Anecdotes and Archives: Scottish South Africans?

  • Posted on June 4, 2014


The festive season (in particular Christmas and New Year) is characterised by gatherings, celebrations, commemorations and reflection. Generally it is a time for families to group together, rest and take a break from everyday routine and the working year. It is a time when new memories are created, old ones recalled and in this way the gathering becomes a private platform for the creation of family stories and memories. This however, and for a range of different reasons, is not the case for all. Lessons and long discussions on family history were not really a part of my nuclear family’s ‘traditional’ practises, memories were born and the importance of family and blood relatives was always stressed.

My relationship with my parents was one of closeness and friendship. A great deal of my adult life was spent with them in Johannesburg, Wakkerstroom (Mpumalanga) and later Cape Town. Despite this closeness, physically and emotionally, we never had a formal discussion about our family history and did not keep written records or document anecdotes to accompany a fairly large photographic collection. I recall bits and pieces, jokes that were made, stories that were told such as ‘your great, grandfather was a whaler and your great, great grandfather a hotel owner whose daughter-in-law drank the profits’. When I was a teenager, my mum took me on a tour of the places she new when she was growing up and to St. Philip’s Church in Ruchazie, Glasgow where my parent’s wedded. My mum did start to trace our history but did not get too far and this project was postponed. We pledged to continue collecting our history and committed to writing up our findings at a later stage when we had the spare time away from our day-to-day tasks and obligations. How I wish we had not delayed, that I had paid more attention to their memories and that our few conversations about family had been more detailed and more frequent. Sadly, their story can no longer be told by them since they passed away – six months apart - unexpectedly in 2012. However, their voices are not completely silenced and their life story is not completely lost. There are a number of memories, anecdotes and a small archival collection to draft a genealogy for my little girl Kaitlan Gifford Mooney, her cousins (Claire and Michael in Aberdeen, Scotland) and her second cousins (Alastair in Plymouth, England; Edo, Judo, Jay and David in Fukuoka, Japan; Rebecca and Zachary in London, England; and Max and Stella in Edinburgh, Scotland) to read one day.

I was born in Luanshya, Zambia in July 1973 (and apparently conceived on a beach in Kenya). After travelling through South Africa we departed for Scotland from Cape Town in June 1976. We settled in Hamilton, Lanarkshire for a few years but our future was to be in Africa. My dad secured a job on the mines (Anglo-Vaal) that would so he told me ‘provide a better life and financial stability for his family’ and we immigrated to South Africa in 1981 living in Klerksdorp for two years before settling in Kempton Park on the East Rand, Johannesburg. The bulk of my life has been spent on South African soil I have a few fond memories of Scotland and no recollections of Zambia at all. My mum (Isabella Gibson Smith), my Dad (Patrick Sherry Mooney), my older sister (Stephanie Scott Strachan née Mooney) and my big brother (Christopher Patrick Mooney) were all born in Glasgow, Scotland. Having spent the bulk of my life here I consider myself South African despite the Scottishness of my immediate and extended family (whom I hardly know due to geographical distance and limited contact over the years). The idea of living in Scotland is alien to me as its history and deciphering Scottish accents and dialects is a struggle. However, when the Scots are patronised or mocked strong nationalist feelings stir, my retort ‘gonna nae dae that’. The conundrum: A South African Scot or a Scottish South African?

{image_1}The two people in the image on the left are my maternal grandparents – Hugh Scott Smith and Mary Wilkie. The age difference is clearly visible and until recently I never questioned its authenticity. However, this image was digitally retouched and two separate photographs combined to form one image. The reworked image was completed for their youngest son James Lambie Smith but that is another story. The original photograph of my Grandfather was taken when he was about fourteen and the one of my Gran when she was seventeen. Although it is a reworked and misleading image it is a good example of how family history can become blurred and that sources need to be cross checked. Thanks to my Uncle Scott for informing me about the story behind the image and about the history of the Wilkie-Smith Union. 

As a researcher, with a keen interest in history, and as member of my own family I am surprised, as well as embarrassed, at how very little I know and recall about my immediate relatives. Family history and genealogy are not my primary work areas although I have stumbled across and contributed to a few – from Olive Schriener to Daisy DeMelker – over the years for other research projects. Official archival documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates as well as Estate files contain a wealth of information about family and other networks. These written sources can be complemented with family anecdotes to generate a skeleton family history. Despite the absence of my parents and physical distance from the extended family I am in a very fortunate position because of my mum’s big brother Hugh Scott Smith’s (Scott or Uncle Scott as I call him) great efforts. Starting in the mid 1980s he has meticulously collected and carefully written the Smith and Smith-Wilkie lineage of the family. This article is about my Uncle Scott’s experiences of writing our family history. It is one that speaks directly to the relationship between anecdote and archive, memory and written sources as well as fables and facts which are just some of the dichotomies that characterise and challenge genealogical methodologies.

Scott’s journey involved numerous trips to archives, libraries and to sites and cities where the homes of my family member’s once resided. Documentary (written) evidence was gleaned from birth certificates and registers, Census Returns, Marriage Indexes and Certificates, death certificates, district records, post office directories, parish registers and merchant navy certificates and reports. His work contributes much to both genealogical and historical studies outlining the challenges faced by researches in the field and hints at themes of working class life, mariners, World War Two veterans and poverty in Scotland and to a lesser extent South Africa.  Scott explains ‘it was the kind of poverty which saw as normal the early deaths of the brothers William and John Wilkie in 1906 and 1912, respectively.  It was the kind of poverty which our families had to work hard to escape and I believe that it is an awareness of this type of poverty which gave my [Scott’s] generation of the Smith family a sense of social justice and a definite leaning toward Socialism.’

The Wilkie-Smiths

The son of Hugh Scott Smith and Mary Wilkie, my maternal Uncle – Hugh Scott Smith – was born on 13 January 1944 in Glasgow, Scotland. In September 1968, he married Barbara Hilary Ettin and their daughter Deborah was born in January 1974. Today they have two grandchildren Max and Stella. Scott currently resides with his wife in Clarkston, Scotland and amongst many other things he occupies the role of family historian and Smith-Wilkie expert. He is also the only sibling alive from the Wilkie-Smith union of 1938. Only a few months separated their untimely deaths: his younger brother James in March 2012, his little sister Isabella in August 2012 and his older sister Margaret in March 2013, corroborating his memories is limited. Starting in the mid-1980s, Scott has put in a great deal of time, effort, expertise and has uncovered the Wilkie-Smith family history in much detail considering the confines of time, questionable anecdotes and incomplete records. His devotion, tenacity and meticulous research is both admirable and puzzling. When questioned about his longstanding commitment and interest, he maintains:

‘a first motive: write some genealogical notes which are readable and interesting, at least to the immediate family if not to any wider readership. The second motive is perhaps more complicated.  I grew up knowing very little of my wider family.  By the time I was born both sets of my natural grandparents were dead and they were not often spoken of in the family. There was a couple I knew as my maternal grandparents but I was in my twenties before I was aware that these were step-parents to my mother and no blood relations of mine. By the time my daughter was old enough to ask about half-cousins and great-aunts or great-uncles I had lost touch with them and I have come to understand that in having lost touch I have, to some extent, deprived my daughter of family knowledge that she is entitled to have.  That entitlement also belongs to her cousins so I feel something of a responsibility to correct that…In school [Scott and his siblings grew up in working class Glasgow during the 1950s] we were taught patriotic songs like “Scots Wha Ha’e”, we could tell the tale of Bruce and the spider, we remembered the fallen of Flodden and seemed to recall that battle as clearly as we remembered the Saturday night brawls that took place in our streets.  Our teachers encouraged this, it seemed to me, instilling in us a false patriotism that was based on the equally false premise that we were all displaced descendants of the noble Hielanders of the Clearances or the equally noble fisherfolk of the Western Isles.  In class we sang Hebridean mouth music with conviction and enthusiasm and even Josip Wasik, a classmate whose parents came from Gdansk in Poland, became misty-eyed when we sang “My Granny’s Hielan’ Hame”.  When I first visited the Highlands in my early teens I was disappointed to find that I felt no connection to the place.  I was awed, of course, by the grandeur of the scenery but I felt no sense of belonging. Now, as then, I am much more at home in the industrial landscape of Central Scotland.  So there is a third reason for these notes: let us harbour no illusions about our origins.  We are Scots, with bits and pieces of English and Irish thrown in, and while we are entitled to wear our various tartans, nonetheless we are Sassenachs! For many years I believed, with other family members, that my paternal grand mother, Isabella Gibson McLean, had been born in the Royal Hotel in Tobermory on the Island of Mull.  At separate times both of my late sisters visited Tobermory and made the pilgrimage to the Royal Hotel.  Each of them spent a quiet moment thinking of Isabella, who, by all accounts, had not had the happiest of lives.  Neither Maggie nor Isabel had known Isabella but each shed a quiet tear for her.  Sometime later, in an earlier attempt to trace our family history I had visited Register House in Edinburgh and without too much difficulty established that an Isabella McLean had indeed been born in the Royal Hotel in Tobermory.  It became clear, however, that she was not the Isabella who was to become our grandmother. My sisters, alas, had been “greetin’ fur the wrang granny ...”! And perhaps that is the last and most compelling reason for writing this: so there is no more greetin’ fur wrang grannies [no more crying for the wrong granny] .’

The story below was primarily written by my Uncle Scott. Some parts have been omitted and or condensed for this piece. Subtitles and bits of electronic correspondence between us have been added and a diagrammatic representation of the Wilkie-Smith lineage has been sketched based on a reading of his work. There are a few gaps and parts missing which will be filled in the course of researching the wider family history at a later stage. Through his story the collision of anecdote and archive results in an interesting Scottish-South African (Wilkie-Smith) genealogy.

The Smiths, 1800+

This is the family chart of the Wilkie-Smith Union. It is a work in progress.

From County Tyrone (Ireland) to Paisely (Scotland) – the Wilkies
John Wilkie & Isabella Wilkie (née Wilkie)

‘Around 1829, in County Tyrone, Ireland, a son, John, was born to William Wilkie and his wife, Isabella (née Marshall). At some point John moved to Scotland, where, at Paisley in Renfrewshire in 1852, he married Isabella Wilkie, also of County Tyrone.  The common surname and the fact that John’s bride and mother share the same Christian name might suggest some family connection; perhaps cousins or second cousins.  It is not known how John earned his living at this time, but the first child of the marriage, a daughter, Elizabeth, was born in Paisley in 1853.  Shortly after the birth of their daughter, the family moved to Old Monkland in Lanarkshire, where John found work in one of the pits of the Lanarkshire Coalfield.

William Wilkie & Annie Wilkie (née McCartney) and Sarah Dugan (née Pinkerton)

‘At 5. 30 p. m. on 1 December 1855, at 5 Gartcloss, Old Monkland, their first son, William, was born.  A second son, John, was born in 1860, and Charles, the youngest, was born in 1868. All three sons eventually followed John into the pits.

On New Year’s Day 1877 in Bargeddie Church, William married nineteen-year-old Annie McCartney of Longmuir, a domestic servant and the daughter of a miner.  William and Annie moved away from the area and for a time lived at Tynecastle Toll in Edinburgh, where, on November 3rd 1879, Annie gave birth to twins, William, the older by two hours, and Annabella.’ 

Thus far Scott relies, for the most part, birth and death certificates to piece together the early familial relations. The next section sees the use of a different archival source and introduces new and significant content which would later embarrass some family members. William’s occupation at this time is given as “railway brakeman” but it would seem that the family returned to Bargeddie and that William resumed work in the pits. This Scott confirmed with the census returns of 1881 which lists the family as living at 28 Porch Row, Cuilhill (pronounced ‘keel hill’), and records William’s occupation as coal-miner.  It is interesting that the census returns show the family living next door at Porch Row as John Dougan, a miner aged thirty-six, and his wife, Sarah Jane (née Pinkerton).’ The two families would become entangled. ‘On 1 February 1884, at 11 Stone Row, Cuilhill, Annie Wilkie died of chronic bronchitis.  She was twenty-five years old.’

Just over a year later, on June 12th, 1885, at 5.30 a.m., at 34 Cuilhill, Sarah Dougan, now described as a widow, gave birth to an illegitimate son, William Pinkerton or Dougan.  The father of the child is not named but:

“.... in an action relating to the paternity of a male child born at Cuilhill in the Parish of Old Monkland, on the 12th day of June 1885, at the instance of “Poor” Sarah Pinkerton or Dougan, widow, residing at Cuilhill, against William Wilkie, miner, Baird’s Row, Cuilhill, the Sheriff Substitute of Lanarkshire, upon the 17th day of July 1885, found that the said child was the illegitimate child of the said Poor Sarah Pinkerton or Dougan and William Wilkie.

1885 September 26th at Coatbridge, James Mitchell (Registrar)

Scott wanted to find out more about the circumstances of his Grandfather’s birth and so approached a close and reliable source William Pinkerton Wilkie’s daughter Mary (Scott’s mum and my Grandmother). This proved to be fruitless and emotional. Scott handled the sensitive situation with sympathy, respect and understanding, Scott explains:

My own experience is that when I originally broached the subject of family history with my late mother her reaction was entirely negative and she refused to discuss it.  I did not press her at the time but some time later when it became apparent that I was looking into it anyway she reluctantly agreed to talk about her late father.  I soon became clear that her reticence was due to the fact that her father, who had died fifty years prior to our conversation, had been born out of wedlock.  An unexpected consequence of this was that even after she had overcome her initial reticence I had difficulty in discussing the family history with her.  This was as much to do with my reluctance to upset her as it was to do with her embarrassment and thus was lost my best opportunity to gain some knowledge from a primary source.

In addition to the loss of personal memories in contributing to this part of the family story it also is difficult to judge what degree of public censure the couple faced in a close-knit working class community in late Nineteenth Century Scotland. Perhaps the community was more supportive than we might imagine. In any case:

“On October 1st 1886, at Bargeddie Church, after banns according to the forms of the Church of Scotland, William Wilkie (coal-miner, widower) aged 30 of Cuilhill, Old Monkland (Western), son of John Wilkie (coal-miner) and Isabella Wilkie on this day married Sarah Dougan (agricultural Labourer, widow) aged 32 of Cuilhill, Old Monkland (Mid); daughter of Robert Pinkerton (coal-miner, deceased) and Agnes Pinkerton (maiden surname McLeod).
Alexander Thow Scott, Minister of Bargeddie.
Witnesses: Charles Wilkie and Agnes Pinkerton.”

In 1900 John Wilkie, of Co. Tyrone, died at Cuilhill, aged 72, of “brain disease”.

Family anecdotes:


It is said that Sarah Pinkerton or Duggan was related to Allan Pinkerton who organised the U.S. Federal Secret Service in 1861 and who founded the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He was born in Glasgow in 1819 and died in 1864.  He was that author of “Thirty Years as a Detective”.  It is told that some of the Pinkerton sons went to the United States to become overseers to African slaves in the cotton plantations in the Southern States and that Allan was among these.

A couple of things suggest that this might be true,  the main one being that Pinkerton is an unusual name and there were few Pinkertons living in Glasgow at that time.
If there is a connection it would be difficult to substantiate.


There is also a family fable that the American politician, Wendell Lewis Wilkie (1892 - 1944), was of our family.  Wilkie is a common name both in Scotland and Ireland and I [Scott] suspect that this is wishful thinking on the part of my mother and my maternal uncles.

William Pinkerton Wilkie & Margaret Kerr and Margaret Callison

Scott’s maternal grandfather William Pinkerton Wilkie, (born William Pinkerton or Dougan in 1885, died 1937), married Margaret Kerr and the couple had three children, William, James and Mary; all born in Cuilhill.  Mary, the youngest, was born on 15 July 1916.  After the early death of his first wife, William married Margaret Callison of Blantyre. William Wilkie was a Steward to the Scottish Bookmakers’ Federation at the time of his death.  He was a member of the Masonic Order and his second wife, Margaret Callison, was a prominent member of the Order of the Eastern Star. His occupation might have been a little shady as at this time Bookmakers followed a profession which was illegal in Scotland.  William died of acute bronchitis in Kenmore Street, Shettleston, on Christmas Eve 1937, aged 52.

Mary Mair Wilkie

My Gran Mary Mair Wilkie was born in Cuilhill, Bargeddie, Lanarkshire on 15 July 1916, she was the only daughter of William Pinkerton Wilkie and Margaret Wilkie née Kerr and the fifth of their five children.  The older offspring were: William Pinkerton Kerr Wilkie who was born in 1906 and who died in infancy; William Kerr Pinkerton Wilkie (born 1908, died 1982), James Pinkerton Wilkie (born 1910, died 1987); John Kerr Pinkerton Wilkie (born 1912, died of scarlet fever 1914). Little is known of Mary’s early childhood.  She had two surviving older brothers and her mother died in Baillieston, in 1917, while Mary was still an infant and we can be sure that Mary had no memory of her.  She was brought up by her stepmother Margaret Callison (Mann or Jardine) who had been widowed twice before her marriage to William Pinkerton Wilkie and was to marry for a fourth time after his death in 1937.

In 1938, Mary married Hugh Scott Smith which lasted until his death in 1966.  She subsequently married Robert Taylor a steel-worker in 1970 and that marriage lasted until his death in 1992. According to Scott’s recollections (based on memory and stories), during her life Mary had many occupations and at various stages she was a fishmonger, a lamp-lighter, a welder, a waitress, a cleaner, a bus conductress, a baker, a barmaid and a cook. As she grew older Mary experienced failing health and after her second husband’s death in 1992 my Gran came to live in South Africa with us (the Mooney-Smith part of the family). 
Growing up in South Africa, I never got to know my Gran (or other members of the family) that well so when she lived with us it provided me with an opportunity to get to know her. South Africa was quite alien to her and I don’t think she particularly enjoyed her time here for a number of reasons – a foreign country, tension in the household, the loss of a partner and the longing for her home and possibly to an extent her past which I desperately wanted to learn more about. In particular I wanted to know about my grandfather and about the family history. I was in my first year at Wits University and at the time, I thought that looking at family photographs, smoking cigarettes and chatting would make a pleasant afternoon. That was not the case, quite the opposite. I hauled out some old photographs of my Gran in her younger days and of her and my Grandfather. Through her tears she sobbed ‘that was a long, long time ago, we look so young and so happy, look at me now, I can’t do this, hen, I don’t want to be reminded’. Her request not to reminisce respected resulted in an emotional afternoon although the memories invoked by the photographs were probably not.

Mary was unable to settle in Africa for a number of different reasons and eventually returned to her home in Greenfield. Following Mary’s return to Scotland it became increasingly apparent that her failing health made it impossible for her to continue to live independently and in 1995 she went to live with her younger son Jim and his wife Ann, in Welling in Kent. Mary died on 29 March 1996, age 79 at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, Kent.

Glasgow (Scotland) to Durban (Natal, South Africa) and back to Scotland – the Smiths

Isabella Gibson McLean

The next part of Scott’s research was to trace his paternal grandmother’s (Isabella Gibson McLean) roots and this is where the challenge of matching anecdotes with archival documents is most clear. The story the family was told was that

‘Isabella was born around 1890 in Tobermory on the Island of Mull, the daughter of an hotel-keeper.  It was thought that she met and married Herbert Scott Smith, a ship’s engineer from Durban, around 1907.  At this time Isabella worked as a milliner and the story was that the couple met when Herbert visited the hat shop where Isabella worked, close to the dock area in Glasgow.  The first child of the marriage, Bertha, was thought to have been born in Durban in 1908.’

However, upon closer scrutiny my uncle notes a number of inconsistencies he explains and points out some of the problems that researchers encounter when drafting family histories:

‘…it seemed to me [Scott] to be unlikely that an eighteen-year-old would describe herself as a milliner.  This would have been a skilled occupation requiring an apprenticeship of several years.  It also seemed unlikely that a young woman from the Western Isles would be living alone in Glasgow at that time.  I could think of no satisfactory reason for the McLean family leaving an hotel business in Tobermory to take up residence in a highly industrialised area of Glasgow. However, lacking more definite information I decided to make my search for Isabella’s birth in the Tobermory registers and to concentrate my search for the Smith/McLean marriage certificate in the Govan/Plantation districts of Glasgow.’

Scott would face another challenge this time related to birth registers and certificates, in particular incorrect dates. His recollection and reconciliation of this is as follows:

‘It was known that Isabella had died in Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow in 1937.  This was a useful starting point as Scottish death certificates contain much useful information. The death certificate was easily obtained and as well as the cause of death it gave me the names of Isabella’s parents:  Murdoch McLean, described as a bricklayer and Margaret Mclean m/s McCormick.  Isabella’s age at death was stated as 48 years. At Register House in Edinburgh it did not take long to find an Isabella McLean born in Tobermory in 1888 in the index of female births.  On inspection of this certificate it was immediately apparent that this Isabella was not the daughter of Murdoch and Margaret.  Inspection of several other Isabella McLean birth certificates for that year and the year following proved equally unsatisfactory.’

Frustrated with the results that he was uncovering my Uncle decided to shift his search and change sources to the Smith/McLean marriage certificate. This proved to be more successful although he did waste some time by assuming that the marriage took place in 1906 or 1907 given that the first child was born in 1908.  He finally tracked down the correct certificate in the Whiteinch, Partick district:

“On the 4th day of February, 1909, at 3 Park Corner,  Whiteinch, Partick. Herbert Scott Smith, marine engineer (bachelor) aged thirty years and Isabella Gibson McLean, milliner (spinster) aged twenty-two years. Usual residence of groom, 1 Brand Street, Govan. Usual residence of bride, 1 Brand Street, Govan. Groom’s parents, Thomas Scott Smith, ship’s chandler. Bertha Smith (m/s Leo, deceased) Bride’s parents, Murdoch McLean, mason journeyman, Margaret McLean (m/s McCormick deceased).”

Isabella’s age as recorded on the marriage certificate is a little surprising since it was two years older than expected from the information on her death certificate.  The entry was, however, useful in that it confirmed what was known, from family sources, of Herbert’s parentage. It was also encouraging because it showed that the McLean family home was in Govan.  Scott decided to return to the search for the Isabella Mclean birth in the Govan/Plantation district around 1887 he would be disappointed because there was no Isabella McLean birth in the appropriate index for that year so the search was broadened to the years immediately preceding 1887.  It took some time to discover the entry:

“Isabella Gibson McLean, born 9th July, 1885 at 144 MacLean Street, Govan. Father: Murdoch McLean bricklayer, journeyman Mother: Margaret McLean (m/s McCormick) Married 28th September 1869 in Anderston, Glasgow Informant: M McLean, father. Registered 13th July 1885, Govan”

This is invaluable as it give quite a specific date and place for the McLean/ McCormick marriage which, having taken place after 1855, the first year of compulsory civil registration in Scotland, should be relatively easy to trace.  The fact that Isabella was born sixteen years after the marriage suggests that she was not the first child of the marriage.

The discrepancies in Isabella’s age as stated on the various certificates are curious.  The age stated on the death certificate was possibly an error made in good faith at the time of registration.  It is less easy to explain the two year difference between the age stated on the marriage certificate and the year that Isabella was born. Scott returned to Register House in Edinburgh and located the McLean/McCormick marriage certificate without difficulty.

“After banns according to the forms of the Church of Scotland, Murdoch McLean. Bricklayer, aged 21 years married Margaret McCormick, domestic servant aged 22 years. Usual residence of groom:  54 William Street, Anderston Groom’s parents:  Murdoch McLean bricklayer and Jane McLean (maiden surname Hamilton) Usual residence of bride:  54 William Street, Anderston Bride’s parents:  John McCormick, ploughman and Helen McCormick (Maiden surname McDonald). The marriage took place at 23 Berkeley Terrace, Anderston on the 28th September 1869

Scot also corroborated information with other sources to provide a clearer family timeline. To do this he checked the 1891 Census returns for the Plantation District and for 144 MacLean Street and found the McLean family entry:

Murdoch McLeanHeadM42BricklayerStone, Argyle
Margaret McLeanWifeM43Kirkmaiden, Wigton
Elizabeth McLeanS22Schoolteacher Kirkmaiden, Wigton
Christina BS15MantlemakerGovan
Hugh MS13ScholarGovan
Euphemai RS7ScholarKining Park
Isabella GS5ScholarGovan

To recap then, my Great-Grandfather Murdoch Mclean was born in Strone in Argyll around 1849.  His occupation has been variously described as a mason and a bricklayer. Murdoch and Margaret married in Glasgow in 1869, Elizabeth having been born some 10 months earlier. The four subsequent children of the marriage were Christina, born in 1875, Hugh born in 1877, Mary, born in 1882, Euphemia in 1884 and Isabella in 1886. Their fourth child Mary was born in England around 1882 which suggests that Murdoch continued to travel for at least part of his career. Travelling would also be a part of his daughter Isabella’s husband Herbert’s trade and heritage. 

Herbert Scott Smith

Family anecdote

The first Smith we come across is Thomas Smith whom we believe was a whaler from Norfolk in England.  He was married to Bertha, maiden surname Leo and it is thought that she was a lady’s maid from St. Helena.  There is nothing to document the place and date of the marriage but St. Helena was at one time a whaling station so that part of the story is not at all unlikely.

The family story is that Thomas owned and operated the Whitesands Hotel on Marine Parade in Durban.  The story is that he lost the hotel to a gambling debt but we were also told that Isabella his daughter-in-law drank away the profits of the business and they were forced to sell.

Uncle Scott is not sure either version is likely. I am inclined to agree since thus far no further information about the Whitesands Hotel on Marine Parade has been uncovered.

About my Great-Grandfather, Herbert Scott Smith, the ship’s engineer who married Isabella, my Uncle initially knew very little. He obtained a copy of his death certificate from St. Catherine’s House in London but the information therein was limited and disappointing mainly because English death certificates provide much less detail than Scottish certificates.  What was confirmed was that Herbert Scott Smith, aged 60 years a former engineer (Merchant Service) died at 479 Corporation Road in the Sub District of Birkenhead North in the County Borough of Birkenhead on 29th October 1940.  The cause of death was broncho-pneumonia and epithelioma (tumor) of the right cheek.  The death was registered by his daughter Bertha of the same address.

Uncle Scott did not give up on finding out more information about his grandfather and established that Herbert Scott Smith was born around 1879 and married Isabella Gibson McLean in 1908. The Smith/Mclean marriage certificate was useful to Scott since it gave the names of Herbert’s parents, Thomas Scott Smith a ship’s chandler and Bertha Smith (deceased), maiden surname Leo.  The place and date of that marriage is unknown at this stage and requires further research. Bertha Smith’s (née Leo) Estate file is housed at the National Archives of South Africa’s repository in Durban.

Family anecdote
Herbert & Isabella

It is assumed that Herbert met Isabella when his ship docked in Glasgow.  It is not known how long he had been at sea or where his voyages took him.  I have a recollection of my mother telling me [Uncle Scott] that he had a great admiration for the Chinese. This suggests that his travels had taken him to the Far East but it could be that he had served aboard ships with Chinese crews.

Herbert and Isabella returned to the United Kingdom sometime after the birth of their son Hugh but the marriage did not last and they seem to have separated.  It seems that Herbert moved to Birkenhead and Isabella remained in Glasgow where she died from neuritis in 1937.

His profession on the certificate was given as marine engineer. Taking advantage of technology and the advancement of digital archives and records Scott searched for his Grandfather on the geneology website findmypast.co.uk – a site which gives the facility to search crew lists for British merchant navy vessels. Scott informed me that there was some luck involved as a huge number of these records were destroyed in the Sixties for no apparent reason.Scott was able to find a copy of Herbert’s Merchant Navy CR10 Identity Certificate,pictured below, which confirms his place of birth as Durban and his nationality as British.

{image_2}Information on the obverse gives details of a cargo ship on which he sailed, the SS War Mango.  Herbert joined this ship in September 1918. Prior to this the couple had four children, Bertha Georgina, born in Govan, Glasgow in 1909, Margaret, who died in infancy, date and place of birth unknown, Hugh Scott born in Durban in 1914 and Vera (possibly Veronica) place and date of birth unknown. Parts of my Grandfather’s life are easier to account for since there is a degree of conflation between anecdotes and archive. Scott’s narrative about his father’s life follows.

Hugh Scott Smith (my maternal Grandfather)

Hugh Scott Smith was born in Durban, Natal on 16 June 1914.  He was baptised according to the Rites of the Roman Catholic Church in Emmanuel Cathedral in Durban. Sometime after Hugh’s birth the family returned to UK from South Africa and his parents separated.  His father Herbert settled in Birkenhead and Hugh was brought up by his mother, Isabella, in Sandyfaulds Street in Gorbals in the South Side of Glasgow. The South African story is intriguing and my Uncle Scott and my mum tried talk about the early days after the family returned from South Africa with their Aunt Bertha (Herbert Scott Smith’s sister). In this endeavour they were unsuccessful. Uncle Scott maintains that: 

‘…the only response that Isabel could elicit was, “These were bad times; bad times.  They are best forgotten”; and forgotten they must be as the old lady would simply not be drawn further.’

Such a great pity that these memories were difficult to speak about and have left some unanswered questions. This challenge is hard to deal with for researchers that are trying to fill the gaps however the right not to remember should be respected.

That said, around 1926 Hugh was involved in a road accident and fractured his skull. He went into the building trade as a terrazzo worker when he left school and after his marriage to Mary Wilkie in 1938 they moved to England.  They were living in England when the Second World war broke out in 1939. Hugh joined the Royal Navy on 22 January 1940 and served until 17 November 1945 when he was discharged in the rank of Acting Leading Seaman. During the war he saw service in mine-sweeping trawlers but volunteered for submarines and served much of the war in the submarine service.  Hugh trained as an ASDIC operator on the submarines HMS Otway, HMS Dolphin and HMS Cyclops qualifying in July 1942. He served aboard an “S” Class submarine HMS Stoic which operated out of Trincomalee in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).  Its area of operations was the South China Sea.  The submarine was serviced by the depot ship HMS Maidstone in Perth Western Australia during its period of service in the Far East.

{image_3}Hugh was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal on 3 April 1945 and during his naval service earned the campaign medals:  1939-1945 Star, Atlantic Star,  Pacific Clasp, Burma Star and War Medal. In full compensation in respect of the award of the DSM, Hugh was awarded a gratuity of £20 in March 1949. Hugh resumed a part-time naval career, joining the RNVR as a part-time volunteer at Clyde Division’s HMS Graham where he served as a Leading Seaman, Petty Officer and Chief Petty Officer until about 1962.  During this period he was also President of the Chief Petty Officers and Petty Officers Mess. As well as his interest in the Royal Navy, Hugh was an active trade unionist and for a time was treasurer of the Terrazzo Workers’ Branch of the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers (AUBTW).  Hugh died at home in Glasgow in November 1966.

Mary Wilkie & Hugh Scott Smith (my maternal grandparents)

{image_4} The South African born Hugh was working in the terrazzo trade when he met, born and bred Scot, Mary Wilkie.  Their first meeting took place at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom and soon the couple were meeting regularly. Their early relationship could not have been easy as Hugh was a practising Roman Catholic and Mary was from a staunchly Protestant family; it is not certain that the religious differences between Hugh and Mary’s family were ever fully resolved. Anyway in 1938, they married and shortly thereafter moved to England, first to Newcastle and then to Birkenhead, where their first child, a daughter, Margaret Callison Scott, was born on 3 April 1940. By this time, Hugh had joined the Royal Navy, where he served until 1945, and Mary moved back to Scotland with her young daughter, settling in flat (which was comprised of a “room and kitchen” with a shared outside toilet and no hot running water) in Shettleston in the East End of Glasgow.  Here the three subsequent children of the marriage were born: Hugh Scott on 13 January 1944, Isabella Gibson (my mum) on 29 November 1945 and James Lambie on 1 March 1950. In May 1954, the Smith family moved away from Shettleston to Ruchazie, a housing estate a few miles away in the East End of Glasgow, where Hugh died in November 1966.

Besides Isabella (my mum) the siblings of the Wilkie-Smith union spent the majority of their lives in the United Kingdom. Margaret (Maggie) married John Hannah Grant, then serving in the Royal Navy, in December 1965.  Their daughter, Julie, was born in Edinburgh in July 1967. Hugh Scott (Scott) married Barbara Hilary Ettin, a secretary of Glasgow, in September 1968.  Their daughter, Deborah, was born in Bangour, West Lothian, in January 1974. James (Jim) married Ann Hunter, a civil servant of Rutherglen, in April 1969.  Their elder child, Carrie Ann, was born in Glasgow in March 1974 and their son, Hugh Scott, in Dumfries in March 1977. Isabella (Isabel or Belle) married Patrick Sherry Mooney, an accountant of Glasgow in June 1966.  Stephanie Scott, the eldest child, was born in Glasgow in May 1967, and their son, Christopher Patrick, also born in Glasgow in November 1968. Their youngest child, Katie (me), was born in Zambia in July 1973. Stephanie, my sister, married Iain Strachan on 12 October 1996. My brother Christopher married Joanne Padley on 7 December 1986 and their children Claire Louise Mooney and Michael Christopher Mooney were both born in Johannesburg on 19 June 1987 and 9 December 1989 respectively. My (and Alan Gifford’s) daughter Kaitlan Gifford Mooney was born in Cape Town on 18 November 2008. Like her Great-Great Grandfather Herbert Scott Smith and her Great-Grandfather Hugh Scott Smith, but for very different reasons and in a completely different socio-economic and political climate, Kaitlan was also born in South Africa. Her Granny and her Grandpa, Isabella Gibson Mooney (nee Smith) and Patrick Sherry Mooney, with whom she spent a great deal of time, had a deep-rooted love for this country and for Africa. I hope that she will inherit this love and cherish the South African (and threads of Scottish) heritage that is woven into our family history. 


This is only a part of my family’s story comprised of anecdotes, archival documents, tales of fiction, memories and facts. Whilst official documents and photographs are convincing sources for used in the writing of history, most family archives are also comprised of anecdotes in various forms such as fantasy, rumour and memories or fragments thereof. Archival and anecdotal sources are always at play, conflating at times and conflicting at others and often this fluidity results in gaps or grey patches in family knowledge. Scott’s story tells us what my forbearers did but not always what they wanted to do and what they believed they thought were doing at the time (this is no fault of my uncle), the answers to that lies within the memories of those who have passed on (and in part with those who observed) and can only be speculated upon. Thanks to my Uncle Scott, most of the Smith-Wilkie family anecdotes, stories and memoirs are substantiated and carefully cross-checked through official archival written records but others have been passed down through the family with little verification because of a lack in documentary evidence or a lost (and ‘forgotten’) memory. How do we respect the right not to remember whilst ensuring that family knowledge is preserved? How can family histories that are at risk of being lost be safeguarded, preserved and passed on to the next generation? How do we instill in the next generation importance of story-telling, of remembering and capturing memories not only for their own family history but for the history of society at large. Memories are critical for understanding the deep and recent personal and political pasts. As Rusty Bernstein phrased it in his autobiography, ‘memory is no substitute for history. But where there are no other records [an even if there are], memory may provide an insight which research cannot or may miss altogether.’ 


Special thanks to my Uncle Scott Smith for writing and collecting the Wilkie-Smith family history and for preserving as many primary sources (including photographs) as is possible. Many thanks for your guidance and advice with this much abbreviated version. Thanks also to Heather MacAlister for helping with the design of the Wilkie-Smith family Tree.

Katie Mooney is an independent heritage practitioner and researcher and an Archival Platform corresepondent based in the Western Cape


RTJ Lombard, Handbook for Genealogical Research in South Africa  
HS Smith, Greetin’ fur the Wrang Granny, 1829-2013, unpublished manuscript, 2013

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