Monday, November 28, 2011

Where there is a WILL... there is a Way to find your Your Ancestor!

The Search For Margaret Helen Cunningham

Margaret Helen Cunningham 
I have been kindly granted permission from the great nephew of Margaret Helen Cunningham, to tell the following story of how the discovery of a Will, provided previously unknown information about the youngest of three sisters who had been orphaned in Scotland at the ages of 6, 4 and 2 years. Margaret Cunningham had arrived in Australia in 1911 and her family knew little of her life in Australia other than where and when she had died. It is therefore, with gratitude to Margaret Helen Cunningham's family, that I write this story.

In September of this year I received an email from a friend in Queensland who is involved with the Kilcoy Historical Society. The Society had received an email from a man in South Australia who was looking for information about his great aunt, Margaret Cunningham, whom he knew to have died in the town of Kilcoy, in South Eastern Queensland. Knowing that I make frequent research trips to Queensland, my friend in the Kilcoy Historical Society, wondered if I would be interested in undertaking this research. She forwarded the original email on to me which read, in part,
 'I am trying to trace information on my great aunt, Margaret Cunningham, who died in Kilcoy in 1931.' 

The writer explained exactly what information that he was seeking, in his email,
 'I am interested in finding out, when my aunt arrived in Kilcoy, what she did for a living, who she worked for, and where she lived.'

From details provided by Margaret Cunningham's great nephew, I knew that Margaret was born on the 19th of June, 1878 at 12 Gladstone Place, Edinburgh and that her parents were James Cunningham and Elizabeth Wilson McPherson.  Margaret was believed to have worked as a Governess in Australia  after her arrival in Queensland in December 1911 on board the 'S S Perthshire' which sailed from London on October 14, 1911. The 'Perthshire' arrived in Rockhampton on December, 12, then docked in Maryborough, on December 15, and finally berthed in Brisbane on December 16, 1911. The family's last known whereabouts of Margaret Helen Cunningham was in 1904, when she acted as a witness for her sister Jane Wilhelmima Cunningham at her wedding in Scotland.
Margaret Helen Cunningham's family had discovered that she had died on May 27, 1931 in the Kilcoy District Hospital, [Pictured at top] the informant being the hospital Matron, Margaret M. McDonnell. Margaret Cunningham  was buried on May 28, 1931 in the Kilcoy Cemetery. The family had been unable fill in the missing years between her arrival in Australia and her death.

Kilcoy District Hospital in the 1930's

From Local Council records, my friend at the Kilcoy Historical Society, was able to confirm that Margaret Cunningham was buried in Kilcoy Cemetery, Section 12, Plot 9. Her grave was unmarked and her religion was given as Presbyterian.

Plan of Kilcoy Cemetery

Kilcoy Cemetery

Margaret Cunningham's Death Certificate

The death certificate for Margaret Cunningham, ( above) which was attached to the email, showed that she was 52 years old when she died of  (a) Haematemesis (b) Gastric Ulcer and (c) Cardiac Syncope.

 Margaret Cunningham arrived in Queensland, Australia from Scotland aged 33 years, presumably to start a new life and had died alone in Kilcoy. I wondered why she not kept her family informed of her whereabouts and resolved to find out, if I could, something about Margaret's life in Australia.

Searching the Australian Electoral Rolls on, I found only one Margaret Cunningham who was umarried. In 1913, a person by this name, was working at the Hamilton Hotel, in Brisbane, as a Domestic. Although this did not fit with the family's story that Margaret had worked as a Governess, I had encountered enough family anecdotes to realise that they are often not correct.  I needed, however,  more information before I concluded that this was the right Margaret Helen Cunningham.
1913 Queensland Electoral Roll
On the 1919 Queensland Electoral Roll, I found once again, only one unmarried Margaret Cunningham. This Margaret, was working as a waitress in Boundary Street, off Hope Street in Brisbane. Still unsure if I had found the correct Margaret Cunningham and unable to find any other record relating to a person of this name, I conducted an Archive Search on the Queensland State Archive Website. I found a number of items under the name Margaret Cunningham. By eliminating any records outside of the dates within which I was searching, I narrowed the items down to one possible record. That record was a Will File held by the Archives, for a Margaret Cunningham, Series Number 6047, Item ID 907005. The start date was 27/5/1931 and the end date was 31/12/1933. I felt excitement mounting as I realised that the start date for this file matched the date of death for the Margaret Cunningham I was looking for.

As I was travelling to Brisbane the following week, I decided to go to the Queensland State Archives in person, to request to view Margaret Cunningham's Will File.

It never ceases to thrill me when old record books or documents wrapped in brown paper, bound with white tape, are brought to my numbered table at the Archives, for my inspection. It was no different with the Will File for Margaret Cunningham. I carefully untied the package, and lifted the documents out one by one with anticipation, until I found the File entitled Margaret Cunningham.

The File was over 50 pages thick and given that it was over 80 years old, had the distinctly musty odour that one associates with archived documents. I quickly determined that this file was most certainly the Will made by same Margaret Helen Cunningham who was born in Scotland in 1878, and about whom information was being sought.

The Will was dated 26/5/1931, the day prior to Margaret's death and was witnessed by the Medical Practitioner, Dr. David Miller, whose name was also on  Margaret Cunningham's Death Certificate as the attending Medical doctor, as well as a Mrs Jessie Timperley, License Victualler, Woodford. Margaret's address was given as the Yatesville Hotel, Woodford and her occupation, as a Cook.

Will of Margaret Cunningham
Will of Margaret Cunningham

   A typed letter in the Wiil File, from the Court House in Kilcoy to the Public Curator in Brisbane, explained the sad circumstances in which Margaret Cunningham wrote her will. The writer of the letter (signature illegible) explained that
'The Doctor of the Hospital [Kilcoy] called at this office and informed me that he thought Margaret  Cunningham would die within a day or two and requested me to bring up a Will form to have completed.'                                                                                                    

The letter also confirmed that 'the deceased up until the time of her admission to the Hospital was employed as a Cook at the Yatesville Hotel, Woodford,'

A note, hand written, on the bottom of the page declared that 'the deceased informed me she has no relations or friends in Australia.'

A hand written declaration made by Mrs Jessie Timperley and dated September, 1931, verified that Margaret Cunningham, 'late of Woodford, aforesaid Cook, was in my employ prior to her admission to the Kilcoy Hospital.'

Jessie Timperley's declaration, in regard to moneys owed to, and by, Margaret Cunningham for the purpose of settlement of her estate, confirmed where Margaret had worked, her occupation and that her employer had been Mrs Timperley.

Declaration made by Mrs Jessie Timperley

I ordered a photocopy of the Will File of Margaret Cunningham and organised for it to be posted to my address in Sydney. I emailed the great nephew of Margaret Cunningham to tell him that I had found a file containing his great aunt's Will, and that most of the information he had been seeking was contained within the file. Not long afterwards, I received an email in reply, which made the find so much more meaningful. I realised just how important it was to this family to find information about Margaret Cunningham as I read the words,
' Margaret was my great aunt, being one of three girls, my grandmother being the eldest. They were orphaned when my grandmother was 6 years old and were subsequently taken in by different members of the family, so it has  been quite a challenge tracking them down when they were younger.' 

Margaret Helen Cunningham had left her estate divided between three people, a Miss Margaret Williams and a Mr William Williams who both lived at No. 1 Colnbrook Street, St Georges Road, London, and a Mr James Barrie whose address was 'The Lodge', Bailleston, Stirlingshire, Scotland. The file contained bank records of Margaret Cunningham and correspondence to and from the  beneficiaries of the will and the Public Curator in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

The Yatesville Hotel, Woodford, Queensland

The informaion contained in the Will File, answered three of Margaret Cunnuingham's great nephew's inquiries - where his great aunt had lived, what her occupation had been and who had employed her, at least prior to her death.  Exactly when Margaret Cunninhgam arrived in in the town of Woodford, near Kilcoy is still a mystery. I strongly suspect that the Margaret Cunningham I had found on the 1913 and 1919 Electoral Rolls in Brisbane, the Capital City of Queensland, working first as a Domestic at the Hamilton Hotel and then as a waitress in Boundary Street, Spring Hill, was indeed Margaret Helen Cunningham. That her Bank Passbook was issued in Brisbane, was further evidence indication that she had begun her life in Australia in the capital city. Somewhere between 1919 and 1931, it would appear that Margaret began working as a Cook at the Yatesville Hotel in Woodford. This lovely old Hotel (pictured above) was demolished in the 1960's, a decade, when sadly, so much of our built heritage was lost.

While waiting for the Will File to arrive, out of curiosity, I decided to find out what I could about Margaret Helen Cunningham's background in Scotland. On the Scotland's People website I found the marriage of Margaret's sister, Jane Wilhelmina Cunningham to James Barrie. The marriage took place on June 3, 1904 at  Stanley Place, Blantyre ( Jane's usual place of residence) in the County of Lanarkshire, Scotland, according to the Banns of the established Church of Scotland, Margaret Cunningham was recorded as a witness at her sister's marriage.

Jane Wilhelmina Cunningham  Marriage Certificate

James Barrie, Jane's husband, had the same name as one of the beneficiaries of Margaret Cunningham's modest estate. Margaret had left equal shares of money to her niece, Margaret Williams,  Mr William Williams and James Barrie. No mention was made of her sisters, so it was possible that they had both died before Margaret. A quick search for the death of Jane Barrie (Cunningham) showed that she had died on May 29, 1913, barely nine years after her marriage to James Barrie. Jane died of a 'Duodenal Ulcer, Dilated Stomach and Cardiac Failure'. Jane Barrie [Cunningham] had passed away from a similar  cause of death as her sister Margaret but Jane, tragically died, aged only 34 years. Jane's birth year from her marriage and death certificate appeared to be 1879, making her younger than Margaret, which conflicted with the information I had been given.

Jane Barrie  Death Certificate

A search for the birth of the three Cunningham sisters revealed that in fact, Margaret Helen Cunningham was the youngest of the three sisters, as I had been informed by her great nephew. Perhaps Jane had not wished her husband to know that she was three years older than him!  Jane's birth certificate showed her birth date as May 10, 1876, and place of birth as 12 Gladstone Place, Edinburgh. Her parents were James Cunningham, a Grocer, Spirit Merchant, and Elizabeth Wilson McPherson.

James Cunningham and Elizabeth Wilson McPherson, maternal grandparents of Margaret Helen Cunningham, were married on January 1, 1874, at the bride's home address, 6 Salisbury Street, Edinburgh, after Banns according to the Church of Scotland. Parents were given as Thomas and Elizabeth Cunningham (m.s. Robertson) and Lachlan and Elizabeth McPherson (m.s. Cameron).

I found birth records for the three daughters of James and Elizabeth Cunningham.

  1. Elizabeth Cameron Robertson Cunningham born December 27, 1874, 12 Gladstone Place, Edinburgh
  2. Jane Wilhelmina Cunningham  born May, 10, 1876  at the same  address.
  3. Margaret Helen Cunningham  born June, 19, 1878  at the same address.

Margaret Helen Cunningham  Birth Certificate

On June 19, 1880, aged 54 years, James Cunningham, father of the three sisters, passed away at  their home at 12 Gladstone Place, Edinburgh. He died of 'Inflamation attributed to Erysipela'.  The three girls lost their father to a streptococcus infection which causes severe skin lesions and results in septic shock.  Elizabeth was aged  6, Jane, 4 and Margaret Helen only 2 years. Tragically for the young sisters, four years later they also lost their mother when she died  of 'Bilious Vomiting and Diarrhea' on May 8, 1884.

James Cunningham  Death Certificate
Elizabeth Cunningham (McPherson) Death Certificate

 Elizabeth, Jane and Margaret Cunningham were orphaned at the ages of 10, 8 and 4 years and it would seem that with no husband to support her and her three young daughters, Elizabeth Cunningham  was unable to keep her daughters in her care.  'They were taken in by other members of family since in the 1881 Census they were not living with her.

 The 1881  Scottish Census shows Margaret H Cunningham  living at 6 High Street Edinburgh, with James and Joan C Wood and their children, Elizabeth Wood 10, Robert W Wood 8, Lachlan McPherson Wood 6, Janet W Wood 3 and Jemima Wood 8 days old. Being a family historian, I find, is very much akin to being a detective, following clues to attain a result. Since Lachlan McPherson was the name of  Margaret Helen Cunningham's maternal grandfather, it seemed logical that Lachlan McPherson Wood was named after him and that Joan C Wood would very likely be Elizabeth's sister.  A search on the Scotlands People website showed that Joan Cameron McPherson who married James Wood on June 10, 1870 was, indeed, Elizabeth Wilson Cunningham's (McPherson) sister, her parents also being Lachlan McPherson and Elizabeth Cameron.  Margaret Helen Cunningham had been taken in by her maternal aunt and uncle but where were her older sisters, Elizabeth and Jane?

Margaret Cunningham 1881 Census

I found Margaret's sisters in the 1881 census, living at 153 Stonefield (St) Blantyre, in the County of Lanarkshire, Glasgow. They were living with James and Janet Wilson and their children Joseph 10, Elizabeth 8, William 6, Lachlan 3 and Mary aged 2 years. The name Lachlan was perhaps a clue once again, to search for a marriage of a Janet McPherson to a James Wilson to see if Janet was another sister to Elizabeth. I discovered this very marriage, which took place on June 30, 1870 and Janet's parents' names showed that she was indeed, Elizabeth's sister.

Margaret Helen Cunningham's sisters, Elizabeth and Jane had been sent to live with another maternal aunt in different city in Scotland.  The Cunningham children were separated after their father died in 1880, Margaret Helen remaining in Edinburgh with one of her mother's sisters and Elizabeth and Jane Cunningham being sent to Glasgow to live with an older sister of their mother.

I did not set out to research the ancestry of Margaret Helen Cunningham, although curiosity inevitably took me on an interesting journey into her past. The information that the family of Margaret Cunningham was seeking, was how Margaret came to pass away in the town of Kilcoy in Queensland, Australia,  her place of abode,  her occupation and employer's name.  The Will, discovered at the Queensland State Archives, and other documents in the File accompanying the Will, provided all of this information. Unfortunately the File did not enlighten us as to the date of Margaret's arrival in the town of Woodford. As for Margaret Cunningham's life in this town, we can only understand something of it by researching the town of Woodford itself.

Margaret Cunningham's work as a Cook in one of Woodford's three hotels ( one a combined shop and hotel), in the late 1920's to 1931 would have been a busy one. Woodford became a prosperous town during that period with the opening of the Stanley River Co-Operative Butter Factory there. The main industries in the area were dairying and timber, with two saw mills operating in Woodford. The railway ran to Woodford and the Woodford Agricultural, Industrial and Pastoral Show had been held in the town since 1912. Margaret would have cooked meals for workers from the district as well as holiday makers such as Miss Edna Comley who according to the Courier Mail, April 29, 1931, spent her holiday staying at the Yatesville Hotel. [  ]

 Once I became involved in the search for Margaret Helen Cunningham's life in Queensland, I couldn't help but become fascinated with Margaret Cunningham herself and felt compelled to find out more about her. I hope that Margaret's family, by reading the documents contained in the Will File, might find some closure to the mystery which surrounded her 'disappearance' during the almost 20 years that she spent living in Queensland. I thank them for allowing me to write this story.

The 'S S Perthshire' unloading  Cargo in Townsville 1901
[Courtesy Trove]

Post Script: The photograph of Margaret Helen Cunningham was added to this blog after her great nephew read the blog and sent me the photograph. I am thrilled to now be able to see what she looked like. 

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