The Wood Family from Kelso, Roxburghshire, Scotland

The Nineteenth Century

I am going to begin with George Wood who was born in Kelso, Roxburghshire, in about 1840. Why ?  Because he was the great-grandfather that we, the remaining descendants of the Wood family, have in common. GW always gave his birth date as 1840, but I have reason to believe that he was actually born two years earlier, in 1838, because in the 1841 Census (Ref.793.03.18) his age is given as 3. While adults often have their own reasons for not being exact about their age, parents are often quite precise - and proud - of the age of a first-born son. [I have not been able to find an official record to back up either date.]

web_Wood George [1840]
George Wood [1840]

Kelso is a small market town in the Scottish Borders, in a very beautiful part of the United Kingdom. Here is a description of it from two hundred years ago…

"A considerable town in Roxburghshire, pleasantly situated at the confluence of the rivers Teviot and Tweed, on an extensive plain, bounded on all sides by rising grounds covered with plantations, forming a most beautiful amphitheatre. It is built in the manner of a Flemish town, with a large square, and 6 streets going off from it at regular distances. In the square stands the town-house, with the principal houses and shops ... During the border wars, which long spread desolation and misery over the country, Kelso was three times burnt down by the English: it was also totally destroyed in 1686, by an accidental fire, and nearly so about 60 years ago ... The parish, which formerly contained 3 parishes, viz. Kelso, Maxwell and St James's, is of an irregular triangular fiture, each side of which is 4 1/2 miles in length ... Population of the town and parish in 1801, 4196." from Gazetteer of Scotland published 1806, Edinburgh.

Early Years

Thomas and Elizabeth were married on February 2 1838, (he was 28 and she was 24) and I have a copy of their marriage lines from the Kelso parish register. George was the first son born to Thomas Wood and Elizabeth McDougall. A second son, Robert, was born to them in about 1842. I cannot be precise about either of these boys’ birthdays, because I haven’t been able to find a record of their baptisms on the old Scottish parish registers.  Civil registration only became compulsory in Scotland in 1855. 

Thomas was a cabinet-maker - so, he was a skilled craftsman - but whether he worked for an employer, or on his own account, I do not know.

In the 1841 Census Thomas, Elizabeth and little George were living at 18 Roxburgh Street, right in the centre of Kelso.  (Ref. 793.03.18)  What I do know is that fortune wasn’t too kind to this small Scottish family. Sometime in the 1840’s (again I haven’t been able to find a record) Thomas died, leaving his widow Elizabeth and the two little boys to manage as best they could on their own. 

After much searching through the records of the 1851 Census, I discovered Elizabeth and the boys, living and working at Wooden Mills, Kelso, on the banks of the River Tweed. (1851 Census Ref. 793.01.09)  Have no illusions about this - beautiful though the countryside was - and still is - their living conditions were harsh. The mother and the eldest son had to earn their daily bread as mill-hands; Robert was probably too small to do much, and there is no occupation beside his name in the Census schedule, nor is he listed as being at school.


Things must have looked up a bit for George and Robert after this, because in the 1861 Census, Robert is back in Kelso town, earning his living as a shoemaker, and lodging with his aunt, Isabella Wood, at 9 Mill Wynd. (1861 Census Ref. 793.07.02)  But any improvement in Robert’s life was, sadly, short-lived, for he died of Consumption in February 1865. His age was given as 21, but he was probably 23.

Meanwhile George had made his way to the big city - Edinburgh. I have been unable to find out where he was first apprenticed as a printer, or indeed who or what set him on this path.  It is very likely that he began work locally - perhaps at the famous publishing firm of Ballantyne in Kelso, or with the Kelso Mail, or the Kelso Chronicle. But there he is, in the 1861 Census, lodging at 49 Thistle Street, aged 21, a Printer’s Compositor, and born in Kelso, Roxburghshire  (1861 Census Ref. 685).

Getting Married

The next big event in George Wood’s life came with his marriage to Margaret Cavers, on June 27th 1861, in her home village of Lilliesleaf (also in Roxburghshire).  There wouldn’t have been a honeymoon in the sense that we know it - just a day off perhaps, and time spent with their families.  I expect they were too hard up, and anyway a junior compositor employed on production of that famous Scottish newspaper “The Scotsman”  would have had to hurry back to the city, and get on with his job - he was on the night-shift.  Margaret was a few weeks short of her nineteenth birthday, and George was 21. 

I wonder what Margaret thought of Edinburgh, and her new life in a famous, but dirty, smoky, noisy city.  Had she ever been there before ? I doubt it; to Kelso, the market town, maybe, but no further.  Her father was a master shoemaker, and all she would have known till then was the gentle pace of village life.  If she was excited at first, she must also have been shocked at the living conditions of working people in the city. In 1861 no. 49 Thistle Street - a tenement - housed seven families, and upwards of twenty-nine people. It is very likely that George and Margaret had just one room for themselves, and they would have had to share the lavatory, and the kitchen (if there was one), with all those other people.

The Scotsman

George Wood was a remarkably loyal employee - he stayed with “The Scotsman” for the next twenty-five years of his life.  By chance I discovered the existence of some Minute Books of the printers Chapel of this newspaper, in the Scottish National Library.  In June 2003 I was able to visit Edinburgh and I spent a busy week researching the Wood family - first by way of the Census Schedules in New Register House, and afterwards allowing myself just one afternoon in the SNL.  Imagine my excitement, when I found that such minute books as had survived, covered the period of George Wood’s employment on “The Scotsman” - and after I had turned over a few pages, there he was - Mr. Wood…….(You can read about what he was up to in my notes on the Minute Books - as much as I was able to copy out by hand in the very short time that was left to me.)  It would seem that he wasn’t always the easiest colleague to get on with - but maybe it was that he just ‘stood his corner’ in a tough world. 

A Family

Perhaps you will be surprised to learn that George and Margaret had eight children in all. Large families were not uncommon in the middle of the nineteenth century, and infant deaths not unknown; the fact that only two of their children survived to reach adulthood probably reflects the appalling and insanitary living conditions of the urban working classes in Edinburgh then.  And who were those survivors ?  Charles Carlyle Wood 1875-1959  and Robert Cavers Wood 1877-1969.  Robert Wood was accused, stood trial at the Old Bailey, and was finally acquitted of the Camden Town Murder in 1907.

Robert Wood’s full names were - Robert William George Thomas Cavers Wood.  Some adverse comments have been made about this in the past, by people who failed to appreciate the tragedy of so many infant deaths within this family - each of those names commemorates a previous little brother, and Cavers was for Margaret’s maiden name, of course;  looking to previous generations, Thomas was for George Wood’s father, Robert for his brother, and George for the father and the great-grandfather.  Charles’s middle name is for the great Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle, a contemporary whom George Wood much admired. 

In June 1880 Margaret Cavers died, worn out perhaps with childbearing, and the constant struggle of bringing up a family in a tenement in the middle of Edinburgh. Little Jeanie, born in March of that year, survived her mother by a few more months, leaving George Wood a widower, and  Charlie (5) and Bob (2) motherless.  No wonder those boys were close to one another, and stayed that way for the rest of their lives.

(I have a memory from one of our family tea-parties in the 1960’s, when Charles’s name came up in the conversation, and with my mother trying to say something comforting to Bob - he just burst into tears, at the thought of his brother not being there any longer.)

Something had to be done quickly, and a nursemaid found to look after the two little boys - so Mary Hogg aged 24, was sent for from Ancrum. She, or her family, were already known to George Wood, because when little Robert (1867-1876) was sent away to the country to convalesce, it was to Ancrum and the Hogg family that he went.  Poor Robert didn’t get better - he died there.

Goodbye to Scotland

What made George Wood decide to take Charlie and Bob, and the nursemaid, south, to London ?  Many a native of Scotland did so before him, and after.  By 1881,  no. 15 Jamaica Street, home for the last 15-20 years, must have been full of unhappy memories; perhaps after almost twenty-five years of working night shifts on “The Scotsman” George Wood was ready for a change - whatever the reason, the Wood family headed south.  By this time, George’s mother, Elizabeth McDougall Wood had also died (1874) - at the end of her life, she was a pauper in the Kelso Workhouse - truly a sad end to a life full of hardship.

Sometime in the 1880s George Wood married Mary Hogg, although I have been unable to find a record of this marriage, and in 1889 James George Wood was born to them in London.  Half-brother to Charlie and Bob, he was always known as Jimmy. The move from Edinburgh to London must have taken place after 1881 and before 1889. 

London Life

George Wood continued his work as a printer’s compositor; only now he worked for the London publishing house of Eyre and Spottiswode.  The family first found a room at no. 39 Tonbridge Street, St Pancras, very close to Euston railway station, and also within walking distance of GW’s new place of employment; they were still there in 1891 (Census Ref.122.91.15). They did indeed occupy just one room, and at least four other families also lived at no.39 - twenty-one people in all, including a two-day-old baby. I cannot believe that living conditions here were any better than the Edinburgh tenement that they had left behind.

Both Charlie and Bob were educated at the Thanet School, a Church of England Elementary School in Thanet Street, very close by.  They would have left school at fourteen years of age, as was the custom then, in order to start work.

Ten years on, and the family had moved to 129 Kings Cross Road, still in the same district.  Six families lived in this house, but the Wood family circumstances had improved, because they now had three rooms for themselves (1901 Census Ref.142.18.28).  Charles (25) and Bob (23) are young adults, both in skilled employments, and making their way in the world, while still living at home. Charles was now a fully fledged printer’s compositor, like his father before him, and Bob was a very talented designer/draughtsman, working for the London Glass & Sandblasting Company.

Charles married  Bessie McLeod Watt in 1905, and Bob married Annie Louisa Eames in 1915. Their half-brother James was married to a cousin, Nellie Moir Watt, in 1916. After her tragic death in 1918, James was married again to May Barber, in 1919.  After that we are well and truly into the twentieth century, and the family group sheets will give you a few more details, if you need them.

A hidden identity

If you read those family group sheets carefully, of course you will come across dates and events which don’t always tie up, on both sides of our family!

I have just chosen one example to illustrate some of the difficulties encountered by the family historian.  When you embark on a task like this, you never know what you may find.  I am fairly sure that Rene and Robert Wood never knew this part of their mother’s life story, and, had they still been alive when it was revealed, they might have found it rather painful to come to terms with.  Rene did begin to research the Wood family history, in the 1970’s; I inherited all her papers, realised that this was her intention, and decided to carry on with the task she had begun.

So - this concerns my grandmother, who was born Betsy Watt Kinnear in 1868. When she married my grandfather Charles Carlyle Wood in 1905, she gave her name as Bessie McLeod Watt, and her age as thirty-three.

web_Kinnear Betsy Watt [1868]
Betsy Watt Kinnear aka Bessie McLeod Watt [1868]

I think that sometime after her twenty-first birthday, and with the tragedy of the recent death of her fiancé, Bessie decided to put the past behind her, and travelled south, first to live with a widowed aunt in Warrington in Lancashire; then to London, as a teacher of dressmaking.

In the process, she took four years off her age, and did her best to hide the awful stigma of being born illegitimate.  Bessie’s mother was Mary Kinnear, née Watt, and her father was indeed John McLeod.  How I wish that I could claim to know all about him ! For one thing, I grew up with the story that I was part of the clan McLeod - nearly fifty years ago Aunt Rene gave me a wonderful McLeod tartan rug, which I have to this day.  But all that I can say is that his name is on Bessie’s birth certificate (he was illiterate, and made his mark X); that John McLeod accepted his daughter as his own; this is surely proof that this was not just a temporary liaison; and that Mary and John probably intended to marry.

That this did not come about cannot be explained. I have searched in vain for the death of JM; I could find no record of a crime committed, or of imprisonment, let alone deportation to the colonies - perhaps only Mary Kinnear could tell us what happened to him…

Betsy Kinnear grew up in her grandmother’s house, while her mother went back to work as a domestic servant. In 1874 Mary Kinnear was married to William Henderson, a widowed farmer, and for many years they lived contentedly and worked the farm at East Cotton of Gardyne, by Guthrie (Angus). (I have visited the farmhouse, and am still the proud owner of a wonderful Spode’s Tower dinner service from that home.)

When I first began to search the 1881 Census for a Bessie McLeod Watt, you will understand that I couldn’t find her ! It took a lot of patient research and ingenuity to tease out her story - but who could blame her for what she did ?  And we can be glad that her mother, Mary Kinnear was eventually able to marry and settle down. The consequence of that was that my grandmother had a half-brother Andrew Charles Henderson, fifteen years her junior.


The Eighteenth Century and before

I cannot say, hand on heart, that I have discovered an unbroken line of Woods going back to the seventeenth century and earlier !  Wouldn’t that be exciting if I had !  The Old Parish Registers of Kelso do indeed go back to the beginning of the seventeenth century, and there are a very considerable number of entries in the name of Wood; I may yet succeed in linking them all up.  Meanwhile I can take you back just one generation further, to Thomas Wood, a shoemaker (about 1785- before 1841), who married Christian Hunter. Thomas, their first son, was father to George Wood.  Check out the family group sheet for more details.

My Memories….

Annie Louisa Wood neé Eames:


(My great-aunt Ann) I remember - her London Cockney accent; Marmaduke (Marmey) her marmalade cat;  Ann and Bob’s basement apartment at 13 Embankment Gardens in Chelsea, near the River Thames; going to tea-parties there; her enthusiasm for Newbery Fruits - if you took a gift, that was what it had to be (a box of jelly candies, with rather good flavours ); my mother telling me that Ann was able to realise her ambition to keep a smart confectionery shop (an upmarket candy store) at one time; before her marriage to Bob she was nursemaid to Robert and Rene.

Robert Cavers Wood: (my great-uncle Bob) always well-dressed, in his three- piece grey flannel suits; his calm, gentle manner; the little pictures he drew for me in his letters - in his inimitable style;  and a little series of booklets called Sunny Stories - which Bob illustrated - and which were sent to me on a regular basis.

After Bob died, and when Ann came to live in Hove (Sussex), first in Pembroke Crescent, and latterly in the Hovedene Hotel, I used to visit her regularly, all through the 1970’s. She was always cheerful, and we found plenty to talk about, for even when her sight was failing her, she listened to the radio, and was up-to-date with all the news, and what was going on in the world.

web_RCW & CCW
Robert Cavers Wood [1877] and Charles Carlyle Wood [1875] c 1952

It became something of a tradition that she would come over to my house (in a village just outside Lewes, East Sussex) for Boxing Day lunch (December 26th ) - my mother would go to collect her, and I would do the drive back after tea.  She enjoyed the company of my two little boys (in small doses !) and our three cats. We gave her a luncheon party on her 90th birthday, and her niece Rene came down from London to be there.

Charles Carlyle Wood (my Grandfather); a small dapper man, in a similar Edwardian three-piece suit, like his brother, but made in blue serge, not grey flannel. Always fascinated by words, their meanings, their correct usage; erudite and absorbed in the world of books and publishing, as he was, he always made time for me as a child, and shared my world too - I remember him solemnly coming to take tea with me in a den that I had built for myself at the side of our house. (I was about eight.) When Christmas and Birthdays came around, he would choose for me the toys that had delighted his Victorian childhood - so, I had a spinning top, and a wooden hoop with a stick to drive it along, and a wooden scooter.

When I was about ten years old, Grandpa took me to see the office where he worked for Sir Winston Churchill, in No.10 Downing Street. (Now that is a famous address ! ) Grandpa was long retired from the publishing firm of Harraps, and he then worked for Sir Winston on what we today would probably call a consultancy basis. The two elderly gentlemen got on well together, and this relationship continued for many years.

I remember that we went from Golders Green on the London Underground, to St. James’s - where we got into a London Taxi, so as to arrive in style !!  I was very impressed, because I knew that my Grandpa was a very important person.  You will read elsewhere, on the family group sheet, that at Chartwell, the process of proof-reading was known as “wooding”: a fine compliment to a totally dedicated man of words.

I think that prosperity finally came to the Wood brothers in the 1920s and 1930s, as they reached middle age. There were trips to the continent (France, Italy) in a car driven by my father. I believe that he had a Lanchester, and then  a Bull-nosed Morris - alas, there was not a trace of those after World War Two. My father did not own a car again until the 1960s - and then it was a Ford Prefect. His sister Rene had a Morris Minor, in the late 1950s, and she continued to drive a Mini (the real Mini, not the later BMW version) until she died.

web_IMW [1907]
Robert Kinnear Wood [1905] with his sister Irene Margaret Wood [1907] c. 1952

I remember: tea-parties at Wynstay in the 40’s and 50’s. (131 Golders Green Road, Golders Green, where Grandpa and Auntie Rene lived.) Here I should add that I cannot remember my grandmother, Bessie McLeod Wood, because she died in January 1942, when I was just three weeks old. But I am told that she was a very elegant lady (she was a dressmaker, and taught dressmaking, before her marriage), that she had beautiful red hair, and was very short sighted. That’s a gene that both my father and I inherited from her, but not, alas, the red hair. 

Back in those days, weekends seemed always to be spent visiting relatives - my mother’s or my father’s; and most times we would walk - from Hendon to Golders Green, or wherever, and sometimes have the luxury of taking a bus back.  Wynstay was a large Edwardian house on the Golders Green Road, standing right next to St Michael’s Church in Golders Green.  It is still there, but the front garden and protective hedge have been removed to form a car-parking lot. Once inside, all the furnishings were very dark, with heavy embossed wallpapers on the walls;  I don’t suppose that the house and its furnishings had changed very much since Edwardian days, when my grandparents first bought the house.  Sitting at the dining table, as a child, my chin was pretty much at the level of the table - and that’s how I remember it - as an adult, it came a something of a shock to see that it was just a normal table, not something extra tall and large !

web_Wood family_c1914
The Wood family c. 1914

After my Grandma Wood died in 1942, her daughter Rene kept house for her father, and looked after him as he became increasingly frail, as well as holding down a demanding job as an Education Officer with the London Borough of Ealing. Charles Wood died in 1959, but Wynstay remained as the Wood family home until about 1960, when Rene decided that a move to be nearer her employment in Ealing W5 would be sensible.  It must have been so hard to leave her family home of nearly fifty years, to sort and discard so much heavy Edwardian furniture - but Rene chose a small modern apartment overlooking Ealing Common, where she made new friends, and lived contentedly for the next twenty-five years.

Rene’s father, Charles, died intestate - that is to say, he did not leave a will - which caused a certain amount of surprise in the family: that a man so meticulous in his chosen profession of letters could be so neglectful of his own property.  My Aunt quite properly was granted Letters of Administration, in order to sort out her father’s estate, and here I record that my father voluntarily gave up his share in Wynstay, so that his sister might have a comfortable home for the rest of her life.

Looking for more details? Try the Family Groups page, where you will find Census references, birth, marriage and death records.