The lives of our female ancestors are frequently neglected by family historians. As I’ve researched my maternal ancestry, I’ve been impressed with the women in my family, who, like many women, led remarkably difficult and heroic lives that have gone largely unremembered and unrecorded. One of these women is Janet Sellars, my Scots great-great-grandmother.
Janet was the daughter of a cotton weaver, the wife of a wagon driver, and the mother of eight children. She was born on January 25, 1823, the only known daughter of John and Margaret (Mackay or Mackie) Sellars, who had three other known sons. The family lived about 20 miles southeast of Glasgow in the village of Carluke, near the Clyde River in central Lanarkshire. Janet was a popular name in Scotland in that era and the name and its derivatives, Jessie and Jean, show up in many branches of my maternal family.
When Janet was born, Carluke was a prominent cotton-weaving center with about 400 residents, the majority involved in some aspect of the cotton industry that would continue to flourish for another 40 years. Nearly all weavers’ cottages had a hand-loom, for the production of textiles was typically a family enterprise. The men nearly always worked the looms, while the women and children contributed by winding pins or doing needlework and embroidery. It’s likely that Margaret taught young Janet the requisite needle skills to be useful, for the Sellars children would not have attended school. While Parliament passed a law regulating child labor in factories in 1833, such laws did not apply to families working from their homes in rural villages, where there was simply no time or opportunity for luxuries like schooling.
Janet was in her early 20s when she married John Clark around 1844, though no marriage record currently exists to document the exact date. John came to Carluke from the village of Fenwick in Ayrshire, a fertile agricultural area on the Firth of Clyde. (See map below.) His parents were James Clark and Marion Wylie. The Wylie family has been traced back to the 1500s. Some were large landowners in the Stewarton area.
Following their marriage, the Clarks moved to Wishaw, a coal mining town five miles from Carluke. The Clarks had eight children, evenly divided between the sexes, over the next 18 years. They followed the Scottish naming pattern of that era, naming their eldest son James, after John’s father, their eldest daughter Margaret, after Janet’s mother, the next daughter Marion, after John’s mother, and their fourth child John, after Janet’s father. They named their other children Janet, Robert, and Isabella. Unfortunately, another son, born on 1858, has never been identified by name.
John Clark supported his large family as a wagon driver. He may have driven the 44-mile round trip to Glasgow early in his career. When the railroad came to Wishaw in the 1840s, his work likely became more local. It had to have been a repetitive, tiring job, requiring physical strength. His temperament may have been well suited for such labor, for once the wagon was loaded, he had time to himself, navigating the dusty roads alone, the Scottish sun rarely too hot. It was his life’s work until he reached the age of forty-nine. Then tragedy struck.
It was twelve days before Christmas, 1862. I picture him standing alongside his wagon on Old Row Street in Chapel, where he now lived. He may have been distracted, talking to family members or neighbors in the area as he harnessed his horses for the day’s work ahead. Maybe his thoughts were occupied with how he was going to provide any kind of Christmas for his eight children from his meager salary. Whatever was on his mind that day, he was not prepared for what happened next. Did he trip and lose his balance? Was a skittish horse annoyed by a barking dog? It’s unclear what happened. His death record reports that he was crushed between the buffers of two wagons and died immediately. The family couldn’t afford a proper burial for him, so he was interred in common ground three days later, on December 16.
Janet was a widow at age 39, with eight children, the eldest, James, then 17. The others were 13, 11, 9, 6, 4, 3, and 8 months. Tragically, in July 1863, only six months after her husband’s death, Janet lost her youngest daughter, Isabella at fourteen months.
It’s difficult to grasp the magnitude of Janet’s personal and financial loss. There would have been no life insurance in that era. Who stepped in to help the family? No death dates exist for either Janet’s or John’s parents, and it’s likely that all of them were deceased by then. No extant records help fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, Scotland’s cotton industry had collapsed by then, because the United States curtailed cotton exportation during the American Civil War. Every local family had to have been hurting, but Janet’s more than most.
The years that followed can only be imagined. It wasn’t until a census taker stopped at her cottage in 1871 that we rescue her from oblivion. Janet and three of her children were living in the same cottage on Old Row Street in Chapel. The census reports that she was 45 (in reality 48) and a housekeeper. The three children living at home were Marion (19), an unemployed domestic servant, John (16), a farm worker, and Janet (14). James had married earlier that year, and Margaret had likely already married as well. Robert, who would have been 12, and the other unidentified son are not listed in the census and may have died or were living with with relatives.
Janet again disappears from recorded history until the census is taken ten years later. She would have been 58 at the time, though the census states she’s 51. By then Janet had moved in with her son John and his wife Christina. John was a coal miner, and the family was living in a coal miner’s cottage belonging to the Chapel Colliery.
Janet didn’t live long enough to be counted in the next census. Three days after suffering a stroke, she died on the first day of 1890 in a coal mining village called Morningside Square not far from where she had lived her entire life. She was 66 and had been a widow for 28 years, more than a third of her life. For some reason, she had been debilitated for about eight months prior to her death, possibly from a previous stroke. Cambusnethan Parish burial records report that on January 4, 1890, Janet Sellars Clark was interred in a common grave, plot C197, a space set aside for poor mining families in that era.
As I pull all this information together, I can’t help but think about how much has occurred in the 125 since Janet’s death. Many of her descendants immigrated to the United States and had opportunities for education and employment opportunities far beyond the imagination of anyone in Janet’s era. Janet would have had a difficult time conjuring up an image of Carluke today, the largest town in the Clyde River Valley and a major fruit growing area. Instead of weaving cotton, many of the town’s 19,000 residents work at R & W Scott, a family-owned business that located in Carluke in the 1880s and has been making jam from locally grown fruit ever since.
Note: Janet’s daughter Marion (my great-grandmother) is profiled here, and information about Janet’s granddaughter Bella (my grandmother) can be found here. If anyone has information to add to Janet’s profile or questions about my resources, please contact me by leaving a comment below.