Grandpa Smith (aka William Smith 1897-1982)


My Grandpa was born in Montrose, Angus on the east side of Scotland.  He was a quietly spoken man who mumbled, and the strong accent he had made it impossible for us kids to understand anything he said.  I sensed such a sadness in him and when I asked my dad “what’s Grandpa saying?” he would tell me he is talking about how awful it was during the war when he was in Mesopatamia (I believe the area around the present day Iraq, Iran and Syria).  From the war he would move onto complaining about how the Labour Government had let the working class people down and the Trade Unions were ruining the country.  And then it was back to the war and he would shake his head and mumble.  I don’t ever remember having an actual conversation with Grandpa but I was fond of him;  he was a gentle and good man.

We used to visit Gran (Jane Cameron) and Grandpa on Sunday afternoons for tea.  I don’t think it was every Sunday but it was often.  Gran had had rickets as a child so, with her legs being so bowed, my sisters and I were taller than her by the time we were twelve.  She and her twin sister had been fishmongers in Dundee before Rose went to America and Gran married Grandpa.  She was a little deaf and Grandpa used to get frustrated trying to talk to her.  What with Grandpa’s mumbling and Grandma’s deafness, it was quite a comedy of errors.   Gran would set the table with an embroidered tea cloth and beautiful china tea set – which included a slop bowl.  Yuk! (If you have never used one then let me tell you it was used for when we reached the bottom of our cup of tea where all the tea leaves gathered.  We had to empty the slops into the bowl and then have a fresh second cup.  I thought it a disgusting tradition myself. )  After tea, Gran would leave the room and turn on the TV.  She was mad keen on the wrestling and she would yell and scream and hit the TV.   Sunday afternoons were never boring.

Grandpa visited us on occasions.  He would catch the bus and turn up unexpectedly at the door with a little, battered, brown case, telling  my dad he had left my Gran.  He would talk to my parents, have dinner with us,  sleep overnight and then return home the next morning.  I still remember him, dressed like a farmer, with brown baggy trousers, a “grandpa” tee-shirt, waistcoat,  brown checked jacket and cap.  A chain would dangle from his waistcoat pocket and every so often he would take out  his pocket watch to check the time.

Before Gran died a few days before her 91st birthday, she spent a year in a hospital bed.  Grandpa sat holding her hand every day.  He passed away within a year of her death.  Gran and Grandpa fought all their married life and yet Grandpa died of a broken heart when she passed.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I recall a conversation my dad and Grandpa had.  They were talking about a tin my Grandfather had been sent in the war.   Dad told me it had chocolate and cigarettes in it.  I remember dad telling me that Grandpa donated it to a museum.  I have always thought it was an emergency kit but it looks like I was wrong about that.

Since working on my family tree,  little snippets of conversations like that come to me.  I try to remember more information or fit the memory somewhere but usually they are left hanging with questions unanswered.  I recently contacted a museum in Glasgow and enquired about this box that I believe may have been donated by my Grandfather in the 1960s.  They very kindly replied saying that they had done several searches but there were so many William Smiths on their database that it was almost an impossible search.  However, the lady did give me a link to something she thought could be helpful.  It was.  The link was to a WW1 Princess Mary Christmas Tin.  As soon as I saw the picture, a memory was jogged and as I read about it I realised this is what my Grandfather had had for all these years before donating it.  This was a tin sent to British Soldiers in the trenches in 1914 for Christmas.  It contained chocolate, sweets and cigarettes or a pipe.  The tin was brass with an effigy of Princess Mary.

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Princess Mary (daughter of King George V) was 17 in 1914 – the same age as my Grandfather who was in the trenches.  When it became obvious that the war was going to drag on, she put forward a proposal to the British Government to create a fund for soldiers and sailors serving at the front.  This was the outcome.

Now, when I think of Grandpa mumbling about how awful it was during the war; of  the stories I heard about him building a bomb shelter at the bottom of his garden and a hut in the country to evacuate his family to in the event of a Second World War, I can understand it better.  What horrors would a 17 year old farm boy be exposed to in the trenches of Mesopotamia   Grandpa was a Corporal Machine Gunner with the Black Watch, no wonder he never forgot about his experiences.  I hope he had some happiness in his life.

I don’t ever remember him laughing.

Another piece of the puzzle fits


I had an old  piece of brown paper left over from documents given to me by my mother.  It was an extract of a birth of a daughter – Janet – but she didn’t fit anywhere in the family tree.  I sent off to Scotland’s People for the actual birth certificate and this is the story I have managed to piece together.

My great-grandmother, Jessie, was born in 1866 to a poor family in Glasgow.  By the age of 15 she was a Cotton Weaver and by 27 a Thread Mill Worker.  She married my great-grandfather, James Brown, in 1893 and they had three children – James (my grandfather), Jessie and Jane.  Jessie’s husband, James, (my great-grandfather) was an Armourer in the Royal Navy and was based at Portsmouth.  Sadly he was lost at sea in 1915 and his body never recovered.  He was 48.

A year later, Jessie discovered her youngest daughter, Jane, was pregnant.  She was just 18 and unmarried.  It would not have been a good situation to be in then.  James had died without a will so I imagine that life for Jessie and Jane was already tough.  In 1917, Jane gave birth at home to a daughter, Janet.  There were complications and Jane died ten days later in hospital.  The baby survived and was brought up by Jessie, my great-grandmother.

I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for Jessie to lose her husband and youngest daughter within a couple of years of each other, and then to have to bring up her grand-daughter alone.

I delved a little deeper to find out what became of Janet.  She married a man called Victor Rankin.   I felt a jolt!  Victor Rankin?  I remember my mother talking about him.  She spoke of him a lot and said what a lovely man he was; he was always so good to his wife.   So I think this story had a happy ending.

I plan to return to the UK in 2015 and I want to visit Portsmouth to see a memorial to the sailors lost at sea during the war.  My great-grandfather’s name is on it.  And I know where Jane was buried at just 19.  I want to go there and put flowers on her grave in Glasgow.  I look forward to doing that.


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