A Locket’s Worth

My eyes welled with tears as I held the worn gold locket in the palm of my hand, letting its chain dangle through my fingers. I circled my thumb over its smooth oval surface, pausing over the tiny diamond chip that glinted from its center. “I’ve been saving it for you for Mother’s Day,” my mother explained, her voice quavering a bit at the end. “I planned to give it to you after you wrote my mother’s history.”

I clicked open the lid with my thumbnail, revealing tiny sepia photos of my grandparents, Bill and Bella Miller, taken in Scotland around 1910, the time of their marriage. The photos were small versions of formal portraits taken in a photographer’s studio, Bill in a dark suit and light tie, and Bella with her hair swept softly under a large hat with a fashionable feather plume, the locket hanging from her neck. Their eyes look serious, scared. Bill was a coal miner, the son and grandson of coal miners. His petite, pretty bride descended from a line of coal miners. Life had not been easy.


Miller, Bella Bullock - young

Bella Bullock Miller 1887-1943



Miller, William Russell portrait

William Russell Miller 1887-1935

My grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1922 to secure a better life for their growing family. They settled in Pennsylvania for a while, where Bill worked in the anthracite coal mines, and then migrated to California, where the Depression sucked away their livelihood and spoiled their dreams. When their situation became desperate, they tried to hawk the locket for food money. Bill took it to a pawn broker, who cut a tiny chip from the edge to measure its worth.

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Bill and Bella (Bulloch) Miller, My Maternal Grandparents

Writing about People

Bill and Bella in 1914 with son David and baby daughter Marion dressed in her christening gown

I am a Scottish coal miner’s granddaughter. It seems hard to believe. I have lived my entire life in California, a life as different from my grandfather’s as the sunny California beaches are from the dreary Scottish coal mines. His name was William Miller, but people called him Bill. His petite, plucky wife, my grandmother, was named Bella. They both died before I was born, so I was never able to thank them for the legacy they left me, a legacy honed with grit, hard work, and sacrifice. These qualities got them to California in the mid-1920s with six young children in tow and helped them battle the Great Depression that bore down on them not long after their arrival. In the end, these qualities were not enough. They both died young, defeated by what they had left Scotland to avoid. Here is their story.

Miners' Row Housing copy

Typical late-19th century miners’ “row housing” in Scotland

They were a poor family in Bellshill, Scotland, a coal mining town twelve miles south of Glasgow, in Lanarkshire. Bill’s father and grandfather were both coalminers. His grandfather had migrated to Scotland from Ireland to escape the Irish potato famine. Born in 1887, Bill was the second of four children in his family. Bella was born later that year to William and Marion Bullock, the seventh of eight children. Her father was also a coal miner, as was his father.

Bill and Bella married in 1910 when he was 23 and she, 22. They were an attractive couple, though a study in contrasts—Bill, with his dark eyes, hair, and complexion; Bella with her blue eyes, fair skin and sandy-colored hair. She was a good foot shorter than her five-foot-ten-inch husband, and more talkative and comfortable around people. Within seven years, they had four children, a boy and three girls.

Life was tough for coal mining families then, even more so than now, with long workdays and meager pay. Bill had been working in coal mines since he was a boy, and knew little else. But working conditions had become intolerable as increasing miners’ strikes kept him unemployed for long periods of time, substantially decreasing their already limited income. Deciding they had had enough, they began thinking about letters they had received from Bella’s sister Jessie Mallon, who lived in Duryea, Pennsylvania. Her husband, James, had acquired a job in the coal mines near Pittston and claimed he could find work for Bill as well. Bill should come and work for a few months, find a place to live, and then send for Bella and the children.

It had to be a difficult decision, requiring weighing family ties against the opportunity to provide a better life for their children. Their parents on both sides were in their 70s. Travel was expensive and sometimes precarious in those days. Who knew if they’d ever see their families again? Perhaps this was just a foolhardy idea, a waste of money they would regret forevermore. Wouldn’t it be safer to stick with the known rather than risking everything?  Continue reading