Friday, December 20, 2013

The Skating Rink Scene

To me, theoretically at least, Christmas is all about family traditions. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a big family, nor did we have a lot of traditions. I was an only child and so was my mother, while my father’s family lived in far-away Winnipeg, so we seldom saw them. 

When I was little, we lived in southwestern Ontario. Every year, we took the overnight train to Montreal to spend the holidays with my mother’s parents. They were a quiet, elderly couple even when I was a child, and Christmas dinner was a rather formal event, although things livened up when everyone opened their Christmas crackers and put on the silly paper hats that came inside. 

What I loved best was the skating rink scene that decorated the dining table. (Don’t ask me where we ate if the scene took up half the table; I don’t remember.) It was made with cotton wool snow, a mirror transformed into a skating rink, a plastic church on a hill of cardboard boxes, and tiny skaters and children sledding. I thought it was amazing that the street lights around the rink, originally from a toy train set, actually lit up, and I loved to ask my grandfather to wind up the music box movement inside the church so we could hear its tinny version of Ave Maria. I especially liked to look at the figurines, and to pick them up and put them down again.  
I was probably about six when this was taken with my mother, grandfather and grandmother.
After my grandparents died, my parents carried on the tradition of assembling the scene every year. By that time we lived in Montreal, and my mother enjoyed showing it to the children of her friends and extended family, and eventually to my children. 

The scene evolved over the years. New porcelain animals and a Scandinavian-style wooden Mary and Joseph joined the antique crèche figures in front of the church, and modern reproductions replaced some broken snow babies. It seemed to me, however, that the new figurines were never as nice as the originals, even if they didn’t fall over as often. 

For the past 10 years, I haven’t put out the skating rink scene. The cat likes to curl up in the cotton wool, and I am afraid she’ll break something. But some day I’ll get it out again, perhaps to charm another generation.

Have a lovely holiday, everyone. I will be back with more stories in the New Year.

Friday, December 13, 2013

From Lesmahagow to Scarborough

In the spring of 1830, eight months after my future great-grandfather James Hamilton was born, the Hamilton family set sail from Scotland for New York and a new life in Upper Canada. James’ parents, Robert Hamilton and Elizabeth Stobo, must have realized there were few opportunities for their children in southwest Scotland and decided to make the move.

Robert Hamilton, born in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, in 1789, was a weaver. He married Elizabeth Stobo at Stonehouse parish church, Lanarkshire, in 1816. She had been baptized in 1790, in nearby Avondale parish, “lawful daughter to Robt. in Braehead.”

The couple’s four eldest children, Elizabeth, Janet, Agnes and Robert, were born in Lesmahagow between 1817 and 1824. But times were increasingly difficult for the cottage weaving industry and, around 1820, Robert moved to Glasgow for a factory job. The two youngest children, Margaret and James, were born in the city.

The Hamiltons had decided before they left Scotland that they would go to Scarborough Township (now part of the vast city of Toronto, Ontario.) Several members of Elizabeth’s family had already settled there and were doing well in the timber business. The Hamiltons stayed with the Stobo family until they rented land of their own, a farm on Concession III, Lot 25.    

Two of Robert’s sisters, Agnes Hamilton, wife of Robert Rae, and Janet Hamilton, wife of John Martin, also immigrated to Scarborough later with their families. His older sister, Margaret, stayed in Scotland with their father because she was not well. “Let me know particularly how sister Margaret is and if you think there is any prospect of her getting better,” Robert wrote his father on May 27, 1830 in his first letter home since arriving in Scarborough.

The gravestone of Robert Hamilton and Elizabeth Stobo in St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Cemetery
Although he continued as a weaver, Robert also had learn to farm. He told his father that in the first days after they arrived, they were busy planting potatoes. They also expected to grow Indian corn and get a cow or two.

Most of Scarborough’s Scottish settlers took to farming with enthusiasm and, following the founding of the Scarboro Agricultural Society in 1844, there was an annual Scarboro Fair with competitions for the best livestock and produce. Robert’s name was not on the society’s membership list, perhaps because he abstained from alcohol. The fair involved a great deal of consumption of ale and whiskey. Robert seems to have been more interested in intellectual pursuits and was the first vice-president of the Scarboro Subscription Library, founded in 1834.

Elisabeth died in 1853, age 63. Robert was listed in the 1961 census, living on his own. By then, his children were all married and farming in Scarborough, in nearby Markham, or elsewhere in southwestern Ontario. Elisabeth was married to William Oliver, Janet to Robert Reid, Agnes to James Green, Robert to Janet Smith, Margaret to James Gordon and James to Isabella Glendenning. James and Isabella were now running the family farm.

Robert died in 1875, at the age of 86, and was buried next to his wife in St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Their gravestone has been lying on the ground for many years.

Revised Dec. 27, 2016 to add and correct information.

See also:

The Glendinnings of Scarborough,, posted Dec. 16, 2016

Thomas Whiteside and Sarah Murdoch, Scarborough Settlers,, posted Nov. 9, 2016

Settling in Scarborough,, posted Jan. 2, 2014

The Missing Gravestone of Robert Hamilton and Janet Renwick,, posted Oct. 28, 2015, revised Dec. 27, 2016 

Research Remarks: 

There is a considerable amount of information about the early settlers of Scarborough, and I will write about them again. Of course, sometimes it is hard to know what is really true and what is just local lore. The Township of Scarboro, 1796-1896, edited by David Boyle, Toronto, 1896 and available online at includes the names of many early settlers, such as people who were founding members of community groups.   

Several modern histories of the Scarborough area have been published and are available in libraries, while the website of the James McCowan Memorial Social History Society,, written by the descendants of another founding family of Scarborough, is both entertaining and informative.

Despite an error in the transcription of the Hamilton headstone (Robert is incorrectly listed as Albert), one of the most helpful resources I have found is a transcription of the gravestones in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Cemetery (Bendale), published by the Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto Branch. Because I have ancestors from four intermarried families buried there (Hamilton, Stobo, Glendenning and Whiteside), and because first names were repeated through several generations, this booklet is helpful in sorting everyone out.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Robert Hamilton, tailor, of Lesmahagow

As a tailor, Robert Hamilton was often on the road, visiting customers’ homes to fit and sew their clothes on the spot. But the winter of 1789 was a cold one in Lesmahagow, Scotland and, on January 12, there was a “great draeft of snow” that kept him at home. Robert recorded these work trips, as well as special events such as the Lanark Fair and a friend’s burial day, in a ledger. Two pages of that ledger were slipped into the family bible, which his son brought to Canada. 

Robert Hamilton, my three-times great-grandfather, was born around 1754. He married Janet Renwick in 1783 at Lesmahagow parish church. The church record said both were of Abbey Green, the old name for Lesmahagow.

Robert and Janet had five children: Margaret, born 1784; Robert, 1789; Agnes, 1791; Archibald, 1794; and Janet, 1800. Archibald died as an infant, and I do not know what happened to Margaret. Around 1830, Agnes, Robert jr., and Janet all settled in Scarborough, which is today a suburb of Toronto, Ontario.

When Robert and Janet were bringing up their young family, Lesmahagow parish was a good place to live. Just south of Glasgow, it was, and still is, beautiful, with rolling hills, streams and ravines. The Statistical Accounts of Scotland 1791-1799 noted, however, that the soil was not particularly fertile, more suited to pasture for sheep and cows than to growing crops. Everyone grew pototoes and, in his ledger, Robert reported spending several days in mid-October “raising potatoes.” 

A page from Robert Hamilton's ledger. Photo courtesy Alison M. Wright
The Statistical Accounts described the people as mostly “healthy and robust,” their moral deportment “decent and regular.” The children learned English, Latin, geometry and arithmetic at the local schools. Robert’s ability to read and write was not unusual.

In 1799, the majority of the parish’s 3,000 residents were husbandmen (farmers), and there was a small coal mining industry. There were also numerous tradesmen, including blacksmiths and carpenters, and some 26 tailors and 62 weavers. In the first decade of the 19th century, skilled cottage weavers made wool and linen cloth in their Lanarkshire homes. Then a recession hit and Glasgow factories undermined the cottage weaving industry. Even the climate deteriorated, affecting crops. By 1819, thousands of people in Lanarkshire were living in poverty. Some joined organizations such as the Lesmahagow Emigration Society, and the government assisted them to move abroad. 

This is the spot in Lesmahagow's old parish cemetery where Robert Hamilton and Janet Renwick were buried.

Janet died in 1821 and Robert survived another ten years, long enough to watch his children leave for Canada. The Hamiltons were buried in the old Lesmahagow parish cemetery. When I visited it in 2012, I searched in vain for their gravestone. All I could find was an empty space in the spot where a diagram showed me it had once stood.

Research Remarks:  I am as fascinated by local and social history as I am by genealogy. Even if I don’t know the details of my ancestors’ experiences, I like to find out about the specific times and places in which they lived. The Statistical Accounts of Scotland provide contemporary descriptions of life in Scotland, based on information supplied by local church ministers. Two series were published, one at the end of the 18th century, another in the 1830s. You can browse The Statistical Accounts of Scotland, Account of 1791-99 vol. 7, p. 420: Lesmahago, County of Lanark online for free,

Another source of social history is A History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1600 to 1800, edited by Elizabeth Foyster and Christopher A. Whatley, Edinburgh University Press, 2010. It mentions the high esteem in which skilled craftsmen such as tailors and weavers were held, although this changed over time. By 1800, many people were buying ready-made clothes in shops.

Scottish gravestones can also be quite revealing. Although the Hamiltons’ stone has disappeared, the inscription was recorded in Monumental Inscriptions (pre-1855) in the Upper ward of Lanarkshire, by Sheila A. Scott, published by the Scottish Genealogy Society, 1977. It read, “Robert Hamilton tailor Abbey Green, 18.11.1831, 77. w. Janet Renwick, 9.5.1821, 63. s. Archd. Inf.”

see also:

Friday, November 29, 2013

Mary Ann (Clark) Bagg

We are not supposed to make value judgments about our ancestors, but it is hard not to like some more than others. One of my favourites is my three-times great-grandmother, Mary Ann Clark Bagg. What swayed me is the epitaph on her grave in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery, which says, “To the poor a kind and sympathizing friend.”  

Her portrait is also appealing. Probably painted in honour of her wedding, it shows a slim young woman in a low-cut, filmy white dress. Fashionable curls frame her face, her eyes are deep brown and there’s a hint of a smile on her lips.  

Mary Ann, the daughter of John Clark and Mary Mitcheson, was baptized in July 1795, at the parish church in Lanchester, County Durham, England. A few years later, the family left England and settled in Montreal. When Mary Ann was 10, a baby brother arrived, but he died six months later, so she grew up an only child.

Her father, a butcher and meat inspector, purchased a farm on Saint Lawrence Street, at that time the only road leading north from the city gates. Later, he bought several other farms nearby. This is now a densely populated area known as the Plateau, but when Mary Ann was a child, there were few neighbours. I sometimes wonder whether she was lonely. Did she have to do chores for the cows and pigs, or did she have a governess to supervise her lessons and needlework?

Although he was to live another 17 years, Clark wrote his will in 1810. In it, he mentioned that Mary Ann was then in England. Perhaps she was visiting her grandparents in Durham, or staying with an uncle’s family in London.  

In 1819, Mary Ann married merchant Stanley Bagg. Seven years her senior, Stanley had been a tenant of John Clark (he and his father leased the Mile End Tavern from him for eight years) and they were business partners, supplying beef to the British army.

The marriage contract between Mary Ann and Stanley also reads like a business contract between her father and her husband-to-be. Clark wanted to ensure that his daughter could own outright the properties she would eventually inherit from him, so the contract made Mary Ann and Stanley separate as to property. Also in the marriage contract, Clark gave Mary Ann and Stanley a cosy home of their own. Named Durham House, it was just down the road from the Clarks’ home, Mile End Lodge. Mary Ann gave birth to her only child, Stanley Clark Bagg, at Durham House the following year. 

In November 1834, Mary Ann must have realized she was very ill. A notary prepared her will in which she left her property to her son, with her husband as executor until Stanley Clark Bagg reached 21. She died on 10 February, 1835, aged 39 years, leaving behind her husband, her teenaged son and her mother. Although he lived another 18 years, Stanley did not remarry.   

Research Remarks:  The Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) is an invaluable source of documents concerning ancestors in Quebec. All the wills, marriage contracts, land purchases and business contracts mentioned in this story were found in the notarial documents there.

The BAnQ also has a collection of documents called tutelles et curatelles, or guardianships and curatorships. A tutelle is a court document in which a judge appoints a tutor and a sub-tutor to be responsible for the well-being of a minor, or someone under the age of 21.  A tutor would be required if the parents are living elsewhere, for example, or if a parent dies. The tutor’s permission is necessary if the minor wishes to marry, and the tutor is also responsible for the minor’s property and money.

In this case, after Mary Ann died, Stanley and a group of male relatives and close friends met with a judge. The judge appointed Stanley as Stanley Clark’s tutor, and the boy’s uncle, Gabriel Roy, as sub-tutor.

The tutelles et curatelles are interesting because they can reveal family relationships, the names and occupations of family friends and the names of notaries. That same notary may also have done an inventory of the deceased’s estate, or looked after other family business.

If one of your Quebec ancestors died leaving minor children, you should search the index to tutelles et curatelles at the BAnQ. The archivist on duty can help you find the index and the actual court documents. You will need to have with you the family name and the date of death of the parent. If your ancestors were in the Quebec Judicial District (around Quebec City) the guardianship index and documents 1639-1900 are online at Other guardianship documents will come online eventually.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Philadelphia and the Mitcheson Family

If St. James the Less Episcopal Church looks like a little piece of England transplanted across the Atlantic, it is supposed to give that impression. This U.S. National Historic Landmark, with gray stone walls and arched red doors, was patterned after an English parish church and was built in 1846 to serve the families who lived in what was then a rural area near Philadelphia.

Robert Mitcheson, my great-great-great grandfather, helped found St. James the Less. Perhaps it reminded him of the church near Durham, England, where he was baptized. Eventually many members of his family were buried in St. James the Less Cemetery.

The Mitchesons purchased two plots, each of which includes a tall monument and several other gravestones. One plot was for merchant Robert Mitcheson (1779-1859) and his wife, Mary Frances (Fanny) McGregor (1792-1862) and several of their children and grandchildren. The other was for their son Reverend Robert McGregor Mitcheson and his family.

This monument is in memory of Robert and Fanny Mitcheson and several family members including grandson Joseph M. Mitcheson, a U.S. naval officer during World War I.
When my husband and I visited Philadelphia last spring, that cemetery visit was one of two priorities. I also wanted to do some research at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), a four-storey red brick building on downtown Locust Street that houses a vast collection of historical and genealogical documents.

I had been unable to find a record of Robert’s and Fanny’s marriage, or of their children’s baptisms, online. I still haven’t found the marriage, but I did find the baptismal records in the HSP archives. The couple’s seven children were baptized at St. John’s Protestant Episcopal Church, in the Northern Liberties area north of the city. As far as I know, these records have not been digitized.

But the most interesting discovery I made was that Robert and Fanny may have living descendants in the United States. I am descended from their daughter Catharine, who married Stanley Clark Bagg and moved to his home, Montreal. Most of her descendants are Canadians.

I knew that two of the Mitcheson children died as babies and two others lived to adulthood but had no children. Younger son McGregor J. Mitcheson‘s line died out in 1959. That left oldest son Robert McGregor Mitcheson (1818-1877) and his wife, Sarah Johnson. Their son, Dr. Robert S. J. Mitcheson, was married but childless. Of their two daughters, Helen Patience died young, while Fanny Mary married someone named Smith, so finding her was going to be a challenge.

A search for Mitcheson in the HSP catalogue brought up one hit: records from the Family Bible of Lloyd Jones and his wife, Eliza Loxley. When I opened the document, I had to smile. Fanny Mary Mitcheson (1851-1937) married Uselma Clarke Smith Jr. (1841-1902), and their descendants appear to have spread across the United States, from Long Island to Chicago and California.

The large cross in the rear row is the grave of Rev. Robert M. Mitcheson. Daughter Helen is next to him, while Robert's wife, Sarah Johnson, son Robert and his wife, Lucie Washington, are in the front row.
Research notes: When I first started researching several years ago, very few Philadelphia records had been digitized. That situation has improved, and I eventually found Frances Mitcheson’s 1862 death certificate at That certificate revealed that Fanny was buried in St. James the Less Cemetery.

The statement that Robert Mitcheson helped to found the church comes from an article about his son, lawyer McGregor J. Mitcheson, in Historical Catalogue of the St. Andrews Society of Philadelphia, With Biographical Sketches of Deceased Members. I accessed this text through, but could not find it through

If you had any ancestors in the mid-Atlantic United States, you should try to visit the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, but be well prepared. The library is huge and it can be overwhelming if you don’t have a good idea what you are looking for. The society’s website is

As for St. James the Less Church, it is now associated with St. James School, a small middle school serving students from the surrounding disadvantaged neighbourhood. When the head of the school showed us around the cemetery, he told us there was a dispute between the congregation and the diocese several years ago. Had we come then, we would have found the church abandoned and the graveyard overgrown. Now the former parish hall has been converted to classrooms and the cemetery is well maintained. The school’s website,, has more information about this historic building and the political figures, businessmen and Civil War Union Army officers buried there.