When things aren’t quite what they seem … the pauper daughter of a colonial administrator?

Helen Low (5 December, 1814 – 7 May, 1887)

About three months ago I received a comment on this blog, suggesting information about my Ramsay and Low ancestors. It came from a man who is researching the Governors of Penang, Malaysia, and who pointed me to a family tree that showed Helen Low – my 3x great grandmother – to be a daughter of a Captain James Low, who had quite a distinguished career in the British Army in South East Asia.

Naturally, I Googled James Low and discovered quite a lot about him. He was a career soldier who spent much of his life on the Malay Peninsula. He was Acting Governor of Penang Island (then called Prince of Wales Island) in 1838, wrote a book called The British Settlement of Penang in 1836, and was the subject of another book Low’s mission to Southern Siam, 1824 (2007) edited by Anthony Farrington. He died in Portobello, Edinburgh in 1852.

Low, James. 'The British Settlement of Penang', 1972 ed. Photo credit: Amazon.com

Low, James. ‘The British Settlement of Penang’, 1972 ed. Photo credit: Amazon.com

The family tree I was sent was quite comprehensive, although inaccurate as regards members of my more immediate family.

Part of me wanted to say “hey, cool; I have an ancestor who has left a real trace in the historical record, let’s get researching”, but I was also slightly dubious. My doubt was caused mainly by the fact that I knew Helen Low died in the Poorhouse, and that didn’t seem quite right for the daughter of a high ranking military man. It turns out I was right to have doubts. While the family tree information I was given is more or less correct for Helen Low’s marriage and children,  and as it turns out, the names of her parents – it seems that the James Low who was my 4x great grandfather wasn’t the same man who lived in Malaysia.

Here’s why I think that

I’m learning that one of the best ways to trace a life is by starting with death – at least deaths that occurred after the introduction of statutory record-keeping. In Scotland, this was in 1855.

Helen Low’s death record (in her married name of Ramsay) tells me:

  • She was the widow of David Skinner Ramsay, a carter.
  • She died on 7 May 1887 at the Dysart Combination Poorhouse, in Markinch, Fife, aged 71.
  • Her cause of death was paralysis and senile debility
  • Her death was reported by David Campbell, Governor of the Poorhouse.
  • Importantly, it also tells me that Helen’s parents’ names were James Low and Elspeth Robertson, and that both were deceased at the time of her death. James’ occupation on the form was given as Joiner.

From this it would seem that Helen Low was born in 1816 (or thereabouts – for ages are notoriously inaccurate on 19th century records).

Given Helen’s age it seemed likely that her marriage to David Ramsay had taken place before statutory records. OPR (old parish records) provide a lot less information than the later statutory records, and I couldn’t be sure where the couple had married, so I used census records to build up a picture of Helen’s life.

 1881: 298 Rosslyn Street, Gallatown, Fife. Household consisted of Helen, 67, outside worker, two unmarried adult children; Elizabeth, 40, factory worker and Peter, 20, carter, as well as two grandchildren; James, 15, labourer linoleum factory, and Robina, 8, scholar. Helen’s place of birth was given as Kettle, Fife.

1871: Kirky Road, Dysart, Fife. Household consisted of David Ramsay, aged 53 a carter, born Dysart; Helen, aged 56, born Kettle, Fife; daughter Elizabeth, aged 30, unmarried, an outdoor worker born Strathmiglo, Fife; son Peter, 10, scholar, born Dysart; and James, aged 5, a grandson born Dysart.

1861: Glenfoot, Abernethy, Perth. Household consisted of David Ramsay aged 43, Grain Agent, born Kirkcaldy, Fife; Helen aged 45 born Kettle, Fife; daughter Elizabeth aged 20 agricultural labourer, born Kettle, Fife; daughter Jane aged 17, agricultural labourer, born Strathmiglo, Fife; son John aged 6, born Abernethy, Perth; and son Peter aged 3 months, born Abernethy, Perth.

1851: Fargs Mill, Abernethy, Perth. Household consisted of David Ramsay, aged 34, Master Miller, one employee, born Dysart, Fife; Helen, 36, born Kettle, Fife; son James, 14, scholar, born Strathmiglo, Fife; daughter Elizabeth, 10, scholar, born Strathmiglo; son David, scholar, born Strathmiglo; daughter Jean, 7, scholar, born Strathmiglo; son William, 4, born Strathmiglo; James Stewart, 17; servant; Helen Matthew, 17; servant.

1841: Pityomie, Strathmiglo, Fife. Household consisted of David (Rumsey in index) agricultural labourer, aged 20; Helen (Ellen in index), 20; James, 4, David, 2, Elizabeth, 3mth.

From this information, I searched for a marriage record in the 1830s in Fife. I found two – both in 1836, both for a Helen Low and David Skinner Ramsay and both in the district of Cupar, Fife. One was for 15 May 1836 in Collessie; the other 30 May 1836 in Strathmiglo.

Parish church in Strathmiglo, Fife. Photo credit: British Listed Buildings

Parish church in Strathmiglo, Fife. Photo credit: British Listed Buildings

Collessie and Strathmiglo are about six miles apart, but because the census records showed David and Helen’s children as born in Strathmiglo, I retrieved that record from Scotland’s People first. The record says:

May 30 David Ramsay in the parish and Helen Low in the parish of Collessie were married.

As it was unlikely there were two David Ramsays marrying two Helen Lows in the same month, I wondered whether the duplicate records meant that the marriage took place in Collessie on 15 May and was simply re-recorded in David’s parish church register two weeks later, or whether the couple had two ceremonies – one in each parish. Curious, I retrieved the Collessie record too – hopeful that if it was in Helen’s parish, it might name her parents. Sadly it didn’t.

The Collessie entry says:

May 15 David Ramsay in the parish of Strathmiglo and Helen Low in this parish were married.

Helen’s birthplace in the majority of census records was given as Kettle – which is about six miles from both Collessie and Strathmiglo.

Putting all the information I had together, I looked for a birth record for Helen Low, in Fife; hypothesizing that it would probably be in one of the villages in the district of Cupar, between about 1815-1822 – parents James Low and Elspeth Robertson.


I found a Helen Low, born in Kettle, Fife on 5 December 1814 to parents James Low and Elspet Robertson.

Old Parish Register birth record; Helen Low, 1814. Source: Scotland's People.

Old Parish Register birth record; Helen Low, 1814. Source: Scotland’s People.

The OPR records says:

December 5th was born Helen lawful daughter of James Low Wright in (I can’t read this, but it looks like Maltree) and of Elspet Robertson his wife and was baptised the 5th January.

As I have only one source (Helen’s death record) which indicates parents’ names, I also looked for other children named Helen Low born in the area around the same time. I wasn’t able to find any others, so I’m fairly confident that this record is for the correct Helen.

Old Parish Register marriage record: James Low and Elspet Robertson, 1811, Kettle, Fife. Source: Scotland's People.

Old Parish Register marriage record: James Low and Elspet Robertson, 1811, Kettle, Fife. Source: Scotland’s People.

James Low and Elspet Robertson seem to have had seven children together between their marriage in 1811 and 1825 – all of them born in Kettle, Fife. Since Captain Low was apparently exploring southern Siam (Thailand) at the time of the last birth, it would seem to rule him out as my ancestor.

My next task is to find death records for James and Elspet, and perhaps census records (if they lived to 1841). These could help me find their birth records – although given that they lived in the late 18th and early 19th century, it is entirely likely that I won’t be able to find any definitive trace of them, at least not within the resources that are available on the internet. Perhaps I’ll have to add them to my long list of ancestors whose lives will either remain shrouded in mystery, or require another trip back to the UK!