The Williamsons of Widnes

A Family of Many Blessings and Gifts



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Archbishop O'Donnell 1897-1980


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- Robert & Mary Ann Williamson

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Robert Henry (1831-1877) & Mary Ann Williamson, nee O’Donnell (1828–1920)

The following story is derived mainly through family anecdotes and correspondence.  Genealogical  data and facts were noted and applied as they became available through the assistance of the Shetlands Family History Society and the archived pedigree records of a related Skehan family deposited in the history library of St Patrick's College, Thurles, Tipperary, Ireland.


Robert Henry Williamson was born the 5th of nine children of James (1790-1847) and Jean Williamson (nee Davidson, 1797-1863) on July 23, 1831 at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands and died after a shipwreck off the coast of Ireland around 1877.  This Williamson family, a seafaring people, lived in the Shetland Islands, principally at Lerwick.  They likely descended from the migration of Scots ancestors to the Shetlands from Aberdeen and Leith since the 16th century, when the Norwegian King ceded the Shetlands to Scotland


Shetland - Williamson Ancestral Home - 2009 Photos


Shetlands is the ancestral home of these Williamson's. We know little of the lives of these ancestors at this time, other than family tales of seafaring men, some of whom were master mariners and others recorded as local officers with Her Majesty's customs service.  We believe the family may have been among the Scots who immigrated there as far back as the 15th century.


     View a section of Lerwick Harbour                Lerwick -  Market Cross Area          Weaving Famous Shetland Woolens

Mary Ann O'Donnell was born the 2nd of eleven children of John (1805 - ?) and Catherine O'Donnell (nee Barnes) at Knockanglass. near Fethard in County Tipperary, Ireland, September 13, 1828.  She died at Lancaster, Lancashire in November 20, 1920. This O'Donnell family according to property and census records, lived and farmed at Knockanglass for centuries.  Current genealogical data show the earliest known family as James (1757-1801) and Catherine O'Donnell (nee Crean).

Ireland - O'Donnell Farm at Knockanglass - 2009 Photos

The O'Donnell farm on 'Knockanglass' hill, Tipperary, Ireland.  Though it was inhabited by O'Donnell's for many centuries, is now abandoned.   It is now mainly horse and cattle grazing land.  The current owners are Thomas and Ann Kelly (2009).  Only one old stone building thought to be a barn remains standing, while fallen building stones scatter their precious tales nearby.

          The old Gate to O'Donnell's Farm          O'Donnell  Knockanglass Barn             View from Knockanglass Hill

Robert and Mary Ann's Story

Robert and Mary Ann met  in Liverpool and married on November 21, 1858. They had four children, Thomas 1860, John 1862, Phyllis 1866 and Robert 1869.   Mary Ann could not read or write and marked the birth records of her children with an "X".

When they first met Mary Ann was to be a bridesmaid at her cousin's wedding that was to take place at a church in the Bootle area of Liverpool in 1858.  Robert along with the bridegroom met Mary Ann who arrived by ship from Ireland at the Liverpool docks. Upon boarding the ship wearing his kilt he witnessed an incident in which Mary Ann was being harassed by a shipboard sailor. The sailor was attempting to kiss Mary Ann.  Robert came to her rescue and warned the sailor to "be about his business".

A grateful Mary Ann took Robert’s arm as they left the ship and journeyed to the cousin’s home. Years later when asked how she felt about Robert she replied, "It was his bonny purty legs!" she fell in love with (it was her joke always).  Her granddaughter Josephine Hardie told the story that:" She used to tell me that they fell in love at first sight.  He was a very handsome man.  When she wrote home asking for her parents blessing on their coming marriage (they were only acquainted six weeks) she was at first told to "Beware of the foreigner" he is a Scot, but her cousin wrote to tell them that he was of exemplary character and would become a Catholic, so all was well.        

          Mary Ann O'Donnell 1828 - 1920                
The couple courted and married on November 21, 1858 and settled down at first in Liverpool and later at Runcorn across the river Mersey from Widnes. 

As already noted, Robert came from the Shetland Islands.  His mother Jean (nee Davidson) and her children left Lerwick and moved to North Leith near Edinburgh shortly after Robert's father James died in 1847.  His mother could speak only Gaelic and when Mary Ann went with him to visit her around 1859, Robert had to act as interpreter for Mary Ann.  .  We are told that Robert had at least two brothers who were sea captains and both of them were lost at sea or owing to an accident aboard ship.  He also had one sister Annie who lived in Liverpool and was married to a doctor named Dr. Grey.  Mary Ann seemed rather fond of her. She used to tell of a pet tortoise of Annie's.  One day it was in the hearth and was scalded.  Annie had a comb made from it.  When Robert was shipwrecked  off the coast of Ireland only he  and the cook survived to be picked up, (they were clinging to a raft of some wreckage from the ship for two days) but died from exposure and exhaustion.  Thereafter, Mary Ann never liked any of the family to travel on sea

Robert was a "Sampler" by trade. (we don't quite know what that is) but he was widely traveled going abroad testing and bringing home    Robert Henry Williamson 1831-1877 samples of goods or materials for his employer.  He was also a master mariner.  He could speak at least 5 languages.  He was fond of studying and watching the stars and often took a telescope with him and sit on Ponce hill in nearby Runcorn.                                                                                                   

Robert often traveled to North and South America.  Mary Ann accompanied her husband abroad on a few occasions.  One time when journeying to America the vessel sprung a leak and they were in great danger of being shipwrecked.  We are told that they were short of water to drink and ate only salted fish .

Once when he was going to Buenos Aires, she went to stay in New Jersey with a cousin until he had finished his business and he called for her on the return journey.  She used to speak of being taken down Broadway in a cab just for the experience of having seen the place.  In those days a place of some notoriety .  We think it was while she was in New Jersey, but it may have been New York, that she became friendly with a painter and his wife.  The painter was at that time painting a very large picture of the Last Judgment which was afterwards hung in a Cathedral or Large Church either in New Jersey or New York.  This same painter thought Grandma very beautiful and asked her to sit while he painted her portrait with his little daughter which he entitled "Peek-a-Bo". The connection to the New Jersey relatives disappeared over the years and, at present, we know nothing about these families and their descendants. We are told that two cousins served with the U. S. army during the civil war of 1861-1865.

After the  tragedy of Robert's untimely death, Mary Ann supported the family at first on her own.  She began a humble work at cleaning local business and professional offices.  Sons Thomas and John  began to work at odd jobs.   Daughter Phyllis and youngest son Robert were attending school.    She continued in this work until she was well up in years.  Later she moved to the town of Lancaster to retire and live near son Robert and his family. 

The eldest son Thomas  entered and later left a seminary in Ireland where he was studying to become a Catholic priest.   He later married Honor Riley in 1883  whose family is said to have owned a Runcorn hotel.  Thomas was an accountant employed by a shipping firm.

As did most of the Irish, the family lived and practiced the Catholic Christian faith from birth.   Living their faith, reinforced with love and joy, sustained their souls all the days of their lives.  Their faith in and love of God and the Church permeated the life of these families.  Holy Mass,   Baptisms, Holy Communions, Marriages, Wakes and Funerals were special celebrations of love, of devotion, of oneness, and were of great importance. 

The Irish were mostly poor folk, yet their poverty was alive with hope and meaning.  Their devotion to prayer as the means to the goal of spiritual growth with God was passed lovingly to each new generation.  The O'Donnell/Williamson family nurtured the faith in their children.
<---Mary Ann with granddaughters Doris and Eileen ca 1906 

The untimely death of her daughter Phyllis marked a second tragedy  in Mary Ann's life.  Daughter Phyllis married a civil engineer, James Hardie in 1889.  They lost a first daughter shortly after its birth.



Sometime later they went to the then colony of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) were James was employed in the building of a railway across the country.  Their daughter Josephine was born at Baboya Ceylon in 1896 and Phyllis died from a fever on board the SS Himalaya returning to England through the Suez Canal in 1897 and held for burial until the ship arrived at Valetta Malta.  When the Himalaya docked in England James passed the child Josephine over to his wife's brother John Williamson and wife Ellen.  James Hardie was committed to further work abroad so he allowed the child to be with her grandmother Mary Ann Williamson in Lancaster.

Josephine was raised by grandma and years later the roles were reversed as Josephine lovingly cared for Mary Ann in her old age until her death in 1920.  Josephine was married to John Edward Whitehouse and treasured a son Ted who later taught at various schools and mathematics at Hopwood Hall and at University of Manchester.  The family lost contact with Ted and his family.  Josephine Died at Lancaster in 1978 from the long term effects of diabetes, whereby a few years before her legs had been amputated                                                                                                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                                        Mary Ann & Josephine  ca 1910
Other than the love, respect and affection that Mary Ann's children and grandchildren gave to her over the ensuing years prior to her death in 1920, there is very little known of her life.  We know that she remained living close to her son Robert and grand daughter Josephine Hardie in Lancaster.  Only one of her children, John with his family, moved far away to Vancouver Canada in 1910.  This loss she suffered with resignation, patience and silence.  John did return to see her for the last time during his volunteer service overseas with the AEF as a member of the Knights of Columbus providing recreational services for the U.S. troops in France in 1917-1919.  Her grandson Sydney, John's son, served with the Royal Flying Corps and visited her during this period also.

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Published April 2009 Revised February and May of 2010