‘My young relative was rebuilding his family when he died’
Readers reveal a gem from their family tree Dr Marion Nash pays tribute to Joseph Quillan, an orphan who overcame terrible odds only to suffer a fatal accident
When many of us start tracing our ancestors, we naturally try to see whether we can find someone famous. But while the stories of pioneering reformers or fearless soldiers are worthy of being told, the achievements of the everyday heroes in our trees can be easily overlooked.
One researcher who is keen to redress this balance is Dr Marion Nash, who has uncovered inspiring tales of strength against adversity while exploring her Glaswegian roots. A story Marion holds particularly close to her heart is that of Joseph Quillan, a factory worker who died when he was only 18.
“I have always wanted to give this young man a voice and say what really happened to him,” Marion tells us.
The Quillans were certainly no strangers to tragedy, enduring several bereavements before Joseph was born. Between 1858 and 1883 his parents, Patrick and Elizabeth, lost six young children as a result of respiratory illness and disease. By the time Joseph turned eight, the couple had succumbed to the same fate.
As a result, Joseph’s upbringing was punctuated by constant upheaval, staying with whoever was willing to take him in. On the 1891 census, he was even living in the care of his older sister Maggie’s estranged husband, Mick McKeown, and his new ‘wife’ Jane.
While details about the rest of Joseph’s childhood remain scant, evidence suggests that he kept his feet firmly on the ground. By 1901 he had found a job at the Henry Kennedy & Sons pottery works in Camlachie in Glasgow’s East End, moving into a flat with Maggie and another sister, Lizzie, the following year.
“With his wages as a working man, Joseph could now help his sisters out with the household costs,” says Marion. “He had bravely put his life together and was at last able to enjoy a stable home.”
As the summer of 1902 drew to a close, Henry Kennedy & Sons rewarded their employees with an outing to Loch Lomond. On the morning of Saturday 6 September, the firm’s 300-strong workforce left the hustle and bustle of the city behind and ventured out into the fresh Caledonian air.
Joseph and his friends decided to hire a boat and row down the River Leven into the Loch. Like any party of young men and women, they spent much of the time joking and splashing around. Until it all went wrong.
“People on the shore said that a woman stood up and attempted to change seats with someone else, rocking the boat violently and causing it to overturn,” explains Marion. “It probably made the onlookers laugh, especially having witnessed their earlier antics from dry land. However, it was far, far more serious than they could know.”
As screams rang out across the river, it became clear that lives were in real danger. A crew of boatmen rowed out to the scene as fast as they could, managing to drag six members of the party back to safety.
But Joseph was nowhere to be seen. It was only after 15 minutes of frantic searching that his motionless body was discovered floating in the water. Despite attempts at resuscitation, he was pronounced dead in front of his horrified friends and colleagues.
More than a century later, Marion finds it hard to talk about the incident.
“I think it was such a sad and unnecessary loss of young life. It must have been horrible for Maggie, who would have opened her door later that day to face the appalling news.
“I have often wondered what became of the people who had been in the boat with Joseph. They certainly never intended for it to happen, but what were their feelings about it later?”
Not long after her brother’s death, Maggie found herself in difficult circumstances once again when she was asked to identify the body of her estranged husband, Mick. Despite considerable success as a professional footballer, he became an alcoholic and was found dead inside an abandoned kiln.
Maggie briefly found happiness when she remarried in 1906, but six years later she passed away from cancer, aged 43.
It may be a tale rife with heartbreak, but Marion still finds great solace in her ancestors’ determination to stay together, despite the pressures that were forcing them apart.
“I feel that both Maggie and Joseph were pretty heroic in the way they battled adversity and family instability to finally reach a calm haven living once more as a family.
“It is just so sad that it was at this point that Joseph lost his life.” Jon Bauckham
As screams rang out across the river, it became clear that lives were in real danger
It might look picturesque in this photograph, but the River Leven in West Dunbartonshire is where Joseph Quillan lost his life