Emily’s story: Alec Willows and the women in his life

A more detailed account of my search for Alec Willows is on my Ham War Memorial blog at https://hamremembers.wordpress.com/2019/06/27/alec-willows-c-1882-1915/ .

The mystery man
Readers who have come across my Ham Remembers blog post on Alec Willows will know that, in many respects, he was, and still is, a man of mystery. Part of the mystery is that he is not commemorated on the Ham War Memorial and is thought not ever to have resided in the parish. Yet his name was on an interim, handwritten Roll of Honour in the Parish Church, added to in the course of the Great War, as news of fatalities reached the parish. Identifying his connection turned out to be a more difficult search than finding why Ernest Parsons was commemorated on this memorial. Who the heck was Alec?

For the three censuses in which Alec is recorded—1891, 1901 and 1911—there is conflicting evidence for his birthplace and for his age.  I located him first of all in the 1911 Census, as a Bombardier serving in the Royal Field Artillery at Headley in Hampshire.  That census recorded his age as 28 and his birthplace as Eastbourne.  One might suppose, as I did, that the Army would have based this age on some documentation or information provided to them when he enlisted.  If this age was calculated with any accuracy, and if one can rule out a transcription error, at the time his details were transferred to the census summary sheet, this would mean he was born in 1882 or 1883.

I went on to Alec in the 1901 Census, when he was enumerated at 26 Southlands Road, Bromley, aged 16, and with his birthplace recorded simply as ‘London’.  He was described, moreover, as the ‘adopted son’ of Ellen Tracey, the head of the household, and a widow, aged 55.  If this age was accurate, Alec was born in 1884 or 1885. I was curious about the connection, and have to admit to having wondered whether Alec was the natural child of either George Tracey or his wife, Ellen Tracey, née Reason. It took a while to be able to rule that possibility out.

Despite being armed with conflicting information from the 1901 and 1911 censuses, I was able to find Alec’s whereabouts in 1891.  Ancestry had conspired, as it often does, to mistranscribe his entry but I eventually matched him to the David Alexn (sic) Williams (sic) in the household of George and Ellen Trang, aged 6, and described as a ‘boarder’. All the members of the Trang family in this household match, apart from their surname, the names and ages of the members of George and Ellen Tracey and their children, in earlier as well as subsequent censuses. The age of Alec in this census is consistent and his birthplace is given as London—N. K. (Not Known).  It appears that the Tracey family believed their boarder turned adopted son had been born somewhere in London.

As for his parentage and his birth, it may be some time before those details can be clarified. I have, of course, searched for the registration of his birth, but not found it in England, Wales or Scotland, nor in any of the regions or districts that could be included in a broad interpretation of either London or Eastbourne. In my searches I have entered as first names David and/or Alexander, and for surnames I’ve used Willows, and even Williams and Tracey, searching for similar sounding and phonetic variations. I’ve considered illegitimacy, maternal post-natal mortality, illness or imbecility. I’ve used a wide range of possible birth years, but I cannot yet identify his mother.

Over one hundred years after his death, the families of Ellen Reason and of Emily Spencer have different perceptions of his relationship with their relative.  Both families had been led to understand, that their relative was Alec’s fiancée. Did this fearless Serjeant hesitate to commit himself because he could not bear to disappoint one of them?

Emily Spencer of Bromley (18831965)
About ten years ago, Ellen Reason’s great-nephew, Christopher, and Emily Spencer’s great-niece, Claire, made contact with each other online, via Ancestry. They shared documents and photos, in the course of which an alternative story unfolded about their respective great aunts. Emily and Ellen each believed, until the end of her life, that she was Alec’s ‘intended’.

It seems that the two women knew of each other—certainly the letter that Alec’s Commanding Officer, Major Ballingall, sent to Ellen Reason, following Alec’s death, was in Emily Spencer’s possession at the time of her death. The letter itself increases the mystery about Emily since the salutation, “Dear Miss Reason” seems to have been altered to read “Dear Miss Spencer“.

Emily is likely to have met Alec when Ellen Tracey, his adoptive mother, moved her family to Bromley, following the death of her husband. The Spencer family had also moved to Bromley—from their home in Gravesend—and were living at 22 Bourne Road, a road parallel to, and only one block away from, Southlands Road, where the Tracey family, including Alec, were living at number 26. Alec and Emily were almost certainly good friends by the time he enlisted: a photo of Alec, taken about the time he joined the army, was among Emily’s possessions. She may have been given it as his ‘sweetheart’.

Alec had been employed locally as a rent collector, until his enlistment in the Royal Field Artillery, towards the end of the Anglo-Boer War, the first war in which news of battles in distant parts of the Empire could rapidly reach those ‘at Home’. By the end of the 19th century almost everyone under the age of 30 had benefitted from at least five years of compulsory education and could read newspaper reports of war and be inspired, alas, by the prospect the army offered of adventure and ‘thrills’. Was this what attracted Alec to the army? There was also the opportunity, during military service, to acquire a trade or skills that would provide stability and a decent income on when the 12 years was up, and the soldier returned to civilian life.

The birth of Emily Hester Spencer was registered in the fourth quarter of 1883. She was baptised at Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill on 10 February 1884, the second of the four children of William Spencer, a house painter, and his wife, Amelia Elizabeth Payne. At the turn of the century, Emily was a dressmaker, as was her elder sister, Ada Lucy, both still at home with their parents and two younger brothers John William and William Arthur. By 1911, only Emily was still living at home. Perhaps by then, she was in love with Alec, a young man, about to embark on a military career that would end only with his death. He appears to have been popular with his fellow soldiers, and by his sorrowing commanding officer, Major Harry Miller Ballingall, who was to describe him as ‘my best Serjeant and a very good comrade”.

Emily’s other life as a military nurse

Emily had taken steps, as soon as war broke out, to contribute to the War Effort, by preparing to train as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. First she was required to complete introductory courses in First Aid (completed in December 1914) and in Home Nursing (completed in April 1915). Further training followed with an examination and certificate in First Aid to the Injured in November 1915. In July 1918, at the time of the first and milder wave of the 1918 pandemic, Emily was again sent on a course in Home Nursing. By October 1918, she would certainly have been exposed to the risks of nursing patients in the more deadly wave of the 1918 pandemic which was at its height from then until the Spring of 1919.

Emily Hester Spencer (1883–1965) © Claire Edge 2019

In the aftermath of the war, and the resulting ‘Great Silence’ Emily became a founder member of the Paddington Nursing Division, later renamed the St Marylebone Nursing Division. We know that she participated in its divisional meetings throughout the period between the wars.

In 1930, the Paddington Nursing Division was registered as a Voluntary Aid Detachment. By the end of the decade, Emily was in her mid-50s, the age at which women of that age were taking their pensions.

By maintaining her involvement with the Nursing Division, Emily was one of those called up when war was declared. She was immediately deployed to Millbank Barracks, under whose ‘direction’ she was to work for 9 years. During that time she was deployed to a number of hospitals and military hospitals in London and the Home Counties.

After the war, Emily worked for a period at the Hertford Bishop Hospital in Paris. Her release testimonial in July 1948 describes her Military Conduct as Exemplary and goes on to say:

She has an excellent record and has had first class reports from all officers under whom she has served. A most efficient nurse, a conscientious nurse, and shows a keen interest in the comfort and welfare of her charges.

Her service in the military hospitals and further afield was acknowledged in the medals she was awarded at the end of the Second World War.

Emily deserves to be remembered, not merely for the mystery surrounding the man she loved, but also for the dedication and care she displayed in her nursing of wounded servicemen between, and during, two world wars.  Often, as she tended them, she must have been reminded of ‘her’ Alec, who had not been killed instantly, but who had died after suffering grave injuries.  Her service in military institutions and hospitals, nursing the injured and caring for those who had suffered life-changing injuries, was reflected and honoured in the nursing medals that her devotion had earned.

Emily was also a much-loved daughter, sister, aunt and great-aunt. She did not marry and died in Bromley, in 1965.

Ellen Reason of Ham (1880–1961)
The Register of Soldiers’ Effects records “Miss Ellen Reason” as Alec’s sole legatee. After locating this document, my next question was what the relationship might have been between Ellen Reason  and Alec Willows? By taking the line of Ellen Tracey, Alec’s ‘adopted mother’ back to her parents, and of Ellen’s father, William Reason of Ham, back to his parents, it became clear to me that Ellen Tracey was the elder sister of William Reason. Alec’s ‘adopted mother’ was the aunt of her namesake, the younger Ellen Reason.

William Reason & Eliza Wood with their children © Christopher Reason

In the photograph above, Ellen is in the centre of the back row.  William and Eliza’s eldest three children, Ellen, Ada and Arthur were born in Ireland, where their father was stationed in the early years of the 1880s. William’s mother had died when he was a toddler, and he and his step-mother did not, unfortunately, get on.  As soon as possible, William left the family home in Suffolk and joined the army.  After 12 years’ service in India and Ireland, it was the recommendation of an officer that led to his finding work as a Coachman and Groom in Richmond, a move that ultimately brought the family to Ham. Numerous Army Officers had connections with Ham, and it would be interesting to know whether one of them was responsible for the family’s ending up at 3 Victoria Terrace, home to the Reason family for well over 60 years.

Ellen was so deeply affected by Alec’s death that she, like Emily, never married. She was to cherish a locket containing a lock of Alec’s hair, until the end of her life, more than half a century later. As Alec’s sole legatee, Ellen was the recipient of the letter from Alec’s Commanding Officer, which described Alec as “my very best Serjeant”. It was probably Alec’s closeness to his ‘adoptive’ cousins in Ham, and to his relationship with Ellen in particular, that resulted in his name being written on the Interim Roll of Honour in Ham’s Parish Church. When decisions were made as to who ‘belonged’ to the parish, Alec’s name was not, however, included with those inscribed on the permanent War Memorial.

Just skimming one more pebble…am I going to discover other women in Alec’s life, when their descendants type “Alec Willows” into a search engine?

Sources
Edge, C.L., My sweetheart is somewhere in France, published privately. This is the story of Emily’s life. Her great-niece, Claire, has been researching her family for many years, her curiosity having been aroused at the age of eight, when she was told that her great-aunt’s fiancée had been killed in the Great War.

Frood, M.W., ‘Alec Willows’, https://hamremembers.wordpress.com/2019/06/27/alec-willows-c-1882-1915/, accessed 03/05/2020.

Museum and Library of the Order of St John, Correspondence with C.L.Edge, dated 18 June 1996, containing information on the wartime career (1940–1950) of Emily Spencer.

Acknowledgements
To Christopher Reason and Claire Edge for sharing with me information about their respective great aunts, Ellen and Emily, and for their generosity in allowing me to include their family photographs in the relevant blog posts.

Atlantic Torpedo: following up those named in the lifeboat

I spent a highly satisfactory fifteen minutes in the Shelter bookshop in Stockbridge just over a week ago, and came away with some finds, which included Doris Hawkins’s Atlantic Torpedo.  The book’s sub-title is ‘the record of 27 days in an open boat, following a U-boat sinking’.

Once I’d read the slim volume (41 pages of text), I embarked on what @Dave_Lifelines (of Lifelines Research) might justifiably describe as “fanciful hogwash”.  On this blog, and on my various War Memorial blogs, I’ve gone down this alleyway many times, as in this post ‘A very dear, polite, old South African regular’ but I am, perhaps, most proud of having identified the ‘Laura’ in the tattoo of a soldier on the Ham War Memorial.  A case of unrequited love, alas—for ‘his’ Laura was to become the war widow of another soldier on that memorial.

With Atlantic Torpedo, I was less ambitious.  I decided to follow up the bare details—surname, role—to find out a little more about that particular lifeboat’s passengers., using simply the CWGC database.  By providing their full names and details below, I hope that relatives of the people identified below may discover this post and learn that this book provides a first-hand account of the lifeboat’s voyage.

William Edward Henderson, Fourth Engineer, Ship’s Officer. He was 23.  He was the son of Charles and Eva Henderson. (p.23)

Geoffrey Charles Purslow, Surgeon, Merchant Navy.  M.B, Ch.B, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P.  Dr Purslow was 26 and the son of 2/Lt George Purslow and of Mabel Beatrice Purslow of Chadderton Heath, Staffordshire.  He died 19 days after the sinking. (p.29)

Lieut. Leopold John Tillie, R.N, D.S.C. and Bar, aged 23.   He was the son of Lieut.-Col. W. Kingsley Tillie D.S.O, M.C. and Victoria H C Tillie of Westward Ho, Devon. (p.10–11)

31298 Squadron Leader Horace Rudyard Kenneth Wells R.A.F., died 28 September 1942, aged 26.  He was the son of Horace and Annie Wells, and is commemorated on the Alamein Memorial. (p.18)

The baby, Sally was Sally Kay Readman, aged 14 months, of 31 Sharia Mohamed Mazhar Pasha, Zamalek, Cairo.  Her parents are not named on the CWGC database. (p.7 and p.9)

Interestingly, the date of death provided for all those who perished on the voyage in the lifeboat is the date of the sinking of S.S. Laconia, Saturday 12 September 1942even though it’s clear that many died considerably later.

Searching the CWGC database, by date of death, in order to identify Doris’s friend Mary, I found there were 468 names which I filtered down to the 19 Civilian deaths on that day. Fifteen of those were casualties of the S.S. Laconia.  Mary turned out to be The Lady Grizel Mary Wolfe Murray, daughter of Captain the Earl of Glasgow, RN, DSO and the Countess of Glasgow, of Kelburn Castle, Glasgow, and wife of Major Malcolm Victor Alexander Wolfe Murray, The Black Watch.

There is more to Mary’s story and the clues can be found in one of the hyperlinks listed below for further reading, should any readers feel compelled to fill in the missing bits.   There is always a fix for those burdened with insatiable curiosity.

Sources
Commonwealth War Graves Commission,  https://www.cwgc.org/, accessed 4/3/2019.

Further Reading or viewing
Dimbleby, J., ‘Gloves Off: The Battle of the Atlantic’, https://www.historynet.com/battle-of-atlantic-laconia.htm, accessed 4/3/2019.
Hall, D.W., ‘Now is the hour’, http://www.nowisthehour.co.uk/the-story/, accessed 4/3/2019.
Hawkins, D. M., Atlantic Torpedo, London, 1943.  Reprinted 1969, Bath.
Wikipedia,  ‘Laconia Incident’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laconia_incident, accessed 4/3/2019.

Secrets and Lies

First, another plug for Secret Lives, another major conference from the inimitable Halsted Trust in collaboration with AGRA, the Society of Genealogists and the Guild of One Name Studies. This will be held at Hinckley, in Leicestershire (31 August–2 September 2018).  It’s an opportunity not to be missed and Early Bird bookings are still available.

In my own research it’s Secrets and Lies that seem to be heading my way—or perhaps I’ve just got a bit smarter at anticipating them.  Recently it was a succession of examples of marriages within the prohibited relationships, about which I have already posted.

More recently still, it’s been finding evidence of a bigamous marriage.  One such marriage has a link with the grandfather of Walter Stanley Benson, one of the men on the Parish War Memorial in Ham, Surrey.   Stanley was the grandson of Thomas Benson, a Potato Dealer, who lived for many years at Malt House Cottage, Ham Common.   His records identified his father as Walter Benson.

Because Stanley’s service records are missing, only military documents relating to his death are available.  They give Stanley’s first name as Frederick, and the match seemed open to question since there were Frederick Bensons of military age in Ham.  Consequently the research was taken back to earlier generations in order to eliminate cousins, uncles and others with that name as candidates for this particular soldier.  And that’s how the bigamy was discovered.

In the 1891 and 1881 Censuses, Walter’s parents, Thomas and Sarah Benson, appeared as ‘head’ (of the household) and ‘wife’ respectively, with their Benson children.  In 1871 however,  Sarah Fisher was the ‘housekeeper’, and some of the Benson children appeared as Fishers. Walter Benson was there as Walter Fisher—his birth registration was subsequently found as Walter Benson Fisher.  In 1861, the census return showed that Thomas was ‘married’ and presided over a household which included five young Bensons aged from 15 down to 4, a housekeeper named Sarah Fisher, and two young Fishers, Emily (3) and Joseph (1 month).

Who was the wife missing in 1861 and 1871, and why could I not find a marriage for Thomas and Sarah between 1871 and 1881?  I dug further.

About 15 years before Walter’s birth, Thomas Benson had arrived in Ham with his wife, Mary Ann Martin, and two children of that marriage.  Mary Ann, the daughter of a wheelwright, Thomas Martin and his wife, Sarah, had been born in the parish of Ham on 9 February 1824 and baptised in Kingston the following month.  She married Thomas Benson, then a butcher, in 1845 at St Mary’s, Sunbury, despite her birth in Ham, when he was 23 and she was 21.  Thomas and Mary Ann moved to Ham, towards the end of the 1840s, with two children, another six being born in Ham. The last of these, Frederick James Benson, was born on 7 July 1856.

Mary Ann’s absence from the household in the 1861 census, where Thomas was clearly recorded as ‘Married’, did not, initially, seem particularly unusual.  Perhaps she was visiting relatives?  Perhaps Thomas had a housekeeper because his wife was incapacitated?

It is understandable that, following Mary Ann’s departure, and with an infant in the household, Thomas would have looked for domestic help.  At some point—whether before or after Mary Ann’s departure is not clear—Thomas embarked on a relationship with Sarah, the daughter of an agricultural labourer, William Fisher who lived a few doors away in Ham Street.   By the time Sarah’s son, Walter, was born in 1863, Sarah had already given birth to three children—Emily (3), Henry and Joseph.  These births were all registered in Kingston under the surname Fisher.

As each Fisher child had a turn to create further civil records, the Fisher was quietly shed. In  1882 Emily Fisher married as Emily Benson, a full two years ahead of her parent’s eventual marriage. Any doubts about her parentage were further reduced by the identification of her father in the marriage register, as ‘Thomas Benson, Potato Dealer’.

Emily’s birth was registered in the first quarter of 1858 which means she was born between about mid-November of 1857 and 31 March 1858.  If Thomas was Emily’s father, then his relationship with Sarah Fisher must have begun during the first half of 1857.  This cannot have been much more than 9 months after the birth of Thomas’s last child by Mary Ann Martin, Frederick James Benson, who was born on 7 July 1856.

In time, the children christened as Benson Fisher swapped the two surnames round—marrying, for example, as Fisher Benson.  Emily and Arthur, given simply the surname Fisher when registered, subsequently added Benson.  Eventually, in 1885, only seven years before Sarah’s death, Thomas did marry his long-term long-suffering housekeeper.

In preparing my piece on Walter Stanley Benson, I decided to ‘kill off’ all seventeen of his father’s full and half siblings whom I had not married off, and/or killed off already.  It’s basic family reconstitution, about which I can—and do, elsewhere—go on and on.  My U3A groups have learnt to anticipate that I’m going to prod them to reconstitute their family groups—they’ve learnt it’s trouble taken that will pay back.

While following up Thomas’s other children, I duly found Mary Ann’s daughter, Mary Ann Benson, in the 1871 Census, in Hammersmith.  She was there as ‘step-daughter’ in the household of George Hedger, a brewer, and his wife, Mary Ann Hedger.  Mary Ann Hedger’s birthplace matched that of Mary Ann Martin, though not her age. Subsequently it became clear that she was at least eleven years older than her second husband, which might explain the fudging.

Indeed, at the time of the 1861 census over which I had puzzled, Mary Ann and George been ‘married’ for about six weeks. All Mary Ann’s surviving children by Thomas were living with their father in 1861, with their mothering needs, and those of her own children, presumably catered for by his “housekeeper”.

Please click on the image below to enlarge it.

The entry in the Hammersmith Marriage Register for Mary Ann’s bigamous marriage.

Notice that Mary Ann declared herself to be a spinster, and stated that her father was Thomas Benson,  with “Dead” under the heading of occupation.  Thomas Benson was her husband, not her father, and he was anything but dead.  Perhaps she was thinking of her father, Thomas Martin, who was dead?  If the latter, the problem here was, that having lied about her marital status, and perhaps having already become known in Hammersmith as Mary Ann Benson, she could not easily switch surnames for this public event.  One small fib almost always leads to additional fibs in support of the story.

While Mary Ann Martin had given her age correctly in 1845, when she married Thomas, in 1861, the couple were simply declared to be of full age. Having found Thomas with his “housekeeper” in 1861, I’d been pretty quick to pass judgement on Thomas.  Finding Mary Ann with George, casts a different light on this.  Who bolted first?

Here are the ages provided for Mary Ann in various official records, with what I estimate was her ‘true’ age in square brackets.   At Mary Ann’s baptism on 28 March 1824, her birthdate is given as 9 February 1824.

6 June 1841: 15 [17, but fair enough, ages were rounded down].
12 May 1845: 21 [21].
30 March 1851: 25  [27].
24 February 1861: Full [37].
7 April 1861: 24 [37].
2 April 1871: 40 [47].
1876:  age at death, 45. [52].

This fudging of her age certainly made Mary Ann more difficult to find when I started this research some years ago.  Did George Hedger know that he had been party to a bigamous marriage?

Mary Ann died in 1876, so why did it take so long for Thomas to marry Sarah?  No, they weren’t married at the time of the 1881 Census.  That didn’t happen for nearly ten years.

Isn’t it often true that you solve one mystery, and a whole new set of questions bubble up?

More on the Bensons

Frood, M.W., ‘Walter Stanley Benson’, https://hamremembers.wordpress.com/2018/01/25/walter-stanley-benson-1891-1915/, accessed 30/1/2018.
Frood, M.W., ‘Challenges in matching a name on a War Memorial with the correct military record’, https://www.discoveryourfamilyhistory.com/family-history/unravelling-an-error-on-a-parish-war-memorial/, accessed 30/1/2018.

Recommended Reading

Rebecca Probert’s Marriage Law for Genealogists: The Definitive Guide (Kenilworth, 2012) is what its title says.  It’s also lucid and fascinating.
London Metropolitan Archives, Dl/DRO/BT Item, 062/039, Saint Mary, Sunbury On Thames: Surrey, Transcript of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1845 Jan-1845 Dec, 12 May 1845.
London Metropolitan Archives, P80/PET, Item 007, Saint Peter, Hammersmith, Register of marriages, 24 February 1861.