Category Archives: Family History

Ancestry or Find My Past? A dilemma

For a while I have been pondering subscribing to one of the online family history websites. By far the most prominent are Ancestry and Find my Past. I’ve found myself doing more and more social history, which uses things such as the censuses and registers. And of course, both websites also have military records that are quite useful.

My problem is, which one to go for. Each has some records that the other does not have.

Find my Past has all of the censuses from 1841 to 1911, Merchant Navy crewlists and Seamans records, some miscellaneous occupational records, Parish Registers from 1538 to 2005, Birth Marriage and Death indexes from 1837 onwards, divorce indexes, some probates and wills, and some travel and migration records, such as East India Company records, Passenger lists and Registers of Passport applications.

It is in the military area that I am most interested. FMP has armed forces births, marriages and deaths 1796-2005; Army Roll of Honour 1939-45; British Army Service Records 1760-1915; De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914-1918; DCM Citations 1914-1920; Irish Great War Records; National Roll of the Great War 1914-1918; Naval Casualties 1914-1919; New Zealand WW1 Soldiers; RA Honours 1939-46; RA MM’s 1916-93; RM Medal Roll 1914-1920; RN Division 1914-19; RN Officers 1914-20; Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-19; WW2 POW’s; and the Waterloo Medal Roll of 1815.

Ancestry has all of the censuses, plus some foreign; and even some electoral rolls and slave registers; the usual BMD Registers, plus Parish Registers; British wills and probate and some foreign too; an extensive range of Passenger Lists and alien entry books. In terms of the military, Ancestry has British Army WW1 Service Records 1914-1920; British Army Medal Index Cards 1914-1920; British Army Pension Records 1914-1920; ‘Soldiers Died'; Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls 1793-1949; Army Roll of Honour 1939-45; WW1 Silver War Badge Records; POW’s 1939-45; Navy Lists 1908 and 1914; De Ruvigny’s R of H; DCM Citations and RN Division Records.

How the hell am I, as a WW1 historian, supposed to choose between the two of them? Whichever website I subscribe to, I am missing out on something vital on the other. If I join FMP I get RN Officers 1914-1920, and the RM Medal Roll; but if I join Ancestry I get Medal Index Cards and Silver Badge Records.

I have a feeling that this dichotomy in record digitisation is caused by the National Archives policy. Lacking the resources to digitise things themselves – they tend to charge by the item, in any case – TNA outsource each particular project to the highest bidder, either FMP or Ancestry. As a result, records are scattered between the two. As a result commercial interests are seriously hampering historical research.

Has anyone else in the field had this problem?

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Filed under Family History, World War One

Find my Past: The TV series

The other day I stumbled on a new genealogy programme on the Yesterday Channel. Under the banner of the commercial family history website findmypast, this series takes climactic historic events, andfollows the journeys of people whose ancestors were involved.

This trailer is for the episode looking at the hundreds of British soldiers shot for cowardice, desertion and other offences such as falling asleep on duty on the Western Front during the Great War:

Other episodes look at the Battle of Britain, the Mutiny on the Bounty, D-Day, Jack the Ripper and the Titanic.

I watched the Jack the Ripper episode the other day and found it very engaging. It is nice to see family history with ‘normal’ people and not just celebrities. The Jack the Ripper episode featured Dr Nick Barratt (genealogy’s own Troy Mclure who crops up everywhere), and a host of other experts.

As I have often said, anything that heightens awareness of family history is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t gloss over the long yet rewarding work that is involved.

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Filed under Family History, On TV, western front, World War One

Tracing your Tank Ancestors by Janice Tait and David Fletcher

Some books land on your doormat and you think ‘thank you!’. The Tracing your.. Ancestors series books are most definitely among them, and particularly anything of a military persuasion! This book is published in conjunction with, naturally enough, the Tank Museum in Bovington. The authors are Janice Tait and David Fletcher, resident Librarian and Historian at the Tank Museum respectively.

As we might expect, this book is very strong on the history of Tanks in the British Army.Right from the Corps beginning during the Second World War, its difficult experiences in the inter-war period and the mechanisation of the old Cavalry Regiments, the crucial armoured battles in the Second World War, the era of national service, and then the modern world of the Cold War and the British Army of the Rhine. The history is flawless, as is the coverage of technical issues, tank names and industrial aspects. It is also very good at covering those quirky little historical points that are unique to the British Army – namely the manner in which men consider themselves members of their Regiment rather than the Army as a whole, and the politics of mergers and inter-Corps rivalries.

Each chapter is structured chronologically, looking at the Tank history of a particular era. Then at the end the reader is given pointers towards where to research, be it institutions, documents, websites or books. Even though I consider myself an experience military historian, I learnt a few things here. Perhaps the family history aspect is slightly light compared to the general history, but then again, I’m not sure that there is much more than could be added. I would maybe have liked to have read more about what is held in the Tank Museum’s collections, perhaps some comprehensive listings rather than ‘here are some examples…’

One issue where I feel it does let down the reader, is when the authors allow themselves to become, dare I say it, slightly snobby about family history. Yes, for us experts, we can get frustrated at ‘amateurs’ getting things wrong. But it is their family history, more than it is ours. We shouldn’t expect every person to know the difference between the Tank Corps and the ROYAL Tank Corps. Or fussing over whether someone was actually a ‘Desert Rat’. Such points are not really that important to the reader, I feel. Thats exactly why we ask the experts.

But I applaud Pen and Sword for collaborating with the Tank Museum. It makes sense, in terms of accessing unparalleled expertise, and also gaining access to an unrivaled collection of photographs. This book will be of interest to all military historians, not just in terms of family history – I can imagine it coming in handy when researching any tank-servicemen. It’s going to stay on my bookshelf thats for sure.

Tracing your Tank Ancestors is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, Uncategorized, western front, World War One, World War Two

The Sinking of the Laconia: the verdict

Well now we’ve finally seen the two-part Drama ‘The Sinking of the Laconia‘. If you haven’t already seen it, you can catch it on BBC iplayer here.

My impressions? I found it very gripping and very moving. I don’t mind admitting that I was choked in a few places. Historically, it seems to have captured the essence of the story and with no major embellishments or historical licence. From what I can tell, the writers used real events quite well, albeit changing some names and circumstances slightly. Perhaps there was a little too much time given to romance and flirting, but hey that’s just TV I guess. I’m not althogether sure that the character of Hilda Smith existed, perhaps someone can enlighten me.

I have a feeling that the actions of the American B-24 Liberator crew may come in for criticism now. The drama’s portrayal of them was as hapless, inexperienced trigger-happy young men. I have to say that from what I know, their actions were irresponsible and sadly added to the loss of life and suffering from the sinking. But on the other hand, they were by no means the only men in wartime to make a bad call in a difficult situation. It would be nice to think that it was simply a mistake.

Overall I’m glad that such a heart-rendering story of humanity amongst war has finally got the recognition that it deserved. For too long the Laconia has been virtually forgotten in the annals of history, quite why is hard to explain. Hopefully that will change now.

Thank you to everyone who has visited here in the past few days, visits to my blog have gone through the roof. My record for daily visits was smashed by three times the old record, and today’s total will be even more too.

Finally, to anyone who was on the Laconia, or has a family story connected with it, please keep in touch, I will try and write about the story from time to time here. I’ve really enjoyed all of your contributions. There is also a Laconia group on Facebook that is a great way to keep in touch and exchange news and stories. Let’s make sure that the story of the Laconia is remembered.

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Filed under Family History, merchant navy, Navy, On TV, World War Two

The Sinking of the Laconia: Tommy’s Story

Apologies to those of you who don’t know what happened to the Laconia and are looking forward to the programme – this article might be a bit of a spoiler! But I wanted to share with you all why its of such interest to me and my family.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

As you probably guess from my surname, the male line of my family came from Ireland. We believe that my great-great-grandfather came over from Ireland some time in the late 19th Century, no doubt due to lack of work and famines that blighted Ireland throughout the century. Unfortunately due to a lack of records (burnt during the Easter rising in 1916) we have no idea where Daniel Daly came from, but the surname itself is very populous in Country Cork.

My Great-Grandfather, Thomas Daly, was born in Birkenhead near Liverpool in 1895. In June 1914- at the age of 19 – he joined the Royal Navy (he had previously worked as an electro-plater). He served as a Stoker, onboard Battleships and then onboard the early ubmarines. He settled in Portsmouth, and married my great-grandmother Lillian Maud Ross at St Agathas Church in Portsmouth in 1917.

Their eldest Children – Janet and Thomas (known as Tommy) – were born in 1919, followed by Iris in 1923, Pat in 1927, Ken (My Grandad) in 1928 and Terry in 1934. Notice the long gaps in between some of their births – this was almost certainly down to my Great-Grandad being away at sea for years at a time.

Tommy worked at a Mattress Maker’s before the war. He tried to join the Navy three times, but was each time rejected. When war broke out in 1939, h0wever, the Navy was desparate for men to crew re-activated ships, so he was accepted in early 1940. After a period of training ashore in Portsmouth he was drafted to the light cruiser HMS Enterprise as a stoker.

HMS Enterprise

HMS Enterprise

The work of a stoker was hard, dirty, smelly, noisy and hot. Originally tasked with shovelling coal into the ships boilers, in oil fuelled ships the stokers job was to maintain and keep the boilers operating. Most ships boilers had spray bars fitted that sprayed fuel oil into them.

 HMS Enterprise was an Emerald class cruiser of 9,435 tons, built at the end of the First World War. There were only two ships in the class, HMS Enterprise and HMS Emerald. They were the fastest ships in the Navy at the time, with a top speed of 33 knots.

 In June 1940, after the fall of France, HMS Enterprise was despatched to the Mediterranean as part of Force H. This naval task force was given the unpleasant but necessary task of ensuring that the French fleet did not fall into the hands of the Germans. HMS Enterprise took part in the destruction of the French ships at Mers-el-kebir in July.

 HMS Enterprise was then sent south to Cape Town, mainly taking part in convoy escorts and interception duties. In December 1940 she unsuccessfully hunted for the German auxiliary cruiser Thor, which had been menacing merchant shipping in the South Atlantic.

 In early 1941, she was sent to the Indian Ocean, where as part of a large fleet she took part in the search for the German cruiser Admiral Scheer. After the search was abandoned she then resumed escort duties, before going to Basra in May to support the suppressing of a pro-German revolt in Iraq.

 In November HMS Enterprise was refitted in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This refit was finished by December, when war broke out with Japan. In April 1942 she rescued some of the survivors from sinking of HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, which had been sunk by the Japanese on their Easter Sunday raid on Sri Lanka.

 In December 1942, HMS Enterprise finally returned home to the Clyde after almost 18 months away from home. But my great-uncle was not onboard. Sometime before HMS Enterprise returned home, it appears that he had injured his hand onboard ship, and spent some time in the Naval Hospital in Colombo. It was either this, or the fact that he was promoted to Leading Stoker, that led to him being sent home onboard the SS Laconia, a Cunard Liner requisitioned as a troopship.

The Laconia

The Laconia

 The Laconia sailed from Cape Town in August 1942, carrying Italian prisoners of war, serviceman returning home and civilians. Somewhere north of Ascencion Island in the South Atlantic, she was hit by torpedoes fired from U-156 at 8pm on 12 September. By 9.11pm the ship had sank, with many still onboard. Even those who survived faced grim prospects, as sharks were numerous in the tropical waters.

 However, shortly after the Laconia sank, the U-Boat surfaced unexpectedly. Remarkably, the U-boat then attempted to rescue survivors, something that was not official German policy at the time. When Werner Hartenstein, the Commander of U-156, realised that POW’s and civilians were onboard, he broadcast over the radio requesting assistance. Several more U-Boats arrived to assist in the rescue. Unfortunately a flight of US B-24 Liberator bombers was not aware of what was going on, and attacked the U-boats. The U-boats then dived, leading to more loss of life. In total, 3,254 people died. The commander of the German Navy, Admiral Karl Donitz, gave his infamous Laconia order, that in future U-boats were not to rescue survivors. This order was part of the case against Donitz at the Nuremberg war crime trials.

After spending some time in the water, my great-uncle Tommy was rescued, and eventually handed over by the Germans to the Vichy French, along with many other survivors. They were transported to the French territory in Morrocco, and interned at a prison camp at Mediouna. Although conditions in prisoner of war camps are rarely luxurious, this camp in particular seems to have been atrocious – the prisoners were given old foreign legion uniforms, and one cup of wine and a bowl of soup a day. Dysentery and lice were rife. Red Cross reports on conditions were damming.

 Although they were liberated by the Allied Invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, many of the men were seriously ill. My great-uncle was evacuated to the Naval Hospital in Gibraltar, and then home to the Military Hospital in Shenley, Hertfordshire. His condition must have been deteriorating, however. On 3 April 1943 a telegram was sent on behalf of the senior officer at the Hospital to my great-grandparents, informing them that their son Thomas Daly was seriously ill, and they were advised to visit him as soon as possible.

 Sadly, however his condition did not improve, and he passed away in Hospital on 27 April 1943. His Death Certificate gave Toxaemia – blood poisoning – and ulceration of the throat as the cause of death, both likely caused by suffering from Dysentery and malnutrition. No doubt this wasn’t helped by the trauma of being torpedoed in the South Atlantic and having to be rescued from the sea.

Tommy's Grave in Kingston Cemetery

Tommy's Grave in Kingston Cemetery

 He was buried at home in Portsmouth’s Kingston Cemetery. Its quite interesting really, we think of war graves as being something that we might see at Ypres, or Normandy. But in terms of the Second World War, more Portsmouth servicemen died in Britain than died abroad in action. If we think about it, the majority of men and also a lot of women were in uniform. For every man on a ship or on the front line, there were probably about the same number serving in the support services at home. And given the privations of the time, sadly its not surprising that many of them died. There were also a lot of older servicemen who were called up to train new recruits or to work in shore bases. 

It’s incredible to think that those dramatic events – that seem like a ‘Second World War Titanic’, happened when my 82-year-old Grandad was 15. And I have to say, it makes you think: how must it feel to lose your older brother when you’re 15? Not just killed in the war, but dying at home of illness after such a traumatic experience.

So if you watch ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’, please remember – these are real events that happened to real people, and some people still live with the effects to this day.

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Filed under Family History, merchant navy, Navy, On TV, World War Two

The Squires Brothers

OK, I know I’m supposed to be working on my book on Portsmouth’s WW2 dead, but I thought I would ring the changes for a day by doing a bit of work on my parallel WW1 database. And just in processing a few names in the S’s, I found three brothers from Landport who were all killed during the Great War.

Rifleman Albert Thomas Squires was serving with the 1/8th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment in Palestine when he was killed on 19 April 1917. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Jerusalem Memorial.

Private Charles Squires was serving with the 4th Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment in the Ypres Salient when he was killed on 9 October 1917. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial.

Lance Corporal Harry Reeeves Squires was serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment when he was killed on 24 August 1917. He is buried in Dozinghem Cemetery, near Poperinghe in Belgium. Dozinghem was used as a burial ground by Casualty Clearing stations set up to treat wounded from the 1917 offensive in Ypres, better known as Passchendaele. This would suggest that he died of wounds. Harry Squires was awarded a posthumous Military Medal, announced in the London Gazette on 16 October 1917.

Thus John and Ellen Squires, of Landport, lost three sons within the space of six months.

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Filed under Army, Family History, portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, western front, World War One

Tracing your Legal Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians by Stephen Wade

Reviewing this book posed one small problem: I don’t actually HAVE a legal ancestor (although there are possibly one or two illegal ancestors, but thats another story). I’ve done a little research and study into criminal history (check out the Old Bailey online for some good old crime reading), but this book looks very much at the other side of the coin – the judiciary and legal system.

The British legal system is horribly complicated and confusing – Quarter Sessions, Assizes, Magistrates, County Court, High Court to name but a few. There are lawyers, barristers, judges, recorders, registrars, clerks and coroners to name but a few more. Its hard enough to understand for those of us who have studied it for a while, so for the family history enthusiast finding that they have a lawyer in the family, it must be terrifying to know where to start. This book gives a good starting point.

I would go further however, and suggests that this is actually probably quite useful to read if you find that you have a criminal ancestor, as it gives a great description of the legal system. Therefore, you will be able to gain a much better understanding of the system that you ancestor will have gone through, and the people who would have defenced, prosectuted and sentenced them.

Never the less, this is a very useful book indeed. I must confess, it doesn’t sound like the most rivetting read, and its probably not something you would pick up purely for fun. But if you find thats one of your ancestors was a lawyer or judge or such like, this would be an ideal guide. As usual with the ‘Tracing your… Ancestors’ series there are plenty of useful resources listed, and – particularly useful in this case – a sizeable glossary of tecnical legal terms.

Its on my bookshelf just in case!

Tracing your Legal Ancestors is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, crime, Family History, social history