Churching, Mortuaries and Baptism Fees: A Woodkirk Terrier

A series of five terriers dating between July 1770 and 1825 for the Parish of Woodkirk in West Ardsley provided a fascinating peek into the the the fees charged for various parish services. Terriers were a form of inventory drawn up for Bishop’s visitations. They provide detail about the funding of the benefice ranging from church-owned lands, fabric and furnishings (in Woodkirk’s case invariably described as handsome) to tithes, fees and customary payments. I was particularly interested in the latter two as I wanted to know what my Woodkirk parish ancestors paid to get married, baptised and buried.

St Mary’s Church, Woodkirk – by Jane Roberts

Surplice fees payable to the incumbent for various services and ceremonies performed were as follows:

  • A Marriage by Publication: Two shillings;
  • A Marriage by Licence: Ten shillings;
  • A Certificate of Publication of Banns: Six pence if the man lives in the Parish, but if the woman lives in the Parish two shillings and six pence;
  • A Churching: Eight pence;
  • A Funeral: Eight pence;
  • A Certificate from the Register: One shilling; and
  • A Mortuary: Ten shillings when a person is worth 40 pounds, when a person is worth 30 pounds six shillings and Eight pence, when a person dies worth 10 pounds three shillings and four pence

These fees were constant throughout. The only change was an increase from six pence to one shilling in the 22 June 1825 terrier for certificate of publication of banns if the man lived in the parish.

Fees payable to the Parish Clerk were:

  • Easter: Each house two pence, each plough four pence;
  • A Marriage by Publication: one shilling;
  • A Marriage by Licence: Five shillings;
  • A Churching: Four pence;
  • A Publication by Banns: One shilling;
  • A Funeral: Eight pence;
  • Searching the Register: Four pence; and
  • The Churchwardens for the time being annually pay one pound to the Parish Clerk.

Mortuaries were a hang-over from feudal times. The Lord of the Manor had the right to chose the best beast of a deceased tenant. This payment was known as a heriot. The vicar was able to choose the second best beast (or comparable possession) to compensate for any personal tithes the deceased failed to pay when alive. This payment was called a mortuary. Payment of mortuaries were very unpopular and in 1529 a Statute restricted their use with the value fixed, based on the wealth of the deceased, as set out in the Woodkirk terriers. Parishes which did not have this custom could not introduce the fee. It all had the effect of reducing opposition to them because the poor were exempt and, with the passage of time, the set value of them meant their real terms worth declined.

No fee for baptism is mentioned in the Woodkirk terrier. However other parishes did seem to have them. But such fees were a controversial issue. Although slightly later than the Woodkirk terrier, an 1841 extract from The British Magazine and Monthly Register of Religious and Ecclesiastical Information Vol 19 discussing baptisms in London illustrates the concerns:

…..Of it’s illegality there can be no doubt. No fee, it is well understood, is payable for the administration of a sacrament, and the flimsy pretext that it is due for registering the baptism, is at once destroyed by the words of an act of parliament, which do not leave the clergyman who administers the sacrament of baptism an option in the matter, as he is bound to register the names of all whom he baptises.

I would therefore most respectfully call the attention of the incumbents of London parishes, and of those in the immediate neighbourhood, to the fact they are, by demanding a fee for baptism, guilty of an illegal act, and an act highly injurious to the spiritual welfare of their parishioners…….

Your correspondent, “A Curate,” states the fee to be 1s. 6d. In many city parishes it is 2s. 6d., and I have even heard, still more.

And it is clear the controversial charges applied beyond London. As the Leeds Times of 5 October 1844 reported:

THE BAPTISMAL FEE – The Bishop of Ripon, in his charge to the clergy of his dioceses a few days since, declared that demanding of a fee on baptism was illegal. His lordship added, “The practice, perhaps, originated in the performance of the office for Churching of the woman at the period of the admission of the child into the Church of Christ; and the fee lawfully due for the former. And at first clearly miscalled the baptismal fee, has afterwards been demanded where the parent did not present herself to return thanks for her safe delivery.”

Ripon Diocese, formed in 1836, from Yorkshire part of Archdeaconry of Richmond (formerly Diocese of Chester) and part of Diocese of York, covered Woodkirk. Churching, which did appear in the earlier Woodkirk terriers, was a purification ritual for a women after childbirth, giving thanks for her recovery, cleansing her from the stain of childbirth and marking her re-entry to the church. Although a distinct ceremony it is easy to see how it could be conflated with a baptism fee.

Baptisms did at one point incur a state charge though, and the period covered by the Woodkirk terriers coincided with it. This was the highly unpopular Stamp Duty Act of 1783 which remained in force until 1794. Paupers were exempt, but for all others a duty of 3d was levied on each baptism, marriage and burial recorded in the parish register. I have not undertaken a comparative check on the Woodkirk register, but countrywide the number of pauper entries in registers increased and, in the case of baptisms, some parents waited until the tax ended before having children baptised. There was also an earlier Marriage Duty Act of 1695, repealed in 1706, which similarly imposed a sliding scale tax on on births (using parish register baptisms as a proxy), marriages and burials.

But as for church imposed fees, the controversy of baptisms continued to rumble in the 19th century until the Baptismal Fees Abolition Act of 1872. This Act made it unlawful to demand any

Fee or Reward for the Celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism, or the Registry thereof.

It stated:

That from and after the passing of this Act, it shall not be lawful for the minister, clerk in orders, parish clerk, vestry clerk, warden, or any other person to demand any fee or reward for the celebration of the sacrament of baptism, or for the registry thereof: Provided always, that this Act shall not apply to the present holder of any office who may at the present time be entitled by any Act of Parliament to demand such fees.

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From Berlin to Batley and Beyond: A Tale of Four Brothers

22 August 1918 marks the centenary of the death of Guardsman Clement Manning. The 22-year-old lost his life whilst serving with Number 1 Company of the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards. His Soldiers Died in the Great War record gives his birthplace as Batley, Yorkshire. This was stretching the truth – by over 600 miles. Whilst he did live in the town in the years leading up to the outbreak of war, he was actually born on 13 November 1895 at Niederschöneweide, a German industrial town which subsequently assimilated with Berlin.

Clement’s parents were Michael Manning from Kilkenny and Mary Eliza Manning (née Waterson), also known as Muriel, from Triangle, Yorkshire. The couple married in 1881 and had 12 children in total, seven who were still living by the time of the 1911 census. Their eldest son, John Tynan, was born in Batley in April 1883. The other children listed in the 1911 census included Michael Wilfrid (born March 1886), Cecilia (born January 1889), Hester (born February 1891), Cecil Tynan (born July 1893) and Walter Nicholas (born August 1900). All these younger children shared the same birthplace – Niederschöneweide (written as Nieden Schonweide in the census). Of the five children who had died before the 1911 census I have traced three to Germany: Lillian (born October 1887 and died April 1889); Henriette (born October 1894 and died February 1903); and Helene (born March 1897 and died the following month).

The key to the Manning children’s German birthplace was their father’s occupation. In the 1881 census, prior to his marriage, Michael worked as a rag grinder (woollen). Batley mill owner John Blackburn opened a shoddy mill in 1869 in Niederschöneweide. Another woollen factory, Anton Lehmann’s, followed in 1881. English employees with expertise in shoddy manufacturing were employed in these factories and they, along with their families, moved into the community.  Consequently hundreds of Batley people are said to have left their native town and found very lucrative employment here. By the mid 1880’s there was quite a substantial Yorkshire colony in Berlin, with Yorkshire men working for either John Blackburn or Lehmanns, so it is probable that this was the magnet which pulled the Mannings to Germany. Education was at the village school, the Gemeinde-Schule, but English was spoken at home and at Sunday School, so the children would have had the advantage of being bi-lingual. Batley Feast was celebrated, as were festivities for Queen Victoria’s Jubilees in 1887 and 1897.

Clement spent the first seven years of his life in Germany.  When the family came back to Batley they returned to worship at St Mary of the Angels R.C. Church and Clement attended the associated school to complete his education. Their 1911 census Batley address was on Bradford Road with 15-year-old Clement described as a butcher boy.  He continued in this field of employment because, before enlisting, his employers were the Batley branch of the Argentine Meat Company.  He also played football with the Batley shop assistants team.

Clement enlisted with the Grenadier Guards in February 1915, the third of the Manning boys to enter military service. Cecil attested with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in February 1908 but proved unsatisfactory and was discharged days later. Perhaps it was the fact he was not yet 15, rather than his declared age of 18 years and six months, which played the deciding factor in his swift departure. Undeterred, in July 1911 he tried his hand again joining the Royal Navy, and in this pre-war era once again gave his birthplace as Berlin. His service records show at the age of 18 he already stood at 5ft 11½ inches. During the war he served on ships including Cruisers HMS Berwick and HMS Endymion, seeing action in the Dardanelles on the latter. He ended the war serving on the Dreadnought battleship HMS Orion.

Michael Wilfrid enlisted with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry at the beginning of September 1914 but quickly switched to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve to serve with the Royal Naval Division (RND). The RND was formed because there was a surplus of Royal Navy and Royal Marine reservists and volunteers. With insufficient ships to accommodate these men they were not needed for service at sea, so the men who served in the RND fought on land alongside the Army. Michael’s Record of Service has no birthplace recorded, but it shows he too was a tall man, standing at just under 6ft 1in. His war came to an abrupt end in the RND’s hastily prepared and ill-equipped part in the Defence of Antwerp in early October 1914. By 9 October he was a Prisoner of War, along with around 1,500 other RND men.

Doberitz POW


Döberitz Camp PoWs

Letters home from Michael appeared from time to time in the local newspapers.  On 8 May 1915 the Dewsbury District News reported that he was being held at Döberitz, acting as an interpreter in a German military hospital.  Ironically this camp was a little over 20 miles from where Michael spent his childhood. His letters show a desperate need for food and other provisions.  This proved a recurring theme in his letters home.  In one to his parents he wrote:

“Please don’t leave off sending cocoa, bread, cakes, bully beef, and other things”.

In another letter he says:

“I have got all your parcels but no cigs.  You know, if you cannot get food or cigs through, you can always send money, and then I can buy what I am short of.  With the money you have sent, I shall be able to last another month, and then perhaps you will send some more.  In good health.  Please send cocoa and biscuits”.

The Dewsbury District News published a further letter on the 24 July 1915, Michael again writing from Döberitz:

“Please send me each week one loaf, quarter pound of cocoa, a tin of milk, and a few cigarettes.  There is no charge for sending them, and you will never miss them in your weekly bill.  We are having plenty of warm weather, and a little rain.  I suppose it will be the same at home.  How are our local Terriers feeling the strain?  Are the county or local cricket matches played?  I have just got 8 marks 50 pfennigs.  That is what your 7s 6d postal order is worth here.  I hope you will send me some more money and parcels every week – tea, cocoa, and one loaf of bread and biscuits.  Salmon, or a tin or two of lobster, would not be amiss.  I have a little garden were I grow radishes, lettuce and tomatoes.  I live a very quiet life.”

On 25 October 1915 Michael Manning (senior) died, five days after Clement embarked for the Western Front with the 3rd Grenadier Guards. A couple of months later a fourth Manning brother, John Tynan, signed his attestation papers under the Derby Scheme.  He too inherited the family tall genes, being another 6 footer. A mechanic by trade he eventually received his call up to join the Army Service Corps (Mechanical Transport) in March 1917, going out to France the following month. But as John was going overseas Clement was back home in England after taking part in the 3rd Grenadier Guards’ action on the Somme in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.

The summer of 1916 was a particularly anxious time for the Manning family, who were receiving a series of updates from the captive Michael Wilfrid. These coincided with another wave of countrywide reports about the neglect and ill-treatment of Döberitz prisoners as illustrated by the case of Pte Tulley, a Royal Marine captured at Antwerp. 14 stone when taken prisoner he was sent back to England to die weighing only 5 stone. His case was widely reported in April 1916. His death, two weeks after arrival home, was attributed to exposure and insufficient food and clothing whilst held prisoner in Germany.

Extracts from Michael’s letters featured in the 12 August 1916 edition of the Batley News and supported the claims, by revealing more about the conditions he was enduring with a particular focus on the need for food. In one dated May 1916 he wrote:

“I hope you are sending my parcels every week.  Please send everything – bread, meat, sugar, tea, milk and fish.  I hope this beastly war will finish before long.  Are you getting ready for my coming home?  I hope to see everyone I know then”.

A sarcasm-laden letter postcard dated June 1916 revealed he had indeed undertaken a move – but further east to German-held territory in Russia. The move was a direct German reprisal against the British who in April 1916 had sanctioned the use of around 1,500 German POWs to work in France.

“I have just finished a 2½ day railway journey, and after travelling that time it is a pleasure to rest and be able to stretch your limbs again.  You will no doubt wonder why I have had to leave the hospital.  Well, you see 2,000 of the prisoners are required for work, and I with the other five sanitates at Rohrbeck Hospital had to come with the party to act as sanitates here.  I am pleased I could come with them.  It is a splendid change, and we get to see the world.  In years to come I and others will look back upon these times and thank the Germans for these trips”.

And, in addition to Michael Wilfred’s move, there was the Flers-Courcelette injury to Clement. Commencing on 15 September 1916, this engagement during the Battle of the Somme marked the first use of tanks. The 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards unit war diary recorded prior to zero hour on 15 September:

“the ‘tanks’ which were allotted to the Division could be heard making their way up in rear of us”.

It also recorded the numbers of killed, wounded or missing when roll call was taken at the end of 15 September 1916: 413 officers and men. This was the largest single day’s loss for this battalion in the war. Amongst their dead was Lt Raymond Asquith, son of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. It appears Clement was amongst those injured, receiving what was recorded as a gunshot wound to his left arm. He was evacuated back to England on board the HMHS Asturias on 17 September 1916.

Incidentally six months later, on 20 March 1917, en route from Avonmouth to Southampton this hospital ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Fortunately she had already unloaded her cargo of wounded, otherwise the casualty count would have proved far higher. Nevertheless in excess of 30 crew, including two nurses, perished. The ship was declared a total loss.

Back in England Clement recovered from his Battle of the Somme injury and was assigned to the Regiment’s home-based 5th (Reserve) Battalion to recuperate. This proved longer than anticipated with three further hospital admissions recorded whilst with the Reserve unit. On 28 November 1916 he suffered an accidental foot injury and concussion. He was not discharged from hospital until 14 February 1917. A week later he was admitted once more, this time suffering from rheumatic fever. It was a shorter stay, with his discharge date recorded as 21 April 1917 – three days prior to brother John going overseas. There was a further admission on 20 June 1917 when enteritis struck Clement down. He was able to undertake light duties from the end of July 1917, but it was not until 5 September 1917 that he was considered fully fit to return to duty, ultimately going back to the Front to rejoin the 3rd Battalion once more.

Clement was killed in action in the last 100 days of the war, with the Germans in retreat. The 21 August 1918 marked the start of the Second Battle of the Somme. From the 21 to the 23 August 1918 the 3rd Grenadier Guards were involved in what became known as the Battle of Albert, a phase of this battle, as part of the Third Army under the command of General Byng. The battalion were part of the Guards Division, VI Corps.

The official history of the Grenadier Guards describes the events of the battle, as does Reminiscences of a Grenadier by E.R.M. Fryer, who was in command of 1 Company, the company with which Clement served, for the crucial period.

On the 20th August 1918 they took up its assembly positions East and South East of Boiry. Their orders were to attack Moyenneville. The attack commenced in the early hours of an initially extremely foggy on 21 August.  The fog veiled the Guards Division as they advanced towards their first objective.  However, later it lifted, exposing the attack to enemy artillery and the inevitable accompanying hail of German machine gun fire.  Surprisingly, the Guards reportedly incurred few casualties during this stage of the battle.  By midday they had secured all their objectives, including Moyenneville, the 3rd Grenadier Guards taking a chalk pit to the south east of the village, whilst a platoon belonging to the battalion had advanced as far as the outskirts of Courcelles. By noon on the 21st V1 Corps had attained almost all of its objectives and were positioned along the Arras—Albert railway line where they came under intense artillery fire.  At this stage of the battle it had been intended for tanks and the cavalry to take over from the infantry to exploit the situation, but none had appeared. Unexpectedly Number 1 Company of the 3rd Grenadier Guards, who were intended to have a reserve role that day, played a key part in events.

Captain Fryer described the aftermath of the 21 August and the events of the 22 August as follows:

That night passed off fairly uneventfully; we were content with our day’s work, the Commanding Officer had praised us, and we heard that the higher authorities were well pleased, and so we were contented. It is hardly necessary to say the men were wonderful they always were. Were it possible to mention them all by name in this book I would do so…..No one was more loyally served by the men under him than I was, from the C.S.M. to the youngest guardsman;…….

On the morning of the 22nd at dawn we were just getting ready to stand to arms in the ordinary way when the Germans opened a terrific barrage on us, and a messenger arrived from the front line to say the Germans were coming over; we raced out from our quarry, ran the gauntlet of innumerable shells, and reached the railway safely;…….

Someone on our right sent up the S.O.S., our artillery put down a very good and accurate barrage, and all was quiet; it was impossible to get communication with our front platoon during this time, and we had no idea how they were faring……it was an organised counter-attack with the idea of [the Germans] regaining all they had lost the day before. It failed completely, …..

The rest of that day was very trying; we were all tired, and the Germans shelled us relentlessly all day, and also trench-mortared us; they got on to our quarry, and it became far from healthy….

Sometime during the day of 22 August 1918 Clement was killed. At the time the local newspapers reported Clement’s death, his brother John was serving with the ASC in France; Michael was still a prisoner of war; Cecil was in the Royal Navy on board HMS Orion.

John, Michael and Cecil all survived the war. Michael was the first to return to his home in Providence Terrace, Bradford Road, Carlinghow after more than four years captivity.  He arrived in Leeds on Christmas morning 1918, having come from Copenhagen via Leith.  An account of his time as a prisoner of war appeared in the Batley Reporter and Guardian on 3 January 1919 as follows:

“…..of his stay in Germany Seaman Manning says the German doctors treated them well, and he believed they would have been treated even better if the authorities would have allowed it.  The doctors bandaged and attended British soldiers in a similar manner to their own.  Seaman Manning, who was acquainted with the German language, often performed the duty of interpreter between the doctors and his fellow-prisoners.  As for the rest of the Germans, Seaman Manning says they behaved like uncivilised creatures.  A favourite trick of the German nurses was to first spit into a glass of water and then hand it to the prisoners.  At other times when a glass of water was asked for by the prisoners the nurses would hold it just out of reach, then either dash the water into the prisoners face or pour it on the floor.  About 5,000 prisoners were sent on a reprisal party to Russia and made to work behind the lines in range of the Russian guns.  The reason for this was that the Germans alleged that the Allies were [using] the German prisoners behind the lines on the Western Front.  The “reprisal party” were working behind the lines for 18 months, three months of that time being spent in some of the coldest weather ever known.  Complaints of poor food and clothing and frost bite etc received no attention.  At the time of the signing of the Armistice many prisoners were working in coal mines, and the Germans told them they must continue working in order to provide coal to work the trains.  The conditions of the mines was most terrible and the prisoners refused to work.  Threats were used, and finally machine guns were brought up in a vain effort to frighten the prisoners into submission.  In regard to food, Seaman Manning says that it was often not fit to eat, and often when the prisoners were starving they refused to eat the food.  When parcels began to arrive from home German food was rarely eaten, all the prisoners required at this time was sufficient air, light and cooking accommodation and this was often lacking.  During the time he was in the internment camp Seaman Manning came across prisoners of all allied nationalities.  The camps were often overcrowded and in a filthy condition.  Asked his opinion of the [revolution] Seaman Manning says that he thinks it is a humbug meant to throw dust into the Allies eyes.  The German people are trying to make it appear, he says, that it was all the rulers fault, [whereas] all the German people were “for” the war.  When Seaman Manning left Germany the Germans said they would soon be in England on business.  Seaman Manning adds that he would like to [meet some] of the brutes in England”.

John was demobilised in October 1919 whilst Cecil left the Navy in June 1921.

Clement was awarded the 1914-15 Star, Victory Medal and British War Medal.  In addition to St Mary’s, he is also remembered on the Batley War Memorial and the Memorial at St John’s Carlinghow. He is now laid to rest at Bucquoy Road Cemetery, Ficheux, France. This is a concentration cemetery with graves being brought in from the wider battlefield and smaller cemeteries in the neighbourhood post-Armistice. These re-burials included Clement.

Sources:

  • Soldiers Died in the Great War
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  • Medal Index Cards & Medal Award Rolls
  • General Register Office Indexes
  • 1881 and 1911 Census (England & Wales)
  • Dewsbury District News
  • Batley News
  • Batley Reporter & Guardian
  • Landesarchiv Berlin; Berlin, Deutschland; Personenstandsregister Geburtsregister; via Ancestry.com. Berlin, Germany, Births, 1874-1899 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
  • Landesarchiv Berlin; Berlin, Deutschland; Personenstandsregister Sterberegister ; via Ancestry.com. Berlin, Germany, Deaths, 1874-1920 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
  • Oswego, New York, United States Marriages via FindMyPast and FamilySearch Film Number 000857423 (Walter Nicholas Manning)
  • The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Manifests of Alien Arrivals at Buffalo, Lewiston, Niagara Falls, and Rochester, New York, 1902-1954; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787 – 2004; Record Group Number: 85; Series Number: M1480; Roll Number: 090 via Ancestry.com. U.S., Border Crossings from Canada to U.S., 1895-1960 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. (Walter Nicholas Manning)
  • The National Archives, Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services, Ref ADM 188/654/3883 for Cecil Tynan Manning via FindMyPast
  • The National Archives, Admiralty and War Office: Royal Naval Division: Records of Service, Ref ADM 339/1/23549 for Michael Wilfrid Manning via FindMyPast
  • 1914-1918 Prisoners of the First World War, ICRC Historical Archives: https://grandeguerre.icrc.org/
  • The National Archives War Office: Soldiers’ Documents, First World War ‘Burnt Documents’ Ref WO 363 – John Tynan Manning via Ancestry.co.uk
  • 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards, Guards Division, 2nd Guards Brigade, 1 July 1915 – 31 January 1919 – TNA WO 95 1219/1
  • The National Archives War Office: First World War Representative Medical Records of Servicemen MH106/955, MH106/1609 and MH106/1623 – extracts via Forces War Records
  • Fryer, E. R. M. Reminiscences of a Grenadier: 1914-1919. London: Digby, Long & Co, 1921.
  • Ponsonby, Frederick. The Grenadier Guards in the Great War of 1914-1918. London: Macmillan and, Limited, 1920.
  • The Long, Long Trail – The British Army I’m the Great War 1914-1918: https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/

Book Update: The Greatest Sacrifice – Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union

The final countdown is on and I can finally reveal the title and cover of the book I’ve been working on with my husband Chris for what seems like forever. ‘The Greatest Sacrifice – Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union‘ about rugby league players who were killed during the 1st World War will be published towards the end of August.

Seeing the cover has made it all seem very real.

If anyone tells you writing a book is easy, don’t believe them. It’s been month upon month of hard work. I didn’t realise how it would take over my life. From the endless research to redraft upon redraft and then the proof reading stage which went on for an eternity. The final version was never actually the final as each time we read it we’d make changes. I’ve gone through it that many times I was even reciting it in my sleep! Pregnancy and giving birth was far quicker and easier.

But it has been a labour of love. The more I researched the lives of these men the more I wanted to learn about them and my determination that this should be a fitting tribute to their lives increased. I hope the final version does them justice.

Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue: Don’t Trust Your Ancestors’ Records

In my last post I wrote about my major DNA breakthrough which saw both mum and I doing the genetic genealogy happy dance. That breakthrough resulted in us finding the married name of one of my grandpa’s three sisters, enabling me to trace a brief life story. The sisters all left their home in Carrowbeg near Kilkelly in County Mayo and emigrated to the Boston area of the USA between 1909 and 1922. However one ended up in Canada.

The DNA breakthrough related to the last sister to emigrate, my grandpa’s youngest sibling, Catherine. That left Bridget and Mary Callaghan still to trace.

I worked on the theory that Bridget, the eldest, was the one most likely to have ended up in Canada, on the basis that when Catherine went to Boston it was to join her sister Mary. I also used my grandpa’s mysterious postcard addressed to “Mrs Lovell, 20 Magguire St, West Villa, Maserchusatt [sic].” img_0577

Given my grandpa’s curious spelling of Maguire and Massachusetts, and the lessons of genealogy about the variations in the spelling of names, it seemed a distinct possibility that I may not necessarily be looking for Mary Lovell. And so it proved. Ancestry’s data-set of Massachusetts State and Federal Naturalization Records were the key to unlocking this mystery. Specifically the 1940 petition of housewife Mary Lavelle of 20 Maguire Court, Newtonville, Massachusetts. My grandpa’s mangling of the postcard name and address is now oh so obvious. And it is a wonderful example of not taking spellings, ANY spellings, as gospel.

Her petition matched exactly the details provide on her arrival in the USA. These included her date of arrival, 20 November 1920, and the ship, S.S. Carmania.  She spells her maiden Callaghan surname as it is pronounced, Callahan. This matches her spelling of it on arrival in Boston twenty years earlier. Her birthplace, the tiny village of Carrowbeg, or Carabeg as she records it, matches. So a couple more spelling anomalies to throw into the mix.

Her date of birth was given as 30 March 1893. Mary’s baptism record transcripts do not have her date of birth, but she was baptised at Glan Chapel on 10 April 1893.  Her officially registered date of birth in Ireland is 15 April 1893 – another case of a baptism pre-dating the officially recorded date of birth. And to add to the confusion, when Mary died the US Social Security Death Indexes have yet another date of birth for her – 7 April 1893.

The witnesses on the petition were Mary Murphy, who also lived on Maguire Street. That name gives me pause for thought – Mary’s mother’s maiden name was Mary Murphy. Is it a possible relative? However it is a very, very common name so maybe not. But the other witness was definitely a relation – none other than sister Catherine Rudolph. Well and truly tying the Callaghan sisters together.

There is also a short description of 47-year-old Mary. She is white, with a medium complexion, mixed grey hair and standing at 5ft 1½in and weighing in at 150lbs.

Mary’s naturalization petition was granted on 10 December 1940.

One other nugget of information was the details of her marriage on 29 November 1922 in Boston to Patrick Lavelle. He hailed from Letterfrack, County Galway and had arrived in the USA in 1910. He was 49 years old according to the information provided by Mary, although some of his own records show he was born on 15 February 1886, but more of that later. He became a naturalized American in 1935. According to Mary’s petition the couple had no children. So, out of the three sisters who emigrated, only one actually had a birth child. It is amazing we actually got that DNA match which unlocked this puzzle.

Mary did, however, have step-children. Patrick had been married before. When he arrived in Boston in August 1910 he left behind in Hamilton, Scotland a Scottish-born wife Sarah (née Gallagher) and three Glasgow-born children: Mary born in 1907, Nellie in 1908 and Julia Agnes in 1910. Julia and her mother joined Patrick in Boston in 1911, but it appears the two older girls grew up in Galway, Ireland. How difficult a decision must that have been? They were but toddlers. Did they ever see their parents again?

With Patrick now working a a coal teamster, two more children were born in Boston – a son, John, in 1913 and a daughter, Margaret Josephine, in 1915. Then, on 18 February 1920 tragedy struck. The Boston Evening Globe of 18 February 1920 carried the following death notice:

Lavelle – In Neponset, Feb[ruary] 18, Sarah L. Gallagher, beloved wife of Patrick Lavelle. Funeral from residence, 15 Eaton St., Friday, Feb[ruary] 20 at 8:15. Requiem services at St Anne’s Church at 9a.m.

The following month Patrick applied to become a naturalized American – and was rejected because the “petitioner lacks education“. It is this set of records which gives his 1886 date of birth. It has the wrong year for the date of birth of youngest child, Margaret, (1916 rather than 1915). There is also an earlier 1913 description of the 27 year old Patrick, at the time he declared his intention to become an American citizen. He was 150lbs, 5ft 5in with dark hair and brown eyes.

The 1930 census shows Patrick and new wife Mary living in Newtonville Avenue, Newton, MA with John and Margaret. Patrick is now working as a caretaker in a coal yard. Patrick’s age is given as 42 and Mary 36.

In 1932 and still at Newtonville Avenue, watchman Patrick once more declared his intention to become an American citizen. In this declaration he gives his date of birth as 12 January 1887. I’m getting so used to these multiple birth dates now. But more bizarrely (and somewhat impossibly) his eyes have changed colour to blue!  I really cannot make that one out. I’m not sure if that’s quite the meaning of the Crystal Gayle song “Don’t it Make my Brown Eyes Blue.” And yes, it is the same man. He still stands at 5ft 5in and has black hair, but he has put on a some timber – with his weight now up to 185lbs.

Eyes

Image courtesy of Pixabay

His petition was submitted in 1935 and this time Patrick was successful. By now the family are at 20 Maguire Court, and this is their address at the time of the 1940 census. And incidentally now Patrick is 50, so a year of birth circa 1890.

Patrick Lavelle circa 1932

Patrick Lavelle

Patrick died on 3 February 1958. Mary died on the 20 February 1981. They are buried at the Calvary Cemetery and Mausoleum, Waltham, MA. And Patrick’s year of birth etched on the headstone is……1885.

Apart from the absolute joy of tracking down my grandpa’s second sister, and learning more about US genealogy records, this particular exercise has reinforced the need to cross reference and source as many records as possible for your ancestors: because the truth of one record might not match the reality given in another. And spellings – even what we consider modern 20th century ones – do vary.

Sources

  • 1920 to 1940 US Censuses
  • 1959 Newton City Directory
  • Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, Birth Records 1840-1915, Original data: Massachusetts Vital Records, 1840–1911. New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, State and Federal Naturalization Records, 1798-1950
  • Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1963
  • Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, Death Index, 1901-1980 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013. Original data: Department of Public Health, Registry of Vital Records and Statistics. Massachusetts Vital Records Index to Deaths [1916–1970].
  • Ancestry.com US Social Security Death Indexes 1935-2014
  • Boston Evening Globe
  • GRO Records, Ireland: Births registered at Swinford for the District of Kilkelly
  • Find a Grave via Ancestry

Irish DNA Breakthrough

Over two years ago I wrote about one of my main DNA aims: to find what became of my grandpa’s three sisters who left County Mayo for the USA in the early 20th century. The mystery of what became of the Callaghan sisters was one which nagged away at me. I knew one of them ended up in Canada via Boston, mum thinks it was Quebec Province, and married a French Canadian. Mum did not know which sister this was, but I suspected the eldest; the two younger sisters I traced to Boston, Massachusetts in the early 1920s via ships’ passenger lists.

gene-tree-1490270_1280

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

Mum was also desperate to find out about her aunties – Bridget, Mary and Catherine/Kate, so she joined me in doing an Ancestry DNA test. We were aware the Quebec line would draw a blank DNA-wise, as mum knew this sister had no biological children and adopted a boy who at one time was in correspondence with mum’s brother who was tragically killed aged 19. Contact was lost with the Canadian branch at around this time, or so mum thinks, and she cannot ever remember hearing about the sisters in the USA.

There must have been some contact though between the USA sisters and my grandpa. I have a mysterious, unsent and undated postcard written by him and addressed to “Mrs Lovell, 20 Magguire St, West Villa, Maserchusatt [sic].”  The image is the church in which the family were baptised – Glan Chapel near Kilkelly. It seemed a logical assumption this was intended for one of his sisters, now married. Proving it was unfortunately not straightforward, in part due to my lack of experience with USA records.

Several months after submitting the DNA tests I finally had what appeared a very promising match – an extremely high confidence second/third cousin match with mum and a third/fourth with me. No tree but, correlating with other DNA matches with other testers who had trees, it seemed to be down the Callaghan line mum and I were so keen to find out about.

An initial contact with the tester confirmed the DNA match was with a descendant of grandpa’s youngest sister, Catherine. Then nothing more. After two years I had given up. Then out of the blue the other month I received another message followed by a photo of grandpa’s sister which made my mum’s day. I am not including the photo in this post – it is not mine to share. I was also given Catherine’s married name which was all I needed to find out basic details about her and introduce me to some US records in the process.

Catherine became an American citizen in 1937. Her naturalization papers confirm her birthplace as Carrabeg [Carrowbeg], County Mayo and the details correspond with those on the passenger list detailing her arrival in Boston back in 1922. In her naturalization petition she gives a date of birth of 4 September 1903. Later, her social security records amend this to 7 September 1900, which matches with the date of birth given when she was baptised on 9 September 1900 at Glan Chapel, Kilmovee Parish. Interestingly going back to Ireland for her official birth registration in Swinford, County Mayo on 27 October 1900, her officially recorded date of birth there is 7 October 1900.

Like my grandpa, the official date given is a judicious tweak to avoid a late birth registration. This is not unusual for the family, along with many others in rural Ireland. They would have found it a trek to get from their isolated Carrowbeg farm to Swinford to register the births of their children. They did it as and when they could, and amended the birth dates accordingly to avoid any penalties for failing to comply with the legal requirements of registration within 42 days of birth. I therefore take the birth date given at time of baptism for my rural Irish ancestors as the most reliable one – God before state. Their baptisms invariably take place within days of birth. Therefore I find the Callaghan family often have their baptisms pre-dating their births when comparing to officially registered birth dates!

By 1937 Catherine was living at Wellington Street, East Braintree, MA. Her naturalization papers give a brief physical description – a diminutive 5ft 3in, 122lbs with blue eyes, brown hair and a medium complexion – so no change from her 1922 passenger list description. They also state she married James E Rudolph in Boston on 29 August 1925 with a child was born around three years later. By 1937 though, she is a widow. Her husband’s birthplace is recorded as Middleborough, MA., and a date of birth is given as 23 June 1904.

A quick look at the 1930 census sees James E Rudolph, Catherine and their child living at 6 Belmont, Braintree, MA with James working as a pipe fitter. Lothrop’s Braintree Directory of 1931 lists James as Ernest, still living at 6 Belmont with wife Catherine, with the occupation of electrician. There certainly appears to be a little confusion over his name because Clarence is another variation middle name which appears in records, including census and Middleborough town records.

What is clear is Catherine’s husband died by the time of the publication of the 1935 edition of Lothrop’s Braintree Directory, with her now Wellington Street address listing her as the widow of Ja[me]s E Rudolph. The Massachusetts Death Indexes confirm a death registration year of 1935 at Weymouth, under the name of James E Rudolph. Other sources appear to indicate he died in March that year.

The 1940 census shows Catherine and her child at Wellington Street, Braintree. Life must have been a real struggle. It shows her seeking work, having been employed for only 8 weeks the previous year and earning only $20. She did have an income of $50 or more from sources other than money, wages or salary. But the fact she was seeking work is indication that this was insufficient.

By the time of her death on 1 October 1970, Catherine was residing at Hanover, MA. She is buried with her husband at Saint Francis Xavier Cemetery, Weymouth, MA. I wonder if my grandpa ever knew? He was still alive in 1970. Mum certainly cannot recall him mentioning anything.

I feel content that at least I now have some details about what became of Catherine. And mum is thrilled to have seen a photograph of her auntie. So DNA has provided the hoped for breakthrough. But that result has also led to the cracking of the postcard mystery. More to come on that in my next blog post.

Sources:

  • Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, Birth Records 1840-1915, Original data: Massachusetts Vital Records, 1840–1911. New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.
  • GRO Records, Ireland: Births registered at Swinford for the District of Kilkelly
  • 1910 to 1940 US Censuses
  • Lothrop’s Braintree Directory 1931 and 1935
  • Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, State and Federal Naturalization Records, 1798-1950
  • Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, Death Index, 1901-1980 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013. Original data: Department of Public Health, Registry of Vital Records and Statistics. Massachusetts Vital Records Index to Deaths [1916–1970].
  • Ancestry.com US Social Security Death Indexes 1935-2014
  • US Billion Graves via FindMyPast
  • United States Obituary Notices via FindMyPast (source Tributes.com)

The Family History Show – York 2018

As part of my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions I set myself a pleasant task to attend a variety of Family History events. The Family History Show at York Racecourse was high on my ‘must-do‘ list, as it’s around three years since my last visit. It did not disappoint.

Organised by Discover Your Ancestors Magazine and sponsored by S&N Genealogy Supplies and The Genealogist.co.uk, it has dropped “Yorkshire” from its title of years gone by. This is a reflection that, although having a distinct Yorkshire flavour, those present represent a far wider geographical spread than “God’s Own County“.

Family history societies from as far afield as Shropshire, Clwyd, Cumbria and Aberdeen were there alongside a broad cross-section of those from Yorkshire. I took the opportunity to renew my lapsed Morley Family History Group membership, as well as chatting with those on the Huddersfield & District Family History Society, Bradford Family History Society and Northumberland and Durham Family History Society stands to name but a few.

But the show goes way beyond the traditional family history societies, and includes archives, genealogy education providers, family history product suppliers, as well as book and map sellers. There are also professional organisations such as The Register of Qualified Genealogists and the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) the latter of which I am an Associate and, as a result, I did a stint on their stand.

In this Armistice Centenary Anniversary year military exhibitors were understandably highly visible, including researchers, the Imperial War Museum (Lives of the First World War) and York Army Museum. To my delight representatives from the Green Howards Museum were there promoting their Ribbon of Remembrance Project. It was fabulous to see their exhibits, including original 1911 Militia and Volunteer registers which left me wondering what became of those named. On the other hand my husband, in trying on a 1908 German Pickelhaube, demonstrated the increased head sizes a century on. This is something I experienced in a previous job a couple of decades ago with bearskins – the frames of previous eras needed stretching to fit the heads of late 20th century guardsmen.

But the highlight of my Green Howards visit was talking about one of my Rugby League men and discovering a new photograph of him which the Museum have given me permission to use in my forthcoming book.

The MoD were there too. At the final Who Do You Think You Are? Live last year there was the hint of an imminent announcement about post-1921 Army records, with my hope this might mean digitisation in some form. I asked today and apparently this is facing obstacles which have slowed down progress, with legal issues (presumably Data Protection) playing a part. So we could be waiting a few more years yet before news on this front.

The show also featured some free talks, which I didn’t get the chance to go to because I was far too busy catching up with people. For me the opportunity to chat to folk who share my passion for family history is a now central part of attending these events.

One notable family history absentee given the current sales pitch was DNA. If it was being promoted I failed to spot it. A full list of exhibitors is here.

As per my 2015 visit findings, the show wasn’t on the huge scale of my first visit many years ago when the stands spread over several floors, including big hitters such as Ancestry and FindMyPast, and you were cheek to jowl with eager attendees. Perhaps that’s a sign of the changing times of family history research whereby the false assumption is that everything is online and there’s no value in anything beyond your keyboard, which means attendance at fairs has correspondingly declined.

However it did mean today’s offering was far more relaxed. It meant you really had the opportunity to have unpressurised conversations and find out as much as possible from exhibitors, learn what is out there and get involved in the genealogy community generally. And in my stint on a stand I certainly appreciated being able to devote full attention to those seeking information. But don’t get me wrong, there was still a steady stream of people.

I did make purchases too, including an inevitable book. No longer content with genealogical facts, I opted for a bit of family history fiction – of which any of us bitten by this bug will have frustrating experience of. But this time mine was in the form of a Nathan Dylan GoodwinForensic Genealogist” series book – so an escape from research. Now to find time to read it!

Happy Father’s Day 2018 Dad – The 1st Without You

This is my first Father’s Day without dad. Truth be told the last “normal” Father’s Day we shared was in 2014 when I presented him with his Family History book. Little did we know month’s later, on 4 September 2014, our lives were to change irrevocably.

Dad died in August 2017. There’s so much I’ve found in the last few months I wish I could’ve shared with him. He’d be so annoyed with me, as so much is stuff he’d rather not know. And the Hill Family History book has evolved so much since Father’s Day 2014. I’ve just not had the heart to update it. It’s all in my head, which is far from ideal.

And there’s never a day goes by that I would like to quiz him on family history, or wish I’d paid more attention to what he told me: my current bugbear is the Mayo Brett family. He mentioned a connection, but I can’t remember what it was.

To be honest, because I can’t share things with dad any more, my paternal family history line doesn’t hold the same interest for me. I apologise to those DNA contacts for my lack of engagement over the past year. I do hope my passion for my paternal line will be rekindled with the passage of time. For now it’s all too raw.

For those of you lucky enough to have your dad, never take them for granted.

My Rugby League WW1 book will be dedicated to you, dad. Because it was you who introduced me to the game when I was a toddler and who was responsible for my passion for Rugby League and sport generally – much to mum’s annoyance as it meant I wasn’t interested in Saturday shopping visits to Dewsbury market, or Saturday afternoon Irish dancing lessons.

The point of this post is to say:

Happy Father’s Day 2018 Dad. Love you and miss you. You were the best Dad EVER.

The Rohilla Privileged Will Dispute

What may seem a straightforward document can be far more contentious than first appearances suggest. This proved the case with the will of a man who perished in the wreck of the Hospital Ship Rohilla in October 1914. It led to the High Court.

William Edward Anderson was one of the 15 Barnoldswick St John Ambulance Brigade men on board, serving as part of the Royal Naval Sick Berth Reserve. Only three of these men came home.

Born in the then West Yorkshire town on 11 February 1891, he was the eldest child of Carleton-born cotton weaver Ralph Anderson and his wife Jane Elizabeth Wakefield, originally from Coventry. The couple married on 18 October 1890 in the parish church of St Mary le Gill, Barnoldswick. Their other children included Sarah, Walter, Florrie, George, Mary Ann and Ernest. An eighth child, Jane, died in 1905 aged three.

Like his father, William became a cotton weaver, cotton being the town’s predominant industry. His naval records describe him as being 5’6″ with light brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion.

William Edward Anderson

William was engaged to Edith Eliza Priscilla Downes. The daughter of joiner and builder James Downes and his wife Elizabeth, she was born on 22 July 1891 at Morton Banks near Keighley, and baptised St Mary’s Church, Riddlesden in September that year. The family address in the baptismal register was given as Barley-Cote, Riddlesden. Sometime between the 1901 and 1911 censuses the Downes family moved to Barnoldswick. In the latter census they were living at Gisburn Street and Edith had employment as a cotton spinner.

On 2 August 1914 John William Thompson, superintendent of the Barnoldswick Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade, received a telegram ordering the mobilisation of men, including William, in advance of any war declaration. The Brigade was a voluntary movement which the Army and Navy used as a recruitment source. It’s members knew they were liable to be called up for military service. Thompson contacted William and told him to hold himself in readiness. He was ordered to catch the 3 August 12.08pm train from Barnoldswick to Chatham.

3 August was Bank Holiday Monday. That morning, after finishing packing his kit at his family home alongside Edith, he made a soldier’s will leaving everything to his fiancée. He placed the will in an envelope with instructions for it to be opened one month after his death. He wanted Edith to take it for safe-keeping but she refused so he put it in a drawer saying to Edith “No one knows where this is, only you.” The will was made at 11am, just over an hour before his departure. Once he left Edith never saw him again.

William’s naval record shows him as a Senior Reserve Attendant, under Service Number M/10066, assigned to Pembroke I from 2 – 17 August 1914. This was the shore-based Royal Naval barracks at Chatham. From 18 August 1914 he was with the Rohilla. When she struck the rocks off Saltwick Nab it appears he was one of those who made it to the bridge, but subsequently lost his life attempting to swim to shore. His body was never recovered. He is commemorated in a number of locations including on the Chatham Naval Memorial, the Rohilla Memorial in Whitby’s Larpool Cemetery and on the Barnoldswick War Memorial.

His naval record includes the notation:

Papers dealing with an action in the High Court relating to this man’s will.

The case of Anderson v Downes was heard in the Probate Court in January 1916 before Mr Justice Bargrave Deane. The plaintiff Ralph Anderson, represented by Mr W.O. Willis, claimed his son had died intestate and he sought administration, being next-of-kin and heir-at-law. The defendant Miss Edith Downes, represented by Mr Pridham-Wippell and Mr Acton Pile denied this and counter-claimed William had made his last true will on 3 August 1914, it being made in accordance with the Section 11 of the 1837 Statute, namely William had been actively engaged in the service of the Crown on military and/or naval duties. In response Ralph claimed the will had not been executed according to the Statute.

Edith Downes

Those serving in the military had, for centuries, held a unique position in Probate law being entitled to make what was known as a Privileged Will. In 1914, Section 11 of the Wills Act 1837 specifically stated “that any soldier being in actual military service, or any mariner or seaman at sea, may dispose of his personal estate” without restrictions applicable to other wills. It meant they could dispose moveable goods, money, credits and leases without the restrictions which normally applied – the testator could be under 21, there was no need for witnesses to attest, for the testator’s signature, or even for it to be in writing. These privileges were conferred because of the unique nature of their employment. They could face the imminent danger if death; also because they were on service they may not have the same access to legal services as a civilian so would have less opportunity to make a properly executed will; and minors served in the armed forces.

The case of Anderson v Downes honed in on the key phrase “any mariner or seaman at sea.” Mr Mynett, supervising assistant clerk at the Admiralty was called to provide clarity. He produced William’s original engagement setting out he was to serve in the Navy for one year from 2 August 1914. He also had the original contract William made with the St John Ambulance. It was signed on 17 October 1914, but backdated to 2 August. Therefore it was dated from his mobilisation and covered his time at HMS Pembroke, the name by which the Admiralty recognised Chatham Barracks.

Staff-Surgeon Stewart RN also gave evidence stating when William arrived at Chatham he would be a naval rating, liable to serve from mobilisation for a period not exceeding one year, and he would be subject to the Naval Discipline Act for the year from 2 August 1914. Effectively he was on active service from the date of the mobilisation order. Under cross-examination he said William was qualified to serve when he left home.

A third Admiralty official, acting superintendent clerk Mr Drake, confirmed William was payed be the Admiralty from 2 August 1914.

Mr Willis held firm with his view that for the will to be valid in accordance with the Act, William needed to be at sea when he made it. Nothing else mattered. Mr Prichard-Wimpell differed in his view – he asserted that soldiers and sailors were treated in the same way in time of war for which mobilisation had taken place.

In summing up Mr Justice Bargrave Deane disagreed – the Act was not the same for soldiers and sailors. The will would have been perfectly good if made at sea. However he could not say in this case that William ever went to sea until he joined the Rohilla. He certainly had not joined any ship when he made the will. Whilst Mr Justice Bargrave Deane felt there was no doubt William’s wishes were that his sweetheart should have his money, regretfully the will did not hold good in law. In effect he died intestate and Administration was granted to William’s father. However the Judge decreed the costs of both parties should come out of the estate.

The entry in the National Probate Calendar for 1916 reads:

Anderson William Edward of 20 School-terrace Damhead-
road Barnoldswick Yorkshire died 30 October 1914 at sea
on H.M. Hospital Ship Rohilla Administration London 18
March to Ralph Anderson factory operative.
Effects £245 5s. 10d.

Interestingly, due to the sharp focus of war and the subtle changes in types of military service this brought, in February 1918 the law changed with the Wills (Soldiers and Sailors) Act 1918. It affirmed that:

“In order to remove doubts as to the construction of the Wills Act 1837, it is hereby declared and enacted that section eleven of that Act authorises and always has authorised any soldier being in actual military service, or any mariner or seaman being at sea, to dispose of his personal estate as he might have done before the passing of that Act, though under the age of 21”

Furthermore, the ability to make privileged will was judged to extend to any member of His Majesty’s naval or marine forces not only when he is at sea but also when he is so circumstanced that if he were a soldier he would be in actual military service within the meaning of that section. The Act was also extended to cover real estate, that is lands and buildings. And soldier included any member of the Air Force.

So what became of Ralph and Edith, the protagonists in this case? Ralph’s death, aged 62, is recorded in the Skipton Registration District (which covered Barnoldswick in this period) in the March Quarter of 1929. Edith’s marriage to Harry Whiteley is recorded in the Huddersfield Registration District. The 1939 Register shows the family living in the Colne Valley village of Linthwaite. She lived well into her 80s.

If you want to know more about the Rohilla sinking, please see my earlier blog post, here.

Sources:

  • 1939 Register – via FindMyPast
  • 1891-1911 Censuses – via Ancestry.co.uk and FindMyPast
  • Burnley Express and Advertiser – 4 November 1914 via FindMyPast
  • Burnley Express and Advertiser – 22 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • Burnley News – 4 November 1914 via FindMyPast
  • Burnley News – 22 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commissionhttps://www.cwgc.org/
  • Craven Herald – 6 November 1914, transcript via Craven’s Part in the Great War http://www.cpgw.org.uk/
  • Craven Herald – 21 January 1916, transcript via Craven’s Part in the Great War http://www.cpgw.org.uk/
  • GRO Indexes – via FindMyPast
  • Lancashire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1936 via Ancestry.co.uk (originals at Lancashire Archives)
  • Leeds Mercury – 21 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • National Probate Calendar – via FindMyPast
  • Privileged Wills: A Timely Reminder – Christopher Parker takes an in-depth look at the history of privileged wills and also reviews application of the law by C20th courts (taken from Issue No 21  – October 2002) http://www.tact.uk.net/review-index/privileged-wills-a-timely-reminder/
  • The Globe – 20 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • The Times – 21 January 1916 via The Times Digital Archive
  • The National Archives (TNA) Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services; Class: ADM 188; Piece: 1038 – via Ancestry.co.uk
  • TNA UK Royal Navy and Royal Marine War Graves Roll, 1914-1919 Class : ADM 242/7; Scan Number: 0082 – via Ancestry.co.uk
  • The Wills of our Ancestors – A Guide for Family & Local Historians – Stuart Raymond
  • Wills Acts of 1837 and 1918
  • Wills and Probate Records – A Guide for Family Historians 2nd Edition – Karen Grannum & Nigel Taylor
  • Yorkshire Evening Post – 20 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910 via Ancestry.co.uk (originals at West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England)

A Family Historian on Holiday: A Whitby Cemetery and WW1 Shipwreck

What does a family historian with an obsession with the Great War and local history do on holiday? Take a break isn’t the answer, as my recent Whitby visit illustrates.

I’ve no Whitby ancestry to hunt, so I didn’t intend doing anything history-related other than a few evenings working on my neglected One-Name Study. But a walk to Saltwick Bay put a halt to that. A scramble down the steep and unforgiving cliff path to the isolated beach and I was hooked. Apparently there is the wreck of a trawler, the Admiral Von Tromp. However the tide was too high for it to be visible, so I decided to revisit at low tide.

Before returning I decided to pinpoint the wreck location. In doing so I discovered it wasn’t the only shipwreck on that stretch of coastline: at around 4.10am on 30 October 1914 the Hospital Ship Rohilla ran aground on an area of rocks by Saltwick Nab with 229 people on board. That was it. I had to find out more.

The Scar and Saltwick Nab – photo by Jane Roberts

The SS Rohilla, launched in 1906, was owned by the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. Initially a passenger liner operating to India, by 1908 she was working as a troopship. Throughout, she was captained by David Landles Neilson, and he continued in post when, in August 1914, she was requisitioned by the government and converted to a hospital ship. Later that month she was on her way to the Scapa Flow to complete training in her new role. One of HMHS Rohilla’s first patients was Prince Albert, who developed appendicitis whilst on board the HMS Collingwood. At the end of the month the future King George VI was safely transported, along with 43 other ill servicemen, to Aberdeen where he successfully underwent an appendectomy the following month.

Training complete, on Thursday 29 October 1914 the Rohilla left Leith on the Firth of Forth in late afternoon good weather tasked with her first France and Flanders hospital run, to pick up wounded soldiers from Dunkirk. Captain Neilson had to contend with an unfamiliar route and the threat of mines, using dead reckoning techniques because of the wartime restrictions around usual navigational aids: so no lighthouses, buoy lights and sounds, shore lights etc. As they reached St Abb’s Head, north of Berwick upon Tweed, the weather began to deteriorate. They passed the hazardous Farne Islands Longstones at a distance of seven miles according to the dead reckoning calculations. The ship’s course was altered at just after 10pm to clear minefields, and again at 1.50am. Depth soundings were taken at midnight showing the Rohilla was still on course. The next set were not taken until 4am, by which time the impending catastrophe was unfolding before the eyes of Albert James Jeffries in the Whitby Coastguard Station.

Coastline from Whitby to Saltwick Nab OS six inch to the mile, 1910-1911, Published 1919 – Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

It was filthy weather with squally rain, the wind ranging between near gale to strong gale and a heavy sea when, at around 3-40am on Friday 30 October Jeffries saw the Rohilla. He realised she was heading for the rocks near Saltwick Nab, with no alert from the buoy bell muffled due to war, and no lights to warn her. He tried to contact her via the Morse Lamp and sounded the foghorn, but received no reply.

Back on board the Rohilla, the Morse had been seen but not decoded, the assumption being made that it was from another ship as those on board still thought they were way out at sea. The 4am sounding revealed the ship was far nearer shore than thought, but before anything could be fully reported to Captain Neilson and acted upon, there was an almighty shock as the ship struck something. Officers afterwards reported a lifting sensation, and Captain Neilson’s automatic response was “Mine, by God”. He immediately ordered the vessel to be driven full speed towards shore in a bid to get closer to land and rescuers. She ran aground on the Scar rocks by Saltwick Nab at around 4.10am. She was stuck only 500 or so yards away from the shore.Despite the Rohilla’s proximity to land, the severe weather conspired against the would-be rescuers, whose heroic attempts to save those stranded on board spanned three days and over 50 hours. Some of these efforts were captured on film. The dramatic British Pathé footage can be viewed here. The aftermath is shown in British Film Institute footage here.

Only one of the Rohilla’s lifeboats was launchable but, due to conditions, it proved impossible for her to bring a line ashore. Neither could the shore-based rocket brigades establish a viable line to the ship, thus ending any hope of setting up a breeches buoy by which to bring those aboard to safety one-by-one.

Rescue by Breeches Buoy, Popular Science Monthly Volume 15, 1879 – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

So what about shore-based lifeboats? This was still an era predominated by the rowing-boat lifeboat. Petrol-powered motor vessels only just started to make an appearance from 1905. Six lifeboats tried valiantly to battle the elements in what Coxswain Langlands of the Whitby Lifeboat described as the hardest job he’d experienced in almost 40 years’ service. It was impossible to launch the heavier Number 1 Whitby Lifeboat, the Robert and Mary Ellis, due to the severity of the weather. That left the lighter Number 2 boat, the John Fielden. Again the weather meant it could not be rowed out of the harbour, so an alternative plan was successfully undertaken to lift and lower the craft over the breakwater, carry her under the East Pier Spa ladder and then drag her across the Scar, the rocks which run from Whitby to Saltwick Nab.

John Fielden rescue attempt on 30 October 1914

She was badly damaged in the process, but still managed two trips to the Rohilla rescuing 35 people before it was decided conditions were no longer safe and she was abandoned on shore to be smashed to pieces by the ferocious storm, no longer seaworthy.

Whitby Lifeboat Museum Rohilla Exhibition – by Jane Roberts

Amongst the first batch of those rescued were the five women aboard the ship: four nurses and the stewardess. The Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Services (QARRNS) nurses were 38-year-old Margaret Muriel Benington who had been a QARNNS nursing sister since June 1910; Mary Barbara Bennet, from Glass in Aberdeenshire, age 36, who joined as nursing sister in November 1910; Margaret Brand Paterson, age 34 whose seniority date as a nursing sister was 1 August 1911. She was known as Daisy and from Terrona, Langholm in Dumfriesshire; and Devon-born vicar’s daughter Mary Louisa Hocking, age 26, who joined as a probationary nursing sister in December 1913, who was only promoted to nursing sister in June 1914. The older three joined the Rohilla on 18 August 1914, whereas Mary Louisa only joined the ship on 23 October. Letters from two of the nurses appeared in the Whitby Gazette on 13 November 1914, and give a flavour of the help they received. These are as follows:

Muriel Benington: Dear Sir, Please allow me to thank through you, all the people of Whitby who did so much for me and the other survivors of the wreck of the Rohilla. I simply cannot express my gratitude for the kindness which was shown to us from beginning to end by everyone with whom we came in contact. I shall write to thank specially some of the ladies who supplied us with clothes and other things, but I do not know the names of the men who helped me along the shore, or of many who did things for me. Again thanking you for the help and sympathy of your townspeople.

And:

Mary B Bennet: Dear Sir, I shall be so glad if you will express my thanks and gratitude to the crew of the Whitby lifeboat. We sisters realise that they endangered their own lives to save ours, and we cannot be thankful enough to them for the excellent work they did. May I also thank you for the trouble you took over us? It was marvellous the prompt way in which we were fitted out with clothes. I shall never forget he kindness of the Whitby people during our short time there.

After their ordeal the nurses were granted 14 days leave, with Mary Hocking given an extension of seven days. The admirable conduct of all four was acknowledged. Sister Bennet received the Royal Red Cross, the decoration awarded to ladies for exceptional services in nursing the sick and wounded in the army and navy. She received her award from the King at Buckingham Palace in May 1915. That was not the only award she received in her nursing career. In 1920 she was presented with the O.B.E. by the Governor of Hong Kong.

Sister Mary Barbara Bennet

Of the others, Sister Paterson was granted the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class in 1918 (by this stage the decoration could be either 1st or 2nd class) in part for her Rohilla efforts; and Sister Hocking was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class in 1919.

The fifth woman was stewardess Mary Kezia Roberts. This was not her first shipwreck. In April 1912 she was one of those saved from the Titanic. She described her Rohilla experience as even more trying than when the great liner went down. Her trunk, which would have contained her belongings on the Rohilla, was discovered recently on eBay and is now on display at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) museum at Whitby. The museum is housed in Whitby’s former Number 2 lifeboat station.

Mary Kezia Roberts’ Trunk at Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

In addition to the Whitby lifeboats, ones from other North East coast stations were asked to assist. In an echo of the John Fielden efforts, the Upgang lifeboat, the William Riley, over a mile away from Whitby, was brought overland and lowered more than 200 feet down the sheer cliffs on Friday afternoon. However, the ferocity of the weather prevented any launch until Saturday. Even then the weather was such that the rescue was aborted. The Scarborough lifeboat, towed by trawler to the vicinity, was similarly unable to get anywhere near. A trawler also assisted the Robert and Mary Ellis out of Whitby Harbour and to the wreck, but she too was unable to get close enough to affect a rescue. These were all rowing lifeboats.

Help from a couple of motor lifeboats further north was also sought. The Tees-mouth lifeboat, the Bradford, was prepared to set off on Friday, but the weather prevented her launch. She finally set off at around 7am on Saturday morning but broke down in the severe weather off the coast at Redcar shortly after departing her South Gare base. She had to be towed back to port by a fortuitously accompanying tug. That left the Tynemouth motor lifeboat, the Henry Vernon. She put to sea during the late afternoon of Saturday 31 October, arriving in Whitby around nine hours later. With a mind to safety, her rescue attempt was scheduled for daylight.

Throughout these various rescue attempts townsfolk were helping from shore, going into the freezing, swirling sea to assist the lifeboat crews and any survivors fortunate to be saved by them, or those souls attempting to swim from the stricken vessel. That Friday morning they had witnessed the horrific site of the stern breaking away from the Rohilla and disappearing under the waves, men still visible on it – some even strapped to the structure. This was followed by the bows being similarly swallowed by the merciless sea, leaving just the bridge section above water. By now bodies were washing ashore.

Hospital Ship Rohilla grounded at Whitby, Popular Mechanics Magazine January 1915 – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

As time wore on conditions were becoming desperate for those left on what remained of the Rohilla, exposed to the elements with no food or water, and no immediate prospect of rescue. On Saturday morning, as the tide ebbed, Captain Neilson semaphored to prepare for swimmers. Men jumped – some made it, others were swept away and dashed on rocks. Makeshift rafts were also fashioned and men lashed themselves to them. By the evening of 1 November, 50 men remained on-board awaiting their fate. With the impending arrival of the Henry Vernon the signal went to them to hold fast, help was at hand.

At around 6.30am on Sunday 1 November the Henry Vernon, captained by 50-year-old Royal Engineer Herbert Edgar ‘Bert’ Burton, left Whitby harbour. As she approached the wreck she discharged oil on the swirling waves. It had the desired effect, temporarily calming the waters enabling the rescue of all 50 men in one journey. The last man off the Rohilla was its Captain, carrying the ship’s black cat, an action for which he was later awarded the Bronze Medal by the RSPCA. They returned to the haven of Whitby, wet, battered, bleeding, exhausted, bare-footed, ill-clad, some still in pyjamas given the timing of the wreck, but safe at last. In all they had endured over 50 hours of hell. The crew of the Henry Vernon returned home to a heroes’ welcome.

The inquest on the initial bodies of the victims concluded on 5 November 1914. As published in the Whitby Gazette the following day, the unanimous verdict of the jury was that:

“…..the steamship Rohilla undoubtedly struck something a little time before she grounded on the rock at Saltwick, and they think that in the stormy weather which prevailed, and in the absence of lights and all usual safeguards, and in view of the special risks of navigation in the North Sea since the war, the master navigated the ship with all reasonable care, and is entirely free from blame for her loss.”

Given the comparative ease with which the Henry Vernon completed the rescue, the inquest jury also recommended strongly that a motor-lifeboat be provided for Whitby. The Margaret Harker Smith was launched in June 1919.

The logical next step for me was to visit Whitby (Larpool) cemetery. What holiday for a family historian doesn’t include a sneaky cemetery visit? The ‘Rohilla Plot’ is a trench grave in which 33 victims, 19 of whom are unidentified, are buried.

One side of the ‘Rohilla Plot’ at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

At the centre of the trench is the Memorial. Erected by the ship owners, it is dedicated to the 91 officers and men who lost their lives in the tragedy.

Rohilla Monument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

RohillaMonument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

RohillaMonument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

Rohila Monument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

There is actually some confusion around the total number lost on the wreck. It seems to range between 83 to 92. The Rohilla Monument lists 91 but the actual number of names on it total 92. The final name etched in the Monument image above is that of F. Randell. Frederick Randell (or Randall) was a coastguard boatman based at H.M. Coastguard Station, Whitby who was killed whilst on duty during the German Naval bombardment of the town on 16 December 1914. He too is buried in the ‘Rohilla Plot’. I have covered the naval bombardment in a couple of other blog posts. Shrapnel and Shelletta looks at war-associated baby names, including George Shrapnel Griffin born during the bombardment of Whitby. The events of 16 December 1914 are covered in more detail in another post as they prompted my great grandfather to lie about his age and enlist on my grandma’s 8th birthday.

’92 LIVES LOST’ is also etched into the ship’s bell from the Rohilla which is on display at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum.

Rohilla Ship’s Bell at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

The loss impacted on communities from all corners of Britain. The then West Riding of Yorkshire (now Lancashire) town of Barnoldswick was particularly hard hit. 15 members of the Barnoldswick St John’s Ambulance Brigade were members of the Royal Naval Sick Berth Reserve on board the vessel. Only three survived. Amongst the dead were brothers Thomas and Walter Horsfield.

One name which struck me on the Rohilla monument was that of a Catholic priest. The Very Rev. Canon Robert Basil Gwydir O.S.B. was born on 20 January 1867 in County Longford, but of a family with Welsh origins. Educated at Douai and ordained in 1891 he began his ministry at St Augustine’s, Liverpool before transferring to St David’s, Swansea. There he was prominent in religious, social and educational circles in the city. His work included being a member of the old Swansea School Board and the Board of Managers at Swansea General Hospital. He had also been admitted to the circle of Welsh Bards.

Canon Gwydir volunteered for service with the Fleet at the outbreak of war and was appointed to the Rohilla only a short time before the disaster. When she struck the rocks he ran below deck, towards danger but also to the assistance of the only patient aboard the vessel, a naval gunner with a fractured thigh. This was in the stern portion of the ship which was soon overwhelmed by the sea and subsequently broke off. Canon Gwydir’s body was washed ashore and recovered, being one of those identified in the initial inquest. He is buried at Belmont Abbey Churchyard, Herefordshire. There is a stained glass memorial window dedicated to him at St David’s Priory Catholic Church, Swansea. He was the first Chaplain of any faith or denomination in all the Allied services to be killed in the Great War.

My final visit on the Rohilla trail was the RNLI museum at Whitby. I was thrilled to discover an exhibition devoted to shipwreck and rescue. As mentioned earlier, exhibits included Mary Kezia Roberts’ trunk and the ship’s bell. But there were so many other artefacts and lots of information about those involved, including the incredibly brave lifeboat men whose efforts I have not done justice to in this post. The pair of oars (below) are from one of the Rohilla’s lifeboats. The museum is well wort a visit, and rounded off my Whitby holiday perfectly.

Part of the Rohilla Exhibition at Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

For far more information about the Rohilla than I can convey here, this is a link to an excellent website devoted to its history.

Sources:

  • Benedictine Military Chaplains in the First World War – James H. Hagerty: http://www.monlib.org.uk/papers/ebch/1998hagerty.pdf
  • British Film Institute: http://www.bfi.org.uk/
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission: https://www.cwgc.org/
  • Craven’s Part in the Great War, John T Clayton, 1918 – e-book via Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52157
  • HMHS Rohilla Website: http://www.eskside.co.uk/ss_rohilla/index.htm
  • Ireland Civil Birth Indexes via FindMyPast
  • Ireland’s Own, Canon Gwydir – A Heroic Cleric of WW1, Margaret Smith https://www.irelandsown.ie/canon-gwydir-a-heroic-cleric-of-wwi/
  • National Library of Scotland Maps: https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • Newspapers via FindMyPast including: Burnley News 4 November 1914; Daily Record 31 August 1915; Dundee Evening Telegraph7 May 1915; Leeds Mercury 31 October 1914, 2 November 1913; Sheffield Daily Telegraph26 June 1919; Western Mail 7 May 1915; Whitby Gazette 6 and 13 November 1914; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 31 October 1914, 2 November 1914, 4 November 1914, 5 November 1914
  • RNLI, 1914-1918 The Great Warhttp://www.eskside.co.uk/ss_rohilla/rohilla_history.htm 
  • RNLI, Whitby Lifeboat Station, Station History: https://rnli.org/find-my-nearest/lifeboat-stations/whitby-lifeboat-station/station-history-whitby
  • Teesmouth Lifeboat Supporters Association – History: http://www.teesmouthlifeboat.org.uk/html/history.html
  • The National Archives Reference ADM 104/161 Nursing Service Register 1894-1929
  • The Tablet 7 November 1914 via the Tablet Archive: http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/
  • The War on Hospital Ships 1914-1918, Pen and Sword Maritime 2008: Stephen McGreal
  • Whitby Lifeboat Museum https://rnli.org/find-my-nearest/museums/whitby-lifeboat-museum
  • Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
  • Redcar.org past and present – People, Thompson James, Tees-Mouth Lifeboat http://www.redcar.org/thompson-james-tees-mouth-lifeboat/

Windrush Landing Cards: How Could This Record Destruction Happen?

The destruction by the Home Office of the landing cards which recorded Windrush Generation immigrants’ arrival dates in the UK is rightly causing a public outcry. For those unaware of the scandal, the term ‘Windrush’ applies to those arriving from the Caribbean between 1948 -1971 to fill Britain’s post-War labour shortages. It originates from the ship ‘MV Empire Windrush’, which set sail from a Jamaica in 1948. Carrying workers and their families it arrived at Tilbury Docks in July that year, the first such vessel to dock.

The Immigration Act of 1971 gave those who had already moved here indefinite leave to remain. In the Windrush cases, these landing cards provided people with proof of their date of arrival. For some this is the main/only evidence source. The destruction of these cards in 2010, combined with subsequent immigration changes, has had devastating consequences for some people who have lived and worked in the UK for decades. They are suffering needless anxiety and stress trying to prove they are not in the UK illegally. As a result, some have been denied access to jobs, public services including health, and have faced deportation.

Beyond this central human aspect, how does this impact on family history? Well, many family historians are horrified that documents so important for future researchers have been destroyed. There are calls to preserve all records which deal with people. Some say they should all be stored at The National Archives, possibly in a digitised form. Other suggestions include outsourcing, possibly to a commercial provider.

Human angle aside, to many the destruction of a potentially rich genealogical source beggars belief. Or does it? If only it was that straightforward.

The bottom line is government departments cannot keep everything. They never have. They never will. One has only to work in the environment to know just how much paperwork was generated in the past; and now we have moved onto the born-digital filing age it is arguable even more digital documents and emails are being stored electronically than paper was under the old regimes – but minus the previous rigorous systems.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

Government is just the same as any other organisation, right down to a family level. Think within your own family over the generations. Documents and photographs have always been destroyed. Records we know must have existed have gone. How many missing parish chest or poor law records am I rueing the loss of? What happened to all those original family birth, marriage and death certificates that I have had to re-buy copies of? What about family photos? If not deteriorated and destroyed accidentally, they’ve probably been binned by those with no knowledge, appreciation or understanding the records may have for future generations. Decisions made at speed with space-saving at the forefront. You can’t keep everything.  A home as much as a government office or off-site storage facility only has a finite amount of space. At some point a decision needs to be made about retention.

One positive about government records, there is a framework in place by which decisions around file destruction or retention and second review are made (although even here in recent years it is being made quicker and easier to destroy, with the implication that retaining a file for second review is a last resort). In the case of the landing cards, the system appears to have catastrophically failed. But for me the main losers aren’t us genealogists, as much as I regret that: it’s the human consequences for the living.

But sadly I can see how it has happened. Here’s my take.

Over the past 20+ years there has been the drive towards a paperless office. Office and storage space costs. And when there’s an office move, it inevitably results in less storage space, not more. Long gone are the rows of filing cabinets of the 1980s (and earlier) civil service office. It’s bin, bin, bin because we are paperless generation, cutting costs. Offsite storage facilities are under similar capacity pressure. Which is one reason why there is pressure to get rid of documents like the landing cards. And any document which isn’t neatly fileable, such as card indexes, handbooks or file slips, and the danger of destruction is higher when it comes to downsizing. There are not the same procedures in place as involved with an old pink file.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

Another consequence of the moves towards digital filing systems is the appreciation of old paper files, card indexes etc., and the way these were managed for decades in the civil service, has been lost. This includes underestimating the value of old file slips detailing the status and whereabouts of files, including those now no longer retained in the office. One peculiar pleasure I get from visits to The National Archives is the filing methodology. Take the War Office WW1 files: it is the same system I learned as a new civil servant at the Ministry of Defence in the late 1980s. Happy days! But for a generation not familiar with, and lacking understanding of, the old civil service ways comes the increased risk of accidental destruction.

During the same 20+ period, the civil service has undergone a series of redundancy programmes. This, alongside natural wastage, has meant staff experienced with the files and their history have gone, and that sense of continuity has gone with them. Combined with destruction of office filing slips, it means in some cases knowledge of what old files still exist, where they are and what they contain is lost. Another risk: it means decisions are being made by those who lack the same in-depth understanding of what the records actually are, why they were created, how they interlink and what value they have. The ramifications of destruction are lost – and may not be realised until it is too late. Similarly what remains, possibly in archive storage, and any work-round strategies are similarly not known about or understood.

And herein lies another problem: staff reductions. Gone are the legions of clerical staff whose job included maintaining files. When decisions are made about staff numbers, the amount of time needed to undertake routine, but essential, tasks such as file maintenance is underestimated or ignored totally. This is because the final decisions are taken by senior management who possibly have never undertaken these ‘menial’ duties, so do not know what’s involved to do it properly. Neither have they had to scrat around identifying and recalling files and pulling out key documents from them – that’s the responsibility of more junior staff. Senior management making the staffing decisions therefore give these file-related maintenance duties a low priority. So fewer clerical staff pushes the job upwards to hard-pressed junior and middle managers. As a result it becomes a task to do when you have time – which is hardly ever.

And the born-digital files are suffering as much as old paper files. They still have to be maintained and reviewed. With the added complication that filing on them is even more an individual responsibility. It means (and senior management are particularly guilty here) that digital documents don’t get filed; or they are filed multiple times; or there is a general file dump when a mailbox is in danger of collapse – on a generic file, so not where the documents ought to be. Think of that for the future. But I digress.

So if space is such a premium, why doesn’t government digitise all the old paper files and indexes? Easy answer. Money. It’s a mammoth task. Unpicking, preparing, arranging and scanning row upon row of paper files, not to mention the card indexes and other specialised filing systems. There is insufficient staff to do it. No day-to-day work would get done. All time would be spent on the digitisation process. Temps cost money too, as does outsourcing the job. And in a time when the government imperative is to cut departmental running costs, this is a non-starter.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

The other solution put forward is getting a commercial provider to do it. Or perhaps they could even have the documents, as happened with the Western Front Association who became custodians of the Great War soldier’s pension record cards and archives thus saving them from destruction by the Ministry of Defence. But this depends upon a reputable organisation wanting the documents and coming forward. And it relies on government departments informing these organisations about records of interest. It also depends on the sensitivity, and time period, of the documents. Think overzealous Data Protection issues/fears, 100 year rules and the like.

Bottom line. The cost of being caught out for destroying the landing cards is not as great as the long-term cost of retaining them. The Home Office have been caught out here. But then think of all the other destroyed files we know nothing about. Most of which we will hear nothing about. Someone has to make a judgement. And we have to accept sometimes it will be a wrong call – as is clearly the case with the Windrush debacle. But despite the imperfections, is it the best we can hope for?

And as I said at the outset, the government can’t and don’t keep everything. This is nothing new. There are oh so many examples (and I’m not going to mention the Irish censuses), some deliberate and others accidental. The Great War Soldier’s Pension Cards had a happy outcome.

However, back in 2014 when they faced calls for an inquiry into historical cases of paedophilia, it emerged in excess 100 Home Office files relevant to allegations of a child abuse network were either missing or had been destroyed.

The 1931 England and Wales census was destroyed in an accidental fire in 1942. The General Register Office civil servant who visited the debris determined that:

….it would be useless to attempt any sort of salvage operation; we are leaving the Office of Works to clear and dispose of the debris in any way they think desirable.

Hence the importance of the 1939 Register (especially with no 1941 Wartime census). Incidentally in 1950 there was a subsequent check to see if any 1931 census records had been saved from the conflagration and stored elsewhere.

First World War Representative Medical Records of Servicemen held at The National Archives under MH 106 are only a representative selection of Great War medical records. The rest of the collection is missing, believed destroyed before the Second World War. This is but one example of where only a sample selection of records have been kept.

And as for the problems of digital filing systems, don’t get me started. If you think there are problems now, this is like walk in the park compared to what we’re facing in 20 years time.