I’m writer and genealogist Janice Hamilton. I have been researching and writing about my ancestors on this blog since 2013. Most of them came from Scotland, England or Ireland in the early 1800s, establishing new roots in Canada and the United States. Hamilton, Forrester, Rixon, Glendinning, Stobo, Bagg, Smithers, Shearman, Mulholland and Mitcheson are some of the families I have researched. To search this blog for a name, place or topic, use the search box on the top right, the categories listed on the left or bottom, or scroll to the bottom to check the dated Archives.
This month a Montreal tradition will resume after a two-year pandemic break: the annual St. Andrew’s Ball will take place at the Windsor Hotel on November 18. The event promises to be “a gala evening of dining, dancing and Scottish pageantry, celebrating Scottish heritage in Montreal,” featuring the Black Watch Pipes and Drums and highland dance performances.
My mother attended this event in 1937, the year that, despite her protests, she was a debutante. Writing under her married name, Joan Hamilton, she recalled that experience 40 years later, and her article, published in Montreal Scene magazine on November 26, 1977, described the endless social gatherings she and her teenage friends attended.
In those days “coming out” didn’t mean what it does today. Then, it meant that a young woman of 18 was introduced to society, and to members of the opposite sex, which was important because my mother and most of her friends attended separate private schools for girls or boys.
She wrote, “For a tightly-knit group of Montrealers whose growing up took place in the mid-30s, life consisted of a round of parties that started with events called sub-deb dances and progressed to coming-out balls. Actually, they weren’t as grand as they sound. Life was simpler then, and one lived by a strictly prescribed social code. The sub-deb parties were given at private homes, primarily during the Christmas holidays, and the ages of the future debutantes ranged from 14 to 17.” When the girls became debutantes, the parties became balls.
Although many Canadians were suffering economically during the Depression, my mother recalled that there were dozens of debutantes each season, and there was a ball at least once, and sometimes twice a week from October until February. Many debutantes came out at their own parties, but others were presented at either the St. Andrew’s Ball or charity balls put on by the Royal Victoria Hospital Auxiliary. At that time, most of the balls were held at the Winter Club on Drummond Street, the Hunt Club on Côte Ste-Catherine Road, or the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The St. Andrew’s Ball took place at the Windsor Hotel.
In Montreal the St. Andrew’s Ball was first held in 1848, but some members of the society preferred a dinner for the men only, and the next ball wasn’t held until 1871. In 1878 it was described as “the social event of the year,” probably because Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise and her husband were the guests of honour. Over the following years, however, Montreal’s Scots sometimes celebrated St. Andrew’s Day with a banquet or a concert, and the society did not choose a ball as its principal event until 1896.
According to the Montreal Daily Star, more than 900 people—a record—attended the 1937 edition of the St. Andrew’s Ball, including the Governor General of Canada and his wife, Lord and Lady Tweedsmuir. “Merriment reigns as sons and daughters of auld Scotia lay aside their cares,” the newspaper headline announced.
In the ‘30s, the debutantes wore long white evening dresses and white, elbow-length kid gloves, while their escorts were in white tie and tails. The evening began with dinner parties, with cocktails and wine served. On arriving at the ball, the guests went through a receiving line so the proud parents of the debutante in whose honour the party was being held could introduce her. Then the dancing began, with music provided by an orchestra. Supper was served around midnight, accompanied by champagne.
“One’s partner at dinner was supposed to, and usually did, have the first and last dance and escort you to supper, as well as take you home,” she recalled. “It was a good security blanket.” My mother was not one of those girls who was so popular with the boys that her dance card for the evening was always full. In fact, she hinted that she spent a fair amount of time in the ladies’ room, pretending to be invisible. Nevertheless, she wrote that her teen years were a lot of fun, going to movies, picnics and corn roasts in the summer and taking the train to the Laurentians to go skiing in winter, after the party season had wrapped up.
Two years later life changed for everyone, and some of the young men who had attended those parties went off to war and never came back. Nor did my mother marry one of the boys she was introduced to as a debutante; my parents met in Ottawa, where they were both working, just as the war was ending.
This article also appears on https://genealogyensemble.com.
We reached Whickham Parish Church in County Durham, England at the end of a long day of exploration. I knew that two of my ancestors had been baptized in the little Norman-style church, but I didn’t know whether any family members were buried in its large cemetery. The weather was cool and rainy and the church was locked, so, after giving the cemetery a quick glance, we turned to leave. At that point, our guide drew our attention to an old gravestone to the left of the church door.
“What you say the family name was?” he asked.
“Mitcheson,” I replied.
Only part of the inscription was legible, but enough remained to identify the couple buried there. This was the grave of my ancestors Joseph Mitcheson (1746-1821) and his wife Margaret Philipson (1756-1804). I like to imagine that, knowing we had come all the way from Canada, Joseph and Margaret were trying to get our attention. They didn’t want us to leave without finding them.
This couple is of special significance to my family tree. Two of their children, Mary Mitcheson Clark and Robert Mitcheson, moved to North America, and both are my direct ancestors. In 1844, Mary’s grandson, Stanley Clark Bagg, of Montreal, married his first cousin once removed, Catharine Mitcheson, daughter of Robert Mitcheson, of Philadelphia.1 This makes Joseph and Margaret simultaneously my four-times and five-times great-grandparents.
I know almost nothing about Margaret, and only a few bare facts about Joseph. He was born and baptized in Lanchester Parish, County Durham, in 1746, the youngest son of gentleman farmer Robert Mitcheson and his wife, Mary..2
When Robert died in 1784, he left most of his estate to Joseph.3 Joseph became what is known as a yeoman farmer, meaning he owned a small amount of property. Socially, a yeoman was notch above a tenant farmer, but below a gentleman.
Joseph Mitcheson, of Lanchester Parish, married Margaret Philipson, of Whickham Parish, by licence at Whickham Parish Church in 1774.4 They eventually had six children – four girls and two boys.
Before his father’s death, Joseph’s family seems to have moved frequently. According to family notes, Mary (1776-1856) was born at Stow House in the hamlet of Cornsay, Lanchester Parish. Again according to family stories, Robert (1779-1859) was born at Eland Hall, Ponteland, near Newcastle. I can’t confirm either of these accounts, but both children were baptized in Whickham. All of the couple’s other children – Margaret (1781-1864), William (1783-1857), Elizabeth (1786-?) and Jane (1793-1825) — were baptized at Lanchester Parish Church, so the family must have been living in the Lanchester area by 1781.
Fortunately, County Durham has kept its records of land tax returns. These lists showed who owned each property, who lived on it and whether the occupant was the owner or a tenant. In 1789, Joseph was living in Lanchester Parish on a property owned by John Stephenson, Esq., who may have been the husband of his aunt Jane Mitcheson. Meanwhile, Joseph was getting income from three properties that he rented out: a farm in Iveston that he had inherited from his father, and another farm in Witton Gilbert.5 Both were located in Lanchester Parish.
In addition, his wife had inherited property in the town of Swalwell from her parents. Married women’s property belonged to their husbands, so legally it belonged to Joseph and he collected rent from the house, or houses, on this land. Swalwell, a township in Whickham Parish on the River Derwent, was an important iron manufacturing center in the 18th century.
The tax records show that, by 1798, Joseph and his family had moved to Iveston, where It appears he farmed the land: in his will, written in 1803, Joseph bequeathed his “implements of husbandry”, as well as household goods and furniture, to his wife.6
Margaret died in 1804 and perhaps Joseph decided to give up farming after her death and move to Swalwell. The Durham tax records of 1810 show the farm properties at Iveston and Witton Gilbert were occupied by renters and Joseph was living on his Swalwell property, although it now belonged to his son Robert, an iron manufacturer.
When Joseph died in 1821, he left cash to his daughters and the farm in Witton Gilbert to his middle son, William. William lived in London, so he rented the farm to a tenant farmer. Joseph left the bulk of his estate to his older son, Robert, although by this time, Robert had settled in Philadelphia. The 1824 land tax records show that Robert rented out both the properties in Swalwell and in Iveston.
Two final remarks: I suspect that Joseph Mitcheson and Margaret Philipson’s grave was in a prominent location in Whickham Parish Cemetery because of her family’s prominence. The grave is near the front door of the church where everyone coming and going could see it. (See the link below to the story of the Philipson family, “Can Two Wrongs Make a Right?”)
My other thought is that, while Joseph was a farmer like his father, his children were the first generation to break new trails. In Montreal, Mary and her husband, John Clark, invested in real estate. In Philadelphia, Robert was involved in several different business ventures as a merchant, a manufacturer and a landlord. Meanwhile, son William was an anchor manufacturer. Did Joseph and Margaret encourage their children to be adventurous and to leave County Durham, or were the next generation just fortunate to live at a time when new opportunities beckoned? That is a question I can’t answer.
“Can Two Wrongs Make a Right?” Writing Up the Ancestors, May 4, 2022, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2022/05/can-two-wrongs-make-a-right.html
“Robert Mitcheson’s Last Will and Testament” Writing Up the Ancestors, March 1, 2022, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2022/03/robert-mitchesons-last-will-and-testament.html
An article about the life of Robert Mitcheson of Philadelphia will appear in the fall.
This article is also posted on the family history blog Genealogy Ensemble, https://genealogyensemble.com
My husband and I made that trip in 2009. Our guide that day in Durham was retired professional genealogist Geoff Nicholson. Later, Geoff e-mailed me the whole memorial inscription, copied by the Northumberland and Durham My Family History Society in 1995. It said, “In memory of Margaret, wife of Joseph Mitcheson of Swalwell who died June 23 1804 aged 49? years. The above Joseph Mitcheson died June 1821 aged 77 years”
1. Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records; Reel: 1078, database, Ancestry.com (http://:Ancestry.ca, accessed Dec. 22, 2019,) entry for Stanley Clark Bagg, 9 Sept. 1844; citing Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
2. England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.ca, database on-line, entry for Joseph Mitchinson, Lanchester, accessed May 2, 2022), citing England, Births and Christenings, 1538-1975. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.
3. Robert Mitcheson’s will is stored at Durham University Archives and can be viewed online. Search for it at http://familyrecords.dur.ac.uk/nei/data/simple.php and view it on Familysearch.org. “England, Durham, Diocese of Durham Original Wills, 1650-1857,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-67DQ-481?cc=2358715&wc=9PQL-ZRH%3A1078415794 : 7 July 2014), DPRI/1/1784/M5 > image 3 of 3; Special Collections, Palace Green Library, Durham University, Durham. (accessed Feb. 28, 2022).
4 England, Select Marriages, 1538-1973 Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.ca, database on-line, entry for Joseph Mitcheson, accessed May 2, 2022), citing England, Marriages, 1538–1973. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.
5. Durham County Records Office. Quarter Sessions – Land Tax Returns, Chester Ward West 1759-1830, www.durhamrecordsoffice.org.uk, search for Mitcheson, viewed April 19, 2022.
6. Will of Joseph Mitcheson, yeoman, Iveston, Durham, The National Archives, Wills 1384-1858 (http://nationalarchives.gov.uk, search for Joseph Mitcheson, accessed Nov. 18, 2010), The National Archives, Kew – Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 9 February, 1822.