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William’s Abandonment Issues

Put me on the list of those who wish their ancestors had shot some video of important moments in my family’s history and uploaded it to YouTube. Aside from actually being there, at least the videos might help fill the gaps and answer the questions that the documents about my ancestors and their troubled times leave void.

I have recently been spending time pursuing my paternal grandmother’s family and while I had initially believed that her family branches looked fairly stable, I have found them bending and shaking through many storms. My paternal grandmother is Agnes Little, a four foot, ten inch ball of fire born in Greenock, Refrewshire, Scotland, who was the daughter of James Little and Margaret ‘Maggie’ Mitchell.

Margaret Mitchell was the second child born to William Mitchell and Agnes Sweeney, my grandmother’s grandparents and my great-great grandparents. William was born around 1868 and Agnes was born in 1870, both in Scotland. They married, as teenagers, on September 28, 1886 in Greenock. On the marriage registration William listed his parents as James Mitchell and Rose Ann Dowds. Agnes’ parents were listed as Edward Sweeney and Ellen Dickson.

All seemed good and stable. William worked at the local Greenock shipyards as a Labourer and the year after they married, William and Agnes welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Ellen into their new family. In 1889, Margaret was born followed by Edward in 1891, William in 1892, and James in 1895. It was at this point that things started to take unexpected twists and turns.

In 1897, another daughter, Matilda was born. Her birth registration clearly states that William was her father and Agnes was her mother. While she like her other siblings, was born in Greenock, the specific location of her birth is not a street address or a hospital but rather “H M Prison” or Her Majesty’s Prison in Greenock! The National Archives of Scotland file catalogue does not list any court records regarding Agnes so I’m uncertain as to why she would have been in prison at the time she gave birth to Matilda.

I usually welcome the finding of a family record on which the registrar or other official has included additional information but the birth registration of Agnes’ next child, a daughter named Agnes born in 1899, included a notation unlike any I had previously seen. In the section of the registration that names the parents, no father is listed. Rather the following is the full text of the parent’s name section: “Agnes Sweeney wife of William Mitchell, shipyard labourer, who she declares, is not the father of the child, and that she has had no personal communication with him for close on 4 years.”

So Agnes has clearly declared that her husband William left her around 1895 and that he was not the baby’s father. No clues were provided in the document as to who the father might be.

In 1901, Agnes was living at 40 Dalrymple Street, a multi-family building, in Greenock West. Living with her were her two youngest children, daughters Matilda and Agnes. Also living with her were two boarders – 18 year old Cecillia McCormick and 22 year old Joseph Branchfield. Agnes indicated that she made her living as a shopkeeper and no doubt the two boarders helped her ‘make ends meet.’ Agnes’ older children can be found living with Agnes’ mother elsewhere in Greenock.

Just more than two months after the 1901 census had been completed; Agnes gave birth to another daughter, Catherine. Catherine’s surname was listed as “Sweeney or Mitchell” and again the registrar made a note in the parent’s name section, “Agnes Sweeney who is married to William Mitchell, Shipyard Labourer, who, she declares, is not the father of the child, and, further, that she has had no personal communication with him for eight years.”

In 1903, Agnes gave birth to a son named Joseph Branchfield but this time the father was listed as Agnes’ 1901 ‘boarder’, Joseph Branchfield. Yet another notation was made by the registrar naming Agnes Sweeney “married to William Mitchell, Labourer, who, she declares, is not the father of the child, and further, that she has had no personal communication with him since he left her 8 years ago.”

The pattern and the big picture is clear. At some point in the mid-1890’s (even though all the math in Agnes’ declarations doesn’t quite add up), William Mitchell abandoned his family, perhaps as a result of whatever issue landed his wife, Agnes in prison. Subsequently, Agnes took in boarders at her Dalrymple Street ‘apartment’, one of whom was a younger man named Joseph Branchfield. Joseph and Agnes it seems shared more than just the apartment. Eventually, on September 12, 1905, Joseph and Agnes married. The marriage registration indicates that Agnes was a spinster, simply by legal definition an unmarried woman although no death registration can be found for husband William nor can a reference to divorce proceedings be located.

Margaret ‘Elizabeth’ Branchfield was born to Joseph and Agnes in 1907 and in 1911, the family, with the five youngest children, was together, living at 3 Harvie Lane in Greenock.

Agnes died September 2, 1928 of colon cancer and heart failure at the young age of 57, still married to Joseph. William, her first love, was, it appears, just a distant memory.

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