One advantage of having a subscription to Ancestry is the opportunity to contact other subscribers to share information. With the advent of DNA testing among genealogists this too has become a good asset in family history research. There are, of course, other companies offering DNA tests and each uses a slightly different algorithm to view results and potential connections. Ancestry’s seems to be fairly easy to navigate as under the DNA section of the website members are presented with several options to choose from when it comes to analysing the data.

Members can see a list of potential matches based on shared DNA and the scope of the relationship. Some of these may be very distant cousins with the common ancestor being several generations back in the distant past. Of course sometimes you strike lucky and new “cousins” emerge. Naturally this only works if you have submitted a DNA test!

In February 2019 I was contacted through Ancestry by a lady in Canada saying her father’s mother was Jane McGill who lived in Edinburgh. She was one of 5 or 6 brothers and sisters. The lady went on to say that her father had an uncle, David, who worked for Cunard. I responded confirming that I did have an ancestor named Jane who married a James Nelson in 1907. There was one child from the union, William McGill Nelson who had been born in 1908. I confirmed that Jane did have a brother called David who left Scotland and settled in the USA.

Hoping that she would take me up on my offer to provide more details about the family I waited for a reply. However, I heard nothing more from her and I see that she last logged into Ancestry between 3 and 11 months ago. It is a pity as she is the best DNA match I have had through Ancestry. We share 170cM across 9 segments which makes us 3rd-4th cousins. I must confess that I am not up to speed with cMs or centimorgans to give them their proper name.

I don’t know where in Canada my “match” lives as she didn’t tell me. So I am at a loss as to how to reestablish contact. All I know is her name – Cheryl Sinclair – which I presume is her married name and that she has a brother named David. 

As part of my overall research into my McGill ancestry I had established that Jane was the youngest child of Hugh McGill and his wife Agnes Blair who were married in 1851. I have the family bible listing all their children. They had nine children, only six of whom survived into adulthood. The family originally lived in Lasswade, one of several mining villages lying to the south of Edinburgh. Hugh, Jane’s father, had been a coal miner who subsequently worked in the local paper mill before the family moved into Edinburgh itself.

The decennial census’ can be seen on several websites including Find my Past and, of course, Scotland’s People. Having a subscription to the former made it easy to establish Jane’s whereabouts at census time. In 1891 she was living with her widowed mother at 21 Brougham Place giving her occupation as a dressmaker. Ten years later she was now 33, unmarried and still living with her mother. They had moved to 10 Panmure Place and her occupation had changed to that of a confectioner’s assistant. A law clerk, John Porteous from Orkney was boarding with Agnes and Jane.

As Jane had not been married by the time of the 1901 census maybe it was felt that she would remain a spinster like her three nieces, the daughters of her eldest brother, John. However, at the age of 40 she did eventually marry. Her husband was James Nelson, a 34 year old rubber worker. Jane and James were married on 13 September 1907. All well and good you might say, however, Jane was five months pregnant at the time and she gave birth to a son, William McGill Nelson, on 8 January 1908. I wonder how that situation went down in polite Edwardian society in Edinburgh? John, her elder brother, so I gather, was a member of the Plymouth Brethren and as such physical contact between men and women before marriage was not tolerated. I wonder what he thought of his younger sister’s actions?

The 1911 Census is available to view on Scotland’s People. I searched for the family living happily somewhere in Edinburgh in a cosy tenement flat like other family members. I was to be disappointed as I found Jane living at 42 Gillespie Crescent with neither James or William with her on census night 2 April. Over the course of the UK census’ more information was asked of the population. The 1911 census revealed that Jane was the head of the household and she had been married for three years with one child from the marriage who was still alive. Her occupation was listed as a confectioner trading on her own account. The property had one room with one or more windows.

The note about the number of windows made me look at Google Street View. Gillespie Crescent is a row of tenement flats, however, the last property nowadays is No.41. The rear gardens of the adjacent street back on to the gable end of No.41 with no sign of another property. Did Jane have a bedsit with No.42 being regarded as a separate property, but within No.41? From Street View it is not apparent that there is a basement property.

Having located Jane would I find James and William? I had a copy of their marriage certificate obtained a number of years ago. On the reverse was annotated details of their divorce which had been granted in 1914. James whereabouts were unknown when the divorce was granted. I tried to locate him in the 1911 census using Scotland’s People with no success. However, in 1901 he had been a patient in the Chalmers Hospital. Maybe to avoid the stigma of divorce he conveniently was nowhere to be found.

Locating William was no easier. On Ancestry I found a tree with James’ parents and I contacted the tree owner. She, too, had had a message from Cheryl as she shared a DNA match with her as well. Cheryl had told her that her father was known as William McGill rather than Nelson. There were several William McGills living in Scotland who were around 3 years old in 1911. I found one living with the Cairns family in Lasswade. He was described as being a family relation. There is no proof, as yet, that this William is the one I am looking for.

Cheryl had mentioned in a message to the other lady that her father had arrived in Canada when he was 18, which would have been around 1926, and had died in 1976.

Many children were sent to Canada and other countries. The ones sent to Canada were known as British Home Children. From the late 1860s right up to 1948 over 100,000 children of all ages were sent to Canada from the UK. They were mainly used as farm workers and domestic servants. The Canadians believed them to be orphans but only around 12 per cent were. The children were sent to Canada by many organisations including Barnardo’s, Quarriers and the Salvation Army. Once in Canada the children were sent to reception homes right across the country until farmers picked them up or they were sent to their new destinations with a cardboard sign around their necks. According to the British Home Children website there were at least seven applicants for every child shipped to Canada.

Fuelled by finding the British Home Children website I looked further and on the Canadian archives website I found that a party of 34 young men had been sent by the Salvation Army on board the Cunard liner Alaunia. The ship left Southampton on 23 April 1926 arriving in Quebec on 3 May. The manifest listed a William McGill, aged 18 and in common with the others he was destined to be a farm worker. The manifest gave his nearest relative as Mrs J McGee (sic) of 42 Gillespie Crescent, Edinburgh.

As Jane was 40 when she gave birth to William, nowadays she would be regarded as a geriatric mother, with a husband who perhaps deserted her, it might not come as a surprise that she was unable to look after the baby and he was put into care. This is supposition on my part and perhaps I will never find out the answer unless I can contact Cheryl once more and get the remainder of the story from her.

Family research is full of brick walls. I have been there before and bashed my way through one in the past. Hopefully, in the future, I might be able to do the same with this one too.