Saturday, 8 February 2014

Identifying Isabella - False Trails, Frustration, Confusion & Delight

Plaque on the gates to the park at Mill Meadow
This is a A Tale of One Name, Three People and Two Wills,  as I set out to Identify Isabella Wallace, a noted benefactor in Earlston, where I live in the Scottish Borders.   

A number of plaques around the village acknowledge her generosity. Hearsay spoke of the fact that Isabella Wallace had died in the 1920's, leaving money to be  used in local projects.

This struck me as a fairly easy challenge, but it proved to be an illustration of typical family history ups and downs - with false trails, frustration, confusion and delight.  
I began the search on the ScotlandsPeople website and immediately hit a stumbling block   - there were three Isabella Wallaces in Earlston during the late 19th century.   But which one was the village's generous benefactor?  I set out to trace the family of each Isabella. 

(1)  Isabella Wallace , born 20 Jan 1850 to Henry Wallace  (Master Shoemaker) and Elizabeth Swan.
In 1851 young Isabella was with her parents and brother David.  But ten years later  her father was a widower with three children at home - David, Robert and daughter Elizabeth.  Their mother had died in 1857, aged 32.  Isabella was with her widowed aunt Helen Mercer and her cousin William Mercer.  In the 1871 census, Henry Wallace had remarried - his wife Janet,  whilst  Isabella,  described as "companion" was still living with her aunt, and following her death, she became housekeeper to her cousin William. 

Isabella remained single all her life and died 20th March 1927.  It is important to note that, unlike their English equivalent,  Scottish death certificates give the name of the parents, so I knew here that I had traced the death certificate of  the Isabella who was daughter of Henry and Elizabeth - and not the other Isabella Wallace's in Earlston at this time. She was buried in Earlston Churchyard (right).  

To my delight I discovered  she had left a will - surely an indication of money to leave to relatives and charitable causes!

Wills provide such a wealth of information for family historians with bequests to family members, here notably nieces and nephews and sisters in law:  - to "my nephews Thomas Wallace and Robert Swan Wallace, and niece Ruth Wallace, all children of my deceased brother David Wallace" my brother Robert Swan Wallace, draper, Janet Ross or Wallace, wife of the said Robert Swan Wallace" .   

The will also confirmed that "the late William Mercer, draper, Earlston, bequeathed  all his estate heritable and moveable to me".  So here was confirmation of  the source of Isabella's  wealth. 

Specific bequests highlighted what were regarded as important possessions - "my  eight day silver tea set...... my best china tea cream jug next best china tea piano...... half dozen silver spoons, sugar spoon, silver sugar sifter  and tongs.

Of course primarily I was looking for an indication of money left to the parish. But the only reference was to some shares in Earlston Corn Exchange Company, with the income to be used   in "keeping the burial ground and tombstone in Earlston Churchyard in order".  It seemed that, despite my initial high hopes. this Isabella may not be the benefactor I was looking for.

(2) Isabella Wallace, born 18th November 1850, to George Wallace (Innkeeper)  and Agnes Hudson.
In 1851 the young Isabella was with her parents, older brother William and one servant. By 1861 the family had grown further with siblings, Helen, Agnes, John and George, to be later joined by Elizabeth and Janet - a family of eight in seventeen years. All the family were still at home in 1871.

Isabella could not be traced in the 1881 census and could well have married by this time - or died. but I was unable to trace such an entries in the Scottish records.   A public tree on Ancestry has Isabella, daughter of George and Agnes, Earlston, married to a Robert Thornton of Colne, Lancashire, but again I was unable to verify this and the census returns for 1891 and 1901  just  specified Scotland for this Isabella's birthplace.   So I discounted this Isabella in my search.

(3) Isabella Wallace, born c.1854, to John Wallace (master joiner) and Martha Stewart Brown.  
I was unable to trace a birth or baptism record for Isabella - this was surprising, as although compulsory registration in Scotland was not introduced until  1855 (1837 in England & Wales), the practice was becoming more and more prevalent in the lead up to that date. 

In 1861, Isabella,  aged  7, was with parents and siblings in Market Square, Earlston - John 18, Robert 14, Hannah 12, Janet 10, George 5 and Francis 1, plus Mary Brown (mother in law) Her father John was described as  a master joiner employing 3 apprentices.

Market Square in the early 20th century

Twenty years  on,  Isabella  was still living at home, unmarried and her father's business had grown to employing six men.    

In the 1881 census, however,  she was housekeeper to her brother George, also a joiner and his nephew James  The 1891, 1901 and 1911 census returns showed her continuing in this role, latterly in a house which had eight rooms with windows - surely indicating status and money.

Isabella died 2nd June 1920, with the informant her niece Agnes  and her parents confirmed as John and Martha.  Again to my delight I traced a will on ScotlandsPeople. 

The will left heritable property "to Wilfred Wallace, residing in America, son of my late brother Frank";  "to Agnes Waddell Wallace, daughter of my late brother John my whole household furniture, every kind of wearing apparel and jewellery and all personal articles" plus a legacy of £50 per annum";  "to Janet Fairbairn Wallace,  daughter of my late brother Robert   £100"; "to Martha Stewart Brown Wallace, daughter of my late brother John - income from investments".   

The residue of Isabell's estate, she bequeathed to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

But notably -   the sum of £3250 was left to Earlston Parish Council  "For the purpose of improving the amenities of the Town of Earlston including footpaths, paving,  and lighting, and similar objects".

I had identified the correct Isabella!

Frustratingly there was no entry for her in Earlston Monumental Inscriptions, published by the Border Family History Society - nor for her parents or siblings.

A visit to my local archive centre was called for,  where I consulted the unique material not available anywhere else, though not perhaps the most riveting  of records to plough through (not indexed):
  • Berwickshire County Council - West District Minutes
  • Berwickshire County Council Finance Committee Minutes
  • Earlston Parish Council Minutes
  • Earlston Lighting and Scavenging Account
In  the years I looked at, the records confirmed that the Isabella Wallace Fund was used for the provision of  lighting, the upgrading of the Square, with  railings around the War Memorial,  the removal of an air raid shelter. and a gateway  and railings at the riverside park at Mill Meadow.  

A winter view of the park at Mill Meadow by the  Leader Water.

And where did the "confusion" come into this story?  Fellow bloggers will not be surprised to hear that consulting the public trees on Ancestry left me very confused!  There were entries for all three Isabella's, with the three different sets of parents correctly identified.  However all three trees gave the same date of death for "their"  Isabella -  20th March 1927   - the actual date only for the first Isabella, daughter of Henry Wallace and Elizabeth Swan. A further example of how mistakes get perpetuated on this resource.

Below two more early photographs of the  Market Square, Earlton before the unveiling of the War Memorial in 1921, and  the provision of railings and creation of a garden paid for from the Isabella Wallace Fund.  



To the right of the War Memorial can be seen a small plinth
which features the plaque (below)  to Isabella Wallace - benefactor of Earlston 

I found this an enjoyable small research project which combined my interest in both family and local history  - and illustrated the pleasures and pitfalls of both! 

With thanks to the Auld Earlston Group and its associated website Lost Earlston  
for the old photographs of the village. 

Copyright © 2014 · Susan Donaldson.  All Rights Reserved


  1. I enjoyed reading about the resources and strategies you used to solve this puzzle. I can also totally relate to your comments about the dangers of family trees on Ancestry! My tree is on my own Web site and also on Rootsweb's WorldConnect, though for some reason I can't get my sources to display properly there.

  2. I found this really interesting to read, I'd never thought about doing research of well known people within our local communities, what a great idea.

  3. Wonderful post - and oh how I hate those trees with the wrong branches because someone has not taken the time to do their research. Thanks for showing us how you did your research and how you learned more about an important person in the community. Please make sure you shared your blog post with your local genealogy society and the town. What a grand idea!

  4. What a lovely post! I love learning about local history. There's a park near my house that's been named after three sisters. Every time I go by I always tell myself I need to research more about them, but I never do. Reading this, it's really got me thinking about them now. Thank you for sharing :)

  5. What an interesting post. Thanks also for sharing the various resources you used.

  6. Well done! Ditto all the comments here. Enjoyed this post!

  7. This is excellent work that you did. It is great how you documented the three lives of Isabella Wallace, and it gives clear evidence as to why we must research same named individuals in the same locals as to ensure that we have the correct information. I enjoyed this and this has encouraged me to do the same on a few ancestors where the names were common. I look forward to your next one.

  8. Thank you to everyone for their kind comments and I am pleased I struck a chord for other bloggers to follow suit in researching, what we in Scotland call "local worthies".

  9. I enjoyed reading about your research, Sue, and I so agree about those rogue trees - and they're not just on Ancestry, either :(

  10. Rogue trees are everywhere. I've not had too much trouble when I can reach the owner suggesting corrections. I think it's all in how you approach them. I'm sure I have mistakes in my tree and welcome better information.

    Working through several people with the same name to determine which one is "yours" is always challenging, but if you don't love a good mystery then you've probably got the wrong hobby. ;)


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