Author: Janice H.

From Lesmahagow to Scarborough

In the spring of 1830, eight months after my future great-grandfather James Hamilton was born, the Hamilton family set sail from Scotland for New York and a new life in Upper Canada. James’ parents, Robert Hamilton and Elizabeth Stobo, must have realized there were few opportunities for their children in southwest Scotland and decided to make the move.

Robert Hamilton, born in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, in 1789, was a weaver. He married Elizabeth Stobo at Stonehouse parish church, Lanarkshire, in 1816. She had been baptized in 1790, in nearby Avondale parish, “lawful daughter to Robt. in Braehead.”

The couple’s four eldest children, Elizabeth, Janet, Agnes and Robert, were born in Lesmahagow between 1817 and 1824. But times were increasingly difficult for the cottage weaving industry and, around 1820, Robert moved to Glasgow for a factory job. The two youngest children, Margaret and James, were born in the city. The Hamiltons had decided before they left Scotland that they would go to Scarborough Township (now part of the vast city of Toronto, Ontario.) Several members of Elizabeth’s family had already settled there and were doing well in the timber business. The Hamiltons stayed with the Stobo family until they rented land of their own, a farm on Concession III, Lot 25.

Two of Robert’s sisters, Agnes Hamilton, wife of Robert Rae, and Janet Hamilton, wife of John Martin, also immigrated to Scarborough later with their families. His older sister, Margaret, stayed in Scotland with their father because she was not well. “Let me know particularly how sister Margaret is and if you think there is any prospect of her getting better,” Robert wrote his father on May 27, 1830 in his first letter home since arriving in Scarborough.

The gravestone of Robert Hamilton and Elizabeth Stobo in St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Cemetery

Although he continued as a weaver, Robert also had learn to farm. He told his father that in the first days after they arrived, they were busy planting potatoes. They also expected to grow Indian corn and get a cow or two. Most of Scarborough’s Scottish settlers took to farming with enthusiasm and, following the founding of the Scarboro Agricultural Society in 1844, there was an annual Scarboro Fair with competitions for the best livestock and produce. Robert’s name was not on the society’s membership list, perhaps because he abstained from alcohol. The fair involved a great deal of consumption of ale and whiskey. Robert seems to have been more interested in intellectual pursuits and was the first vice-president of the Scarboro Subscription Library, founded in 1834.

Elizabeth died in 1853, age 63. Robert was listed in the 1961 census, living on his own. By then, his children were all married and farming in Scarborough, in nearby Markham, or elsewhere in southwestern Ontario. Elizabeth was married to William Oliver, Janet to Robert Reid, Agnes to James Green, Robert to Janet Smith, Margaret to James Gordon and James to Isabella Glendenning. James and Isabella were now running the family farm.

Robert died in 1875, at the age of 86, and was buried next to his wife in St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Their gravestone has been lying on the ground for many years.

Revised Dec. 27, 2016 to add and correct information.

See also:

Janice Hamilton, “The Glendinnings of Scarborough”,, posted Dec. 16, 2016

Janice Hamilton, “Thomas Whiteside and Sarah Murdoch, Scarborough Settlers”,, posted Nov. 9, 2016

Janice Hamilton, “Settling in Scarborough”,, posted Jan. 2, 2014

Janice Hamilton, “The Missing Gravestone of Robert Hamilton and Janet Renwick”,, posted Oct. 28, 2015, revised Dec. 27, 2016 

Research Remarks: 

There is a considerable amount of information about the early settlers of Scarborough, and I will write about them again. Of course, sometimes it is hard to know what is really true and what is just local lore. The Township of Scarboro, 1796-1896, edited by David Boyle, Toronto, 1896 and available online at includes the names of many early settlers, such as people who were founding members of community groups.

Several modern histories of the Scarborough area have been published and are available in libraries, while the website of the James McCowan Memorial Social History Society,, written by the descendants of another founding family of Scarborough, is both entertaining and informative.

Despite an error in the transcription of the Hamilton headstone (Robert is incorrectly listed as Albert), one of the most helpful resources I have found is a transcription of the gravestones in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Cemetery (Bendale), published by the Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto Branch. Because I have ancestors from four intermarried families buried there (Hamilton, Stobo, Glendenning and Whiteside), and because first names were repeated through several generations, this booklet is helpful in sorting everyone out.

Robert Hamilton, tailor, of Lesmahagow

As a tailor, Robert Hamilton was often on the road, visiting customers’ homes to fit and sew their clothes on the spot. But the winter of 1789 was a cold one in Lesmahagow, Scotland and, on January 12, there was a “great draeft of snow” that kept him at home. Robert recorded these work trips, as well as special events such as the Lanark Fair and a friend’s burial day, in a ledger. Two pages of that ledger were slipped into the family Bible, which his son brought to Canada.

Robert Hamilton, my three-times great-grandfather, was born around 1754. He married Janet Renwick in 1783 at Lesmahagow parish church. The church record said both were of Abbey Green, the old name for Lesmahagow.

Robert and Janet had five children: Margaret, born 1784; Robert, 1789; Agnes, 1791; Archibald, 1794; and Janet, 1800. Archibald died as an infant, and I do not know what happened to Margaret. Around 1830, Agnes, Robert jr., and Janet all settled in Scarborough, which is today a suburb of Toronto, Ontario.

When Robert and Janet were bringing up their young family, Lesmahagow parish was a good place to live. Just south of Glasgow, it was, and still is, beautiful, with rolling hills, streams and ravines. The Statistical Accounts of Scotland 1791-1799 noted, however, that the soil was not particularly fertile, more suited to pasture for sheep and cows than to growing crops. Everyone grew potatoes and, in his ledger, Robert reported spending several days in mid-October “raising potatoes.” 

A page from Robert Hamilton’s ledger. Photo courtesy Alison M. Wright

The Statistical Accounts described the people as mostly “healthy and robust,” their moral deportment “decent and regular.” The children learned English, Latin, geometry and arithmetic at the local schools. Robert’s ability to read and write was not unusual.

In 1799, the majority of the parish’s 3,000 residents were husbandmen (farmers), and there was a small coal mining industry. There were also numerous tradesmen, including blacksmiths and carpenters, and some 26 tailors and 62 weavers. In the first decade of the 19th century, skilled cottage weavers made wool and linen cloth in their Lanarkshire homes. Then a recession hit and Glasgow factories undermined the cottage weaving industry. Even the climate deteriorated, affecting crops. By 1819, thousands of people in Lanarkshire were living in poverty. Some joined organizations such as the Lesmahagow Emigration Society, and the government assisted them to move abroad. 

Lesmahagow’s old parish cemetery where Robert Hamilton and Janet Renwick were buried.

Janet died in 1821 and Robert survived another ten years, long enough to watch his children leave for Canada. The Hamiltons were buried in the old Lesmahagow parish cemetery. When I visited it in 2012, I searched in vain for their gravestone. All I could find was an empty space in the spot where a diagram suggested it had once stood.

Research Remarks:  I am as fascinated by local and social history as I am by genealogy. Even if I don’t know the details of my ancestors’ experiences, I like to find out about the specific times and places in which they lived. The Statistical Accounts of Scotland provide contemporary descriptions of life in Scotland, based on information supplied by local church ministers. Two series were published, one at the end of the 18thcentury, another in the 1830s. You can browse The Statistical Accounts of Scotland, Account of 1791-99 vol. 7, p. 420: Lesmahago, County of Lanark online for free,

Another source of social history is A History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1600 to 1800, edited by Elizabeth Foyster and Christopher A. Whatley, Edinburgh University Press, 2010. It mentions the high esteem in which skilled craftsmen such as tailors and weavers were held, although this changed over time. By 1800, many people were buying ready-made clothes in shops.

Scottish gravestones can also be quite revealing. Although the Hamiltons’ stone seems to have disappeared, the inscription was recorded in Monumental Inscriptions (pre-1855) in the Upper ward of Lanarkshire, by Sheila A. Scott, published by the Scottish Genealogy Society, 1977. It read, “Robert Hamilton tailor Abbey Green, 18.11.1831, 77. w. Janet Renwick, 9.5.1821, 63. s. Archd. Inf.”

see also: Janice Hamilton, “From Lesmahagow to Scarborough,” Writing Up the Ancestors,