Obituary: Sheila Macbeth Mitchell

Angus Mitchell
Saturday 19 March 1994 00:02

Sheila Macbeth, family historian: born Bolton 12 June 1890; auxiliary nurse, QAIMNS 1915-18; joint compiler (with John Mitchell) of 12 volumes of monumental inscriptions in Scotland, 1967-75; MBE 1980; married 192O John Mitchell (died 1984; one son, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Batheaston 15 February 1994.

SHEILA Macbeth Mitchell was one of Scotland's best-known family historians. For many years she and her husband (the late John Mitchell, one of the founder members of the Scottish Genealogy Society) systematically recorded all the pre-1955 inscriptions in numerous Scottish kirkyards, creating an invaluable record for people tracing their ancestry. She mas appointed MBE for her services to genealogy in 1980.

As they traced their own family trees, John and Sheila Mitchell found that old gravestones are one of the main sources of information before registration of births, marriages and deaths was made compulsory in 1855. Between 1950 and 1980 they accordingly made systematic lists, not only of their own family graves, but of all pre-1855 inscriptions in most of Central Scotland. In all kinds of weather they could be seen brushing the lichen off old stones, deciphering worn inscriptions going back to the Reformation, and carefully replacing the turf over stones which had long been concealed.

Returning to their home in Edinburgh, they laboriously typed out and indexed their notes; made plans of each burial ground and hand-coloured maps of each county recorded; churned out several hundred copies of each list on an ancient duplicator; and dispatched the completed volumes on orders received from libraries and genealogists around the world.

Their 12 published volumes of inscriptions in eight Scottish counties, most of which have had to be reprinted to meet the continuing demand from genealogists, have been a valuable source of income to the Scottish Genealogy Society. They were still active until well into their nineties, and their example stimulated a number of volunteers to extend their work to other areas. Their daughter Alison has made lists of inscriptions in five more counties for publication by the society. Their son Angus is now coordinating the Recording Scottish Graveyards Project, which aims to have a complete record of all pre-1855 inscriptions in Scotland by the end of the century.

Although best known for her work on monumental inscriptions, Mrs Mitchell also helped the work of the Scottish Genealogical Society in other ways. She transcribed a number of Poll Tax and Hearth Tax records from the 1690s in the Scottish Records Office, some of them barely legible, for inclusion in the published lists of inscriptions. Her transcription of the 1694 Hearth Tax records for Dunbartonshire will soon be published posthumously. She also enjoyed advising family historians from overseas on how to start searching for their ancestors.

Sheila Mitchell was intensely proud of her Macbeth ancestry, although she did not claim any connection with the king of that name. She was the granddaughter of the artist Norman Macbeth, and the sister of Ann Macbeth, lecturer in embroidery and one of the 'Glasgow Girls'. She was disappointed, however, that she could not find firm evidence to support the family tradition that her Macbeth ancestors in Callander were descended from the Beatons, hereditary doctors to several clans in the Hebrides. At the age of 97, she hosted a family gathering for over 120 Macbeths from all over Britain, France and the United States.

Born in Bolton of Scots parents, she was brought up in Lancashire and Surrey, and educated at Polam Hall, Darlington. An accomplished golfer in her youth, she wanted to become a teacher of physical education, but her family would not let her take a job. The First World War, however, enabled her - like many other women of her generation - to leave home and serve as an auxiliary nurse in Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service.

After serving in the Mediterranean on the Hospital Ship Britannic she nursed the wounded in military hospitals in France. In 1920 she met and married John Mitchell, home on leave from the Punjab; before his retiral from the Indian Civil Service in 1935, three of their four children where born in India, and one died there in infancy. As a memsahib during the British Raj, she had to learn how to cope with a large household of servants and their dependents - sometimes asking her children to serve as interpreters.

At the age of 86 Sheila Mitchell answered an appeal from Jacques Cousteau for survivors of the sinking of the Britannic on 21 November 1916. This White Star liner was built as the sister ship of the ill-fated Titanic, but was converted into a hospital ship when war broke out in 1914 and brought many wounded soldiers home from Gallipoli. On her second outward journey (fortunately with no wounded on board) the hospital ship sank near the island of Kea from an explosion - from a torpedo according to the British account, or from a mine according to the German Imperial Navy.

Sixty years later Cousteau with difficulty located the wrecked ship on the bed of the Aegean, and Sheila Mitchell flew there to give him her clear memories of the sinking. She even descended to the seabed in Cousteau's mini-submarine to see round the wreck, but was disappointed that none of his divers could recover the alarm clock she had left in her cabin. As the star of the film Cousteau in Search of the Britannic, she greatly enjoyed a six-week publicity tour of the United States. One American fan in her seventies wrote to her: 'Mrs Mitchell, you have made me realise that I have been wasting my life.'

After reaching her centenary, Sheila Mitchell's eyesight and mobility deteriorated and very few of her old friends survived. She retained a remarkable memory, however, and was rarely at a loss for an anecdote of her full and active life.

(Photograph omitted)

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