The Life and Times of Thomas Thomson

Thomas Thomson

My Grandfather

When I began researching my family history after dad died, I knew nothing about my granddad other than the fact that he was dead. Being new to genealogy, I also wasn’t sure where to begin.

I started by asking my mother what she could tell me about her father-in-law. At the time, I thought it seemed very little. I wondered how I could ever get a picture of who this man was almost 40 years after he had died.
Gradually, I began to organise the bits and pieces of evidence and to uncover the story of my grandad, Tommy Thomson.

I was very excited when I received his death certificate through the post. This was the first piece of genealogical data that I had ever looked for and found. From this document, I found his birth information and his story started to write itself.

I discovered that Tommy had been born in Rutherglen on the 21st of November 1894. I remember being struck by the date, the 21st of November is also my sister, Kathleen’s birthday.

He was born at 167 King Street. His father was Archibald Thomson, a Potter, and his mother was Agnes Kerr Thomson, nee Simpson. He was one of eleven children.

This photo shows No. 250 – 284 King Street, Rutherglen. This would have been on the opposite side to the building where Thomas was born. (Photo C. 1930)

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In the 1901 Census for Scotland, Thomas is shown with his parents and his siblings, living at 15 Mitchell Street, Rutherglen. His siblings were Peter, 23, Mary, 21, Robert, 17, Agnes, 15, and Clark, 9.

I imagine Tommy enjoyed his childhood growing up in Rutherglen, or ‘Auld Ru’glen’, as it was commonly known. Perhaps he and his brothers ventured as far the Cathkin Braes or watched the sale of horses at the famous Rutherglen Horse Fairs held in the Main Street.

The town of Rutherglen is located to the south-east of Glasgow, lying about 3 miles from the city centre. It was a Burgh of Lanarkshire for more than 800 years. In the 19th Century, Rutherglen was a heavily industrialised area. With a total of five collieries, a chemical works, and pottery. It attracted people from all over Scotland looking for work.

Thomas’ father had moved to the area from Prestonpans on the east coast of Scotland to work in the Caledonian Pottery.

Site Plan of the Caledonian Pottery, Rutherglen

The Thomson’s were a working-class family with a strong work ethic. In 1911, all the children who were old enough to work were employed. Tommy’s oldest brother, Peter, worked alongside his father in the Pottery. His oldest sister, Mary, was a paper worker at one of the paper mills. His sister, Agnes, worked in one of the rope works. His other brother, Robert, was a baker.

Tommy appears with his family again in the 1911 Census. The family were still residing in Rutherglen but were then living at 16 Stonelaw Road. Tommy was 16 years old and had started work. At that time he was working in the Eastfield Chair Works. Unlike his older brothers, Peter, and Clark, he had not immediately joined his father in the pot works.

When Wolrl War 1 was declared, just three years later, in 1914, Tommy was a skinny twenty-year-old lad. He weighed 140 lbs and stood at 5”7”. By this time, he was working as a potter. On the 15th January 1915, just two months after his twentieth birthday, he was enlisted into the army at Bridgeton, Glasgow.

As Private 15435, he first joined the Royal Regiment of Artillery before being transferred to the Royal Fusiliers (London Regiment) 2nd Battalion. He was shipped out in October 1915 and served with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force or MEF. The MEF had been created in March 1915, to control operations in Gallipoli, under the command of Sir Ian Hamilton.
In January 1916, the 2nd Battalion was evacuated to Egypt before being transferred to the BEF in France.

The soldiers of the British Army fighting on the Western Front was known as the British Expeditionary Force. The BEF had been set up in August 1914 and played a huge part in the early war efforts. Almost the entire force had been killed by the end of 1914. The foot soldiers of the BEF had been no match for the heavy artillery of the German Army. Recruits were constantly needed to supplement the ranks.

Tommy’s Battalion, which had initially been sent to Gallipoli as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, had been evacuated to Egypt in January 19116. They were then transferred to France, landing in Marseilles in March 1916. Tommy then spent the next three months in the trenches, fighting at the western front. From the 1st to 13th of July 1917, the 2nd Battalion took part in The Battle of Albert. The Battle of Albert was the official name for the British efforts during the first two weeks of fighting at the Battle of the Somme. The first day of the battle was the most costly single day in British military history. Over the next two days, the extent of the losses from that first day had become clear and, by the fourth day of fighting, the focus had changed to the right of the line where the British forces were pushing the Germans back.

As the Battle of Albert progressed it comprised a series of attacks on the east side of the village of La Boisselle, on the Albert-Bapaume road. This slowly pushed the Germans back towards their second position, on Bazentine Ridge.

From the 1st to 13th of July 1917, the 2nd Battalion took part in The Battle of Albert. The Battle of Albert is the official name for the British efforts during the first two weeks of fighting in the Battle of the Somme. The first day of the battle was to be the most costly single day in British military history, with 57,000 casualties. Over the next two days, the extent of the losses became clear and by the fourth day of fighting, Field Marshall Haig had begun to focus to the right of the line.  This was a more awkward position to fight from but took advantage of the progress that the previous days fighting had created.

The rest of the fighting in the Battle of Albert involved a series of attacks on the east side of the village of La Boisselle, on the Albert-Bapaume road. This slowly pushed the Germans back towards their second position, on Bazentine Ridge. It was on the fourth day of these skirmishes that Tommy sustained a gunshot wound to the left arm and hand. He was sent to the No. 2 General Hospital at Le Havre before being returned to Britain on the Hospital Ship Maheno.

A postcard showing the Maheno.

After leaving the hospital, he returned to his home in Stonelaw Road. I do not know how Tommy coped with his return to civilian life. The experience he had been through must have been traumatic, but, I imagine, he was relieved and thankful to be home. Still, I wonder if he ever visited the Reading Room in Rutherglen’s Public Library to stare at the growing number of portraits and notices dedicated to the men of the town who hadn’t returned.

An excerpt from ‘Rutherglen Lore’ by W Ross Shearer printed in 1922

It is not clear whether Tommy had known his future wife, Wilhelmina Jamieson, before the war, but at some point, they decided to get married.
Wilhelmina, known as Minnie, lived in Nuneaton Street, in nearby Bridgeton. She was three years younger than Tommy and worked as a Milling Machinist. Her father, Magnus, was a Gas Work Stoker. Her mother was Mary Ann Bryan, from Girvan.

The Great War ended on the 11th November 1918, just ten days before Tommy’s 24th birthday. Tommy and Minnie set a date for their wedding – New Year’s Eve, 1918.

Minnie aged about 15 is standing on the right in the back row.

I believe this choice of date may have been significant for Tommy. After four years of war, during which he had come close to being killed and had suffered a horrific injury, this must have seemed like a chance for a new beginning. Choosing the last day of 1918, and the eve of a new year seems like a deliberate and optimistic choice.

So, Tommy and Minnie were married on the 31st of Dec 1918. Minnie was 21, and Tommy was 24. The wedding took place in the Rechabite Hall, Rutherglen. The ceremony was performed according to the forms of the Church of Scotland, by George Simpson, Minister for the Parish of Rutherglen.

Minnie’s sister, Mary Hunter Jamieson, was the bridesmaid. Tommy’s nephew, Archibald Thomson, the son of Tommy’s older brother, Peter, was the best man. Archie was six years younger than Tommy, and eight years later, almost to the day, he married Minnie’s little sister, Lizzie.

I was intrigued by the venue of Tommy and Minnie’s wedding. It begged the question, was Tommy a Rechabite?

I discovered that the Temperance movement had been growing throughout the 19th century. All across the west of Scotland, societies intending to address the ‘question of drink’, had been springing up. They were “anti-spirits”, or “moderation” societies, and were open to both abstainers and non-abstainers alike. By 1870, temperance societies existed all over Scotland. At the turn of the century, an influential temperance movement was evident in Rutherglen. This resulted in the area to the south side of Main Street, being declared a ‘dry area’. The Temperance Act 1913 (Scotland) gave people in small local areas the capacity to hold a vote to decide if alcohol would be sold in their area. This resulted in the area to the south side of Main Street being declared a ‘dry area’.

Given that, according to my mother, Tommy never smoked or drank, and he was married in the Rechabite Hall, I believe he was probably a member of the Temperance Society and had ‘signed the pledge’.

Tommy’s war injury had a lasting effect on his life. His hand had been completely shattered, and years later, he had the habit of hiding it from view. The disability also had an impact on the kind of work he was able to perform. Both of the jobs he had held before joining the army, in the chair works and the pottery, had required manual dexterity. He could no longer do this kind of work.

However, he had to adapt, and by the time of his marriage, he had found employment as a Steel Work Stock Taker, presumably in the nearby Clydebridge Steel Works. In the 1920s, trams and later trolleybuses and buses ran along the Cambuslang Road and onto the London Road then out to Auchenshuggle. This would have provided handy transport to work for Tommy, as it passed the end of Stonelaw Road. Incidentally, it was also the route that, years later, Tommy’s son, James, would drive when he started work on the trams.

In the year 1920, Tommy and Minnie lived at 9 Mitchell Street, a few doors away from the house where the Thomson’s had lived in 1911. Tommy was still working as a Stock Taker when their first child Archibald, was born later that year, on Sept 23rd.

However, Tommy and Minnie did not stay at this address for long and over the next decade or so, they resided at different addresses throughout Rutherglen, Bridgeton and Shettleston.

They went on to have six more children. Their second son, Magnus Jamieson, named after Minnie’s father, was born in 1922. That same year Tommy signed for receipt of the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

These are the same medals that Tommy earned in WW!. I don’t know what happened to his medals but perhaps are in the family of one of his sons.

Tommy and Minnie moved to 310 Nuneaton Street, where their sons Thomas and James Jamieson were born in 1925 and 1927 respectively.

By 1926 Tommy had finished in the steelworks and, for a while, he became a commercial traveller. This career was shortlived, and by 1929, he had become a master confectioner. My mother once told me that in the 1930’s Minnie and he used to run a sweet shop in Rutherglen.

1929 was also the year the couple suffered a tragedy when Minnie went into premature labour. She was taken to the Maternity Hospital where their only daughter, Mary Ann O’Brien, was born. She survived for only two days.

The child was named after Minnie’s mother who had died in January of the same year. Minnie was always philosophical about the death of the baby. She often said it was a blessing that this little girl never had to grow up in a household full of so many boys. Perhaps there was some truth in this as Tommy and Minnie went on to have another two boys, William Jamieson Thomson, 1931, and Robert Thomson, 1933.

Tommy and Minnie with four of their boys,

By 1933, Tommy was almost 40 years old. His career as a confectioner seems to have ended, and he was now employed as a Lamplighter.
In 1930’s Glasgow, streets and closes were still lit by gaslight. Better known as a ‘Leerie’, the lamplighter went round each night igniting the gas lamps in the streets and stairwells. He carried a long pole with a wick at the end. The pole had a hook that could be used to open the pane of glass on each lantern.

With six boisterous boys to bring up, Tommy and Minnie must have had their hands full. When the boys were young, the family would go on holiday to a cabin in Macrahannish in Argyll. There they could run and climb and fish. This was probably a great change from the smoky streets of Glasgow.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Tommy must have felt some anxiety as he watched four of his sons join the army and navy. First Archie, then Magnus and Tommy. Jimmy was too young at the onset of the war but was enlisted in 1944. It must have been a relief for both him and Minnie t see the four young men return unscathed.

After the war, the family went on camping trips together. The trips meant a lot to the boys, and they continued to go camping together even after their marriages. They would often get together with their new wives and families for big family outings to the Highlands.

Minnie, Tommy and Daughter in Law, Betty with Young William and Robert. The wee girl at the front is their grand daughter, Myra.

My mother, Cathy, recollected going on these trips. Dad and she, travelled by motorbike to join Tommy and Minnie and other family members at a campsite in Oban called Ganavan Sands. There the big tents would be set up, looking almost like an army base camp. Minnie thought nothing of preparing a big pot of potatoes and mince or stew on the camp stove for her big family.

Tommy on the Ariel with Rosie in the side car.

When the boys were older, the family stayed in a top floor flat in Altyre Street. Tommy was a quiet, unassuming man who was fond of his boys. Minnie was a hard-working woman. She had several jobs to help support her family. On Sundays, she would bake scones and cakes, and when the boys began to marry, they would come to their parent’s home for Sunday dinner. Throughout the week, she would take the washing to the ‘steamie’ to make sure the boys always had clean clothes. Even after they married she was known to help do the washing for her sons’ new wives.

By the 1950s, Tommy was running a little watch repair service from a wee shop across from the Glasgow ‘Briggait’. My sister, Mary, described visiting him there when she was little She watched him open up the watches and clean the gears with feathers. For many years we had a small brass magnifier that he used for working on the watches.  My dad obviously learned how to do this too as I remember him dismantling watches and showing me how the gears worked.

Although Minnie was a heavy smoker, she outlived Tommy by several years. In later life, he suffered from chronic emphysema. I found this surprising as he was not a smoker when my mum knew him, but perhaps he had been when he was younger. Most soldiers smoked heavily during the war so it would seem likely. His emphysema wouldn’t have been helped by the fact Minnie and the boys all smoked too.

Tommy died from Cardiac Failure, on 22nd January 1956 in Hairmyres Hospital.

Tommy and MInnie at the wedding of their son, Tommy.

Minnie continued to live in Altyre Street. She was often visited by her sons and their growing families, until 1969, when she was admitted to Ruchill Hospital where she died from Cerebral Thrombosis.

Tommy and Minnie were buried at Sandymount Cemetery.

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