A while back, I started messing about researching into my ancestry. I can’t say I was particularly drawn to the subject, but my daughter Lorna subscribed to ancestry.co.uk and wanted me to fill her in on as much of the Murison family background as I could muster. She had already started on my wife’s family, as my wife’s mother, now in her nineties, is a total treasure trove of old family information. In relatively quick order she had managed to assemble a pretty comprehensive picture of the Quarmby family background. However, the Murison family remained a blank sheet.
I was able to fill her in with the basics of my own parents and their immediate families. My mother was Austrian, born in the Sudtirol region which is now part of Italy, so conducting research on that branch of the family is challenging, to say the least. My father is Scottish, and indeed I grew up in Glasgow, but in reality I know very little indeed about my own family background. Nonetheless, Lorna assured me, the Ancestry web site has a whole bunch of tools that we could use to uncover an incredible depth of detail about the family tree, once we got the basic information all entered in.
To a certain extent that did work. I was interested in particular to learn more about the Murison line. All I knew was that my paternal grandfather was named John Murison, but nothing beyond that. Armed with just this tidbit of information, once it is all entered into the Ancestry web site, there are two things you can do. First of all, Ancestry throws up a bunch of “hints” based on the information already entered. Second, you can perform structured searches for records that might contain pertinent information. It is remarkable just how much information can be thrown up using those tools in very short order. I was able to find John Murison’s father, James Murison, and establish that John was born in Dundee in 1898. I also found a reference that James Murison’s mother was named Barbara, but at the end of the day, other than learning a little bit more about James himself, that’s about as far as I got. So I am not all that much wiser as to the origins of the Murison line of the family.
On my paternal grandmother’s side, however, things got a lot more interesting. It turned out that my grandmother was not married to John Murison. Instead, he was actually married to someone else, and by all accounts he kept two separate active families, each of whom were openly known to the other. Despite this, the “actual” wife (we do know her name – I have a copy of their wedding certificate!) and her family remain a complete mystery, and I have been unable to uncover any information whatsoever about them. My grandmother, however, has been a different story entirely. Isabella Robertson McNair’s family can be traced back several generations. At the time of writing, I have traced them back as far as the early 1700’s, and they all lived out their lives in the northern part of the county of Lanarkshire, just to the immediate southeast of Glasgow.
Apart from the thrill of learning about my roots, the exercise has been surprisingly fascinating. One of the issues that you deal with is that the further back you go, the less mobile people and families were. And those families were huge. It is not unusual to find families with ten or more children. Those children have their own families, and for the most part they end up living in the same area. Obviously, you find that certain individual surnames become quite common. But you also learn that forenames tend to be repeated, generation after generation, within families. As a result, when researching a particular individual, you find repeated instances of the same name cropping up time and time again…you even find names of the same married couples cropping up time and time again. So it becomes imperative, when adding a new person to your family tree, that you need to double check to see that you are in fact adding the correct person. For example, I have two Isabella Robertson McNairs in my family tree, and they are both contemporaries – first cousins, in fact.
This problem of adding the correct person is particularly egregious when you consider one of the great features of Ancestry. It allows you to consult and view the family trees of other Ancestry users whose family trees intersect with your own (which, naturally, becomes an increasingly likely occurrence the farther up your tree you go). If one of your ancestors coincides with someone in another Ancestry user’s tree, you can just import that person, together with their existing family relationships, directly into your own tree. But this is something you want to do very carefully, because that other user may not have been as careful when building their own tree, and the information in there might just be plain wrong. A fair old amount of bogus information on Ancestry has been carelessly propagated this way, and it’s always the stuff for which limited corroborating information is available.
Because of this, I began to take particular note of the places mentioned in all of the references that I come across. For example, census returns list the names of all the people living in a particular residence at a particular time. So while all those names are interesting, the address is also important, and I have taken to keeping a careful record of them. Likewise, if you come across a marriage record, it will often list the addresses of the newly married couple. Same thing with birth and death records. If an address is inconsistent with the family’s history, that would be a red flag that I’d like to look more closely at.
When you go back to the 1800’s and beyond, Scottish addresses (and many other addresses as well, I would guess) tend not to correspond with any modern-day addresses. As often as not, they describe places that no longer exist. Furthermore, addresses are typically organized by parish, and the way the Ancestry site works only the parish gets imported automatically with the rest of the record. If you want the full address, you have to import that manually.
I therefore got into the habit of tracking down every address I came across, locating it if possible on an old map of the area (in the UK, the Ordinance Survey maps are a remarkably finely detailed resource for this purpose), and noting its present day situation on Google maps. This, for example, has enabled me to observe some delightful oddities, such the fact that one Grace Fyfe Renwick, aged 18, worked as a domestic servant at a particular location in Motherwell where her great-great-grandson today just happens to operate a kitchen renovation business.
It has been a fascinating exercise. I have found entire villages which today have totally disappeared leaving only green fields, and others which survive only as an isolated building with no evidence of the original village name. I have found old row houses, built to accommodate the families of laborers working at a local pit, quarry, or farm, which would have housed four large families, and which today would comprise a modest single family home. One such row house is shown in the pictures at the top of this column. This was Reaburn Row, in West Calder, a row house comprising six dwellings built in 1866 to accommodate workers at James Raeburn’s short-lived shale oil works. Thomas McNair and his growing family were probably among the first occupants – my great-grandfather John McNair was born there – but I don’t know which of the six they lived in. It was demolished in the 1930’s and is today the location of a farmhouse.
It was quite enlightening to find out just how much of that particular part of Scotland was devoted to coal mining. The whole region was criss-crossed with a network of railway lines, with a separate branch to every individual pit. And the pits were absolutely everywhere, yet today there is virtually no sign of any of them. Although a coal miner’s life was a pretty dreadful one, it was actually one of the better paid professions a man could choose, and it was very typical for coal mining to be a profession followed from father to son. Actually, before the practice was banned in the 1790’s, a coal miner was considered the property of the mine owner, and his sons were legally obliged to work the pits. In fact, a coal miner could not even quit his job, and could be prosecuted for the theft of his own labor if he attempted to do so! Despite being banned, the practice is reported to have been at least partly in use in the early 1800’s.
Most mine owners built rows of houses which they would rent out to their workers, and it became rare for a coal miner to live elsewhere. These buildings were often simply named for the person or mine who owned them: New Logan’s Row, Scott’s Row, Passover Row are all examples of row houses where my ancestors lived. They were very rudimentary structures, and very few still exist today. Some were kept in a reasonably good state of repair, but others less so…Here is an extract from a report published by The Glasgow Herald in 1875:
The most wretched hovels that I saw on Monday were at Calder, belonging to Messrs. Dixon…The rent of the houses, which are dear at any money, is 3 shillings monthly. They are lighted by a small window in front and another at the back not much larger than the crown of a man's hat…An old man and his wife sat by the fire and entertained me with stories of their troubles with the wind and the rain, the one threatening to bring the old house down about their ears and the other pouring in through the loose pan-tiles and down the open hatch way at the door.
An Ancestry search will also throw up on occasion glimpses into the hardships suffered by these poor folk. If a miner could not work, for example through work-related illness or injury, he was not paid. If he could not pay his rent he would be evicted from his house, miserable hovel or not. However, the miner’s family had recourse to claim for a subsistence allowance under the Poor Laws, although this was clearly a course of last resort. Consider Agnes Burt, wife of Thomas McNair, a coal miner. Thomas is in the hospital as a result of injuries received in the coal mine, and Agnes is at home looking after three infants. We have a record of her application for assistance under the Poor Law. She is referred to in the application as “The Pauper”, and states that she is presently relying on the support of her “brothers and sisters”. We don’t know what the outcome was, beyond a note to the effect that her case was transferred to another parish, for reasons not given. We have found no record of poor Agnes after this point.
It is not surprising that so many Scots chose to emigrate during this time period. I have records of distant relatives who emigrated to Canada, America, Australia and South Africa, although I haven’t really followed up on any of them, except for two, a pair of brothers in their 20’s. Both were coal miners, and they emigrated to America for (presumably) a better life. However, both became coal miners in Pennsylvania. One died in his 40’s of “cirrhosis of the liver”, and the other, aged 70, of complications following a broken leg suffered during a “fall” in the coal mine.
There is so much more to uncover in this ancestry search, and I have been surprised by how interesting the whole process has been, beyond the simple pleasure of discovering one’s heritage. There is so much to be learned, not just about who these people were, but how they lived their lives. And it has the capacity to constantly surprise you with little details that just make you smile.
For example, my mother-in-law’s family name is Quarmby. This was the name of a tiny village that used to be located near the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield, and has now become consumed by it (although most of the old buildings that formed the Victorian village of Quarmby are still standing – right in the middle of a modern housing estate – and have been very nicely renovated). So it was quite a surprise to find that a branch of my father-in-law’s ancestral family actually came from the village of Quarmby back in the early 1800’s…even though I haven’t (yet) managed to identify a single member of the Quarmby family that ever lived there!
And finally, although I pat myself on my back, and proudly assert that I have traced over eight generations of my family going back to the late 1700’s, now I read on the internet that former President of the United States John Tyler, who was born in 1790, has not one – but two – grandsons who are still alive today! That just blows my mind…