52 Ancestors: James ‘Jimmy’ Little (1889-1944)

Amy Johnson Crow of the No 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 an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

Greenock, or in the Scottish Gaelic Grianaig, is located on the south shore of the River Clyde. Historically, shipbuilding has been one of the primary industries in Greenock, taking advantage of the town’s location close to the Firth of Clyde and the ocean beyond. 

And so, it was to Greenock that James and Dorothea Little moved in order to allow James to find work in the shipyards , first as a labourer but eventually as an iron driller, when his work as a forester had come to an end. It was also here, in Greenock that most of their six children were born, including their second son and my great grandfather James.

James, or Jimmy as he was commonly known, was born on 3 January 1899 at 51 Crawford Street. The row house at this location now has an address of 51 East Crawford Street, something I find unusual as I can find no West Crawford Street so for now the street name change is a mystery. 

James was the fifth child and second son for James (Sr.) and Dorothea. With the exception of their first child, a daughter named Margaret, they followed the traditional Scottish naming convention as each of their children were born. Their first son was named John after, in this case, both grandfathers so when their second son was born, he received his father’s name.

My great Grandfather, Jimmy Little, appears to have lived a stable life. Records show that he went to school as a child, and then followed in his father’s footsteps and found employment in the shipyards as an iron caulker, apprenticing in that trade as a teenager.

It was also in his teens that Jimmy found love with a young lady named Margaret ‘Maggie’ Mitchell. Maggie also lived in Greenock, about a mile away from Jimmy’s Sir Michael Street home. When Jimmy was just 17-years old and Maggie only 16-years old, they discovered they were going to be parents. They married on the 22nd of March 1906. Their first child, a son they named Edward Sweeney Little was born four months later in July. 

Despite life’s early introduction to marriage and parenthood, they persevered and enjoyed what appears to be a good and stable life together, Jimmy working in the shipyards, Maggie rearing their five children.

The block of houses on Sir Michael Street in Greenock, Scotland where James and Margaret Little resided with their children (from Google street view screen capture)

On the morning of 9th of June 1944 in Larkfield Hospital, Jimmy died as a result of chronic nephritis and myocarditis. He was only 55 years of age at the time of his death.

52 Ancestors: Martha (Wilson) McKenzie 1778-1859

Amy Johnson Crow of the No 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 an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

This week I am going back more than 230 years to the birth of my 4X great grandmother Martha McKenzie (nee Wilson). The records of Martha that I have found are few but those detailing events of some significance do exist.

I know that on November 3, 1778 “Peter Wilson in Tillyreach and Isabel Emslie his wife had a daughter baptized, called Martha: witnesses James Bruce and Arthur Watson both in Tillyreach.” The preceding is my transcription of the entry found in the Old Parish Registers of Scotland and it is the first record of Martha and her christening in the Kirkton of Tough in the County of Aberdeen, Scotland. According to Wikipedia, this tiny hamlet is where the famous Aberdeen Angus breed of cattle was bred. I’m not sure how I feel about descending from the place known for good meat?

Martha’s father, Peter, was a farmer and on July 6, 1806, Martha married a farmer, Lewis McKenzie in Glenmuick, Aberdeen, Scotland. Although Martha was a farmer’s daughter who married a farmer, her life was not entirely spent on the farm for at least by 1841 when the first census of Scotland was taken, Martha’s husband Lewis was an innkeeper. I suspect that there was some land attached to the inn however, as in subsequent census records Lewis’ occupation is listed as innkeeper and crofter.

Together Lewis and Martha reared seven known children, born from 1810-1823.

As she eased into her 80’s, if ‘easing’ was even possible in the highlands during the late 1850’s, Martha developed dropsy or as it is known today, edema. She suffered with the dropsy for twelve months according to the doctor who certified her death on May 11, 1859 in the Parish of Cluny. Lewis, her husband of more than fifty years was the informant for the registration of her death. He knew Martha’s parents were deceased but he could not remember the name of his mother-in-law, at least not accurately as he offered up the surname Christie. 




Martha’s husband Lewis, my four times great grandfather signed the death registration and I always find it interesting to see the signatures of my ancestors, particularly those who lived so long ago.

52 Ancestors: Helen Gammie (nee Shand) 1864-1951 – "The Strongest Woman I Ever Saw"

Amy Johnson Crow of the No 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 an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

Helen (nee Shand) Gammie was described to me by my grand uncle Alexander (Alec) Hadden as “the strongest woman I had ever seen.” Helen was Alec’s paternal grandmother and he had watched her strain and toil, carrying heavy loads long distances as she worked the Gammie homestead lands of southwest Saskatchewan, Canada. 

Helen Shand was born 20 Sep 1864 at Hillhead of Aucharnie in the Parish of Forgue, Aberdeenshire. She was the daughter of John Shand, an agricultural labourer and his wife Isabel Morrison. All was well for the working class Helen, or Nellie as she was called. She worked as a domestic servant, a maid in a local home, until the day she met was smitten by John Hadden, an assistant shopkeeper to his father Alexander Hadden who ran a general merchandise shop in Insch, Scotland. 


Helen ‘Nellie’ Shand



John and Nellie were both teenagers when they found out that they were going to be parents. And so, on 6 Sep 1883, just before her nineteenth birthday, Nellie gave birth to a baby boy. Following the Scottish naming convention, John and Nellie named their son after John’s father Alexander and they included Nellie’s surname as the baby’s middle name. As they were just teenagers, John in fact was even younger than Nellie and he likely had no real means by which to support Nellie and their son, they decided not to marry. Nellie kept the baby to raise on her own.

A few years later, Helen met and married Andrew Gammie, a local farm servant who is recorded in the 1891 Census of Scotland as the head of his small household and step-father to Alexander, who was then recorded as being seven years of age. Helen and Andrew soon started a family of their own children, three half brothers and two half sisters to Alexander.

When the Canadian government began offering free land as part of an initiative to settle the western prairies, Andrew and Helen decided to leave Scotland and become landowners in the far off land that had been made to sound so attractive. On 22 Apr 1907, Andrew, Helen and their five children arrived in Canada on board the ship “Lake Erie.” According to the Gammie family in a commemorative local history “Ponteix Yesterday and Today” (Ponteix and District Vol. 2), the family rented some land while their homestead application was being processed. In 1910, they made the last part of their journey by horse team and wagon to their land, described as W 1/2 of 2-8-11-W3rd south, where they lived in a sod hut until a two-story frame house was built.

When Helen’s son James Gammie was killed in World War I, land that James had owned was transferred to Helen as next-of-kin. I’m told that Gammie family members knew Helen was corresponding with someone whose identity she did not divulge. That someone was her first child, the son she left in Scotland as a young man, Alexander Shand Hadden. Helen convinced Alexander to bring his family to Canada and join her working the land. And so, the Hadden family arrived late in 1923 on the Canadian prairies, only to move away in 1927.

Helen’s husband Andrew died the year before the Hadden family departed and she continued living on her land for many years before she too passed away at the age of 86 on 2 Apr 1951 in Ponteix, where she was buried next to her husband.





52 Ancestors: Agnes Little (1908-1958)

Amy Johnson Crow of the No 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 an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

Agnes Little was ‘Granny’ to me. My paternal grandmother, she was as her surname implied small in stature at just four feet, ten inches in height, but a giant force in her family.




Agnes was born, according to her birth registration, at 6:10 AM at 1 Harvie Lane in the West District of Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland. She joined her young parents, James Little, an 19-year old apprentice iron caulker (better known now as a riveter), and his wife Margaret Mitchell, an 18-year old mother of one, that is Agnes’ older brother Edward Sweeney Little. Agnes’ parents had married in March 1906 when they were just 17 and 16 years old respectively. Over the next few years, Agnes would be there to welcome two additional brothers and a sister into her parent’s family.

Perhaps it was a sense of adventure but more likely, it was a desire to find greater opportunity under the Empire Settlement Act of 1922 that lead Agnes to leave Scotland in 1928. And so, on 16 Jun 1928, with her one-way, third class ticket in hand, Agnes boarded the ship ‘Regina’ of the infamous White Star Line in the Port of Greenock bound for Quebec City in Canada. Her immigration records show that Agnes had been working as a domestic servant in Greenock but planned to work as a “Ward Maid” in Toronto, Ontario where she had accommodation waiting for her at the Salvation Army Hostel.

I can’t imagine that I have ever had enough of a sense of adventure nor the bravery that I think was needed to make this kind of move. As my children know, my sense of adventure has a much smaller geographic reach, larger than that of my parents, but still incredibly minute when compared to my grandmother. And, Agnes relocated thousands of miles from the only home she knew with only $10 in her possession!

Before leaving Scotland, Agnes was told that when she arrived in Toronto, she could look up the Haddens, a family of Scots who had emigrated to Canada just a few years earlier. Agnes did as she was told and by October 1929 she was married to the youngest Hadden son, John.

Agnes died at the too young an age of 50 on 18 Nov 1958 and is interred at Pine Hills Cemetery in Toronto. 


While I remember her, I admit the memories are now vague but my mother loved to recall for me how Agnes, two weeks before she passed away and in spite of the debilitating anguish of the cancer that would claim her life, mustered up the strength to hide from me and feign fright when I visited her to show off my Halloween costume. 

And of course, my mother never failed to remind me of Granny’s favourite expression, spoken with her best Scottish brogue, “Me tongue’s me passport.”


52 Ancestors: William Mathieson (about 1794-1839)

Amy Johnson Crow of the No 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 an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

William Mathieson, my four-time great grandfather, was born according to family sources around 1794 and died in Fyvie, Aberdeen, Scotland on 28 Jun 1839. William was the son of William Mathieson (senior) and Elspet Mackie. 

I specifically mention the lack of sources of records for William because the database search engines for the records of Scotlajnd do not sufficiently allow for a detailed enough search to narrow the results down to ‘my’ William Mathieson. There are four William Mathiesons who were born in the 1790’s and who died after civil registration commenced in 1855. The Old Parish Registers that cover the period before civil registration tend to be spotty and a search of those records produces twenty-one William Mathiesons, three of whom died in the county of Aberdeen and none of whom died between 1835 and 1845. Looking at births, there were at least eighteen William Mathiesons born in Scotland between 1790 and 1815, six of whom were born in the county of Aberdeen. It’s a similar problem for the marriage records, both pre and post civil registration. At some point in my journey, I will examine each of these records, in turn, until I hopefully find ‘my’ William but for now, there is nothing promising about these records and the cost of examining each of the records is a factor.

In spite of my dismay at not locating ‘my’ William’s birth and death records, I do know of my connection to William because of the records about his daughter, one of my great grandmothers, Jane, or sometimes Jean, Mathieson. Jane’s death registration from 1887 tells me that she died at the age of 55 as a result of breast cancer and that she was the daughter of William Mathieson, a deceased farmer and his wife, Jane Scott.

Jane Scott’s death registration from 1867 tells me that William had predeceased her and that he was a crofter.

Although there isn’t as much evidence as I would like, and while the search for additional evidence continues, I know that William Mathieson married Jane Scott sometime in the first half of the 19th century. They had a daughter named Jane Mathieson who married Alexander Hadden and then several generations later I appeared. And I hope they know, someone still remembers them.

52 Ancestors: Margaret ‘Maggie’ Mitchell (1889-1976)

Amy Johnson Crow of the No 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 an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

Margaret ‘Maggie’ Mitchell was one of my paternal great grandmothers. She is high on my list of “If Only I Had Known Then What I Know Now” ancestors. As far as I know, I am the first of her great grandchildren and more importantly, she was the only one of my great grandparents living at the time I was born. Potentially, I could have had a chance to meet and get to know her a little. Sure, there were obstacles in the way of that meeting, like an ocean of distance separating us, but most significantly, I didn’t know she was still alive as I grew up likely because I never asked instead, I just assumed that she like all my other great grandparents had passed away years before I was born.

Maggie was born on 22 April 1889, the second child and daughter of William Mitchell and Agnes Sweeney, in the middle district of Greenock, Renfrew, Scotland. At the time of her birth, the Mitchell family was living at 3 West Quay Lane in Greenock. Her father, William, listed himself as a shipyard labourer in Greenock when he registered her birth on 24 April 1889.

Life in the working class of the late 19th century could be tough and that is how I imagine it likely was for Maggie and her family. At some point in the 1890’s, likely around 1895, William abandoned his family.  In an 1899 birth registration for her daughter Agnes, Agnes Mitchell listed herself as “wife of William Mitchell who, she declares is not the father of the child, and that she has had no personal communication with him for 4 years.” In the 1891 Census of Scotland, Agnes can be found living in Greenock and recorded as working as a shopkeeper. Also living in her household, was Joseph Branchfield who Agnes married in 1905 and with whom she had additional children. During this tumultuous time, Maggie and most of her siblings were sent off to live with their maternal grandmother, Helen (or sometimes seen as Ellen) Sweeney (alternate spelling is Sweenie).

In 1906, some calm seems to have been restored to Maggie’s life as she married James Little, an apprentice iron worker, on 22 March at 48 Kelly Street in Greenock. Maggie was only 16 years old when she married but James, her new husband, was a much older, mature 17 years of age. In spite of their youth, it appears that they achieved some stability as their family grew to include five known children: Edward Sweeney Little (born 1906), Agnes Little (my grandmother, born 1908), James Little (born 1910), John Little (born 1913), and one of my favourite grandaunts (Aunt Jennie) who I did have the great pleasure of meeting, Janet Triggs Little (born 1920).

It seems clear to me that Maggie and James honoured their ancestors in choosing names for their children. For example, Edward Sweeney Little named after Maggie’s maternal grandfather and Janet Triggs Little named after James’ aunt Janet (Little) Triggs.

In 1944, James Little passed away while Maggie lived until 1976 when she too passed way in her beloved Greenock.  

52 Ancestors: John Shand (1825-1906)

Amy Johnson Crow of the No 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 an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

The subject this week is one of my paternal 3X great grandfathers, John Shand about whom there is probably more I don’t know than I do know.

Scotland’s Old Parish Registers record that John Shand was born 20 Feb 1825 in Aucharnie, Aberdeenshire, the son of John Shand and his wife Jean Anderson. He was baptized at the church in Forgue, Aberdeenshire two miles north of his parent’s home one week later on 27 Feb 1825.

The records show that John was a worker, a farm servant specifically. By 1853, he was working on a farm in Fyvie, some 13 miles east of his parental home. In that year, John married Isobel (sometimes her name was recorded as Isabel or Isabella) Morrison. I have no idea as to how John and Isobel met or courted given that she lived in Huntly about 35 miles away from where John was living and working. For my sake, I am glad they did meet and marry – or there would not have been a ME! But meet and marry they did, on 22 Jul 1853 according to their marriage registration in the Huntly Old Parish Register.

John seems to have worked hard to support his family and rose from being a farm servant to being a tenant farmer or crofter by 1890. Over the course of the first twenty years of their marriage, John and Isobel welcomed into their family nine known children, the first born in 1854 and the ninth born in 1874. Their family consisted of seven boys and two girls. Their second daughter, Helen, born in 1864, would become my great great grandmother.

By 1900, John was running the Clinkstone Croft in the village of Insch. That is when life seems to have taken a real downturn for John. First, his wife of almost 47 years, Isobel (her death registration records her name as Isabella) died on February 10th due to bronchitis. John was approaching his 75th birthday at the time and I am certain that work would not have be easy for John. His death registration record shows this clearly. 

John died on 17 Apr 1906 in Aberdeen, his death the result of chronic heart disease. Sadly, it apears John was not surrounded by loving family members at the time of his death as many modern obituaries record. He died alone in the West Poorhouse which I suspect was not, even at the best of times, not a happy place to be.

52 Ancestors: Flora McRae (abt 1776-1876)

Amy Johnson Crow of the No 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 an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

This week I am turning the spotlight onto an ancestor in my maternal family lineage. Flora McRae (or MacRae) is my 3X great grandmother, the great grandmother of my maternal grandfather, John Graham O’Neill. 

As I was growing up, my mother’s side of the family was the Irish side. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I found Flora McRae, and her husband Finlay, and they were not Irish. No, they were Scottish!

I don’t know who Flora’s parents were but it doesn’t appear that she had to change her name when she married Finlay. According to an Old Parish Register record from the parish of Lochalsh in Ross and Cromarty county, Finlay MacRae married Flora MacRae on 19 July 1800, after their banns had been read, that is their marriage contract announced, on 2 July 1800.

Finlay and Flora set up house in Invernesshire, Scotland where the first five of their nine known children were born. Events, however, that pre-dated their marriage and thousands of miles away from them would eventually have a tremendous impact on the life of their family.

Scotsmen who had years earlier left Scotland for opportunities in New York State were uprooted by the American Revolutionary War, seeking refuge as Loyalists in Glengarry County, Upper Canada (now part of Ontario). The establishment of the Glengarry settlement set off an emigration of Highlanders, most notably from Inverness. It seems that Finlay and Flora caught the tail end of this large emigration, likely leaving Scotland around 1815. 

I don’t know much about Flora’s life in Canada during the 19th century but I do know she was widowed and a small story in the Oriliia Times newspaper, dated 5 May 1876, captured the peaceful, but with a pinch of the dramatic, way she left this world. “Mrs. Flora McRae, of the great age of 100 years, who lived in a house by herself, a few rods from that of her son, Colin McRae, Kirkfield, was last Thursday found dead sitting by the fireside, with her clothes almost completely burnt off her body. She was not severely burnt, but when found life was extinct.”

52 Ancestors: John Hadden (1866-1924)

Amy Johnson Crow of the No 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 an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

This week the spotlight is on John Hadden, my 2X great grandfather. He is also the first of three John Hadden’s in my direct Hadden lineage (my grandfather was John Gaull Hadden and my son is John Graham Hadden). The John Hadden who is my 2X great grandfather was also the first significant research ‘brickwall’ obstacle that I had to break through when I began researching my ancestors.

When I began my ancestral hunt just over 30 years ago, I intuitively started by asking my oldest then-living relatives about our family history. I was told that my great grandfather, Alexander Shand Hadden had brought his family, which included my grandfather, to Canada in order to join his mother Helen Shand with her homestead lands in Saskatchewan. Helen, according to the family story, had re-married in Scotland to man named Gammie and together with their sons, they had immigrated to Saskatchewan in 1907 to homestead. Alexander, being older than his half-siblings, had decided to remain in Scotland where he worked as an engineer on a ship in the merchant marine.

I asked about Alexander’s father and Helen’s first husband – what was his name and what happened to him? The answer was that no one seemed to know the answers to these questions although it was speculated that he had died in a quarry accident leaving Helen a widow with a young son.

Some of the answers to my questions came later when the then General Register Office of Scotland (since merged with National Archives of Scotland to form the National Records of Scotland) mailed a copy of Alexander Shand Hadden’s birth registration to me. Alexander’s father was John Hadden, an assistant shopkeeper and general merchant in Bainshole, Insch, Aberdeenshire. Helen Shand, as expected, was listed as the mother. What was not expected was that John Hadden and Helen Shand never did marry. 

In his first annual report on births, deaths, and marriages, the Register General for Scotland (report published in Edinburgh in 1861) provided the analysis that, for the year 1855, the first year of civil registration in Scotland, 7.8% of all births in Scotland were “illegitimate.” In the north-east of Scotland, which included Aberdeenshire, the rate was 13%, and in subsequent years the rate was greater still.

All this goes to say that the birth of my great grandfather ‘out-of-wedlock’ in the Aberdeenshire of 1866 was not unusual in any spectacular way. In fact, it is likely that John and Helen did not marry because of their ages at the time of Alexander’s birth. Helen was only 18-years old and John was just 17-years old. Following the traditional Scottish naming pattern, their baby was named after the father’s (that is, John’s) father. Helen kept and raised baby Alexander. John moved on but not necessarily to a free and easy life.

John Hadden was born on 1 Jan 1866, the sixth child of ten known children born to Alexander Bean Hadden and his first wife Jane Mathieson. His father worked primarily on local farms as a labourer and ploughman before finding his calling as a general merchant. Eventually, Alexander would become a Master Grocer and it was into this occupation that he directed his three sons.

The census records for Scotland tell us that by 1891, John Hadden had moved out on his own and was working as a grocer’s assistant in Ayr. In 1895, John married Helen Duff. Helen had been married before and was widowed in 1888 when her husband of only three years, Patrick Keating died of tuberculosis. 

At the time of his wedding to Helen, John was living in Glasgow and working as a grocer’s assistant. It is known that Helen had had a son with an unnamed father when she was 19-years old, years before her marriage to Patrick Keating. After Patrick died, Helen returned to her father’s home in Kinfauns, Perthshire where she lived with her father and her then teenage son. I have found no record that suggests that Helen’s son, John Duff ever lived with her and John Hadden.

It doesn’t appear that the marriage was filled with wedded bliss for either Helen or John. Just six years after the wedding, they can be found living about one half mile apart in the town of Perth, Perthshire.

The map, snipped from Google Maps, shows the distance from John Hadden’s residence at Point A to his wife Helen (Duff) Hadden’s residence at Point B in the town of Perth.


John was listed in the 1901 Census of Scotland as a boarder in the Dingwall family household at 7 North William Street whereas Helen was residing again with her father at 17 James Street. While Helen was recorded as being married, John was recorded as being single, something that may be simply explained as an error on the part of the individual who provided the information to the enumerator.

There is no record that I have found indicating that John and Helen ever lived together again. I was unable to find either of them in the 1911 Census of Scotland. John died of pneumonia in Ruchill Hospital in Glasgow on 5 Nov 1924. When he died his occupation was listed as ‘Spirits Salesman.’


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.