Will the real Edward Robinson please stand up?

When I started researching my tree my Mum told me what she knew about her family.  It wasn’t much, but enough to get me started.  Regarding her mother’s grandparents she could name only one, and even then only his surname: Robinson.  However, for the next 25 years, my GG grandfather Robinson – Edward, as I discovered – kept his origins a closely guarded secret.  The problem was that there were no documents to evidence his birth family.  He didn’t actually marry either of his ‘wives’, and if there was a baptism, I have never been able to find it.  Any of these records would have evidenced Edward’s father’s name, location and occupation. From 1851 onwards I collected a great deal of information about Edward, right up until his death in 1898. All censuses and other documentation are absolutely consistent with a birth year of 1826 – and with one exception, even consistent with a birthdate between 18th March and 3rd April 1826, but there was nothing at all to enable me to place him with a family.

Even before knowing Edward’s name, I grew up hearing stories about him.  He had a stall in Leeds market. My Grandma told me he paid a shilling for her mother, Jane, to go to school one day a week, and Jane used to play with gold sovereigns on the floor.  After Edward’s first wife, my GG grandmother Margaret died, he turned to drink and lost all his money.  There is truth in this: I unearthed drunk and disorderly reports and short spells in the slammer, but I rather suspect there was never that much money to lose.  Finally, my Mum told me that after losing all said money ‘he went back to The Crooked Billet where he was born, and threw himself in the river’.  This too is true.  I have the Coroner’s Report made the day after his death in 1898, although Edward actually drowned himself a couple of miles along from that spot.

It’s fair to say that Edward had a colourful life, and from 1851 I think I have the measure of him.  I even suspect that withholding information was a reflection of his personality: he probably didn’t trust the authorities, and maybe it has taken him all this time to trust me too!  Nevertheless, in amongst all of the above there were several clues:

  • Edward was born in 1826, or at the latest in 1827
  • In all records he gives his birthplace as Leeds
  • My mother’s story suggests a birthplace of Hunslet – not part of Leeds township at that time, but just across the river, and within the large ancient parish of Leeds.
  • There was a hint that he might actually have been born at the Crooked Billet inn in Hunslet.
  • Edward had two daughters: the younger, Margaret, was named after her mother.  Might the older, my great grandmother Jane, have been named after Edward’s own mother?

Two of these clues turned out to be red herrings, but they had me hooked for a while.  At the time of Edward’s birth the innkeeper at the Crooked Billet was John Robson.  Could that name somehow have morphed into Robinson?  No, it hadn’t: it seemed Edward could have been born *near* the Crooked Billet, but not *in* it.

As for Jane, there was an Edward of the right age living with a Jane old enough to be his mother in Hunslet at the time of the 1841 census.  However, searching the parish registers for a Robinson marrying a Jane in the parish in the years before 1826 returned only two records, both traceable in the 1841 and 1851 censuses living away from Leeds. 

Searching the parish registers for Edward’s baptism proved equally fruitless.  Ten Edward Robinsons were baptised in Leeds between 1825 and 1831.  There were also two marriage records in 1847 and 1867 that might possibly have been him.  I had long ago realised that the reason Edward and my GG grandmother Margaret didn’t marry was that she was already married to someone else.  Perhaps Edward too, had married another woman before meeting Margaret?  But no: the couples in these two records were still together in subsequent censuses when I knew Edward was with Margaret or, after Margaret’s death, I knew where he was.

It troubled me not being able to break down Edward’s brick wall, so a couple of weeks ago I decided to give him another opportunity to reveal his identity.  Using Ancestry, FindMyPast, TheGenealogist, FreeReg and FamilySearch, I listed every possible baptism for every Edward Robinson baptised in Leeds from 1824 to 1831.  I was able to discount a couple on the basis of location or father’s occupation; another died in infancy; and the rest I worked forwards through the 1841 and 1851 censuses.  I knew where my Edward was in 1851, so if any of these Edwards could be located elsewhere, they were not my Edward.  I was left with about three baptisms, and no way of choosing between them.  I then searched the 1841 census for any additional possibilities, and found two not accounted for in the baptisms.  One of these was my long-preferred Edward with Jane in Hunslet.  The other was Edward and sister Elizabeth, living in Hunslet with their parents Edward and Elizabeth.

At this point I did something I hadn’t had the opportunity to do on previous attempts to break through Edward’s brick wall: I turned to DNA.  Using the filters on the Ancestry website I searched amongst all my DNA matches for anyone with the surname Robinson and birthplace of Leeds in their trees.  I didn’t expect to find anyone.  I needed someone who had already traced their ancestry back to Edward’s parents, who had young Edward in their tree, who had taken the DNA test, and shared DNA with me – not guaranteed at 3rd or 4th cousin level.  It felt like searching for a needle in a haystack. But unbelievably I found someone: just one person, estimated at 5th to 8th cousin.  He had my Edward in his tree, born c.1826, living in 1841 with sister Elizabeth and parents Edward and Elizabeth.  This was, in other words, one of the families I had already identified as a possibility.  Unlike Edward, sister Elizabeth had a marriage certificate and a baptism record and had therefore been traceable quite easily back to her birth family. My DNA match, Elizabeth’s descendant, already had another bit of information on his tree too: a marriage record for Edward’s parents, and with that a maiden name for the mother: Clarebrough.  But could this just be coincidence? My match and I didn’t share very much DNA; this could be a case of confirmation bias. The next step was to do the same filtered search on Ancestry, but this time for the unusual surname Clarebrough and a birthplace of Leeds.  If I could find anyone amongst my DNA matches just one generation further back from Elizabeth Clarebrough but descended from a different sibling, then there was no doubt that this was my Edward…  Bingo!  A DNA match, and three more on MyHeritage.  Finally, after 25 years of trying, I have my Edward!

I hope there’s something in this account and the methodology to interest you. In those pre-census/ pre-Civil BMD days, listing all possible baptisms and then working each one forward to discount as many as possible can often solve the puzzle. In Edward’s case it didn’t, and without bringing in the DNA cavalry at this point I would never have been able to break through this brick wall.

Old Peculiars, New Peculiars…

For some months now, all in the cause of my Advanced Genealogy course, I’ve been up to my eyes in old manorial records and samples of archaic scripts. I’ve really enjoyed the ‘Manorial Documents’ module, and have several action plans for various ancestral lines, to be actioned when it’s safe to visit the archives. In case all this is new to you, I’ll start by saying that historically, a ‘manor’ is not a rambling, pleasant country house such as we see dotted about the English countryside. Rather the term refers to the land that came under the jurisdiction of the ‘lord of the manor’ who lived in that fine house, and to the relationship between him and the people who lived within its bounds. Originally, most of these people would have been bonded to the lord, although by the 16th century this was no longer the case.

Much of England was divided up between the patchwork of many and varied manors, and you can easily find out if land in your ancestral places of interest formed part of a manor by using the online Manorial Documents Register at The National Archives. You can search by name of manor or name of parish. Some manors have no known surviving records, but for the majority that do you can click on the results and find a list of collections, together with the archive where they’re lodged. Be warned! They are originals, written in contemporary script and sometimes in Latin…

Working on this Manorial Documents module has helped me get to the bottom of a mystery surrounding a number of my ancestors who lived in Pannal (Harrogate) and had their wills proved at Knaresborough Honour Peculiar.

What’s a Peculiar?
The Court of Probate Act, 1857, created a Court of Probate along with probate registries in London and districts throughout England and Wales. In doing so, it removed responsibility (and power) for the granting of probate from the ecclesiastical courts, making this a civil function. Prior to this Act, the granting of probate and letters of administration when someone died had been the responsibility of those ecclesiastical courts: usually the courts of the diocese and archdeaconry. However, for many centuries, certain places had been exempt from the usual jurisdiction of the bishop and archdeacon. These were referred to as ‘peculiars’.

Ever since learning about my Pannal ancestors and their wills I had assumed the ‘peculiar’ was the parish. In fact this didn’t really make sense, because Pannal (where they lived) and Knaresborough (where probate was granted) are two different parishes. Now, after a good deal of research, troubling over misleading definitions and scratching of the head, I understand that peculiars can be parishes, manors or liberties. Where a peculiar is a manor, we can refer to it as a manor-peculiar. This was not a privilege granted to all manors: it was, after all, ‘peculiar’. Where this manorial right does exist it can generally be traced back to some former connection with an ecclesiastical corporation, such as the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem.

As I said, untangling the above was not straightforward. Most definitions of ‘peculiar’ mention only parishes. Even when I got to the bottom of the concept of the manor-peculiar, I still had to unravel the reason why Knaresborough’s manor-peculiar had jurisdiction over Pannal; and this is because it was an ‘Honour’. An Honour, such as Knaresborough Honour where these wills of my ancestors were proved, was a sort of overarching manor, the seat of a lordship with several dependent manors. It’s likely that my ancestors held land within the Manor of Pannal or the Manor of Brackenthwaite (also in Pannal), but that this manor came under the rule of the Honour of Knaresborough. (I hope to be able to confirm all this when I can eventually visit the archives.)

Identifying peculiar jurisdictions
You can find out if a parish of interest to you came under peculiar jurisdiction by using FamilySearch maps. If you’ve never used this – it’s brilliant! Try it now by searching for Pannal (It’s the one in Yorkshire). The map shows you the boundaries of the parish, and a box pops up with three mini pages: ‘Info’, ‘Jurisdictions’ and ‘Options’. Click on ‘Jurisdictions’, and amongst other jurisdictional bodies you’ll see that before 1858 Probate was dealt with by The Court of the Peculiar of the Honour of Knaresborough. By contrast, the adjacent parish of Kirkby Overblow had the usual probate arrangements: Exchequer and Prerogative Courts of the Archbishop of York. Now try this for any parish you like, and it will tell you if there was peculiar or the normal ecclesiastical jurisdiction for probate. Then it’s a matter of finding out where these probate records are kept, and whether they are available online. In my case, some of the wills proved at The Court of the Peculiar of the Honour of Knaresborough are online with Ancestry. These ones are lodged at the West Yorkshire Archives, because Pannal and Knaresborough were formerly in the West Riding. The rest are at the Borthwick Institute in York, which is where the main collection of ecclesiastical records for the Archbishop of York’s province is lodged.

Old Peculier
But this is New Year’s Day, and I’m still appreciating the down time. So the real reason I’m writing about this today is that one of the oddities that turned up in my research was about Theakston’s ‘Old Peculier’. The name of this beer (note the archaic spelling of ‘peculier’) is actually a reference to these historic courts. On the website Theakstons say ‘The name pays tribute to the unique ecclesiastical status of Masham [where the brewery is located] as a ‘Court of the Peculier’ and is also reference to the strong characteristic of the beer.’ (Having just drunk the glass in the above photo I can confirm it is very nice! 🙂 ) Using FamilySearch maps we can see that Masham was indeed subject to the testamentary jurisdiction at the Court of the Peculiar of the Prebend of Masham. Not ‘unique’, though… but definitely peculiar.

It seems fitting to end this very peculiar year with a bottle of ‘Peculier’ beer of Peculiar origins, and to raise a glass to 2021 in the hope of it being decidedly less, well… peculiar. I hope this finds you and your families happy and healthy, that the festive season, although low key, was enjoyable, and that we can all look forward to what the New Year holds.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, peaceful and successful 2021 for us all!

The Princess Mary Gift Box, 1914

My first post this year was about my maternal grandparents who were married on 24 January 1920, three weeks after my Granddad returned from India. He had been away with the Army ten and a half years, and they had not seen each other since he went away shortly after proposing to the young lady who would be my grandmother. By the end of 2020 their first child, my uncle, was born.

I’ve been thinking about them a lot, recently: all those years my grandparents never got to be together. I suspect the hardest times were when my Granddad’s Regiment was posted to yet another exotic location with no home leave at all, and when he wrote each time to his fiancée to tell her his homecoming would be delayed yet again. That and Christmas, when he would have loved to be with her and his family. In a strange echo of the past, their son would write from India at Christmas 1945 to say how fed up he was to be delayed in India after the end of the Second World War, instead of being back home.

Back in 1914, when it was still thought the war would be over quickly, seventeen year-old Princess Mary wanted to send every soldier and sailor involved in the war effort a personal gift for Christmas.  ‘Her Royal Highness the Princess Mary’s Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Fund‘ was created, and donations were invited from the general public.  In a letter released by Buckingham Palace early in November 1914 and published in British and colonial newspapers, the princess wrote:

“I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole of the nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front. I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, something that would be useful and of permanent value, and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war. Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day?

Please will you help me?”

The gift was to be a small embossed brass box containing a number of small items. Most contained one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, Christmas card and a photograph of the Princess. For the non-smokers the brass box contained a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case with pencil, paper and envelopes, and the Christmas card and photograph.  Boxes for the nurses contained the card and chocolate.

The response to the appeal was overwhelming.  The cost of purchasing sufficient quantities of the gift box for 145,000 sailors and 350,000 soldiers was estimated at £55,000 – £60,000, but the appeal raised £162,591 12s 5d, meaning the gift could be sent to all British and Imperial service men and women: about 2,620,019 in all. The gift boxes were to be delivered in three waves: First all naval personnel and troops at the Front were to receive theirs before, on or shortly after Christmas Day.  Wounded soldiers in hospital, men on furlough, prisoners of war (whose gifts were held in reserve) and nurses serving at the Front were also included in this first wave, as were widows and parents of soldiers killed in action.  The wording on the card was ‘With Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas and a Victorious New Year from the Princess Mary and Friends at Home’ 

The second wave included all other British, colonial and Indian troops serving outside the British Isles; and finally in the third wave, all troops stationed in Britain.  Second and third wave recipients were to receive their gifts during or shortly after January 1915 – although in reality some had to wait much longer than that.  For them, the wording was amended to ‘With Best Wishes for a Victorious New Year from the Princess Mary and Friends at Home’.  The front of the card bore the Princess’s monogram, with the year 1914 for the first wave and 1915 for the rest.

Princess Mary’s plan to give the service men and women ‘something that would be useful and of permanent value’ was a great success.  The empty brass box was light and air-tight, but also of quite sturdy construction.  It could be used to carry and keep safe small personal items such as money, tobacco and photographs throughout the rest of the war.  Many of them, my Granddad included, treasured it for the rest of their lives.  That’s his (now mine) you see photographed here, together with the original card from Princess Mary that indicates he received his in India as part of the second wave: it’s dated 1915 and bears the ‘Victorious New Year’ greeting. 

As for the ‘Victorious New Year’, well that was a little longer coming…

You can read more about the Princess Mary Gift Fund Box, and see photograhs of some with the original contents, on the Imperial War Museum website, and on the Netley Military Cemetery website.  They are a lot more sparkly than mine.  I decided not to clean it.

*****

On that note, thoughts return to 2020, and to the present Christmas.  As I write this, here in the UK hundreds of lorries are backing up at the ports; European hauliers, with no food and few facilities, are unlikely to make it home to be with their families for Christmas; and many people’s already scaled-down plans have been dashed following emergency measures announced after a mutation of the COVID-19 virus.  Wherever in the world you are, and whatever changes from your usual festive arrangements you’ve had to make, I wish you a Safe and Peaceful Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year for us all.

Thomas and Lucy: a Removal Order

Historic church photographed from inside modern building

If you know Norwich you may recognise this scene, captured from The Forum.  The 15th century church opposite is St Peter Mancroft.  The significance of this scene for me was not only the reflections of the super-modern structure juxtaposed with the historic church, but also in the fact that here I was with my son, inside the modern structure in the year 2019, looking out on that ancient church inside which, 230 years earlier, my 4x great grandparents were married, and six years after that my 3x great grandfather Thomas was baptised.

All of this is relevant to the tale that follows. It follows on from my last post about the operation of ‘settlement’ as the key concept in dealing with the poor.

I was in Norwich visiting my son, spending each evening with him and passing the days while he was studying, at the county archives or walking around the churches and parishes of significance to my Norwich ancestors.  Amongst others, I was on the trail of the aforementioned Thomas and his wife Lucy: my 3x great grandparents.  After marriage they settled in another Norwich parish: St Martin at Oak.  Yet the baptism records of their children were puzzling: five children born in St Martin at Oak between 1819 and 1828, then a daughter born two hundred miles away in Fewston, Yorkshire in 1830, another son back in St Martin at Oak in 1832 and then seven more children in Fewston and Leeds between 1834 and 1846.

I understood why they had moved to Yorkshire.  Thomas was a weaver: the very trade upon which Norwich’s wealth had been built; and yet even by the time of Thomas’s apprenticeship weaving was on the decline in Norwich, and with that the city itself.  Quite simply, Norwich was unable to compete with the new spinning and weaving mills located in other parts of the country alongside fast flowing water and ready coal supplies.  And so Thomas traded in his cottage industry lifestyle, working long hours at his loom beside the trademark long weavers’ window on the upper floor of the family home, for a position spinning flax at West House Mill at Blubberhouses within the parish of Fewston, about eight miles from Harrogate.

Long window in Norwich typical of traditional weavers' houses

Typical Norwich weavers’ window

It’s known that the owners of West House Mill toured workhouses and charitable institutions in London and other large towns in search of hundreds of apprentice children, just as Thomas’s orphaned contemporary Robert Blincoe (‘The Real Oliver Twist’) had been ‘recruited’ around 1800.  In fact, they hold the dubious honour of being amongst the first to do that.  It’s reasonable to suppose, then, that Thomas might have been persuaded to relocate to the mill as an ‘engine minder’ while the owners were on a recruitment drive in Norwich.  Reasonable, too, to imagine that all the benefits of this new life were highlighted, and little of the reality.  The fact is that West House Mill was a huge, noisy, five-storeyed mill in a remote position in the Washburn Valley on the southern edge of the Yorkshire Dales.  The working day, starting at 5am and ending sixteen hours later with perhaps just an hour’s break for rest and a midday meal, was hard-going and repetitive.  The mill depended on the slave labour of the pauper children, effectively imprisoned there until they reached the age of twenty-one: it was a place of misery.  While workers’ cottages were provided and the beauty of the countryside undisputed, the culture shock for Lucy and Thomas, used to the milder climate, the facilities of Norwich, the tranquillity of detailed work at the handloom and family nearby would be immense.

There was very little risk for the mill owners in employing Thomas.  In accordance with the law, it’s almost certain that he left Norwich with a Settlement Certificate.  Ever since the 1662 Settlement Act these certificates had facilitated migration by serving as a guarantee from the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor of the ‘home’ parish to those of the intended ‘host’ parish that, in the event of difficulties resulting in an application for poor relief, the home parish would pay the costs of ‘Removal’.

Early 19th century engraving of large flax mill

West House Mill at Blubberhouses, Fewston, Yorkshire

Two days after taking my ‘ancient and modern’ photo I was back in The Forum.  Alongside several restaurants, the building is home to the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library which includes the Norfolk Heritage Centre.  Here, I came across a reference to Thomas, Lucy and their first four children: a Removal Order dated 1826.  This surprised me on two counts.  First, based on the baptism records I had believed their initial migration took place between 1828 and 1830; and second, if my family had been removed from Fewston back to St Martin at Oak in Norwich, what was the reason for this, and why had they returned there in time for the 1830 baptism of their sixth child?

The detail of the Removal Order was even more unexpected.  In 1826 Thomas, Lucy and their four named children (6 years to 3 months) were removed from St Martin at Oak, where they had ‘lately intruded themselves contrary to the law relating to the settlement of the poor, and that they had there become chargeable’.  By decision of two Justices of the Peace they were to be returned to the last legal place of settlement, and that was Fewston in Yorkshire.

I confess that until this point I had misunderstood the full draconian extent of the application of ‘settlement’ in the operation of relief of the poor.  While fully understanding the rules for acquisition of settlement rights in a new parish, my understanding had been that an individual would always retain rights acquired by birthright.  In other words, that the granting of new settlement rights was a privilege and an additional set of rights.  Raising my eyes from the index, my eyes lighted once again on St Peter Mancroft, right outside the huge modern windows of The Forum.  Here Thomas had been baptised.  Here his existence had first been recorded.  In trying to do his best to provide for his family Thomas had lost his right to live in his home town and was henceforth banished to a noisy, remote mill two hundred miles distant.  My ‘ancient and modern’ photograph now assumed a new significance: loss and injustice.  Injustice because the empty promises made to him cost the mill owners nothing, while believing them had cost Thomas and Lucy a great deal.

Sadly the Settlement Examination papers (I referred to this stage of the process in my last post) have not survivied, nor have the equivalent papers for the other end of the process in Fewston.  These would have given me a lot more information about dates of migration.  However, thanks to this Removal document I now know that Thomas and Lucy first moved to Fewston earlier than previously thought – probably around 1825.  I now understand that the Certificates of Settlement were time-limited.  As soon as Thomas had acquired legal rights of settlement in Fewston – presumably by being hired continually for more than a year and a day – the certificate ceased to have value.  Hiring Thomas may have been risk-free for the owners of the West House Mill, but for Thomas and Lucy it was a one-way ticket.  We might imagine that they tried to make it work, but finally were so unhappy that they decided to return to Norwich; and by then it was too late.  All previous settlement rights had been erased.  On 29th April, 1826, just three months after the Norwich birth of their fourth child, the Removal Order was signed for their forced return to Fewston.

Thomas and Lucy did not go quietly.  They were back in St Martin at Oak for the baptism of a fifth child by 1828; in Fewston for the sixth in 1830; possibly (according to a note on the parish accounts) back again briefly in 1831; and in 1832 a final child was baptised in St Martin at Oak. Between 1834 and 1843 six more children were baptised, all at Fewston, and the 1841 census shows them here, living in workers’ accommodation.  Thomas, formerly a skilled handloom weaver, is now an ‘engine minder’.  The six oldest children, aged twenty to eleven are all ’employed at the flax mill’.  I strongly suspect that it was through realisation that this would be the inevitable fate of all their children, and a desire to avoid this, that Lucy and Thomas were so desperate to escape.  It is notable, however, that the eventual ‘acceptance of their fate’ coincides with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, with its central focus on the workhouse in dealing with the poor.  Faced with trying to make a go of it in Norwich but the likelihood of the workhouse for the entire family if they failed to do so, Thomas and Lucy seem, reluctantly, to have chosen Fewston.  They would now live out their days in Yorkshire, relocating to Leeds by 1846, but my guess is that their hearts remained in Norwich.

Spinsters

Full page of TitBits magazine dated April 1889, featuring responses to a competition for spinstersImage from Dr Bob Nicholson @DigiVictorian on Twitter.
Click the image for a slightly bigger version that will be a bit easier to read.

Dr Bob Nicholson, who shares stories from the Victorian era on Twitter, recently wrote about a competition in Tit-Bits magazine in 1889.  Single female readers were invited to answer the question: ‘Why Am I A Spinster?’, with a prize awarded to the lady providing the best response.  In the event, there were too many good responses to be able to choose just one, so on 27th April, 1889, the full page of responses pictured above was published. Some are witty, some poignant.

I’ve been meaning to write about spinsters for a while.  I’ve noticed a few in my ancestral lines and wondered why.  After all, society was not geared up for independent, single women.  Of course, as suggested in the Tit-Bits article, there could be any number of reasons.  Perhaps they were not interested in men/ marriage/ motherhood, or perhaps one daughter was expected to stay home to take care of ageing parents.  Perhaps they had lost their one true love in war?  Or maybe, despite the ‘old maid’ sniggers, they wanted to retain their independence, and this was the only way to achieve that?

To refer back to my previous post about researching female ancestors, before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 married women were not allowed to keep their own earnings, while prior to the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act all of a woman’s property and possessions passed to her husband when she married. The only way a woman could retain property and finances was to remain single or, after the death of her husband, to avoid remarriage.

Most women, of course, would not need to trouble themseleves with the matter of how to hang on to their personal wealth.  It was more a matter of how would they survive.  This was not just a concern for spinsters.  Widows and abandoned wives, too, may have had difficulties in later life when left without a husband/ father bringing in the money.  Many had to rely on charity for accommodation (e.g. almshouses or living with a brother’s family) and for living expenses.  Some of our maiden great-aunts will of course have been sufficiently well provided-for, and others had worked all their lives and continued to do so.  I have examples of all of these in my tree, and perhaps you do too.

However, one of my own ancestral families particularly piqued my interest.  My 4x great grandparents, John and Sarah, had five sons and five daughters.  The family business (Woollen drapers to the people and gentry of York) was doing well, all five boys married after securing admission to the Freedom of the City of York, and the oldest son rose to the position of Lord Mayor of York in the 1860s.  And yet of the daughters, one died aged 25 and the others remained at the family home until the death of their parents in 1860, by which time the sisters were aged 48 to 32.

Some years ago I obtained their father, John’s, will.  At first sight I was quite upset by what I read.  John bequeathed all his money and the family business only to his sons.  The four daughters were not even mentioned.  Indeed by the census of the following year one of the sons had bought out the family business and although he and his wife remained in their former home, all four sisters had moved out of the rooms above the shop premises in Stonegate and were living together in a private house in York.

And yet the sisters did not seem to go without.  In the censuses of 1861-1901 they describe themselves as ‘Railway Annuitants (Railway Stock)’, living off the dividends from these investments.  I could also see from the Probate Calendar on Ancestry (England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995) that each of them would eventually leave a will, bequeathing what she had to her remaining sisters.

The Probate Calendar does not provide a copy of the actual will.  For that, you have to place an order via the Find A Will website.  Fascinated though I was by this story, I really couldn’t justify spending £40 on a series of wills just to satisfy my curiosity.  You may remember, though, that last July the price of wills was greatly reduced, from £10 to £1.50 each.  Now spending £6 to satisfy my curiosity was entirely reasonable….

It seems that each of the four sisters made a will in 1862, and on the basis of this, when the oldest, Maria, died in 1895 she left £1523 to her sisters.  Shortly afterwards, the remaining sisters, now aged 66 to 78, each made a new will, leaving her worldly possessions to whoever outlived her, and in the event of herself being the sole survivor, to three named charities.  I suspect each sister chose a charity dear to her own heart, and all had agreed to share the final funds equally between the three charities, regardless of which sister survived the other two.  Hence at her death in 1899 Louisa left £1983; and in 1900 Emma left £1956 to just one surviving sister, Sarah.  It’s interesting too, to note the circles the sisters moved in.  These were educated and knowledgeable women, able to take on the role of executrices for each other.  However, the executors for the will of whichever sister died last were to be the solicitors George and Frederick Crombie, both of whom described in the wills as ‘friends’, not merely professionals carrying out a service.  It was not until the death of Sarah at the age of 87 in 1904 that they were required to perform this role.  Her estate, totalling £6140, was left in equal shares to the York Branch of the RSPCA, the Royal Sailor Rest at Portsmouth and Devonport and the Sailors’ Orphan Home.  According to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, this figure equates to around £750,000 in today’s terms.

How on earth did Sarah end up with so much money?!
I think the key is in the census entries: they lived in York, and they were living on dividends from investments in the railway.  Investing in the railways at this time must have been akin to buying shares in Microsoft in the late 1970s.  The sisters were very fortunate.

But this brings us to the question of who, exactly, made the investments.  Perhaps sometimes the sisters invested their own money, out of any wages or allowance they received from the family business, but almost certainly the bulk of the funds would have come from their father, John.  To understand why he would do this we need look no further than the financial arrangements prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, as outlined above.  What John was doing (and what many other fathers did) was to protect his daughters from the system.  Had he left 1/9 share of his business to each of his offspring, and had any of the daughters married, her capital would immediately have passed to her husband.  And not all husbands were kind, family-oriented men who were good with money…  This way, John was ensuring that each of his daughters would never be without an income of her own.

I was so glad to have worked all this out.  I’m no longer cross with my 4x great grandfather.  And as for his daughters, I would like to have known them too.

Just to clarify – this information wasn’t hard to find!
I found it all using just three types of document:

  • the census returns
  • the Probate Calendar
  • copies of the wills (this would currently cost £7.50 for all five)

… And then I sat back and thought about it all, drawing upon my wider reading and a bit of lateral thinking.

Perhaps there will be similar stories lurking in the wills of your ancestors.

My granddad’s ‘housewife’

Army issue khaki 'housewife'

This is my granddad’s army sewing kit, known as a ‘housewife’, and dating from the period 1907-1919. As a young soldier, he had to learn to take care of his own uniform.  During the freezing cold winters of some of his tours, he also learned to knit – partly for something to fill the time, partly for the warmth afforded by the results.  Upon arriving back home late in 1919 he married my grandma, and when my mum came along it was he who passed these skills on to her, teaching her to mend and sew by hand and to knit.  Many years later, she – my mum – taught me.  From these humble beginnings my love of all kinds of needlework expanded and developed, straying far from my granddad’s knitting for warmth and sewing for necessity.  Eventually, in 2009, I started my first online blog which focused  on needlecrafts and other creative projects.  It has to be said, though, that by this time my ‘sewing kit’ occupied considerably more cupboard space than this little roll…

British Army khaki soldier's 'housewife', unrolled

My granddad’s ‘housewife’ belongs to me now.  Although it’s standard issue, it is nevertheless a very personal item, and would have travelled with him to many parts of the world.  It bears his regiment and personal identification details, and contains everything he needed to keep his uniform in full working order: needles, thread, elastic, safety pins, spare buttons … and tucked away at the back of that pocket … what seemed to be a bullet!

.303 calibre Enfield rifle drill cartridge

So one day, back in 2012 I posted these photos on my needlework blog.  The point of the post was to highlight the link between my granddad’s sewing and knitting and my own needlework skills, which bizarrely I seem to owe to the British Expeditionary Force!

However, that blog post caused quite a stir!

A couple of readers pointed out that the bullet could be dangerous.  They advised me to investigate its safety.  But how do you investigate the safety of a hundred year-old bullet?  In the UK, gun ownership is strictly regulated, and my gun-related knowledge was and remains virtually non-existent.  (Is it a bit dense to say I assumed it was the action of the gun that propelled the bullet through the air, rather than the explosive properties of the bullet itself…?!)

So a local gun club was my first port of call.  In an email sent via their website I explained that I had an early 20th Century British Army bullet and asked for information as to where I should go to have it checked out.  I was surprised to receive, almost immediately, a telephone call from the club, advising me that the bullet could be dangerous.  It would not spontaneously explode, but if dropped at a certain angle it could do so.  Not only that, but it’s illegal to be in possession of even one bullet in the UK without a firearms licence.  So concerned was my adviser from the gun club that he would have driven over to my house to look at the bullet had it not been for the photograph I was able to point him to on the blog – the photo you see directly above.  After seeing this he thought it had been decommissioned.  This would make it both safe and legal – but he asked me to take it into the gunsmith for a second opinion.

I had walked past this gunsmith’s shop a hundred times without even knowing it existed.  Now (rather carefully!) I took in my bullet and they couldn’t have been more helpful.  It turned out that this isn’t in fact a bullet at all.  It’s a dummy, or ‘drill cartridge’.  My granddad would have used it for drills: for practising loading the rifle at speed.

By this time, in a highly unexpected turn of events, that post from my needlework blog had been shared by an enthusiast to his own firearms blog!  Consequently I now had a small international team of firearms experts advising behind the scenes.  The brass case, I learned, is the ‘cartridge’.  The four holes drilled into it indicate it will not fire.  (You can see straight through two of these holes in my photograph below.)  The ‘bullet’ is the red bit at the end, but a real bullet would have a cupronickel coating; this one is wood.  The reason my granddad kept it in his sewing kit was to avoid the risk of mixing it up with the live ammunition.

.303 calibre Enfield rifle drill cartridge

I was so grateful to everyone who got involved.   Of course I was relieved to know that ‘my bullet’ wasn’t dangerous – and that I didn’t have to give it up.  But I was equally delighted to have a little more information about my granddad’s time in the army.  Thanks to all these people, I now knew that the rifle my granddad used was a .303 calibre Enfield.  I already knew he was something of a crack shot – we have a number of spoons inscribed with his name, and a trophy – all won in Army shooting contests.  And in truth, as a firearms expert himself, he would not have kept this tucked away in his family home for more than fifty years if it had been dangerous to do so.

I share all this here for several reasons.  First of all, just look how much you can learn about a family member from one small item!  Secondly, it illustrates what a wonderful resource the Internet can be, not to mention the kindness of enthusiasts who really seemed to take this situation to heart, were keen to help and had genuinely been concerned for my safety.  But on top of all that, I thought you might appreciate the story.  🙂

Do you have a little something stuffed away in a drawer that you might be able to explore further?  You never know what you might learn!

When difficult stories emerge

A chance sighting of a World War One military service record set me off on a tangent.

The record belonged to a man who married one of my great aunts.  The two of them had eleven children, nine of whom survived to adulthood, and between them they produced a total of around forty grandchildren.  What follows is a very sad tale of an unhappy life and marriage, but out of respect to his descendants I shall refer to this man as Mr X.

Having joined up for military service in December 1915, Mr X endured three years of the horrors of war.  Today we’re aware that many of the young men who survived were sent home in 1918 with what we now understand as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but back then the long-term impact was not understood.  We do know that when many of them returned home they were ‘changed’, quite ‘different’ from the young men who had gone away to fight for King and Country a few years earlier.  Perhaps this was the reason for Mr X’s anger and the violence that he inflicted on his wife and young family.

However, Mr X’s life was blighted not only by PTSD.  A note on his service record states that on 20th September 1918, while in France, he suffered a ‘severe shell gas wound’.  It’s likely that this involved actual physical injury from the explosion/ shrapnel combined with effects of mustard gas.

I started to research…

It seems Germany commenced large-scale use of gas as a weapon in January 1915.  Initially, the artillery shells they fired contained liquid xylyl bromide tear gas.  Other forms of gas followed, including chlorine and the deadly phosgene.  However, by 1917 the most common chemical agent used was sulfur mustard, known as ‘mustard gas’.

The purpose of the mustard gas was not to kill the enemy: only about 2-3% of victims actually died.  Rather it was used to harass, disable and disorientate, and to pollute the battlefield.  Being heavier than air, mustard gas settled to the ground as an oily liquid where it sank into the soil, remaining active for several days, weeks, or even months, depending on the weather conditions.  Those exposed to it would start to vomit, while their conjunctiva and eyelids swelled until they were forced shut, leaving the victims temporarily blinded.  This is what had happened to the rows of blinded soldiers we see in WW1 photos, walking in long rows each with an arm on the shoulder of the man in front.

Mustard gas didn’t depend on inhalation to be effective: any contact with skin was sufficient.  Moist red patches would appear immediately, erupting into blisters over the following 24 hours.  Higher concentrations could burn flesh to the bone, particularly if it found its way to the eyes, nose, armpits and groin, where it dissolved in the natural moisture of those areas.  Other symptoms included severe headache, increased pulse and fever.  Internal and external bleeding could follow, as the gas attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane.  Blistering in the lungs could lead to pneumonia.  Without doubt, the effects of mustard gas attack were unspeakably painful; and those who were fatally injured could remain like this for four or five weeks before relief came in the form of death.

For the majority who didn’t actually die, many were nevertheless scarred for life.  Respiratory disease and failing eyesight were common post-war afflictions.  Many, although recorded as fit, were left with scar tissue in their lungs, and this left them susceptible to tuberculosis.  It’s now known that around the time of the Second World War, many of the surviving 1918 casualties did indeed die of tuberculosis.

Mr X died in 1935.  Was this the cause of his death?  It’s clear that the seventeen years back in Blighty were not happy, healthy ones for him.  I spent time looking at online trees, hoping that someone might have uploaded a copy of his death certificate, or at least given the cause of death in their notes, but no one had.  What I did read, both as notes on trees and in written accounts circulated by his grandchildren, was that he was badly affected by WW1, physically disabled, and that he took to drink.  He was a big man, and his wife was tiny.  He was violent, and she was no match for him.

Mr X isn’t part of my direct line.  He isn’t even a blood relative, so I wouldn’t normally buy a certificate for his death, but eventually it seemed like an important part of his story was missing.  Finally, I bought the certificate.  His death was recorded as ‘natural causes’, an acute inflammation of the pancreas: it seems it was the drink that did for him in the end.  I still think, though, there’s a good chance that had the awfulness of his life not driven Mr X to drink, he might have died a year or so later, from TB.

I have so many thoughts about Mr X.  I don’t think many people would have mourned his passing, although his wife, now free of him but widowed and with ten mouths to feed, must have felt she was tossing about somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea.  The 1930s were a hard time for working class people, but in a time when many were suffering, it seems this family really stood out as being poor as church mice.  We can’t discount the possibility that Mr X might just have been a violent, unpleasant bully.  But surely the more likely reason for his behaviour is the horrors of war torturing him for the rest of his days.

Mrs X’s life too was transformed from whatever it might have been to a life of anger, violence, harsh words and little love, and perhaps she too was experiencing a form of PTSD after her treatment at the hands of her husband.  Those who remember her tend to speak of a strange, solitary and unloving person.  I never met her, and indeed our families seem to have parted ways during these inter-war years.  The philosophy of the time was ‘you don’t interfere between man and wife’.  Thankfully this approach has gone out of fashion.  Mrs X needed support.  Mr X had needed support too.

Family research isn’t always about loving families and happy memories.  Sometimes life is terrible, unfair and unbearable.  But even when faced with the most unpleasant of individuals, even though we can’t forgive and shouldn’t excuse their behaviour, we can at least try to look for the person inside and how they got to be who they became.  And we can send them some love.

Yorkshire Pudding

One hundred years ago today my grandparents were married.  In their honour I’m going to write about a much-loved staple of my homeland: Yorkshire Pudding.  After a little online research about its origins, I’ve been surprised at how one very simple recipe can tell us so much about social history.

The earliest written recipe was in a publication called The Whole Duty of a Woman, Or, An Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex.  The author is not named, which certainly means it was a woman.  You can read the entire book for free online via Google books, or if you prefer, a facsimile edition is also available as an actual book here. A handwritten note in the original indicates the first edition was 1701.  As the title suggests, this is far more than a recipe book.  Rather it’s a complete guide to what was expected of a woman of that time, in all aspects of her life, including Religion, Modesty, Behaviour towards Men and ‘A Wife’s Behaviour to a Drunkard’.

At this early stage it seems Yorkshire Pudding isn’t yet called ‘Yorkshire Pudding’.  In these pre-oven times, the entire thing is cooked over a fire but under the meat (shoulder of mutton).  The dripping from the almost-cooked mutton is allowed to drip into the pudding as it cooks, hence the original name, Dripping Pudding:

The next known reference is 1747, when Hannah Glasse published her Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.  This is also available to read for free online via Internet Archive or as an actual book here.

It’s now ‘Yorkshire Pudding’, and although more detail is given in the method, it’s still clearly the same recipe as the earlier version, cooked over the fire beneath ‘a good piece of meat’.

It’s clear from these descriptions that Yorkshire Pudding was something far more substantial than a dainty little accompaniment to a plate of roast beef, which is how it’s generally viewed today.  We can see that traditionally it was baked in a large tin, and then cut into portions for each person. The type of meat was not important.

Fast-forward 150 years, to when my grandparents were growing up, and the only thing that has changed is the availability of the oven.  Towards the end of the cooking of the Sunday roast, dripping from the meat was put into a large baking tray (a dedicated ‘Yorkshire Pudding tin’) and the batter then added.  In other words, the ‘dripping’ no longer dripped from above onto the baking pudding.  (Until reading these recipes I didn’t realise this was how ‘dripping’ got its name.)  But Yorkshire Pudding was not just for Sundays.  When the meat was cooked, all the leftover dripping would be poured into a pot and left to cool.  This was then used to start off the Yorkshire Pudding for the following days.  (It was also used as a sandwich filler.  My Dad used to take dripping sandwiches to work, on white bread, with salt and pepper.  This was not some kind of punishment: he really enjoyed it, although I can’t explain why.)

And now here’s the important bit: the reason everyone was eating so much Yorkshire Pudding wasn’t because they just couldn’t get enough of it (although a well-made Yorkshire Pudding is indeed a thing of beauty.)  No, it’s because it is traditionally served as a substantial starter – a plateful of nothing but the pudding, with gravy.  The whole point was to fill everyone up at low cost before they even got to the expensive meat and vegetables.

Moving on now to my own childhood, and this was still how we had Yorkshire Pudding.  My mother used small, shallow ‘Yorkshire Pudding tins’, one for each family member, so we each had an individual pudding served with gravy, before the main course.  We had this every week on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, although gradually, this was whittled down to just Sunday lunch.  Another rule was that the Yorkshire Pudding tins were never washed.

So, to bring you right up to date, I don’t often make Yorkshire Puddings, but when I do, I’m fiercely traditional about their position in the meal as a starter.  I’m not traditional about the dripping though – I often use olive oil.  This may mean I will no longer be welcome back in Yorkshire.  I can see now that the dripping is an integral part of the dish, to the extent that its availability was the whole reason someone first got the idea to toss some batter into it.  I also wash the the tins. 🙂

So now it turns out there is a Yorkshire Pudding Day.  It’s the first Sunday in February, so if you’ve never made it and you’d like to give it a try you have a little over a week to prepare for the festivities.  (I’m not sure what the festivities will be!)

I was going to add my mother’s recipe, but I notice it doesn’t include accurate measurements, which may be a problem if you’ve never even heard of Yorkshire pudding before, let alone not made it.  So here is Mary Berry’s Yorkshire Pudding recipe.  It includes the same ingredients as my mother’s (although with sunflower oil instead of dripping) but with accurate amounts.

The only thing to add – of course! – is that these are best served as a starter, with gravy.  🙂

*****

It occurs to me that a section on special family recipes would be an excellent addition to a collection of life stories.  So if you’re thinking about writing your stories for future generations, what recipes would you include?

Some corner of a foreign field…

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England…

From: The Soldier by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

Writing these lines in 1914, Rupert Brooke could never have dreamed that one day they would come to evoke so strongly, for the people of his homeland, the young men killed in battle during the First World War.  Nor, having himself died in 1915, could he have envisaged the beautifully designed and lovingly tended cemeteries that were to rise up from the devastation of rat-infested, waterlogged Flemish battlefields in the corners of which he had helped to bury the fallen.

During the hostilities, around seven million civilians and ten million military personnel lost their lives.  Two of these were my great uncles.  They were amongst the 1,700,000 men who fell in defence of the Flemish town of Ypres (Ieper).  In 2014, wanting to make sense of their final moments, I went to Ypres.  On behalf of my late grandparents and great grandparents I wanted to visit their memorials.  In doing so, I crossed battlefields, walked in trenches and tried to imagine the horrors once witnessed by that now peaceful landscape.

Along the way I learned how to ‘read’ the war graves cemeteries.  Below, I share some of my discoveries.

All photos were taken at Poelkapelle, Tyne Cot, Essex Farm and Hooge Crater Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries in West Flanders.

There are two types of war graves cemetery: battlefield and military.  These differ as follows: Apart from their smaller size, the hallmark of a battlefield cemetery is that the men lay exactly where they were buried by their brothers in arms during battle, only now with the addition of a permanent headstone.  (See below.)  When the larger military cemeteries, such as Poelkapelle and Tyne Cot were later created, many bodies were moved to these new sites and laid to rest in uniform rows, all facing the same direction.

The memorial stone in the foreground of the above image bears a closer look.  Private T Barratt, below, was awarded the Victoria Cross.  Apart from the soldier’s regiment and a cross, Star of David, or a Sikh, Hindu, or Muslim symbol, the Victoria Cross was the only other symbol permitted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the headstones.

Close by, is the final resting place of Rifleman V J Strudwick, below.  His grave also receives a lot of attention.  You’ll see why – look for his age.

Notice also an inscription at the bottom of Rifleman Strudwick’s stone: Not gone from memory or from love.  Families of the deceased soldier were given the opportunity to have an epitaph engraved at the bottom of the headstone, to a maximum of 66 letters.  They could write their own words or choose from a number of ‘standard’ epitaphs selected by Rudyard Kipling.  However, whereas the headstone itself was provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, any inscription had to be paid for by the family, at a cost of threepence half-penny for each letter.  My Great Uncle Joe’s stone, like that of Private Barratt VC, bears no inscription – the several shillings more, presumably, than their families could spare.

 

Next, the grave of a Jewish soldier, Rifleman M M Green.  In the Jewish tradition, visitors have left memorial Stars of David, and piled pebbles on the gravestone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the front row of the next image, seven stones are set closely together.  This is a communal grave for seven men killed in one blast – it was presumably not possible to work out precisely which body part belonged to which soldier.

Seven contiguous gravestones, indicating one large grave containing body parts of seven soldiers.

And here, one little plot bearing the found remains of eight whole men.  I won’t spell it out…

It was touching to see that local people continue to leave flowers and keepsakes, such as this rosary, on the graves of unknown soldiers.

The largest of all the Commonwealth military cemeteries anywhere in the world is Tyne Cot.  Alongside 11,954 actual graves, a further 34,959 British and New Zealand soldiers are commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing.  Added to the 54,896 men whose names are recorded on the Menin Gate, this brings the total of men missing in Ypres to 89,855.  Most of these men do not lie undiscovered beneath the heavy Flanders soil; many were found but not identified.  Their names are commemorated on the plaques of the Menin Gate or Tyne Cot, but they may also be buried in graves like the one above: A Soldier of The Great War.

One of these missing soldiers, my Great Uncle Cyril, is commemorated at the Menin Gate.

All of these grounds were given in perpetuity by King Albert I of Belgium in recognition of the sacrifices made in the defence and liberation of Belgium during the war.  Designed by Sir Reginald Bloomfield and Sir Edwin Lutyens, with input from Gertrude Jekyll and Rudyard Kipling, contrary to expectations they are not forlorn, tragic ‘corners of some foreign field’.  And yet nor do they glorify war.  On the contrary, they are beautifully tended, tranquil spots: places to meditate on the people whose lives were so cruelly cut short.

Military ancestors: case studies

It is today exactly 101 years since the end of The Great War. Of infinitely less global significance but a milestone for me anyway, today also marks the first anniversary of this blog. It started with a post dedicated to my two great uncles who were killed in action in 1917.

Today I’m continuing that theme with four case studies showing how I’m using evidence from a variety of sources to learn more about my ancestors’ military careers.  This post builds on my last, and you might like to read it in conjunction with that.

As you read through the case studies, there are three things I’d like to highlight:

  1. Although the service record is a real bonus, if you don’t have it, all is not lost; you really just need their name and something indicating their regiment and battalion.
  2. Everyone who served will have a different story.  As you’ll see below, records found for two of my family members pointed me to stories that were far more personal, not really about the war at all.
  3. Third, having the records/ memorabilia/ etc is not enough.  We need to really look at them, read them, and extract all the information and clues we can.

Albert, my Granddad
I already knew:
Albert’s military career is the genealogist’s dream scenario.  I knew he had been a Regular in the Army, and we have a lot of memorabilia, keepsakes and heirlooms from his time including his medals, pacing stick, decorative military drumsticks, shooting trophies, Soldiers Small Book, photos, correspondence to and from home, newspaper cuttings he had saved of significant events, his regulation issue ‘housewife’ (sewing kit) bearing his service number, ongoing education certificates and much more.  Based on that little lot I knew his regiment, battalion, service number, countries visited and exact dates.

Key piece of evidence:
Albert’s Soldiers Small Book.  These were issued specifically so that the soldier could record his own military career, and Albert was meticulous in keeping it up to date.

My research:
A series of records predating Albert’s decision to join the Army would explain what prompted him to do so, and even how he came to be equipped to join up as a musician.  He attested in December 1905, and after initial training joined the Yorkshire Regiment 1st Battalion (The Green Howards) in February 1906.  His 1905 attestation, including a physical description (but not his ongoing service record, which is presumably lost) was on FindMyPast (from TNA series WO96 militia service records 1806-1915).  Ancestry supplied a medal roll index card, an entry on the medal roll register (WO329 Service Medal and Award Rolls, First World War) and I have discharge papers.  He was discharged initially to the Reserves, and shooting trophies suggest he continued to play an active part locally.  He would later serve during WW2 with the Territorials.

The Long, Long Trail website provides additional information about the battalion’s movements in India after 1914.  During WW1 the Green Howards formed part of the 1st Indian Division: 3rd Infantry Brigade, moving around several bases, and culminating ultimately in the Third Afghan War in 1919.  All of this ties in with photos and Christmas card locations, and explains why Albert didn’t arrive home until Christmas 1919.

As I write this I’m mindful that exactly one hundred years ago Albert was on board a ship quarantined for smallpox off the coast of South Africa.  He was desperate to get home to marry his fiancée, my Grandmother.

Ongoing:
I now realise that throughout his long life, and even though his service with the battalion ended in 1921, my Granddad identified as a Green Howard.  I feel the need to go deeper into this story as a way of honouring that.  There’s still much I could do to find out more, including:

  • Visiting the Green Howards Museum in Richmond, Yorkshire.
  • Locating regimental diaries for his various tours.
  • Wider reading, e.g. What was happening in the areas where the battalion was based? What was the life of an army musician?  I know he was a crack shot with the rifle, but how did this fit with military band duties?  What other roles did he have?
  • Applying for his WW2 Territorial Army record.

*****

Joseph, my Great Granddad
I already knew:
I knew Joseph was in the Boer War, and I have a photo of him as a young man during his Army years, standing alongside a fine horse.

Key piece of evidence:
Joseph’s service record.  This was available on FindMyPast (from TNA series WO 97 Chelsea Pensioners British Army Service Records 1760-1913).  He attested for the Dragoon Guards in 1889.  His service record includes personal information, next of kin (an aunt), conduct and details of service.  It references his skills as a groom and horseman.  After serving in the East Indies and Natal he was discharged to the Reserves in 1896, but recalled in 1900 to fight in the second Boer War.  By this time Joseph was married and almost certainly didn’t want to leave his wife and baby to fight in South Africa.  In January 1902 he was severely wounded in the abdomen.  A little over two weeks later he was near-fatally wounded and was returned to England.  He was discharged in October 1902, medically unfit for further service.

My research:
Other research has shown that Joseph was orphaned at a very young age, brought up in the local workhouse, and as was common for the time, siphoned from there into the Army, as was his slightly older brother.

I can find nothing more online about Joseph’s military career.  However, a search on the TNA website turned up a record in series WO 121 Royal Hospital, Chelsea: Discharge Documents of Pensioners, and I visited to view it in person.  It was a HUGE file with a great deal of personal information covering the rest of Joseph’s life.  In this sense, Joseph’s military story spanned his whole life: his serious abdominal wound meant he had a lifelong disability which limited his work options.  I hadn’t known about this.  From 1902 until Joseph’s death in 1953 at the age of 83, he was required to present regularly for medical examination to be sure his condition had not improved (even though one examination had concluded it would never improve, only worsen).  Reading the file made me very sad and quite angry.

Ongoing:
Again, I’d like to go deeper into Joseph’s military experience, by:

  • Visiting the Royal Dragoon Guards Museum in York
  • Locating regimental diaries
  • Wider reading and films about the second Boer War and life in the British Army 1889-1902.

*****

Great Uncle Cyril
I already knew:
A treasured photo shows Cyril as a smiling young man – a boy really – clad in his new army uniform and seemingly quite excited about the adventure he’s about to go on.  Pictured with him are his sister (my Grandma) and little brother.  Their faces indicate they don’t share their older brother’s enthusiasm for this turn of events.  Cyril was killed soon afterwards, aged 18 years and 26 days.  He is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres.  Many years after that photo was taken, that worried little brother would visit the town and pause by the panel bearing Cyril’s name, no doubt thinking of happier times they had spent together.  I have the postcard he brought back.

Key piece of evidence:
Cyril is commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.  This includes his regiment, battalion, service number, and next of kin details.  (He was the son of Joseph, above).  There is no service record for Cyril, so this was the only way I could have found this essential information.

My research:
Armed with that information I found:

  • Cyril’s Soldier’s Will.  This is interesting from a broader family history viewpoint, because he wrote ‘I leave my money to my mother’.  In fact his mother had died two years previously, and the lady he now named was his stepmother.  It suggests she was kind to the children, and they all got on well as a family.  It also possibly indicates that she was the one who took care of the household finances.
  • Register of Soldiers’ Effects (Ancestry, source: Soldiers’ Effects Records, 1901–60. National Army Museum, Chelsea) – I can see from this that his things were sent to his stepmother, as per the will.
  • Medal Rolls index card (Ancestry)
  • In 2014 I visited Ypres, including Cyril’s entry on the Menin Gate and a battlefield tour.  During the tour a chill ran down my spine when the tour guide said ‘Right here is the position of the British Front on 31st July 1917’.  That Front included Cyril, and I was standing where he died the following day.
  • The Regimental diary (Ancestry, source: WO 95/1096–3948 First World War and Army of Occupation War Diaries) gives precise details of events, times and movements.
  • I have also located a list of trench maps that I plan to view in conjunction with the diaries.

Ongoing:
I’m happy with my research for Cyril.  It just needs to be written up.

*****

Great Uncle Joseph
I already knew:
Very little.  Only that Joseph had been killed in action during WW1.  Owing to a mis-labelling, I didn’t realise until last year that I had a photograph of him.  Unlike his brother Albert (my Granddad), Joseph was a conscript.

Key piece of evidence:
As with Cyril, the starting point was Joseph’s commemoration on the CWGC website, which includes his regiment, battalion and service number.  It does not, however, include his next of kin but his widow is named on the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, below, and the other details match up.

My research:
There is no service record and I can find no Soldier’s Will.  Joseph married in 1913, and a record dated May 1915 indicates he had not joined up by that time.  Based on the evidence so far available I have no way of knowing exactly when Joseph attested, but conscription started on 2nd March 1916 and was extended to married men on 25th May of that year.  I suspect Joseph was a reluctant conscript.  He was killed in action, aged 26, on 9th October 1917.  Ancestry has provided his entry on the Medal Rolls, and on the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919, also the Regimental diary, including maps.  My trip to Ypres (above) also included a visit to Joseph’s grave.

Joseph’s story, however, has an epilogue.  At the time of his death his wife was 3 months pregnant with their only child.  Given the early stage it’s likely Joseph died not knowing he was to be a father.  Eight months after his death his widow remarried, and the baby was registered two months before that with the surname of her new husband to be.  I have followed this baby through to his death in 2002, and wonder if he knew he was Joseph’s son.

Ongoing:
I’d like to look for muster rolls at The National Archives, and hope thereby to be able to work out precisely when Joseph attested.

*****

Further National Archives Collections
Having worked  through these four case studies and identified gaps in available evidence, I now realise there could be a great deal more information at The National Archives.  The individual records that show up in an online search of TNA collections are merely the ones that have been indexed.  There are many more that haven’t been indexed.  They would perhaps show up by searching for the battalion rather than name of soldier, and could then be browsed page by page.  Whether I would ever have the time to do that is another matter.

I hope these four case studies have helped you to see how evidence from a wide range of sources, including non-military sources, can be used together to build up a picture.  Note, too, that although I’m now at the stage of looking for gaps in evidence and considering wider reading to give me a deeper understanding, it has taken years to get to this position.  Sometimes the evidence reveals itself only gradually.