All posts by Janice Hamilton

Janice Hamilton is a Montreal-based writer, genealogist and photographer.

The Mitcheson Sisters

Sisters Margaret (born 1781), Elizabeth (born 1786) and Jane Mitcheson (born 1793) grew up together on their parents’ farm in County Durham, England, but when they became adults, their lives followed very different paths. The eldest married a much older man who provided her with financial security, the middle sister was swept off her feet by a tenant farmer and the youngest married a mariner who was often away at sea.

The daughters of yeoman farmer Joseph Mitcheson and his wife Margaret Philipson, they were baptized at Lanchester Parish Church and grew up in the rolling countryside of northeast England. Their mother died in 1804, when Jane would have been just nine years old.

They had two older siblings, Mary (born 1776) and Robert (born 1779) who both immigrated to North America, and another brother, William (born 1783), an anchor manufacturer who lived near the docks of London. (Mary and Robert were both my direct ancestors since Mary’s grandson, Stanley Clark Bagg, married Robert’s daughter Catharine Mitcheson in 1844, so these three sisters were my 4x and 5x great-aunts.

Their grandfather Robert Mitcheson (-1784) left each of his older grandchildren 50 pounds, part of which could be spent on their care and education and the rest given to them when they turned 21. In his will, written in 1803, their father also left them between 100 and 150 pounds each,1 although he gave the two youngest, Elizabeth and Jane, their inheritances in 1807.

Margaret Dodd

Margaret would have been considered as having married well when she wed gentleman Thomas Dodd (1743-1823) at Whickham Parish Church in 1808.2 The Dodd lineage in northern County Durham can be traced back to 1645, and his family owned a farm called Woodhouse, located in Woodside Ryton Township.

Whickham Parish Church. JH photo.

Thomas was in his sixties and Margaret was 27 when they married. They had five children, three of whom lived to adulthood, although their only surviving son, Thomas Anthony Humble Dodd (1824-1899), was born after his father had died. Thomas grew up to be a well-known Newcastle surgeon and married his cousin, Frances Jane Mitcheson (1824-1898), daughter of the anchor maker.3

Thomas Dodd senior was an early pioneer of Methodism, founded in the 18th century by English minister John Wesley. Wesley often preached to large crowds outdoors. According to the late Durham-based genealogist Geoff Nicholson, John Wesley may have preached in the fields at Dent’s Hall, near Ryton, and Thomas may have met Wesley.4

After her husband’s death, Margaret remained at Woodhouse. In 1824, 1825 and 1827, the property was listed as owned and occupied by the executors of Thomas Dodd’s estate, but according to the 1830 land tax returns, it was “Property of Mrs. Dodd, occupied by Mrs. Dodd.”5

She was also a farmer. A local directory published in 1828 listed Margaret Dodd as a farmer in Woodside Ryton Township,6 and the 1841 U.K. census did the same.  

The 1851 census found son Thomas A. H. Dodd as head of the household, living at Woodhouse with his wife and two small children, his mother and two servants. Margaret was listed as an annuitant, meaning she had her own income. The census noted that Thomas was a surgeon, and that the farm had 96 acres and employed two labourers.

When the 1861 census-taker came around, Margaret was once again head of the household, living with her widowed daughter Mary Robson and a house servant. Margaret died in October, 1864, age 83, and was buried with her husband in Holy Cross Parish Churchyard, Ryton.7

Elizabeth Maughan

While researching Margaret was straightforward, finding records of her sister Elizabeth’s life was more challenging. What I did find suggests that Elizabeth’s life was far from easy.

She was just 20 when she married farmer John Maughan, of Shotley, Northumberland, in 1806 at Whickham Parish Church.8 They lived in Shotley, a sparsely inhabited parish in southern Northumberland, located between the River Derwent and the town of Hexham. Its soil consists of sandy clay, and coal, silver, lead and iron have been produced in the area.

Elizabeth might have been lonely on that remote farm, but she probably didn’t have much time to think about it as she gave birth to at least 10 children.9 Several of them died young, but Joseph (b. 1810), Margaret (b. 1814), Isabella (b. 1816), Mary (b. 1817) and possibly William (b. 1823) grew to adulthood.

The family eventually appears to have left Shotley. In 1842, my Montreal ancestor Stanley Bagg and his 21-year-old son Stanley Clark Bagg travelled to England. In an account of the trip, Stanley Clark Bagg mentioned that they visited his great-aunts Mrs. Dodd near Ryton and Mrs. Maughan in Sunderland, in northeastern County Durham.11

Some genealogists suggest Elizabeth died in Hexham, Northumberland in 1839, but in that case, the Baggs would not been able to visit her. The 1841 census counted a John Maughan, agricultural labourer, and Elizabeth Maughan, age 55, in Sunderland, along with 15-year-old Thomas Maughan, so this may have been the family.12 I do not know when Elizabeth died.

As for the youngest sister, Jane, she married master mariner David Mainland in 1812. About 10 years later, the family moved to London. Jane died in London in 1825 and their son David married his widowed cousin Mary Ann (Mitcheson) Eady in 1849. Jane’s family will be the subject of my next post.

Notes:

According to genealogist Geoff Nicholson, Margaret and Thomas Dodd’s children were: Margaret (c.1810-1851) m. John Milburn; Isabella Ann (1815-1822), Mary (1817- ) m. Rob. Robson or Ritson; Anthony Humble (1818-1821) and Thomas Anthony Humble (1824-1899) m. Frances Jane Mitcheson.

Elizabeth and John Maughan’s daughter Mary (born 181712))moved to Montreal, Canada, where her Aunt Mary (MItcheson) Clark lived. Mary Maughan married merchant William Footner in Montreal in September, 1840,13 and she gave birth to one of her three children at Mile End Lodge, a large farmhouse that belonged to her aunt. The Footner family later moved to the United States and Mary died in Minnesota in 1901. (There was another William Footner, an architect, married to another Mary, in Montreal in the mid to late 1800s.)

See also:

This article has simultaneously been posted on http://www.writinguptheancestors.ca.

The Lucy H. Anglin Family Tree on Ancestry Public Member Trees. Numerous members of the Mitcheson family in Durham, including several generations of men named Robert Mitcheson, as well as their descendants in Philadelphia and Montreal, are listed on this tree.

Janice Hamilton, “Mary Mitcheson Clark”, Writing Up the Ancestors, May 16, 2014, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2014/05/mary-mitcheson-clark.html

Janice Hamilton, “Philadelphia and the Mitcheson Family,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Nov. 22, 2013, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2013/11/philadelphia-and-mitcheson-family.html

Janice Hamilton, “Robert Mitcheson’s Last Will and Testament”, Writing Up the Ancestors, March 1, 2022, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2022/03/robert-mitchesons-last-will-and-testament.html

Sources:

1. Will of Joseph Mitcheson, yeoman, Iveston, Durham, The National Archives, Wills 1384-1858 (http://nationalarchives.gov.uk, search for Joseph Mitcheson, accessed Nov. 18, 2010), The National Archives, Kew – Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 9 February, 1822.

2. England, Select Marriages, 1538-1973, Ancestry.com. (www.ancestry.ca, database on-line, entry for Margaret Mitcheson, accessed April 19, 2022), citing England, Marriages, 1538–1973. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

3 London and Surrey, England, Marriage Bonds and Allegations, 1597-1921, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.ca, database on-line, entry for Thomas Anthony Humble Dodd, 1848, accessed April 19, 2022), citing Marriage Bonds and Allegations. London, England: London Metropolitan Archives.

4 E-mail correspondence from Geoff Nicholson about the Dodd family, June 13, 2009.

5 Durham County Record Office. Quarter Sessions – Land Tax Returns, Chester Ward West 1759-1830, www.durhamrecordsoffice.org.uk, search for Dodd, viewed April 19, 2022.

6 The History, Directory and Gazetteer of Durham and Northumberland, Vol 2, by Wm. Parson and Wm. White, W. White and Company, 1828, p. 186, Google Books, search for Margaret Dodd, accessed April 19, 2022.

7 Find a Grave (www.findagrave.com, database online, search for Margaret Dodd, accessed April 19, 2022), https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/231216340/margaret-dodd.

8. England, Select Marriages, 1538-1973 Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.ca, database on-line, entry for Elizabeth Mitcheson, Whickham, accessed April 10, 2022), citing England, Marriages, 1538–1973. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

9. England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, Familysearch.org, database online, entry for John Maughan and spouse Elizabeth, Shotley; accessed April 10, 2022.

10. Letter from Stanley Clark Bagg to Rev. R. M. Mitcheson, Dec. 6, 1842, probably transcribed by Stanley Bagg Lindsay; Lindsay family collection.

11.1841 England Census, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.ca, database on-line, entry for Elizabeth Maughan, Bishop Wearmouth, accessed April 10, 2022), citing Class: HO107; Piece: 310; Book: 4; Civil Parish: Bishop Wearmouth; County: Durham; Enumeration District: 4; Folio: 13; Page: 21; Line: 1; GSU roll: 241353, original dataCensus Returns of England and Wales, 1841. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1841.

12 “England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975”, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JWVX-TMS : 20 March 2020), entry for Mary Maughan, accessed April 19, 2022).

13. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1968, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.ca, database on-line, entry for Mary Maughan, accessed April 19, 2022), citing Institut Généalogique Drouin; Montreal, Quebec, Canada; Drouin Collection; Author: Gabriel Drouin, comp.

Black Market Baby

In 1984, at the age of 35, Harold Rosenberg discovered he had been adopted. Fourteen years later, he found out who his birth mother was – or so he thought. Today, he is still searching for his roots.

His adoptive parents never told him he was not their natural child, and both were already deceased when he learned the truth. His cousin Dinah, who was almost a generation older than him, could only recall that a Mrs. Baker, a matchmaker in Montreal’s large Jewish community, had done Harold’s adoptive father a favour and found the baby. The Rosenbergs had paid Mrs. Baker $1800 to make the arrangements.

Harold Rosenberg, age 8, in 1957.

Harold, who is my husband, tried to find out more, but there were no official records of his adoption and even the record of his birth kept by the synagogue was fake. He followed many false leads and ran into brick walls everywhere he turned.

In 1998, he opened The Gazette to see a front-page article about a group of women who had gathered in Montreal to search for their roots. All had been adopted into Jewish families, most eventually discovered that their birth mothers had been Catholic.

The article described a black-market baby ring that operated in Montreal in the late 1940s and early 1950s, trafficking about 1,000 babies to adoptive parents in Canada and the United States. A small group of doctors, lawyers and various intermediaries arranged these adoptions for childless Jewish couples who could not find babies through regular adoption channels. At the time, it was illegal in Quebec to adopt a child from another religion, and, while there were no Jewish babies available, there were lots of Catholic ones. Most of these babies were delivered at a handful of private maternity clinics in Montreal. The money went to the doctors and the people who arranged the adoptions, or who turned a blind eye to the transfer of small bundles. The mothers were not paid, but they were able to stay for free at the clinics during their last weeks of pregnancy, and they did not have to worry about medical costs.

When the ring was busted in 1954, The Gazette reported, several lawyers and a woman named Rachel Baker were arrested. Suddenly, Harold realized that Mrs. Baker did not just find a baby for his parents, she arranged for many under-the-table adoptions.

Years later, his cousin Moe told Harold that he had seen a tiny hospital bracelet with the name “baby Boyko” in the Rosenbergs’ safe deposit box, and he recalled that a girl named Mary Boyko had lived in his neighbourhood. Harold checked a list that a volunteer researcher had made of single mothers who gave birth in the late 1940s, and there was the name: Mary Boyko. She must have been his birth mother!

Harold asked a friend, a retired police detective, to look for her. It was a challenge because Mary had married someone named Tremblay, and Tremblay is one of the most common family names in Quebec. Nevertheless, three days later, the friend phoned to say that he had found her. Unfortunately, she was deceased, but he had tracked down her husband and her son. They said they had been looking for Mary’s baby for years, and they couldn’t wait to meet him.

Harold became good friends with his new-found half-brother, Sonny Tremblay. All the pieces seemed to fit, except for a few minor details. Meanwhile, he became an unofficial spokesperson for black market babies, participating in television documentaries in English and in French, and being interviewed for newspaper and magazine articles. He hoped to help other adoptees, as well as their birth mothers, learn the truth.

Harold in 2022

In 2020, our sons persuaded Harold to try to find his birth father. He did a DNA test, and he asked Sonny to do one also. Everyone was shocked when the results came back – they were not related! Just to be sure, Sonny’s cousin also took a DNA test, and it confirmed that the cousin is related to Sonny, but not to Harold. He then hired genetic genealogist Mary Eberle, of DNA Hunters, to help him make sense of his DNA results. He had many matches, but no one closer than a third or fourth cousin. Clearly, Harold is of Eastern European descent, and his birth father was probably Ukrainian. Many of his matches on his father’s side live around Cleveland, Ohio, an area where many Eastern Europeans settled.

Recently, he made a big break-through and got in touch with Lynne, a woman in Cleveland with whom he shares a whopping eight percent of his DNA. She is probably a first or second cousin and has been delighted to help out. Harold is still not sure who his birth father was, but at least he now has a genuine, close genetic cousin.

As for the identity of his birth mother, that remains a mystery. Was Harold really born at a Montreal hospital, as his cousin told him? And what should he now make of the story of the baby bracelet and the name Boyko?  Hopefully, he will find out some day soon.

This article is also published on my own family history blog, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca.

Further information:

Ingrid Peritz, “’Black-market babies’ seek Montreal roots,” The Gazette, May 9, 1998, page 1, www.Newspapers.com

Adam Elliott Segal, “Black Market Babies”, Maisonneuve Magazine, July 18, 2017, https://maisonneuve.org/article/2017/07/18/black-market-babies/

CTV News Montreal, “Special Report: Black Market Baby”, Dec 18, 2017, https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=318300
This interview was done when Harold mistakenly believed that Mary Boyko was his birth mother. I have included it here anyway because it includes more background on the black-market baby ring.

Frances McGregor’s Notebook

The old notebook has a scuffed brown cover, but its pages are full of poetry, transcribed in neat handwriting. Clearly, this notebook once belonged to a woman who admired Lord Byron and other early 19th century English poets. Her name was Frances – or Fanny – McGregor, and she may have been my ancestor.

I came across it while searching for the name McGregor in the online catalogue of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The first result to pop up was “Frances McGregor autograph book, 1825.” In response to my query, the society forwarded a digitized copy of the entire notebook.

There’s a note clipped to the front, “Frances McGregor? selections from English poets,” which is a more accurate description of it. The label inside the cover indicates it was given to the historical society by “Miss Mary Forman Day, April 22, 1936,” more than 100 years after the last entry was made in 1829.

the donation plate and first page (page 11) of the notebook

Who was Mary Forman Day? She could have been a friend of one of Fanny’s grandchildren.1 Born in Philadelphia in 1860, and died in 1950 in Washington, D.C., she was probably the person who gave many documents pertaining to her Forman ancestors — early Maryland settlers — to area historical societies.2

As for my three-times great-grandmother Mary Frances McGregor, she was born near Port of Menteith, Perthshire, Scotland around 1792. She usually went by her nickname, Fanny. According to family lore, she finished her education in Edinburgh and then came to America. She married English-born Philadelphia merchant Robert Mitcheson, and the census shows they lived in the Spring Garden district, on the outskirts of Philadelpia. I am descended from her eldest daughter, Catharine, who was born in 1822.

I tried to eliminate the possibility that another Frances McGregor owned this notebook, but that proved difficult. Only the head of the household was named in census records and city directories at that time, making women especially hard to find.

If a title page ever existed, someone tore it out long ago, and the notebook begins on page 11.  Nevertheless, Frances’s name appears three times: she signed “Fanny” on a small botanical painting on the last page, and she wrote “Frances” on the inside back cover.

Her name also appears on page 11, at the bottom of a poem that begins, “When shall we three meet again?” Those words were spoken by the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but this is a different poem, expressing the sadness of friends about to be parted. Perhaps Fanny included this poem because she knew she would be leaving her life in Scotland for a new one in the United States.

Many of the poems Frances included in the notebook were written by Lord Byron. She also included a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost, a short excerpt from an opera and “A Canadian Boat Song, written on the River St. Lawrence”, written by Irish poet Thomas Moore and first published in 1805. The notebook ends with several poems about England’s Princess Charlotte. In 1817, her baby was stillborn and the princess also died. These tragic events inspired much public sympathy at the time.

Frances seems to have written at least one of the notebook’s entries herself. “A Poem – On Home, written by a Young lady at School in the Year 1814” described memories of a loving mother and a happy childhood, but complained of loneliness and disillusionment as the young author moved toward adulthood.  

Besides poetry, Frances included several “puzzles” such as, “Why are your eyes like coach horses?” and “Why is a washerwoman like a church bell?” and “How is a lady of loquacity like a lady of veracity?” She did not include the answers.

One of the botanical sketches in the notebook.

My other favourite entries are the botanical paintings: simple but colourful images of wild geraniums, wild violets and roses.

Whoever created this notebook, it is clear that she was well educated, probably from the upper middle class, and had a quirky sense of humour. The more I think about it, the more strongly I suspect it belonged to my Frances McGregor, but I can’t prove it.

Photo credits: “Frances McGregor autograph book, 1825,” courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Notes

1. Grandchildren of Fanny McGregor Mitcheson who could have known Mary Forman:
Joseph McGregor Mitcheson (1870-1926) WW1 navy officer and Philadelphia lawyer;
Mary Frances (Mitcheson) Nunns (1874-1959);
Robert S. J. Mitcheson (1862-1931) Philadelphia physician and art collector;
Helen Patience Mitcheson (1854-1885);
Fanny Mary (Mitcheson) Smith (1851-1937) wife of Philadelphia lawyer and collector of historical documents Uselma Clarke Smith.
Fanny had five other grandchildren in Canada through daughter Catharine Mitcheson Bagg.

2. For example, Mary donated the Forman papers, MS 0403. H. Furlong Baldwin Library., Maryland Center for History and Culture, https://mdhistory.libraryhost.com/repositories/2/resources/49

This article is also posted to https://writinguptheancestors.ca

A Gift of Art

Philidelphia physician Robert S.J. Mitcheson (1862-1931) is said to have been a kind, thoughtful person and a good doctor, but his true passion focused on another realm entirely: art. Thanks to his widow’s generosity, it is as an art collector, rather than as a physician, that his legacy endures.

Several years after R.S.J.’s death, Lucie Washington Mitcheson donated some of the best paintings from his collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She didn’t know much about art, but did know that the paintings would serve as a memorial to her beloved husband.

I came across Robert’s name long before I started to research my ancestors in a serious way. I knew my Mitcheson ancestors lived in Philadelphia in the 19th century, so I asked a researcher at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) to look up the family. But Philadelphia, which had been founded in 1682, was home to many well-respected colonial and revolutionary families. The Mitchesons came to Philadelphia from England around 1817, so they were not included in any American genealogies. Thanks to Lucie Washington’s ancestry, however, the researcher did find Robert S.J. Mitcheson mentioned in a book about colonial families,1 and it mentioned both his medical career and interest in art.

Dr. Robert S.J. Mitcheson, photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Alumni Relations.

Robert S.J. Mitcheson was the only son of Episcopal clergyman Robert MacGregor Mitcheson, (1818-1877) and Sarah Johnson (1823-1907). He had two older sisters: Fanny Mary Mitcheson (1851-1937), who married Uselma Clarke Smith and had five children, and Helen Patience Mitcheson (1854-1885), who died unmarried.

His father died when R.S.J. was 15. In his will,2 Reverend Mitcheson expressed the wish that his son study for a profession rather than go into business. R.S.J. attended the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, graduating in 1885, and worked in the wholesale and retail drug business for several years.He then studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1891, and opened a medical practice, specializing in the ear, nose and throat. He also taught at the university.  

He married Lucie May Washington (1867-1952) in Philadelphia in 1894 with Lucie’s father, Reverend Shadrach Washington, officiating at the wedding. The couple had no children and lived for many years in a row house on North 15th Street, first with Robert’s mother, then with Lucie’s.

Even as a medical student, Robert was interested in art, and he purchased a large number of paintings over the years. When he died suddenly at age 69, he left the collection in Lucie’s hands.

At first she was not sure what to do with the paintings, but with the help of Robert’s nephew, Chicago architect William Jones Smith, Lucie arranged to donate ten oil paintings to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. William was a friend of the museum’s director, Fiske Kimball. Kimball chose the paintings he wanted — primarily landscapes done by 19th-century American artists — and they arrived at their new home in October, 1938. At the time, the museum’s vast neoclassical building (familiar to many from a scene on the front steps in the movie Rocky)was only ten years old, and many of its walls were still bare.

Landscape, by William Langson Lathrop, American Artist (1859-1938); Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Lucie Washington Mitcheson in memory of Robert Stockton Johnson Mitcheson for the Robert Stockton Johnson Mitcheson Collection, 1938-22-5.

A flurry of correspondence between Lucie and museum staff reveals that everyone was happy about the gift. The paintings were hung together for a month in the newly furnished board room before being put on public display. Lucie was invited to come to see them, and to become a patron of the museum. Thrilled, she admitted she had once thought of museums as impersonal places, but “now I shall feel I am really one with you, and anticipate many visits to our Museum.”3

Several years later, she sold a number of paintings and water colours from the collection at auction. By 1946, Lucie must have also sold the house as she had moved into a hotel in the Mount Airy neighbourhood of the city. Her health was declining, nevertheless, she continued to correspond with museum director Kimball. That year she wrote, “It nearly breaks my heart not to be able to accept the many kind invitations that come to me from the museum, and now of all things to miss the Xmas party is the last straw.”4

The final entry in the museum’s file of correspondence with Lucie W. Mitcheson is a note to the museum director, informing him of her death on May 24, 1952.  

Notes and Sources

1. Wilfred Jordan, editor. Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania; Genealogical and Personal Memoirs. New series. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1942, p. 507.  The author noted that, “according to family history,” Robert S.J. Mitcheson was a descendant of Richard Stockton, signer for New Jersey of the Declaration of Independence. That would have greatly improved Robert’s social status in Philadelphia, however, I have been unable find evidence of a connection.

2. Robert McGregor Mitcheson, Nov. 30, 1877, City of Philadelphia Register of Wills Office, #895. Familysearch.org, Wills, 1682-1916, Index to Wills, 1682-1924, film #07726523; Wills, V. 90-91, 1877-1878, image #390.

3. Lucie W. Mitcheson, Dec. 16, 1938, General Correspondence and related material, 1938-1939, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives.

4 Lucie W. Mitcheson, Nov. 30, 1946, General Correspondence and related material, 1945-1946, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives.

This article was also posted on http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.com on Dec. 9, 2021

Canadian Tourists in India, 1900

When Helen Frances (Bagg) Lewis and her husband Edward travelled from Shanghai to Canada in 1900, they took a circuitous route through India, sightseeing along the way. In a travel journal written 25 years later, Helen described the highlights of that trip, including three frightening encounters with snakes.

Helen was my great-grandfather Robert Stanley Bagg’s youngest sister. She and Edward lived in Shanghai for several months in 1899. They even considered staying there, but decided instead to relocate to Canada’s west coast, rather than return to their hometown of Montreal.

They left Shanghai aboard a P&O steamer and explored Hong Kong for a month before taking a second-class cargo ship to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), arriving in Columbo on New Year’s Day, 1900.

Helen Lewis’s photo of runners in Ceylon was published in Wide World Magazine.

Their first stop in India was in the southern city of Madura, and Helen wrote that the timing of their visit was perfect.

“It happened to be a gala day at the Temple of Madura, so all the sacred elephants were out in procession, bedazzled with garlands of flowers and state paraphernalia. The procession over, we were allowed to mount a couple of them, and never shall I forget my first experience of riding on the back of one of those stately animals….”

Luck was with them again in Puri, a city famed for what Helen called the “Juggernaut” Temple, an elaborate Hindu temple dedicated to the deity Jagannath. But seeing the dirty exterior of the bungalow where they had arranged to stay, Helen felt disappointment.

Her spirits “sank to zero” when she realized that the rustling they heard came from a nest of cobras on the roof. While inspecting the property further, she encountered a government officer, Major H.. The only white man in the district, he was so pleased to meet some English-speaking people that he invited them to stay with him for three days.

Early in the morning of their last day in Puri, a messenger arrived with the news that a tiger had entered a nearby village and carried off a woman. “Major sahib” was asked to immediately go and kill the animal. Both the major and Edward agreed, leaving Helen in the house with a number of servants, none of whom spoke English.

She decided to explore the rambling bungalow and found herself in the “snake room,” where the major kept an enormous collection of “vicious reptiles in tanks and cages, for scientific purposes. At my entrance, these monsters almost simultaneously rose up and hissed at me, so that my retreat was by no means leisurely.” She was much relieved when the two men returned after a successful hunt, and she noted in her journal that she still treasured the tiger’s claws, a souvenir of their visit.

From Puri, the couple continued by train to Calcutta and Darjeeling, where they were thrilled to view the Himalayas in perfectly clear weather. They then moved on to the sacred city of Benares, on the banks of the Ganges River.

In their next destination, Lucknow, Helen experienced “a narrow escape from a venomous cobra who was coiled up on the stone parapet, enjoying his noonday siesta.”

“On bending over the parapet to peer down, I accidentally touched his head, when he reared and stretched out his neck to strike. Terror lent me wings and I made for shelter. The driver was as keen as I to move on, as the Hindus consider it desecration to kill any animal, and I urged him forward fearing lest Edward — who was on the beach below, photographing sun worshippers, — might return at that moment and insist upon starting off on a cobra hunt. As it happened, I did not say a word about the episode to him until some days later in Agra, where I met with my second cobra adventure.”

Helen found Agra and its famed Taj Mahal interesting, but her encounter with the snake was even more memorable.

“Whilst driving close to the river one afternoon, one of our wheels must have grazed his slumbering body, for suddenly sprung to his full length, he struck with such force at the hood of our open gharry [a horse-drawn cab] as to hit the brim of my broad sun hat, and send it forward over my face. Luckily at the moment I did not realize what a narrow escape I had had.”

Over the next few weeks, the couple continued their explorations. Finally, in March, they sailed from Bombay, through the Suez Canal to Venice and Trieste. From there, they made their way via Paris to Cherbourg and crossed the Atlantic to New York. Edward continued to Vancouver to arrange for their new home, while Helen stopped in Montreal for several weeks to visit family and friends.

Note: This account is part of a series of journals Helen wrote later in life, handwritten in black ink in a lined, leather-bound book. These excerpts are from Book III, The Orient:  A New Life in a New Land. She did not complete this volume and I do not know whether the others have survived. This one now belongs to a descendant of Helen’s niece, Ada Lindsay.

Summer in Korea, 1899

When my great-great Aunt Helen and her husband travelled to Korea in 1899, the country was almost unknown to tourists. Helen was an intrepid traveller, but in the end, the scarcity of clean accommodations got the better of her.

At the time, Helen Frances Bagg (1861-1935) and her first husband, Albert Edward Lewis (1861-1908), were living in Shanghai, where there was a large European community and they enjoyed a busy social life. However, Shanghai was very hot in the summer and Helen read that Korea was cooler, so that June, the couple left for Korea aboard an uncomfortable Russian mail ship.

In a neatly hand-written journal penned 25 years later, Helen noted that the day after they arrived in Chemulpo (now known as Incheon), Prince Henry of Prussia also landed there. A delegation of Korean nobles had been waiting for six hours for him near the landing area, dressed in gowns of spotless white, surmounted by sleeveless blue garments and small crowned hats fastened under the chin with ribbons and strings of amber beads. The prince took no notice of this welcoming committee, but immediately mounted a pony and left for the consulate.

Helen noted that the white garments so many Koreans wore were a curse to the women of the country. Poor people only owned only one such robe, and to ensure that their clothing was clean, women often stayed up all night to do the laundry, beating the garments with wooden clubs until they were dry and glossy while their husbands slept soundly.

Helen Frances Bagg, Montreal, 1882

After a week in Chemulpo, Helen and Edward travelled by boat to Seoul, the capital city, along with several other foreign passengers and their interpreters. They expected to stay at the British Consulate, but the consul was away so they had to find other accommodations. By the time they settled into the house of an English missionary, it was evening, so they went straight to bed by the light of a single candle. Later, Helen awakened “with the feeling that I was being devoured alive!” In the morning, they discovered insects hiding behind the numerous Bible pictures hanging on the walls, so they went out and bought soap, scrubbing brushes and several packages of Keatings Insect Powder, guaranteed to get rid of fleas, cockroaches and flies.

Despite the discomfort of their accommodations and the unstable political situation (the empress of Korea had been assassinated four years earlier and the emperor apparently feared a similar fate), Helen and Edward found Seoul to be interesting, and they met a historian who related many local legends and took them to see the city’s palaces and other landmarks.  They both took many photos with their Kodak cameras, and later sold some of their images to newspapers and magazines.

After several weeks, Helen and Edward moved to a seaside town where they hoped to find some cool breezes. They rented a Japanese bungalow near the water, but it included only what Helen described as “the barest necessities of life.” They tried sleeping on the floor, but that was so uncomfortable, they ordered bedding from Shanghai and hired a carpenter to build a bedstead.

“Our only cooking was done on a tiny Japanese hibachi, which was, however, quite sufficient for our purposes,” Helen remarked. Meat and decent vegetables were scarce, so they usually ate canned food. They hired a servant recommended by another missionary acquaintance to do the housework.

The highlight of their stay was a three-day trip to a mountain Buddhist monastery, organized by a Scottish missionary named McRae. They set out on a suffocatingly hot day with three ponies, a stout ox, two palanquins (sedan chairs) borne by six men, a Korean guide and Mr. McCrae. At the entrance of the picturesque old monastery, a group of monks in white attire greeted them, and “their 90-year-old abbot stood at the top of a long flight of steps to greet us with offerings of cake and wild honey.”

Exhausted by the long trip, the visitors were escorted to a dimly lit corner of one of the temples, and they immediately fell asleep on the smooth clay floor. Helen awoke in the middle of the night, parched and drenched in sweat. They discovered that, in an effort to be hospitable, the abbot had ordered that an extra-hot fire be lit under the clay floor! Helen, Edward and Mr. McCrae gathered their belongings and tiptoed to a cooler temple. In the dark, they thought they spotted sleeping figures on some nearby tables, but when the sun began to rise, they realized these figures were not sleeping monks but dead ones, laid out on funeral biers! Soon, a bell began to ring and a group of chanting monks carried the corpses off to their funeral.  

Hot and tired, Helen and Edward got another shock when they finally arrived home at their seaside villa: the servant’s wife and two dirty children were lying on their precious bed. Helen chased them down the road, the children shrieking at the tops of their voices, and the couple burned the mattress and pillows.

They spent the following week with an unpleasant European family while they waited for a ship bound for Vladivostok. “It was without an atom of regret that we watched the shores of the ‘island of the interrupted shadow’ fade out of our sight into the distance beyond,” she wrote.

Photo credit: Notman & Sandham 11-4197.1 copyright McCord Museum

Note: The widow of a distant cousin recently found this journal among many photo albums and other family documents stashed in a locker in her condo building. She did not know what it was or who wrote it, but I did! See Janice Hamilton, “Helen Frances Bagg; A Happy Exile”, Writing Up the Ancestors, Jan. 6, 2016, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.com/2016/01/helen-frances-bagg-happy-exile.html

Reinventing Themselves Has Been Launched

It has been almost 200 years since my paternal ancestors came to Upper Canada from Scotland and took up farming here. It has been about 12 years since I started researching and writing about them. Now that I have pulled all their stories together into the pages of a book, it is time to celebrate.

Earlier this week, relatives and friends helped me launch Reinventing Themselves: A History of the Hamilton and Forrester Families. We got together on Zoom, a solution that was perfect considering that the descendants of this family are spread from Montreal to Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and across the United States.

This collection of short articles traces the descendants of weaver Robert Hamilton and carpenter David Forrester. The two Scottish immigrants and their families came to Upper Canada in the 1830s and became part of strong farming communities. Fifty years later, both families moved west. The Hamiltons were founding settlers of a temperance community that eventually became Saskatoon. The Forresters took up prairie farming in southern Manitoba.

The following generations continued to reinvent themselves, with several pursuing careers in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Among them were physician Thomas Glendenning Hamilton and his wife, nurse Lillian Forrester – my grandparents. After their young son died in the 1919 influenza pandemic, the couple began holding seances, and their research into psychical phenomena brought them international fame.

Many of the articles about the Hamilton family have previously appeared on my blog, Writing Up the Ancestors, but pulling them together into a cohesive thread makes the ancestors’ story easier to follow. Much of the material about my grandmother’s family, the Forresters, will be new to most readers.

Reinventing Themselves is available from the online bookstore at https://store.bouquinbec.ca. The direct link is https://store.bouquinbec.ca/reinventing-themselves-a-history-of-the-hamilton-and-forrester-families.html. It is $20.00 Canadian for the paperback version, or you can download the e-book for $10.00. Shipping is $6.50 shipping to Canada and $15 to the United States. Most of the books for sale on that site are in French, but the order form is in English.

The process of reinvention is continuing, as the book has inspired two videos. Tracey Arial interviewed me for her podcast Unapologetically Canadian (the link is coming) and Frank Opolko, a friend who recently retired from the CBC, also interviewed me. Here is the video he made, incorporating some my photos of Scotland and some of the photos that appear in the book:

I learned a great deal while doing this project, best of all I discovered several living cousins who were previously unknown to me. One new cousin instantly felt like an old friend, and the mystery person who is my closest match on Family Tree DNA has turned out to be a Forrester descendant from Michigan.

This project reminded me how challenging it is to write about genealogy. All I know about many distant ancestors is their dates and places of birth, marriage and death. While this is essential information, such lists can make for boring reading. The family stories are the good stuff, and they have been the focus of the articles on my blog. Of course, there are two types of family stories: anecdotes that may or may not be true, and well-documented facts.

I was also reminded how much discipline it takes to complete a project of this magnitude. I recently overheard my husband tell someone that he didn’t dare come near my office while I was working on the book because I would chase him away. There are so many distractions, especially on the Internet, that it really takes discipline to stay focused, and a project this size inevitably takes longer than expected.

Now it is time to take a break from family history, catch up on reading novels and enjoying summer before turning my attention to my mother’s family.

Reinventing Themselves

I have taken advantage of all the extra free time at home over the past year to write a family history book about my father’s ancestors. It has been the perfect pandemic project, but now it is almost time to launch it into the world.

This book brings together the many blog posts I have written about my father’s extended family over the past eight years for my personal family history blog, Writing Up the Ancestors, and for the collaborative blog Genealogy Ensemble. As someone once told me, a blog is a good cousin catcher, and indeed, blogging has allowed me to connect with cousins I never knew I had. Also, I got a lot of the research done and written up in small bites. But the stories about the Hamilton and Forrester families (my paternal grandmother was a Forrester) jump all over the place on the blog; in the book, they are in historical sequence and geographical context.

A book that you can hold in your hands and store on your bookshelf for years also feels more permanent. People read a blog post, then jump to the next shiny object on the Internet. You might only read part of a book, or look at the photos, but you can keep it for a long time and pass it on to the next generation. I’m dedicating this book to my grandchildren, in the hope that one day, maybe 50 years from now, they will sit down and discover all the astonishing things their ancestors risked and achieved.

I have called this book Reinventing Themselves: a History of the Hamilton and Forrester Families. These people reinvented themselves several times. Most male members of the immigrant generation grew up in lowland Scotland where they were weavers, stonemasons, tenant farmers and carpenters. When they landed in Upper Canada around 1830, they had to reinvent themselves as farmers in an unfamiliar climate. Members of the next generation retained most of their Scottish customs and religious beliefs, but moved on to a new landscape as they became grain famers on Canada’s western prairies. Their sons and daughters were the first to give up farming and forge careers in the city.

Working on the Forrester family farm near Emerson, Manitoba, 1913.

Many Canadian pioneer families followed similar paths, so what makes this story special? Part of its value is that it does represent the experiences of many 19th century immigrant families.

Luckily, many accounts of my ancestors’ unique experiences have survived. In a letter to his father back in Scotland, immigrant Robert Hamilton (1789-1875) recounted the family’s voyage across the Atlantic. Fifty years later, his granddaughter Maggie Hamilton (1862-1886) wrote a letter from Saskatoon in which she described baking bread for the government soldiers following the North West Rebellion in 1885. Fast forward another eighty years and Charles Forrester (1889-1984) wrote a book about life on the farm near Emerson, Manitoba, from hauling water for the livestock to singing Scottish ballads at family gatherings.

I used to envy people who were members of various ethnic groups. They seemed so exotic, while my ancestors were pretty boring. But writing this book has helped me appreciate the values these Scots brought with them: their deep sense of community and their competitiveness, their love of books and learning, their love/hate relationships with alcohol, and their strong work ethic. 

The book also has its share of surprises, from the discovery of my great-grandmother’s illegitimate birth and the story of brothers who were globe-trotting plant collectors to the death of my father’s twin in the 1918 flu pandemic and my grandparents’ subsequent investigations into psychical phenomena.

The research, writing and editing are done. It’s too late now for changes, although I will always be itching to tweak something. The manuscript and many, many photos are in the hands of a book designer. I’ll let you know soon when and how to get a copy.

Write What You Know

Write what you know. That is good advice, but it can be hard to follow if you have poor health and seldom travel or even explore your own neighbourhood. This was the case for my mother. Nevertheless, several of her articles about her hobbies and personal memories were published in the local media.

As I write this, snow is falling outside my office window and, in the midst of a pandemic, the government has advised people to stay at home. These restrictions feel much like the limitations my mother experienced, so I dug out some of her articles to see what inspired her.

Joan Hamilton (1918-1994) was a prolific letter-writer: letters to the editor of The Montreal Star, letters to the newspaper’s television critic, and letters to federal and provincial politicians on a variety of topics. But what she really wanted was to write magazine articles, so she was very proud when several of her stories appeared in Montreal Scene, a magazine inserted every Saturday in The Montreal Star. It generally featured four or five articles, along with the weekly television listings, and there was always a painting of a local scene on the cover.

“Feathered Fun” by Joan Hamilton, which appeared in the January 15, 1977 issue, was about her own favourite pastime, armchair bird-watching.

My parents’ house had a sunroom with picture windows overlooking the backyard where a large crab-apple tree, laden with wizened fruit, attracted many birds in winter. “If you are lucky, anytime after mid-January, a group of evening grosbeaks or common redpolls may discover your garden treats,” she wrote, adding, “There is no better pick-me-up for the winter blues than to spot the beautiful yellow, black and white grosbeaks feeding on the snow.” Mother also attached small bird feeders to the sunroom windows and kept them full of seeds so she could watch the chickadees up close.

This photo was taken in Naples, Florida in 1977. After she returned to Montreal, Joan Hamilton wrote a travel article about Naples. photo by Janice Hamilton

In another article, “Winters Remembered,” in the March 25, 1978 issue, she suggested that Montrealers were getting soft, no longer able to cope with snow and cold weather. She recalled that the postman called twice a day when she was young, and if there was a time when he couldn’t get through the drifts, she didn’t remember it. Furthermore, “in those days, many deliveries were still made by horse-drawn sleighs, which always seemed to triumph over the highest snowbanks.”

She wrote, “We must have got our first car in the late ‘20s. A Hupmobile with glass flaps for windows, it didn’t have a heater, that’s for sure. Maybe that is why in those days nearly everyone put their car ‘up’ for the winter…. We relied on the trusty old streetcars. We lived near the crest of Côte-des-Neiges, and I don’t remember a time when they were not able to make the hill. They had cowcatchers that acted as snowplows in front, and during big snowstorms, there were special snow plow cars clearing the tracks, trailed by a string of streetcars, power lines crackling with light and windows steamed, but making it up the hill.”

Travel, both short and long distance, was by the invincible train, she recalled. “Trains may have been delayed, but at least you always got where you were going.” She had particularly fond memories of the Laurentian ski train which carried Montrealers to the slopes north of the city in the winter. “The gaiety on board was as much a part of the fun as skiing.”

She continued, “We never worried about freezing or starving during power failures. First of all, we had a coal furnace which, although it had to be stoked morning and night, was not subject to breakdowns…. We cooked with gas, so there was no worry about being unable to have a hot meal if the electricity went off. Lots of people still had wood or coal stoves.”

Towards the end of the article, Mother asked, “Was it really better back then, or has time blocked out the bad memories and left only the good?” Perhaps she did block out some of negative aspects of winter in the 1930s and 1940s, but her memories nevertheless made for entertaining reading.

Note: this article also appears in my family history blog, Writing Up the Ancestors, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.com.

My new book, Reinventing Themselves: A History of the Hamilton and Forrester Families, by Janice Hamilton, will be published this spring.

the man in the top hat

One of my favourite photos of the ancestors shows a man wearing a top hat, a dog by his side. Sent to me by a cousin about a dozen years ago, the image was identified as “Great-grandfather Robert Hamilton.” That was my great-great-grandfather, the Scottish-born weaver who immigrated with his young family to Scarborough, Upper Canada in 1830.

I thought it would make the perfect cover photo for the book I am writing about the history of the Hamilton family. Most studio portraits taken in the late 1800s were uniformly stiff. Although this man has a serious expression, the image is unusual for its painted background, and dog is appealing.

But was the man in the photo really Robert Hamilton (1789-1875) the immigrant? After all, he had a son named Robert Hamilton (1824 -18731) and his grandson was also Robert Hamilton (1856-1908.) I forwarded the photo to several distant cousins who have researched the family, and to Rick Schofield, archivist at the Scarborough Historical Society, in east-end Toronto.

Rick was the first to reply, probably horrified that I might have already gone ahead with the cover. I speculated that the photo might have been taken in the 1850s, and Rick pointed out that there were no photo studios in Scarborough then, and travel by horse to Toronto would have been quite a challenge. He asked what the original photo looked like (I didn’t know) and pointed out that, in the 1850s, Daguerrotype, Ambrotype (glass) and tintype photos were the most common, as well as albumen type and card-mounted photos.

I then forwarded the image to several other relatives, including cousin Alison in Dallas, Texas. It turned out she has an original carte de visite of this photo that includes the name place where it was taken: J.J. Milliken Photo Studio, Toronto.

A quick search online showed that this studio was in business in the 1890s. Since Robert Hamilton the immigrant died at age 86 in 1875, and his son Robert Hamilton died of typhoid fever in 1871, that left grandson Robert Hamilton, a farmer in Southwestern Ontario.

Case closed, I thought. Until I realized, not so fast. If the photo was misidentified as the wrong Robert Hamilton, how could I even be sure this person’s name was Robert Hamilton? This could be a picture of any family member, perhaps the husband of one of the daughters, a cousin, or even a close friend. All I can say for sure is that this photo was taken in the 1890s, by a Toronto photo studio, and was probably a picture of a member of the Hamilton family.

I recently used the photo of the man in the top hat on this blog. It has now been replaced with a verified picture of Robert Hamilton the immigrant, taken when he was an old man. This photo is included in a history of Scarborough that was published in 1896. At that time, the editor would have been able to check the sitter’s identity with residents who remembered him.

So, who wrote the wrong identity on the photo sent to me years ago? Probably my Aunt Margaret or Uncle Glen Hamilton. Both were proud of their Scottish origins and interested in the family’s history, but neither of them actually did the hard slog of genealogy, looking up and sorting out births, marriages and deaths. They would not have realized that their great-grandfather died years before this photo was taken.

They made an assumption and I didn’t question it for many years. Lesson learned.

The Genealogy Ensemble Banner

Several of the photos in the Genealogy Ensemble banner up top include members of the Hamilton family. At far left, my father, Jim Hamilton, and his twin, Arthur, in 1918; a Catholic church in Quebec, photo by Barry McGee; Gwendolyn Bagg, my grandmother on my mother’s side, on her wedding day in 1916; left to right, three cousins in Winnipeg: Margaret Hamilton, Isabel Hamilton and Olive Hamilton, around 1915; Jim Hamilton’s baby book; Whickham Parish Church, County Durham, England; OPR birth record of Alexander Tocher, Grange, Banffshire, 1754, http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

Notes and Sources

1. David Boyle, editor, The Township of Scarboro, 1796-1896, Toronto, 1896 (http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924028900970/cu31924028900970_djvu.txt)