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.




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