On the Needles

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Friday, April 08, 2016

On This Day In History… April 8, 1889

Douglas Stewart Robertson, who just so happens to be my great-grandfather, was born on this day in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1889. Douglas was probably the driving force behind my desire to research my family tree. He is also my biggest brick wall. He was an orphan who came to Canada in 1900 as a Barnardo Boy as part of the child emigration movement.[1]

Photo of Douglas S. Robertson taken upon admission to the Barnardo's Home.
If I could accomplish one thing with my genealogy research it would be to discover where he came from and who his parents were. Most of what I do know about him is from family stories shared by his 3 children and his life after he came to Canada. And even that’s a bit thin.

The following information is from what my grandfather told me.

Douglas Stewart was born on April 8th, 1889 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His mother was possibly of Welsh origin and was named either Helen, Ellen, or something similar. His father was a military officer and was killed during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Name and rank unknown. Family story goes that upon hearing of her husband’s death Mrs. Robertson fell ill, dying a short time later.

On June 12, 1900 Douglas arrived at Barnardo's Leopold House in East London from Penzance Union, Cornwall, England. He left England on July 19th, 1900 on the SS Tunisian from Liverpool. Arriving in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada on July 29th, 1900. How he got from Edinburgh to Penzance is unknown. Although there is a possibility that at some point his father was transferred to Cornwall. My brother tells me that he remembers some mention of the Fish Wars that Douglas’s father may have fought in.  The Fish Wars are probably the Newlyn Riots that took place in over a few days in May 1896.

I’ve tried many avenues of research to try and find something about Douglas or his parents pre-Barnardo’s but have had very little luck.

I’ve checked birth records, no luck. Death records for Douglas’s mother, again no luck. The 1891 Scotland Census, nothing. But I keep looking. Knowing someday I will find something that I can say definitively that yes this is my family.

Last year I took advantage of a free offer with Find My Past. A UK based genealogy website. Its collection contains the standard fare of birth, marriage, and death records, census, burials, etc. But it also has a newspaper archive. A searchable newspaper archive. The software used to transcribe is very literal and if part of a letter or word had faded (common when you are dealing with 100+ year old documents) it only puts in the lines that it can ‘see’. This means that the search isn’t foolproof. If you do a search you won’t necessarily get a hit for every instance the search term appears. I’m sure there are articles that I haven’t seen yet because of it but I was able to see enough that I can now partially answer the question; how long was Douglas in Cornwall?

The first thing I found was in the Cornishman, Thursday, October 14, 1897.

LONDON WEATHER COMPARED WITH THAT OF PENZANCE – A letter, dated Oct. 7, 1897, and bearing the address “Palace-mansions, Buckingham–gate, London, S.W.) to Master Douglas Stewart Robertson, pupil at the Penzance collegiate school, says:-“We had a dense fog again this morning and I breakfasted at eleven with the electric light – could not have seen otherwise”. In Penzance the weather was crisp and exhilarating and the sun a picture of splendour.
So I know he was there as early as October 1897. I found an advertisement for the Penzance Collegiate School placed in the same newspaper on the same day.
I’ve tried to see if I could figure out who it was that sent Douglas the letter. Without knowing if it was one of his parents, other family member, or a friend, it is difficult to determine.
Further searching came up with 3 more mentions of Douglas in that same newspaper, 3 years later. These were articles reporting on the local Board of Guardians meetings. 

Cornishman: Thursday, May 3rd, 1900

APPLICATION FOR LAD. – Mr. Henry Nicholle, of Newmill, sent a letter to Thursday’s meeting of the Penzance guardians asking to take the lad, Douglas Robertson, out of the workhouse. Mrs. Bolitho said she was corresponding with Dr. Barnardo’s home in the hope of getting the lad sent there. (Hear, hear). It was decided to inform Mr. Nicholle to this affect.
From what I can find it was common for businessmen or farmers to apply to the Board of Guardians to take a lad on as an apprentice or worker.
Out of curiosity I search for this Mr. Nicholle and found him listed as  John Henry Nicholle is 1891 Census of England and Wales in Lanwyn, Truro, Cornwall, England. He is 39 years old, born Chacewater, Cornwall. His occupation is listed as Boot Manufacturer. He is living with his wife Susan Jane (age 37 years, born Scorrier, Cornwall), and daughter, Annie (age 9 years, born in Chacewater, Cornwall).
The next instance was about a month-and-a-half later.

Cornishman: Thursday June 14, 1900

Before the commencement of the ordinary business of the board the CLERK wished to call attention toe case of the lad Douglas Robertson, an orphan now in the workhouse, and who it is proposed to send to Canada. The cost of the lad’s emigration had turned out to be considerably more than was first anticipated. The Rev. J. T. Inskip was prepared to tell the board that the extra charges would come from private individuals and not out the pockets of the ratepayers. After being in communication with Dr. Barnardo he (the clerk) had ascertained that the sum of £9, which was first mentioned as the necessary expenses was made up of £3 for the lad’s outfit, £5 for his passage money, and £1 for other expenses. Dr. Barnardo also required 5s. a week until the lad is sent away, making in all £11. He would also require 7s. for two years for the visitation of the board in Canada, and the Local Government Board would also require £4 10s. for the lad’s visitation until he is 15 years of age. Then they (the board) had allowed £1 for the lad’s railway fare from Penzance to the home in London. That made a total of £18 14s. 6d. of which amount the board had undertaken to pay £11, leaving £7 14s. 6d. to be found.
The Rev. J. T. INSKIP said when he heard of the extra charges he did not think it would be fair to ask the board for more than the sum he had previously mentioned, because he was under the impression the charges would be inclusive. He had been to one or two friends and had secured a guarantee for the extra amount. He hoped the board would not place any obstacle in the lad’s way, seeing they would not be any more out of pocket. (Hear, hear.)
It was decided to accept Mr. Inskip’s offer, and the lad will be sent to Dr. Barnardo’s home as soon as the necessary arrangement have been completed.
And then 2 weeks later.

Cornishman: Thursday, June 28, 1900

With reference to the emigration of the orphan lad Douglas Robertson to Canada, the clerk present a formal resolution which was carried on the motion of the Rev. J. T. INSKIP,who remarked that he should like to publicly express his thanks to Mr. J.D. Mackenzie, one of the Newlyn artists, for having seen the lad safely to London and thence to Dr. Barnardo’s homes.
clip_image002[11]And several years later…

Cornishman: Thursday, June 18, 1908

A letter was received from the Rev. J. T. Inskip, formerly vicar of St. Paul’s, Penzance, enclosing a photograph of Douglas Robertson, a boy sent to Canada by the Board. The vicar said, “The boy thoroughly well justifies the money the guardians laid out” –It was decided that the clerk should write Robertson acquainting him of the Board’s pleasure at his success in life.

I’ve looked into getting the Board of Guardian records but they are not digitized yet and the only way for me to view them would be in person. Which means a trip to London, a little out of my budget, at least for now. I’m hoping they will contain the date Douglas entered the Workhouse and some mention of his parents. Hopefully their names, but even a mention of his father’s occupation or where they died, could be helpful.

[1] Between 1869 and the late 1930s, over 100,000 juvenile migrants were sent to Canada from the British Isles during the child emigration movement. Motivated by social and economic forces, churches and philanthropic organizations sent orphaned, abandoned and pauper children to Canada. Many believed that these children would have a better chance for a healthy, moral life in rural Canada, where families welcomed them as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Immigration, Home Children.