I noticed a question online a few weeks ago where Californian man Glenn Orr asked the question, “Does anyone know if the theologian James Orr had any connection to Blantyre? He was born 1844 in Glasgow, and my great great grandfather Robert Robertson Orr lived in Merry’s Row in Blantyre. There are many James Orr’s in the family history, and he would have been close in age to my forebear”
Thinking this was a great connection and wanting myself to know the answer, I dug out my historical files for the Orr family and was excited initially to see a James Orr, a brother of Glenn’s great, great grandfather Robert. This particular James was born in Kilbarchan but unfortunately in 1848, not 1844. The trail started to run colder again when i noticed that Catherine, Robert and James’s mother would have had to have been only 15 at the time of James Orr theologian’s birth. Finally looking at Glasgow records for theologian James Orr, I noticed he spent much of his early life at Liverpool after becoming an orphan. I had read enough. This was the wrong family and that James Orr was not directly related to the branch of Robert Robertson Orr. However there was still a possibility that theologian James Orr was a distant cousin of Roberts but definitely no Blantyre connection.
Sticking with this interesting family and wanting to provide something additional for Glenn, I noticed that Robert Robertson Orr was born in 1855 at Rutherglen and after moving around with his family for a while, he married Agnes Simpson in 1876. Children soon followed, 10 of them. 9 boys and just one girl. This in itself gave rise to an enormous Orr family within the later 20th Century! By 1881, the couple had had their first 4 children all boys and it was then that they moved to Blantyre to Merry’s Rows. Robert was a coal miner and likely worked at Auchinraith Colliery. By 1891, they were still living at that address, but now with 7 children, aged between 2 and 16 years old! It must have been extremely cramped for so many people in such a small property. Eldest child Dundas Simpson Orr, aged 16 was working as a Wagon greaser. Second eldest child Robert, aged 14 was a coal miner!
By 1901, the family had moved further up the street to 79 Merry’s Rows. This may have been prompted by the need for a larger home and likely followed complaint to the colliery. Seven children lived with them, although some of the aforementioned children had made they own way in the world. Like their father, David, James and John were coal miners.
An inspection in March 1914 of the sanitary and health conditions of Merry’s Rows is recorded as such , “Merry’s Rows. – In a one-room house there were six persons – two parents and four children, of whom two were girls, one aged about 16, the other about 18. There was one baby. In order to make a washhouse, one house has been sacrificed for every six tenants. Washing accommodation is thus very good. Two water-closets provided for six tenants. In one house, two beds in kitchen, the mother was in bed with an infant nine days old. The whole work of the grossly overcrowded house was proceeding as usual. This child was the twelfth of the family. The house-room was grossly inadequate ; but the inadequacy was, to a certain extent, redeemed by the splendid vigour and vitality of the father, mother, and children.”
The report certainly sounded like although overcrowding was apparent, everybody just “got on with it”. I’m sure this would not be tolerated by many. Indeed, in the early part of the 20th Century, many of the boys decided to emigrate. I suspect that after such a hard life as a young adult and especially after the death of their parents, the boys en masse left to Canada and the US. There are several passenger records in the 1910s and 1920s for the boys. There are also war and service records for active service in the army. I cannot blame those young men for wanting to escape their life of hard labour in Blantyre. It must have been tremendously exciting to step on to a boat knowing you were leaving for good, with the promise of new relationships, friends, marriages and employment opportunity halfway round the world. Little did they know their struggle would continue stepping into The Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. Looking back, with 2 wars, a hard life in deplorable conditions at Merry’s Rows, half their lives working underground, they were a generation that certainly had it difficult. It would appear though, given Glenn’s location in Western USA, the family flourished and it sounds like there are many Orr’s living in the US, that are directly related to the Blantyre Orr’s of Merry Street.
I hope Glenn finds this article and finds it interesting. Pictured is my research into the Orr family.