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.



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.

When the truth contradicts the “family folklore”; treading carefully around the relatives

One of the unintended consequences of becoming the family historian – as opposed to just collecting and handing down the family stories – is that realities exposed by searching the records don’t always match up with the sometimes cherished stories. While this is really exciting for me, I think it’s proving a bit stressful for my parents who have lived most of their lives with the family folklore.

I started thinking about this a while ago when I was researching my Cruden great grandparents – my mum’s grandparents. I’d discovered that my great granddad, Alexander Cruden, was one of seven kids so I set about finding out what happened to them all. My mum knew about a couple of his sisters and his younger brother who died about the Arctic Convoys in World War II, and told me that one of the sisters had died young “of a broken heart, because she wasn’t allowed to marry the man she wanted to.”

What I discovered wasn’t quite as romantic. Mary (May) Balsillie Cruden, my great, great aunt; died of eclampsia in the Royal Edinburgh Maternity Hospital in February 1921. She was nineteen, worked as a children’s nurse – and was unmarried. Frustratingly, I don’t know for sure if the baby died as well, but I have to assume so because I haven’t been able to find a birth certificate.

My family tree is full of marriages that precede births by only a few weeks, and I’d like to think that the father of her child was ready to “do the right thing”. But, mindful that family stories usually contain at least some truth, I can’t help wondering if the “broken heart” story would have taken hold if May Cruden had left behind a lover or fiancée mourning her death and that of their unborn child.

I don’t have a picture of May Cruden, but have always liked this photo of May’s mother Isabella (nee Wallace) and niece (my grandmother).