The Neilson Doctors

By Christopher Bretz and Fergus Neilson


William Cunningham

William Cunningham Neilson (1813-1862), eldest son of landowner Nathaniel Neilson, began a family line of three generations of medical doctors, each of which served in the British military in foreign lands. He was born on January 13th, 1813 at Springfield House, near Castle Douglas in Kirkcudbrightshire. His father was a wealthy gentleman who had made his fortune in overseas in Jamaica. His mother was from Wigtownshire and descended from the well known Agnew family. The family had eleven children in all, but sadly many of William's brothers and sisters would die quite young.

William Cunningham studied to become a physician at the University of Edinburgh and would probably go there occasionally between 1827-1833 (age 14-20) for testing. Most of actual university study of that era was conducted at home and only rarely required a presence at the school. He graduated in 1833. We are still trying to obtain his records for more information. It was very likely his father's wealth which made this education possible.

To the left is a mid-19th century surgeon's toolkit. This one is of American civil war design, but it largely looked the similar to English ones.

From around this time there is a letter from a very old and weak Nathaniel to his half-brother John in Canada inquiring as to job prospects for his son William. Dated July 29th, 1834 it reads;

"Our Son William has been studying Physic for these six years past in Edinburgh. About eighteen months ago he took out a Diploma as a Surgeon. He is at present in England. May I beg the favour of you to inform me if there is any encouragement for a young man of his profession in Canada. I am much against his going to the West Indies, the only place I have any interest in. Nathaniel Neilson.”

Clearly there was some debate between father and son as to where his future lay. However, by mid 1834 William Cunningham, now age 21, had journeyed to the East Indies. It is not known why he chose such a far away land to practice his profession. Perhaps he felt the calling after tales of his own father earning his fortune in far away lands. Perhaps he was stirred by the Empire's need of men to defend the realm. We might never know, but his choice would ever after affect the Neilson family.

India at the time was administrated by the East India Company, a centuries old mercantile institution. If a citizen of the Empire wanted to do anything in the subcontinent, it was generally through them. Tales of life in India fascinated the British public, as well as exotic Indian scenes, such as this drawing of an elephant fight, which appeared in books published in London in the 1820s. Many entrepreneurs went seeking their fortunes in the distant East Indies. Monthly communication did not even begin between Bombay and London until 1838.

There were two routes to India before the Suez Canal opened in 1869. One was the long route via the Cape of Good Hope. The other, which began in the mid 1830s, was by sea to Alexandria in Egypt then overland across the Suez Peninsula to Port Suez on the Red Sea where they took another ship to India. The voyage would have taken about three to five months depending on the weather and the speed of the ships.

The main ports of call in India were Bombay on the west coast, Madras in the south east and Calcutta in the north east. Some ships called at all three, others only at one or two. Ships generally left England from London or Southampton, depending on which Line you traveled. Voyages were all year round, but in the monsoon season they could take longer if docking was a difficulty. Sailing ships were used up to the mid 1830s when steamships began to take over. Up until the 1850s most passengers would be connected to the East India Company as traders or administrators, etc and might have their travel paid for. The cost of the voyage between Suez and Bombay, for those who had to pay, was £55 ($4,000 today). The administration fee to cross Suez was £12 ($880 today). The total trip between Southampton and Bombay could be over £120 (about $9,000 today).

The Indian Medical Service began in 1612 when the East Indian Company began contracting civilian surgeons to support the growing troop force it needed on the sub-continent. As time went on it moved to employing military doctors directly and made them a part of the formal army structure. The IMS formed three main branches; the Bengal Medical Service, the Madras Medical Service, and the Bombay Medical Service by the end of the 18th century. William Cunningham was apparently part of the Bombay service.

In 1838 William Cunningham became an Assistant surgeon in the IMS. There is some confusion about this date as his later promotion to Surgeon-Major in 1860 notes it was granted for 20 years of service in India, implying a start in 1840.

Assistant surgeon William Cunningham is found listed in an 1843 edition of Allen's India Mail where it was noted he was reassigned from Bombay to Sciude for general duty. Allen's Indian Mail was a regularly published newsprint during the 19th century which documented notable events for the British military in the far east. It followed news, officer movements, promotions, births, deaths, shipping, etc, and provides wonderful insight into the lives of colonials and their families. William Neilson, and several other of our family are found among several issues.

Grant Medical College was established in Bombay in 1845.  It is one of the premier medical institutions in India and is one of the oldest institutions teaching Western medicine in Asia.

In March of 1845 William was noted by Allen's India Mail for passing examinations in native languages. He was then serving as Assistant surgeon with the 7th Bombay Native Infantry, an engineering regiment with whom he would stay for at least several years. Native Infantry was not part of the British military, but rather a colonial force comprised of both Indians and Europeans. Under the East India Company, native troops were often raised and disbanded as required. They were commanded by native officers and provided their own clothes and equipment. In the mid-1700s the example set by the Bengal infantry inspired the government of Bombay to organize their men in a more military way.

Around May of 1846 William was noted to have arrived in India by the steamer Medusa from Kurrachee [Karachi, Pakistan]. William also appears to have taken two leave of absences, one in June and another in October, and then stood in for a fellow surgeon during his own leave in November. William also was listed as having passed further examinations in the native languages. He was still with the 7th Bombay regiment. Interestingly, William's future father-in-law, Henry Brereton, was the chaplain at Karachi in 1846, although it is unknown if they knew one another at this time (later he served in Kholapore (1849), Punjab (1849), and Sholapore (Feb 1853) - which might be how William and his daughter Flora met).

There is a record of William Cunningham leaving Bombay for Suez on April 1, 1847 aboard the steamer Semiramis, ultimately bound for Southampton. It is unknown if he came back for the weddings of his sisters, Agnes and Mary Allen, or the funeral of his brother Nathaniel, or both, or some other unknown reason. The Allen's India Mail for 1847 noted that William took a one month leave of absence on March 1 to be spent in Bombay, but then also began a three year unpaid furlough which clearly he chose to spend back at home. He was recorded having arrived in England at the East India House in June 1847.

On March 31st, 1849 William is noted to have returned to India aboard the steamer Victoria from Suez and was permitted to return to duty at this time. He obviously chose not to use all three years of his furlough.

On March 1st, 1850 William was stationed with the 20th Bombay Native Infantry. He is listed with the 4th company, 3rd battalion artillery staff and details.

On February 17th, 1851 William was assigned to receive medical charge of the 6th Madras Infantry, No. 2 light field battalion and detail at Sholapore. During the years of the 1850s William seems to have spent most of his time between Sholapore and Belgaum.

This hand drawn map to the right of Sholapore is by artist George Boyd and dates from between 1821-1840. It shows the military encampment about to the south of the town about 10 years before William Cunningham arrived. The hospital is visible on the east side of the map, while the old fort is seen to the north.

William Cunningham was appointed Surgeon of the 20th Bombay Native Infantry at Sholapore on March 14th, 1851. It is not clear if this was a temporary appointment as there are subsequent records until 1854 where he is again listed as an Assistant surgeon.

While we have not found very much imagery of the 20th Regiment, this photograph to the left shows the 9th Bombay Native Infantry from 1869, and they would have looked very similar by the time of his later years with them.

On July 29th, 1851 William Cunningham was assigned to replace Assistant surgeon Pigue at Sholapore.


The first western Indian railway links were laid between Bombay and Thane in 1853. While the innovation of steam locomotives were becoming commonplace in Europe, before 1849 there was not a single kilometre of railway in India. That quickly changed during the 1850s with numerous small private companies beginning to construct lines between major port cities. Part of the Bombay-Madras line would pass by Sholapore and likely was taken by William at times to travel to Bombay.

During October of 1853 William replaced Assistant surgeon Sylvester for one month at Sholapore while he was on leave.

Sometime between October 1853 and January 1854 William Cunningham was promoted from Assistant surgeon to full Surgeon as his subsequent listings in Allen's India Mail change.

In Sholapore, on January 10th, 1854 William married Florence Brereton (1834-1897), daughter of the Reverend Henry Hickman Brereton. Henry was a chaplain with the East Indian Company and this might have provided a means for them to meet. The Breretons were a distinguished Irish family and had come to England sometime in the 1830s. The marriage was also noted in Allen's India Mail for that year.

From the 1820s onward more and more British women, known as Memsahibs locally, came to India to accompany their husbands, while every year numerous single British women arrived to make matches with colonial officers and administrators. The married women often participated in missionary work, along the lines described in Saguna. Their growing presence in India altered British social life and introduced a minor moral revolution. Before their arrival, British men dined together and enjoyed local entertainments, many keeping Indian women as mistresses. These practices diminished greatly with the arrival and growing presence of British women, who brought with them the 'Victorian morality' of their day.

Reverend Henry H Brereton was noted traveling back to Southampton in August of 1854.

There was a large tropical cyclone during the monsoon season of November 1854 which killed many people and caused much destruction in Bombay.

On December 28th, 1854 William and Flora's first son was born in Belgaum, India. They named him William Henry. Two other sons and a daughter are all born in Belgaum over the next several years; Nathaniel, Frances, and George (although George might have been born in Bombay). The birth was also noted in the following year's Allen's India Mail.

During part of spring 1855 William replaced Assistant surgeon Nuttall on the medical staff of the 29th Native Infantry while he was temporarily reassigned.

Reverend Henry H Brereton was appointed to the rank of chaplain in Bombay on March 11th, 1855, replacing the deceased Reverend J. N. Allen. He also took one month leave that year.

This photograph of William Cunningham to the right is from ~1855 and was taken in Southampton.

The Anglo-Persian War erupted between 1856-1857.  In the war, the British opposed an attempt by Persia to reacquire the city of Herat. Though Herat had been part of Persia under the Qajar dynasty, at the time the war broke out it was nominally part of western Afghanistan (Afghanistan was then a very loose entity). The campaign was successfully conducted under the leadership of Major General Sir James Outram in two theatres - on the southern coast of Persia near Bushehr and in southern Mesopotamia.  William's regiment, the 20th Bombay Natives, were awarded battle honours for Persia, Reshire , Bushire and Koosh-ah.

This painting by L. Edwards depicts Captain John Augustus Wood of the 20th Bombay Native Infantry at Bushire, Persia, 1856. Captain Wood led a Grenadier Company which led the assault on fort Bushehr. He was hit by seven musket balls at close range but continued to lead the attack, which was successful. Wood survived, earning a Victoria Cross, and later rose to the rank of Colonel.

It is not known with certainty when or even if William participated in the campaign in Persia. There is a record from 1856 from Allen's India Mail showing that he was basically asked to run the medical operations of camp Belgaum during the absence of Surgeon T. Waller.

Another clue is that on January 15th, 1857 William Cunningham was listed as a Surgeon transferred to the 1st Division, artillery group. This might imply that he was part of the reinforcement force which came to Bushire in late January from Bombay. While he was reassigned he was replaced in his old role with the 20th Bombay by Assistant surgeon R. Bayne. After hostilities, William took back over medical care of the 20th regiment again on June 30th, with Bayne transferring to the 4th Native Infantry.

The first major movement against the East India Company's high handed rule resulted in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, or the Sepoy Mutiny. Resentment toward the British had been building for some time, and new policies which allowed the British to annex some areas of India exacerbated tensions. Uprisings spread throughout British India. It was estimated that less than 8,000 of nearly 140,000 sepoys remained loyal to the British. After a year of turmoil and reinforcement of the East India Company's troops with British soldiers, the company overcame the rebellion, which was centered mainly in the east of the country. It doen not appear that William Cunnningham was directly affected by the revolt. In the aftermath, all power was transferred from the East India Company to the British Crown, marking the start of a period known as the British Raj in India.

William's father-in-law, Reverend Henry H Brereton was listed as the chaplain of Dapoolie in 1857, but was transferred to Belgaum on November 26th.

The couple's second child, Nathaniel Ross, was born December 8th, 1857 at Belgaum. The birth was also noted in the following year's Allen's India Mail. Perhaps Reverend Brereton's eariler move to Belgaum was to be closer to his daughter and grandchildren.

The political prisoners kept in the Fort Belgaum from the 1857 Sepoy uprising were hung after a Court Marshall on June 1st, 1858.

It appears that during the late 1850s William Cunningham was stationed at Fort Belgaum. This photo to the right shows the interior of the new Fort Belgaum barracks from 1860. While William would likely have had semi private or private lodgings, this was taken at the same time he was around the camp.

William was briefly given charge of the medical duties at Dharwar in late December 1858, handed them off to Surgeon E. D. Allison on January 1st, 1859, but then resumed duties at Dharwar on January 12th. Later that year he again received charge of medical duties at Dharwar on December 5th. Dharwar is not far to the south of Belgaum.

During 1859 William and Flora's third child, Frances Emily, was born in Belgaum. However no record has been found.

This photo to the left shows the main northern gate at Camp Belgaum in 1860.


The Medical Directory of 1859 details William as follows; William Neilson of the Bombay IMS, Surgeon, commenced 1839.

On June 13th, 1860 William Cunningham was promoted to Surgeon Major and it was captured in Allen's India Mail from September 1860 as follows;

Aug. 14. - No. 486 - The under mentioned medical officers having completed 20 years service from the date of their arrival in India are promoted to be surgeon-major under royal warrant of Jan 30, 1860: Surgeons P. S. Arnott, [...] W. Neilson, [...], from June 13.

Flora and the couple's four children returned to London aboard the Windsor Castle on January 2nd, 1861. The couple's fourth child, George Agnew, was likely born sometime in very late 1860 to have made this trip.

Tuberculosis was a large problem in the 19th century. That they were infectious diseases carried by a bacillus was not realized until 1884, and so few precautions were known. The Neilson family suffered it's share of deaths due to the illness. William's sister Barbara Rome died at Springfield on September 5, 1855 of tuberculosis (age 26), and another sister Georgina Agnew died a few years later on December 24, 1858 (age 30).

William Cunningham died of tuberculosis in Mhow, India on May 1, 1862 at age 49. His death was confirmed by his father-in-law Henry Brereton. He was buried in the Old Military Cemetery in Mhow. It is possible that his family was still in England when he died as there is no record yet found of them returning to India. His wife Florence would take the children to live in southern England in the years to come, including Somerset and Jersey. To the left is an illustration of Fort Mhow from 1858.

William's death was acknowledged in Allen's India Mail from the August 1862 issues with the annoucment of his replacement, Surgeon J. Reynolds. William's father-in-law, Reverend Henry H Brereton, was found to have left India for Europe on June 2, only a month after his son-in-law's death. At the time Henry had been posted as the chapain at Kirkee [Khadki, India] since February 1861. He seemingly retired soon after as his own replacement was announced in March of 1863.

The index entry for William's will, 1862;

August 6. The Will of William Neilson, otherwise William Cunningham Neilson, formerly of Camp Belgaum but late of Mhow in the Presidency of Bombay in the East Indies surgeon of the 20th Regiment of the Bombay Native Infantry deceased who died 1 May 1862 at Mhow aforesaid was proved at the Principle Registry by the oath of Henry Hickman Brereton of Menai-View-terrace, Upper. Bangor in the County of Carnarvon. Clerk one of the Executors.

Effects under £20 (about $1,200).

The inscription on William Cunningham’s grave in the Old Cemetery, Mhow, Central India reads:

“Sacred to the memory of William Cunningham Neilson MD (Surgeon Major) Bombay Medical Establishment who died at Mhow 1 May 1862 aged 49 years. Erected to the memory of the best of husbands by his most affectionate and inconsolable widow and his old comrades of the 20th Bombay Native Infantry of which he was Chief Medical Officer”

An inscription was also added to the Neilson family grave in the Buittle church graveyard.

In 1871 Florence and two of her children are found living on the Isle of Jersey in the Channel. Her son Willliam Henry appears to have been in Surrey at Epsom College. It is not clear where son Nathaniel was.

Census of 1871, 3 Waverly Terrace, Jersey
            Florence Neilson - Widow 37
            Fanny Neilson 12
            George Neilson 10
            Elizabeth Poster 33- Servant


In 1881 Florence and her father Henry Brereton and daughter Frances are living in Bath. Her son William Henry had just married and graduated from medical school, and was likely at sea with the merchant marine. Son Nathaniel's whereabouts are unknown, but it is possible he too was with the merchant marine.

Census of 1881, 4 Edward Street, Bath
            Henry H Brereton 76 - Retired Chaplain, widower
            Florence Neilson 47 - Widow
            Frances E Neilson 22


Florence lived until 1897 and died in Ipswich, England at age 63. Of William Cunningham and Florence's other children, Nathaniel became a Captain in the merchant marine. George became a watchman. Both brothers made their home around Southampton for many years. Fanny never married as far as we know and died in Surrey.


William Henry

William Henry Neilson (1854-1903) was born in Belgaum, India on December 28th, 1854 to William Cunningham and Flora Neilson. It is believed he was named for his father, and for his grandfather, Henry Hickman Brereton. As a child he might have spent his first seven years in India before returning to England for the first time. He, his mother and siblings were recorded leaving India aboard the Windsor Castle on January 2nd, 1861 in Allen's India Mail. William's father died of tuberculosis in May 1862 when William was just 8 years old and it is possible that the children and their mother were still in England when this happened as there is no record found of them returning to India.

At age 12 years and 7 months, William Henry was awarded the ‘Carr Prize’ at the Royal Medical College. The Prize was awarded for proficiency in the Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures by R. Thornton, D.D., Headmaster. There is a handwritten note in the Neilson family bible by the Headmaster noting this achievement.

It seems likely that the college referred to was Epsom College in Surrey. The school was founded in 1853 by Dr. John Propert as The Royal Medical Benevolent College, the aims of which were firstly to provide accommodation for pensioned medical doctors or their widows, and to provide a 'liberal education' to 100 sons of 'duly qualified medical men' for £25 each year. Robinson Thornton (mentioned above) was the Headmaster between 1855-1870.

The Neilson family bible dates from a printing in 1855 and bears the mark of the Royal Medical College.

In the 1870s William Henry attended medical school at the University of Aberdeen. He graduated in 1879, with degrees in, M.B., C.M. Latin: 'Medicinae Baccalaureus,' and Magister Chirurgiae. Although William appears to have spent much of the 1870s in Aberdeen, we have found few documents recording him living there, which could mean he was in school dormitories. According to the British Medical Register he got his licence to practice on June 3rd, 1879.

On January 25th, 1879 William was married to Margaret Elsie Mutch (1857-1898) in Aberdeen. The service was with the Scottish Episcopal Church and was held at 178 Crown Street, a boarding house where Elsie was living. At that time William was living at 28 Skene Terrace, a boarding house run by Mrs. McDougald.

The couple's first child, Harry Ross was born January 5th, 1879 at 178 Crown Street. Note that this was before his parent were married, something very frowned upon in Victorian times. His birth certificate notes him as Illegitimate, and the witness was Frank Jamison, meaning William was not present for the birth. It would be fascinating to known what happened. Was Harry an unplanned pregnancy? His birth was later legitimated on the certificate after his parents marriage.

In 1881 Elsie is found living with her brothers and sisters and young Harry in Angus, Dundee. William is presumably at sea or otherwise engaged.

Census of 1881, 9 Middle Street, Dundee
            Eliza Neilson 25
            Harry R Neilson 2
            Christina Mutch 19 - Dress maker
            William Mutch 27 - Unemployed
            James Mutch 20 - Flour miller


William Henry spent his first few years after schooling working as the doctor on merchant marine ships.

The English medical journal The Lancet, dated September 16th, 1882, (Vol 120, Issue 3081), lists W. H. Neilson as having successfully completed examinations held at Burlington-house on August 21st for acceptance into the Indian Medical Service. Thirty-nine applicants competed and eight were accepted. He was formally accepted on September 30th, 1882 as an Assistant Surgeon into the service as part of the Madras division. After about a years of service he was assigned to the Erinpura Irregular Force, otherwise known as the 43rd Erinpura Regiment. For at least the next decade he was based out of Erinpura, Rajputana. He was following in the footsteps of his father back to India, but it is unknown what his real motivations for going there were.

A description of Erinpura from the Imperial Gazetteer of India, Volume 12, 1908;

Erinpura. — Cantonment in the north-east of the State of Sirohi, Rajputana, situated in 25° 9' N. and 73° 4' E., on the left bank of the Jawai river, about 6 miles from Erinpura Road station on the Rajputana-Malwa Railway. Population (1901), 3,206. Erinpura is the head-quarters of the 43rd (Erinpura) Regiment, which has detachments at Abu, Bikaner, and Pachbhadar. By the treaty of 1818 the Marwar Darbar was bound to furnish a contingent of 1,500 horse for the service of the British Government when recjuired ; but the force thus supplied by it in 1832 proved so useless that the obligation was commuted in 1835 to an annual payment of 1-2 lakhs towards the maintenance of a corps, which was raised in 1836 and styled the Jodhpur Legion. It was located on the site of the present cantonment, which Captain Downing, the commandant, named Erinpura after the island of his birth. The Legion consisted of three troops of cavalry and eight companies of infantry, with two 9-pounder guns; and three companies of Bhils were added in 1841. With the exception of the latter the corps mutinied in 1857 ; and shortly after the Erinpura Irregular Force was raised, with the Bhil companies as a nucleus. This force was composed of a squadron of cavalry, mainly Sikhs, numbering 164 of all ranks, and eight companies of infantry, numbering 712. Bhils and Minas were mostly enlisted in the infantry, the object being to a.fford occupation to the local tribes and thus wean them from their lawless habits. From the end of 1870 to 1881 the commandant was in political charge of Sirohi, and detachments were on several occasions sent out to assist the police in patrolling the disturbed tracts and arresting dacoits. In 1895 the strength of the squadron was reduced from 164 to 100 of all ranks; in 1897 the force, which had till then been under the Foreign Department of the Government of India, was placed under the Commander-in-Chief, and in 1903 it was renamed the 43rd (Erinpura) Regiment. At the present time the squadron consists of Sikhs and Musalmans from the Punjab, while the infantry are mainly composed of Rajputs, Minas, Mers, and Musalmans.

A reading list of the 43rd Erinpura can be found here.

There was a massive tropical cyclone during the monsoon season of 1882 which killed 100,000 people in Bombay.

Interestingly, the 1883 British Medical Register lists William living at 11 Kensington, Bath. Perhaps this was a contact address as it was nearby to his grandfather, Henry Brereton, who was also in Bath at that time. It is also possible William and Elsie had actually moved there.

In January 1883 the couple's second child, William Cunningham, was born in Sholing, Southampton. Southampton was the main port to India at the time, and given William Henry had just joined the IMS only 3 months prior, it would seem to imply that he had already left or was about to go to India.

Elsie appears to have traveled to India to join William in the late 1880s. Her two children were left in Bedford, England with family and are found on the 1891 census.

The 1887, 1891, and 1895 British Medical Registers list William Henry living at Erinpura, Rajputana. At some point during this time he is promoted to Surgeon-Captain.

In 1890 a third child was born to William and Elsie in Udaipur, India, daughter Francis Emily. It is believed Elsie and her daughter would return to England in the following year.

Surgeon-Captain William Henry Neilson participated in the Indian Opium Commission on February 2nd, 1894 as an expert witness. His testimony gives some fascinating insights into his life at the time. The full transcript can be found here.

Surgeon-Captain W. H. Neilson, M.B., called in and examined.

(Sir W. Roberts.) I believe you are in medical charge of the Erinpura irregular force ? — Yes.

And you have been in the service for 11 years, of which 10 have been in Rajputana? — Yes.

You have also had medical practice in the force and amongst the inhabitants of the surrounding district ? — Yes.

To a certain degree you have been in civil practice ? — There is no other medical officer within many miles, so that I get practice in the district. I get both surgical and medical cases.

Have you dispensaries under your charge ? — There are no dispensaries there.

What are the men composing the force you are in charge of ? — In the cavalry, Sikhs and Mahomedans. In the infantry, Rajputs, Minas, Bhils, Mbairs, Surgaras, Gujars, other Hindus, Mahomedans. With the exception of the Mahomedans, all are occasional eaters ; 5 per cent of Sikhs habitual eaters; women and children of Sikhs occasional eaters. Opium is given to women and children of others as medicine only.

(Mr. Wilson.) What is ahout the strength of the Erinpura irregular force ? — About 180 cavalry, and 600 infantry.

William Henry was also recorded as an expert witness for the India Hemp Commission Report, published 1895. He is mentioned in the Note of Dissent by Lala Nihal Chand.

Rajputana, witness No. 2.

W. H. Neilson, M. B., Surgeon-Captain, Medical Officer, Erinpura Irregular Force : "The moderate use of bhang produces no noxious effects. The even moderate use of ganja and charas has a most deteriorating effect physically, mentally, morally on the subject of the habit."

In late 1894 William was granted the rank of Surgeon-Major in the IMS.

This photograph was taken in India around 1895. In his later years William Henry was known as 'Hal' to his family.

The years 1895-1900 marked a very unfortunate period for the Neilson family as numerous family members all died within a few years of one another. One wonders if the family thought they were cursed. Father-in-law Henry Brereton passed on in 1894. Uncle Andrew and aunt Euphemia Neilson died in 1895 and 1899 respectively. William Henry lost his mother Florence Brereton in 1897. His son William Cunningham died in 1900 of tuburculosis. And before 1905 he lost his aunts Agnes and Mary Allen Neilson.

On January 31st, 1898 William lost his wife Elsie to Blackwater fever while they were in Bikaner of the Punjab region. She was only 41 years old. After her death, William returned to Aberdeen to be with the children. While son Harry was 19 years old, his siblings William and Francis were only 15 and 7.

In 1899 William earned a doctorate; D.P.H. Doctor of Public Health.

Within a year and a half he remarried in September 1899 to Janet St John Skeen (1876-1946), daughter of Surgeon General William Skeen. Soon after the wedding, William returned with Janet to India and his responsibilities with the Indian Medical Service. At the time William was listed living in Aberdeen at 21 Argyll Place, believed to be a boarding house/rental home would have shared with a Mrs. Barnet.

The couple quickly had two children; Kathleen Elsie and Neil Duncan, born in 1900 and 1902 respectively, both in Sidhpur, India.

He was the author of several medical papers on the regions of India. In 1897 he published Medico-topographical Account of Ulwar, and followed it up with Medico-topographical Account of Bikanir in 1898. In September 1902, at age 48 William Henry was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

The 1902 India Office List detailing the civil service shows as the Medical In charge of Bhopawur (a sub agency of the Central India Agency).

On March 23rd, 1903 William Henry died in Indore, India of malaria. He was 49. His obituary appeared in The Lancet on April 11th, 1903 (Vol 161, Issue 4154);

William Henry Neilson M.B., C.M., Aberdeen. Lieutenant Colonel, Indian Medical Service, died on 23 March 1903 at Indore, Central India, in his forty-ninth year. He was stationed at Sirdarpore and it was understood that he had come from that place to Indore for the purpose of obtaining medical advice, as his health had been unsatisfactory for sometime past. He was a native of Kirkudbright and received his medical education at Aberdeen University where he graduated as M.B. and C.M. in 1879. After a couple of years as a surgeon in the mercantile marine, he became assistant surgeon in the Indian Medical Service in September 1882. In September 1884, he was promoted to Surgeon Major with honorary rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1902 he was confirmed in that rank. Mrs Neilson, who survives him, is a daughter of the late Surgeon General William Skeen.

William Henry’s widow, Janet, returned to England with her two year old daughter Elsie and barely year old son, Neil Duncan. They lived initially with Janet’s eldest brother, Dr William St John Skeen, who was Superintendent of the Winterton Psychiatric Asylum at Sedgefield in County Durham.

The couple's daughter Elsie died of meningitis in 1916. Janet herself lived until age 69 and died in 1946.

As for William Henry's surviving children; Harry Ross became a doctor and journeyed to Africa for much of his adult life (see below). Francis Emily married William Hutchance and had a family in Yorkshire. And youngest Neil Duncan was a Wing Commander in the RAF during the Second World War.

Pictured to the left is William Henry with future wife Janet Skeen and Peggy (his daughter Francis) in 1898.


Henry Ross

Henry 'Harry' Ross Neilson (1879-1957) was born in Aberdeen on January 5th, 1879, the oldest child of William Neilson and Elsie Mutch. His birth certificate originally noted that he was 'Illegitimate' as his parents were yet to be married (something corrected shortly thereafter). He was born at 178 Crown Street, a boarding house run by a Mrs. Hood. Harry was named for his father William Henry, and for the Reverend Duncan Ross, a cousin of his father's. (As a side note, the Ross family line was particularly close to the Neilsons and several have passed on the name.)

For the 1881 census young Harry is with his mother and his Mutch family aunts and uncles in Dundee. This record is a bit of a mystery however, as there is no previous connection with Dundee.

Census of 1881, 9 Middle Street, Dundee
            Eliza Neilson 25
            Harry R Neilson 2
            Christina Mutch 19 - Dress maker
            William Mutch 27 - Unemployed
            James Mutch 20 - Flour miller


In 1883 he is possibly in Sholing, Southhampton as that is where his brother William was born.

For the 1891 census Harry and his brother are with their aunt and great grandfather, Henry Brereton, in Bedford, north of London. Possibly their mother has gone overseas to be with their father and their aunt was looking after them. Henry Brereton would pass on a few years after in 1894.

Census of 1891, 31 Waldeck Ave, Bedford
            Frances E C Neilson 32
            Henry H Brereton 88 - Grandfather
            Harry R Neilson 11
            William C Neilson 8
            Minnie Russell 16 - Servant


The photo to the right shows young Harry in 1892 hiking. It was said that Harry always enjoyed hikes and long walks.

Sometime soon afterwards, Harry and his brother would welcome a new baby sister home, Francis Emily Margaret, who was born in Udaipur, India in 1890 while their parents were overseas.

Grandmother Florence Brereton passed away in 1897.

In 1898 Harry's mother Elsie tragically died in the Punjab, India from Blackwater fever at age 41. His father remarried within a year and a half to Janet Skeen (1876-1946), who was from a very reputable family. Her father was William Skeen, the Deputy Surgeon General. They had two children together.

Harry would have gone to Aberdeen sometime around 1900 to attend medical school at Aberdeen University, the same school his father went to.

Harry's brother William died in 1900 at just age 17 from tuberculosis, just as he was himself preparing to enter medical school.

In 1903 Harry's father William also died, aged 48 of malaria. He was in India at the time and is buried there, as his father was before him. Within a five year span he had lost five family members. One wonders what effect this must have had upon him.

Harry met Catherine Fyfe (1884-1951), a young singer and actress of the local Aberdeen stage. It was through one of her performances that they first met, probably in 1904. She would have then been 20 and he 25 years old. There is a postcard from February 24th, 1905 which Harry sent to Katie wishing her well at her show, but that he could not make it as he was still laid up with his leg (perhaps sprained or broken). They both were said to believe their meeting was fated on account of them sharing the same middle name, Ross.

Harry graduated from medical school at Aberdeen University in 1905, M.B., Ch.B. Latin: 'Medicinae Baccalaureus, and Baccalaureus Chirurgiae'. His (and his classmates) passage of his third exam was printed in the Aberdeen Evening Gazette March 24th, 1904.

According to the British Medical Register he got his licence to practice on October 27th, 1905. He was listed in the Register for at least the years 1907-1955.

On January 3rd, 1906 Harry married Catherine Fyfe at her mother's home on Bridge Street. Harry's own family did not look too fondly on Catherine or her family, and believed Harry was marrying beneath his station. Harry didn't care, he was very much in love with her.

Later that year the couple moved to St. Just-in-Penwith, Cornwall, where Harry had his first practice. He would see patients in the front room of his home and do rounds about town on horseback. Harry is listed in the local postal directory for that years as; Neilson, Harry Ross, M.B., Ch.B. surgeon. Lafrowda villas. Found at 20 Bosorne Street. Harry seems to have moved down in late 1905 as he gave St. Just as his residence on his marriage certificate.

Their first child was born later that year in Cornwall; Jean Constance Ross. Harry delivered all of his children himself.

There is a short handwritten tune written by Harry for his wife in 1906 including music and lyrics - a kind of love poem. It is titled 'Cigarettes' which sounds odd, but the sentiment is still sweet. It is known that Harry and Catherine smoked heavily, and purchased silver cigarette cases and matchboxes for each other around the same time.

By 1909 the family was in Worcester where Harry worked at the Sanatorium. He was also the doctor at the local prison, a job he did not relish as he had to witness numerous hangings and other events. The couple's second child; William Agnew Duncan was born there that year.

The 1911 Medical Register lists Harry living in York, at 20 Heslington Road.

Sometime prior to 1913 Harry decided to join the British Medical Service. Perhaps there was an element of family expectation in Harry's serving in the medical corp. Both his own father and grandfather were doctors who spent much of their lives in the Indian Medical Service. His station was to be located in Uganda with the East African Forces. Whether Harry chose the posting, or objected to it, of all of the numerous locations in the British Empire to journey, is not known.

An impression of how Uganda was viewed at the time can be found in the writings of Winston Churchill from 1908;

“Uganda is a fairy-tale. You climb up a railway instead of a beanstalk, and at the end there is a wonderful new world,”

Numerous English authors also referred to Uganda as 'the pearl of Africa', after Henry Stanley's earliest descriptions of it. Teddy Roosevelt, the former US President and great outdoorsman, spent time hunting in Uganda on his great Africa Expedition of 1909-1910. He wrote about his journey for Scribner's Magazine and inspired decades on schoolchildren with his collections from the journey.

Harry purchased several books, seemingly around the time of his posting to Uganda. The Baganda: An Account of Their Customs and Beliefs by John Roscoe, 1911, and Through the Dark Continent by Henry Stanley, 1878. Perhaps he was preparing himself for his adventure in Africa, as the Baganda were native to the region. There is even a small handmade mark on one of the maps to indicate the area of Gulu, where he was first stationed. The books are under the care of his great grandson, Christopher Bretz.

Harry journeyed to Africa alone in 1913. The story he told was the railway did not reach all the way to the capital Kampala from the coast at the time, so he had to walk. Once there he was given a car to use and drove out to his station in the small town of Gulu, nearly 300 kilometres from the capital. He lived in Mbarara, a town in the south some distance from either city.

World War I broke out in July 1914 and many young men of the United Kingdom signed up to fight in Europe. Harry was a long way from that front, however, German East Africa lay to the south of Uganda. The fear was the Germans would launch another front in the war from it. As part of the mobilization, on September 17th, 1914 Harry was granted the temporary rank of Captain, and it is believed it was made permanent sometime afterward.

The East African campaign was a series of battles and guerrilla actions rather than all out war. Much of the 'fighting' took place far to the southeast of Uganda inside German East Africa. The closest battle to Harry Neilson's part of Uganda was the Battle of Bukoba on June 1915, and was only a few hours south of Mbarara. More troubling however were the attacks on the port city of Mombasa and the Ugandan Railway - the main transport routes for the British into Uganda. The Germans constantly attacked the railway between 1914-1916. Only the arrival of reinforcements from India on September 1915 prevented the fall of Mombasa, and only the inadequacy of the British maps, on which the Germans had to rely, frustrated their attacks on the Uganda railway. A map of the campaign's skirmishes can be found here. The British dominated Lake Victoria with a naval presence of several militarily converted steamer ships.

The 1915 British Medical Register lists Harry as working in the Uganda Protectorate Medical Service. He would remain listed as such until 1931 when it was changed to the East African Medical Service.

Catherine joined her husband in 1915. It is unknown exactly when she traveled, but it can be hoped it was later in the year after Mombasa and the railway were more secure. The first few months must have been quite something for the young Aberdeen woman used to the lights of the stage. In many places they traveled they were the only Europeans for hundreds of kilometres.

Catherine and Harry earned the nicknames Mu and Danda from the local tribesman, which they used and were called by their family for many years.

After they were reunited the couple appears to have spent several years in Gulu as Harry and Catherine's third and fourth children were born there, delivered by Harry himself; Dudley Harry Stewart and Evelyn Diana Catherine. The photo to the right shows Catherine and baby Diana in 1918 in Gulu.

The war ended in November 1918, although it took some weeks for word to reach east Africa. Harry continued to work with the local tribes and would occasionally take his children out with him to deliver medicine. He might have been gone for three months at a time, twice a year, for a number of years. He would inoculate against smallpox and yellow fever.

After 1918 they appear to have moved back to Mbarara for a couple of years. Daughter Diana wasn't christened until age 3 when they made it to the Namirembe Cathedral in Kampala. The family then journeyed home to Aberdeen during 1921, their first known trip since arriving six years earlier. Harry earned his D.P.H. or Doctorate of Public Health while he was there.

Over the years Harry and Catherine would make the journey back and forth between Uganda and England at least 19 times that we know of, and perhaps more. It would take about a month, which since they would often travel back again within the same year, was quite an effort. The first segment was to get from Kampala to Port Florence on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, some 300 kilometres distant. First, a short 10 kilometre train would be taken to Port Bell from Kampala. Then a ferry was boarded to cross Victoria. From there it was nearly 1000 kilometres over land on the Ugandan Railway to the port of Mombasa. A ship then took you either north to Suez, or south to Capetown, depending on how long you had to spend on your journey. If you went north up the coast to the Suez canal you passed into the Mediterranean, and finally across to the Atlantic. Several ports were visited along the way including; Mogadishu, Aden, Genoa, Marseille. However, if you went south from Mombasa you took the long way around the horn of Africa, visiting places like; Mozambique, Capetown, Port Sudan, Ascencion, and Teneriffe in the Canary Islands. It is known Harry and Catherine took both routes. The Ugandan Railway was connected with Kampala in 1931.

Catherine's daughter Jean came to stay with her parents in Africa in 1923 after completing schooling in England.

In 1924 Catherine and Harry and kids were at Hastings on a trip back to England. Her mother also died 1924, perhaps this is why.

Harry and Catherine's son William completed his schooling in England and journeyed to Canada, spending time in rural Alberta on ranches. He would come back to England a bit but otherwise end up staying in Canada the rest of his life.

The Duke and Duchess of York visited Uganda in 1925 and were photographed by Harry. During their trip the Duchess, herself a hunter, refused to shoot prized elephants and rhinos, and started the process of conservation in Uganda.

Between 1902 and 1920 Uganda was administrated largely by personal decree through representatives of the British Crown, as many English colonies were at the time. In 1921 the first semi-autonomous Legislative Council was formed. This council was still comprised of Europeans, but it was indeed a step in the direction of Ugandan independence. On the 26th May, 1926 the first Asian, Mr. Amin, was sworn in as a member of the Council, and before 1945, the first three African members were added.

During this time Harry was given a baby gorilla. The children enjoyed playing with it, but unfortunately as it grew older and larger Catherine became fearful of it and Harry had to put it down.

The couple is noted having arrived in London from Mozambique on March 17th, 1927 aboard the Mulbera. They brought young Diana with them on this trip and would enter her into school - a convent called the Clever Sisters at Windsor - and afterward returned to Uganda without her. It was the fashion of the time that children would be sent away young for schooling.

They were back in Uganda in 1928 when Edward VIII, Prince of Wales came to visit. Harry was there in the receiving line. Catherine was photographed at the Pyramids that year, presumably on her way past Cairo to Kenya.

It seems like Harry and Catherine started to make nearly yearly trips back to England in the late 1920s. In January 1929 the couple was in Mogadishu, possibly on their way back to England for that year.

The couple arrived in London from Mombasa, Kenya on May 3rd, 1930 aboard the Llangibby Castle. This trip home they photographed quite extensively. They took Hal and Diana to Scotland with them and visited around Kirkudbrightshire where Harry did some research of his Neilson family history. Harry purchased the book Highways & Byways of Galloway and Carrick, by C. H. Dick, 1924, presumably while researching his family history. Inside the cover is his signature dated 1927 at Castle Douglas, as well as a page of notes tracing out the male Neilson line to that time as he knew it. The fold out map in the back of the book shows two locations marked, Locknaw Castle and the town of Corsock. The book is under the care of his great grandson, Christopher Bretz. Harry also had a problem with his thyroid at this time.

The couple arrived in London from Mozambique on February 15th, 1931 aboard the Modasa. This year they took the children to Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire for July-Aug. Then they returned to Africa aboard the Grantully Castle in August.

Entebbe gained its first airport in 1929. In January 1932 Imperial Airways began to use Entebbe on their Cape-to-Cairo mail services. Harry and Catherine witnessed the first arrival of planes on that route, a large plane called the Horsa and an entourage of army planes. It was also the first passenger plane to fly there regularly.

The next trip home the family spent time at the Norfolk Broads sailing in late 1932.

On their last trip to Uganda during 1933-1934, Harry and Catherine stayed in Kampala. Harry owned a 1929 or 1930 Morris Cowley car during these years. There are various photos of him driving it around Uganda and even of him shipping it by boat. They seem to have taken in a few sights such as the Muchison Falls, and visited locations from their first years in Uganda. In December 1933 the couple went on a large duck shoot at Lake Bunyoni. In 1934 there was a large Ugandan Health Exhibition which Harry attended.

Harry and Catherine left Africa for what is believed to be the last time in July-August 1934 aboard the Llandaff Castle. This ended 21 years of living on the Dark Continent since they first arrived before the Great War. The stayed in London for a few years, first living at the King's Court hotel near Hyde park, then moving to East Acton on the west side. The King's Court hotel was recorded several times on the couple's trips back to London over the years, and was clearly a favorite. Young Diana met her parents there and lived with them through the 30s.

Harry and Catherine moved to the Isle of Wight around 1936-1938, where they lived at Woolverton Cottage, a large stone country home on the south coast. There are many warm photographs of the couple and their family there over the years.

During World War II several Allied and German fighter planes were seen flying above their home. Once a plane came down in a field nearby and Harry rushed to help the pilot.

Their daughter Diana lived with them during the later years of the war. In 1946 she emigrated to Canada with her new husband, serviceman Orville George.

The 1951 Medical Register lists Harry living at Woolverton Cottage on the Isle of Wight.

Catherine died in 1951 at age 67. It is believed she died on the Isle of Wight and afterward her husband sold Wolverton and moved to the Isle of Jersey in the channel. Harry died in 1957 at Jersey. It is not known if he is buried there as well. Their daughter Jean continued to live in Jersey there for many years.

Harry was an avid stamp collector and after his death the collection went to his daughter Diana. Unfortunately it was sold in the 1950s.


Shown here are some of the locations of the Neilson family in India.

Shown here are some of the locations of the Neilson family in Africa.