Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The mystery of Mary Ann

Mary Ann Diggory's story is one of those intriguing family mysteries about which no one ever spoke. And, of course, by the time I became interested enough to start asking questions, the main source of answers -  her younger sister, my grandmother - was no longer with us.

Mary Ann was the eldest child of Thomas and Eliza Diggory (nee Roberts) and was born in 1888. In the photograph below, taken around 1902, she's standing at the back, next to her sister Nellie (b. 1891). Her brother Tom (b.1893) is in the centre, twins Hannah and George (b. 1892) stand either side of the group and my grandmother, Edith (b.1898) is in the front.

Mary Ann standing at the back of the group.
Her youngest sibling, my grandmother, is beside their mother.

Walked out

As I've mentioned before on this blog, all I knew was that Annie (as she was known) walked out of the family home in 1904, aged 16, about two years after the above photograph was taken. That was the last anyone heard of her for almost 80 years, until my grandmother was contacted by the vicar of Annie's local church, shortly before Annie died in 1982.

Whether I'll ever discover exactly why she left all those years before, is questionable. I haven't been able to confirm the most obvious scenario, having come across no illegitimate babies with the surname Diggory, born within a few months of her leaving home, though, of course, that doesn't rule out such a possibility. At that time unofficial adoptions were common, so if Annie did have a child, he or she may be registered under a different name.

Lost in the census

Frustratingly I've not tracked Annie on 1911 census, either. There's someone of the same age recorded as Mary Annabel Diggory, who's a 'trained nurse' working as a servant in a care home in Hereford (as you'll see below, Annie did become a nurse so it's possible that her employer gave her that status and she called herself Annabel to disguise her real name).

Another possibility is a Mrs M Diggory, living in Kinnerley in Shropshire but she's only listed in a Summary Book, so there's no information about age. One other person, male, is mentioned as part of the household but I'd need more to go on to work out if it's Annie.

Nursing badges

One thing I did know, is that Annie was a nurse and had trained at Redhill Hospital. Recently, while sorting through my late Dad's things, I came across a little box of medals and badges, amongst which were three which had belonged to Annie.

In the left photograph is her S.R.N. (State Registered Nurse) badge, engraved with her name and registration number, dated 1923 when nurses were registered for the first time. On the right is an East Surrey Hospital Training School badge.

Another badge, beautifully set in enamel, has East Surrey Hospital's previous name, Reigate & Redhill Hospital around the edge, along with the date 1866. This is the year the original Reigate Hospital was established by Dr John Walters when money was raised to convert two cottages into a hospital. Five years later a new hospital was built on the edge of Redhill Common and the two names were combined.

I drew a blank searching for an image of this badge on the Internet so I consulted Surrey Archives. They believe it may have been produced as a commemoration piece for the 50th anniversary, possibly for fund raising purposes.

The Red Cross

Mary Ann Diggory 1888-1982
But why did Annie choose to train in Surrey when she lived in Shropshire? Perhaps it's tied in with an interesting fact I learned from  Michelle Higgs, author of Tracing Your Medical Ancestors (a copy of which I have on my family history bookshelf) who I often meet on Twitter's #AncestryHour.

Michelle tells me that nurses generally paid for their training. I can't imagine Annie's family having access to such financial resources, even if she had still been in contact with them, so my immediate thought was that she must have had a benefactor. And I have an idea who that may be. But more on that in a moment.

A few years ago I came across an article in a family history magazine about the British Red Cross. For a donation, family members could establish if their nursing ancestors ever worked with the organisation. I got in touch and found to my delight that Annie appeared in their records. These confirmed that Annie had trained at East Surrey Hospital between 1912 and 1915.  Also, they revealed that during WW2, Annie was appointed Sister in Charge at a Red Cross convalescent hospital in Childs Ercall, Market Drayton, Salop, serving for 2 years from 1941-43. Unfortunately, no one in Shropshire Archives is aware of the existence of such a hospital. It's possible Childs Ercall Hall may have been used for the purpose. Enquiries are underway...

Annie's British Red Cross records also noted that she'd worked at the Kent & Canterbury Hospital and the Princess Alice Hospital in Eastbourne. Although I haven't established exact dates as yet, I'm hopeful of tracking down staff records from the individual hospitals to learn more about her working life.

Secret sponsor?

But back to the mystery sponsor. On Annie's record notes was the name of her next of kin. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that no one in her immediate family was named but instead Mr & Mrs E F Murrell, Shrewsbury were cited as 'friends'. The Murrell family were well known in Shropshire as nurserymen and award winning rose growers, running the prestigious Portland Nurseries, founded by Edwin Murrell (father of this Edwin F Murrell) in the 1830s.

Interestingly, the 1939 Register, taken on the eve of World War II, finds Annie living in the Murrell's family home in Shrewsbury. Was Mr Edwin Foley Murrell the person who paid for Annie's nurse training? As as a enterprising businessman, did he have contacts in Surrey? And what was Annie's connection with the family?

And if that's not enough to be going on with, what about those intervening years from 1904, between when she left home and started her training? What was she doing then? Where did she go? Were the Murrell's involved then?

As ever, there is so much more yet to find out about Annie and her life before she was reunited with my grandmother. But I'm on the case!


If you've nursing ancestors there are several websites worth checking out:

The British Red Cross:

The Royal College of Nursing's archive:

Scarlet Finders has some very useful information on various sources:

The National Archives holds some records along with helpful research guides: