Charlotte Lauder – Recovering the Biographies and Bibliographies of Women Using Digitised Resources

The ramifications of the coronavirus lockdown have demonstrated that we are now in an age of no-return when it comes to online research using digital resources. This is not to say that the path of online research is always clear (literally): dirty OCR, obscured digital images, and unclear metadata can impede the process and frustrate even the most experienced researchers. More significantly, access to digitised materials is restricted by the cost of digitisation which is expensive for providers and users: although the British Library’s British Newspaper Archive (BNA) is an incredibly helpful resource for researchers of modern Britain and Ireland, it costs an annual sum of £75 per user for full access to its digitised newspapers. ScotlandsPeople, the digitised records of the National Records of Scotland, has its own eclectic price list, ranging from £1.50 to view a digital image of a birth certificate, to £2.50 for a PDF of a last will and testament.

Digital records particularly marginalise the lives of nineteenth-century women. Women who married changed or adapted their names and on death certificates and censuses their maiden names are not included. In valuation rolls and post office directories the first names of married women are unlikely to be recorded. Women are less likely to have last wills and testaments, and newspapers obituaries or death notices for women appear far less frequently than those of men. These difficulties are exacerbated when researching working-class women, whose biographies are often unknown, who led non-public lives, and whose private papers or archives do not survive. In my research, a significant number of the minor female writers and poets who contributed to Scottish literary magazines between 1870 and 1920 did so anonymously or pseudonymously. Their minor literary reputations meant they were far less likely to be included in anthologies of working-class Scottish literature which were popular in the nineteenth-century. Considering these restrictions, both of price and provenance, how can we effectively use digital resources to recover the biographies and bibliographies of minor women writers of the nineteenth-century?

‘Carrol King’ was a frequent novelist in the People’s Friend and published at least five novels and short stories in the magazine between 1892 and 1897. Searches for ‘Carrol King’ in the BNA revealed that they were a fairly prolific serial novelist in the popular Scottish penny press and were published in the Celtic Monthly (1892), Highland News(1897), Hereford Times (1899), Weekly News (Dundee) (1900), Arbroath Herald (1902), and Buchan Observer(1907). Wider internet searches for Carrol King returned one result in WorldCat.org, a novel, Shipwreck Wood: A Story of “Some who lift, and some who learn”, published by Alexander Gardner of Paisley, and a short story in Chambers’s Journal in 1891 via a digitised index at VictorianFictionResearchGuides.org. Another search for ‘Carrol King’ and ‘Celtic Monthly’ returned a digitised copy of the first volume of the Celtic Monthly (1892-3) by the National Library of Scotland, in which the periodical announced a story from ‘the Celtic pen of Carrol King, whose reputation as a fascinating writer has been long established.’

Further searches in the BNA returned three newspaper articles identifying the person behind ‘Carrol King’. In 1906, Jessie M. King, the ‘lady correspondent’ of the Dundee Evening Telegraph and the household editor of the People’s Friend, reported that the main speaker at the annual gathering of the Congregational Union in Dundee was “Mrs Whyte Simpson, well known by her pen name of ‘Carrol King’, the popular People’s Friend novelist.” A search for the words ‘Whyte’, ‘Simpson’ and ‘Congregational’ in the BNA returned a 1908 article which described the election of Dugald M. Whyte as the chairman of the Congregational Union of South Africa, whose brother was Rev. Charles Whyte, and whose sister “has acquired an extensive literary reputation through her interesting and valuable writings of different subjects, contributed to various periodicals under the nom de plume of Carrol King’. 

Searches for ‘Mrs Whyte Simpson’ revealed that she was a frequent speaker at meetings of the British Women’s Temperance Association in Glasgow. One article described Simpson as a “weekly contributor to the Temperance Leader,” a weekly periodical that is not digitised. In four of the five newspaper articles relating to Simpson and her temperance campaigning, her pseudonym ‘Carrol King’ is mentioned, a result that was only found through searches for ‘Mrs Whyte Simpson’ and not for ‘Carrol King’. The BNA is a good digital resource, but variations in OCR quality means it has limitations. To find ‘Mrs Whyte Simpson’s’ first name I searched for her brothers Dugald M. and Charles Whyte in ScotlandsPeople. The valuation roll for 1885 listed Dugald M. Whyte as proprietor of 76 Henderson Street, Glasgow. An 1871 census record containing both names located both brothers in Glasgow, and listed their birth places as Oban and Appin, Argyllshire, respectively. From there I found the Whyte family, of Granite Lodge, Portnacoish, Appin, headed by Henry Whyte, headmaster of the Common School, his wife Mary, and their seven children, in the 1861 census. The eldest daughters were Catherine, aged 15, and Christina, aged 12, whose ages correlated with a married and publicly active ‘Mrs Whyte Simpson’ in the 1890s. Which of the Whyte sisters married a Simpson, Catherine or Christina?

Christina’s sister, Catriona NicGhille-Bhain Ghrannd / Katherine Whyte Grant (1845-1928), an important Gaelic translator and writer. FRANK WHYTE, HENRY AND MARY: PORTRAITS OF HENRY WHYTE AND MARY MCISAAC 1807-1899 (LAUNCESTON, TASMANIA F. WHYTE, 1994) https://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/selcie/2017/10/20/dusgadh-agus-mosgladh-catriona-nicghille-bhain-ghrannd-dusgadh-na-feinne-1908-calum-mac-pharlain-am-mosgladh-mor-1914-15/picture3/

A search of marriage records gave two results: Christina Whyte who married William Simpson in 1882 in Kelvin, Glasgow, and Catherine Whyte who married Donald Simpson in 1883 in Killearn, Stirlingshire. Which was which? From ‘Mrs Whyte Simpson’s’ association with the B.W.T.A. in Glasgow in the 1900s, I chose the 1882 record. The marriage certificate confirmed Christina’s year of birth, parentage, and place of birth, and listed her residence as her brother’s flat, 76 Henderson Street. Her husband, William, was as a chemist from Glasgow. With this information, ‘Carrol King’ was revealed as the pseudonym of Christina Whyte Simpson, serial novelist and temperance campaigner, born in 1849 to a prominent Argyllshire family.

How much more could the digitised records reveal about Christina’s life? In the 1901 census, Christina W. Simpson was resident at 16 Regent Park Terrace, Govan, a widow living with her seventeen-year old son, William F. Simpson, a draper. Her occupation was ‘Keeps boarders’, and her and her son’s spoken languages were listed as English and Gaelic, confirming the Celtic Monthly’s description of ‘the Celtic pen of ‘Carrol King’’. Her widow status indicated that sometime between 1882 and 1901 her husband William died. A search of the death certificates for Glasgow between these years revealed that William Simpson, a chemist and druggist, died in 1884 of pleuro-pneumonia, just a year after the birth of his son and two years after his marriage to Christina. His certificate was signed by his brother-in-law, Dugald M. Whyte, of 76 Henderson Street. Poignantly, the height of Christina’s literary career coincided with the years following her husband’s death, a period when, without her husband’s pay, she turned to fiction and the popular penny press to support herself and her son.

What became of Christina in her final years? In 1911, the most recent census available from ScotlandsPeople, there were three possible Christina Simpson matches aged between 60 and 62. However, none of these were Christina Whyte Simpson, widow, born in Appin, in 1849, and a Gaelic and English speaker. The valuation rolls were more fruitful: between 1915 and 1925, Christina W. Simpson was the tenant and occupier of 16 Park Regent Terrace, her home in the 1901 census. A final search returned her death certificate. Christina died on 14th December 1932 of senile decay at 7 Granville Street, opposite the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, aged 87 years. Her certificate was signed by her nephew, George Middlemass, whose father, John Middlemass, was the signatory witness at her marriage in 1882.

This biographical recovery of ‘Carrol King’ demonstrates the limits and possibilities of digitisation and digital accessibility. Digital research depends on good quality digital images, legible handwriting, accurate transcriptions, and intuitive search terms and filters. When recovering women about whom nothing is known, it takes several hours (sometimes spread across days and weeks) until enough extraneous information is gleaned. In the case of ‘Carrol King’, although her identity was confirmed as ‘Mrs Whyte Simpson’, her maiden name, ‘Whyte’, was only derived through a newspaper article about her brothers. This research also raises the importance of omission. What aspects of life should or should not be remembered? How does the recovery of biographical information alter our perceptions of women?

Despite the methodological limitations, digital records are essential when recovering the biographies of historical women. When archival and printed materials yield no discoveries, statutory and legal records are often the only sources of information. Efficient and effective research therefore relies on reading around the digitally accessible information. For women writers, the digitisation of newspapers, periodicals, and periodical indexes is key to reveal the bibliographical range of minor-Victorian writers. ‘Carrol King’ was a far more prolific writer beyond her contributions in the People’s Friend: from provincial newspapers to metropolitan periodicals, she was a short story writer, a serial novelist, a newspaper columnist, and a poet, who used her career to support her advocacy for temperance. In my own research, it is significant that Christina was published in two different popular regional journals, the Highland (and Gaelic) Celtic Monthly and the Lowland (and Scottish) People’s Friend. Ultimately, biographical recovery using digital resources demonstrates the richness of women’s lives and careers that is not discernible in non-digitised materials. As is the case for hundreds of other literary women published in the Scottish popular press, their contributions and biographies need recovering.

Charlotte Lauder

Doctoral researcher at University of Strathclyde and National Libraries of Scotland

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