Category: Smith

A Wedding in the Family

When my son Michael and his long-time girlfriend Jennifer get married this weekend, it will be a very traditional ceremony. The wedding will take place at Montreal West United Church, the same church where Jen’s parents were married. Jen will wear a long white dress, a borrowed pair of earrings and blue shoes.  

Here’s their story as they tell it: “This wedding is a love story 13 years in the making! We first met in CEGEP [junior college] when we were just teenagers. At the groom’s insistence, mutual friends organized our first meeting: a competitive game of pool at Sharx on St. Catherine Street. A new friendship was born and, after 10 years of ups and downs, we somehow managed to remain a part of each others’ lives. And it was all meant to be because this October, after almost four years of dating, we’ll be making it legal. It’s till death do us part now, and we couldn’t be happier!”

All this has led me to think about some of the other weddings in my family, and about how much courtship has changed. A huge change came in my parents’ generation. Prior to World War II, many Canadians married within their own social circles. Couples often grew up in the same small towns or went to school together. But during the war, as men joined the military and women joined the workforce,  people met new friends and were exposed to different ideas. My father was from Winnipeg and my mother grew up in Montreal, but they met in Ottawa during the war and were married in 1946.

This is a colourized photo of my grandmother Gwendolyn Bagg on her wedding day in 1916.

My father’s parents, Thomas Glendenning Hamilton and Lillian Forrester, probably met at the Winnipeg hospital where he was a doctor and she a nurse. They were married in 1906 at Lillian’s uncle’s home. Going back another generation, James Hamilton and Isabella Glendenning, who married in 1859, both grew up in a close-knit farming community in what is now Scarborough, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. They may have met at the church both their families attended, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.

On my mother’s father’s side, when Jane Mulholland, the daughter of a Montreal hardware merchant, met John Murray Smith, she was smitten. John, however, lived in Ontario at the time, where he worked at a bank. According to a family story, she told her nanny that she admired this young man and the nanny wrote a letter that brought couple together. It would have been difficult for Jane to pursue John long-distance on her own behalf. They married near Montreal in 1871.

A page from Clara Smithers’ autograph book with a poem from RSCB.

Going back another generation on the Smith side, James Avon Smith was an assistant school teacher in MacDuff, Scotland. When he married the schoolmaster’s daughter, Jean Tocher, in 1823, she was already pregnant. 

Most parents tried their best to prevent this situation. It was not considered proper for young couples to spend time alone together and when my future great-grandparents Robert Stanley Bagg and Clara Smithers began courting in 1880, they would have always been surrounded by friends and family members. He wooed her by writing poems in her autograph book. 

The 1844 wedding of Robert Stanley’s Bagg’s parents was a genealogically significant event on my mother’s side of the family because Stanley Clark Bagg and Catharine Mitcheson were first cousins once removed. Marriage between cousins was not uncommon, but I can’t help wondering how they met, since she lived in Philadelphia and he lived in Montreal. They were married in Philadelphia, with Catharine’s brother Rev. Robert McGregor Mitcheson officiating.  

The fact that Mike and Jen are getting married, as opposed to living common-law as many couples do in Quebec today, is a mark of their commitment to each other as much as it is a nod to tradition. I am very happy for them.

Further Reading 

For more on the courtship and marriage customs of our Canadian ancestors see this article prepared by Library and Archives Canada: “I Do:  Love and Marriage in 19thCentury Canada”,  

Marriages between cousins contribute to a phenomenon called pedigree collapse in which the family trees of these peoples’ descendants are smaller than they would be otherwise. There are many articles about this phenomenon online, including this one by the International Society of Genetic Genealogy,

James Avon Smith of MacDuff, Banffshire

MacDuff is on the Moray Firth, northeast Scotland

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.