The Story Of An Absent – And Errant – Great-Grandfather

Most posts on this blog tell of campaigners for women’s rights. However among them I have already included two of more general interest that relate to the history of my own family. One – ‘Glad Were They To Rest on Australia’s Shore’ – is a story of emigration, telling of the perilous journey to Australia undertaken by my great, great, great, great grandfather and several of his children. The other – ‘War: 4 August 1914: And What The War Held For My Family’ – tells of my grandfather’s involvement in the First World War, his death on the Italian Front and the repercussions it had for his immediate family.

In that latter post I mention how his wife, my grandmother, never seemed to recover from his death. As a child I was always conscious of her sadness. What I did not know then and, indeed, have only discovered in the last few months, is how this (enforced) ‘desertion’ by her husband – when she was in her ’20s –  echoed an entirely voluntary desertion by her father when she was not yet three years old.

The following story demonstrates a woman’s helplessness in the late 19th century. How could a deserted wife, with two very young children, possibly prevail on a husband for maintenance if he chose not to provide it and made a new life for himself on the other side of the world? Of course, I may be maligning him and he may have sent money back, but nothing gets away from the fact that his children were denied their father.

Some years ago I had looked briefly at this branch of my family’s history and had noted the birth of my grandmother, Margaret Dowie, in 1887, and of her brother, William, in 1888. The latter’s birth was registered by his father, William Shillinglaw Dowie (a grandson of the intrepid Australian emigrant) – but, rather to my surprise, that was the last trace I could find of this great-grandfather.

Margaret and William Dowie - the deserted children - c 1893

Margaret and William Dowie – the deserted children – c 1893. Did their father ever see – or want to see – photographs of his children?

By the time the 1891 census was taken young Margaret and William Dowie were living with their mother back in the Falkland (Fife) home of her parents. Although their mother described herself as ‘Married’ there is no husband at home – nor was he there at the time of the following two censuses – in 1901 and in 1911. Nor could I find him anywhere else in Scotland, England or Ireland. To be absent from his family on each census day over three decades seemed to be more than a coincidence.

When my grandmother married in 1912 her father’s name appeared on her wedding certificate as though he were still alive; by the time her brother, William, married in 1918, his father is described as ‘deceased’.  But, search as I might, I could find no trace of his death in Scotland, England or Ireland in the years between 1912 and 1918. I even spent some time hunting for his will in both the English and Scottish jurisdictions – but to no avail.

This is the kind of ‘absence’ that would until recently have gone unremarked. Unless it was part of a handed-down family story how could one spot such an absence? My mother never mentioned that she had an ‘absent’ grandfather – and when she was alive it never occurred to me to ask specific questions about generations that far back in time. Did she know what had happened to him? I don’t know.

It was only at the beginning of this year that a contact researching another branch of the Shillinglaw family pointed me in the right direction – across the Atlantic..

I had long since ceased looking for William Shillinglaw Dowie but, coincidentally, had by now acquired a subscription to ‘Ancestry’ that extended beyond the UK and Ireland. And, lo and behold, the absent great-grandfather was absent no longer.

I can now see that he arrived in the US in November 1889, barely a year after registering the birth of his son. He applied for naturalization in August 1904, while living in New York and working as a packer. Back in Scotland, like several  generations of his family before him, he had worked as an estate or market gardener.

By the time of the 1910 Federal Census William Shillinglaw Dowie was living in Tacoma, Pierce County, Washington State. It was hardly possible to have moved further from the Scottish village in which his first family was living. He was now working as a US customs inspector and was living with May, his wife of 15 years.

In 1920 the couple were still living in Tacoma and William Dowie was in the same occupation – but the household had been augmented by the arrival of a nephew, William P. Dowie, from Glasgow and a ‘foster son’, William M. Dowie. The latter was 8 years old and had been born in Washington State.  On the census form, under the columns for place of birth of ‘Father’and ‘Mother’  is written ‘Don’t Know’.

However by the time of the 1930 Federal Census all such doubts had dissipated and William M Dowie was firmly acknowledged by William and May Dowie as ‘Son’ and the place of birth of his Father and Mother are the same as their own. I can find no trace of a marriage between May and William Shillinglaw Dowie – so presumably he was not, at least, a bigamist. [Update: 2020: I have now found evidence of this marriage, which took place in Bayonne, New Jersey on 14 October 1894. So, could he have been divorced from his first wife, or was he, indeed, a bigamist?] But what effrontery to give the son of the second liaison the same name (his own, of course) as that he had given to his first-born son. He really had written that Scottish-born  boy – and his sister – out of his history.

Did his ‘first family’ back home in Falkland know anything of the whereabouts of their husband and father? Did they know of the existence of this second family? The second William Dowie was only one year old when his half-sister, Margaret Dowie, my grandmother, was married and the information that her father was alive (and a ‘market gardener’) was stated on her marriage certificate.

They probably did know – for William Shillinglaw Dowie had not cut himself off from his siblings. As we saw, in 1920 one of his Glasgow nephews was living with him and that boy’s father, Donald Dowie, had moved his family from Glasgow to Seattle – quite close to Tacoma. Back in Falkland William Dowie’s wife must, over the years, surely have been able to make contact with her husband’s Glasgow family and garner some information as to his whereabouts.

Back in November 1889 did William Shillinglaw Dowie set off for America with a promise that when he had settled and found work he would send for his wife and two children? Or – and this seems more likely – had there been a marriage breakdown and – because he could – he set off for pastures new? Whatever the reason the result was a deserted wife, forced to return to her parents’ home, and two children left fatherless.

William Shillinglaw Dowie died in 1946, a few months after I was born. But he had presumably been ‘dead’ to his first family since 1918 when his son described him as such when giving the information to be included on his wedding certificate. His American son died in 1973. Did he know about this father’s other family? He does not seem to have left any children to carry on that line – allowing no possibility of interrogating that particular strand of the past.

It takes little imagination to guess the heartache that lies behind this family story. The deserted wife died in 1927, still living in what had been her parents’ home, now home to her own widowed daughter (my grandmother) and her two children. The pattern of a single mother left alone to bring up her children was repeating itself.

And how bizarre to think that although his wife and children probably knew next to nothing about the life of William Shillinglaw Dowie once he had crossed the Atlantic, nowadays not only am I able to uncover all this hidden history with the click of a few computer keys but I can even view a photograph of this errant great-grandfather’s grave.


All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement



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