John Dickson (1882-1947): Edges of That Anecdote Bust

Our last post lamented the broken expectation that John Dickson left Scotland as a young man around 1911, for wonder in India or Australia. Instead, we found him home, dead at 64 in 1947, a single retired coal miner.1 We thought this closed our genealogical interest in him, in that we could say his life was that of a Scottish miner. One last close-out search, though, gave unsettling new insight from freshly posted history.  We wanted to be there for him, when he needed us most.

John was an adopted boy, cousin to our grandfather, James Dickson.2 Our last certain fix was for 1901, when at 19, his census located him boarding with their much older cousin, Mary French. John was close with Mary’s son, William, two years his junior.  John’s mother had passed the decade last, and his namesake father was likewise boarding, just some doors down. When the two young relatives did not materialize in the 1911 census, we felt they left country, along with our grandfather.

Everything looked well enough in the black and white of the census pages, with everyone gainfully employed on 31 March 1901. We sensed happy times in the lovely land of the Scots, with extended family living in close proximity. Yet, like workers everywhere then, one day one was able; the next, maybe not – where “not” usually meant no paycheck, no insurance and no savings.  

JOHN DICKSON (abt. 1855 -1902)

New pages of old times revealed that on 12 May 1902, the elder John Dickson applied for Poor Relief.3 He was still late in his forties on this day and wholly disabled by pneumonia. He stood no chance, this breather of coal dust since his early teens. Relief records say he died that month, although his Death Registry has yet to surface.  He was Granddad’s dear Uncle John Dickson, born in the lovely Lanarkshire town of Kirkfieldbank, son of John Dickson (1816-1878) and Margaret Paterson (1818-1881)2

WILLIAM FRENCH (1884-1954)

On 25 April 1903, William French, at 18, wed a “widow” a few years his senior, with whom a child was expected, that June.4 Research showed us no proof of her widowhood. Theirs was one of those legal marriages deemed “irregular”; a witnessed secular declaration between the two, subsequently allowed into the official Marriage Registry by Warrant of the Sheriff.  In their case, a second declaration was filed in 1914, with the bride marked “formerly married”.4 The coupling proved solid, with many children their issue, but William was likely quite occupied with his own affairs, in the year of John Dickson’s mourning.  Our grandfather, third spoke in the young relatives’ wheel, may well have been abroad, fulfilling that anecdote of the past post, with an alternate buddy-set.


On 30 June 1903, John Dickson, in apparent devastation by his father’s death, having moved by himself to Dunfermline in Fife, entered its poorhouse.4 He was described as wholly disabled and wholly destitute, suffering from debility and boils. One must imagine the social shun from festering sores, not just the pain, and know they were likely to linger, for there was no effective treatment.

John was a drawer.2 His hewer, who had been his father as the custom was, extracted coal from the rock face and let it fall to the ground. The drawer removed it from the hewer space, loaded it to a bin, then moved the laden bin from the area.  It was heavy repetitive work of long hours, in cramped dirty spaces; not ideal for the weak of body. Terrible for those lads who matured with sebaceous acne. 

On 12 November 1903, John was transferred to the Omoa Workhouse in Northern Lanarkshire, since his care was the responsibility of the Parish of Shotts. Those dates recorded in 1902 and 1903 would etch in John’s memory, for they prefaced a ledger detailed through 1929. He was seen to sign in and out of the Workhouse, maybe to take employment when able. His disability ranged from wholly, due to racked back, to partially, from lumbago and rheumatism.  This revolving door was strong in 1911, which may explain his absence from that year’s census. His intake notes indicate “from Northrigg”, promoting the hunch that he sheltered with Mary French, in Shotts.     

Experience with other poorhouse ancestors showed that many, once so homed, died there. We have no information on John through the 1930s and 40s. However, his death report suggests he was eventually able to move away from his county of relief eligibility, to Blackridge, West Lothian. That brought him closer again, to William French and another French brother, who raised family there.

John’s fortunes may have changed somewhat along the way; his death informant was his landlady, to whom he could presumably, pay rent.  We thought we had closed the chapter on our grandfather’s cousin, this John Dickson, who had been born James Russell. Instead he touched our hearts. We wish to envelop him in loving descendant care and honor him with an open ledger, in hopes of finding him some carefree times.   

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 John Dickson (1882-1947) Busts Our Family Anecdote

2 Cited in Double Genealogy: The Adoption Witness. Published by Copyright © 2018 Marilee Wein and/or in past posts at © 2018-2020. See Copyright Statement above.

3 North Lanarkshire Archives North Lanarkshire, Scotland, Poor Law Applications and Registers, 1849-1917: Shotts Parish > Applications for Relief > a) 1897 -1902 for John Dickson b. 1853 Scotland, Kirkfieldbank and b) 1895-1911 for John Dickson b. abt. 1883, Scotland, Kirkliston and c) General Register of the Poor Belonging to Shotts Parish.  Accessed at 4:01PM July 29, 2020.

See also for Peter Higgenbotham’s exceptional website, including the Omoa Workhouse.

4 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: Statutory registers Marriages for French, William 1903: 644/3 174 and 1914: 651/60  

14 thoughts on “John Dickson (1882-1947): Edges of That Anecdote Bust

  1. It is so odd to read familiar names, such as Shotts and Lanarkshire (we lived there), but with your family’s history woven into the names. I can only imagine how awful a poor house in Scotland would have been and the deprivation your ancestor suffered. Debility and Boils – poor soul, may he rest in peace.


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