Back to Brownlee biography index
Back to Forrest index

Janet Brownlee 1804-1867

A Tribute

Someone once said to me, "if I had even one Forrest in my family tree I would commit hari kari.  There are hundreds of them everywhere."

True.  But there are as many or more Brownlees, and, to add to my woes, the Forrest and Brownlee families were friends, business colleagues, and related by marriage in a web of complicated connections that require mapping in order to follow them.  But from the sea of names, for me, one stands out. 

Janet Brownlee, born 1804-1867, Carluke.  She was the daughter of James Brownlee and Margaret Elizabeth Ross.

Janet married John Forrest 1790-1844, the twin son of Robert Forrest and Helen Hamilton.  Robert is my gggg grandfather.  Significant, too, is her mother’s maiden name, Ross.  It began the use of Ross as a Christian name within the family and my father was christened Gavin Ross Forrest. (1905-1990 Havelock, New Zealand).  I had never wondered where or how the name began but finding out unexpectedly was a delightful moment in the discovery of Janet Brownlee.

Janet was young, only twenty when her first child was born.  She was forty when the eleventh and last baby arrived in the same year as her husband died.  Eleven children!  She was married to a man fourteen years older and one well used to his freedom by the time he married Janet.  I doubt he offered her much support in the raising of their children but, equally, I doubt that she needed it.

As I learned more about her I developed a real caring for this girl who had spent the best years of her life pregnant.  I grew up almost pioneering the now fashionable estate of a childless marriage by choice, when women were nurses, typists or mothers, and the business world was the domain of men, so I empathise with Janet’s place in time.  Her life had centred about motherhood until John died, and I doubt she had moved far from her household responsibilities.  So, what happened next astonished me.

At the time of John’s death the family were farming at the Hill of Kilncadzow.  The property appears to have totalled 400 acres although a slip of the pen may have changed a 2 to look like a 4.  Either or, the number of zeroes remained the same.  How daunting must that have been, widowed, eleven children, little or no experience of life outside the home, and a huge farm that needed to be managed.

When I read a comment stating "Janet, unable to cope, left the farm soon after John died in 1844 and went to live in the city", I felt justice had not fairly served this incredibly courageous woman.  She not only held her family together but, for at least the next seven years, she continued to farm.  The 1851 census shows Janet and seven of her children living at the Hill of Kilncadzow.  Four of her children were at school.  She was employing seven farm labourers and one servant named Grace Burns, age 21.  Defeat was not in Janet’s blood and fleeing to the city was not a part of her plan.  She epitomised the Brownlee ability to overcome difficulty, the determination to succeed, and the strength to each be his/her own person.

I can only imagine how she was frowned upon by her superiors in the community.  On the 1851 census form she describes herself modestly as farming 400 acres.  I noticed during my research that the man down the road farming 8 acres called himself a landed proprietor.  That says so much about this lady who took on the challenge of working in a man’s world and won.  She did not think failure and she did not waste energy on preening feathers when she didn’t need to fly, Janet rolled up her sleeves and remained focused on the task before her.  As the modern saying goes, she was a lady with attitude.

I suspect those years after John died were the hardest and happiest of her life, because they gave her the freedom to develop to her true potential.

That she organised her family and managed this large tract of land is amazing in any terms but to do it in the 1840’s and 50’s is a notable achievement.  My admiration for Janet is huge and growing.  I was brought up in Marlborough where the Brownlee families enjoyed success with their sawmilling business and our family connections go back to Scotland.  I grew up listening to the stories of those times and we are repeating them still.  I have added Janet’s story to those being told.

We know her children and grandchildren were successful in life.  Certainly an element to the success of Janet and her family was having a wealthy family background but I get the impression they would have succeeded anyway. 

The Census 1861 showed Janet had moved to Maryhill, Glasgow, and she died there in 1867 at the age of 63.

My life has been enriched by Janet Brownlee marrying into the Forrest family, she is a great favourite of mine, like a dear and special friend, and I was born almost a century and a half after Janet and found her when I was 60.  She is a gem amidst the not untalented Forrests and the partners they brought into the family, a truly remarkable lady with an immeasurable depth of character.

Tribute supplied courtesy of Nyle Forrest James, Blenheim, New Zealand (June 2006)