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.