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 (affiliate link).

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.

This post contains an affiliate link to a service that I use and recommend. If you choose to use this service using my link I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Doing this helps to cover the costs of maintaining this blog and is much appreciated!

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.


Kate Evelyn Luard (1872-1962)

Well, it didn’t take long to unmask our nursing sister, once I’d the benefit of that attribution. She was indeed a Miss Luard, but Kate Evelyn Luard, rather than Kathleen, and it would seem, known to her friends and family by her middle name, Evelyn.

The daughter of the Vicar of Aveley, a man rejoicing in the name Bixby Garnham Luard and of Clara Isabella Sandford Bramston, she had brothers who achieved high rank in the army, one of whom, Frank William Luard, a Colonel in the Royal Marines, was killed at Gallipoli on 13 July 1915 six weeks after her last entry in the ‘Diary’.

She subsequently released a book under her own name, called ‘Unknown Warriors’, a new edition of which has been produced by her family and will be published in August 2014.

Update to this post on 6 August 2014
I duly pre-ordered the book, and it arrived today, just in time to distract me from the research I had intended to prioritise. Yesterday’s episode of Michael Portillo’s series, about the role of the railways in WW1, included something on the ambulance trains.

The  contrast between that photograph of the well appointed interior of an ambulance train coach, intended to reassure the general public, and the working conditions described in Anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister, could not be greater.




Realities of nursing versus ‘The Crimson Field’

For anyone who has read the (anonymous) Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front 1914-1915, the BBC drama , The Crimson Field, will seem rather unconvincing in its depiction of the reality of nursing in WW1.

While defined as a ‘Diary’ the resulting book seems to be based on letters home, and covers the writer’s nine months’ nursing in France, much of it spent on the hospital trains, nursing the most seriously wounded.   It reveals the reality of D.O.W. but also the heroism of patients and nursing staff.

This time I’ve been carefully reading it to see what clues there are to the identity of this nursing sister, or to why her ‘diary’ ends rather abruptly.  I’m noting any clues to her identity, to the actual numbers of the hospitals to which she was attached, and the end-points and dates of her train journeys in the hope that somewhere this information will be recorded, so that I can narrow down the candidates!   I thought at first that she must have been a military nurse, as she’d been with the army in South Africa, and sailed with troops from ‘Sackville Street’ Dublin within days of the declaration of war.

It seems that the National Library of Scotland  holds Blackwood’s papers, but perhaps those relating to the anonymous nursing sister were amongst the papers lost during the Blitz, in the fire that destroyed the publisher’s London premises.

Having accidentally visited the diaries page on the Open Library via The Internet Archive,  in order to shorten the URL, I noticed that the book is attributed to “Kathleen Luard” so I will now desist from my frenetic note-taking to see whether I can find convincing evidence for this attribution.

For those who want to read this book:
I downloaded this book some years ago, when I was given my first Kindle and was stocking up on free Kindle editions.  You don’t need a Kindle as it can also be read online, or downloaded in book form in a variety of formats here.  For those who prefer an audio version,  you can listen to it here  (These links will direct you to pages on the incomparable Internet Archive.)  The same book is offered on Amazon by ‘independent publishing platforms’ at prices between £10 and £20, quite steep, I think, considering it is a relatively short book.

Anonymous, Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front 1914-1915, Edinburgh and London, 1915, [published William Blackwood & Sons in 1915].

Undoing duplicated spouses & children

I spend so much time helping Ancestry novices undo the duplicated spouses and children on their family trees, that I’m dedicating a post to it.

Understanding how it happens
This is not Ancestry‘s fault—apart from the fact, alas, that its transcriptions can be so unreliable, but I’ll not vent here on that disappointing element.

Adding duplicates is an own goal.  It doesn’t happen the first time you find something that links to a person who is already on your tree. It happens if you unwittingly add, as a ‘new person,’ someone who is already on your tree. It arises because the details in the ‘fresh’ information appear in a slightly different format to what is already on your tree, which leads Ancestry to ‘suspect’ that you are adding a new person.  Perhaps the enumerator interpreted the spelling of the name in a way that was inconsistent with a previous version so, to a Mere Computer, you might be adding a ‘newcomer’ to your tree.

Often it is a new person e.g. when  additional children have been born since a previous census, or when suddenly a mother-in-law is visiting on Census Night.

How to avoid this happening (because it’s going to take a heap of time to undo)
After you click to ‘review’ the hint, remember you’re reviewing a suggestion in order to accept, amend or reject it!

When you click to review , you are taken to a page where the ‘new’ information is on the left.  When Ancestry ‘thinks’ this is a different person to the one you have on your tree, there will be nothing on the right-hand side of the screen.  Usually you will tick (check) the Add box to add that person to your tree.  Instead, override your eagerness.

There are two options to the right of the name of the person you are adding:  ‘NEW PERSON’ and ‘Not a new person?’.  Pause before you act.  Helpfully, at the very top of the page,  there is a summary of what you have about the person on your tree and what is ‘unknown’.  Take time to digest this.

If you recognise that someone is not a ‘new person’, you will avoid duplicating a person you already have, and you will be given the option to connect that information to the person you already have on your tree.