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.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

A Witness to History

Family legends are wonderful tools for the family historian. How often do they turn out to be real and how often complete fiction? It's usually the case that a story started out truthful but, through Chinese whispers, ended up somewhat different. Through careful probing and research, it's possible to get to the root of the matter so that the actual facts emerge. One of our family legends is that, as a young woman, my paternal grandmother, Esther May Cullip, observed a little bit of history as it happened. The story goes that, in 1916, Esther May witnessed the first ever shooting down of a German airship, watching it fall out of the skies. That year there were two incidents involving airships being shot down, both happening within a month of each other and in the same area. Family legend says my grandmother saw the first airship be destroyed, but whether or not this is the case, I do believe that Esther May witnessed one of these incidents in the autumn of 1916.


A Zeppelin airship

The Zeppelin Raids had begun a year earlier when Germany's ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, gave his approval for airships to cross the English Channel and target military establishments in places such as East Anglia and the south coast of England. He initially forbade the bombing of London due to the risk of killing a member of the royal family! King George V was his first cousin after all. However by the end of the year, raids were being carried out over the capital city.

The airship falling over Cuffley
The first airship to be shot down over British soil happened in the small hours of 3rd September 1916. Lt Leefe Robinson spotted the ship whilst on night patrol in his fighter plane. Approaching the airship from below he emptied his machine gun first into one the side of the ship, then the other, before firing shots into the rear. The back of the ship burst into flames resulting in the Schutte-Lanz SL11 ploughing into the ground in Cuffley, Hertfordshire. A dreadful choice had to be made by the crew. Should they jump or await the horrible fate of burning to death. Whatever their decision, the commander of the ship and his 15-man crew all perished.

As the crow flies, Cuffley is about eight miles from East Finchley and judging by newspaper accounts of the day, the event was witnessed by thousands of Londoners:

"The most amazing fact in connection with the downing of a Zeppelin on Saturday night, was the immense number of people who witnessed the spectacle despite the lateness of the hour. Warning of an imminent raid was given out early, and spread with astonishing speed by hundreds of channels which each fresh raid increases. Thus many thousand Londoners remained out of their beds out of curiosity awaiting development, in the hope that, if the raid materialised, they would see what was to be seen.
When the raiders approached the capital, the firing of guns and the dropping of exploding bombs seemed to wake up half London. Thus the actual burning was witnessed from every suburb and almost from every street. The Zeppelin's height enabled the watchers for miles around to gaze at the awe-inspiring spectacle, and its absorbing brilliancy as the airship fell."
(The Great War in Europe, Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 12 Sept 1916)

Esther May and Gladys, c.1917
My grandmother lived her entire life in East Finchley, north London, and by the beginning of September 1916 she was a new mother with a six week old daughter on her hands. Perhaps the crying of a small baby meant that Esther May was awake at 2am in the morning, or maybe it was the sound of gun fire and explosions that woke her up and drove her outside to watch this extraordinary event take place in front of her eyes. For my grandmother, a little bit of the war had come to her doorstep.

The Zeppelin L31 falling
over Potters Bar
The second airship was shot down less than a month later. On 1st October 1916, 2nd Lt Wulstan Tempest was responsible for the destruction of Zeppelin L31. This ship crashed into an oak tree in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. Again, the whole crew died and their death was witnessed by thousands of Londoners who watched as the burning ship crashed to earth.

I'll never know which airship Esther May saw falling from the skies. I like to believe it was SL11, the first and most famous of the airships shot down over Britain. Either way, my grandmother did witness a bit of history in the making. But we mustn't forget that even though a burning airship would have been a dramatic spectacle to watch, it was also a tragedy, as all the German airmen died in horrible circumstances. The Zeppelin Raids aren't well remembered due to the overwhelming horror of the Blitz and the destruction wrought on Britain by the German air raids of the Second World War. So let us not forget the 500 civilians, all over the country, who died when a bit of World War One came to their shores.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Levi Alfred King 1892-1954

It's been nearly two months since I last wrote on my blog. Not good, slapped wrists! So I've made one of my new year's resolutions for 2013 to blog more. To start things off here is a post about an ancestor whom I have chosen completely at random (I closed my eyes and picked his name off a list!).

Levi Alfred King is a fairly distant relation, the husband of my second cousin twice removed on my father's side. However he's one of the few people whose First World War service record survived the bombing during the 1940 Blitz in London and so I've got a pretty full account of his wartime experience.

But I'm jumping the gun. As Julie Andrews would say, let's start at the very beginning...

Levi was born in the first months of 1892 in Hadley Wood, Barnet, in what was then the county of Middlesex. This was a quiet, rural part of the world where his father, Alfred, was employed as an ostler at a local inn and his mother, Edith, was a dressmaker.


I'm quite curious as to why he was baptized Levi. His siblings all had more traditional Victorian names such as Henry, Arthur and Florence. Interestingly though, in a survey of the top 1000 names in the 1890s in the US, Levi was number 207, so by no means an unpopular name.

Life was ordinary for the first years of Levi's life. He was to be joined by five brothers and sisters, all of whom survived childhood, and with 13 years separating the eldest from the youngest, it must have been a noisy and chaotic household.

By 1914 the 22-year old Levi had reached the height of 5 ft 11 inches and at 121 lbs must have been fairly tall and thin. He was employed as an Emulsion Washer in a photographic studio. I'm not quite sure what an Emulsion Washer did but I'm thrilled to think he worked in what was still a pioneering industry, even though his job may have been quite menial.

His work in a photographic studio wasn't to last for much longer however, as in August of that year Britain declared war on Germany. Levi was the perfect age to sign up and serve his country and enlistment was to follow a year later on 23rd October 1915. At the age of 23 years and 10 months Levi enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). He stayed on home soil until August 1916 after which he was posted to France and Flanders.

The job of the RAMC was to provide medical backup to the front line troops. They operated the Field Ambulances and the Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) where injured men were sent to be treated before returning to the trenches or before being moved on to one of the Base Hospitals which were also operated by the RAMC.

The RAMC at work on World War One battlefields

Levi was initially posted to the 70th Field Ambulance in September 1916. A couple of months later in November he was posted to Casualty Clearing Station 17 at Remy Siding, near Poperinge in Belgium where he was to spend the remainder of the war. He was even admitted a couple of times to his own CCS suffering from ailments such as influenza which laid him low for six days.

The buildings at Remy Siding in 1920

Remy Siding was so named because of its location next to the railway line which linked the CCS to Poperinge. The town itself was close to the battlefields of Ypres, Messines Ridge and Ploegsteert Wood, and as can be seen on the map, there were trenches situated fairly close to the CCS. Although Levi wasn't a fighting soldier, he would have witnessed more than his fair share of appalling sights. One can only imagine the atrocities that he would have seen: dreadful injuries, death and anguish on a far too common basis.

Trench map showing the location of CCS 17 at Remy Siding

Nevertheless there was some relief from the war for Levi, for in December 1917 he was granted 14 days leave to return home and marry his sweetheart, Emily Esther Cullip. They were married in Christ Church, Barnet with their family and friends around them.

But this was only a short respite as, too quickly, Levi had to return to the war. He would be away from home until February 1919 when he was demobilised and able to return to his new wife. His time in the RAMC had been exemplary with no misdemeanours to blight his service record. He was rewarded with the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

As is so often the case in those years following the 1911 census and World War One, the story of Levi's life goes cold. However I do know that he had at least one daughter, Gladys, born in 1924 and that he died in 1954 at the age of 62, still resident in Barnet. He left a grand total of £376 14s 4d in his will, a tidy sum in those days.

Writing a blog about a randomly selected ancestor brings them to life. I'd not really thought about Levi much before (no disrespect intended), but looking back over his life and looking at the surviving records which tell us the dates and facts about his existence he has become real to me. I now picture a fairly tall, skinny man, conscientious in his work, honest and law-abiding, and for some strange reason, dark haired and with a moustache! I can't back up those last details but I'm sure I'm right about the rest...

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Heroes in my Family


On this day of remembrance I felt it was only appropriate to write a few words about my hero ancestors. My family is not unique. Like everyone who delves into their ancestry I have found many family members who went off to fight for their country, to 'do their bit'. Some made the ultimate sacrifice and were laid to rest where they died; some don't have a final resting place; all live on through stone memorials. Others were fortunate enough to make it through their war and return to homes and families. They may not have returned unscathed, either mentally or physically, but return they did. They aren't marked on a memorial but, like their fallen brethren, they are remembered. To me, they are all heroes.

Charles Stracey 1894-1917
My great uncle Charles was 22 years old when he died in France on 17th February 1917. A private in the 6th Battalion, Princess Charlotte of Wales (Royal Berkshire) Regiment, it's probable that he died during the action taken at Miraumont to capture several German trenches. During the early hours of the 17th February, as the troops assembled in preparation to go over the top, the Germans heavily barraged the assembly areas. Most of the day's casualties happened as a result of this barrage and I believe, as Charles' body was never recovered, that it was at this point that he died. His name is recorded on the great Thiepval Memorial to the missing in northern France.

Samuel Ezekiel Hardwick
Samuel Ezekiel Hardwick 1881-1917
Sam Hardwick, my great grand uncle, died of wounds on 7th April 1917. He was a private in the 8th Battalion, Queen's (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. I've been unable to work out where or when he was injured but I find it quite distressing to think that he may have suffered dreadfully in a casualty clearing station before finally succumbing to his wounds. He is buried in Calais Southern Cemetery (which I'm glad to have visited in 2010 to lay some flowers on his grave) and left behind a wife and seven year old daughter.

James Ivanhoe Cullip 1894-1918
James is an ancestor that I've written about before. One of my great uncles, he served as a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery, one of the men employed to pound the German lines with their big guns. He survived the war but tragically died two weeks before the armistice, and just one week after getting married, as a result of the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Thomas William Cullip 1899-1964
Great Uncle Thomas had been 18 years old for just two weeks when he enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1917. After training on HMS Pembroke he became a member of the crew of HMS Juno in March. He served on Juno until he was demobbed in April 1919.

Albert Edward Cannon (born Cullip) Born 1897
My first cousin twice removed, Albert Cannon, enlisted aged 19 in the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1915. Luckily for me, his is one of the few surviving service records which gives a wealth of information about his time in service. He survived the war and even volunteered for the Army of Occupation in 1919. After demobilisation in 1920 he sailed to Canada where he married and created a new life away from a war weary Europe.

Albert Stracey 1883-1945
My great uncle Albert also survived the war but suffered for the rest of his life from the effects of shell shock. He enlisted into the Royal Berkshires in 1915 at the age of 32. However, just 18 months later he was discharged from service under Paragraph 392 of King's Regulations 1912. He was deemed no longer physically fit for war service and issued with the Silver War Badge. My father remembers how Albert would sit in his chair and physically shake, an affliction he suffered with for the rest of his life.

Nathaniel Joe Stracey
Nathaniel Joe Stracey 1891-1961
My grandfather is another person I've written about previously. He served in the 5th Battalion, East Kent Regiment, the 'Buffs', in Mesopotamia and India. He survived the war unscathed.

John Stracey 1885-1949
I believe my great uncle John may have been one of the Old Contemptibles. Before the war he was a soldier in the regular army, serving as a private in the 1st Bedfordshire Regiment and his medal record shows that he qualified for medals from the 16th August 1914 - he was in it from the start! He may have fought at such major battles as Mons, Ypres and the Somme. Incredibly, he survived the whole four years of war.

Joseph Roy Stracey
Joseph Roy Stracey 1922-1942
I've written quite a lot about my uncle Roy so please see my previous post for an account of his brief life and death. Roy was a royal marine serving on HMS Hermes when it was attacked and sunk by Japanese fighter planes on 22nd April 1942. He was only 19 when he died and his name is recorded on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.


At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Birthplace conundrums

I'm always quite intrigued about the town or village that my ancestors put down as their birthplace. Sometimes it's straightforward: they were born, married and died in the same place so there is no deviation in the place of birth that they gave to the census enumerator. Other times it changes from census to census but its usually in the correct vicinity. Did they not know where they were born? Or was it a case of there being more than one obvious option. For instance, I was born in Bushey in Hertfordshire, yet I quite often say I was born in Watford. This is because Bushey is practically on Watford's doorstep, you can't really tell where one stops and the other begins and also because people are more likely to have heard of Watford.

Today I have been working on the life of my first cousin four times removed, Elizabeth Cullip. I had a bit of trouble searching for her records simply because of the birthplace she'd put down. I developed doubts as to whether I'd got the correct person in the census. But with a bit of lateral thinking I believe I've worked out her way of thinking and the explanation behind the varying places of birth.

Elizabeth was born in 1818 in the village of Eaton Socon in Bedfordshire. Her mother Sarah came from Boxworth which lies about 15 miles to the east in neighbouring Cambridgeshire. Her father Thomas came from Tempsford in Bedfordshire which is about six miles south of Eaton Socon. How Thomas met Sarah I don't know, but the wedding took place in Sarah's home parish of Boxworth. And how they ended up in Eaton Socon is also unknown but this is where Elizabeth was born two years later.

Sadly, Thomas died in 1819 just a year after Elizabeth was born. He was only 24 and was buried in his birth village of Tempsford. And it's at this point I had to put my lateral thinking hat on as the census records weren't telling me what I expected them to.

Elizabeth married a fellow called Robert Ward in 1838 in Boxworth. Interesting, I thought, she's married someone from her mother's home village. But why does she indicate on the 1841, 1851 and 1861 census returns that she was actually born there when she wasn't? Yes, she was living in Boxworth (she lived there until she died in 1888) and her husband was born in Boxworth, as were their four children. The census enumerator could have made a mistake, but could the same mistake occur for three decades in a row. My theory is that when her mother was widowed at such a young age, she returned to the shelter and protection of her own family in Boxworth where she raised her daughter from the age of one. Elizabeth would have been brought up thinking of Boxworth as her home village. Being the only place she'd ever known, it's clear she considered the village as the place she was actually born. And if no one put her right then Boxworth is what she would tell the census enumerators.

Things took a curious turn however on the 1871 and 1881 census records. On those she recorded her birthplace as Tempsford. So for once she'd got the correct county, but she'd still not got the right village. Perhaps by this stage she was aware that Boxworth was not her village of birth but there was clearly still no mention of Eaton Socon as the place she was actually born. It's as if this fact had been forgotten in the family for years. Instead she opted for the place where her father came from and put down Tempsford. I guess for her it was logical: she was born in Bedfordshire so it must be where her father was born.

As you can see this is all supposition, but in the absence of hard facts and without the ability to actually sit down with the person in question and quiz them about their reasons, one has to turn to supposition to come up with a logical theory. In this case guesswork is all I have but it helps when deciphering census records that thrown in sudden curve balls!