Grandma’s Family -Isabella Allan BROWNLEES Cameron (1874-1958)


Revised: 4 Oct 2016 and several times in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022.

Getting Started: For the last several years I have been trying to find out about my maternal Grandmother’s family.  She died in August 1958 when I was nine years old and she was almost eighty-four. When I started to work on family history I learned that her five children, my mother and her four brothers, knew only a few facts:

Her name was Isabella Allan Brownlees and she had lived for most of her life, before coming to Canada, with her mother’s parents in or around Cornhill-on-Tweed, in the county of Northumberland in England’s northeast, right next to the Scottish border. She was supposed to be from a large family but her children knew of only three of them:

1)         An older sister who died in the 1930s leaving grandma a legacy, which permitted her to return to England for a visit;

2)         Another sister who had married a man named Berchoff and who lived in Long Island New York, and

3)         A brother Len, whose picture, in his World War One uniform, was in grandma’s photo collection.

Of the others, or how many there were, nothing was known. I knew when Grandma was born because I have her glass christening mug, which is inscribed:

“Isabella Brownlees Born December 3, 1874”.

Etched on one side of the inscription are roses and on the other side thistles, a reference, I assumed, to her combined English and Scottish heritage. She brought this mug from England when she emigrated in 1908 and miraculously it has survived, passing first to my mother and then to me.

IMG_1414.jpgIMG_1416 2.jpg

Of her parent’s names and ages I knew nothing, but family names known to my mother included Allan, Short and Melrose and I guessed that one of them belonged to my great-grandmother.

A query to the General Register Office in Britain, with the facts that I had, yielded the information that Grandma’s parents were Margaret Allan and William Brownlees and that she had been born at 20 George Street in Newcastle-on-Tyne, not in Cornhill-on-Tweed where her grandparents lived.

Background of the Allan and Brownlees Families

Margaret Allan’s father, Peter Allan, was born in 1823 in the small rural community of Bucton, Northumberland , near Holy Island. He worked first as an agricultural labourer and eventually as a farm steward or manager in the community of Wark-on-Tweed, about fourteen miles away. He, his wife Sarah Short, and their family lived in one of the farm cottages, called Branxton Buildings, which were provided for farm employees by the land owner. The farm owner was John Laing and later his son George Laing. The Laings farmed 900 acres in Cornhill and another 450 acres in Tweedmouth (near Berwick-on-Tweed). That family still appears to own this property.

Another section in this website gives information about Peter Allan, his wife Sarah Short and their family.  Peter ALLAN & Sarah SHORT Family of Wark-on-Tweed, Northumberland, England – 1820s to 1950s

Peter Allan (1823-1905)
Sarah (m.s. Short) Allan (1824-1902)  There is no date on this photo but it must have been taken some time in the 1890s. George Gibson seems to have taken over the Coldstream studio owned by John Foster after Mr. Foster died in 1889. It is possible that Sarah is wearing a mourning outfit. If so, the photo may have been taken after the death of her daughter Margaret (Allan) Brownlees in 1897.


SCAN0117 2.jpg

Sarah (m.s. Short) Allan (1824-1902) taken at the A.D.Lewis studio, Newcastle on Tyne. This studio operated from 1873 to 1883, according to Christine Hibbert’s website . So, Sarah would have been in her fifties at the time of this photo.  Previously, I had mis-labelled this photo as that of Jane (m.s. Burn) Brownlees (1812-1885) another of my great-great-grandmothers.


Branxton buildings farm cottages.jpg
The Branxton Buildings farm cottages still exist as shown in this photo from the summer of 2019. The photo was sent to me by Thomas Mathewson in England with whom I have recently been in touch. He is a relative of the John Matthewson family that came to Canada on the same ship as my grandfather Donald Cameron. Both families settled at Woodnorth, Manitoba.
Branxton buildings farm house.jpg
Summer 2019: This is the Branxton Farm House which is near the cottages shown above. I think that by the time of the 1901 census Peter Allan and his family had moved to this house, built in about 1894. Thanks to Thomas Matthewson in England for these photos and other information about the Branxton buildings and village.


William Brownlee’s father, Alexander Brownlee, born in 1813 in Cornhill-on-Tweed, two miles from Wark, was a master carpenter. He probably worked primarily for the same farm owner as Margaret Allan’s father. Cornhill village had a few hundred inhabitants, a railway station, a public house and an inn, a small woolen mill, a sawmill and a stone quarry, each employing only a handful of people. Occupations listed in the 1861 census included domestic servant, groom, agricultural labourer, carpenter, baker, grocer, shoemaker, railway clerk, stationmaster, dressmaker, waiter, police officer, salmon fisherman, shepherd, blacksmith, cooper, gamekeeper, Water Bailiff. As the rural population increased many young men went to nearby cities in search of work. William and his brother James moved to Newcastle-on-Tyne (just under sixty miles from Cornhill) while another brother, David, went to Edinburgh (less than fifty miles from Cornhill) and worked as a butler. Sons George, John, and Alexander, remained in Cornhill, working as carpenters (aka joiners) like their father.

William Brownlees’ mother was Jane Burn (1812-1885). I have very little information about her and what I previously believed to be a photo of her turned out to be that of Sarah (m.s. Short) Allan (1824-1902). Below is a photo of Jane Burn’s grave stone.


Gravestone of Jane (m.s. Burn) (1812-1885) and her husband Alexander Brownlee (1813 -1893) at Cornhill-on-Tweed, Northumberland, photo courtesy of Liza Sentance.


Newcastle-on Tyne is located 103 miles south of Edinburgh and 277 miles north of London. It sits on the north bank of the river Tyne, about eight miles from the North Sea. It was a major centre of shipbuilding and manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. In 1871 was a booming, fast-growing industrial city whose population reached 150,000 by the end of the decade.

William Brownlees’ job in Newcastle in 1874 at the time of my Grandmother’s birth was cart man. This would probably have been a man who made deliveries of assorted goods for local merchants. On a visit to Newcastle in 2013 to see the area where the family lived I was told that he may have been a delivery man for a brewery which was located nearby and which would have sold kegs of beer or ale to local pubs.

In about 1879 he got work as a coppersmith in the Engine Works in neighbouring Gateshead, County Durham, an industrial town, joined to Newcastle by a bridge across the Tyne River. Examination of a map of the city of Gateshead from that time showed that it was dotted with factories such as the Glass Works, the Soap Works, the Rope Works and others. The Engine Works manufactured steam engines for the railways. Later he seems to have worked in the shipyards.

At the Gateshead Public Library there were photos and maps of the streets where the Brownlees family lived, as shown below. It seems that the buildings on these streets and the streets themselves were demolished or completely altered when a motorway was built in the latter part of the 20th century.

frederick street 1963.jpg
Photo from the collection of the Gateshead Public Library, of Frederick Street. The Brownlee family lived on Frederick Street and also on Edith Street which runs parallel to Frederick. Although this photo was taken in 1963 the street would have been the same, and probably the buildings too, when they lived there in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The two streets can be seen, side by side, in the photos below of maps of the area.
Detail of a map of Gateshead in the collection of the Gateshead Public Library. Frederick Street and Edith Street are located at the far right about half way down the photo.
Another detail from a map of Gateshead in the collection of the Gateshead Public Library. Frederick Street and Edith Street are seen in the lower mid-section of this photo, between St. Cuthbert’s Road and Upper Hill Street


[Insert map of Borders area where the family lived, also perhaps Newcastle and Gateshead. Are there any old postcards to include here as well?]

Searching for the Brownlees children:

After finding her parents’ names I started to look for their marriage and then for grandma’s brothers and sisters. In 1871 when Margaret Allan was eighteen and William Brownlees was twenty-five they married at the Carham Parish Church.

Carham Parish Church (St. Cuthbert’s) where Margaret Allan and William Brownlees were married in 1871.

By 1873 they had moved from the small border villages where they were born and raised to the industrial city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, some fifty-eight miles southeast. William’s older brother James Brownlee was already living in Newcastle by the time of the 1871 census, working as a Boiler Smith, and this family connection may have influenced their choice to move to Newcastle.

Brownlee is not an uncommon name in the north of England but few people seemed to put an “s” at the end as Grandma’s father did and this helped me to sort out her brothers and sisters from people who used the singular spelling. Even her father’s brothers and her grandfather used the singular version but when searching, I found that all the children in Grandma’s immediate family had been registered with the plural spelling.

To my surprise, I found thirteen Brownlees children. After much searching of birth, death, marriage, census, and military records this is a summary of what I discovered about them:

  1. James Brownlees (1868- 1876)

James, their first child was born in 1868, three years before his parents’ marriage, when Margaret was only 15. Why did his parents not marry at this time? Did one or both of them not want to, or did one or both sets of parents oppose the marriage, or could they simply not afford to marry? James was living with his mother and her parents at the time of the 1871 census and was called James Allan. When he died of croup at the age of eight, after eight days of illness, in the presence of his aunt Sarah Allan at his grandparents home in Wark-on-Tweed he was known as James Brownlees. He may have lived all his life with them rather than his parents but I have no way to know for certain.

  1. Sarah Jane Brownlees (1873- 1931)


Sarah Jane Brownlees (1873-1931)  The photo is undated but the clothing suggests it was taken in the 1920s.

Sarah Jane, named after both her grandmothers, was born in the second quarter of 1873. She was living with her parents at the time of the 1891 census when she was 17. Her occupation is listed as “general servant”. In 1901 she is working at a house called Ravenshill in Gateshead for Jane Elizabeth Davidson. By the 1911 census when she was 38, she is still working for Jane Elizabeth Davidson, age 64. At this time, Ms Davidson’s  62 year-old sister is also living at the house and there are two other servants. The older sister, the head of the household, is listed as “living on private means” while the younger one is listed as “unemployed”. Ravenshill was a nineteen room house which has now been demolished but was on a street of similar mansions owned by the families of wealthy Gateshead industrialists in the nineteenth century.

Thanks to information provided by Jonathan Shipley, who found my website while researching the Davidsons, I now know that Jane Elizabeth Davidson also owned a large summer home at the coastal resort town of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, about sixteen miles north of Newcastle. It had a population of about 2,000 in 1901. Ms Davidson spent a few months here every year enjoying the beach and the sea air. Jonathan notes that the local newspaper would often report when owners of summer homes arrived to spend the season. Below are post cards from the early twentieth century showing the houses of Windsor Terrace where the Davidsons lived.

The Davidson home where Sarah Jane Brownlee would have worked is the one between the third and fourth chimneys from the right edge of the card. People enjoying the beach are dressed much more formally, in jackets and hats, than beach-goers today. Postcard courtesy of Jonathan Shipley whose family now own the former Davidson home.
Another view of Windsor Terrace and the Davidson home. Although it looks quite isolated in the photo here, the town was almost immediately behind these houses. Postcard courtesy of Jonathan Shipley.
Another view of Windsor Terrace. Postcard courtesy of Jonathan Shipley.

When Jane Elizabeth Davidson died in 1924 her estate was £104,732, a staggering sum, worth £5,387,000 to £45,910,00 in 2015 pounds. Her sister Mary Simms Davidson died in 1929 with an estate valued at £89,044 or £4,866,000 to £36,320,000 in 2015 pounds (according to the website

Because I wondered whether long-serving staff like Sarah Jane Brownlees were given a legacy or pension by one or both of the sisters I purchased access to the Will of the elder, Jane Elizabeth Davidson, who died in 1924, and discovered that Sarah Jane was left an annuity of 150 pounds per annum, to be paid quarterly, starting immediately after Ms Davidson’s death. The senior domestic servant, Julia Jarvis, was given an annuity of 200 pounds per annum. All the other annuities left by Ms Davidson appear to have gone to relatives or close friends. Although these sums sound small by today’s standards, at the time they would have funded a more comfortable retirement than was available to most working women. Recently, I also obtained the will of Mary Simms Davidson, the younger sister who died in 1929 and found that she left Sarah Jane Brownlee an additional annuity of fifty pounds.

Sadly, Sarah Jane did not have long to enjoy her good fortune. She died, of uremia and chronic nephritis, in 1931 at the age of 58. She had retired to Newbiggin-by-the Sea, living in a flat at 36 Meldon Terrace, just a few blocks from where she had lived while working for the Davidsons. She probably came to like the town and made friends while working there in the summers so decided to retire to it instead of closer to her three brothers who still lived in Newcastle and Gateshead.  Newbiggin, with a population of about 4,500 in 1931, was probably more pleasant for a retiree than those large and busy industrial cities.

As she died without a will her estate of just over one thousand pounds was divided equally among her surviving brothers and sisters: William, Leonard, Peter, Thomas, Isabella, and Margaret. William was appointed the administrator. This legacy permitted my Grandmother to make her one return visit to England.


  1. Isabella Allan Brownlees (1874-1958), known to family and friends as “Bella”, was born on December 3, 1874 at the family home at 20 George Street in Newcastle.  By the time of the 1881 census, at age six, she was living with her parents and siblings in Gateshead, County Durham. By the time of the 1891 census, at the age of sixteen, she has left Gateshead, and is living with her maternal grandparents Peter Allan and Sarah Short Allan in Wark-on-Tweed, Northumberland. So far I have not been able to verify the date of her move but hope that I may find some school records, which might establish the time more precisely.

There were good rail connections between Gateshead and Wark but how often did she or her other family members make the fifty-eight mile journey? My impression, from her photo album and her postcard collection, is that she maintained much closer connections with her Allan, Melrose and Short cousins, aunts and uncles in the Wark, Cornhill and Coldstream towns on the English/Scottish border than with her family in Gateshead.

She was still living with her grandparents at the time of the 1901 census. Boarding with an Allan family in the neighbourhood at this time was her future husband, twenty-two-year-old Donald Cameron, who had been born in Berwick-upon-Tweed, only a few miles away. His occupation is listed as “Apprentice Farmer”.

Isabella was still living with her grandfather Peter Allan (1823-1905) at the time of his death in March 1905. That same month Donald Cameron set sail for Canada, never to return to England.

After Peter Allan’s death, his daughter Sarah Allan (1858-1941) and her widowed brother Thomas Allan (1846-1921) continued to live at Branxton Buildings but Isabella moved to Tweedbank House at Kelso, just a few miles away, to work as a maid or housekeeper for one of the Laing family.

In June 1908, age 33, Isabella emigrated to Woodnorth, Manitoba, Canada to marry  Donald Cameron (1878-1941). Information about their life in Canada and more photographs of their family are in two other sections of this website titled:

CAMERON Wedding & other Photos 1930s to 1960s


CAMERON Family of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, England – 1840s to 1950s

The section immediately above covers the Cameron family’s life in Berwick-upon-Tweed with separate sections about Donald Cameron and each of his four siblings.

Isabella made one return trip to England in November 1933. She stayed for five months, visiting numerous family members and friends.

This is the Cunard Line ship “Ascania” that she travelled on to England. The back of this card, below, gives an abstract of the ship’s log for the trip.


At Isabella’s death of a stroke in August 1958 she was survived by five children and fifteen grandchildren. Donald had died from heart disease in 1941.


Isabella Allan Brownlees Cameron (1874-1958)- undated photo but probably from the 1890s. Although it is not possible to know from this photo, she was a red-head, as were her four younger children.  Below is her husband Donald Duncan Cameron (1878-1941).


  1. Alexander Allan Brownlees (1876-1884).

Born in Newcastle. He died at age eight at the family home at 12 Frederick Street in Gateshead of a tumor and inflammation of the brain.

  1. Mary Allan Brownlees (1877-1893)

Born in Newcastle. She died at home, 12 Frederick Street, Gateshead, at the age of 15, of a gastric ulcer.

In the 1891 census I found a Mary Jane Brownlee, age 13, born in Newcastle, who is living at the Northern Counties Institute for the Deaf and Dumb. So far I have not been able to connect her to our family but I can find only one Mary Brownlee (no “s”) born in either Gateshead or Newcastle at the time that would match the age given on the death record.

Also in the 1891 census Mary Allan Brownlees is listed with her parents at 12 Frederick Street. There her birthplace is given as Gateshead as it was in the 1881 census. Is this one person who was recorded in two places in the 1891 census or two people? It is only because of finding from the 1911 census that William Allan Brownlees (1879-1936) was deaf that I started to wonder if his sister might be as well.

  1. William Allan Brownlees (1879-1936)

William was the first child in the family to be born in Gateshead. Like his father he worked as a coppersmith. In 1905 he married Georgina Thomson and they had two children. He died at 13 Byron Terrace in Newcastle-on Tyne, age 57 in 1936. His death was attributed to cardiac failure and acute lobar pneumonia. His daughter Margaret Barber was with him and reported his death.

From the 1911 census I discovered that William was deaf and his wife Georgina, who was born in Dundee, Scotland was “deaf and dumb”. Did he become deaf as the result of an illness when he was a child or young man or was he born deaf? I think the former since he is listed as deaf but not dumb. Persons who are born deaf have difficulty learning to speak while those who become deaf later in life usually are still able to talk. I speculate that he met his wife at a school or other facility for the deaf but have not been able to verify this. In 1911 they also had a boarder who was deaf.

A contact through in 2013 led me to William’s great-great-granddaughter, Catherine who still lives in the Newcastle-on-Tyne area where the family resided over a hundred and forty years ago.

7.    Peter Allan Brownlees (1880-1953)                                                                                                        His birth is recorded in Gateshead in 1880 and he is listed in the 1891 census of Gateshead, at the age of ten, with his family. After that I found no trace in census, death indexes, or in any emigration record that I could check. I have some other speculations related to a possible name change to “Brown” but have to investigate further.

April 11, 2017 – Recent checking of the revealed a death record for a Peter A. Brownless, age 73, in 1953, in Newcastle-on-Tyne.  I ordered a copy of this death certificate and am certain that this is the missing brother, who, at some time unknown, changed the spelling of his name from Brownlees to Brownless. His occupation is listed as a Shipyard Plumber (retired). In the 1901 census I had found a Peter A. Brown, age 20, an apprentice plumber, born in Gateshead, who was boarding with a family in Newcastle. I suspected that this was our Peter who had either chosen to shorten his name to Brown, or whose name had been incorrectly listed by the head of household who supplied information to the census taker, or was changed by a mistake made by the census-taker himself. The reason I thought it was him was, first, because of the middle initial “A.”, and then by the fact that the only “Peter Brown”, born in Gateshead, who would be age 20 in the 1901 census, was a boy who had died there as an infant.

Peter died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 73. Further checking of marriage records from 1900 through 1953, searching for  the name Peter Brownless, found nothing so he may never have married.

  1. James Allan Brownlees (1883-1883)                                                                                         This little fellow was born in February 1883 and died at the age of one month, of diphtheria, at home, 12 Frederick Street, Gateshead.
  1. Leonard Allan Brownlees (1884- 1944)

He was another long-time mystery. From the General Register Office in England I purchased his birth record which states he was born 23 February 1884 in Gateshead, County Durham. In the 1891 census, at age seven he is living with his family in Gateshead. In the 1901 census when he would be 17 he is no longer living with the family.

But, there is a Leonard “Brawnlee”, age 18 in Elvet prison, County Durham, who could be him. This same person appears to be in jail still in 1911 but in Dartmoor in southern England, with the occupation of baker.

However, as Leonard is the brother whose picture, in World War I uniform, was in Grandma’s photo collection I decided to check WWI military records. At first I could not find him.

SCAN0101 2.jpg

Leonard Allan Brownlees/Brownless (1884-1944)

In case he had died in the War I checked the Commonwealth War Graves site but did not find him. A “Leonard Elliot Brownlee” (the same age as our Leonard) who died in the war is listed but by checking birth and marriage records I determined that this was not our relative.

Finally, I checked the British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards and found a “Leonard Brownless” who served in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Regimental #22646) Rank Lance/Sgt who was awarded the Victory and British medals. He enlisted on 12 May 1915 and was discharged on 20 Feb 1919. The reason that this one was a possibility, as well as the similarity of the name, is that in the picture I have of him he seems to have two or three stripes on the arm of his uniform. There is also a crown on the sleeve above the stripes that is the same insignia that I found online in a picture of another man who was in that regiment. Unfortunately, the medal records do not include any personal information like home address or next of kin.

Following up on this variant of the surname, BrownLESS instead of BrownLEES, I was able to determine that, indeed, he had changed the spelling. In August 2016 I ordered marriage and death certificates from the British GRO. They revealed that on June 28th, 1914 Leonard Allen Brownless of 12 Melbourne Street, Newcastle, a bachelor aged 29, married Cecilia Beighet, age 20 of 43 City Row, Newcastle. His father is listed as William Brownless (deceased), a Coppersmith, confirming that this is Grandma’s brother Leonard. (A check of the English BMD records revealed that no birth for a Leonard A Brownless was registered in 1884 the year that Leonard A. Brownlees was registered.) At the time of his marriage Leonard was a “Holder-up”, defined as “One who holds a sledge or anvil against a rivet which is being headed”, another industrial job, possibly in the busy local shipyards.

Leonard and Cecilia had four daughters and two sons. Cecelia, the eldest, married Joseph Dunn in 1935 and it was she who provided the information of her father’s death on December 26, 1944. At the time of his death of Mitral (heart) disease his occupation was Fire Watcher, a night time job in British cities during the Second World War when it was necessary to watch for and report any fires caused by German bombing raids.

Note: In late 2017 a granddaughter of Leonard’s contacted me. She found my website while doing her own family history research. She confirmed that Leonard had been in prison several times prior to World War I. His first offence was stealing lemonade as a young boy. Perhaps the death of his mother while he was just a child led to some of his problems. In spite of the circumstances which led to his times in prison he seems to have been regarded fondly by two sisters who named their sons Leonard, presumably after him.


  1. Margaret Allan Brownlees (1887- 1939)  She was born in Gateshead on April 21, 1887, was living with her parents at the time of the 1891 census, then in 1901, with her father and three siblings. By the time of the 1911 census her father was dead and, at age 24, she was living at 73 Park Road, Newcastle-on-Tyne, working as a domestic servant, living with the family of Selam G. Levinstein, whose occupation was jeweller, furniture, and draper.
Margaret (m.s. Brownlees) Berchoff (1887-1939). This photo was probably taken in the 1930s. On the back it says, “Your sister Margaret”.

On Nov 7, 1913 she left the U.K. from Glasgow aboard the “Grampian” bound for Quebec City. In 1915 she is living in Toronto where she married Harry Berchoff on July 14th. On Dec 15, 1915 she crossed into the United States through Michigan. Harry, who had joined the Canadian Army on July 22, 1915, just a week after their marriage, appears to have left the Army later that year and moved to New York where his parents were living. They were Jews who had fled Russia for England in the 1890s and then moved on to the United States early in the 1900s.

By the time of her death in 1939, from heart disease, Margaret and Harry were living in Long Island and had four children: Raymond, Grace, Warren, and William Berchoff. Another child, Davis Berchoff, died in 1920, age 2 or 3. She may have lost touch with her sister in Canada by 1939. In any case, her husband never passed on the news of her death. Not knowing that Margaret was long dead, Grandma’s children tried to inform her of their mother’s death in 1958, using the last address they had which was: 102 Randall Avenue, Nassau County, Long Island, New York. I later discovered that the address should have included the name of the town “Elmont”. In any case, the family had moved by this time and Harry had re-married.

In 1999, I was going through old papers and photographs that had belonged to my mother and found labelled photographs of Margaret’s four children which are reproduced below. I immediately noticed that in my earlier searches I had misspelled her married name as “Birchoff”. With the correct spelling of their surname I started searching in a Long Island telephone directory online and found two Berchoffs. I decided to call the one named William since that was a family name. The man I spoke to turned out to be Margaret and Harry’s grandson and my second cousin. He put me in touch with a female cousin, Joyce Jobes, daughter of Margaret’s son Raymond Berchoff, from whom I learned a lot about Margaret and her life in the U.S.

In 2002, I visited New York, and met Joyce Jobes who also arranged for me to meet her sister, their mother, their children, and several other cousins including the one I had first spoken to by phone.

Margaret’s daughter Grace Berchoff (1916-1944).
SCAN0604 2.jpg
Margaret’s son Raymond Berchoff (1919-1961), age 14, taken in 1933.
Margaret’s son Warren Berchoff (1921-2005), age 12, taken in 1933.
SCAN0606 2.jpg
Margaret’s son William Berchoff (1925-2017), age 9, taken in 1933.



  1. Phillis Allan Brownlees (1889-1929) She was born on April 12, 1889 in Gateshead, County Durham. She is with her parents in the 1891 Census, and with her father in 1901. Her mother died in 1897 when she was only eight and her father died in 1908 when she was nineteen.

Although I have no picture of Phillis, among my grandmother’s postcards, are two that, at age 17, she sent from Gateshead on May 22, 1906, to her sister Bella, and to her Aunt Sarah Allan, after a visit to them. At the time, Phyllis was living at 21 Edith Street, Gateshead, the home where her father died two years later.

“Dear Sister I am home at last. I have had very bad weather when I was down but it will be better the next time I come. I hope Tom will be down soon. Father has a cold. He says you have to come up here for a week next month. Will be pleased to see you. Love to Aunt and you from Phyllis. 21 Edith Gateshead.”

Post card Phillis sent to her sister Bella Brownlees in May 1906 when Bella was living and working at Tweedbank House, Kelso, just a few miles from Wark and Cornhill.
Front of the post card sent by Phyllis to her sister Bella Brownlees on May 22, 1906.


This card shows the common practice of writing the message upside down, perhaps an attempt to keep the letter-carrier or postal worker from reading it. Addressed to “Miss Allan, Branxton Buildings, Branxton, postmarked Gateshead, 10 PM May 22, 1906. “Dear Aunt. I got home safe last night. You will think it very unkind for not to send you a PPC from Cornhill so I have sent you a one now. Tell Willie I am asking after him. from Phillis. 21 Edith St. Gateshead.” Willie would be her cousin William Lockie, age 25, who also lived at Wark/Cornhill. He was the son of her Aunt Isabella (m.s. Allan) Bolton.
Picture on Phillis’s postcard to her Aunt, May 22, 1906. “St Nicholas Cathedral Newcastle-on-Tyne.”


Tracing Phillis

I had difficulty determining what happened to Phillis after these postcards from 1906 so have recorded my research trail below. It gives a sense of the twists and turns a genealogical search can take.

It seemed likely that Phillis continued to live at home until her father’s death on July 5, 1908 but I was uncertain of her fate after that time. A young girl from a working class family would not have been able to afford to rent her own place but if she worked as a domestic servant like her sisters she may have been able to “live in” the place where she worked. I was unable to find her in the 1911 census (the most recent date which has been released) or in any of the marriage or death records that I could check from 1908 onward.

A search of birth records, however, revealed that on October 22, 1909 Phyllis Brownless, a domestic servant of Gateshead, gave birth to a girl, also named Phyllis, at High Team, Gateshead which was the Gateshead Workhouse and Infirmary. Informant of the birth was James Scott, manager of the workhouse. No father is listed on the record. This record seems to be the first of many where the Brownlees children’s names are incorrectly recorded as Brownless. The spelling of her first name varies between Phillis and Phyllis, on records and even on her two hand written postcards shown above.

That this child belongs to our Phillis seems to be confirmed by the 1911 census which lists the child Phyllis Mary Brownlees, age one, as a visitor at the home of Elizabeth Winter of 20 Frederick Street, Gateshead, County Durham.

Elizabeth Winter of 20 Frederick Street was listed as a niece of Phyllis’s father William Brownlees (1846-1908) on his death record. She was the informant and was with him at the time of his death. It seems probable that Elizabeth Winter assisted Phyllis, who must have been her cousin, by caring for baby Phyllis while her mother was at work.

In the next few years two more children were born to a woman named Phyllis Brownlees but there is not enough information on the birth records to be absolutely certain that it is my grandmother’s sister. The details are as follows:

Phyllis Brownlees  who worked as a domestic servant at 2 Rockcliff, Whitely, Tynemouth had a son named Leonard Brownlees on October 22, 1913, at 50 Preston Road, Tynemouth which is the address of the Workhouse and Infirmary. On the birth certificate no name is given for the father.

Another son, Lawrence Brownlees, was born to Phyllis Brownlees, machinist of 72 Tulloch Street, Newcastle, on March 26, 1918, at 416 Westgate Road, Newcastle, the Workhouse Infirmary. World War One may have given Phillis the opportunity or the obligation to switch from domestic service to war-related work as a machinist.

Ian Brownless of the Newcastle/Gateshead area with whom I was in contact via e-mail a number of years ago believed that Phyllis (born 1889) was his great-grandmother. He had been told that she died in a fire, date unknown. He said the family name was changed from Brownlees to Brownless through a clerical error. The daughter Phyllis Brownlees/Brownless (1909-1972) was Ian’s grandmother.

April 11, 2017:   Recent discussions by e-mail with Ian Brownless in England indicated that he had been unable to locate any confirming information about the fire mentioned earlier as a possible cause of Phillis’s death. With that in mind, and since I had recently found that two of her brothers had changed their names from Brownlees to Brownless, I re-checked the website and found a listing for a Phyllis Brownless, age 40, who died in Calne, Wiltshire in 1929. I ordered a copy of the death certificate which arrived a few days ago. It stated that on September 16, 1929, Phyllis Brownless, age 40 years,  spinster, Servant (domestic), daughter of William Brownless, a coppersmith died at 57 North Street, Calne.

The age of forty was correct and despite the slight spelling change from “Phillis Brownlees”, on her birth record, to “Phyllis Brownless”, on the death record I am pretty certain that this is grandma’s sister because the death record so clearly indicates that her father was  “William Brownless, a coppersmith”. It seems highly unlikely that there could be two women of the same age, with almost identical names, having fathers named William who were coppersmiths. [The postcards pictured above, sent on the same day, 22 May 1906, show that she used both spellings, Phyllis and Phillis.]

At the time of her death, listed as “Carcinoma of Cervic Uteri”, Phillis was working at the home of Thomas (age 72) and Sarah (age 70) Hillier in Calne, Wiltshire, a village of about 3,500 people, twenty miles from Bath. “T. Hillier” of 57 North Street Calne was listed as “present at the death” and was the “informant of death” on the death certificate. The fact that he knew the name and occupation of her father indicates that Phyllis must have given the Hilliers some information about her family.

How Phillis came to be working so far south and away from most other family members, except her brother Tom who was living eighty miles away in London, remains a mystery. Possibly, her employers had advertised for a single woman who could “live in” which meant that she had to leave her children  in the Gateshead/Newcastle area in the care of relatives. It seems that Elizabeth Winter, the niece who was present at the death of Phillis’s father in 1908, and Elizabeth Winter’s daughter, Sarah Martin, continued to care for her children after Phyllis’s early death.

Summer 2018: In June Ian Brownless contacted me to say that he had reviewed the information I posted about Phillis on this website and told me that although his grandmother Phyllis Brownless (1909-1972) had been raised with a brother Lawrence Brownless (1918-1966) he had never heard of a brother named Leonard. He had, however, some years ago been in touch with another Brownlees researcher, Liza Sentance, whose father Leonard Brownlees was born in 1913 in Tynemouth.

Given the popularity of the name Leonard in my grandmother’s family – she had a great-grandfather, an uncle, a brother, a son and at least three cousins named Leonard – I thought it would be worth checking further.  Ian gave me Liza’s email and I contacted her to see if she could shed some light on this puzzle. I invited her to check out the information about my Brownlees family that I had posted on this website.

Shortly after she received my email in July 2018 Liza replied and provided the story she had learned about her father’s birth. She has given me permission to tell her Dad’s story and to post some pictures of him. This is an excerpt from her e-mail:

“Good Morning Pam,  Your email came as quite a surprise because suddenly I had a family history.

I am the daughter of a Leonard Brownlees whose mother was Phillis with no known father on his birth certificate. However he was not left with the family you mention. My father did not know about his birth mother until he was in his late 40’s and needed a passport. The woman he thought was his mother and who I believed to be my grandmother then gave him his birth certificate.

Leonard was ‘given’ to George and Lizzie Brown who brought him up as their own child. They lived in The Felling and Windy Nook prior to WW1. George enlisted and fought on the Somme and at Paschendale and suffered from gas inhalation. In the early 1920’s he emigrated to Canada and later Lizzie followed him with Leonard. On the ship’s record she lists him as her foster child. Unfortunately when the depression led to men losing their jobs and Canada halving the war pensions of ex pats they could no longer support themselves and were deported, returning to the UK. At 17 my father joined the army and remained until he was medically discharged after WW2. In 1941 he married Lucy Deag from Bedford and they had three children… Leonard died as the result of a heart attack in 1979.

What startled me when I looked at your family history was the resemblance between my father and Thomas, it is really strong… My father cared for Lizzie all her life and regarded her as his mother. My mother gave me his birth certificate after he died with the little information he had been given which was that Lizzie answered an advert to give him a home. She also told him that she had been told by Phillis that his father was a doctor… Lizzie had no children of her own so Leonard grew up as an only child… I think that Phillis would have been proud of Leonard and his family…  [all of whom have had successful careers] … By giving up her son to George and Lizzie she gave him and his descendants the best possible opportunities in life. “

Upon hearing her father’s story I suggested to Liza that she might like to consider taking an autosomal DNA test at FamilyTreeDNA where I and several other cousins had tested. She agreed that this would confirm what we believed – that our grandmothers had been sisters and we were second cousins. The results of her DNA test came back in September and confirmed that she was a second cousin to me, my sister and six more of my cousins. What a satisfying end to a search that initially had so many uncertainties and dead-ends.


Leonard Brownlees/Brown (1913-1979). Liza says, “Dad as a baby, looking totally startled, and I just love the boots. It was taken by J Bambridge, 197 High St., Gateshead. There is no date on it but my guess is that he is less than a year old.” (Photo courtesy of Lisa Sentance.)


Leonard Brownlees/Brown (1913-1979). Liza notes,”Dad taken during the first WW by an itinerant photographer. I remember Lizzie telling me that she just sat Dad on a chair with no time to dress him up nor wash his face. On the back is a message to his ‘daddy’ who was fighting in France. George carried this with him throughout the war. Also on the back is an address where they were living: No 1 Roland’s cottages, Windy Nook, Nr Gateshead, England. Families would do this to help identify relatives as dog tags were not issued to British soldiers until after the Battle of the Somme in 1916.” (Photo courtesy of Lisa Sentance)
Leonard Brownlees/Brown (1913-1979) and his wife Lucy Deag, taken in the early 1940s. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Sentance.)



  1. Thomas Allan Brownlees (1891-1960) He was born on March 16, 1891 in Gateshead. At the time of the 1901 census he was age nine, still living at 12 Frederick Street with his father and siblings, William age 22, Margaret 13 and Phyllis 11.

Below is a post card that, at age 16, he sent to his sister Isabella, presumably after a visit to her, his aunt and other relatives in Wark/Cornhill in August 1907.

Post card sent to Isabella Brownlees at Branxton Buildings from her brother Tom on August 25, 1907, postmarked Gateshead. Picture of “West Lodge, Saltwell Park, Gateshead”.


Postcard to “Miss I Brownlees, Branxton Buildings, Branxton On-Tweed”, postmarked Gateshead 11:30 PM August 25, 1907. “Kind Regards. We arrived here exactly 12 oclock Saturady [sic] We met Tommy and George Curry of Gateshead at Mindrum Station so we had company all the way to the High Level Brigg. Love to all. Tom” At that time Mindrum station, located near Cornhill, served to link small villages in northern Northumberland to Alnwick and thus connect to the main railway which could then take people on to larger centres like Newcastle & Gateshead.
By the 1911 census, with both parents dead, Tom, age 20, is living and working as a porter at the Metropole Hotel in Newcastle. Four years later, in 1915, at the time of his enlistment in the army he was living in Middlesboro in Yorkshire and working in a munitions factory as a “shell boxer”. He probably worked for the company Dorman Long that produced millions of shells for the war effort. [From info on website ] As the war continued there were huge numbers of casualties and men who were working in war-related industries like munitions were replaced by women workers so as many men as possible could be sent to the Front. Tom’s civilian profession is listed as “Waiter”. His next-of-kin was listed as his brother William Brownlees.

He joined the Royal Regiment of Artillery York and Lancashire Regiment. His enlistment record gives his age as 24 years and nine months. He was a slight young man; his height is 5ft, 6 inches, his chest when expanded is 32 inches, and his weight is 119 pounds. He spent several months in hospital during the war – first from a hernia and then in October 1918, from a shrapnel wound in the ear.

After the War he moved to London. He sent Grandma this photo of himself labelled, “Relaxing in Hyde Park 1924”.

Tom Brownlees (1891-1960) “Relaxing in Hyde Park 1924”.


Tom Brownlees (1891-1960). On the back of this snapshot he has written, “Not quite so robust at 36”. So, it must have been taken in 1927.

In 1929 when he married Ada Day (1900-1980) he was working as a waiter at a hotel in London and living at 20 Lancaster Gate, Paddington, near Hyde Park. Ada lived on the same street. In 2013 while vacationing in London I went to 20 Lancaster Gate and took the photo below. Number 20 appeared to be a house or flats.


Tom and Ada later moved to Peterboro, Northamptonshire where Ada’s family lived. He died in 1960 and she in 1980. The cause of his death was Myocardial infarction, coronary sclerosis, carcinoma of the pancreas with secondaries in the liver and skin. His widow Ada Brownlees of 36 Celta Road Woodston Peterborough was the informant of the death.

As far as I can determine they had no children.

The photo below is undated but on the back Tom has written to say that his wife is the one with her hand on his shoulder. I think that the other woman is probably Ada’s twin sister Annie Day who is listed as a witness at their wedding. The boy may be a younger brother of the sisters. If the photo was taken at the time of Tom and Ada’s wedding the date would be 1929 or it could be in 1931 when Tom turned forty.


Tom Brownlees has written on the back of the above photo, “At the same age. The wife has her arm on my shoulder. What a group?”



On the back of this photo of Tom Brownlees (1891-1960) it says, “As I am, fair, fat and forty.” He turned 40 in 1931.

  1. David Allan Brownlees (1894-1896) The last child in the family, born in Gateshead, died at the family home, age two, of bronco pneumonia and rachitis (rickets).


A Note on Names:  Both my great-grandfather William Brownlees (1846-1908) and his brother James Brownlee (1840- 1905) married women named Margaret Allan. James’ wife (1845-1893) was the daughter of a Stationer named John Allan in Newcastle while William’s wife (1853-1897) was the daughter of Peter Allan, a farm steward in Wark-on-Tweed. Both families had several children who were given the same names – girls Mary, Margaret, Jane, Phyllis and son James. With the help of census, birth, marriage and death records I think have been able to sort them out. William and his family lived in Newcastle for a few years but moved to Gateshead in about 1879 and lived there until their deaths. James and his family were living in Newcastle, in the Elswick district in 1871 and then in Byker for each census from 1881 through 1901.

Death of Grandma’s Parents

On June 2, 1897 , Grandma’s mother, Margaret Brownlees, age 44, died at her home in Gateshead of carcinoma of the stomach. Her eight surviving children were Sarah Jane 24, Isabella 22, William 18, Peter 17, Leonard 13, Margaret 10, Phillis 8, and Thomas, 6 years old.  Although I have pictures of four of her sisters there is no photo of Margaret (m.s. Allan) Brownlees (1853-1897) in Grandma’s collection. Perhaps she never had a photograph taken.

On July 5, 1908, less than three weeks after my Grandma arrived in Canada, her father William Brownlees, age 61, died of cerebral apoplexy at 21 Edith Street, Gateshead. His niece Elizabeth Winter of 20 Frederick Street, Gateshead was with him. (I have not been able to figure out where Elizabeth Winter fits into the family tree; she may have been a great-niece rather than a niece.)

William Brownlees (1846-1908), father of my grandmother and her twelve siblings. Taken by J. Hunter, Photographer, 76 Blenheim St., Newcastle- on-Tyne.