Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Alexander Cooper – Colour Sergeant, Cameronians, Scottish Rifles

My wife’s grandfather, Alexander Cooper, was a military man. In his later personal life he is said to have been difficult, almost tyrannical in the treatment of his children. His life story may explain part of that. I told quite a bit about the man in a post on 12 August 2014: Sometimes Those Family Stories Have a Grain of Truth. In it I only briefly mentioned his army career.

In this piece, relevant to this time of year, I will tell more about that period in Alexander’s life that may have significantly impacted his attitudes and approaches to people.

Alexander joined the British Army with the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) on 14 August 1885, at the age of 18 (his attestation form says he was 19 years and 2 months old so he fibbed a bit about that). He was discharged on 30 June 1908, having spent most of his adult life as a soldier. During his service he almost certainly was imbued with a sense of order and a penchant for following the instructions of superiors in rank. That mind-set would likely have permeated his private life after he left the army, particularly when fate dealt him serious personal setbacks.


Alexander rose rapidly through the ranks achieving the position of Colour Sergeant in 1896 (the highest rank possible for non-commissioned soldiers). In addition to the time spent at the Cameronian headquarters in Hamilton, he also served in India (1894-1895) and South Africa (1901-1902). Toward the end of Alexander’s army career he was posted back to Glasgow with the Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers, an established battalion that was linked with the Cameronians in 1881.

He met and married his first wife, Margaret Scott, in 1890 while stationed at the regimental quarters in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland. She was then living on Auchingramont Road, in the nearby village. They moved to Church Street, Hamilton, shortly after their marriage. Alexander and Margaret had two children together, Mary Jane, born in 1892, and Alexander, born in 1895. Both children were born in Lossiemouth, Elgin, Scotland, where Margaret’s parents lived. Mary Jane died of measles in February 1895 on board the ship they were sailing home on from after a posting in India.

In 1901 the family was located in Kent, England, possibly a stopover on their way to a posting in South Africa. Alexander would have worked then at the Brompton Barracks. Following their time in South Africa, Alexander and Margaret returned to Glasgow. They were living on New City Road in 1907 when Margaret fell ill with heart disease and died.

Alexander met and married Elizabeth Walker in 1908 just before his discharge. Both were living in Glasgow at the time. No doubt Alexander appreciated the help Lizzie brought to care for his young son. Lizzie also had a child at the time, daughter Violet, born in 1905. The couple went on to have six children together between 1908 and 1917, the first born on Napiershill Street, Glasgow, and most of the rest when the family lived on Gayfield Street in the city.

The family endured another tragedy in 1916 when Alexander Jr. was killed in action near Bethune, France. He is buried in the local military cemetery there. Alexander is our lone family connection to WWI, having joined the Cameronians in the fall of 1914, just before his 19th birthday.

Another misfortune for Alexander’s family occurred in 1918 when Elizabeth suffered a severe mental affliction. The seriousness of her condition resulted her being institutionalized. Their children, shockingly, were told she had died. (I will deal with that story and subject in a later blog post.) Alexander was now left with a family of young children, the oldest ten years of age and the youngest only one.

Having lost a wife, a daughter and a son, and now losing a second partner, is it any wonder that Alexander may have been overwhelmed with grief and uncertainty? His military training did not prepare him for the new familial situation. His inability to relate to his children other than as a disciplinarian left them traumatized even more. All of them were either sent to live with grandparents or enrolled in boarding schools. The radical change to family life affected them all. Eventually they were separated, growing up under wildly different conditions.

It is important to remember that Alexander served his country faithfully and with distinction. His transition to private life, though, was met with unhappiness and misfortune.


He died in Glasgow at the relatively young age of just 60, felled finally by cancer.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

History and Care by the Church in Local Parishes

Many of the records we can find listing our ancestors, especially prior to civil registration, come from church records, at least in the British Isles. The churches were central to the local societies and, in many respects, governed the habits and deportment of the residents.

Comments can often be found in parish registers, about historical events as well as concerning the behaviour of parishioners. Ministers did not generally hold back when commenting on moral issues in particular. What family researcher has not found a reference to an illicit romance evidenced by a note in the baptism register about pre-marital relations?

The child might well be tagged with the label of bastard, if born out-of-wedlock or before the parents were married. Even the date of conception might be highlighted by clergymen. Such was the case for a 2nd great-grandmother of a friend of mine where a note was inserted into the 1790 baptism register for Lintrathen, Forfarshire, Scotland, saying the child was “begat in antenuptial fornication.”


I was reminded of the role of the church as well in looking at documents and publications for a course I have just started on Scotland 1750 to 1850: Beyond the OPRs (Pharos Teaching and Tutoring). I found a write-up on Campsie Parish, Stirlingshire (birthplace of my 2nd great-grandfather), in The Statistical Accounts of Scotland 1791-1845 describing the church, its history and its activities, the author, Rev. Mr. James Lapslie, recorded how the church was involved in the formation and adjudication of all manner of the parish’s social structure:

I have all along been accustomed to consider these public religious meetings as beneficial to the manners of the country. The ecclesiastical discipline of this parish is still kept up. As for discipline against fornicators, two days doing public penance in the church, are required, besides a fine of a crown, for each guilty person, to the poor. There has been an opinion entertained, that this public penance has been productive of very bad effects in society; so far has an idea gone forth of this sort, that, for this reason, some writers have pretended to say, that so long as doing public penance was permitted, no person should be put to death for child murder; I am inclined to believe, that it would be much more the interest of the community, in a political light, that the laws of discipline should be more rigidly adhered to; for if once the vulgar of any country, consider incontinency as a venial fault, they are almost ready for the commission of any crime; and as l can easily see, that the shame of doing penance operates to deter others; in this point of view, it is to be considered as answering the ends of edification.

Publications like the Statistical Accounts of Scotland are great sources of information about areas of Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. The report on Campsie had a lot of information about the weaving and printing industries which employed many of my ancestors.

There are many historical and genealogical publications available now to download. One of the great sites I go to often is Archive.org. A quick search of the site for “Parish of Campsie” in the text of books resulted in 3,378 hits, 281 of them under the sub-category of genealogy. Many were family genealogies.


If you are doing research for your Scottish lines, as I have done recently, don’t forget to look for historical information that can give you important background to how and where your ancestors lived. And do check sites such as the Statistical Accounts and Archive.org for relevant material.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Protestant Reformation Anniversary

This month marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences which initiated the break of reformers with the Roman Catholic Church.

I was reminded of this by a recent article in the local newspaper titled Guess why the tiny German town of Wittenberg is expecting two million visitors (Calgary Herald, Eliot Stein, October 14th). Stein comments on the activities the town has organized to celebrate the occasion. You might be able to read it here.

On 31 October 1517 (possibly 21 October on the current Gregorian calendar), according to legend, Luther posted his criticisms on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Copies of the documents were quickly circulated throughout Germany. By that time printing presses were in operation across Europe, no doubt contributing to the rapid dissemination of information and ideas to the masses.

1517 printing of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther

Formation of Protestant churches did not happen immediately but the die was cast and many other activists such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli took up the cause.

The reformation marks the beginning, in many European countries, of accurate recording of births, marriage and deaths. Genealogists celebrate this development every day.

The event, of course, happened during the depth of the Little Ice Age when most of Europe was caught up in devastating climatic conditions that made living harsh. Areas throughout the continent were hard-pressed to take care of their citizens, largely led by the Catholic Church. There was great social unrest as people struggled to find employment and food in order to survive. Local parishes were particularly under siege to fund support programs.

In many regions and countries, governments legislated new rules to prevent people from moving around, bringing even more crowds to some localities unable to even take care of their own. I suspect the new laws concerning recording of births, marriage and burials, in many of the newly-established Protestant regimes was really just a way to get a handle on who lived in their areas and who had the wherewithal to help out through taxes.

Anyway, the world did indeed change in 1517. The revolution in religious thought brought with it a great deal of conflict, between religious groups and with the ruling classes who attempted to maintain order and control. Many family historians will be aware of, and have ancestors who may have been a part of groups that dedicated themselves to change – such as the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) – who were the focus of violence, imprisonment and banishment. One such violent event in France was the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre during which thousands lost their lives.
 
Le massacre de la Saint-Barthelemy, oil on panel by Francois Dubois, ca 1572-84 (original in Musee cantonall des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne)

Protestantism of course started long before the 16th century, but the date of 31 October 1571 was a turning point. Family historians everywhere will recognize how the event changed the lives of many of their ancestors.