52 Ancestors: Rosannah Dowds

Amy Johnson Crow of the Nor Story Too Small genealogy blog suggested a weekly blog theme of ’52 Ancestors’ in her blog post “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” I decided to take up the challenge of the 52 Ancestors blog theme as a means to prompt me into regularly sharing the stories of my ancestors. So over the course of 2014 I will highlight ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

To some her story might be embarassing but to me, she is inspirational! Rosannah or sometimes seen as Rose Ann Dowds was my 3X great grandmother and she lived a tough life. She was far from wealthy, living in a scene from a Dickens novel, as she scratched out a living for herself and her family.

Rosannah Dowds was born sometime around 1835 in County Derry, Ireland, the daughter of William Dowds and his wife Rose McGuire. I do not know yet when she, perhaps with her parents or perhaps alone, left Ireland. What is known from the statutory marriage registers of Scotland is that on 4 September 1855, Rosannah Dowds married James Mitchell, himself a native of County Fermanagh, Ireland, in the District of High Church, located in the Burgh of Glasgow. The marriage record indicates that they both signed the register with their ‘X’ mark, suggesting that neither could read or write. Both Rosannah and James listed their residence as 3 Parliamentary Road in Glasgow, an address I am currently unable to locate on a map.

James Mitchell is recorded to have been a 22-year old labourer and Rosannah is listed as being 20-years old at the time of their marriage. By 1861 when the census of Scotland was taken, James and Rosannah had established themselves in the village of Baillieston, east of Glasgow, and they had welcomed into their family a daughter whom they named Margaret. 

Margaret was the first of six children that James and Rosannah welcomed into their family between 1859 and about 1870. Then something went terribly wrong – Rosannah went to jail and not for a short time but rather for several years. Sadly, Rosannah is found in subsequent census records as a prisoner or inmate in the General Prison for Scotland. This does mean one long sentence of imprisonment but could result from a number of shorter sentences.

Following the shock of finding my great grandmother in jail, I had to look further into the matter, to find out what she could have possibly been convicted of to warrant such a treatment.

In 2011, I obtained Rosannah Dowds’ court file from the National Archives of Scotland and posted a five-part series outlining the case made against her. You can read those posts here:

Rosannah was described in various records as being a ‘hawker’ by way of occupation, essentially someone who sold and resold whatever articles might have a value. Rosannah plied her trade in the streets and alleys of Victorian-era Glasgow, Scotland. She did what she had to do to provide the means to put food on the table. The justice system she faced did not operate under the expected standards of today. There was no DNA evidence, no fingerprints, just someone saying she was in the area where someone claimed to have suffered a loss of belongings.

I have always thought it interesting that my great grandmother Rosannah spent time as a prison inmate given that I spent a significant part of my work career running prisons. Interesting isn’t it that just a few short generations later, our family history had reversed itself so dramatically from one side of the bars to the other.

My Favourite Female Ancestor

March has been designated as Women’s History Month and I don’t want to let the month pass without highlighting my favourite female ancestor – Roseannah (sometimes Roseanna or Rose Ann) (nee Dowds) Mitchell, a paternal third great grandmother of mine.

Why is Roseannah my favourite? Well, it isn’t because she achieved something of great benefit to all of mankind. No, she’s my favourite because she provides colour to my ancestry. I’m not speaking of skin tone or pigmentation but rather Roseannah spent several years in prison as a convicted thief.

While some might consider Roseannah’s criminal and prison records as scandalous and embarrassing  I am proud of Roseannah and proud that I am her great-great-great grandson.

I admit that I was startled to learn through a search of the 1881 Scottish Census records that Roseannah was in that year a ‘guest’ of her Majesty’s hospitality in the General Prison for Scotland. Roseannah, or Rose Ann as she is named, is listed on line 16 from the 1881 Scottish census record page seen below. What could she have possibly done to warrant such a circumstance?

Following up, I was able to locate her court files in the National Archives of Scotland and obtain of copy of all the documents describing the evidence used in the case that resulted in Roseannah’s conviction to the eleven charges of theft and the resultant eight year sentence of imprisonment. I summarized the trial and evidence in a series of blog posts (from August 2011). The posts can be found at: The Trial of Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds), Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; and, The Trial of Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds): Her Words and Summary.

My pride in Roseannah is based on my sense that she did what she had to do to sustain her family. I can’t avoid the image that she lived in a Dickens novel, an unrefined Eliza Doolittle working as a ‘hawker,’ buying and selling odds and ends, often articles of clothing, always trying to make a few cents in order to feed her children. I’m proud to have an ancestor who demonstrated that level of devotion to family. That Roseannah was convicted of several crimes based on evidence that would not, in my opinion, stand any legal test or challenge in a modern 21st century courtroom, is irrelevant, not embarrassing.