Tuesday, 22 January 2013

In Praise of Orkney Archives

Polly Johnston
I've been a big fan of the Archives in Orkney Library since I first encountered them in early 2008 when I was doing some research for a novel. Many an hour I spent there in a booth, totally absorbed listening to fascinating sound archives of old Orcadians talking about life in Orkney in the past. As with all the other parts of Orkney Library & Archives, the staff are superb, helpful and knowledgeable and infinitely obliging.

I went in today to see what they are up to at the moment and spoke to Lucy Gibbon, Assistant Archivist. She showed me the exhibition they are putting together to tie in with the Who Do You Think You Are? Live Exhibition in London from 22-24 February this year. The Orkney exhibition will show the sources that are available for looking into your family background. Lucy was telling me there are many besides the obvious ones of the Census and Births, Marriages & Deaths.

There are records for Churches, Sheriff Court Civil cases, Parochial Board & Parish Council Applications for Poor Relief. 

I was reading a page from the records of applications for Poor Relief. On October 14th 1873 the Parochial Board admitted Jean Rendall of Pierowall, Westray into the Poor House in Kirkwall, in those days, a long boat trip away. Here's what they recorded about Jean:

Age: 30
Occupation: None
Average Weekly Earnings: Very little (presently)

Other Information to enable Parochial Board to decide Case:

Lives with her parents who are both advanced in age and unable to give her much support. She seems to be somewhat imbecile but can take care of herself, is quite harmless, and in company with some other person will do some work, but requires to be constantly told how to do it.

How Disposed of by Parochial Board: Admitted

I wonder if Jean ever saw her parents again? Or visited Westray, the island where she was born and lived for 30 years. 

Whar does thu think thu ar?

As part of the exhibition, Lucy has rendered the question Who Do You Think You Are? into a variety of Orkney dialects:

Orkney Family History Society

The Orkney Family History Society, which is run by volunteers, is based in Orkney Library & Archive, a couple of doors along from the Archives on the upper floor. Conveniently close if you want to check out your Orkney roots there too!

Polly Johnston

The girl at the top of the blog is Polly Johnston, my grandmother, aged nine, outside Burnside in Tankerness, Orkney, the house of the family with whom she was 'boarded out' as a very young child. Here is the full photo. The year is 1918 and in the back row on the left is one young man who clearly survived the First World War. 

When this photo turned up in Orkney, it prompted me to investigate further the origins of my granny. We knew she had come from Glasgow to Orkney at a very young age, but no-one knew why.  I wrote to another archive, the one housed in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. They invited me and my aunt and sister in to see what they found. Like Jean Rendall of Pierowall above, Polly Johnston appears in an Application for Poor Relief. Pinned to the application, was a cutting from the Glasgow Evening News, March 1912 (right).


FOUND on a stair at 102 Canning Street, Bridgeton Cross, at 4.30 p.m. on FRIDAY, 15th inst., FEMALE CHILD. Age about 3 years, healthy, brown hair, and blue eyes. Gives name Polly Johnston, father George Wilson, miner; mother Lizzie, sister Rosie.

Dressed in a Red Coat with pearl buttons, grey woollen dress, 2 white cotton and 1 flannel petticoat, white flannelette chemise, knitted combinations, grey stays, black stockings and button boots, white woollen rinking cap, and grey knitted shawl. Excepting dress, clothing much worn.

A REWARD will be paid by the Subscriber to any person giving information leading to identification.  JAS. R. MOTION, Inspector and Clerk.
Parish Council Chambers, 
266 George Street, 
Glasgow, 28th March, 1912."

But no-one ever came forward to claim her. Her family seems to have vanished. After a few months she was sent up to Orkney to be boarded out:

The story goes that she didn't thrive at Bigging with Mr & Mrs Bewes. So a young woman in service with them took her home to her own mother's house. That young woman was Mrs Aggie Voy, in the middle of the back row in the photo above. Her widowed mother had got married again to John Chalmers of Burnside, Tankerness.

Back to Orkney Archives

Today in the Orkney Archive, I told Lucy Gibbon and David Mackie, Senior Archivist, about my granny. They found this for me: the school roll from St Andrew's School in Tankerness from 1914. Polly Johnston was registered there on 18 May. Her birth date is given as 09.3.? - an unknown day in March 1909. That question mark, looking as it does a bit like a '2', I think provided a date for her birthday, 2nd March. But she never had a birth certificate and so we don't know when she was actually born. 

An Unfinished Story

Lucy thinks there may be other records in Orkney Archives that will shed some light on my granny's arrival in Orkney. I believe there may be a brief piece in The Orcadian saying that she was sent to Orkney along with two other very young girls. One, Peggy McQuillan, always claimed her parents had perished on the Titanic which sank in 1912. I wonder if we'll ever learn what happened to George Wilson, Lizzie and Rosie, my granny's family?

I look forward to continuing the search in the Archives for information that will help to solve the mystery of my grandmother's origins.

The Archives put out a regular blog. Check it out.  

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