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.

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A lament to the invisibility of my working-class ancestors.

My husband’s aunt visited today with three CDs of family photos she has scanned and catalogued. We spent much of the afternoon looking at them, and while I’m delighted to now have such a rich photographic record to hand on to my son, it makes me kind of sad to think about the tiny collection of creased and faded photographs I have of my own family. And worse, these photos are all that I have. If there were ever diaries or family bibles, they have either disappeared or are in the possession of distant cousins I probably don’t even know exist. And while I know that grandfathers, great grandfathers and great uncles all served in the military during various wars, their uniforms, pension books and service medals have similarly disappeared.

I’m thinking of this particularly after reading Lynnie57’s lovely post (http://lynnie57.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/the-working-class/) about her working class ancestors. Like Lynn, my family largely consists of generations of Scottish mill and pottery workers, farm labourers and laundresses. For as far back as I’ve looked (only seven generations so far – and that only for one bit of the family); whole branches of the family lived and died within a few miles of each other in the towns and villages of Fife and Angus (they were literally marrying the girl next door)!

I‘m extraordinarily proud of this solid working class heritage, but the downside of being descended from “ordinary folks” is that they left behind only the faintest traces of themselves. They were born, baptised, married and died; and all I will know of many of them is contained in those few statutory and parish records, and in census returns.

Of course, they were working people, so it’s likely that during their lifetimes, their names and other details would have been recorded in the ledgers and other records of the mills, potteries, factories and landed estates where they worked. And maybe with some luck and enough digging I will be able to identify particular workplaces, and maybe those workplaces will have archives, and maybe one day I will see written in black and white, against the name of my forebears, the tiny sum they were paid for their long hours of back-breaking labour. And I know that then I will weep and give thanks for the privileged life I have led.

And of course there are exceptions; I found a “service record” for my great grandfather who enlisted in the Black Watch and was chucked out after 15 days when they discovered he was under-age. A great grandmother was a teacher before her marriage and I’m hopeful that the Fife county archive will have records of her employment. Less happily, the 1891 census informed me that another great, great grandfather was a patient in the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum; ten years later the next census told me he had moved to the poorhouse. While the granddaughter in me feels the awfulness of this man’s fate, the researcher can’t help but be excited; contact with official agencies (even, sadly, hospitals and poorhouses) offers the possibility of more records and a chance to know more. The trace they left behind is stronger and more enduring.

Great grandmother, Annie Nicholson.

My great grandmother, Annie Nicholson was a teacher before her marriage. I’ve always loved this photo, and can imagine her in front of a classroom.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for the Limbless, Musselburgh, Scotland.

Ten years after my great grandfather, Alexander Cruden had to leave the Black Watch becuse he was underage, he enlisted again and served as a Gordon Highlander in France during WWI. He was wounded, losing a leg and spent much time subsequently at the Edenhall Hospital in Musselburgh.

I am glad for my husband and son. Thanks to their aunt’s wonderful efforts, they can look into the faces of the past and see themselves. And meantime, I will continue to search, record and connect and hope that in time I will also find more of myself and “the other side” of my son’s heritage.