Log in

No account? Create an account
kjthistory [userpic]

Betsy McPherson 1865 - 1935

April 10th, 2009 (12:19 pm)


Betsy McPherson was my great-grandmother; she was very proud indeed of being a McPherson, and that pride has been passed down through the family, even to her Dorset grandchildren.




According to Tilly, who got it from her Aunty Betty, Betsy was “a lady; she had been beautiful; she had lovely hair, real Rob Roy hair [red], which she kept long till the day she died, and washed it every day”.



Betsy apparently used to rent a house in Carnoustie all through the Summer in the school holidays. This might be the source of the idea that they were rich enough to have a “holiday home”, and I originally thought it indicated that there was more spare money around than I had previously imagined. This is apparently not so; Tilly says that Betsy worked at three jobs to get enough money. She also managed to find the money to visit Canada two or three times. I had no idea people just went out for visits so long ago.


Tilly’s Aunty Betty (Betsy’s daughter) apparently had lots of paintings in the house at 48, Constitution Street, but she would never let the children see them (so how does Tilly know they were there?). Tilly thinks they had been there for many years, perhaps from Thomas and Betsy’s time. This came out when I mentioned that Donald McPherson, Betsy’s paternal grandfather, had left quite a lot of money.


Of the ten children of Betsy and Thomas, one died young, five left home the minute they were old enough and two went to Canada (including one of the five). Two disappeared for years, one of whom was never heard from again. Also, “Auntie Betty looked after her mother all her days, and Lily was closer to her father”.


Tilly’s parents apparently used to attend Forsyth reunions or something, and “the Mormons came asking for all their information; they refused”.





I had always known - from my maternal grandmother Dorothy Sarah Haydon -  what her mother-in-law’s name was, and that my grandfather William McPherson Cowan was from Dundee. However, I had no idea of his father’s name until I was given some information that had come from Dorothy just before she died. I therefore started with William’s birth certificate, and then looked for Betsy in 1901, following her back through the census and marriage to birth in the normal way.




Betsy McPherson was born at 1:30am on 7th September 1865, at ?Cairds’ Doct?, High Street, Lochee. Lochee is a western area of Dundee, and - judging from census data - was probably a separate town at the time. The birth was registered by her mother Margaret, who made her mark, on September 18th at Lochee. The Registrar was James ?Kimisond?


Her parents were given as John McPherson, Boot Closer, and Margaret, nee Mitchell.




Only three known:


Margaret          born about 1858          [1861 census]

David               born about 1864          [1881 census]

James             born about 1870          [1881 census]



1871: CENSUS


Betsy was 5 years old in 1871, and living at number 10, Dathgold Hth   in Dundee with her mother Margaret and her siblings Margaret, David and James. Her father John was not with the family. (He was at number 5 Kirk Entry with his mother and younger twin sisters). Given that he is also absent from the family home in 1881, and that in 1871 his mother lists him before his younger sisters - rather than after, where we might expect to find a Visitor - I think this suggests that Betsy’s parents were living separately by 1871. I have found nothing to suggest they had any more children after James, born 1870.


1881: CENSUS


Betsy McPherson, aged 15, was at 32, Charles Street in Dundee with her mother Margaret aged 44, who is the Head of Household. In the house on the night were also Betsy’s two brothers, David (16) and James (10). Birthplaces are given as Dundee for Margaret and James, Broughty Ferry for David and Lochee for Betsy.


As noted above, Betsy’s father John was not in the house. However, I have found a John McPherson, married aged 46, at “Model Lodging House (87)” in Overgate, Dundee. No occupations are given.


1886: MARRIAGE TO THOMAS (add link to certificate)


Thomas Cowan married Betsy McPherson after banns at what might be Hillview, Broughty Ferry. (the certificate is very difficult to read). The marriage took place on 21st July 1886 according to William’s birth certificate, and in the district of St Andrew, Dundee according to the marriage index. Thomas gave his age as 26 and his address is possibly Sparshott Street. Betsy gave her age as 21 and her usual address as something unreadable. I have no idea why was she getting married in Broughty Ferry when she lived in Dundee and was born in Lochee.


The witnesses’ names are virtually unreadable, but one of them is almost certainly a McPherson.


Betsy’s parents are given as John McPherson, deceased, and Margaret nee Mitchell. Thomas’s parents are given as Mark Cowan, deceased, and Elizabeth nee Irvine(?), deceased. I am now fairly sure from other information (to be detailed later) that Thomas’s mother was actually called Bridget. Did she die when he was very young? Why else would he not know his own mother’s name?




James was born in Dundee, although he later said Cluny on his Canadian Expeditionary Force Attestation Papers. Known as Jim, he emigrated to Canada, where he had, amongst six children, sons Ian and Lorne. James was at home with Thomas and Betsy in 1901, but by June 1916 he was in Niagara Falls joining the C.E.F. having already served with the Hmos Foreign Legion in Algiers!


James became the Finance Editor of the Niagara Falls newspaper, and towards the end of the War they printed a piece from him about life in the trenches. This was reprinted recently, and the cousin sent it to Tilly, who passed it on to me.


A James Cowan married a Margaret Jane P Petrie in the St Andrew area of Dundee in 1916. Ref 282/04 0110. Our James would be 30 at the time. I have no family information on his wife, and haven’t yet paid to see the certificate.




I found a David McPherson Cowan marrying Williamina Cowie in the St Mary area of Dundee in 1911. Our David would be about 22 at the time, which seemed a little young - he gave his age as 23 and she said she was 21. I now have confirmation that this is the right David, because his wife, I learn, was known as Mina (pronounced Myna).


David was gassed in World War I, but he went on to have six children, and became a chiropodist.


1891: CENSUS


In 1891 Betsy and Thomas were living in Chapelshade. The address is not shown, presumably being the same as the last family on the previous page, although there are no dittos. The next family’s address is given as 54 Hilltown or Milltown. Betsy calls herself Elizabeth which is a bit odd, and gives her age as 24 which is about right. Thomas is a Publican’s Assistant, and there are two children, James (4) and David (2). “Elizabeth” is given as being born in Forfarshire, Lochee and the others in Forfarshire, Dundee.




One of the sons apparently disappeared - perhaps in the Army or on the Whalers - and was never heard from again. Tilly thought this was Adam, and by elimination, he is the only one it could have been. Lily thought that perhaps it was him that was “shot in Cairo”. Tilly now says perhaps he was “shot in Algiers”, and given that James in his CEF attestation says that he served in Algiers, this becomes more of a possibility.




According to Tilly, three of the girls, Eleanor, Euphemia and Belle, all “walked out on their mother as soon as they were old enough to look after themselves”. Euphemia was apparently a spiritualist, a medium, and in later years had an antiques shop in Carnoustie. Tilly never met her aunt Euphemia at all - presumably due to “the way she treated her mother”. I’m not sure whether she ever married; she is presumably the sibling that was known as Pheemy.


In 1922 an Effie Cowan married John Menzies in the St Clement area of Dundee.

In 1925 a William Cowan married a Euphemia Heggie Nicoll.

In 1927 an Effie Cowan married David Heggie in the St Mary & St Peter area of Dundee.




Belle was one of the girls who left home as soon as she was old enough. In earlier years this was inevitable, as people had to go away or live-in for jobs, but in this particular time and place it seems to have been something that was unnecessary, and seen as being deliberately cruel and uncaring to her mother. According to Tilly she went to Canada. At some point I should check the Canada census for Belle and James; presumably Betsy’s trips to Canada were to visit them and their families.




Eleanor also left home as soon as she could. Mary met Eleanor once, when for some reason she apparently came all the way down to Poole to check out my father! She went to the Quay to see him on the Empress paddle steamer. Eleanor was the wife of a Captain in the Merchant Navy, and lived for many years in Plymouth. Mary isn’t sure whether she was living there at the time she came to check out Lionel. After the death of her husband, Eleanor moved back to Dundee. Mary says she “was always very much the Captain’s wife”.


1901: CENSUS


Thomas and Betsy were with their older children at 15, Stirling Street. The children are given as James (14), David (12), Adam (9), Euphemia (7?), Belle or Bella (3?) and Eleanor (2?). Thomas’s occupation could be Yarn Dyer. His age has been heavily crossed out by the 1901 statistician, but Betsy’s age is readable as 35.




My grandfather William McPherson Cowan was born at 15, Stirling Street in September 1901. The Register shows just “William Cowan”, but family tradition is definite that he had McPherson for a middle name. Perhaps there is a baptism somewhere to check against. On the other hand, David and Betty were definitely registered with the McPherson middle name, and in my experience it’s rare for more than one of the children, or perhaps one of each, to have the mother’s maiden name. (ETA – doesn’t appear to apply to this family!)


After William left home, for many years they had no idea where he was. According to Tilly, “for years my mother [Lily] checked the phone books wherever she went, to try to find him”. Apparently in Dundee people would often run away to sea, or stow away on the Whalers.


There is quite a large gap between William and Betty. Was there another one here, or a miscarriage?




According to Tilly, Betty “looked after her mother all her days”. As Thomas died when Betty was 20, she had presumably taken a share in nursing him. I would guess that by the time Betsy died, when Betty was 30, it was too late for her, in an urban environment, to marry. Betty was still living at number 48, Constitution Street within Mary’s adult years, but she had to move out a few years before she died. When she left, the name “T.Cowan” was still on the door “90 years after he died”, but the building has now been knocked down for redevelopment.




Lily was the mother of another Lily, generally known as Tilly. Tilly is a first cousin of Mary Cowan, and they keep in touch. Tilly was born about 1931. Lily married Jack Forsyth who got a job at Dounreay and moved to Thurso, where Tilly still lives. Tilly left Dundee in 1958. Or was it Tilly’s husband who worked at Dounreay? Why would Tilly follow her parents so far when she was 27?




Tilly didn’t know of any other children after Lily except this one. Betsy was born in 1965, so I wouldn’t expect her to have been having children after 1915 at the latest.


1914: DEATH OF DAISY (needs tidying up)


According to the death certificate, little Daisy was 4 years old when she died on 4th Sept 1914, at 4:40pm. Apparently Lily had recently fallen “over the stairs”, and the story goes that Betsy was with her in hospital, and when she came home she found that “the baby” had died. The cause of little Daisy’s death is given as “Probably Acute Bronchitis x days”, with “Seen PM” underneath, and “as cert by xx”. My reading of the death certificate is that the doctor [only?] saw her on the afternoon she died.


Thomas registered the death on unreadable, but interestingly he doesn’t say that he was ‘Present at the Death’ as might be expected. Presumably he was at work; his occupation on the certificate is given as Yarn Dyer, as in 1901.


 Would this have been about the time that the girls and Adam all decided to leave home? The siblings at this time were the following ages: James 27, David 25, Adam 22, Euphemia 20, Belle 16, Eleanor 15, William almost 13, Betty 9, Lily 6. If the three middle girls left as soon as they could look after themselves, they were presumably gone by then, leaving William the oldest at home? Did Betty and Lily actually remember this happening? I need to ask Tilly who she actually got the story from.




On 19th December 1920, Betsy arrived in Liverpool aboard the Melita, bound from St John. On this occasion she seems to have travelled alone. Thomas was presumably unable or unwilling to take time off work, or perhaps he was already ill?




On 26th May 1923, Betsy arrived in Glasgow on the Athenia out of Montreal. On this occasion she travelled with her daughters Bessie aged 17 and Lilly aged 15.




“He had a brain tumour, and he didn’t die quick enough; my mother remembered the agony he went through”. Thomas died at 6:20am on 2nd January 1925 of a cerebral haemorrhage; he was 65. He died at 48, Constitution Street in Dundee, and the death was registered by “Bessie Cowan, Widow (present)” on the same day.




On 2nd August 1929, “Bessie Cowan” of 48, Constitution Street, Dundee, set sail from Glasgow for the Canadian port of Montreal. The ship was the Melita, of Canadian Pacific; the Master was A.Steward. Betsy travelled back on the Melita, arriving in Glasgow from Montreal on October 18th 1929.




Betsy also travelled in 1931, this time contracted for Quebec, but I haven’t got enough credits left to look at that one as well. Tilly said she went three times altogether. As I have her going out in 1931 and back in 1932, this could be one very long visit. although in 1929 she was only away about ten weeks altogether. On one occasion, they did stay out there long enough for Lilly to have to go to school (in Indianapolis).




Betsy and her daughter, also Betsy aged 26, arrived in Glasgow on 10th July 1932 on the Athenia out of Montreal. This could be the return from the 1931 journey.


I have also found a Lily (b1907) and Bessie (b1950) Cowan travelling out from Glasgow to Montreal in 1955.



1911: CENSUS


Presumably in Dundee with the younger children.


1921: CENSUS


Presumably in Dundee with Betty and Lily.


1931: CENSUS


Presumably at 48 Constitution Street, Dundee, with Betty.





Betsy died at 4:25pm on 27th December 1935 at the age of 70, of Myocardial Degeneration. She had been a widow for ten years, and had been looked after for many years by her daughter Betty. She died at 48, Constitution Street; the death was certified by J Martin Smith, MBChB, and registered on 30th December by Betsy’s daughter Lily.

web page hit counter