Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 9: Landslides

A recent news story out of Quebec, Canada, reminded me of another disaster that can affect people and communities. Earlier this month the bank along a portion of the Richelieu River collapsed leaving one home only a few feet away from falling into the chasm. Further erosion of the river bank continues, creeping further under the home’s foundation. The house has been condemned now as being unsafe and the owners have been forced to relocate. To make matters worse for this family, their insurance company will not pay to replace the house as this kind of loss falls into the natural disaster type of damage which is not covered by most policies.
Photo of 13 November 2017 collapse along Richelieu River (retrieved 16 Nov 2017 from The Weather Network website)
Situations such as occurred in Quebec happen often as lands along the margins of rivers or ocean and in mountainous areas give way to gravity, destroying everything in their path. Where people or property is present the damage can be more than just a natural erosion of land. Homes and businesses can be lost along with the lives of people caught unaware.

Throughout history there are many examples of landslides that ruined farms and communities. In some cases the slippages occurred over a longer period (weeks); in a few the events happened in just minutes. The latter inevitably were the most deadly as people in the path had little or no warning.

A 2014 landslide in Washington State took the lives of 43 people when a wall of mud, sand, water and trees virtually obliterated a residential community near the town of Oso.
An aerial image of the Oso landslide on 13 April 2014. Photo Credit: University of Illinois engineering professor Tim Stark (retrieved 17 November 2017 from phys.org website)
The area had received record-breaking rainfall in the preceding weeks, resulting in saturation of the slope. With the slide starting at a high elevation relative to the houses it built up a high degree of destructive energy against which little could withstand.

Along the southern coast of England, erosion has resulted in instability of the land. Major collapses have been records for the past five centuries. Normally they have begun with crack developing above the cliffs with subtle slipping of large blocks. Over periods of several days or weeks these blocks begin the slide toward the sea. Once moved, waves and currents begin their assault, taking away the material and leaving an undisturbed cliff wet hundreds of yards back from the original shoreline. And the process begins again.

One such event was chronicled in a special publication in 1840 (Coneybeare and Dawson’s memoir and Views of Landslips on the Coast of East Devon). In this book, the authors described the 1839 Bindon landslip in detail, and included several high quality illustrations. Landslips and erosion continue along the English coastline with many farms and towns in constant danger of being lost.

Like many other natural processes, landslides can result in devastating consequences. Often they accompany or are caused by earthquakes. Whether lives are actually lost – and there have been thousands over the centuries – livelihoods have certainly been impacted with loss of land and homes. In many instances, as with the recent case in Quebec, losses could not be replaced because either owners had no insurance or insurance policies did not pay out. In the past people may have been forced to leave areas where they had lived for decades, especially if their homes and businesses were gone.

A brief description of 26 catastrophic landslides of just the 20th century can be found here. A summary of landslides over the centuries can be seen here, The ten deadliest are listed here. The greatest loss of life occurred in Ningzia, China in December 1920 when a major earthquake triggered 675 landslides that resulted in massive destruction of property and claimed over 100,000 lives.

Genealogists might pay attention to the areas in which their ancestors lived to determine whether a natural event such as a landslide could have affected lives and livelihoods.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Alexander Cooper – Colour Sergeant, Cameronians, Scottish Rifles

My wife’s grandfather, Alexander Cooper, was a military man. In his later personal life he is said to have been difficult, almost tyrannical in the treatment of his children. His life story may explain part of that. I told quite a bit about the man in a post on 12 August 2014: Sometimes Those Family Stories Have a Grain of Truth. In it I only briefly mentioned his army career.

In this piece, relevant to this time of year, I will tell more about that period in Alexander’s life that may have significantly impacted his attitudes and approaches to people.

Alexander joined the British Army with the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) on 14 August 1885, at the age of 18 (his attestation form says he was 19 years and 2 months old so he fibbed a bit about that). He was discharged on 30 June 1908, having spent most of his adult life as a soldier. During his service he almost certainly was imbued with a sense of order and a penchant for following the instructions of superiors in rank. That mind-set would likely have permeated his private life after he left the army, particularly when fate dealt him serious personal setbacks.

Alexander rose rapidly through the ranks achieving the position of Colour Sergeant in 1896 (the highest rank possible for non-commissioned soldiers). In addition to the time spent at the Cameronian headquarters in Hamilton, he also served in India (1894-1895) and South Africa (1901-1902). Toward the end of Alexander’s army career he was posted back to Glasgow with the Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers, an established battalion that was linked with the Cameronians in 1881.

He met and married his first wife, Margaret Scott, in 1890 while stationed at the regimental quarters in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland. She was then living on Auchingramont Road, in the nearby village. They moved to Church Street, Hamilton, shortly after their marriage. Alexander and Margaret had two children together, Mary Jane, born in 1892, and Alexander, born in 1895. Both children were born in Lossiemouth, Elgin, Scotland, where Margaret’s parents lived. Mary Jane died of measles in February 1895 on board the ship they were sailing home on from after a posting in India.

In 1901 the family was located in Kent, England, possibly a stopover on their way to a posting in South Africa. Alexander would have worked then at the Brompton Barracks. Following their time in South Africa, Alexander and Margaret returned to Glasgow. They were living on New City Road in 1907 when Margaret fell ill with heart disease and died.

Alexander met and married Elizabeth Walker in 1908 just before his discharge. Both were living in Glasgow at the time. No doubt Alexander appreciated the help Lizzie brought to care for his young son. Lizzie also had a child at the time, daughter Violet, born in 1905. The couple went on to have six children together between 1908 and 1917, the first born on Napiershill Street, Glasgow, and most of the rest when the family lived on Gayfield Street in the city.

The family endured another tragedy in 1916 when Alexander Jr. was killed in action near Bethune, France. He is buried in the local military cemetery there. Alexander is our lone family connection to WWI, having joined the Cameronians in the fall of 1914, just before his 19th birthday.

Another misfortune for Alexander’s family occurred in 1918 when Elizabeth suffered a severe mental affliction. The seriousness of her condition resulted her being institutionalized. Their children, shockingly, were told she had died. (I will deal with that story and subject in a later blog post.) Alexander was now left with a family of young children, the oldest ten years of age and the youngest only one.

Having lost a wife, a daughter and a son, and now losing a second partner, is it any wonder that Alexander may have been overwhelmed with grief and uncertainty? His military training did not prepare him for the new familial situation. His inability to relate to his children other than as a disciplinarian left them traumatized even more. All of them were either sent to live with grandparents or enrolled in boarding schools. The radical change to family life affected them all. Eventually they were separated, growing up under wildly different conditions.

It is important to remember that Alexander served his country faithfully and with distinction. His transition to private life, though, was met with unhappiness and misfortune.

He died in Glasgow at the relatively young age of just 60, felled finally by cancer.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

History and Care by the Church in Local Parishes

Many of the records we can find listing our ancestors, especially prior to civil registration, come from church records, at least in the British Isles. The churches were central to the local societies and, in many respects, governed the habits and deportment of the residents.

Comments can often be found in parish registers, about historical events as well as concerning the behaviour of parishioners. Ministers did not generally hold back when commenting on moral issues in particular. What family researcher has not found a reference to an illicit romance evidenced by a note in the baptism register about pre-marital relations?

The child might well be tagged with the label of bastard, if born out-of-wedlock or before the parents were married. Even the date of conception might be highlighted by clergymen. Such was the case for a 2nd great-grandmother of a friend of mine where a note was inserted into the 1790 baptism register for Lintrathen, Forfarshire, Scotland, saying the child was “begat in antenuptial fornication.”

I was reminded of the role of the church as well in looking at documents and publications for a course I have just started on Scotland 1750 to 1850: Beyond the OPRs (Pharos Teaching and Tutoring). I found a write-up on Campsie Parish, Stirlingshire (birthplace of my 2nd great-grandfather), in The Statistical Accounts of Scotland 1791-1845 describing the church, its history and its activities, the author, Rev. Mr. James Lapslie, recorded how the church was involved in the formation and adjudication of all manner of the parish’s social structure:

I have all along been accustomed to consider these public religious meetings as beneficial to the manners of the country. The ecclesiastical discipline of this parish is still kept up. As for discipline against fornicators, two days doing public penance in the church, are required, besides a fine of a crown, for each guilty person, to the poor. There has been an opinion entertained, that this public penance has been productive of very bad effects in society; so far has an idea gone forth of this sort, that, for this reason, some writers have pretended to say, that so long as doing public penance was permitted, no person should be put to death for child murder; I am inclined to believe, that it would be much more the interest of the community, in a political light, that the laws of discipline should be more rigidly adhered to; for if once the vulgar of any country, consider incontinency as a venial fault, they are almost ready for the commission of any crime; and as l can easily see, that the shame of doing penance operates to deter others; in this point of view, it is to be considered as answering the ends of edification.

Publications like the Statistical Accounts of Scotland are great sources of information about areas of Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. The report on Campsie had a lot of information about the weaving and printing industries which employed many of my ancestors.

There are many historical and genealogical publications available now to download. One of the great sites I go to often is Archive.org. A quick search of the site for “Parish of Campsie” in the text of books resulted in 3,378 hits, 281 of them under the sub-category of genealogy. Many were family genealogies.

If you are doing research for your Scottish lines, as I have done recently, don’t forget to look for historical information that can give you important background to how and where your ancestors lived. And do check sites such as the Statistical Accounts and Archive.org for relevant material.