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Accidents and Disasters in Scotland in the 19th & 20th Centuries

Photo Album and Family Link to Henry Bell

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A few family pictures and stories

Below : The view from Laigh Hatton Farm, Erskine, ( where the Crosses lived sometime ) overlooking the Clyde, Dumbarton Rock on the horizon.


Below : Henry Bell 1767-1830. Steam Pioneer. His "Comet" Steamship was the first vessel to be propelled by steam navigation, in 1812. Bell was sometime Provost of Helensburgh
and lived out his days at the Baths Hotel, Helensburgh, where his wife, Margaret Young was hostess. The Cross family have links to Bell, as described in the biography of John Keir Cross ( 1858-1900) , " A Beloved Schoolmaster " written by David Hobbs. In that book Hobbs claims that John Keir Cross was a great grandson of the steamship pioneer.


Below : The Story of Henry Bell Cross ( 1828-1888 ) and his Poetry. This is a tribute to the father of John Keir Cross and William Henry Bell Cross. Henry was harbourmaster on the Forth and Clyde Canal, at Port Dundas, Glasgow.

Copies of the Booklet available at 2.00 + 0.50p postage


Let me put my cards on the table: I'm just a sentimentalist!

That flaw in my character is not the only explanation for reproducing this short collection of comic verse, written by my paternal great-great-grandfather. It is an act too of preservation - what this man wrote about is worth preserving.

We raise stone memorials to our loved ones in cemeteries and Churchyards; unveil bronze effigies to great men and women in public places; our museums and galleries bulge, with the trophies of our conquests and of the relics of extinct civilisations. All this, in the sane vein, of preserving what is past. Words are written all the time for the same reason. The genealogist shares this obligation, to record and preserve.

Good historians probe, question, challenge too, and are objective, so must the genealogist be, at times. But, this is not the motive here, it is merely to "recall to life" some sketches of people and places, over a century ago, as seen through one man's eyes, "a bit of a poet", named HENRY BELL CROSS.

The images created are a reminder of a lost age of the Scots race. The lines are written largely in the Doric, 'the guid auld Scotch tongue', (I can hear my grandmother say). The language may seen strange, even difficult to comprehend, yet, unravelling it is well worth the effort- The various commentaries are often poignant, erudite, they show some remarkable powers of observation and description. There are some wonderfully comic, delightfully funny, witty pieces that capture, as no historian ever can, the fun, folly and foibles of just ordinary folk, and the places they visited.

Who was this Henry Bell Cross? Here's a brief outline of his life, including some background details to his poems.

Henry was born at Renton, Cardross, Dumbartonshire, in the West of Scotland, on 9 July 1828- [That date is celebrated in his "Dear Son..." poem, of 1887]. Henry, was the second son, the third child, of a master quarrier, Alexander Cross, his mother was Elisabeth Glen. His parents married on the other side of the Clyde, at Erskine, Renfrewshire, in 1824. Family legend says the lineage there is a long one, and, there have been Crosses in and about the village of Bishopton, in the heart of Renfrewshire, for 400 years....

Henry's father was born at Inchinnan, in 1800, his mother at Carmyle, Lanarkshire, in 1798. Family legend records too that Henry was a grandson of "no less a personage" than Henry Bell, of the "Comet" fame, that he was named after the great inventor, "whom he resembled in build and appearance".

Aged 2, in 1829, Henry's parents flitted from Cardross, over to Gartocharn, Kilmaronock (not to be confused with the more well known town Kilmarnock, Ayrshire), on Loch Lomondside........

This move to Kilmaronock began a phase for these Crosses that spanned the next 60 years. Henry was one of 12 children, 6 sons and 6 daughters, nine of whom survived to adulthood, 7 direct lines still continue to the present day, with many scores of collaterals. Alexander Cross was a respected man in the parish. He was an elder in Kilmaronock Church from 1832. He carried on his trade of quarrying at various places. In 1838, he had a lease of a freestone quarry, at Blackhill, within the parish, for a rent of 5 a year. Henry's parents lived out their days hereabouts.

The Cross family are at Blairoaks Cottage, Caldervan, Kilmaronock, on the 1841 Census, Henry, then a boy of 13. By 1851, Henry had left the nest, at Cambusmoon Cottage, and was in service with a local farmer, George Galbraith, of Claddochside. Henry's wife to be, Isabella Keir, from Killearn, in the neighbouring county of Stirling, was a servant in the same household. She was a year younger than Henry, the daughter of a gardener, Hugh Keir, and Barbara Wood. Romance blossomed in the servant's quarters.

George Galbraith may have been the inspiration behind the poem "MY AULD MAISTER AND HIS DOMESTICS".

Henry Bell Cross married Isabella Keir, at Killearn, in December 1851. Soon afterwards, they left Scotland, for a new life, as emigrants, to the USA. From 1852 until 1855 home was a log cabin, on the Kickapoo River, in the deep forests of Wisconsin, where Henry followed "a kind of backwoodsman's life". These three years spent "among the Yankees" are recorded for posterity in the poem "THREE YEARS IN YANKEEDOM". That brave American adventure ended not because of homesickness, but it seems, because of early rumours about the bloody civil war to come. Henry and his family returned to the safety of Scotland, out of harm's way.......

Some last lines to this American poem have been discovered revealing just how much of an intrepid Henry was; he fully intended to do some further roving, once he recovered his senses: -

"Resolved when next I took a tour,

To cross to South Australia ower,

If once my frame was fairly mended,

My journey for the present ended!"

Henry had one brother even more daring than he. Robert McKenzie Cross, was a botanical explorer, attached to Kew Gardens, London. He travelled in many unexplored parts of South America and India, throughout the second half of the last century on the transfer of chinchona (quinine) and rubber plants. A great family story hangs there too!

Henry and Isabella began their family, in 1852, with a son, Alexander William Cross. He was with them in the USA. There may have been other children born there (who perished) and this may have added to the decision to return "home'.

Back in Kilmaronock, in 1856, Henry was best man to his younger brother, Alexander. On the birth of another son, John Keir Cross, (my great grandfather), two years later, in 1858, Henry was a ploughman, in the parish. He had returned to his roots and settled down to a life, on the land.

The two poems that stem from this period, about ploughing matches, "CHAMPION PLOUGHING MATCH" and "THE PLEWING MATCH" touch on great annual events in the agricultural calendar across Scotland, over several generations. The whole community took part in these gatherings, including the children, who were given time off from school. There were reputations to maintain, and, when the ploughing was over, there were thirsts to quench at the local inn.

Sadly, the next few years were cruel to Henry and Isabella. Their elder son, Alexander died in 1859, aged 7. And, two daughters, Elizabeth and Isabella, born in 1861 and 1864 respectively did not survive either. The family record says that my great grandfather, John, was "prized all the more", as he was "the only child who survived".

Despite the many family losses, these decades of the 1850's, 1860's and 1870's were the heyday of the Grosses of Kilmaronock. Henry's father was eventually a quarry manager. The freestone and slate quarries, at Luss, were in full swing, employing 50 men, producing thousands of tons of building materials for local use. The stone was sent by Loch Lomond, and down the River Leven, to Dumbarton, Glasgow, Paisley, Port Glasgow and Greenock. And also to Helensburgh, Rhu and the shores of the Gareloch, by land.

Successful too, was Henry's elder brother, James Cross. He, was tilemaking and farming, at "Wards", Kilmaronock. "WARDS" was the appointed place for family births. James employed 6 men, among these, Henry, and two other brothers, John and Alexander. The tilemaking operations made use of local waterways, including the River Endrick, for transport. Canals were built to move the tiles. This may have led, in some way, to Henry's significant change of life and to his family's move to Glasgow.

About 1862, Henry applied to work for the Forth and Clyde Canal Company. He joined them, first as a Canal Officer and Collector, then as Assistant Harbour Master and later Harbourmaster, at Port Dundas, in Glasgow. This was a most prodigious post. Port Dundas was second only to the Broomielaw for the movement of goods and people.

Henry Bell Cross was associated with the Canal Company for over 25 years, seeing the last of the horse drawn boats and the first and last of the famous screw steamers, the "swifts" and the later "Queens", as well as umpteen other craft, carry passengers and produce across central Scotland. One record in the Scots Magazine from the 1950s says "Port Dundas must have been a great place at one time" and quotes from a historical gazetteer that it was ".... a village in Lanarkshire and suburb of Glasgow, about one mile from the city, where the Great Canal terminates, so named in honour of Lord Dundas, to whose exertions the canal in great measure owes its completion. Here are a spacious basin, and large warehouses and granaries. The canal offered much the quickest and cleanest transport between Edinburgh, the ancient capital and Glasgow where the Money was and there were 3 boats each way daily....."

Henry's poem "A SATURDAY'S TRIP TAE KIRKINTILLOCH" records a piece of Canal history and shows "Oor Harry" in his glory, taking a real busman's holiday. The journey referred to, about 1879, was abroad the "Rockvilla Castle", that was the last of the "swifts". Captain George Aitken, immortalised in the poem by Henry, fell overboard and drowned on a trip along the canal, in 1880.

The offices of the old Canal Company, (Canal Bank House) at Spiers Wharf, Port Dundas, a Georgian building dating from 1812 and designed by Adam's, although listed as having "special architectural or historic interest" lay derelict for many years, until recent conversion of the whole site by property developers. The stretch of the canal itself that remains today, is broken in several places by the harsh (Henry would say sair) landscaping of the 20th Century, but, there is still much activity on parts of canal and effective Management by British Waterways.

A picture of Port Dundas that stirs up an impression of Henry Bell Cross's day, and an earlier golden age of canal transportation, features on the cover to these pages. I have a complete photographic record of the transformation of "Canal Bank House", thanks to John Keir Cross, one of the 'two Johns' to whom this short booklet is dedicated. The other John (they are cousins), my late father, shared together the first reconnaissance trips here, in the mid 1980s.

Back to the 1860s, Henry sent his son John to school at St. George's in the Field, in St. Georges Road, this school was linked to the Church of the same name, where the Cross family worshipped, on Sundays. John eventually became a pupil-teacher at the school. He was later a schoolmaster, elsewhere. Home for Henry and his family was first at 23, Corn Street, and then at 70, Grove Street, both quarters close to the Canal, and which went with the job.

A glimpse of the domestic scene in the harbourmaster's home at Port Dundas, in the 1860s, can be gleaned from the family record. Music was adored by father and son alike, both Henry and John were "devoted to the violin". They regularly played duets together. Sentimentality at its very hub oozes out of this description of John's school friends being warmly entertained. "The parents wisely welcomed to the house the approved boy companions.....and these favoured boys counted themselves specially fortunate when the violins were produced and tuned for a melodious duet. The Music was made all the sweeter to their young ears by the rich, plump scones of home-manufacture which the hospitable housewife invariably set before them! The simple scene is pleasing to the mental eye, and makes us wish that we could now draw forward our chair and listen to that sweet music and partake of the humble but wholesome fare......"

Isabella Keir is described as "one of those estimable souls who keep their houses like little palaces". The Cross household increased by one, in 1868, following the sad and sudden deaths of Henry's brother, Alexander, and his wife, at Bonhill, Dumbartonshire, leaving 5 young children to be taken in by family members- James C Cross was reared by Isabella Keir, from just a few months old. When Isabella died, in 1880, Jams was a boy of 13; he later, it seems, went to sea.....

John had left home by the time of his Bother's death for schoolmastering at Johnstone, Renfrewshire, then Glasgow. He was later appointed headmaster of Coltness Iron Company's School, Newmains, Lanarkshire, in 1887, and thereby lies another chapter of our family history.

Henry Bell Cross Married again, in 1881, <Georgina McGregor Ferguson, who was quite a bit younger than him. They had a son, William Henry Bell Cross, born 9 July 1887, when Henry was aged 59, and the lines "DEAR SON...." were penned.

They moved abode, to Moss House, 307, Possil Road, in the early 1880s, this building was for a long time occupied by Canal Company employees. From this period two delightful pieces survive, in Henry's own handwriting, one, a single reply to a wedding invitation, from a neighbour at Possil Road, entitled "WE HAVE RECEIVED TODAY......" and the second, a poem, in the form of a letter, Henry wrote to his sister, Elizabeth, (Mrs Thorns McLelland), of Cadder, Bishopbriggs, "MY SISTER DEAR....."

And, then finally last, but by no means least, is Henry's Monumental work, of over 500 lines, about a journey he made from "GLASGOW TO OBAN BY THE CALEDONIAN RAILWAY" a totally remarkable and fitting epitaph to this man's poetic skills.

Henry died, from apoplexy, in 1888, aged 60. It seems in recognition of his long years of service to the Forth and Clyde Canal Company, his widow, Georgina Ferguson, was offered employment. She took up the job of canal bridge keeper at Blairdardie, New Kilpatrick, and later remarried. She died in 1903.

Through Henry's son John Keir Cross, sprang 11 children, the last surviving of whom was my grandfather, William Paterson Cross, who died in 1968. There are, however, some 10 surviving (of 21) great-grandchildren. Through Henry's son (William) Henry Bell Cross, his 2 sons and 2 daughters survive, and further great-grandchildren.

Henry Bell Cross was quite a remarkable man. His legacy survives too, at its core, I think, in these poetic gems within this simple book...

Henry Bell's last resting place at Rhu Churchyard


More pictures and family stories to follow.

Scottish Disasters