Sunday 17 June 2018

If you haven't checked out my new "Bite-size Blog" yet, you might like to nip across and have a look at some of the latest Family History posts.

There's a World War Two mystery surrounding an alleged secret visit by Winston Churchill to the house where my grandparents worked...

There's the terrifying story of my mum's lucky escape from a WW2 bomb which landed at the bottom of her bed.... Was it all the fault of her grandfather, Jack?

There's the can of worms I open up when I decide it really is about time to get a full copy of my birth certificate instead of the "short version" I've only ever had until now..

And there's the story of Poor Old George, my great uncle, whose WW1 injury seems to have been overlooked in the family history memories, in favour of his brother's...

You'll also find other posts, too, about books I've read and how family history inspires my writing!

Monday 19 March 2018

An abundance of stories - and the new bite-size blog!

Scandal, bigamy, double lives, tragedy, mystery, criminality – I've uncovered them all, and more, in the four years I've been writing this blog about my family history research. (And if this is your first visit here, please click on the list of previous posts on the right hand side of this page to read more about those intriguing stories!)

Choosing what to write about from the vast array of potential subjects can be almost impossible. And then when you do decide, as I mentioned in a recent post, the gaps of knowledge become suddenly obvious, sending you scurrying off in all directions to dig around for more information in order to tell a complete story. Before you realise it, a task which you thought would take moments to put together, has expanded into several days' work!

Hotch-potch files

The result of this rather ad-hoc approach to family history research is that it creates a hotch-potch collection of files, some bulging at the seams with information and others with very slim pickings.

So I've decided that 2018 is going to be the year in which I tackle this imbalance. I intend to put all the stories I've uncovered into some semblance of order and to identify those branches with glaring gaps, adding in any research I can do along the way. There's nothing like starting a new year with a sense of purpose, is there?

Also on my hit list, are my most recent acquisitions left by my late dad – boxes of 35 mm slide photos, a pile of photograph albums, Scouting memorabilia, badges, postcards, jewellery, old passports, driving licences, letters, hotel receipts, theatre programmes, newspaper cuttings and scribbled notes. And, as you may imagine, I have my own personal memories to add to the stories represented by all these fabulous resources.

Childhood photos

I've already made a start in this department by scanning in slides of little 'ole me in the early 1960s, as you can see below! There are still plenty more years yet to do, though...

New Bite-size blog

So while I'm browsing my archives, and, inevitably, following trails inspired by the discovery of old photographs, letters and documents, rather than wait for the full story's conclusion, why not come along with me and share the intriguing puzzles and clues along the way by looking in on my new "BITE-SIZE" blog on my website?

Just click on the link below the typewriter to see what I'm up to... See you there!

Tuesday 12 December 2017

A year of mysteries

With Christmas around the corner, it's that time of year when we peer over our shoulders to look back at the months past. And glancing through my blog posts, I'm actually quite pleased at the one or two mysteries I've solved in 2017.

First, the mystery Mr Vincent, was finally unmasked. Not that I'm much closer to finding out why his photograph was amongst my family snaps, mind you, but it's still good to know who he is.

I still have a theory that he may have some association with the story about my great aunt and a lost love but unless I find someone to verify the connection, I fear it'll always be one of those unsolvable mysteries, on which I can only speculate. Which is a shame. But I shall keep trundling on. You never know...

January saw the "finding" of missing brothers, Charles Alfred Baker and Edward Ernest Baker, whose father, Charles Gabriel Baker had travelled to Australia in 1867 in the hope of a future in the colony, only for tragedy to strike when he died of consumption within 6 months of arrival.

When their mother Susan Baker returned to England after her husband's death, the four brothers were separated and I'd only managed to track the two younger boys... until this year, when I was contacted by a descendant of Charles junior and I discovered the elder brothers' fascinating story, involving desertion from the navy and jumping ship in Rio de Janeiro!

But there's still plenty of work left to do. For instance, why did my grandfather Herbert Colley post the banns of his wedding, twice, to a lady he never did marry? What was the book that Mr Baker was holding in his hand in that photograph of 1865? And what did Uncle Theo do in WW1? And that's only three questions. I'm sure many more will surface in the coming months.

For now, though, I'd like to update you on a previous post concerning the Mystery Percivals and the fascinating book charting the history of the Northampton branch of the Percival family (no relation, as far as I can tell).

I was recently contacted by the son of Brigadier E L Percival, a co-author of The Percival Book, after a member of the family had stumbled upon my blog. He told me that Lady Percival, who, at 92 had been the oldest member at the reunion mentioned in a paper inside the book, had gone on to reach her 100th birthday.

By a strange coincidence he lives in Devon, less than an hour away from where I live! We have exchanged emails and I plan to reunite him with his family's book at some point in the near future, which seems only appropriate.

Well, on that comforting thought, I've just time to thank you for dropping in on my blog. 

I hope you'll visit again soon to discover what family secrets I unearth and which mysteries I manage to solve in 2018.

Meanwhile, I'll wish you...


Saturday 11 November 2017

WW1 stories – the mysterious Uncle Theo

Someone said during Twitter's #AncestryHour recently that writing a blog post often took her a long time as information gaps suddenly opened up in front of her, sending her digging around looking for answers. This post was definitely one of those!

With Armistice Day almost upon upon us, I thought I'd pull up what I could about the Percival WW1 ancestors. I had two potential leads – my husband's grandfather, Hector Percival, and Hector's brother Theodore. I decided to start with Theodore, not least because he's always been a bit of a mystery – and we all know what fun a mystery is!

Uncle Theo

We believe the photograph on the left of the man wearing Navy uniform is "Uncle Theo". It's dated 1918. The little boy behind him is my husband's father, Dennis, aged 4.

Despite what seems like this hard evidence of Theo's navy career, his name doesn't appear in any of the Navy's records I've looked at so far. Not all WW1 records survived. Many were lost during the bombings in WW2, so this may be why his are missing.

Of course it could mean that this isn't Theo but we do know that he did have naval connections – firstly because of what I've recently uncovered about his line of work and secondly because of the location of his death.

Theo was born in Clacton-on-Sea, in Essex in 1892, the younger son of Shadrack and Mary Ann Percival.

On the 1911 census, he's listed as an apprentice engineer. You may be able to make out the "visitor" on the census return – Dorothy Mary Tate. This is the woman Theodore would marry four years later.

But for some reason, they couple tied the knot in Northampton. Not only that, but neither of Theo's parents were witnesses on the marriage certificate, suggesting they didn't attend the wedding.

courtesy of
I'm not aware of any connection that either Theo or Dorothy had to Northampton, so perhaps Theo was working there. He's living in Forfar Street, at the same address as his witnesses, and his occupation is recorded as "mechanical engineering draftsman". Dorothy's address is in Middlesex, so no obvious link there.

 Did the war influence their decision to marry?

In autumn of that year, 1915, The Derby Scheme, was introduced, which assessed whether the fighting force's needs could be met by volunteers alone. Any men not volunteering would have to attest to being in an "essential" occupation. The anticipated plan caused a surge in recruitment as men preferred to avoid the ignominy of being "fetched" to serve their country.

As Theo and Dorothy married by licence, perhaps Theo had decided to join up at this time, and it was for logistical and expediency reasons they chose the location. Perhaps it was too difficult for Theo's parents to travel to Northampton.

Marriage certificate anomaly 

A bizarre anomaly appears on the couple's marriage certificate. Shadrack's occupation is recorded as "architect" when in fact he was a postman. A transcription error? Or some other reason? I've always wondered whether Theo was trying to imply his origins were a little further up the social scale than they really were, not least because Northampton was the location of a more affluent branch of Percivals. As far as I know there's no direct link on the tree but perhaps Theo had aspirations!

© crown copyright courtesy of Findmypast
And so back to Theo's naval connections and a big jump ahead. It's his occupation recorded on the 1939 Register on Findmypast, which shows an interesting link with the Navy.

Theo, Dorothy and their 2 children, Enid born in 1917 and John born in 1919, are living in Bexhill, Essex at this time. Theo's work concurs with his engineering background and he's recorded as being a Supervisor on the design of the Director of Fire control of naval ordnance. 

From online conversations with other family historians via Facebook's Ancestry & Genealogy Discussion Group, I've learned that this was a Whitehall Department. Two passenger records from 1933 show that Theo travelled to Argentina, accompanied by two engineering colleagues, suggesting that his trip was work related. I wonder what he went to South America to do? Another avenue of research to follow!

Theo's death

One more leap ahead to Theodore's death which took place in 1966 and another naval connection is confirmed by his death certificate. He died of heart attack in the Seamen's Hospital in Greenwich, a service set up many years before specifically to benefit naval servicemen.

While Theo's WW1 service remains a mystery, at least I seem to have stumbled upon his contribution during WW2. But it's a huge gap between that 1918 photograph of him in uniform and 1939. There's still a lot more yet to uncover about the mystery of Uncle Theo!


Useful websites for WW1 research:

Thursday 12 October 2017

The dark side

The wonderful BBC TV comedy Dad's Army may have left us with an impression that WW2's Home Guard was a group of bungling amateurs and a bit of a joke, but during my research for the latest Esme Quentin novel, The Malice of Angels, I discovered there was a much darker and deadlier side to our Local Defence Volunteers as they were originally called.

My grandfather, Ernest 'George' Shelley served in the Home Guard and I have his "Certificate of Proficiency" and the associated badge.

The form certifies that Granddad was proficient in using a rifle and a grenade – no doubt from his previous military experience during WW1, as was the case with many members of the Home Guard.  It also notes his ability to use a B.A.R., the Browning Automatic Rifle issued to the Home Guard at the time.

The Dad's Army image did have some element of truth to it, however. There were weapons shortages and volunteers were forced to practice drill using whatever they had to hand, including brooms and golf clubs!

The secret army

But as well as this visible force, there was another covert group of individuals, ready to become a thorn in the side of the enemy should the worst happen and Britain be invaded by Germany. These were the auxiliaries, trained in the sort of guerrilla and sabotage tactics being undertaken by secret agents in occupied Europe.

A bunker's secret entrance
© Copyright James T M Towill 
Hiding places, along with ammunition stores, were created all over the country, unknown to even the local population. If invasion happened, these trained men would retreat to their hide-outs, ready to disrupt the activities of the enemy at every opportunity.

Fortunately for Britain, they were never needed and such places were dismantled after the war. 

One such example has been recreated on the Coleshill estate in Oxfordshire, owned by the National Trust.

You can take a peep inside the bunker shortly before it opened to the public in 2012, courtesy of a BBC camera crew, by clicking HERE 

The video also includes an interview with Bob Millard, who served as an auxiliary during the war when he was a teenager.

Plot inspiration

I can't imagine my grandfather was a member of this clandestine group – at least, I've found no evidence so far! – but I still found the story about the auxiliaries fascinating. 
I discovered that there'd been a hiding place very near to where I used to live and a secret ammunition store only a few hundred yards away. 

Research into the activities of this secret group stirred in my writer's brain and found its way into the plot of The Malice of Angels

If you're keen to find out in what way such secrets from the past impact on Esme's story, then click on the title to learn more.


An excellent book which tells the story of Britain's Secret Resistance, is THE LAST DITCH, by David Lampe

Another, telling the true stories of the West Country at war, is SOUTH WEST SECRET AGENTS , by Laura Quigley

Tuesday 12 September 2017

The mysterious Mr Baker

You know how it is – the photo album full of photos and no names. But how about this? A named photograph, of a Mr Baker (yes, great, it matches the family name) but which one? There seemed to be none who fit. Or perhaps there is...

According to a very useful website I learned about recently called , this photo was taken in 1865, when the photographic company who printed it were in operation at the address cited on the back.

Assuming the photograph was taken around the same time as it was printed, it should be easy enough to identify him. But therein lies a problem. I find it extremely difficult with old photos to guess ages accurately.

Apparently, I'm not alone. From the response I've had asking other family historians, it seems we tend to see our ancestors in photographs as being much older than they really are, so, at my estimate of around 40 years, I could be way off the mark.

As soon as I realised that, I got quite excited as it may mean that, perhaps, I can match him to someone on the tree, after all.

Mystery document

You'll notice that the gentleman in question is holding some sort of book or major document in his hand.  Has the photograph has been taken to mark the occasion of the document's publication, perhaps? But what could it be?

I decided to enlist the help of my fellow family historians on Twitter and amongst the responses, I received two surprises.

Firstly, the general consensus was that Mr Baker was younger than my estimate and so could conceivably be the man I hoped. And the other was the comment that he looked like a "typical Victorian composer" and suggesting that the document was a music score.

That was music to my ears (ouch! sorry...) as my hope was that this was a photograph of Charles Gabriel Baker, the professor of music who travelled to Australia but sadly died of consumption, aged only 32 (read the article I wrote for Family Tree magazine about his story HERE).

Teacher training

It seemed as good a prompt as any to explore more about his journey to becoming a music professor. Where had he learned his profession? Having been born in Marylebone, could it have been at one of the prestigious music colleges in London?

I knew Charles had begun his teaching career as a pupil teacher, as he's listed as such on the 1851 census. By the time of his marriage to Susan Sawyer in 1856, he's a fully fledged school teacher and by 1861, he's calling himself a professor of music. So what about the years in between being a pupil teacher and working as a teacher when he got married?

I made enquiries of the Royal Academy of Music, in Marylebone and the library assistant kindly checked her records but found nothing. She did explain, however, that the terminology of "professor" could be used quite freely and may be just another interpretation of "teacher." She suggested that I contact the Royal College of Music to see if my man attended there.

A fantastic find

But I never got that far, because on a whim, I googled Charles Gabriel Baker and to my astonishment, I found his name in a book published by The National Society – what a find!

The National Society was established in 1811 to promote, "the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales" resulting in the setting up of the well known National Schools across the country.

St Mark's College, Chelsea

Naturally, this endeavour required school teachers and so the society purchased Stanley House on the King's Road in Chelsea and founded St Mark's College for teacher training in 1841, which would later merge with St John's college in 1923 and move to Plymouth in the 1970s (now known as Plymouth Marjon).

Charles was one of their trainee teachers and the book I'd stumbled across was their publication listing examination results of the year 1854, when Charles was in his second year. It doesn't look as though he was an A1 student, though, as his name appears under the list entitled, Third Class. 

Students joined the college between the ages of 15 to 17 and if they passed their three month probation, they began their teacher training apprenticeship. Training took three years and, as well as the religious side of  college life – the core of The National Society's ethos – a diverse range of topics were covered, in addition to general education, such as the industrial system, the business of male servants in the house, managing the farm produce, and gardening. So, no mention of music. Perhaps Charles's music talents were already established via some other influence or had yet to be discovered?


It was fascinating to add more to Charles's story, even though we know that fate was to deal him a cruel blow and that his teaching career, and indeed his life, would be cut short.

It would be lovely to think that the photograph really is of him. He looks like a friendly soul, don't you think? And that document – could it be a piece of music? He certainly looks very proud of it! Perhaps it will be one of those things we'll never find out.


Maybe you have ancestors who trained at St Mark's college, Chelsea. You can check in The National Society's Forty-Third Annual report, 1854

You can find out more about the National Society HERE

Saturday 12 August 2017

A Special Post - meet genealogist Dr Janet Few

In a departure from the usual content of this blog – my current dabbling in my family history research – I'd like, on this occasion, to introduce you to a proper genealogist!

Please welcome, historian and author, Janet Few.

I first met Janet in Walter Henry's Bookshop in Bideford, when she was dressed as her alter-ego, Mistress Agnes, talking about the whys and wherefores of 16th and 17th century clothing.

And fascinating it was too – there are so many clothes-related sayings we use which originate from the period. Straight-laced being one I recall her explaining...

But I digress. You'll have to read Janet's book, Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs – one of her many publications – to find out more.

Mistress Agnes is one of the historic characters brought to life through Sword and Spindles . With their interactive living history presentations, they travel all over the country and overseas (check out the news page on their website for their latest adventure) covering subjects such as plague and pestilence, crime and punishment, the history of medicine and witchcraft.

And if writing books and enactment wasn't enough, Janet also offers a variety of historic research services. So I was delighted when she found a few minutes in her busy schedule to answer a few questions.

I started by asking her...

When did you decide to become a genealogist? It wasn’t a conscious decision. When I was seven I drew up a family tree on the back of large cardboard adverts for dog food and I was hooked. I started seriously researching twelve years later and suddenly I found that various aspects of family, social and community history had taken over my life.
How lovely to start so young! I bet a lot of us wish we'd begun earlier.

What's the most frustrating brick wall you've broken through? It took me 37 years to find the parents of my 6 x great-grandfather in my direct paternal line.
A lesson to us all, not to give up!

What gave you the idea for Swords and Spindles? I was working as an historical interpreter for a tourist attraction, which was closing down. Some of the staff felt that it was too good an idea to let go, so although we do not have premises, we still inhabit the C17th and travel around the world bringing history to life.
It's such a fabulous idea and great fun, I would imagine. Both for spectators and player alike!

Tell us the sorts of things you do as Mistress Agnes. Amongst other things, I give people make-overs C17th style, concoct herbal cures, avoid detection by the witchfinder and explain what to look for in a good set of armour.
Very handy life skills!  How to avoid the witchfinder sounds particularly intriguing.

You’ve written several history non-fiction books. Which did you enjoy writing the most? It is difficult to decide, as I’ve enjoyed them all in different ways. Helping 80 women recall their memories of 1946-1969 for Remember Then was very rewarding. 
And I enjoyed reading it too. It inspired me to begin writing down my own memories and to encourage others to do likewise.

I also feel that the booklet Harnessing the Facebook Generation: ideas for involving young people in family history and heritage has something very important to say.
I know you are passionate about getting young people involved in history. I think the book's a brilliant idea. 

You’ve recently turned to writing fiction. Are you enjoying the change? Yes. I have become really excited by the way that the story is evolving. It is not without its problems though. I am not used to writing dialogue, so that is a challenge. The fact that the plot is based on a true story makes it difficult for me to leave my historian head behind. I have to convince myself that it really doesn’t matter if I can’t solve a research problem, I can just make it up!
Basing it on a true story must make it even more difficult than starting with everything made up! But I do understand what it's like to stumble upon a fascinating real event and want to get it out there. 

Tell us a little about the story. It is about a North Devon family who were exposed to the dangers of disease and of the First World War but for one young woman, it was her own mother who posed the greatest threat of all. The story investigates what it was about the mother’s origins in an isolated rural community that would drive an ordinary fisherman’s wife to take desperate measures in order to preserve her sanity? The plot is based on a real scandal that lay hidden for nearly a century. Rooted in its unique and beautiful geographical setting, it is the unfolding of a past that reverberates unhappily through the generations and of raw emotions that are surprisingly modern in character.
There's nothing quite like a good old fashioned historic scandal! I'm really looking forward to reading it when it's published. 

Have you any other writing projects planned? I need to say no. I really need to say no but my interest is sparked by so many things. I am fascinated by the history of ill health, particularly mental ill-health. Then I should finally get round to writing up all the biographies I have collected of C19th emigrants from North Devon. Oh and then there’s the novel that I was going to write before ‘Daisy’ popped up and said ‘write me’. Has anyone actually worked out how to get 48 hours into each day? 
I think we'd all like to know that particular trick, Janet!

If you'd like to find out more about Janet, her books and the historic presentations of Sword and Spindles, then drop into her website The History Interpreter for all the details.

It just leaves me to say a huge THANK YOU to Janet for taking time to answer my questions and for appearing on this blog post.