Last November a cousin in Canada emailed me with exciting news – her sister had found an old photo album containing photographs of our Lowe ancestors in Coupar Angus, Scotland, dating from the 19th century.
My cousin sent me a copy of a picture from that album showing five young girls – the daughters of my 2x great grandfather John Lowe, a Coupar Angus solicitor, and his wife Cecilia, nee Malcolm. The girls were Georgina (my great grandmother) b. 1853, Marjory b. 1855, Cecilia Anne (Annie) b. 1857, Catherine (Kate) b. 1860 and Maria b. 1863.
I was thrilled to have this photograph. Georgina died in May 1890, one week after giving birth to my grandfather, Lawrence, and his twin sister, Georgina. Only one photograph of her had passed down to us, dating from the time of her marriage in 1876. I had never seen any photographs of her sisters.
Judging by the girls’ apparent ages in the photograph, I guessed it was probably taken in the second half of the 1860s. Looking more closely, I realised that all the girls were dressed entirely in black and had black ribbons in their hair. They were also wearing crosses on black ribbons or necklaces round their necks. Clearly they were in mourning.
That sent me scurrying back to the family tree to try and identify a family death in the late 1860s. The one that seemed most likely was the death of the girls’ older brother, John James Lowe, in September 1867. I had his death date from a gravestone in the Kirkyard of the Abbey Church, Coupar Angus, so had never bothered to purchase his death certificate. Now I decided it was time to do so.
I quickly found the death certificate for John James Lowe on the Scotland’s People website. Reading it pulled me up with a start.
John James died at 4.10 pm on the afternoon of 9 September 1867 at the General Railway Station in Perth. His death was certified by Dr George W Absolom who had entered the cause of death as “Probably Heart Disease?”. It looked like John James had dropped dead from a heart attack or heart failure in the railway station.
My next stop was the family's local newspaper, the Dundee Courier. Fortunately for family historians, the British Library has put a large number of 19th century newspapers online, including several from Scotland. And I am one of the lucky people who has free access to this database from home, courtesy of my library’s subscription.
I found a death notice, published on 11 September 1867, which confirmed that John James had died suddenly. Sadly, there was no other report - probably because, as the death certificate shows, there was no inquest. There certainly would be today, if an apparently healthy 16 year old dropped down dead in a railway station. The death also took place at a time when a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was taking place in Dundee. The columns of the Dundee Courier were so full of the doings of the eminent visiting scientists that there was little space for anything else.
However, the Dundee Courier did provide me with an unexpected bonus in the shape of a railway timetable for September 1867. This shows that the Highland Railway train from Dundee arrived at Perth Station at 4.10 pm - the time of death given on the death certificate. It would seem that poor John James died as he got out of the train.
The informant on the death certificate was John James' 17 year old cousin, Henry James Lowe, who registered the death at Perth on 11 September. Since he gave his place of residence as Coupar Angus, I can think of no reason for him to be in Perth, registering the death, other than that he was John James' travelling companion on the ill-fated train journey. He must have been in a state of shock, as he could not remember his aunt's first name.
The moral of this tale is, of course, that one should always purchase the death certificate - particularly for deaths in Scotland, where the certificates are so informative. Had I not done so, John James would have remained just a name on a gravestone.
A footnote for those familiar with Scottish research - Henry James Lowe went on to work as a clerk in the Register House in Edinburgh, up until his own untimely death in 1886. Now that's another certificate I must buy.