Thomas Wilson and his Children

Thomas was born just south of Belfast, in Lisburn, which was the birthplace of the Irish linen industry. Thomas’s father and grandfather were weavers. Weaving sounds like a fun hobby, but was a rather unpleasant job to do 12-14 hours a day. The factories were dark and crowded and their air was damp and dust filled. The image below is from Belfast from the 1890s.


Thomas’s parents, Andrew Wilson and Catherine Jordan married in June 1862.  I believe their first child was John, who was born and died on Oct. 14, 1864.  His death record declared he had “debility from birth” and his death was reported by his maternal grandmother (Sarah McKeown), who was present at his birth and death. Their next known son was Francis, who was born less than a year later.

Thomas came along in April 1868. When he was still very young, the family moved to Bridgeton, Glasgow, likely in search of work. Thomas’s sister Sarah was then born in Dec. 1870 when Thomas was 2 and Francis was 5. Sadly, their mother Catherine died within days of giving birth. The official cause of death was “metritis” which is an inflammation of the uterus, and was probably due to unsanitary living and birthing conditions. Her husband was left to care for their 3 children under the age of 5.

The 1871 census was just 3 months later and shows the family already broken apart: father Andrew is boarding with his 5 year old Francis. Sarah, just 3 months old, is living with a wet nurse, and 2 year old Thomas is now listed as the adopted son of Francis and Sarah McKeown. They were, however, all living in Bridgeton.

You may recall that Thomas’s grandmother was a McKeown. I think it’s fairly safe to assume that adopting father Francis was related to bio mother Catherine – perhaps they were cousins. Francis, too, had been born in Ireland, although he’d come to Scotland a bit sooner, and married in Glasgow in 1865. As far as I’m aware, Francis and Sarah were childless when they adopted Thomas, but 3 years later, they had a daughter, Isabella. Below is Bridgeton Crossing, which was a block from where they lived.


I haven’t been able to find records of Thomas between that 1871 census and his marriage in 1889.  I have no further confirmed sightings of Andrew, Francis or Sarah after 1871 either – although I’ve searched Irish and Scottish death records. All I know is that by 1889 his father Andrew was deceased, at least according to Thomas’s wedding certificate.

Thomas married Mary “Minnie” Rainey. They had at least 6 children, one of whom was my great grandmother. Their oldest, Thomas Jr., died in 1907. Then in 1909 Mary, Thomas’s wife died of consumption leaving him with 5 remaining children. Thomas was a quay labourer and surely struggled to support his family. He would probably hang around the docks (sitting on rocks and smoking pipes, apparently) waiting for the ships to come in and the work to begin. The picture below is of workers at the Glasgow docks around 1908. The actual work they did was exhausting and dangerous – climbing scaffolds and rigging, unloading cargo, and building quays. In 1911, less than two years after his wife’s death, he fell from scaffolding at work and died almost immediately of head injuries.


The only living relatives of the children (Robert, 17; Sarah 15; Minnie 13; Andrew 12; and Cate, 10) were Isabella McKeown, Thomas’s adoptive sister who was living in Ireland and could not be reached, and Charles Rennie, their maternal uncle. I found Isabella back in Lisburn in the Irish 1901 and 1911 censuses, working as a cook at the Lisburn infirmary, not far from where Thomas had been born. Their uncle Charles took in the oldest son and relinquished the other four (see below), as he already had a large family to support.

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The four remaining children were all sent to a Quarrier’s  (then called Orphan Homes of Scotland) Bridge on Weir Home, outside Glasgow (below). This was a religious organization which helped the destitute and orphaned children of Scotland. They set up large “Fresh Air Homes” where the children could escape the squalor of Glasgow and the poverty they’d been born into. They received religious instruction and were trained to become domestic helpers.

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Many, including my great grandmother and her sisters, were then sent to Canada as home children. After nearly two years of religious and work-related training in the Fresh Air Home, the three girls were sent to Canada where they were placed in homes as servants. My great grandmother was Thomas’ middle daughter Mary. She was 15 when she came to Canada on the SS Grampian with her two sisters. Below is a picture of all the girls who sailed, as well as a photo taken aboard the boat. Mary is the one in the hat.

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She was placed with a family in Montreal, the city in which she lived until her death in 1995 at the age of 96. As far as I know, none of the sisters ever returned to Scotland, but I do know that at least Mary kept in touch with her brother Andrew. He had been apprenticed to a cobbler in Forfarshire, but I don’t know what became of him. He’d been crippled as a child, likely from Polio, which is perhaps why he didn’t come to Canada. Sarah and Mary both had families in Canada. The youngest daughter, Cate, lived to be 103.

There is controversy surrounding the home children programs, and there’s something distasteful about sending young children to a strange country as cheap or free labour, but in the case of Thomas’s children, it lifted them out of poverty and strife. By the 1921 census Mary was living with a wealthy family in an affluent part of Montreal and earning $420 a year, although there are reports of many Quarrier’s children not being paid and being mistreated. Below is the Quarrier’s announcement of the safe arrival of their ship.

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