Elizabeth Robb, John Burns, and their daughter Penelope

In this latest post in my series on the second generation of the Robb-Thomson-Young family, I turn now to Elizabeth Robb, the second child of Penelope Thomson’s marriage to Glasgow merchant George Robb, the brother of my 3rd great grandfather Charles Robb.

St. Andrew’s church, Glasgow

The old parish registers for Glasgow include the following record:

John Burns merchant Glasgow and Elizabeth Robb residing in Barony, lawful daughter of the deceased George Robb Esq. merchant Glasgow, married at Glasgow the 16th day of August 1836 by the Rev. Nathaniel Paterson minister of St. Andrew’s Parish Glasgow.

I understand that John and Elizabeth Burns had only one child, Penelope, who was born in Glasgow on 26th January 1838. The witnesses were Elizabeth’s brother George Robb (see the previous post) and Alexander Burns. This record describes John as a manufacturer rather than a merchant.

This is the last definite record we have for John and Elizabeth. I’ve failed to find them in the 1841 or 1851 census records, though we know from the report of the court case concerning Elizabeth Thomson’s will that Elizabeth Burns had died by the latter date. The same court report states that Penelope Burns was now (i.e. in July 1851) living in America. Since she would only have been 13 at this date, it seems likely either that John, Elizabeth and Penelope emigrated when the latter was very young and that Elizabeth died there, or that John and his daughter Penelope emigrated after Elizabeth’s death. However, I’ve yet to find any documentary evidence to support either possibility, though emigration or travel would certainly account for the absence of Scottish records for the family after 1838.

Later records for Penelope Burns in the United States Federal Census claimed that she arrived in the country in 1872, when she would have been about 34 years old, so perhaps she returned to Scotland in the interim? In 1880 Penelope was boarding at a house in Alden Street, in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, and working as a teacher of languages. In the 1900 census, age 62, Penelope was lodging at 33 Pleasant Street, in the same city, and still working as a teacher. In both records she is said to be unmarried.

Eli Thayer (via wikipedia.org)

I’ve found some additional records covering Penelope’s time in Worcester. The city directories for 1888 and 1889 list her as a music teacher, living at 35 Pleasant Street, while the 1890 directory describes her simply as a teacher. She was obviously quite versatile, able to teach both music and languages. The Federal Census of 1880 finds her lodging, together with a number of other teachers, in the home of Eli Thayer in Worcester. Although the census record describes Thayer as an inventor, he was also a member of the US House of Representatives and a leading figure in the anti-slavery ‘Kansas Crusade’. Most relevant to our story, Eli Thayer also founded the Oread Institute, a school for young women in Worcester. Presumably Penelope Burns and the other teachers lodging with the Thayer family worked at the school. In fact, a history of the institute lists Miss Penelope Burns as an honorary member of its association, membership of which was open to ‘any person who taught at the Oread Collegiate Institute at any time between 1849 and 1881.’

Oread Castle, home to the Oread Institute (via wikipedia.org)

The only discrepancy between these records and what we know of Penelope, daughter of John and Elizabeth Burns, is her date of birth, which the 1880 census gives as 1841. However, a record in the 1900 Federal Census, which appears to be for the same person, gives her date of birth as 1838.  She was naturalised as a US citizen in 1880, the record again sowing doubts about her age. According to the Naturalisation Index, Penelope was born in 1840, rather than 1838. However, the fact that she gives the same birthday – 26th January – suggests that this is probably the same person, and that she was in the habit of shaving a couple of years off her true age.

Penelope Burns died on 17th August 1905 at 33 Pleasant Street. She was said to be 75 years 6 months and 22 days old. The cause of death was given as chronic nephritis, or inflammation of the  kidneys, with uraemia a contributory  cause.

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