The Story of William Mitchell 1855-1939

William Mitchell circa 1890

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This family history was compiled by Bill Mitchell and forms part of the Donegal Genealogy Resources Website

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William Mitchell

Baptised 30th December 1855, Donaghmore, Co Donegal  


In February 1903, for some reason, presently unknown, my grandfather William Mitchell, then living in Edinburgh requested a copy of his baptismal record. It states;


“I hereby certify that William Mitchell of Edinburgh formerly of Castlefin, Co Donegal, Ireland, was baptised in the Parish of Donaghmore in the Diocese of Derry on the 30th of December 1855 according to the Baptismal Records of Said Parish.

Given under my hand this 14th Day of February 1903 – James Green Rector of Donaghmore & Monellan”


This along with his ticket to an Orange Ball in Donaghmore in 1885 and a letter written to him in 1891, all of which had been found by a cousin following the death of his father, were the starting point of my search for our Irish roots. The contents of the letter and also the ticket to the Orange Ball did make me think it may be an interesting journey.


Despite much searching and finding a number of Mitchells within the area I have to date been unable to make any direct link between them and my grandfather. There are Mitchells mentioned in the 1857 Griffiths Valuation but none that can be directly linked. On his marriage certificate (1897 in Edinburgh) he give his parents names as John Mitchell (deceased) and Annie Mitchell (maiden name Mitchell). I have, with assistance from a researcher based in Ireland found only one Mitchell/Mitchell wedding in and around an appropriate time which was between John Mitchell and Mary Ann Mitchell and took place in Clough Meeting House, Loughinisland, Co Down on 30th May 1849. Could this be his parents and my Great Grandparents?


There is in fact very limited information about William Mitchell’s time in Ireland although I know he was still in the Donaghmore area in 1885 as we have the ticket for the Organge Ball. It states;


“An Orange Ball and Concert will be held in Donaghmore Church, Schoolroom on Thursday 29th January 1885. Chairs to be taken at 8 o’clock P.M. Several Clergymen will Address the Meeting. STEWARDS – William Oliphant, Wm Mitchell, R Cathermon? R Campbell”


From this it can be safely assumed that he was a supporter of and involved with the Orange Lodge, and family stories do say that he had to make a hasty exit from Ireland because of this connection. It is also said that the house he lived in was burnt out but again I have been unable to find any evidence to substantiate these stories.


Whatever the reason for his leaving of Ireland it took place sometime between the Orange Ball and Concert in 1885 and 1890 when he was appointed as the Church Officer of St Matthew’s Parish Church in Edinburgh, a position he was to hold until 1933. He also appears on the 1891 Census as a Gardner/Domestic Servant residing at Goshen House, Jordan Lane, Edinburgh which was owned by an Edinburgh solicitor Robert Fleming Johnston.


Interestingly Robert Fleming Johnston’s wife was an Isabella Ann Catherine Irving whose father was Rev Charles Irving, Rector of the Parish Church at Donaghmore, where Robert and Isabella were married on the 22nd May 1872. So my grandfather had become a gardener and domestic servant at the house in Edinburgh of the minister’s daughter from the same Parish in County Donegal.  


The Rev Charles Irving was married to Margaret Irving and they had six children Charles John, who married Katherine Evelyn Austen, Edward Douglas who died in 1866, William Gore, Margarette Charlotte, Emily Catherine, who married Charles Joseph Johnston of Tullybrook, Co  Donegal and Isabella Ann Catherine, mentioned above. (Sources – The Book of the Irvings ISBN 0 946280 20 7 & Derry Clergy and Parishes Rev James B Leslie 1937)


As mentioned above we found a letter addressed to my grandfather dated 19th January 1891 from Mrs K E Irving (the Katherine Evelyn Austen who married Charles John first son of the Rev Charles Irving). It was addressed to “Dear Willie” and thanked him for the loan of £20 and agreeing to pay it back after a period of 5 months with interest. She also asked after the health of Mrs Johnston of Tullybrook and also of Annie and Lizzie. See transcription of the letter


The sum of £20 was a not inconsiderate sum of money in 1891 for a man who had not long arrived in Scotland, penniless, if family stories are to be believed and who was working as a gardener/domestic servant and church officer. Where would he have got that sum of money from and why would someone from the Irving family think of approaching him for a loan, he was after all a servant in the house of her sister-in-law.


Returning to the Johnston’s of Goshen House, Robert and Isabella had three children Constance (Nonie) born in 1873, Reginald Fleming in 1874 and Charles Edward in 1876. Robert was a successful lawyer, a staunch member of the Conservative Club in Edinburgh, was closely involved in the affairs of the local Episcopal Church and also a founder member of Mortonhall Golf Club.


In November of 1898 their first son Reginald Fleming Johnston set sail for Hong Kong having been accepted for a Hong Kong Cadetship. He eventually became the Tutor to the Last Emperor of China and was played by Peter O’Toole in the film “The Last Emperor”. More detailed information concerning his life can be found in the book Reginald Johnston by Shiona Airlie (ISBN 1-901663-49-3).


Robert and Isabella Johnston moved from Goshen House to 17, Grosvenor Street a fashionable area of Edinburgh, and it was in this house on the 1st of December 1897 that my grandfather married Jane Cruickshank, a domestic servant from Cairnie in Aberdeenshire.


William Mitchell & his wife Jane Cruickshank

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Robert Johnston died in 1902 and it was subsequently discovered that in the words of Shiona Airlie’s book he died owing almost £29,000 in debts. He had built up a minor property empire within the city but unfortunately had used his clients’ money to pay for the properties he purchased. Isabella continued to live in rented accommodation and somehow managed to spend money she did not possess until her own death in 1916. There is evidence, as noted in both Shiona Airlie’s book and another book 'Tutor to the Dragon Emperor' by Raymond Lamont-Brown, that the son Reginald did send money from China  to support his mother, on a semi regular basis.


My grandfather started married live in Morningside, Edinburgh in a house called The Vineyards. I have a feeling this may have been one of Robert Johnston’s properties as I can’t see a Church Officer having the income to live in such a grand style as the area would dictate. Over the next 12 years his wife gave birth to six boys, one of whom died when he was 5 years old. Interestngly, given the connection with the Irving family, the first son was given the name of Edward Irving Mitchell.


As previously mentioned he remained the Church Officer at St Matthew’s Parish Church, now Morningside Parish Church, until ill health forced him to retire in 1933 and he died on the 4th May 1939 in Edinburgh. His extended family of grandchildren, gr grandchildren and gr gr grandchildren are now spread far and wide in countries such as America, Canada, New Zealand, The Channel Islands, England, France and Scotland, but none remain in Ireland where he was baptised some 155 years ago.


My time researching has thrown up more questions than answers and many of these will I feel remain unanswered – such as the connections between the Mitchell, Irving and Johnston families, did my grandfather have any brothers or sisters, why, when and how did he get to Scotland, and many more. If anyone out there has any information concerning any of the families mentioned I would be pleased to hear from them.


Further Reading


Mitchell Births, Donaghmore


1901 & 1911 Mitchell Census Returns, Donaghmore


The Johnston's of Tullybrook, Co Donegal



BACK to Donaghmore

Lindel Buckley

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