Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tracing a Military Man 1

My maternal great grandfather (that is, my mother’s mother’s father) was a shadowy character from the word go. According to an aunt, in one of her more lucid moments, he had been ‘a military man’. 

Apart from that vague snippet, alI we knew was that his first name was Finlay, thus bequeathing to me, the self-appointed family historian, an annoying selection of variant spellings of the forename which cropped up not only in documents pertaining to the man himself but also applied to several descendants. Great grandfather, his parents, the Census enumerators and the British Army, seemed to prefer Finlay but he also answered to Finley and Findlay. His only son was named William Finlay. is son was named William FinHis only son HisA later descendant sticks to Finley. Mercifully great grandpa’s surname was plain and simple: Gibson.

Finlay Gibson (1841-1924)
Neither forename nor surname marked him as being of obviously Scottish descent, though it was in Ayrshire, Scotland, that he spent the greater part of his life and he lies buried in that county, in the village of Stevenston.

Stevenston’s primary claim to fame is that towards the end of the 19th c Nobel’s Dynamite Factory was located there, cushioned amongst the sand dunes on the isolated beach in the hope of minimizing or at least containing the dangers of explosion inherent in producing such a volatile material.

Despite precautions, however, explosions occurred from time to time, causing maiming and fatalities among those inhabitants who were employed at the ‘dinnamit’, as it was called in local parlance.

Many years later, when the dynamite factory was no longer in existence, I visited the area and spoke to other great grandchildren whose ancestors, male and female, had worked at the dinnamit, by which colloquial term it was then still known. They seemed amazed and pleased that someone from as far distant as South Africa should mention the word and claim this odd sort of kinship.

Women workers at the dynamite factory.
Photo: Ayrshire Libraries Forum
One man told me about his great grandmother who had, like Finlay's daughters, been a cartridge maker at the dinnamit and had to wear her hair tied up in pigtails for safety. These girls began their risky work at an early age, 11 or twelve, some of them. Finlay, though he did a stint as foreman of the cartridge workers, became a ‘searcher’.

At first uncertain what duties were covered by this occupation, it became clear to me that Finlay would be positioned at the factory entrance to search everyone going in for any sign of matches or other inflammable material carried on their person, and to make sure such items were removed. It was a vital task carrying authority and responsibility. No doubt Finlay had a vested interest in carrying out his duties well, since several members of his family were among the factory’s workforce.

Workers being searched for matches before being admitted to the factory.
Photo: Ayrshire Libraries Forum

To be continued.

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