The Fyfes of Aberdeen

By Christopher Bretz


The eldest member of this family we have found is Samuel Fife (~1799-1850). Traditionally members of this family are found in the county of Fife to the south, but it is unclear where exactly Samuel was born. He was certainly in Aberdeen by around 1820 if he wasn't there already. He married local girl Catherine Ross (1794-1888) on July 14th, 1825 at Aberdeen in her widowed mother's home. The wedding was witnessed by a James Fife, possibly a brother or the groom's father. The couple had at least 3 sons together, Archibald, Samuel and James. Catherine was the daughter of John Ross, a local baker and prominant merchant. She and her husband were employed as flax dressers (someone who prepares flax for the spinner) in the textile industry, an important part of growing Aberdeen.

This painting to the right by Alexander Nasmyth depicts High Street looking west in Aberdeen around 1800. The majority of Aberdeen sat within what was known as Old Machar parish at this time.

In 1824 Aberdeen gained it's first gas street lamps, lighting up the night for the first time. Until then they were almost unheard of outside of London and would have been quite an exciting arrival.

There is a Samuel Fyfe listed in the 1825 Aberdeen city directory employed as "beadle of the West Church and funeral waiter" living at 83 Green. He is listed as such until 1832, when then his is listed as the Overseer at Grandholm, a large textile mill. It is not known if this is our Samuel.

Queen Victoria took the throne in June 1837 and would rule Great Britian for 64 years until her death.

By 1841 the population of Aberdeen had risen to 63,000. At the time of the first census in 1801 the population was just 27,000. Unfortunately the surviving 1841 census of Scotland is only partial and does not record the Fyfe family. Nor are they found in the post office directories of the time.

The growing population was starting to put pressure on society. We can get a sense of life at the time from Aberdeen, 1800-2000: a new history, By W. Hamish Fraser and Clive Howard Lee, 2000;

The early textile industry was subject to violent swings in the trade cycle and thus large-scale unemployment became a phenomenon of modern society in Aberdeen as elsewhere. Indeed the cotton industry experienced a major downturn in 1836, and another followed in 1842, although the telling blow to the fortunes of the industry was delivered in the recession of 1847-48. The massive fall in domestic and international demand for cotton products saw 3,000 workers [5% of the population] made redundant and much of the domestic hand weaving sector collapse. Few textile firms survived. One writer referring to the 1840s spoke of the scenes of 'squalor, vice and misery that were to be seen in broad daylight', particularly at the east end of Castle Street, and of the ' great many beggars with sore arms and legs... forming a disgusting sight'. The level of prostitution was said to be alarmingly high in the Justice Port area of the city and there were food riots in both 1843 and 1848.

Samuel's sons would have grown up in these trying times. It was only after 1850 that the local economy began to diversify and the standard of living in Aberdeen began to rise. Samuel Jr and James bacame apprentice house painters in the early 1850s. It is unknown what became of their brother Archibald as there is no sign of him in the records after his birth. He might have died young.

There is some confusion as to when Samuel died, but it appears to be before 1851, as that year's census shows his wife Catherine widowed and living with their sons at 152 Gallowgate, Barr's Court. Barr's Court refers to one of the many narrow alleys which led off from Gallowgate to rear houses and apartments at that time. It would have been similar to many scenes from the works of Charles Dicken's books.


Master House Painters

James Fyfe (1833-1916) was born in Aberdeen to Samuel Fyfe and Catherine Ross. He was christened at St Nicholas Church June 27st, 1833 and the event was witnessed by a James Fyfe, perhaps a namesake uncle or grandfather, who was also listed as a house painter.

As children growing up in Aberdeen during the 1840s, with recession and poverty everywhere, it surely must have had a lasting impression on the brothers. If their father did pass away around 1850 as believed, the children would have had to mature quickly to support the family.

The 1851 census shows both James and Samuel living with their mother at 152 Gallowgate, Barr's Court in Aberdeen. They were both employed as apprentice house painters, although how the Fyfe brothers ended up apprenticing in this trade is unknown. Their mother is listed as the head of the house and a widow. Although else everything about the record matches our Fyfe family, her named is listed as Margaret for some reason. Perhaps a mistake of the census taker.

The railway first arrived in Aberdeen in 1850 and brought with it a new sense of mobility. The 1840s had seen a railway 'mania' sweep Britain, with hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres of track laid down. The railway meant it was possible to move previously 'local' cattle and goods from Aberdeen to other regions, and for Scots to travel quickly between far flung parts of the country. The new line provided service directly to London. A large rail yard was quickly built on the east side of Aberdeen near the old slums, forever changing the character of the city.

James married Isabella Brebner Donaldson (1827~1856) June 5th, 1852 at St Nicholas Church at age 20. They had two sons between over the next few years, Samuel and Alexander. Isabella's records are slightly confusing. She is referred to by several different descendants as both 'Isabella Brebner Donaldson' as well as 'Isabella Brebner'. Her father is listed on her marriage record as William Donaldson, but another older reference shows her father to be Alexander Brebner. It is possible that Alexander died and Isabella's mother remarried while she was still a young woman and so took the Donaldson name. We must do more research to confirm this.

Isabella died tragically around 1856 at age 29, possibly in childbirth. The exact date is unknown. It is assumed that James' mother, Catherine, helped care for his sons during these years as they all lived together.

James went formally into the house painting business with a John Cumming in 1860. Their company was called Cumming & Fyfe Co. John was previously the foreman with painter William Henderson and so would have known the business quite well.

19th century house painting was a trade managed by a guild. Several years of apprenticing were required to become a Journeyman, and from there you had to earn your place as a Master in the community with several more years of study. Every business that worksed in the trade often had to employ at least one master craftsman. The skills needed were carefully maintained and taught, and as much chemistry and aesthetics as they were simply applying the paints. In London for insatance, the trade was governed by the Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers, an organisation with roots back to the 13th century. They enforced a seven year apprenticeship, and protected their members from outside competition. For example they barred plasterers from painting, unless apprenticed to a painter, with the penalty for such painting being a fine of £5 (many $100s today). In Scotland, house painting was not one of the seven 'incorporated' guilds, but it enjoyed affiliations and an organization of its own. The guild system gradually lost its influence into the 20th century.

From historic house conservator Peter Hood;

Before the discoveries and inventions of the nineteenth century, houses, furniture and paints were all similarly porous, elastic and survived by an equilibrium between hot and cold, wet and dry. The paints were carefully designed, formulated and hand-made by the experienced workman, relying on knowledge handed down through the centuries, common sense and personal observation. Paints which lasted were those which were water permeable and elastic. In this respect, oil paints based on white lead were unsurpassed. Their permeability came in part from the white lead base itself, which constitutes more than 80% of the paint, being hydrophilic (water loving). Elasticity came from the plasticity of the lead and the property of the oil. The combination of white lead and linseed oil makes a lead soap which combines these factors. Being hand-ground on a slab, the degree of fineness and amount of sharp particles that survived, were a characteristic of certain colours. As long as the particles were of a similar size and contained sufficient spherical particles, application by brush was no problem.

Unfortunately the toxic nature of lead used in paints of the time was not known of until the 20th century.

Although it is not known how early in his career James Fyfe offered these services, he was also a glazier (window glass installer) and wallpaper hanger. From later city documents it is known he worked with several architects and masons on numerous jobs around Aberdeen. And given how quickly it grew over the 19th century, he was likely never short of work.

The Fyfes all lived at 79 Gallowgate between 1860-62. James' son Alexander is not found on the 1861 census, though it is not known why.

Census of 1861, 79 Gallowgate
            Samuel Fyfe 29 - House Painter
            Catherine Ross 65
            James Fyfe 28 - House Painter
            Samuel Fyfe 8


James remarried to Ann Henderson (1840-1910+) on December 18th, 1863. Together they had three children over the next few years; James, George and Thomas. The family moved across town to 21 Rose Street with brother Samuel and stayed there the next few years until sometime in 1865. It isn't known if there was a connection between his wife Ann and James' business partner, William Henderson.

In 1865 a network of sewers was built in Aberdeen, and the following year water filtration began. James' family and brother Samuel moved around the corner to 7 Thistle Street by 1866.

James finally moved his growing family out on their own to a home on Thistle Lane in 1868. They would live there many, many years until around 1902. The home was seemingly built before regular street numbers where in place. On the 1871 census it is called simply 'Fyfe's Cottage' and the early city directories do not provide an address apart from 'Thistle Lane'. The home shown to the left is what occupies the location of number 5 today. Maps from 1867 do not show a structure in the location yet, so it might be possible that James had the home built. While crowded and very urban today, the old maps show that away from the main streets this back area was quite open and green.

The name of James' company also changed in 1866 to J&S Fyfe Co. when his older brother Samuel joined him. For several years the listing in the city directory noted they were the "late Cumming & Fyfe", so perhaps James' partner John Cumming died. They set up an business office at 5 Dee Street, and a workshop at 81 Windmill Brae which they used for decades. The company has a city directory listing for every year between 1866 and 1911 and likely beyond, 45 plus years! James is also listed as becoming a Master Painter around that time. The business address was a small corner location which still has a small retail store there today on roughly the same footprint. The old workshop space appears to have been extensively rebuilt in the 20th century.

The family is noted living at Fyfe's Cottage on Thistle Lane on the 1871 census.

Census of 1871, Fyfe's Cottage, Thistle Lane
            James Fyfe 38 - Master Painter Employing 10 Men & 6 Boys
            Ann Fyfe 31
            Samuel Fyfe 18 - Painter App
            Alexander Fyfe 16 - Seaman App
            James Fyfe 7
            Thomas Fyfe 5
            George Fyfe 2


Brother Samuel married to Susan Collie in 1871.

James' son Samuel was working with his father and uncle at the family business through the 1870s.

By the late 1870s most working class homes had gaslight, at least downstairs. Bedrooms might have oil lamps. Gas fires first became common in the 1880s. Gas cookers first became common in the 1890s.

In 1874 disaster overtook Aberdeen’s Kirk of St Nicholas where many marriages and christenings have taken place. Fire broke out under the steeple, and flames swept through the church. The intensity of the blaze brought down the steeple, which crashed onto the East Kirk with such force that witnesses reported it was completely destroyed. While the East Kirk had only been built 40 years earlier, replacing a 15th-century predecessor, the site it occupied had been at the heart of Christian worship in Aberdeen for over 700 years – longer than Aberdeen itself had existed as a chartered town. 

The 1881 census shows the painting business had some degree of success for James as the family employed a live-in servant.

Census of 1881, 5 Thistle Place
            James Fyfe 47 - Painter & Glazier Master
            Ann H Fyfe 41
            James Fyfe 17 - Scholar
            Thomas Fyfe 15 - Scholar
            George Fyfe 12 - Scholar
            Jean Mathieson 22 - Servant


James' brother and business partner Samuel died 1881. He was buried at Nellfield Cemetery. Interestingly James didn't change the company name. There are numerous records with the city of J&S Fyfe Co. construction jobs over the next 20 years.

After 1886, J&S Fyfe Co used 79 1/2 Windmill Brae as their main workshop. This might have been because the old structures in the area were rebuilt.

Public parks began to be opened in the late 19th century Abredeen. Victoria Park was laid out in 1871 and Duthie Park was laid out in 1883. Meanwhile in 1881 a bridge was built to Torry and the William Wallace statue was erected in 1888.

James and Samuel's mother, Catherine Ross, died in 1888. She was living at 17 Thistle Street. This is near where her son Samuel lived for many years.

An Aberdeen branch of the Scottish National Federation of House and Ship Painters was established in 1889. Its name was changed to the Scottish Amalgamated Society of House and Ship Painters ca 1900, and then to the Scottish Painters' Society, ca 1910. In Aberdeen, the reported union rules in 1891 limited the amount of workper week to 51 hours per man, and the minimum pay was 1 pound 8 shillings per week. Unskilled and skilled unions alike gained great popularity in Scotland during the 1880s.

By 1890 James' younger sons James Jr and George are listed working with him as painters. His older son Samuel appears to have stopped working by the late 1880s, although it is unclear why.

The Fyfes on the 1891 census are shown to have an empty nest, all of their children having gone out on their own. They retained a live-in servant still however.

Census of 1891, 5 Thistle Place
            James Fyfe 58 - House Painter
            Ann H Fyfe 51
            Elizabeth Bruce 20 - Servant


J&S Fyfe got a business phone for the first time in 1894. It was phone number 304, and remained that until at least 1911. Since the first electricity generating station in Aberdeen opened in 1894, the first electric telephones could also open for business then. James would have been one of the first to own a telephone.

In 1896 the main office for J&S Fyfe Co moved from 5 Dee Street to 11 Dee Street.

In the late 19th century horse drawn trams ran in Aberdeen. However they were later replace by electric trams. The first electric trams ran in Aberdeen in 1899.

Two of the Fyfe's children appear to have moved home again by the 1901 census.

Census of 1901, 5 Thistle Place
            James Fyfe 68 - House Painter
            Ann Fyfe 61
            Thomas Fyfe 33 - Doctor Of Medicine
            George Fyfe 31 - House Painter
            Belle McHattie 20 - Servant


James and his wife moved to 14 Polmuir Road around 1902.

Son George was still working at his father's company in 1905. As James was quite old by now it can be assumed that he handed off the business to someone else. Perhaps it was George.

James Fyfe died November 12th, 1916, at 83 years of age. It is not known where he is buried. He had suffered for many years from heart disease and diabetes. The family is also no longer found on Polmuir Road after this time.

James' wife Ann died sometime after 1910.


Samuel Fyfe (1852~1894) was born in 1852 in Aberdeen, the eldest of two sons of James Fyfe and Isabella Brebner Donaldson. Tragically his mother appears to have died very young around 1856, perhaps during childbirth. His father remarried a few years later to Ann Henderson and had three step brothers with his new wife.

Samuel is first recorded having lived with his family in Aberdeen at 79 Gallowgate in 1860. He moved around with his family several times during the 1860s before settling at their long time home of Fyfe's Cottage, at 5 Thistle Lane in 1868. He would have been ~16 years old then. Samuel was noted as an apprentice house painter, presumably with his father, during the 1870s. He would have made Journeyman painter through the mid 1870s.

Samuel's younger brother Alexander made frequent trips to Australia during his life and his descendants still live there. His step brother Thomas Henderson Fyfe became a medical doctor and worked at the Royal Mental Hospital at Cornhill Road, Aberdeen. His step brother George Henderson Fyfe became a house painter following in the family business.

Sometime in the late 1870s Samuel met Georgina Berwick (1856-1924). Georgina was a farm girl from Perth who had moved with her family to Aberdeen around 1860. Georgina's father had died soon after her birth and her young widowed mother remarried to Alexander Troup, a merchant. Georgina had several Troup step siblings, but she always kept her father's surname. This image of her is from 1879 at age 27.

Samuel married Georgina Berwick on November 12th, 1880 at his parents home on Thistle Place. The census of the following year showed the couple lived at 39 Bonaccord Street. The house was split and shared with a James Robertson, clerk. It also noted that Samuel was at that time a Master Painter employing 10 men and 5 boys. Someone was also being cared for by Jane Melvin, a sick nurse. This could imply many things. Perhaps Georgina was pregnant with a first, unknown child. Perhaps Samuel himself was under her care.

Census of 1881, 39 Bonaccord Street
            Samuel Fyfe 28 - House painter Master employing 10 men and 5 boys
            Georgina I Berwick 25
            Jane F Melvin 39 - Dom sick nurse


The couple had three daughters over the next few years; Catherine, Isabella, and Elizabeth.

The family stayed on Bonaccord Street until 1884 when they moved to 163 Crown Street. They shared this residence with a Mrs. Macaldowie, who ran a lodging house. In 1889 they moved again to 128 Crown Street, and ever after this the city directory only lists the family residence as 'Mrs. Fyfe'. It can be inferred that something happened to Samuel during the 1880s. By the time of the 1891 census Samuel is found to be unemployed and his wife Georgina is running a boarding house, so clearly some changes have happened to the family. Perhaps Georgina learned how to run such a business a few years earlier from Mrs. Macaldowie. Perhaps Samuel was injured and unable to work, or worse had lead poisoning from the paint of his trade. We might never know.

Census of 1891, 128 Crown Street
            Samuel Fyfe 38 - Unemployed
            Georgina Fyfe 34 - Boarding house
            Isabella D Fyfe 8
            Catherine R Fyfe 7
            Lizzie A S Fyfe 4
            9 Boarders


Samuel appears to have died sometime in the early 1890s while in his early forties. Certainly he is not found on the next census in 1901. If true his daughters would have all been under 10 years old when they lost him. It is not known where Samuel is buried.

The family moved to 11 St Nicholas Street in 1894 where Georgina ran what was called a Temperance hotel. Perhaps the move was sparked by her husband's death.

Census of 1901, 11 St Nicholas Street
            Georgina Fyfe 34 - Temperance hotel keeper
            Isabella Fyfe 18
            Catherine Fyfe 17
            Lizzie Ann Fyfe 14


Georgina's daughter Catherine began performing stage plays and singing at various events around the region at the turn of the century. She appeared with the Aberdeen Amateur Opera Company and the Arthurian Company of Players for many performances between 1902 and 1904 (ages 18-20). She also sang at various events, including two of the Aberdeen City Concerts, the Trades Council Concerts, and at least two of the Gordon Highlander's formal presentations. 

Tragedy struck the family again when in 1904 youngest daughter Lizzie died. She was just 18 years old. It is not known how she died. She is buried at St. Peter's Cemetery.

The photo to the right shows Georgina with two of her daughters from around 1900-1905. The right side girl is presumably Catherine as the costume she wears is very similar to those she wore on stage. The girl behind is either Isabel or Lizzie. Given that she looks to be the youngest it might be Lizzie.

The family moved to 34 Bridge Street in 1904 where Georgina continued to run a block of apartments. She shared the building with two solicitor's offices at that time, and several more businesses moved in over the next few years (including the American Consulate). She remained here until at least 1911.

In 1906 Georgina's daughter Catherine was married to Harry Neilson at 34 Bridge Street. They would both move shortly to Cornwall where Harry was practicing medicine. This would leave Georgina and daughter Isabella alone.

His Majesty's Theatre was built in 1906 and Aberdeen gained its first cinema in 1908.

Georgina died 1924 in Perthshire at age 68. It is not known where she is buried. Her daughter Isabel is believed to have died in London in 1945.


Mu and Danda

Catherine Fyfe (1884-1951) was born January 22nd, 1884 in Aberdeen. She was named for her great grandmother on her father's side, Catherine Ross, who likely helped raise her father for a number of years after his own mother died young. She had many nicknames including; Kate, Katey, Kitty, Kitty Ross, Mu.

When she was born her family possibly lived at 39 Bonaccord St. in central Aberdeen. The family moved to 163 Crown Street sometime in 1884, then down the street to 128 Crown in 1889.

When she was still young, Catherine's father appears to have suffered from failing health. He wasn't able to work as of the 1891 census and likely died shortly afterward. Her mother began running a boarding house, perhaps to support the family. In 1894 the family moved to a Temperance hotel at 11 St Nicholas Street.

Catherine was known for her beautiful voice. She sang for various community events in Aberdeen, including the City Concerts, Trades Council Concerts, and others where she developed an appreciative local following. It is not known how Catherine first became involved with the Aberdeen theatre, but in her late teen years she began to perform with the Arthurian Company of Players, taking the stage name Kitty Ross. She would travel to local towns with the company and performed many times at the grand Aberdeen Music Hall. For more about Kitty's stage career see here.

It was through one of her performances that Catherine and Harry Neilson (1879-1957) 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.

Catherine and Harry attended a costume ball at the Marischal College, where they were both commended for their costumes. Harry went as a Courtier from 1790, and Catherine was Mary Queen of Scots. The date of this event is uncertain, but it was before their marriage so 1904-1905 is likely. There was apparently a large group photograph taken for the Union hall which we have yet to find.

Catherine's sister Lizzie Ann tragically died in 1904. She was just 18 years old.

In 1904 Catherine's mother moved the family to 34 Bridge Street where she operated an apartment block.

On January 3rd, 1906 Catherine married Harry Neilson 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.

Their first child was born later that year in Cornwall; Jean Constance Ross. Harry delivered 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.

In 1908 Kitty drew upon her stage experiences to help organize and perform at least one local concert event to some acclaim.

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.

Sometime prior to 1913 Harry decided to join the British army's 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.

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.

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.

Catherine was not from a wealthy upbringing, and the lifestyle afforded her by living in colonial Africa (as well as husband Harry's own finances) sat very well with her. They lived in large villas, had several servants, and enjoyed an elevated social status in the small European community, most of whom were other military families and colonists. She and Harry would never have had such an experience back in England where they would have gone relatively unnoticed. In Uganda, they lived near the top of the social stratum.

It is thought that this experience, and the constant adoration of her on stage in her youth, coloured Catherine's personality, and earned her a reputation as being beyond reproach and difficult.

Catherine kept several large dogs which she loved, but which terrified her children. She also became something of a big game hunter, and enjoyed shooting wildlife (these were different times). Elephants, rhinos, crocodiles, buffalo, and wild hogs, and lions and leopards were all her trophies. She had beautiful ivory ornaments made out of the tusks of the elephants. (She could not have known, but years later the very same herds of rhinos she hunted would be poached to extinction)

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.

There is a photo of Catherine making poppies with a large group of women for Remembrance Day in 1926. They are gathered outside the Uganda Bookshop.

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.

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. 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 Wolverton 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.

Catherine died in 1951 at age 67. It is believed she died on the Isle of Wight and afterward her husband 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.

For more on Harry Neilson's family see here.


Shown here are some of the locations of the Fyfe family in Aberdeen.