Sunday, 26 January 2014

Tantalizing clues...

My husband never met his grandfather, Alfred Joseph Saunders, as he died many years before he was born. All he knew about him was that was born in Fulham, and had been a joiner.

The other day we came across a set of postcards which Alfred had sent to his young daughter while he was in France during WWI. The postcards, 17 in total, generally depicted children, often holding flowers and expressing sentiments such as Anniversaire or Bonne Fete. 

One read: "My darling little girl, I hope you are keeping well also that you will have a happy Xmas. I suppose you will have all your little friends into tea. With love and kisses, from Dada xxxxxxxx"

All the cards expressed similar messages of affection, from a loving father to his daughter and only child.

On closer inspection, some of the cards had an address - Hut Q, RAF Vendome, France. His service number was also recorded on a few.

Vendome was the site of the Royal Naval Air Training Establishment (RNATE) formed in April 1916. Two years later in 1918, the service was merged with the Royal Flying Corps. (RFC) and became the RAF.

A brief check on the forces war records database listed a A.J. Saunders as an engineer. As a joiner, his skills may have been used in the maintenance of the wooden bi-planes of those early days. No doubt I shall find out more as I research our WWI ancestors, as is my intention during this centenary year of 2014.

But for now, our intrigue was piqued by two other postcards in the pile. These were dated August 1929 and were posted in the UK, from Patching in West Sussex. One showed the Music Pavilion, Worthing, the other was of Patching Pond showing the pub, The Horse and Groom.

The Horse and Groom Inn, Patching Pond,
now renamed The Worlds End

So why was Alfred doing in Patching?

One of the messages read: I arrived all right, Bus into Patching (8.30) You can get a bus to anywhere from Patching. Love Dad. Added almost as an afterthought at the top of the postcard were the words Keeping fine.

But was he? And did his trip have anything to do with what happened three weeks later? Did he visit the south coast for health reasons?

Sadly, on 29th August 1929, Alfred Joseph Saunders died of pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) aged only 45. No doubt leaving behind a very broken-hearted daughter.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

No hiding place...?

 Queen Victoria 1837-1901

This week, on 22nd January, is the anniversary of Queen Victoria's death in 1901. The Victorian era was a period in which there were many changes and innovations - the birth of photography, the coming of the railways and advances in industrial technology, postage stamps and the invention of the telephone, amongst others, not to mention the first public toilets appearing on London streets (known as 'halting stations') following their success at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Two significant advances from a family historian's perspective were the introduction of of civil registration in 1837, the year Victoria came to the throne, and the first 'proper' census, where individual names were recorded, in 1841.

Both systems were regarded with some suspicion and not a little confusion. People often assumed that the registering of births, marriages and deaths wasn't required if there had been a baptism, wedding or burial in church - one reason that there are gaps in the records.

Another reason was the way such information was compiled. Until 1874 it was the responsibility of the registrar to seek out and record all births and deaths in his district. An onerous task which, unsurprisingly, led to an estimated 15% of such events being missed. After this date an act of parliament shifted the responsibility to the persons concerned, with fines if the information was not registered within a set period of time.  If parents missed the deadline for registering a birth, the option of not bothering at all might prove more appealing than paying the fine. In one recorded case, the parents of a new baby boy not only gave him the name of his deceased elder brother (not an uncommon practice at the time, with infant mortality being what it was), but actually went as far as reusing his dead sibling's birth certificate rather than register the name for a second time!

As with civil registration, the census had its dissenters, considered by some as a grave invasion of privacy. Many went to great lengths to ensure they weren't at home when the enumerator called to record the inhabitants of the household.

It is said that JMW Turner, the painter, spend census night on board a boat moored in the Thames in order to avoid being included in the records. In another case, two sisters, so opposed to the system, hired a cab and spent all night driving around the lanes so as not to be at home for the official's knock on the door.

If any of your ancestors are missing from the records, perhaps it's because they felt the same way.


You can search the birth, marriage and death indexes on or the censuses on Both are part of FreeUKGEN, set up to make records relevant to UK genealogy available to search for free online.

You may wish to make a donation to help with running costs, as it is a charity organisation, or even volunteer to help transcribe those records which have yet to be added to the database.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Lost at sea?

As one of the comments left during the Midwinter Blog Hop confirmed, families being forced apart in times of hardship was not uncommon. When Charles Gabriel Baker died in Australia in 1868 (read his story here) and his wife Susan returned to England, their four sons were separated. The youngest, Frank Chittenden Baker was only 3 years old and stayed with his mother but the other boys were sent to different orphanages and schools.

Later records suggest that Frank and his brother Harry Morris, two years older than Frank, remained in contact in later life, but the whereabouts of the two elder brothers is still not clear.

I found the eldest brother, Charles Alfred Baker (known in the family as Alfred) on the 1871 census, 3 years after the tragedy, aged 12, listed as an inmate of King Edward's School, in Godalming, Surrey. His place of birth was recorded as Stevenage, Hertfordshire, though the family were actually living in Lambeth at the time. He was baptized at St Mary's the Less, as his father taught music at the school there. Whether his mistake was because he'd been too young when the family moved to Stevenage to genuinely remember where he'd been born or whether he had other reasons why he'd given Hertfordshire as his place of birth, is impossible to say.

King Edward's School was originally founded in 1553 and was known as Bridewell, after Edward VI gifted Bridewell Palace to be used to house destitute children in London. Initially the school provided trade and domestic skills to boys, and later girls. Spinning and weaving along with other skills were taught, as well as basic education of reading, writing, grammar and music. It also had a strong naval tradition.

A few years before Alfred joined, the boys' school had moved to Surrey (the girls stayed in London) and was renamed after its original benefactor, though the principles of the school remained.

I was given permission by the school to access their admission book in The Guildhall Library in London. It showed that Alfred had arrived at the school in February 1871, having spent the previous two months working in an ironmongers shop. His character on admission was noted as being "difficult to control", though on a positive note, he was reported as a "good shoemaker".

Alfred's stay at the school lasted two years until he was 15. He was discharged on October 6th 1873 and sent to join the Royal Navy, training on HMS Vincent, in Portsmouth.

Training ship similar to St Vincent (

The tradition for giving orphans and poor boys the opportunity to pursue a naval career dates back to the mid 18th century when the Royal Navy found itself short of volunteers at the start of the Seven Years' War. With the rise in population and an increase in poverty and destitution in the 19th century, there was no shortage of suitable candidates to fill similar roles, at a time when Britain was reliant on its ships for both trade and defence.

Poor Alfred would no doubt have found life hard on HMS Vincent. At the time he became a "trainee", the navy's reputation for excessive discipline, especially with the dreaded 'cat' (cat-o-nine-tails), was notorious. Statistics for HMS Vincent showed that there were 14 floggings on board in 1864, the highest number amongst the training ships listed.

The Cat-o-nine-tails

Concerned at the Navy's poor PR, and perhaps conscious of a recent scandal of excessive punishment of boys aboard the Trident in 1861, the Admiralty appointed Commander Ryder to investigate a year later. In contrast to the increasing discomfort of politicians and reformers, comments and letters from ships' captains to Ryder clearly show that such discipline was considered vital in keeping control of the boys and to ensure the appropriate 'motivation' in their becoming worthy seamen.

Boys on HMS "St Vincent" in 1868
courtesy of Colin Farrell

Nevertheless, Ryder's report did result in discipline being standardised and use of the 'cat' being forbidden on young boys. However regulations only applied to instances of formal punishments. Casual or on-the-spot discipline was not covered and anecdotal evidence suggests the use of alternative instruments of flagellation continued. Would Alfred, once described as "difficult to control" have found himself subjected to such punishments?

To date, I have no information as to what happened to Alfred afterwards. How long did he remain in the Navy? Did something befall him at sea? So far I've not located a death certificate for him.

As usual, as one part of the story is told, there is more is yet to uncover...


Information on discipline in the Royal Navy can be found at World Corporal Punishment Research,

The history of King Edward's School can be found here.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The terror of disease

Laid low by a cold over the Christmas period my thoughts turned to our ancestors and their experiences of illness.

The list of 19th century childhood diseases, often fatal, and from which we are largely protected these days - measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough and mumps - was little different from that of the mid 17th century. Disease diagnosis might have been more accurate but little progress had been made in its cure.

The 18th century had seen a surge in the setting up of charitable hospitals, such as Guys and The London but they relied entirely on charitable donations and although they had the capacity to accommodate many patients, by Victorian times few had the funding for the nurses to tend to them. Consequently beds lay empty, even though they were sorely needed.

Meanwhile, newspaper advertisements offered their own solutions. A colourless and tasteless liquid called Glykaline claimed, in 1872, that if taken quarter hourly, it would "do away with the most obstinate of colds".

Remedies for children's ailments, with names such as Dr Seth Arnold's Cough Killer and Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup for teething problems, might have appeared to have beneficial effects but that was more to do with the morphine contained in the mixture. Dr Seth's even claimed to cure a range of diseases including malaria and pneumonia.

Infantile diarrhoea killed many babies before their first birthday in 19th century London. Typhus arrived with the Irish fleeing famine from the loss of the potato crop. Influenza, pneumonia and the ubiquitous 'consumption' killed young and old alike. 

A common prejudice associated with consumption implied its contraction was linked to a sinful way of life. Far better to die of bronchitis, which was considered much more gentile.

My husband's ancestor, Walter Banner Viner died of bronchitis, following a bout of influenza in 1917, exactly one year before the great pandemic of 1918, during which, more than 50 million people worldwide, (some say closer to 100 million) would die of the virus.

With many doctors and nurses still away at the front in the early months, and those at home dealing with the many thousands of injured and shell-shocked soldiers, people turned to their own tried and trusted household remedies for cures. As well as the popular cure-all tot of whisky, they included vinegar, rhubarb and treacle. The medical profession veered from recommending abstinence from alcohol to embracing it. As well as those tots of whisky, glasses of port or wine were suggested, along with a hot bath.

And on that thought, I shall now go and raise a glass of something and wish you all a Happy and Healthy 2014!