On finding missing uncles and caring about their lives

I wrote a few weeks ago I posted a photo of my great grandmother, Annie Elder (nee Nicholson). Actually it’s the only photo of her I have and I love it because she looks like such a strong capable woman.

My great grandmother, Annie

I know that she was a teacher in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, but haven’t been able to find out at which school she taught. She married in 1898 and would almost certainly have had to resign on her marriage, so I have clues about the timing of her employment, but not the location. A second cousin recently told me that she remembers a teacher in her youth who’d worked with my great grandmother, but so far the name in the school minute or record book has eluded me.

What my cousin also told me is that Annie Nicholson had a son before her marriage to my great grandfather. His name was Andrew, and he was born in 1894. As was the practice at the time, his birth certificate labels him “illegitimate” – and has only a blank where “father’s name” would appear.

My family history is full of marriages that took place just weeks before births were recorded, but illegitimacies are so far rare, and so much more interesting because of it. Why did those particular men not “do the right thing” and marry my pregnant fore-mothers? Were they already married? Did they die? Get cold feet? I would love to know.

My cousin says that she remembers Uncle Andrew and his wife in the 1950s, visiting from the US, where he had emigrated to. She had always assumed that Andrew lived with his mother and my great grandfather, as her mother had spoken of her older brother frequently and fondly. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. In the 1901 census, Andrew was recorded as living with his grandmother and uncle, a few streets away from where his mother lived with her husband and their child – my one year old grandmother. By the 1911 census, Andrew would have been 16 so it’s  not entirely surprising that I can’t find a record of him. I have a suspicion that he may have joined the merchant navy, and this is my next project.

I don’t know if he was in the merchant navy during World War I, or if he served in the military. I know he married in 1918 and emigrated to the US in 1923. He appears in the 1930 and 1940 censuses in Dearborn, Michigan, so was probably an auto-worker. I know he had no children and died in 1973, when I was 12 years old.

Two weeks ago I had never heard of Andrew Scott Nicholson, son of Annie Kinnell Nicholson and big brother to my grandmother (and namesake) Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. I still don’t know him – only fragments of his life from official records and (thankfully) my cousin’s recollections. But I care about him. I want him to have had a good life, fulfilling work, a strong marriage, fun and friendship. I desperately want him to have overcome the fact that his father wouldn’t or couldn’t acknowledge his birth (at least legally) and that his mother’s husband didn’t seem to want him.

I want him to have been happy.

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).