Part four in our ‘There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding’ series
Janette, Library Services Officer with the Libraries’ Digital Team tells how some genealogy research enabled us to find Ethel’s family:
Back in 2012 when we were making preparations to mark the centenary of the start of World War One, and with the help of volunteers from Glasgow Women’s Library, we started transcribing diaries in our collections which had belonged to Ethel Moir, a member of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH). The two diaries together with a photo album had been gifted to us in 1968 by a ‘Miss Moir’, presumed to be, Ethel herself. The diaries, covered in purple cloth with the initials E.M. hand sewn on the cover, contained the handwritten account of her time with a SWH Unit including drawings, photos and newspaper clippings.
Moving forward to 2014, I was tasked to work on the material to add information to the records so that the diaries could be made available online.
As I started reading the diaries, I found myself getting more and more involved in what the pages held. Whilst doing some family history research of my own at the ScotlandsPeople Centre, I typed in Ethel’s name and found that she had died here in Edinburgh aged 89, in the district of Morningside where I was brought up. A swift calculation told me that she was born in 1885, I now had two solid pieces of information, and I was hooked! I love digging away and doing a bit of detective work, and I wanted to find out more about this 32 year old middle class doctor’s daughter from Inverness, who had given up a presumably very comfortable life and joined the SWH in war-torn Serbia. Much to the amusement of my colleagues, I was becoming a bit obsessive about ‘Our Ethel’ and thought there must be a story to discover. What had started as an information inputting task had suddenly grown much bigger!
As many who have decided at some point to research their family tree, I started with what I could find online. My initial search started in the Library and with our free access to Ancestry, I found several vital pieces of information. One of the earliest entries, was a New York Passenger List from 17 April 1884, where a 3 month old Ethel was leaving her birthplace Belize, British Honduras, on board the S.S. Loch Tay, headed for Scotland via New York! The list gave me a wee bit more information about her family. I now knew that she had travelled with her mother and father (a doctor) and sister “Nellie”.
Another passenger list, this time from 1888 has the 4 year old Ethel, travelling with her mother Jessie and siblings Helen (Nellie), twin sisters Ida and Olive and a brother John en route on the S.S. Aguan from Port Antonio, Jamaica heading for Boston, Massachusetts. They were certainly getting around!
Census returns provide us with lots of information; they are carried out on one specific day every 10 years, the first one in Scotland was 1841.Through Census returns I was able to gather more bits and pieces. In the 1891 Census I found the family, minus father John, staying with Ethel’s grandfather, a farmer in Dairsie, Fife. I now discovered that Jessie (Ethel’s mother) had been born in Forfarshire. The 1901 Census has the family staying at Ardross Terrace in Inverness. This census gives information for Douglas, a new brother for Ethel, who had been born 6 years earlier. One interesting detail in this 1891 Census, is that for some reason all the children whose previously recorded place of birth was British Honduras, now have their birth place as Dundonald, Ayrshire! (A mystery I have still to solve).
The last available Census in 1911 finds the family still at Ardross Terrace, and contains yet more information than previous years. The Census for that year asked additional questions, the number of persons in the house (8) and “particulars as to the marriage”. Included in this was the questions how many children born alive (7) and how many still living (6), we therefore know that Ethel had another sibling who died in infancy.
At this point and with all the other information I was beginning to gather, we decided to take it a step further and see if we could find a living relative of Ethel’s. We knew the names and approximate birth dates of everyone so now the real detective work began. We knew that Ethel, her elder sister Helen and younger sister Ida had never married. Her younger brother Douglas had died in World War One aged 23, and we’d found no evidence of him marrying. That only left younger brother John Ernest and sister Olive. Now was the time to make a visit to the National Records of Scotland. In order to view any of their records you first have to join, so with a decidedly dodgy photograph, clutched in my hand I made my way up to the Historical Search Room. Membership completed and without a second glance at the aforementioned photo, I set about ordering some documents. One of them proved most helpful: Ethel’s will. Here I found confirmation that Olive was now a Mrs Calder and in handwriting that was very familiar to me, a list of bequests to a niece and nephew. This is when I roped in John one of our volunteers and while I concentrated on the Ethel trail, John was tasked with tracking down a living relative!
John takes up the story here:
Ethel’s father’s will had revealed that Olive Moir had married William Calder and their address at the time (1926) was Oxenrig, Coldstream. Ethel’s will told us that Olive and William had two children, Helen Bell and William Allan. Further searching found that William Allan had married Isobel Margaret Sturrock.
Ethel’s will also revealed a small legacy to an Allan and one to a Jill, but who were they? We assumed that Allan was in fact William Allan Calder and found evidence to back this up. We’d found a death record for Isobel Margaret Calder, (Allan’s wife), but Jill, remained a mystery. That was until, a lucky online search for Jill Calder returned an obituary for someone (nee Sturrock) from Coldstream who had died in 2011. Finally we’d worked it out – Jill Calder was the name Isobel Margaret went by!
Another piece of information found in the death record for Isobel was to turn out to be the lead we were looking for. The informant of the death was a Maureen Calder, with an Edinburgh address. We decided to send her a letter…
Janette resumes the story:
By this time, I had been reading quite a lot of articles and books about the SWH, and had found a fascinating website www.scottishwomenshospitals.co.uk, that had been created by a gentleman called Alan Cumming. I decided to contact Alan to see if he could fill me in with answers to my growing list of questions. After speaking to him at some length, it seemed that my next port of call should be The Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Alan told me that they retained all the archives for the SWH and that is where he had done most of his research. He also warned me that the SWH had kept ‘everything’. I contacted the Mitchell Archives and asked if I could get some kind of idea what they held, a few days later one of their archivists, very helpfully provided me with a list… all 96 A3 pages of it. Alan hadn’t been exaggerating!
Having ordered in advance some of the documents I was interested in, I set out on the train to Glasgow. The Mitchell Library is perfectly situated, just across the road from the train station. I headed up to the Archives on the 5th floor. A quick chat with the staff at the desk and the items that I had ordered were ready for me to look at. My starting point was an item listed as “correspondence – M – Z”. Expecting the box to contain a few dozen letters, I was faced with a box containing hundreds. I ploughed through them hoping to find something with a reference to Ethel, but to no avail. I then had another look at the archive list and came across personnel records. I ordered them and this time I was in luck. I started looking through a folder containing various letters from Ethel herself, and also one from her father. He had contacting the offices of the SWH saying that he had heard from Ethel in Petrograd, and was enquiring whether she had received the £10 that he had sent. A form dated 20th July 1916, showed that Ethel had filled in an expense form claiming back 5s for an inoculation and 5s for a vaccination, both required for her first trip to Salonica (Thessaloniki, Greece?). Another two page form dated 1917, gave a detailed expenses listing for the 7 weeks she had been detained in Petrograd. She had spent 8 roubles a day on board, 20 r on cabs and 30 r on tips making a total of 487 roubles which amounted to just over £30.
It was also while I was at the Mitchell Library that we had another breakthrough. The same morning I was delving into the SWH archive at The Mitchell, my colleagues received a phone call from Maureen Calder saying that not only had she been surprised to receive such an official looking letter, but even more surprised to find out about her little known great-aunt Ethel.
Maureen, we had discovered was related to Ethel through her father William Calder, son of Ethel’s younger sister Olive. Maureen told us that she could vaguely recall her great-aunt Ethel, and was really excited to discover that her diaries had ended up here in Central Library. A meeting was arranged, and at the beginning of January this year, we were able to finally meet up. Maureen brought her niece, and cousin Dave, and we spent a couple of hours showing them the diaries and exchanging information about Ethel and the Moir family. None of them had any idea that their great-aunt had been a member of the SWH or of her work with the Elsie Inglis Unit during WW1. They were fascinated to see her handwritten pages and newspaper cuttings, together with photographs she had taken during her time with the Units.
About a week later, we got an unexpected visit from Maureen. She had something she wanted to show us. She’d told us when we met, that she thought most of the Moir Family photographs had been lost over the years. However, she’d been having another look at home and made a discovery of her own. She handed over an envelope containing photographs of the complete Moir family: mother Jessie, father John, sisters Helen, Ida and Olive and brothers Douglas and John Ernest. But there were two that interested me most – one of Ethel aged about five taken in a photo studio in Aberdeen, dressed in a sailor’s tunic and one taken many years later in South Africa, of Ethel sitting in a chair, smiling for the camera with a dog on her lap and one at her feet. After all the months spent researching the family it was really nice to finally be able to put faces to names.
I haven’t been able to find out much more of what Ethel did after her time in the SWH, although I can’t believe that someone that had gone through all that she had, came home and simply did nothing. When Helen died in 1942, I found a notification that Ethel was the executor of her will, and the address given was Gogarburn Hospital. I knew that during World War Two, Gogarburn had been used by the Army and Air Force. Could she have been a volunteer? I emailed the Lothian Health Services Archives requesting any information they might hold. Unfortunately, they were unable to find anything in their archives. The last known address I have for Ethel is the Skye Nursing Home, in Polwarth Terrace, Edinburgh.
Ethel died in 1973 aged 89 in Edinburgh and is buried together with her elder sister Helen in the churchyard of their mother’s birthplace, Dairsie in Fife.
With still a few loose ends to tie up, I aim to continue researching Ethel and her family; after all, you never know what else I’ll find!
You can view the pictures of Ethel and her family in a special mini-exhibition on Capital Collections.
Read the other posts in this series about Ethel Moir and the Scottish Women’s Hospital:
There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding (part 1)
There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding (part 2)
There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding (part 3)
Scottish Women’s Hospitals (part 5)
Thanks to the following for all their help in our search:
Alan Cumming of Scottish Women’s Hospital website
Lothian Health Service Archives
The National Library of Scotland
The Scottish Genealogy Society
What a fascinating story and a great bit of research. i do hope you find out more about her life after WW1.
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Thanks for posting – who knows what else you and others have in their archives. My own great aunt and her experiences in WW1 were the stimulus for family history research, first from her daughter, and now me, one more generation down.
Thanks Jim, best of luck with your research.