Dying Young: The Story of a Scottish Coalmining Family

by Memoir Mentor on July 9, 2008

Note: This is a post for the Carnival of Genealogy. Those who write family history stories may want to participate in the Carnival. It’s a good opportunity to post your writing on the Internet for others to read. Click HERE to find out more about the COG, and HERE to access the stories posted for the 52nd edition.
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I am a Scottish coalminer’s granddaughter. It seems hard to believe. I have lived my entire life in California, a life as different from my grandfather’s as the sunny California beaches are from the dreary Scottish coal mines. His name was William Miller, but people called him Bill. His petite, plucky wife, my grandmother, was named Bella. They both died before I was born, so I was never able to thank them for the legacy they left me, a legacy honed with grit, hard work, and sacrifice. These qualities got them to California in the mid-1920s with six young children in tow and helped them battle the Great Depression that bore down on them not long after their arrival. In the end, these qualities were not enough. They both died young, defeated by what they had left Scotland to avoid. Here is their story.

They were a poor family in Bellshill, Scotland, a coalmining town twelve miles south of Glasgow, in Lanarkshire. Bill’s father and grandfather were both coalminers. His grandfather had migrated to Scotland from Ireland to escape the Irish potato famine. Born in 1887, Bill was the second of four children in his family. Bella was born later that year to William and Marion Bullock, the seventh of eight children. Her father was also a coalminer, as was his father.

Bill and Bella married in 1910 when he was 23 and she, 22. They were an attractive couple, though a study in contrasts—Bill, with his dark eyes, hair, and complexion; Bella with her blue eyes, fair skin and sandy-colored hair. She was a good foot shorter than her five-foot-ten-inch husband, and more talkative and comfortable around people. Within seven years, they had four children, a boy and three girls.

Life was tough for coalmining families then, even more so than now, with long workdays and meager pay. Bill had been working in coalmines since he was a boy, and knew little else. But working conditions had become intolerable as increasing miners’ strikes kept him unemployed for long periods of time, substantially decreasing their already limited income. Deciding they had had enough, they began thinking about letters they had received from Bella’s sister Jessie Mallon, who lived in Duryea, Pennsylvania. Her husband, James, had acquired a job in the coalmines near Pittston and claimed he could find work for Bill as well. Bill should come and work for a few months, find a place to live, and then send for Bella and the children.

It had to be a difficult decision, requiring weighing family ties against the opportunity to provide a better life for their children. Their parents on both sides were in their 70s. Travel was expensive and sometimes precarious in those days. Who knew if they’d ever see their families again? Perhaps this was just a foolhardy idea, a waste of money they would regret forevermore. Wouldn’t it be safer to stick with the known rather than risking everything?

In the end, they decided to take a chance. Life in Bellshill was no longer tenable. Their children deserved any advantage they could give them. Bill boarded the SS Assyria out of Glasgow in September 1921. He was 34 years old and had $37 in his pocket. After arriving in Pennsylvania, ten days later, he secured the job James had promised, located a house, and sent for his family. Bella and the children crossed the Atlantic on the SS Columbia in late November. It was a rough crossing, made worse because Bella was six months pregnant with her fifth child.

Bill greeted them when they disembarked from their ship in New York harbor dressed in the dark wool suit and hat he wore on special occasions. Always fastidious about his appearance, he especially impressed his eldest daughter, Marion, at this time, for she remembered years later how handsome he looked standing there on the dock, his smile brightening his face as they disembarked.

The Millers settled into a rented home in Duryea and were thrilled to have a back yard of their own, a yard with actual fruit trees. If felt like paradise. Over the next three years, two more children were added to the family, Bill, Jr., the second son, and Jessie, my mother, named after Bella’s sister. During that time, Bill received a letter from an uncle in California touting the job opportunities offered by Standard Oil in the community of Taft in Kern County. Why not come west and work above ground for a change, his uncle suggested. The winters were better than those on the East Coast and Standard Oil money had created a model school system in Taft that would benefit his children. Bill decided to follow his uncle’s advice and headed west. Standard Oil hired him to work in the oil fields. Within six months, he sent Bella the money for train tickets to California.

It was 1925 and Bella was 38 when she made that trip. One has to sympathize with her crossing the country on a hot, crowded train with six children, the youngest still in diapers, and it was only cloth diapers in those days. But they did it, and soon they were settled in a rented home on Kern Street and the older children enrolled in school. They lived in Taft for five years, saving their coins in a cigar box so each summer Bella and the children could spend a few weeks’ vacation in Redondo Beach, a respite from the Kern Valley’s overwhelming heat.

Unfortunately, the Depression hit and Bill lost his job with Standard Oil in 1931, a victim of a massive lay-off. The attractions of Redondo Beach encouraged them to make the popular vacation resort their permanent home. Bill found work on a road crew and was involved in the construction of Pacific Coast Highway, earning two dollars for a day’s labor. Later, he secured a job at Dicolite Company, a mining operation in nearby Walteria. The company mined a fine white powder called diatomaceous earth and converted the powder into various patented preparations used in oil and manufacturing. The work was physically demanding and hard on Bill’s lungs, which were already damaged from years of coal mining and heavy smoking.

Their situation worsened when Bill, a quiet man with a nervous disposition, began complaining of chest pains and dizziness. The stress of a lifetime of mining and financial worry had taken its toll. On March 10, 1935, Bill died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 48 years old—too young, even for that time.

It was the middle of the Great Depression. Bella was 47, with responsibility for six children, one mentally disabled. She cleaned houses to pay the bills, supplementing her income with money the children earned from part-time jobs at the Fox Theatre and Woolworths. She felt ashamed when she had to depend occasionally on government assistance and the charity of friends, but times were rough all over, and they weren’t the only family in this predicament. Bella lived eight more years after her husband died, succumbing on January 21, 1943, to kidney failure at 55—again, too young.

Like so many Scottish emigrants of their day, Bill and Bella left their homeland with a vision of a better life in the United States. While it’s impossible to assess how they would have fared had they remained in Scotland, their life in America was a constant struggle to provide even the barest necessities for their many children. They could not have foreseen the deterioration of economic opportunities they would encounter here.

Though neither of them would have known it at the time of their deaths, Bill and Bella fulfilled their dream of giving their children a chance at a better life. The economy rebounded in the late ’40s, offering an opportunity for their children to purchase homes of their own and provide college educations and more than life’s necessities for their children.

Bill and Bella had nine grandchildren and nineteen great-grandchildren. Considering the mobility of American society today, it is extraordinary that all but two of their descendants reside today in California.

As one of their grandchildren, I became curious about my Scottish heritage some years ago. I spent a year compiling information about them and preparing a brief biography of their lives based on material I pulled from books and gleaned from interviews with three of their daughters. I bound the biography with a plaid cover, using for the design the family’s Gordon tartan.

On a vacation to Wales a few years later, I visited a coal mining museum that offered guided tours of an actual mine. Our tour group donned shiny yellow miners’ helmets, stepped into an authentic pit cage, and descended with our guide 300 feet to the mine floor. Three hundred feet is a long descent in a rickety old cage in the semi-darkness. When we finally clanked and bumped to a halt at the bottom, we found that the mine was electrified, one of the few in Great Britain to have electricity as early as 1910. Our guide walked us down several rocky tunnels, pointing out coal veins, explaining procedures for extracting coal and hauling it above ground. We had to stoop in places as we moved from chamber to chamber. What a dank, cold, colorless workplace it was, even with lights.

I tried to picture my grandfather working in such an environment day after long day since his boyhood—the incessant clanging of the pickaxes and mine cars, the murky lighting from the miner’s lamp fastened to his helmet, the choking, smelly coal dust, the poor ventilation, the lunches eaten underground, the cold. It was all too much to take in, and it hit me hard. How naïve I was. I thought I had captured their lives in my little plaid book. I hadn’t known them at all—had no idea what their lives were like. I would never know what it was like to walk in my grandfather’s shoes.

And then there were my grandmother’s shoes—tiny shoes for a tiny four-foot-ten-inch lady, practical shoes for cleaning other people’s houses, walking from place to place because she had no car, walking the floor at night in the excruciating pain of kidney disease. No, I hadn’t walked in her shoes either.

I am a coalminer’s granddaughter. How can my life be so different from that of my grandparents in so few years—just two generations? How can I ever repay them for the heritage and opportunities they’ve given me?

 

© Dawn Thurston, 2008