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 Ancestry.co.uk
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 photolondon.org.uk , 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.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Unexpected discovery

I love it when you're beavering away adding general information to your family history files and something unexpected turns up.

The 7th July 2017 was the 100 year anniversary of the formation of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and prompted me to see what I could find out about my ancestor, Nora Ida Patten, my maternal grandmother's cousin, who's wearing her WAAC uniform in a photograph I have of her.

I believe the last time I mentioned Nora on this blog, was because she'd been incorrectly labelled and attributed to the wrong parents. (See Top of my mystery list.) Since then, I've established her true identity.

She was born in late 1896 in Wednesfield, Wolverhampton, to John Patten and Mary Ann Griffiths, my great-grandfather's sister, making her my first cousin, twice removed.

Service records

Much to my delight, I discovered Nora's service records on the National Archives website and downloaded a copy. From the form I gleaned a couple useful snippets of information, unconnected with her WW1 career – firstly, that her religion was "Wesleyan" and secondly, that her occupation
Nora's parents, John & Mary Ann Patten
(nee Griffiths) in my great-grandparents'
garden (and later my gran's)
was "tailoress".

But what I was excited to learn was that she'd transferred from the WAAC to the Central Flying School at Upavon, Wiltshire and joined the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF).

The WRAF was created on 1st April 1918. Previously, the WAAC and the Women's Royal Navy Service (WRNS) both worked on air stations of the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). When these two merged to become the RAF, the WRAF was created to ensure specialist women's services wouldn't be lost.

Members of the WAAC and WRNS were asked if they'd like to transfer to the new service and 9,000 of them did – clearly, Nora was one.

But while it would be lovely to think that being sent to the Central Flying School meant her new status involved flying aeroplanes, in reality the role of the WRAF was to support the men by doing work they would have done, thereby releasing them for combat.

Women's trades

There were four broad categories in which the women were divided: Clerks and Storewomen, Household, Technical and Non-technical. To quote the Royal Airforce Museum website:

The majority of women were employed as clerks, with shorthand typists the most highly paid of all airwomen. Women allocated to the Household section worked the longest hours, doing back breaking work for the lowest pay. The Technical section covered a wide range of trades, most highly skilled, including tinsmiths, fitters and welders.
By 1920 over 50 trades were open to women including tailoring, photography, catering, pigeon keeping and driving. The work of these women ...proved that [they] could equal men in the workplace.
Notice that one particular trade mentioned was tailoring, and given her former occupation, this may have been what Nora did at Upavon.

Courtesy of TNA

Nora was married in 1919 and her marriage was registered in Pewsey (the district for Upavon) in the March quarter of that year. I'm currently awaiting delivery of a copy of her marriage certificate.

The last entry in Nora's records is dated the end of February 1919 and it's clear that she's been granted leave. Some fellow family historians who've seen the form believe the shorthand stands for "unpaid leave". Others think it has something to do with "nuptials"!

As for the P.D. at the end... given that it's the final entry and she's surely to have left the service at this point, could it be "something Discharge"?

And what of Nora's husband? His name was Albany John Ward and he was born in Devon in 1894.

You'd think with a name like Albany, he'd be easy to trace but so far information is a bit thin. Apparently he was known as John or Jack which makes his distinctive name less useful.

Hopefully my luck will change soon, as I'm keen to find out about his military career. Did he and Nora meet at Upavon? Was he a pilot? Perhaps when the marriage certificate arrives it will answer that question. I'll let you know!


If you've anything to add to the debate about what's written in that last entry of Nora's records, please do add your comment below. 

In the meantime, if I learn anything definitive about that, or about Albany John Ward, you'll read it here. Watch this space...

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!


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.


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 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!


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.


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! 


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!


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


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.