A previous post told of Scotland’s first passenger rail service on the Kilmarnock & Troon Railway. In July this year, to commemorate the bicentenary of this pioneering railway’s completion, a new plaque was unveiled for Laigh Milton Viaduct – the world’s oldest surviving public railway viaduct. The plaque commemorates the great Devonshire civil engineer William Jessop, the surveyor John Wilson (who eventually came to manage both the railway and Troon Harbour, and is buried at Crosbie Kirkyard near Troon) and the unsung hero of the railway’s construction, the resident engineer Thomas Hollis.
When the Marquess of Titchfield (he became the 4th Duke of Portland in 1809) engaged William Jessop as consultant engineer, Jessop’s health was already beginning to fail – he would die in 1814 – and it was on his fellow Englishman Thomas Hollis that most of the responsibility would fall for building Scotland’s first proper railway.
In 1809 Thomas contracted with Glenbuck Ironworks for 1,000 tons of rails to be cast, in sections 3 feet long and 4 inches wide. In March 1810, tenders were invited for the carving of stone sleeper blocks from local quarries – a total of 60,000.
Thomas took up residence in the house which would later become Marine Cottage, near Troon’s South Beach. (The flats at Marine Court View now occupy the site.) The Dundonald Old Parish Registers record three sons born in Troon to Thomas and his wife Ann in 1812 (Thomas Hall Ashmead Hollis), 1814 (John Hollis) and 1815 (Nicholas Alexander Hollis). The couple may have been the Thomas Hollis and Anne Davis who are on record as marrying in Manchester in 1799.
On 31st May 1816 one of Thomas’s colleagues in the Duke’s railway and harbour management team at Troon, William Evans, was hanged at Ayr having been found guilty of forging bills of exchange. This affair must have in some way reflected badly on Thomas (who had been a character witness for Evans at the trial). It is surely no coincidence that it is at this very time that his employment by the Duke appears to have been terminated. The sale of his furniture and livestock was advertised in the local press. However, it seems that he remained in the district and, having in unknown circumstances reverted to single status – probably through the apparently unrecorded death of his wife Ann – he in due course married again.
In May 1830 the marriage is recorded in Kilmarnock of a Thomas ‘Hollins’ and an Ayrshire-born widow, Catherine Smith. The Dundonald burial register records the death at Crosshouse on 10th March 1833 of a Thomas ‘Hollas’, and his burial at Dundonald three days later.
In Dundonald Churchyard stands a stone bearing the names of local-born monumental sculptor Joseph Boyd and his wife Mary ‘Hollies’, who erected it in 1864 in memory of one of their children. On the side of the stone Joseph also commemorated his father-in-law Thomas ‘Hollies’ and his mother-in-law Catherine Smith. The day and month given for Thomas’s death, 10th March, corresponds with the 1833 record, but the year on the stone is 1836. (Thomas’s age at death is given as 60.)
On the 1879 death certificate of Catherine Smith, her second husband is noted as having been Thomas ‘Hollies’, civil engineer. On the 1885 death certificate of Catherine’s daughter Mary, the wife of Joseph Boyd, her father is given as Thomas Hollis, civil engineer, and it is as Mary Hollis that she appears on the family gravestone in Ayr Cemetery. All of this, and the rarity of the surname in the district, surely confirms that the Thomas ‘Hollies’ commemorated in Dundonald Churchyard is the Thomas Hollis who was resident engineer of the Kilmarnock &Troon Railway.
In early census records, the age attributed to Mary indicates that she was born around 1831/32, but later records accord with the age at death in February 1885 of 50 which appears on her death certificate and gravestone. (No birth/baptism record for her has emerged.) If she was indeed born in 1834/35, it probably explains why Joseph Boyd engraved 1836 on the Dundonald stone as the year of Thomas’s death – to conceal the fact that, having actually died in March 1833, he was not Mary’s father.
This has been an interesting case study in family history detective work, as well as illustrating the vagaries of spelling which an unfamiliar name may undergo in older records.