Tag Archives: Doing research

The joy of ancestors who do the unexpected

Every now and again, you come across an ancestor who gives you a surprise, and they can be fascinating to research. Let’s be honest, someone who is born, works, marries, has children and dies in more or less the same place, and leads a life normal enough to leave no other record behind, lacks a bit of sparkle for a family historian! But one of today’s people led me to a Strachan descendant who had quite a life, and she was certainly intriguing to research.

While checking out the census entries for Mary Wilson Strachan, born 1862 and married to John McVie, I clicked on their children to see whether they’d all been born in Kilmaurs, Ayrshire – which they had. But when I clicked on their daughter Mary Lindsay McVie, born in about 1884, I was led to her entry for 1901, when she was a domestic servant in Kilmarnock, then to an entry in London for the 1911 census. London? I had to look into it.

The 1911 census has the household schedule for 60 Hartismere Road, Fulham. The head of the household is John McLaunahan Hamilton, age 42, a journalistic artist working for a newspaper, born in Renfrewshire, Scotland. He has completed the married and children columns, saying he’d been married for 20 years and had 4 children born, 3 living. The second person is Mary Lindsay McVie, a boarder age 26, single and born in Kilmaurs, Ayrshire, with nothing in the occupation column. Finally, there is Phyllis Estella Hamilton, age 4 born in London, with nothing in the relationship column. Intriguing. John Hamilton says he’s married, not widowed, and it looks as if young Phyllis is his daughter. So where is his wife and his other children?

They proved easy to find. In 1901 John M Hamilton, age 32 and a journalistic artist, was living in Cathcart, Renfrewshire with wife Jeanie K Hamilton born Barrhead, Renfrewshire and two daughters, Maggie R Hamilton age 9 and Jeanie K P Hamilton age 5, plus a visitor and a domestic servant. In 1911, there is a Mrs J M Hamilton age 41, married for 20 years with 3 children born and 2 living, born in Barrhead, Renfrewshire with daughter Jeanie Hamilton age 15 born in Glasgow. Neither give an occupation, and they are living at 48 Fernhurst Road, Fulham – which is only a few streets away from Hartismere Road where John Hamilton is living with Mary McVie. Plus there is a marriage for his other daughter Maggie Ried Hamilton in Fulham in 1909.

So Phyllis Estella Hamilton, born in Kensington in 1906, appears to be John Hamilton’s daughter but she is not the daughter of his wife Jeanie. Which leads one to the conclusion that she is the daughter of Mary Lindsay McVie, and that John Hamilton has left his wife and is living with Mary.

How did they meet? Did she start working for the family as a domestic servant in Scotland, move to London with them, and then went into a relationship with her employer that resulted in his setting up two households – one for his wife and daughters and one for himself, Mary and their daughter Phyllis? Hopefully he made a good living as a journalistic artist, as that can’t have been a cheap way to live!

It must have been something of a family scandal at the time. What did Mary McVie’s family make of it? However, that isn’t the end of Mary McVie’s story. Looking to see what became of her after 1911 unearthed quite a story.

John McL Hamilton died in 1915 age 47, his death registered in the July-Aug-Sept quarter at Chelsea, London. However, also in the July-Aug-Sept quarter of 1915, Mary L McVie married John C McAuley at Newcastle, Northumberland. When she left John Hamilton is a mystery, but given the following I suspect she had left him some time before then, and returned to Scotland with her daughter Phyllis.

Mr McCauley was actually Charles J McAuley from USA, and in 1916 he was issued with a Certificate of Registration of American Citizen at Glasgow. He was from Alabama, residing in Glasgow where he was an electrical engineer, married to Molly McVie McAuley, who was born in Kilmarnock, and he said he had a daughter Phyllis born in London in 1906 who was currently residing in Kilmarnock. He gives the name of Mrs Thomas Watson of 30 Titchfield Street, Kilmarnock as the person to contact in case of death or accident, which could well be a sister of Mary McVie.

Charles McCauley then travelled to New York in June 1916, and Molly McAuley age 30 with daughter Phyllis McAuley followed in September 1916. The 1920 USA census has Molly L McAuley age 33, widow, arrived USA 1916 and born Scotland, working as a solderer at a novelty factory and living with daughter Phyllis E Hamilton age 13. They are in Waterbury, Connecticut. So Charles John McAuley died between 1916 and 1920. Could he have died in WW1? A search of the Commonwealth War Graves site produced the certificate for Sergeant Charles John McCauley of the Canadian Railway Troops who died in September 1917 in Belgium and is remembered at the Coxyde Military Cemetary. It says he was the husband of Mary McAuley of Waterbury, Connecticut.

The 1930 USA Census has Mary McAuley age 43, widow, living on her own in Naugatak, Connecticut, working as a domestic nurse. Her daughter is close by, though, as Phyllis married Charles Varian, manager of a quarry, and had children. Phyllis died in 1990 and her death record gives her name as Phyllis E Varian, father’s surname Hamilton.

So yes, Phyllis born in 1906 was the daughter of Mary McVie and John Hamilton, who had left his wife and was with Mary in 1911. But for whatever reason the relationship didn’t last long, and Mary married Charles McAuley in Newcastle in 1915, possibly returning first to Scotland, and John Hamilton died at about the same time. Mary and her daughter Phyllis then went to Connecticut to be with John McAuley in 1916, but her husband was killed in WW1. Mary and her daughter continued to live in Connecticut, where daughter Phyllis married and had children.

It’s amazing what you can discover about someone through online research these days

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New article: How the British census was done – and the mistakes that come with it

I’ve written this article about the British census because I realised, on reading quite a few posts on a well known genealogy online forum, that a lot of people were under a misapprehension about how the census was taken.

If you’d like to know more about the British census – which is an essential post-1841 resource for family historians – you can find it here http://wp.me/P34D39-hk or you can click on its title under the ARTICLES tab above.

Interesting statistics: average age of death

I’ve been playing with the statistics feature of the software I use for my family tree, and it comes up with some fascinating stuff.

For my Strachan tree, the average age of death is 47. Hardly anyone died at that age, though: the average age is low because so many died within the first three years of life. In fact, around 13.5% of the deaths happened before the age of 3 and 20% had died by the time they were 10 years old.

At the other end of the scale, 3.5% of them made it into their 90s, 9.2% signed off in their 80s, and 15% popped their clogs during their 70s. That makes 27.7% reaching what we could call old age.

My Strachan tree dates back to the 1700s with most of the people on it living during the 1800s. Given that nearly all the men were coal miners and many of the women gave birth to an awful lot of children, and considering the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which they must have lived, my Strachans appear to have been a pretty tough lot.

Why more from Scotland than England?

I’m aware my “on this day” posts feature far more Scottish ancestors than English ones. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, three of my grandparents were Scottish with only one from England, which means Scottish ancestors are bound to outnumber English ones in a roughly 75/25 split. As many of my Scottish ancestors went in for very large families it may well be more like an 80/20 split.

But another reason is that I don’t know the exact date of the birth, marriage or death for quite a lot of the Yorkshire people on my family tree due to being a bit of a scrooge when it comes to buying English certificates.

Scottish birth, marriage and death are available online via ScotlandsPeople: you have to pay to download the actual certificate once you’ve picked it out from the index, but it works out at less than £2 per certificate. For English ones, you have to send off to the GRO (General Register Office) – you can make the request online but then the GRO sends you a certified copy of the certificate via a document delivery service. Each certificate costs £9.25. So it’s cumbersome and expensive to get hold of English certificates, but easy and a great deal cheaper to get Scottish ones.

The GRO says “Current legislation in England and Wales does not permit the register entries (certificate information) to be made available online”. Scotland’s legislation obviously does and has no doubt made providing such information online a nice little government source of income. It’s a shame England and Wales doesn’t follow suit, although no doubt the cost of setting up such a system – which would involve taking a digital copy of every certificate issued since 1837 – is a major reason why it hasn’t happened.

I’m lucky, though, in that West Yorkshire church records have been digitised and are available via Ancestry, so an Ancestry subscription is well worth the money for me. North and South Yorkshire are apparently also being digitised and will be made available via FindMyPast. Once that happens I may find out more about my Yorkshire ancestors for whom I don’t yet have a lot of detail.

Which nth cousin are you, and are you removed?

Time I got to grips with how cousin numbers work, so I’ve been studying it on various online resources. This is how I find it easiest to work out.

– Find the nearest common ancestor, going back in time, for you and your cousin.
– Count how many generations there are between that ancestor and yourself (but NOT counting either the ancestor or yourself).
– Do the same for your cousin.
– If you both have the same number of generations going back to the common ancestor then you are xth cousins, x being the number of generations going back.
– If you are not the same number of generations then you are cousins removed. Take the number of generations between whoever is closest to the common ancestor, and add once removed, twice removed, etc. for how many generations separate you and your cousin.

So anyone descended from Thomas Strachan and Susannah Alexander (my gggg grandparents) and who is of the same generation as myself is my 5th cousin. Anyone descended from them but a generation further down the tree would be my 5th cousin once removed.

Doing a chart helps. Here’s how I’m related to Cathy:
Common ancestors John Strachan and Agnes Neilson
Gen 1 – siblings Robert Strachan and Samuel Strachan
Gen 2 – 1st cousins Joseph Strachan and Janet Strachan
Gen 3 – 2nd cousins Henry Strachan and Mary Lindsay
Gen 4 – 3rd cousins My father and Cathy’s father
Cathy and I are therefore 4th cousins.

Thanks to Mac for the email that prompted me to do this – he and I are 5th cousins.

Autumn is on its way

Summer is officially over, although we’re forecast a warm and sunny week, but the evenings and early mornings are starting to feel autumnal or, as my Yorkshire grandmother would have said, back-endish. This blog has helped me produce a genealogy “to do” list which is now starting to become a tad overwhelming, but it means I can look forward to cold and wet days as they keep me inside.

I’m currently working on the story of my Strachan grandparents as well as producing a page about my Logan ancestors from Aberdeenshire. I want to write a few more article-type features as the ones I’ve already done are proving popular. In particular, a recent discussion with some friends who also have Scottish ancestors has given me the idea of writing about clans and tartans: and, in particular, how they are mainly a romantic Victorian construct and have very little to do with how our ancestors lived. I do know that my Aberdeenshire grandfather wore a kilt when he went off to war with the Gordon Highlanders – it was the first time he’d ever worn one and after the war he never wore one again!

So I’m actually starting to look forward to cooler weather, with less gardening, horse riding and being outdoors and more time for family history.

Random thoughts sparked over the last few days

A couple of things had me thinking about family history over the last few days. I watched, on television, a repeat of the Olympics Opening Ceremony from last summer and was struck by how Danny Boyle’s “from rural serenity to industrial chaos” spectacular so very much summed up my family history.

In Yorkshire, my Green ancestors came from the small village of Worsbrough which, before the railways, the coal mines and the sprawl of Barnsley took their toll, must have been absolutely beautiful. They were innkeepers and, before the advent of the railway, that meant coaching inns where horses were kept and changed, coach travellers ate and refreshed themselves and sometimes stayed overnight. Today’s equivalent is probably a motorway services area.

Up in Ayrshire my ancestors entered the industrial age early, as they were coal miners from at least 1770. But the enormous growth in coal mining that resulted from industrialisation, with coal used to power railways, steam ships and factories, as the fuel burnt to smelt iron and eventually to create electricity, meant they were never unemployed, although they did move from mine to mine as pits closed and new ones opened. It was incredibly hard, physical labour, though, and the landscape of Ayrshire was irrevocably changed.

In Aberdeenshire, my ancestors clung on to a rural, almost peasant way of life as long as they could, and much of where they lived remains agricultural. But following the various branches, it becomes obvious that working as a farm servant and eventually getting a lease on a croft had ceased to be the young men’s dream before the First World War. And I don’t suppose any of my ancestors, when they walked along the beach at Cruden Bay, ever thought the north sea oil pipeline would run underneath it.

Then I met up with a friend who’s also a keen family historian, and we were swapping stories about the traumas and tragedies that can be found on both our family trees. It occurred to me that we often focus on such events because they are out of the ordinary, and they tell a story. A series of census entries and births for a happy family leading a blameless life doesn’t add up to a stand-out life story, unfortunately. So it becomes all too easy to know all about the joyless aspects of your ancestors’ lives and not much at all about their joyful moments. They must have had them, and they do seem to have been focussed on family and neighbours, many of whom were also work colleagues.

But have we lost the sense of community that was once so strong? I remember when I found an electoral roll list for the street my mother lived on when she was young, and copied it out to show her. Instead of looking at it, she went into her memory and managed to name, and give details about, nearly all the families who lived on the same street as she did when she was 10 years old. I know four of my neighbours by name and have regular conversations with two of them – that’s all. Most of the others I simply nod at in passing, and wave to if we happen to be putting the bins out at the same time. We may be far better off than our ancestors in monetary terms, but I suspect they may have had a richness to their lives we now lack.