Vera's Ancestors


Vera Milligen was born on 1 December 1912 at an unknown location, and died on 27 July 1987 at Kingsnorth, Ashford, Kent. It has proved difficult to trace Vera's family and the full story may never be known. The simplified pedigree chart below summarises her ancestors to the extent that I have been able to trace them with confidence.

Simplified pedigree chart for Vera and George Milligen [14]

Paternal Ancestors

Vera and George Milligen's paternal grandfather Thomas Milligan (1828-?) is believed to have been born in Ireland in 1828 but was living in Ayr, Ayrshire, Scotland where he married Elizabeth McIlwraith on 30 May 1852.

When the Scotland census was taken in 1861, Thomas was recorded as being a pilot on board the vessel Prince Albert. This is very strange, as the only vessel of that name registered in the area was a 524 ton passenger/cargo paddle steamer owned by John Roxburgh of Glasgow and built by Alexander Stephens & Sons of Kelvinhaugh. According to the records, the vessel had been sold to Garibaldi, an Italian nationalist revolutionary who fought for Italian independence and political unification, in 1860 for use as an army transport in the invasion of Sicily. In all, 98 people were recorded as on board vessels by the Ayr census enumerator.

When the next census was taken in 1871, Thomas was recorded as a 'boatman' based at Troon and living by the harbour. Elizabeth McIlwraith was also from Ayr and worked as a domestic servant prior to her marriage. By the time of the census the couple had three children, John McIlwraith (1855-1947), Elizabeth (1861-?), who was recorded as a patient at the Ayr District Lunatic Asylum in 1901, and Thomasina (1865-?). I have been unable to find any further information about the sisters.

The aerial photograph below, taken in 1927, shows Troon Harbour; the Ailsa Craig Shipyard is to the right. At the bottom left of the image there is a row of 12 cottages, called Titchfield Row, and the Milligens could well have lived in one of them. The site of the cottages is now a parking area for the Glennan Brothers sawmill.

Troon Harbour in 1927 from 'Britain From Above' image SPW019546 [151]

John McIlwraith Milligen (1855-1947)

Vera and George Milligen's father John was born at Ayr in 1855, but the family had moved to Troon by 1861 as Elizabeth Milligen had been born there. Troon was a small port with a natural harbour, until the early 19th century, when the Duke of Portland developed the harbour for the export of coal from mines around Kilmarnock - much of it going to Ireland. Portland had an early horse-drawn wagon-way built to convey coal to the port from the mines. The engineer was William Jessop, who constructed the line with L-shaped plates rather than rails as we know them; Jessop is better known for the construction of canals. The L-plate design had one advantage in that the wagons, which did not have flanged wheels, could be moved on and off the rails. It was the first railway in Scotland authorised by an Act of Parliament; John Milligen's coal would have been moved to the harbour on this twin-tracked line, which also carried limestone, timber and sometimes passengers.

Waggon Way
Painting of the Kilmarnock to Troon Waggon Way [1]

In 1885, by which time John was about 30, the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company had been set up at Troon and primarily built paddle steamers. Nowadays Troon is most famous for its Royal Troon Golf Club, hosting the British Open Championship every seven years. It is still a busy harbour that is home to the Ayr fishing fleet and a P&O ferry service to Ireland.

In 1881, at the age of 26, John joined the Belfast Lodge of the Freemasons. On 13 June 1881, there was an announcement in the 'Belfast Newsletter' that he would marry Catherine Harriet McCracken at the Duncairn Presbyterian Church on 2 August. I can find no record of this marriage having taken place, nor of a matching death record of a Catherine Milligen. However, when John married Marcia Susan Nina Slacke on 4 Sep 1893 in Morpeth, Northumberland, he gave his marital status as 'widowed' which suggests that he actually did marry Catherine.

Cutting from the 'Belfast Newsletter' 7 September 1893 [16]

Marcia was the daughter of William Slacke, a 'clerk in Holy Orders' and Chaplain to the local County Asylum at Morpeth in Northumberland. The Northumberland County Asylum was one of the last of its type to be built and, as a result, was of better construction than some of the earlier examples. It had separate accommodation for males and females, separate infirmaries and a detached chapel. The asylum housed 267 men and 244 women at its peak usage so William Slacke must have had a busy time of it.

Coloured 'birds eye view' plan of Northumberland County Lunatic Asylum, Morpeth, (later St.George's Hospital). [156]

In 1901 the census records John and Marcia living at Drumbeg, a few miles to the south of Belfast, and lists his occupation as Director of Bleaching Co Limited and Coal Importing Company. In 1903 he joined the Solomon's Bank Lodge No. 565 of the Freemasons at Lambeg and is listed as a Coal Merchant. The Lodge records note that he was 'struck off' in 1928 but doesn't say why.

Bleaching Interests

There were a number of companies producing bleaching material for the linen industry in the Belfast area. Given his earlier membership of the Freemasons at Lambeg, it seems quite likely that it was the Lambeg Bleaching, Dyeing & Finishing Co (Ltd). Belfast bleaching companies not only served the local industry, but bleached cotton goods for manufacturers in Manchester and elsewhere. The goods would be taken to the works, treated, and returned to the manufacturers. It was a complex and highly polluting process.

Shipping Interests

John probably leased ships to transport coal at first but concluded that owning his own ships would make the business more profitable. Possibly funds were raised with the help of his business associates or fellow Masons. In any case he and his company owned a number of ships over the years, although never more than two at any one time. There is further information about the Milligen ships elsewhere on the Benjidog website HERE.

The table below summarises the ownership of vessels by John Milligen and his company.

Ship Name Operated From Operated To Disposal
Black Diamond 1887 1888 Sold to Woodside & Workman
Kathleen (1887) 1887 1889 Sold to North Eastern Shipping Co
Eveleen (1891) 1891 1918 Lost with all hands
Kathleen (1902) 1902 1940 Sold to Grand Union Shipping Ltd
Brideen 1919 1926 Sold to Brideen SS Co Ltd
Eveleen (1920) 1920 1957 (with a gap during war years) Broken up
Monaleen 1920 1926 Sold to A. Chester
Ballyhaft 1955 1965 Sold to John Kelly Ltd

In 1908 John Milligen had a coal yard at Abercorn Basin as can be seen from the 'Belfast Street Directory' of that year:

Extract from the 'Belfast Street Directory' of 1908. [120]

The map below shows Abercorn Basin and adjacent coal depots from around the same period. Abercorn Basin is just to the south of the Harland & Wolff shipyard and is skirted by Queen's Road. The old coal-unloading area is now occupied by the SSE Arena Belfast.

Abercorn Basin
Extract from 3rd Edition of the OSNI map [153]

The image below is of a model of one of John Milligen's railway trucks for transporting coal.

Railway Truck
Model of a John Milligen railway truck [1]

Apart from the coal depot, John had premises at Bedford Street in Belfast which, in the late 1800s, was in the centre of the city's lucrative linen trade area. It became run down with the demise of linen manufacture and 'The Troubles', but efforts are being made to rejuvenate and modernise it. Milligen's offices were housed in what was originally the 1904 Scottish Temperance Buildings. You can still see a mosaic for John Milligen & Co in the doorway. The whole building was being converted into The George Best Hotel, but the project ran into financial difficulties and the company went into administration in April 2020. The administrators had not decided how to proceed as of April 2021.

Bedford Street
Milligen premises in Bedford Street Belfast [154]
George Best Hotel
Vision for the George Best Hotel in Bedford Street Belfast [155]

The 1939 telephone directory for Belfast lists John Milligen as a coal importer with addresses at 18 Donegall Square and a goods station at Ballymena. The 1943 Belfast Street Directory has the following entry:

Milligen, John, & Co. Ltd., Steamship Owners and Coal Importers, 18 Donegall Square North; Depot, Abercorn Basin.

The following two images give a good idea of the coal handling area at Abercorn Basin in 1947.

Abercorn Basin
Abercorn Basin in 1947 from 'Britain From Above' image XAW009547 [151]
Abercorn Basin
Abercorn Basin in 1947 from 'Britain From Above' image XAW009555 [151]

These invoices from 1948 show the company had office addresses of 12 Bedford Street and 18 Donegall Square North in Belfast.

Coal invoices from 1948 [1]

Maternal Ancestors

Vera and George's maternal grandmother was Rosa Anna Woods (1861-1939). She was the daughter of George Woods, from the parish of Greys near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. At the time of Rosa's birth he was working as a sawyer in the large sawmills at Eling on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire and on the 1891 census he was described as a 'Woodman - working on own account'.

Rosa appears to have been living in Kensington, possibly as a servant, when she became pregnant. According to the birth certificate, she gave birth to Violet Ethel Harriet Woods on 24 December 1885 at 131 Clarendon Street, Kensington. The house was occupied by several families and the birth was not registered until 23 January 1886 - and then by another of the occupants, who said she was present at the birth - a nurse named Mariam Hewlett. There is no name for a father recorded on Violet's birth certificate, so presumably, she was illegitimate.

In 1887, Rosa married widower Thomas Benton, whose first wife Marion had died shortly after giving birth to a daughter Edith. A witness at the wedding was Harry Cockayne - another of the occupants of 131 Clarendon Street. It seems that the occupants of that property looked after one another! Rosa went to live with Thomas at Teddington but Violet does not seem to have gone with her. Rosa went on to have two children with Thomas. In 1901 she was working as a servant at Eton College and in 1911 she was living with her aged mother in Henley, and probably caring for her. Rosa was recorded as living in Finsbury, North London when the 1939 Register was compiled and died in that year.

The Mysterious Violet Woods

Vera and George's mother was Violet Ethel Harriet Woods (1885-1970) but, apart from her birth certificate, I can find no record of her under the name of Woods or Benton on any census or other public records until 1939 when she appears on the 1939 Register, giving her name as Milligen. She is recorded as married and living at East Ruston Manor - the home of her son George. What happened to her when her mother Rosa married Thomas Benton is not known. I can find no trace of her living with any of the many members of the Woods or Benton families. Was she fostered, or put in a children's home? I have no idea.

So what happened to Violet Woods from the time of her birth until 1939? And how did she meet John Milligen? In 1901 John appeared on the census for Ireland living with Marcia and two domestic servants at Drumbeg, a few miles outside Belfast. I have been unable to find a 1911 census return listing him and it is possible that he was with Violet, somewhere outside the UK, as George had been born in 1910 and Vera would follow in 1912.

A family member told me that John had arranged for Violet to have both children on the continent - presumably to reduce gossip. John was in his mid-fifties when George and Vera were born - Violet was in her mid-twenties. It is clear that John Milligen thought very highly of his second family as they were all well provided for and lived in luxury.

King Edward VII himself set the moral tone of those times by having a large number of mistresses. Members of the upper classes, and those with money, followed suit, so perhaps we should not be too surprised at John Milligen and Violet Woods. Infidelity by a man was not normally seen as sufficient grounds for a divorce in Edwardian times - he would have to desert his wife and fail to maintain his family. This was not the case with infidelity by a woman - that would be grounds enough.

Violet lived most of her, presumably comfortable, later life in an apartment at Melton Court, just opposite South Kensington Station - a very fashionable and expensive district. A three-bedroomed apartment with a 19-year lease, in the same block, recently changed hands for £1.4 million. Violet had a cruise to Madeira with her son George in 1951, and probably other holidays abroad.

Violet spent her last days at the Wellington Hotel, Mount Ephraim, Tunbridge Wells where she died on 4 November 1970. It was just a few miles away from Crowborough, Sussex where Vera was living. She left a modest estate, worth around £124k at 2020 values, to Vera; the value of the estate suggests to me that the Melton Court apartment was rented rather than owned.

Melton Court
Melton Court is the large apartment building bottom right in aerial photo #EPW056676 from 1938 shown below. The Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and Science Museum are just above [151]
Deaths of John and Marcia Milligen

As far as I can discover, John Milligen never divorced Marcia, who had been living at Uxbridge, Middlesex and died in Yorkshire in 1937, still using the surname Milligen. She was buried at Holy Trinity Churchyard, Matlock Bath, with her father and mother. Martha left an estate valued at about £79k at 2020 values. I have passed that church once a fortnight over the last 20 years without giving it a second glance so made a point of having a look around in August 2021 but there was no recognisable gravestone.

Photo of Holy Trinity Churchyard, Matlock Bath, taken August 2021 [130]

John Milligen died at the Great Northern Railway Hotel in Rostrevor on 17 September 1947 and was buried in Belfast. Before 'The Troubles', Rostrevor had been popular with retired British majors and colonels. All three hotels in the town were blown up by the IRA - the GNR Hotel in 1970. When he died, John left an estate worth about £5.6 million at 2020 values. I imagine that both George and Vera received a substantial part of it - unless Vera had been disinherited as a result of circumstances that will be revealed on later pages.

The next page tells the story of Vera's early life.