“Out, Out Brief Candle”–Macbeth, William Shakespeare (Act V; scene v)
I suppose it is quite easy to overlook the existence of a child who never lived to see his second birthday, but I quickly came to realise that there was a little more to this melancholic story than simply a premature death. In fact, the child’s tragically short life was overshadowed by a period of traumatic transition, a period symbolized, sadly, by the same child’s Birmingham birth and Canadian death.
Suffice to say that no one in my family had ever heard of William Wilkins until I unexpectedly came upon him a number of years ago on the passenger list for the ship that brought my Wilkins ancestors to the port of Quebec in the spring of 1887. While that in itself was a surprise, the task of figuring out to whom the child belonged, and what eventually became of him, proved and even greater challenge.
As it turned out, the twenty-two month old William was one of a party of three travelling to Dundas, Ontario; the other two being my 53-year-old great grandmother, Margaret Wilkins (née Taylor) and her 12-year-old son Frederick (later, my grandfather). While it didn’t seem probable, I nevertheless asked if it were just possible that little William could have been the child of my great grandmother. I also entertained the thought that he was perhaps the offspring of my grandfather’s 21-year-old sister who was, to the best of our knowledge, quite unmarried at the time. As well, and to complicate matters even further, the whereabouts in 1887 of my grandfather’s sister were quite unknown to me. Clearly, I needed facts – not supposition.
Below, my grandfather (age 18) and his mother in Dundas, Ontario, in 1893
Knowing full well that my family history pastime was at best viewed with indifference, and at worst suspicion, by most of my elders, I nevertheless felt that I had little choice but to turn to them for assistance. My father, whose own Dad was 47 when he was born, could offer little additional information, which was probably just as well for that which he purported to know about his Birmingham-born father and his family was frequently misleading.
Accordingly, I turned to an uncle, but he rarely spoke about family matters and, in addition, usually gave me the impression that he thought I was snooping in areas that didn’t concern me. Almost miraculously, however, the knowledge of the child’s disturbingly brief existence survived with one cousin who, when I mentioned my discovery on the 1887 ship manifest, excitedly exclaimed, “Oh, you mean grandfather’s baby brother, Wee Willy!” Ironically, I didn’t think that I was making progress.
So if my family couldn’t help me with this one, perhaps the official records could. For a starter, the certificate of the child’s 1885 birth revealed that in fact he was born in the Birmingham Workhouse on Western Road in that Midland city – the fatherless infant of my grandfather’s sister, Lilly Wilkins, “ship stewardess of Birmingham”.
The next document upon which little William should have appeared was the 1891 Canadian census for Dundas, Ontario. His absence from that document only stirred my curiosity further and I decided to start a rather morbid search for his death. That investigation through the records of Quebec and Ontario (the two jurisdictions through which my ancestors would have travelled on their way to Dundas) produced nothing. Frustrated, I reluctantly concluded that it was a seemingly hopeless situation and not worthy of extra research. However, like many amateur family historians, the following day I changed my mind!
It had occurred to me over a period of time that perhaps the best way to establish the eventual fate of William Wilkins was to try to track down his mother. In this regard, my family was of some assistance with the information that my grandfather’s sister eventually became Mrs. William Black of Charlevoix, a small community in northern Michigan, and, coincidentally, not all that far (by North American standards) from Dundas, Ontario. With great luck, and some skill, I found the family on the 1900 American census but, alas, there was no child living with them who could have been William Wilkins.
Now as all good genealogists know, an American census provides a wealth of information that more often than not one does not find on similar documents from other countries. I was particularly interested to note in the U.S. census report that the Black family of Charlevoix, Michigan, was married in 1887, the same year that little William Wilkins had been brought by his grandmother to Canadian shores. It seemed to me that the next step was obvious: to attempt to determine where the couple was married. After having received negative replies from St. Catherine’s House in London (the holder, at the time, of birth, marriage, and death records for England and Wales) and the Vital Statistics Office for the state of Michigan, I decided that I would investigate the possibility that Lilly Wilkins and William Black were married in the Canadian province of Ontario, perhaps even in Dundas. It was this stage of my research that suddenly paid off, although not quite in the fashion that I had anticipated.
The Registrar General of Ontario initially responded in the negative and maintained that “while they were unable to locate the marriage of a Lilly Wilkins to a William Black, there was a record of a marriage on May 4, 1887, in Dundas, Ontario, of a Lilly Taylor to a William Black”. Could it be the one I was looking for, they asked? Indeed it was – with my great aunt’s age, place of birth, and her mother and father’s first names all matching up. However, for some enigmatic reason the bride had used her mother’s maiden name when she married, even though her Kalamazoo, Michigan, granddaughter only knew her granny as Lilly Wilkins Black!
So as it turned out, the little boy I least expected to find was also an unknowing party to this curious name change. On June 14, 1887, only some nine days after arriving at the port of Quebec, and some 41 days after his mother’s marriage to William Black, young William Taylor died in Dundas. His death had proven elusive to me because he was not buried with his real family name but, rather, he was laid to rest as William Taylor – as surely his mother wanted!
Below, my great aunt, Lilly Wilkins Black (1865-1950), in Kalamazoo, Michigan
First published in December of 1992 in the The Midland Ancestor, the journal of the Birmingham and Midland Society for Genealogy and Heraldry.