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James Connelly − 1865 − 1927

Family of Twelve


The period that included the years 1890 to 1910 was in many ways unsurprising following on as it did from the first Industrial Revolution. The Second Industrial Revolution was talked about as a technological revolution with steel replacing iron and electricity replacing steam. Developments in oil and aviation resulted in the car gaining favour and the first public aeroplane service being deliberated. There were wars abroad, politics transformed in England and in many workplaces, man was replaced by machine.

For a change, the reporting in the Edinburgh Evening News in 1890 had something that interested James Connelly. At twenty-four he was still single but 'walking out' with Mary Flora Kerr Still, this last surname adopted from her wayward father, recently arrived in the village of Gladsmuir in East Lothian from Rothesay where she and her mother had settled some ten years previously. The 'Forth Bridge', a railway bridge had at last been opened allowing trains to cross the river Forth and shortening journey times to the Highlands and North East significantly.

The article made him think about his own world and the changes that were coming about. This second industrial revolution had created many improvements on the first and James could remember his father talking about industries such as coal, textiles, the railways and iron, where his father had worked in his twenties, where there were phenomenal changes. The quarry the family lived near served as an everyday reminder.

The Edinburgh to London rail line ran close to his village but whilst the newspaper spoke of great expansion in the railways, there had been little sign of it around East Lothian. He had noticed however a number of wooden poles being erected throughout the village to carry the new telegraph system, designed to send messages point-to-point, but likely thought it of little use to him. His journey to work as a carter had improved as the roads he travelled on had become smoother thanks in part to the new steam-rollers which flattened out many of the bumps.


Aveling and Porter Steam Roller
Courtesy The Science Museum

Aveling and Porter Steam Roller  

The young couple decided it was time to move to a more urban environment where the improvements, outlined in the newspapers, could be taken advantage of so after discussing the matter with their parents, decided not only to move home but also to marry.

The streets of Portobello, which was gradually becoming a suburb of the growing city of Edinburgh, must have felt like transitioning from the stone age. In 1891 there were roads, a railway; including a station, a pier, shops, schools, housing and jobs. The streets were cobbled, many still are in 2021, and gas lamps lit up some streets. Electrical lights had been trialled in Edinburgh's Princes Street but there was no timescale for outward expansion. A short journey on the horse drawn trams from their own suburb allowed them to see these at first hand.

They settled down to marriage and during the years 1893 to 1897 had three children; James in 1893, Helen in 1895 and Jane in 1897. James had given up his carting job in favour of spirit sales when they moved to Edinburgh but the pace of life for the family in a town where changes must have seemed to occur almost daily was too much and by 1895 they had moved to another, less busy suburb, Lasswade where James was employed as a coalminer. Machinery at the coal face was now the norm, but so unfortunately were increases in accidents associated with it. A strike with a pick or shovel was nothing compared to that of a machine rotating at high speed where death was sometimes the outcome. Coal was one of the greatest natural resources and used to power industrial machinery capable of producing products faster and to higher standards than previously.

When James visited his mother, long widowed, at his old home in the countryside, new bigger and better farm machinery could be seen ploughing and harvesting faster than ever. This caused more unemployment because fewer men were needed to do the same jobs that had historically been completed by hand.

The availability of cheap steel cables and sheets meant longer stronger bridges, higher buildings, higher pressure and smaller steel boilers, meaning more speed for all sorts of machinery and more powerful engines for trains and the the as yet unseen locally, new auto-mobiles. By 1895 there were only about fifteen cars in the whole of Britain and someone had already been killed by one.

By the time daughter Jane was born in 1897, James and Mary were reading about; a gold rush in America, gas powered cars and motion pictures. There were sketches of a new tower being built in Blackpool which would rival that of the one in Paris but the wages of a miner would not extend to a journey to either city. They could however travel to Glasgow where a new subway train system had opened and was causing quite a stir. Carriages were pulled by a long cable attached to a static steam train which remained so to prevent smoke from the train blinding and choking everyone and sparks from the smokestack setting fire to the wooden platforms.

As the next three years and the end of the century passed there was little good news. A war had broken out for the second time between African Boer farmers and the British authorities when diamonds were discovered in Boer states in South Africa, still part of the Empire. Thousand of troops were also engaged in a war in China where anti foreign, anti Christian and anti imperialist sentiments resulted in the Boxer uprising.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Mary gave birth to their fourth child so the family, now six, kept growing. More of their extended family moved into the Portobello area and were enjoying the life in the growing town. I imagine that pressure from parents aunts and uncles, who saw little of their growing nieces and nephews coupled with the poorly paid mining job and James and Mary's wishes to see and use more of the technological innovations, caused them to re-think their living accommodation and in 1901 they moved back into the heart of the small town into number four Rosefield Avenue. The move coincided with the death of the much loved Queen Victoria resulting in outpourings of grief. Black armbands were worn by many of her people with pictures of the Queen draped in black after she died.

Elsewhere in the south of England, an Italian scientist named Marconi sent a wireless, later called Radio, signal across the Atlantic, a distance of over two thousand miles. Many believed that the curvature of the earth would mean that masts at either end would have to be enormous; even higher than the Blackpool Tower, whilst Marconi believed the signal followed the curve of the earth, although even this was later disproved and signals were found to bounce of the ionosphere.

In the summer of 1902 son Bernard was born to the couple and a story at Christmas time in the Scotsman newspaper wrote about two brothers in America managing to fly a plane. The Wright brothers flew their self-built twin winged aeroplane a distance of one hundred and twenty feet, shorter in fact than the walk to the end of James's street. The potential for ordinary people flying one day seemed far fetched. A new King was crowned in the August and at the coronation he was confirmed as Edward VII. The eldest son, at sixty, of the deceased Queen Victoria, he was renowned as a 'playboy' prince.

  Write Brothers

The Wright Brothers


There were far more opportunities for socialising now including pubs and music halls. Pubs were busier than ever particularly on a Saturday when the local football teams ground was within walking distance and the supporters met there before the game. The Labour Party was gaining more and more working men as members after the Conservatives oversaw the stagnation of wages, rising prices and the decay of already poor housing stock. The Tories were harassed at every turn by Liberal MP, Kier Hardie, who favoured representation of the working man and supported in particular miners rights. David Lloyd George, the Chancellor and Hardie were instrumental in strengthening the rights of the unions to picket peacefully

Twins Elizabeth and Henry were born to James and Mary in February 1905 but Henry was weak and needed constant care. There were more cars on the streets but each now had to show a license plate for ease of identification. As Mary nursed her new babies the campaign for women to have the right to vote took a dramatic step when a number of women, demanding to be able to vote, demonstrated in parliament. The Suffragette movement and its founder Emmeline Pankhurst were engaged in civil disobedience and direct-action to try and make the Government change it's stance on women's voting rights. Their protests over the following months were overshadowed though by a colliery disaster at Wattstown in the Rhondda Valley when an underground explosion killed one hundred and twenty men. At the end of the year young Henry succumbed to multiple failings in his little body and died, aged just eight months, of Pneumonia and Meningitis.

As the following winter drew to a close with the days of snow and cold now mostly passed, stories surfaced of a volcanic eruption in Italy. Mount Vesuvius was surrounded by thousands of homes and lava was flowing freely; one hundred people died and thousands were left homeless. Days later an enormous earthquake destroyed over eighty percent of the city of San Francisco, killing over three thousand people. These losses and events were difficult to comprehend for most people and dwarfed local disasters that the couple had read about.

The Government passed an Education (Provision of Meals) Act in December that enabled schools to give free school meals to the poorest pupils. Three of the couples oldest children, eldest James had started working aged thirteen, now eleven, nine and six, currently attended school and this, when it came into force, might help eke out the wages James brought home as a Hammerman. Mary was expecting another set of twins who subsequently were born in January 1907. Alexander and Sydney were delivered at home, as was normal, with father James described as a carter on their birth certificates.

The last few years of the decade went very quickly and James and Mary were undoubtedly aware of the many significant events shaping the world around them including from wars, plague and riots to the more mundane first Scout camp being held in England and the last horse-drawn tram journey in Edinburgh.

In 1908, James and Mary had their last child, Ann whilst elsewhere in Britain a young member of parliament, Winston Churchill, entered the cabinet for first time. Ernest Shackleton, an explorer of Angol-Irish stock set-sail from New Zealand for Antarctica and closer to home the Scottish National Exhibition took place in Edinburgh.

Unfortunately one of the two year old twins, Sydney, died in the Spring of 1909 so the family had lost another child and there was further deep sadness.

As the first decade of the twentieth century drew to a close, there was elation when a Frenchman, Louis Blériot, was the first man to fly across the English Channel and Mary was heartened to learn later in the year that the Government was now introducing a minimum wage for workers. James was fascinated to read in his morning paper of the start of construction of one of the largest ocean going liners ever built. The RMS Titanic would be the largest vessel afloat and carry over two thousand passengers and crew.


Written by: Frank T Connelly, Sept 21

Euston96 − website on 8th September 2021

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