There’ll always be an England (part 2)

This is the second post detailing the paternal ancestry of my grandfather Frederick England, the first of which you can read here. This entry focuses mainly on Frederick’s grandfather Thomas England and covers the period between 1850 and 1918.

* * *

Born on 26 May 1850, Thomas England would have been the only one of his six siblings with little or no memory of their father James, who had died in a mining accident before Thomas was eighteen months old. For the next year and a half he was raised by his mother Alice alone, perhaps aided by his older sister Ann, until his mother’s second marriage to William Grice on 17 May 1853. He would have received only the most basic education, possibly at a Sunday School set up for miners’ children, before starting work as a pit boy at Swanwick Colliery aged ten, working twelve and fourteen hour shifts.

According to his obituary, four years later Thomas “met with a serious accident which caused an injury to his spine and he became a weigh clerk at the Swanwick New Pit where he stayed for another […] years. He then went into the colliery offices where he remained for 22 years” (The Derbyshire Courier, 2 March 1918, p. 1, col. 5). The exact chronology is somewhat unclear as the number of years Thomas is said to have worked as a weigh clerk is illegible (it could be five or six) but the jobs described match up with his occupations recorded in the 1871 and 1881 censuses (‘weighing machinist, colliery’ and ‘clerk in colliery office’ respectively). As a weighing clerk Thomas would have been responsible for recording the weight, quality and intended destinations of the coal waggons as they left the mine. Although operating the weighing machinery would have involved a certain amount of physical exertion this was far less strenuous work than anything below ground. In addition the opportunities for advancement would have been more numerous here, and it isn’t difficult to imagine how displaying an aptitude for numbers, attention to detail and accurate record keeping could have led to a promotion to the colliery offices. His obituary describes him as a ‘plodder,’ who gradually improved his position throughout his whole life.

Weighing the coals
Weighing coal at a pit head, from a Victorian print. Source: Illustrated London News, 21 September 1878, p. 285 (via Old Print).

By the time of the 1881 census, Thomas, now a thirty one year old married father of two, had moved away from Sleetmoor Lane next to Swanwick Colliery to 15 Park Street in Alfreton. This new address closer the town centre reflected his rise in social status from manual labourer to salaried white-collar worker. His wife Mary Ann Munks (sometimes spelled ‘Monks’, b. 30 April 1854, Bottesford, Leicestershire – d. 11 January 1913, Pye Bridge, Derbyshire), who he had married five years earlier at Swanwick Baptist Church, was the daughter of John Munks, a Leicestershire bricklayer’s labourer, and Ann Askew, a former servant and charwoman. In the 1871 census Mary Ann had also been working as a domestic servant, and although it’s not certain how she and Thomas met it’s possible her job may have drew her into his orbit. At this time even many lower middle class households like Thomas’s employed servants (her employer in 1871 was a banker’s clerk), so it’s not inconceivable that she could have been working for someone he knew from the colliery.  They had a total of thirteen children (according to the 1911 census), the ones whose names we know were:

  • George William (b. c. February 1877, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 5 July 1915, Derby, Derbyshire)
  • Thomas (b. 28 June 1878, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1944, Heanor, Derbyshire)
  • John James (b. c. February 1882, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 6 December 1957, Leamoor Avenue, Alfreton, Derbyshire)
  • Lucy Ann (b. c. November 1883, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. February 1950, Nottinghamshire)
  • Emma Jane (b. c. May 1888, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1971, Chesterfield, Derbyshire)
  • Ernest Edward (b. c. February 1892, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 27 November 1892, Alfreton, Derbyshire)
  • Edwin (b. 8 November 1893, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 26 September 1916, Ovillers, Somme, Picardie)
  • Lottie (b. 20 March 1895, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1987, Selby, Yorkshire)
  • Nellie (b. 12 November 1896, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1976, Derby, Derbyshire)
  • Amy (b. c. February 1899, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1966, Derby, Derbyshire)

Unfortunately Thomas’s plodding ascent up the social ladder was to be halted abruptly in 1889. That year he was dismissed along with two other clerks from his job at Swanwick Colliery by the owner Charles Rowland Palmer-Morewood after they gave evidence in an action against the colliery manager Frederick George Pogmore (The Derbyshire Times, 27 November 1889), who had been accused of seducing the seventeen year old daughter of another colliery manager, Thomas Severn (The Derbyshire Times, 21 August 1889). The incident provoked a strong reaction by the Radicals, who cited it as an example of the Conservatives’ contempt for the working man (Morewood was a member of the latter party), however the Conservative candidate for mid-Derbyshire, John Satterfield Sandars, used a Conservative meeting at Alfreton to condemn Palmer-Morewood’s action and express his sympathy with the men (The Derbyshire Times, 27 November 1889, p. 2, col. 4). We know Thomas was in attendance as at the end of Sandars’s speech he proposed a vote of thanks to Mr. Sandars and thanked the Conservative Party for “the practical help and sympathy which had been shown to his fellows and himself.”

In the report Thomas was named as the secretary of the Alfreton Conservative Association. A few years earlier he had also apparently served as the Alfreton delegate for the Nottingham Imperial Order of Oddfellows (Nottingham Evening Post, 13 July 1886, p. 4, col. 5), a friendly society with a Masonic-style lodge structure. Both positions suggest an increasing interest in local affairs and a growing public profile. By 1891, when the family were living at 28 Park Street, he had found a new job as a bookkeeper for the Wingfield Manor Colliery Company, and from this point on his name begins to appear more frequently in local news stories. For example, according to the Derby Mercury there was a bizarre incident at his office at Highfield Cottage on 26 June that year when a man who lived above them was charged with deliberately damaging the company’s books. Thomas was quoted as a witness, saying that the man had entered the offices clearly drunk and ordered him and an assistant to leave, threatening to chuck them out if they did not. Thomas put the books away in a cupboard before leaving, and then the man proceeded to destroy or damage a large quantity of said books (The Derby Mercury, 29 July 1891, p. 3, col. 3).

News cutting
‘Damaging books,’ The Derby Mercury, 29 July 1891, p. 3, col. 3 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

A year later the Manor Colliery Company went into liquidation but Thomas and several other ex-employees successfully recovered £90 in owed wages from the owner John Brocklehurst (The Derbyshire Times, 23 January 1892, p. 8, col. 5). Later in the year Thomas is reported as giving “corroborative evidence” in the case of the Manor Colliery Co., Alfreton (In Liquidation) v. W.B. Hodgson, which involved another claim of unpaid wages against his former employer (The Derbyshire Times, 16 July 1892, p. 4, col. 8). After these debacles Thomas left the mining industry altogether and got a job as a clerk, and later manager at Kempson and Co. of Pye Bridge, a company producing sulphuric acid, coal derivatives and tar distilleries. Not glamorous perhaps, but a world away from what his brothers would have been exposed to down the mines. His wife’s epitaph states that the family lived somewhere called ‘Tynefield House’ in Pye Bridge in 1913, and the fact that their house had a name (and one worth mentioning on a gravestone) rather than simply a number suggests they were living in rather more spacious accommodation than they had done at Park Street (the 1911 census describes it as having eight rooms). Thomas’s importance within the company can be attested by the fact that he is listed as the company secretary in both a public notice in The Derbyshire Times (30 October 1897) and the 1912 edition of Kelly’s Directory.

This same directory also mentions that Thomas was a local councillor for the Somercotes and Riddings Ward of Alfreton Urban District Council. His interest in politics can be traced at least as far back as his work as secretary for the Alfreton Conservative Association, and in 1895 he had been appointed as a scrutineer in the sixth ballot of the Alfreton Building Society (The Derbyshire Times, 6 November 1895). This same public spiritedness can be detected again in 1901 when he had served as the census enumerator for his home district of Alfreton. Rather pleasingly, this means he would have met a large number of my Alfreton ancestors during census week as he trudged from door to door handing out the blank forms and collecting them a few days later.

gypsy_mary_evans_copyright_small_450
Census enumerator at a gypsy camp (via History.org).

Thomas had first been elected councillor on 29 May 1906 following the retirement of his predecessor Mr. F. Bonsall of the Midland Miners’ Permanent Relief Society (Nottingham Evening Post, 16 May 1906), and stood successfully again in 1909, 1912 and 1915. During this time he served as superintendent examiner for Somercotes Technical Education Committee (The Derbyshire Times, 15 February 1911, p. 6, col. 6), presided over a number of meetings coordinating Alfreton’s contribution to the war effort (Derbyshire Courier, 22 August 1914, p. 3, col. 6, Derbyshire Courier, 17 April 1915, p. 3, col. 7) and was promoted to Chairman of the Alfreton Urban District council, a position which carried with it a magistracy. In his later years Thomas also became increasingly involved in both his local Masonic lodge, into which he had been initiated on 21 April 1908, and the Baptist church at Swanwick where he and Mary Ann had married in 1876. Some of his activities reported in the local press include opening a fundraising bazaar for the church on Easter Tuesday 1911 (Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, 22 April 1911, p. 7, col. 8) and opening a new Sunday School there the following year (The Derbyshire Courier, 6 January 1912, cols. 3-5). According to his obituary he also ran a bible class and was a deacon at Riddings. The photograph below shows him with with his fellow deacons when he would have been around sixty years old.

Deacons of Riddings Baptist Church
Deacons of Riddings Baptist Church c. 1910. Thomas England is stood on the far left (via Picture the Past).

Thomas’s final years were marred by a series of personal tragedies. In 1913 his wife Mary Ann passed away at the age of fifty eight. Her epitaph reads “rest comes at length,” from the hymn ‘Hark, Hark, My Soul.’ Her death was followed by those of their sons George in 1915 and Edwin in 1916, and after a long illness Thomas himself died on 21 February 1918 aged sixty seven. His obituary described him as “a man of many parts [who] was thorough in all he did,” and a “very popular member” of the council with “a large circle of friends.” His funeral took place at Swanwick Baptist Church three days later, where he was laid to rest in the same plot as his wife. Although on the surface his life can seem like Victorian self-improvement fantasy (the working class lad who overcame various hardships through faith and perseverance), to me Thomas seems like a more complex character than this would suggest. Although possessed of a strong work-ethic (or perhaps just restlessness) he seems to have been genuinely motivated by a desire to do good for his community. Perhaps his memories of that cramped house on Sleet Moor, and of another life underground which he’d so narrowly avoided, had something to do with that.

Thomas England's grave
Thomas and Mary Ann’s headstone, Swanwick, 4 November 2011. The full epitaph reads: “In loving memory of Mary Ann, beloved wife of Thomas England of Tynefield House, Pye Bridge. Died January 11th 1913 aged 59 years. Rest comes at length. Also, the above Thomas England. Died February 21st 1918 aged 67 years.”

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A brief note on how I discovered the site of Thomas’s grave. When I first began looking into my family history in 2010 neither the 1911 census nor the British Newspaper Archive were available, so my knowledge of Thomas’s life was initially limited to what I could glean from the censuses of 1851-1901. I could find no record of his marriage or burial in the local parish registers but didn’t realise till much later that this would have been because of his Baptist faith. The key piece of information which led to the discovery of everything else was the brief reference to his role as councillor for Riddings and Somercotes ward in the 1912 edition of Kelly’s Directory. The news that he’d worked as a local councillor convinced me he must have had an obituary in the local newspaper, and this quickly obtained via the Derbyshire Record Office. In it was the first mention I’d seen of his involvement with Riddings Baptist Church, and from there I was able to identify him as the man in this photo from the excellent Picture the Past website. Later that day, a bit more research led me to the site in Riddings where the Church had once stood (now a car park, but the wall the men in the photo are standing in front of is still there), and while in the area I thought it might be worth a quick look around the Baptist churchyard at nearby Swanwick, just in case. His and Mary Ann’s marble headstone was one of the largest and best situated there, standing in an unmistakably prestigious plot in front of the church. Even more surprising was the presence of a third commemoration on the stone’s left hand side which simply read “Also Edwin their son, killed in action, September 26th 1916 aged 22 years.” His story and that of his brothers and sisters, including Frederick’s father Thomas England Jr., will be told in the next post.

Thomas England Obituary Picture
Thomas England, 1850-1918. Source: The Derbyshire Courier, 4 February 1911, p. 9, col. 4 (via The British Newspaper Archive).
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There’ll always be an England (part 1)

This is the first of a series of posts detailing the paternal ancestry of my maternal grandfather Frederick England from the late 18th Century to the early 20th. This part will focus on the period from 1797 to around the 1850s.

* * *

The England family name seems to have originated independently in a number of different places where Anglo-Saxon ‘Englishmen’ were historically a minority, including the borders of England and Scotland and the Scandinavian-dominated Danelaw in Yorkshire and the East Midlands. Given where his immediate family came from it seems likely that the earliest ancestors of Frederick England would have come from the second of these two areas, and indeed the earliest documentary evidence I have found featuring the name of one of his England ancestors appears in the parish registers of St. Martin’s Church in Alfreton, Derbyshire. There on 20 March 1797 the marriage of Samuel England (b. c. 1772 – bur. 28 January 1829) to Hannah Stendall (b. c. 1779 – bur. 15 June 1809, Alfreton, Derbyshire) took place, witnessed by Joseph and Elizabeth England. Given their surnames it seems likely these witnesses were members of Samuel’s family but their exact relationship is unknown. Between them Samuel and Hannah had four children, the last of whom, Frederick’s great-grandfather James England was baptised on 15 June 1809, the same day Hannah was buried suggesting she may have died in childbirth.

The next time we encounter James is in the parish registers of St Mary’s Church in Greasley, Nottinghamshire for his wedding to Alice Sisson (bp. 3 April 1820, Strelley, Nottinghamshire – bur. 18 August 1896, Swanwick, Derbyshire) on 23 May 1836. The following year, James and Alice had moved back to James’s home parish, and according to the birthplace of their first daughter Hannah (perhaps named for his late mother?) were living in the small community of Pye Bridge on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border. This record also confirms that James was employed as a collier (coal miner) at the time, and aside from the 1841 census on which he is listed as an iron ore miner, James appears to have worked in the coal industry his entire life.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the East Midlands region which included Swanwick Colliery, James’s place of work, was one of the most heavily industrialised places in the world. At this time however mining was extremely dangerous work and poorly paid. Safety measures were almost non-existent and the living conditions of the workers were often cramped and overcrowded (by the time of the 1851 census James’s household included nine people). It was common for miners to start work before day break, spend all day underground and not emerge until after sunset. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that the area was an early hotbed of working class radicalism, with the Swanwick Miners’ Association organising an ill-fated strike as early as 1844, in which James England could well have participated.

Coal mining 1842
Mine conditions in 1842, taken from a contemporary report by the Children’s Employment Commission (via the British Library).

On 20 October 1851 when James was only forty two he was killed in an accident at Swanwick colliery. According to a subsequent inquest he had been “using a crow bar for the purpose of removing a prop, when the bar slipped and springing back caught him such a severe blow in the pitt [sic] of the stomach that it caused immediate death” (The Derby Mercury, 5 November 1851). He was buried on the 23rd of that month, leaving behind his wife and five surviving children.

James England's inquest
Coroner’s inquest following James England’s death. Source: The Derby Mercury, 5 November 1851, p. 3, col. 2 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

So what of the family James left behind? Between 1837 and 1850, he and Alice had had at least seven children, whose names were:

  • Hannah (bp. 21 May 1837, Pye Bridge, Derbyshire – bur. 14 June 1842, Pye Bridge, Derbyshire)
  • Ann (bp. 10 February 1839, Pye Bridge, Derbyshire – bur. 5 March 1879, Swanwick, Derbyshire)
  • George (b. c. April 1842, Pye Bridge, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1918, Derbyshire)
  • Samuel (b. 3 September 1844, Somercotes, Derbyshire – bur. 7 April 1845)
  • James (b. 4 April 1846, Sleet Moor, Derbyshire – d. 15 May 1933, Nuttall Street, Alfreton, Derbyshire)
  • Mary (b. 6 May 1848 Sleet Moor, Derbyshire – d. c. August 1945, Derbyshire)
  • Thomas (b. 26 May 1850, Sleet Moor, Derbyshire – d. 21 February 1918, Riddings, Derbyshire)

Just less than two years after James’s death, Alice remarried on 17 May 1853 to another coal miner, William Grice (b. c. 1823, Min, Leicestershire), with whom she had at least three more children:

  • Alice (b. 1 April 1855, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. August 1925, Derbyshire)
  • William (b. c. November 1856, Sleet Moor, Derbyshire)
  • Elizabeth (b. c. 1860, Sleet Moor, Derbyshire – d. c. May 1910, Derbyshire)

We of course cannot say whether Alice remarried for love, the need to support her children economically or a combination of the two, but in the years between the death of James and her second marriage she must have struggled to provide for her children, especially as her mother Ann was no longer around to help having died nine years earlier (Alice was the eldest of two two ‘illegitimate’ sisters, no father is named on her baptism record but on the record of her marriage to William Grice thirty three years later she gives her father’s name as Thomas Dewes). Tragically, only ten years into their marriage Alice’s second husband William died, like her first, in an accident at Swanwick Colliery on 15 November 1863. According to a report in The Derbyshire Times, two other men were seriously injured, and the accident had occurred in the same pit where two men had drowned the previous October.

William Grice's inquest
Coroner’s inquest following William Grice’s death. Source: The Derbyshire Times, 21 November 1863, p. 3, col. 2 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

The regularity of pit fatalities like those of James and William at this time is quite shocking. A search of the Coal Mining History Resource Centre’s database of Coalming Accidents and Deaths shows that between 1851 and 1919 there were thirty five incidents reported at Swanwick Colliery alone. According to this database James has the dubious honour of being the first man to die at Swanwick Colliery, but unfortunately many of his descendants also appear among the lists of dead and injured.

After Alice’s marriage to William the family never left the Sleet Moor area, the small semi-rural community located just south of Swanwick Colliery but North East of Swanwick village. Growing up in the shadow of the Palmer-Morewoods’ great pit it’s hardly surprising that all her children who survived infancy grew up to either work down the mine or marry a collier. Her eldest son George suffered bruising and a broken collar bone in a pit accident at the age of forty three (The Derby Daily Telegraph, 24 June 1885, p. 2, col. 6.) but survived to live another twenty six years. Alice and James’s youngest son Thomas, Frederick England’s grandfather, also met with an accident aged just fourteen. His resulting spinal injuries were so severe he was prevented from ever working down the mines again, but in his case this turned out to be something of a blessing as it led to a career as a clerk above ground. Later, despite his humble origins he would go on to hold an important managerial position in a local chemical works at a time when such social mobility was unusual, and became a councillor for the Somercotes and Riddings Urban District Ward, perhaps providing the origin of the England family’s later involvement in local politics. His story however will be explored in the next post.

Alfreton and surrounding area
Map of Alfreton and surrounding villages c. 1837. Swanwick is visible in the bottom left quarter, and the colliery were James worked is indicated near the centre of the map, about half way along the long East West road on the left-hand side (Sleet Moor is unmarked but would have been the area just south of here). Riddings and Pye Bridge can be seen in the bottom right-hand corner (via The British Library Online Gallery).

The Bermondsey Hoard

A few months ago on a rainy Friday afternoon at Bermondsey Antiques Market, I was browsing the rather meagre range of stalls which had yet to pack up for the day when I was asked by one trader whether I was looking for anything in particular. I gave him my best cheerfully non-committal “just browsing” and started planning a hasty exit, but after he insisted there was “more in the van” I decided there was no harm in politely rifling through a few more boxes before making my way home. Instead, my curiosity got the better of me and I ended up spending £20 or so on a collection of early 20th Century photographs and documents, none of which featured anyone whose names I knew or to whom I had any connection. Since then I’ve started using them as a learning tool in my day job as a local studies librarian when teaching family history, because as with my mother’s collection of family records, they’ve proved a good means of showing how to build up a family tree from a relatively small number of primary sources. Here’s how I got on.

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The photographs and documents I bought had all come from the same tin box, and although they featured a number of individuals it was clear from the context that they had once all belonged to the same person. Part of the reason I decided to buy so many of them was that I was saddened by the idea of them being picked off one-by-one (most likely by television companies to be used as set-dressing, according to the seller), causing any chance of discovering the stories which connected them to be lost forever. Purchasing a decent sample of them would at least, I thought, help preserve some of this person’s story.

But who was this person? Helpfully, many of the photos featured names on the reverse, mostly written in the same hand, and among them was the postcard below featuring a little girl. On the back was written “Me (Doris) (Canada)” in the same handwriting featured on most of the other photos.

Doris Eilleen Jones 4
‘Doris’, Canada.
Doris Eillen Jones 4 reverse
Reverse of the above.

Once I’d identified Doris as the collection’s former owner, it became clear that all the other photos and documents in my possession had to relate to her somehow. A second photograph (below) in which Doris had identified herself on the reverse showed her as a young woman, while a third from around the same time showed her at the centre of a group of female friends or relatives.

Doris Eillen Jones 2
‘Doris’, c. 194?.
Doris and friends
Doris and friends, c. 194?.

The hairstyles and clothing of the women in the second photograph (always the best means of dating old photos!) suggested they were taken in the 1940s, and given her youthful appearance this would put Doris’s birth year at around 1925. Fortunately this wasn’t the only clue I had to go on, as among the records I’d picked up was a godparent’s oath which commemorated the baptism of a Doris Eileen Jones at Ilford Parish Church on 23 October 1927.

Doris Eilleen Jones
Godparent’s oath from the baptism of Doris Eileen Jones, 23 October 1927, Ilford, Essex.

This had to be the same Doris. Not only did the (presumed) birth year fit perfectly, the place, Ilford in Essex,  had appeared before as the photographer’s address on one of the later photos.

Doris Eilleen Jones 3
Photographer’s address, reads “Fisher Banks, 66 Cranbrook Road, Ilford, Essex.

With her date and place of baptism now known I was able to find the index entry for Doris’s birth certificate via FreeBMD, which confirmed her birth was registered in Romford registration district (Essex) in the fourth quarter of 1927, and that her mother’s maiden name was Woollard. As the photographer’s address on the later photo had suggested a long-term residency in Ilford, I decided to see if I could find an index entry for a marriage certificate in the same district. I set my date range between 1945 and 1957, guessing that she would most likely have married between the ages of eighteen and thirty, and among the most promising results was a record of a marriage between a Doris E. Jones and a spouse by the name of Chaplain in the June quarter of 1949. While normally an index entry alone would not be enough to prove a match, on this occasion I knew I’d found the right record because of  the photograph below.

Chaplain family
The Chaplain family.
Chaplain family reverse
Reverse of the above.

This photo had at first appeared to bear no discernible relation to Doris, but on discovering her potential marriage to a man named Chaplain in 1949 it quickly began to make sense. On the reverse someone had identified the subjects as ‘Dennis, Mum, John, Henley Road House’, but below that in Doris’s handwriting was the name ‘Chaplain’ in brackets. It would appear therefore that the picture had originally belonged to her husband and that she’d added his family name later to avoid confusion. A bit more digging via FreeBMD revealed that her husband’s name had been John G. Chaplain, identified in the photograph as the boy on the right.

I have yet to find out what ultimately happened to Doris. It seems likely that she has passed away, as I can’t imagine she’d have sold such a large collection of family photographs during her lifetime, but I haven’t been able to track down any record of a death certificate. It’s possible she’s still alive of course, but another intriguing possibility is that she emigrated to Canada, as her location in the first photograph and the maple leaf pin she’s wearing in the second suggest some kind of family connection to that place. Hopefully someone who knew her, perhaps one of her descendants, will stumble upon this blog one day.

Doris Eillen Jones 2
Doris Eileen Jones, 1927-?.

First steps in family history (part 1)

Like many people, my interest in family history began innocuously enough through conversations with my mother about her childhood. I was curious about her family because her father, Frederick England, had died before I was born and naturally I wanted to find out more about his life and the sort of person he was. I was especially intrigued by the tantalising snippets of information I’d heard regarding his ‘exotic’ traveller family and tales of his experiences during World War II. Below I’ll describe some of the family records I came across when researching my maternal grandfather and how these helped me piece together part of his life story

* * *

After acquiring my grandfather’s Africa Star service medal I’d decided to track down his wartime letters. The box said to contain them was so full of old letters, cards and other family records deemed worthy of preservation I initially had difficulty finding them, however eventually I came across a number of photographs of my grandfather in uniform. On the front of one of them was inscribed “Your loving son Frederick,” and on turning it over I found a message he had written to his parents from Bari, Italy in July 1944.

Frederick England2
Inscribed photograph of Frederick England, dated July 1944.
WW2 postcard
Reverse of the above.

The date and location both suggested he’d fought in the Italian campaign as well as in North Africa, but the content of the message gave no indication as to his regiment or division. Examining the photograph however I noticed a badge on his right shoulder depicting a white rhinoceros in a black oval which I thought could be a helpful clue.

I ran a Google search for WHITE RHINO ARMY BADGE and among the top results was an item from the Imperial War Museum’s online catalogue (see image below). Clicking on the link revealed a larger image of the badge on my grandfather’s uniform, as well as some accompanying information connecting it to the “1st Armoured Division & 2nd Armoured Brigade,” a tank division of General Montgomery’s 8th Army which was active in North Africa and Italy.

White Rhino Army Badge
1st Armoured Division & 2nd Armoured Brigade badge (via the Imperial War Museum).

 

Shortly after this discovery, in the same box I found an envelope containing an old two-page letter which the owner had clearly taken care to preserve. Reading through it I realised to my delight that this was another of Frederick’s wartime letters, only this one was longer and more revealing. In it he discusses his brother “Norman’s safe arrival home” after a period in a German PoW camp, his subsequent frustration at not being able to see him, the progress of Tito’s campaign in Yugoslavia, and at the end he offers his opinion on the recent general election, stating “I don’t know who to be disgusted with, Labour on Con.” In addition to providing an insight into his feelings during an important event in British history, this detail enabled me to pinpoint date of the letter with greater accuracy (i.e. 1945, the year of the general election) as the only date given in the letter was “May 26th.” Finally, the return address provided me with vital information about his rank and regiment (see below).

1945 letter return address
Detail from Frederick England’s letter, 26 May 1945.

If my interpretation of his handwriting and military abbreviations is correct the first line reads “6983one Tpr F England,” the first part being his service number and the ‘Tpr’ abbreviation before his name stands for trooper, his rank (the cavalry equivalent of a private). This is followed by what looks like ‘A Sqn’ referring the name of his squadron, while ‘9th Lancers’ is the name of his regiment and ‘GMF’ I believe stands for Ground Mobile Force. Using these details I was able to work out exactly where he was and what he was doing throughout the war, including during key events like the Battle of El Alamein, by consulting published regimental histories such as John Bright’s The Ninth Queen’s Royal Lancers 1936–1945.

* * *

The story above illustrates just how much we can find out by digging around in our attics and spare rooms even without the help of Ancestry or findmypast. Family records like these can provide us with all sorts of insights into the lives of those to whom they belonged, and can gradually help us build up a timeline of an individual’s life. For example:

  • Details of births, marriages and deaths can be found in all sorts of documents, including obviously birth, marriage and death certificates, but also address books and calendars, family bibles and news cuttings.
  • Family relationships can be inferred from beneficiaries listed in wills, or posed family photographs.
  • We can work out where our ancestors were and when from seemingly ‘dry’ documents like passports and insurance policies.
  • Details of occupations, income and war service can be gleaned from obituaries cut out of the local paper, or war medals.
  • Their appearance of course can be revealed through photographs, passports and driving licenses.
  • And if we are lucky we may even be able to gain some insight into our ancestors’ inner thoughts and feelings from things like diaries, letters, journals, greeting cards.

In the next post I’ll be looking at how records like these helped me trace my grandfather’s family back a generation and discover his traveling ancestors, the Lings.