8. Doreen Hardie Brown: My Golden Oldie

Today marks what would have been my paternal grandmother’s 81st birthday. My Granny Rae was my favourite person in the whole world, my very own living legend, so please forgive me as I write a very personal account of her life.

Doreen Brown was born in 1933 to John and Henrietta Brown in Castle Douglas. A few years later, younger brothers Douglas and Ian would arrive. As a child, Doreen was very active and competed locally in running competitions, earning her the nickname ‘Bomber Brown’. At her dad’s request, she shelved her plans of becoming a nurse and became a book-keeper instead. This trade would come in handy as she later helped her husband James keep the books of his business in order. Although she re-married several years after James died, let there be no doubt that James was the love of her life. Her retirement years were spent with her grandchildren, holidaying abroad, caravanning and faithfully serving her local parish church.

I could write an endless list to describe all the reasons I admired and still admire Doreen. Firstly, she and her younger brother Douglas (and his wife) were genuinely best friends. They were so alike, sharing the same kind nature and silly sense of humour. I feel so lucky he is still around. He’s a wonderful man and I find his likeness to Doreen a great comfort. I admire the strong bond they shared and hope that my own brother and I can one day enjoy a similar friendship.

Doreen was strong-willed. Not stubborn (although I believe my dad would argue to the contrary), but very strong-willed. When she was diagnosed with cancer the first time, she was told to slow down while she went through treatment. Doreen was simply not the kind of person who did as she was told. She would not slow down, she would not stop attending church coffee mornings, she would not be told to feel ill when she did not. Several bouts of cancer later, Doreen still lived life to its fullest until her body finally gave in. Until the last time I saw her just days before she died, I never saw her look ill or worn out. She was still the spritely, funny, strong-willed woman I adored.

Doreen was well-known in the town, so well-known in fact that you couldn’t go down the street without bumping into somebody she knew. It was not unknown for me to leave her chatting to whoever we bumped into, fetch the bread from Corsons bakery on the high street, and find her still chatting to them on my way back up the road. Not long after I started college, I visited granny to tell her how I was getting on. She was so proud of me, so supportive, and for some reason her approval meant more to me than anybody else’s. Anyways, we wandered through the town and bumped into my younger cousin and his friends on the high street. They would have been around 15 or so at the time and had known my granny all their lives. My cousins had a standing Thursday night dinner date with her but would also drop in randomly after school with their friends to say hello and get fed. This particular day, I had a brief catch up with my cousin and his friend jokingly said “here, come on with me, Dode. Let’s leave this pair to it.” Unfazed, she linked her arm with his and off they tottered down the road, before they turned around and laughed at my reaction. My cousins’ friends loved Dode (as she was often called and she called herself) so much, they would appear at her door without my cousins and she would insist on them coming in for a wee chat and their dinner. They loved her and she loved them for visiting her.

My dad delivered Doreen’s eulogy and he told how Doreen lived life to the three F’s: friends, family and faith. All three were incredibly important to her and she couldn’t have lived so happily without any of them. Friends and family you could not separate as she treated them with the same love and respect. Her very best friend she had known literally from cradle to grave and my brother continued to visit her after our granny had died. She often told stories of family members, particularly her Granny Brown and Granny Carruthers. She was a faithful attendee of the local church services, often helping out at their coffee mornings and encouraging the children in their Sunday School activities. She was so proud to be a part of it all and had an unfaltering faith, even in what many would deem life’s hardest times.

Doreen died in August 2009, leaving me heartbroken. I would never hear her voice again, hear her infectious laugh, bake with her or just take a wander through the town wondering who we’d bump into that day. Since her death, I have baked a Victoria Sponge cake every year on Doreen’s birthday. I love baking and it’s the first thing I remember baking with her. Today, I baked a Victoria Sponge with the help of my young charges. I didn’t set the family’s oven correctly, the cake came out slightly uneven, the table ended up covered in icing sugar but it was ok because I know that’s exactly how Doreen would have done it. I will forever miss her and look forward to the day I can tell my own children about my wonderful Doreen, just as she told me stories of her grannies.

To my favourite storyteller, baker and my hero: Happy Birthday.

Doreen Hardie Brown

7. William Harper Rae: The Crown’s Captain

Tinker, tailor, soldier… I wrote about them the other day. Today is the turn of my sailor, William Harper Rae.

I say ‘sailor’, though William was actually a Captain. William was born in 1858 in the tiny Kirkcudbrightshire village of Dundrennan. He was the eldest child of David and Margaret Rae. It seems that William always felt a calling for sea life. His full-column obituary in a local newspaper details a story of  William as a young teenager taking command of a small boat he and his friends had ‘borrowed’ from a nearby dock. The boys took it to sea and were gone near enough all day. The boys eventually returned unharmed feeling rather proud of their adventure, although I suspect the search party on shore felt slightly differently about their little expedition. It was William’s leading role in this story that earned him the nickname ‘the Captain’. Following his school years, William worked for a drapers company. He decided three years later that the job was not for him and returned to his first love: the sea.

I have his maritime certificates (thank you, Ancestry!) which describe his early career path. His detailed obituary also provides me with extra details of his time at sea. In 1883, William moved to Liverpool and applied to become a Second Mate on a square-rigged boat. He passed the exam first time and so his sea-faring days began. Over the next five years, he quickly climbed the ranks and travelled the world, from London and France to the Americas and Australia. It is not lost on me that despite living in the late 1800s, William had travelled and seen more of the world than I have now at the same age! He did visit home in between some voyages and it was on one of these home stays in 1886 that he married Mary Haugh. There are no records suggesting they ever had any children. I believe he set off on a last set of voyages shortly after they married, during which he was promoted finally to Captain of the ship. From a childhood nickname to an official role and title. William was finally able to fully realise a childhood ambition.

Upon retiring from sea life in 1900, he returned to Dundrennan to live with his wife and her parents. Together they owned and ran The Crown and Anchor Hotel in the village. He became a popular figure in the small community, and was widely known and respected. William died at home aged 52 after a short but difficult illness, having been cared for by his wife and the village doctor. William is buried with his wife and her family in the same graveyard as William’s grandparents.

I feel a great sense of pride for William. Everybody in his family, both before and after his time, did the expected things in life. They got an education of whatever length before going to work as farm servants, house servants or general labourers. That part of the country was very much farm country so people spent their lives doing outdoor work. William tried a different path when he worked for the drapers. By the sounds of it, he was never going to be content going down someone else’s path. When he felt the path he had chosen was not the right one for him, he tried again with something he was almost certain to like and be good at. He not only chose it, he committed to it and succeeded. That’s something I’d like to be able to say at the end of my days.

6. John Brown: A Lost and Fallen Soldier

A few weeks ago I ordered some certificates online from the General Register Office. One of these was for John Brown, my great-great-great uncle. I met John quite early in my research and had seen his family’s memorial to him on the family gravestone. By chance, I had also found his short obituary in a local newspaper archive during my last visit to Dumfries and Galloway.

John was born around 1883 to John and Jessie Brown, and was the 4th in what would eventually be 10 children (it would seem that a small family is a rare find in my family tree!) John worked as a butcher with the Ballard brothers in Castle Douglas. Remarkably, Ballard’s butchers is still open for business today, although it only carries the name of one brother, Fred. John’s obituary describes him as ‘well thought of by his employers, was of a cheery and obliging disposition, and a favourite with all’. Well, who wouldn’t want to remembered as fondly as that? Sometime before his army service, John and his wife had three children together.

According to the obituary, John began his military service in June 1916, joining the front line that September. John was one of the thousands of soldiers who did not return home. John died as a result of war in Peronne, France on 1st April 1917, less than a year after his service first began.

What I find curious about John is the description regarding his death. Both the newspaper obituary and the family gravestone say he was ‘accidentally killed’. For all I know that was simply their way of avoiding it reading ‘killed in action’ on their memorial as it does on his GRO certificate. John is listed on at least one local war memorial plaque, which I am pleased about. Surprised I hadn’t discovered it myself sooner, but pleased to have found it to ensure he is remembered. According to the family gravestone, John was interred in Tencourt British Cemetery. Except the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has him listed as part of Thiepval Memorial, around 30km from Peronne. Thiepval Memorial stands to remember over 72,000 unidentified soldiers who lost their lives in the Somme area in World War 1, explaining its full name of Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. I want to do some more research into John’s death to clarify the contradicting information I have to find out exactly where he in buried. Seventy-two thousand people in the Somme area alone who were not identified and returned home. Everything about that sentence astounds and saddens me. I think I will be quite heartbroken if I discover John is one of those lost souls.

This year commemorates 100 years since the start of WW1 and I am discovering that I am more connected to that period of time that I previously thought. I feel I am doing a small justice by ensuring the fallen men I am connected to are to the best of my ability properly researched, included and, most importantly, remembered.

Update: thanks to The Commonwealth War Graves Commision, I finally found the burial return with John’s details. His form carries the rather ominous notation of ‘Exhumation and Reburials’. I feel truly sorry for the poor souls who carried out this grim yet important job. I am, however, extremely grateful that they returned to claim their dead comrades so they could receive proper burials and recognition for their sacrifices. The form confirmed Tincourt New British Cemetery as John’s initial place of burial. Unfortunately, it also confirmed my fears. “Around both the above crosses [another soldier was buried beside John], the ground was excavated to a depth of 8 square feet but no bodies were found.” He is indeed one of the lost souls, which may explain why he is listed at the Thiepval Memorial. As expected, I was devastated upon discovering this but at least I can that I know now.

5. James Rae: The Popular Plumber

I never had the good fortune of meeting my Grandpa Rae as he died a few years before I was born, but I’m pleased he was always talked about as I was growing up. It helped me relate to him as real person.

Jim, as he was known, was born and bred in Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbrightshire. From all the stories I’ve heard, I get the impression he was an unassuming man who lived by doing the right thing. It seems he could be a bit shy and bashful at times. He met my grandmother Doreen at a dance and instantly liked her. After chatting and dancing, he insisted she was walked home… by his friend. He was apparently to nervous to do it himself! He was obviously confident of keeping her, even then. After they married, they had two sons and relished family life together. The town is quite a small town and even now, there’s a sense of “oh, you’ll need so-and-so then” when a job needs doing. If you needed a plumber, Jim was your man. He always did a good job at a good price, paid his apprentices fairly and was on call all hours if you needed him. Dad told a story once of a neighbour who had called the house in the middle of the night as she’d found her house flooded. There was no thought of charging her double-time because it was the early hours or anything like that. He was just straight in his van to go round and help. That was just his nature. When he was found to have an incurable tumour and therefore a short time left, he made sure his apprentices wages were taken care of so they wouldn’t be without.

My dad always gets quite emotional when speaking about his dad and I can understand why. My dad was barely in his twenties when Jim died in 1980 aged 50. They didn’t have much time together. Jim never met my mum, though he did know about her, and I know my dad found it particularly difficult to deal with his father’s notable absence on his wedding day.

When I visit Castle Douglas, I have a sort of ritual of things I want to do while I’m there, like my trip isn’t complete until I’ve done them all. One of those things is to visit the glorious Irvings Bakery, just as I always did with my granny when I was younger. A good friend and I went together a few years back and I loved telling her about these little rituals but one thing I’d never done was taken a tour of the bakery factory. We asked about it one Saturday morning and Mrs Irving herself showed us around the quiet factory (they don’t operate on a Saturday, instead just open up the shop). As we finished up the tour and chatted, she noted my accent was slightly different to hers and asked where I was visiting from. I told her, explaining that I liked to visit Castle Douglas as it was where my grandparents had lived. “Och, your Jim’s granddaughter!” she exclaimed and started into a short story of how she knew Jim and my granny. I struggled to keep my tears under control. I just loved that over 30 years since his death, people I didn’t even know still remembered him and his kind ways. It’s a very simple legacy but one I’m very proud he has.

My granny lived almost 30 years without Jim, although she did eventually remarry. She always spoke of him often, and kept certain trinkets and things of his around the house. She even wore the engagement ring Jim had given her every day, which I now proudly wear. When she died, I was devastated but knew she would be happy to be with Jim again. She was buried by his side on what would have been Jim’s 80th birthday. Together in life and now together for eternity, exactly how they should be.

4. William McCoskry Rae: Brave Boy Soldier

The deeper I get into my family tree, the more men I find with military backgrounds. There are a few interesting stories but one who grabbed my attention very early on in my genealogy days was William McCoskry Rae.

William McCoskry Rae was the fifth child and youngest son of Robert Rae and Margaret Davies. As a young man, he enlisted in the army to serve in World War 1. My searches have not revealed any marriages or children from him, suggesting he died a single man. Given his young age , this is not unexpected. It would appear he was ill towards the end of the war and around a month after peace was declared, William died at a military hospital in Stockport aged just 19 years. It definitely saddens me that he died away from his family.

William is not a direct ancestor of mine (his older brother Robert John is my great-grandfather) but I feel a great sense of responsibility for him. As a soldier, he fought for his country which I think is a very brave task for such a young man. I ordered his death certificate (a bittersweet moment) which revealed he did not die directly of war wounds but of severe illness caused by his wounds. Following his death, William was buried in the family plot in Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbrightshire. His name and rank are displayed on a war memorial plaque in Rhonehouse and Kelton church.  These plaques offer a permanent memorial for him and his fellow fallen soldiers. While plaques are often overlooked and become part of the furniture of the building, through this process I have learned to appreciate their value. I was fortunate to visit Kelton Parish Church last autumn and was able to see the plaque there myself, which I found unexpectedly moving. With no direct family left behind, I want to make sure that he is remembered properly and with honour. My own grandparents are buried in the same cemetery as him and whenever I visit them, I wander past other family plots in the cemetery. William’s plot is very close to theirs so as I lay flowers, I pick one out and put it at the foot of his family stone. All of my ancestors are important to me, but I hold a special place for his young bravery and sacrifice. He was involved in an important fight, fighting for something that mattered, and that matters a great amount to me.

3. Thomas Brown: An Irish Enigma

My first experience of a genealogical brick wall was, and to some extent still is, with Thomas Brown. Thomas is my great-great-great-grandfather and originally hailed from Ireland. Quite where in Ireland I don’t know.

He was born in 1831 meaning he was a young boy still when the Irish Potato Famine swept the country. My history knowledge is shamefully shocking but Google informs me that many Irish people left the country as a result of the famine. It’s entirely plausible then that this was the reason Thomas found himself in the quiet pocket of Scotland my ancestors called home. I don’t know when he left Ireland, I don’t know if he travelled with anybody (such as family), I don’t even know how old he was. What doesn’t help me here is his name: Thomas Brown. It’s not exactly an uncommon name. It’d be like trying to search for a John Smith in England. The only clue I have about him is the family tale of his nickname ‘Tipper’. Apparently he was not known as Thomas but as Tipper, referring to his rumoured birthplace of Tipperary. I have searched for clues on Ancestry but there’s too many variables that stop me from being able to say “yes, that’s him right there”.

The first definitive trace I have of him is his marriage record. He married Marion Denniston in 1851 and they had 12 children together. In the censuses after their marriage, Thomas is shown to be a farmhand or a labourer until his death in 1885. (On a slight side step, the Denniston name appears on 2 separate lines of my paternal family tree. It’s possible the two are unrelated to each other but it would make for a great genealogy story if I discovered they were!)

While I don’t know much about Thomas, very little in fact, he is an important figure to me. Without him, the Brown name would never appear in my family tree and the landscape of my family tree would be very different. The current living generations of my family still carry the surname. It was my grandmother’s maiden name, her brother is a Brown, his son and his grandson are Brown’s. There is a large family tree of people, all with the name Brown, and right at the very top of it is Thomas ‘Tipper’ Brown.

Update: while checking that I had gathered all the information I possibly could, I found a few of Thomas’ children while at the archives last week. On a single record, his daughter Jessie’s birth record, I noticed that it required different information from each parent, including where each was from. No other birth record I’ve ever come across has asked for that information so you can imagine my joy when there in beautiful cursive writing it said “Thomas Brown, labourer, 25 years, Tipperary”. TIPPERARY! Confirmation at long last of where Tipper Brown came from!

2. Alexander Lennie: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier…

In the last 7 days, the Lennie line of my tree has appeared and expanded quite nicely. One of 3 Alexander Lennie’s in my lineage, this Alexander is my great-great-great-grandfather (the other 2 Alexander’s being his father and one of his sons).

I’ve found I like finding out what people did for a living, almost as much as I like knowing where they lived. The son of a tailor, Alexander initially followed in his father’s footsteps before joining the army shortly after he married Jane Turnbull. My mum and I both found this amusing, mostly because neither of us can sew a stitch while here are 2 generations listing it as their occupation. For a while, I lost track of Alexander – couldn’t find any census records, birth records for his children, nothing. Thankfully, Ancestry offered an 1871 census which would answer a few questions. It would appear that his wife stayed with him throughout his military service, producing 5 children over a 20 year period. By 1871, they had lived in Scotland, overseas, back to Edinburgh for a very short time and are found living with Alexander’s Regiment in Aldershot, England. How do I know they lived abroad? Two of his sons are listed as British Citizens born in an area of what now belongs to Pakistan. Well, that’s unexpected! Alexander’s elder two sons are listed as ‘musician’ and ‘drummer’ which pleased me greatly (I’ve played various musical instruments since a young age). From my limited understanding, being part of the army band earned a soldier a little extra money per week. Although the sons are not listed as soldiers, I do wonder if they earned valuable money for the family by playing in the army band.

The family is back in Edinburgh come 1881. Alexander is back being a tailor, his daughter (my great-great-grandmother) is still a scholar, and his 2 younger sons are listed as a tinsmith and an apprentice bookbinder. So within one family I have a tinker, a tailor and a soldier… no sign of any spies. Unless ‘bookbinder’ is just a really simple cover story.

1. John Weddell: Daddy Extraordinaire

As I sat with my granny around a month ago, I sat with a notepad and pencil at the ready, and told her to tell me about her parents. She grinned. “You’re going to like this” she promised. I wanted to find a rascal, someone of local importance, someone with a great story just waiting to be told. Enter Mr John Weddell, known to most as either Daddy Weddell or Gentleman John, for he was always smartly dressed.

John Weddell was born and bred in Edinburgh. By 19, he was married with a son on the way. The marriage didn’t last and just a few years later, a divorce was granted. I’m told this was rare for the early 1900’s. He met his future second wife and they had a son together, who sadly died in infancy. The couple were able to marry now John’s divorce was final and grew their family by adding 15 more children to their household over the next 25 years. After his second wife died, he met and married Margaret Barclay, my great-grandmother. They added some more children to the brood. My granny is the very youngest of 20 children in all (2 died in infancy). I couldn’t believe it! I thought she was the youngest of 3!

The other note my granny gave me was to do with football. Her dad was involved in football, she was sure she had been told years ago. She remembered her mum washing a big load of dark football strips in their bath regularly too. After a fair few emails later and with some much-appreciated help from some local football historians, I think we have uncovered the link. He was involved in the first women’s football team in Edinburgh, who also represented Scotland before there was an official team. Edinburgh Ladies FC played plenty of games and did reasonably well, so I’m led to believe, even raising money for local disabled ex-servicemen in a charity match against Dick, Kerr who were the most famous women’s football team of the time. I struggled to find information by myself but one historian managed to source me some newspaper clippings and a couple of team photos. Thanks to one of my granny’s nephews posting a picture of John on a local history website, I was able to identify one of the men standing proudly with the team as my great-grandfather. As none of the photos have names attached and the newspaper clippings don’t reference any one person in particular, I am yet to find out exactly what John’s role was with the club.There may not be a huge amount of information publicly available on the subject but to know that he was involved in something pretty unique like that gives me a story I am proud to tell and delighted in sharing with my granny.

Having so many children gives me an unprecedented timeline of his life. Something that stood out clear as day to me was John’s timeline of work. His job does change a few times but the point is he always had a job. He was able to provide for all of his children. He also registered all of his children himself. I’m not sure whether the rules are the same everywhere else but in Scotland if a child was born out of wedlock, the father’s name could not be listed on the birth record unless he was there to confirm the child was his. By signing his name to all of his children, legitimate or illegitimate, he tells me he chose to take responsibility. Family was clearly important to him. Many of his children went on to marry and set up their married lives in the same square as their father and siblings still lived. I sort of love that.

John died in 1937, aged 63. His youngest child, my granny, was just 4 years old. His third wife, Margaret, continued to raise the remaining children, treating them all fully as her own. This speaks volumes to me about her character too.

I’ve been researching my dad’s side of the family tree for a year now and, while I love and cherish them all, I can quite honestly say that I have never met a character quite like John Weddell! Charming, responsible, sociable, hard working, family man. I may never come across as long a branch in my family tree again (20 children is slightly above average, after all!) but I love all the information and stories researching his full life has given me. I didn’t even know his name when I started out. Now I feel like I know him very well indeed and I smile whenever I think of the cheeky chap I have come to know.

Laying down some roots…

A little over a year ago, I decided that I would present my dad with a family tree for his 60th birthday so made plans to start my research. Within months I was forced to tell him of my plans as I realised I knew shamefully little about my family and he would be potentially my best source of information. Since then, I have added almost 300 people to my entire family tree, almost 200 of them just on my dad’s side, and I’m nowhere near done yet! I think it’s safe to say we are a little ways past the ‘pet project’ stage…

Just last month I began looking at my mum’s side of the family. I’m lucky that her mum is still alive so I paid her a visit. It’s just as well I asked her questions before I visited the archive centre because I might’ve missed out a huge chunk of her ancestry had I not! There was a big lesson right there: as much as I want to find what I can by myself, there are some things that records simply cannot tell you. Stories and rumours can be passed from generation to generation but if they are not passed on, those treasures can be lost to history. Thankfully I have been able to use what she told me to search for more clues and information and relay that back to her. As an example, I was able to source a picture of her own father (who died when she was very young) and give her a copy. Moments like that are priceless.

This week, I came across this challenge which challenges bloggers to write about one ancestor each week. I don’t really mind that I am taking up this challenge a few weeks late, if I’m honest. If I find the time to catch up with everybody else, brilliant. If not, that’s ok too. The point for me is to get to know my ancestors better beyond the birth certificates and census records. At various points in time, I have felt that I don’t have a place anywhere. Looking at what I have found, I realise that I am part of a vast family tree, a tree that has solid roots with multiple branches that stretch further than the eye can see. Some people in the tree I don’t know much about. Others I could tell you their life story already. I sit among them, now ready to get to know some of those leaves a little better.