Who is Elizabeth Fordyce?

To ensure I’ve found everyone who lived in Unst, I am going through each page of the census returns. In one page in the 1871 census I’ve come across an entry that has me stumped.

1871 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c., and
No. or NAME of HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
to Head of
Rank, Profession, or OCCUPATION
Males Females
Burnside Alexr Fordyce Head Mar 75 Fisherman
Catherine Do Wife Mar 75 Do Wife
Elizabeth Gaunson Daur Mar 38 Sea Capts Wife
Elizabeth Fordyce Grand Dr 14
Catherine A Gaunson Grand Dr 22M
George F Do Grand Son 3M

I have found Alexander Fordyce and his wife Catherine (neé Jamieson) and their children, one of whom is Janet Elizabeth who married George Gaunson and had several children, the first two being Catharine Ann Gaunson and George Francis Gaunson, two of the three grandchildren listed on this return.

Initial Fordyce Family Tree

Alexander and Catherine with their five children

It is interesting to see the daughter listed as Elizabeth here, and not as Janet/Jessie as in all previous census returns. She is listed as Elizabeth in the 1881 return as well (where she and her children are again seen living in Burnside with her parents while her Sea Captain husband is, one assumes, away at sea). Did she adopt her middle name upon marriage or does her father, the head of the household and likely person to convey names to the census enumerator, prefer to call her that?

So, what of this other grand-daughter, Elizabeth Fordyce?

At this point in my research, I was aware that Alexander and Catherine had five children, two sons, one who dies as a youngish man, neither of whom have any children that I know of, one daughter Ann dies young, and two remaining daughters, one also called Anne Ursula, both of whom have children.

We’ve seen the daughter Janet Elizabeth, on the census return. Her two children have the surname Gaunson as per her married name. If the other grand-daughter was also hers, she would have been born prior to her marriage (which would explain the surname being Fordyce) and when Janet was aged 23. This is certainly a possibility.

The other daughter, Anne Ursula, married Charles Johnson in 1856 and had a daughter, Catherine Elizabeth Johnson in 1857. This girl is a grand-daughter of the correct age, and could be known by her middle name. The use of her mother’s maiden name instead of her correct surname is not unheard of. This could be her, except, she’s recorded on the census in 1871 as being with her parents and siblings in their house in Lerwick.

I have seen several examples of people recorded twice in one census, some cases of grandchildren recorded both at home with their parents, and also at their grandparents house. One assumes the child was visiting the grandparents in the evening when the enumerator visited, but then went home and so met the criteria of “everyone who sleeps in the house on the evening of the census.” However, it is highly improbable that such a visit could happen in Unst by a grand-daughter from Lerwick.

Having ruled out that grand-daughter, I looked for all girls born in Unst (as this census return records she is) around 1857 (+\-2 years) with Elizabeth as a first or middle name (given the use of a middle name elsewhere in this household), listed in the 1861 census. There are 19 of them. My hope here was to find a girl in the 1861 census that is unaccounted for in 1871 and is maybe a grand-Neice or cousin of the family, who has just been rather sloppily referred to as a grand-daughter. However, none of the girls are unaccounted for in 1871. There is quite simply no-one called Elizabeth Fordyce born in Unst around that timeframe.

Having followed the premise that the name was wrong and that the place of birth was correct, I now changed tack. I started to search for Elizabeth Fordyce, born around 1857 anywhere in Shetland, which yielded nothing, and then born anywhere in Scotland. At this point out popped Elizabeth Fordyce, born 15 May 1856 in Edinburgh to parents James William Fordyce and Elizabeth McLeod. If this is James William Fordyce born in Unst, then she would indeed be a grand-daughter. I had not been able to find anything about James after he left Unst and was living in Edinburgh in 1851.

Having found this family through the grand-daughter Elizabeth, I could now see why. Her father James, is listed as having been born in Golspie, Sutherland and his wife Elizabeth McLeod is recorded as being born in Shetland. Following Elizabeth with her remaining children after James dies, it would appear that she was not from Shetland, it was she who was born in Golspie. So I believe that either the enumerator or the Ancestry record transcriber (since I haven’t seen the image for this one to know) has got the places of birth switched around. This is indeed James William Fordyce from Unst and his daughter Elizabeth Fordyce is visiting her grand-mother in Unst.

Fordyce Family Tree

Fordyce Family Tree
Green shows the people on the census return. Blue shows the family discovered as a result

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and in this case the two wrongs

  • Elizabeth Fordyce (grand-daughter) was not born in Unst, but in Edinburgh
  • James William Fordyce (son) was born in Unst and not in Golspie

left me with some searching to do, but I found them in the end!

The added benefit of locating this mystery grand-daughter was also the finding of the missing son and thus several more grand-children who are Unst descendants, so well worth the search.


Why is local knowledge important?

When digging into your family history it is important to get to know the area where your family lived. The more you know about it the better off you will be at tracking down those elusive members that just don’t seem to show up for 20 years – they must be on a census somewhere.

This is not just about knowing that the transcription of house name “Saft” is actually “Taft” or that there is more than one house on Unst called “Garden” so you can look for detail about which one it is. It is also going to help you spot the relatives you’re after when you’re looking further afield.

Let me give an example. When you’re looking at people in a census return who were born where they live now, their birthplace will generally be recorded correctly, for example, “Unst, Shetland”, possibly in part, because the enumerator is also from the same place and therefore knows how to record that place. When they live further afield, the enumerator will not necessarily know the place they were born and so will have to record whatever they tell him. I’ve seen a number of examples of this during my research, here’s the most recent one which prompted me to write this post. In this example without the local knowledge of, in this case, Unst, you might not realise they were the same people.

Man Symbol
James White
b. 28 May 1870 Parish School House, Unst, Shetland.
Found in Unst census 1871 and 1881.
Found in Lancashire census 1901 and 1911.

1891 Census

and No. or NAME of
NAME and Surname of each
to Head of
Males Females
17 Bellevue Cres Jas White Lodger 20 Baltasound, Shetland

With local knowledge I know that Baltasound is in Unst, and that this is therefore my missing James White. Without that knowledge I might have skipped over this record assuming it was somewhere that wasn’t Unst.

So get some maps out and start familiarising yourself with the area. Perhaps even make a visit there to see the places for yourself. If you’re researching Scottish areas, you might find the Old Maps I blogged about before useful for this.

Uncommon abbreviation for a common occupation

In my work with the 1841 census, I have written before about the abbreviations used to record occupations. Today I found another unknown one, ‘F.C.’ which, from what I can glean looking at the original record, was unknown to the people who totaled up the census returns.

The census was operated in two phases (at least). The enumerator went round all the houses and recorded the names and occupations of the people who resided there on the night of the 6th June. In Unst in 1841, the enumerator for district 1 was George Robertson, who was also the registrar. We know this because he signs the last page of the enumeration booklet (there were 9 enumeration districts and thus 9 booklets to cover Unst in 1841, each with a different enumerator, picked from the upstanding gentlemen of the community).

I CERTIFY and declare that the Account of the Population of the District for which I am Enumerator, contained in this Schedule, has been truly and faithfully taken by me, and that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, the same is correct, so far as may be known.
Witness my hand this seventh day of June 1841.
Geo Robertson Enumerator.

Then in the next phase, the enumeration booklets were counted up, including occupations being totaled up. You can see the ‘workings’ of these counters as they go through the booklets, because they cross off the occupations as they count them. As genealogists this can sometimes be rather annoying if it obscures what was originally written by the enumerator! The occupations were normalised to aid in this counting, which is where, in later census years, the occupation codes come from.

On this particular page of the Unst 1841 census, John Harper who is residing in Humron, is recorded by the enumerator as having an occupation of F.C. The counter clearly didn’t know what this was because it is not crossed out, suggesting it was not counted, and in the left hand side margin against this entry there is a cross and something scribbled in a different hand from the writing done by the enumerator. I cannot make out the writing, but I suspect the jist of it is to indicate an unknown occupation.

Island SunsetThe thing is, having spent quite some time now looking at the complete Unst Family Tree, I have grown very familiar with the occupations of the area. The most common male occupations recorded are ‘Fisherman’ and ‘Fisherman & Crofter’. I suspect that F.C. stands for ‘Fisherman & Crofter’. In 1841, this should have been recorded by the enumerator as ‘Fa & Fm’ – short for ‘Farmer & Fisherman’ – just as several others were recorded on the same page.

Perhaps it had been a long night!