John Dickson (1882-1947) Busts Our Family Anecdote

Double Genealogy: The Adoption Witness Update 5 Addendum 9*

Growing up, our Mum alleged that “three young men left Scotland solo, at around the same time: one bound for Canada (our Granddad), one for India, and one for Australia. They bravely conquered their futures on their own. The men kept in touch, but strangely, two came without names. Their age at departure could be as young as ten years! In retrospect, the selected age variant seemed to depend on the degree to which the child, currently held hostage to the story, needed thinking revision.   Mum held a unique and clever arsenal of parental persuasion tools and never had to resort to “starving children elsewhere”. Still, just like that statement, her anecdote had to have been rooted in truth.

The Granddad we knew had a dry Scot’s wit. He was of few, but impactful, words. The man, with a wealth of insight, owned conversation, mostly directed outwards. He left no entry to pry into his past. It took him to pass, for the realization that this account of his youth was never uttered in his presence.

Curiously, Dad’s history of our family left the nugget out.1 Rather, he wrote that Granddad, James Dickson, had actually attained 30 years in 1912, when he settled in British Columbia. But then, the Granddad that we knew, was a world traveler, such that this may not have been his first trip to America, leaving room for the anecdote to be true, as told.

Dad recorded three broad statements on James: that there was little information available on him, or his family; that he had spent time abroad from Scotland, first to coal mine in Germany, as a young man and then to serve the Scottish Militia in the Boer War; and that he was somehow finely self-educated in mining.

That paucity of information drove the current generation of family sleuths. “Double Genealogy: The Adoption Witness” documented the Scotland years of him, his family and their heritage.2 With birth in 1882, and departure in 1912, James Dickson qualified for three decennial censuses on the 91, 01 and 11.

James appeared to be in Scotland for all three censuses, including 1901. That put question to service in the Boer War, which did not conclude until 1902. On the save side, James was on-age for service. Plus, in an indelible kitchen table talk on current events of the early 1960’s when Granddad had just returned from abroad, he declared that the area was as he remembered it, at the turn of the century. It has escaped the memory bank, if he also connected that early trip, to a Boer War experience. Anyway, Africa is not in the anecdote.

The book did find credible explanation -not proof-  for work in German mines, actually as part of that projected education. Indeed, education at the now Glasgow University was attributed to him, by later colleagues. Still Germany is not Canada.

We were ever looking for a buddy threesome, but James’ heritage documentation was trying. One sole record suggested he had been adopted by James Dickson. In fact, his cousin, James Russell, born the same year, was adopted under different circumstances, by John Dickson. Likewise, a third lad and second-cousin to both, William French, was of out-of-wedlock birth, but his parents later married. They were miners, all six, and close.

As coal depleted, miners necessarily moved. These families tracked together and in father-son teams, beginning as hewer fathers and drawer sons. The book posited birth parentage and heritage for the two adopted boys and a possible name change for James Russell, to John Dickson. When his two cousins resisted our attempts to pluck them from Scotland’s 1911 Census, we opined that this threesome was the genesis of the anecdote.

William French can now be excluded, for an upcoming post will show him actually in the census, and way too busy a married man, to have left Scotland’s shores.


John Dickson/James Russell may yet be lurking in that 1911 census, or, he may have travelled away for a while. He died in Scotland in 1947, not India or Australia.3 The record was for him as John Dickson, son of John Dickson (of Kirkfieldbank) and Agnes Barr (of Whitburn). This proved he grew up as John Dickson, not James Russell. True to earlier form, he died in Blackridge, West Lothian, town also, of William French. It was not far from where he had spent his youth, around Hamilton and Shotts, Lanarkshire.

John Dickson was a retired, single coal miner.  From the Adoption Witness’ perspective, that he died single, practically precludes DNA from ever proving the birth parents that were selected for him by our research.  In the end, it seems he was not part of Mum’s story.


Mum never would have fabricated that anecdote. No. We must remain ever vigilant for an explanation. The truth is, a world of undocumented living can happen in a decade.

*Addendum 9 modifies “The Last Census”, Chapter 17: Grandad’s Scotland Years 1882-1911.

The Dickson family of Lesmahagow: Kirkfieldbank and Crossford. Our James Dickson, may have been a chosen son in 1882 – explored in Double Genealogy: The Adoption Witness. We would treasure such adoptive heritage. CLICK for guide to stories on Lesmahagow names: Tweedle, Dickson, Paterson, McKinlay, Brown. Plus: Gemmell, Young of Edinburgh, Barr of Whitburn/Airdrie, Russell, Wilson, Black of Carnwath.


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.  The collection also holds related material such as the newspaper articles, pictures, etc.

2. Double Genealogy: The Adoption Witness. Published by Copyright © 2018 Marilee Wein. Including past posts at © 2018-2020. See Copyright Statement above.

3. Cited Birth, Marriage and Death data were found in Old Parish Records and Statutory Registers at ScotlandsPeople and are © Crown Copyright National Records of Scotland. This includes but is not limited to: 1947 Dickson, John (Statutory registers Death 671/2 12)

8 thoughts on “John Dickson (1882-1947) Busts Our Family Anecdote

  1. Interesting story and has me checking my family tree for a connection . My great grandfather was named Livingston Russell Dickson. Russell was his mother’s maiden name. Mining family from Lanarkshire.


    1. Thanks for the comment! It seems there is no connection. The Russell mother that we identified for him did not marry a Dickson. She wed soon after this illegitimate birth, and seemed to have no other child, in between. It is always great to do these look-see, as the only way to plough forward!


  2. Your family history is so complex and interesting, Marilee. We found out that my Irish great grandmother had traveled to Boston at least once – never thought she left the farm?? We underestimate how well traveled our ancestors were sometimes.


      1. I was most surprised by a plane ticket to Bermuda that my paternal grandparent had in one of his rich periods. It must have been in the 40’s. I think my GG was visiting some relatives – many have turned up in the Ancestry DNA. Americans but from my Irish side.


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