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

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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.

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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.