Sunday, 1 March 2015

Great or Grand

When I was a small boy, I used the term Aunt when speaking to, or about, my mother's sister and my father's mother's sisters and several other ladies (apparently unrelated to me but) well known to my parents.

I assumed it was another one of those terms of respect for adults that you learned to use through practice and occasional reproof.

The idea that there might be formal rules for allocating this honorific across generations simply did not occur to me. So when I had children, they referred to my (actual biologically-related) aunt as their aunt.

We did not even consider the use of any generation-indicating prefix.

Thirty years on, my son's children know that they have many aunts including my daughter, my sister and my mother's sister. As a genealogist, that now seems just a little untidy and potentially confusing. So the recent article by Judy G Russell on the apparent inconsistency in referring to a pair of sisters as grandmother but great aunt struck a chord.

I happened to mention this to the 2xgreat aunt of my grandchildren (that is, my aunt). She had no particular opinion on the relative genealogical efficiency of the choice, but did observe wistfully that it might have been nice to be called "grandaunt".

What a shame that this conversation came more than thirty years too late. What may seem to be mere technical terms can carry surprising personal significance within families.

I need to remember to assure Aunt Joan that whatever we call her, she has done (and continues to do) a GRAND job.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Relevance is relative

I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to hear Chris Paton speak when he was in Australia in February 2014; and I am an avid reader of his books. But even I baulked at the extended treatment at the beginning of Discover Scottish church records of the web of schisms and reunions in the non-conformist churches.

As I flipped over to find "something more useful", I pitied any poor researcher who actually needed to work through that section because he had family involved in one of those sects.

I think the relevant expression is don't speak too soon.

Close examination of the registration details for the wedding of (2xgreat grandparents) Andrew Burton and Agnes Cameron on 28 October 1887, show that the ceremony was conducted by William B Gardiner according to the forms of the Original Secession Church.

So I am now elbow deep in the arcane distinctions between episcopalians and presbyterians, burghers and anti-burghers and the auld and new lichts.

I apologise Chris. I should never have doubted you. At least I remembered whose book it was that I had not read properly.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Could Andrew Burton read and write?

On the occasion of his wedding to Agnes Cameron (on 28 October 1887), our 2xgreat grandfather Andrew "signed" the documents by making his mark. Younger brother James and John Renfrew counter-signed to confirm that the groom was who he claimed to be. The Registrar, Mr Barrowman, duly recorded this in the Statutory Register. This was a distinct role for James apart from being a witness to the ceremony as a whole, which duty he shared with Agnes's sister Isabella (as recorded in another part of the Register).

Universal literacy is a relatively modern idea but Andrew's status is puzzling. He grew up in Ireland in the 1870s (when their school system was regarded as a model for the colonies in Australia) and moved to Scotland which also was justifiably proud of its educational provision. Apparently James, just 4 years younger, was able to read and write effectively. What could be the reason for Andrew's inability to sign his own name?

The situation is complicated when the birth records of Andrew's children are considered. The 1889 entry in the Register for Sarah Anderson Cameron Burton (also overseen by Mr Barrowman) includes a signature, apparently made by the father. The 1893 entry for eldest son Robert (once again recorded by Mr Barrowman) includes the very same signature.

It is not a stylish hand, but the penmanship is consistent and serviceable. (It is possible to think of one or two modern descendants whose handwriting is no better!) Had Andrew learned to read and write in the years following his marriage or at least been trained to make a more sophisticated "mark" that would avoid embarrassment in a society where literacy was expected?

An alternative explanation might be that Andrew's action on his wedding day was the result of a temporary condition. Might he have injured his fingers while working in the quarry so that he was unable to control the pen? Or was he suffering from another ailment on that day that impaired his faculties? Was it significant that the ceremony was conducted at the bride's home (42 Rosendale Road) rather than in the kirk?

The absence of conclusive evidence is often a source of frustration for family historians. On the other hand, it does leave room for speculations that are imaginative, amusing or outrageous (according to your point of view).

Monday, 12 January 2015

Demand to see it with your own eyes

In a recent post, I wrote that "Naturally, locating the relevant census records took a matter of moments with the correct names." That might have been a slight exaggeration.

There was no difficulty in finding the 1871 Census which showed Agnes Cameron (our 2xgreat grandmother), her parents (John and Sarah) and older sister (Isabella) all living at Rosendale Road, Eastwood (along with two brothers and an apparently-unrelated boarder).

The 1881 record was not quite so easy to interpret. The transcription offered by FindMyPast shows that all the expected children were living at Rossendale (sic) Road and the boarder's room seems to have been taken over by two more youngsters (Robert and Sarah). But their mother Sarah is missing and John is listed as a 44 year-old widowed female head of the house! Clearly there was something amiss.

There was no alternative but to pass a few more bawbees to ScotlandsPeople to be able to examine the image for myself. Once again, the expense was well justified.

The document shows that Sarah was alive and well. She had been widowed but chose to continue to describe herself as Mrs John Cameron. The modern indexer knew full well that prefixes such as Mrs have no place in a Census and omitted it without comment. It was a pity that the enumerator in 1881 was not so diligent in ensuring that each person was identified by their own given name.

So the 1881 Census confirmed that the annotation "dec" against the bride parents' names on the 1887 marriage register referred to her father John not Sarah. Although it does suggest that Sarah aged a little after his death. (She was 30 in 1871 but 44 in 1881, almost exactly John's age.) That expands the margin of error concerning her true date of birth but is less troubling than the uncertainty over its location. In 1871, John stated that his wife had been born in Ireland, but ten years later Sarah gave Lennoxtown in Stirlingshire as her place of origin.

Each new document diligently examined clears away a little of the mist obscuring our past and then throws up new questions requiring fresh evidence. Now where did I put my purse … ?

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Money well spent

We know that money cannot buy happiness but, judiciously applied to the purchase of just the right certificate, it can dispel a whole lot of family history gloom.

When our 2xgreat grand grandmother Agnes Burton died in Queensland in 1937, her parents were recorded as John Cameron and Agnes Anderson.

There was no reason to doubt this information since Agnes had at least four adult daughters living in close proximity who would have collaborated on the task of registering her death.

Confidence in the veracity of these claims has been shaken by an extended period of trawling through transcriptions of Scottish censuses without locating one plausible candidate for this Cameron household. There was just one course of action left. I hesitantly opened my (digital) purse and paid ScotlandsPeople to view the record of the marriage of Agnes to Andrew Burton. This revealed the bride's parents to be John Cameron and Sarah Anderson!

Naturally, locating the relevant census records took a matter of moments with the correct names. And then the implications of the new information began to flow. The full name of Aunt Sally (Sarah Anderson Cameron Burton) now made perfect sense and reminded me not to forget the naming convention when facing a Scots brick wall. Was this further indirect evidence that Sally's younger sisters may not have known their grandmother? Did Agnes Cox simply assume that, because her name was Agnes and her mother was Agnes, her grandmother was also?

Family historians need a healthy streak of scepticism. We must remember that it is most important to bring it into play precisely when there seems "no reason to doubt". Trust no-one and examine the documents. It might be £1.20 well spent.

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