Finding Herbert: Solving a 92-year old Mystery

Note: read Part One of this story here

The search for my great-grandfather Herbert Clifford is over. I’ve been chipping away at this 92-year old mystery for over 15 years and the last brick wall finally came tumbling down on my recent trip to the UK.

I had known for several years that Herbert had joined the Cheshire Regiment in 1920 and had given an address of Neston Road, Willaston on his leaving papers in 1924. I also had a hunch that he joined the Post Office in 1928 but could not confirm that the postman I was tracing was in fact my great-grandfather.

One of my first stops in London was the British Postal Museum and Archive where I hoped to find a mention of him in the Postal employee magazines. Unfortunately several hours of digging, even with the assistance of the helpful Archives staff, turned up nothing and so I left London empty-handed and on foot.

4 Riverway, Barry Avenue, Windsor

After several days of walking I found myself in Windsor, where the postman I was tracing had moved to in 1938 and retired to in 1945. I spent part of my rest day in the Reference Room of the local library. As I explained on my Walking Blog I was very disappointed to discover that the only Herbert Clifford in the city directory was for a Herbert Leslie Clifford. My great-grandfather never had a middle name, nor does the name Leslie have any family connection. Tellingly this Herbert Leslie Clifford, living at 4 Riverway on Barry Avenue, did appear for the first time in 1938 and so I left Windsor with the distinct impression that this postman was not my great-grandfather and that I was no closer to solving the mystery.

My Thames Path walk ended on May 6 and afterwards I spent some time in Gloucestershire where I researched Herbert’s grandfather and made discoveries that resulted in the pruning of an entire branch on my family tree. It just goes to show how important it is to do your own research and not to rely solely on information in other  Ancestry family trees.

Cheshire Regimental Depot

The last port of call on my visit to Britain was Chester, a beautiful little city which I had visited very briefly on two previous occasions. Back then I had no idea that Herbert had spent 4 years at the Cheshire Regimental Depot near the castle. On this visit my B&B was located 200 feet away from the barracks that Herbert called home in the early 1920’s.

My first stop was the Cheshire Archives where I quickly filled out a request slip for the 1924 Electoral Register for the Wirral (the peninsula just north of Chester and across the Mersey from Liverpool). When the book was retrieved from the vaults and handed over I was keenly aware that this was quite likely the best and last hope of solving the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather. I eagerly scanned the entries for Neston Road and when my eyes fell on an entry for Bethel’s Cottage I was a little taken aback. Not only was it the residence of Herbert Leslie Clifford, but Herbert wasn’t living alone.

In retrospect it should have been a triumphant eureka moment but at the time I was dumbfounded. I knew this had to be the postman but who was Christina Clifford and more to the point who was Herbert Leslie Clifford?

I quickly found a 1922 marriage entry in the indexes for a Christina Alice Jones and a Herbert Leslie Clifford in nearby Neston, but I also found a birth and death entry for a Herbert Leslie Clifford in Birmingham. The waters were further muddied when I found that the newlywed couple was living at Bethel’s Cottage in 1923, a year before Herbert left the army. I spent the next couple of hours searching through other electoral registers and found that the couple moved to Heswall in 1928, the year a Herbert Clifford joined the post office at Heswall Hill. I also discovered that Christina Alice Jones had been living in Bethel’s Cottage on Neston Road for several years prior to her marriage and that there were two men living with her.  A small notation in the electoral rolls indicated that  one of them was a serviceman.

I retreated to a pub to think (it worked for Morse and it works for me). On the face of it I knew that there couldn’t be two Herbert Clifford’s living on Neston Road in 1924 but I couldn’t get past that middle name. I decided to spend some time researching Christina Alice Jones and I found her in an Ancestry family tree, married to Thomas Jones and the mother to three young children. It turned out that Christina’s maiden name was also Jones and so initially I had problems keeping up with all the Jones’s.

While the circumstantial evidence was building I needed a smoking gun … and I found it. Thomas Jones died in 1920 after serving in India during the First World War. Christina applied for a widow’s pension and so Thomas’s 52-page service record included a lot of valuable information. It turned out that Thomas and his two brothers (the two men who lived with Christina after Thomas died) were all in the Army.  Thomas and one brother were in the Royal Garrison Artillery but the other, Charles Whitehead Jones was a drummer in the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment and based at the Depot in Chester at the same time as Herbert. Furthermore the owner of this very helpful tree had transcribed the names of the witnesses from Charles’s 1922 marriage certificate, one of whom was Herbert Leslie Clifford.

Herbert Leslie Clifford had to be my great-grandfather and so the following morning I marched down to the Chester Register Office on Goss Street to order a marriage certificate. One hour and £10 later I quickly scanned the certificate to confirm the groom’s age, 32 which lined up with my great-grandfather’s birth in 1890. His occupation was listed as “Soldier” but the icing on the cake was the signature which I recognized from his attestation papers. Herbert had invented the middle name and a stockbroker father, likely to throw off anyone who might try and connect him to his other wife in Canada. And for 90 years it did!

Willaston on the Wirral Peninsula

With a decided bounce in my step I spent the following day walking across the Wirral peninsula, from Hooton to Willaston, Neston and Heswall. At Willaston I stopped in at a local estate agents and asked if they had heard of Bethel’s Cottage. There was no sign of it in their listings database but a couple of other cottages from the electoral rolls did turn up. I located the stretch on Neston Road where Bethel’s cottage had likely been, now the site of a newer home.

Neston Parish Church

I carried on to Neston where I visited the Parish church of St. Mary and St. Helen in which Herbert and Christina were married. From there I walked to the strangely landlocked former port of Parkgate and then on to Heswall where the couple lived from 1928 to 1932.  While in Heswall I visited the local library and uncovered that the post office Herbert worked at in the late 20’s was on Pensby Road. I was struggling to find the Post Office when I spotted a postman peddling his bike towards me. I flagged him down and he informed me that the former post office is now a Blockbuster Video but that a postal sorting facility still exists at the back of the building.

The final piece of this puzzle did not fall into place until the morning I was due to return to London. Although I had found a death index entry for Christina in 1958 I could not find one for Herbert, whose last known address was in Windsor. Neither Ancestry or Cheshire BMD had any record of Herbert’s death but when I checked FreeBMD I found an entry for a Herbert L Clifford who died in the Wirral in 1960. I quickly tried to re-arrange my travel plans but in the end there was no way I could obtain a certificate before I returned to London.

I had one day left in Britain and I decided to return to Windsor to visit 4 Riverway, Barry Avenue and to research the electoral rolls. The latter were in Reading but within a couple of hours I had confirmed that Herbert and Christina had lived together at this address from 1938 to 1957. In 1938 Christina’s oldest child James Edward Jones and his wife Viola Emily were living with them but I’m confident that Herbert and Christina had no children of their own. In 1934 Christina’s daughter Doris named a son Clifford so she must have had some affection for her step-father Herbert.

Shortly after I returned home I received copies of their death certificates. I was surprised to learn they had both died in Neston. Had I known earlier I could have spent some time searching the local cemetery but it seems this will have to wait until my next visit. Christina Alice Clifford (nee Jones) died April 21, 1958 and Herbert “Leslie” Clifford on February 25, 1960.

Although I may never know for sure I would like to think that Herbert’s last 37 years were far better than his first 32. I can’t imagine this would have been of any comfort to my grandfather and his siblings who grew up without a father, but on balance I don’t believe Herbert should be remembered by his Canadian family as “a worthless sort of fellow“.

I have made contact with others researching the Jones family tree and I hope to connect with the descendants of Herbert’s step-children. A marriage of 36 years must have produced a few photographs, and perhaps there is someone out there who remembers Herbert when they were growing up. Only time will tell.

Posted in Berkshire, Cheshire, Great-Grandfather | 11 Comments

Absent without Leave: the search for Herbert Clifford

Herbert Clifford

Herbert Clifford in 1910

On a bitterly cold January day in 1920 my great-grandfather Herbert Clifford left his young family in southern Ontario and was never heard from again.  My grandfather George, the eldest of three children, had just turned 7-years old.

I asked my grandfather about him once and I remember it vividly. It was early one morning as he was enjoying his first coffee and cigarette of the day.  The look on his face was one of bewilderment rather than sadness. He shrugged his shoulders and simply answered: “I never knew him”.  We never spoke of it again.

As a teenager I had a passing interest in my family’s history but it wasn’t until my late 20’s that that my curiosity grew, fueled in no small part to the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather’s disappearance.

My family knew remarkably little about Herbert.  He was born in London in the late 19th century and somehow made it to Canada where he met and married my great-grandmother Annie in 1910. We also knew that in 1914 he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and headed off to war.  The family possessed but a single photograph of Herbert, taken with Annie and her family shortly after they were married. There was also a tiny scrap of paper containing a scribbled note mentioning he had lived with a relative named Mrs Ackland just before coming to Canada.

It’s been nearly twenty years since I began my search.  It’s been a long journey with many twists and turns, and the occasional moment of elation when another piece of the puzzle snapped into place. While I can’t tell the whole story (yet) I have pieced together the first 34 years of Herbert’s life.

Herbert was born in Hackney on October 5 1890, the illegitimate son of an 18-year old domestic servant named Sophia Harriet Clifford (1872-1942). Sophia married William Dobson (1873-?) in 1893 and raised a large family that did not include Herbert.  He was left with his grandparents, William Henry Clifford (1844-1914) and Emma Harriet Lewis (1843-1904) and sometimes with his Aunt Priscilla Beatrice Clifford (1876-1937) who married Edward Ackland (1873-) in 1897.

William Clifford was a gardener and his family was always on the move, in search of work or possibly to stay one-step ahead of the rent collector.  By age ten Herbert had lived in Hackney, Cricklewood and Islington, and although I’ve no record of him living in the workhouse, the Clifford and Dobson families were no strangers to them.

Herbert Clifford in 1904

Herbert Clifford in 1904 (courtesy of Barnardos)

On Palm Sunday in 1904 Herbert’s life took a turn for the worse when his grandmother Emma passed away. With the one stabilizing force in his life gone he spent several months living with his aunt Priscilla and his mother, although I firmly believe that Sophia’s illegitimate child was a family secret that was not shared with anyone, including Herbert.  Late one night in early June he was picked up by the police for “Wandering”. He was described in the police report as an “Illegitimate Waif” and he soon found himself in the care of Dr. Barnardo.

Seven weeks later Herbert was on board the S.S. Southwark and sailing to a new life in Canada.  He was one of over 100,000 British children sent to Canada by various organizations between 1869 and the late 1930’s.  It is estimated that 10% of Canadians are descendants of these children.

Barnardo’s kept extremely meticulous records from which I was able to chart Herbert’s teenage years spent on various farms in southern Ontario. He had difficulty settling and ran away on several occasions but he did seem genuinely appreciative of the opportunity he was given.  Nevertheless his restless nature was always surfacing and when, at age 16, he expressed a desire to join the navy he was instructed in no uncertain terms to stick to farming.

In 1907 Herbert began working on the McElroy farm in Stapledon, Ontario, 25 miles south of Ottawa. It was here that he met his future wife, another farmer’s daughter, Annie Ellen Lewis (1884-1970). My grandfather George Robert Clifford (1913-1989) was born in January 1913 and his younger brother James Herbert Clifford (1914-1972) in the following year.  Despite his young family Herbert, like so many other young men at the time, answered the call to arms and joined the First Canadian Contingent at Valcartier, Quebec in September 1914.

Herbert joined the 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment and headed overseas on September 29th.  It would be nearly five years before he set foot in Canada again.  I’ve detailed his experience on my First World War blog, Doing Our Bit, and have included a timeline, photographs and a story of his participation in the Second Battle of Ypres.  It was on that fateful evening of April 22 1915, just after the first chlorine gas attack, that he was shot and captured while on patrol. Herbert’s war was over but he was to spend the next three and half years as a prisoner of war.  These prisons were notoriously harsh places but they likely saved his life. He was released on December 28, 1918 and spent the next nine months at military camps throughout England and northern Wales.

He returned to his family near Richmond, Ontario after being de-mobbed at Montreal in September 1919.   On January 19, 1920 Barnardo’s reported that he had purchased a place 8 miles southwest of the village and was settling in well.  Within days of this report Herbert was gone.

No reason was ever given for his abrupt departure but the general consensus was that he was “a worthless kind of fellow”. But of course every family has its secrets and ours was no exception. The secret came from Herbert’s eldest daughter, my great aunt, who was also the family historian. It wasn’t something she told me but rather her birthdate that held the clue, September 8 1916, sixteen months after Herbert’s capture and over two years before his release.

No one’s left alive who can confirm my assumption but I suspect that Annie was waiting for an opportune time to reveal her secret to Herbert.  I imagine this took place shortly after January 19 and that he didn’t take it well. While it’s hard to excuse a father for abandoning his family I do feel his memory has been harshly dealt with considering his troubling childhood and recent experiences overseas.

There was a rumour that Herbert headed west but it wasn’t long before I found a passenger list showing a ‘Herbert Clifford’ disembarking in Liverpool on January 29th. I couldn’t be 100% certain this was he until the day I discovered a British Army Medal Rolls index card that included Herbert’s Canadian Regimental Number alongside a British one.  Herbert had joined up again.

His British Service Record showed he joined the Cheshire Regiment within two weeks of his return to the UK.  Tellingly he listed his marital status as “Single”. From what I can tell Herbert spent his entire four years in Cheshire and when discharged he received a very complimentary review on his Character Certificate.  His discharge papers, dated January 28, 1924, indicated he was leaving the service to become a Butler and that his address was on Neston Road, Willaston, near Birkenhead. And this is where the trail of hard evidence ends and speculation begins.

I recently learned of Thornton Manor and it’s very intriguing to think that he may have worked in the household of the famous industrialist and philanthropist William Lever, creator of Port Sunlight. This is nothing more than a hunch but it is a lead I am pursuing.

Another promising clue was uncovered last autumn when I found an entry in the London Gazette for a Herbert Clifford joining the Post Office at Heswall Hill in July 1928.  Heswall Hill is less than 3 miles from Neston Road near Thornton Manor (and oddly 5 miles from another Neston Road near Willaston) and so I’m very hopeful this postman is my great-grandfather.  In 1938 he moved to Windsor where he delivered the post until his retirement in 1945.  Unfortunately the British Postal Museum & Archive could not provide any information to confirm that this postman was my great-grandfather, nor could they give an address in Windsor for me to follow up.

I’ve shed some light on the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather but I won’t be satisfied until his entire story is told.  Not surprisingly I’ve grown quite close to Herbert over the past two decades. Not only have I inherited his genes but also his restless and nomadic nature. If nothing else I hope to prove that he was anything but “a worthless kind of fellow”.

If you have any information or tips that might help me with my search I would be most grateful if you would contact me.

Read Part 2 – Finding Herbert – Solving a 92-year old Mystery!

Posted in Berkshire, Cheshire, Great-Grandfather, London, Ontario | 10 Comments

Ephemeral Thinking

I recently launched a new blog called Ephemeral Thoughts. I’ve always enjoyed the hunt for old paper and photographs and I thought it was time to share some of my finds with those of you who are also intrigued by these little fragments from our past. Many pieces of ephemera will have a connection to someone’s family history, and I thought I would take this opportunity to highlight and link to a couple of articles you might enjoy.

Several months ago I dug a tiny photo out of a box of hundreds in a local shop. It looked to be of 1930’s or 40’s vintage and judging from the terrain I suspected it was of a street in a Prairie town. I thought it might be fun to try and identify the street so I plunked down a Loonie and added this little snapshot to my ‘research’ pile. Little did I realize I was about to discover a remarkable coincidence.

The second story involves the Peter family who emigrated from Fife in Scotland to North America in the late 19th century.  I found a wonderful, albeit somewhat scorched, photograph taken in 1899 of the Peter’s taking tea at the family home.  A small amount of information on the back provided just enough clues to lead me to a website in South Africa that contained a wealth of information about the family.  With a little more digging I was able to tell the story of this wonderful old photo.

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Orkney Pioneers at Fort Victoria

I wrote an article for the Orkney Family History Society which was recently published in their newsletter Sib Folk News. I’ve included the article, entitled Orkney Pioneers at Fort Victoria, as well as additional research in a special OFHS section on my blog. Although none of my Orkney ancestors ended up in Victoria I was glad to give something back for all the help I received last year in Kirkwall.

Posted in Orkney | Leave a comment

William Henry Clifford (1844-1914) – A Breakthrough!

One brick wall has finally come tumbling down. I’ve been searching for my 3xgreat-grandfather on my father’s side, William Henry Clifford, and his family for over 7 years and it just goes to show that if you keep plugging away you just might find the answer you’re looking for. This blog post traces the process I followed to solve this mystery.

William Henry Clifford was born in Gloucestershire and died in London in 1914. I had  hard evidence that supported my research all the way back to his marriage in 1865 but I had an extremely difficult time finding his parents and siblings in Gloucestershire.  From census and marriage documents (William Henry was married twice) I knew he was born in the 1840’s and that his father William was a gardener.

I found a lot of William Clifford’s, and even a few William Henry Clifford’s, in Gloucestershire but none were a perfect match.  Many years ago I decided to add a family to my Ancestry tree who I thought might be his parents and siblings.  As time went on I became less convinced that this was William Henry’s family and eventually I received an email from another Ancestry member providing details that proved it wasn’t.  I just removed the 20+ members of this family from my tree and decided to start from scratch. To be honest I wasn’t very confident as I had sifted through all of the other possibilities many times before.

The first thing I did was to cast my net a little wider by ignoring William’s middle name “Henry”.  I had already had him in the 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 England census’s and so I concentrated my search on the 1861 census.  I was looking for a Gloucestershire family with a son named William and a father also named William who was employed as a Gardener.  I scanned the results list, the highest ranked entries containing many of the familiar families I’d found in the past, however down near the bottom was an entry I hadn’t seen before.  It was for a William Cliford, a grandson born in 1844 in Cheltenham, who was living with grandfather William (1795-) and grandmother Elizabeth, their daughter Mary A, and another grandchild named Elizabeth.  It was by no means a perfect match, in fact it wasn’t even a great match, but it was a new family to trace and so I set about doing just that.

1961 English Census showing William Henry living with his grandparents in Cheltenham

I went in search of the 1851 census and found the family reasonably quickly.  Grandfather William (1795-) was listed as a builder employing 3 men.  Wife Elizabeth, daughter Mary A, another daughter Elizabeth, and the grand-daughter Elizabeth were present but there was no sign of grandson William Henry (1844-) or his father, whom I was guessing was also named William.

1851 Census showing William (1795-) and family

Next up was the 1841 census and this confirmed my hunch as son William (1822-) was living at home.  Both he and his father were listed as “Plasterer’s” which was slightly disappointing as I had hoped to find that son William (1822-) was a Gardener.

1841 English Census showing William (1795-) and family.

I now concentrated my search on William Henry’s father William (1822-), a plasterer in 1841.  The only hope I had of finding William (1822-) and William Henry (1844-) together was in the 1851 census since William Henry was living with his grandparents in 1861.  My eureka moment finally arrived when I found an entry listing a 29-year old William (1822-) as a “Gardener” with a wife named Emily, a son named William and, very importantly, a daughter named Priscilla.  William Henry eventually had a daughter named Priscilla and I had always wondered where this name had come from.  The 1861 census (not shown) would reveal that William Henry also had a younger brother named Henry and it was likely he who gave his name to William Henry’s second son Henry (the first born having been named William).

1851 English Census showing William Henry and his father William - a Gardener!

While there is no smoking gun there is a lot of evidence that this is the elusive Clifford family I’ve been searching for.  Having eliminated all the other possibilities I was left with a single family with a father named William, employed as a gardener, and a son named William born in Gloucestershire in 1844.

There is no sign of William Henry’s middle name in any of the early records but the fact that he had a younger brother named Henry provides some basis for speculating that his middle name may have been the same.

William Henry’s place of birth is often listed as “Gloucester” on later records but in fact he was born in English Bicknor, less than 20 miles away.  “Gloucester” might be a short form for “Gloucestershire” or perhaps he just felt that no one in London would know where English Bicknor was and so he opted to name the city that was close by.  The 1861 census indicated he was born in Cheltenham but this could be simply a case of the census taker copying the previous entry and not being too concerned with which town in Gloucestershire he was born in (note: the family was living in Cheltenham in 1861 and other family members had been born there).

The fact that William Henry had siblings named Priscilla and Henry lends a lot of credence to my theory as children were always named after someone in the family and these are the only ones I’ve found to date.  Last but not least in the 1871 census William (1822-) has a grandson living with him named Herbert.  William Henry’s grandson, my great-grandfather, was named Herbert and so perhaps he was named after this grandson?

There’s a lot of research left to do but I now feel I’m on solid footing.

Posted in GGG-Grandfather, Gloucestershire | 2 Comments

Walter Cunningham (1842-1914)

Walter Cunningham

Walter Cunningham was my great-great-grandfather on my mothers side. He was born in Currie, now a suburb on the outskirts of Edinburgh, in 1842 and died at his home on Caledonian Road in December 1914.  He was the second youngest of 8 children born to Walter Cunningham and Grizel Charles.

In 1851 the family were living in Kirkliston, a small town situated near what is now the Edinburgh Airport.  Walter’s father, a former Agricultural Labourer who was born in Kirkliston, was a Boathouse Tollman and the family was likely living in a cottage next to the canal.

Romilly Place, Edinburgh, (1852 map)

By 1861 the family had moved into Edinburgh and were living at 2 Romilly Place on Tobago Street.  Tobago Street adjoined Morrison Street and was renamed to the latter sometime in the 1880’s (there are references to Tobago Street as late as 1877). Walter’s father was now working as a porter on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway while three of his son’s, including Walter were “Hackers” (makers of hoes).  It was sometime during this period that he met a domestic servant named Annie Rich Reid. They were married on June 30, 1865 in Edinburgh.  By now Walter had become a Railway Stoker, likely for the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway which was to be absorbed by the North British Railway just a few weeks after their marriage.

Marriage Register for Annie & Walter, 1865

The marriage register gives a hint as to how they may have met.  Walter’s father is listed as a “Hammerman” which is another term for a metal worker.  Annie’s father John, a former blacksmith, is now listed as a Sawyer however by 1871 he is listed as a “Grinder”.  It’s possible both men, clearly in the trades, knew each other and had arranged a meeting between their eligible bachelor son and spinster daughter.

Entrance to 35 Rosemount Building

Walter and Annie would raise 9 children, including my great-grandfather Walter Charles Cunningham. Amazingly 5 of the 9 children, including one daughter, were destined to become lithographic engravers.  Walter Charles and his son would end up playing a significant part in the progress of map making in Canada.   By 1871 Walter was a Railway Engine Driver and the family was living at #35 Rosemount Building, an impressive quadrangle situated in the Haymarket area of Edinburgh. Completed in 1860 the William Lambie Moffatt design was built as workmen’s houses and still stands today. By 1881 Annie, Walter and their then 7 children were living in #77, now a lovely 2-bedroom flat that was recently for sale.

By 1891 the growing family moved to a larger residence on Richmond Terrace, near Haymarket Station.  Walter was still employed by the North British Railway as an Engine Driver, a position he would hold for more than 35 years.  The last decade of the 19th century saw most of the Cunningham children leave home and by 1901 Walter, Annie and two children were living one street over, at #13 Caledonian Road.

16 Richmond Terrace, Edinburgh

13 Caledonian Road, Edinburgh









Walter Cunningham's Obituary

Walter’s wife Annie died in 1905.  Walter died on Dec. 3, 1914 but was not buried next to Annie in the Dalry Cemetery.  Strangely he is buried in the North Merchiston cemetery in the same plot as his daughter-in-law Mary.  Stranger still is the fact that his name was not engraved on the headstone that had been placed there 11 years earlier. 

Headstone on Walter's grave (missing his name)



  • Could any records exist that provide details of his years with the North British Railway?
  • Why was he not buried with his wife and why didn’t any of the children have his name engraved on the headstone?
Mother: Grizel Charles (1800-1870)            Father: Walter Cunningham (1809-1883)
Siblings: Jane? (1828-), Janet (1833-), Mary (1835-), John (1836-), Alexander (1838-), John (1839-), Robert (1845-)
Spouse: Annie Rich Reid (1845-1905)
Children: Jeanie Wood (1868-1948), John (1870-), Annie Rich Reid (1871), Walter Charles (1872-1941), Bessie Wood (1875-1934), Robert (1877-1898), Thomas M. M. (1880-), Grace Charles (1884-), Catherine Lawson (1886-1886)
Posted in Edinburgh, GG-Grandfather | 1 Comment

Jane/Jean Wood (1812-1883)

Beautiful countryside near Evie, with Rousay behind

Jane/Jean Wood was my greatx3-grandmother on my mother’s side.  She was born in Evie, Orkney in about 1812 and died in Edinburgh in February 1883.  Her father John Wood was a farmer and her mother was Jean Spence.  Jane was the eldest of 9 children and likely grew up on the island of Rousay, the birthplace of all 8 of her siblings.



Church Manse where Jane worked in 1841

In 1841 she was a domestic servent for Minister Andrew Smith at the Manse of Holm on the beautiful Bay of Cornquoy.  It was there that she met my greatx3-grandfather John Reid who was living with his mother Elizabeth Spence just down the road at Spurr cottage.  They were married on Feb 12, 1842 in Kirkwall.




Victoria Street in Kirkwall

By 1851 the family had 5 children, including my great-great grandmother Annie Rich Reid, and had moved to #130 Victoria Street in Kirkwall.  John Reid wasn’t present when the census was taken so Jane was listed as the head of the household and with the occupation of “Grocer”.  A 15-year old Grocer’s apprentice named William Shearer was lodging next door at #129.  ”William Shearer” is something of an institution in Kirkwall and a shop sits at #71 Victoria Street today. Could the young lodger in the 1851 census be the man who started this business?

In 1861 the family including husband John, but minus three children including Annie, was living at #43 Victoria Street. By 1871 Jane and John had moved to Edinburgh to be nearer to two of their daughters, Annie Rich Reid (now Cunningham) and Sarah Lahore Reid (now Maitland), and their eldest son John Wood Reid.  Jane, John, Sarah and her daughter Jane Wood Maitland, and son John’s family of four were all living together at 4 Violet Bank in South Leith.

5 Brand Place, South Leith, Edinburgh

5 Brand Place, South Leith, Edinburgh

By 1881 Jane, John, Sarah and daughters Jane Wood and Thommia, had moved to 5 Brand Place in South Leith.  This building still stands and #5 can be seen on the 1st floor (or the 2nd floor for North Americans) with the blue door.  Jane died here on February 1, 1883, aged 72, of “Senile Decay”.

Jane/Jean Reid's Death Register


  • When was Jane born? I’ve located baptismal records for all 8 of her siblings but not for her.
  • Where was John Reid when the 1851 census was taken?
Mother: Jane Spence          Father: John Wood
Siblings: Ann (1814-), Mary (1816-), Lydia (1818-), Janet (1820-), John (1823-), George (1826-), James (1828-), Betty (1830-)
Spouse: John Reid (1821-1893)
Children: John Wood (1844-), Annie Rich (1845-1905), Jean (1846-), James (1847-1906), Sarah Lahore (1849-1927)
Posted in Edinburgh, GGG-Grandmother, Orkney | 1 Comment

Elizabeth Spence (1783-1869)

Elizabeth Spence was born in Kirkwall, Orkney in November 1783 and died in Holm (pronounced ‘Ham’), Orkney in July 1869.  She is my 4xgreat-grandmother on my mother’s side.

Elizabeth appears to have been the only daughter of Christian Wood and shoemaker James Spence:

Elizabeth Spence's Baptismal Record

From census records it seems Elizabeth never married however at age 38 she gave birth to my 3xgreat-grandfather John Reid in 1821.  According to John’s baptismal record he was the natural son (i.e. illegitimate) of Elizabeth and Peter Reid:

John Reid's 1821 Baptismal Record

Spurr Cottage on the Bay of Cornquoy

In 1841 she was an ‘Agricultural Labourer’ living with her son John at Spurr, a small farm situated on the beautiful Bay of Cornquoy.  This photo shows one of three buildings that once sat on this property.  Behind it lies the fields and farms of Holm where she would spend the remainder of her life.  By 1851 John had married and Elizabeth was living alone and farming one acre on the ‘Common’.  She was still listed as a farmer on the ‘Commons’ in the 1861 census, now aged 76.


Elizabeth's world, 1841 - 1869

When Elizabeth died on July 10, 1869 she was listed as a pauper living at Thistlequoy.  It appears she died like she lived – alone – and was discovered by her neighbour’s son, Archibald Garrioch.  The death register indicated she was a former domestic servant and so my theory is that when she became too old to farm she may have worked for the Garrioch family at  Upper Bow farm.

Elizabeth Spence's Death Register


  • Was Elizabeth an only child or did she have siblings that I can’t find records for?
  • Why did she have her son John take Peter Reid’s surname when she did not marry the father?
Mother: Christian Wood (-1834?)          Father: James Spence
Siblings: None
Spouse: None
Children: John Reid (1821-1893)
Posted in GGGG-Grandmother, Orkney | Leave a comment

Annie Rich Reid (1845 – 1905)

Annie Rich Reid was my great-great-grandmother on my mothers side. She was born in Holm (pronounced “Ham”), Orkney in 1845 and died in Edinburgh in December 1905.  She was the eldest daughter of John Reid and Jane/Jean Wood.

Victoria Street in Kirkwall

In 1851 the family, with the exception of father John, were living at #130 Victoria Street in Kirkwall.  According to the census her mother was a Grocer.  A 15-year old Grocer’s apprentice named William Shearer was lodging next door at #129.  “William Shearer” is something of an institution in Kirkwall and a shop sits at #71 Victoria Street today. Could the young lodger in the 1851 census be the man who started this business?

By 1861 the family was living at #130 Victoria Street and father John, a blacksmith, was present.  Jane was no longer listed as a grocer and three of the children were no longer living at home.  By this time Annie had left Orkney to work in Edinburgh as a domestic servant at the home of John Balfan on elegant Great King Street.  It was sometime during this period that she met her future husband Walter Cunningham.

3 Bellevue Crescent is this side of the scaffolding

They were married on June 30, 1865 in Edinburgh at which time Annie was living and presumably working at 3 Bellevue Crescent, a very impressive home not far from her previous residence on Great King Street. Annie would ultimately give birth to 9 children, including my great-grandfather Walter Charles Cunningham born in 1872.



Entrance to 35 Rosemount Building

In 1871 the family was living at #35 Rosemount Building, an impressive quadrangle situated in the Haymarket area of Edinburgh. Completed in 1860 the William Lambie Moffatt design was built as workmen’s houses and still stands today. By 1881 Annie, Walter and their then 7 children were living in #77, now a lovely 2-bedroom flat that was recently for sale.  Annie gave birth to a further two children, the youngest who died as an infant in 1886.

Walter was employed by the North British Railway as an Engine Driver, a position he held for more than 35 years.  Eventually the family moved to larger accommodation at 16 Richmond Terrace, just off the Dalry Road, and then again one street over to 13 Caledonian Road sometime in the 1890’s.

Annie's Death Register

Annie’s Obit from the Dec. 22, 1905 issue of “The Scotsman”

On December 20, 1905 Annie died at home of a cerebral hemorrhage, aged only 61.  She was buried a short distance away at the Dalry Cemetery.  Unfortunately I was unable to locate a headstone in the overgrown cemetery, despite having been given an indication of where she was buried.


  • Do any photographs exist of Annie Rich Reid?
  • Why was her middle name “Rich“?  Her younger sister Sarah had the extremely unusual middle name of “Lahore”.
  • Is there a record of her birth or baptism?  To date I’ve had no luck locating one.
Mother: Jean Wood (1812-1883)          Father: John Reid (1821-1893)
Siblings: John Wood (1844-), Jean (1846-), James (1847-1906), Sarah Lahore (1849-1927)
Spouse: Walter Cunningham (1842-1914)
Children: Jeanie Wood (1868-1948), John (1870-), Annie Rich Reid (1871), Walter Charles (1872-1941), Bessie Wood (1875-1934), Robert (1877-1898), Thomas M. M. (1880-), Grace Charles (1884-), Catherine Lawson (1886-1886)
Posted in Edinburgh, GG-Grandmother, Orkney | Leave a comment

John Reid (1821 – 1893)

Spurr Cottage, Holm, Orkney

John Reid was my great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side.  He was born in Holm (pronounced ‘Ham’), Orkney in December 1821 and died in Dalziel, Lanarkshire in October 1893.

Last July I spent several days exploring Orkney after my 72-day Land’s End to John O’Groats walk. It’s a magical place that I highly recommend you visit. I invested a handful of hours at the Orkney Family History Society office above the public library in Kirkwall.  They were all extremely helpful but special thanks goes out to George Gray who helped me uncover a lot of new information, and to Dave Higgins for driving me to the Bay of Cornquoy so that I could visit Spurr Cottage.

Bay of Cornquoy in 1879

1879 OS Map showing Bay of Cornquoy

From old Ordnance Survey maps we found in the archives we determined that in 1841 there were three buildings on the property referred to as Spurr. One was home to the Petrie family and another to my greatx3-grandfather John Reid and his mother Elizabeth Spence. Just down the road from Spurr was the Manse of Holm occupied by Minister Andrew Smith, his family and 6 servants, including Jane Wood.  On Feb 12, 1842 John married Jane in Kirkwall.  By 1851 the family had 5 children, including my great-great grandmother Annie Rich Reid, and had moved to Victoria Street in Kirkwall.

Spurr Cottage with Manse in background

John Reid was a blacksmith and although he was missing from the 1851 census he did appear in the 1861 census, still living on Victoria Street, although at #43 rather than #130.  By 1871 he and Jane had moved to Edinburgh to be nearer to two of their daughters, Annie Rich Reid (now Cunningham) and Sarah Lahore Reid (now Maitland), and their eldest son John Wood Reid.  John, Jane, Sarah and her daughter Jane Wood Maitland, and son John’s family of four were all living together at 4 Violet Bank in South Leith.

5 Brand Place, South Leith, Edinburgh

5 Brand Place, South Leith, Edinburgh

By 1881 John, Jane, Sarah and daughters Jane Wood and Thommia, had moved to 5 Brand Place in South Leith.  This building still stands and #5 can be seen on the 1st floor (or the 2nd floor for North Americans) with the blue door.  Jane died here on Feb. 1, 1883, aged 72, of “Senile Decay”.

In 1891 John Reid was living with his son John’s family (wife Elizabeth and 7 children) at 37 Quarry St. in Dalziel, Motherwell, Lanarkshire.  Son John was a locomotive engine driver like his uncle Walter Cunningham.  John Reid, now aged 69, was listed as a General Labourer. John died on October 20, 1893 at his son’s residence on Quarry St.

There are a couple of unanswered questions surrounding John Reid, including his whereabouts during the 1851 census.  However the more compelling question is who was John Reid’s father? According to his death register it is John Reid, a seaman:

John Reid's 1893 Death Register

However his baptismal record show’s his father was Peter Reid:

John Reid's 1821 Baptismal Record

The key to the discrepancy likely lies with the phrase “Natural son of …” as it implies he was illegitimate.  Did his mother Elizabeth hide his illegitimacy from him and substitute “John” for Peter (as first-born males were normally given their father’s christian name)? Or did John know the truth but invent the story himself for the sake of his own children? Whatever the case may be I assume Peter Reid was John’s father.

There are several Peter Reid’s from Orkney including one born Nov 3, 1802 in Holm & Papay to Jas. Reid and Marjory Green, but this is unlikely to be our Peter due to the age discrepancy (Elizabeth Spence was born in 1783). Unfortunately I have no other information that I can use to tie a Peter Reid to Elizabeth or son John.

If you have any information on John Reid or his father Peter I would love to hear from you!

Mother: Elizabeth Spence (1783-1869)          Father: Peter Reid or John Reid?
Siblings: none
Spouse: Jane/Jean Wood (1812-1883)
Children: John Wood (1844-), Annie Rich (1845-1905), Jean (1846-), James (1847-1906), Sarah Lahore (1849-1927)
Posted in Edinburgh, GGG-Grandfather, Orkney | 1 Comment