage records for Betsy (Bessie) or Helen (Nellie) Balsillie in Scotland, I assumed that Jane was travelling with her daughters – although Betsy would actually have been 32 and Helen 30. The younger Jane is a mystery though. Aged 18 in 1906 means she would have been born around 1888. I have found no record of Jane Morrison bearing any children after Henrietta in 1882, and no child called Jane Balsillie appears in the 1891 or 1901 census returns.

I am wondering if this person was Mary Jane Bett Balsillie, but as she had married Peter Young in 1902, and would have been aged about 28 in 1906 – perhaps not.

I decided to put that mystery aside and see if I could find other evidence that might suggest I had the correct Jane Morrison – and what happened to her.

I found a second travel record for Jane Balsllie – this time returning alone to the UK in June 1908 aboard the Furnessia. I also found a third record for travel back to the US in April 1909, aboard the Lusitania.

This final record was the New York, Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island) for 23 April, 1909. Jane’s age was given as 65 and her Scottish place of residence as Dundee.

RMS Lusitaia coming into port, possibly New York, 1907. Source: Wikipedia

RMS Lusitania coming into port, possibly New York, 1907. Source: Wikipedia

I’m not sure how confident I can be of these records. In the 1906 passenger manifest, three out of four of the names “fit” although the ages aren’t quite right. The 1908 passenger manifest contains very little information, beyond the name, age and nationality, while in the final record the age and place of residence in Scotland match.

I doubt there is any way of knowing for sure if these records relate to my relatives. However, as Jane Morrison/Balsillie, Helen Balsillie and Betsy Balsillie all disappear from Scottish records after Henrietta’s marriage in 1904, and I need a working hypothesis to move forward; I have chosen to proceed on the basis that the travel records I found are for my relatives and that after 1906, I should look for these women in the United States.

Because I knew Henrietta’s child Mina was born in Detroit, I assumed that Jane and her unmarried daughters followed Henrietta and her husband to the United States. However, travel records for the Airds show that they arrived at Ellis Island in May 1907, a year after Jane’s first entry to the US.

I am much more confident of the Aird travel records because they show Henrietta (a fairly uncommon name), William and two children arriving on the 13 May 1907 aboard the Caledonia. The children’s ages and names (Jeannie M. and William L.R.) match the Aird family tree I’d been given – William Lawrence Robertson Aird was born in 1905 and Jean Morrison Aird in 1906.

Where to next?

I’m not sure whether it is ageist or sexist – or both – to assume that Jane, a sixty-something widow, would have followed younger family members in migrating rather than being the one who led the way. Either way, it seems that my next set of research questions will centre around:

Where in the United States various family members might have settled

What happened in their lives?

What happened to John Balsillie jr?

Who is mysterious younger Jane who travelled to the US in 1906? Is it Mary Jane Bett Balsillie? Was she widowed? Did she leave her husband?

Did any of Jane’s older children from her marriage to Donald Wallace also emigrate? I know that Isabella and her husband Stewart Cruden lived in New Jersey during the 1920s-30s. What about the others?

Watch this space!

Two steps forward … trying to know more about a Morrison ancestor

A few days ago I got a message from a very distant relative by marriage.

It seems that this man’s great uncle was married to Henrietta Balsillie, the half-sister of my 2x great grandmother, Isabella Wallace.

Isabella and Henrietta were both children of Jane Morrison.

Jane Morrison has, to date, been a shadowy figure in my family tree. I know she married my 3x great grandfather Donald Wallace in 1861, had five children and was widowed in 1872. She married John Balsillie in 1873 and went on to have another five children – Henrietta being the youngest.

Elizabeth Cruden (nee Brown), Alexander Cruden, David Ramsay, Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden), Isabella Cruden (nee Wallace).

L-R:  unknown, but probably Elizabeth Cruden (nee Brown), Alexander Cruden, David Ramsay, Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden), Isabella Cruden (nee Wallace).

My correspondent asked me about the photo above which I’ve written about here – speculating about the identity of an old lady in the picture. Jane Morrison was one of the possible candidates. My conclusion was that the old lady in my photo WASN’T Jane, but only on the basis of the plausibility of one family story over another. I didn’t have any real evidence.

So, feeling rather pleased with myself recently for finding a research technique that seems to work for me and produce good results (see recent posts about the Ramsay family), I decided to don metaphorical Inverness cape and Deerstalker hat and throw myself, Sherlock-like, into the life of Jane Morrison.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned recently is to start at the end – with the most recent information available. For Scottish records (and all my ancestors are Scots), this means birth records that are at least 100 years old, marriage records 75+ years old, and death records that are 50+ years old.

What I already know

Jane Morrison married in 1861 and gave her age on the record as 22. That means her death record should be available (assuming she died in Scotland). However, despite trying various spellings of Balsillie; wildcard searches, and using her maiden and first married names to search on, I haven’t been able to find a death record for Jane Morrison / Wallace / Balsillie.

This could mean she died outside of Scotland, changed her surname (perhaps a third marriage), or that the person indexing the records transcribed her name in such a way that the Scotland’s People algorithm doesn’t recognise it as being a possible match for Balsillie.

Census records

So I tried census records. There is no record of an appropriately aged Jane Morrison / Wallace / Balsillie in the 1911 census of Scotland – but in the 1901 census I found Jane living at 2 Lawrence Street, Dundee. She was a widow, aged 57 and the head of her household which included four adult daughters:

Bessie aged 26, a jute weaver

Bella, 25, (actual name Helen, not my 2x great grandmother Isabella) occupation confectioner “on own account”, which I presume means self-employed or a business owner

Mary, 20, a jute weaver

Henrietta, 18, also a confectioner on own account

Also in the household were two boarders, Peter Young, 22, a telegrapher; and Andrew Balsillie, 22, a railway worker.

Were Bella and Henrietta makers of Scottish tablet? photo credit: Andy H McDowall via photopin cc

Were Bella and Henrietta makers of Scottish tablet? Photo credit: Andy H McDowall via photopin cc

Going back 10 years to the 1891 census, I found Jane’s second husband, John Balsillie, still alive and head of the household at 5 Stewart Street, Dundee. The family consisted of:

John Balsillie, 66, a grain weigher and contractor

Jane Balsillie, 47

Christina Wallace, step-daughter (Jane’s youngest child by Donald Wallace), 16, a jute warper

Betsy Balsillie, 16, jute weaver

Helen Balsillie, 15, jute weaver

Mary Balsillie, 13, scholar

John Balsillie, 11, scholar

Henrietta Balsillie, 8, scholar

Mill, Dundee. The Wallace and Balsillie sisters would have worked in mills like this. Photo credit: BBC

The 1881 census shows the household living at 5 Pitfour Street, Dundee. It consisted of:

John Balsillie, aged 53, shore labourer

Jane Balsillie, 37

Ann Wallace, 18, sheeting weaver

Maggie Wallace, 16, cop winder

Isabella Wallace, 14, sheeting weaver

Christina Wallace, 9, scholar

Betsy Balsillie, 6

Helen Balsillie, 5

Mary Balsillie, 3

John Balsillie, 1 month

1871 census

In 1871 Jane Morrison was living with her first husband, Donald Wallace at Woodside, St. Madoes, a village in Perthshire. The couple had four children, Ann, aged 8; Margaret, 6; Isabella, 4; and James, 2. A fifth; Christina was born on December 23 1871.

Widowed with five children

Donald Wallace died on January 23 1872, aged 40. He was a farm servant, and his death record gives the place of death as Castle Huntly, Longforgan – about 10 miles from St. Maddoes. Castle Huntly is now a prison, but in the nineteenth century, the area was part of an estate owned by the Patterson family. It is likely that the Wallace family would have been living in a cottage tied to Donald’s job, and if so, his death left Jane and her five children – including one month old Christina – not only without a husband, father and breadwinner, but also without a home.

I know that Jane Morrison married John Balsillie on 21 March, 1873 in Dundee – fourteen months after the death of her first husband. John was 49 and a widower. Suspecting that Jane would have become homeless (and almost certainly penniless) after Donald’s death, I wasn’t surprised she remarried so quickly. What I did wonder was why she had moved her family to Dundee.

Work? And perhaps a place to stay

In the nineteenth century, Dundee was one of the most important industrial centres in Scotland. The textile industry was central to the city, with both linen and jute weaving.

It seemed possible that Jane moved there after her husband’s death in order to look for work (for herself and her older daughters) in the jute mills. Checking the census records, I also found that Jane had been born in Dundee, so even more likely, she was returning to a place where she may have had family members who could help support her, if not financially, at least emotionally.

Jane’s early life

Jane’s marriage records gave her parents’ names as Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips. Peter’s occupation was shown as ‘weaver’, and both parents were deceased at the time of her first marriage in 1861. Whether she had siblings, and other family members in Dundee, I didn’t know.

I searched Scotland’s People for a birth record for Jane Morrison. When she married Donald Wallace, her age was given as 22 which would have meant she was born around 1839-40. The ages she gave on later census returns would have put her birth around 1844, so I searched the records for the years 1835-1845. I also searched the whole county of which Dundee is part, and allowed for quite broad variation in her surname (even searching on her mother’s maiden name) – but with no success, so I broadened the search to include all of Scotland. Strange as it may seem, I have yet to find a birth record for a child born in the right time period to Peter Morrison and Betsy/Elizabeth Philips/Morrison – let alone one called Jane.

Returning to census records, I found that in 1861 Jane was living as a domestic servant for the Lion family in Moneydie, Perthshire. Her place of birth is (as on other census returns) shown as Dundee. Donald Wallace is also listed on the same census record as a ploughman at the Lion farm. Jane’s age was given then as 20; Donald’s as 28. Moneydie is a village in Perthshire; about 30 miles from Dundee, and also about 30 miles from Donald’s birthplace of Kirkmichael, Perth.

I’ve tried to find Jane in the 1951 census, but this is proving difficult because I don’t know where she might have been living. If she was around 20 in 1861, it is reasonable to assume she was a child in 1851 and living with family. However, I have found no records for a family comprising Peter Morrison, Betsy Philips and Jane Morrison – or even one of the parents and Jane.

It is of course possible that Jane’s parents died before 1851 and she was living elsewhere, but with the information I currently have, there is no way to really know that.

I could search death records for people called Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips/Morrison, but according to Scotland’s People, there are 19 OPR (Old Parish Register) death records for men called Peter Morrison (exact spelling) between 1835 (my earliest guesstimate of Jane’s birth) and 1854 (when statutory records were introduced); plus a further 34 Peter Morrisons in the statutory records for 1855-1861 (when Jane married).

On the other hand, for the same period, there are no OPR (Old Parish Register) death records for women called Betsy Philips, but five for women called Elizabeth Philips, 43 for Elizabeth or Betsy Morrison and 106 statutory records for Elizabeths and Betsys Morrisons or Philips.

And that’s without allowing for any misspelling or variation on the names.

With so many possible matches, I’d need to spend a fortune on Scotland’s People credits even trying to identify my ancestors.

So I am left knowing only a little more about Jane Morrison than I did at the beginning. My next step is to follow the trail of her children to see if this can shed any light or provide clues.

A postscript

One of the first things I noticed looking at the 1871 and 1881 census records was that James Wallace, age 2 in 1871 did not appear on the 1881 census alongside his sisters.

James Wallace died in Dundee on 5 February 1873 – barely a year after his father’s death. He was aged 4 years one month. The cause of death was croup – a respiratory infection.

Another postscript, of sorts

I began this post by describing Jane Morrison as a shadowy figure, and I end it feeling much the same. I don’t know when or where she was born, or when and where she died. I do know that she was orphaned before she married – possibly when she was still a child. She buried a husband and son within 13 months, during which time she also probably became homeless and moved with her children to Dundee. She married an older man, bore another five children and was widowed for a second time in her 50s.

To us, living in the early 21st century, remarrying so soon after a spouse’s death may seem somewhat heartless, but for Jane Morrison, there may have been few other choices. I wonder then if her second marriage was a happy one? Was John Balsillie a good step-father to her children? Did the couple care for, and perhaps love one another?

I can never know these things.

I do however know that my 2x great grandmother Isabella Wallace – who was seven when her mother married John Balsillie – gave two of her daughters Balsillie as a middle name. Whether that was a mark of some respect for her step-father I don’t know, but I’d like to think so.

On trying to put flesh on the ancestors bones

I’ve blogged in the past about the invisibility of my largely working class ancestors, and researching my great grandfather – Alexander Cruden – has shown me that even in recent times, ordinary working folk don’t leave behind them a long paper trail.

Great grandad was a much loved and definitely larger-than-life figure in my early years.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

He had an artificial leg, wore a hearing aid that he tended to turn off quite a lot so he couldn’t hear my great grandmother, and had a huge bulbous nose, which my mother always said was because he had run a pub when he was younger. One of my brothers was named after him, and my son too carries his name.

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

What I remember most about great grandad was that he always had a bag of peppermints tucked down the side of his chair, and being given one of those was a huge treat. Even now, the taste of peppermint takes me back to him.

Great granddad died when I was nine. My family had emigrated to New Zealand several years before, and my mother wasn’t able to go to the funeral of her favourite grandparent. I think that was the first time she had ever really felt the distance we had put between us and the rest of her family.

From my mum’s stories, I always felt that I knew a lot about Alexander Cruden, yet when I came to try and document his life, I found that actually, I didn’t. What I had were rich, emotionally powerful memories of him, but very few facts.

One of the really distinctive things about my great granddad was that he had only one leg. I was told that he’d lost the other one “in the war.” I now know that was World War One, but when I asked my mum recently about her grandad’s military service, all she knew for sure was that he had spent time afterwards in a hospital in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh. She remembered visiting him there in the 1940’s which suggests that his injury continued to trouble him for many years after he sustained it.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920's.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920’s.

I’ve learned that the hospital was called Edenhall East of Scotland Limbless Hospital, and that there don’t appear to be any surviving records going back to World War One.

What I don’t know of course, is how he ended up there. I have no idea when and where he served. My mum thought he might have been in the Gordon Highlanders, but there doesn’t appear to be a service record that matches him. This of course isn’t surprising given that only around 40 percent of service records survive for servicemen in WWI.

A couple of years ago I researched my husband’s grandfather and great uncle who both served in WWI as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. We knew that Tony’s uncle Eric had been killed, but no more than that. From Archives New Zealand I was able to get copies of their service records and by putting the information in those records together with a history of his regiment  that was available through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection (part of the Victoria University of Wellington Library), we ended up feeling that we understood quite a lot about this young man whom none of us had ever met. Elated by this find, I even used the example in a video I made for a university assignment.

Of course, from statuatory records I have learned a lot about Alexander Cruden. I know he was born in 1890 in Dundee, the second of seven children and the eldest son. I know that his eldest sister disappears from the Scottish records after the 1901 census, and probably (if I have the right person) reappears in Middlesburgh in 1924 when she seemed to marry a man called Cecil Leach.

I know that great grandad’s youngest sister died aged 19 of eclampsia in the Royal Maternity Hospital in Edinburgh, and that his only brother Stewart died aboard HMT Shera in the Arctic Sea in 1942; part of the Arctic Convoy which carried supplies to Russia in World War II.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

I know too that Alexander Cruden married Catherine Simpson Bissett Black on 27 March 1908, six weeks before their child (my grandmother Margaret Cruden) was born.

Alexander was 17; my great grandmother 18.

They were married for 62 years and raised five children. During the 1930’s and 1940’s he was the publican of the Fife Arms in Milton of Balgonie, Fife and by the 1960’s he was living in Dysart, Fife.

Alexander Cruden died in 1970, aged 80.

I know the bones of his life from BMD and census records, but little to put flesh on those bones. It seems that his military records – both of service and his subsequent disability – no longer exist, so I will probably never know how he came to suffer an injury that required the amputation of a leg; an injury which seems to have given him sufficient on-going pain that he continued to spend periods of time in hospital for years afterwards.

While I’m sad that there is so much I will never know about my  great grandad, I feel lucky to have memories of him and stories that I can share with my son. And this particular search has made me all the more grateful for every shred of documentary evidence I do find about my ancestors; for every piece of information that puts flesh on the skeletons of the past.