Sarah Jackson – A Light in the Dark

When I first began researching the family my grandmother was one of the few names I knew and finding her birth record was quite easy.

Scottish birth records are wonderfully detailed. As you can see with one document we have evidence of both parents which includes their date and place of marriage, their current address, the child’s birth date and name, and even the time of birth. For now, it’s the place of birth that is of interest. There was no hospital or clinic – Sarah was born at home.

The address, 66 Muse Lane was in Cowcaddens, one of Glasgow’s most notorious slums. Indeed, some have described it as the very worst in Europe. Frederick Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto wrote, ‘I did not believe, until I visited the wynds [side alleys] of Glasgow, that so large an amount of filth, crime, misery and disease existed in one spot in any civilised country’. The slums were ravaged by waves of sickness and arguably the most deadly was Typhus Fever. The infant mortality rate (190 per 1000 births) was triple that seen in other areas of the city. The population of Glasgow had quadrupled in 50 years and adequate housing and infrastructure simply did not exist in the slums. Each person in Cowcaddens had 5 square feet of space and indoor plumbing was virtually unheard of. The most modern community housing structure at the time was known as ‘the rat pit’, a name that soon came to describe the entire area. Such was the world into which Sarah was born. Certainly one could be forgiven for developing a sense of bitterness.

Census records are generally a very valuable tool for the genealogist. To follow an individual with known family members one need do little more than look for the recurring pattern of names. This approach did not work with the Jackson family in the 1881 census. It took a great deal of research, but the true picture eventually came into focus. The family was scattered. Ellen (Sarah’s mother) had died on 3 March 1881 just days before Sarah’s first birthday. Her father, Angus, was in hospital and near death. Both had contracted Typhus Fever. Her older brothers, James and Angus (ages 19 & 16) are found living together at an address described as 81 Stirling Street – Backland. Presumably this means they were not actually in that building, but in the lot behind – homeless in today’s parlance. James was listed as a Groom or Stable Helper while Angus was a Labourer in Foundry. Sarah and the rest of the children were found listed as inmates of the Glasgow Workhouse.

One must bear in mind that there was very little in the way of a social safety net in the 1880’s. Even those with a job were apt to be malnourished which helped the spread of disease. If you became ill there was no relief, no unemployment insurance, no sick pay, no nothing. Evictions were conducted very swiftly with no legal recourse. Such was life for Sarah on her first birthday.

The workhouse she was sent to was started as a lunatic asylum and housed some 1500 people. It was one of the largest poorhouses in Britain and had many deficiencies. In 1882 two separate reports condemned the building citing lack of proper sanitation, toilets used for washing dishes, no separation of sick and well inmates, poor ventilation, and lack of outdoor space. The reports revealed that 2 bath tubs were used for 290 inmates in a 12 hour day. Inmates were allowed one bath per week. Regardless, the Workhouse did not close its doors for 25 more years.

Sarah’s father eventually recovered and went on to remarry in 1885 (I had been blissfully unaware that I had a step-great-grandmother). The 1891 census shows Sarah as a 12 year old. It is the first and only time we see the Jackson’s living together as a family although both James and Angus have moved on. Notably, Sarah has three new sisters – only two of whom would survive childhood. As always, though, tragedy was lurking around the corner.

The 1901 census finds 21 year old Sarah living alone with her 15 year old half-sister, Lizzie. By the time Sarah married Hugh McCormick in 1902 she had lost 2 mothers, her father, 2 younger sisters, and 3 older brothers are unaccounted for. She lived in the most squalid conditions on earth and spent time in one of Glasgow’s most notorious workhouses. Her life story seems to be the perfect recipe for creating an angry, twisted human. However, she defied the odds. Everyone I’ve talked to who knew her described her in glowing terms. ‘Sweet’ is probably the adjective used most often. It’s not just that they speak well of her, but they actually go further and try desperately to impress upon the listener just how good a person she was.

Sarah’s half-sister Lizzie went on to marry and raised a flock of children. She named the 6th of her eight children Sarah McCormack(sic) Hewitt. Following up on a DNA match I corresponded with my 2nd cousin, Andrea McIntyre who had this to say,

andrea mcintyre
Oct 18, 2018 at 8:07 am
Hi, I thought that was your grandmother, that was the only aunt that my mother Sarah who was called after your grandmother knew and remembered as she used to visit and slip them half a crown to help them out, but knew of no background of their family, my mum was told her own mother Elizabeth Jackson was an orphan, which makes sense now with doing family tree, I saw that also about Angus Jackson and wife in Belvidere Hospital. Thank you for info Andrea

I never met my grandmother as she passed away before I was born. I think I missed a real treat. She was born and raised in a very dark time and place yet, by all accounts, was a beacon of light. She refused to let circumstances turn her into a reflection of her world. She rose above all that and made life better for everyone. Those of you who carry her name have some mighty big shoes to fill. Good luck.

Inside the model housing

ps. if anyone out there has a picture of Sarah it would be greatly appreciated