Robert McArthur and Mary Hay Gray: Migrations, Catastrophe and Triumph

My father’s passion was his work; my mother’s, her homemaking. They took delight in each other’s passion, and shared the joy of family. They were successful in many directions, highly travelled and wasted no time.

Wherever we dwelt, Mum created a gorgeous garden.  She was very lean but could show bicep, honed through tennis, digging and determination.  Dad admired her gardens beyond belief, but employed others to mow the lawn. Until he retired, that is.  Then he mowed in perfectly sculpted rows of light versus dark. He would review his masterpiece from within the house, and exit to pick up a stray leaf. On each successful “fix”, he would wear a wicked silly-boy grin. If you do a job, do it right.

When Mum passed, and pass she did, to Dad’s astonishment, for she was indomitable, he could not find enough to do. He began to “mow” the rugs. That sheepish grin would emerge when alternating pile messed with Persian design, in the quest to hoover the dirt that surely existed. 

When he conceded it not wise to mow rugs thrice daily, he turned to book, and produced a wonderful Family History.  These posts rely heavily on Dad’s work, now intermingled with additional material. Dad adored my mother, so, began his volume with her family.  He did his best to cover her father, and the reasons for inability to move forward, are covered in “Double Genealogy: The Adoption Witness”. 

Dad’s work opens with this family portrait.1 They appear anxious, perhaps foreboding of the tragedy that lay ahead.

FAMILY OF ROBERT MCARTHUR (1862-1918) and MARY HAY GRAY (1866-1937)  

Robert McArthur-Mary Hay Gray family ca. 1909. Hemmingsen Family Collection, copyright © Marilee Wein 2018

Who is who? Standing in the back row, left to right, in age order are Robert, John and Thomas.  Great grandmother, Mary Hay Gray is seated with Jeanie on her knee.  Left to right, the other girls are our Nana, Janet Gray (seated), Mary Gray, and Agnes Hardie.  Great grandfather Robert McArthur is seated as well. 

Dating the picture: The family tried emigration twice; this photo was associated with the second attempt. when they sailed Allan Line’s “Grampian”, 30 APR 1910, from Glasgow to Montreal, with destination Nanaimo, on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.3 Diminutive Jeanie’s boots appear substantial, as for a walker. The shoot was likely in Hamilton, Scotland, before departure.

What they brought: Great grandfather; Looking closely at his lower vest, one can see that Robert Sr. has a gold fob for a pocket watch. Unfortunately, we shall see that watch up close

Arrival documents show Robert Sr. had $250 in pocket.4 That sum was a little over three months of Canadian wages.5 They show Robert Jr. paid his own way, with $100 on hand.

Wee Mary Gray: If only we could better see, Mary’s darling little basket. What could it hold, but hope?


Penelope? Mary’s basket reminded of Penelope with hers of fruit. She was born in 1901. Nana had named me her guardian, long, long ago.  Alas, the story she shared, has faded. Did Mary Hay Gray handle and pack Ms. Penelope? How many loved ones have touched her? Maybe all those that sailed! Then, Mum, for certain, and Aunt Iris.  Perhaps, Uncle Jimmy.  Me, my siblings, my children, and theirs.  All manner of DNA interrupted by dusting cloth. Might it be some day, that her very own bone rendered ceramic, will be caused to yield up echoes of the past. Who knows?  


The McArthur family struggled, typical of Scottish mining families of the era. British Columbia was their second attempt at improving their lot. Robert Sr.’s Canadian arrival documents show he was in the United States from 1888-1890.4 In fact, John McArthur was born in Nashville, Tennessee on 6 Sep 1889.4   The Registry for John’s death in B.C., supports his Tennessee birth. 

Sailing records for the Tennessee venture were not easily located because it was hard to imagine them destined for New York.  Separately, at that; Robert first. It was the Anchoria for both, so it amazed that Robert Sr.’s journey spanned 20 APR to 4 MAY 1888, while wife and child took from 8 SEP to 6 OCT.4 That is what the documents say. 

Oh, Mary Hay Gray, those voluminous women’s clothes, a babe at breast, no disposable diapers, or wipes, no assistance, and New York to Nashville looming.  What inconvenience would you not weather, for your family?  It would soon become apparent. 

Mary Hay Gray, it was told, was a good soul. She could not navigate the southern landscape that suggested if her boys played with some, then, they could not play with others.  There were probably no bags to pack, but, pack up their wee ones, they did. A rich life could be had, however poor they may be, in Scotland.

We American Descendants: Our line seemed destined to be American. Granddad Hemmingson (or Hemmingsen in Canada) had immigrated to Wisconsin, just a few months before the Tennessee trip. Yet, we wound up Canadian. The table would turn again, for some of us. 


Four girls were added to the family in Scotland, in quick succession. Mining declined further; the robust mines of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island were calling.

Departure versus arrival documents: information can vary between the two reports, after all, they speak to different government’s needs. Here, the departing Janet Gray was a photographer which may have been aspirational. Arrival officials, most concerned with future work, showed her as a domestic. The latter was confirmed Census 1911.  

That census gathered employment and wage data. Father and Robert Jr.  made the same wage, and worked a 48-hour week. Their 1910 total wages were $425 which reflected 25 weeks of work.  John made slightly less, with fewer weeks worked. That was consistent with their late spring arrival in 1910. There were numerous coal miners on their census page; the wages were similar.  Their home was on Haliburton Street, in Nanaimo.

Eerily, it also collected the value of household Life Insurance. The McArthur family had none. No one enumerated on the entire page had any. 


Life in Canada brought much improved financial circumstance. Until 1918, that is. The 1921 Census showed the widow, Mary Hay Gray McArthur, thankfully secure in an owned home, at 73 Strickland Avenue, Nanaimo. The household had been deep in mourning, as were all in Nanaimo, many throughout Scotland, and miners everywhere. 

Hemmingsen Family Collection

This event, along with other mining deaths in our family, informed the career of our grandfather, James Dickson. This humble Scottish coal hewer, would become Chief Inspector of Mines, for British Columbia. 


Hemmingsen Family Collection

Mary Gray Hay, a widow for two decades, was our longest living great-grandparent, by far.

One can only imagine the joy she found in seeing that she and Robert had made a sound decision in the second migration. She witnessed the first Canadian generation prosper and off to college. 

Further data on Robert Jr. who returned to Scotland was not located. Our nana, Janet Gray had three children. Siblings John, Mary Gray, Agnes Hardie and Jeanie each had one. Thomas married, but died in 1923; children were not discovered. These who were known to my generation will find time in the category “Memories”

Our McArthur ancestry can be traced to Robert and his wife, Jane Russell, who were born in Scotland around 1760. Descendant Robert, born in 1862 and wife Mary Hay Gray, emigrated to Canada in 1910. CLICK HERE to read our collection of stories.

Please scroll below Notes and Sources to comment, question, like, etc.

Notes and Sources:
1. The Hemmingsen Family Collection including “John O Hemmingsen / Mary Margaret Hemmingsen (Dickson)” authored 1999 by John Oliver Hemmingsen. All materials posthumously published here are copyright © Marilee Wein 2018-2019. All rights reserved.
2. Statutory Registers of Birth Marriage and Death Records, and Scotland Censuses 1841-1911 found at are Crown copyright © National Records of Scotland. Specific citations include but are not limited to:
Birth Registry: 1866 Gray, Mary Hay 475/20 Campsie, Stirling / 1862 McArthur, Robert 626/1 68 Cadder (Western District) Lanark
3. Documents accessed at FMP: Findmypast Ltd. © Brightsolid online publishing Ltd., © 2017 Findmypast and with thanks for Findmypast
Passenger Lists Leaving UK 1890-1960. From Grampian departing Glasgow 30APR1910 for Montreal, Quebec. NOTE: Janet McArthur is noted as a 15-year-old photographer
4. Documents accessed at Family Search (FS) © 2017 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc.:
Canada Passenger Lists 1881-1892: Quebec, QC, Grampian image 39 of 61, from Library and Archives of Canada, Ottawa ON. Arrival Document 10 May 1910 NOTE: Janet McArthur is noted as a 15-year-old Domestic
Canadian Border Crossings 1895-1954, Vermont St. Alban from National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
New York Passenger Lists 1820-1891 from National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) ; Image 719 or 1088 citing MF M237 for Robert McArthur (Sr.) arrived 4MAY1888 on Anchoria and image 421 of 1095 MF M237 for Mary Hay Gray and Robert McArthur (Jr.) Arrived 6OCT1888 on Anchoria.
5. Canada Censuses 1911 and 1921 from Library and Archives of Canada, Ottawa ON. specifically for Mary McArthur, 1911, Item 471247 British Columbia, Nanaimo and 1921, Item 4549733.

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