Tracking down Catherine Thomson

In my approach to building a family tree I’m coming at things from a slightly different angle. Instead of following people back and locating their records, I’m starting with the records, and trying to figure out which people they apply to. I can do this because I’m trying to find ALL the people in Unst, not just a percentage of them that are related to me.

Today, I have been struggling with one particular woman whose death record I am trying to process. She died in 1856 so squarely between the extremely verbose 1855 death record format and the 1861 changes that put some removed data back in (see Early Scottish Statutory Death Records for more information). So, she is recorded as being widowed, but her husband’s name is not recorded, and since we are in the time where patronymics are still sometimes used, it is uncertain whether we have her married name or not. Here’s what we know:-

Woman SymbolCatherine Thomson
d. 18 Dec 1856 at age 70, in Norwick (Widow)
=> b. about 1786
Father: John Thomson
Mother: Margaret Johnson

Of all the possible women named Catherine, of approximately the correct age, living in Unst in the 1851 census, we have one strong possibility.

1851 Census

Name of Street, Place, or
Road, and Name or
No. of House
Name and Surname of each Person
who abode in the house
on the Night of 30th March, 1851.
Head of Family
Age of Rank, Profession,
Males Females
Norwick James Thomson Head 26 Fisherman Crofter
Barbara do Wife 28
Ursella do Daughter 3
Mary do Daughter 1
Robert Smith Father-in-law 70 Fisherman
Cath Farker Aunt 69 Pauper F’s Wids

She lives in Norwick, she is widowed, and it would be a fair guess that she is recorded with her married name here, but that her maiden name is Thomson given her relationship to the Thomson’s in the same house. We need to track down a marriage between a Catherine and a Mr Farker. I find a marriage record for 30 Dec 1824 between Magnus Farquhar and Catherine Thomson. So she was a Thomson before she was married.

Norwick beach

Norwick Beach.
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

Now to check the rest of the information also matches up. We know the parents of the woman in the death record are John Thomson and Margaret Johnson. The woman in the 1851 census is recorded as being an Aunt of James, likely a sister of James’ father. From other research we know James’ father is Nicol Thomson. If we can find Nicol’s death record, we will see his parents. Nicol died on 25 Sep 1864, in Norwick, and his parents are listed as Walter Thomson and Margaret Laurenson. So Nicol and the woman in the death record are not siblings.

So, where does that leave me? Either:-

  • There are two woman called Catherine Thomson, of approximately the same age, widowed, and living in Norwick, but only one shows up on the 1851 census. EDIT: From Pat’s comment, this may be the answer, need to go back to any of the other possibilities in the 1851 census and follow them through. She has to be hiding somewhere!
  • Catherine is not the Aunt of James.
  • Her death record does not record the correct parents – the information was provided by her nephew, but his signature is so scrawly it makes it very hard to decipher. The majority of the time, the informant (who signs in his own hand) and the undertaker (whose name is written by the registrar) are the same people. The undertaker on this death record is Anthony Thomson. If Catherine was the sister of Nicol, she would have a nephew Anthony.
  • Nicol’s death record does not record his parents correctly.

It leaves me with a 50% likelihood that these two Catherine’s are the same person, enough to believe the likelihood but not enough to feel I can record it as fact. For the mean time I will have two Catherine Thomson’s in my tree with a comment on each one pointing at the other saying that they are likely the same person.


7 thoughts on “Tracking down Catherine Thomson

  1. I will be able to tell you next time I am home, Nicol thomson was our relations to my grandmother, on dads side of the family

  2. It just might be the last possibility is correct, that Nicol’s death certificate does not list the parents correctly. I can give you an example of where a death certificate on my tree has a problem caused, most likely, by a clerical error. My 2x Great Grandmother was named Benedetta. The informant on her DC is listed as a son named Benedetto. During the early phases of research on that branch I kept Benedetto listed as a child in the tree. But I never found any record for him in the U.S. He might have been left behind in Sicily but I doubt it. It will be interesting to see what Anna Findlay finds out. This is like a mystery story. I think you’re doing an excellent job of narrowing down the possibilities.

  3. This is a relation of mine (4th Great Grand Mother). I have her maiden name as Johnson b before 1787.. She married John Thomson . They had two children Walter b 1806 d 1877 (3rd Great Grand Father) & Duncan b 1809 d 1894. Walter married Laurina Sinclair and they had 6 children one was James Thomson b 1839 d 1881. 2nd GGF( Anthony who signed the death certificate was a brother to James.) James married Joanna Thomson and they had 8 children one was Anthony Thomson b 1877 d 1954. 1st GGF He married Williamina Bruce and they had 3 children. One was Christina Ann Thomson b 1901 d 1986 (My Grandmother). She had 1 child Leslie Thomson b 1932. d 1973 My Father.

    • Thanks Pat!
      That gives me another possibility to try. I have Walter and Laurina in my tree, just hadn’t manage to find his parents (or at least his mother) in the 1851 census. Where can she be hiding?

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