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Edgar’s Scottish Roots

Not only does the Edgar Poe’s family history contain an abundance of interesting details and accounts, but also does his foster father’s family, the Allan family. A family history enriched with a Scottish background, John Allan and family influenced young Edgar, as well as the Poe Museum, in many ways. In the following post, we will follow accounts of Edgar Poe and his foster family in Europe, visiting with Allan’s Scottish family members, learn about an uncovered Allan family gravestone in Scotland found in the late 1990s, and learn about the family’s descendants’ correspondences with the Poe Museum in the early twentieth century (in part two, soon to follow).

Edgar Poe traveled to many places during his life, between Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, New York, and Boston. However, in his childhood, he lived in Europe for about five years. This is the account of the Allan family’s move to England and their life there with a brief biographical account of their time in Europe, and a year-by-year, nearly month-by-month account of their stay.
John Allan, born in Ayrshire in 1780, would not see his native land until two decades after leaving Scotland when he was fifteen years old.

John Allan

After working for his uncle for five years while living in the States, Allan started a firm, Ellis & Allan, which dealt mainly in tobacco that was immensely profitable and grew increasingly popular (Celtic Life). In 1815, the Allan family embarked for Europe potentially to better help John Allan and Charles Ellis’ business. Arriving in Irvine, Scotland, where, according to Ayrshire Roots Online, most of the Allan relatives lived, including the Galts, Allans, and Fowlds. The family was spread throughout Irvine, Kilmarnock, and other nearby areas around Ayrshire. John and his family traveled to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Greenock, and London later that Fall of 1815. Young Edgar attended school in Irvine, at the Kailyard Grammar School at Kirkgatehead. He did not remain there very long, however, because the school was closed and replaced by a new academy that next July.

While in Irvine, young Edgar stayed with John’s sister, Mary, in a two-story house owned by the Allan Family. It is said Edgar shared a room with James Galt, a cousin, who also attended the Grammar School. James, approximately nine years older than Edgar, was said to have watched over Edgar because he had made threats to run back to America. Edgar, however, was back in London with his foster-family in 1816.

John Allan, his foster father, was trying to build a branch of his Richmond firm there, trading tobacco and other general merchandise. Young Edgar was sent to a boarding school, where he remained until the summer of 1817. This school, at 146 Sloane Street, in Chelsea was ran by the Misses Dubourgs. In the fall of 1817, Edgar was admitted to the Manor House School of the Rev. Mr. John Bransby, at Stoke Newington. He remained there until his withdrawal and then departure back to the United States in the spring of 1820 (Ayrshire Roots). The family returned to Richmond due to the fall of Ellis & Allan’s business, to which Allan was required to pay back debt and loans he had accumulated.

Let it be noted that just beside the river of Irvine remains the parish church and graveyard, in which the Allan ancestors are buried. According to The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2000), p. 80, Mark Strachan, Senior Museum Assistant at the North Ayrshire Museum in Saltcoats, Ayrshire, Scotland, in August 1999, added the Poe-Allan headstone, originally from the church parish grounds-turned-museum, to their collection. The headstone reads as follows, copied from the article exactly as formatted:

In memory of
David Poe late Carrier in Saltcoats
Who died 21st Augt 1799 aged 47 years
And of Ann Allan his wife
Who died 18th July 1828 aged 72 years
And of James their son
Who died abroad in the year 1800
Aged 18 years
And also of three of their children
Who died in infancy
Mary Poe died May 25th 1853
Aged 63 years
And of Janet Poe who died 27th May 1861
Aged 62 years

(And on the reverse-)

David Poe
In memory of his daughter
Mary Ann
Who died on the 24th Feby 1846 aged 15 years
Ann & Thomas
Who died in infancy
And his wife
Margaret Orr
Who died on the 30th Octr 1854 aged 65 years
The above David Poe
Died on the 7th Decr 1878 aged 91 years

1815 marks the year of the Allan family’s plan to move, and their official move to Scotland. On June 15, they left for Norfolk, Virginia, where they “[would] board the Lothair, bound for Liverpool, under Captain Stone, ‘to sail next week.’” They sold a large majority, if not all, of their possessions before the move, and then set sail on the Atlantic Ocean on June 23 (Thomas 24-25). Captain Stone was described as being “penurious,” and John Allan further complained “that his wife and sister-in-law [Ann Valentine, Frances’ sister] [were] ‘denied the privileges of Fire to broil a slice of Bacon’.” John Allan also slept on the floor of the ship, and it was said Frances had terrible seasickness. Despite the rough journey, the family, comprising of Edgar, John Allan, Frances Allan, and Ann Valentine, successfully disembarked on July 28 in Liverpool. The next day, John Allan wrote to Charles Ellis, his business partner from Richmond, “I am now on English ground after an absence of more than 20 years. After a pssage [sic] of 34 days all [is] well—Frances and Nancey very [sic] sick but are now perfectly Hearty. Edgar was a little sick but soon recovered. Capt. good seaman but too close….We got here yesterday at 5 P.M. I took our abode at Mr. Lillymans Hotel today” (Thomas 25).

Presumably, after days of settling down in the new land, the family visited John Allan’s sisters, Mary Allan and Jane Johnston, in Irvine, Scotland on August 11. According to Dwight Thomas of the Poe Log, “Perhaps for a few days Poe attends the Old Grammar School. Here Poe probably sees archers shooting the popinjay on the cathedral. Poe’s playmates are James Anderson and a lad named Gregory.” (Please note that Poe referred to the popinjay in “Romance” and “The Bargain Lost.”) Before August 22, the family also visited John Allan’s younger sister, Mrs. Allan Fowlds (née Agnes Nancy Allan) on Nelson street (25). On the 21st of September, from Greenock, Scotland, John Allan wrote to Charles Ellis,

I arrived here about a half an hour ago . . . finding some American Vessels on the eve of sailing I avail myself of the chance to write a few lines, though I cannot say much about our business. . . . I flatter myself from the small quantity [of tobacco?] in London & the Posture of affairs on the Continent that our sales will be profitable. It would appear that France and the Allies have concluded a Treaty but it has not been promulgated — the Allies will hold the strong posts for a while until the refractory spirit of some of the old adherents of Bonaparte has subsided. . . . Frances says she would like the Land o cakes better if it was warmer and less rain, she bids me say she will write Margaret [Ellis] as soon as she is settled but at present she is so bewildered with wonders that she canna write. Her best Love to Margaret & a thousand kisses to Thos [Ellis]. Nancy says give my love to them all — Edgar says Pa say something for me, say I was not afraid coming across the Sea. Kiss Thos. for him We all unite in best Love to my Uncle Galt & all our old Friends. Edgars love to Rosa & Mrs. Mackenzie (26).

Later on October 7, the family arrived in London, however only three days later Frances felt ill with a bad cold and sore throat. John Allan wrote to Charles Ellis from the Blake’s Hotel they were staying at, “I arrived here on the evening of the 7th, from Kilmarnock by way of Greenock, Glasgow, Edinburg, New Castle [and] Sheffield…” (26). October 30, He wrote,

. . . by a snug fire in a nice little sitting parlour in No. 47 Southampton Row, Russell Square where I have procured Lodgings for the present with Frances and Nancy Sewing and Edgar reading a little Story Book. I feel quite in a comfortable mood for writing. I have no acquaintances that call upon me and none whom as yet I call on. 6 Guineas a week furnished lodgings is what I have agreed to for 6 months until I can find a more convenient and cheaper situation. I have no compting room yet of course. I cannot copy the Letters which I am obliged to write — everything is high it alarms Frances she has become a complete economist and has a most lively appetite. I begin to think London will agree with her (26-27).

That November, John Allan once more wrote that he and his family were sick with colds. These persistent illnesses would occur periodically throughout their five year stay, with Frances being the sickest of all. It is implied by many letters written by John Allan that Frances was quite possibly a hypochondriac. She was ill multiple times; for instance, in 1819, as the family was preparing to return to the States, Frances pleaded not to go back as she thought she would never be able to cross the Atlantic (41).

By November 20, however, Allan decided he and his family would stay two more years than the planned three. He thought this would profit his business with Ellis (27).  The next year, in 1816, the family continued to have a miserable time. John Allan’s Aunt, his father’s sister, Jeannie Bone died, and in early April, young Edgar was sent to the boarding school of the Misses Dubourg (29).

A charming account of John Allan’s correspondence with his family includes giving advice to young William Galt, Jr., before his anticipated departure for America,

Now my good Boy you will soon be ushered into the World where your own exertions and good Sense will be put to the test, never fail to do your Duty to your Creator first, to your Employer next & by all means keep clear of bad company. Mixing with improper characters tends only to make you the slave of vicious Habits which you will avoid as you shun the coiled Serpent (31).

In 1817, John Allan’s business seemingly was thriving. He wrote to William Galt that their property assets would be worth $140,000. Midsummer in London, he rented No. 39 Southampton Row, but did not take possession of the house until September or October. During this time, young Edgar was in school (33-34). That August, John Allan explained to George Dubourg how Frances desired a parrot. According to the Poe Log, as presented on EAPoe online, Frances’ parrot, which was lodged with the Dubourgs, spoke French and,

Whitty (1935), pp. 188-90, thought the following lines from “Romance” were autobiographical: “To me a painted paroquet / Hath been — a most familiar bird — / Taught me my alphabet to say — / To lisp my very earliest word.” Mabbott (1969), 1:128-29, linked “Romance” with the popinjay in Scotland and also called attention to the paroquet in “The Bargain Lost.” In his “Philosophy of Composition” Poe stated that in planning “The Raven” he first considered a parrot, then an owl, and settled for a raven (33-34).

The next year, 1818, proved to be an impressionable year for young Edgar. He was reading Latin pretty well, according to John Allan in late June. According to EAPoe online’s transcription of The Poe Log,

In “William Wilson” (1839), Poe’s fictional account of his experiences at the Manor House School, the schoolmaster was part Bransby and part George Gaskin, rector of St. Mary’s Church. Poe perhaps knew three men named William Wilson: two conducted business with John Allan and a third taught school in Richmond (see Jackson, 1983, p. 13). “I [William Elijah Hunter] spoke to Dr. Bransby about him [Poe] two or three times during my school days. . . . Dr. Bransby seemed rather to shun the topic, I suppose from some feeling with regard to his name being used distastefully in the story of ‘William Wilson.’ In answer to my questions on one occasion, he said, ‘Edgar Allan’ (the name he was known by at school) ‘was a quick and clever boy and would have been a very good boy if he had not been spoilt by his parents,’ meaning the Allans; ‘but they spoilt him, and allowed him an extravagant amount of pocket-money, which enabled him to get into all manner of mischief — still I liked the boy — poor fellow, his parents spoilt him!’ ” (Hunter, p. 497) (36).

Manor House School, Stoke Newington

Mid-August, John Allan planned a trip to Isle of Wight to see if the sea air would help poor Frances’ health. She visited Devonshire not too long after this (37-38). Later that October, Frances visited Tydemouth with, it is believed, Jane Gault, and then rejoined her family in London on, or before, November 28 (39-40).

That next year, 1819, the Allan & Ellis firm began suffering financial difficulties. John Allan began considering returning home. In June of that year, the family attended the wedding of his sister Elizabeth to John Miller in Irvine, Scotland. Edgar was left in Irvine until September (41). Although the family had been planning to return to the States for a while, the family was unable to return to America until they had enough money. Along with the alleged hypochondriac Frances, lack of finances posed problems in returning home. Frances was assuaged, however, because John Allan wrote that December to Ellis that Frances has, “the greatest aversion to the sea and nothing but dire necessity and the prospect of a reunion with her old and dear Friends could induce her to attempt it. Ann [Frances’ sister] submits her wonted good nature and patience” (42).

In the final year of their stay, February was a hard month for the family. Frances appeared to be in a terrible state, and the assassination of Duke Charles Ferdinand of Berry, on February 13, appeared to have an impact on John Allan because he wrote about the troubling incident (43). After making one last trip to Irvine, Scotland to visit his sisters in June, the family departed and arrived in New York on July 21. They returned to Richmond August 2 (44-46).

Despite the hardships that had occurred during their five-year stay, and the crash of Allan and Ellis’ firm, the trip to Europe appeared to have a great impact on Edgar and later influenced his stories. The boarding school experiences inspired certain aspects of later short stories, and it is said, had he stayed in Scotland, he would have made a fine addition to Europe.
Now that we have learned about Poe’s journey in Europe, and the influence of the Scottish Allan family on Edgar, what is the story behind this portrait? Find out here!

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