Like many other people, I’ve dabbled with a little family research on the Internet. What I find remarkable is the wealth of records, and their accuracy, over the years and centuries. I’ve found my great great grandfather at his mill in Cornwall, revealed by the 1871 census. His relatives emigrated to the USA, and I have found their records – including the ship they travelled on to New York, the records showing which port it started out from, and the other passengers (mostly peasants from northern German) – without charge on the Ellis Island website. The work of all the minor administrators, government officials, pursers is accurate, neat and immensely revealing.
Let me give as examples two recent discoveries about my family. The first came as a complete surprise. My mother was called Catherine Grace, but she also had an additional and rare middle name, which she loathed and used only on legal forms. But it was this name that enabled me to hunt down her birth certificate. I was at first confused because there were two births notified by my grandparents, one in 1910 and one in 1911, both called Catherine Grace. It seems that my grandmother had a little girl who died in infancy, and she named her second (and final) child – my mother – who was born the following year and survived, after her. None of my brothers and sisters knew this – indeed, we wonder whether Mum did, because she never spoke of it, even to my elder sisters. Those were the days, I guess, when griefs were private and not shared.
Military records are exceptionally good. My second piece of research concerned Uncle Sonny, the brother of my father’s mother. He emigrated to Canada before the Great War, but enlisted in the Canadian Army and fought through all its campaigns in France. He was killed in July 1918, and the family story was that he was died because he left shelter to calm the horses in his detachment, who were distressed by enemy artillery fire. I remember visiting his grave with my parents and my Gran years ago, and noticing that 14 men from the same unit were killed on the same day, which rather discredited the horse-calming theory. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a very efficient organisation, but in the pre-web days we had to visit their office in Ypres to find out precisely where he was buried. You can do it all on the Internet now (click here to check), and the web even makes detailed regimental records available, and these include the daily diaries of activity for each battalion – including Uncle Sonny’s. I looked for the day he had died, and there appeared to be no record. But a German aircraft had flown over in the night, and dropped a bomb on their sleeping quarters, so the record was in the following day’s entry. To die a few months before the war’s end is very sad, but if you are going to be killed on the Western Front, I guess a bomb whilst sleeping is not the worst way to go.
One last internet link is this, less personal but interesting nevertheless: My Dad was in the RAF during the Second World War – nothing heroic, as I’ve said before, basically an administrator for a Coastal Command airbase*. There’s even a picture of him singing in the squadron bar, pint in hand. But he did do some flying, often on communication errands between bases, and one plane my Dad flew in has been turned into a die-cast model and is available on t’internet. Not just the type of plane, the actual individual example. I think, by the way, it’s a German company that makes it.
* not that this would prevent him being called a hero by today’s tabloids.