On the price of life

machine with text

A few days ago, my 100 Days Project word was “price.

I’m learning from this project that if I have enough bouncing around in my head, connections will come. I’d recently photographed an old cash register in a junk shop and was pleased with the result. Around the same time, I’d been working on the Ramsay branch of my tree, and in particular my 3x great grandmother Helen Low – prompted in part by a wholly accidental find in the online catalogue of the Fife Council Archive.

From the Dysart Combination Poorhouse records, Fife Council Archive.

From the Dysart Combination Poorhouse records, 1886-87. Held at Fife Council Archive.

Helen Low was 70 years old when she was “removed” to the Poorhouse in 1886. I know from the 1881 census that Helen, a widow, was then living at 298 Rossyln Street, Gallatown, Fife with two of her adult children Elizabeth, 40 and Peter, 20 as well as two grandchildren; James, 15 and Robina aged 8. All but Robina were working, including 67 year old Helen whose occupation was listed in the census as Outdoor Worker. She had been widowed ten years earlier when my 3x great grandfather, David Skinner Ramsay died of typhoid fever, aged 54.

From the record it looks as though Helen’s children may have been struggling financially to pay the Poorhouse, and presumably would have been unable to keep her themselves until November when James – the eldest son – appears to have been in a position to take her home with him. The question is though, why didn’t this happen? Why did Helen Low stay in the Poorhouse for another six months before dying there?

Helen Low; death record, 1887. From Scotland's People.

Helen Low; death record, 1887. From Scotland’s People.

Helen’s cause of death was given as paralysis and senile decay, so it is possible that she was too ill to travel to her son’s home in Perth.

Helen Low is the fourth of my ancestors I’ve found to have died in a Poorhouse in the late 19th century, and I suppose it reinforces the vulnerability of those who relied on selling their physical labour to earn a living. Old age, sickness or accidents could so easily destroy a family’s ability to survive.

The introduction of social reforms like the National Health Service, state pensions and labour law reforms like sick leave and unemployment benefits meant that Helen’s grandchildren and great grandchildren – along with millions of other working-class people – have largely been spared the indignity of a poorhouse death. It’s such a shame that our current governments seem to have learned nothing from history and are busy dismantling these institutions, supported by the mainstream media which seems to have wholeheartedly adopted the Victorian rhetoric of blaming poverty on moral weakness, laziness, fecundity — in short, on the supposed personal failings of those who experience poverty.

Or, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.




The Elder family: a new clue

The latest edition of the Fife Family History Society Journal arrived, and with it a chance to find out more about my Elder ancestors – a branch of the family I had – co-incidentally – been focusing on lately.

A snippet in the journal indicated the existence of an article from 1864 about my 4x great grandparents Thomas Elder and Agnes Thomson.

Thanks to the efficient and helpful Librarian at Kirkcaldy Galleries, I now have a copy of this article.

Fifeshire Advertiser, 3 September 1864. An article about my ancestors Thomas Elder and Agnes Thomson. Reproduced courtesy of Kirkcaldy Galleries.

Fifeshire Advertiser, 3 September 1864. An article about my ancestors Thomas Elder and Agnes Thomson. Reproduced courtesy of Kirkcaldy Galleries.

And it’s fascinating. Apart from revealing quite a lot about 19th century journalistic style (at least in local newspapers) —  “On Sunday last this worthy couple had in their humble domicile …” — it confirms a few things I already knew about these ancestors and gives me a new line of research to follow up.

The article suggests that Thomas Elder – who was born in Buckhaven, Fife on 22 November 1783 – served in the Napoleonic Wars. This is the first time I’ve had an indication of an ancestor involved in that very distant conflict, so it’s a whole new avenue of research for me.

Thomas Elder’s birth record is one of the earliest I have. It shows him to be the “lawful son” of another Thomas Elder (this story has squillions of them – elder Elders, and younger Elders and … well, you’ll see) and Isobel Dryburgh.

I know nothing about Thomas’s early life or military service, but I do know that he married Agnes Thomson, originally from Cults (also in Fife), 17 December 1805, in Buckhaven. Agnes seems have been the child of Thomas and Agnes Thomson, although I don’t have enough information yet to verify that.

I know very little about my great x 4 grandparents, except that they had at least eight children. The first record of their lives is the 1841 census. It shows them living in Gallatown, Dysart, Fife with their three youngest children; Isabella, 15, John, 14 and Orr, 12. Thomas’s occupation was given as agricultural labourer. Gallatown is about six miles from Buckhaven, and in 1841 a large proportion of the population worked as handloom weavers. Also living in Gallatown at the same time were two of Thomas and Agnes’s sons – David and James, both with wives and young children.

The 1851 census shows that Thomas’s household had shrunk to himself and his wife and his occupation had changed to carter. His older sons still lived nearby with their growing families. By the 1861 census, 78 year old Thomas was still working as a carter.

The 1864 article shown above finishes with the following lines:

At present this aged couple are in wonderful health considering their years, and may yet see another generation.

Sadly, that wasn’t to be.

Agnes Thomson died on 22 October 1870. She was 85 years old and a resident of the Markinch Poorhouse (Dysart Combination Poorhouse). The Poorhouse Governor, who was the informant of the death, described her as “wife of Thomas Elder, worker, latterly pauper.”

It is clear that after Agnes’s death, Thomas left the Poorhouse; the 1871 census shows him living with his son (also Thomas) – and his son’s family – back in Dysart.

But his respite was short-lived. Eighty eight year old Thomas Elder died on 17 February 1972, once again an inmate of the Poorhouse. Again, the informant on the death record was the  Governor, who described Thomas on the register as “labourer, latterly pauper.”

I don’t yet know whether admission records for the Markinch Poorhouse have survived and whether they might tell me how this elderly couple – who seemed to have such a large family living close by – ended up dying in a Victorian institution that was designed to provide relief from destitution without ever letting those who needed it forget the prevailing ideology that it was all their own fault.

It may be that the answer was simply widespread poverty. The younger Thomas, in whose home the elder was living in 1871, was himself 61 at the time of the census. He worked as a linen weaver, while his two adult daughters who also lived there, were described as factory workers. Not an affluent family, and one that could perhaps have been tipped into destitution of its own by sickness, loss of work or some other – perhaps minor – misfortune.

So often in my search for understanding of my family I find events that make me incredibly sad. The death of small children is one such tragedy – residence in the Poorhouse is another.It seems that Thomas Elder fought for Britain over a 12 year period in his youth, raised a large family and continued to be a productve, working man until his old age. His death, and that of Agnes, makes me feel very sad.