Sewell of Dumfries
By Pauline Kennelly
This article was originally published in the November 1997 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
My father, George Sewell, lost touch with his family in Dumfriesshire, Scotland as a young man and, to my knowledge, only rarely referred to them. I knew his date of birth, and that his mother was Jessie Sewell, a dairy‑maid, in Annan, Dumfriesshire in 1911 and that later, he attended Dumfries Academy School. I was vaguely aware that he possibly had some siblings. This was the extent of my knowledge.
On clearing my mother's bungalow after her death, I found a small leather suitcase in her loft that contained eighty‑seven letters written to her by my father when, in the second Year of their marriage, they were forced to live apart for about ten months because of house and job problems in this post‑war period. These letters were chatty letters, written between the twice‑a‑week visits my father managed to pay my mother, until the time came when he was able to rejoin her. This was after he was released from the restrictions imposed by the Essential Works Orders on engineers and able to look for work elsewhere. In just one letter, written near Christmas, he was reminiscing about family Christmases of long ago, and included small facts of information I had never known, and which set me off on the track of the lost family. He wrote that his little sister was born on Boxing Day, 1917, and that, tragically, his mother died in November 1918 when he was only seven years old.
A short time later, in September 1995, I spent three days in the Register Office in Edinburgh making use of their excellent computerised Birth, Marriage and Death indexes. Following up the leads from the letter, I found a marriage for Jessie Sewell to George Ferguson in 1913 in Dumfriesshire. A search revealed no other marriages in Scotland for any Jessie Sewell between 1913 and 1918 when I knew she had died. I then looked to see if Jessie (Sewell) Ferguson had died in November 1918, then aged 34. She had ‑ of pneumonia ‑ so I1 realised this must be the right Jessie. To clinch this, I then searched for the birth of a baby girl to Jessie Ferguson in December 1917. I was disappointed not to find this in the final quarter of 1917, but on continuing to search in the first quarter of 1918 I found her, registered in January: Agnes Seaton Ferguson, born 26 December 1917, just as the teller had said. I then backtracked and found two earlier children: Oswald Ferguson (b. 1913) and Thomas Sewell Ferguson (b. 1916). I had noticed on Jessie's marriage entry that her husband. George, a shepherd, was a widower aged 33. I wondered if he had a family from his previous marriage. I found his first marriage and the birth of a daughter, Maggie, in 1899. I did not find any more children. but found his first wife's death, from TB, in 1911. I would add here that in searching the indexes for the prevalent name of Ferguson, I was confronted with sifting out tiny Dumfriesshire parishes most of whose names were completely unknown to me. This was how I missed the remainder of George's first family, but more of that later.
Now, to summarise, I had my grandmother Jessie's marriage to George, and details of their three subsequent children prior to her untimely death in 1918. I also had some information about George's first marriage and that family. The next step, I decided, was to search forward to see if I could uncover more details of Oswald, Thomas and Agnes, and to discover if these half‑brothers and half‑sister of my father were still living. I found Oswald's marriage in 1940 in Dumfries. After a long search I found one daughter of that marriage born in 1949. I did not know if Oswald was still alive and I could find no trace at all of Thomas, but I did find Agnes' death in 1982. She had not married. Oswald's address was on her death certificate and when I looked in the 1995 phone directory for Dumfries I found Oswald Ferguson was still listed at this address. However a later phone call revealed that he no longer lived there and I could find no trace of his daughter. At the end of my three days' search I had uncovered much information and I had also had time to go back on the FERGUSON/SEWELL lines as far as the 1850s.
A year later, in September 1996, we returned to Edinburgh but first visited the local area around Dumfries intending to visit some of the places I now knew were connected with the family. The first step was Dumfries Academy School as we had arranged to visit their Heritage Room in which numerous school archives were stored. I found my father registered as George Sewell Ferguson, and found his Leaving School Certificate result (equivalent to 'A' levels). In an issue of the school prospectus, I also found a picture of Thomas in the cricket team, plus details of prizes he and Oswald had won. Being a member of the Dumfries and Galloway Family History Society, I also visited their Family History Research Centre, which is based in shop premises in Dumfries. There I was able to access censuses and the IGI on microfiches. Later, using maps from the library, we set off for the remote area the family had lived in near Thornhill, DFS. We stopped at a tiny village called Durisdeer to check which track to take. On learning of our search, a helpful lady, sitting in her garden shelling peas, advised us to knock on the door of a nearby cottage as she was sure the lady living there would have known the family. This proved true, and the 87 year old lady recalled them well. She commented on the large size of the family. and mentioned the two George's, Margaret and Robert. I then wondered if I had missed some children of George Ferguson's first marriage! We found the ruins of the little settlement in which they lived on the Duke of Buccleugh's estate and admired its beauty on a fine and sunny September day.
Before leaving the Dumfries area for Edinburgh for another visit to the Record Office, we decided to visit the village of Lochinaben, Dumfriesshire, which was Oswalds last known address. We hoped to make enquiries but found the small police‑station and the library closed. We asked at the Post Office to no avail, and then at a newsagent. The owner was new to the area but suggested a nearer newsagent on the edge of the village that was close to Oswald's last known address. The assistant in this shop had known Oswald, but said that he had died about 18 months previously. However, this helpful lady said that his former cleaning lady lived just over the road and would be willing to talk to us. We knocked and were welcomed into her house, and in amongst reminiscences of Oswald she gave us the address of his daughter, who had married in England and was living in Barnet, Herts.
Later that week, back at the Record Office in Edinburgh, I found the missing children from George Ferguson's first marriage. The first daughter, Maggie, had died at two months and the family moved to a new parish. Seven more children were born in that parish, so Jessie had seven step‑children and four of her own to bring up in her remote cottage.
On our return to Peterborough I wrote to Oswald's daughter who sent me many snippets of information about members of the family, plus the address of her uncle, Thomas Sewell Ferguson, who was living in Newbury, Berks. She later very kindly sent me a clear copy of a photograph of Jessie with baby Oswald on her knee. At last I knew what my paternal grandmother looked like! I have now been in correspondence for a while with Thomas, who is married and has two sons and four grandchildren to continue the SEWELL/FERGUSON line. He has written that he was surprised but not shocked after well over 60 years to hear of George and to discover me. He has taken the trouble to give me answers to my many questions and furnished me with details of my father's upbringing in rural Scotland that spanned the period from the First World War up to the early thirties.
(The copyright of this article, which has appeared in the Peterborough & District FHS Journal, September 1997, lies with Pauline Kennelly. It is reprinted in Soul Search with permission)
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