Whatever happened to Ruth Crichton (b. Johnston, Glasgow 1893)?

My late Mom was a journalist in South Africa’s Eastern Cape until her death in May 1995.  After finishing school and attaining the ripe old age of 18 I was a regular at the Port Elizabeth Press and Radio Club, a venue for old school journos whose creative spark was driven by gin and cigarettes.  My sister later became a journalist and married another, currently writing for the Eastern Province Herald.  I studied Law, dabbled in Journalism and ended up teaching History and, more recently, Religious Studies.  Noticing that I had some flair for language, my late mother enjoined me to avoid both teaching and journalism as thankless and poorly remunerated professions.

That being said, I know that there is no investigator more painstaking than a journalist whose appetite has been whetted by the prospect of a good story.  Thanks to our old school reporters, we the public are a lot less misinformed than we might otherwise be.  As the flow of information increased through the 20th Century, so did the determination of certain vested interests to control and manipulate that flow.  This is a fact, and not some idle conspiracy theory.  Essentially its all about politicians wanting to sell themselves and their policies, not to speak of covering their mistakes, and advertisers trying to promote products and services.  This we all know.

Its information about ordinary people, however, which is often the hardest to find, simply because so much of our lives is never recorded or documented, people move away and lose touch with one another, and families reinvent themselves in each generation, often with little regard for their forebears.

Beginning to despair that I would ever discover what in my father’s parents’ lives had led to the events described below, I circulated this to a number of Scottish newspapers in the hope of attracting a staff writer who was having a slow day.   Today it occurred to me that there is more than one way to reach beyond the family history networks and, perhaps, enlist the interest of a wider public.  One can only hope.

This is what I wrote:

Given the mobility of the Scottish population it is likely that you hear many stories of this nature.  I understand that you cannot respond to all of them but feel nevertheless that my story has some unique features and that some of your readers may be in a position to help.  I have been actively pursuing this quest on the WWW since 1996, have contacted Family History Societies in the areas concerned, and searched official Scottish records online.  I believe that the time has come to enlist the aid of the public.

I am seeking information about my Scottish grandmother of whom nothing has been heard since the late 1940s.  It is not possible that she is still living (She was born in Glasgow in 1893), but I want to know where and when she was laid to rest.  In the course of my search, which I initiated in July 1996 when first connected to the internet, I have been contacted by hitherto unknown cousins from South Africa, Scotland and Australia.  Although a number of us, all according to the records first cousins, appear to share the same grandparents, nothing is known of our grandmother or what eventually became of her.  All my first cousins, in fact, grew up believing that another woman was their grandmother.

On my father’s side considerable confusion surrounds what my grandfather, Peter Crichton (b. Glasgow, 1890), was doing in the UK during the 1920s.  We now know that he returned to South Africa in 1918 or 1919 and that my father was born there in 1920.  My grandparents then, apparently, returned to the UK where my grandfather rejoined the services, this time the RAF where he must have served for about ten years.  During this time he became estranged from my grandmother, Ruth Crichton (nee Johnston), who was living with her mother Helen in Scotland at the time, and arranged – possibly without her leave – to send my father, aged about eight at the time, to his (Peter’s) parents in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

I knew about some of this, and believed that my father had one sister who remained with my grandmother in Scotland, but did not know of any other siblings.  My father also, apparently, did not know that he had brothers and another sister, all born later in the UK.  This came to light when I was contacted through Genes Reunited in February 2007 by a Yorkshireman, now living in Scotland, who is married to one of the cousins I had not previously known about.

What is even more puzzling is that my father, Gordon Stuart Crichton (b. Durban, 1920) visited his mother, Ruth Crichton (nee Johnston), in the UK while serving in the Royal Navy during the Second World War.  He told me of this visit, and a little of his early childhood in Scotland, but mentions no brothers or sisters.  My late mother corresponded with her mother-in-law, Ruth Crichton (nee Johnston), for a couple of years after 1947 and presumably confirmed (as I was told as a child) that she lived in Scotland and that my father had one sister who had not returned to South Africa with him before the war.

I have since been in touch with my UK cousins who have birth certificates to show that the same Peter Crichton, my grandfather, was also their grandfather.  The puzzle is that their respective parents, all – according to their birth certificates – born to Peter Crichton and Ruth Johnston (my grandmother, b. Glasgow, 1893), grew up in a foster home with a woman (not Ruth Johnston) they apparently regarded as their biological mother.  There is no explanation as to how this came to be and if any Crichtons in South Africa, other than my grandfather, knew what had happened then this has never been disclosed.

I am not sure that I shall be entirely at peace until I know what happened to my grandmother, more about her life and how she came to give up her children.  There has been some speculation as to whether the foster mother my father’s siblings regarded as their own was involved with Peter Crichton in some way.  If this is the case, it could mean that the other Crichton children were not my father’s full brothers and sister.  This, however, does not explain the birth certificates with Ruth Johnston’s name given as the birth mother.  I know that many things happened 80-years ago which would not be condoned now, but wonder whether my grandfather would have gone so far as to give false information to the birth registrar.  It has been suggested that he might have done this so that he could claim the family allowance from the RAF.

My grandfather, Peter Crichton, returned to South Africa in the early 1930s, remarried and became a minor pillar of the Port Elizabeth community where he was active in amateur swimming.  My father went to live with him and his new wife and, according to my mother and maternal grandmother, was not always well treated by his father.  I believe that his siblings in the UK, while believing that the woman who raised them was their mother, knew of Peter Crichton (but not of Ruth Johnston) in South Africa and, in turn, were not always well treated by their step-father.  Apparently there was no contact with either Peter or Ruth while they were growing up.

I have been in contact with my UK cousins for just over two years, discovered that one of them had relocated to Australia and met him and his sister.  Until recently I was not aware even of the extent of the Crichton family in South Africa.  Some years ago I was contacted by a second cousin from South Africa.  We are of similar age and both grew up in Port Elizabeth, in total ignorance of one another.  If my mother’s family knew of my father’s extended family they made no mention of them while I was growing up.  I should mention that my parents were separated and I had no contact with my father while I was growing up.

That is how I became interested in family history and what maintains my interest.  I had someone from the Glasgow & West of Scotland Family History society kindly check the records for me and he was able to find no record of my grandmother’s death in Scotland or any record of a divorce or remarriage for Ruth Crichton (nee Johnston, b. Glasgow, 1893).  Scottish records are, by and large, well maintained and it is easier to find information in Edinburgh than in other parts of the UK.  No joy there, I am afraid, but I keep hoping.

In summary then:

My grandparents, Peter Crichton and Ruth Johnston were married in Langside Parish, Glasgow, in July 1917.  Born in Glasgow, Peter Crichton served in the 9th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry during World War 1.  Peter and Ruth returned to South Africa, where Peter had grown up, after the war and my father, Gordon Stuart Crichton, was born in Durban in September 1920.  My mother’s family believed that my father had a sister, close to him in age, although her name, place and year of birth are not known.  It is possible that she was also born in South Africa.

Information that has come to light through my UK cousins since February 2007 has led to the discovery of legitimate birth certificates for five more children, a daughter and four sons, born to Peter and Ruth in the UK between 1924 and 1930.  These children grew up in the home of another couple and, while knowing a little about Peter, knew nothing of Ruth and believed their foster (?) mother to be their biological mother.  I have since been in touch with Peter’s grandchildren, and we are all equally in the dark as to why Peter and Ruth were separated and why, unless one is driven to the conclusion that Peter was a callous, irresponsible and self-serving individual, he left all but one of his children to the care of others and did not keep in touch with them.

I met Peter several times during my childhood in South Africa.  He impressed as someone who could take his place in any company and was an agent for Sunlife of Canada.  He visited my sister and me about once a year and we would encounter him in town from time to time.  My grandmother, however, was always wary of him and believed that his treatment of my father as a lad had contributed to my father’s problems and apparent inability to sustain a relationship and accept the responsibilities of parenthood.

As a child I believed that my grandparents were legally separated in South Africa and that a South African court had given Ruth Crichton custody of two children, my father Gordon and his sister.  This flies in the face of documentary evidence that Peter and Ruth went on to have five more children in the UK between 1924 and 1930.  Since my grandparents were, apparently, not on good terms and their firstborn son, my father, was removed from Ruth’s care and sent to South Africa in 1928, is it possible that my grandfather was in another relationship and that the children born to that union were the five he apparently abandoned in the UK after the birth of the last boy in 1930?

I am hopeful of contacting someone, or finding some new information, which can help me solve this mystery and lead me to my grandmother’s last resting place.  I believe that, at one time, she may have lived with her mother, Helen Johnston (b. Wick, abt. 1859), the daughter of Donald Campbell and Catherine Oag.  Helen, Ruth and my father reportedly lived in Millport during the 1920s.  Helen Johnston’s death was recorded in Dunblane, Perthshire, in May 1941.  As I have stated, a search of the Scottish records has not revealed any details of Ruth’s divorce, remarriage (if any) and death.

I have purposely withheld the names of my living cousins, only one of whom besides me carries the family name Crichton.  They are, however, aware of my quest and that the years we have spent on the family history websites and searching archives have yet to reveal anything about Ruth.  Perhaps she was not a fit mother but, if so, no official mention of this has emerged and my late aunt and uncles did not, apparently, even know of her existence.

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One Response to “Whatever happened to Ruth Crichton (b. Johnston, Glasgow 1893)?”

  1. Anna Crichton Says:

    Since this was written we have been discovered by James’s cousins in Loughborough and Wales. He managed to visit and enjoy the hospitality of all but one of the UK contingent in 2010. We met our other Australian cousin from Queensland earlier this year.

    We also have the passenger manifest showing Peter and Ruth returning to the UK from Durban in 1923 with two children, Jame’s father Gordon, b.1920 and his sister Lucille, b.1922. The focus now is on learning more about grandmother Ruth and aunt Lucille.

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