Kids from America

Last year we added some Harris Academy admission registers to our collections. These list all of the pupils at the school from its opening in 1885 to 1947. We now have a complete run of admission records right up to 1987. A number of volunteers are currently working hard to index the admission registers for the Friends of Dundee City Archives website. Lists of pupils who went to the Harris up to 1918 will hopefully be available online by the end of the year.

In the meantime, we have been coming across all sorts of unusual names, addresses, school names and other interesting bits and bobs recorded in the register. One piece of information that caught our eye were the entries for two girls in 1892. Nellie and Mabel Whitton’s previous school was listed as Adam’s School, Boston. The volunteer working on this volume brought this to me, asking if it was Boston Lincolnshire or Boston, Massachusetts, USA. A quick search of Google revealed that Adam’s school was in fact in the American city. This piqued my interest. Why was a family coming to Dundee after living in Boston? Were they originally from Dundee? Had they only been out there for a short time? The parent’s name listed in the register was Mrs Whitton. Usually a father’s name is given, so did he die and was that the cause of the return? I decided to find out.

Harris Academy Admission Register, showing the admission of the Whitton sisters

The Whitton family lived at 4 Gowrie Place according to the Harris Admission Register. Nellie was 13 and Mabel was 11 years old. I decided to look for a records of the family coming to Scotland. Incoming Passenger Lists from ships are available on I found that Helen (Nellie’s proper name) and Mabel along with two younger brothers, Alfred and Charles, arrived in Liverpool from Boston on 12 July 1892. This fits with the admission girl’s admission to the Harris on 12 September 1892. But that means that 4 children aged between 6 and 13 travelling alone. On a journey that probably took just over a week.

Samuel Adams Elementary School, East Boston. Boston Landmarks Commission image collection, Collection 5210.004, City of Boston Archives, Boston

I decided to look for them in the 1901 census. I found that the four sibling along with an elder brother, James, were living at 273 Hawkhill. And sure enough, all five of the siblings had been born in the US. But there was still no mother. What had happened to her? Why had they travelled alone? James, who was 15 at the time, arrived a month later than his brothers and sisters on 15th August 1892. He too was alone.

So who was the mysterious Mrs Whitton? The Dundee directory for 1900, show that the person at 271 Hawkhill was a Mrs Whitton, spirit dealer. No first name is given. I then went back through the years and eventually found out that her name is Helen. I went back to the arrivals records to see if I could find when she came back to the UK. I couldn’t find anything. But the directories only list her from 1892. So she must have come to Dundee before her children, but not that long before them. As spirit dealers or publicans were licensed by the council, my next stop was the register of transfers of licences.

The register shows that Helen applied to take on the licence left by her sister Elizabeth Ritchie, who was deceased in January 1892. But it says that the licence was refused. How could this be? We know that she was listed at the premises later that year in the directory. Yet no further application for transfer was made. The annual register of publican’s certificates listed Helen as holding the licence for 271 Hawkhill in April 1893. As with many court records, the juicy information is often contained in the newspapers.


‘Register of Transference of Certificates for sale of Excisable Liquors 1867-1942, Helen’s application is underlined in red

A report on 7th January 1892 in the Courier, records Helen’s attempt to take over the licence. Unfortunately the judges weren’t too keen. So she explained her circumstances. She had returned to Dundee in November 1891 following her sister’s death to help wind up her affairs. Whilst here she had received 2 telegrams that her husband had died, leaving her a widow with 6 children. She asked to take on the licence to support her family. The request was refused.

But Helen didn’t back down. In May 1892 she took her appeal to the Quarter Sessions. That report explains how the authorities were aware that there were too many licenced premises in the Hawkhill area, so refused┬áHelen’s licence. Mrs Whitton’s solicitor explains that her mother had a licence for premises in the Seagate but moved to the Hawkhill during the 1870s demolitions of the area.┬áHelen had helped out in the pub. Bailie Perrie wasn’t particularly impressed, stating that to grant a licence to a family of a widow and 6 children would be to put temptation in the way of the latter. Luckily this was scoffed at by fellow members, saying that licences should therefore not be issued to any married man. Perrie, not pleased with Helen’s coming back from Boston, went on to add that “They had lots of widows and families on this side of the Atlantic to look after without their coming from America.” A vote was taken and Helen got her licence as a result of 18 votes for and 14 against.

She continued at the pub until 1906, when it was taken over by Phillip Markie. Her son James also became a spirit dealer at 37 Consititution Road. She continued to live at 273 Hawkhill with James until his death in 1915 when she moved to Alloa to live with her daughter Helen and her husband. She died in 1922.

Helen Jr lived until 1956 with her husband William Fulton in Alloa. Mabel married Thomas Kinnear in 1905 but died of TB in 1909 aged just 27. She also lived at 273 Hawkhill with her husband – next door to her mum. Alfred and Charles emigrated to Australia in 1907. Alfred died in 1914 aged 31. Charles ended up in China, married a Scottish girl there and died in 1931 in Shanghai.

The sixth child referred to in the licensing court report was William. He was the eldest and was already 19 when his mother and younger siblings came to Dundee. We’re not sure why didn’t come back to Dundee. Maybe he had a job. Or maybe he just didn’t want to. We do know from the US Census that in 1893 he married Minnie Croake. Perhaps she was the reason he didn’t go to Dundee. He didn’t lose touch with his mum. She went to visit him and his family often. Including one trip when she landed in Boston on 21 March 1901. So this is where she was during 1901 census. She was visiting the son that stayed behind.

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