Peasants to Puddles
My Family History - By Nicky Rowberry

The Thorburns

Susanna Johnstone was the younger sister of my 4xgreat grandfather John Johnstone. In June 1805 she married James Thorburn in Crawfordjohn, Lanarkshire, Scotland. Just a couple of months later she gave birth to their first child, John Thorburn. John was born at Greenburn in Crawfordjohn, which is probably where Susanna's parents, Thomas & Mary Johnstone, were living at the time. It was a common custom in those days for women to go to their parents house for the birth of their first child. Susanna's sister Agnes had done the same. For more information on the Johnstones, please click on the following link:

James Thorburn was said to be "of Kirkconnel" at the time of his marriage to Susanna, although subsequent entries in the census returns suggest he was born in Sanquhar. The growing family stayed around Crawfordjohn & Muirkirk for a few years then moved to Doughty Farm, Barr near Girvan. They stayed at Doughty between at least 1817 and 1832; presumably James was farming there, although I have yet to find any documentary evidence of this. By 1841 the family had moved north and now James Thorburn was definitely a farmer at Achateny, a hamlet on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. With James were his wife Susanna and most of his younger children. There is no sign of his youngest daughter Susanna and I've found no mention of her after her baptism so I fear she must have died as an infant. At least one of the grown up Thorburn children had emigrated to Australia by this point. Several servants are listed with the family, one of whom, Anne Rankin was later to marry Thomas Thorburn.

By 1851 James Thorburn was doing very well and was described as "a farmer of 50 acres arable and 1050 pasture". Although the place name on the original census is indistinct, I believe it to be Gallanach in the Small Isles parish near Oban. Still at home and working on the farm were his sons David, Alexander & Isaac and also his daughter Mary and her husband Norman MacRae and also several servants. The table below details the entry from the 1851 census.

Parish of
Small Isles
Ecclesiastical District of
City or Borough of
Town of
Village of
Schedule Name of Street, Place, or Road Name & Surname of each Person who abode in the house, on the Night of the 30th March, 1851Relation to Head of FamilyConditionAgeRank, Profession, or OccupationWhere Born
10 Gallanach James ThorburnHeadMarried77Farmer of 50 acres arable & 1050 pasture. Keeps ? Ag labs & 5 women?Dumfries, Sanquhar
   Susan ThorburnWifeMarried62 Ayrshire Auchinleck
   David ThorburnSonUnmar32Farmer's son employed at homeAyrshire Barr
   Alexander ThorburnSonUnmar27Farmer's son employed at homeAyrshire Barr
   Norman MacraeSon-in-lawMarried27ShepherdInverness, Skye
   Mary MacraeDauMarried36Dairy MaidAyrshire Crawfordjohn
   Murdoch MacraeGrandson 2 Argyll Muck
   Isaac ThorburnSonMarried25Lately MerchantAyrshire Barr
   Catherine ThorburnDau-in-lawMarried27Merchant's wifeArgyll Mull
   James StewartServantUnmar25PloughmanArdnamurchan
   Donald AndersonServantUnmar24WaggonerArdnamurchan
   Mary McDonaldServantUnmar23Kitchen MaidArdnamurchan
   Margaret McLachlanServantUnmar20General ServantArdnamurchan

By 1861 James and Susanna had settled in Tobermory on Mull. All their children had now left home (many of them emigrating), but they had 2 grandchildren living with them, Agnes Thorburn and Murdoch Macrae. James Thorburn died at Portmore in Tobermory, in 1864 at the grand old age of 92. Susanna died 2 years later, also at Portmore. The photo below shows their gravestone erected by their son David Thorburn, in Tobermory churchyard on Mull (many thanks to Keith Thorburn for the photo).

When James died he left a detailed will and an estate valued at over 1200 - a not inconsiderable sum in those days. At the time of his death he was joint tenant, with his son David Thorburn, of the Isle of Muck. He left money to his sons Thomas, David & Ebenezer, his daughter Mary Macrae and her son Murdoch. He refers to his other surviving children, all of whom had emigrated, as being previously provided for and well off. It seems likely therefore that he provided for his other sons when they emigrated.

James Thorburn had been the tenant on Muck having leased the island from 1845, initially as sole tenant, but then as a joint tenant with his son David until he retired in 1859. James & David both moved to Tobermory and his son Ebenezer took over the tenancy of Muck until 1873. Apparently the Thorburns were responsible for draining some of the island and building the stone dykes and possibly the pier at Port Mor. For more detailed information about Muck and the Thorburns time there try the Isle of Muck website.

James & Susanna had 11 children between 1805 and 1831. Of these children, 7 emigrated and the children of the 8th son Ebenezer also subsequently emigrated. They all went to Australia, apart from Thomas Thorburn and his family who settled in Canada.

The eldest son John Thorburn was probably the first to go - arriving in Australia in 1840. He had married Ann or Agnes Cameron the previous year and the couple settled in New South Wales, ultimately in the Jaspers Brush/Shoalhaven area. He was one of the early pioneers of the area and by the time of his death aged 91, was a very much respected member of the community there. The obituary below in the local newspaper gives a very glowing report of his character.

One of John Thorburn's grandsons has proved to be a really interesting character and perhaps a bit of a rogue! Alexander Richard Thorburn's story is long and complicated and has only been uncovered due to the dedication of his grandson Jim, to whom I am indebted for sharing all of this with me. Alexander Richard Thorburn was born in 1885, a few months after his father Alexander Thorburn had succumbed to typhoid. His mother Adelaide was left with three small children. She remarried in 1890 to Arthur Swale Foster, had several more children and the family settled in the Redfern area of Sydney. Alexander first comes to the attention of the police in 1910 when a warrant was issued for his arrest for embezzling - he would have been 25 at this point. After another similar warrant, he disappeared from official records. The family did put a notice of death for him in the newspaper in 1918, claiming he was killed in France. But there was no trace of any Alexander Thorburn in the Australian military records, nor was he listed on the Roll of Honour. So his death was a bit of a mystery.

Around the same time as Alexander Thorburn disappeared from the records, an Alexander Richards started to appear in the records; he was said to be about the same age, but no birth for an Alexander Richards can be found that would match. This Alexander Richards did enlist in the army in 1914 and named a Mrs A.S. Foster as his mother, at the same address as the mother of Alexander Richard Thorburn - none other than Mrs Arthur Swale Foster. This Alexander Richards deserted from the army in 1915 and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Alexander Richards married Mary Kate O'Connor in 1916, although by then they already had one child. Two more children followed, despite Alexander repeatedly abandoning the family. After the youngest child died in 1923, the family story was that Alexander Richards left and was never seen again. So was Alexander Richards the same man as Alexander Richard Thorburn? They were of similar age, the same height and both said to have red or auburn hair. Alexander Richards named Adelaide Foster as his mother, when we know she was the mother of Alexander Richard Thorburn. The evidence was fairly strong, but by no means conclusive. The story may have remained just a theory if it hadn't been for the advent of DNA testing for family historians. In November 2016 Jim got the results of his DNA test through, which showed that he matched another known Thorburn descendant. The match could only have come about if Alexander Richards was indeed Alexander Richard Thorburn. Result!! The secret has been revealed nearly 100 years after Alexander disappeared.

But one question remained - what happened to Alexander? No death has been found under the name of either Alexander Richards or Alexander Thorburn. Did he reinvent himself again with a new identity? For a month or so after the DNA results, this was where things stood - we hoped that perhaps someone would see this information and be able to add the final piece to the jigsaw. I don't think either Jim nor I expected to get an answer so soon though. Within about a month a descendant of Alexander's sister Flora got in touch. She was able to prove that Alexander had changed his name again to Arthur James Harris. Not only that, but it turns out he did die on 9th April 1918 in France while using the name of Harris. His mother probably never knew about his wife and children and his wife may never have known his real name so would have been unable to contact his mother. The two sides of the family are now in touch and some have even met up - a fantastic end to a fascinating bit of detective work! All we need now is a photo of Alexander.

Back to the children of James & Susanna - brothers William & James Thorburn left for Australia together in 1841, the year after their brother, on the ship Argyle bound also for New South Wales. They had both got married the previous year and took their wives with them. James and his wife Helen (or Ellen) McSkimming settled in the Gerringong area and William and his wife Margaret Cameron settled at Burnside, Berry, near his brother John. Sadly I think James died in the 1850s leaving his wife with a young family. William & Margaret had a large family and William died in 1889 at his home in Berry.

Robert Thorburn went to Australia some time in the early 1840s. There he met and married Jessie Catherine McKenzie in 1846. They also settled in the Shoalhaven area and raised a large family before Robert's untimely death in 1869. Luckily this branch of the family left a fine collection of photographs. The photos below show Robert & Catherine in about 1862 and next to it a photo of their 8 children taken about 1872 - both photos reproduced with kind permission of Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

This splendid hand coloured ambrotype photo below is of Robert's eldest daughter Mary Susan Thorburn with her mother - image reproduced with kind permission of Meroogal Collection, Sydney Living Museums, Photograph (c) Rob Little / RLDI.

Of Robert Thorburn's 6 daughters, 4 remained unmarried. The youngest daughter Kennina, known as Tottie, wrote a diary for several years between 1888 and 1896. Tottie's diaries have not only survived, but they have been transcribed - you can read them here Tottie Thorburn's Diaries. They provide a fascinating insight into a young woman's life in late 19th century Australia and also into the expat Scottish community she was part of. Robert's two sons both had successful careers - James Thomas Thorburn became an ordained minister and Robert Taylor Thorburn went first into farming then gold mining. The article below from The Australian Town & County Journal describes Robert junior's career.

Alexander Thorburn married Isabella McKinnon in Scotland in 1852 and 2 years later they set sail for Australia with 2 small children. They lived first in Shoalhaven near his brothers, then settled in the Wyrallah district. Like many of his family he lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1915 aged 92. He & Isabella raised a large family, some of whom can be seen in the fantastic photo below (very kindly supplied by Keith Thorburn) with Alexander seated in the centre. On the back row are Alexander senior's grandaughter Elizabeth, grandson Stanley, grandson Hugh's wife Kate with her daughter Verlie. His eldest son, also Alexander, is standing to the right with his wife Rosa. Seated to the left is grandson Alexander Hugh Thorburn and sitting on the steps are Milton & Frederick.

Isaac Thorburn came to Australia in 1852 having already married Catherine Campbell in 1848 in Tobermory, Mull, Scotland. Isaac & Catherine settled in Shoalhaven, then Burrier and raised a large family together during a long and successful marriage. The image below shows a family photo taken at the time of their diamond wedding anniversary.

The final son to leave Scotland was Thomas Thorburn, but unlike all his other brothers he went to Canada not Australia. I'm not sure of the exact date he left, but it seems to have been after the death of his parents so probably some time in the late 1860s. Thomas had married Anne Rankin in 1842 at Ardnamurchan and they had a very large family. I've not traced all their children yet, but it seems the younger children went with them to Canada, while some at least of the older children remained in Scotland. Certainly the eldest daughter Susanna Thorburn stayed in Scotland as she married and settled in the Oban area. I don't have a photo of Thomas or Anne, but I do have ones of several of their children. The photo below is of their son Thomas born 1854, looking very distinguished. He was a contractor and this was one of his calling cards - many thanks to Sheila & Mike for letting me use it here. The photo below that shows the eldest daughter Susanna with her husband Donald Campbell and the 4 surviving children - many thanks to their great grandson Donald for letting me use the photo. And finally below that is a photo of Thomas's youngest son John Thorburn with his wife Anna and daughters Isabella, Harriet & Hyacinth and son Edward - many thanks to John's granddaughter Norma for letting me use this photo.

The remaining two brothers, Ebenezer and David stayed in Scotland. Ebenezer the youngest son had the tenancy on Muck until it seems he contracted TB in the early 1870s and was forced to give it up. Sadly he succumbed to the disease in 1875 (his wife Isabella having already died of it) leaving a family of small children. Although most of these children subsequently ended up in Australia, it may be that initially they were taken in by their uncle David Thorburn. By the time of Ebenezer's death, David was the only one left in Scotland, all the other siblings having died or emigrated. So it seems likely that he and his wife would have taken in the children, particularly as they had no family of their own. Certainly when David Thorburn died in 1905 he left provision in his will for several of Ebenezer's children.

James Thorburn and Susanna Johnstone had so many children who in turn had so many children, that there must be lots of Thorburn descendants out there. So if any find themselves reading this, do please get in touch, as it would be lovely to hear from some of you.

The family trees below summarise what I know about the above branch of the Thorburn family. It is hopefully reasonably accurate, but if you spot any errors, or any relatives, please feel free to E-mail me

Please click on one of the red links on the tree to move to a different page.

If any of the above is of further interest, please feel free to contact me at:

Nicky Rowberry 2022

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Peasants to Puddles - My Family History. By Nicky Rowberry