My mother’s father, Fred Murray Smith, was a kind and gentle man. Although he had a good sense of humour, he was a strict Presbyterian and did not allow my mother to play cards or go to movies on Sundays. He was also quite formal, never seen at the dinner table without a jacket and tie. So it was a shock to discover that there was a large skeleton in the Smith family closet, although it dated from Fred’s great-grandfather’s generation.
Fred’s grandfather, James Avon Smith, was assistant schoolmaster in the coastal town of MacDuff, Banffshire, Scotland. James and his wife, Jane Tocher, had seven children. Jane died in 1838, shortly after giving birth to John Murray Smith, Fred’s future father.
In the early 1840s, James immigrated to Canada. He settled in Toronto and became a teacher of the classics at Knox College and Toronto Academy. The children and their Aunt Elizabeth Tocher eventually joined him in Toronto.
According to an outline of the Smith family history that was passed down to me via my cousins, James Avon Smith was born in 1800, the son of Walter Smith, farmer, of Lochagan. (Lochagan is located a few miles inland from the town of Banff; there doesn’t seem to be a village there, although the place name still exists.) I checked the records of Banff Parish Church on Scotland’s People, and there it was: James Smith, natural son of Walter Smith by Jane Avens. But natural son? That meant his parents were not married. I had to investigate further.
When we were in Edinburgh in 2012, I looked up the Kirk Session records of the parish. Having committed the sin of fornication, Walter and Jane had to appear before the Kirk Session, which consisted of the minister and elders of the church, and the couple had to pay a fine. But it seems they did not learn their lesson: Walter Smith and Jane Avens reappeared before the Kirk Session four years later and confessed they were guilty of a “relapse in fornication.”
Walter Smith remained unmarried, although the Kirk Session records show that he fathered three other children, all by different women. It comes as no surprise then that, when James Avon Smith had his own family, he did not follow the traditional Scottish naming pattern and name any of his boys after his own father.
In 1810, Jane Avens married James Taylor in Banff parish, so perhaps she found true love and a supportive step-father for the boy. Eventually, James attended Kings College, Aberdeen. He married Jane Tocher in 1823 and their eldest child, Alexander, arrived several months later.
Photo credit: Janice Hamilton
Research remarks: Initially, I was not optimistic about researching the Smith family. The name is just too common. Luckily, Banffshire did not have a large population in the 1800s, Smith was not a common name there, and the parish records were surprisingly well kept. Also, someone in a previous generation did a good job of remembering and writing down the family’s story. That may have been James Avon Smith Jr., a Toronto artist and architect.
A longer version of this story appeared in the February, 2013 edition of the journal of the Aberdeen and Northeast Scotland Family History Society. This is an excellent journal, and several members of that society have been extremely helpful to me from afar.