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

Great War Lives: A Guide for Family Historians by Paul Reed

There’s been a notable growth of interest in First World War Genealogy in recent years. I think there are probably two reasons for this – programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are, and the prominence that they give to military history; and also the recent passing of the last veterans of the Western Front. Therefore this book by Paul Reed is most timely.

Many military genealogy books seem to follow a structured but disjointed route – this is how you do this, this is where you go to do this, etc etc. and by the way, you can find this out from here because etc etc. But here Paul Reed has followed a different model, by purely writing about 12 individuals, and THEN explaining HOW he found out about them. I think this approach works, as the reader can become fully immersed in the story without being interrupted with details of musems, archives and suchlike. I think its a much easier approach for the layman in particular.

Reed has chosen a broad but well-balanced range of individuals to write about. We find out about a Field Artillery subaltern who was killed in action but whose body was brought home to England; the village of Wadhurst (a timely counter to the perception that all Pals units came from ‘oop north’); The Royal Naval Division at Gallipoli; A Greek man on the Western Front; A Tunneller VC winner; A man who died in a base hospital; A Vicar’s son who fought in three theatres; A Royal Marine at Passchendaele; A ‘Great War Guinea Pig‘; An Officer who was dismssed from the Army for striking a French woman, but then re-enlisted as a Private; A Black Flying Corps Pilot and a little-known War Poet.

Plenty to get stuck into, and plenty to inspire too. I’ve found it useful and inspiring for my own Portsmouth WW1 Dead research.

Great War Lives is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, Navy, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, victoria cross, western front, World War One

Sandhurst Registers online

New College, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

Sandhurst (Image via Wikipedia)

Earlier today I randomly stumbled on the Sandhurst Collection website, where you can download entries from the Royal Military Academy‘s registers. The database is searchable online, and a scan of each entry can be downloaded for a small fee.

The entries do not contain anything too juicy, but all the same they tell you when an officer cadet was there, their basic personal information, and useful information such as their father’s occupation. Although it doesn’t seem like much, used alongside registration records, census returns and subsequent Army lists it helps you pin down the early years of an officer’s career.

The entry’s wont include wartime emergency commission officers, sadly, as Sandhurst closed in 1939 for the duration of the war. Many pre-war and post-war officers can be found, however, including Winston Churchill, Bernard Montgomery, Alan Brooke, Frederick Browning and Roy Urquhart. Closer to home I have also found the entry for Major Robert Easton MBE DSO, from Portsmouth.

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Filed under Army, Family History, Uncategorized, World War One, World War Two

Alan Cumming – Who Do You Think You Are?

The Battle of Kohima March - July 1944: View o...

Alan Cumming's Grandfather fought at the Battle of Kohima (Image via Wikipedia)

Tonight’s WDYTYA was possibly one of the best yet. And what’s more, this remarkable story focussed on just one ancestor. Alan Cumming (actor, x-men: I didn’t have a clue who he was!) knew that his grandfather had served in the Army during the war and had died suspiciously in Malaya, but very little apart from that.

Tom Darling joined the Cameron Highlanders – a Scottish Infantry Regiment – in the 1930′s. After a period as a cook at the Regimental Depot, he was assigned as a motorcycle despatch rider, and saw action in France in 1940. He was awarded the Military Medal for an action in May 1940 when he drove his motorbike between Headquarters and the Rifle Companies carrying ammunition, along an exposed road in full view of the enemy.

After being evacuated to Britain and promoted to Sergeant, Darling was sent to Burma in time to fight in the Battle of Kohima. He was wounded, probably by shrapnel. He was evacuated to a Hospital India. Then, his service record is mysteriously vacant. It appears that he spent time in hospital with battle-related mental illness, as he was in an institution  in India known for treating mental illness, and which gave its name to the term to ‘go dolally’. After recovering and seeing out his service with the Army, he was demobilised. His family did not see him again after 1945. Originally it was thought that he had simply been serving abroad.

After a year working as a sales clerk at a garage in St Albans. He obviously found civvy street not to his liking, for he soon applied to join the Malay Police Force. In his application, Alan Cumming found a shocking discovery – he listed his marital status as ‘separated’. That explains why his family did not see him again after the end of the war, and also why he possibly travelled to the other side of the world.

Whilst in Malaya, Tom Darling was part of a police force that was involved in a bitter counter-insurgency campaign against communist guerillas. Darling’s job, as a Police Lieutenant, was to guard villages against insurgents. Other police units were tasked to go out into the countryside and capture and kill communists, whose bodies were then brought back to the villages for identification and display. Darling was evidently well thought of, as the locals state when Cumming visits the area.

The circumstances of Darling’s death turned out to be even more shocking than feared. It transpires that he was playing Russian Roulette with a revolver, and either his luck ran out, or he misjudged it, or both. He was killed by a gunshot wound behind his ear. Apparently he would regularly play Russian Roulette, and the local people would bet on the outcome. Such a tragic end for a very brave and distinguished man. Its difficult not to imagine how a man who had been through traumatic experiences, was wounded in battle, had experienced combat stress and who had separated from his family possibly felt nothing to lose by playing Russian Roulette.

For me this was one of the best WDYTA episodes ever. Focussing in detail on the story of one man, it was excellently researched, across some difficult subjects and  locations. Not only that, but it gave us some idea of the human toll of war, something that we very rarely get to hear about.

Alan Cumming’s Who Do You Think You Are? is available to view on BBC iplayer until Monday 20 September 2010

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Hugh Quarshie – Who Do You Think You Are?

Finally, a WDYTYA episode that one, has an imperial twist, and two, doesnt try to make us all feel guilty for the British Empire! Actor Hugh Quarshie (Ric in Holby City) is of Ghanaian ancestry. The first part of the programme shows Hugh travelling to Ghana to trace that side of his family tree.

Interestingly, the programme sheds light on the fact that Ghana – known as the Gold Coast – had imperial masters before the British, in the shape of the Portuguese, and then the Dutch. And Quarshie’s family had Dutch blood, in the shape of a Dutch imperial civil servant who married a Ghanaian woman and had children with her. The Dutchman, Peter Kamerling, founded the village where Hugh’s ancestors lived. And when he visits the village, we get a surprise – none of present day inhabitants are bothered about the imperial past. In fact, he is greeted as minor royalty, and other villages who have links with the Kamerlings are very proud of their heritage. Kinda throws new light on the liberal assumption that Empire is terrible and that the natives are always hard done by.

Then Hugh travels to Holland, and manages to trace more records about the Dutch side of his family. And, incredibly, he meets a Dutch descendant of the Kamerlings, who has researched his family tree. Although Kamerling has apparently deserted his Ghanaian family to return to Holland, Hugh finds that his will made provisions for all of his children in Ghana, and he even included their birth certificates in his will in order to prove that they were his children. Although he had left them, he had not forgotten them.

The Dutch Empire of the 17th Century is all but forgotten in the race to lay on the guilt over the British Empire. The Dutch built an impressive trading network, covering parts of North America, the west coast of Africa and the East Indies. The Dutch were methodical record keepers, which helped Hugh trace that part of his family history. But they were also ruthless. I have read an account from modern day Indonesia, where Dutch merchants caught an English rival trading in one of their ports. They chased him, and when they caught him he was cut, and ‘washed in salt and vinegar’. Lovely!

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Filed under Empire History, Family History, On TV

Who Do You Think You Are? – Rupert Penry-Jones

Its not really a secret that I am not the biggest fan of WDYTYA. All too often it makes it look too easy, when in reality genealogy can be – for us mere mortals, anyway – bloody hard work. And after five series, they’re starting to run out of decent celebrities to research. But tonight’s episode was pretty damm interesting. And funnily enough, I hadn’t even heard of Rupert Penry-Jones before watching it! (he’s an actor, apparently…)

His Grandfather was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Indian Army Medical Service, and commanded a Field Ambulance in the Eighth Army from 1943 until the end of the war, including at Monte Cassino. Penry-Jones travelled to Italy and met with a veteran of Monte Cassino to talk about the battle.

As we might expext from someone called Rupert who has a double-barrelled-shotgun surname, his family were very much ‘of the Raj’. One ancestor was responsible for the ceremonial events in Dehli in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including the incredible 1911 Dehli Coronation Durbar.

Going back even further, another ancestor was serving as an officer in the British Army in India during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Penry-Jones managed to track down letters that his ancestor sent his wife while taking part in the crushing of the rebellion, before he died of Cholera whilst marching to Lucknow.

Incredibly, Penry-Jones was also able to confirm a family rumour that they had Indian blood, by going back a full eight generations, to 1817. All those generations back one of his ancestor’s married a woman who was described as an ‘Indo-Britain’. Further research established that she was the product of an Anglo-Indian marriage.

Perhaps not the kind of story that most normal people will find themselves researching in their family history (and even if we did find it, who could afford to fly to India for a spot of genealogy?), but very interesting none the less. It would be even more watchable if Rupert didn’t insist on wearing an ethnic-style scarf whilst walking rould Allahabad!

WDYTYA with Rupert Penry-Jones can be watched on BBC iplayer until Monday 20 September 2010.

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Filed under Army, Empire History, Family History, On TV, World War Two

Shedding light on Second Word War Servicemen

I’ve been spending years now researching Servicemen from the Second World War, whether it be my own family members, or the names from Portsmouth’s proposed War memorial. Sadly, its not as easy as it could be. And what makes it even sadder, is that its usually much easier to research a person who died than it is to find out about someone who survived.

For a start, if somebody died during the Second World War, their name will be on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online roll of honour. Chances are they will appear on other memorials, and possibly in regimental rolls of honour or official histories. And if somebody died in action, there is a stronger possibility that they were awarded a medal. And if somebody died, there is a fair chance that there will be a picture of them in the local newspaper, along with perhaps a death notice and messages from friends and family, and possibly also a ‘thanks for sympathy’ message later. These often give you somebody’s address, and names of family members, and other details such as how they died. But its a case of trawling through newspapers, often on microfilm, around certain dates.

The problem is, even if you know when and where somebody was killed, you have no firm way of knowing what else else happened to them, unless somebody else has already researched them. If you’re not a next-of-kin then you cannot access service records, which give by far the most details. Service Records are made available to the next-of-kin under strict data protection rules, assuming that the person may still be alive. At some point in the future one imagines that these will become available to the public, but when that will be, who knows… for the forseable future we will have to do without them.

For the most part, Army war diaries, naval ships logs or air force operations books only record the general outline of what was happening with a unit and rarely mention names, particularly of men. For example, a parachute Battalion at Arnhem contained just over 500 men – which is a lot of blokes. And without knowing which Company a man served in, its difficult to pinpoint his movements very specifically.

Of course, if you’re researching somebody who fought in a well-known battle, then you will have a lot more to go on – when it came to researching my Grandad at Arnhem, it was a case of working out which of the books weren’t worth reading, as enough books have been written about Arnhem to clear Sherwood Forest. But if your man fought in a line infantry regiment, say in Normandy in July 1944, or Holland in the winter of 1944, you might not find as much printed material.

If a sailor served prior to 1928 – and many of the older, more experienced sailors from Portsmouth had done – then this is the genealogy equivalent of striking oil. Their service records are available from the National Archives online. With a list of ships and dates, you can get a perspective on a man’s career in the Navy. And of course, there are other nuggets of information, such as courses, assesments, and so on.

There is one way of finding out more about officers – the Navy, Army and Air Force lists. These list Each of the commissioned officers in each particular service, and what rank they held, where they were stationed, and a small amount of other information, such as if they had attended staff college. By trawling through each years volume, you can build up a picture of how an officers career progressed. This is particularly useful for pre-war Regular officers, but less so for the large number of officers who served only during wartime.

Another aspect that many people neglect is a serviceman’s background – when and where was he born? What kind of family did he come from? What about the people that he left behind? What job did he do before joining up? Where did he live? Very often these little details help you to build a picture of a man who otherwise would be just a name. To do this, is pretty much a case of working your way through street directories and electoral registers to find addresses, and register office indexes and certificates to pin down births, marriages and deaths.

A major gap in resources is the lack of any census after 1911 being available to the public. Freedom of Information challenges have all but shown the irrelevance of the 100 year rule when it comes to releasing censuses, and having information about who was living where – including younger people – would be an absolute godsend for historians. In particular, the so-called 1939 ‘war census’ – an emergency count of people in Britain just before the outbreak of war – would be invaluable.

Isn’t it ironically sad that its much easier to research people who were killed than it is to research people who survived?

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Tracing the Rifle Volunteers: A Guide for Military and Family Historians by Ray Westlake

It would probably be best to start off with describing what this book is not. Its definitely not a cover-to-cover bedtime read. Its more something for the military historian to keep on the shelf for reference, and that the family historian may wish to have a look at if they find a Rifle Volunteer ancestor.

The Rifle Volunteers were formed in 1859 as a form of part-time defence force for the United Kingdom. Although the Government was not overly keen on the concept of amateur soldiering, the War Office finally acquiesced on the grounds of national defence in the event of an invasion of British soil. They were, along with the older Militias, the forerunners of the modern Territorial Army.

From the start the Rifle Volunteers took on a strong local tone – they were originally raised by Lord Lieutenants of counties, and were formed around local companies and battalions. There was a degree of central organisation and direction, in the form of certain stipulations and directives from central Government, but on the whole the Volunteers were very much a local force. And only later in the 19th century did the Volunteers begin the long and drawn out process of building links with the regular army. The 1881 Army reforms saw the introduction of Country Regiments, which made local links with volunteer units much more likely.

Volunteer battalions were originally only to be mobilised for home defence. However in 1900 a Special Army Order called upon volunteer companies to fight in South Africa. The Volunteer Force finally ceased to exist in 1908, when it was subsumed into the new Territorial Force. Apparently this change was not popular with the volunteers themselves, as it involved a degree of re-organisation, and some disbandments.

Unfortunately, this book does not really show the reader how to research a volunteer. To do that you would expect to see some examples of documents, how and where to find them, and advice to set you on the road to find out more. However this information is limited to one page at the end of the book, covering Army Lists, Muster Rolls, Published Unit Records, Local Newspapers and the National Archives. The upshot is, sadly, that if you want to research a Rifles volunteer, there isn’t a whole lot to go on – and especially not it if they were not an officer.

Where this book does shine, however, is in the exhaustive list of every Volunteer Rifles Unit in Britain. For example, I can see that the 5th (Portsmouth) Corps of the Hampshire Rifles Volunteer Rifles formed on 16 August 1860. The Commandant was Captain George P. Vallaney, formerly of the Indian Army. In 1880 the 5th (Portsmouth) joined the new 3rd Corps, providing five companies from A to E. In September 1885 the 3rd Hampshire Corps was designated as the 3rd (The Duke of Connaught’s Own) Volunteer Battalion, and in 1908 the Battalion transferred to the Territorial Force as the 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. Interestingly, we also find out that their uniform was scarlet and yellow, later changing to scarlet and white.

More locally, the 23rd Corps of the Hampshire Rifles Volunteers formed at Cosham on 29 November 1860, with Lieutenant Edward Goble and Ensign Henry Monk as the first officers. The 23rd moved its Headquarters several miles west to Portchester in 1869, and became L Company of the new 3rd Corps in 1880.

Tracing the Rifle Volunteers: A Guide for Military and Family Historians is published by Pen and Sword

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – The Hampshire Regiment in focus

The Hampshire Regiment in focus

114 men from Portsmouth died serving with the Hampshire Regiment during the Second World War, more than any other infantry Regiment. Between 1939 and 1945 six Hampshire Battalions fought overseas – the 1st, 2nd, 1/4th, 2/4th, 5th and 7th.

11 men died in England, 1 in Algeria, 1 in Burma, 1 in Egypt, 21 in France, 1 in Germany, 1 in Greece, 5 in Holland, 41 in Italy, 2 in Malta, 1 in Singapore, 1 in Syria, and 27 in Tunisia.

Traditionally British county infantry Regiments consisted of two regular Battalions and several territorial Battalions. In wartime these might be joined by a number of war-raised Battalions, and also Depot Battalions. Unlike in the Great War no ‘pals’ Battalions were formed, after concerns that too many men from the same communities were being killed together, which was bad for morale at home and for the men concerned.

For many years the Hampshire Regiment Depot had been at Winchester, but during the Second World War it was evacuated to the Isle of Wight. Almost all wartime recruits would have undertaken their basic training there.

Regular Battalions:

1st Battalion – 20
2nd Battalion – 22

Most line infantry Regiments began the Second World War with two regular Battalions. In peacetime normally one Battalion would be serving overseas – such as in India, or Egypt – while the other would be at home.

The 1st Hants began the war in Egypt. After pecekeeping duties in Palestine and guarding Italian prisoners in Egypt, they spent some time in Malta in 1941, suffering two casualties there, before joining the Malta Brigade and fighting in Sicily and Italy. At the end of 1943 they were withdrawn to England, after Montgomery requested experienced troops to take part in the D-Day operations. When the Battalion laned in England in 1943 it was the first time it had set foot in the UK after 23 years overseas. The 1st Hants landed on D-Day, with four Portsmouth soldiers being killed among total losses of 182 men, including the CO and second in command. After fighting at Hottot, Villers-Bocage, Belgium and Holland, along with the rest of the 50th Division the Battalion was disbanded in November 1944 and the men dispersed to other units.

The 2nd Battalion was based in Aldershot when war began. They landed in France in September 1939, serving on the Maginot Line and the Franco-Belgian Border, but were evacuated through Dunkirk with its equipment intact and without suffering any casualties. The 2nd Hants then went to North Africa in November 1942, fighting in Algeria and Tunisia. The Battalion suffered very heavy casualties between 1 and 3 December 1942, with 7 Portsmouth men killed. After the fall of Tunis they joined the 128th ‘Hampshire’ Brigade.

Territorial Battalions:

1/4th Battalion – 15
2/4th Battalion – 16
5th Battalion – 14
7th Battalion – 17

On the outbreak of war in 1939 most Regiments also possessed two Battallions of the Territorial Army. To provide a firm basis for new recruits, the 4th Battalion were split in two to provide an extra Battalion, of the first and second line, ie 1/4th and 2/4th. The 5/7th Battalion, meanwhile, was split up into the 5th and 7th Battalions. Therefore these Battalions were made up roughly half of territorials and half of conscripts, although they would have taken on conscripts during the war to make up losses.

The 1/4th, 2/4th and 5th Hants were formed into the 128th ‘Hampshire’ Brigade, part of the 43rd (Wessex) Division. In January 1943 the Brigade left the 43rd Division and joined the 46th (West Riding) Division for North Africa. After the end of the war in North Africa the Brigade landed at Salerno in September 1943, suffering very heavy casualties, with 8 Portsmouth Hampshires killed. After fighting up trough Italy the Brigade was taken out of the line in February 1944, and taken to Egypt where reinforcements were taken on. In August 1944 the Hampshire Brigade was back in action in Italy. In December 1944 they were relieved once again, and in January 1945 were sent to Greece to disarm communist guerillas. One man of the 5th Battalion was killed in Greece. Although the Brigade moved back to Italy in April 1945 the war was over before they could go into action again.

The 7th Hants was part of the 43rd (Wessex) Division, and were grouped with the 4th and 5th Dorsets in 130th Brigade. They landed in France on 22 June, and were initially in reserve. In July the 7th Hants went into action in the bitter bocage fighting, culminating in the capture of Mont Pincon. The Battalion was then involved in the breakout and the great swan across France, before being involved in the latter stages of Operation Market Garden. After rest the 7th Hants took part in the battle of the Reichswald in February 1945. After crossing the Rhine on 24 March 1945 they ended the war at Barkhausen in Germany, between Bremen and Hamburg.

Home Service/Depot Battalions

12th Battalion – 3
13th Battalion – 2

Home Service and Depot Battalions were formed to act as holding units for recruits, or for older men who were maybe not suitable for service overseas. Younger men could in turn be posted overseas. Four of the five men who died while serving in Depot Battalions died in the UK. The other man died in Burma, perhaps while he was travelling to another unit or while he was serving as a Staff Officer.

Of the Portsmouth Hampshires killed during the Second World War, only Lance Corporal Leslie Webb of the 1st Battalion was decorated for bravery. He won the Military Medal for his part in D-Day, but after being evacuated wounded to England died on 14 June 1944. He was 27 and from North End, and is buried in Milton Cemetery.

Information taken from ‘The Royal Hampshire Regiment 1918 – 1954′ by David Scott Daniell.

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