10 August 2017

The first Margaret – history of a picture

For many people, a major goal of genealogy is to trace their male line back.  Following the female line can be just as interesting and will lead your research in a completely different direction.

In a dark corner of the corridor in grandpop’s home was a table which held the heavy Bakelite phone. Above it on the wall was a small portrait of ‘the first Margaret’. It had been handed from the first Margaret to each successive first daughter who was named Margaret. My mother’s sister, Margaret, was the last in the line as she had no children.

Mum had been aware of the portrait all her life and could recite the surnames in order; Thomson (‘without the p’), Swan, Bald, Ker and finally Marsh.  So, who were these women and how did the tradition get started?

Margaret Thomson was born in 1795 to Alexander Thomas near Edinburgh. Her mother’s name was not Margaret, but doubtless, there would have been Margaret’s in her ancestry. Obviously, she was not the first Margaret ever! At the moment though I don’t know much about her female ancestors other than her mother’s name which was Abigail Eddie, also an Edinburgh lass, who married Alexander Thomson in 1782.

Margaret has been a popular Scottish name since the Catholic canonisation of Margaret of Scotland.

Margaret (1046 – 16 November 1093) was an English princess of the House of Wessex who fled with her family to Scotland following the Norman conquest of England of 1066. Around 1070 Margaret married Malcolm III of Scotland. She was a pious woman, credited with bringing a civilising influence to her husband and his kingdom by reading him Bible stories and initiating many charitable works including a ferry across the Firth of Forth for pilgrims travelling to Dunfermline Abbey. According to the Life of Saint Margaret, she died at Edinburgh Castle in 1093, just days after receiving the news of her husband's death in battle.

St Margaret's Chapel, in Edinburgh Castle, is the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Saint Margaret.
Detail from the 1922 stained-glass window by Douglas Strachan.
Picture by Kjetil Bjørnsrud New York via

Margret Thomson married the slightly younger Joseph Swan in 1817 and travelled with him from Edinburgh to Glasgow where he set about building a profitable engraving business. Together they had eight children. Amongst them was her first daughter named Margaret. The first Margaret died in 1836 at about the age of 40. Although the circumstances of her death are not known, it was a tragedy for Joseph. The couple had also lost three of their children before Margaret’s death. 

Margaret Swan nee Thomson (1795-1836)
as portrayed in the famous family miniature.

Swan himself was a significant figure in Glasgow at this time and my guess is that it was on the death of his wife that the famous family miniature became significant. It shows a pious woman probably holding a Bible in her hand. The background may refer to a specific place and the colours suggest autumn. The clothing and hairstyle suggest a date of about 1830.

Margaret Swan and her younger sister Janet were married in 1850 to their respective spouses, grain merchant William Ker and marble cutter Alexander Penman, in their father’s home by a relative, the missionary and anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Swan. Thomas had worked in India and had some disagreements with Baptist missions’ founder William Carey over methods. The new Mrs Ker remembered many contacts with missionaries and preachers from her childhood and lived a long, happy and productive life. 

She also enjoyed the piano from childhood and passed that interest and some of her music to her daughter Margaret.

Margaret Ker nee Swan (1827-1911)

Margaret Ker (nee Swan) retired to Oban in the west of Scotland after the death of her husband in 1891 to live with her younger daughter Mrs Agnes Fleming and her son-in-law journalist Ned. She took with her a bound book of music presented to her by a Swan relative. It contained a number of songs mostly by ‘Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’. Mendelssohn wrote many romantic songs with piano, a number of which became popular in Scotland. Her eldest daughter, Margaret, shared her love of the piano. Oban seems to have become a hub for family reunions the last being at the time of her death in 1911.

In 1885, Margaret Ker married the engineer and tea-planter Claud Bald, who had come back from India for the marriage, was some eight years her senior. Again, they married in a relative’s home in Glasgow. This time it was the home of Charles Arthur who had married Isobel Swan her mother’s youngest sister.  Links between the descendants of the three sisters, Margaret Swan, Janet Penman and Isobel Arthur, remained strong for a couple of generations. 

Soon after her marriage, the new Mrs Bald set off with her husband to the Tukvar Tea plantation where Claud was an established identity. Presumably, she took her piano music – and the portrait the first Margaret with her.

Margaret Bald nee Ker (1861-1935) with her music.

Margaret Bald was apparently happy to repeat the story that her Ker line descended from the Earls of Roxburgh. An attempt by the last Margaret to find this connection was unsuccessful. However, the relevant fact is that descent could pass through the female line. And there's a story for another day...

Her first daughter was named Margaret Evelyn Ker Bald. However, with a preponderance of Margarets she became known as ‘Evelyn’. Evelyn took her music very seriously and gained a Licentiate from the Royal Schools of Music (LRSM). Her tastes were strong forceful pieces, Mendelsohn, Beethoven  -and she had the hands to do them justice. Evelyn was apparently a confident performer. On one extended visit to Scotland at about the age of 18, she played the organ for services at the Helensburgh Baptist Church and back in Darjeeling regularly performed at the Mount Hermon School and at other public events.  

The Helensburgh church had some connection to India through the missionary work of its member Mrs Elizabeth Sale, the first missionary to obtain access to the Zenanas of India. Evelyn married the slightly younger Australian protégé of her father’s Frederick Marsh in Darjeeling in 1917. Marsh was an Australian who had come to India partly because his sometimes-unwell sister had preceded him as a missionary. 

Sometime before she retired to England in 1919, Margaret Bald passed the portrait to her daughter, now Mrs Marsh.

Lounge at Phoobsering Tea Estate, Darjeeling, home for Fred and Evelyn, in about 1940 showing the first Margaret’s portrait to the left.

Evelyn had only two children, Margaret Evelyn Mary Marsh and Joan Kathleen (my mother). Margaret inherited the portrait but Joan inherited her mother’s musical ability, though her tastes were different again. Joan also obtained an LRSM and like her mother played the piano for church services, as well as ballet classes, but also enjoyed teaching. Margaret and Joan settled in Melbourne in 1937 while their parents remained in India. Their parents joined them in 1948 bringing the portrait with them. The last Margaret was an enthusiastic photographer and we are lucky that a number of her pictures survive.

Left to right: Joan, Evelyn and Margaret Marsh
on an English street in 1937.
Comments are welcome below.

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