Another plug for Family Reconstitution

If you research a War Memorial, you unravel the links joining the families in a Community.  This is no surprise to addicts of Family Reconstitution but that approach itself ia certainly a theme that my family history groups might sometimes feel I over-stress.

And why not, when time and again, we prove that its rewards include the resolution of many a research puzzle.  It also provides useful information about population history for local historians.  The publication of the 3rd edition of Andrew Todd’s inimitable guide, Nuts and Bolts—see details belowhas provided me with the perfect excuse to revisit aspects of this tool, as a theme over three sessions in the months ahead.

The 2nd edition became one of my key texts for family history research, and I never tired of dipping into, again and again. I have two copies of the 2nd edition to loan out to other members of my U3A groups, and I’m now enthusing over the 3rd edition to the extent that several members have already ordered their own copies.  However, if you already have the 2nd edition, then that gem has probably already fostered the analytical skills you need.  There are some additions, more diagrams, and the layout is easier on the eye.

One thing that I have done since buying the 3rd edition, was to obtain a second-hand, ex-library copy of An Introduction to English Historical Demography—its details also below.  Andrew Todd mentioned that Wrigley provides  ‘an especially detailed account’ of family reconstitution techniques in Chapter 4, which runs to over 60 pages.  This is particularly helpful for local historians, recording data for an entire parish. A more recent text is available at extortionate prices—caveat emptor.

Researching the men and women commemorated on Ham’s War Memorial, often requires me to reconstitute the families in this closed parish, in some cases right back to the early 19th century.  As with other parishes I have researched, Ham’s 19th century and early 20th century working residents turn out to be related to many others in the parish.

Researching a war memorial that provides very little information other than initials (which can be incorrect) and surnames which may be misspelt, matching a name to a service record can be tricky. Most of those listed could eventually be found recorded within the parish at one point, for example in a census, or in parish or borough records.

H.GUNNER and E.PARSONS, had no obvious link with the parish.   In the case of these two, there were three soldiers on the CWGC database of casualties, who could have been H.GUNNER and 60 who could have been E. PARSONS.  In both cases, family reconstitution helped me to match these names to the correct servicemen, and, in time, documents were found which enabled me to establish their link with the parish.

H. Gunner, never a resident in the parish, was Harold Anson Gunner, the son of a Headmaster whose work had taken his family from Huntingdon to Cornwall.  Harold, who boarded for many years in a house in Wandsworth, was a member of the Choir of St Andrew’s Church while E.Parsons  was Ernest Charles Parsons, the son of a Wiltshire policeman, and was eventually linked to Oak Lodge, a large house on Ham Common. As he had previously worked as a manservant in a large house in Cornwall, he may well have been employed at Oak Lodge as a driver or footman, in the service of Alexander Mackenzie Hay, a self-styled “newspaper proprietor.”

As a professional family historian, I avoid using the stories of my clients’ families in articles or in my blogs. Fortunately, the voluntary research that I conduct into War Memorials, provides what was initially an unanticipated bonus:  it bountifully makes up for that restraint, since the documents I find and the arguments I construct in verifying relationships in that research, provide abundant resources to stimulate the interest of the enthusiastic learners in those groups.

Now, as a resident within the former parish boundaries of Ham, when I walk its streets and pass the houses and workplaces of “my” war memorial people, I reflect on their stories, their families, their associates and their neighbours, losing something of the feeling of myself as an Incomer in a parish which retains still a sense of being ‘closed’.

Recommended Reading
Todd, A., Family History Nuts and Bolts: Problem-solving through Family Reconstitution Techniques, published Andrew Todd, 2015 (3rd ed.)
Wrigley, E.A., (ed.), An introduction to English Historical Demography from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth century, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1966.

Negotiating around a would-be soldier’s fib

The Ham War Memorial project has no budget behind it, so as I research the stories behind those commemorated on its blog, I have many opportunities to remind myself of the analytical skills that the many family historians relying on free sites need to develop.  In my classes, we use these sites extensively, and indeed, for beginners, I do all I can to make Ancestry and Find My Past out of bounds for the first few months after which we look at and transcribe documents, as a warning against taking Ancestry’s ‘transcriptions’ too seriously.

In my ongoing pursuit of relatives of the three Wells brothers of Ham I have been looking for their descendants and those of their siblings.  One of their brothers was Daniel Herbert Wells, the third son of Daniel and Sarah.  After his marriage in Ham, in 1898, to Alison Margaret Turner, the couple moved to Westminster but were living in Balham by the time of the birth of their eldest child.

In the 1911 Census, for which Daniel was the householder, the family was living at 4 Tantallon Road, Balham and he records this child as George John Herbert, gives his age as 8, and his birthplace as Balham, which at the time was in the Wandsworth Registration District.  Using this information, for George John H., and for George J.H., generated no matches, even when extending the location beyond Wandsworth and Surrey.

In Army Service Records, I found an attestation form, dated 2 October 1918, for a John George Herbert Wells, giving his next of kin as his mother, Alison Margaret Wells, at 4 Tantallon Road, the same address at which the family had been enumerated in 1911.  This is presumably the same child who was 8 in 1911 yet when attesting on 2 October 1918, he gave his age  as 18 years 2 months, suggesting his birth could have been registered in the third—or possibly the fourth—quarter of 1900.

Searching on Free BMD for a matching birth registration for the quarters March 1898 to December 1904 in Surrey drew no results and there was also no child in the household when Daniel and Alison were enumerated on 31 March 1901.  We know also from Daniel’s response to the ‘fertility question’ in 1911, that in the course of their 12 years of married life, two children had been born, and both children were with their parents on 2 April 1911.

This also indicated to me that the order of his Christian names was rather more flexible than I had thought. However, given that many people at that time were named after a relative, but used their second name in daily life, I had already considered modest variations in my search for a relevant birth registration.

It seemed likely that this young man had ‘enhanced’ his age in order to sign up with ‘the colours’. This was not uncommon, and is understandable, given the loss of his three Wells uncles within a relatively short a period of time.

As no fault could be found for Daniel’s arithmetic in 1911, and given his occupation as a draper, he would have been efficient at working with multi-base arithmetic, we can assume that his son was born in 1902, if he had not yet his birthday in 1911, or in 1903 if he had.  The age given for his daughter, Marjorie Constance Wells in 1911, fits with her birth registration in Croydon in the third quarter of 1907. (Her birthplace of Thornton Heath fell within the Croydon Registration District.)

In spite of my presumption about his father’s grasp of arithimetic, I generated a search for the births of all Wells children born in Wandsworth from the March quarter of 1901 to the December quarter of 1904.  This revealed four possible registrations and in spite of the expansion of the date range for the search, four stood out, all within three of the expected four quarters for a matching result:

  1. Herbert George John Wells in 3Q 1902
  2. John Wells in 3Q 1902
  3. George Wells in 4Q 1902
  4. Herbert Wells in 1Q 1903

I did ‘discount’ candidates born outside the expected quarters, but these were Georges or Johns with a middle name that was not one of the various combinations we have seen for Daniel’s son, of the same three names.

The presence of all three of the names of interest suggest that the first registration on the above list, is a match for our young recruit.  Herbert George John Wells enlisted in a reserve battalion of the London Scottish, when he was barely 16. He got away with enhancing his age because he was already 5ft 10in in height.

Fortunately, more than one page of his service records has survived, and amongst the surviving pages is a discharge form in which his name is presented as Herbert George John, an indication that in this respect bureaucracy had eventually caught up with him.

Of interest is his stated preference for the London Scottish, failing which “any Scottish regiment”.  While his mother was born in Sunbury, her first names, Alison and Margaret, were relatively common in Scotland, so this preference could indicate that his maternal line included some Scottish ancestors.

I am inclined to think that he was never known as Herbert and that this was a case of having to register their son, and not being entirely sure which they would call him by.  Herbert was Daniel’s middle name, and, like the names Thaddeus and Edmund, appears frequently in earlier generations of the Wells line and as middle names in this younger generation.  This may have been important enough for it to have been given as his first name, with George and John being names the couple had not yet settled on.  The 1911 census suggests that their son was called George while a child, and his attestation, that he preferred to be known as John.

At this point, I allowed myself the luxury of searching for a baptism and a death certificate, finding both in the first search.  The latter was high on the list with the former just making it into the first 50 results. The registration of the death of a Herbert George J Wells in Uckfield in 1989 provided the same date of birth as did the baptism, in Ham St Andrew for Herbert George John Wells, the son of Daniel and Alice (sic).  Their address then was 27 Coalbrook Mansions, Balham.  Both these documents could be found by those with access to Ancestry’s library edition at their local library.

[This baptism would have been found rather earlier had I not had a mission to use the free sites.  A loose search for Wells baptisms in Ham, the parish in which the couple wed, would have considerably shortened this exercise.]

Free BMD showed a single possible marriage, for a Herbert G J Wells to a Kathleen M Ewart in the second quarter of 1938.  Kathleen M Wells is a non unusual combination, but a search was made on Ancestry for all records with a birth given of ten years on either side of 1912.  The most interesting search result was for a Kathleen Marjory Ewart in the 1911 census.  I then searched for the the death of a Kathleen Marjory Wells and the discovery of a death registration for someone with that name in Uckfield in November 1988 provides a link with the death registration of our Herbert in the same district just four months later.  Without obtaining the certificates this cannot be assumed to be 100% secure, but I would think it fairly safe to risk a wager.

Unfortunately a search on Free BMD did not cover any Wells births in England & Wales for the period 1938 to 1955, where the mother’s maiden name was Ewart.  So, ultimately another dead end on the descendants’ front.




Gold Star advice: follow up the lives of your ancestors’ siblings

I like to regard myself as a committed family reconstitutionist.  Andrew Todd, in Nuts and Bolts, makes a strong case for family reconstitution and it’s perhaps the tool I recommend most ardently to my students and colleagues.   Time and again I see the benefits of following up the siblings of your ancestors, something that amateurs, aiming their sights on getting further and further back, dismiss as a distraction.

In my work on the Ham War Memorial, I have researched three grandsons of John George Darnell and his wife Elizabeth Chambers.   They are George Samuel Darnell, William Alfred Read Fricker and Harry Thornton Fricker.

Online family trees provided no clues to a Thornton so today’s post is also an offering to George’s great nieces.  When they passed on to me a copy of George’s last letter home, in which he referred to news he had received of ‘Thornton’ and his military association with ‘the Canadians’, my curiosity about Harry’s middle name grew.

I began the quite unnecessary task—in terms of this a memorial project—of tracing the person whose surname was behind his middle name. Those who know my determination to hang on to any bone with even a sliver of meat on it, are probably rolling their eyes at this point.  So I started to dig and here’s how and why I dug.

Readers of the post about William Fricker will know that I have found the namesakes behind the recurrent surnames Read and Sumner in this family.  I wondered whether Thornton, which is used just the once amongst these grandchildren, might provide a clue to one of their ancestors.  Harry is an established nickname for Henry so, at the back of my mind, I had been anticipating finding a possible namesake in a relative or friend called ‘Henry Thornton’.

Having eliminated all Harry’s grandparents as potential sources of Thornton, I proceeded to look for great grandparents.  The census revealed that Harry’s great grandmother, Sarah Chambers, had been born in Wakefield, and, as I was already aware that Thornton is a surname originating in Yorkshire, I was keen to establish whether this might have been Sarah’s maiden name.  Public Profiler indicates that, in 1881, Thornton was to be found in its highest frequency in the very area of Yorkshire in which Sarah was born.

I was able to locate James Chambers’ marriage to Sarah finding that this leap day baby married on his 20th birthday—which was also his fifth—on 29 February 1824.  In this search, I specifically avoided using ‘Thornton’ and searched only for a bride called Sarah. As his wife was not a Londoner, I did not enter a place for their marriage, intending, if necessary, to refine the location later.  The results prioritised three marriage records, one of which was that of James Chambers and Sarah Thornton, in Isleworth, a year before the birth of their daughter, Mary Ann.  While not contiguous to Ham, Isleworth is within easy reach of it.

The ages given for Sarah Thornton in the census returns of 1841, 1861 and 1871 (45, 65 and 75 respectively) suggest a birth in 1795 or 1796, with 1795 being more likely, given the date on which the censuses were taken.  The 1851 census, in which she was employed as a Cook at Rose Villa, Ham Common, in the household of William Stedman Gillett, gives her age as 51. She may have underplayed her age, or her employer may simply have guessed at it. On the other hand, the burial register entry for Sarah, in the fourth quarter of 1880, gave her age as 86, suggesting a birth in about 1794.

I found two baptisms for a Sarah Thornton in Wakefield, in the period 1793 to 1798.  The first, on 29 June 1794, was for the daughter of Henry and Martha Thornton.  Martha does not appear in the names of any of the Chambers granddaughters, who were named Mary Ann, Emma, Harriet Jane, Sarah and Elizabeth, the latter being the grandmother of Harry Fricker.   Harriet is a name also derived from Henry. Following up the marriage of Henry and Martha, will provide a possible clue to Martha’s maiden name.  This Sarah would have been less than a month away from her 86th birthday at the time of the death of Sarah Chambers in December 1880.

The second ‘Sarah Thornton’ was baptised on 24 December 1796, also at All Saints, Wakefield.  She was the daughter of Thomas Thornton and Mary.  As Mary Ann was the name of the eldest daughter of James and Sarah, if they were following the traditional naming pattern, we cannot rule out this second Sarah as being the wife of James Chambers.  Mary Ann was also the name given to her only daughter by Louisa’s maternal aunt, Sarah Hodgkins. This second Sarah Thornton would have been 83 rather than 86 at the time of the death of Sarah Chambers and have been 44, 64 and 74 in the 1841, 1861 and 1871 censuses.

Throw into the pot the combination of economic hardship, vanity and innumeracy and narrowing down the Sarahs can become even more confusing. One also has to consider whether a minister might have followed the not-infrequent custom of giving ages at death with the next birthday in sight, for example by noting “in her 86th year” for someone aged 85.

There is a third  possible Sarah, the daughter of John Thornton, who was baptised in on Christmas Day 1797 at St Peter’s in Leeds but as Sarah’s birthday is consistently given as Wakefield, she has not been investigated at this stage..

Sarah Thornton outlived her husband by a decade, and was a resident, towards the end of her life, in the Old Almshouses which were off Ham Street.  Her life overlapped that of her granddaughter, Louisa, the mother of Harry Thornton, by twenty years, so Sarah may well have talked about her parents to her granddaughter.  This could have encouraged Louisa to name her second son after Henry Thornton, who may have been her great grandfather or perhaps a great uncle given the same name.

Further ‘confirmation’ that Harry was named after someone called Henry Thornton, came with the release of the Register of Soldiers’ Effects.  This can offer, in the absence of a service record, provide at least the name of the next of kin.  I am finding it invaluable!  When I first began to research Harry, this was not available online, and the only records to which I had recourse, were his Medal Index Card, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database, the associated resource UK Soldiers Died in the Great War, and his battalion’s War Diary.

Despite all the records, including his birth registration, in which he appears as Harry Thornton, and even his being called Thornton by family members, there was no marriage registration for a Harry T Fricker.  His entry in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, records that he left a widow, “Elizabeth R O”, and a daughter, Lilian, born on 31 March 1913.  A fresh search on the inimitable Free BMD for this marriage, using the name Henry, found a Henry T Fricker’s marriage in Whitchurch in 1912, and a check of the relevant page gave one of the two possible brides as Elizabeth R O Wiltshire.  Given her string of names, it is almost certainly the ‘correct’ match.

It shows also that, in spite of a birth registration as Harry, his link to someone called Henry Thornton was known to him at the time of his marriage in 1913. It doesn’t seal the deal on Henry and Martha Thornton being the parents of Sarah Thornton, and thus the great great grandparents of William, Harry and George, but it helps to make them rather more convincing contenders for the role.

 Further reading:
Todd, Andrew, Nuts and Bolts:  Family History Problem Solving through Family Reconstitution Techniques, Allen & Todd, 2003.  There is a more recent, revised edition (2015).

Teasing out an idea at WDYTYAL 2015

Posting this overlooked draft belatedly.  I can’t work out why I delayed uploading it.

Despite the ridiculously tiny font on the floor plan for WDYTYAL 2015, before the train reached Birmingham International, I was eventually able to highlight the location of the stands and tables that I would on no account allow myself to miss. It’s useful in focusing the mind when you’ve got a ticket cheap enough to demand return travel on a particular train, though my careful plans were somewhat scarpered by the 69 minutes in the queue at Ancestry’s Customer Service, about which I have grumbled already.

Everything else was rosy.  I’d been dubious about the shift to Birmingham, but the day was rewarding enough for the information, announced in the course of Thursday, that it’s going to be Birmingham again in 2016, was not too disappointing.

Plaudits go to Richard Morgan of FIBIS and Chris on the TNA desk who were helpful with regard to Singapore records.and to Paul, Mark and Ian on the AGRA stand for providing welcome encouragement. If there was a specific highlight, then it’s the BALH representatives, who knew exactly to whom I ought to speak, and provided me with the opportunity to explore some options with an inspirational historian, Dr Gill Draper.

My prime target this year was to sound out the local historians on the BALH table about my plans for a local history related outing that I’ve been invited to provide for Cubs (age group 7½–9) in the early summer.

In weighing up the options, I’ve been anxious to avoid the themes and even the approaches that seem to dominate and recur in the coverage of local history at Key Stage 2—for example, Victorian Schools or the Industrial Revolution.  In creating a useful and positive experience that will foster an interest in the local landscape and its buildings in children, I have also had to to consider what is easily accessible on foot from the Scout hut.

I was looking for a theme and an approach  that would inspire me in my planning.

And I found it, when I eventually caught up with Dr Draper and sketched out what I saw as possible options in the landscape and the parish’s history with her.  While chatting to her, an idea came to me, which I felt could be the key in drawing together the various strands that I’d been playing with over the previous fortnight.

I think our conversation somehow teased that idea out of me and I greatly appreciate having been given the opportunity and time to have that conversation.  When later I wondered why that idea hadn’t surfaced earlier, I realised that I have been much distracted recently by a community project.  I needed to be able to have that conversation and to explore this challenge in a relaxed way. Perhaps it could be as simple as that a chair was drawn up and I was invited to sit down and that also switched me into a more relaxed frame of mind in which ideas could surface and gel.

I’ve been reflecting, since my return, on how rarely I am able to have that type of conversation with other local historians.  When I’m contacted about local history by other researchers, it’s usually a request for information about a specific matter, place or event, or about a source that I have consulted or mentioned e.g. in a talk.  In the role of family historian, I’m more frequently listening to others and being asked questions, and in my role as tutor, I’m facilitating learning.

So, this morning I’m having the fun of preparing what I hope is an engaging experience.

Now, what if it rains on the day?  (!)


South African Roll of Honour 1914–1918

The South African Roll of Honour for 1914–1918 (sic) can now be searched on Find My Past.

I’ve posted quite a bit about it on the relevant war memorial blog,  South Africa Remembers.

Here’s a list of the aspects covered on that blog:

  • Checking whether it covers deaths up to the CWGC end date of 31 August 1921.  (It appears to do so.)
  • Examining whether service personnel have been included regardless of sex, rank or ethnicity. (They have.)
  • Observations on how the data has been organised, and the additional information this record provides as to the cause of death.
  • Providing some tips on how to search this particular set of records effectively.
  • An accolade for Howard Williamson, the man behind the release of the images for this Roll of Honour.


Drawing comfort from the sea

Coming across Simon Armitage’s poem, Sea Sketch, for which he drew on the diary and war time nursing experiences of Edie Appleton, I was reminded about the comfort Captain Harold Joel drew from the sea in the summer before his death, during  a short break from the trenches to undergo training on the French coast.

From her sketches, and in her diaries and letters, comes a sense of the restorative value of the sea and Armitage conveys this and Edie’s unflinching courage in the face of appalling injuries in his poem.

It is one of seven poems which the BBC commissioned from Armitage for a Culture Show Special, produced to commemorate those lost in the Great War. [1]   It opens:

Dear Mother, I have come to the sea
         to wash my eyes
in its purples, blues, indigos, greens,

to enter its world and emerge cleansed…

Described in his obituary as ‘reticent about religious things’, Harold’s writings included a similar response to the healing nature of a marine vista [2]:

“I sat upon the margin of the sea.  The summer air was still, only the importunate kisses of the tide upon the unyielding shore, the cold soul-cry of a single gull.

There were no clouds to give perspective to the blue sky-deeps; no sail, no sign of any ship to break the solitude of the sea.

Where the coy world curved away, where the heavens stooped to meet it, and the sky kissed the even flood, there stretched the horizon.

My thoughts were led across the sandy sea-levels, beyond the grey blue of the water, into the grey blue of the haze-heavy heavens.  And it came to me, that were my eyes given the power, then should my gaze travel to the Infinite; and it came also to me that then my thoughts could not follow; for that is the limitation for man, without which he would be even as the angels.”

You can read about  Edie, and hear her great nephew, Dick Robinson,  read Simon’s poem here.  You might also like to read more about Harold Walter Joel on my Petersham blog.


[1] BBC Two, The Great War—an Elegy, first shown 8 November 2014.

[2] From The Richmond and Twickenham Times, 16 June 1917, page 5


How to find South African records on Ancestry

Recently I’ve had a run of queries about which Southern African record sets have become available on Ancestry.  These all seem to come from people  who’ve found relevant records ‘by accident’ and want to know how to find and access any other record sets that might be available.

In the absence of an Explore by Location tab, getting at specific South African record sets, including those that Ancestry has taken over from Ancestry 24 and elsewhere, is not easy for the unwary.  There is no relevant tab, for example, on the Explore by Location feature for the Card Catalogue.

But there is a Filter by Location oppportunity, which is useful if you want to see what’s available, or to focus a search on a specific set of records.

So, here are some steps that will help you to do this.

  1. Go to the Home Page of Ancestry UK.
  2. Click on the Search button and choose Card Catalogue (at the very bottom of the list).
  3. Focus on the navigation bar on the left hand side of the page.
  4. Leave the Title and Keyword(s) boxes blank.
  5. Remove the tick next to Only records for the UK & Ireland (or from any geographical restriction immediately below the orange Search button).
  6. Now scroll down the page, still focusing on the Filters listed on the left, until you reach the heading Filter by Location.
  7. Scan the locations and click on Africa.
  8. Once the page has automatically refreshed, you will see that Filter by Location now offers you several African countries.  Click on South Africa.
  9. When this page has in turn automatically refreshed, you will see a new set of eleven locations under Filter by Location.  This is puzzling because, since 1994, South Africa has had nine provinces.  Don’t be too flummoxed by this because, whichever region you click on, you are going to get offered the same data sets, so you safely ignore them for the foreseeable future.  Perhaps Ancestry hasn’t got its head around the new jurisdictions either.
  10. So instead of clicking on a region here, click your browser’s back arrow, and return to the page which had filtered the South African records for you.
  11. The records are conveniently grouped under the heading Filter by Collection.  Perhaps you chose Birth, Marriage and Death, including Parish.  If so, after loading that page, you will see that these records are grouped by Birth, Baptism and Christening; Marriage and Divorce; Death, Burial, Cemeteries and Obituaries.
  12. Now pay more attention to the list of record sets, choose one you want, and a search page for that set of records will appear.

Explanatory notes
I think that what Ancestry distinguishes as North West South Africa, Northwestern South Africa and Northern Province are all versions of the province officially known as North West.

When you find a record set that you think you will use again—Methodist Parish Registers, perhaps—then it’s worth creating a bookmarks folder for the South African records and bookmarking the search page for those records inside your South African folder.

Biddulphs & Joels & Petersham Scouts

Last week I was asked to speak at a Celebration of Scouting in St Peter’s Church, Petersham.  This Scout Troop is thought to have the longest unbroken existence of any in this country—there are others that started earlier than the Petersham and Ham Troop, but have been ‘inactive’ for periods, perhaps when the Scout leaders went to war.

They asked for ‘five minutes’ and I have posted the gist of my talk here.  [The link will take you to the blog for the Petersham War Memorial.]

I chose, given the short time available, to focus on two fathers who lost their only sons.  Those fathers were the Scout Leaders, George Biddulph and Walter Joel, and the sons, Victor and Harold Joel.  I could just as well have spoken about any of the other fourteen commemorated on the Scouts’ Memorial Tablet—all shone in some way.

Afterwards I found out that there was a Biddulph amongst the audience—one of the current Scout Leaders—not, apparently, related to the Ledbury Biddulphs.

The Year of War Memorials

It’s not that I haven’t been researching, but this year turned into a year of war memorials.

I completed my research into the Petersham War Memorial before Remembrance Day, 2013, after which the Church Archivist raised the question of the Scouts’ War Memorial.  Then I was asked to speak about my research into the Petersham War Memorial at one of the events held in Richmond as part of CityRead London. And then I agreed to provide two afternoons’ worth of training to volunteers on a project to research the men commemorated on the Ham War Memorial.

During my research into the people commemorated on the Petersham War Memorial, I photographed the faces of Ham’s War Memorial, in order to resolve some anomalies on the Petersham one, as described in this post. I knew it was egalitarian: an initial (sometimes two) and a surname so I could envisage the challenges.  With four war memorials behind me, I wasn’t keen to take on another.

I knew it would draw me in.  That’s the ‘trouble’ with war memorials.  Another researcher asked me once, “Don’t you find you blub all the time?” Yes, and you fight.  You fight to rescue them from oblivion, even more so when you find them on online family trees and nobody quite knows why they’re related, or anything about them.  You read those last letters home, handle the awful telegrams, shudder at the war diary covering the ‘event’. You end up knowing more about the life behind the bare initial and surname than you know perhaps about the lost lives of your own grandfathers and great uncles, their contemporaries on that sea of red. And still you press on.

It’s time-consuming, particularly when all you have is a Sidney Wilson or an E. Parsons—you have a long road ahead to identify which amongst the rank of Sidneys and Es, matches your Sidney or your E.  E was Ernest (high frequency) Parsons one of dozens of Ernest Parsons in the Army Service Corps, not a native of the parish but employed there for, at the most, three years.  Sidney was one of a number of casualties with this name in his regiment.  He caused a special pang, because enough pages of his service records survived to tell something of his story. Fostered out to the parish, he identified no blood relatives when he enlisted in the Regular Army in, and his foster mother received the medals.  After his death, there was an unseemly squabble over the medals between a woman who identified herself to the War Office as his ‘aunt’ and his foster family, who denied all knowledge of ‘the woman’.  There is nothing in the surviving pages of his service records to explain why the War Office ruled in favour of the ‘aunt’.

So, it’s another own goal and one which leads to a great deal of additional research, double-checking the research of others, responding to queries, breaking down research hurdles, and taking me away from paid research.  And would I do it again?  Yes.  Do I learn from experience? No!

In addition to researching and writing about these war memorials, I have given three talks on war memorials, spoken twice to Scout Troops about their war memorial, shared in an Armistice Day event with local Year 6 pupils, been filmed for TV and contacted and sometimes met ‘missing’ relatives.  I’ve provided training for volunteers on two war memorial projects, conducted research for a museum exhibition, ‘shared’ hard-won resources with the Trustee of a private collection, been filmed for TV, for all of which I have neither ventured to ask, nor received, a fee.

There was also a talk on the history of a significant, often overlooked cottage as one of Richmond’s Know Your Place events—and another, the most intimidating of all in the anticipation, but before a wonderful conference audience, with my participation being in the role of an adult non-singer.

So that’s why I’ve not been writing up much on this blog or taking on much paying research.   The solution is that I’m now ‘block-booking’ weeks for professional, paid research as well as for the research that, I hope, will continue to generate ‘social capital’.

If you’d like to follow developments on my war memorial research, here are links to blogs for three of them:

Ham Remembers

Petersham Remembers

South Africa Remembers


Unravelling inconsistencies without benefit of certificates

Certain inconsistencies appear in the records viewed for two brothers who are commemorated on Petersham’s War Memorial and whose graves are in the Churchyard, almost within sight of their home, Parkgate.  One died at home of influenza in the closing weeks of the war and the other in the aftermath of war.  Without ordering certificates, a costly option for a project with a zero budget, what can we do to resolve some of these inconsistencies and confirm which pieces of information provided by the family are likely to be reliable?.

The parents of these men were the actor Henry Farren, and his wife, Mary Farren.  But when did they marry?  Did they marry?  And was Henry a member of the Farren acting ‘dynasty’?

And who was Mary?  There is a marriage between a Henry Farren and a Mary Ann Scotland in Lambeth in 1882, but without sight of actual certificates, one cannot say whether these are this couple.  Her name is given as Mary in all the census returns we are able to associate with her..

There are several inconsistencies in the documents relating to Montague.  His birth was registered in Strood, Kent in the fourth quarter of 1887 and his parish of birth was identified as Gravesend in the 1911 census, and also when he enlisted in the Army in December 1915.  His age was given as 3 in the 1891 census, which would match a birth in August 1887 and this entry reassures us that he was not a subsequent child, given this particular combination of names, perhaps following the death of a sibling.


Fast forward to 1 October 1896 when Montague transfers from Oldfield Road Infants’ in Stoke Newington to Oldfield Road School, when his date of birth was given as 31 August 1888, and his father’s name as Montague Farren of 83 Park Lane.  Is this another Montague Farren, and if so, why doesn’t he show up in the censuses of 1891 or 1901?


When Montague was eventually baptised, at St Faith’s, Stoke Newington, on 28 August 1897, his date of birth was recorded as 27 August 1887.  If this date of birth is correct, then he was baptised the day after his tenth birthday, and one can imagine the family realising Oops, Montague hasn’t been christened, and heading for the parish church at the earliest opportunity to remedy that omission.

The age calculated for Montague on 9 December 1915, when he enlisted, was 25 years and 4 months.  The four months will almost fit a birth in late August, but for him to be 25, he would have to have been born in 1890.  In this case, perhaps the calculation was made from his date of birth, and he was not inclined or competent to correct it, if he noticed it when he signed the form.  Nor could he have been 27 on 3 March 1919, as indicated in the Burial Register for St Peter’s on 11 March 1919. In the latter instance, this information is likely to have been provided by his mother, whose own vagueness with regard to her age, may indeed turn out not to have been rooted in vanity.


Only once does ‘Ann’ appear as part of Mary’s name and that is by the War Office in the directive re the recipient of Gerald’s medals, when she is identified as Mrs Mary Anne (sic) Farren (of Parkgate, etc).  She signed letters as Mary Farren, and the handwriting on the 1911 census form matches her handwriting in the letters she sent to the War Office and to Wharnecliffe Hospital. Her sons, when identifying her in documents always gave her name as Mary.

Census returns are not helpful.  Mary Farren appears with her sons’ father in the 1891 census aged 36, born in York, Yorkshire, information which is likely to have been provided by Henry Farren. Twenty years later she is a widow, aged a mere 51, responsible for filling in her own form, and giving her birthplace as N.K. [Not Known]!

When might they have married?  Mary helpfully indicated that she had been married 25 years, but if Henry has indeed died between 1891 and 1911—and as yet we don’t know when—then we’re unable to establish when they might have married.  If 25 years is accurate, and we have to make assumptions, we could look for a marriage occurring in the year preceding, or even following, their son’s birth.  Robert Hindson T Farren, gave his date of birth as 25 February 1883 when applying for US citizenship, as well as on what is likely to have been his Draft Registration. (This matches the registration of his birth in 2Q 1883, Gravesend as six weeks were allowed for registration of a birth and a birth towards the end of February might well not be registered until April.)  That marriage in the third quarter of 1882 between a Henry Farren and a Mary Ann Scotland might fit, but even if this is our Mary Farren, was her maiden name really Scotland and why is a woman who is clearly educated, and able to write fluently and persuasively, not able to say where she was born, even to the nearest large town or the county or region?


Certificates aside, I followed up her surviving sons, Robert and James, and two grandsons from Robert’s first marriage as well as two from James’s marriage.  Robert had emigrated to North America before the war, and registered for the draft on 12 September 1918, at which point his younger brothers were still alive.  He married  Caroline Clara Rosanna Parfrey in 1906 and  had by her two sons, Robert James Hindson Farren (born 1907) and Eric Montague Parfrey Farren (1908–1973).  Robert was living with his grandmother at Parkgate in 1911, but joined his father to the United States in 1912.   At the time of the 1920 US Census, in which hs is recorded as Robert John,  he was living in Detroit with his father and a “Marie L Farren”.  Robert (senior) appears again in US records in the 1930s, with a third ‘wife’ Betty O. Farren.  No search has been made for records for marriages to Marie L, or Betty O. because this War Memorial project has zero budget, and there are other men and women to research and commemorate.

James, who had also emigrated before the war, returned to the UK where he enlisted with the  ‘Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force,’ giving Parkgate as his address in the UK.  His attestation is dated 29 April 1918, at Bramshott Camp in Hampshire.  He was within a month of his 37th birthday.  He was a farmer in Mervin, Saskatchewan, Canada in the most recent record found for him.  On one of his visits to the UK, in the 1920s, he was accompanied by his wife, Doris and two sons, John (b. c1930) and Gerald (b. c.1933).  Search engine results for Farrens associated with Mervin, turn up several in British Columbia, who could be followed up.

It is interesting to see, in the names given to their nephews, the fraternal loyalty and affection of Gerald and Montague’s brothers.

What may be rather more significant to a researcher, is the incorporation of the surname Hindson into the next generation.  It is that surname, so strongly associated with England’s northernmost counties, that may provide a clue to one of the grandparents of Mary’s sons, or even to Mary’s maiden name, if she and Henry were not married.  Exley may also be a significant surname.


Order certificates!  Start with the birth certificate of one of the sons, perhaps the eldest, Robert, as this will also provide missing information on the name with initial T.  What is given as the mother’s maiden or former name?  If the surname is Scotland, order that Farren/Scotland marriage certificate.  If not, search for a marriage between Henry Farren and someone bearing that surname, starting three years before the birth of the eldest son, and continuing until the death of Henry Farren.

You might wish to order the birth registration for another child in order to establish ‘reliability’ or consistency.

Searching for a death certificate for Henry may be more difficult as Henry Farren is not uncommon as a name, but also because he may have died while performing elsewhere in the United Kingdom, which at that time still included Ireland.  Note, on the marriage certificate, the name and profession of his father.

To narrow down the time of his death, it might be worth contacting the archivist of the University of Bristol’s Theatre Collection, who may have information about Henry Farren or his father, should the marriage certificate confirm that he, too, was an actor.  As a relatively prosperous actor, a report of his death, or an obituary, may have appeared in the newspapers.