Posts Tagged falkland

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.


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Kate Frye’s Diary: War: 4 August 1914: And What The War Held For My Family

On 7 August 2014 ITV will publish an e-book, Kate Parry Frye: The Long Life of an Edwardian Actress and Suffragette.  Based on her prodigious diary, this is my account of Kate Frye’s life and is a tie-in with the forthcoming ITV series ‘The Great War: The People’s Story’, in which Romola Garai plays Kate. For details of the TV series and its accompanying books see here.

To discover more about the entirety of Kate’s life – her upbringing, her involvement with the suffrage movement, her marriage, her London flats, her life in a Buckinghamshire hamlet, her love of the theatre, her times as an actress, her efforts as a writer, her life on the Home Front during two world wars, her involvement with politics – and her view of the world from the 1890s until October 1958  – download the e-book – £4.99 – from iTunes – or  £4.99 from Amazon.

Kate Frye c 1906

As a lead-up to publication I thought I’d share with you some entries from Kate’s diary from the month before the outbreak of war. Through her day-to-day experience we can see how the war stole up on one Everywoman. Kate was at this time 36 years old, living in a room at 49 Claverton Street in Pimlico and working in the Knightsbridge headquarters of the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage. It was now nine years since she had become engaged to (minor) actor John Collins. Her father died in March 1914 and her mother and sister, Agnes, now all but penniless, are living in rented rooms in Worthing. For the previous few weeks Kate’s fiancé, John Collins, had been renting  a room in another house in Claverton Street but he has now left for the West Country, to take up a position with a touring repertory company. Kate is feeling rather bereft – but has now begun her summer holiday, staying with her mother and sister in Worthing.

Tuesday August 4th 1914

A beautiful day as regards weather. Well it is settled England is to go in with France to protect her and Belgium. What a slap in the face for Germany !!! And as Italy won’t fight with Germany and Austria that is another set back. Germany expects to be allowed to walk over anywhere just as she pleases. What a brutal country – and what a Kaiser!!!

A letter from John from Exeter saying he is expecting a letter every minute giving him instructions to join his Unit. He writes in very low spirits. I think South Africa was enough for him. Agnes said she felt very ill – so I got up and arranged the room and got her up to my room and Mother went out for the doctor. He wasn’t in so she left a note. Agnes seemed better and not so low spirited when I had her in a cheerful room, but oh dear I don’t want the work of it. I feel so tired myself and disagreeable and overwrought I want to shriek.

I went out 12 to 1 with ‘Dear Love’. Read papers all the afternoon, writing and needlework in the evening waiting for the doctor – then as he didn’t come I went round and asked him to come early tomorrow morning if not tonight. He was still out so did not turn up.

This entry from Kate’s diary speaks for itself. That the day’s events – both national and domestic -have left her tired, disagreeable and overwrought seems entirely natural. Who wouldn’t want to shriek?

But what of those who did not keep diaries? Perhaps I’ll take the opportunity on this commemorative day to tell briefly how the War affected one other small family.

My mother, Christmas 1914. On the reverse of this postcard is written 'With Best Wishes for a Merry Xmas From Meg, Tom and the 'Wee Un'.

My mother, Christmas 1914. On the reverse of this postcard is written ‘With Best Wishes for a Merry Xmas From Meg, Tom and the ‘Wee Un’.

On 4 August 1914 my mother, Margaret Wallace, born on 5 October 1913, was one day short of ten months old. She was living with her parents in Edinburgh where her father, Thomas Wallace, was a cashier in a brewery. On 2 December 1915, a couple of months after her second birthday, he joined up, aged 27.  He qualified as a signaller and telephonist (First class signalling certificate )with the Royal Garrison Artillery, was mobilized on 17 August 1916, setting sail from Plymouth for France.

Thomas Livingston Wallace

Thomas Livingston Wallace

He served in France  until November 1917 when the 289th Siege Battery was redeployed  to northern Italy. I have read 289 Siege Battery’s War Diary (held in the National Archives -WO 95/4205 289) which covers the period from Dec 1917 to May 1918 and gives a very interesting picture of army life up in the mountains above Vicenza. The officers seem to have enjoyed reasonably regular short breaks, allowing them visits to Rome.

Thomas Wallace’s army record seems uneventful. On 22 March 1918 he was admonished by the C.O. for turning up 85 minutes late to 9pm Roll Call, so I hope he had been having some fun. I doubt he ever got to Rome. On 19 April he was awarded First Class Proficiency Pay of ‘6d per diem’ and on 17 May was sent on a ‘Pigeon Course’ at General Headquarters, rejoining his Battery a week later. Three weeks later,  on 15 June, during the first day of the battle of Asiago he was killed. Army records show that his effects – comprising photos, 21shillings, metal wrist watch (broken) and signaller’s certificate – were returned to his widow, my grandmother.

The story handed down in the family ran something along the lines that, as a signaller, Thomas Wallace had been alerted to the fact that the Austrians were about to make a surprise attack, that communications had been disrupted and that he was relaying this information by travelling down the Line in person when he was killed. One is naturally very wary of ‘family’ stories, knowing full well how they get corrupted in the telling  but in records held in the National Archives, I did read, in a report of the battle of 15 June,

“289 Siege battery detached and section from them to engage suitable targets among the enemy’s advancing infantry

10.15 Runner and motor cyclists used because lines cut to brigade headquarters

Casualties in Brigade: 1 officer and 4 other ranks killed.’

The report of course doesn’t name the ‘other ranks’ but I wondered if Gunner Thomas Wallace was not one of those men.

He is buried at Magnaboschi Cemetery, a lovely tranquil spot, which when we visited some years ago we approached on foot through meadows. A fair proportion of the men buried in this small cemetery were also killed on 15 June 1918. The War Graves Commission information for Thomas Wallace is correct, whereas that created by the War Office is careless enough to have him killed in France. It just shows that one should never trust even the most official of records without corroborating evidence. Some years ago I did manage to get his entry corrected in the Roll of Honour of the Royal Garrison Artillery, contained in Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle. Wasn’t it just typical, I thought, when you know something about anything ‘They’ would get it wrong.


Thomas WallaceThat cemetery was a world away from the life my grandmother knew – the villages and small towns of Fife. I doubt she ever saw a photograph of his grave. She never seemed to recover from his death. Life on a war widow’s pension was a struggle. She kept all the letters he sent from the War – and when I was about 12 years old I was allowed to read one or two. I particularly remember one that described his crossing of the Lombardy Plain on the way to Italy. Alas, those letters disappeared around the time of her death in a nursing home in the early 1960s.

My widowed grandmother, with my mother and her brother, in the doorway of their Falkland cottage

My widowed grandmother, with my mother and her brother, in the doorway of their Falkland cottage

Like so many other children of their generation my mother and her brother, who was born in December 1917, grew up without a father. That was all they had ever known.

My mother in her University of St Andrews graduation gown

My mother in her University of St Andrews graduation gown

What were that young couple saying to each other as they discussed the news of War in their Edinburgh tenement  on 4 August 1914?  Until now they had surely been more content with life than had Kate Frye. Did they sense the cataclysm awaiting them? Alas, however well one may understand the situation of those close by ties of blood, without a written record it is impossible to know them in the way that a diarist – such as Kate – has determined that we should know her. It is  Kate’s mood that I feel still reverberating this centennial Fourth of August.


Incidentally, although Thomas Wallace may not have seen much more of Italy than the Lombardy Plain and the Dolomites, one of his great-granddaughters is now exceptionally well-acquainted with Rome – find her at Understanding Rome. Isn’t it remarkable the pattern Life makes?

For more about Kate Frye see Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary.


All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and 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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