All posts by WCM Project Team

’A Woman Married to a Woman’: Shock Revelations and Intrigue in Victorian Scotland

History has shown us that same-sex relationships were not uncommon in the past, although different meanings have been attached to them.  There has been a good deal of debate about whether the many men and women who had intimate relationships with their own sex in the past were all in fact homosexual, or whether some of their relationships were intimate but asexual.  The example that we have unearthed which we outline below, raises similar questions. However, in this case, one of the parties identified, for much of her life, as a man.

When John Campbell, a 21 year-old Renfrew shipyard worker, fell ill with smallpox in November 1871, few could have foreseen the startling story which emerged. A well-liked young man, John had been lodging with the Early family in Pinkerton Lane, Renfrew since the summer of 1871. Like many young men his age John had been ‘adher[ing] to the old habit of loving and associating with the lassies’. He made himself an invaluable member of the Early household: Mrs Early was impressed by John’s helpful nature, especially his willingness to assist in the home, even helping fellow lodgers with repairs to work clothing. When Mrs Early had fallen ill, in the winter of 1871, John was a tower of strength, tending to his landlady’s needs, so much so that Mr Early had grown jealous of the attention John had lavished upon his recuperating wife.

What his landlords did not know was that John was married, and had deserted his wife Mary Ann in Kirknewton in May 1870. John left behind a pregnant wife and 2 children. The Reverend Henry Smith had married John and Mary Ann in December 1869, and after some relatively happy months John had deserted his family. He had initially made his way to Tranent to work on a farm but attracted by the promise of higher wages, John left Tranent and headed to Renfrew where he secured employment with Henderson, Coulborn and Co., working in the forge of the local shipbuilding firm. Higher wages and reasonably secure employment meant that John chose to settle in Renfrew and began a relationship with local lass, Kate Martin, taking her on occasion for romantic trips to Edinburgh. Well-liked by his work colleagues and by his housemates, all was rosy. However, a smallpox infection mean that John’s life in Renfrew was about to disintegrate.

On calling at Pinkerton Lane, Dr Allison insisted that John needed hospitalisation. John was insistent that he could not be admitted to Paisley Infirmary. When the doctor pressed, John agreed but only if he could be transferred and admitted fully clothed. Dr Allison’s suspicions aroused, he queried whether this was a result of his sex. While others had briefly wondered about and then dismissed suspicions of John’s sometimes ‘feminine’ qualities, the doctor was not fooled. Realising that his cover was blown, John admitted that he was in fact Marie Campbell, and that she had been dressing as a male since the age of 13. The reasons she offered were that she had worn male attire due to ‘bad usage’ when a child, or that her brother, on his deathbed, had advised her to wear his clothing as that would ‘probably enable her the better to make her way in the world’.

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Meanwhile in Kirknewton the parish authorities sought to establish the whereabouts of Mary Ann McKenna’s missing husband. When they received word that a woman named Marie or Maria Campbell had been posing as a man, John Campbell, they were stunned. Although Mary Ann had claimed that John was in fact a woman, the parish authorities had quickly dismissed the revelation. As Mary Ann had admitted that her children were not John’s and were illegitimate, they had questioned her character and decided that Mary Ann’s accusation was nothing more than diversionary bluster. Suitably humbled by the revelation the parish authorities requested that Mary Ann should accompany the Inspector of the Poor and another, Will Waddell who had been a witness to the wedding, on a trip to Renfrew. When they visited Paisley Infirmary both witnesses positively identified Maria alias John. Maria, on seeing Will exclaimed ‘Is that you Will Waddel; how’s the wife and bairns?’

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With identification confirmed, the investigation then sought to discover whether both parties had contracted marriage in full knowledge that John Campbell was a woman. Campbell claimed that McKenna knew that she was a woman, and the wedding had been undertaken as a result of a ‘mutual understanding’. Campbell also claimed that the marriage ‘was to make us more comfortable that we lived together’. McKenna, however, denied this assertion claiming that she only became aware of Campbell’s true identity some days after the wedding. The fact that they had remained together in the marital home for some months before Marie’s disappearance suggests otherwise. Whatever the truth, the Kirknewton parochial board was relieved that Campbell was not the father of McKenna’s third child, born after the wedding, and thus was not chargeable to the parish.

Campbell’s former work colleagues in Renfrew, although disappointed at the deception, started a subscription for her, stating that ‘a more kindly and obliging worker never was engaged in the yard’, and that they regretted hearing about ‘her unfortunate apprehension.’ As a result of a police investigation Marie was charged with contravening the Registration Act. As one newspaper at the time commented, the surprising revelation had brought an ‘unhappy termination to an extraordinary career’.

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Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Bill and Mary, 1945

1942, Galloway

The receipt of Army Form B. 104-81 was a moment of dread shared by a huge number of parents and wives during the Second World War. The form appeared perfunctory.  This particular form was received by Mary in January 1945 and it indicated that her husband Bill had been ‘again’ wounded in action in the central Mediterranean. This wounding was very serious and Bill had received substantial burns to his head, arms, and hands.


Bill (1917-2010) and Mary (1922-1998) had been married since 1942, and lived in a rural village in South-West Scotland. The letters on which this post is based were letters home during early 1945. The initial letters Mary received were proxy letters, written by medical staff, Red Cross and Church of England representatives, as Bill was first unconscious, and then unable to use his hands. The second letter that Mary received informed her that Bill was on the ‘dangerously ill’ list; the third that his condition was not improving; and the fourth that he was suffering from septicaemia. However, by the end of the month his condition had improved markedly. It was at this point that letter authorship changes; Bill’s ‘great pal’,  ‘Judge’ takes over and the tone of the letters change and become much more upbeat. What is interesting is that ‘Judge’ acts almost as a proxy husband to Mary: offering reassurance about Bill’s condition and frame of mind, reminding Mary of her husband’s admirable qualities and that he ‘deserves all the love and devotion a wife can endow upon him’.  He sends Bill’s ‘10,000 kisses’ and mentions that he wouldn’t mind meeting Mary in the future, although he ‘loves [his own] wife more than anything else in this world’.

These modes of expression were perhaps drawing upon wider cultural conventions; the lyrics of popular songs, and dialogue from films of the period. Many films produced during the war had at their core couples and families rallying together despite the uncertainty that war brought. Indeed, Bill and Judge both enjoyed the films – mostly romantic fantasies – that they saw whilst in camp in Greece and Italy, and in a couple of Bill’s letters he reviewed the latest viewings.

Judge letter

Judge ends his final letter to Mary, in March 1945, with ‘Just one little kiss for you. Bill won’t mind’. How much Bill knew about the content of these letters at the time is difficult to determine but in a later self-penned letter Bill remarks that he understands his pal had been writing to her. So, is ‘Judge’ just simply informing Mary of the condition of her husband? No, it’s slightly more complex than that; he is emphasising close bonds. He is reminding Mary of the close, romantic bond between husband and wife. Why is this important? Bill suffered severe burns to his face, losing his ears, lips and hair in the process. These severe injuries are not mentioned in these proxy letters, or in the letters Bill himself penned later. Judge’s emphasis on loyalty, emotional closeness and unconditional love may have been designed to diminish the importance of physical love in the light of Bill’s injuries.

Bill ‘Taff’ Williams (left) in better days, Salerno 1944
Bill ‘Taff’ Williams (left) in better days, Salerno 1944

Bill was finally able to write to his wife in April 1945, and it is evident that his inability to communicate directly with her had been intensely frustrating: ‘I love you as always sweetheart and long for you more and more each day…I just live for the day when I shall once again hold you in my arms and kiss your sweet lips…our love will last forever…’. Mary was a little flustered by her husband’s passionate language and appears to have jokingly rebuked him, and threatened him with admonishment to the corner of the kitchen to sit on a wooden stool. Bill’s jocular reply was to plead innocent and to remind his wife of his condition: ‘I don’t think it’s fair to threaten a sick man…I shall have to be careful what I say from now on. Still, I think I would just about manage you even with my bad hands!’. So, Bill certainly didn’t tone down his passions and ends each letter with a variation of ‘I long for the day that I hold you in my arms and kiss your sweet lips’.

When Bill did return to Britain that summer he was confined to a hospital bed for some months and on her first visit Mary was unable to recognise her husband, having to ask the ward sister in the burns unit which man was Bill. At no time during his medical confinement in Greece does Bill mention to his wife the significant damage to his face inflicted by the injuries suffered. In fact his letters are remarkably positive, and often focussed on the promise of a return to domestic bliss: ‘Is the garden finished yet?’; ‘I’m looking forward to seeing the new house’; even showing his concern that their pet dog ‘Jam’ is having difficulty settling into the new home: ‘Has Jam got used to it or does he still cry at night?’ This emphasis on the domestic ignored the fact that Mary was, during the war, a lumberjack in the Women’s Land Army; something that her husband doesn’t appear to mention in his surviving letters. But Bill was aware of his wife’s propensity to fret; and many years later admitted that he had been uncertain of how his wife would react on seeing him for the first time since receiving his injuries.

It is notable that amongst the surviving documents that Bill brought home from hospital in Greece was this poetry corner newspaper clipping, simply titled, ‘Wife’.


For Bill, the return home was more than just an end to conflict; it was about re-engaging with his wife, a woman he had not seen in almost 2 years, and his uncertainties about how she would react to his physical change. His letters include reassurances of his love and desire for his wife; his emphasis on a return to domestic life; and frequent expressions of concern over the fate of Mary’s brother in Belgium, and her family back in Scotland, whilst downplaying his own health concerns. He needn’t have worried. They raised one daughter and remained married until Mary’s death in 1998.


Tell Us Your Story

Every person in every couple or every family, together or apart, has a story to tell. Sometimes these stories are part of the family folklore, told as the hours creep on at family events to laughter or tears; other stories are deeply personal and remain silent, unrecorded. These stories are not the kind of material we find in archives, unless they have touched local legal or administrative bureaucracy; they are usually not the stories we can find in newspapers. These stories are constructed over years of experience, shaped by particular events, but also everyday happenings; and they are as individual as the people at the heart of them.

In the Working-Class Marriage project, we want to get beyond public discourses and official policy to understand what people are actually thinking and experiencing of marriage and cohabitation; and how that experience relates to broader social and political understandings. To do this, we are asking for your help! As far as you are comfortable and able, we are inviting you to tell us your story. In August and September this year, we will be visiting towns across Scotland – Blairgowrie, Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, Portree and Dumfries – and inviting members of the public to come along, meet members of the team and hear talks about our project and some of our findings so far. We are also inviting people to share their photos and marriage ephemera with us, and find out more about how to contribute oral interviews or written testimony to our ‘memory box’. We want to provide an opportunity for you to share what is important to you about marriage and relationships in Scotland today with the team and tell us what you want to know from our project.

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We have been heartened and gratified by the response to our previous invitation to send us photographs, letters and diaries relating to marriage and family, and the generosity people have shown in sharing what are very personal and oftentimes, treasured images. As you can see from wedding pictures gallery, the images offer a window into the public display of getting married – what the couple wore, how the couple stood and who else is in the picture. These images have a common theme, but they are also very personal. Scroll further down and you will also find some of the lovely family pictures which people have sent us: often cross-generational, sometimes simply individuals or couples, the images capture a moment in the life and history of the family they belong to. It is absolutely wonderful to see them; and to have permission to share them on our website.

The images also portray a moment in time – what hopes and dreams, what fears are behind the smiles, or, in some cases, more serious faces? In the case of the wedding photos, how did the couple reach the point of marriage? How did things work out? What was their every day experience of living with their partner? If children came along, what was the experience of motherhood, of fatherhood, and the impact on the parental relationship? These are questions which photographs don’t answer.

Our quantitative research from the census shows that different areas of Scotland had diverse experiences of family forms and distinct marriage patterns, whilst archival research shows local marriage traditions and regional experiences of mobility and employment. High levels of mortality, as well as migration or marital problems meant that single parent or step-families were not uncommon. In some cases, despite the stigma surrounding illegitimacy, people simply did not get married at all. The team have also found a wide diversity of nationalities in Scotland’s past, with people contracting marriages across many different cultures and across international borders. Therefore, the team are keen to involve anyone who is interested, regardless of their marital status or background, in order to make the project as representative as possible of Scottish experience. In other words, every story matters.


Telling us Your story will help us to weave together a history of what marriage meant to ordinary people in Scotland and how that has changed in light of broader social and economic factors. We also hope that meeting people across Scotland will help us address the questions and issues which matter to the population of Scotland by providing a broad and diverse historical understanding of lived experience.

Photographing History 3: Does the Camera Lie?

In the final part of our blog concerning ‘Photographing History’, we examine whether the images of ‘John’ reflected the lived reality for him and his family.

Man in Apron

John may have been the epitome of respectable working-class masculinity in the public world and in some of his leisure preferences but he shared many of the traits associated with the west of Scotland ‘hard man’ image. Like many men employed in heavy industry he worked in dirty and dangerous conditions in an entirely male environment. He did indulge in some leisure pursuits associated with working-class men, particularly gambling on horses, greyhound racing and the football pools, and he loved his pipe. He also loved the cinema which was the most popular working-class entertainment in the 1920s and 1930s across Scotland.

The images would suggest that John was a man who fully participated in family life, who rejected the rigid gender division of labour so characteristic of his time and place and who loved and respected his wife.  Yet, historical research has demonstrated that working-class women regarded a ‘good’ husband as one who did not over-indulge in sexual congress and was aware of the health implications of multiple pregnancies for his partner. It seems that many men sought to ensure that they had smaller family sizes to enrich the lives of their families and to protect the health of their wives. Did John fit this picture?  He and his wife had four living children but his wife had twenty-one pregnancies. She miscarried five times; there were sixteen births with twelve children either stillborn or who perished in infancy.

The high number of pregnancies could be attributed to his religion, the high infant mortality rate within his family and a lack of awareness about contraceptives, although they were becoming more accessible by the inter-war years.  Yet many Catholics were also reducing their family size. John was clearly unaware of, or chose to ignore, the discourses that encouraged men to refrain from sexual activity, in order to reduce family size and protect the health of their spouses: moreover John was a serial adulterer who did not hide it from his family.  According to a family member,  on one occasion he took his mistress to visit his son and his family. This public display of his infidelity suggests that John was not ashamed of it and perhaps thought that it was his right.  It certainly does not suggest a great deal of respect for his wife. Indeed John enjoyed verbally undermining Mary.

He maintained that Mary was a ‘simpleton’ and used any mishaps she had to convince others that this was the case. Moreover, while he may look like a domesticated man in the image above, in fact Mary had cooked and cleaned and raised their children all the years that he worked.  Only when he retired did he take over the role of cooking because he insisted to all and sundry that she was domestically incapable. John believed in the value of self-improvement and saving. Therefore he decided at a time when women tended to control the family purse that he rather than Mary would look after the family’s income. Mary was given a daily allowance and was compelled to account for every penny she spent and reprimanded if John thought that it could be bought more cheaply.

Moreover while politically John emphasised the importance of education for the working class; his working class was male. During the Second World War when work was plentiful and well paid, John’s eldest daughter was awarded the dux medal in school which would have allowed her to proceed to higher education with funding. John would not countenance this as his opinion was that higher education for women was a waste of time and money because they were destined to be wives and mothers. He took her out of school and acquired a job for her in the local ropeworks.  Although John was not unusual in his opinion about education for women, it did contradict his political rhetoric.

A family member explained that John also ruled his home with an iron fist.  His rule was law and he was an extremely strict disciplinarian of his children who feared his temper and his belt. His daughter recalled how on one occasion she was thrashed by his belt so savagely on the legs that she had to wear high socks all summer to hide the welts; her transgression was that a younger sibling, who was in her care, had fallen down and cut his knee.


Although the holiday snap portrays John’s grandchildren looking happy in his company, in fact they were wary of his intolerance of childish behaviour, his temper and ‘the back of his hand’. Practitioners, social scientists and historians have all argued that violence within the family can create a multiplicity of problems including mental health problems, substance abuse and the learned behaviour which means that children of violent men can themselves be violent in their family relationships. John had four children who lived into adulthood, two sons and two daughters.  According to a family member, the impact of John’s approach to marriage and fatherhood had implications for his children: mental illness, alcoholism and domestic violence were evident in their future lives.

John was a contradiction. On the one hand he was a man who believed in self-improvement and self-education and the betterment of the working-class, or rather working men. He loathed the west of Scotland drinking culture and engaged in healthy recreations. He climbed the employment ladder and reaped the material rewards of this while remaining an advocate of communism. However in his private life he demanded complete obedience from his wife and family and any disobedience was dealt with severely and often with violence. His children and grandchildren feared him and remember the home being a place of conflict and tension rather than a happy home.  He believed strongly that a woman’s primary role was as a wife and mother, that women did not require education beyond the basics and that they should be subordinate to men.

Compare this picture with the photographic images and one can see that the camera can indeed lie.

Photographing History 2: Gendered Images?

After the Second World War the Brownie camera, produced by Kodak, sold millions and introduced the concept of the ‘snapshot’, as this inexpensive and portable camera allowed amateurs to record events. This image was taken using a Brownie camera.

Man in Apron

So what should we make of the image taken on the subject’s own camera by his daughter? This photograph shows John, a man of sixty years, holding his only granddaughter. He is standing in a kitchen under a pulley full of washing and is resplendent in an apron. He seems comfortable with this image.

Born in 1902 in Irvine, Scotland, John would have been the product of a time when gender roles were strictly demarcated and men were expected to be breadwinners while women took full responsibility for housework and childcare. Are we then to assume that either John rejected these ideas about manliness or that by the 1960s we have witnessed a marked change in men’s roles and responsibilities or, as some might surmise; he was simply hen-pecked?

John married Mary, a hosiery worker, also from Irvine in 1925. He worked as a stevedore, loading boats at Irvine harbour. John and Mary left Irvine in 1926 after the General Strike. There is no record of whether John or any of his family were victimised for participating in the strike but he was a deeply political man, a trade unionist and socialist and he came from a coal-mining family. Moreover, it was after the strike that John and Mary migrated to the town of Greenock where they raised their children and remained until their deaths.

John was in many respects the many faces of west of Scotland masculinity. He saw himself as a member of the respectable working class. According to a family member John was a deeply religious man and remained a committed Catholic until his death. He was an ardent trade unionist and initially a firm supporter of the Independent Labour Party until its disaffiliation with the Labour Party in 1932. After the General Strike he became disillusioned with the hierarchy of the trade union movement and with the Labour Party, as many who were affected by the strike did, and he left the Independent Labour Party to join the Communist Party which had a strong foothold in Greenock.

John was politically self educated and believed in the value of working-class education, grass- root trade unionism and shop steward autonomy as well as being a committed communist. However, while he expected his wife and daughters to follow his lead in voting behaviour, he also insisted that they refrain from political life. Even in his older age he maintained these views. During the industrial unrest when the ship-building industry in Govan was under threat, a reporter asked local children their views on the situation. John’s ten-year-old granddaughter, brought up in a culture of socialism, paraphrased the views of her grandfather and father. John saw this televised and was outraged, both at a female expressing these views but worse in a public forum. According to a family member he was not slow to voice his disapproval to the child and the child’s parents.

When not in work John would only be seen in public wearing a suit, collar and tie. He was a member of the teetotal Temperance movement and saw alcohol as the ‘opium of the masses’. He believed firmly in a healthy mind and healthy body and his leisure pursuits included fishing, rambling, cycling, swimming and boating. Indeed he worked himself up from being a stevedore to becoming a skipper on the boats of the Clyde and  was among the first working men to own a car in his locality. He also loved camping and continued his love of this throughout his life as we can see from the holiday snapshot of John and his wife and grandchild in the sea during a family holiday in Fairlie, Ayrshire in Scotland in the late 1960s.



Men in the west of Scotland have often been portrayed in a negative light with the dominant form of masculinity being associated with hard work, hard play, revolving around alcohol and violence, including domestic violence and gang violence. This image is often juxtaposed with ‘respectable manliness’ as if the two were mutually exclusive. So was John an early version of the ‘new man’, a man before his time?

Next week , our blog will examine assumptions and contradictions regarding these photographs of ‘John’ using personal testimony to locate the man represented in these images.

Photographing History

In the first of three blog posts, we examine the use of photographs in historical research and ponders what they tell us and, importantly, what they might not tell us.

Photographs are often used to create memories, record events and enhance remembrance of those events. Common ideas about photographic images are that the camera, a mechanical device which captures an instance in time, never lies; that a photograph can speak a thousand words; and in some cultures it is believed that a photograph steals your soul – that your image is your inner essence.  Historians often use images to illustrate past conditions, to bring the past alive, create empathy and to highlight continuity and change over time. However, photographs are not undiluted images capturing past events as they actually occurred. Since the early days of photography, images have been manipulated.  Photographs can eliminate certain elements while emphasizing others. Photography does more than reflect reality; it also creates and interprets it.  For example, take the photo opportunity used by celebrities and politicians to create and enhance their public image and consider what is included and what is absent from these images.

Photographs capture a particular moment in time which is not necessarily a true representation of the subject’s past or even the event captured. They are our means of commemorating and remembering the past at a specific moment in time and like written records they are produced by individuals for a specific purpose. So we have to consider what they highlight and also what they omit. We also have to think about not only what the photograph shows, but also where and when the photograph was taken and by whom. Take for example these Cartes de Visite which are dated from the 1880s to the 1890s.



See more of our cartes de visite here.

In the Victorian and Edwardian period these images were used as visiting cards. They were fashionable and with new technology in photography reducing the cost of production they became accessible to working-class people as well as the wealthy. They were produced in large quantities by professional photographers, particularly between 1860 and 1900. They were not high art, but a provided a likeness of the sitter that could be produced inexpensively and were generally sold by the dozen. At a time when the cost of a camera and film development was out of the range of many working people, they could obtain twelve of the card images for as little as 6d. They then placed these cards on the hall tables of family and friends whom they visited or else sent them from other destinations within Britain and overseas. The images were collected and displayed publicly making these the equivalent of an early form of the social media ‘following’ used today. While people in the past did not ‘follow’ each other on Facebook or Twitter they did interact through these cartes de visite.

However these are only a snapshot as the images are all posed. They were all taken in studios with particular furniture and decor used to enhance the picture which often bore no relation to the living conditions of those they portrayed. The people being photographed were often wearing the only smart outfit that they owned and had obviously taken time to enhance their appearance for public consumption and memorabilia.  The images above are from our own scanned collection of visiting cards covering the late 19th century and early 20th. The vast majority are of working-class Scots.

Occasionally, these cartes de visite were also an amusing snapshot of time, place and personality, as in this late 19th century image sent from India to a Scottish family. Many photographs from the Victorian period are either intensely sober and, occasionally,  bizarre but the little boy on roller skates hints at mischief and a keen sense of humour.


In our next blog post we will examine photographic representations of family and masculinity.

Beyond tradition?: Non-traditional marriage, partnerships and the family in Scotland, past and present

Our Spring Workshop provided a forum for exploring synergies and differences in past and present experiences of partnerships and families. It also provoked useful dialogue between academics, policy-makers and practitioners in terms of the understanding we have about marriage and the family, and the ways in which those understandings shape our daily lives. Sessions focused on non-traditional partnerships, including same-sex unions and cohabitation, and the experiences of children growing up in non-traditional families, including with same-sex parents and lone parents and in step-families. The workshop was well attended and was held on Tuesday 6 May at the University of Glasgow in conjunction with the Centre for Gender History, with support from the Economic History Society. Read about the day here.

Below you can find audio recordings of the papers given on the day.


9.00                 REGISTRATION

9.15                 Welcome

9.30-10.30       Plenary

Professor Lynn Jamieson, Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, University of Edinburgh, ‘Continuity and Change in Family Life and Intimate Relationships.’

10.30-11.30     Irregular Marriage and Cohabitation Past and Present

Eleanor Gordon, Professor of Social and Gender History, University of Glasgow, ‘Informal unions in the past: official attitudes and popular practice.’

Dr Jane Mair, School of Law, University of Glasgow, ‘Living Together at Bed Board: A Modern Relationship?’

11.30-11.45     COFFEE

11.45-12.45     Children in Families Past and Present

Felicity Cawley, PhD student, The History of Working-Class Marriage (AHRC–funded project), University of Glasgow, ‘Experiencing the Non-traditional: Childhood and the non-conventional family in twentieth century Scotland.’


Marion Davis, Policy and Research Advisor, One Parent Families Scotland, ‘Lone Parents – Exploding the Myths.’

12.45-1.45       LUNCH

1.45-3.15.        Same Sex Unions Past and Present


Dr Jeff Meek, The History of Working –Class Marriage (AHRC–funded project), University of Glasgow,  ‘“Oh, let the Buggers marry!”:  Non-heterosexual men, partnerships and families in post-war Scotland.’


Dr Anna Einarsdottir, Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and HRM, Business School, University of Hull, ‘”My family”, “your family” and “our family”: Young civil partners and family life in Scotland.’


Heather Walker, author of LGBT Pathways to Parenthood, ‘LGBT pathways to parenthood: the recent, personal stories of some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Scotland.’

3.15-3.30         COFFEE

3.30                 PANEL DISCUSSION

Download the programme in PDF format:

Beyond Tradition Programme


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Wolfson Medical Building

Household Complexities, Fluidity and Single-Parent Families

There has been much hand wringing, particularly in sections of the tabloid press, about the rise in the number of single-parent families over the past half century. This has been variously attributed to a decline in moral standards, the introduction of permissive reforms during the 1960s, the rise of consumer society, or the supposed devaluation of marriage as a bedrock of Western society. However, just how accurate are concerns that the once solid and steadying influence of the nuclear family has been diminishing in modern times?

Part of our research project involves examining census records for families living in our chosen parishes throughout the period 1861 to 1911. This analysis will offer us an accurate picture of the complexities of family forms in Scotland during this period. However, census records offer us only part of a picture; they do not, on their own, reveal all forms of living arrangements experienced in Scotland in the past. Nor do they tell us explicitly, the immediate histories and futures of the men, women and children living in a given street at a given time. They are, in effect, a snapshot of a specific time and place. So, how do we flesh out these records?  One method is to compare what is printed in the census enumerators’ books and what is held in parish records. As we are focusing on working-class families a significant number of these will have applied to the parish for support at some point in their lives, therefore, we have undertaken significant research using poor relief material, which often throws up more information about how families were constituted, and how their lives together changed over time. By using some examples from our databases we will demonstrate that census records can often hide the complexity and fluidity of families.

Even in cases where there is no related parish record material we can uncover the complexities of households through careful analysis of census records. In the following example from Thistle Street, Gorbals we have a stepfamily which is relatively complex. We can deduce from the material that both William and Catherine have been married before, as the children have two surnames: Lamont and Greenfell.  By accessing prior censuses we discovered that Catherine was widowed in 1870, when she was 24, and her first husband, John, was just 31. John Greenfell was a lead miner and a contributing factor in his death were diseases of the lungs (most likely silicosis), and liver (lead poisoning). Catherine remarried, this time to William Lamont, on December 31st 1876, Hogmanay being a popular date for marriage. William’s first wife Margaret, the mother of David Lamont and 3 other children, died at 37 in 1869 from Phthisis pulmonalis (Tuberculosis).

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The following entry from George Street, in 1881 is an example of two families living in one flat, or of families within families. However, one can deduce from the information presented that Thomas (28) and John (26) are possibly brothers, cousins, or even uncle and nephew – the differing countries of birth, although not discounting siblingship, allows us to speculate on other connections. However, the census reports only offer us information relevant to the evening of the 3rd of April, 1881. By examining parish records for applications for poor relief we learn that John had, at some point in 1881, deserted his wife. We also learn that Catherine’s children may not be John’s. Parish records inform us that Margaret was born of a previous marriage and suggest Catherine Junior was illegitimate, and most likely was not John’s otherwise her birth would have been legitimated by their subsequent marriage. From marriage records we are fairly sure that John and Catherine were married in 1880. Stepfamilies, where the father has married a widow with children are usually easier to determine as the children, in many cases, retain the surname of their biological father, but this is not always the case, and makes identifying the number of stepfamilies, purely from the census, quite difficult.


The 1881 census records for the Lindore family of Blackburn Street offer us only basic information. Tracing the family to the 1891 census we find that they have moved but otherwise little has changed.


However, the parish records for Govan inform us that in 1881 Margaret had moved her daughters to a new address in Dale Street. This was because her husband was now in prison for wife beating. William had previously been a serial deserter, leaving Margaret and family to seek support from poor relief. Interestingly, in the census of 1891, William is still living at home, evidence that the options for abused wives were seriously limited during the late nineteenth century.

In the following example from 1911, this household appears to comprise of a widowed father, his 4 children and a live-in housekeeper and her daughter. However, with a little digging through parish records we have discovered that this is a form of nuclear family. William and Annie are cohabiting and have 2 children together. The other children are William’s by his late wife. Social conventions of the period likely led the census enumerator to ‘invent’ a household composition as there was no category for unmarried couples living together. Of course, census records mask the true level of couples living together for this reason, and enumerators required no proof of marriage so many cohabiting couples might have indicated that they were in fact married.


Single-Parent Families

There were multiple reasons for working-class lone parenting, including desertion, separation, death of a spouse, a change in circumstances, financial uncertainties and the inability/unwillingness to marry. We read much these days about the how ‘modern’ life has led to an explosion in the number of single-parent families, which has often been framed within a discourse which suggests that this thoroughly modern development has had a deleterious impact upon the traditional nuclear family. In the table below we can see that single-parent families were certainly not rare in late 19th-century Scotland (today single-parent families account for around 1 in 5 households with children in Scotland).

Table5* in relation to households with children

Relying solely on census information, again, often tells only part of a story.  The census entry for Sarah Milligan and family suggests that she is ‘acting’ head while her husband is away at sea. Yet, by tracing her to the Govan parish records we discover that Sarah’s marriage was irregular, and according to those records both her children are illegitimate, despite irregular marriage being legally valid in Scotland. Perhaps these children were born to a previous partner. According to parish records she is listed as a lone parent.  There was no category in the census for deserted wives and many would have been recorded as still married or even widowed. Thus we can see that the census seriously underestimated the extent of desertion and separation.


Similarly, in the following two examples, although both female heads are listed as married in the census, their spouses are absent. In such examples the census may lead us to believe that these men are simply away, perhaps working. However, in both cases these women are separated from their husbands. In the case of Annie Houston, desertion by her husband would lead to the breakup of her family.


A family requiring some detective work is the Bigley/Begley family of 40 Dale Street. According to parish records one of Bridget’s daughters had an illegitimate child who resided with the family at 40 Dale Street. It is difficult to ascertain the identity of this grandchild, or indeed whether the child was born to Sarah or Mary, as according to the census there were no grandchildren living at this address at the time. If not yet born then undoubtedly one of the daughters was with child at the time of the census enumerator’s visit. Illegitimacy may have carried a social stigma during this period but was much more common than what we have perhaps believed. For example, in 1881 illegitimacy rates fluctuated dramatically in Scottish parishes between 4% and 30% of all live births.

Tabl7 Not all single-parent families are easy to spot within the census. The next example of the McCarthy family in Thistle Street looks like a fairly straightforward extended family with a single parent head. Yet, what we have here is a single-parent family (Mary’s son James and his daughter) within a single-parent family, headed by Mary. However, daughter Catherine was pregnant with an illegitimate child and would soon extend the household to include a single-parent family within a single-parent family living alongside another single-parent family.


Our research is demonstrating that family and household composition in Scotland between 1861 and 1911 was much more complex and fluid than traditional explanations have suggested.  The nuclear family may have been the most numerous within Scotland but it rarely comprised over 50% of all households in our parishes, drawn from the north, south, east and west of Scotland, including both rural and urban areas. In Govan, a significantly large and industrial Scottish parish, nuclear families (those containing parents and children) accounted for 45% of all households in 1901, and 50% in 1911. In rural Perthshire nuclear families never accounted for more than 40% of households until a small rise in 1911. Our research is also demonstrating the dynamic quality of households over time, in the manner by which they could be shaped and reshaped by economic and material conditions, and the way in which families adapted their own households in an effort to provide economic and emotional support.

What is in a name?

At the end of last year, the Registrar-General for Scotland published the most popular baby names in Scotland. For the ninth year in a row, Sophie topped the list for girls, and for the sixth year in a row, Jack was the most popular boys’ name. On one hand, the most popular names show a tendency to convention: the Registrar General’s Office note that the top 50 boys names account for 42% of first names for boys registered in 2013, while the top 50 names account for 40% of birth registrations for girls. On the other hand, the popularity of names tend to be historically specific. While most readers can probably think of a cute little Sophie or Jack in their circle of acquaintance, they might be hard pressed to think of little Agnes or Euphemia (popular in 1900), Dennis, Brian or Maureen (popular in 1950); Tracey, Deborah or Gary (popular in 1975).

Euphemia & Guinness?
Euphemia & Guinness?

There are also a far wider range of names used today, and not only because registrars have become more permissive. In 2013, there were over 7 400 unique first names registered, compared to 4800 in 1900. One might speculate that the internet and global culture have widened people’s horizons, just as immigration and international travel have increased the linguistic possibilities. But it is also the case that tradition plays a smaller role today: the old Scottish naming patterns have all but died out. Gone are the days when the first born son would be named after the paternal grandfather, the firstborn daughter after the maternal grandmother and so on. Parents today are far less constrained in their choices, but for the full joy of their creativity, we need to wait for the unabridged list of all 7400 first names to be published in March.

Looking at our own sample from the 1881 census, tradition played a more obvious role in the rural setting, and immigration in the urban setting. In Aberdeenshire, almost three quarters of the men (73%) had William, James, John, Alexander or George as their first given name out of a total of 65 different first names used. In Govan, there was a greater variety of first names used (114) and the top five male names listed in the 1881 census (John, James, William, Robert and Patrick) made up just over half of the sample (51%). The popularity of Patrick in Govan reflects the Irish population in the area at the time. There is also an eight year old boy of Irish parentage apparently called Guinness, which is possibly a tribute to the popularity of the beer of the same name. This Irish stout was increasingly popular in Britain from the late 1860s. In 1875, some 750,000 barrels were exported to Britain rising to 1.2 million barrels by 1886.[1]

In the female sample, there was also a greater variety of first names in the urban setting. 115 different first names were held by women in Govan in 1881 compared to 81 in Aberdeenshire. However, the tendency for a handful of these to make up a large proportion of the sample remained.  In the 1881 Govan census, the most popular five female names (Mary, Margaret, Elizabeth, Jane and Anne) accounted for just under half the female sample (49.8%). In rural Aberdeenshire, the five most popular first names (Margaret, Mary, Jane, Elizabeth and Anne) accounted for a little more than half of female first names (56%). In neither sample is a person named after the reigning monarch, Victoria. In both samples, there are examples of women holding what would be traditionally seen as male names (Erskine, Maxwell) or surnames (Brunton) as first names. There were also more unusual names in the female sample, including Thirza, which is a traditional Hebrew name, and Pheney, a name we could find no meaning or explanation for.

Obviously, the census provides a snapshot of a population across a full range of ages, whereas the published lists from the Registrar-General’s Office highlight trends in naming patterns of babies in any given year. Nonetheless, one might tentatively suggest that this quick analysis shows a fairly static pattern of names in late 19th century Scotland. A few first names accounted for a large proportion of the sample, and while there were a greater variety of given names in the urban setting, the overall number of first names was relatively small. Finally, despite the popularity of Jack and Sophie today, Jack does not feature in either the Govan or the Aberdeenshire sample, and there is only one Sophie. It would therefore be foolhardy to even guess what the most popular first names in a century’s time will be.

[1] Scottish Brewing Archive, University of Glasgow


A Secret Love

Those of you who are aficionadas of BBC’s  Last Tango in Halifax will be eagerly awaiting the final episode of series 2 when the Celia and Alan seal their love, for the second time, by getting married on Christmas Eve and opting for a more public occasion than their first secret marriage ceremony.  We are accustomed now to the modern wedding ceremony being a very public (and expensive) affair, however, it was not always thus.  The public or private nature of wedding ceremonies in Scotland has ebbed and flowed throughout time.  In the preindustrial period the marriage ceremony was a very public occasion and often involved the entire community in the celebrations.  This was to be expected when communities comprised small villages.  In Shetland, before the ceremony, there were separate processions of the bride and groom to the manse, headed by a piper and after the ceremony, the entire village was involved in the celebrations which often lasted several days.  Similar forms of public and carnivalesque celebration were to be found in the west and the north east of Scotland, although wedding rituals and customs were as varied as localities. The  ‘penny wedding’,  which exemplified the tradition of involving whole communities in the celebrations, involved guests bringing food, drink or money  to the celebrations to enable the poorest in the community to have a properly festive celebration. 

The Penny Wedding (1818)

The Penny Wedding (1818)


By the end of the seventeenth century there was a shift away from the public and raucous celebrations of earlier times.  Firstly, the authorities began to frown on large gatherings of people whose sole interest seemed to be getting drunk and making merry and introduced, often ineffective, regulations to curtail them.  Secondly, the rise of non-conformism marked a shift to more secret or clandestine marriages.  The only marriages that were deemed to be’ regular’ as well as legally valid were those where banns were read on three successive Sunday in the established church and where the ceremony was conducted by a minister of the established church.  Other forms of marriage ceremony where consent was exchanged but which did not follow the ‘regular’ pattern, were still legally valid in Scotland but deemed to be ‘irregular’.  Such were the marriage of those who were not members of the established  church who often chose to be married by a celebrant from their own church and sometimes in secret.  The most extreme example of private ceremonies involved those who chose to marry by exchanging vows, sometimes, although not always, in front of witnesses and often without ceremony.  The number of these sorts of irregular marriages rose significantly by the end of the nineteenth century and peaked during WW1 at twenty per cent, although in the large towns such as Edinburgh and Glasgow the incidence of irregular marriages reached around forty per cent.   Most of these marriages were private affairs involving only the bride and groom and two witnesses.  Even those who married ‘regularly’ tended to have modest ceremonies with only a small number of guests.  This was especially true of the working classes who could not afford the outlay of an expensive celebration.  As one woman noted of her own experiences of marriage in the 1930s:


You got married..You went to the vestry and the minister married you, or if you were Catholic you went and the priest married you. And then you came back and your mother gave you and old steak pie in the kitchen in our own house.  Just the family.  Maybe a few friends that gave you a cream and sugar or a pair of dishtowels.  You were lucky if you got a pair of towels! Oh ye didnae get fridges then, you were lucky if ye had a house!


However, informal celebrations involving neighbours and friends still persisted amongst some working-class communities, particularly in old tenement districts until after WW2.    



Informal celebrations sometimes got out of hand (1954)

It was only in the more affluent post-WW2 period that the working-class marriage ceremony began to take on some of the aspects of the modern grandiose wedding with the bride wearing a white wedding gown rather than her ‘best’ clothes,  large numbers of guests, formal meal etc.


‘Best Clothes’ Wedding c.1920

Last Tango in Halifax’s Celia and Alan are also following a nineteenth –century Scottish tradition by marrying during a holiday period.  The peak period for marriage  was December 31st,  because it was usually followed by the New Year’s day holiday in Scotland.  For the same reason, summer fair holidays saw large numbers of weddings, whilst Friday was the most popular day of the week because it fell before a Saturday which was either a holiday or a half day.  Fortuitously, a December wedding this coincides with the advice in the popular rhyme for the best month to marry :


When December snow falls fast, marry and true love will last. 


 Both superstition and times winged chariot seem to assure Alan and Celia a happy union.