Skeletons in the cupboard

Making connections

The internet makes family history research about a million times easier than it must have been in the past. Not only are many publications, newspapers and documents digitised and searchable, but family historians can create (free) websites (like this one), which over time show up in search and help connect people with similar research interests. Similarly, researchers can post messages on genealogy forums, and connections are often established this way.

After India

In fact, it was through an online forum that I got a message from Gerry Cockburn a few years ago. A keen genealogist, he told me that Minnie’s brother, Maurice, is his paternal grandfather. However, Gerry did not share the fascination that I have for the Cockburn’s colourful story. In fact, he warned me about ‘skeletons in the cupboard’.

Gerry told me that after leaving India, Maurice lived in the UK where he married Amelia Wells (1877-1908). They had two children – James Ulick George (b. 1899) and Herbert (b. 1901, d. 1933). James/Ulick married Violet Button, and Gerry is one of their children.

However, Gerry explained that his father grew up in miserable poverty because Maurice effectively abandoned Amelia and the children. They lived with Amelia’s mother – but it was a tough and impoverished childhood.

Maurice, meanwhile, made a living by ‘borrowing’ money, jewellery and other valuable items from women he had liaisons with. At times he used false names, such as his deceased brothers’ or father’s names – and made false claims about his rank in the army.

Maurice Cockburn.

Maurice Cockburn (date unknown). Photo provided by Ashlee Brandon.


In 1908 Maurice (going by his father’s name, James) was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for those crimes, which included bigamy.

Gerry recalled that after Maurice came out of prison he adopted another false name – Jack Haydon Hadow – and married a wealthy woman called Maggie Jane Paterson (Amelia, his wife, having died in 1908). Maurice travelled extensively around the world, and visited Minne in New Zealand at least once.

The existence of this letter indicates that at this point in his life Maurice had contact with his children: when the letter was written, James/Ulick would have been about 22.

When Maggie died in 1928 at a hotel in Lyon, France, she left a will that amounted to £41,963 net – nearly £2 million in today’s money. She left a considerable amount to charities and £1000 a year to Maurice.

Gerry discovered that within 2 months of the estate being finalised Maurice married again, using his proper name. He died in 1941 from a heart attack brought on by coal gas poisoning.

Circumstances, choices and integrity

In India, Maurice had known a life of privilege and fine living – and undoubtedly he expected to live in a similarly fine manner in England. He seems to have got off to a very good start there: the Old Bailey record tells us that he arrived in England at the age of 19 (so, in 1890). He joined the King’s Royal Dragoon Guards and by 1901 had attained the position of riding master – with a commission and the rank of lieutenant – and was considered one of the smartest cavalry riders in the Army.

However, his dishonesty ruined it all: he got into trouble by passing dishonoured cheques and there was a further charge of having lodged a Government horse in payment of a private debt. He was court-martialled, found guilty, and ‘cashiered’ in July, 1903.

Maurice went with Amelia and the children to Sheffield, where they lived with her mother. He was appointed a sub-agent of the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada in 1904, but this may not have provided much income. Later in 1904 he went to London and, according to Old Bailey: “seemed to have given himself entirely to getting into the company of young women with means”.

The investigating officer noted that, judging from what he had heard and from Maurice’s appearance, he had “a fascinating way with ladies” – while a witness described his flat in Hanover Square as “rather fashionably furnished”.

More connections

Another descendant of Maurice, Ashlee Brandon, made contact in 2016. Her grandmother, who lives in Auckland, NZ, has two photos with Maurice in them, which Ashlee copied for me. Ashlee’s grandmother said that James/Ulick – Maurice’s son – was her grandfather.

Esmay Cockburn, Maurice Cockburn, and others.

From left: Esmay, unknown, Maurice, unknown. Photo provided by Ashlee Brandon.

If you have Cockburn family connections, do get in touch using the contact form on this site so we can share information and further build the story of this interesting family.


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My visit to Mussoorie

In October 2014 I went to India. I wanted to look for the house my Cockburn ancestors had lived in, in Mussoorie, and visit Camels Back Road Cemetery. However, my journey also had a more subtle goal: I wanted to discover what India was like – I wanted to get an idea of what it was about India that the family had loved so much.

In India the Sanskrit word yatra is used to describe a sacred or special pilgrimage – and I came to think of the trip as a personal yatra.

In Mussoorie I stayed in Landour and loved walking the high wooded roads, gazing at the snow-covered Himalayas on clear days and watching the mists roll in and out on hazy days. The ‘winter line’, an atmospheric phenomenon found only in two or three parts of the world, created stunning sunsets that went on and on.


Sunset from Ivy Bank guesthouse in Landour, showing the winter line.


Most days I walked down to Mussoorie ‘central’ through the old, narrow Landour bazaar where the shops are still populated mostly by shoe makers, tinkers, tailors, sweet sellers, fruit shops and tiny grocery shops.

Garland seller in Landour bazaar threads marigolds for Diwali.

Garland seller in Landour bazaar threading marigolds for the Diwali festival.


Mussoorie ‘central’ was a completely different place, with an endless and often ugly jam of hotels, shops and traffic created for the Indian tourist market.  However, I’d known before I went there that it would be commercialised, and didn’t find it too bad. In every corner of India there is a special experience to be had – something unexpected or interesting. The trick was to take it in small chunks and not become overwhelmed or exhausted.

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Library Chowk.

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Library Chowk, against a backdrop of hotel signs.


Stepping back off the road into a doorway would give me a safe spot from where I could look at the street more closely, and I could often identify remnants of colonial buildings and landmarks.

PIcture Palace - now a video parlour.

Picture Palace – now a video parlour.


Beyond Library Chowk, the Mall Road became less busy. Camels Back Road was a lovely walk, and a highlight was the day I took a taxi to Everest House and saw a stunning panorama of the Himalayas.

Himalayas from Everest House.

Himalayas from Everest House.


The ‘Mussoorie’ tab in the top menu has links to photos and information I gathered during my trip.

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Starting out

My mother, who is now 80, has a particular fondness for India that she inherited from her grandmother, Minnie (Mignonette Cockburn), who lived in Bengal and Mussoorie for much of the first 21 years of her life.

Minnie standing behind Rani, who is holding Virginia on the swing.

Minnie, Rani and Virginia: Dunedin, NZ, 1932 (approx).

During her secondary school years in Dunedin, New Zealand, my mother spent a lot of time with Minnie, who lived near her boarding school. Minnie, an entertaining story teller, shared both fascinating and incredible stories about her life in India – and these proved unforgettable for Mum.

She also left her a photo album that contains about 30 photos of Mussoorie and surrounding areas, taken in about 1897.

My own grandmother,  Rani (Minnie’s daughter), also ‘inherited’ this love of India from Minnie – and when I was a small child she in turn repeated the now-thoroughly-embellished India stories to me.

Mignonette Cockburn > Rani Hyde (nee Bennell) > Virginia Nelson (nee Hyde) > Anne Nelson (that’s me).

How this project started

A while ago I started the sojourn into family history research that so many embark on and from which so few quickly return.

As I disappeared into Google, online databases, genealogy message boards, the National Library and Archives NZ, my mother (Virginia) expressed her interest in finding out more about where her grandmother had lived in India and “what they did there”.

On this website I’ll share with you what I’ve found out – in case you’re also researching a branch of the Cockburn family; or have an interest in one of the places, occupations or events in India that I’ve come across.

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