Friday, 31 March 2017

Secrets revealed by tragedy

E. Ernest Baker born 1861
As is often the case in family history, as you dig around to clarify one set of facts, you stumble upon something totally unexpected, leading you down a completely new route of enquiry. So it's proved while trying to establish what happened to the two elder sons of Charles Gabriel Baker who died so tragically in Australia in 1868.

If you've read the sad story (and if you haven't, click HERE to download the article in Family Tree Magazine), you'll know that when Charles's widow, Susan, returned home to England, their four sons were separated. Of the four, the two younger brothers kept in touch but the two elder brothers, Alfred and Ernest, seemed to vanish from the records.


However recently I was contacted by Kelli, a descendant of the elder brother, (Charles) Alfred, and it emerged that both brothers ended up in Australia. My post Another mystery unravelled, told Alfred's story. This post was to tell of Ernest's fate but the story has turned out to be more intriguing than it first appeared. I'm indebted to Kelli for her help in unpicking the threads of what happened.

Early years

Let's go back to the beginning. Ernest was born in London and baptised at St Stephen's in Hampstead, as Edward Ernest (pay attention – you'll need to remember this bit as we go along). When his father died in 1868 Ernest was sent to the London Orphan Asylum in Clapton. It was at this point that I lost track of him but Kelli explained that in 1880, at the age of 18, he had accompanied his brother, Alfred, to Australia as crew members aboard the Durham. This explained why they'd not appeared on the 1881 UK census.

A new life in Australia

By 1884, Ernest had married Mary Wallace in Essenden, Victoria. The marriage index lists him by his full name, Edward Ernest Baker but interestingly he seems also to have added Morris for good measure, his younger brother's middle name. A tinge of home sickness, perhaps? 

Sadly, Mary died only a year later. On her gravestone, she's remembered as Mary (nee Polly Wallace) Baker, dearly beloved wife of E. Ernest M. Baker.

A year after Mary's death, in 1886, Ernest married again, to Catherine Isabella Stewart. This time the records show his name the other way around, as Ernest Edward Morris Baker, reverting to Ernest as his first name, as he'd always been known within the family. The couple went on to have a son, George Norman, born in 1887.

Accidental death

It isn't until the discovery of Ernest's untimely death 28 years later that it becomes clear that Ernest's life up until that point hadn't taken the path one might have imagined. But before I get on to that, let me explain what happened to poor Ernest in October 1914. 

It was while on a fishing trip with friends at Berembed Weir in New South Wales, on the Murrumbridgee River, when disaster struck. Ernest went into the river to recover an oar but slipped and fell into deep water. He became entangled in his clothing and despite being a strong swimmer, he sadly drowned. His body was recovered a few days later and a subsequent inquest recorded his death as accidental. 

Newspaper reports

In the press at the time, it was mentioned that Ernest (referred to as Mr E E Baker) was a widower, of several years. But on further investigation, it was clear that his wife, Catherine, nee Stewart, was still very much alive. So what had happened? 

His death certificate showed that his "wife" was not Catherine but Georgina Lindsay. While no record has been found of their marriage (Georgina was widowed in 1885, having previously been Mrs George Whaley Miller) her death was recorded as Georgina Baker and she'd died in 1907. Other sections of Ernest's death certificate, such as parents' names and previous marriage, were filled in as "unknown". Whoever provided the information to the registrar genuinely didn't know or was keeping schtum about Ernest's past! 


Further delving into the archives revealed that in 1901, Ernest, an Insurance Agent at the time, was gaoled for 6 months for embezzlement. Had this dishonourable behaviour resulted in Ernest and his second wife separating? Apparently not. Ernest and Georgina were already together by then, having had three sons before this date, Sydney in 1890, Harry in 1893 and Frank in 1897 – Harry and Frank obviously named after Ernest's younger siblings. 

Other newspaper reports tell of Ernest being sent to court for obtaining money by false pretences (writing a cheque which bounced) and on another occasion, an Edward Ernest Baker (note the name order – could this also be our man?) being accused of stealing a bottle of whisky from a hotel bar, which subsequently turned up hidden in a nearby culvert – though, it appears, not before Edward/Ernest spent a Saturday night in the local police cell!


Ernest is recorded on the electoral roll of 1913 as being a journalist. We know he was an insurance agent in 1901 and the newspapers at the time of his death refer to him as an accountant. His death certificate states he was a labourer! He clearly had both a checkered life and a varied career.

I suspect there's still a lot more to unravel about the life of Edward Ernest Morris Baker. What did he do in England before he travelled to Australia? What happened between him and his second wife, Catherine? Was he really ever a journalist? Did he maintain contact with his family back in the UK? 

While there are some things we may yet discover, there are probably other questions for which we'll never know the answers. But, as ever, it's always fascinating following the trail.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The mystery engagement

My plan for this post had been to tell the story of the other 'missing' son of Charles Gabriel  and Susannah Baker, Edward Ernest Baker, born 1861, brother of (Charles) Alfred Baker, who I wrote about last month in Another Mystery Unravelled.

But I came across something intriguing this week which I'd like to share instead. I'd also like to challenge your imagination to come up with ideas as to the mystery behind the story.

I've written before about my grandfather, Herbert Henry Coules Colley, also known by his stage name, Ken Barton. He was an actor and comedian, treading the boards and touring the country's "rep" theatres which is where he met my grandmother, who became his second wife. She was a trained opera singer but decided variety entertainment was more lucrative a career. You can read more about both of them on my post Panto time!

Before the dream

Before Herbert followed his dream to become a "theatrical artist", he worked in the newspaper industry in the printing rooms supporting his mother and siblings, after his father, Edward Henry Coules Colley, left the family home (or may well have got kicked out by Herbert's mother, Frances, on discovering that he was leading a double life – read the full story here).

It was during this time, before he married his first wife, Ada Dean, that Herbert appears to have been engaged to a Mary Ann Fry. She was a "Paper packer" which could well be a packer of newspapers and where she met Herbert. But it's at this point that the intrigue begins.

Reading of the banns

In late November and early December 1889 the banns were read in St John's the Evangelist, Walworth announcing the forthcoming marriage of Herbert Henry Coules Colley and Mary Ann Fry, bachelor and spinster of the parish respectively. But it seems that the marriage never took place and the entry on the banns record is crossed out.

What makes the story unusual, than perhaps a jilting at the alter, is that less than 3 months later, in March 1890, another banns record appears for Herbert Henry Coules Colley and Mary Ann Fry. Again there is no record that the marriage actually took place and again, the entry has been crossed out.

What's the story?

So what occurred? Was the first wedding cancelled due to illness? Did either party change their mind and then change it back again, to try a second time the following year? Did everyone arrive at the church, only to witness the bride – or the groom – not turning up? Or did someone, in true dramatic fashion, stand up and declare there was an impediment to why these two people could not be joined in matrimony?

I'd love to hear your suggestions. So do let me know what you think the story could be. (Along with ideas as to how I might go about finding out the truth of the tale!)

As a postscript, you may be interested to know that 6 years after the second banns reading, Mary Ann Fry went on to marry Herbert's uncle, his father's brother Robert Colley. Perhaps therein lies a clue.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Another mystery unravelled

Sometimes it takes a long time to uncover a mystery and it's always a thrill to finally discover the truth, especially when it's been something you've wondered about for many years.

During our research for Charles Gabriel Baker's fateful trip to Australia in 1867 with his wife Susan (nee Sawyer), ending in his death six months later, we discovered that on Susan's return to England, the couple's four sons were separated.

While Frank, the youngest, at only 3 years old, stayed with his mother, the others were sent to different orphanages and schools. (Read the tragic story in my article A Death Down Under, published in Family Tree Magazine in May 2016.)

Missing brothers

By 1881 the two youngest brothers, Frank and Harry Morris (aged 5 when his father died), had been reunited and were living with their mother. But I could find no record of Edward and Alfred on the census. What had happened to them?

The last piece of information I had was that Alfred (full name, Charles Alfred), had left school in 1873, aged 15, to join the navy. My blog post Lost at Sea? considered what his life might have been like on board at this time and I speculated as to whether he'd disappeared under the waves.

Then a couple of months ago, I was contacted by an Australian lady through this blog. I was delighted to learn that she was a descendant of Charles Alfred Baker. She'd been unaware that Charles Gabriel and Susan had come to Australia and was intrigued to hear their story. In return she was able to pass on what she'd researched about Charles Alfred and his brother, Edward.

Alfred in the navy

As I'd discovered all those years ago, Alfred joined the navy on the training ship St Vincent in October 1873. His service record, which I've accessed recently, lists each ship on which he served.

It also describes his appearance – 5 foot 5¾ inches high, brown hair, blue eyes, fair complexion and with a scar on his right wrist.

(Prior to joining the navy, Alfred spent a period of time as a shoemaker – and not a very good one, judging by the comments we found in the records. Perhaps he sustained the injury to his wrist with one of his work tools!)

Remarks on his naval records about his character range from 'very good' and even 'exemplary'  – until, that is, the very last entry when he's serving on HMS Penguin.

Here the assessment is only 'Fair' and in the next column, labelled If Discharged. Wither and for what
HMS Penguin
(courtesy of
is written the word 'Run' and 'Rio de Janeiro.'


So it seems, that after four years service, Alfred decided he'd had enough of naval life and jumped ship in Brazil.

Given his past excellent record, I wonder what happened to change his mind and take such a drastic step. Desertion was an extremely serious offence and those found guilty were subject to court martial and potentially a death sentence.

Tellingly, his name appears on a list published in London's Police Gazette in March 1878, under the heading, DESERTERS FROM THE MILITARY

But Alfred clearly didn't intend to hang around waiting to be picked up by the authorities. If indeed he did abscond in Rio de Janeiro, he somehow made his way back to England and tracked down his brother Edward, as two years later, both of them are recorded as crew members of a ship called the Durham, travelling to Sydney in March 1880.

Crew & passenger list for the Durham

New life

A year after arriving in Australia, Alfred married Charlotte Neil in Adelaide, and went on to have 5 children.

As for his brother Edward – well... his story, one with a tragic end I'm sorry to say, will be the subject of my next post.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

A year of intrigue... and news for Esme fans

Another year over and what have you done... to paraphrase John Lennon's famous Christmas song. Indeed! Looking back, it's been quite a year in my family history research.

Shocking discovery

It began back in January when I stumbled upon what turned out to be a shocking story about my 3x great-grandparents and "The Other Woman".

The truth of the matter was revealed to the world through local newspapers, when Thomas Shelley and his "housekeeper" were dragged before magistrates in Eccleshall on a charge of Cruelty and Assault on my 3 x Great-grandmother, Bessie Shelley.

If you've not read the disgraceful tale, you'll find the details of the case and the tragic outcome for Bessie, on the posts, A Family Secret - the Shocking Truth Part 1, Part 2 and the follow-up stories, Assault and Cruelty - the Perpetrator and Assault and Cruelty - the Victim.

Secrets in print

Then in April, the tragic story of my husband's ancestor, Charles Gabriel Baker, and his fatal journey to Australia in 1868, was published in Family Tree Magazine. (You can read the article on the News page of my website.)

I've since discovered a little more to add to the story, after a descendant of Charles' sons contacted me. I'd lost track of them during my research about Charles and she was able to fill me in with the missing pieces. But more of that next year in a future post. (Warning: have your hankies at the ready!)

Sad loss

Sadly, in May, my dear Dad died, aged 87 and I had the task of preparing the eulogy at his funeral. A childhood accident when he was 7 would prove to have serious consequences. Not only did he have to spend 3 years in hospital, but it left him with a disability which affected his whole life. Not that it stopped him doing very much, mind you, as you can read in my post, Preserving the Mysteries.  And 2017 will continue to be a case of preserving the mysteries as I begin the mammoth taks of scanning in all his photographs, many in 35 mm slide form, of his early adult life as well as lots of me and my sister growing up.

Secrets revealed

The on-going mystery of my Great aunt Annie, Mary Ann Diggory, gave up a few of its secrets later in the year, when I discovered that, despite what we'd always been led to believe,
there had been at least one relative who maintained contact with Annie (possibly furtively) after she walked out of the family home in 1904, aged 16. (See June's post - The Mystery of Mary Ann for the background to the tale).

It seems that Annie's aunt Mary (sister to Annie's mother) took Annie in to her own home at some point after Annie became a nurse. Despite Mary's intervention, however, Annie maintained her estrangement from the rest of the family, even after Mary died, as you can read in The Mystery of Mary Ann - Secrets and Lies. My search continues for clues as to why she left home in the first place.

Looking ahead

So with a new year of research ahead, I've plenty of interesting secrets to unravel. The unnamed photographs below, for a start! 

 New Year's Resolutions

This is also the time, of course, when we make those New Year Resolutions and one of mine (of the family history variety, anyway) is to try and be more systematic with my research. Mind you, that's all very well until something unexpected lands in my Inbox or a new database is released on Ancestry, sending me off down a path I'd never intended to go! But then, that's half the fun, isn't it?

So to end this post, and the year, I wish you all a very


....and may 2017 be filled with intriguing and fascinating stories as a result of your family history endeavours.

See you next year!



For those of you who enjoy reading my Esme Quentin mysteries, I have exciting news....

Coming soon.....

(and to keep you going until the third full length Esme mystery comes out next year)

Death of a Cuckoo

a short novel featuring Esme Quentin 

to be published in early 2017 by sBooks, a new imprint of SilverWood Books.

Click HERE to find out about sBooks.

More information about Death of a Cuckoo will be available shortly.

To be kept updated, sign up for my NEWSLETTER.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Surplus Women - the legacy of WW1

Clarrie, Winifred & Hilda Griffiths
Most of us have them on our tree — Maiden Aunts. My great-aunt, Hilda Victoria Griffiths, depicted right with her sisters, my grandmother Winifred (the youngest) and Clarrie, the eldest of the three, is probably the one I knew best, out of all my maiden aunts.

Often overlooked by family historians for obvious reasons (that the line stops there, as with single men) single women can end up being labelled and dismissed as what's almost become a term of condescension — "spinster".

While the dictionary definition of a spinster is simply "an unmarried woman", the term conjures up society's stereotype — an elderly lady, sitting in a corner knitting, assumed to know little of the "real world", even seen as a bit batty, to be viewed with pity. Or worse, considered a "dried up", embittered old maid who'd been "left on the shelf", to be treated with scorn, mockery and even contempt.

Surplus Women

The unfairness of this attitude was made particularly clear to me this week while reading Singled Out, by Virginia Nicholson which examines the trauma of what the press of the time termed Surplus Women, following the First World War.

The loss of so many young men who'd died in the trenches completely distorted the natural balance of the sexes, confirmed by the 1921 census which revealed that for every 1,000 men of marriageable age, there were around 1,200 women. In consequence, there would be a considerable number of women who would never find a mate, an outcome considered a crisis situation in an era when society saw marriage as every woman's goal.

Hilda (left) with younger sister, Winifred
You would think that, given the status quo was brought about by such traumatic circumstances as a world war, allowances would be made for the women affected. But while there was sympathy and understanding by some, it seems there were others who looked down disdainfully on those women who didn't prove "good enough" in the inevitable competition to find a partner.

Mystery fiancé

Any woman born at the turn of the 20th century, as Hilda was, became a surplus statistic, as did Hilda's sisters — my grandmother, Winifred, who would have been 17 at the end of the war, and Clarrie, who would have been 23.

But Clarrie would be married by 1921 and by 1929 so would Winifred (albeit to a much older man, not of her own generation, though that's another story). But Hilda, born in 1897, would be 32 by the time of Win's marriage, an age considered far too old to have any reasonable hope of attracting a husband.

There was the sniff of a story that Hilda was engaged before the war and that her fiance was killed. Sadly, I have no name and no more information than that to establish the truth of the tale. Perhaps, as I've speculated before, my "unknown soldier" from the tank corps (see Mystery Unravelling... slowly) is the man in question and is the reason why I've been unable to link him to the family tree.

Nieces and nephews

Like many surplus ladies of her generation, however, Hilda was determined to make the most of her life, even if it didn't include a husband and children of her own.

My Rupert, one of many
versions Hilda made
She had several great-nieces and great-nephews who benefited from her love of sewing. Amongst the many things she sewed, she made Rupert Bears for each of us, using patterns she drew herself by hand, so each bear had its own distinctive character. My sister and I considered our own bears to be very precious and were horrified at the way our male cousins played with them, throwing them around through the air in games of derring-do!

Hilda worked for British Rail, having first joined the railways as clerk with the Great Western Railway in 1916. When she retired, she enjoyed travelling around the country visiting friends and family, thanks to the 'perk' of discounted fares as a former employee. 

Hilda's GWR employee entry in 1916
When she wasn't travelling, she lived in a caravan on a residential site in Wolverhampton which my sister and I thought was the most exciting thing in the world. When we visited, we would sit up at the bedroom end of the van at her "dining table" playing with a set of kitchen scales and weights, measuring out rice into different containers.

Hilda's caravan after it was moved to Wales
for family holiday use

Hilda was a great cook, too. In her minute kitchen, she would conjure up the most amazing cakes and biscuits for tea.

When she moved into a long-awaited council flat in the late 1960s (when she would have been around 70 years old) we couldn't understand the appeal over the "romance" of living in a caravan. The fact that she would no longer have to make do with a condensation-inducing gas fire for heating, a chemical loo in a cupboard in the kitchen or trek across the site for a bath, was completely lost on us!

Lost opportunity

Hilda died in 1975 in Codsall, Wolverhampton, aged 77. In life, she was always cheerful, kind, enthusiastic and always busy. I wonder how she felt about being one of the Surplus Women.  Did she, like many who are mentioned in Virginia Nicholson's book, feel that she'd missed out, that she'd been robbed unfairly of a life she might have expected if the war had never happened? If she did, I never saw any sign of it.

And what was the truth about the story of a lost love? That, I fear, may be one of those mysteries which is destined to remain ever secret.


Do you have maiden aunts on your tree? What were they like? If you've any memories to share, I'd be delighted to hear about them.

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Mystery of Mary Ann - looking for connections

One of the things I love about family history research (apart from the thrill of stumbling upon something surprising by accident, of course) is the buzz of gathering together those intriguing bits of information which, could, might, possibly, join together to reveal another long-hidden secret which has so far eluded me.

Mary Ann Diggory in later years
October's been one of those gathering months in my continuing quest to discover more in the intriguing story of my great aunt, Mary Ann Diggory, and what was behind her decision to walk out on her family in 1904, when she was 16. If you're unfamiliar with the background, my post The Mystery of Mary Ann, will fill you in.

After the thrill of unpicking the secret of Mary Ann's connection with Mary Downes in last month's post, I set-to with great determination to see what other gems I could crack.

Murrell Family

I decided first to focus on the Murrell family. Annie, as Mary Ann was generally known, had lived with the Murrell family for several years.

I'd learned from the Registration of Nurses records, that she was living with them at 68 Foregate Street, Shrewsbury in 1937 and was still resident in 1940, after they'd moved to The Gateway, Monkmoor, Shrewsbury. By 1943 she'd moved to her own house at 18 Woodfield Avenue, Shrewsbury, where she remained until she went into a nursing home in the 1980s, towards the end of her life.

Pontesbury connection

So how did she know the Murrell's? As nothing obvious linked her to Edwin Foley Murrell, and I'd drawn a blank on any mention of Annie in his will, I decided to concentrate on his wife, Alice Maud and discovered her maiden name was Randles. Alice's father was Edward Randles, a draper, who was born in Pontesbury in 1838.

The Pontesbury connection was interesting as Annie's mother, Eliza Roberts, had been born in Pontesbury in 1841, as had her brother, Jonathan in 1845 and her father, Timothy Roberts, in 1813. What's more, Alice Murrell moved to a nursing home called Cliffdale, also in Pontesbury, before she died in 1954.

Alice Murrell left a will and I sent for a copy, thinking, again, that Annie may have been mentioned in some way, giving a clue to their association. But no, Alice's beneficiaries were her two sons, her daughters-in-law and her sister, Marian Randles.

But what about Cliffdale House? Had she chosen it because of her family connections in Pontesbury? Or did she perhaps have links to Cliffdale House itself?

Medical link?

Cliffdale is currently a care home and their website told me that it had been a private residence up until 1945. I looked it up on the 1911 census and discovered a surgeon lived there, called Jameson. His first name was listed as Alfred but you might agree from looking at the entry below, that it doesn't look much like Alfred to me! (I'm still trying to work out what it is.)

But whatever his name, was this a link? Did Cliffdale, having a medical connection, have anything to do with Annie becoming a nurse?

And what about the rest of the Randles family? Did the Roberts family and the Randles know one another in Pontesbury? Or was this merely a coincidence?

I'm currently working my way through both families to see if I can tie them up in any way.

Then I plan to turn my attention back to those years after Annie left home but before she began her nursing training in Surrey in 1912. Where was she back then? I still haven't found her on the 1911 census. Was she hiding under an assumed name....?

Perhaps if I gather enough tenuous links, and with a fair wind and the odd lucky break, I might eventually manage to join up the dots! I'll keep you posted.

Friday, 30 September 2016

The Mystery of Mary Ann - secrets and lies

Mary Ann 2 years before she left home
As those of you who read this blog regularly know, one of my family mysteries is that of my great aunt Mary Ann Diggory, or Annie, as she was known.

Annie walked out of the family home in 1904, aged 16 and, it was alleged, never made any contact with her family until she was in her 90s when shortly before she died her local vicar tracked down her youngest and only surviving sibling, my grandmother, Edith Alice, ten years her junior.

The story has always intrigued me. Why did she go? Where did she go? And what happened to her in the intervening years from 1904 until 1982 when she sought out my gran. So since I began my family history research, it's been my mission to find out some answers.

It was no secret that Annie became a nurse, training at Reigate and Redhill Hospital, Surrey between 1912 and 1915.

In the previous post which I wrote about her, I said I'd learned that nurses were obliged to pay for their training and as Annie came from a family of six children and of modest means, I doubted it had been they who paid.

Annie had volunteered for the Red Cross during WW2 and I discovered that she'd given her next of kin, not as a family member but couple she referred to as "friends", Mr & Mrs Edwin F Murrell, of Shrewsbury, whom Annie had been living with in 1939.

Annie during her nursing years
I wondered if the Murrells had been Annie's benefactor and I sent away for Edwin Murrell's will, wondering whether Annie was mentioned in it. But, no. There was no reference to her at all.

However I have discovered something which blows apart the allegation that Annie had no contact with her family during her lifetime in previous years. recently added a database of nurses's registration. Details gave qualifications, where qualified and the entrant's addresses. Annie's name appeared several times over a number of years, the earliest being 1925 when the record shows that by then she had returned to Shrewsbury and was living at 34 Bishop Street.

I decided to check the 1911 census (the closest I could get to this date) to see who was then resident at that address. I discovered a widow, Mary Downes, born in Leebotwood in 1846,  was living there alone and "on own means". So who was Mary Downes, I wondered? A check back to the previous census showed her at the same address. In the census before, in 1891, her husband was still alive, though then they were living in Cannock, Staffordshire, where her husband was a grocer.

Ancestry likes to be as helpful as it can and often makes suggestions as to other records which fit the person being investigated. I saw that a Mary Downes had died in 1935 and that her will was listed in the probate registry. I clicked on the entry and bingo! One of her beneficiaries was none other than Mary Ann Diggory!

But what was the connection? I knew from the 1891 census that Mary's husband was Samuel Downes so I searched the marriages on FreeBMD for Samuel Downes in Shropshire hoping that would give me more information. There was a Samuel Downes who'd married a Mary Finch but that didn't ring any bells.

Then another of Ancestry's prompts pointed me towards marriages across the border in Staffordshire and I hit the jackpot. Samuel Downes had married Mary Roberts, father, Timothy Roberts in 1890, in Sedgely, Staffordshire, the same place where Annie's family lived. Roberts was the maiden name of Annie's mother, Eliza. Elisa's father was also called Timothy and her elder brother, Thomas, had been born in Leebotwood, like Mary. Got it! Mary was Eliza's sister and therefore Annie's aunt!

While it's comforting to know Annie wasn't completely estranged from her family, I'm curious about who knew that Annie was living with her aunt. Was it a secret between the sisters, perhaps? Or was Mary the only family member not to turn her back on the young woman?

That, sadly, sounds like the case given that Mary died in 1935 and if bridges had been mended during her lifetime, Annie wouldn't have cited the Murrells as her next of kin during the 1940s.

But I still don't even know what her connection was with the Murrells! As ever, the mystery continues and the search for the truth goes on.


I found Annie living with the Murrells on the 1939 Register. You can search the database via Findmypast website.

If you know when someone died, you can search the probate records and order a copy of a will via the government Probate website.