Sunday, 22 February 2015

James Miles: From Soldier to Telephone Operator

I've recently started travelling down a branch of my tree that has been much neglected in my family history travels, that of my 3 x Great Grandmother, Ann Esther Ibbott Miles' family. As I find happens so frequently, one particular person intrigued me more than most: James Miles, my 1st cousin, four times removed.

James was the nephew of Ann Esther Ibbott Miles and it soon became apparent that he had led an interesting and varied life.

Born at the beginning of 1853 to James and Mary Miles in the small village of Tempsford, Bedfordshire, where so many of my ancestors hailed from, he was the youngest of nine children. His mother gave birth to him at the age of 48, nine years after her last child, so his arrival was probably a bit of a surprise to the family. His father worked the land, as James would have done around his schooling.

By the time he was 18, James was working as a footman at Longstowe Hall, near Cambridge. This grand Elizabethan pile was owned at the time by Sidney Stanley, local landowner and a Justice of the Peace for Cambridgeshire. This was a large and busy household as not only did Stanley and his wife have seven children but they were looked after by a huge staff ranging from the butler, governess and housekeeper at the top of the servant's ladder to a number of housemaids and laundry maids at the opposite end of the pecking order. It was all very 'Downton Abbey'!

Longstowe Hall (photo courtesy www.longstowehall.co.uk)
As a footman, James was not one of the senior or 'upper' servants. Although his days were long and he'd have been on his feet all day, his duties were deliberately undemanding. His main role was to be seen: serving meals, opening and closing doors, accompanying the carriage on journies. Dressed in an expensive uniform, his very presence in the house was to display his master's wealth. As the countryhousereader blog explains, having a footman was a sign of conspicuous consumption, a demonstration of riches. The footman was supposed to look good, so I can only assume, and maybe I'm a bit biased here, that James was a good looking young man. Getting employment as a footman was a good move for James, as he would have earned more than an agricultural labourer, of which many could be found in his family, and would have had room and board as a given.

The servants of Petworth House, Sussex in the 1870s.
Just the type of uniform that James would have worn.
(Photo via https://countryhousereader.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/the-servant-hierarchy/)

Perhap life in this large privileged household didn't offer enough excitement and challenge for the young James Miles as in 1878, when he was 24 years old, James began a whole new chapter in his life; one which offered the prospect of adventure and travel. On the last day of January of that year, at 11am in the morning, James signed up for 12 years service in the infantry of the British army. He was to spend his army career in the 4th Battalion, the King's Own (Royal Lancaster) Regiment who had their home barracks in Lancaster.

The badge of the 4th Battalion,
King's Own Regiment
James must have enjoyed the life of a soldier as he was to sign up for a second term, serving for 21 years in total. And what was there for him to dislike? He was clearly well respected as his service record (found in British Army Service Records 1760-1915 on findmypast.co.uk) shows that he was promoted up the ranks from private to corporal to sergeant, until by the time of his discharge he had attained the rank of colour sergeant. He did not see any action but served in several overseas outposts - Gibraltar, the West Indies and Ireland. The role of these outputs was to maintain the security of Britain's trade routes and to guard the British Empire's far flung frontiers.

A posting in Jamaica was once considered a death sentence, and James was not to escape illness. Even though he was stationed in Newcastle high in the Blue Mountains where soldiers were less susceptible to yellow fever, James still succombed to 'neuralgia' and later whilst in Up Park camp in Kingston, he fell ill with a fever that hospitalised him for two weeks.

The only blemish on an otherwise impeccable army career was his demotion from sergeant to corporal as a result of drunkenness in August 1884 whilst stationed at Castletown on the Isle of Man. My reaction to that was 'Oh James, why, oh why, did you do that?'. But it didn't stop him in his tracks and he was soon back on the promotional ladder. His service record states he had a 'very good' character and would have received many good conduct badges if he hadn't been promoted.

At the end of his second term, and exactly 21 years to the day since he had signed up, he was discharged from the army. He was 45 years old.

Bowerham Barracks, Lancaster - where James spent his 21-year military career.
(Photo: http://www.kingsownmuseum.plus.com/galleryaccommodation02.htm)

In 1890 he had married Annie Gregory, a Yorkshire lass born in Sheffield who had worked at the County Asylum located a stone's throw from the Bowerham Barracks in Lancaster where James lived and worked. They had three children in the space of five years. So it was in 1899 that James and his young family left Lancaster and the army life he, and they, had known for so many years, and relocated to Longsight in Manchester. It was here that James embarked on a new career in a relatively new industry. He became a telephone operator.

James worked for the National Telephone Company [NTC]. The industry had only been in existence since the 1870s with the NTC itself being formed in 1881 and it's around about this time that the first telephone exchange opened in Manchester. Most telephone operators were women, so it strikes me as unusual to find James in this role. However, this is the job that he did from at least 1901 to 1911. A caller would connect to the exchange where a telephone operator such as James would connect them to the required destination. I'm really proud to think that an ancestor of mine worked in a fairly pioneering industry.

James died on 16th February 1915 at his home in Levenshulme, Manchester. He was relatively young as he was only 62.

I became intrigued by him when I discovered on one census that he'd been a telephone operator and on an earlier census he'd been a soldier. What a change in occupation! He was an ordinary chap, and he probably considered a lot of his day to day life to be pretty humdrum, but I think he has a fascinating career history - full of variety and innovation. He demonstrated his character through his army promotions and he looked the future in the face when taking on new fangled telephones in the first decade of the twentieth century. He started his life in a small agricultural village and ended it in a major metropolis working in an industry of the future. His life exemplified how life for everyone changed so rapidly in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Just your typical genealogical puzzle

I do like a good challenge. Last week I revisited the family tree of my 3 x Great Grand Uncle, George Cullip, who was born in Bedfordshire in 1802. I had done some brief work on his family a few years back so it was time to refresh my memory, confirm facts and double check all the sources.

I started with the 1841 census. This stated that George was living in Leeds with his wife Lucy and children Joseph (born, according to the census, in 1826), Cornelius (b.1831), Betsey (b.1836) and Mary Ann (b.1838). If I could find the children's baptism dates I would get a truer indication of when the children were born. I had previously discovered that when George married Lucy he was a widower. His first wife, Mary Ibbott, had died in Tempsford, Bedfordshire in January 1833. He subsequently married Lucy Stonebridge in 1837, again in Tempsford. I therefore decided to search for the baptism records in Tempsford for Mary and George's children. The Bedfordshire parish records are not yet online, so I turned my attention to familysearch.org. This opened up an unexpected can of worms which tested my powers of investigation no end.


The Leeds 1841 census showing the children of George and Lucy Cullip.
The five year old Betsey triggered much investigation, assumption and a speculative conclusion.
George is resident with the family but features on the previous page.

I ran a 'parent search' looking for the children of George Cullip and Mary. To my surprise, there were six results, rather than the expected three (Mary Ann being the daughter of Lucy):

John, baptised Oct 1822
Joseph and Elizabeth, baptised Oct 1828
Cornelius, baptised May 1830
James and Alice, baptised Jan 1833

My first conundrum was where were James and Alice? They weren't on the 1841 census living with George and Lucy. The date of their baptism was 27 January 1833, just four days after their mother Mary had been buried. I came to the sad conclusion that she must have died as a result of childbirth. But had they too followed Mary to the grave? I can only conclude that that is what happened as I have been unable to locate them on any further census records. And unfortunately definitive death records are proving elusive too.

Secondly, I was intrigued by the birth of John in 1822. As he wasn't living with his parents by the time of the 1841 census he had slipped through my radar. In my earlier investigations into George, I had found a gaol record for him on the excellent Bedfordshire Gaol Register website. George had been committed in August 1822 to three months hard labour for refusing to obey a bastardy order. He was actually serving his sentence at the time of John's baptism in October. My theory is that George initially refused to admit to being John's father and perhaps after contact with his son he relented as, a year later, in December 1823, he and Mary were married. Whether this marriage was born out of love or duty is a matter of conjecture. It was five years before they had any surviving offspring so was the marriage initially strained? Of course, it may be that John's mother was a different Mary as the name was so common in the 19th century, but I like to think it is the same woman. My next task is to try and get my hands on the bastardy order, hopefully that will resolve the issue.

My final puzzle related to Elizabeth Cullip, I had initially noted down that she was born in 1836 as per the 1841 census. But this couldn't be the case if her baptism was in 1828! Why would a 13-year girl be listed as being five? Plus if she was Joseph's twin (an assumption brought about by the fact that they were baptised on the same day) then why isn't she noted as being the same age as him? By the 1851 census Elizabeth is listed as being 18 years old, indicating she was born in 1833 - yet another difference in her year of birth. It was at this point that a light bulb switched on over my head and I wondered whether in fact there were two different children. On the 1841 census the child is called Betsey, a common pet name for Elizabeth, hence my initial confusion. So I returned to familysearch and hunted for any Betsy or Betsey, rather than Elizabeth, born around 1833 in Tempsford. There at the top of the list was 'Betsy Stonebridge or Hare', baptised July 1832, daughter of Lucy Stonebridge and James Hare. The indecision regarding her surname led me to conclude that she must have been illegitimate. I had found my girl.

A subsequent search of the National Burial Index revealed an Elizabeth Cullip who died aged seven in 1833 and was buried in the February. There were indeed two children, one of whom switched between her birth name of Betsy and Elizabeth throughout her life, causing future amateur genealogists some trouble! I can only assume that the enumerator made an error on the 1841 census by rounding her age down from eight to five.

As Elizabeth Cullip's death followed so soon after the death of her mother I wonder whether Mary didn't in fact die in childbirth but had succombed to an illness which she then passed on to her daughter. We will probably never know.

Tempsford Church: the scene of so many of my ancestors vital life events.
Elizabeth Cullip was baptised and buried here.

As ever when searching one's family history, just as one door closes, another opens. I have more questions now which need answering. Was John Cullip the child at the heart of the bastardy case; did Lucy and George have any children I've not discovered yet (a quick glance at familysearch thinks maybe they did); what happened to the twins, James and Alice, who disappear from history after their birth? I'm still not entirely convinced that my conclusions are correct. But isn't that one of the reasons why family historians love delving into their past, to turn private investigator and get their teeth into a juicy case. For me, the case is not yet closed, and probably never will be...

Friday, 8 August 2014

Chapel Lane, Longford - my Irish ancestors' home

Last night I watched Julie Walters' episode of Who Do You Think You Are? and was inspired to look a little more closely into the the house where my maternal grandfather was raised in County Longford, Ireland. Julie was able to stand in the ruins of her ancestral home in County Mayo and touch the very walls where her great grandfather brought up his family. The census also disclosed who her ancestor's landlord was. By the time the programme was ending I was itching to get to my laptop so that I could also find out who my family's landlord was.

At the time of the 1911 census my grandfather, John, was seven years old. He lived with his father George, mother Annie, his younger siblings George and Mary Ann, his grandmother Ann and his uncle Patrick in a house in Chapel Lane, in the parish of Templemichael in Longford Town. Seven people shared this one house. Probably not a huge number in comparison to other families.

I had discovered the 1911 Ireland census many moons ago, but hadn't really studied the information regarding their house in any detail until today. The 'House and Building Return' attached to each family's census page provides particulars on the actual construction of their home. I've learnt that my family's property was made of either stone, brick or concrete; that it was roofed with slate, iron or tiles; had two, three or four rooms, and there were two windows on the front of the house. These attributes meant that the home they lived in was classified as a second class dwelling. A paper presented by the Registrar General, William J Thompson, in 1913 states:

'The Census of 1911' by William J Thompson, presented 1913

The marvel that is Google Street View shows two main types of building on Chapel Lane today. On one side of the road are two-storey properties such as that which can be seen in the photo of my great grandmother Annie, below. On the opposite side of the road are a series of smaller, single level properties seemingly made of the same construction materials. From the description on the census, I believe that my family lived in one of the single storey dwellings, although whether the buildings there today are the same as in 1911 I cannot tell.

Chapel Lane, Longford, c.2009 c/o Google Street View

The house therefore was made of concrete and roofed with tiles. It's good to know that my grandfather was raised in what was classed as a fairly decent home. As the census states that the family lived in two rooms (I'm assuming that, as in the UK census, the bathroom wasn't counted, and it's likely they had an outhouse) it would have been a tight squeeze for four adults and three small children.

My great grandmother, Annie Wenman, born Greene,
tending her garden in Chapel Lane, Longford.

I was interested to see that my family's landlord was Lord Longford, otherwise known as the 5th Earl of Longford, Thomas Pakenham. He was the landlord for just two of the homes on Chapel Lane which surprised me. My assumption had been that just one landowner would have owned all the homes in the area. Lord Longford made his career in the Life Guards but was killed in action during the Battle of Scimitar Hill at Gallipoli in 1915. He was clearly a brave and fearless soldier. Whether he was a good landlord I do not know, but I like to think he was.

1911 House and Building Return for Chapel Lane, Longford

I can't believe it's taken me this long to really delve into the type of house that my ancestors in Ireland lived in at the beginning of the twentieth century. Photos have always made my Irish ancestors look a little ragged, a little worn around the edges, but they clearly had a sturdy home. It may have been rather crowded, and was probably rather noisy but it would have kept them warm and dry. Their small property was their cave, their castle, their island. I believe Chapel Lane was their home for many years; it was their refuge against a fast-changing and increasingly unpredictable world.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Ernest Addington Pitts: A Genealogist's Dream

It was his name that attracted me. Ernest Addington Pitts. Not quite double barrelled but still with an air of gentility to it. As it turns out, Ernest may have started as a young man living on independent means but he didn't necessarily end up that way.

He was a dream ancestor to research - I found him on every census; there were migratory records; divorce records; he's mentioned briefly in a book; he appears on electoral rolls; in prison records; his WW1 service record survived the destruction of so many others during WW2; and to end the story of his life, he had a brief obituary in his local paper.

Ernest is my third cousin, three times removed. So he's fairly distant. Our shared ancestor is my five times grandfather, Luke Addington, a Bedfordshire ag lab through and through, who was Ernest's two times grandfather.

Ernest's grandfather, Isaac Pitts, is listed on the various census records as a slater, a masoner or a bricklayer. On one census he calls himself a proprietor of houses which I believe means he owned and rented out homes. He had clearly found himself in the property business and although living apart from Ernest's grandmother for most of their marriage, he was able to put his children through boarding school and leave £300 to his wife in his will.

Ernest's father, also called Isaac, lived by independent means or as an annuitant all his life. So in 1873 Ernest was born into a comfortable home in Chawston, Bedfordshire, a small hamlet eight miles north-east of the county town of Bedford.

Chawston, late 19th century

At the age of 7, in 1881, he was living with his parents in his grandmother's home, Box Cottage, in Chawston. The family must have been living comfortably off of his grandfather's pension as his grandmother and parents are listed as annuitants, and Ernest is a scholar. Ten years later, Ernest and his parents are still living off their own means, helped along by the £450 that his grandmother had left in her will, having died eight years previously. Ernest's father Isaac describes himself as a gentleman in the probate records.

Isaac died in June 1891 leaving a substantial sum behind him. But how much of this money made it to his widow and son needs to be ascertained as by the turn of the century they were both living in central Bedford with Ernest making a living as a commercial traveller.

At some point on his travels, Ernest met Edith Heydon and they were married in August 1901 in Marylebone, London. Edith was the daughter of a coal merchant from Devon. Ernest's address at the time of his wedding was the rather impressive sounding 292 Regent Street, London. A grand thoroughfare today, at the time of Ernest's residence it was being substantially rebuilt, taking on the appearance we see now, so it may not have been quite as grand as one imagines.

It is around this time that Ernest starts to stray from his hitherto good reputation. Quite unexpectedly I came across a prison record for him! In the first decade of the twentieth century, Ernest had been making a living as a 'stationer and fancy goods dealer' in Clapham Junction, London. However, in 1907 he was sentenced to 12 months in Wormwood Scrubs for obtaining property by false pretences, unlawfully obtaining credit, common law forgery and uttering. His citation states that he'd been up to no good since at least 1903. It appears my Ernest was a bit of a forger. Thankfully, on release from prison he was able to continue his stationer's business for a few more years.

In the clink

But it's also around this time that Ernest's marriage to Edith starts to look a little unsettled. On the 1911 census, Ernest is living in Sherborne, Dorset and states his occupation to be an organist. Edith meanwhile is living with her mother in Woking, Surrey, along with John, her three month old son by Ernest. Had she left him because of his criminal activities or for other reasons, yet to be discovered?

In 1914 with the outbreak of war, Ernest immediately enlisted. However as he was 41 in 1914, and also said he was a dairy farmer on his enlistment records, he was assigned to the 447th Agricultural Company in the Labour Corps, and consequently did not see military action overseas. He would have worked on the land ensuring food production was kept up at a time when there were major labour shortages. He began his Labour Corps career as a private with the Royal Bucks Hussars Reserve Regiment, but steadily rose up the ranks until, in 1917, he was promoted to Company Quartermaster Sergeant. He did well during the war years though he believed that the rheumatism that he developed in his feet was due to his war service. Was he not used to being on his feet all day? The army were having none of it though. They rejected outright his claim for a war pension stating his symptoms appeared to be 'subjective'.

Between his demobilisation in 1919 and 1925, Ernest appears to have continued his occupation as a dairy farmer. He co-owned a business in Islington, London called "E Jones: Dairymen, Cow-keepers and Provision Merchants". Whether Edith is with him I cannot tell, but I think it is unlikely. Most of her life from 1911 onwards appears to have centred around Woking.

In March 1925 Ernest's life was to change forever when, aged 51, he boarded the S.S. Ballarat, destination Australia. He settled in New South Wales and initially made his living as a driver. His wife and son did not emigrate with him and in 1935 Edith filed for divorce. Interestingly, within two years both had remarried. It's clear that new prospective marriage partners had prompted the need to separate offiicially so that both could marry again. In Ernest's case he married Beatrice Wyatt in 1936 in Sydney, citing 'organist' as his occupation.

SS Ballarat

Ernest as an organist is one side of his life which crops up time and again. He gets a blink-and-you-miss-it mention in a book by Anthony Paice called 'The Professional Beggar' (about the life of a Surrey clergyman) where it states Ernest was the organist at St Nicholas' Church in Pyrford, Surrey. And in a June 1895 issue of the Northampton Mercury, Ernest is mentioned as the organist at the wedding of a Miss Tyringham and Captain Cookson at Turvey in Bedfordshire. He states on the 1911 census that his occupation is organist, and likewise on several Australian electoral rolls.

Organist

Beatrice and Ernest lived together until his death just two years later in 1938. His brief obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald says simply: "February 27 1938 at the Masonic Hospital, Ashfield. Ernest Addington Pitts, dearly loved husband of Beatrice M. Pitts."

I loved researching Ernest. Records for his life seemed to be falling around my ears. Perhaps it's because he has a fairly unique name, and one that not many transcribers stumbled over, that the available records were easily found and accessed. There were so many different types of records available too - migration, census, prison, bmd - that his life became well rounded and interesting. He definitely seemed to have two sides to his nature. He was not averse to trying his luck for his own ends, whether it be through forgery or attempting to weasle a pension out of the army. And yet he was also a church musician, a passionate organist. Was this where Ernest's true vocation lay? He was relatively young when he died, only 64, but his life was packed with incident and variety. I think he was a real go-getter, not afraid to try new things. For some reason I visualise him as a tall man with glasses. But mostly I picture him as seated at a church organ, lost in the music he is making, serene and content, if only for just that moment in time.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Strangers in a small village

During a trawl through the British Newspaper Archive on Find My Past the other day I came across this wonderful little cutting from the Luton Times and Advertiser. I was searching for anything to do with Tempsford, the small village in Bedfordshire where my paternal grandmother hailed from. This article, dated 6 April 1894, recalls the occasion that two strangers were spotted in the village and the misconception that these two gents, being outsiders, were up to no good.

Luton Times and Advertiser, 6 Aprl 1894

It's probably a good thing that these two young men weren't apprehended. The idea that their assailants intended to 'break every bone' in their bodies is rather disconcerting.

Tempsford has always been a small village. In the 1891 census the population was recorded as 492 people. By 2011 the number of residents had increased by just 100. Even though the village is cut in half by the Great North Road (now known as the A1), its size meant that all the inhabitants in the village would have known everyone else. They would have farmed the same fields, lived side by side in their small cottages and married into each other's families. I've discovered in my family history that during the 19th century, my ancestors from Tempsford, the Cullips, were connected to virtually all of the main families of the village by marriage alone.

So two strangers in the village stood out like a sore thumb, as they would have done in a thousand other villages of this type throughout the British Isles. It's a shame it was not reported who they were visiting, where they were from (a large town or city perhaps where strangers could easily disappear into a crowd) or why they did not respond to the many curious enquiries made toward them regarding their intentions on that Good Friday eve. Still, if they had put the people of Tempsford out of their misery and revealed they were visiting friends, it's likely that this article would not have been written. Many years on, the curious reader would have been deprived of a fast paced and exciting account, which, although somewhat a let down at the end, provided a snapshot into the mindset of a small Bedfordshire village at the end of the Victorian era.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Voices from the Past

A few days across I discovered the British Library's website of accents and dialects. This is a wonderful find for me as it has added a whole new level of insight into my long ago ancestors. (Visit the British Library's website here.)

I was particularly charmed by the recording of an old gentleman, Mr Simons, from Great Barford in Bedfordshire. This lovely piece of audio immediately evoked the images and sounds of my ancestors who also came from this part of the world. Great Barford is, as the crow flies, about three miles from Tempsford, the small village where my paternal grandmother was born and where her father, and his father, and his father before him lived, married, worked, played and died. It's quite difficult to understand what he's saying as the dialect is so strong, but his tale of a runaway bull and mention of cobs (horses), calves, fields and 'cow-hovels' conjures up visions of life on the land and in the farmyard.

My family in Tempsford were predominantly agricultural labourers and would have been familiar with the villages Mr Simons mentions and the life he describes. I immediately imagined I could hear the voice of my 2 x Great Grandfather, Thomas Cullip, who was born in 1827 in Blunham, the next village down the Great North Road from Tempsford. Blunham is one of the villages that Mr Simon's mentions in his anecdote. Thomas' father, Joseph, was born in 1803, most likely in Roxton, just two miles up the Bedford Road from Great Barford. All these villages were within a few miles of each other and I've found in my research that the lives of my ancestors took them from one village to the next. For instance Thomas was born in Blunham, lived for a time in Roxton, yet married, lived and died in Tempsford. For this reason I can only conclude that the dialect spoken by Mr Simons in Great Barford would have been shared by my ancestors in this small knot of villages.

Map of Bedfordshire showing Great Barford, Tempsford, Blunham and Roxton.
1898-1901  (scale 1:50,000)



Of course it's entirely possible that Mr Simons did not come from this part of Bedfordshire at all. However, this recording, made in 1958, forms part of the Survey of English Dialects, a project undertaken in the 1950s by the University of Leeds to capture, as the website states, "traditional dialect... best preserved in isolated areas". It is unlikely the researchers would have travelled to this village to record someone who came from another place entirely.

Being able to hear Mr Simons' voice speaking of life in rural Bedfordshire has helped to bring my Tempsford ancestors to life and added a whole new dimension to my perception of their lives. I heartily recommend that everyone should take a look at this website and see whether a voice can be heard that helps to bring their ancestors just that little bit closer.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

My Family During the War

My mum and dad were both children in 1939 when war was declared against Germany. I had never really understood what life was like for them during this period of history so I decided it was about time I found out. My mum is no longer with us, but her sister, my Auntie Trixie, has provided me with a wealth of information. My dad could also be relied upon to share his memories. In both cases, once the box was prized open, the stories poured out. Much laughter ensued as incidents and anecdotes were recalled for the first time in many years and I scribbled frantically to write it all down.

My dad on the left with a pal
Both my parents were seven years old at the outbreak of war. My dad lived with his family in East Finchley, north London. He wasn't evacuated but stayed at home for the duration. He has vivid memories of watching the Battle of Britain take place in the skies above him and for an eight-year old boy, with no real conception of life and death, this must have been one of the most exciting events to witness of his life so far. He can also recall the red glow in the sky as London burned during the height of the Blitz.

Small boys feel no fear. When the air raid siren sounded my father recollects sauntering down the road with a pal in no immediate hurry to get to the safety of the shelter. It was only when the air raid warden blew his whistle and shouted at them in no uncertain terms that they would make a dash for cover, most likely with a clip around the ear for punishment. Craters in the street and bombed out houses were a common sight, though luckily my father's road and its immediate surrounds were not hit. Dad remembers walking down a street one day and coming across a crater where a doodlebug had hit the day before. These sorts of happenings provided endless fascination and excitement. The exhilaration of London at war was not to last however. Tragedy struck the family when my dad's older brother, Joseph Roy, was killed whilst serving on HMS Hermes in the Indian Ocean. My father was only 10 but suddenly the reality of war was driven home.

My mum, Uncle Ernie and Auntie Trixie
(with uncontrollable red hair!)
There were no such tragedies for my mother and her family, though there was a very near miss! When war broke out my mother was living in Chelsea, in the heart of London, with her parents and two of her siblings. Her youngest brother was in Ireland with my grandfather's parents. When the family had come to England from Ireland in the late thirties it was decided to leave my Uncle Noel, then a toddler, behind, until the family were settled. Unfortunately the outbreak of war meant he was not able to join them until 1944 when he was nine years old. My aunt recalls going to collect him from Ireland and being aware that German U-Boats still patrolled the waters of the Irish Sea. But, being children, submarines were exciting rather than something to be scared of. I imagine my grandparents had rather different feelings on the subject during that crossing.

My mother's oldest brother, my Uncle Ernie, was also separated from his parents for a time. At the start of the war he had been sent to stay with his Grandma Lawton, my great-grandmother, in Sutton-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, to convalesce following an illness. My great-grandmother was adamant that my mother and my aunt should join them to get them away from the dangers of the London blitz. My Nan however wanted her girls close and refused to let them go. It was only when my great-grandmother threatened to come down and collect them herself that my Nan relented and took her two daughters on the train to Nottinghamshire.

Life goes on in wartime London, 1940 © IWM (D 1303)
(
http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196794)
And it's a good thing that they left that day as on that night in 1940 a bomb hit the block of flats where my family were living. It destroyed about a quarter of the building, unfortunately the quarter where my family had their home. My grandfather, who was now the only one at home and who had been asleep in bed at the time, dropped three floors. He survived because somehow his bed turned over in the fall and shielded him from the falling rubble. My poor Nan returned from Sutton-in-Ashfield, having left her daughters with her mother, to find her home destroyed and her husband in hospital. Luckily Grandad made a full recovery from his ordeal. But he was not the only one injured by the bomb. The old lady who lived across the hall was woken by the noise although her flat was not damaged. However, hearing the commotion she opened her front door to see what was going on and promptly fell three stories down. The hallway was no longer there! My aunt believes she survived. The bomb had fallen through my mother's and aunt's bedroom where they had been sleeping the night before. Did Grandma Lawton have a premonition that something was going to happen which is why she was so persistent that the girls be evacuated? We'll never know. But it's lucky she did as I would not be here today if it wasn't for her insistence.

Grandma Lawton
Grandma Lawton decided that she couldn't look after all three siblings herself so my aunt was sent to live with another relative a few minutes walk away whilst my uncle and mother stayed with their grandmother. Grandma Lawton was, by all accounts, quite a strict lady. The children would be told off for staring at themselves in the mirror. And my aunt recollects how, because her grandmother struggled to get a comb through my aunt's unruly mop of curly red hair, she was sent down to the hairdressers to have it all cut off. Of course, it grew back as curly as before.

After a year in Sutton-in-Ashfield all three children returned to London. All seemed quiet but the attacks weren't over as it was not long before the infamous doodlebugs were to inflict their particular brand of terror and destruction on the populace. But for the children it was still a time of excitement. Back home in Chelsea, they returned to a new block of flats looked after by a warden who insisted all the children were home by 9pm. The children and their little gang of friends would have great fun running away from him when he was trying to get them inside. He would go and knock on Nan’s door who would deny all knowledge of her children still being outside and claim they were safely in. My naughty Nan! Bombed-out houses were sources of great adventure. The children would clamber over the wreckage, balancing over shattered floorboards through which they could see the floor and rubble beneath.

It was a time of danger and fun, excitement and tragedy. These were lives being lived and appreciated to their fullest extent. My auntie will be 82 this year and my dad will be 81. It's hard to imagine the child within, but just get them talking and the child soon returns.