Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Sometimes Those Family Stories Have a Grain of Truth

Parts of this post were originally published in an article titled Twists and Turns in Search of Elizabeth Cooper: A lesson in family research, in the October 2010 issue of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society and in the Summer issue of Cootin Kin, the quarterly journal of the Shetland Family History Society.

Many of the stories told by the family of my wife, Linda’s maternal grandfather, Alexander Cooper, proved not to be entirely accurate. But after unravelling his history we found that they all had just a grain of truth in them.

Alexander was born illegitimate. Yes, it’s true! It says so on his birth record. The name of his father was not recorded but on many documents completed later in his life he did state a few different men as being his father. It is probable that his children knew about his origin but it was never discussed. Growing up in the early part of the 20th century, these things were not mentioned.

A story has been told that, as a young man, he ran away from home and joined the army. It was said that he apparently did not get along with his father and took his mother’s maiden name instead.

On Alexander’s military attestation record, dated August 19, 1885, he indicated his father’s name was John (no surname), then of 2 Albert Street, Govan, Glasgow. His mother, Elizabeth, did marry a man named John Blackburn, a dockyard worker, but not until April 4, 1871, over four years after Alexander’s birth. John was living in the same apartment building as Elizabeth’s sister, Ann, and her family in 1871. There seems little doubt that is where Elizabeth and John met. The couple appears to have split up prior to April 1881 when the census for that year was taken. He was then living on Main Street in Govan, Glasgow, while Elizabeth and Alexander were on John Street, about six blocks away, both using the surname, Blackburn. Main Street was just off Albert Street. John Blackburn died in November 1885 and his death record shows he was then living on Greenbaugh Street in Govan, which location I have not yet found. [See Note below about a previous post.]

There may well have been a rocky relationship in the family which may have been the source of the story that he did not get along with his “father” but it begs the question of why Alexander chose to put his step-father’s name (we presume “John” was in reference to John Blackburn) on his attestation form rather than his mother’s. He did join the Scottish Rifles as Alexander Cooper. There was no formal adoption process in Britain in the late 19th century so Alexander would not necessarily have taken the name of his step-father in any case. That could have been the reason why he registered for military service using his mother’s maiden name.

To our knowledge Alexander never talked about his mother, or her family, whether that was due to a natural reticence about speaking about personal things or embarrassment about his birth status we can never know. Perhaps the use of his step-father’s name on his military service record is an indication that he did not get along with his mother, but remained on good terms with his step-father, and thus the true story of familial discord was not quite what was told later.

Alexander also told his children he was brought up in the Lossiemouth area, in northern Scotland. His first wife, Margaret Scott, who he married in 1890, was born in Lossiemouth, as were his two children by her. These facts may have contributed to the story of his own upbringing in that area or perhaps the children just got the story wrong in the retelling.

We did search for Alexander and his mother on records from the Lossiemouth area but did not find him. We even posted a message on Rootsweb’s Moray email list for any information about Elizabeth and/or Alexander Cooper and his participation in any area schools. A local researcher took a personal interest and looked at all of the school registration records between 1873 and 1880 but did not find anyone of that name. Out of curiosity she also looked at the 1881 Scotland census for anyone with just the first name of Alexander (a search criteria we had not thought of using alone), born within 2 years of 1868 in Shetland and came up with one interesting possibility, a Elizabeth Coupar Blackburn, aged 47 with a son Alexander Blackburn, aged 14, both born in Delting, Shetland and living in Govan. That was an interesting and valuable revelation which led us back to the Glasgow region to search further.

Interestingly, on both of his marriage records, Alexander lied about his background. On the first he put his mother’s name down as Elizabeth Cooper, nee Spence and his father as William Cooper. On the record of his second marriage, to Elizabeth Walker, Linda’s grandmother, he put down his mother’s name as Elizabeth Cooper, nee Lawrence and his father as William Cooper. The name William may have been borrowed from his great-grandfather, although William had died before Alexander was born. His grandmother’s maiden name of Laurenson was not far off the name Lawrence.

Elizabeth was not entirely truthful at times either. She never used her true age on any census record. On both of her marriage records, to John Blackburn, in 1871, and James Ross, in 1891, she gave the names of her parents as Andrew Couper/Cooper and Eliza, nee Marshall. We have good evidence from other documents, including her birth and death records, as well as the birth, marriage and death records of her sisters, that her parent’s names were Andrew Couper and Margaret Laurenson.

Stories passed down through generations are often prone to some embellishing, or even outright fabrication as family member may have sought to hide the most embarrassing events of their lives. But there may sometimes be a grain of truth to them, too, so that when the true facts are known one might understand why certain things were said.


Shepheard, Wayne. (2010). Finding Elizabeth Couper. Cootin Kin, number 75, pp. 6-15.

Shepheard, Wayne. (2010). Twists and Turns in Search of Elizabeth Cooper. Chinook, 31/1, pp. 16-22.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.

More About Using Old Maps

Regarding my post of 22 July 2014: It seemed like a great story – Alexander Cooper meeting his first wife at the candy store in Glasgow. Unfortunately, I have since found the location of John Street on which he and his mother lived in 1881. It was actually way across the Clyde River, in Govan District. So it is unlikely they met near Hutcheson Street, in the City of Glasgow, where Margaret Scott lived in 1881.

I finally found a map on the National Library of Scotland website, dated 1896, that shows all of the street names in Govan. From this map, it is clear that the family lived in the Govan area from at least 1871 through 1891.
Portion of map of Govan, Lanarkshire, Sheet 006.09 – 25 Inch Ordnance Survey Map, published 1896; downloaded 12 August 2014 from National Library of Scotland website
Residences of Elizabeth and Alexander Cooper:
1871    Elizabeth and Alexander Couper at 22 Hamilton Street, Govan with sister Ann Jackson and her family; John Blackburn, Elizabeth’s first husband, lived at same address
1881    Elizabeth and Alexander Blackburn at 4 John Street, Govan; John Blackburn lived at 7 Main Street, Govan, six blocks east of John Street
1885    Alexander indicated his father, John (Blackburn?) lived at 2 Albert Street, also six blocks east of John Street
1890    Alexander Cooper lived at Hamilton Barracks at the time of his first marriage
1891    Elizabeth Blackburn at 18 White Street, Govan (just north of John Street)
1892    Elizabeth was still at White Street at the time of her second marriage while her second husband lived on Fairfield Street just to the west

The lessons here are: look at all the old maps you can find and pay more attention to what the censuses and other documents actually say with regard to addresses. When you do find the right map, as I did this week, it really ties the family history together.