I knew very little about my grandfather: Alfred Thomas Avis, 1884 -1936. When the My Tommy’s war blog series started, I doubted that I would have a Tommy to write about. All I had were two photographs of him in military uniform inherited from my mother, I knew nothing about his war service. The golden rule of family history is: ‘ask surviving relatives’. We actually got quite a long way with the Avis line: back in the sixteenth century they were still in the same village in the Weald of Sussex, mostly as carpenters. With such a French name it seems quite likely to me that the Avis’s landed at Pevensey with William the Conqueror and stayed on in Sussex (I have fruitlessly scanned the Bayeux Tapestry for any passing family resemblance – maybe someone carrying a chisel…).
Such wild speculation aside, I realised I knew almost as much about the sixteenth century Avis’s as I did about my own grandfather, perhaps because the distant past is sometimes easier to deal with than living memory. My mother told me that when she was three (which would have been in August 1914) the family split. At the age of 29 her father left his wife and eldest daughter in Sussex, breaking with the centuries old tradition of Wealden woodworking, ending up in south London with his son and younger daughter, (my mother) and his common law wife.
My mother said they house-sat for gentlefolk who had fled London for the duration of the war. They also moved around a lot, my mother always bewailed having gone to nine different schools – was this because my grandfather didn’t want to be traced? My mother also remembers being told in the early 1920s that her real surname was Avis – so it looked as though the family went through the war under another name. And I don’t know what that was, so how was I ever going to find my Tommy – joining some unknown regiment, from some unknown south London address, possibly under an unknown assumed name? Continue reading »