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.

Evidence: part 2

In my last post I wrote about different types of information that we might draw upon to build our family trees: original and derivative records, and primary and secondary sources.  If you haven’t read that post, you might want to read it now.  Today’s offering builds on it, by considering:

  • How can we use these types of evidence together to build a conclusive case?
  • When can we be sure we really have the right person and the facts straight?
  • How much evidence is enough?

There is no straightforward answer.  Some advise you should aim for three pieces of evidence.  I don’t agree.  Sometimes one piece of evidence is so conclusive it’s all we need.  Quality is more important than quantity.  Other times we find ourselves conducting an ongoing investigation that can take years.

What follows is two case studies that illustrate my own experience of building a hypothesis, finding possible answers, and eventually finding that one final, convincing piece of information.

Case study 1: Who are Joseph’s parents?
As an inexperienced genealogist I came to a brick wall with one of my lines.  My 3x great grandfather was Joseph Lucas, and census records indicated he was born around 1787.  Joseph’s baptism record provided his father’s name – also Joseph – and from there I was able to find Joseph senior’s marriage, his wife’s name (Anne) and the names of all their children.  Since Joseph senior died before censuses commenced I had no way of knowing his age.  Several Joseph Lucas’s were baptised in the parish, all within a few years, and any one of them could have been my Joseph.  With nothing to indicate the name of his father, how could I narrow them down?

One of the potential baptisms, in 1754, interested me because of the father’s name: Nathaniel. My 4xG grandparents, Joseph and Anne, had a son with the same name.  Checking all the children of this older Nathaniel and his wife Sarah, I found that alongside their son Joseph (potentially my 4xG grandfather) they too had named a son Nathaniel.  In fact, six of my Joseph’s twelve children shared names with the children of Nathaniel and Sarah.  Given the importance of naming traditions, I thought I was on to something.  But there was a catch.  That 1754 baptism was Nonconformist.  What’s more, Nathaniel’s family lived at the opposite side of Leeds from where I knew my Joseph raised his family.  Two far more experienced researchers insisted I was wrong, one on the grounds of the Nonconformity; the other citing geography: ‘These are the Woodhouse Lucas’s; ours are the Hunslet Lucas’s.’  Consulting online trees, I could see that this was a problem no one had solved.

This coincidence of names was too much for me to let it go, but it was only a hypothesis, requiring further proof that I didn’t have.  I did add Nathaniel, Sarah and all their children as the family of my 4xG grandfather Joseph, but knowing that others thought I was wrong, I didn’t want to take the line back any further.  I left it for several years.

By the time I came back to look at this line I was more experienced, knowledgeable and confident.  This is what happened next:

First, I found the baptism of Joseph’s wife, my 4xG grandmother, Anne.  Her father was called Leonard… the same name she and Joseph gave their first son.  So if they named their first son after Anne’s father, surely their second son, who was Nathaniel, was indeed named after Joseph’s father…?

Next, I found a record for Leonard senior on the Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures, 1710-1811.  Anne’s father Leonard, it turned out, was a master tailor… just like Joseph was.  Might Anne and Joseph have met as a result of Joseph learning his trade at the side of Anne’s father?  I’ve never found a record proving that Joseph was apprenticed to Leonard, but from wider reading I knew it was not uncommon for apprentices to marry the master’s daughter; and Joseph’s marriage to Anne is at exactly the right time to coincide with the end of Joseph’s apprenticeship.

Consulting a map of the period, I could see that Leonard’s home in Chapeltown was less than a mile from Woodhouse where Nathaniel and Sarah were raising their family – a reasonable distance for their son to walk daily during his apprenticeship.

Initially, the baptism records I used for Joseph and Ann’s children were transcripts, found on FamilySearch.  Now I found the originals on Ancestry.  Looking at each one, I now saw that the earlier children were born in Chapeltown, consistent with the couple living with Leonard while Joseph developed his skills following apprenticeship.  Using these same baptism records, I was able to work out exactly when Joseph and Anne moved from Chapeltown to Hunslet, which is where Joseph set up his own business, and where their descendants would remain for the next few generations.

There was no longer any doubt: my 4xG grandfather Joseph Lucas is the son of Nathaniel and Sarah Lucas, baptised in a Nonconformist chapel in 1754; and later abandoning that practice.  All of this was worked out using primary sources: the original records (baptism, marriage, apprenticeship) and the map.  Initially, the derivative records (transcripts of the baptism records) gave me sufficient information to develop my hypothesis, but had not provided the detail that enabled me to see where Joseph and Anne were living when each child was born.  That alone would have provided some important evidence (that Joseph was not originally from Hunslet) when I first started to formulate this hypothesis.  Wider reading, including an understanding of the apprenticeship system both generally and in Leeds (where the system was slightly different) enabled me to draw conclusions from the apprenticeship record.

One final piece of evidence has come to light recently: a DNA match with a distant cousin further back along the line from Nathaniel and Sarah.

Case study 2: The Symondsons of Starbotton
My 8x great grandfather is Thomas Symondson.  He married my 8x great grandmother Agnes at St Mary’s church in Kettlewell in Yorkshire’s Wharfedale on 19th February 1674/75, and their first child, my 7x great grandfather Lister Symondson, was baptised in the same church on 21st July 1678.

Thomas’s own baptism cannot be found.  Based on his marriage year of 1674/75, a birth year around 1645-1655 seems likely.

Looking at other online trees connected to Thomas and Lister, one tree in particular caught my attention.  It was compiled by someone with a wide interest not just in this family but in the whole of the area known as Wharfedale.  Over time, this person is working through every register from all parishes within Wharfedale, and transcribing them.  The result is not only an online tree at Ancestry, but also a dedicated (free to use) website including every person ever traced within Wharfedale (all 408,794 of them!) and a list of their key life events with dates.  A life’s work indeed, and of the highest quality.  In other words, everything on the tree and the website has been compiled from original records (primary sources), but what I was seeing was derivative.

On this tree and related website, Thomas is listed as one of five sons: Lawrence, born 1639 in Giggleswick; Christopher, born circa 1640 in Kettlewell; Lister, born 1641 in Gisburn; then Thomas himself, born circa 1649 in Kettlewell; and finally Anthony, born 1656 in Kettlewell.  Baptism records for Lawrence and Lister indicate that the father is Christopher Symondson.

From wider reading (secondary sources) I knew that the period in question was a turbulent one in English history.  Referred to as the Interregnum, it is the period commencing with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and ending with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.  During these years responsibility for the registration of births, marriages and burials was removed from the clergy and given to a ‘Parish Register’.  With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the clergy resumed their role in keeping the registers.  However, many of the registers of the Interregnum were not handed back to the incumbent or, regarded as invalid, they were destroyed.  The result is that although some of the records of the period survive, many do not.  This is almost certainly the reason for the missing records for this family, and if so they would never be found.

From the records that have survived we know that Lawrence and Lister are brothers, and their father is Christopher Symondson.  It is also clear from naming patterns that there is a family connection between this Christoper, Lawrence and Lister, and my 8xG grandfather Thomas, who would go on to name his own sons Lister and Christopher.  But is that relationship one of father/son/brother?  Or could it be a little more distant, for example cousins?  What I needed was some form of 17th century evidence that would magically link Thomas to any one of Christopher, Lawrence or Lister, as their son/brother.

Reader, I found it!  🙂

Lister left a will.  On 23rd February 1693/94 Lister willed his entire estate to his wife Mary, and after Mary’s death to their only daughter Barbary.  In the event of Barbary’s death without issue, the estate would pass (with some conditions attached) to ‘my brother Thomas Symondson and his heirs’.  The will was signed in the presence of three men, each of whom signed or left his mark.  These three men included Thomas Symondson.  (As a potential beneficiary of the will, today this would render the will invalid, but it seems in 1693/4 this rule had not yet come into being.)  As luck would have it, I already had a sample of my 8xG grandfather Thomas’s handwriting.  In 1678, at the time of his son Lister’s baptism, Thomas was churchwarden and it was he who prepared the Bishop’s Transcript of all baptisms, marriages and burials in the parish for that year.  I therefore have a whole page of his handwriting, together with two samples of him writing his own name – once to indicate the father (himself) of the baptised child Lister Symondson, and then to witness the truth and accuracy of the register.  By comparing the handwriting on these two original records I can see that the Thomas Symondson who witnessed his brother’s will and the one known to be my 8xG grandfather is the same man, and by extension, my 9xG grandfather is Christopher.

*****

One final note: I wouldn’t want to you to think all my genealogical problems are solved.  In these two examples – and many others – perseverance paid off.  But I do have many more examples of brick walls that have so far proven insurmountable.  Some of them will eventually be solved, I’m sure, but sometimes we do have to accept, finally, that the records no longer exist.

Here’s why we should look at online trees!

One of my early posts considered the merits of consulting other people’s online trees.  After outlining various dangers and pitfalls, I explained that I do often look at them, but importantly, everything that goes on my tree has been fully researched and verified by me.  If there are no records to support someone’s information, it will never find its way onto my own tree, other than perhaps marked as a plausible hypothesis requiring more research.

But more recently I’ve been using trees in another way – not to search for names, dates and events, but to try to work forwards from a person I’m interested in to the ‘Home’ person (the person whose tree this is).  If it seems like the tree owner is a direct descendant of my person of interest I sometimes write to ask if they can help me with some family stories or information or even if they have photographs.  Of course I’m always prepared to share what I have too, and although usually all I can offer is my research, maybe I have some interesting stories they don’t seem to have.

Sometimes they don’t reply.  Sometimes they do, but it turns out their connection is not as close as I thought.  I think we both had a good laugh when someone replied to say that yes, my person was on her tree, but he was described by Ancestry’s relationship calculator as ‘the father-in-law of the father-in-law of the great-aunt of her husband’!  I have to say too that on occasion people have been keen to take what I had to offer and then never given me whatever they had in return.

But sometimes I strike it lucky.  Here’s a couple of examples:

*****

My great grandfather, George, died in 1940, but it seemed no photograph of him had survived.  After many years of asking any second cousins I came across, I finally found the tree of a descendant of my great uncle, the son with whom George lived in his later years.  If anyone had a photograph of him, surely she would.

I was right.  But along with a photo of George, she had inherited his entire family album, with photos of our grandfathers and their other brothers together, plus some correspondence with my granddad from his travels with the Army.  Some of the photos helped me to piece together a couple of mysteries.

My new second cousin doesn’t share my interest in past centuries and social history, but she loved all the stories I’ve been able to pull together about the more recent generations; and so in return for these lovely photos we spent a few weeks getting to know each other and sharing what we knew.  We’re still in touch.

*****

A few months back I wrote (here and here) about my unlucky-in-love biological 2x great grandmother, Annie Elizabeth.  The point of the two blogposts was to use her story to illustrate several aspects of marriage law (elopement, bigamy, adultery, desertion, divorce, domestic violence and separation) that had been touched on in my reviews of two books (here and here) by Rebecca Probert.

Alongside those blogposts I wrote a fuller version of the story for my own family.  In that version I questioned, for example, whether there might have been problems at home following Annie Elizabeth’s mother’s remarriage, and if that might have been the reason for the fifteen year-old eloping with someone she barely knew.  I could see that her mother and step-father were living apart by 1871.  I also wondered if Annie Elizabeth’s first child, my great grandfather (another George) who was brought up by his paternal aunt, might have known who his true parents were.  I really thought these were things I would never know.

A few months ago I broke down a brick wall surrounding Annie Elizabeth’s parents, and this new information also included finding a sister, Martha.  Following through on a family tree linked to Martha, I found a descendant.  Bearing in mind that my knowledge of Annie Elizabeth is based entirely on records and documents found through research, to the extent that I didn’t even know if my great grandfather knew she was his mother, surely a direct descendant of her sister would know more.  Perhaps there would even be a photo of this lady whose life I have found so interesting…

The gentleman I wrote to turned out to be my 3rd cousin once removed and the great grandson of Annie Elizabeth’s sister.  He sent me a short family history written by his late aunt Amy – my second cousin twice removed – together with some notes of his own research based on what she wrote.

Now Amy’s family history is not going to get any prizes for accuracy.  It’s full of mistakes and half-truths.  There are people and places that fit with my research, but names are not quite right, and there is a strong suggestion of riches in our lineage that the available facts don’t bear out.  All this is forgiven: she didn’t have access to the records we’re able to take for granted, and her account has value in itself as a testament to the stories that must have been passed down to her.

Having said that, there were some absolute gems of information.  Reading her account, it felt like Amy was reaching out across the decades to verify for me the truth of several of my hunches.  I found that not only did my great grandfather George know that Annie Elizabeth was his mother, but he remained part of the family.  Annie Elizabeth’s mother was known to him as his grandmother.  Regarding my hunch that my Annie Elizabeth may have married in haste to flee an unpleasant home life, Amy describes the stepfather as ‘a rotter’ who, in one of his bad moods, set fire to a wooden chest full of family papers and other treasures, and made his wife and two daughters (Annie Elizabeth and Martha) watch it burn.  As for Annie Elizabeth’s second husband, who would later assault her, and whose demeanour in court did not impress the judge or the news reporters, there is a whole side story about him, his drinking, his ‘swelled-headed’ arrogance and his mean nature, all of which complements the picture I had built in my mind about him, based purely on the records.

There’s still a lot of information to be mined from Amy’s account, and some other things to check out, but I feel so lucky to have been given this little window onto the life of my great grandfather and his birth mother.

*****

I hope these stories will encourage you to think about using online trees in this way.

St John’s College Library, Cambridge

Ancient library with rows of dsecorative dark wood shelves and a large stained glass window at the far end

My 7xG grandfather, Lister Simondson, studied at St John’s College, Cambridge.  I found him there quite by chance while doing a general search on Ancestry a couple of years ago.  I could never have imagined then, that within two years I would be walking in his footsteps inside the Upper Library at St John’s.

The library was completed in 1624.  That date is affixed in stone to the exterior of the building on the brick parapet above the oriel window, and clearly visible from the river, which flows immediately outside, as well as from the adjacent Bridge of Sighs (which is where I was when I took the photo below).  By the time Lister arrived in 1696, it was still fairly new, but even so the Library of St Johns College could claim to be the largest and most impressive in Cambridge. The books are arranged on 22 beautifully carved tall, dark oak bookcases alternating with 20 ‘dwarf’ cases.  At the end of each of the taller cases little doors open onto a tiny cupboard, inside which are itemised, in various hands contemporaneous with Lister’s time in the library, the contents of the shelves.  It seems likely, then, that the library remains pretty much as it was when he was there.  In 2005, it was designated by the Museums Libraries and Archives Council as of national and international importance.

The library isn’t usually open to the public, but a year ago, by some strange quirk of fate, a distant cousin from the US on my husband’s side was awarded a visiting fellowship at St John’s, and a few months ago I was able to visit.  Since I was with a Visiting Fellow, we were able to go up there and wander round, just three of us, alone.  We weren’t allowed to touch any of the books but we could take photos without flash, and I took quite a few.

I was looking for any books that Lister, who graduated from St John’s in 1700, might have used.  This little set seemed likely – the Holy Bible in Ancient Greek, Latin and German. I happen to know Lister was a talented linguist, and he went on to become a Church of England vicar.  Of course I can’t guarantee he used these books, or even that they were in the library at the time he was there (1696-1700) but online research confirms that they were published in 1596, edited by David Wolder and printed by Lucius Jacob.  So I’m thinking they were.  Imagine that!

Ancient leather-bound Bible in 3 volumes, in Ancient Greek, Latin and German

The Cambridge University Alumni records for 1200-1900 are available on Ancestry.  Or you can search without any subscription here.
Oxford University Alumni records, 1500-1886 are also available on Ancestry.