The Eurythmics star finds stories of Victorian poverty in her family history.


Singer and human rights activist Annie Lennox comes from working-class stock. “Nobody came from money, nobody had a silver spoon,” she says of her family. Growing up, she was taught that “hard work” and “doing the right thing” were important. But why were these values so key to her parents? Are there answers to be found in the past?


Annie, who knew her grandparents but knows nothing about prior generations, begins by researching her father’s family. On a visit to her aunt, Jean, Annie sees a picture of her great-grandfather, Charles Henderson. Heading to Aberdeen, where Annie herself was raised, she discovers his mother, Annie’s great-great-grandmother, was called Jessie (sometimes Janet) Fraser. The 1851 census shows Jessie, aged three, living in Banff on the North Sea coast.


There’s more. Jessie’s mother, Mary, was a widow and a pauper. “What does it mean if you’re a pauper?” asks Annie. In Banff, she finds answers to this question. Forced to claim poor relief when her husband died of TB, Mary had five children, but died herself in 1853. Parochial board records from 1858 show Jessie lived in the household of a Mrs Cruickshank, but that Jessie was to be sent back if there was “no further use for her”.


It’s cold language and there’s a further chill to the story when it emerges that Mary was illegitimate, the daughter of a solicitor, James Rose. While Mary lived in poverty, well-to-do James lived around the corner and employed servants. It seems likely that Mrs [Ann Rose] Cruickshank was James’s sister, who perhaps took on her great-niece because she needed help around the house. “There’s no love there,” says Annie.


By 1861, Jessie had moved to Aberdeen, where she worked in flax mill, a building Annie knew well as she grew up. Jessie died in 1885 after a life of “tremendous hardship and very few opportunities”.


Next, Annie wants to know more about her mother’s family. Annie’s grandfather, William, worked at Balmoral as a gillie. There he met his wife, Dora, a milkmaid. William, Annie learns on a visit to her cousin Shirley, may once have danced with the Queen Mother at a Balmoral staff ball.


Royal employment records and a visit to the castle help Annie learn more about William’s family. In particular, is there any truth to family rumours that William was illegitimate? It turns out that William’s grandmother, Isabella, had two children. Both, reveal the records of Braemar’s Kirk Session, a form of religious court where local bigwigs sat in judgement of parishioners’ morality, were born out of wedlock.


Isabella emerges from the past as a strong character who survived into her 80s and, perhaps because she herself was illiterate, fought for her children to be educated. “I have a sense of the Victorian times here in Scotland,” says Annie, “and they were incredibly tough.” Her own family’s stories, she adds, help her better understand “why I feel so passionately about issues like poverty”. 


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Source: Who Do You Think You Are Magazine