15. John Brown: The Picture of a Family Man

Yes, another John Brown. This John Brown is the father of the last one I wrote about and by no means the last John Brown that features in my family tree. Just for reference, there were five John Brown’s in my tree at last count.

This John Brown was born in 1852 to Thomas Brown and Marion Denniston. I think he was the eldest son of what would eventually be 12 children. John married Jessie Kirkpatrick in 1876 with their first son Andrew (my great-great grandfather) arriving just a few months later. For most of his working life, John worked for the Railway Company as a porter.

John Brown and family

Jessie and John (front centre) with their children Back L-R: Walter, John, Andrew, David, Thomas, James Front L-R: Mary, Marion, Jenny Margaret

I feel very lucky that I have a photograph of John and his family. I’m not sure exactly when the picture was taken but I can guess at maybe just before World War I, given the apparent ages of the children. Perhaps it was taken because of World War I given that at least two of the sons went to war. Either way, I am incredibly pleased that this picture not only exists but that copies have reached as far as my generation of the family. I was recently in touch with Thomas’ granddaughter and she also had a copy of this picture. Ah, the wonders of modern photography and technology! Nowadays we take photos with such ease and with very little printing cost. Back then I’m sure it would have cost the family a fair sum to have their photograph taken at a professional studio. I already know what happened to Andrew, young John and Thomas (thanks to his granddaughter) and I would quite like to find out what became of the rest of the children. Whatever John’s reasons for having this photograph taken, it gives us future generations a rare gift: seeing an entire family in one picture.


100 Years On: Their Name Liveth

Exactly 100 years ago, Britain declared its involvement in World War I. Today across Britain and many other parts of the world, people’s attention is being drawn to the anniversary. Not to celebrate, far from it. We are reminded that our ancestors fought on our behalf 100 years ago, millions of them losing their lives in the process, to protect their country.

I lived the first 27 years of my life thinking that nobody in my family had any military involvement, whether it was part of one of the World Wars or otherwise. The more ancestors I meet, the more soldiers come out of the woodwork. On my maternal side of the tree, there is a whole line of military men that nobody knew about. Breaking from my normal format, today I want to remember those who served, fought and died in The Great War. I decided after I discovered my first family soldier that any soldier I found in the future should be researched and remembered properly, whether they were a direct ancestor or not. I feel an odd connection to them. I did not know these men personally, yet I feel a duty to ensure their bravery is not forgotten.


Pte Alexander Lennie Russell

Died 10th October 1915. I have not managed to find records for his service as yet, suggesting that they were possibly among those lost in a fire in WWII. What I do know is that Alexander was James’ (below) elder brother. Alexander was killed in action in France.

James Cameron Russell

James lived with his wife in Edinburgh when war broke out. I am lucky that his records have survived so I was able to find some personal information on him, including his profession, his address and notes of a tattoo he had on his arm. James signed up for the Royal Army Medical Corps. Not long after enlisting, his infant son died. Six months later, James’ brother Alexander was killed in action. I cannot imagine going through such a huge period of personal loss and then still going out to fight. Wherever he served, he survived and thank goodness he did. As his direct ancestor, I simply wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t come home safely.

Pte John Brown

John was married with children when the war began. He had to leave his family behind as he fought in France, where he ultimately lost his life. There is some confusion as to where he is buried, however I do know that his name is listed on a  memorial plaque in a war cemetery in France.

Pte William McCoskry Rae

Died 14th December 1918 of war wounds. I’ve written about William before as I hold a special place for him. I don’t know when he was injured, therefore how long he suffered before succumbing to his injuries. I don’t even know if he fought abroad or fought at home. I do know that William died in a Military Hospital in England where he was presumable being cared for.

Robert John Rae

The more I learn about Robert, the more pride I feel for him. We already know that Robert survived the war as he went on to marry, have several children (including my grandfather) and become a well-loved member of the community. What I didn’t realise until his daughter recently told me was that he had also fought in the war. Being a ploughman, Robert’s job was deemed important enough for him to be allowed to stay to continue work, should he wish to apply for exemption. Robert did not want to work it would seem as he did not apply for exemption, opting to enlist instead. Here was a man with the opportunity to work the land so he could provide food for his nation and he chose to protect his nation instead. In his country’s moment of real need, he stood forward to be counted. Robert returned home and lived a long and happy life with his family, which is nothing less than any soldier deserves.


The quote that is being repeated over and over today is by Sir Edward Grey, who was the Foreign Secretary at the time. When Britain confirmed their involvement in the War, he said “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” For three of my five soldiers that was sadly true. I read this article today and felt more determined than ever that my soldiers would not be forgotten. So I join in with many others in remembrance. My home is dark, no lamp is lit. The only light is  a single candle flame that burns for all those who fought, all who died, all who endured, all who saw sights and felt fear like no person ever should in order to protect their country, and especially for my brave soldiers. One hundred years on and their names indeed liveth.

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

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.

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!