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23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

James Waddell
(26 Dec 1846 – 5 Jul 1907)

This photograph has had rather a mysterious history. I remember its first appearance when we moved into Basil Mansions in early 1956. It had never been on display in Elm Lodge, but when Grannie (Hannah) Waddell came to stay she must have brought it with her to please the lares and penates.

However, within a day or two she noticed to her horror that somebody had poked his eyes through with a pin (if you look closely the traces are still visible). And there would have been little or no doubt of that somebody's identity. My younger brother (Simon) was duly given a good smacking (or even a slippering, those were the good old days) and sent to bed without any supper.

But the picture then disappeared – Grannie was still scandalised, and doubtless took it home with her. And that was the last I saw of it until my wife (Sonia), sorting through an old suitcase of things in the loft last month (Feb 2015), brought it down and asked if I knew who it was.

How had it got there? Nobody knows, as Stephen Fry likes to say so sonorously. But I'm delighted to see him, a man who had laboured in the vineyard in the heat of the day for many a long year with little recognition and less reward (reminding me of my own working life), had suffered debilitating injury or illness, and was soon to die prematurely. A typical Waddell!

Under the whiskery façade he was evidently a very handsome chap, with features and expression uncannily reminiscent of my Aunt Jane, especially as regards the piercing eyes (no pun intended).


The geographical and political complexities of South East Asia are probably unfamiliar not just to me but to many of you too. It was doubtless much less complicated when most of it was owned / administered / commercially or militarily dominated by one or another of the European powers, as in James Waddell's lifetime.

But the world has moved on, and to understand the references in James' biography it might useful to take a quick glance in advance at the table and modern map (unfortunately not showing New Guinea) that follow:

Modern entityTraditional definition
MalaysiaMalaya (Malayan peninsula)
Northern Borneo
SingaporeIsland city-state off S Malaya
Southern Borneo
Western New Guinea
Innumerable smaller islands
Papua New GuineaEastern New Guinea
PenangCity/province in NW Malaya
Pangkalan BrandanPort town in N Sumatra
SurabayaCity in NE Java
Map of Southeast Asia


The narrative that follows is reproduced from Alexander (Sandy) Waddell's invaluable summary in his biographical document WADDELL LINE WHO'S WHO.

Who's Who entry for James Waddell


I'm certainly not trying to impress you by my Teutonic thoroughness, but this is just a convenient spot to park a couple of Census records for future reference.

The 1901 Census of Scotland, carried out on the evening of 31 Mar 1901, was as far as I know the last of these occasions to be organised under UK auspices. The 1911 Scottish Census, carried out on the evening of 2 Apr 1911, was the first to be organised entirely North of the Border, and the vast improvement in handwriting is a telling reminder of the excellence of Scottish education.

The common factrix (yes, in Scottish law a factrix is a female factor) was of course Margaret Waddell, née Little, first the wife and then the widow of James himself.

The 1901 record was made during James' lifetime, and the family (himself, Margaret, all four of their surviving children, including Peter, not quite yet off to Balliol), but excluding Jessie Little who was just visiting, were then resident at 11 Kelvinside Terrace South.

The 1911 records, inconveniently split over two pages, let's call them 1911 Page 1 and 1911 Page 2, were made some years after his death. Peter had long since trailed southwards in clouds of glory, of course. And the address was now 19 Kelvinside Terrace South.

Bearing in mind the home addresses recorded for Robert each new academic year at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, we can narrow down the move to between early autumn 1900 and early spring 1901. Estate agents tell us that nobody moves just before Christmas, so that narrows it down further.

Why did they move anyway, just down the road?

We must recall the tenement system prevalent in Scottish residential arrangements then, and I suppose now too. High-rise town houses, joined laterally, were the norm. In lower economic strata this equated to poverty, (real squalid poverty, not the sort of relative poverty nowadays used simply as political ammunition), but for professional people to live in tenements wasn't the end of the world in those days.

However, note that in 1901 the Waddell family had the whole of #11. Wow. A multiplex apartment just for them. But by early 1902 they were living on just one floor of #19. And by the look of it, not even the ground floor. More likely the top floor of a five-storey building. And James was an invalid, of course, who got around by being pushed in a Bath chair. This all indicates a serious downturn in family finances, a huge blow to James' self-esteem, and not a great morale-booster for the family collectively.

Particularly Robert, who had just embarked on an apprenticeship and a five-year course of evening classes, and wouldn't therefore be bringing in any mazoomah for a good few years to come. Can we detect here an early warning sign of the excessive frugality which marked his married life and attitude towards his own children's health and education?

This is all sheer speculation and psychobabble on my part of course, but is still worthy of serious consideration!


This narrative should be read in conjunction with the following links:

The Etiology of Syphilis
Congenital neurosyphilis: Conan Doyle's portrayal
Congenital neurosyphilis: Henrik Ibsen's portrayal

The order in which you read them is really entirely as you prefer.

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To an increasing extent, as I became older, and more acutely since I've been engaged in portraying our family tapestry for the possible interest or even benefit of visitors to this website – especially if they are caught up in some way with this strange history – I have wondered about the dark psychological shadow that seemed to descend upon the family at some time between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. The previous generation had all been on very good terms with one another, but with the exception of James they had all died without issue. In this respect, James had been the success story – what had gone wrong with the next generation?

And now I think I know.

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The lightning strike, so to speak, was a copy of my great grandfather James' death certificate, citing the cause of death as Tabes Dorsalis, a form of tertiary syphilis first diagnosed 16 years previously – but quite possibly latent for 20 years prior to the diagnosis. This certificate was copied to me earlier this year (2013) by a distant relative, quite innocent of the implications.

James' back-problems had always been ascribed to his having fallen through an open hatchway whilst superintending the loading of a cargo ship out East some years (or decades) earlier. His confinement to a bath chair, poor health and psychological malaise had commanded general sympathy, at least outside the immediate family.

But this new insight doesn't necessarily cast him as a carelessly philandering villain – in the hot countries of SE Asia the bacterium responsible, Treponema Pallidum, can survive outside the body for a while and can therefore be transmitted without requiring sexual contact. However, his family were not to know that.

At that time, syphilis was right up there with leprosy and tuberculosis as a loathsome and incurable disease. The sexual association also made it unmentionable and although treatment with mercuric chloride (itself acutely poisonous) had been a palliative, the first effective medication didn't become available until 1910. A bit late for James, who died in 1907. The really magic bullet was of course penicillin, but that came decades later.

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Presumably James had been told about his condition when it was first diagnosed in about 1891. But what treatment, if any, had subsequently been attempted? Until several years after James' death the principal treatment had been mercuric chloride, with toxic symptoms frequently confused with those of syphilis itself. But there was no sign of mental confusion or deterioration in the family Pedigree drawn up by James in 1905, and we must conclude that he probably hadn't been subjected to the mercury cure. So he was probably unaware of his condition. And therefore not only had his wife Margaret been infected via normal marital relations, so also would his children have been infected congenitally. Every literate adult in that era was well aware of such a possibility, which had received such publicity through the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henrik Ibsen. Even if his condition had not been known about, or at least suspected, by anybody in the family prior to the issue of James' death certificate, it certainly would thereupon have been, as his younger son Robert's signature is on the register. And they would all have been aware of the implications.

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What effect on family relationships did this realisation have? Very corrosive, I think, from a chance remark by my Aunt Jane earlier this year, which I quoted in an email in response to receipt of the certificate:

According to my venerable Aunt Jane, still going strong at 92 out in Victoria BC, her mother (my paternal grandmother) Jessie Frances Hannah Findlay, was warned against marrying into the Waddell family, by some concerned friend or relative who said they had never known a family with such a capacity for concentrated hatred. Jane wouldn't elaborate, but it's suddenly occurred to me that Hannah's future husband's father James might have been the focus of this.

There was certainly something amiss – James' son Robert certainly bore emotional scars about something, and these got passed on to his son Walter (my father), the way these things do. And his problems certainly had a major impact on my own life, so I do feel justifiably inquisitive! And it might all be due to something revealed in James' death certificate, and I was put in mind of Ibsen's drama Ghosts.

Of Robert's three sisters, one died at the age of two, one in her early thirties of insanity, and one became a reclusive invalid. Robert's second son died suddenly at 22 from what was officially diagnosed as meningitis. Robert suffered all his life from recurrences of what Uncle Sandy, his youngest son, described as malaria. Both Robert and his older brother Peter were afflicted by extremely poor eyesight. And I do recollect that there was a copy of Ghosts in one of the bookcases at Robert and Hannah's house in Chichester when I was a child.

Many of these impacts would have been evident by the time James died in 1907 and when Hannah and Robert were married in 1912, and I can well imagine that a fairly poisonous atmosphere of recrimination could have developed towards James. And I understand from Jane that there was little love lost between the two surviving daughters, who quarrelled incessantly.

The premature death of the second daughter was not unusual in that era and the emotional instability and fierce mutual hostility of the two daughters not so very unusual in any era, and neither factor can be reliably attributed to the subject under discussion.

Nor were Robert's lifelong recurrences of 'malaria' so very odd – after all he'd been born, and spent his early childhood, in southeast Asia. But it's rather interesting that deliberate infection with malaria was used in those days to treat tertiary syphilis, and quite possibly Robert had caught it too.

But as we all know, ghosts don't have be real to be scary – they exert their effects psychologically. James' family may well not have been infected congenitally – but they all were probably scared stiff that they might be, and that is what did the damage.

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In view of the circumstantial evidence that from James it got passed on to the following (2nd) generation, and quite possibly to the next (3rd) or beyond, I can put your minds at rest straight away, Gentle Readers, that I as representative of the 4th generation have had a blood test done and am OK. So the family ghost has at long last been well and truly put to rest. RIP tabes dorsalis.