Monday, 21 September 2015

Earlston's Friend & Benefactor - Isabella Wallace

Plaque on the gates to the park at Mill Meadow
Researching Earlston's Friend and Benefactor,  Isabella Wallace  proved to be a Tale of One Name, Three People and Two Wills.  

Two  plaques around the village acknowledge the generosity of Isabella Wallace. Hearsay also  spoke of the fact that Isabella Wallace had died in the 1920's, leaving money to be  used for  local projects.

This struck me as a straightforward  local history challenge, but it proved to be not quite as easy as I thought.

I began the search on the family history site ScotlandsPeople website and immediately hit a stumbling block   - there were three Isabella Wallaces in Earlston during the late 19th century.   But which one was the village's generous benefactor?  I set out to trace the family of each Isabella. 

(1)  Isabella Wallace , born 20 Jan 1850 to Henry Wallace  (Master Shoemaker) and Elizabeth Swan. 
In the 1851 census,  young Isabella was with her parents and brother David.  But ten years later  her father was a widower with three children at home - David, Robert and daughter Elizabeth.  Their mother had died in 1857, aged 32.  Isabella was with her widowed aunt Helen Mercer and her cousin William Mercer.  In the 1871 census,  Isabella,  described as "companion",  was still living with her aunt, and following her death, she became housekeeper to her cousin William. 
Isabella remained single all her life and died 20th March 1927.  It is important to note that, unlike their English equivalent,  Scottish death certificates give the name of the parents, so I knew here that I had traced the death certificate of  the Isabella who was daughter of Henry and Elizabeth - and not the other Isabella Wallace's in Earlston at this time. She was buried in Earlston Churchyard (right).   

To my delight I discovered  she had left a will - surely an indication of money to leave to relatives and charitable causes! 

Wills provide such a wealth of information for family historians with bequests to family members, here notably nieces and nephews and sisters in law:  - to "my nephews Thomas Wallace and Robert Swan Wallace, and niece Ruth Wallace, all children of my deceased brother David Wallace" my brother Robert Swan Wallace, draper, Janet Ross or Wallace, wife of the said Robert Swan Wallace" .   

The will also confirmed that "the late William Mercer, draper, Earlston, bequeathed  all his estate heritable and moveable to me".  So here was confirmation of  the source of Isabella's  wealth. 
Specific bequests highlighted what were regarded as important possessions - "my  eight day silver tea set...... my best china tea cream jug next best china tea piano...... half dozen silver spoons, sugar spoon, silver sugar sifter  and tongs.

Of course primarily I was looking for an indication of money left to the parish. But the only reference was to some shares in Earlston Corn Exchange Company, with the income to be used   in "keeping the burial ground and tombstone in Earlston Churchyard in order".  It seemed that, despite my initial high hopes. this Isabella may not be the benefactor I was looking for.

(2) Isabella Wallace, born 18th November 1850, to George Wallace (Innkeeper at the Commercial Inn)  and Agnes Hudson.
In the 1851 census,  the young Isabella was with her parents, older brother William and one servant. By 1861 the family had grown further with siblings, Helen, Agnes, John and George, to be later joined by Elizabeth and Janet - a family of eight in seventeen years. All the family were still at home in 1871.

Isabella could not be traced in the 1881 census and could well have married by this time - or died. but I was unable to trace  any entries in the Scottish records.  So I discounted this Isabella in my search for Earlston's benefactor. 

(3) Isabella Wallace, born c.1854, to John Wallace (master joiner) and Martha Stewart Brown.  
I was unable to trace a birth or baptism record for Isabella - this was surprising, as although compulsory registration in Scotland was not introduced until  1855 (1837 in England & Wales), the practice was becoming more and more prevalent in the lead up to that date. 

In 1861, Isabella,  aged  7, was with her parents and siblings in Market Square, Earlston - John 18, Robert 14, Hannah 12, Janet 10, George 5 and Francis 1, plus Mary Brown (mother in law).   Her father John was described as  a master joiner employing 3 apprentices.
Earlston's Market Square c.early 1900's
Twenty years on In the 1881 census, Isabella  was housekeeper to her brother George, also a joiner and his nephew James.  The 1891, 1901 and 1911 census returns showed her continuing in this role, latterly in a house which had eight rooms with windows - surely indicating status and money.

Isabella died 2nd June 1920, with the informant her niece Agnes  and her parents confirmed as John and Martha.  Again to my delight I traced a will on ScotlandsPeople. 

The will left heritable property "to Wilfred Wallace, residing in America, son of my late brother Frank";  "to Agnes Waddell Wallace, daughter of my late brother John my whole household furniture, every kind of wearing apparel and jewellery and all personal articles" plus a legacy of £50 per annum";  "to Janet Fairbairn Wallace,  daughter of my late brother Robert   £100"; "to Martha Stewart Brown Wallace, daughter of my late brother John - income from investments".   

The residue of Isabella's estate, she bequeathed to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

But notably -   the sum of £3250 was left to Earlston Parish Council  "For the purpose of improving the amenities of the Town of Earlston including footpaths, paving,  and lighting, and similar objects".
I had identified the correct Isabella

A visit to the Heritage Hub at Hawick was called for,  where I consulted the unique material not easily available elsewhere.: 
  • Berwickshire County Council - West District Minutes
  • Berwickshire County Council Finance Committee Minutes
  • Earlston Parish Council Minutes
  • Earlston Lighting and Scavenging Account
In  the years I looked at, the records confirmed that the Isabella Wallace Fund was used for the provision of  lighting, the upgrading of the Square, with  railings around the War Memorial,  the removal of an air raid shelter, and a gateway  and railings at the riverside park at Mill Meadow.  

A winter view of the park at Mill Meadow by the  Leader Water. 

Below two more early photographs of the  Market Square, Earlston, taken  before the unveiling of the War Memorial in 1921, and  the provision of railings and creation of a garden paid for from the Isabella Wallace Fund.  

The pump and horse well on the right were demolished in 1920 to make way for the erection of the War Memorial.
To the right of the War Memorial can be seen a small plinth
which features the plaque (below)  to Isabella Wallace - benefactor of Earlston 


A  poignant story is linked to Isabella's decision to grant this money to her home village. Local anecdotes recall  that her father's home and business in the Market Square was devastated by a fire. Local people rallied  round with great generosity to help the family - something that Isabella never forgot.  

Isabella Wallace  repaid   this through her will.  to become "Earlston's Friend and Benefactor"  

With thanks to the Auld Earlston Group and its associated website Lost Earlston  
for the old photographs of the village.


  1. A great idea to research people connected with tthe history of our village. It made for an interesting read.

  2. Fascinating story! I enjoyed reading about the inhabitants of Earlston at this point in history. Excellent research into wills.

  3. Thank you for sharing Isabella,s story. I am a great grandson of Isabella's eldest brother, Isaac (1840-1920), who came to Australia in 1859 and while researching the Wallace side of our family I came across your story which is a big help in getting to know about one of our ancestors. Am looking forward to reading more of your blog. Garth.

    1. Thank you so much for getting in touch with your connection to Isabella Wallace. It would be very interesting to learn more about Isaac emigrating to Australia and I am happy to write a blog update. Please get in touch through our email I look forward to hearing from you.


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