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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 24 May 2010

In Praise of Google Books

In November of 1880 a 79 year old labourer died of lung congestion in Plymouth Township, Wayne County, Michigan. He was married, had entered the US from Canada two months earlier, and was known as St George William Dunlop Mills. He was my great great great grandfather. Why he had gone to the US from Canada is unknown. He emigrated from Co. Roscommon, Ireland to Canada some time before his second marriage in 1861 to Elizabeth Williamson, also an Irish immigrant. There are no surviving Irish birth, baptismal or marriage records, just a shadowy presence on the 1867 Glasgow marriage certificate of John Mills a son by his first marriage and on  John's 1894 Coatbridge death certificate where St George is described as a railway clerk. We get fleeting glimpses of his Canadian life from the 1861 and 1871 censuses and from Toronto street directories where he is listed as at different times working for the Toronto Street Railway - shown in the photograph above - and the city's waterworks. From 1875 through to 1879 he is listed as a labourer and then the trail ends in Michigan. 
This is most of what I know about  my ancestor apart from one intriguing detail - he appears to have been born to a well-off and  well connected county family. His father, Oliver Mills of Knockhall, was High Sheriff of Roscommon in 1798  - the year of the rebellion and the  ill-fated French invasion. His mother Emma (Amy) Massy was the daughter of the 1st Baron Massy of Duntrileague, MP for Limerick County,  raised to the Irish Peerage in 1776. Given this auspicious start  why did he end his life a day labourer? Of course in the Nineteenth Century old-age often meant severely reduced circumstances even for the well-born. But now, thanks to the miracle of the internet, I know there was more to it than that.
Last week, while idly searching on Google Books, I came across a report of a court case in a volume with the title: Irish Equity Reports, of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery, the Roll Court and the Equity Exchequer During the Years 1846 and 1847. It details in five densely worded pages the judgment in the case of Mills v. Mills an intra family dispute that appears to have been initiated in 1811. Not being a lawyer some of the details of the case are rather obscure to me but in true Jarndyce versus Jarndyce fashion it revolves around the terms of a will and the rights to income from land. The parties to the dispute are Emma Mills (née Massy) my great great great great grandmother and George Mills her stepson, half brother of my great great great grandfather  St George William Dunlop Mills. The case seems to end with the court appointing a receiver to sell the land which lies at the centre of the dispute. Dickens has one of his characters say of Chancery: "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!". I wonder if the Mills fortune went the same way as the Jarndyce?
The moral of my story is not however to bemoan the hard times that subsequently befell the family but to celebrate Google Books. Without it I would never have known of the existence of Mills v Mills. In and of itself this is of no significance  to anyone but me, however the ability to bring together and make available hitherto unrelated facts is potentially of tremendous importance for the growth of knowledge. Amongst other things books contain lots of discrete pieces of  information - for want of a better word - facts. Google Books makes it much easier to link these together, to turn facts into knowledge and to increase the power of serendipity.

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