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Updated: Mar 11, 2022

When genealogy research goes back in time beyond the start of the Scottish civil records in 1855, finding evidence of ancestors in the Old Parish Records can be tricky and records aren’t always to be found for various reasons. Just like anyone wanting to establish the birthplace of their ancestor, when I was investigating pauper patients who were removed from the Glasgow Royal Asylum (Gartnavel) in the late 19th century, I needed to find evidence of the birthplaces of the individuals being researched. Establishing these birthplaces was an important element in understanding how the rules of the Poor Law Amendment (Scotland) Act of 1845 had been applied and the consequences for the patients and their families. In one case, involving someone born before 1855, a baptism record was proving elusive but the Kirk Session Records provided vital information, along with some unexpected details.

Poor Relief and Place of Birth

When a pauper was admitted to an asylum, under the poor law rules, the “chargeable parish'' would be identified. This would be the parish held accountable for paying the bill from their poor relief funds for a patient’s treatment. The Parochial Boards, who managed the poor relief funds in each parish, were keen to ensure none of their parish funds were spent on patients who could be charged to other parishes. The Inspector of the Poor, working on behalf of the Parochial Board, would establish the patient’s place of birth along with investigating where else they had lived, in case the charges might be passed on to one of those parishes. Under the poor law act, a person was chargeable to the parish of their birth unless they had ‘settlement’ in another parish, having lived there for more than 5 years. Married women, however, were chargeable to their husband’s parish of birth or settlement regardless of where they came from or had previously lived.

The Changing Asylum Landscape for Pauper Patients.

Asylum provision for paupers changed significantly after the enactment of the Lunacy (Scotland) Act of 1857. Before 1857, eight asylums were independently built in Scotland between 1782 and 1839 as a consequence of philanthropic subscriptions. Seven of these asylums, known as 'Royal Asylums' because Royal charters were bestowed on them, were created with the vision of providing for both those who had the means to pay and those who did not. The eighth asylum, in Elgin, was also built as a result of philanthropic interests but for the care of paupers only. Aside from these eight asylums, alternatives for those who couldn't pay were few, especially for those in more rural locations.

Map from 1857 Royal Lunacy Commission report showing locations of the 8 asylums in Scotland before 1857 - credit below.

Between 1863 and 1899, twenty asylums were built across Scotland with the prime purpose of treating pauper ‘lunacy’ patients. Most of these new asylums were initially built and managed by new District Lunacy Boards, who reported to the General Lunacy Board of Scotland. In the beginning, there was much political wrangling between these new lunacy boards and the established parochial boards, however, despite this, many of the parochial boards viewed the new pauper asylums as a more cost effective solution than the discounted rates available for pauper patients at the likes of Gartnavel. Patients, initially admitted to Gartnavel, would subsequently be transferred to the pauper asylum serving the parish of their birthplace or their settlement, regardless of its location in relation to their home and family.

Pauper asylums built after 1857 with those built by the Parochial Boards in bold.

Before the new asylum building era in the latter half of the 19th century, Gartnavel had been suffering endemic overcrowding in their pauper wing because there were so few asylums. With the advent of the new district asylums for paupers, Gartnavel was equally keen for the parochial boards to remove pauper patients to ease the overcrowding. As this practice continued, Gartnavel saw an opportunity for its future and changed direction from its original philanthropic vision of treating both private and pauper patients, to making the decision to treat only private patients and, finally, in 1897, declaring no pauper patients remained in their institution. But what of those who’d been removed to other asylums, some to distant locations from their homes? How had the poor law rules on settlement impacted them? Finding evidence of birthplace was an important part in answering this question and understanding the consequences for pauper patients.

Patient Case Study

Grace Smith was a 50 year old, married woman who spent almost 6 months in Gartnavel in 1873 before being sent to the Argyll District Asylum at Lochgilphead, Argyllshire, a remote location on the west coast of Scotland which was a considerable journey, in the 19th century, from her home in Glasgow.

Extract from Grace Smith's Case Notes. Credit: NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives. House surgeon’s notes for physician: female. Collection: Records of Gartnavel Royal Hospital, Glasgow, Scotland. HB13/5/96. Reproduced under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

When she was admitted as a pauper patient to Gartnavel in February 1873, the chargeable parish for Grace was given as Barony, one of the parishes of Glasgow. As Grace was subsequently sent to Lochgilphead, the conclusion might be drawn that, as a married woman, Grace’s husband didn’t have settlement in Glasgow, that he’d lived in Glasgow for less than 5 years and that he was born in Argyll. If that were the case, Barony might have been given initially as the chargeable parish because that’s where Grace and her family were living at the time and nothing else was known about her husband’s origins.

However, Grace's husband hadn't been born in a parish in Argyll and nor had he been resident in the Barony parish for less than 5 years. He had, in fact, been born in Glasgow in the Barony parish where, it seems, he lived all of his life.

Tracking Down the Evidence

On all census records documenting the family, William Smith, Grace’s husband, gave his birthplace as Glasgow. This wasn’t conclusive evidence of his birthplace as birthplaces recorded on census records weren’t always given consistently or accurately. A post 1855 marriage record for William and Grace might have provided William’s parents’ names, making identifying a baptism for someone with the very common surname of Smith a little easier. However, from the census records, it seemed likely the couple had married prior to 1855 as their eldest children had been born in the 1840s. This theory was supported by information on the post 1855 civil birth records of their younger children. On those records their marriage date was given as either 12 or 21 July 1844, though no marriage could be found in the church records for William and Grace.

William Smith died in 1877 and his death record provided a vital clue; it noted he was ‘illegitimate’, signifying his parents, John Smith and Mary Riddell, weren’t married when he was born. If William’s parents hadn’t been married, there was a strong chance his parents may have been called to appear before the church court, the kirk session, for having had a child when unmarried. An entry found in the Barony Kirk Session minutes in 1823 confirmed William’s mother, Mary Riddell, was called to appear before the church court to discuss having given birth to her son that year when she was unmarried. At that first meeting her residence in Shettleston, a village in the Barony parish, was confirmed, as was William’s father’s name and occupation; John Smith, weaver. Later kirk session minutes document that the matter wasn’t resolved to the church court’s satisfaction and Mary subsequently left the church ‘under scandal’ in 1824.

The Power of the Inspector of the Poor

The Kirk Session minutes confirmed Grace Smith’s husband was born in Glasgow and therefore someone who had settlement in Glasgow by virtue of his birth there. Barony parish, given as the chargeable parish when Grace was admitted to Gartnavel, was the correct chargeable parish. So there wasn’t any reason under the poor law rules why she was sent so far away to Argyll.

Extract from 60th Annual Report of Glasgow Royal Asylum [for 1873]. Bound Annual Reports. Glasgow: James Hedderwick & Son. p. 9 Collection: Records of Gartnavel Royal Hospital, Glasgow, Scotland. Reproduced under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In the 1873 Gartnavel annual report, thanks is given to Mr Peter Beattie, Inspector of the Poor for Barony, for being “kind enough” to remove a large number of his patients to Barnhill, which was the Barony Poorhouse, and elsewhere. ‘Elsewhere’ included Grace Smith and 7 other patients sent to Argyll District Asylum at Lochgilphead on 15 August 1873. All patients chargeable to Argyll had been removed from Gartnavel and sent to the new district asylum there when it opened in 1863. Grace’s removal from Gartnavel to Lochgilphead had been arranged by the Barony Inspector of the Poor to help Gartnavel’s ongoing overcrowding in their pauper accommodation in the East Wing and bore no relation to poor law rules on birthplace or settlement.

The Consequences for Grace & Her family

Grace’s removal from Gartnavel was almost certainly done to suit the needs of both Gartnavel and the Barony Parochial Board with, likely, little or no thought given to the impact or consequences of the move on Grace or her family. At the start of 1873, Gartnavel reported its highest number of patients in residence and the ongoing and persistent issue of overcrowding, along with the asylum’s reluctance to turn any patients away, were the asylum’s priorities. Meanwhile, it would have suited the Parochial Board to place pauper patients in cheaper accommodation regardless of the consequences for the patient or their family.

While a patient at Gartnavel, Grace was allowed visitors every week on Saturdays between 10am and 12 noon. There are no records documenting visitors to the asylum, nor any reference to visitors in her case notes, however, her upset at being separated from her children, and her concern for their well being without her there to look after them, was clearly expressed by her when she was admitted and is documented in her case notes. So the opportunity to see family members would likely have been something Grace would have been glad of. But after she was removed from Gartnavel to Lochgilphead in August 1873, it is very unlikely that any of Grace’s family would have been able to visit her. In 1873, the journey from the east end of Glasgow to Lochgilphead, on the Kintyre peninsula, would have been a considerable undertaking, involving trains and steamships, not to mention the costs that those receiving poor relief would have struggled to afford.

Grace's husband William removed his wife from Argyll District Asylum four months after she was sent there and before she had been deemed recovered by the asylum. At a time when only a small minority of pauper patients were removed from an asylum by family, William’s actions can be viewed as further evidence of the emotional distress caused by their separation and their need to be together as a family

Sources and Resources

Credit for Map of asylums: Her Majesty's Commissioners. (1857) Report by Her Majesty's Commissioners appointed to inquire into the state of lunatic asylums in Scotland : and the existing law in reference to lunatics and lunatic asylums in that part of the United Kingdom. With an appendix. Edinburgh: Thomas Constable. Reproduced under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

For more on the Poor Law (Scotland) Act of 1845: Cage, R. A. (1981) The Scottish Poor Law 1745-1845. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Scottish Civil and Kirk Sessions records at ScotlandsPeople

Glasgow Royal Asylum Records including annual reports available online at the Wellcome Collection.

  • Writer's pictureCatriona Haine

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

I live in Scotland and have always held a UK passport. However, towards the end of last year, I also became an Irish passport holder. Its arrival marked the end of a research journey that’s spanned more than a decade. But, in many ways, this story has been much longer in the making than the time it took to uncover the details of my grandfather’s early life in Ireland and for an Irish passport to drop through my letterbox. In all, it’s 130 years in the making, thanks to my great grandfather, Thomas Wells, who used a different surname when he married in 1892.

From Irish Brickwall to Irish Passport is two stories; the search for my grandfather’s Irish birth record and, then, proving he was the same man born in Ireland, in a different year, with a different surname, to the man who died in Scotland.

Irish Ancestors and Family Stories

Although I was born in Scotland, I have many more Irish ancestors than Scottish. The Lawries and the Crossans arrived in the early 19th century, before the famine in the late 1840s, with many more arriving during and after those famine years. Rourkes, McLaughlins, Scotts, Neesons, Dalys and Spences came from all corners of the north of Ireland; Donegal, Down, Tyrone, Derry, Armagh and Antrim. But my most recent Irish immigrant to Scotland was, according to the family story, my maternal grandfather. William Wells was said to have been born in Portadown in Ireland and had come to live with cousins in Scotland after his mother’s death. My grandfather died when my mother was still a child so, other than the details on his Scottish marriage and death records, all that was known about him were the few snippets passed on in family stories. And, as family historians know, while many family stories have elements of fact at their heart, not all are accurate.

Census Clues

Confirmation of my grandfather’s Irish origins evaded me long after I’d identified the Irish origins of many of my other ancestors who had arrived in Scotland much earlier than him. When the Irish 1901 census was released online over a decade ago, I was delighted to find a family living in Montague Street in Portadown that must surely be my great grandparents, along with their seven children; father Thomas, mother Mary A, and a son named William, just a couple of years older than my grandfather.

A year or so later, the Scottish 1911 census was released and delivered a wealth of information on my Wells family as well as a rather unexpected clue. My grandfather was living in Scotland in 1911, in the household of the Bunting family, his mother’s cousins, echoing the family story of him coming to Scotland after his mother’s death. Also in the household were his father Thomas, a widower, and a younger brother, aged 8 years, also called Thomas. What was unexpected was young Thomas’s birthplace. Unlike his father and his brother, young Thomas hadn’t been born in Ireland. Young Thomas had been born in Scotland.

A Birth and a Death that led to a Marriage - and 7 Births

Thomas Wells, my grandfather’s brother, was born in Scotland in 1902. Thomas’s birth record said his father Thomas Wells had married his mother, Mary Ann Bunting, in July 1892 in County Armagh, Ireland. Sadly, it also confirmed Mary Ann was deceased. Mary Ann’s death record confirmed she had died in Scotland, aged just 31 years, on the same day young Thomas was born, her eighth child.

When the Irish civil records became available online at a number of years later, I searched in vain for the record of my grandfather’s birth. It was the same fruitless search for the other Wells children, listed on the 1901 census at Montague Street, and his parents’ marriage record.

I went back again to the Scottish birth record of my grandfather’s brother, Thomas. It had said their parents were married in July 1892 in Armagh. Searching for marriage records for Thomas Wells in the 1890s at found nothing. However, a search using Thomas’s wife’s name, Mary Ann Bunting, produced an interesting result. A marriage record for a Mary Anne Bunting who married in St Mark’s Church, in Portadown on 12 July 1892. But the groom’s name wasn’t Thomas Wells. It was Thomas Wiley. Was this my great grandparents and there had been a mistake with his surname?

This Thomas and Mary Ann both used ‘x marks’ in place of signatures. If this was my grandfather’s parents, it was possible the registrar had recorded the wrong surname for Thomas, and, as the bride and groom may not have been able to read or write, they might not have known of the mistake. But it gave me an idea.

Seven Wells children yet not a single birth record could be found for any of them. I searched again, this time with the surname Wiley. And there they were. Seven children of Thomas Wiley and Mary Ann Bunting, all born in Montague Street, and identical in age to the seven Wells children. With such a distinctive family structure, names, ages, including a set of boy and girl twins, it was extremely unlikely to be a coincidence.

Since tracking down the Wiley records for my Wells family, other records and DNA matching have confirmed the family surname was Wells before Thomas and Mary Ann married. Records, such as the valuation revision books, available online at PRONI, also document the family using the surname Wiley in the 1890s. So it appears the Wiley surname was used in all aspects of their lives, not just official records, during that period. Unfortunately, the answer to the question ‘why?’, like many family stories, is likely to be lost in time unanswered.

On the Passport Trail

With so many Irish ancestors, and especially including my grandfather, I felt a strong urge to recognise my Irishness by applying for citizenship. In the process to obtain Irish citizenship, official documents are needed to prove a clear link from the person applying, through their parent, to the birth of the Irish grandparent. In my case, the evidence chain was broken between my grandfather’s death in Scotland and his birth in Ireland as there was no official documentation on his change of surname. However, in genealogy we often need to build cases to prove our assumptions and explain discrepancies in the records. It was a challenge, but I succeeded in proving conclusively to the Irish authorities that the man who died in Scotland as William Wells was the same man born in Ireland as William Wiley. My citizenship of Ireland was granted in 2020.

The Evidence Presented

In my quest to prove William Wiley, born in Portadown in 1894, was William Wells, who was born about 1897 and died in Scotland in 1948, I focused on two areas:

  • The Irish 1901 census of the Wells family and the birth records of the Wiley children

  • My grandfather’s WW1 Military Service Record

By presenting the names and ages of the children registered at birth as Wiley, against the Wells children living at 27 Montague Street on the 1901 census, from the identical family structure, ages and names, it could be concluded they were the same family.

In addition to the original documents needed for the individual applying, their parent and grandparent, I also supplied extracts from the civil births register for all the Wiley children. Each of the seven birth records document Montague Street as their birthplace, with the additional evidence of the youngest son, Robert John, being born at number 27 Montague Street, the address of the Wells family on the 1901 census just 3 months later. These extracts also showed that the parents of all the Wiley children were Thomas Wiley and Mary Ann Bunting, the same parents’ first names and mother’s maiden surname given on William Wells’ marriage and death records.

Military Record

Information in my grandfather’s military service record allowed a further link to be made between my grandfather in Scotland and his birth in Ireland. In February 1916, William Wells enlisted in the army in Scotland. Details within his army record connected him to both his birth in Ireland as well as the man documented on his Wells death record.

While the worldwide pandemic held up the processing of applications, fortunately the lack of official documentation for my grandfather’s name change didn’t.

Image of a world war 1 soldier in his uniform
Gunner William Wells in undated photo

The Hidden Stories

There was more truth to my grandfather’s story of his arrival in Scotland than the records alone suggested. In 2019 I had a DNA match to a second cousin, whose grandfather was the brother of my grandfather and the only one of his siblings to remain in Ireland beyond childhood. As another keen family historian, my cousin could share much information on my grandfather’s family, including records of my grandfather at school in Ireland after his mother died in Scotland. After Mary Ann’s death, the family had returned to Ireland to live and, so, my grandfather’s story of coming to live in Scotland after his mother’s death was more accurate than I'd previously thought.

In all that I uncovered about my grandfather, the later discrepancy in his age particularly struck me. In the past, discrepancies in age weren’t unusual. However, when my grandfather enlisted in the army, he gave his age accurately, down to the correct number of months. In this search it soon became clear where those 2 years were lost from his age. When my grandfather married my grandmother in April 1918, he gave his age as 21, the same age he had when he signed up to the army in 1916, two years earlier.

My grandfather first arrived in France in December 1916, a gunner on the Western Front until the end of 1917. His battalion were involved in many battles whose names are now familiar, including the Battles of Messines and Ypres. The trauma of war may have played its part in a memory lapse over his correct age when he married my grandmother in 1918. But, knowing what we know now of the full horror of the war on the Western Front, he could easily be forgiven for wishing to forget the previous two years of his life had ever happened, and to be the man he had been when he signed up. My grandfather’s military record paints him as a bit of a character and a bit of a romantic, so I can imagine this was the case for him.

Online Sources

Irish civil records at

Irish census records at The National Archives of Ireland

Property valuation revision books at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

Scottish civil records at ScotlandsPeople

British Army World War I Service Records at

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