Tag Archives | Benson

My Linlithgow Burgesses

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In 1840, two unlikely branches of my family met. The Bensons from Midlothian were powdermakers, miners and labourers. This group of families lived for many years in and around Glencorse. The local cemetery is stuffed with their remains, if you’ll pardon the expression.

It’s easy to go sideways in the family (Robert, whose brother was Francis and who had young Francis and so on and so on) but not as simple to go backwards. The earliest person I have is the wife, Isabella, of a Benson who would have been born around 1770.

But it’s the very first Robert Benson who married a Spence. Or to be accurate, a Thom. And Margaret, the bride, was from a long line of burgesses in the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow.

When I began researching this family line, I discovered that I wasn’t alone – contacts flooded in with stacks of information. Sadly, a lot of it turned out to be contradictory – and who to believe and why? Overwhelmed by the task, I set ‘the Linlithgow lot’ aside for a good while and only returned to it fairly recently. This time, I’ve done the research myself using (hopefully) ironclad sources.

The first surprise was one that’s all too common. This girl had the surname Thom but there was no marriage. I thought of a commonlaw marriage but the truth was that an already married man – Mr Thom, the exciseman – fathered two children on Helen Stanners. That wife and six children I’d been following? Somebody else’s.

Having overcome that hurdle, I began to find the families of Stanners and Spence. And they’re infinitely more interesting than an unfaithful exciseman.

Linlithgow is a town full of history. Mary of Guise, wife of James V of Scotland, was delivered of a daughter here in 1542, who was to become the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots. Linlithgow Palace, which royal princes altered and improved through the years, was considered an architectural gem of the Renaissance. Prince Charles Edward Stewart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) stayed there in 1745, but after fires started by the Duke of Cumberland in 1746, the palace burned to the ground. The ruins of it have lain unroofed and uninhabited since then.

The River Avon flowed through the town and was vital to the success of the leather industry which sprang up in the 1600s and continued for two centuries. My ancestors tanned the leather and made shoes from it for export. This brought them some reward, and there are several generations of both Stanners and Spences who were made burgesses of the town.

I’m still deep in the labrynth that is Scots history, but so far I’ve discovered that to be a burgess could mean several things. It could simply be a man who owned some land (and that could be a very small amount of land, say enough to build a house on). Or it could mean a man who was a member of a prestigious crafts guild, and there were certainly Guilds of Tanners and Cordiners. I think that at least some of my people will appear on Burgess Rolls, although the privilege of being a Burgess was also granted to those outside the burgh. A case of profiting by who you know.

It was a thing to be proud of, being a burgess, and this is illustrated by a rather grand tombstone in the kirkyard which was erected by one William Law in honour of his grandparents, George Stanners and Margaret Spence. William was himself a ‘feur of Glasgow & burgess here’.

I’m beginning to look at extracts from the commisary courts whose records are kept in the National Archives of Scotland and I found Charles Inglis vs George Stanners in January of 1769. The commisary courts were often concerned with moral matters as well as matters of money, and I will have to look at the full record to find out why Mr Inglis and Mr Stanners were facing each other in court. I’m also going to look into the system of apprenticeships – there were two George Stanners, father and son – could George Jnr have been apprenticed to his father?

These families probably owned little pockets of land on Linlithgow’s High Street and there is a record of a William Law in his shoe shop in the 1820s. I think it’s a fair bet that he was a descendant of the man who erected a monument to his grandparents.

Finally, looking into these families has also been an exploration into random spelling. Elizabeth Dow, whose father was James Dove. And Christian Cochran who was variously Christian or Christean and Cochran or Chochren or even Chochran. The Georges get off lightly, only once being spelled, rather Germanically, Georg.

Photo of Linlithgow by Daniel Morrison

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Aunt Effie’s Wedding

Aunt Effie’s wedding photo. The guests, their ages ranging from age 73 to 2 months, are posing dutifully for the photographer on a fine June day in Hamilton, Lanarkshire. Close family members of the bride and groom are packed together on benches in the front row and the rest of the guests are ranged behind, groom’s folk to the photographer’s left, bride’s to his right. A solemn looking young minister stands directly behind the happy couple. There’s almost a complete set of three generations of Bensons present, although the second wife of the bride’s grandfather is not in the photo. There are at least four individuals named Robert Benson. And the bride’s sister, Retta, married five years before, has a two month old baby on her knee – my mother. The men, wearing heather in their buttonholes, are almost all employed in the coal mines, excepting my grandfather Somerville, who is a butcher. Aunt Effie, by marrying Tom Wilson, is marrying up. He is at the time of his marriage a bank clerk and will later rise to the position of bank manager. Five of the men, including the groom, sport stiffened wing collars and seven of the women have furs draped around their necks, notwithstanding the season.

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The Four Robert Bensons

Four-generations

This photograph was taken in the back garden of Retta Cottage, 2 Edward Street, Hamiton. The photographer has arranged some items from the house as props. A rug has been flung over the fence to make a backdrop and there are potted aspidistras on either side of the men. The photo’s purpose was to show four generations of a family who were all named Robert Benson.

It was clear that this was a professionally taken photograph and thanks to some terrific help from Angela at the Reference Library in Hamilton, I discovered that it appeared in the Hamilton Advertiser for 13 May 1933, with the caption ‘The Four Robert Bensons’. No story accompanied the photograph, but there were details of who the men were.

fourgensofrobertsThe eldest Robert – he of the luxuriant mouser – was 82 here and had outlived two wives, Euphemia Baxter and Agnes Craig. He and Euphemia had 7 children, all boys. This accounts for the masses (and I do mean masses!) of Bensons who followed. Had it not already been a common name in the west of Scotland, Robert’s contribution must have ensured that it became so.

The last of the Bensons to be born in Linlithgow, his father was the first to be named Robert. The male line was vigorous, most of them living into their 80s – the same, alas, can’t be said for their poor wives! According to my mother (who was 17 when her great-grandfather died) Robert Senior was to be approached with caution. As he’s glowering in every photo I have of him, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. He looks trim of figure and rather nattily dressed. I imagine him flinging open the bedroom window to do his callisthenics then shouting to his daughter-in-law ‘Nell! Have my best breeks got a good crease in them? The man frae the Hamilton Advertiser’s coming today.’

The next generation is the craggy-faced gentleman on the left, aged 61. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was a colliery engine keeper at the pit. This Robert married a gentle Irish girl called Nell Wilson on Christmas Day in 1896. (Churches don’t do marriages on Christmas Day anymore, do they?) My mother spoke warmly of her grandparents, although Robert was typically brusque in the way of his generation. Oddly though, Mother never told me that Nell was Irish – I had to find that out for myself and I haven’t yet found a birth record for her.

This Robert had a relatively small family – two daughters Rachel and Euphemia and one son, yes you guessed, Robert. Rachel was known as Retta and I wonder if she was always content with that version – as a Rachel, I must say I would have hated it. Euphemia was of course Effie – my wonderfully characterful great-aunt.

Son Robert (who’s the youngest man in the picture) was named with plenty of reminders of the family’s history. He was Robert Spence Thom Benson. Individuals with multiple names are a godsend in genealogy, with an instant link back through the generations. My Aunt Effie gloried in hers and signed Euphemia Gibb Baxter Benson with a flourish. Robert was my mother’s ‘Uncle Bob’ . He and his wife Barbara were apparently cheerful folk in contrast to the dourness of some of the Bensons – maybe Barbara was responsible for that.

The little boy, the youngest Robert Benson, is aged about 8 here and was instructed to sit on his great-grandfather’s chair. He protested vehemently and with tears, but was told sharply to obey by the old man. You can see just how uncomfortable the poor thing is by the way he’s perching there. In my mind, this boy is always ‘Cousin Bobby’ but he’s actually my mother’s cousin, not mine. He got his share of family names too – Baxter & Hunter (his mother’s maiden name). He would, in his turn, also live at Retta Cottage.

Three piece suits were still required dress for formal occasions, complete with breast-pocket hankies (a patterned one in the case of the young man). This family were never, to my knowledge, poor enough to suffer the ignominy of wearing your best suit to church on a Sunday then pawning it on Monday morning till the next week. The old man’s suit was built to last – the waistcoast is cut high at the neck in the old style. His grandson wears a suit with a bit of a check in it and what looks like a striped shirt (but still with detachable white celluloid collar). The two older men are both wearing fob watches in their waistcoats – these would be handed down through the generations. The youngest man’s hairstyle looks almost modern, and his son’s locks look to have been tamed by Brylcreem.

There are Robert Bensons still in my generation. I hope the name survives, continuing that tradition which began almost two hundred years ago.

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