Monthly Archives: January 2022

An Ordinary and Unremarkable Woman: Part 2

This month, I am publishing the second part of an essay my mother (born Catherine Thomson McKay in 1938) wrote about her namesake maternal grandmother – Catherine Miller Thomson – the great-grandmother who I remembered from my early childhood. With my mother’s permission, I have edited and updated her text slightly, without removing the spirit of the original. This potted biography was originally an assignment for a course in family history, a subject my mother took up after I returned home from London and recounted my exploits as an heir hunter in Holborn in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born). When my mother wrote the article, she was younger than I am now; which is a sobering reminder of how time has a habit of overtaking us all. But this can also be a spur to action, as it is never too late to start working on a family history and interview living relatives.

Part 1 last month focussed on my great-grandmother’s early years and this post will move through the years of her marriage in the Dumbiedykestenement flat in the east of Edinburgh. It is a house which no longer exists, being torn down during the 1960s ‘slum clearances’ that destroyed many solid housing in its well-meant quest for social change during the post-war period, but was a much loved family home. Not only did the balcony from the top floor flat afford the Neilson family wonderful vistas over Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat, but it was fairly central for the rest of the city, in particular the south side. Despite my assumption that the moves to the suburbs or farther afield were something the subsequent generation had aspired to, I later discovered that most of the Neilsons liked their life in the city. And during my time living and working in The Canongate – the eastern end of the Royal Mile – in the mid-90s, I grew to appreciate the benefits of being in the heart of the old town, but with parks and hills and a palace on my doorstep. 

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       The Neilsons on their balcony in Dumbiedykes Road c1940

In the years after my grandmother’s marriage to Robert Neilson in 1897, the outside world was changing. Queen Victoria had died; there followed the short reign of Edward the Seventh, and then George the Fifth ascended the throne. Great ships were being built in Scotland at Clydebank, but for the working man the fear of being out of work was omnipresent. There were no family allowances or unemployment benefits and the one dread of a family was to go ‘on the Parish’ or into the workhouse – known locally as ‘the Poorshoose’. Fortunately, through the thrift of my grandparents, this did not happen to their family. good health was also a strong factor in their favour as they all remained in remarkably good health, despite the relatively crowded conditions of their living quarters. The dreaded spectre of tuberculosis, which wiped out many families in those days, was fortunately absent from their household. 

Although my grandfather was allowed to vote, my grandmother had to wait until 1918 for that privilege. She followed the activities of the suffragette movement with great interest, but it had no real significance for her, absorbed as she was in the up-bringing of a large family. In 1917, when her last child was born, Grandma had other worries. The First World War had been dragging on for three long years, and her eldest son Adam was in France in one of the most dangerous occupations – a signaller in the trenches. He had not been truthful about his birth year and enlisted at the tender age of 16 in 1914 to enable him to enter the regiment of his choice instead of waiting for conscription. My grandparents were upset of course, and informed the authorities that he’d lied with regard to his age in an attempt to get him out of the army, but to no avail. However, unlike that of many of his contemporaries, his story has a happy ending in that he returned home at the end of the war without the proverbial scratch; although he had narrowly escaped death when a trench he had left only seconds before was blown up with no survivors.

Signallers on the Somme

When the Second World War came in 1939 two of the youngest children were in uniform. Robert was in the army and Mary, the baby of the family, enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFS).  By a tremendous stroke of good fortune, they too came back home unscathed. Grandma had achieved a hat trick – three children returned from wars which had decimated many families in the land.

Grandma ruled the family with a rod of iron. Her sons were expected to work as message boys for local shopkeepers to earn their own pocket money, and the girls all had specific household tasks to carry out, as well as having to queue at the butcher’s, grocer’s and baker’s before school in the morning. Their tenement home had no bathroom, although the family were luckier than many others in the area in that they had an inside toilet and did not have to share with others in the block. On Fridays the menfolk went to the local public baths to wash and the women bathed in a tin bath in front of the fire, the water heated in pots on the black-leaded range.

Anne and Mary Neilson in the Dumbiedykes c1920 with older friend.

Food was plain and wholesome with plenty of soups and stews and they never went short. The miracle was that Grandma managed to feed and clothe them all and even save a little for a rainy day on an income of which, in the first decade of the 20th century, could not have been much in excess of £2.10s per week. One thing that might sound strange to modern ears is that although Grandma made bars of Scottish tablet for the children, she sold it to them for a small amount of their pocket money and then used the money to buy ingredients for the next batch. Later she would make tablet for her grandchildren – but without charging them of course. My mother learnt this recipe from my grandmother, and made the same tablet for my own children who loved it, although we now all find the taste very sweet and do not make it ourselves!

Traditional Scottish Tablet

The first week of July in Edinburgh is always the local trades’ holiday. My grandparents and some of their younger children were on holiday in Burntisland in Fife on that week in 1920 when they heard the news that grandma’s beloved baby brother, Charles, had been killed in a horrific accident at his work’s annual outing. Edinburgh had been in a festive mood on that date, the 7th of July. It was warm and sunny weather and the degree ceremonies were taking place at Edinburgh University. Queen Mary was also visiting the city. Charles Neilson was a van driver for a local grocer’s shop, Elliott’s, in the Royal Mile, and it had been his task to transport his colleagues to and from their picnic. They’d all had a happy day and were returning home in the evening when at Bilston, on the outskirts of the city, the horse took fright at a waterfall and reared up, unseating Charles and throwing him to the ground. Unfortunately the wheels of the heavy cart then passed over his body and although he was not killed instantly, he died the following day at the Royal Infirmary from internal haemorrhaging. He was only 28 years old, small and dark like Grandma, with rosy cheeks and curly hair. He left a widow Susan, and three young children.

Charles Thomson c1910

Even in the luckiest of families, untimely death is inevitable. Although my grandmother went on to die of old age in later life, my grandfather was not so fortunate. In January 1949, at the age of 79, Robert Neilson went out to the shops and slipped on some ice on a particularly steep flight of stone steps in Edinburgh’s hilly Old Town. He suffered a brain injury, and although he was operated on by the famous Edinburgh neurosurgeon, Professor Norman Dott, his life was unable to be saved. On the day of his funeral the first great-grandchild was born into the family.

In her stoical way Grandma soldiered on, still keeping her watchful eyes on all her brood. They were mentioned in her bed-time prayers each night, but she often fell asleep before she reached the end of the list! She died as she had lived, quietly and with dignity, at the age of 94. She had no disease – indeed she had undergone a successful gall-bladder removal at the age of 90 – but just seemed to quietly wind down at the end of a busy life.

My Neilson Grandparents in the 1920s (baby unknown)

Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year!

The Incidental Genealogist and her Mother, January 2022