The Forgotten War – Burma Campaign

meningreenI’ve recently read the book Men in Green, the diary of a soldier serving in Burma during the Second World War.

Written during his service, this book covers Private John’s day to day experiences, conversations with friends and thoughts during his time in Burma.

It has been published by a former client of mine, Ann Markwell, who is the niece of the extraordinary Private Richard John. She remembers her Uncle Dickie fondly.

While it’s scant in dates and names of regiments, the diary is full of the details of the daily life of a soldier in the jungles of Burma. Private John began as a despatch rider, but was later sent to the front line to work with the signallers. He and his Company endured great hardship and lived through harrowing episodes, but the bravery and courage of the soldiers is what endures throughout the book.

As a first-hand account, written on the battlefield, it is useful to anyone who has ancestors who served in Burma, or who would like to learn more about the daily trials of soldiers fighting in the jungles of Burma. Be warned – some of the images of the brutality of jungle warfare may stay with you…

You can buy it at Amazon.

“Greatest dramas are about ordinary people”

In Brian Blessed’s preview for Who Do You Think You Are? this evening, he says:

‘I’m not looking for crowns and coronets and the glittering prizes. I’m looking for humanity. On television the greatest dramas are about ordinary people, ordinary relationships. That is where you learn so much, that has great meaning and that’s what I’m looking for.’

I couldn’t agree more Brian. Looking forward to a Blessed drama this evening. 9pm BBC 1.


Lives of World War 1 project

Potton War Memorial

Potton War Memorial

The Lives of World War I project, which launched yesterday, uses modern crowdsourcing technology to collect historical data about First World War veterans.

Run by the Imperial War Museum, the website allows you or anyone else to enter information about First World War veterans, for others to see.

So, in a nutshell, today’s technology allows stories about yesterday’s people to be amassed for tomorrow.

You’ll need to be able to identify your veteran – so it would be helpful to know which regiment they served with or, even better, their regimental number. Once you’re sure you’ve found the right record, you can upload photos, stories and memories and family information about your ancestor.

The beauty of it is that this could lead to finding lost living relatives, and finding out more about the lives of veterans in your family through other people’s memories. The timing is great, as a lot of the stories and details are still in living memory, but not for long.

If you had any WWI soldiers, sailors, nurses or other service personnel in your family, take a look and join in at Lives of the First World War

The Leaving of Loughrea: An Irish Family in the Great Famine

I’ve Leaving of Loughrearecently enjoyed reading this book, researched and written by Stephen Lally. It’s a fascinating account of the Lally family in the area around the town of Loughrea in Galway. It is of particular relevance to me, because it’s about the family of my 4x great grandfather, Patrick Lally. But the combination of general Irish history, local Galway history and family history makes this an informative read for anyone interested in their Irish ancestors during the time of the famine.

Stephen Lally covers the social and political factors leading to the great famine, conditions for the poor in Loughrea, and gives vivid and detailed accounts of the journeys of Lallys out of Galway to America, Canada and Australia.

It shows how the story of one family can be used to illustrate the lives and times of many others, so if you’re tracing your Irish family history during the 1840s and 1850s, it’s well worth a read.

The book can be bought on Amazon at

Over-enthusiastic form-filling helps fill in the gaps

Filling in forms can be confusing and so mistakes creep in. Errors made on the forms for the 1911 census can still be seen today, and these can be very helpful to a family history researcher. In earlier censuses, forms completed by householders were copied into a summary book by an enumerator and the originals were destroyed, but in 1911 the originals were kept, showing the householder’s signature and any errors they made.

I recently came across a 1911 census return for John King of 18 Quinn’s Buildings, Essex Road, Islington who recorded the full addresses where each of his children had been born, not just the required name of the town and county.They were:

Jessie King, aged 15, bookbinder, born 52 Winslade Road, Clapton, London.

John Edward King, aged 13, born 105 Malborough Road, Holloway, London.

Elizabeth Rose King, aged 10, born 39 Canning Road, Finsbury, London.

Bert King, aged 5, born 5 Elton Road, Newington Green, London.

Florence King, aged 3, born 17 Quinns Buildings, Islington, London.

Such ‘errors’ are extremely useful for anyone tracing the family.

Other errors found in the 1911 census forms include widowers/widows giving details of how many years they were married and how many children they had, even though this was not required.

If an enumerator had copied out the forms, as they had in previous censuses, this information would not have been included and would have been lost to later researchers.


Who had an affair with the Squire of Clifton?

Noted from the parish registers of Emberton in Buckinghamshire (I wish they all held such juicy details)

Sarah Squelsh was buried on 12 May 1837, aged 89. The vicar noted in the margin that she ‘had two illegitimate children by Squire Small of Clifton’.

What a fabulous detail which a descendent would otherwise never know. Interesting surname too…

‘Hidden killers’ in your family’s history

I enjoyed this week’s episode of Hidden Killers (BBC 4, 9pm, Tuesday), about dangerous products invented and used in Edwardian times. What struck me was, in some cases, how long the dangers were known by manufacturers before the use of dangerous materials was stopped.

Len Collier

My Grandad, Len Collier, in the 1940s

With asbestos we were told the link to lung disease was recorded as early as 1899, and the first death attributed to asbestos was in 1906.

I can remember my grandfather telling me that when he worked as an engineer in London in the 1960s, making circuit breakers for the Aswan Dam, he worked with asbestos and would cycle home with his hair and moustache covered in it. As was usual for his generation, he made light of it.

He did have scars on his lungs and eventually died of lung cancer, but not until he was 90 years old. I guess he was one of the lucky ones.

It took until the 1980s for the use of asbestos to be completely banned in the UK.

Did your ancestors work with dangerous substances? Don’t forget to write down your family’s stories for future generations.

Discover your medieval ancestors through your surname

What can your family name tell you about your medieval ancestors?

Firstly, it may be able to tell you something about the occupation, parentage or location of a distant ancestor.

My Collier name comes from the occupation of charcoal burner, or coal seller, so (assuming there has been no illegitimacy) at least one of my ancestors from about 700 years ago worked in this industry.

Robinson is another name that appears in my tree, and so I can assume that another 13th or 14th century ancestor was called Robin or Robert.

Finally, my Blatchford ancestors take their name from Blatchford in Devon and so another branch of my tree would have been living there in about 1300.

The meanings of other surnames are harder to interpret. Was the first Mr Lilley the son of Elizabeth, a child with a fair complexion or from Lilley in Hertfordshire or Berkshire?

There are many surname dictionaries published and one very useful online site The Internet Surname Database. These offer suggestions of the meanings of surnames, but it is worth remembering that these sources are continually updated as the study of surname origins is continuous. As more information becomes available, more accurate definitions can be given to a surname.

But surnames can give more information about your ancestors than simply its meaning.

Distribution maps

A study has been done of the surnames recorded in the 1881 census. These are published online at Great British Family Names. Here, all names that had more than 100 bearers in 1998, have been mapped by (modern) postcode district.

A similar map can be found on the Ancestry website, using data from the 1891 census.

Searching the map shows how surnames were distributed throughout the UK. This can be an interesting exercise, as even common names, such as Collier, have densely populated areas, and areas where they don’t occur at all.

The Collier name was distributed along the western side of England, from south Lancashire to Dorset but, with the exception of Yorkshire, was rare in eastern England.

Although Robinson is also a relatively common name, its distribution was heavily weighted to the north of England. So I can now say that there was a likelihood that my ancestor called Robin/Robert lived in the north of England in c1300.

And, as anticipated, the name Blatchford was rarely found outside of Devon and Cornwall, confirming that this branch of my family line was almost certainly from south-west England.

Although there was migration in the UK before 1881, there is a surprising level of consistency between where a surname is based in 1881 and where it originated. Looking at the distribution of a surname can help to narrow down the options of where the surname began and where your medieval ancestors lived.

DNA testing

One relatively new way to help determine a surname’s origin is to use DNA testing. Using the Y-chromosome, which is passed from father to son in the same way that surnames are, can help to show whether bearers of a surname are related along their paternal line.

There is room for error, as what’s called non-paternity events can mean a surname does not reflect a direct male line (for example illegitimacy or adoption). However, if a reasonable sample of a surname is taken, it can help to identify how many origins the surname might have and can put people in touch with other family members who share their male line.
Sharing their family history research could help to identify their shared ancestor.

There are several companies that offer this, including familytreedna, Britain’s DNA and ancestryDNA.

We haven’t yet tested the Collier DNA, but as prices come down and the number of DNA samples collected increase, it is increasingly worth considering having it done.

Further reading: Surnames, DNA and Family History by George Redmonds, Turi King and David Hey.

I sincerely hope to see them all in court!

Court records can provide a level of detail not found elsewhere.

The website for the proceedings of the Old Bailey offers full transcriptions of all cases held at the Central Criminal Court from 1674-1913. Statements are recorded verbatim, so it allows us to see the words spoken by witnesses, prosecutors and defendants alike.

Take the case of Joseph Catling Gibbons, aged 52, who was tried for bigamy on 20th October 1890. He was being prosecuted by the wife of his bigamous marriage, who said:

I became acquainted with the prisoner two years ago, and went out with him for five Sundays—some information then came to me, and I wrote him a letter breaking off the acquaintance, and ceased to keep company with him about Christmas, 1888 about September, 1889, I met him and asked him if he knew me—he said, “What! after the letter you wrote to me?”—I said, “I wrote that in a temper; are you a married man?”—he said, “I have no time to speak to you now”—I said I would see him the next night—I met him the next evening, and he said, “I hope I may be struck dead if I am not a single man”—I then walked out with him till we were married on 8th July in the registry at Whitechapel—I lived with him six weeks at my mother’s house up to a fortnight ago; I was then told something, and went and saw his wife—that is her (pointing) I gave him in charge the same evening.

One of the witnesses was Rose S Hales, Joseph’s daughter. She told the court:

…the prisoner is my father, and the lady who has been produced is his wife—they have been parted for sixteen year—he allowed her 2s. a week up to Christmas last—she lives in the same house with me—my father called there about four months ago, and saw my mother and me; I cannot give the date accurately—he came to see his son’s baby, which was three days old—it was born four months ago—my mother was in good health at the time.

She later said:

you allowed her 2s. a week for ten weeks in the year, when you were at the Drury Lane pantomime—you were pantaloon there.

This kind of detail is rarely found in family papers, and cannot be deduced from census entries alone. It gives a clear insight into the dramas of this family (no pun intended).

Joseph Catling Gibbon’s defence was:

I left my wife eighteen years ago owing to her misconduct; she has lived with three different men, and has had several children, and I thought she was dead.

Rose Hales further stated that:

her mother had two children by another man, one of which was seven and the other two years old.

Joseph Catling Gibbons was an actor throughout his life. He used the stage name Tully Louis. There is a newspaper report in the Pall Mall Gazette on the 28 October 1890, found using the British Newspaper Archive at findmypast, which refers to his court case for bigamy under his stage name, confirming that they are one and the same. Tully Louis was a well-known pantomimist and comic actor of his time.

He perhaps wasn’t as much the injured party as he suggested at the Old Bailey. He married his first wife in 1860. By the 1871 census she was living with their two daughters and described herself as a ‘widow’. Joseph appears to have been missed off (or mistranscribed) in this census. In 1881, however, he records himself under his stage name, Tully Louis, and was living with Charlotte Louis and their 3 children, Eugene, Nellie and Josephine. There is no evidence of him having married Charlotte.

Six months after the hearing at the Old Bailey, the 1891 census was taken. Joseph was recorded under the name ‘Joseph Catling’ and lived with 6 children all with the Catling surname (including Eugene, Nellie and Josephine). His youngest son was 3 years old, so he must have been born shortly before Joseph began courting the unsuspecting Caroline Wooton in 1888. It seems that Caroline was ignorant of his first wife, so it seems likely she was also unaware of his 6 children and relationship with Charlotte.

Here’s proof of the tantalising glimpses court records can give into the lives of your ancestors. A criminal in your past can be of great use in providing new insights into your family history.

History of English facial hair

It’s Movember once again, and I’m starting to see men around the town with the beginnings of this year’s autumnal facial displays!

But moustaches have been around for a while. When Caesar came to Britain, he recorded that the ancient Britons wore no beards except upon the upper lip. This was different to many European nations where it was most common for full beards to be worn.

When the Anglo-Saxons came to England, they wore full beards, but as they converted to Christianity, the clergy were obliged to be clean shaven, to distinguish them from the lay person. Over time Englishmen began to imitate the clergy and shave their beards, once again just leaving their moustaches.

The Normans went completely clean shaven, and William the Conqueror decreed that Englishmen must shave off their moustaches. Some men were reportedly so appalled at the idea that they chose to leave the country rather than give up their moustache.

In 1535, King Henry VIII introduced a beard tax, which was graded according to the social status of the wearer. Later, his daughter Queen Elizabeth I reintroduced the tax on all beards which had more than two weeks’ growth, making the beard a rich man’s accessory.

Perhaps part of the success of Movember is because it taps into an ancient British tradition and has reawakened the desire to have a hairy upper lip that lies deep within the genes of modern British men!