Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"Names are not always what they seem to be" Mark Twain - Finding Mary.

Finding Mary

Note: This picture is not of my Mary Fearns but a photograph  in my collection of another Mary.

Every family historian is familiar with the many beguiling hiding places in which our forebears can lurk to avoid being found. Ancestors artfully concealed themselves behind altered or mis-spelled names and incorrectly recorded birth places. They mysteriously disappeared from census records.   They seemingly stowed away on long voyages never to appear on passenger lists. Although we may have one definite record of their existence... we simply do not seem to be able to find a trace of them anywhere else.  This is a common and frustrating problem for family historians. I have encountered this predicament on numerous occasions whilst researching my family history but perhaps no research has been  so exasperating as that of the search for my missing Mary.

 According to her marriage record, my maternal 2 x great grandmother, was  named Mary FEARNS. On her marriage certificate issued at the time of her marriage to my 2 x great grandfather, James GIBSON, on December 15, 1862 in Polmont, Stirlingshire, Scotland, according to the Banns of the Church of Scotland, Mary's parents were named as George FEARNS and Mary Ann COUPLES. Adding confusion to my search, Mary's maiden name on the Baptism records for her four children, was FARNES.  It was recorded as FEARNS again on her second and third marriage documents. I did not see this seemingly simple name variation as an impediment to finding Mary....

Marriage Certificate of Mary Fearns and James Gibson 1862

Mary's age at the time of her marriage in December, 1862 was 18, so I estimated her birth to have occurred in 1843 or 1844. I am usually wary of the accuracy of given ages, especially since I had an eternally youthful great great grandmother who remained at the age of 34 years from  her immigration to Australia in 1870 until her third marriage some 25 years later! In Mary's case, however, because she was a minor at the time of her marriage and therefore would have required consent to marry from her parents, it seemed unlikely that her age would be incorrect.  Noting that the wedding took place in the Parish of Polmont in the County of Stirling, I began my search for Mary's birth in Stirlingshire, Scotland.

Despite a significant amount of searching, I could not find any evidence of the birth of Mary Fearns/ Farnes, even after extending the range of birth years considerably. After expanding my hunt from Stirlingshire to the whole of Scotland,  Mary still remained elusive. Added to this frustration was the fact that I was also unable to locate a marriage for her parents George Fearns and Mary Ann Couples. I searched for George under every variation of the surname Fearns that I could think of. I even had a lady who was tracing her FARNES tree, who popped my Mary on her own family tree convinced that my Mary FEARNS and her missing Mary FARNES were one and the same person.  I wasn't so easily persuaded that this was true, especially as she, like myself, had not found a marriage for the parents, and so my search for Mary continued.

Although Mary's marriage to James Gibson occurred in Scotland I extended my search to other places with no sign of a birth of my Mary Fearns. I discovered a Mary Fearns aged 3 years in the 1841 Scottish census living with parents James and Mary in Stirling. The question was raised then as to whether her father's name was wrongly recorded as George on her marriage certificate. Or as happens frequently, did George use several names, or perhaps his middle name? As I followed this particular Mary Fearns through the census records, I realised with disappointment, that she was definitely not my Mary.

On the 1871 Scottish census on the Scotland's People website, I found Mary living with her husband James Gibson and children Margaret 4 years, Robert 2 years and Mary ages 9 months. Mary's age was given as 30 years and her birth place as Camelon, Stirling. This placed her birth around 1841 however, I am well aware that one must be wary of ages on census records. Many an enumerator, rounded ages to the nearest 0 or 5.

Mary Gibson (Fearns) on the Scottish 1871 census.

The next record of Mary I located, was in 1872, on the birth record of her daughter, Elizabeth Gibson, my great grandmother. Although I found a death for Mary's husband, James Gibson, in 1876, I once again lost the trail of Mary herself. As one does when encountering a stubborn brick wall, I reluctantly left Mary missing for a while, until one day, I had one of those family historian 'hunches' which hit, almost as a revelation.

My great grandmother's youngest 'son', (in truth, her grandson brought up by his grandparents) was named Alexander Gilmour McDade. For many years I had pondered the significance of this middle name Gilmour. My Scottish forebears were quite traditional and had afforded all of their children family surnames as middle names, however, I was at a loss to find anyone with the surname of  Gilmour in my ancestry. The Scottish naming patterns are exceedingly useful when tracing family in the past, so I decided to concentrate on the name Gilmour as a possible way of finding Mary. I was well aware of bearing in mind that my grandfather's 'family' middle name of HAMILTON had turned out to be the name of the Doctor who delivered him as a baby and NOT a family member. His parents, with nine  children,  resorted to naming their son after the doctor, having run out of family surnames!  But, with high hopes, I began to think that since I could not find a death for Mary GIBSON (FEARNS), that perhaps, widowed with a young family, she  had remarried after her husband James Gibson had died. And perhaps... just perhaps, she had married a man named GILMOUR. As the step father of Mary's children, HE may have been afforded the honour of his surname as a middle name for the a grandchild.

I had previously searched in vain for a second marriage for Mary Fearns, whose parents were George Fearns and Mary Couples. This time I searched for a marriage of Mary FEARNS to a spouse with the surname GILMOUR and there it was!  On March 1, 1880, in Denny, Stirling, Mary FEARNs had married John GILMOUR.  I had not found the marriage earlier because Mary's mother's name was incorrectly given as Mary BULLOCK instead of COUPLES on the marriage certificate. By now, having traced the ancestry of Mary's first husband, James Gibson, I knew that his mother's maiden name was Bullock and although I am mystified as to how the wrong name appeared on Mary's marriage document, after many years of researching family history, I am well used to surprises!

I now knew that by 1880, my Mary Fearns had become Mary Gilmour. This was a significant discovery as I had been unable to find Mary's children from her first marriage, including my great grandmother Elizabeth Gibson in the 1881 census. In the 1881 Scottish census I found Mary and John Gilmour with Mary's children from her marriage to James Gibson using the surname of GILMOUR. When I had searched for my my great grandmother Elizabeth Gibson and her sister Mary previously I had been unable to find them in the 1881 census because I was searching for the surname of GIBSON.

The 1891 and 1901 censuses show Mary living with her husband John Gilmour and two daughters, Helen  and Isabella, half siblings to my great grandmother Elizabeth Gibson, her sisters, Mary and Margaret and brother Robert.

Mary,  her third husband  John Gilmour and children from this marriage.

Armed with Mary's surname of GILMOUR, I easily found her death on July 20, 1913 aged 71 years at 58 Pollockshaws, Glasgow. I recognised immediately that this was my Mary, as her daughter Maggie MacKenzie was present at her death and I knew that her daughter Margaret had married a George MacKenzie.

Elizabeth Gibson McDade, Mary's daughter and my great grandmother.

I now had a paper trail of evidence of Mary's life from her marriage in 1862 to her death in 1913, however, I knew nothing at all of her life before her marriage.  Marriage, census and death records for Mary all stated that she was born in Falkirk, Stirlingshire, however, I could find no record of her birth, nor could I find Mary on the 1861 or 1851 census.

I have written an earlier blog post about my search for Mary's mother, Mary Ann COUPLES and her marriage to Mary's father George FEARNS. In summary, after trying many surname variants I eventually found the  marriage to George FARRIN, not FEARNS on January 3, 1841, in Falkirk Stirlingshire, which was the place Mary had stated as her birth place on each of the census records. I had always assumed that FARRIN was a mispelling of the name FEARNS. Ah.. perhaps I should have recalled my own earlier blog entitled "Never Assume"! 

Falkirk, Stirlingshire, where I believed Mary to be born.

The Old Parish Church Falkirk where Mary's parents were married.

Mary had consistently used the  maiden surname of FEARNS  from the time of her first marriage in 1862 until the birth of her four children when it was recorded as FARNES. The name on her death certificate was FEARNS when Mary died in 1913. I decided that it was time to consider that FARRIN might in fact be the correct surname and the all important clue to finding Mary.

I knew I needed to look for my young Mary from a different perspective. If her mother had married three times, it was possible that the children were cared for by relatives. After being widowed before she was 20 years old, Mary's mother left her first child, and Mary's half sibling, Elizabeth Gray in the care of her maternal grandparents, Alexander and Elizabeth CUPPLES. With a search of name variants I had found 'Betty' Gray with her grandparents aged 3 years in 1841.  If Mary's mother had given the care of her first child to her parents then it was entirely possible that Mary had also been left in the care of relatives when her own father died prior to 1846 and when her mother remarried. In the 1851 census Mary was not living with her mother and step father Robert McMurray and three more half siblings, William, Agnes and Elisabeth. Mary would have been aged only between 7 and 9 years in 1851, too young, hopefully, to be in service. I searched the 1851 census for the siblings of Mary's mother but my hopes were dashed when I found that Mary was not living with any of her seven Cupples aunts or uncles. 

Just this week, on an impulse, I decided to search the 1851 Scottish census records for everyone with the surname Farrin or similar variants of this name. Determined to find Mary, I googled the surname Farrin and discovered that it was a common Irish surname with variants such as  Farrins, Farren, Farrens, Ferron, Fearan, Fearns, Ferren and Ferrens. Patiently I searched Ancestry.com for each of these surnames in the 1851 Scottish census, and suddenly when I entered Mary FERRENS, I found Mary Ferrens aged 9 years, born Stirlingshire, living with her Aunt Margaret (FERRENS) and uncle George Robertson in Denny, Stirlingshire. Denny is a town in the Falkirk council area of Scotland formerly known as Stirlingshire. Denny is also the birthplace of Mary's own children. This had to be my missing Mary. Also living with this family was Mary FARRENS aged 63, born in Ireland, mother in law of George Robertson and Mary's grandmother. I knew without a doubt that I had found Mary. When I searched the Scotlands People website, I discovered that Mary's surname had been incorrectly transcribed on Ancestry.com as FERRENS and on the original census record was clearly written as  FARRENS. Sadly, at the tender age of 9 years, while her mother was living with a third husband and two more children, young Mary was working as a domestic servant.


Discovering that Mary's grandmother and paternal aunt were born in  Ireland, explains why I have been unable to find a birth for her father George in Scotland and so in the near future my search for Mary's ancestry will take me on a journey to the Emerald Isle. And I have yet to find a record of Mary's birth.

The discrepancies in Mary's ages recorded on her marriage records and census records make it difficult to pinpoint an exact year of birth for her, however it appears that she was born between 1841 and 1844 in Stirlingshire. I believe that her actual age in 1851 may have been closer to 7 years and was possibly recorded as 9 years because she was in service. Despite searching for her birth under every possible variation of the name Farrin, I have as yet been unable to find a birth record for Mary. Mary. Mary. quite contrary, where and when were you born....

Perseverance has been so far rewarded and so I will continue my quest to find Mary....


  1. So is there a family recipe for your gg grandmother's elixir of youth?