The Isabella Dall Rodger mystery

July 13 2011 13:00

 Ronald Rodger CASEBY records the following notes on his Aunt Bella (Isabella Dall RODGER). I was born on 07/11/1936 into a household where Aunt Bell (or Bella) who was born on 02/07/1866 was being given a home by my parents in her declining years when she appeared to be increasingly suffering from senile dementia.  My mother was to tell me in later years that Aunt Bella had been a very time and attention demanding and fastidious patient.  She greatly resented Mum being pregnant with me and not being able to devote more time to Bella's needs.  So from before my birth Aunt Bella disliked me and afterwards even more so as I was breast fed by my mother and given much attention by all the rest of my family, our many relations, and friends.  Mum said Aunt Bella eventually came round to liking me as I was a very quite and well behaved child, and latterly was most anxious to hold me, rock me in my cradle and sing and speak softly to me as she had done with other children in her care. 

In later years both my mother and father, and others, were to mention facts and queries to me regarding the life and times of Aunt Bella. For example two ladies called unexpectedly at Carlops Manse one Saturday afternoon in January 1959 were introduced to me as Sheriff McClure's two daughters. Aunt Bella, in her second job as a Nanny, had been their Nanny during their youth, their tutor in many practical skills, and their Maidservant and Companion on all their family travels throught out the Continent of Europe, in Canada and America. The McClure House was at 16, Heriott Row, Edinburgh, Scotland. These ladies told us that to their knowledge Aunt Bella never married, nor had any children out of wedlock. They said she had many male admirers who gave her expensive gifts, and so she surely must have amassed considerable savings for she was never required to pay for anything by her employers and was paid a good salary. Aunt Bella had come to their home with excellent references from her first employers, a Jewish one with a surname sounding like MICHAELHOSE, who lived in or near to Edinburgh. She was also understood to have inherited money, shares, property and goods through her family and relations at various times, the details of which she kept in her "kist" (small chest), and had her affairs looked after by a Solicitor who she claimed was a Cousin. 

At one stage during that 1959 discussion the McClure girls said that when they were very young, they recalled their parents talking about Aunt Bella having a year or so unaccounted for in her employment record with her first employers.  The McClure ladies also mentioned the fact that Aunt Bella rarely took holidays apart from her travels with them her wards, or the family, and only had the odd days with her nearest relations.  In all the 30 years  they knew Aunt Bella the sisters were astonished that Bella took one day off per week, mid-week.  The family carriage would take her to the entrance to Haymarket Station, Edinburgh, for about 10-30 pm and was required to meet her there at 4-30pm.  Aunt Bella was a very healthy person, but even when she had an illness the girls said that this would not stop her making this weekly trip about which she was completely secretive. She never spoke of where she had been or what she had done on her day off.  The McClure girls only knew that she would take her pay in cash, and any other money gifts, with her and would return empty handed. They assumed that she had banked the money at a Bank in  the Haymarket, or delivered it to her Solicitor Cousin for investing, or safe-keeping. 

 Following that visit by the McClure sisters in 1959, and on other occasions my parents spoke about Aunt Bella’s "vanishing act" and spoke of the long held rumour amongst the family that she had probably produced a child during that time, the father being either one of, or another employee of, the MICHALEHOSE family, and that the illegitimate child had died in infancy.  The other speculation was that the child had lived and that she was allowed a weekly visit to the family and her child which had been adopted, and that all her money went on gifts for her child. 

Elizabeth  Muir  (nee Caseby) mentioned in a letter to me at Christmas 1991 that James Rodger had visited her father,  William, to meet his wife after their marriage in 1930. I mentioned this to Mum on 16/04/1992 and she said it was James who had come from America and was staying with her and Dad for 6 months at Ernest Cottage in Lundin Links which they were  renting. He went to congratulate William on his marriage and to  meet the bride and be able to take word back to America. Mum said James did not like living in New York and hoped to win a sweepstake he had entered in Methil so that he could bring his family home. Mum said that James and family had lived in White Rose Terrace, or Avenue, Eve Cottage in Methil Hill, Fife, before going to New York,  America. They followed their daughter Nell there for she had married a William Williamson from Newport, Fife,  and then emigrated to New York.  James took his wife, Helen Cameron, and Mum thinks their other daughters ( June and Ruby) with them - she was not sure of any other family. Elizabeth also mentioned William Williamson in her letter and thought that he might be Bella Rodger's suspected illegitimate which James  had mentioned when he visited her parents in Glasgow when on a business trip from the USA in1930. 

Mum added that as a boy Dad had often visited his Uncle James in Methil and holidayed with his family with his  mother and brothers including Elizabeth's father William. 

There was also a story that Bella might have had  illegitimate girl twins who were both born deaf, dumb and blind, and took her  money to them on weekly visits until they died as teenagers.  From 1986 to 1994 my cousins James and David CASEBY did some research around the Haymarket area of Edinburgh for me in an attempt to find any unclaimed Bank Accounts in Bella's name. They also spoke with other relations who said that Bella had produced twin blind, deaf and dumb daughters to one of the MACLURE family members. The girls were kept in a private Home in Edinburgh until they died around 1940. It was believed that Bella spent all her time off with her daughters and used every penny she saved to buy them luxuries. 

At 10 Lincoln Green, Chichester we have a lovely Fire-screen depicting in embroidery Joseph being stripped of his "Coat of Many Colours" by his brothers before being thrown into a well.  Mum and Dad gifted to us when they left Balhouffie, as no other member of the family apart from me had shown an interest in the CASEBY and RODGER family genealogy. This happened during a holiday with Mum and Dad at Balhouffie from16/04/1992,  Both Mum and Dad understood that the tapestry had been worked by Bella's (and her sister Margaret's) Grandmother, Isabella DALL, wife of William RODGER, or by one of the RODGER wives of one of their Great Uncles with the maiden surname of BELL, around 1815. 

Towards the end of her life my mother told me that when Bella Rodger died at Newmills Manse she left everything to Mum and Dad in her will. She said she had money but none was ever found. Her solicitor was a relation who left for South America when she died. Bella had inherited her late parent's  home at Burnside House, Lundin Links, Fife and Dad was left this property in her Will. Bella was of course sister to Margaret Rodger, wife of John Caseby, Dad's parents.  (This belief that he had been cheated out of the money left to him was probably why Dad was adamant from that date onwards that relations who were in the legal profession should not be used by family members for private business.) 

Concerning the house Dad was told that by a local Builder that the Burnside House property was only fit to be demolished as it was in a dangerous state. Dad, believing the informant, sold it to him for £30. It was almost immediately let out in 1937 with little done to it. The house was still in use at Easter 1992 when I and my family motored past it with the Tapestry in the car boot, and also when my brother Cyril visited it in March 2003! 

When my father visited the house in late 1937 it had been vandalised and all the valuable contents had been stolen from it. It was some time before Dad was able to visit what remained of his inheritance again in late 1937.  A few items remained and these included the Fire-screen which was a glazed wall hanging picture. About 1943 Dad had Willie Hunter, the Newmills Joiner, change it into a Fire-screen. I was only about  6 or 7 years old at this time but I recall being told by Dad that it had been stitched by a cousin with the surname of WEST or WATSON, who had married one of the Margaret RODGER's many Uncles. 

 I recall checking this information about 1959 at Carlops Manse when two MACLURE ladies called. Bella had been their Nanny and then Personal Servant until about 1935 when she became too ill to work.  Their opinion was that the tapestry had been sown by a May WEST who was a cousin of either Bella or of Bella's mother, Margaret Barnet Angus (which would make her Bella's second cousin). The screen depicts Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. My recollection is that in 1955 the Carpenter at Drumoak, Aberdeenshire, made some repairs to the Fire-screen and that. There may be newspapers from that time, or earlier in the back to prove this. 

Mum was never sure if the contents of Bella's "Kist" (as Bella called her money and papers box)  had been stolen by her Solicitor cousin.  Mum recalled that Bella burned a lot of papers some of which might have been share certificates a few days before she died and that this might explain the missing money, or that Bella wanted to destroy details that would reveal the location of her secret child or children. 

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