19. William Robertson: Little Boy Lost

In every family tree, I believe themes can begin to appear. Many a time it is with names being passed from one generation to the next, sometimes it is jobs, perhaps an involvement in the armed forces. All of these are true for my tree. My tree is full of James Russell’s who were named after their fathers and John Brown’s after their grandfathers. Heck, half of Daddy Weddell’s children named their own children after their siblings, leaving me with an entire generation of Frederick’s, John’s and George’s. Just for the record, I absolutely appreciate the sentiment behind naming your child after a parent or your sibling, but for a genealogist it can be very confusing determining between different children when their parents share the same name, especially when there’s 20 of them!

One theme that my tree has is adoption. I know that one of Daddy Weddell’s sons adopted 2 young brothers into his family. I will tell their story another time. Going the opposite way, there is Samuel Carruthers, who we have met already, and 2 children on the Weddell line. One whose story shook me was William Robertson.

William’s mother was Agnes, my granny’s older sister. She was married with 4 children when her husband went into action during WWII. My granny, a young girl at the time, recalls that Agnes wasn’t always happy, perhaps struggling with her husbands absence. While her husband was away, she met and fell for a Greek soldier who was based nearby. Granny remembers the soldier fondly. He was a nice man who treated Agnes and her family well. By the time the soldier was due to return to Greece, she was pregnant. He begged her to go with him but she couldn’t go. She was still married and besides, she had 4 other children to consider. Unable to stay, the Greek soldier returned home. I don’t know at what point Agnes’s husband returned but he was understandably furious when he learned of William’s existence. Agnes had given him her married surname with the hope that her husband would agree to raise him or allow him to be raised as one of his own but it was not to be. He demanded the child was gone. When William was around a year old, he was taken from the house for the last time. My granny, a very young girl, vividly remembers the day. Agnes was utterly distraught, crying for her son. Although Agnes and her husband did have another daughter after that, her lost son was never forgotten.

When I learned about William, I found myself having a moral struggle. On one hand, I can understand her husband’s anger and upset. Even if the boy had his name, he wasn’t his child. On the other hand, Agnes faced an impossible decision. While I can’t condone her behaviour in her husband’s absence, I cannot imagine the struggle she must have gone through. How was she to choose? At the side of his birth record entry is the correction that I hoped I’d never see: adopted. Of all the things somebody wants to find in their family, discovering a person who was not allowed to stay in the family is not one of them.

Dear William, I sincerely hope that you went on to live a happy, healthy life with a family that adored you just as much as your mother did. Your mother really did try to make the best of her situation but her love wasn’t enough to keep you with her and your siblings. As heartbroken as I am learning your story, your mother’s heartbreak must’ve been immeasurably more. Please know that even though you became part of another family, you are still very much part of our family tree. Love, your cousin.

A Little Reflection

I am constantly reminded that when researching something, anything at all, it is always worth pausing every once in a while to check your notes, review your work and take a breath. So here I am, taking a breath.

I have always considered my family to be quite small. Well, that at least this generation of relatives is small. What would perhaps be a more accurate description is my family isn’t always very close. Being relationally or geographically far away has always made me feel that I have a small family. By comparison, my friend sees every member of her family at least weekly and always has done. As a result, her family is close in both senses so she always feel surrounded by family. I started this whole project (is it a project?) knowing what I thought was a handful of people. My dad, my mum, his brother, her 3 siblings, their spouses, their kids, my grannies, each of my granny’s brothers…that was kind of it. I knew few stories, I knew little of the generations before me, I knew not where my own roots lay. While I still haven’t decided where my roots are geographically, I definitely feel more rooted in my family, more connected. My looking at the family tree has sparked lots of conversations, stirred many memories and reminded me that I am very much part of my family tree. My little leaf matters no more and no less than every other leaf on the ever-growing tree.

In my family research, I have met ancestors past and relatives living. I recently made contact with another great-granddaughter of Daddy Weddell. Even in the few emails we have exchanged, I can see that we could fill in some gaps for each other’s family stories. I have seen photographs I never knew of and had previously not imagined would actually exist. I have learned of various struggles. I have met more soldiers than I thought existed in my family. I have discovered a few musicians. That made me pretty pleased! Neither of my parents are particularly musical, neither play any instruments or anything, so to find a few musicians made me feel like I had company. Apparently when Doreen gave me a little keyboard as a gift, I would work out how to play tunes properly, unlike most children who are happy to just bash keys in any random order. That desire to play led to lessons which led to a lifelong skill I couldn’t be more grateful to have. My great-grandmother was also a pianist but couldn’t read music. She just sat down and played. I really love that.

In the last 20 months or so, I have added around 350 new names to my family tree. I have found their birth, marriage and death records, I have seen their lives in snapshots on every census. I have found war records and learned what those brave men looked like. I have learned of all of their fates and cried. I have learned that nobody moved far from their parents! On both side of my tree, children seemed to stay within a mile or so of their parents. On mum’s side, Daddy Weddell’s grown children stayed in the same square and raised their own families alongside their younger siblings. In the last 150 years, the current generation is the furthest geographically that my family have been from each other. I suppose that’s also a sign of the times. These days, travel is easy, universities are everywhere and technology allows people to stay in constant contact. For me, the most exciting find is the photographs. I can follow each line back some way and learn where I get my physical features. All have fair hair (nobody’s hair can be described as darker than mousy brown with exception of my mum), the Rae’s in particular have very rosy cheeks, nobody seemed to be very tall so that would all explain why with all the good will and vegetables in the world, I was never going to be big and strong when I grew up. I’m 5’3 (ish) with mousy blond hair and rosy cheeks which seem to deceive all bar tenders into thinking that I’m under 21 years of age.

In this pause for breath, I can appreciate all the new leaves on my tree, but I can appreciate my own little leaf. I have followed my own path, as many before me have, and am pretty happy with where it has led me so far. Each leaf tells a different story and I have my own story. Some leaves tell stories of loss, some of bravery, some of adoption, some of family heartbreak but they all tell the story of my family. It would so easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of people in my tree and say “I’m just a tiny leaf here, what do I matter?” but I am certain that I matter. I am a tiny leaf but so is everybody else. My leaves make up my tree and I am proud to be a part of mine.