Margaret Sharp (1826-1881)

This is not the usual story of a poor young women with an illegitimate baby. After a sad start to life that meant she was working in a cotton mill and looking after herself at 13, Margaret Sharp’s life actually improved some years later when she had her son, Alexander GIBBONS (1853-1910). It has taken many years to finally identify both the baby’s father and her benefactor.

Smithyhaugh, as shown on John Thomson's Atlas of Scotland, 1832
Smithyhaugh, as shown on John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland, 1832

This story takes place in the Scottish county of Perthshire and neighbouring parishes of Auchterarder and Dunning. Margaret Sharp was born and spent her early years in a village called Smithyhaugh. Smithyhaugh was 2 ½ miles east of Auchterarder on Ruthven Water very close to the present day Aberuthven. The inhabitants were chiefly employed in weaving. Smithyhaugh no longer exists.

Margaret SHARP (1826-1881) was born on 5th September 1826 at Smithyhaugh and baptized in the Auchterarder Parish Church on the 10th. Her parents were Daniel SHARP(1799-1884) and Margaret HEADRIDGE(1802-1828). I do not know when they married as parish marriage records for the period 1802–1831 have not survived. Margaret’s brother, John, was born two years earlier on 1st September 1824.

A third child for Daniel Sharp and Margaret Headridge, a daughter called Helen, was born at Smithyhaugh on 26th July 1828 and baptized on 3rd August. Sadly, mother, Margaret Headridge, and her daughter, Helen did not survive long after the birth. Margaret Headridge was “interred in the southernmost except one of her father’s four graves bounded on the north by William Whycook ” in the Auchterarder cemetery on 2nd September 1828. Little Helen was “interred at her mother’s feet” on 13th September. Note that it is quite rare for burial records from this period to have survived and to offer such detail.

Margaret Sharp is listed in the 1841 census at Smithyhaugh and employed as a cotton hand loom weaver.  She is listed as 13 years old and seems to be looking after herself. In the meantime, Margaret’s father, Daniel Sharp, had married Janet DAVIDSON (1810-) on 14th February 1835 and by 1841 they had three children.  Their third child, William, was born at Smithyhaugh in 1841 but the family is not listed in the 1841 census.  Margaret is still living at Smithyhaugh in 1851.  She is again listed in the census as a cotton hand loom weaver and living without any family members. Margaret’s father and new family are also still residing in Smithyhaugh in 1851.

According to family records, Margaret gave birth to a baby boy, called Alexander GIBBONS (1853-1910), on January 13th, 1853. To date I have been unable to find any record of Alexander’s birth.  Alexander was born before civil registration began in Scotland (1855) so a baptism record would be the only record of his birth before 1855.  There is, however, every chance he was not christened until he was older or never christened at all.  In most cases a mother would have to go before the church elders to get special permission to baptize an illegitimate child.

As Smithyhaugh was roughly half way between Auchterarder and Dunning (and there was no church in Smithyhaugh), Margaret could have attended church in either parish.  There was also a Free Church in Aberuthven from 1851 but no records from this church are available.  However, I have been able to view the Kirk Session minutes for Auchterarder and Dunning. The Kirk Session was the court of the parish. The session was made up of the minister and the land owners and business men of the parish, chosen to serve on the session. The Kirk Session dealt with moral issues, minor criminal cases, matters of the poor and education, matters of discipline, and the general concerns of the parish.

A Margaret Sharp is mentioned in the minutes for St Serf’s in Dunning (National Records of Scotland reference CH2/109/12).  I am pretty sure this is our Margaret Sharp as there is no mention of her name in any of the minutes for the other churches in the area.

The only Gibbons family living in either Auchterarder or Dunning in the 1850’s was a family headed by John GIBBONS (1795-1869) who was a Weaver in Dunning. John had three sons, John, James and Alexander – also weavers and also listed as Slaters.  The father, John Gibbons, was an elected elder of St Serfs Church in Dunning from at least 1850 – meaning that he would serve on the session.  I found the following entries in the Kirk Session minutes of St Serfs church:

  • 1850 Dec 25th – John Gibbons ordained as elder representing village of Dunning on the west side of the burn.
  • 1853 Jan 13th – Not in Minutes, but according to family this is when Alexander Gibbons (son of Margaret Sharp) was born.
  • 1853 Oct 5th – John Martin and Alexander Gibbons were cited to appear at next meeting of session.
  • 1853 Dec 22nd – Money donated to the church by Lord Rollo is used to distribute coals to the poor.  Margaret Sharp is on the list for distribution.
  • 1854 May 8th – Alexander Gibbons compeared and confessed he was guilty of fornication with Margaret Sharp. He was cited to appear at the next meeting.
  • 1854 June 13th – Alexander Gibbons appeared again before the session, was duly censured by the moderator and restored to church privileges.

Note that Margaret Sharp does not appear before the session and there is no mention in any of the minutes of an illegitimate child (plenty of other references over the years to other illegitimate children and their parents). In fact, Margaret Sharp may not have attended church.

Alexander GIBBONS(1830-), son of John Gibbons, married Grace Hunter on April 2, 1854 in Dunning. Their son, John, was born on March 9, 1855.  He next appears on the 1861 Canadian census in Elgin, Ontario without his wife or son. He is listed in the household of a John Gibbons, his wife Mary and daughter, Lydia. Alexander and Lydia marry in June 1861. Their first two children are born in Canada, then the family move to Missouri in the US where Alexander’s brother, John is farming with his family. I do not know when or where Alexander died.

Meanwhile, back in Dunning, it seems that Alexander’s father, John, is looking out for Margaret and her son.  In the 1861 census Margaret is still working as a cotton weaver but is living in the town of Dunning with her son who is listed as a scholar. Had Margaret still been in Smithyhaugh requiring charitable donations from the poor there would have been little chance that her son would be going to school.

Before the internet age and the popularity of DNA testing, we never really knew who was the father of Margaret’s son,  Alexander.  Family stories hinted at a rich benefactor, or maybe the local lord, as Alexander was well educated and was apparently given the means to ensure his children were also well educated. In fact I have been able to prove through DNA that Alexander Gibbons, son of John Gibbons, was the younger Alexander’s father (as I had guessed after seeing the Kirk Sessions).

By the time of the 1871 census, Margaret, has moved on from the cotton industry (that faced a steady decline in Scotland during the second half of the nineteenth century) to become a Warden at the General Prison in Perth. Meanwhile Alexander is 18 years old and working as a Tailor’s apprentice for John Sword at Bridge End, Dunning. 

Ten years later, in 1881, Margaret is still working as a prison warden but she dies at the age of 55 on 15th November, 1881 in Dunning (Alexander is listed as the informant on the death certificate). Alexander is running his own business as a tailor and clothier in Methven. He has married Margaret McGregor (on 24th March 1876 at Tibbermore, near Perth) and has two young daughters.