William Union

Born . 1847 . at Ireland Certificate
Full Name William Union .
Father William Union Mother Jane Union (ms Kerr)
Married 1.1. 1872 to Helen Kerr at Greenock East Certificate
Children 1873 William .
. 1875 Helen or Ellen Was a house maid in Greenock in 1891.
. 1877 John d 1888 Gourock age 11?
. 1878 Jane d 1879 age 1
. 1882 Maggie illegitemate child Agnes McIntosh Union b 1901
. 1884 Peter McPhail d 1952 Greenock age 68
Died 20.6. 1885 at Garvel Point, Greenock Accidental drowning in River Clyde Certificate Addendum

William was a rivetter [1], probably working on one of the shipyards of Greenock or Port Glasgow. In 1872, he married his cousin Helen Kerr. Between then and 1884 they had 6 children.

The register of deaths [6] records that on Saturday 20th of June 1885, William died in the River Clyde near Garvel Point, Greenock. The cause of death was given as "drowning, accidental". The body was found at 7.30am on 3rd July 1885 opposite the ship building yard of Messrs Blackwood & Gordon, Port Glasgow. The death was registered by Peter McPhail of 8 Springkell Street, Greenock, described as "brother in law".

After William's reported death, his wife Helen remarried to Edward McPhail. However in the 1901 census [3], William and Helen's son Peter is not with the McPhails, but a Peter Union of the correct age is staying nearby with his father Wm Union of the age to be the supposedly dead William. Is this a coincidence, or was William's reported death in 1885 a convenient case of mistaken identity?

A fictional but plausible theory, based entirely on speculation, is as follows.

After 13 years of marriage, the relationship between William and Helen has broken down, and William is spending more and more time away from home. Helen is friendly with the McPhail family; her sister Elizabeth is married to Peter McPhail, and Helen's son Peter was named after him. One day, Helen hears that a body has been found floating in the river nearby. William has not returned home for several days, and Peter McPhail agrees to investigate whether the body might be William's. The body has been in the river for two weeks and is not easily recognisable but there is nothing to say ot is not William, so Peter makes a positive identification. The inquest has no reason not to ratify this conclusion. Helen, now free of her husband William, marries Peter's widower relative Edward McPhail, who makes a good husband and father to her family.

Meanwhile, William hears of his reported death. He recognises this as a good opportunity to escape from the financial responsibilities of his family, and decides to lie low for a while. However he is still living in Greenock, so it is only a matter of time before he is seen by Helen or one of his children. But life for the family has been much better since William's departure, and it is in nobody's interests to inform the authorities; understandably, they all turn a blind eye. Eventually however, William is visited by his son Peter, who even occasionally stays overnight at his home.

Thus when the census is taken sixteen years after William's reported death, his situation is well accepted in the family, and William has no hesitation in giving his real name to the census enumerator, and identifying his son Peter who is staying with him at the time. And William was quite right to believe that the significance of his presence would not be noticed. Not, that is, until 100 years later......

This story would also explain the apparent rejection many years later of the name Union by William's son William, in favour of his mother Helen's name, Kerr.

Or an alternative theory:

In 1901, William is indeed dead, and his son William is living with his wife Helen and housekeeper Margaret Noble at 24 Cartsburn Street, Greenock. When the census enumerator calls to help complete the census form, William and his wife are not at home, but William's 16-year-old brother Peter is there. The enumerator asks the lad for the name of the head of the house and for his own name, and is told William and Peter Union. He then jumps to the conclusion that they are father and son, and asks Peter for age, occupation, etc of his father, which are entered under William's name.

An unlikely scenario, but just possible.

Sources: Census [1]1881, [2]1891, [3]1901; [4]IGI; [5]GRO index; [6]GRO death register;

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Page last updated 12 February 2004