Smyllum Park Orphanage


Smyllum Park Orphanage

Opened in 1864 and in operation until 1981, the Smyllum Park Orphanage in Lanark was a place of last resort for Scotland’s working-class poor.  Children were often placed there if the family fell on hard times, or split apart due to unfortunate circumstances. In similar fashion, forty-two parochial boards placed their Catholic children receiving assistance there.1 The orphanage was run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. Established in the 1600s in France, this order of nuns vow to assist the neediest of society through providing basic sustenance and medical support.2


Agnes Sinclair was eleven years of age when she and her younger brother Alexander, just seven years old found themselves enumerated in the 1911 census as boarders at Smyllum Park Orphanage.3 The children had been raised within the Roman Catholic faith by their mother, herself of Irish Catholic descent. By 1911 they were orphans in every sense. Their father, Dugald Sinclair, a master cabinet maker died in 1905, of phthisis pulmonalis.4 Their mother Agnes (Currie) Sinclair died four years later on 27th December 1909. The cause of death listed as an abscess in the lung and haemoptysis, or the coughing up of blood.5 Likely this too was related to tuberculosis.

Applications for Relief

As soon as thirty-one-year-old Agnes (Currie) Sinclair found herself widowed with two children under the age of five, she filed an Application for Relief in Glasgow. It was determined she was partially disabled, meaning she needed to care for her young children but was otherwise fit for work. Additionally, she was determined to be partially destitute as she was currently wholly dependent on her brother-in-law Charles McLaughlin for sustenance and shelter.6

Relief, what we might call welfare here in the United States, was available for those unable to care for themselves. Initially administered in 1845 by the various parishes, responsibility of the relief rolls was assumed in 1894 by the parochial boards.7

Unable to work during his final year of life, Dugald had turned to Charles McLaughlin for help. As a result, four months prior to his death, the Sinclair family had crowded into the McLaughlin’s 3rd-floor tenement housing. Here they joined Charles, his son Francis, who would die of tuberculosis in 1907, and his daughter Mary Ann. Widowed himself, Charles was some thirty-years older than Agnes. She was a daughter to him as “he had practically raised her.”8

One can imagine the sense of grief this household experienced when on the 6th December 1909, Charles McLaughlin passed away and twenty-one days later Agnes (Currie) Sinclair had too.9 Her children were left with only their maternal cousin Mary Ann McLaughlin to care for them.

A machinist by trade, working in a sewing factory, Mary Ann had limited options available to her for caring for the young children. Having lost her own mother to tuberculosis at the age of 10, it is likely she understood their grief.10 It can be assumed she had the best of intentions for Agnes and Alexander, but life in the inner city of Glasgow was unforgiving.

Without delay, Mary Ann applied for temporary parish relief for the children. She indicated arrangements were already in the works to remove the children to Smyllum Orphanage. This was just six days after these children had lost their mother. What hard lives this marginalized family lived, full of loss and difficult decisions. Decisions ruled by poverty and necessity rather than opportunities.

Where was the Care?

For the young Sinclair children, what was their life like when they entered the orphanage?  We may never know.  But what we do know is that from 2000, Smyllum Park Orphanage has been under scrutiny as former residents, or survivors, as they are now called, have raised questions regarding the form of “care” the children received. Allegations of heinous abuse, punishments, and torture have surfaced. Not to mention the claims of withholding of medical care and malnutrition. Crimes the Roman Catholic Church is now accused of covering over.11

The tragic news was announced today of the discovery of an unmarked mass grave at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Lanark containing about 400 children. Even more shocking is the truth that these children were in care at Smyllum with the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. With this in mind, one has to wonder whether you dare to count Agnes and Alexander as some of the lucky ones. For the most part, they survived. Or to put it another way, they out-lived their time with the nuns.


In any event, Agnes and Alexander stayed loyal to their faith, as many victims betrayed by those they trust will. Alexander, a plumber at the time, married nineteen-year-old Agnes Miller McNelly in Possilpark, Glasgow at St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church on the 1st January 1926, his sister Agnes serving as a witness.12 In 1930 Agnes would follow suit marrying Peter Coyle a steel erector at St. Charles’ Roman Catholic Church in Kelvinside Gardens, Glasgow.13

Short Lives that Mattered

Agnes passed away from chronic nephritis in 1944.14 Six years later, at the age of forty-six, Alexander would follow. Like his parents, he succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis. His son Alexander acted as the informant.15

One can not help but wonder what Agnes and Alexander might have shared about their tragic childhoods filled with loss, or their time under the care of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. What we do know is that the 402 children unceremoniously buried in a mass grave deserve better. Their families deserve answers. Ultimately, they deserve the right to lay their loved ones to final rest with the respect that should have been shown to these children in life.

  1. Higginbotham, Peter. Smyllum Orphanage, Smyllum Park, Lanark, Lanarkshire, Scotland. : accessed 10 September 2017. []
  2. Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. : accessed 10 September 2017. []
  3. Census. 1911. Scotland. Lanark, Lanark. 648/00 016/00 007. : accessed 10 September 2017. [Agnes Sinclair, age 11.] Census. 1911. Lanark, Lanark. 648/00 016/00 019. [Alexander Sinclair, age 7.] []
  4. Deaths (CR) Scotland. Blackfriars, Glasgow. 26 October 1905. SINCLAIR, Dugald. 644/05 0412. : accessed 10 September 2017. []
  5. Deaths (CR) Scotland. Calton, Glasgow. 27 December 1909. SINCLAIR, Agnes. 644/03 0883. : accessed 10 September 2017. []
  6. Application for Relief. Glasgow. 30 October 1905. Sinclair, Widow Dugald Sinclair Agnes Currie. Number 2500. The Mitchell Library. D-HEW 16/13/17. [While responsibility was eventually admitted by Glasgow a similar application was filed in Govan Combination.] Application for Relief. Govan Combination, Glasgow. 29 December 1905. Sinclair or Currie, Agnes. Number 79562. The Mitchell Library. D-HEW 17/563. []
  7. National Records of Scotland. Poor Relief Records. : accessed 10 September 2017. []
  8. Application for Relief. Glasgow. 30 October 1905. Sinclair, Widow Dugald Sinclair Agnes Currie. Number 2500. The Mitchell Library. D-HEW 16/13/17. []
  9. Deaths (CR) Scotland. Calton, Glasgow. 06 December 1909. McLAUGHLIN, Charles. 644/03 0807. : accessed 10 September 2017. []
  10. Deaths (CR) Scotland. Blackfriars, Glasgow. 04 January 1886. McLAUGHLIN, Mary Ann. 644/05 0011. : accessed 10 September 2017. []
  11. Bowcott, Owen. (2017) Nuns ‘Could Find No Evidence’ of Abuse at Smyllum, Lanark. Carluke Gazette. 21 June 2017. : accessed 10 September 2017. []
  12. Marriages (CR) Scotland. Possilpark, Glasgow. 01 January 1926. SINCLAIR, Alexander and McNELLY, Agnes. 644/07 0010. : accessed 10 September 2017. []
  13. Marriages (CR) Scotland. Kelvin, Glasgow. 16 July 1930. COYLE, Peter and SINCLAIR, Agnes. 644/13 0192. : accessed 10 September 2017. []
  14. Deaths (CR) Scotland. Springburn, Glasgow. 08 October 1944. COYLE, Agnes. 644/05 1312. : accessed 10 September 2017. []
  15. Deaths (CR) Scotland. Provan, Glasgow. 30 January 1950. SINCLAIR, Alexander. 644/04 0094. : accessed 10 September 2017. []

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