Finding James Spencer

I have had a passion for tracing my family tree for some years. On my father’s paternal side, I can trace the Dunn family back to the 1500s. On my mother’s paternal side, I hit a roadblock with her father, James Spencer.

James came to Western Australia from Scotland in 1921 after serving as a Private in the British Army from 1909 to 1921. He married my grandmother, Louisa Collins, in Perth in 1924. They had two children, Hazel, my mother, and Jean.

James worked on sheep stations, as a cook in hotels and as a gardener. When World War 2 came around, he enlisted in the Australian Army and served from 1939 until 1947, achieving the rank of Corporal.

James passed away in 1951, 14 years before I was born.

James Spencer circa 1950

In World War 1, James served in several theatres, including Eqypt, The Dardanelles and France. James received a head wound at Gallipoli in 1914 and was evacuated to France to recover.

As a side note, having a family member who fought at Gallipoli is a source of pride for an Australian, though unfortunately, he was not an ANZAC.

In 1930, he lodged a claim for a British Army pension due to the ongoing effects he suffered from the wounding, basically loss of hearing and dizziness and problems with his feet from fighting in the trenches in France, ultimately, the application was turned down. To evaluate his claim, all of his British Army records were sent to Australia. The records then ended up in the Australian National Archives.

On James’s Wedding Certificate, it states he was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1896. It lists his father as James Spencer, a Shipyard Worker, and his mother as Margaret Webster.

His Death certificate records his father as being James Spencer, a dairy farmer, and his mother as Margaret Webster. His place of birth was Dundee, Scotland, and his birth year was 1885.

Generally, with the information available on these certificates, it would be fairly easy to trace his family via Birth, Wedding or Death Certificates and Census information. In James’s case, I could get nowhere. I could not locate his birth certificate or a wedding certificate for James Spencer and Margaret Webster.

Luckily, I could access his British Army records at the National Archives. I hoped to get additional information on James to help me trace him. But the result was actually more confusion as James listed 3 different places and dates of birth.

Apart from the information I gleaned from the Army records on his extensive military action and physical characteristics (he was only 5’2’), I found details on his vices, drinking, gambling, and being absent without leave.  Unfortunately, I also saw treatment for socially induced ailments that a Grandson could have gone without knowing 😀.  All in all, I got the impression he was a loveable rogue who didn’t shirk his duty to serve his country, and I really feel slighted not to have had the opportunity to know him.

The Army records also mentioned that his next of kin was his wife but did not mention her name, just a c/- address, Mrs E Burgess in Dundee, Scotland. This was a surprise but gave me some additional hope as if he was married, there would be a marriage certificate that may provide additional information to help trace him. I had a thought that maybe James had married a daughter of Mrs Burgess. Unfortunately, my search again came up empty.  

James Spencer  Australian Army Regiment

At about this time, I engaged a couple of professional Genealogists in Scotland to see if they could assist. Both came back within days and said that they could not help.

One avenue that I thought may assist was if I could obtain additional information from his regiment museum, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) in Berwick-upon-Tweed, England. Unfortunately, they had stopped assisting with family tree enquiries.

I kept looking for any potential leads for the next few years but got no further.

When visiting my Aunt Jean in Margaret River, I would ask questions about her father to see if I could glean some valuable information. Aunty Jean advised that her father celebrated his birthday on the 3rd of September. I am not sure why it took so long, but in one of my last visits with her, before she passed away in 2022 at the age of 94, she provided two bits of information that would reset my search parameters.

“I think he or his father changed their name from MacPherson” and “Margeret Webster may be his stepmother.”

With this information, I was back to square one. If he had changed his surname, did he also change his first name? Basically, I was uncertain of his name, place of birth, date of birth and parents.

The mention of MacPherson twigged my memory as James had recorded his previous employer on one of his British Army enlistment papers as being “Colin MacPherson, Market Gardener, Deceased.”

James Louisa and Jean Spencer


In early 2023, I noticed on the website of the KOSB Museum that they were now providing family tree research assistance. I sent off my request, and I eventually got a reply advising that they had James’s discharge statement from the British Army. I was then advised that the information could be collected, but there was the issue of the museum closing in August for 3 years due to renovations. 

I was already planning to visit Woodstock, Illinois, to attend the annual Macstock convention in late July, so I arranged my itinerary so I could get to the Museum on Friday, the 28th of July.

While waiting to take my trip, I engaged the services of the Research Team at the Tay Valley Family History Society to see if they could assist in locating my grandfather. They conducted a lot of research and came to the same conclusion that he could not be traced based on the available information. They were now invested in the search and were waiting to see what information I could obtain from the KOSB Museum.

I attended the KOSB museum and collected the available information. Most of the information I had already obtained regarding his service in the Army, the one new piece of information, was the mention of a marriage to Jemima Burgess in Dundee on 5 October 1915 on his discharge papers.

After leaving the museum, I was driving up to Inverness to do some Nessie hunting (unsuccessful😀 ) so I emailed the new information to the Research Team. By the time I arrived at Inverness, I had an email that provided the breakthrough that I had been searching for.

They had checked Scotlands People (the Scottish Government site for searching government records and archives) for a Marriage Certificate between James Spencer and Jemima Burgess. That search was unsuccessful, but they did find a marriage on the same day between John Robertson MacPherson and Jemima Burgess. Jemima lived at 26 Mid Street Dundee, the same address James had listed as the C/- address for his unnamed wife.

John MacPherson listed his father as Colin MacPherson, Market Gardener, Deceased, and his mother as Margaret MacPherson, maiden name Robertson. He also stated his occupation as being a Private in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

A search of Scottish Birth and Census records shows that Colin MacPherson was actually John/James’s grandfather. His mother was Margaret MacPherson, the daughter of Colin. Colin’s wife was Agnes Webster. Either on purpose or by confusion, James had mixed up his mother’s and grandmother’s names to use Margeret Webster on his Marriage Certificate.

John Macpherson’s birth certificate confirms his date of birth to be 3 September 1884 and his place of birth to be Dundee. It lists Margaret MacPherson as his mother, with no name for his father. I am taking a punt that John’s middle name, Robertson, is likely his father’s Surname. Of interest is in the 1881 Census, the MacPhersons lived in the same house as a Robertson family. I am hoping DNA may eventually confirm this theory.

A search on Fold3 for military records for John MacPherson came up with this index card from the Western Front Association archive.

John Macpherson British Army Index Card

It would appear that the British Army were aware of James’s true identity. All of the Regiments listed are the same as recorded under James Spencer’s index card. It is strange in the 100+ pages of records that I accessed at the National Archive, this was never mentioned; it would have saved a lot of time.

Jemima eventually filed for Divorce from John MacPherson (address unknown) in 1938. I wonder what the reason was for the breakdown of the marriage. I feel sorry for Jemima for the position I imagine she was left in when James left for Australia. I will be undertaking further research to try and gain insight into her life.

It may have taken years, but the effort was worthwhile as I now have a better understanding of my grandfather, James Spencer, formerly known as John MacPherson. I can also add Bigamy to his list of vices 😀.

Though for the many answered questions, I now have more questions to pursue. Fortunately, as time goes by, more and more information gets digitised, more people post details of their family tree, and more DNA tests get taken; it’s not always easy, but researching your family tree can be very rewarding.

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I have been floating around the Internet since the Unix days (no pretty pictures 😀) My interests are varied but include technology, automation, genealogy and pop culture.

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