I was discussing the First World War with a friend and we were talking about what was important to us personally about the upcoming centenary. We agreed that, with so few people from the period still with us, that some stories may be lost forever. This struck a chord with me as I prepared to write my blog post.
Last year, I inherited the war medals of a Mr Brown, the father of my great-aunt Betty’s best friend, Jenny. Until I started my research all I knew about Mr Brown was his surname so I was curious to know more about the man whose medals I now owned. Mr Brown died in 1967 and his daughter Jenny died in 2002, leaving behind notes on her own research into her family history. Mr. Brown has no living descendants – his story could be lost – and I decided that this blog would be a good place to celebrate his life.
I’ve been researching Mr Brown for only a short while so I know there is still a lot more for me to discover, but I’d like to take this opportunity to share his story so far.
A young Mr Brown (far left) There is no information on the back of the photo but we assume that he is with his father, mother, sisters Jean and Peggy and older brother Adam.
Joseph Vincent Willie Brown was born on 15 March 1898 in San Vicente, Torello, Barcelona. He was the son of Adam Brown and Jeanie Paton who were originally from Paisley, Scotland. His father was employed by J&P Coats, the Paisley thread manufacturers who had factories worldwide. Mr Brown’s birth certificate gives his father’s occupation as a dyer and bleacher but, according to notes made by Jenny, he was a manager in the Torello factory.
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My introduction to First World War research didn’t initially come through looking into my own family. One of my hobbies is bellringing: like so many clubs and social groups the Central Council for Church Bell Ringers created its own roll of honour after the First World War. Much work has been done in recent years to link the names on the roll with Commonwealth War Grave Commission records, but some names were proving stubborn, and there didn’t seem to be any obvious candidate. I realised that I was in a position to help since I could easily look at the available records.
It soon became clear that at least some of the men had been overlooked at the time, their health had broken under the strain of army service and had been discharged as a result, and subsequently died from the same condition. While they qualify for recognition under the terms of CWGC’s royal charter, their names had never been put forward for inclusion on the debt of honour register. I wrote up as much detail as I could find on these men on our old Your Archives wiki (see for example Gilbert Victor Drew) and with help from members of the Great War Forum and the In From the Cold Project I was able to get a few men added to the CWGC register.
Fred Holbrook (from the family photo album)
So, having already honed my research skills to some extent, I then received an email via my Dad from his cousin Jane who had been working on the family history. In particular she was looking for help with her great-uncle (my great-great-uncle), Frederick John Holbrook. She had already found his entry in the CWGC database and his medal index card (WO 372/9/241037). This showed that he had served in 2nd Battalion, Welsh Regiment as Private 30649.
They also reveal one slight discrepancy, with CWGC showing his date of death as 26 July 1916 and the medal card as 23 July. Another discrepancy is that CWGC record his age as 19, but Births, Marriages and Deaths records show that he was born on 5 May 1898, meaning he was just 18 when he died: and since the medal card also shows that he was posted to France on 12 May 1915 he must have been underage when he joined up. Certainly he looks very young in the surviving photo of him, and rather swamped by his uniform.
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12th (Prince of Wales's) Lancers Group - Photograph from private collection
At The National Archives we are busy planning our programme of activities to commemorate the centenary of the First World War in 2014.
With our unique and extensive collection of First World War records, from the official unit war diaries to medal cards and records of the men and women who served, we hold an invaluable resource for genealogists, historians, scholars and anyone interested in researching the history of this conflict or the people involved.
In this blog series, we will follow a group of volunteers from our staff as they embark on a voyage of discovery to trace their First World War ancestors using records held by The National Archives. At regular intervals over the next two years, each will write a blog to explain what records they have consulted, what they found about their ancestor and how they intend to continue their research in this and other archives. They will also share hints and tips to help others conduct their own research.
We hope you will come with us on the journey to discover our ancestors. With the approaching centenary, at no time has it been more fitting to discover the people behind those old photographs and medals.
As the person overseeing this series, I thought it only fair to be the first to post. Read on to see what I found out about my Tommy…
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Spinning mules from Chambers' 'Information for the People' 1856
A century and a half ago, the American Civil War was well under way, and its devastating consequences for that country are well-known. But the conflict had serious repercussions on this side of the Atlantic, too. The cotton industry in north west England was dependent on supplies of raw cotton from the southern states, and when this supply was interrupted there was real hardship in some places.
This led to the fear of civil disturbances in some towns, including Hyde in Cheshire, where the authorities were sufficiently concerned to swear in a number of special constables to keep the peace. This document (Ref HO 45/7523) comes from the treasure trove that is Home Office Registered Papers 1839-1979, series containing more than 26,000 boxes and files.