My great great grandmother Grace Halliday Rae was born in Scotland but died thousands of miles away in Australia. She had left behind her parents, siblings and even her first born child. During her life she faced many hardships, rejection and abuse. It wasn’t until later in life that she found some peace and happiness.
Grace was born in New Cumnock in Ayrshire in the winter of 1861 to Thomas Rae, a coalminer and Ann Symington. She was named after her paternal grandmother. She was, in fact, the second Grace in the family; an elder sister having died at just 6 years of age in 1858. Grace was the fifth of ten children.
Grace would have spent her childhood helping out with chores and looking after her siblings. Two more of her siblings died in childhood. Ann in 1865 and Andrew in 1868. The family moved around a bit settling where Thomas found work. Childhood did not last long in those days and as a young teenager Grace went off to work as a farm servant.
Moving away from home would have been a big step for Grace and I imagine quite traumatic. Her hours would have been long with very little time off to allow her to visit family. Lonely and homesick she would have been a perfect target for Robert Armstrong, a farm hand four years her senior. Grace fell for his charms and when, in 1879, she discovered she was pregnant she must have hoped that Robert would do the right thing and marry her.
Robert Armstrong had no such intentions. The once charming farm hand not only failed to make an honest woman of Grace but he humiliated her further by denying paternity of the child. Grace returned to her family for the birth had to register the child as illegitimate but used his father’s name registering him as Robert Armstrong Rae. The child, my great grandfather, was born in December 1879 in Dalserf, Lanarkshire.
To add insult to injury, less than three months after the birth of his son Robert Armstrong married a heavily pregnant Jane Alexander who gave birth to Matthew Alexander Armstrong in April 1880.
Grace, devastated by this betrayal, was not prepared to let Robert off the hook. She went to court to prove paternity. Robert did not hang around and left the country heading for Yorkshire and a new life. While the court found in Grace’s favour Robert never acknowledged his son nor did he provide any financial support.
So Grace was left with a baby to support but this would have been impossible as a farm servant. She had to go off and work leaving baby Robert to be raised by his grandparents. While he remained in Dalserf Grace went off to Kirkcudbrightshire to continue life as a dairy maid.
In 1883 Grace married John Kirkpatrick.
Between 1884 and 1887 they had three children. If Grace thought that she had found a better man than Robert she was sadly mistaken. John was not a good husband. Grace might have found some support through family but this would not last long as John decided to take the family for a new life in Australia.
When Grace boarded the Ilona in 1888 she would have had no concept of what her life would be like at the end of her journey. The journey itself would have been arduous particularly with three small children. Grace must have looked behind knowing that she would never see Scotland and her first born child again. Did she get the opportunity for a proper farewell? What was Robert told about his mother’s reasons for leaving?
The family settled in New South Wales. But how well did they settle? After having two more children John abandoned the family. I can only hope that by that time Grace had made friends who could offer comfort and support.
Much of what I know about Grace and her family in Australia is through one of the descendants of Grace and John who was able to give me information I would never know through records alone.
One of the best things that I discovered was that Grace did eventually find a good man. John Brown was someone with whom she spent some happy years prior to his death in 1921.
Grace lived out her life in Kiama, a beautiful coastal town in New South Wales. When she died in 1945 she was buried alonside her true love, John Brown. Her grave stone mentions her children but, of course, Robert is not mentioned. He was Grace’s secret.
DNA has proved once and for all that Robert Armstrong was indeed Robert’s father. I have managed to identify him and it turns out he had a pretty eventful life. I will tell that story another day. I had hoped the papers from the paternity case would be available as it would have told much more of Grace’s story but sadly these have been destroyed.
It was also through DNA that I made contact with my cousin, Peter in Australia who told me so much about Grace. The existence of Robert came as a surprise but it does not change the love and respect felt for such a strong woman, our great, great grandmother Grace Halliday Rae.