Our Records: Jessie Kesson and Jack Milroy

James Cruden's birth entry, 28 December 1915

In 2017 the annual release of statutory records by ScotlandsPeople includes about 110,000 images of birth entries registered in Scotland in 1916. To celebrate this exciting addition to our online records, we highlight the stories of two creative Scots who appear in the 1916 records.

James Cruden, aka Jack Milroy, comedian. (1915-2001)

Jack Milroy, the Scottish comedian, was born James Cruden on 28 December 1915 in Govanhill, Glasgow, the son of David Cruden, a master wood carver, and Mary Tanner. Being born so near to the end of the year, Jack’s birth was not registered by his father until 17 January 1916. It is worth bearing this in mind when searching for births.


Birth entry for James Cruden, 28 December 1915

Birth entry for James Cruden, 28 December 1915
National Records of Scotland, Statutory Register of Births, 1916, 644/16/49


As a young boy Jack hoped to become an actor and joined several dramatic societies. His interest continued during  service in the Black Watch during the Second World War, when he joined the Army concert party and discovered he had the ability to make people laugh. On his return to Scotland, he was spotted by a talent scout in Carnoustie and given his own show in the Tivoli Theatre, Aberdeen.

In 1949 he met Mary Lee, a popular singer who had been performing with big bands since the age of 14. They wed in Aberdeen in 1953 and had two children, Diane and Jim. The couple also formed a comedy and musical double act, performing in Belfast.

Jack Milroy was best known for his double act with comedy actor Rikki Fulton. Jack played Francie in the famous comedy duo ‘Josie and Francie’ which had been piloted at The Five Past Eight show in the Alahambra Theatre, Glasgow in 1958. In 1962 Scottish Television signed them, and they starred in the show ‘The Adventures of Francie and Josie’. When this long running television series came to an end in 1965, the pair continued to perform on various shows for Scottish Television, whilst also touring on stage and in pantomime.

Jack performed into his 80s, despite heart problems. In 2000 he was awarded an MBE for services to entertainment.

Jack Milroy died on 1 February 2001 in Glasgow’s Western Infirmary.


Jessie Grant Kesson (née McDonald), author (1916-1994)

Jessie Grant McDonald was born on 29 October 1916 in the poorhouse at Old Edinburgh Road, Inverness, the second daughter of Elizabeth McDonald, a domestic servant. Her father was never formally identified, but she believed he was John Foster, sheriff clerk of Elgin. As her mother was unmarried, Jessie's birth was recorded as 'illegitimate'.


Birth entry for Jessie Grant McDonald, 29 October 1916

Birth entry for Jessie Grant McDonald, 29 October 1916
National Records of Scotland, Statutory Register of Births, 1916, 98A/504


Jessie had shown great academic promise as a child, but her early life was disrupted when she was taken from her mother on the grounds of neglect and placed in an orphanage. After leaving the orphanage at 16 years old, and working on a farm, Jessie lived in a village near Inverness. There she met John Kesson, who had had a similarly difficult start to life. They married on 9 April 1937 in Inverness, and the following year had a daughter, Avril, and in 1946 a son, Kenneth.

The family lived as cottars for twelve years, and Jessie wrote to supplement the family income. From 1941 to 1946 she contributed stories, poems and articles to the 'Scots Magazine' and 'North-East Review', and throughout the 1930s and 1940s wrote over 30 items for the BBC.

In 1947 the Kesson family moved to north London. Jessie worked in a variety of jobs including as a night shift worker in a children’s care home, where she enjoyed reciting poems to them, including one about a goblin. This inspired her to write ‘The Green Glass Goblin’, which was broadcast in 1955. ‘The Childhood’ (1951) was an early version of her first semi-autobiographical novel ‘The White Bird Passes’ (1958), her best known work and now regarded as a classic. Jessie also wrote over 100 plays for radio. Many of her works centred on the struggle to survive through times of loss and deprivation, and promoted the honest experiences of women. Jessie’s inspiration was taken from her difficult childhood and life in the rugged Scottish highlands. In 1980, she became nationally famous when Michael Radford adapted ‘The White Bird Passes’ for television, and in 1983 co-wrote with her, ‘Another Time Another Place’, which was filmed and also published as a novel.

In 1984 she was made an honorary LLD by Dundee University, and in 1987 a DLitt by the University of Aberdeen, which Jessie accepted proudly, believing that it went some way to make up for her missed opportunity of further education as a young woman.

Towards the end of her life, Jessie nursed her husband John until he died in August 1994, only then giving into her lung cancer that she had suffered with for some time. She died in Whittington Hospital, London, six weeks later, on 26 September. Her ashes were scattered alongside her husband’s on the banks of Loch Ness, near where they first met. 


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