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
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: