Lichfield was the starting point for my family history research. I knew my mum had been born in Breadmarket Street, Lichfield, Staffordshire, in 1941, but I had no idea how she came to be there, or how long her family had been there, or, indeed, if any relatives still lived there.
In fact I didn’t think about that kind of stuff at all really, at least not until my grandmother passed away and my mum came into possession of an old (mostly pre-WWI) postcard collection that had belonged to her grandmother, which was also the first time I learned her name - Minnie Lees - and I started to get curious.
The postcard album was full of names and places whose meaning and connections were rapidly fading, if not already vanished altogether - Darnford Mill, Bunkers Hill, Alice, Millie, Nellie, Polly, Mrs Harsent, Mrs Griffin, Tom Sadler, Cousin Jack, ‘E.C.’, Ada, and more … as well as a number of photos of people with just a single name written on, or - more often - none at all.
Way too soon, the collection came into my possession after my own mother died and within a few years I had made the first tentative steps into looking at my family history, beginning with a few dates and stories gathered from close relatives, and then, more formally, with the first of many trips to Islington and the Family Records Centre.
Having researched my various ancestors since 2000, I can at last put together some of the story hinted at through those postcard-sized windows in time, as well as reveal and connect the lives and places that came before and after the brief glimpses kept by my great-grandmother.
I have a lot of Staffordshire history on my mother’s side of the family. Her own mother’s ancestors seem to be mostly Staffordshire natives as far back as I can find, and while her dad’s family were largely Lancashire born and bred, there were Staffordshire branches in evidence on that side too.
A few of those other family members had brief Lichfield connections, for instance my ggg-grandmother, Eliza Johnson, was born there in 1824 while her parents lived at Greenhill - they would later move to Yoxall (8 miles distant), after which Eliza married and settled in Uttoxeter (18 miles away).
The earliest connection I know of is my 8xg-grandparents, George Stanton and Dorothy Davies, marrying at Lichfield Cathedral in October 1675. Their descendants lived mostly in Stafford before my line married in to the Ecclestones at Ellenhall (23 miles from Lichfield).
But this is really the story of my gg-grandparents, George and Mira Lees, as it is their family who moved to Lichfield, leading to the city becoming my mum’s place of birth.
George Lees was born and brought up in Allimore Green, Haughton (21 miles from Lichfield), in 1839, the youngest son of John Lees (1798-1879), an agricultural labourer, and Mary Ford (1797-1882). His earliest employment seems to have been as a carman or waggoner, working for a time in Penkridge, and later on in Seighford.
On 28 December 1871 he married Mira Ecclestone at St. Chad’s Church in Seighford - where his own parents had married almost exactly 51 years earlier. At the time, both George and Mira were living in nearby Great Bridgeford, where Mira worked as a dairy maid on the farm of Samuel Stubbs. The witnesses to the marriage were Mark Ecclestone, Mira’s older brother and Mary Ecclestone, most likely her mother (an 18-year old sister with the same name was living and working in Worcestershire at the time).
Mira (occasionally Myra), a descendant of the earlier-mentioned Stantons, was eight years younger than George, born in 1847 at Broad Heath, Ellenhall. Her parents were John Ecclestone (1798-1877), a farm and railway labourer, and Mary Harrison (1813-1890), and she was one of ten surviving children.
The couple stayed in Great Bridgeford and had their first child there, Mary, in March 1874. At this time George was working as a carter of railway plates - Bridgeford, though small and sparsely populated, was the first stop after Stafford on the London and North Western Railway’s Grand Junction line, which ran from Birmingham to Liverpool and Manchester.
A sibling for Mary was born just over a year later, in April 1875, named Martha, and two years later a third girl, Lizzie, was also born at Bridgeford.
Within a couple of years or so the family moved 15 miles south-east to Armitage, five miles outside of Lichfield. Sadly, in November 1880, at just three years old, little Lizzie Lees died - she had been suffering from chronic emphysema for the past year and was buried four days later in the village’s St. John the Baptist Church.
At this time Mira seems to have been earning some extra money for the family by working as a laundress, while George was described as a labourer. But there is a hint of his future occupation in the Lichfield Mercury of 18 August 1882, where he is mentioned as winning first prize for his fuchsias at the Armitage and District Cottagers’ Flower Show, second prize for his geraniums, and coming third for his kidney potatoes. The following year yielded greater success when he took first prizes for his petunias and kidney potatoes, second for his geraniums, and fourth prize for the best cultivated garden in Armitage (the 1881 census shows them living in Pike Lane).
While the judging was going on, George’s wife and two young daughters no doubt took advantage of the fete entertainment, in the form of swing boats, shooting galleries, coconut shies, and the melodies of the Whittington Brass Band.
It was seven years since Lizzie’s passing before another child was born to the couple, a fourth girl, Minnie Alice Lees, was born in June 1887 at Swinfen, a couple of miles south-east of Lichfield.
By the time of the 1891 census, George seems to have escaped the life of a carter and general labourer and followed his interest into agriculture, with his occupation now given as farmer, and the Lees family living at Darnford Mill Farm, just over a mile and a half from the centre of Lichfield.
Darnford Mill would be the last home of the Lees and they would occupy it for the next 30 years, so it’s worth having a little look at its location and history.
The farm was (and is) situated on the road out from Lichfield to Whittington (Darnford Lane), lying on the north bank of the old Lichfield Canal (closed in 1955), with Darnford Bridge at its south-east corner. It is sometimes described as part of Lichfield, sometimes of Fulfen, and sometimes of Whittington or Streethay.
My late great-auntie Millie, who was born at Darnford Mill in 1918, wrote to me in June 2000:
“There is a lovely little brook at the bottom of the main big field, and many many centuries ago the Danes crossed over that brook and for a while it was called Danesford, then it got changed to Darnford.”
I’m not sure how accurate that is - another Darnford, in Shropshire, comes from ‘dearne ford’, meaning ‘hidden ford’, but an article on Lichfield place-names in the Mercury of 25 February 1927 says:
“The Danes and the Norsemen both stopped short of Lichfield, and most of the other names in the district were pure Anglo-Saxon words. In those days Lichfield was a ghastly, wet, marshy, boggy place … It would be understood that access to the city was possible only by means of fords; hence they had Elford, Huddlesford, and Darnford, the other part of those names coming from the families who made settlements at the fords.”
What is more certain is that the Darnford hamlet was founded in 1140 and a mill had existed on the farm site since at least the 1240s; at one point it boasted three corn mills and one malt mill, and it became a paper manufactory for a large stretch of the 1800s with its own little wharf on the adjacent canal. In the 1860s it included, at least partly, a boneworks, and contained both a water and steam mill.
By the 1870s a steam mill was being used to manufacture cheese - only the third such manufactory of its kind at the time. Around 1880 the then-owner, Colonel Richard Dyott (1808-1891) of nearby Freeford Hall, had the mill and factory demolished and a number of cottages built.
Although Darnford Mill Farm was leased by the Lees (£24 annual rent in 1919), George was no longer an employee but a farmer working for himself. I can’t be sure of the whole nature of the business of the farm, but there are references to mowing, haymaking and the sale of hayricks. and I know they also supplied eggs and ‘fowls’, though probably on a smaller scale for private consumption (one regular customer was Mrs Emily Cartmale of Sandford Street in Lichfield, the ‘E.C.’ of the postcard collection mentioned above). The whole plot was just over 11 acres of pasture land consisting almost entirely of turf.
The house contained a kitchen, scullery, a washhouse, two sitting rooms, four bedrooms, two attics and a coal place. There was a cowshed with an enclosed yard, a foldyard and shelter, a three-stall stable with a loft, two pig styes, and a cart and implement shed, as well as a “capital garden”. There were a number of other small cottages in the immediate locality as well, though not attached to the farm - the Harsents, Samuel and Emily, in the other cottage on the Darnford Mill plot, were friends of the Lees.
Mira seems to have made good use of the washhouse and continued as a laundress - a small ad in the Lichfield Mercury of June 1893 offers her services for ‘family washing’ and that she can provide ‘first class references’. The census of two years previously shows that her eldest daughter, Mary, then 17, assisted her in this endeavour, while Martha, 15, worked as a dressmaker. Little Minnie was just 3, but in the following decade she would also help her mother in the laundry business - a postcard to Minnie in 1906 (from ‘Cousin Jack’) asks “… how are you going on at Darnford? I suppose you keep scrubbing …”, while another says, “I often think of you and your washing.”
The year 1898 saw both older girls marry at St Michael’s Church, Lichfield. In September, Martha married a Welsh-born domestic servant, John Thomas Johnson, with older sister Mary as one of the witnesses.
The Johnsons (not related to Eliza Johnson, born at Greenhill, mentioned earlier) were actually from nearby Burntwood (Woodhouses, a couple of miles west of Lichfield), but John’s father, Walter, an engine stoker and driver, had moved out to Swansea where he and his wife had three boys. Walter died from meningitis in 1876 and his widow, Maria, moved back to the Lichfield area and remarried. The three young boys were split up - older brother Walter stayed with his mother and her new family, moving to Derbyshire; the youngest, William, lived with his mother’s parents, the Hastilows, in Burntwood; and John lived with his Johnson grandparents and uncle Henry, also in Burntwood. As a teenager he moved with his uncle to Whittington Marsh, becoming a close neighbour of the Lees.
In November Mary married a Lichfield baker ten years her senior, Henry Griffin. Henry’s father, William, had run a bakery in Lichfield since the 1870s and in Church Street since at least the 1880s. He retired in the late 1890s and became a market gardener, leaving the Church Street bakery to his son. No doubt Henry visited his father who was, by that time, residing in one of the Darnford Mill cottages, and so was able to become acquainted with Mary Lees.
One of the witnesses at the Griffin wedding was 18-year old Alice Ballance, Mary’s cousin and daughter of Mira’s older sister, Fanny Ecclestone (1845-1919), and her husband John Ballance (1844-1920). Fanny and John had married at Salt Parish Church in 1868, at which the then 21-year old Mira was a witness. John’s father had been gamekeeper to the 3rd Earl Talbot at Ingestre Hall in the 1850s.
The Ballances, who lived and farmed at Hopton, 20 miles north of Lichfield, had six children, though sadly three died in their youth. The eldest, Harriet, married a butcher, William Ilsley, in 1889 and had a girl who lived only seven days, before she herself died the following year from pneumonia, aged 19. Tragedy struck the family twice seven years later in March of 1897 - firstly, second son Henry died of tuberculosis, aged 21, and then, just over two weeks later, his younger brother, Arthur, died of typhoid, aged only 14.
As an interesting aside, Alice Ballance had two aunts with the then-unusual name of Mira (the 1851 census records just over a thousand Mira/Myras) - as well as Mira Lees, her father had a sister, born in 1840, Mira Ballance (she married an engineer in 1865 and died in London in 1919).
In October of 1899, George (60) and Mira (52) became grandparents when Mary Griffin gave birth to a boy, Horace. Two more would follow - Harry in 1901, and Frank in 1902, all born at the Griffin bakery, 48 Church Street.
Martha, meanwhile, had moved away from the city, to Willington (17 miles up the South Staffordshire railway line from Lichfield to Derby) where the Johnsons’ first child was born, Henry, in 1903. The family were back near Lichfield, living at The Lodge in Tamworth Road, Freeford, and with John working as a cowman and farm stockman, when their next two children were born - Doris Minnie in 1907 and Gladys Mary in 1909. They had one more child, another Horace, in 1912, at Newcastle Under Lyme, where John was now working as a farm bailiff at Whitmore Station, directly up the Grand Junction line from Lichfield and Stafford.
In August 1909, cousin Alice Ballance got married to Joseph Briscoe at Salt Parish Church, and Minnie Lees, then aged 22, signed as a witness to the union. The two girls, though with seven years difference in their age, had become close friends and wrote to and visited each other often.
Another regular correspondent and sometime visitor to the Lees household was Alice’s younger brother, John Ballance, two years older than Minnie and the ‘Cousin Jack’ postcard writer previously mentioned.
The First World War would have seen a fair bit of increased activity in the local area, largely due to the proximity of Whittington Barracks two miles to the south-east of Darnford, and home of the North and South Staffordshire Regiments.
The only Lees grandchild to see service, though not abroad, was the eldest, Horace Griffin, reporting for duty at Walsall in December 1917, a month after his 18th birthday. At first he was appointed to the 53rd Sherwood Foresters Training Reserve, but by September 1918, after hostilities had ended, he was a Lance Corporal in the RAF.
Both Mira and George had other family members who experienced the worst of the impact of the conflict … Mira’s nephew, Robert Henry Ecclestone, was killed during the Battle of Loos in October 1915, and her grand-nephew, George Henry Jervis, died from wounds in France in April 1918. George Lees also had a grand-nephew, Charles John Lees, killed near Ypres in Belgium in November 1917 (sadly, on his wife’s 32nd birthday).
Both had grand-nephews taken as prisoners of war - George John Lees was in the Scottish Rifles and was taken prisoner in March 1918 and held at Giessen; Clifford Arco Jervis, of the 2/4th London Battalion, was also captured in March 1918, and Edward Ecclestone, in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was taken prisoner in April 1918 (he would later become a Dominican priest).
Minnie Lees, in her late twenties when the war began, would go down to Whittington Barracks, taking eggs from the farm for the wounded soldiers who were convalescing there (the family also sent eggs out to wounded soldiers in France). It’s here she met Private 8848 Charles Hodgkins of the 7th North Staffordshire Regiment, recovering from a bad case of bronchitis and pleurisy that had flared up while on service in Gallipoli.
Charles came from Romany Gypsy stock (descended from Boswells and Sherriffs) and was a native of Uttoxeter (18 miles north of Lichfield), the home of the Hodgkins for a number of generations. He’d had at least two spells at the Lichfield Military Hospital, in April 1916 and again later in the year, so probably had plenty of opportunity to get to know Minnie, the farm girl from up the road.
He was discharged towards the end of June 1916 as no longer fit for service, and by the following month was working as a carter for Charles Edward Summerfield, a Lichfield corn merchant who had been advertising in recent months for someone who was “used to horses” - Charles had worked as a farm lad before the war.
Minnie and Charles met up as often as they could and wrote to each other too - one early-July 1916 postcard from Minnie to Charlie contains 31 kisses! Things seem to have moved fairly quickly as the couple were married at St. Michael’s Church on Christmas day of the same year, the witnesses being H. Griffin (probably Minnie’s brother-in-law) and one Alice M. Wilson.
Alice was actually known as Millie - her middle name was Millicent - and she was Minnie’s best friend, living half a mile from Darnford Mill on the Tamworth Road, just down from the Horse & Jockey pub. She was one of five children, her father and her mother’s family all working locally as wheelwrights, and her younger sister, Nellie (Helen Ada Wilson), was also a friend of Minnie’s (all regularly wrote postcards to each other). Nellie had married a couple of months before Minnie, at Whittington Church, to George Delasalle, a corporal in the Army Service Corps.
Sadly, the celebrations for Minnie’s wedding were short-lived when, just two days after the ceremony, her father died at Darnford from old age and acute bronchitis. George Lees was 77 years old. One can’t help but wonder if the marriage was brought forward, knowing, perhaps, he did not have long to live, or if he was even well enough to attend the ceremony.
The new Mr and Mrs Hodgkins lived with Minnie’s widowed mother at Darnford Mill, with Charlie continuing to work as a carter for Summerfield’s corn merchants. Sometimes Mr and Mrs Betts, his mother and step-father (his father, William Hodgkins, had died in 1910 when Charlie was 18), would visit on the train from Uttoxeter, perhaps with Mr Betts regaling everyone with tales of his time in Burma and South Africa when he was with the Royal Artillery.
In April 1918 Minnie gave birth to her first daughter at Darnford Mill, Millicent Alice Hodgkins - named after her best friend, Millie Wilson (who also became the girl’s godmother). Just over a year later - one day before Minnie’s own 32nd birthday - a second daughter would arrive, Doris May Hodgkins - she would later call herself May to differentiate herself from her cousin, Doris Johnson.
In early 1920, not long after her 74th birthday, Mira Lees had to have an operation to deal with a rather nasty pelvic abscess - it didn’t go well and she died on 24th February, in the nursing home, from post-operative shock. She was not the first in the family to have a problem in this area - her younger sister, Ruth Ecclestone suffered from a diseased hip from the age of 17, and an abscess there killed her ten years later, in 1876.
Mira was the last-but-one of her Ecclestone siblings to pass away. Her older sister Susanna had died a month before, and Fanny Ballance (mother of Alice and Jack) died a few months earlier, in 1919, not too long after brother Henry, who was one of the tens of millions taken by the 1918-20 influenza pandemic. Out of the five brothers and eight sisters, three had died in childhood and three in their 20s or 30s.
The last Ecclestone sibling, and the longest living, was the second-born, Hannah, who never married and lived until the age of 90 in 1924 - she was a housekeeper who had worked for many years as a cook for a family of drapers in Stoke on Trent. One of her great-nieces, who also lived into her 90s, remembered the Ecclestones as being “a very jolly lot who seemed to have a tremendous amount of affection for one another”.
Charlie and Minnie seem to have stayed on at Darnford for at least another 18 months before moving with their small family to the north of the city of Lichfield itself, at number 2 Bunkers Hill, near Beacon Park. I’m not sure if Charles still worked for Summerfield - in 1925 he was described as a baker’s carter, so it’s possible he came into the employ of Minnie’s brother-in-law’s family bakery, Griffin’s, but this can only be speculation.
In July 1924 Charles and his family attended the wedding of his younger brother Ted (Edward) Hodgkins to Nancy (Annie) Hollins in Uttoxeter. But just short of a year later a terrible tragedy occurred when he suddenly fell ill and died, leaving his girls, seven and five, and his wife a widow at 37.
The family story that came down to me was that Charles had been gassed while fighting the Turks in the Dardanelles, and this is what lead, eventually, to his early death. But gas had not been used in the Gallipoli campaign, and upon eventually obtaining his service record, it revealed his war-time illness had actually been caused by a resurgence of the bronchitis he first suffered when he was about 19 years old, though no doubt exasperated by conditions in the trenches of Sulajik.
Wherever this story came from, the truth of his early death had no obvious connection with the war or anything respiratory. In the middle of 1925, Charlie developed a dental infection and the extreme immune response caused full septicaemia. He died at the Victoria Cottage Hospital in Sandford Street on 19th June - one day before his youngest daughter’s sixth birthday, and two days before his wife’s 38th.
It must have been a very difficult time, but no doubt the immediate family would have rallied round - her sisters Mary and Martha, cousins such as Alice, and friends such as Millie and her sister Nellie.
Mary Griffin had her own family ups and downs to deal with too. The following year, 1926, saw Mary’s eldest son, Horace, marry a local gardener’s daughter, Mabel Fisher - they would have twin girls in 1928. Then sadly, in September of 1926, Mary lost her husband when Henry died after a long illness, age 62, and the Griffin bakery was passed onto his three sons and its third generation.
The years 1930-1932 would see three more family weddings - second son Harry married in 1930 to a girl from nearby Shenstone, Alice Agnes Warmington; Frank Griffin wed the following year, to Alice Sanders (with a son born in 1936); and then, in 1932, the widowed Mary Griffin remarried - to a local boot and shoemaker (and widower since 1928), William Simpson of Sandford Street, Lichfield.
Martha Johnson (often known as Patty) would also outlive her husband after he died (some time before 1935) and she became a police matron in Lichfield, helping to deal with the city’s women and children who fell foul of the law. By now she lived just a couple of doors down from the Griffin bakery on Church Street with all four of her adult children - Henry worked as a baker, probably for his cousins, Doris was a shorthand typist, Gladys a tailoress, and Horace a painter at a foundry.
Meanwhile, as they grew up in the 1930s, the two Hodgkins girls were prospering well. They both attended Lichfield Central School in Frog Lane where May was part of the netball team with her best friend, Joan Pettit. At some point their mother, Minnie, got a job as the caretaker at Winterton & Sons auctioneers and estate agents, and the family moved into an apartment in their offices on 5 Breadmarket Street, also known as St. Mary’s Chambers.
Breadmarket Street (named Women’s Cheaping in earlier centuries) was famous for being the birthplace of writer and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84), at number 11, while 5 Breadmarket Street itself was the birthplace of Elias Ashmole (1617-92), antiquary, politician, astrologer, alchemist, and the founder of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Before that it was known as Priest’s Hall, and had been the accommodation for five priests of the Guild of St. Mary and St. John the Baptist (active 1387-1548, though the front of the building dates more recently due to alterations made in the late 1700s).
There was quite a bit of excitement in the Spring of 1934 when May (“a charming young brunette”) was chosen by her fellow pupils to be the Bower Queen for Lichfield’s annual Greenhill Bower Festival. This festival dates back to the time of Henry II when every town had to have an annual mustering of men who’d be available to fight should an army be required by the Crown. The order was abolished in 1690, but as the annual gathering had become something of a celebratory festival, “embellished by maids and morris dancers, flowers and flags, song and dance”, Lichfield alone kept the tradition going, and it continues to this day.
The Lichfield Mercury, in its full-page spread of 24 May, said:
“Pride of place must, of course, go to the Bower Queen, and Miss May Hodgkins sitting in state on her throne was a worthy successor to the queens who have graced the Bower in previous years … May was a dignified and charming figure in cream satin and purple velvet coat with her crown, lilies of the valley and violets, and carried a bouquet of orchids and roses, and she acknowledged the plaudits of the crowd in true queenly fashion.”
The 1934 Bower Festival attracted a crowd of over 35,000, with extra trains, buses and charabancs put on to bring people in and take them home again. As well as seeing the Bower Queen, revellers could enjoy a number of other themed floats, the afternoon sports events, a jazz band competition, a military display from the 2nd King’s Own Royal Regiment and 1st Sherwood Foresters, the English Electric Morris Dancers, an Old English Fair, exhibitions, roundabouts and dancing. It was even reported that the Mayor was smiling, an apparently rare occurrence.
Upon leaving school, May got a job as an assistant at Salloway’s, the jeweller and watchmaker on Bore Street - less than a minute’s walk from her home in Breadmarket Street. She and her sister, Millie (who found work as a florist), also attended the Lichfield Art and Technical Night School, with May doing a ‘commercial course’ and Millie studying shorthand and typing.
In September 1938, May Hodgkins married a Sergeant from the Royal Army Pay Corps. Yorkshire-born Benjamin Walter Higson had been stationed at Whittington Barracks since January 1935 and spent much of his spare time competing in local snooker, billiards, table tennis and tennis tournaments, playing singles, doubles and mixed doubles matches. It was at one of the city’s tennis clubs that he and May met. (The newest tennis club in Lichfield at that time was The Friary on Christchurch Road, founded in 1937 - which Sgt. Higson did play at. Interestingly its current location, since 1985, is right behind Darnford Farm.)
Engagement and wedding rings were purchased at Salloways, and when the big day came, the wedding party prepared at 5 Breadmarket Street and then crossed the road to St. Mary’s Church for the ceremony.
May was given away by her ‘Uncle Bill’ (William Simpson, her aunt Mary’s second husband) in lieu of her father, and her bridesmaids were her best friend, Joan Pettit, and Ben’s younger sister, Beth. The Best Man was John William (Bill) Day (he and Beth would marry later that year). Winterton & Sons gifted the couple a travelling clock and a silk bedspread, and the honeymoon was spent in Scotland, where Ben had already been transferred.
Just over five months later, Minnie Hodgkins’ eldest daughter, Millie, got married to another Yorkshireman, named John (but known as Jack) Holmes. Jack had joined the Royal Artillery (Anti-Aircraft Brigade) in 1934 but had been a Reservist since 1937 and was currently working as a plasterer. His brigade had been at Whittington Barracks for a while, though the couple weren’t married in Lichfield but in Jack’s home town of Birkenshaw, Yorkshire.
With international tensions ratcheting up in the previous months, September 1939 saw the eruption of the Second World War. Lichfield saw a lot of increased activity during the conflict - as well as the various military postings at Whittington, including thousands of American GIs, RAF Lichfield was constructed at Fradley and became the busiest airfield in Staffordshire during the war.
At the commencement of the war Ben Higson was still at the Black Watch Barracks in Perth, and a daughter was born to him and May at the local Royal Infirmary in December.
Their next move was to Edinburgh Castle, but when May discovered she was going to have a second child, she returned to her mother in Lichfield, and another daughter (my mum) was born at 5 Breadmarket Street in January 1941. My great-auntie Millie, who was also at the house while her husband was away fighting in the war, wrote:
“Shan’t forget that night - there was an air raid on, the siren had gone off and your grandmother had your mum during that raid.”
May’s cousin, Gladys Johnson, was asked to be godmother, which she accepted. Meanwhile, Gladys’s younger brother, Horace, had joined the South Staffordshire Regiment - in 1942 he was in Wales and met a local girl, Violet Irene Wall from Abersychan near Pontypool. She worked at the nearby Gascoed Royal Ordnance Factory and they were married at the Baptist Church in Talywain in June 1942.
The war years brought two deaths to the family. In June 1943, a week after her 56th birthday, the youngest Lees daughter, Minnie Hodgkins, died after a bout of acute appendicitis which lead to a pelvic abscess - almost the same cause as her own mother’s death twenty-three years earlier, and reminiscent of her late aunt Ruth’s death in the 1870s. She died at the Victoria Hospital in the Friary (the hospital her husband had died in 18 years previously had relocated from Sandford Street in 1933).
The war also saw the death of Millie’s husband, Jack Holmes. Four months after their marriage he had been called back into service and was mobilised when war was declared, seeing service at first in France, then Malta and North Africa, where he had achieved the rank of Bombardier and was transferred to the elite 2nd S.A.S Regiment. In January 1944 he went missing off the coast of North Africa, eventually being declared as accidentally drowned - possibly during a training exercise in the run-up to the Anzio landings (though more research is needed).
Jack’s father was Robert Holmes (1893-1976), a ‘cowman’, and his mother was Elizabeth Esther Burley (1893-1977). He also had two younger sisters, Elsie and Betty. There is a J. Holmes on the Birkenshaw war memorial at St. Paul’s Church - where Jack and Millie were married - which is likely to be him, and he’s also listed on the memorial at Cassino in Italy.
Widowed, with both her parents dead and her married sister now moved away to Fulford, near York, Millie was staying in Tamworth and had become involved with an American G.I. stationed at Whittington Barracks, by then the headquarters for the 10th US Army Replacement Depot. Joseph Belinsky was a former cabinet maker and native of New York, his parents emmigrating from Poland in 1902 (his father was born in Görlitz). Joe and Millie were married at Tamworth Parish Church in March 1944, with their first child born at the Mayfield Nursing Home in August.
When the European war ended in May 1945, Ben Higson was sent abroad to Lagos, so May and her two girls went to stay with his parents in Bentley, Doncaster, where she was later joined by Millie. Both sisters were pregnant at the time and in November May gave birth to her third child, a boy. Five days later Millie gave birth to her second, also a boy, at the nearby Effidene Nursing Home.
In December 1945 the US government enacted the War Brides Act, allowing the foreign spouses and children of American servicemen unhindered immigration into the United States. Britain alone accounted for an estimated 70,000 war brides, with 16 ships scheduled to transport some of them in the early months of 1946, and many more to follow (until the Act’s deadline in December 1948).
On the 18th March 1946 Millie Belinsky and her two young children - who both automatically had US citizen status - boarded the SS Washington to New York to join Joseph and begin a new life there. In 1947 and 1952 two more children were added to the family, and later Millie and Joe settled in Pennsylvania and then Ohio. Joseph died in June 2003, and Millie in January 2004, aged 85.
Her sister, May, my grandmother, had two more boys, in 1948 and 1956, and spent some of the post-war years abroad where her husband was posted to various bases in places such as Egypt, Cyprus, Libya and Malta. Ben Higson eventually reached the rank of Major, retiring from the army in 1970 and settling with May in Tadley, Berkshire. She died at Basingstoke Hospital in 1990, aged 71. Ben died three years later.
Minnie’s two older sisters survived her by a number of years and continued to reside in Lichfield. Mary Simpson died in Lichfield in January 1951, aged 76, and her second husband, William, in 1954. Her son Horace died at St. Michael’s Hospital in August 1957 and that seems to have been the end of the Griffin family bakery in Church Street (the premises being taken over by Arthur Hardy, butcher), though the other two sons do seem to have stayed in the town - Harry dying there in 1982 and Frank, who later worked as a cycle agent, at Good Hope Hospital in Sutton Coldfield in 1975.
Martha Johnson died at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, in December 1949, after an operation for a gastric ulcer, aged 74. Her eldest son, Henry, lived in Lichfield until the age of 95, dying on Boxing Day 1998, having never married. His sister Doris married Norman Dann, the son of an Army Record Office Clerk at Whittington, in 1948 - they had already been together for 15 years and had no children. Norman died suddenly in 1962 and Doris survived him by another 35 years, dying in Lichfield aged 90.
Younger sister, Gladys, my mum’s godmother, married Ernest Sydney William Linney (known as Bill) at St Michael’s Church, Lichfield, in 1950 - they had no children together. Bill died in 1983 and Gladys continued to live in Lichfield until the age of 82 in 1992.
The youngest Johnson brother, Horace, lived with his wife, Violet, in Torfaen, her childhood home, just twenty miles or so from where his own father had been born and spent his earliest years before his mother moved back to Staffordshire. Horace had at least one child there and reached the age of 89 before dying in Garndiffaith in 2002.
Ecclestone cousin, Alice Briscoe (née Ballance) doesn’t seem to have had any children, and died in Great Haywood in January 1949, four miles from where she was born 68 years before. Her younger brother, John (‘cousin Jack’), married Rosie Bailey in 1919, had children and grandchildren, and died in 1967. He farmed for many years at Halfhead Farm in Shallowford, famous for being owned in the second half of the seventeenth century by the writer and angler Izaak Walton.
Minnie’s other close friend and godmother to Millie Belinsky, Millie Wilson, didn’t marry, and lived with her father, William, until his death in 1942. She did not fare well, and tragically took her own life in May 1960, at the age of 73, at her family home in Tamworth Road. Her younger sister, Nellie Delasalle, after living in London for a while and having at least two children, died in Worthing in 1975.
My grandmother’s best friend and bridesmaid, Joan Violet Pettit, married Captain Douglas Edward Fairbanks of the North Staffordshire Regiment in August 1945 and went on to have a family in Stafford.
My Mum was born at 5 Breadmarket Street, Lichfield in January 1941. This was the starting point of my family history, but now I can see the line that travels back before it - back up the Trent Valley Railway to Armitage in the 1880s, through Stafford and onto the Grand Junction Railway and to Great Bridgeford in the 1870s.
Mira Ecclestone was born just as these lines were being built (in fact her father helped build them), and her journey, following them south to Lichfield, would place her and her family right at the doorstep of Whittington Barracks, a place that would have a major influence on the generations that followed.
Mum didn’t actually stay in Lichfield for long, her father’s army service taking her off to Scotland and then Yorkshire, to begin with, though she did go back several times - early on to stay with her Nanny Hodgkins, and later to spend time with her godmother and her mother’s cousins. After school (in the UK, Egypt and Cyprus) her career as a nurse and midwife would take her to Malta and to El Paso in Texas, and then back to England again where she had a family of her own.
The great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of John and Mira Lees have followed new lines all over the world, to the US, South Africa and Australia, but also in Scotland, Wales and England, and even a few remaining among the ‘lofty spires’ of Lichfield itself.
Research note: I have seen family trees online that have Mira Lees, wife of George Lees, as being nee Myra Mold. This is incorrect - Myra Mold or Mould was the illgt. daughter of Caroline Mould, b. Gayton, Staffs, abt.1853 - she married a John Lees in 1870 and they lived and had children in Stoke on Trent, Staffs. She died in 1915.
Research into the Lees, Ecclestone and Hodgkins families is ongoing. If you have further information, stories or photos, or are a family member who would like to know more or share a story, I'd be happy to hear from you.
All photographs are originals from my own collection.