Monday, February 28, 2011

A Mysterious Photograph Unveiled.

In the belongings of Honor Mary Thwaites we inherited this large framed photograph of a company of men around a board table, with the sole caption on the mounting-board “Wellington Church Council, 1903”.  On the back “Mrs Good” was pencilled in a large freehand, suggesting a removalist or delivery instruction.  None of the individuals were identified. Why had this group portrait been kept in the family for a century?
Wellington Church Council 1903

There are places called Wellington in New Zealand, New South Wales and South Australia, but with no known family connection.  A search on “Wellington Church Council” brought up the website of a Wellington Church in Glasgow – a fine neo-classical building in the heart of the University. 

I knew that there had been forebears in Glasgow  named Scott, so in 2006 I emailed the Church administrator asking whether they knew if anyone by that name had attended a Church Council in 1903.  A return email from the then Minister, Leith Fisher, confirmed that this was a council sitting of the Wellington Church, and that the room and the photographs on its wall still existed at the church. He added that the size of the actual room meant that the number of men seated around the table in the photograph was physically impossible – the photograph had to be a contrived composite – “Photoshop” 1903-style.

Indeed, a close look at the photograph does reveal some odd body positions, heads too big for bodies, inconsistent shadows and other evidence of cut-and-paste.  Mr Fisher could not help with names, and I heard no more.

Later my uncle Roland Good visited. I showed him the photograph and asked whether he knew of any Scott relatives from Australia who might have been in Glasgow  at that time.  He didn’t know of any, but mentioned that there were numerous Mitchell relatives in Glasgow  who had kept contact with older generations of the Scott family in Australia.

The next link in the chain was a notice from an online genealogy network that there were common ancestors on the Thwaites-Good-Scott line with the family tree maintained by Dugald Scott Mitchell, of Cooma.  I established contact with Dugald, who gave me access to his extensive family tree covering many generations of Scotts, Mitchells and all who sail with them.

By now it was clear that the “Mrs Good” was not my grandmother Viola (Wettenhall) Good but my great-grandmother Sarah Cowie Scott Good. Her mother was Sarah Cowie Mitchell of Glasgow, who had married Robert Scott there before emigrating to Victoria around 1840.

Sarah Cowie Mitchell Scott had died at Buninyong, Victoria, in 1899, before the date of the photograph. She had several siblings who stayed in Scotland but only one, her youngest brother John, seemed likely to be in Glasgow in 1903.  This John Mitchell would be the uncle of Sarah Scott Good, so perhaps close enough for her to treasure the strange photograph.  Sarah Scott Good was the eldest of Sarah Mitchell Scott’s children and was herself a widow by this time. Her Scott brothers were helping to support the education of her three Good children Charles (Hamilton) Scott, Robert (Norman) Scott (Honor’s father), and Irene Scott Good.

I wrote again to the Wellington Church in Glasgow, this time asking whether John Mitchell could have been a member of the Council. The Church Administrator, Anthea Cameron, kindly enlisted the help of church historian Mr John Fyfe Anderson. Mr Anderson’s response was more than I could have hoped for. The Mitchell family had founded the church in 1792 and supported it for two centuries, including the period of the photograph. Here are parts of Mr Anderson’s information:

John Mitchell, merchant, was ordained as an elder in Wellington Church in 1885. He is also recorded as being Preses [President] of the Board of Trustees and Managers in 1893. On 13th March 1893 a congregational meeting was held with the chair taken on the platform by John Mitchell, preses of the Congregation.  Mr. Mitchell is recorded as being a “Merchant”.

John Mitchell was a grandson of The Rev. Dr. John Mitchell the first minister of Wellington. It is likely that John Mitchell appears in the 1903 photograph but it is obviously impossible to identify him.

In the photograph The Rev.Dr. James Black is seated at the head of the table with The Rev. Dr. George Morrison on his immediate right…

[The founding ]Mr. John Mitchell obtained an MA at Glasgow University in 1787 and … was licensed by the Presbytery of Perth c.1792.  The congregation was formed in Anderson in 1792 and its first Church was in Cheapside Street.  Mr. Mitchell was ordained on 1st August 1793.  Present at the service was Rev. Andrew Mitchell of Beith, the father of the young minister…

After 35 years the Church moved to a larger one in Wellington Street.  Rev. Dr. John Mitchell was the first Minister of the new Wellington Street Church which opened on 15th July 1827 with Dr. Mitchell officiating.  Dr. Mitchell was Minister of Wellington from 1793-1844...

The Wellington Street Church moved again to its newly built church on University Avenue, opposite Glasgow University in October 1884. 

Tablets were erected to the memory of their late Pastors and were transferred from the vestibule of the church in Wellington Street to the vestibule of the new church in University Avenue and are still in place today.  Dr. Mitchell’s reads as follows:

“Erected by the congregation assembling in this place, in affectionate remembrance of their late pastor, John Mitchell, DD., STP.  Possessed of highly cultivated talents of enlightened and fervent piety, singularly amiable and gentle in his disposition, simple and yet dignified in his demeanour.  He was a faithful and eminently successful pastor, a most affectionate and skilful tutor, the kind and generous friend of youth, and a pattern in all his relations, domestic and social.  Born October 15, 1768;  ordained to the Ministry of this congregation August 1, 1793:  Elected Professor of Biblical Criticism by the Associated Synod, September 15, 1825:  Died January 25, 1844.  *His remains repose in the crypt of this church...”

…The portrait on wall in the right-hand corner [of the photograph] is of a gentleman resting his elbow on a table in a thoughtful pose with folded fingers on the side of his face.  This is the Rev. Dr. John Mitchell, and possibly a very good reason for the picture to be in your family’s possession.  The original portrait is large and displayed in the upper corridor here at Wellington along with other past Ministers.”

While John Mitchell cannot be identified with certainty, I think the most likely candidate is the man sitting directly below the portrait of the founder with pen at the ready and a ledger book before him. If  I were posing a formal group on this occasion, that is where I would put him.  The man with the ledger is evidently an office-bearer of the Council. 

So Sarah Cowie Scott had reason to take a proud interest in John Mitchell of Wellington Church.  But which John Mitchell?

The Mitchells and the Scotts had large families and had the habit of using the same names over and over. In each generation over two centuries the Andrews, Johns, Roberts and Thomases overlap each other, often more than one to the generation. 

In Glasgow in 1903 there were probably three John Mitchells, all descended from the patriarch Rev. Andrew Mitchell of Beith(1737-1812) and possibly attending Wellington Church: 

1) Sarah Scott Good’s uncle John;

2) her first cousin once removed John (1826-1904 – son of great-uncle Andrew Scott 1818-1898); and

3) her second cousin John (grandson of the Church founder, great-Uncle Dr John).

Mr Anderson’s information suggests Sarah's second cousin is the one in the picture – but there could have been more than one John Mitchell present at the time.  Perhaps both the men sitting under the portrait are John Mitchells? Could one be Sarah's Uncle John?

[UPDATE  26 July 2011]
A family photograph in the possession of my uncle Roland Good shows his father, Robert Norman Good, visiting "his uncle" in Glasgow in 1910. This could only be Norman's great-uncle - namely Sarah Cowie Scott Good's uncle John Mitchell.  We now know, from Dugald Mitchell, that this John Mitchell died prosperous but unmarried in 1914 in Glasgow, and bequeathed many of his belongings to nieces and nephews in Australia.

Comparing this photograph to the Wellington Church Council of 1903, that John Mitchell can be seen standing under one of the portraits on the wall, at the back of the group.

More about how the photograph found its way to Australia may be buried in correspondence now in the National Library of Australia or other Scott family collections. From Sarah Cowie Scott Good it passed to her unmarried daughter Irene Scott Good, then to her granddaughter Honor Mary Scott (Good) Thwaites.

 Also in the family are two versions of  a portrait of patriarch Rev. Andrew Mitchell (1737-1812), father of Rev. Dr John Mitchell.  One is from the collection of Dugald Mitchell, of Cooma, who is the main historian of the Mitchell family in Australia and their roots in Scotland.  He identifies this as Rev Andrew.


The second version is now with Honor’s sister Esther Scott (Good) Wettenhall in Victoria. The similarities are so close, one wonders if one were copied from the other.  This Andrew Mitchell was ancestor to both the Mitchell family (through Thomas) and the Scott family (through Sarah Cowie (Mitchell) Scott, sister of Thomas and wife of Andrew Scott of Buninyong.  Along the way, this version has also been identified as Andrew Scott, but it seems to have been his father-in-law instead.  Any correction or confirmation will be welcome.


  1. The file name for the portrait says Andrew Scott. I hope it is indeed Rev Andrew Mitchell, anti burgher minister of Beith, as we are also descended through his daughter Jean.

  2. Sally, I found your comment at did a re-check on the photos. I think the label "Andrew Scott" is an error - unless two separate sources are both wrong, which is possible. I've added the second portrait, as the similarities raise their own questions about how and when each portrait was made. Perhaps one painted from life in Scotland, and the other copied in Australia for the other branch of the Mitchell descendants here?

    Going on appearance, I think this is more likely to be the Scottish minister than the Scottish-Australian settler.

    Dugald Mitchell's family tree on has the most comprehensive links between the families.

  3. There is now no doubt that this is Rev. Andrew Mitchell. Provenance of the two portraits is still confusing. The original painting, from which Dugald Mitchell's photograph was made, hangs in the dining room at the Scott family home at The Mount, Scottsburn, Victoria and has been there since at least 1914 and perhaps longer. A copy (also a painting) is now in the hands of Stephen Wettenhall, son of Esther Scott Good Wettenhall (now deceased).

    A document held at The Mount states that the portrait of "Great Grandfather Mitchell" passed to Sarah Cowie Scott Good upon the death of her mother, Sarah Mitchell Scott in 1899 - but Sarah Good no longer lived at The Mount by this time, and the portrait is still there. How?

    My theory is that the original portrait in fact remained in Glasgow and was in the property of John Mitchell, younger brother of Sarah Mitchell Scott, until his death in 1914, when it was part of the property that he bequeathed to his nieces and nephews in Australia.

    The portrait that was previously in that position in the dining room was a copy, made in Glasgow and brought out by Sarah Mitchell Scott either at the time of her wedding in the 1860s, or on one of her trips back to Scotland in the 1880s.

    Documents to prove or disprove this theory probably exist, but have not been discovered as the Scott-Mitchell correspondence is quite widely dispersed.