Travelling with the Lings (part 3)

This the third in a series of posts detailing the history of my grandfather Frederick England’s maternal family, the Lings.  This part focuses on the children of George Ling of Alfreton (1824-1884), whose life and ancestry has been described in parts one and two. Content warning: contains discussion of domestic violence.

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By the time George Ling died on 18 October 1884 he had amassed a personal fortune of £1,807 12s. 11d., worth around £87,000 in today’s money. His will, hastily dictated from his deathbed just two days earlier, had stipulated that this be divided between his wife Isabella, his step-daughter Mary from Isabella’s previous marriage, and his eight illegitimate children by his late partner Elizabeth Hartley. As we saw in the previous post, oral tradition has it that Isabella ran off with a large portion of George’s wealth sewn into the lining of her skirt, possibly having felt slighted by the amount set aside for her husband’s ‘bastards’. It is not clear how much money was left after Isabella took flight, but it’s interesting to note how the generation of Lings which followed George and Elizabeth do not appear to have continued the family’s upward social trajectory which their parents had started. Many ended up eking out a living on the margins of society as hawkers without ever making the transition to more ‘respectable’ trades like their publican father had, and a number of them appear to have had repeated troubles with the law. Before focusing on their eldest son John, Maud Ling’s father and maternal grandfather to Frederick England, let us first look at what happened to George and Elizabeth’s seven other children, Emily, William, Elizabeth, George Jr., Susannah, Sophia and Thomas.

George Ling's children
Extract from page two of George Ling’s will listing all his and Elizabeth’s “illegitimate children”. Dictated 16 October 1884, proved 18 February 1885 at Derby.

Their eldest daughter Emily had been born in Mansfield on 8 April 1851 while her parents were running a lodging house at Chandlers Court. After the family moved to Alfreton, Emily married a twenty three year old miner from Nottinghamshire named Enoch Matthews on 31 December 1866, with whom she went on to have twelve children. Although the parish registers of St. Martin’s Church in Alfreton record her as being seventeen years old at the time, we can see from her date of birth that she had actually been just fifteen. No occupation is given in any of the censuses on which she appears, but according to the wife of one of Emily’s descendants she had been a small money-lender and had a reputation for being a very forceful woman. On one occasion she is said to have threatened to call in the loan of of a local headmaster who had punished one of her children. Another incident led to her being convicted of assaulting a man named Benjamin Munslow in 1903, a charge she admitted to “under great provocation” (The Derbyshire Times, 30 September 1903, p. 3, col. 3). The article reproduced below provides a glimpse of her infamously fiery temperament. She died at the age of seventy three on 15 January 1925, leaving behind an estate worth £1,434 9s. 6d. in her will.

A Pugnacious Alfreton Woman
‘A Pugnacious Alfreton Woman’, a.k.a. Emily Matthews (nee Ling). Source: The Derbyshire Times, 30 September 1903, p. 3, col. 3 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

Emily’s violent streak seems to have been shared by a number of her brothers, all but one of whom are reported in the local press as having been charged with assault at one time or another. William Ling, George and Elizabeth’s third child, is perhaps the most notable in this regard. Baptised in Alfreton on 2 October 1853 and recorded as a collier in 1871, William’s first known run-in with the law occurred on 11 December 1876 when he was fined £1 and costs for assaulting a police constable (The Derbyshire Times, 23 December 1876, p. 3, col. 5). Five years later he was charged with making an affray and ordered to pay costs and keep the peace for three months (The Derbyshire Times, 31 December 1881, p. 6, col. 7). Two further convictions followed in 1888, when he was charged with drunkenness on Alfreton High Street (The Derbyshire Times, 14 January 1888, p. 6, col. 3), and 1893, when he was accused of failing to send his children to school (The Derbyshire Times, 22 March 1893, p. 3, col. 6).

At the time of this last charge William had been married to his wife Anne Clay for fifteen years, had fathered eight children, and was working as a ‘marine store dealer’ (see part 2) next to his father’s pub at 11 King Street. By the 1901 census however his wife and youngest daughter had both died of typhoid, and he staying in a lodging house just down the road from where he had been living ten years earlier. He also appears to have lost his marine store business as he gave his occupation as ‘coal miner’. All his surviving children had either moved or were temporarily staying with relatives. One of those children, Joseph William Ling, had been taken in by his older cousin Isabella (John Ling’s daughter) and her showman husband Enoch Farrar. This would prove to be a crucial development in the Lings’ story for it would eventually lead to their name’s close association with travelling fairgrounds, and in the next post we’ll see how big an impact that had on all their lives.

Joseph William Ling
Joseph William Ling (1885-1953), sixth son of William Ling (1853-1926), c. 1910 (Source: Ling, 1992, [ii]).

George and Elizabeth Ling’s fourth child and second eldest daughter Elizabeth (bp. 2 December 1855, Alfreton, Derbyshire) appears to have led a rather less tumultuous life than her elder siblings Emily and William. Like Emily though, she was married at a very young age and had lied about how old she was. The record of Elizabeth’s marriage to Scottish hawker James Herring on 6 May 1872 gives her age as twenty, but it’s clear from both her baptism date and her entry in the 1855 register of births that she had actually been only sixteen. Both girls were married far away from the parishes in which they had been born (Wakefield in Elizabeth’s case) which could explain why they, or perhaps their parents, felt emboldened enough to lie.

For several years Elizabeth and her husband James ran a lodging house next door to her father’s inn at 11 King Street, and had five children together between 1873 and 1886. After James’s death that year, her older brother William moved into the King Street property with his family and Elizabeth moved to the village of Brampton, just west of Chesterfield, where she carried on her husband’s former trade as a ‘general hawker.’ By 1901 she and her children had moved again to Chesterfield where she is recorded as a ‘fish hawker’ (one can imagine how stale the ‘Mrs Herring’s fish’ jokes became after a while). She died there in 1925 aged seventy two.

Fish hawker
A fish hawker, c. 1910 (via Spitalfields Life).

Like Elizabeth, her younger brother George Ling Jr. (b. 13 July 1857, Alfreton, Derbyshire) had worked as a hawker in Alfreton and Brampton before moving to Chesterfield, where the 1901 and 1911 censuses list him as a fishmonger. At the age of twenty he had married a woman from Steeple Bumpstead in Essex named Agatha Shearman (perhaps suggesting the Alfreton Lings had remained in contact with their East Anglian relatives) with whom he went on to have eleven children. George was the longest-lived of all his siblings, dying at the age of eighty four in 1940.

Sadly George and Agatha’s marriage appears not to have been a happy one. In 1886 it came to light that Agatha had been persistently mistreated by George after he was charged with assaulting her on 27 June that year (The Derbyshire Times, 10 July 1886, p. 2, col. 6). The details in the article reproduced below make for very difficult reading, but I have included it here as the voices of Nineteenth Century marital violence survivors like Agatha are so rarely heard. It’s an uncomfortable truth that many of our ancestors’ marriages were probably more similar to Agatha and George’s troubled relationship than we’d like to imagine, as throughout most of British history a man’s ‘right’ to beat his wife was unfortunately not only widely accepted but protected by law. It would have taken a rare courage to speak out against it like Agatha did.

Wife Assault
‘Wife Assault’, a description of Agatha Ling’s assault charge against her husband George. Source: The Derbyshire Times, 10 July 1886, p. 2, col. 4 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

And so we come to George Ling Sr.’s two youngest daughters, Susannah (b. 14 August 1859, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 22 April 1936, Alfreton, Derbyshire) and Sophia (b. 8 July 1861, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. August 1932, Derbyshire). Susannah married a Staffordshire coal miner and greengrocer named Eli Davis, with whom she had ten children, and out of all George and Elizabeth’s sons and daughters her life seems to have been the most ‘settled.’ She remained in Alfreton all her life and neither she, her husband nor any of her children appear to have taken up hawking or general dealing. Like Susannah, Sophia had also married a coal miner, Enfield-born Henry Randall, but at some point before 1911 her husband appears to have abandoned her. In that year’s census she was recorded as still married but was living in her daughter Eliza’s house in North Anston, Yorkshire, and working as a ‘fish dealer’ (a traditional Ling occupation by this point, it would seem).

Rather remarkably, like their older sister Elizabeth, both Susannah and Sophia were married at the age of fifteen in parishes far away from Alfreton (Chesterfield in Susannah’s case, Hitchin in Hertfordshire in Sophia’s). In addition, like both Emily and Elizabeth, Susannah had lied about how old she was to conceal the fact that she was underage. While shocking to modern sensibilities, it’s important to bear in mind that in the Nineteenth Century it would not have been illegal to marry at such a young age with the permission of a parent or guardian, therefore they probably only lied about their ages in order to avoid a minor scandal or an expensive marriage license fee. Nonetheless it is highly unusual to find so many cases like this within one family. The only remotely satisfying explanation I can offer for this pattern of behaviour is that there were cultural factors at play. In the previous post I speculated that their mother Elizabeth Ling (née Hartley) may have come from a Traveller or Gypsy background, as this could help explain the occupations held by so many of her descendants (hawkers, showmen etc.). If correct this might also explain why her daughters all married so young, as to this day Traveller and Gypsy women tend to marry earlier than the general population, with ‘matches’ often having been arranged by the mother in early childhood.

Finally before moving on to Frederick England’s grandfather John Ling, let us briefly look at George and Elizabeth’s youngest son Thomas. Born in Alfreton on 25 July 1865, by the 1881 census he was recorded as ‘assisting at home’ at the Royal Oak inn. This perhaps suggests that Thomas was being trained to carry on his father’s business there before George’s sudden death three years later. Two months after his father died, Thomas married a woman named Sarah Bayley from Brampton. His three children’s birthplaces suggest the couple had moved to Sarah’s home parish by 1887, and at the next census in 1891 he is shown running his own lodging house there. The following year he appears to have begun working as a publican, as a beer license for the Butcher’s Arms was transferred to him on 2 July 1892 (The Derbyshire Times, 9 July 1892, p. 3, col. 6). As we have already seen, Thomas’s older siblings Elizabeth and George Jr. were also living in Brampton with their families at this time, but given his wife’s place of birth it seems likely they had only moved there after Thomas. These same three siblings appear together again in the 1901 census, where they were all working at fish hawkers, before Thomas’s premature death on 27 April the following year.

* * *

By the turn of the the Twentieth Century, the Lings were a family with one foot in the Traveller world of marine store dealers and fairgrounds, and another in that of the settled community of colliers and publicans. Nowhere would that division become more stark than with the children of George and Elizabeth’s first-born, John Ling, some of whom completely assimilated into their local communities, while others chose to embrace the caravan-dwelling lifestyles of Travelling folk. Their story will be told in part 4, but to understand how they got there we should look first at their father.

John Ling was born in Barnsley on 28 February 1849. As we saw in the previous post, the family had moved to Mansfield shortly afterwards, where they ran their lodging house at Chandlers Court, before settling in Alfreton, first on Derby Road and then later at the Royal Oak inn on King Street. At the age of twenty two John became engaged to a local woman named Mary Ann Buxton, whose step-father ran the Devonshire Arms just down the road. They were married on 21 March 1871 at St Martin’s church, and their marriage certificate is the earliest mention of John’s occupation as a general dealer/hawker. The national census taken twelve days later shows the new couple living at 135 King Street, however the 1876  edition of Kelly’s Directory shows that by then they had moved to number 84, located about halfway between their fathers’ two pubs. This same entry records John’s occupation as ‘glass, china and earthenware dealer’, suggesting a move away from general dealing towards a degree of specialisation by this point. It’s worth noting that china, earthenware and crockery dealing was then, as it remains today, a very common occupation among Gypsies and Travellers, with Crown Derby in particular being highly sought after by Traveller women.

Black Jack
‘Black Jack’, a licensed hawker from ‘Street Life In London’, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith (via LSE Digital Library).

John and Mary Ann had two daughters in Alfreton before moving to nearby Ripley in about 1878, where they had three more children including Frederick England’s mother. Their names were:

  • Annie Elizabeth (b. 16 July 1872, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 11 March 1940, Ardsley, Yorkshire)
  • Isabella (b. 1 October 1874, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 9 November 1940, Fairground, Central Avenue, Worksop, Nottinghamshire)
  • George (bp. 11 November 1878, Ripley, Derbyshire – d. 16 May 1933, Sheffield, Yorkshire)
  • Maud (b. 17 April 1881, Ripley, Derbyshire – d. 22 July 1950, 119 Holbrook Street, Heanor, Derbyshire)
  • Bertha (b. c. November 1885, Ripley, Derbyshire – d. 17 October 1963, Etwall Hospital, Etwall, Derbyshire)

The 1881 census shows the family were living on Ripley High Street, probably above their shop, and that by then Mary Ann was working as an earthenware dealer alongside her husband. Clearly they must have been relatively successful at this point as they were earning enough to employ a domestic servant. Not that this appears to have made John behave any more ‘respectably’ than his wayward siblings however, as on 22 August 1880 John and his brother George had been charged with making an affray in Alfreton along with two men named James and Timothy Gregory. They were all fined and ordered to keep the peace for six months, and John was charged and fined separately for assaulting James. His brother George Jr. and father George Sr. were also charged with assaulting the same man but their case was dismissed (The Derby Mercury, 8 September 1880, p. 3, col. 4). It’s not clear what caused the fight but after some research into the identity of the Gregorys it transpired that James was a relative of John’s sister-in-law Anne Clay (he’s shown as Anne’s son Walter’s guardian in the 1901 census) so it was likely a family feud of some kind.

A later news story mentions “an itinerant pot dealer named John Ling, who hails from Brampton near Chesterfield” being involved in an accident while driving his wagon to Wath Market (The Derbyshire Times, 31 March 1888, p. 3,  col. 3). This article reproduced below places the him and his family in Brampton, along with his siblings Elizabeth, George and Thomas, until at least early 1888.

Accident To A Brampton Pot Dealer
‘Accident To A Brampton Pot Dealer’ (John Ling). Source: The Derbyshire Times, 31 March 1888, p. 3, col. 3 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

Later that year the family moved north to Doncaster where they had two more children:

  • Charles Frederick (bp. 19 August 1888, Doncaster, Yorkshire – d. 20 February 1940, Fairground, Alveston, Derbyshire)
  • Olive Emma (b. 19 August 1894, Doncaster, Yorkshire – d. December 1988, Backwell, Somerset)

According to the 1891 census the family lived at 34 Silver Street in the town centre. They appear again in the 1893 Kelly’s Directory at number 18, however here their china and glass dealership is listed under Mary Ann’s name, not John’s. One possible explanation for this is that John may have been too ill to carry on the business by this point, as on 14 December the following year he died of lung congestion. He was forty five years old. In part 4 we’ll see what happened to his widow and seven children after his death, including Frederick England’s mother Maud.

Sources:

Ling, John. John Ling’s Memories of a Travelling Life. Newcastle under Lyme: Fairground Association of Great Britain, 1992.

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Travelling with the Lings (part 2)

This is the second in a series of posts on the history of my grandfather Frederick England’s maternal ancestors the Lings, the first of which can be read here. This part mainly focuses on Frederick’s great-grandfather George Ling and covers the period between his birth in 1824 and the death of his widow in 1906.

* * *

On 19 September 1824, a parish clerk in Hundon, Suffolk, recorded the baptism of a ‘base born’ (illegitimate) pauper’s son named George Ling. As we saw in the previous post, just three months later his mother Susan married an agricultural labourer named Samuel Mayes, the timing of which strongly suggests he may have been the boy’s father. Unlike his younger, legitimate brothers John and Thomas Mayes however, George did not share their father’s surname, so throughout his childhood his ‘bastard’ status would have been painfully self-evident to everyone in his community. Not only were illegitimate children subjected to one of the most pervasive and persistent social stigmas of the age (it was widely assumed they would share their parents’ ‘loose morals’), they faced economic discrimination too, as until the Twentieth Century they had no rights to inheritance. This perhaps explains why George had already left home by of the time of the 1841 census, when he would have been just sixteen, for the idea of starting a new life somewhere unburdened by his past must have been extremely attractive to anyone in his situation.

In 1841 George was working as a ‘male servant’ in the house of John Rutter of Bayments Farm in Stansfield, although his actual duties would probably have involved farm work rather than domestic service. By 1848 he had begun a relationship with a young woman from Keswick in Cumbria named Elizabeth Hartley (b. c. 1821), who on 28 February the following year gave birth to their first son, John. Although Elizabeth took the name Ling and is recorded on all later censuses as George’s wife, his will reveals that they had never actually been married, as in it he refers to their sons and daughters as “my illegitimate children familiarly known as…Ling”. After spending several years trying in vain to track down George and Elizabeth’s marriage certificate, this passing reference in his will had managed to solve one great mystery while simultaneously presenting another. Why, if they were living together as man and wife, sharing a surname and passing their children off as legitimate in public, did they not just get married? Even more confusingly, although no marriage certificate exists, there is a record of a couple in Kings Lynn with their names calling the banns in December 1846. I believe the most plausible explanation for all this is that one of them was already married, most likely Elizabeth who was older and came from further away, and that this was discovered before they could be wed.

This might explain why at the time of their son’s birth in 1849 they were living on Beckett Square in Barnsley, over a hundred miles from where either their families lived. Another explanation could be that George had been serving an apprenticeship there, as on John’s birth certificate he is recorded as an umbrella maker, a skilled trade which could have required several years’ training. Whatever the reason, they did not stay in Barnsley long, as the census of 1851 shows the family had moved to Mansfield in Nottinghamshire by then. Rather curiously they are shown running a large lodging house at 19 Chandlers Court, and George was no longer working as an umbrella maker but a bricklayer’s labourer. He and Elizabeth had one daughter there, Emily, before moving again to Alfreton in Derbyshire, where they would remain for the rest of their lives. They had eight children in total, whose names were:

  • John (b. 28 February 1849, Beckett Square, Barnsley, Yorkshire – d. 13 December 1894, 12 Silver Street, Doncaster, Yorkshire)
  • Emily (b. 8 April 1851, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire – d. 15 January 1925, Alfreton, Derbyshire)
  • William (bp. 2 October 1853, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. August 1926, Chesterfield, Derbyshire)
  • Elizabeth (bp. 2 December 1855, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1925, Chesterfield, Derbyshire)
  • George (b. 13 July 1857, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. May 1940, Chesterfield, Derbyshire)
  • Susannah (b. 14 August 1859, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 22 April 1936, Alfreton, Derbyshire)
  • Sophia (b. 8 July 1861, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. August 1932, Derbyshire)
  • Thomas (b. 25 July 1865, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 27 April 1902, Chesterfield, Derbyshire)
Beckett Square, Barnsley
Beckett Square, Barnsley c. 1900, where John Ling was born in 1849 (via Yococo Image Database).
Umbrella maker
An umbrella maker at work, 1884 (via The Old Print Shop).

The baptism record for George and Elizabeth’s second son William from 1853 shows that George had initially continued working as a lodging house keeper after moving to Alfreton, but by their daughter Elizabeth’s baptism in 1855 he was giving his main occupation as ‘general dealer.’ Similarly, in the 1861 census his occupation is recorded as ‘marine store dealer,’ and it is worth taking a moment to look at exactly what was meant by these slightly misleading terms. A ‘general dealer’ usually referred to a hawker rather than a shopkeeper, and despite what their name suggests ‘marine store dealers’ did not necessarily sell mariners’ equipment, normally this was just a term for general junk or scrap dealers. Interestingly, these are both occupations which were traditionally associated with Travellers and Gypsies, as was umbrella making. It is also notable that the majority of George and Elizabeth’s descendants went on to work in typical traveller occupations (general dealers, china and earthenware dealers, hawkers, even fairground showmen), and many led nomadic lives in caravans. It is unclear where exactly this affinity for the travelling lifestyle came from, as George clearly hailed from a settled agricultural community. One possibility is that it it came from Elizabeth as we know nothing about her life before 1849, therefore it is possible she came from a Traveller or Gypsy family.

Mr Krook
Mr. Krook, a marine store dealer from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, as depicted by Boz, 1895 (via Wikimedia Commons).

Elizabeth died at the age of fifty on 12 January 1871 of phthisis, a wasting disease often caused by tuberculosis. Her funeral took place at St Martins Church in Alfreton three days later, though oddly her name is recorded in the parish registers as ‘Mary Elizabeth Ling.’ In her death certificate her husband George is said to have been present at her death, and his occupation is given as ‘inn keeper.’ Since about 1864 he had been running the Royal Oak Inn at 10 King Street in Alfreton, and over time this appears to have gradually replaced general dealing as his main source of income. After 1871 he consistently gave his occupation as ‘publican’ in the census but he never completely abandoned his earlier trade as a marine store dealer. His will mentions two such shops, one in Alfreton and one in Chesterfield, as well as a greengrocers, although he presumably employed others to run these on his behalf.

His possession of these three businesses at the time of his death demonstrates just how far George had come since leaving Hundon, and after his acquisition of the Royal Oak in the mid-1860s his name begins to appear in local news stories with increased frequency. Many of these articles relate to incidents involving other people which merely took place on his premises, but they nonetheless help build up a picture of what his day-to-day life must have been like. One such story was that of Joseph Yarnold, who was charged with stealing one of George’s cups to give to a woman but was found not guilty after the jury dismissed it as “the act of a half-witted man” (The Derby Mercury, 11 January 1865, p. 8, col. 6). A second describes the inquest following the death from starvation of a sixty year old man from Sheffield who had been refused entry at several lodging houses before finally being taken in at the Royal Oak (The Derby Mercury, 19 October 1870, p. 2, col. 4).

Other stories relate more directly to George, such as the report on a court case he brought against the Meadow Foundry Co., which he claimed had supplied him with burnt scrap iron (The Derbyshire Times, 17 December 1873, p. 3, col. 5). Another from the following year describes “a general meeting of the Licensed Victuallers‘ Society, held at the home of Mr. George Ling” at which the men pledged to support their local Conservative candidates at the forthcoming general election (The Derbyshire Times, 7 February 1874, p. 8, col. 6). This would have been only the second election at which George was eligible to vote, the first being that of 1868 which was held the year after the Reform Act enfranchised the vast majority of male householders. As the secret ballot was still two years away at this time we can see from the 1868 poll book that he was clearly a habitual Conservative supporter, and had voted for the unsuccessful (but wonderfully-named) Conservative candidates Gladwin Turbutt and William Overend that year.

Royal Oak
The Royal Oak Inn, c. 1907, 10 King Street, Alfreton (via Somercotes Local History Society).

In George’s final years he found companionship in a Yorkshire widow ten years his junior named Isabella Muff (née Brooks, b. 30 May 1834, Bradford, Yorkshire – d. c. February 1906, Middlesbrough, Yorkshire). They were married in Chesterfield parish church on 9 January 1873, and their marriage certificate (reproduced below) is notable for three reasons. Firstly there is the fact that it exists at all, which this tells us that there was no legal impediment to George getting married by this time. Presumably therefore it had been his late partner Elizabeth’s marriage to another man which had prevented her from marrying George, rather than any of his previous relationship of his. Secondly, it tells us that neither of them were literate because they both left ‘marks’ rather than signing their names. This is somewhat surprising given that George was already managing a number of businesses by then. Thirdly, it reveals that George had been attempting to conceal his illegitimacy, as he falsely gives his father’s name as ‘Samuel Ling,’ rather than ‘Samuel Mayes.’ There is further evidence for this cover up in the census returns for 1861 to 1901, which record George’s younger brother Thomas Mayes as ‘Thomas Ling.’ Thomas, by then a general labourer, had moved to Alfreton to live with George following their mother Susan’s death in 1859, and presumably took the Ling name in order to spare his brother any embarrassment. Interestingly, like George, Thomas also fudged the identity of his father on his marriage certificate from 1864, recording his name as ‘Samuel Mayse Ling’.

Ling-Muff marriage certificate
Marriage certificate of George Ling and Isabella Muff, 9 January 1873, Chesterfield, Derbyshire.

According to one of his descendants, Linda, who I met via Ancestry, George was apparently  known to ‘cut his corns’ with a knife, and on one occasion this led to a severe foot infection. In an age before penicillin this could be fatal, and upon visiting his doctor George was immediately advised to prepare his will. He died on 18 November 1884 at the age of sixty of gangrene and an abscess of the foot, but his death certificate also reveals that he had been suffering from acute diabetes. Two days later he was buried in St Martins churchyard in Alfreton. His £1,807 12s. 11d. estate was divided among his children and Isabella, however there is reason to believe his widow may have been unhappy with this settlement. According to another oral tradition I learned through Linda, one night, presumably after George had died but before his wealth had been distributed, Isabella had locked herself in their bedroom and emerged several hours later wearing a large coat, claiming she was going for a walk. She would never return however, having sewn as much of George’s money as she could into the coat’s lining. If true this story could explain why none of George and Elizabeth’s children are said to have liked her. Three years later she married her third husband Lister Rhodes before moving to Middlesbrough, where she died in 1906 at the age of seventy one.

* * *

Over subsequent generations some of George and Elizabeth’s descendants would completely assimilate into their local communities while others embraced travelling lifestyles, and it’s possible to trace the origins of both tendencies back to this rather unconventional couple. In the next post we will look at what became of their eight children, including Maud Ling’s father John.

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.