Learning From My Mistakes – Robert Armstrong Rae 1879-1952

My great grandfather, Robert Armstrong Rae was born on 26 December 1879 in the picturesque village of Dalserf in Lanarkshire. He was my father’s paternal grandfather.

The first record I found for Robert was his marriage record which showed his parents as Thomas Rae and Ann Symington. Through further research it appeared that Robert was the youngest of eleven children who were born between 1850 and 1879 with the closest sibling being his sister Mary who was born in 1877.

His marriage record showed that on 28 April 1899 Robert married Margaret McGarrity in Craigneuk, Lanarkshire. Robert was a coalminer and Maggie (as she is recorded) was a boltworker. The couple went on to have 9 children

  • Sarah Born 1899
  • John Born 1901
  • Archibald Smith Born 1903
  • Grace Born 1906
  • Robert Armstrong Born 1907
  • James Born 1910
  • Mary Born 1912
  • Annie Born 1919
  • Andrew Born 1925

Archibald Smith Rae was my grandfather.

And that was pretty much where I left that research and moved on to another branch of my family. This was at the very beginning of my interest in family history and I was happy that, as my findings matched up with other Ancestry trees, I was on the right track.

One discovery I had made that was quite interesting was that his sister Grace, who was born in 1861, had married and left Scotland for Australia. She was Grace Halliday Rae and was named after her paternal grandmother.

Later, on reviewing the family, I realised I had information missing from Robert’s story. His birth record was obviously important as was the 1881 census. Surprisingly, when I found the 1881 census, I discovered that Robert was living with Thomas and Ann but was recorded as their grandson. His birth record gives his surname as Ray which is why I missed it first time. When I checked the record I got a bit of a surprise. His mother is listed as Grace Rae and his father as Robert Armstrong. So it was my great, great granny who went to Australia!

The name Armstrong was passed on to one of his son’s as a middle name and it is also the middle name of my own father but I had no idea why. I don’t know if my dad knew but he died a long time ago so I will never know. Attached to the birth record is a Record of Corrected Entries which gives even more surprising information. Robert’s mother, Grace (my great, great grandmother whom I had assumed was a great aunt) took Robert Armstrong to court to prove paternity. I hope to see the original documents from that hearing sometime soon.

Finding out that Robert was raised by his grandparents made me wonder what exactly he was told about his birth and his place in the family. For a long time I assumed that he was unaware that Ann and Thomas were not his biological parents. He listed them as his parents on his marriage record but when I discovered his death record I found that his mother is given as Grace Rae, farm servant. There is no father listed. It is not uncommon for an illegitimate child to provide false details of parents on a marriage record in order to hide their status.

I know that Grace went on to marry and have children and eventually leave Scotland (and Robert) for a new life in Australia. I had nothing to go on for Robert Armstrong other than a name and a location as to where he had been living in 1881 but it took a lot of time, some luck and a DNA test to find out his identity.

Much later, when I was tracking down burial records, I stumbled on the burial details of a baby, Thomas Rae. I discovered that he was the illegitimate child of my great grandparents, Robert and Margaret. Finding an illegitimate child is not unusual in my family tree but discovering that they gave the child away really made me feel sad. It seemed like history repeating itself. It is sad too that their circumstances obviously forced them to make such a decision when they went on to marry and have a life together.

My great grandfather is buried at Airbles Cemetery in Motherwell.


Wilson Armstrong 1886-1916

Wilson Armstrong was my 1st cousin 3 times removed. His father, Alexander and my great great grandfather, Robert were brothers. My great great grandfather being my paternal grandfather’s paternal grandfather. This is a branch of the family I discovered through DNA testing.

Wilson was born on 4 February 1886 near Halifax in Yorkshire. His father was from Rigg in Dumfriesshire but had moved to England for work. Wilson was Alexander’s 9th child and his 8th by second wife, Helen Taylor. He was named after his grandmother Isabella Wilson.

Tragically Helen died in 1888. The 1891 census shows Wilson living with his father and siblings in East Morton, Keighley. Alexander was a police constable and Wilson’s older siblings were working while he attended Parkinson Lane Board School. So it would seem that despite the loss of Helen, the family were coping fairly well.

Ten years later and things were not so good for Wilson. He had left school and had been working in a mill. He had fallen into bad company and had no fixed abode.

This information comes from the admissions register of the West Yorkshire Reformatory School. Wilson was sentenced to 3 years detention after stealing a jacket, two pairs of trousers and a cloth cap. When asked about the theft he stated “I stole the clothes so as to wear them as I was hard up”.

At 15 Wilson was a tiny 4’11”, with a fresh complexion, brown hair and greyish blue eyes. He claimed that he had been “harshly treated” by his father who had by this time retired from the police and was working as a labourer.

It’s a sad story but it would appear the school was not a terrible experience for the boy who, after being discharged in July 2003, continued to visit the school. After school he found employment as a farm servant but by 1906 he was a soldier with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

Wilson remained in the army and when the war started he was sent to fight on the Western Front.

He married Sarah Wilson in October 1915 but with a war on there was no time to enjoy married life.

Wilson Armstrong was killed in action in France on 18 August 1916. He is buried at Peronne Road Cemetery, Maricourt in the Somme.

Archibald Smith Rae 1903-1952

Archibald and Margaret

My paternal grandfather, Archibald Smith Rae, was born on 4 September 1903 in Craigneuk, Lanarkshire, Scotland.  He was the third child of Robert Armstrong Rae, a coal minerand Margaret McGarrity. Robert and Margaret had six children between 1899 and 1925.

  • Sarah Born 1899
  • John born 1901
  • Archibald Smith Born 1903
  • Robert Armstrong Born 1907
  • James Born 1910
  • Andrew Born 1925

After leaving school, Archibald followed in his father’s footsteps and became a coal miner.  He met Margaret Dalziel Dickson, a confectionery worker and the couple were married on 25 June 1926 at Wishaw Manse.  Margaret would have been noticeably pregnant at the time as their son, Robert Armstrong Rae, was born on 2 September 1926.  Robert was my father.

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For a short period of time, presumably for work reasons, the family moved to Partick in Glasgow and lived in a flat in Sandy Road.  It was in Partick that daughter, Mary Calderhead Rae was born in 1931.  She was always known as ‘May’.

Archibald Smith Rae died on January 26 1952.  He collapsed and died at his workplace, Lanakshire Steelworks in Motherwell.  The cause of death was coronary thrombosis.  He was just 48 years old. He is buried in Cambusnethan Cemetery.

Archibald and Margaret headstone

That is all I know of my grandfather.  I don’t know how he spent his free time.  I don’t even know what people called him.  I am assuming he was ‘Archie’.  He died long before I was born and I don’t recall my father ever talking about him.  If he did, it was at a time when I wasn’t interested in family history and with my father and Aunt May also dead for many years there is no one left to ask.  I have so many questions.

It is important for anyone making a start on their family tree to ask grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles about their family memories. Find out what documents and photographs still exist within the family.  Knowing the relevant facts and dates is important but it would be nice to know the stories in order to really know the person.