The Origins in Fifeshire - A Home Left Behind
The 1850s were a time when the population of Scotland had endured the twice-fold scourge of the cholera epidemics of the 1840s and the potato famine of the 1840s. Added to this was the ongoing decimation of the Highland population through the enclosure of their lands, eviction and homelessness being their lot. The growing demands of industry were ensuring that cities and the wealthy were receiving what grain there was, and the coalmining regions were communities of virtual serfs still, as the demand for coal outstripped the methods for its retrieval.
These aspects of Scottish history would have struck generations with despair; their experience of life would have been one of waiting for the next horrific pestilence to descend and bring it's burden of grief with it. Emigration cannot have seemed so harsh in comparison.
The people who suffered most were the poverty stricken. Those who couldn't afford the candles to nurse the ill at night, those with no resistance to the disease and who lived in squalor. Hard on the heels of this disease which decimated villages, was the potato famine. It destroyed crops in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Canada, and caused such horror and social upheaval in Ireland that we tend to forget that its impact was much wider. Potato fields in the lowlands of Scotland were affected with a loss of 50,000 pounds along the border. It then spread north to the Highlands.
Little is known of the circumstances of John Edie. He was born in St. Andrews, Fife on November 3, 1835. He put his occupation down as miner on the passenger list of the ship Anna when he emigrated to New Zealand . He could have been a miner in one of the coalfields which surrounded St. Andrews, perhaps at Cowdenbeath also, sharing some of Mary Shepherd's experiences. Perhaps that is how they met.
Mary Shepherd was born at Dunning, Perthshire on 27th Jan 1833. Her mother, Mrs. Shepherd, was born at Rossie, near Dunning on June 3rd 1813. Dunning is an area steeped in history and is the site of ancient hillforts. The town has a Norman church, parts of which were built in the mid-12th century. A gravestone in that churchyard marks the site of the burial of a Catherine Shepherd. The villagers were mainly involved in the weaving industry and by the 1850s the population had reached 2,200. The collapse of the village weaving industry due to centralization in large industrial mills, the enclosure and co-joining of small farms, the bypassing of the village by the main road and the coming of the railway in 1847 all contributed to the demise of Dunning as an important centre. Like many of the folk of Dunning it was the new coal mine in Cowdenbeath which attracted a burgeoning work force.
The Shepherd family shifted to Cowdenbeath and the children were born and brought up in the coalmining town of Cowdenbeath, Fifeshire. Mary's father was a tester in the mine of Lumphinnans, or as maybe understood today, underviewer. He was married to Janet Barry (or Barrie) and they had 8 children. Edward died when Margaret was 11, and the widow had no means of support. The family would have had to work very hard to survive in an area where even those with a job in the mines struggled. The fortunes of these 8 children are also an example of the range of emigration options available at that time.
But what was their experience? What sort of community did they come from? What culture did they absorb to bring to new lands? Stuart MacIntyre comments on the community of Lumphinnans, drawing a picture of a strong people in dismal surroundings. He describes it as "a community with strong ties of kinship."
Mining operations had begun in Lumphinnans (on the road from Lochgelly to Cowdenbeath) in the 1820s. In the 1850s and 1860s the Lochgelly Iron and Coal Company had erected several rows of housing and a school. A good description of the houses can be taken from the report of a Royal Commission on Scottish Housing of 1918.
"The "Miners row" of inferior class is often a dreary and featureless place, with houses, dismal in themselves, arranged in monotonous lines...The open spaces are encumbered with wash-houses, privies, etc., often out of repair, and in wet weather get churned up into a morass of semi-liquid mud, with little in the way of solidly constructed road or footpath - a fact which adds greatly to the burdens of the overwrought housewife."
They are also described as
".....Single story and either two-roomed 'but and ben' or the one - roomed 'single-end', in which case the solid back wall was pierced by only a small window. Overcrowding was severe, with an average of three adults and two children for every house, and it was not uncommon to find ten residents crammed into a "but and ben'. Dry-closet toilets, water and laundry facilities were all communal; the drainage was open and the ash-pits used for refuse. Situated down hill, the rows were subject to flooding, ...Paraffin oil was used for interior lighting, and there was no street lighting until shortly before the First World War"
This situation was presumably more extreme 60 years earlier! Indeed the conditions of the Scottish miners had been grim for centuries.
"In the 17th and 18th centuries most were serfs, and the owner controlled the labour of women and children as well as that of the men. These enslaved colliers of Fife lived in almost complete isolation from the rest of Scotland and were even denied burial in consecrated ground. Even after their legal emancipation in 1799 the same pattern of employment continued until the 19th century. It wasn't until 1870 that the Fife miners combined to win the 8-hour day and formed a union. Add to these problems the fact that its seams were poorer, wetter and generally more difficult to work than those in England and Wales"
"Life in Lumphinnans was hard and often violent" we are told. This may have been the proving place for the strength to survive as a colonist.
"From the age of 14 a boy could expect to spend the rest of his life in arduous, poorly-paid and dangerous toil; a girl might work as a pit lassie or go into service, but once married, she must try to run a household and raise a family in cramped, primitive and dirty quarters. Drink provided a release for many, and some were brutalised by their experiences, as is shown in the worst cases of wife-beating, desertion and brawling which came before the local court."