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Friday, 19 July 2019

Isabella Wallace - Friend & Benefactor: 52 Ancestors Wk. 29

"Challenging" was the theme of  this week's "52 Ancestors" prompt and I turned to my local history and the challenge of identifying the "correct" Isabella Wallace, the "friend and benefactor" of the village of Earlston in Berwickshire, Scottish Borders.  It proved to be a family history research project spanning One Name, Two Wills and Three People by the name of Isabella Wallace, all living in the late 19th century.  

Two  plaques around the village acknowledge the generosity of Isabella Wallace. Hearsay also  spoke of the fact that Isabella Wallace had died in the 1920's, leaving money to be  used for  local projects.

This struck me as a straightforward  local history challenge, but it proved to be not quite as easy as I thought.

I began the search on the definitive  family history website ScotlandsPeople and immediately hit a stumbling block   - there were three Isabella Wallace's in Earlston during the late 19th century.   But which one was the village's generous benefactor?  I set out to trace the family of each Isabella. 

(1)  Isabella Wallace , born 20 Jan 1850 to Henry Wallace  (Master Shoemaker) & Elizabeth Swan. 
In the 1851 census,  young Isabella was with her parents and brother David.  But ten years later  her father was a widower with three children at home - David, Robert and daughter Elizabeth.  Their mother had died in 1857, aged 32.  Isabella was with her widowed aunt Helen Mercer and her cousin William Mercer.  In the 1871 census,  Isabella,  described as "companion",  was still living with her aunt, and following her death, she became housekeeper to her cousin William. 
Isabella remained single all her life and died 20th March 1927.  It is important to note that, unlike their English equivalent,  Scottish death certificates give the name of the parents, so I knew here that I had traced the death certificate of  the Isabella who was daughter of Henry and Elizabeth - and not the other Isabella Wallace's in Earlston at this time. She was buried in Earlston Churchyard (right).   

To my delight I discovered  she had left a will - surely an indication of money to leave to relatives and charitable causes! 

Wills provide such a wealth of information for family historians with bequests to family members, here notably nieces and nephews and sisters in law:  - to "my nephews Thomas Wallace and Robert Swan Wallace, and niece Ruth Wallace, all children of my deceased brother David Wallace".......to my brother Robert Swan Wallace, draper, Paisley....to Janet Ross or Wallace, wife of the said Robert Swan Wallace" .   

The will also confirmed that "the late William Mercer, draper, Earlston, bequeathed  all his estate heritable and moveable to me".  So here was confirmation of  the source of Isabella's  wealth. 
Specific bequests highlighted what were regarded as important possessions - "my  eight day clock.....my silver tea set...... my best china tea service.......my cream jug ....my next best china tea service....my piano...... half dozen silver spoons, sugar spoon, silver sugar sifter  and tongs.

Of course primarily I was looking for an indication of money left to the parish. But the only reference was to some shares in Earlston Corn Exchange Company, with the income to be used   in "keeping the burial ground and tombstone in Earlston Churchyard in order".  It seemed that, despite my initial high hopes. this Isabella may not be the benefactor I was looking for.

(2) Isabella Wallace, born 18th November 1850, to George Wallace (Innkeeper at the Commercial Inn)  and Agnes Hudson.
In the 1851 census,  the young Isabella was with her parents, older brother William and one servant. By 1861 the family had grown further with siblings, Helen, Agnes, John and George, to be later joined by Elizabeth and Janet - a family of eight in seventeen years. All the family were still at home in 1871.

Isabella could not be traced in the 1881 census and could well have married by this time - or died. but I was unable to trace  any entries in the Scottish records.  So I discounted this Isabella in my search for Earlston's benefactor. 

(3) Isabella Wallace, born c.1854, to John Wallace (master joiner) and Martha Stewart Brown.  
I was unable to trace a birth or baptism record for Isabella - this was surprising, as although compulsory registration in Scotland was not introduced until  1855 (1837 in England & Wales), the practice was becoming more and more prevalent in the lead up to that date. 

In 1861, Isabella,  aged  7, was with her parents and siblings in Market Square, Earlston - John 18, Robert 14, Hannah 12, Janet 10, George 5 and Francis 1, plus Mary Brown (mother in law).   Her father John was described as  a master joiner employing 3 apprentices.
Earlston's Market Square c.early 1900's
Twenty years on In the 1881 census, Isabella  was housekeeper to her brother George, also a joiner and his nephew James.  The 1891, 1901 and 1911 census returns showed her continuing in this role, latterly in a house which had eight rooms with windows - surely indicating status and money.

Isabella died 2nd June 1920, with the informant her niece Agnes  and her parents confirmed as John and Martha.  Again to my delight I traced a will on ScotlandsPeople. 

The will
left heritable property "to Wilfred Wallace, residing in America, son of my late brother Frank";  "to Agnes Waddell Wallace, daughter of my late brother John my whole household furniture, every kind of wearing apparel and jewellery and all personal articles" plus a legacy of £50 per annum";  "to Janet Fairbairn Wallace,  daughter of my late brother Robert   £100"; "to Martha Stewart Brown Wallace, daughter of my late brother John - income from investments".   

The residue of Isabella's estate, she bequeathed to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

But notably -   the sum of £3250 was left to Earlston Parish Council  "For the purpose of improving the amenities of the Town of Earlston including footpaths, paving,  and lighting, and similar objects". [£94,440 in today's money - National Archives Currency Converter]
I had identified the correct Isabella

A visit to the Heritage Hub, home of the Scottish Borders Archive Service   was called for,  where I consulted the unique material not easily available elsewhere.: 
  • Berwickshire County Council - West District Minutes
  • Berwickshire County Council Finance Committee Minutes
  • Earlston Parish Council Minutes
  • Earlston Lighting and Scavenging Account
In  the years I looked at, the records confirmed that the Isabella Wallace Fund was used for the provision of  lighting, the upgrading of the Square, with  railings around the War Memorial,  the removal of an air raid shelter, and a gateway  and railings at the riverside park at Mill Meadow.  

A winter view of the park at Mill Meadow by the  Leader Water. 

Below two more early photographs of the  Market Square, Earlston, taken  before the unveiling of the War Memorial in 1921, and  the provision of railings and creation of a garden paid for from the Isabella Wallace Fund.  

The pump and horse well on the right were demolished in 1920 to make way for the erection of the War Memorial.

To the right of the War Memorial can just be seen a small plinth
which features the plaque (below)  to Isabella Wallace - benefactor of Earlston 


A  poignant story is linked to Isabella's decision to grant this money to her home village. Local anecdotes recall  that her father's home and business in the Market Square was devastated by a fire - reported  in"The Southern Reporter" of 17th September 1874.  Local people rallied  round with great generosity to help the family.  Isabella would have been around 20 years of age at the time, but it was not an event that she would ever forget.

Isabella Wallace  repaid   this through her will,
to become "Earlston's Friend and Benefactor"  

Adapted from a post first published in 2015 on the Auld Earlston Blog.


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  1. Lovely to read this additional information. We’ve a lot to thank her for. Do you know where in the Market Square she lived Susan?

    1. Thank you for your comment and query, Trish. Finding the exact location in 1891 is proving tricky and I will get back to you on this. In 1901 Isabella with her brother George was at 57 High Street. As a guideline Miller, draper and clothier was at no. 49 (currently Chic Jewellery) and John Weatherly was at no. 73. Frustratingly Isabella’s death certificate just says Earlston for her address. I don’t like being defeated on an enquiry, so am following it up!

    2. Two pages from the 1891 Census provide the answers as to where Isabella was living in the Market Place. The Wallace household was second entry, next door to George Pringle, watchmaker (in what is now the vet's). Further along were the Chemists and the Red Lion Hotel - both still there.

  2. This was a great bit of research, and I loved reading about the 3 Isabellas. I wonder if they had been related (cousins perhaps.) But that wasn't your aim...so it might be, or not.

    1. Yes, Barbara, I feel there might well be a connection between the three Wallace families, but have not had time to look into this - perhaps some day as an interesting sideline! Thank you again for your continued interest in my posts.

  3. Very interesting post! Gives me an idea for one of mine, I found a letter from a family friend to my grandfather, much of it was about his son who served in WWI...I was so curious as to what happened to him that I did some research. I will do a post of that soon, thank you!

  4. I love your section on the Specific bequests. Thus far my ancestors wills have not included anything of the kind.

  5. Great post and reminder to check the wills of my ancestors.

  6. Such a heartwarming story. Congrats on diligently researching to find the correct Isabella so you could share her story.

  7. Sue, this is a great post! It is a great example of how genealogy work many times is a process of elimination, mixed with a little problem solving.

  8. A nice example of a successful research project, well explained. And true, Scottish records are often so helpful.


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