Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Mystery man identified!

Yes! At last! I now know who my distinguished serviceman is! Of course, that's not to say that I've established exactly... who he is... But more on that later...

Those of you who've read this blog for a while will know that I've always been baffled by this gentleman, whose photograph, dated August 1918, I found amongst the family documents. My late aunt believed him to be Vincent Talbot and had written that name on the back, along with that of his alleged mother.

But I hit a brick wall trying to find him on the family tree. The lady who was supposed to be his mother did not, as far as I could establish, have any sons.

Twitter help

Posting the photograph on Twitter resulted in feedback from some eagle-eyed tweeter who quite rightly noticed that the name Vincent, signed on the front of the photo, was his surname, accompanied by the initials C and J.

More investigation, and confirmation from a military expert, told me that his cap badge revealed him to have been in the Tank Corps. But although I searched various databases for a Sergeant C J Vincent, and came across potential matches, such as Charles James and Charles Joseph, there was no obvious connection with "my man" to draw any firm conclusions.

Pause for breath

So, as often happens, another mystery pushed its way to the front of the queue and I became involved in other things. Until I joined the Facebook group, Staffordshire & Ancestry Genealogy.... I posted a photo of my mystery man and I got a breakthrough!

I'm indebted to Bryan Johncock of the group who not only identified his initials as G J not C J, but armed with that knowledge, found his military records on Find My Past.

Attestation form of George J Vincent
So... meet George James Vincent, a sergeant in the tank corps, regimental number 205517! 

But, as all good family historians should, I cautioned myself not to get too carried away until I could verify that we were talking about the same man. 

So you can imagine my excitement when, using Bryan's information to locate George on Ancestry, I came across this  military record – his Service Attestation form from 1916.

When I homed in on the signature, I recognised it immediately. It's the same as the one on my photograph!



About the man

George James Vincent was born in Chepstow, Monmouthshire, Wales, in 1893 to Henry and Mary Vincent (nee Head). His father was a grocer and the couple had seven children – Mabel, Henry, George, Hilda, James, Lilian and (Phyllis) Madge. 

The 1911 census shows George as a solicitor's clerk. His father was a Grocer manager in Chepstow and his elder brother, Henry, was also in the grocery trade as an assistant.

In 1916 George joined the Motor Machine Gun Service which would go on to be incorporated into the Tank Corps. A fascinating book called The Most Secret Place on Earth, by Roger Pugh, tells the story of the development of the tank in WW1. The book logs the early days of gathering men with an engineering background to train to drive the new secret machines and eventually take their expertise out to the battlefields in France.

As for George's role, I'm still getting my head round the vagaries of the battalions and units and regiments... but hope to report back soon in more detail on his service career once I've unravelled the relevant tangled military ribbons. 

Meanwhile, I can tell you that George married Ena Edna Thorne in July 1918, in Tidenham, in Gloucestershire. (Bizarrely, this portion of Gloucestershire was under the Chepstow registration district until 1937 when it became part of The Forest of Dean, which caused me some initial confusion!) If you cast a glance at the marriage entry below, you might recognise the signature!













As you can see, George is living in Wool, Dorset, at the time of his wedding – which is just down the road from Bovington, where in 1916 the Machine Gun Corps relocated from Norfolk and, of course, is where today you'll find the Bovington Tank Museum. Time for a visit there, I think!

Now, while I'm thrilled to finally know who my distinguished military man is, I'm still no closer to understanding why his photograph was in with my own family collection!  I've found no common surnames within his immediate family which might suggest a link, leaving me plenty of digging left to do to solve that particular part of the mystery. So this really is only Part One of the journey.

But, fear not, I have a few ideas and I'm already following up some leads. So I'll be back again when I've got more to report. Watch this space!

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Meanwhile, the website The Long, Long Trail is extremely useful if you're about to embark upon a search for WW1 information on an ancestor of your own.

And if you do track something down, you may like to post it on Lives of the First World War which is logging as many personal stories as it can for future generations to read.


Monday, 8 May 2017

Mystery Percivals

Some years ago our son stumbled upon a publication entitled The Percival Book in a junk shop. Wondering if it was connected with our side of the family, he bought it and presented it to us as a Christmas present.

Disappointingly, though, a summary glance at the book's contents suggested that we weren't part of this particular branch – ours being descended from "Ag Labs" and this one containing the occasional baronet and people with letters after their names – and so it was shelved and forgotten about.

Then, the other day I came across the book while searching for something else (why does it always happen that way?) and with a good deal more family history experience under my belt than first time around, I decided to take a closer look.

The blue fabric-bound hard-back book had been compiled in 1970 by Alicia Constance Percival and her cousin, Brigadier Edward Lewis Percival – the flysheet is signed by the authors. At 148 pages, plus old black and white photographs and a number of family tree diagrams at the back, it's a fabulous family record. An order form I found inside reveals that at the time of publication a copy cost 30/- (helpfully translated into "new" money – £1.50 – in readiness for decimalisation due to come in the following year).

The flysheet with authors' signatures

Family Reunion


It seems the book was put together for a family reunion held on 13th December 1970 at Kimsbury House, Gloucestershire, where the Percivals had lived for a number of years. Sadly I've not been able to find any image of the house, but it's a Grade II listed building and its listing entry reveals that it was built around 1884 and styled with Queen Anne and Jacobean influences. It was appraised as, "an accomplished late Victorian house of considerable landscape impact".

At the time of the grand reunion, Alicia's aunt, Lady Percival (with the wonderful name of Henrietta Lucilla Vigne Percival – she'd married her cousin, Alicia's Uncle John Hope Percival) was the oldest living Percival, at the age of 92. 

Tucked inside the book is a type-written list of all those who attended the gathering, stating where they'd travelled from, along with a brief note to explain their family connection.

Detail

But it's the detailed content within its pages which is so impressive and must have taken a long time to gather and collate. From the earliest recorded ancestor – William Percival, who died in 1679 – each member of the family is listed in alphabetical order, along with the name of their parents and a summary of key elements in their life history. 

Alicia's baptism record
Alicia's entry tells us that she was educated at Sherborne School for Girls and St Hugh's college, Oxford, that she'd travelled extensively in India and Egypt, teaching and lecturing. During the Second World War, she had been secretary to the Women's Land Army in the Middle East between 1941 and 1945. At the end of the entry are listed the academic books she'd written, including her latest publication, Very Superior Men – some early public school headmasters and their achievements. A leaflet with more details and an order form was amongst the loose papers tucked inside.

There is so much information here, it will take me a while to read it through, as those particularly active Percivals, especially those who served in the military, are mentioned in additional accounts complied from diaries and other records. To complete the compilation, there are 7 pull-out family tree diagrams of different branches of the family from various parts around the UK. 

Northampton

Northampton seems to be where the Percival family originated which caused us to raise an eyebrow. My husband's great uncle, Theodore Percival, moved to Northampton and married there in 1915. 

On his marriage certificate, his father, Shadrack Percival, is stated as being an architect, when, in fact, he was a postman. Great Uncle Theo does not feature much in the family memory and the impression has always been that Theo distanced himself from his family back in Essex. Was Theo aware of the more affluent Northampton Percivals and tried to imply that his heritage lay there in an effort to impress, rather than admit to his more modest ancestry? 

Sad discovery

As I browsed through The Percival Book, I noticed a scribbled note had been added to Alicia's entry, referring the reader to the entry of her brother, David Athelstane Percival. When I found the relevant page, I saw that there was another additional note in the same hand. It read: "Died of food poisoning with his sister Alicia when she was staying with him, 1987." 

Sure enough, their deaths are both listed in the same month – September 1987 – and was announced in The TimesA sad ending to a long and active life. Alicia was 84 and her brother was 81.

What's interesting is that David lived in Great Baddow, Essex, only around 20 miles from Great Tey, where our very own "Ag Lab" Percivals originated. A coincidence? Or was there a particular reason why he settled there after spending so much time abroad during his life. It will be interesting to study the book and see if I can find any connections!

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Are you related to the Percivals? Do you recognise this particular branch? Do you know of this amazing book? I'd love to hear from you.



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.

Discovered!


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! 


Dishonour


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!


Occupations


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 wikimedia.org)
cause
is written the word 'Run' and 'Rio de Janeiro.'

Deserter

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

MERRY CHRISTMAS 


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

See you next year!


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NEWS...NEWS...NEWS...NEWS...NEWS...NEWS...NEWS...

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.


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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.