Agnes McSymon Anderson

In writing this blog about the family history of my Smith ancestors I do not want to neglect the various “Mrs. Smiths” that married into the family.  Of course, the farther back in time that I look, the less I know about the Mrs. Smiths of earlier generations.  Nevertheless, they contributed to the gene pool that the descendants of William Smith of Blackhall all share so they deserve some attention.

In the Smith family, as far as I can tell, most of my ancestors were English or of English origin.  Before 1860, the Smiths were 100% English, specifically from the Cumberland Fells.  It was only after my line of the Smiths moved to Ireland in the 1850s that anything changed, although not a lot at first.  When the Smiths started to marry in Ireland, they selected spouses who were also English, such as Backhouse and Brindley, or had English forebears, such as Upton.  In my grandfather’s generation, the Smiths married people called Mounsey, Nicholson and Hodgins – all born in Ireland but of English origin, I believe.  My grandfather William Smith’s wife came from a different country.

Agnes McSymon Anderson was 100% Scottish – and proud of it.  All her life she retained her Scottish accent although it was not particularly pronounced.  She was always Scottish – never Scotch, which was too closely tied to whisky in her mind and she disapproved of alcohol.She was fond of wearing jewellery made of Scottish gemstones and I remember she had at one time a pair of grey leather gloves lined with the Anderson tartan.  I thought that was very smart (I was probably about 6 years old at the time).

Agnes married William Smith of Blackhall in April 1905 (see the page for “William Smith 1867-1946” in the Family Stories section.)  I believe she is the most “exotic” person in our particular Smith family tree.

This is my grandmother as an old lady, much as I remember her from my childhood.  I do remember her quite well from her visits to my family home and our visits to see her after my grandfather died.  I think all her grandchildren were old enough to have memories of her as well.  I would appreciate them pointing out any errors of recollection  that I have made in this post.

Agnes was born in May 1878 in the Royal Burgh of Dumbarton, which is on the northern bank of the River Clyde, downriver from Glasgow in Scotland.  Dumbarton is a very old town, strategically placed on the Clyde to control the area, and was a Royal Burgh from the 13th century until 1975.  The population in Dumbarton in 1881 was about 14,000.  At that time, Dumbarton had several shipyards, foundries and related industries although those industries died out after the Second World War and were replaced by whisky distilleries.  Grandma would not have approved.

I have been told that Agnes was known as Ada for much of her life.  She was the only surviving daughter of William Duncan Anderson and Margaret Livingston Roy.  Her father was a schoolmaster who taught writing and music in his early teaching career and later on was the headmaster of a large school in Dumbarton.

The Anderson family lived at 112 High Street in Dumbarton for many years.  Ada had two older brothers: James Wilson Anderson (born in 1873) and Robert Proudfoot Roy Anderson (born in 1875).  Ada also had a younger sister Elizabeth (Bessie) who was born in 1880 but who died at the age of 8 from a fall.  There were other children born in the family but none of them survived infancy.

This is a picture of a school class in which Ada is seated in the middle of the group.  She had straight dark hair, cut very short.  Apparently this kind of hairstyle was quite common for young girls in the 1880s.  Ada’s head is marked with a circle.

The photograph above on the left is a formal portrait of Ada as a girl of about 8 or 9 years of age.  I am not quite sure what was done to her hair but it looks as though they tried to make it curly on the top.

Above on the right is a formal portrait of Ada’s mother Margaret Livingston Roy Anderson, probably taken around 1885.  I don’t have an equivalent picture of Ada’s father.

For some reason, the Anderson family spent summer holidays on the island of Gigha (pronounced “Ghee-a”) on the Southern Hebrides.  I don’t know why the Andersons picked this place to visit because – as far as I know – neither of Ada’s parents had any family connection with Gigha.  At that time, the island would have been even more isolated than it is now although the population  – largely Gaelic-speaking – would have been somewhat larger than today.  I think it was while staying on Gigha that Ada developed an interest in Scottish Gaelic culture.  She did learn some Scottish Gaelic language.

Ada was musical, probably inheriting this talent from her father, who encouraged her to develop her interests in the arts.  She played the piano and enjoyed the social life of a smallish town as she grew up, at a time when Dumbarton was quite separate from Glasgow, the nearest city.

Both of Ada’s brothers became ministers in the Free Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) and I believe they both joined the United Free Church of Scotland as soon as that was formed in 1900.  Around that date, Ada’s brother James was appointed as the minister of the United Free Church of Scotland in Kilchattan Bay, on the Isle of Bute.  For several years, Ada lived with him there as his housekeeper and took an active part in the small social circle available to her as well as in the church.  Meantime her brother Robert (known as Roy for much of his life) was living in Brechin, in the County of Angus.  I don’t know if he was appointed as a minister there or was still an assistant minister.  (By 1911, Robert was a minister in the United Free Church of Scotland in Muthill, Perthshire, and he remained for at least 10 years.  After that, although I don’t know the date, he became the minister in charge of a Church of Scotland mission to seamen in Italy, where he lived with his family near Rome.)

This interesting photograph – a little bit murky but viewable – was in a photograph album that had belonged to Ada and which she brought with her to Ireland.  When I first saw this picture I had very little idea of who were the people in it although I thought Ada was there.  Further thought and some discussions with cousins have enabled me to be (fairly) sure of the identity of the people shown and their relationship to Ada Anderson.  I don’t know where the picture was taken but I think it was in Dumbarton, probably in the garden of the Anderson family’s home.  I think the date was around 1901.

In the back row from left to right are: Robert Anderson (brother), James Anderson (brother), William Anderson (father), Margaret Anderson (mother), Robert Roy (uncle), William Strang (cousin’s husband).  Standing in front of Robert and James Anderson are two of the sons of William and Agnes Strang; the older boy on the left is Ian Strang.

The four women seated in the middle row, from left to right are: Rita Roy (cousin), Ada Anderson, Agnes Strang, nee Rogerson (cousin) and Margaret Roy (uncle’s wife).

The three children seated on the ground are also the children of William and Agnes Strang.  The girl on the left is Nancy Strang.

The Strang family lived in London where William Strang was a well-known and successful artist.  So I think the reason for the photograph was probably because of the Strang family’s visit to Dumbarton combined with the presence of all the Anderson family together and the family of Robert Roy visiting from Falkirk (his son Bertie is not in the picture so I am guessing he is the person who took the photograph).  Both William Strang and his wife were from Dumbarton and probably visited there fairly often.  Their daughter Nancy was born in Dumbarton although all her older brothers were born in London.

In 1903, Ada went on a visit to stay with her McCulloch cousins in Dublin.  (These were second cousins, related to her through her grandmother Nancy McSymon Roy.)  While there, she met other McCulloch cousins in Gerrardstown, County Dublin, who were good friends of William Smith of Blackhall.  Within a few weeks of meeting, they became engaged.  Ada’s mother was quite upset to find out her only daughter had decided to marry an Irishman.  But she was mollified when she met William and thought he was wonderful.  And the rest is (family) history. ….

Ada and William Smith were married in Dumbarton United Free Church in April 1905.  Ada’s younger cousin and Margaret (Rita) Roy was her bridesmaid.  Rita was the daughter of Ada’s uncle Robert Roy.  Rita Roy and William’s brother John Smith were the witnesses at the wedding.

Not to digress too far from the story of Ada’s life, I would like to give you some information about her parents and her grandparents.

Ada’s father William Duncan Anderson was born in Linlithgow in West Lothian in June 1845.  His family moved about two miles north to Bo’ness, West Lothian, on the Firth of Forth when William was a small child.  He was the youngest of six children of James Anderson and Elizabeth Wilson.  By the age of 15, he was working as a pupil teacher in Bo’ness.  William received his teacher training for two years at Edinburgh Free Church Training College, where he completed his studies in December 1865.  By 1867 he was teaching writing and music at the Dumbarton Burgh Academy.  He stayed there until 1875.

The above picture was taken in 1875 while William Anderson was still teaching at the Burgh Academy.  He is the bearded man in the back row.

In September 1875 William Anderson started teaching at the West Bridgend Academy, a board school to which he was appointed first as senior teacher, then as headmaster.  The school was a very large elementary school with about 700 pupils.  He continued teaching at the Bridgend school until he retired.  He died in November 1918.

Ada’s mother Margaret Livingston Roy was the younger daughter of Robert Roy, a baker in Dumbarton for many years.  I have been told he became a burgh councillor.  Robert Roy was born in Renton, a village about a mile north of Dumbarton, in May 1818 and died in Dumbarton in June 1909.

In the 1841 census, Robert was working as baker and living in the household of Archibald McSymon in the High Street in Dumbarton.  By 1851, Robert had taken over the business – and married the baker’s youngest sister Agnes McSymon, who was known as Nancy.

This is a studio photograph of Nancy McSymon Roy as an old lady.  The photograph was probably taken around 1875.  She died in 1877.  I have no other photographs of her.

Robert and Nancy had three children: Mary, Margaret and Robert (sometimes known as Robert Jr. to distinguish him from his father).  Mary Roy married David Rogerson and their daughter Agnes married William Strang.  Robert Roy Jr. was an engineer and worked as a ship’s engineer for the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in Burma when he was a young man.  Later he worked for many years as an engineer in the Carron Ironworks near Falkirk.

Bringing the story back to Ada now, this is a formal photograph of four generations – apparently this type of photograph was quite popular in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.  This portrait was taken in Scotland in May or June of 1906, a bit more than a year after Ada was married.  Portrayed are, from left to right, Ada Smith, Robert Roy (standing), and Margaret Anderson with her eldest grandchild, Nancy Roy Smith, on her lap.  Robert Roy was the baby’s great-grandfather.

When Ada married William Smith, she made a huge change in her life.  Instead of living in the middle of a town, she went to live in what was then the depths of the country and had to learn how to be a farmer’s wife.  She had to learn how to manage a much bigger household than she was used to, how to make butter and many other things that she would have previously bought in a shop (she never did master the task of gutting a chicken!).  She also had to get used to living far removed from the circle of friends and family she had known all her life.  I admire her courage.

While she was learning her new role as farmer’s wife, Ada had four children.  She had three children in rapid succession: Nancy (1906), Lancelot (1907) and William (1908), then a short pause before she had her fourth child, Ian, in 1911.  (See the page on “William Smith’s Children” in the Family Stories section.)

In 1912, Ada’s daughter Nancy was sent to stay with her Anderson grandparents for a year.  Nancy attended school in Dumbarton and got to know her grandparents and her uncles very well although she must have missed her family back in Ireland.  Ada’s oldest son Lancelot spent at least a year with his Anderson relatives in Scotland when he was about 12 years old.  I believe he lived with his uncle James who at that time was the minister of a United Free Church in Port Glasgow near Dumbarton.  The two younger Smith sons also visited their Scottish relatives but I don’t think they stayed in Scotland for long.  I believe Ada did her best to enable her children to know their Anderson relatives and to know something about Scotland.

Ada kept up her connections with Scotland through correspondence and occasional visits to her family and friends.  She also kept in touch with her church through attendance at the Ormond Quay and Scots Church in Dublin when travel into the city became easier and her children were older.  On Sunday mornings, Ada attended the local Anglican church of Ballymaglasson with William and their children; I believe she played the organ for the services.

While living at Blackhall as her children grew older, Ada did what she could to enable them to meet new people.  She loved having young people to visit and was happy to encourage her children to bring school friends and others to widen the social circle for the Smiths.  Having grown up in a town herself, I think she was very aware of how isolated the Smiths could have been, living in the countryside where there very few other Protestant families.  As roads and car travel improved, this became less of an issue, especially for her sons.

Ada lived at Blackhall for many years until William retired from farming and handed over the farm to his second son William Anderson Smith.  In 1943, Ada and William Smith moved to a suburban house in Sandycove near Dun Laoghaire, south of the city of Dublin.  I am not sure why they moved so far from Blackhall but I suspect they moved to Sandycove because it was what Ada wanted: town life with the amenities that go with it.  Maybe William did not care where he lived if he wasn’t living on a farm.

After William died in 1946, Ada stayed on in Sandycove for about five years.  She visited her married children with their families periodically, and had frequent visits from family members, but living alone probably did not suit her very well.  After her son Ian married Nancy Hogg in 1949, it was decided that she would go and live with Ian and Nancy in Leicester and help them to buy a house there.  The house in Sandycove was sold in 1951.  Ada lived with Ian and his family (they had one daughter, born in 1952) until she died in 1959.  She was buried in the same gravesite as her husband William in the churchyard of Donabate Parish Church, County Dublin.


Thanks mainly to information gathered by my great-uncle James Wilson Anderson and one of his grandsons, I have had a great starting point for doing the research on the family tree of Agnes McSymon Anderson.  I have more information than I could fit comfortably into a single post.  Of course, there is a lot more I would also like to know about the various families in Scotland that appear in Agnes’s family tree.  In addition to the Andersons, the Roys and the McSymons, there are other families that I know are linked into this tree: Baillie, Brodie, Brockie, Denholm, Glasgow, Johnston, Livingston, Proudfoot, Rankin, Williamson, Wilson, and Yellowlees.  And there are probably others if we could trace back the generations of each family far enough. However, that would be a separate family history project.  Maybe someone else will take on this challenge!

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