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.

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Author: Robert Jones

Local Studies Librarian, currently studying for a Diploma in Genealogy with the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies. Outside interests include music, literature, walks, cult TV and games.

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