In the following article I'm going to record (perhaps solely for my own benefit) how I broke down a twenty-year brick wall, as well as highlighting the clues that revealed the facts and a couple of wrong turns I took, while hopefully offering some routes that may be helpful to others in a similar situation. Warning: this is still a work in progress, may contain errors, and does not necessarily constitute an end result!
When I started researching the Camerons back in 2000 I made fairly quick progress through the usual route of birth, marriage and death certificates (along with a few letters from a great uncle and a photocopy of a family Bible). My great-grandfather was Peter McDougall Cameron (1881-1923), his father was Peter Cameron (1856-1913), and his father was Donald Cameron (1810-1887), with the family hailing from Perthshire, particularly Clunie, where Donald was the Church officer. At Donald I hit a brick wall - and he currently remains one (though I have a small book's worth of research and theories that I'm hoping will click one day and unlock the answer).
But I was even more intrigued by Donald's wife, Catherine Campbell. The census returns gave her a birth date of around 1815 and her birthplace as France (though a British citizen). Her death certificate, from 1889, claimed her parents were Donald Campbell, a sergeant in the 42nd Regiment, and Barbara Stevenson. Anyone with a taste for military history will recognise the potential importance of the date 1815 - the year of Waterloo. Indeed, a family story claims Catherine was 'born at the battle of Waterloo', and the 42nd Foot were in the thick of it. In fact, the battle did not take place in France but in nineteenth century Netherlands (now Belgium), though afterwards the regiment moved to the vicinity of Paris as part of the occupying army, before returning to England in December, which may give some logic to the record of Catherine's French birth.
With these facts at hand I spent the next nearly twenty years trying to find and identify Catherine's parents, but to no avail. Perhaps the names on the death certificate were wrong, in which case my chances of finding Catherine's forebears were going to be next to impossible. Donald Cameron and Catherine Campbell were a brick wall so high that I started to accept I'd probably never be able to climb it.
On New Year's Eve 2018 I was in the house alone and found myself, yet again, making a fresh search for Catherine's parents - only this time something came up. I don't know if it was a new record, or just that my desperation was leading to more and more creative searches, but up popped an 1810 baptism at Musselburgh for one Alexander Campbell, son to a Donald Campbell, sergeant in the 42nd Regiment, and his wife Barbara Stevens. Seeing those names confirmed as real, after all this time, had a surprisingly emotional impact.
At last I had a contemporary account of my 4xg-grandparents, so I went into overdrive searching for any other trace of their existence. The standard searches continued to remain silent, but when I tried something a bit different I came up with another result. The above baptism of Alexander Campbell took place in Musselburgh in 1810, which coincides, unsurprisingly, with the location of the 42nd Regiment on that date. I decided to search the census returns for anyone named Campbell who was born in a known 42nd Regiment location, either at home or on campaign, within the early 1800s.
To my surprise I had some success and came up with a William Campbell, born in Gibraltar around 1808 - the location for the 42nd just before they embarked for the continent and the Peninsular War. A little research on this William, who also stood out to me because he was living in Perth, not too far from my own Catherine Campbell, seemed to confirm him as a 4xg-uncle - a brother for Catherine. He died in 1879 and his death certificate recorded his parents as William Campbell, soldier, and Barbara Stevens. I reasoned that 'William' was probably a mistake that should have read Donald (though I did make a note that I should allow for the possibility of a previous Campbell husband, even if that seemed unlikely). He had married Martha Hamilton in Perth in 1834, and one of his children helped to confirm the family connection.
In 1844 he had a son baptised as William Keir Campbell - significant because Catherine also had a child, a daughter, baptised in 1844 called Charlotte Keir Cameron. Neither of the children survived into adulthood, William dying in 1848, and Charlotte sometime before 1851. I'd often wondered about the name Keir, reckoning it must have had some importance to Catherine, so I decided to divert my attention onto that question for a bit - who were the Keirs?
I started my research looking at contemporary Keirs in the Clunie and Caputh locales of Perthshire and a promising family soon emerged. A William Keir, born in Caputh in 1760, married Helen Sangster in Clunie in 1798. One of their children was Charlotte Keir, born in Clunie in 1804. A niece, born in 1843, was called Charlotte Keir Lamont. William Keir lived a long life, and though he died in Rattray, where he worked as an inn keeper, his 1856 death certificate notes that he was buried in Clunie, certified by the Church officer there - Donald Cameron, my 3xg-grandfather. That seemed to seal it, though I could find no obvious family connection, and no evidence linking Catherine's brother William. They may just have been family friends, but certainly the connection was likely to have been with the Campbell parents.
It felt as though a long-empty canvas was now being slowly filled in, and I continued my searches with the few available records of the 42nd Foot in the early 1800s that were available online (particularly the regimental Description and Succession Books). From these there appeared to be only one Donald Campbell who was a sergeant in the right time-frame. He was born in Halkirk, Caithness, around 1781 or 82, and in December 1799 he'd enlisted with the Caithness Highlanders before serving in Ireland following the 'Rebellion'. After the militia were disbanded in 1802, he joined the 42nd Highlanders. There was a slight spanner in the works in that he did not appear on any of the rolls for Waterloo - even if he was killed there, or at the immediately previous actions of Ligny or Quatre Bras, he should have been on the roll, but perhaps he was wounded or sick, or maybe he was one of the men kept back on guard duty in Brussels.
As for his marriage to Barbara Stevens, that remained elusive, but an interesting newspaper article from the John O'Groat Journal of March 1883 provided a potential theory. It told how many of the Caithness Highlanders returned from Ireland and " brought home to Caithness Irish wives, and it is universally admitted that they were 'pretty women' and that many of the Caithness girls were not a little mortified to find that their old admirers had returned, already provided with spouses "
At this stage I had confirmation that Donald Campbell and Barbara Stevens/on existed, I was pretty sure that Donald was from Halkirk in Caithness, and I knew they apparently had three children, born in 1808 (in Gibraltar), 1810 (in Scotland) and 1815 (in France), and also that a Keir family had some importance to the Campbell children - but that seemed to be the limit of what I could discover for now.
With that I turned my attention back to later branches of the Cameron family. I had been slowly going through the families of Donald and Catherine's children, many now in Glasgow and Dundee, filling out their stories and keeping an eye out for any clues that might reflect on the families' past. Especially interesting were the children of daughter Barbara Cameron and her husband James Wilson. They had both died before the turn of the 20th century, leaving a young family largely in the charge of eldest daughter, Agnes.
I eventually got round to looking more deeply into Agnes's story - in 1906, at the age of 37, she married a 58-year old widower and ex-sailor called Archibald Wallace. They settled down and ran a local shop in Birnam near Little Dunkeld where they had two daughters (a previous son had died as a baby, and only one of the daughters made it into adulthood). Archibald died in 1925 and Agnes in 1950, both in Dundee.
To complete the story I was also looking a little into the families of the wives and husbands of the Cameron children and grandchildren, and I was particularly intrigued by Agnes's husband, Archibald Wallace, and his life as a merchant sailor. He'd been born in Argyll, the son of a candlemaker, and in 1879 he'd married his first wife, a young widow called Sarah Sim. A couple of things stood out on Archibald and Sarah's marriage certificate - Sarah's parents were recorded as George Sim, soldier, and Charlotte Keir, and one of the witnesses was James Wilson, house painter, and the father of Agnes Wilson who would become Archibald's second wife twenty-seven years later.
Besides the hint of a family relationship with Archibald or Sarah much earlier than was previously known, the name Charlotte Keir was surely no coincidence, and I immediately furthered my research into Sarah Sim and her family. George Sim had been a corporal in the 92nd Foot, but I could find very little about him, other than he married Charlotte at Perth in 1844 and seems to have died around 1850. Looking more closely at Charlotte was like a lock clicking open. She died in Perth in 1860 and her parents were recorded as William Keir, late of the 42nd Highlanders, and Barbara Stevens.
So Barbara had married again, staying within the regiment of her previous husband, Donald Campbell, and had become a Keir - a more concrete explanation for the middle name of her two grandchildren, William Keir Campbell and Charlotte Keir Cameron. Besides dismissing my previous Clunie-Keir discoveries (though I still wonder if they're part of the same wider Keir family) it also meant that Archibald's two wives were cousins (half first-cousins once-removed, to be precise, or to put it another way, their mothers were half-aunt and niece).
From there the research avenues opened up and the picture started to come into sharper focus. William had been with the 42nd Regiment since 1805, had served in the Peninsular war at Busaco, Fuentes d'Onoro and Ciudad Rodrigo, and was discharged while on service in Ireland in 1822. But unlike Donald Campbell, I found his marriage to Barbara in 1816, in Thurso, Caithness. The couple had four (known) children, half-siblings to Catherine and William Campbell: James and Charlotte in Ireland, and then Daniel and Frederick after William's retirement in Perth.
Looking for Thurso connections I found another surprise - Barbara Stevens had married a William Campbell, a soldier in the 42nd regiment, in Thurso in 1803. This changed things again - it seems the William Campbell born in Gibraltar in 1808 was not, in fact, a full brother to Catherine, but a half-sibling - the father's name on his death certificate had been right after all. So Barbara had three husbands within the 42nd Foot - William Campbell, Donald Campbell, and William Keir. This was not an unheard of situation in these years of the Napoleonic wars. Writing in 1841, ex-42nd Highlander James Anton had mentioned in his memoirs the plight of the wives on campaign who lost their husbands, " many a good woman, who in a few months, perhaps weeks, after her sudden bereavement, becomes the wife of a second husband."
Similarly Sheila Simonson mentions in her paper Following the Drum: British Women in the Peninsular War, "when a woman's [soldier] husband died ... the odds were good that she would remarry within the week." If a woman couldn't remarry, or if a job could not be found for her within the regiment, her rations would be immediately stopped and she and any children would be sent back to England without any further support, facing potential destitution and poverty. It's recorded that the highest known number of husbands a woman held in the Peninsular war was six.
To my delight I found William Keir and Barbara on the 1841 census, at Redgorton in Perthshire. By now William was working as a hand loom weaver, and while it showed their son James was born in Ireland, Barbara herself seems to have been Scottish, though not a native of Perthshire.
I also discovered a statutory death record for William Keir in 1857, in Perth, and that reminded me to check the very useful Perth burgh burial registers that were available at the Perth and Kinross Council website. Sure enough, William's burial was recorded, buried at the Wellshill Cemetery in Perth, but I also discovered a burial for his wife, Barbara (recorded as 'Kerr') - she died in October 1847 with the cause given as 'apoplexy' - a term often used for any sudden death.
By now I'd done a lot of research into the Keirs, but I was starting to dry up again on Barbara Stevens and had made no progress on her possible origins. One evening I made a tentative search in the Perth newspapers around the time of her death - knowing that obituaries and death notices were not nearly as common as they would later become, especially for women, so not expecting anything in return. Nothing was coming up until I really honed down the date bracket and just tried the name 'Keir' on its own - and I got a hit.
The Perthshire Courier of 4 November 1847 had a report on the sudden death of 'Mrs Keir', the wife of an [army] pensioner (explicitly named as William Keir of the 42nd Regiment in the Dundee, Perth & Coupar Advertiser version of the article the following day). She was returning home with a neighbour after putting out some washing on the green when she collapsed and died. But it gave up more ...
"Few women have endured more of the fatigues and hardships of life than Mrs. Keir. She was at the battle of Corunna, marched with the army in the previous memorable retreat, carrying along with her an infant seven months old; afterwards went out with the army to Portugal, and through all the campaigns in that country, in Spain, and in France."
The seven-month old child would have been little William Campbell, and I can't help but wonder what happened to his father - was he a casualty of those terrible months at the end of 1808 and into 1809? Or did he make it, with his wife and child, onto the ships that eventually came and made possible their escape back to England?
And what of Donald Campbell? He certainly seems to have been Barbara's husband by 1810, and must have at least have been in the picture within the nine months before Catherine's birth in France in 1815. But did he die in France or did he return to England in time for Christmas of that year? Curiously, at the marriage of William Keir and Barbara Steven in 1816, one of the witnesses is recorded as being 'Donald Campbell' - not a unique name by any means, but it certainly adds to the mystery of it all.
While I continued to research the easier pickings of the Keir children and their families, as well as some intriguing Cameron connections that came to light after looking into some of Agnes Wilson's friends and siblings, I poked an occasional idle theory or two concerning Barbara Stevens. I'd already discovered so much more than I ever imagined I would, but she had to have come from somewhere ...
One theory I tested was that her mother may have been called Charlotte. She named her second (known) daughter Charlotte Keir, not a hugely common name in 1820 (just over 80 Charlottes were registered in Scotland in 1820, compared to over 200 Barbaras, 385 Catherines, 2,300 Marys and 2,700 Margarets), and the name didn't seem to come form the Keir side of the family. I did find a Barbara Steven, born around the right time, in 1782, to a William Steven and Charlotte Hill, but it was in Edinburgh, and I had no reason to connect her with my own Barbara Stevens.
I was starting to think that she may have her origins in Caithness, and particularly in Thurso - after all, that's where she married her first husband, William Campbell. I turned to my DNA matches to see if any strong connections came up with Stevens and Caithness. A few came up, but with nothing very convincing - except for one who had a John Steven who died in Thurso in 1890. Their tree was not complete so I did a quick series of searches and discovered the possibility that this line lead back to an Alexander Steven who may have been the Thurso-born son of a William Steven and Charlotte Hill - the same names I'd discovered recently in Edinburgh.
I looked at this couple more closely and discovered that William had been a journeyman blacksmith and had married Charlotte Hill in Edinburgh in 1781, having Barbara the following year. But what I'd missed before was that they then moved to Thurso where they had three more children - Jean, Magnus and Alexander. As it turned out, this was not the Alexander of my DNA match - her Alexander was of a completely different line (the son of David Steven and Elizabeth Mowatt of Olrig). My hurried family tree was a mistake but had inadvertently lead me to the right family.
How did I know that I had finally found Barbara Stevens' parents? It was all in the witnesses, only revealed by looking at images of the original baptism documents (they're not included on the searchable indexes). While none were recorded for Barbara in Edinburgh, the Thurso records were slightly more detailed. Barbara's siblings had a couple of witnesses who appeared on more than one occasion, including James Keith and Magnus Steven. They helped to identify that William Steven had a second marriage in Thurso in 1790 to one Janet Sutherland (presumably Charlotte had died). This marriage had Magnus Steven as a witness and a new name, Richard Sutherland - likely a relative of the bride.
Richard Sutherland continued appearing as a witness for a number of the new couple's children, all the way to 1803. In one record, in 1795, it was mentioned he was a 'Chelsea Pensioner', in other words an old soldier. More importantly he appeared on a document I'd already been holding for a number of months - the marriage of Barbara Stevens and William Campbell of the 42nd Regiment in Thurso, in 1803, where one of the witnesses was Richard Sutherland. I double-checked to make sure he wasn't some kind of church official, thus appearing across many records - he wasn't, and seemed to be connected closely to the Thurso Steven family. Also, while Sutherland is one of the most common Caithness surnames, Richard Sutherland was very rare, appearing only about 15 times across the whole of Scotland in the old parish records (compare that to over 500 John Sutherlands in Caithness alone).
Looking at the witnesses also helps, I believe, take the Thurso Stevens back one further generation. Barbara's father, William, appears in a number of online trees, though often only recording his second marriage to Janet Sutherland, and then they differ on his parentage - with some opting for a family form Dunnet, and others from Olrig or Wick. But I think he was Thurso born and bred, specifically to Magnus Steven and Jane Manson, with William born in 1756.
While I can't find a marriage for Magnus and Jane (sometimes recorded as Anne), one witness to the baptism of their son Magnus, in 1765, was James Keith, the same name that appears on a couple of the early baptisms for William and Charlotte. Another is Francis Manson - a name that appears on four of the Steven/Sutherland baptisms (1793-1797) and one of the Steven/Manson baptisms (1761) - the dates suggesting the latter witness is the father of the former, the son of Francis Manson and Katherine Bain, born in Thurso in 1771.
The birthdate of 1756 for William might also tie in with the possible age of Charlotte Hill. While no baptism for her could be found, her marriage entry does record her father to be one George Hill of 'Mutton Hole', Edinburgh, and I did find a George Hill having several children in that precise locale, with his wife Janet Aitken, between 1750 and 1758.
At the end of all this I find I have a surprisingly full biography of the life of Barbara Steven/s/on, but also many questions. What happened to her first two husbands, the Campbells, William and Donald? I can only presume they perished on campaign - did William die at Corunna or during the retreat there? When did Barbara marry Donald, and did he die in Flanders or France, or did he make it back to Scotland? What of their son, Alexander, born in 1810 - I've not been able to confirm his existence into adulthood. Did she have any other children? And looking further back into her roots, would we eventually find Scandinavian blood? Her grandfather seems to have been called Magnus, and she had a half-brother called Darg, both names with an Icelandic or Norse origin, places with a strong connection to Thurso - though that may be many generations further back, and will have to be a search for another day. There's plenty to still find out.
Hints and tips
Search again within record sets you've looked through before - there may have been new records added, or you may have new information or experience that makes your search more successful.
Sometimes more general searches could open a door, for instance search for just a surname in conjunction with a particular place and see who comes up.
Use wildcards (*) to search for variant spellings of a name. When searching for Stevens I used 'st*n*' to encompass all Steven, Stevens, Stevenson, Stiven and Stephens (etc.) - all were spellings used within the family I was searching for. Keir was also spelled as Kier, Keer, Kear and Kerr or Ker.
Look at the original documents (or facsimiles of them) as much as possible - often they will contain extra information that doesn't appear on the index (such as witnesses or exact locations) that can help differentiate between families with the same name, or they may reveal that, actually, the index transcription is wrong.
First and middle names can be clues to other parts of the family, but they could also just be a tribute to friends or neighbours. I knew to keep an eye out for the name Keir as it was used as a middle name, but I also knew another middle name - Leishman - was from a family friend, the local church minister.
Research the spouses of your family members as well as any previous wives or husbands if they were widowed, if they're fellow locals you might be surprised to see a familiar surname within their family.
There are degrees of fame, of course, and not all of it the good type. So I can say I'm related to a murderer or two as well as a couple of murder victims (separate cases), a dodgy priest who was uncovered by the Boston Globe, a well-respected Victorian army piper, and a number of local worthies and 'characters'. However, while it's quite often the smaller stories and individuals I find truly interesting, there are a handful of modern 'celebrities', more widely known, that I share some DNA with. They are by no means close relationships but I can say where they sit on my family tree, so I thought it might be fun to have a look at them.
The first is Chris Farley, probably most famous for his time on NBC's Saturday Night Live during the early 1990s where he performed alongside fellow cast members such as Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Mike Meyers and Julia Sweeney. He also appeared in a handful of films, including Wayne's World and Coneheads. Farley had a number of similarities to one of his heroes, another SNL regular, John Belushi, and unfortunately that included an addictive personality - he died from a drug-induced overdose in 1997, aged just 33 years old (the same age and cause as Belushi, 15 years earlier).
Chris Farley (and his brothers, two of whom are also involved in the entertainment industry) is descended from the Henderson family who emigrated from Scotland to the US in the 1850s, becoming early settlers in some of the outpost communities of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Our common ancestors are James Ewing and Helen Clark (my 5xg-grandparents, his 4xg-grandparents), making Chris Farley my fifth cousin once removed.
Next on my list is the Queen of Brit-Art, Tracey Emin. I'd suspected we were related when I watched her 2011 episode of Who Do You Think You Are? where it was revealed she was descended from Midland Gypsies with the name Hodgkins, though hers came chiefly from Warwickshire, and mine from neighbouring Staffordshire.
At first I discovered that distant branches of our families did marry (through a very convoluted link) but it wasn't until a few key DNA matches appeared that I was able to confirm her as a blood relative and place her, fairly confidently, on the family tree. Our common ancestors are unknown, but it is highly likely that her 5xg-grandfather, Edward Hodgkins, is the brother of my 5xg-grandfather, Thomas Hodgkins, making us 7th cousins.
Finally, back to Scotland and late 1805 where a ship's carpenter, James Horsburgh, had a bit of a dalliance with the twenty-year old daughter of a local land labourer, producing a son out of wedlock. The son was named after the father but did not follow him to Dundee, where a new wife gave him several more children, this time 'legitimate'.
These Dundee Horsburghs prospered quite nicely throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, and they were joined in the city some 50 or 60 years later by a separate Horsburgh branch - actually the descendants of the 'illegitimate' James Horsburgh, though whether the two branches were ever aware of their half-cousin status after so long can't be known (unlikely).
This later Dundee branch are my ancestors and were responsible for a number of carting and contracting businesses within the city. The earlier Dundee Horsburghs are the ancestors of one Glasgow-born James William Somerville, also known as Jimmy, and the face and voice of famous 80s synthpop bands Bronski Beat and the Communards. Our shared ancestor is James Horsburgh (my 5xg-grandfather, his 4xg-grandfather) and that makes Jimmy Somerville my half-5th cousin once removed. (Sidenote: my wife's uncle, Royston Edwards, designed much of the sleeve and logo artwork for the Communards).
As you can see, these aren't close relations and I just happened to discover them while climbing down some of the outer branches of my tree. There are probably others not yet discovered, and you'll likely have some too at this range where we have thousands of relatives spreading out from our common ancestors. I have been involved in a bit of acting, I've been in a band, and I work as an illustrator, so next time someone asks if acting or music or art runs in the family, I can answer, "well, as it happens ...".
The war had been a hammer swinging wildly into the families of those who were sent to fight, reshaping and defining them for generations to come. The children of the 1850s and 60s grew up with a vision of the British forces as lords of India, heroes of Africa, explorers and defenders of the Great Empire - well, that was the Boys' Own version, anyway. Victorian campaigns would see a handful of British casualties to show for a battle, ten or twenty, maybe a few hundred for a disaster such as Isandlwana or Maiwand. The Boer campaign gave a hint of what was to come, but still nothing could have prepared that generation for what they would be sending their own children into when the ego of Empire boiled over in 1914: banks of machine guns, barrages of shells that fell like rain, gas, snipers, mud, and the sharp end of a bayonet. Twenty-thousand British soldiers were killed on the first day of the Somme alone - industrialised death.
By its end twenty million young lives had been wiped from the face of the Earth, with the roughly 900,000 British dead immortalised in stone monuments in almost every town and village across the land - 205 names are engraved into the memorial on the High Street of my own home town.
A big part of my family history research over the past nearly 20 years has been researching those who served in the 'Great War', and I've currently identified almost 100 individuals within my wider family, many of whom were injured, a handful captured as prisoners of war, and 28 who lost their lives.
For me, it was my great-grandparents' generation who were tipped into the calamity of the conflict. Of my four great-grandfathers only two actually served. My grandfathers' fathers were a teacher and a coal miner, reserved occupations, and they lived on into their 70s. My grandmothers' fathers both joined up: Peter Cameron into the Royal Army Service Corps in December 1915, and Charles Hodgkins into the 4th North Staffordshire Regiment in September 1914. They both survived the war, but died young in the 1920s.
Peter died aged 41, in 1923, after a botched operation on a gastric ulcer. My Gran was just nine when she lost her father. At the time of his passing none of the family knew that another child was on the way, born almost exactly nine months later. Charles died in 1925, aged 34, the day before his little girl's (my Grannie) sixth birthday. The story that came through the family was that he had been gassed during his time in the Dardanelles and had never fully recovered, but my subsequent research revealed something different - gas was not used on the Turkish peninsula, and while it was a respiratory condition - pleurisy and pneumonia - that sent him back home in 1915, it was septicaemia from an oral infection that eventually ended his life.
Most of us are here today because our own forebears survived - only seven out of the 28 fatalities on my family memorial had children - but we all have tales of a much-loved uncle who never came back. Charles' younger brother survived the war, and he had three sisters, one of which, Lottie, married into a family where all seven brothers served, two of whom were killed. A first cousin with the same name, Charles Hodgkins, was killed at Ypres.
Peter Cameron had three first cousins killed in the war, in May, June and December 1916 - each the son of three brothers. Of his own brothers, Peter had three who served - all survived, though one was a prisoner of war in Germany for nine months, and another was severely injured by bullets to the chest and shoulder (he had no children and family lore connected this with his injuries, but I don't know if that's true).
Another family devastated by the war was that of my gg-grandfather, Andrew Phillip. He lost his youngest son to a shell while another was poisoned in a gas attack - but survived. His eldest daughter lost two sons and his eldest son lost one. His older brother lost a grandson - one of four to serve from that family. The stories could go on to fill a book, and there will be yet more to uncover as I continue my research.
As a child growing up the 1970s, it was the Second World War that was closer to home - my parents were born in the middle of it and my grandparents lived through it. I consumed its story through comics and films, and played it out in the school playground and with dolls, plastic soldiers and model aircraft. The family stories of the First World War were barely there at all - whispers, mangled truths, guesses and rumours inferred from the silence of a shell-shocked generation that was fading out of sight.
It was an old Edwardian postcard album that ignited my interest in family history - here were faces I didn't know, many in uniform, the wives and sisters and mothers, postcards that pleaded 'remember me', 'thinking of you' and 'until we meet again'. The emotion, sadness and hope that flooded down through the decades was palpable and helped fuel my drive to understand the effect this scar of history had on the lives of my ancestors.
But if it wasn't for the First World War, I might not be here at all. Great-grandfather Charles, having been sent away from the trenches of Gallipoli, ended up at Whittington Barracks hospital near Lichfield where my great-grandmother, a local farm girl, delivered eggs to the recovering soldiers. Here they met, fell in love and married, and two children, nine grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, and even more great-great-grandchildren have been the result.
On this 100th anniversary of the Armistice, here's to the memory of those who were sent to fight - on both sides, from all nations; those who came back and those who didn't; to the parents who had to send their children and then read the casualty lists in the local paper and dread the clatter of the letter box every morning; to the sisters, wives and sweethearts who lived on; and to the children who wondered at the dark silences of their parents and grandparents, only to find the answer by being sent to fight in the next world war - hopefully the last generation to have to do so, despite the simmering waters of nationalism and isolationism that threaten to bubble up once more.
Walter is a fairly recent discovery - I'm currently writing the story of my Ewing family (it's turning into something of an epic) where some new research lead me to discover one of my 5xg-grandfather's sisters, previously thought lost, was actually widowed at the start of the 1850s and then emigrated, with her children, to America. While she probably died in Wisconsin sometime in the 1860s, two of her sons moved on to Minnesota and settled and had family there. The grandson of one of these Minnesota pioneers was Walter Henderson.
He was born near Spicer in Kandiyohi County in 1892. After school and some farm work, he ended up in Montana working for the Home Lumber Company, and in September 1917, six months after the US entered the Great War, he volunteered and was assigned to the 362nd Infantry, 91st Division, at Camp Lewis. On Christmas Eve of that year he married, in Washington but to a Spicer girl, and in June, by now a Corporal, he was mobilised with Europe as his destination (his troop train actually passed through Willmar, Kandiyohi, and he was able to see his family again, briefly, before he left).
Walter arrived in England in July 1918, and after a short while they were off to France where they spent their first few weeks in the battle-torn country training for what was to come. What was to come turned out to be hot battle - St Mihiel, where 300 Americans were lost, and then, constantly under the threat of German planes and gas, on to the Argonne and Epinonville. On the 29th September the Division found itself in action at Gesnes, battling enemy soldiers holding the Kriemhilde Line. It was here that Walter lost his life - he was last seen scouting ahead of a ridge occupied by his company.
Walter's grave, along with over 14,000 of his fellow US servicemen, can be found at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery near Romagne-sous-Montfaucon in France. You can see my own family war memorial here.
As you may have read in my previous post, I recently received the results of a DNA test, so my mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has now had its haplogroup identified, the relatively rare J1b1 (subclade J1b1a1b) - or if you want to be a bit more romantic about it, the daughters of 'Jasmine'. This reignited my interest in looking at my maternal line to see if I could get back any further than Susanna - maiden name unknown and a 'brick wall' in my research. I think I have, but it's a puzzle, so I'm going to use this article to set out the facts, sort out my thoughts, and show a bit of process along the way.
Susanna's daughter, my three-times great grandmother, was Mary Harrison, born in 1813 in Radmore Lane, Gnosall, Staffordshire. In 1831 she married John Ecclestone in near-by Norbury and they had 13 children over the next twenty years or so. Mary's parents, according to her baptism record, were Joseph and Susanna Harrison (sometimes recorded as Harris) and, while I found six children for them, I could not find their marriage, and therefore had no idea of Susanna's family name.
Often a clue to the parent's antecedents can be found in their children's names, which in the case of Jospeh and Susanna were Benjamin, Joseph, Gregory, Samuel, Mary and Thomas - all born in Gnosall between 1799 and 1815. Presuming Benjamin was indeed the first child, I'd likely be looking for a marriage in the years closely preceding his birth, so perhaps 1797 or 1798, and probably in the local area - the main parishes being Gnosall, Norbury and Forton. Of course none of this is definite - Joseph and Susanna could have migrated into the area from Cornwall, had a previous six children - records now lost, and changed their names to escape a forbidding father-in-law. Going from experience, that would be an extreme rarity - the vast majority of my ancestors in that period married and had children in the same local area their parents came from.
Searching for a Staffordshire marriage with the names of Joseph Harris/on and Susanna within a fairly wide timeframe turned up only one result - Joseph Harrison, a shoemaker, marrying a widow, Susanna Hall, in Stafford in December 1819. Although it's perfectly conceivable they could have had all their children in Gnosall and then moved the seven miles to Stafford to marry, a search for children for this couple turned up five, all born in Stafford, starting with a Benjamin in 1820 - baptised three months after the marriage.
One thing to be wary of when searching old records is that you're relying on searching an index that has been transcribed from original documents by people who may have had trouble reading the unfamiliar and variable handwriting of the 17/1800s. This has led to one of my ancestors recorded as Thinford when the original document reads Winifred, the family of Morrisroe being transcribed as Morrison, Mudie as Micdie, Balle as Bailie, and the Youngs as the Trurys, to name a handful. There are mistakes in original documents as well of course - it took me years to find my Higson family in the 1841 census until I searched without the family name and concentrated on the fairly unique grouping of their first names and ages to discover them recorded as Jackson.
To tackle this you can search with more open terms. While many genealogy sites have algorithms that will return known variants (eg. a search for Ann will also return Anne, Annie, Nancy or Hannah) you can also use wildcards, for instance using H*k*n* for Hodgkins to account for archaic and alternative spellings such as Hoskins, Hodgkinson and Hodkins, etc.
Dropping the surname and searching within the expected timeframe for a Jos* marrying a Sus*an* in Staffordshire returns 100 results, rather a lot to examine in detail, but manageable enough to see if anything in the list stands out, for instance an obviously mistranscribed surname or something in the expected locality. While there were a couple within the wider local area (eg. Joseph Howl marrying Susannah Clever in Eccleshall in 1796), there was one in the exact area I'm interested in - Joseph Addison marrying Susannah Rodes at Forton in 1798.
It's not inconceivable that Addison could be a mistranscription of Harrison, so I needed to see an image of the original document, but that did not turn up with the results, just the text transcription from the more general 'England Marriages 1538-1973' database. But I know there is excellent coverage of Staffordshire images at findmypast, and opening the search more widely revealed the Banns record for 'Joseph Addisson' and 'Shusanah Roden' at All Saints Church, Forton. Looking at the image reveals one dashed hope and one raised hope: there's no doubt the name is written as 'Addison', not Harrison ... but one of the witnesses is a Benjamin Harrison - enough to intrigue and warrant further investigation.
Immediately a number of questions are thrown up which point the way to further research. If these are my ancestors, why would an Addison become a Harrison and name his children Harrison? Was he adopted by Harrisons? Was there a debt of gratitude owed to the Harrison family? Did Joseph Addison want to leave his past behind? Was Susanna Rhodes related to influential Harrisons?
A search for other Staffordshire Harrison/Addison relationships turned up nothing (a single marriage in 1873). But then a surprising result - I searched my own family file for any mentions I'd recorded of the name Addison and found that my ggg-grandmother, Mary Harrison (Joseph and Susanna's daughter), had her Will proved in 1890 by her son, Henry, and one Samuel Thomas Addison. The trail just got a little warmer.
There were now four families to research and see if any link would emerge: those of Joseph Addison, Samuel Thomas Addison, Susanna Rhodes, and Benjamin Harrison. I did have burial dates and ages for Joseph and Susanna Harrison (under the name Harris, residents of Sutton), showing - if accurate - that my Joseph was likely born around 1768, and his wife was likely born around 1782.
No obvious birth for Joseph Addison could be found - one in London, one in Norfolk, one in Cumberland and one in Westmorland - not impossible candidates, but unlikely. Next I tried searches for a Joseph Harrison born in the same period in Staffordshire - returning 18 possibilities with one who stood out, born in 1767 to a Gregory and Sarah Harrison in Church Eaton. Church Eaton is just a couple of miles from Gnosall, and my Joseph and Susanna named their third son Gregory - a relatively rare name for the period (between 1780 and 1820, in Staffordshire, just over 2000 boys were named Gregory, compared to roughly 580,000 Johns, 460,000 Thomases, 280,000 Josephs, 172,000 Samuels, and 75,000 Benjamins). Not much else stood out with the Church Eaton Harrisons - I could identify six children in all, but no other names chimed any bells - no Benjamin, for instance.
As for Samuel Thomas Addison, he was a farmer* who lived in the close neighbourhood of Mary and her Ecclestone family. I'd already established there was no local Joseph Addison in the records, but Samuel's family did hail from Gnosall and, it seems, Eccleshall before that. His father was George and his grandfather was Samuel Addison - Joseph and Susanna Harrison named their fourth son Samuel, so that is another point of interest, though it's not as unusual as Gregory.
Looking at Susanna Rhodes, a few more lights go on. Firstly she was born in 1782 which fits perfectly with Susanna Harris's age at death. Her parents were Samuel Rhodes and Mary Bellingham - both first names that were also used for Harrison children. A more detailed examination of her siblings is where things start to get a little more interesting. The Rhodes children were all born in Norbury and married in the local communities of Norbury, Gnosall and Forton. Susanna's immediate older sister was called Frances, and in 1797 Frances Rhodes married one Benjamin Harrison, so this explains his presence as a witness on the Addison/Rhodes marriage - he was Susanna's brother-in-law. Frances died in 1816 at just 39 years old, and it's interesting that three of the Joseph/Susanna Harrison children (Benjamin, Gregory and Mary) all named daughters Frances (aka Fanny).
Of the four other Rhodes siblings, all had their children baptised in Gnosall or Forton, but if you look more closely at the original records - all those born after 1812 (which, thanks to the Rose Act, recorded more detail), whether Gnosall or Forton, show Radmore Lane as the parents' residence. They had children in the same place and during the same timeframe as Joseph and Susanna Harrison. The youngest brother, Edward Rhodes, even named one of his children Joseph, born nine months after the death of Joseph Harrison (though that may have been his father-in-law's name too).
This could all be coincidence! But there are a couple more interesting pieces to place. At first I was not able to positively identify a birth or baptism for the Addison/Rhodes marriage witness, Benjamin Harrison. However, though his first wife died in 1816, he seems to have remarried the following year and can be found on both the 1841 and 1851 census still living at Coton. The 1851 census gives his birth place as Church Eaton - and that takes us back to Gregory and Sarah Harrison who had a son, Joseph Harrison in 1767, and who are, in fact, the only Harrison family having children in Church Eaton between 1740 and 1780. Opening up the search a bit I eventually found Benjamin - transcribed as Benjamin Hornson, but a closer look at the original image reveals it is in fact Benjamin Harrison, son of Greg and Sarah and baptised in April 1765. And for that extra little push, three of the Joseph/Susanna children (Benjamin, Gregory and Thomas) all named daughters Sarah.
Before the conclusion, let's just add in one more little fact. Joseph Addison and Susanna Rhodes published their first marriage banns on October 14th 1798. Eight months later saw the baptism of my four-times great uncle, Benjamin Harrison, first recorded child of Joseph and Susanna Harrison.
My conclusion from all this is that the marriage of Joseph Addison and Susannah Rhodes in 1798 is indeed the marriage of my gggg-grandparents, Joseph and Susanna Harrison. As every good genealogist should, I tried to disprove my theory but couldn't conclusively do that - I can say there were no children born to a Joseph and Susanna Addison (at least not until a couple with the same names had children in the 1840s and 50s in Norfolk) and there are no matching local burials that fit either.
The fact that the married Rhodes children largely lived together in Radmore Lane or very close by, the family names of Gregory, Mary, Samuel, Frances and Sarah, the matching birth years for Joseph and Susannah with their Harrison and Rhodes counterparts, and the Church Eaton connection, with two Harrison brothers (Joseph and Benjamin) marrying two Rhodes sisters (Susanna and Frances) - all little things that, together, hold a fair bit of weight.
In the light of all that, I now believe the name Samuel Thomas Addison on Mary Harrison's Will is a coincidence. In which case, the question remains - why the Addison name on the marriage? I do have a theory, though it's not a strong one ... if you look at the original document image above you see the Banns is written in a different hand to the entry for the marriage below it. The Banns handwriting is less confident and more scrawling than the marriage entry - indeed Susanna's name is written 'Shusanah Rodse'. Perhaps the Banns was written in by the church warden, whereas the curate (Rev. Richard Wingfield) recorded the actual marriage, copying the warden's interpretation of Addison, but correctly reproducing the witness's surname at the time of the ceremony. That's just a theory, I don't know. Perhaps Joseph had a really bad cold on the day of the Banns!
There will always be a part of me that would like something more substantial than all these little jigsaw pieces, because it doesn't add up to a complete picture (but does genealogy ever do that?), and I will continue to try and verify this hypothesis. DNA may help - either in finding Harrison, Wenlock, Rhodes** or Bellingham connections through autosomal results, or through a less likely encounter with a mtDNA match from the maternal line. But, overall, I feel fairly confident that I can now take my mtDNA line a bit further back with a couple more Ms to add in ...
Margaret > May > Minnie > Mira > Mary > Susanna > Mary > Mary ... and my new brick wall: Frances.
Update: * It turns out that Samuel Thomas Addison was a local worthy, and Mary Harrison/Ecclestone was probably a tenant on one of his farms - which could explain his presence on the Will. ** I have since found DNA matches with the Harrison/Rhodes family and further back with the Wenlock line, plus I eventually found the Will of Samuel Rhodes in which he names his daughters, Susanna and Frances Harris.
Recently my curiosity got the better of me and I've had my results almost two months now. Since then I've been on a steep but fascinating learning curve. I've used my raw data with a number of third-party tools and databases and I'm beginning to see some interesting stuff.
A number of companies now offer various DNA testing services and their databases are expanding enormously, week by week. Many folk are not necessarily interested in genealogy, but rather in the so-called 'ethnicity results' - a pretty inexact science that offers to tell you what percentage you are in relation to various geographical locations. While the results of these should be taken with a large pinch of salt, they can be interesting and used as a rough guide.
I have a number of results from my own data being uploaded to various testing sites, so let's have a look ... Here's Ancestry's ethnicity estimate for me: Great Britain 39%, Ireland/Scotland/Wales 33%, Europe West 16%, Scandinavia 6% and Iberian Peninsula 4%. You can dig down into these results and see that my Great Britain percentage is largely from the West Midlands and Yorkshire Pennines, and the Ireland/Scotland/Wales result is largely Northeast and Central Scotland. The Europe West area includes France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, among others, but also takes in a chunk of South-East England.
FamilyTreeDNA gives my overall origins at 100% European, breaking it up into 81% British Isles and 19% West and Central Europe - not far off the Ancestry results. DNALand assigns me 100% West Eurasian, of which 91% is Northwest European, 8% is Southwestern European, and 1.1% is 'ambiguous'.
One of the more interesting is LivingDNA who have a very good UK reference set to draw from. They put me at 100% Great Britain and Ireland and break that down as 59.8% Central England, 22.6% Aberdeenshire (this is a wide area, not just the county), 8.4% Southeast England, and then tiny amounts (<3%) from other UK areas.
One thing I was curious about before I decided to do the DNA test was whether any Asian, particularly Northwest Indian, would show up. The reason for this is that I have a rather strong branch of Romani Gypsies in my ancestry (whose ethnic origin goes back to this part of the world about 1500 years ago). However, while waiting for the results I did some reading and realised anything here probably wouldn't show up - the 22 pairs of autosomes that are analysed will have gone through so much recombination that not much can be detected from more than a few generations back.
So how accurate are the above ethnicity results? Luckily I have a good amount of research behind me so I decided to do my own 'ethnicity test' based on the genealogical record, rather than the genetic one.
To discern my genetic make-up I went back five generations to my sixty-four gggg-grandparents and looked at their birth counties. To start with the big picture, I'm 51.56% English and 48.44% Scottish. This reflects the fact that while my mother's ancestry is all English (back to the 1700s), my father's side is all Scottish - with the exception of one Englishman who got very briefly involved back in 1826.
Taking a regional view, that Scots 48.44% is all Mid Scotland - originating in the Tay and Forth areas of Perthshire, Angus and Fife. The English side contains 35.94% from the Midlands, 12.5% from the North West, and 1.56% each from East Anglia and Mid-North. You can see the breakdown at county level in the pie chart below, with Fife and Staffordshire taking the biggest slices.
So the commercial ethnicity estimates are not quite correct at a detailed level, but they're not far off in broad strokes. Ancestry gives me roughly half each on Scotland and England, and the European mainland parts have to be taken as noise (my one French-born ancestor, around the time of Waterloo, had Scottish parents). The same goes for the others, though LivingDNA underestimated my Scots make-up by a fair chunk. One thing's for certain - I am unexotically very British.
Using the autosomal part of the DNA test for genealogy has already proved fruitful. With millions of people in the databases, your results can be compared and close and distant connections flagged up. With this I've been able to confirm a lot of my genealogical research genetically - which is a relief, especially for some of the more complicated relationships I've had to untangle (Gypsy ancestors, I'm looking at you!). I've even been using DNAPainter to start recording which bits of which chromosomes came from which ancestors (eg. a 24cM chunk of my maternal chromosome-14 from the Pritchards).
One match, rather astonishingly, suggested a DNA link with a known 8xg-grandparent, going back about 350 years - my match and I would be 9th cousins. I thought this would be well beyond the reach of autosomal DNA - and it might be, it's possible we could have a closer link on a separate, unrecorded branch of the family. But I read up on it, and it is also a fairly reasonable possibility.
While any chunks of DNA passed down from that long ago would be vanishingly small, it is also true that ancestors that far back will - if their lines survived into modern times - have thousands and thousands of descendants. So the chances of any one person having recognisable DNA from that long ago are tiny, but the huge number of possible carriers makes it likely it has survived intact somewhere (see Genetic Genealogy and the Single Segment).
It's still early days for my analysis of all these matches, and while I have yet to break down any of my personal research 'brick walls', a number of tantalising clues have been thrown up in a few places (the Worrilows from the little village of Haughton in the 1600s are definitely trying to get my attention!).
Apart from our 22 autosomes, we also have either an X and Y chromosome (if we're male) or two X chromosomes (if we're female). And we have mitochondrial DNA - this comes only from our mother, while the Y comes only from our father. Analysis of these can tell us about the paternal edge of our family tree (which usually also includes our surname back into history), and the maternal edge of our ancestry - our mother's mother's mother's mother, etc.
Y-DNA can give you your male line haplogroup - for me it's R-L21 with a subclade of R-S3058. The R haplogroup is extremely common and has its origins in Central Asia, possibly around 27,000 years ago. About 18,000 years ago haplogroup R1b formed, mutating and moving into Europe. Another 'ancestor' of my haplogroup is R-M269, the most common Y-DNA lineage among European males. R-L21 is several steps below this, a signature of a Bronze Age people, the 'Atlantic Celts', and common today in the populations of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Coming further down the line, my subclade of R-S3508 (also romantically known as R1b1a2a1a2c1g4) is approximately 3,800 years old.
I was actually able to analyse a little bit further and get an estimated sub-subclade of R-S190, a haplogroup whose members would share a common ancestor about 1,850 years ago and is a marker for a group known as the 'Little Scottish Cluster'. My earliest known Y-DNA ancestor is one James Ewan/Ewing, born around 1765, probably in Perthshire, so it's all pointing in generally the right direction. (Update: new test results from 23andMe have confirmed R-S190 as my haplogroup; update II: further testing has put me in the R-Z17999 subclade, well within the Little Scottish Cluster.)
My mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) comes to me from a woman named Susanna - I don't yet know her surname (update: it's Rhodes), but she was probably born in Staffordshire circa 1780. I can say something about her maternal ancestors though, as they gave me my mtDNA haplogroup: J1b1 (subclade J1b1a1b).
J1b1 is most common in Britain and Ireland but is still quite a rare haplogroup, being found among only 1.2% of the English population. If you've ever read Brian Sykes' 'The Seven Daughters of Eve', the imagined matriarch of this group is known as Jasmine. She probably lived somewhere along the Euphrates in what is now Syria about 45,000 years ago, and is thought to be among the early adopters of agriculture. The subclade J1b1a1b is probably just over 4,000 years old.
Learning about DNA and analysing my genetic fingerprint has been fascinating in these early weeks of having the results, and I'm sure there's a lot more to come from it yet.
George, born in 1898, was the third of four boys, sons of James Jervis, a steam roller driver, and Alice Mary Ecclestone. The family came originally from Staffordshire but moved to Epping in Essex around 1890. For the war George joined the 9th Battalion Essex Regiment and on 5th April 1918 the Chelmsford Chronicle reported him "seriously ill with gunshot wounds in the thigh".
While the 9th Essex were involved in an intense conflict on the 5th April, it is perhaps more likely that he was wounded at the end of March, probably during the severe fighting of the 27th around the town of Albert by the River Ancre. George died of his wounds at the British depot at Etaples on 8th April 1918. Just under a month later his parents received further devastating news when their second-eldest son, Clifford, was reported as wounded and missing. It turned out he had been taken prisoner and, happily, he survived the war.
Stewart John McHardy (also b. 1898) has had a brief mention before, in a post relating to the death of his cousin, Alexander Maxwell Smith (killed in April 1917). Both their fathers were killed in train accidents, Alexander's being struck down on the line outside Rosemount, near Blairgowrie, in 1927, and Stewart's falling from a train en route to Rosario in Argentina in 1916.
His father had moved out to Buenos Aires in about 1890 and, after starting out in farming, had graduated to the laying out of tennis courts and athletics pitches, later going into business as a sports outfitters and even branching into sales of Ford motor cars. Stewart had worked for his father, but a few months after his death he returned to the UK (he was born in Dundee) to enlist, arriving in London on the Highland Rover in October 1916 and joining the 7th London Regiment - 'The Shiny Seventh'. A year later he was commissioned Second Lieutenant and in early 1918 he was attached to the 2/19th London Regiment at Jerusalem. At the end of April they saw heavy action against the Turks at Es Salt in Jordan, and it was here that Stewart was killed in action.
See my family war memorial here.
I have just finished writing a 6000-word article on the part of my family history that relates to the city of Lichfield - a piece 18 years in the making as it was an Edwardian postcard collection from Lichfield that came into my possession in the 1990s that started me off down my own genealogical rabbit-hole. Lichfield was my Mum's birthplace, so it has been the story I most wanted to uncover, and is the most interesting to me personally. Some of that Lichfield history relates to the Lees family of Haughton in Staffordshire, and it is one of these Lees that is the subject of this post.
Charles John Lees was born in Richmond Road, Derby, in December 1884. His father, John Lees (1857-1940), worked as a coachman and groom, and his mother was Eliza Jane Reeder (1851-1923), from Norfolk. He had one sibling, a brother, George William Lees, two years younger (1886-1960). Charles married Lucy Flower, the daughter of an iron moulder, in 1909, and a year later they had a daughter, Doris. In 1911, aged 26, Charles was described as an 'engineer's pattern storekeeper' - custodian of the moulds for use in an iron foundry. Two more children would follow - Herbert, in 1913, and Hilda in 1915.
Not long after Hilda's birth, with the flames of war now burning hot, Charles enlisted at Derby with the 16th Battalion Sherwood Foresters, also known as the Chatsworth Rifles. They landed in France in March 1916 and saw fierce fighting at the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele and more. In October 1917, after heavy action at Shrewsbury Forest and during some downtime at the Wakefield Huts Camp at Locre, in between a number of matches of inter-platoon football, Charles wrote an informal (but official) Will, leaving everything he owned to Lucy. By now he was a Lance Corporal.
Just over a month later, in November 1917, the regiment found themselves serving several duties in the Polderhoek section near Gheluvelt (West Flanders). The action was consistent but not heavy, with 2 or 3 casualties from the unit a day. The Battalion war diary for the 19th November is typical for the month and reads ...
"The day was fairly quiet - intermittent shelling along the Menin Road and vicinity. Snipers were active from direction of Lewis House. Machine guns were very active at night traversing the front line and all approaches to the front line. 2 killed."
One of those two killed was Charles John Lees, dying on the day of his wife's 32nd birthday. The other was Private Henry William Blackwell, age 36. Whether either of them died from the shells, the snipers or the machine guns, I don't know.
Lucy would live on until the end of 1970, dying in Derby aged 85. Their three children would all marry, with the youngest, Hilda, dying in 2007, aged 91.
Today, 26 April, sees the 100th anniversary of the death of Alexander Maxwell Smith, age 24, and the son of my ggg-auntie Ann (née Rough). Alex was a private in the 9th Black Watch and was killed during the regiment's attack on Cavalry Farm, near Guemappe, during the Battle of Arras. His father, John Robb Smith (also Ann's cousin), was killed ten years later after being struck by a train at Brucefield Bridge, Blairgowrie. John's brother-in-law, George McHardy, was also killed in a train accident after he fell from an express train in 1915, in Argentina. And his son, Stewart John McHardy, was killed in Egypt in April 1918 while serving with the 7th London Regiment.
April 1917 also saw the death of 2nd Lt. Andrew Smith Birrell of the 6th King's Own Scottish Borderers. The son of a school teacher, he was killed in action to the north-east of the River Scarpe during the battle of Arras, on 9 April 1917. His grandfather was my gggg-uncle, Andrew Birrell (1838-1907).
Going back a little further, and March 2nd 1917 was the date of death of James 'Jimmie' Ewing, a private in the 3rd Seaforth Highlanders with a rather tragic backstory. When he was just eight years old, his father, Alexander Ewing, a grocer by trade, took his own life by laying down on the tracks in front of an express train. His mother died of old age during the war, in 1916. Almost exactly a year later, James himself was dead - he developed meningitis after recurrent shell-shock on the front line, and was buried with his parents in his home town of Burntisland. Three weeks later his elder sister died of heart failure, leaving just one sister, Isabella, from the whole family to see out the war (she died in 1954, having never married).
That's not the end of the 1917 family casualties, but it takes us up to April. See the family war memorial for further details.
And while you're in a history mood, check out my fellow comic writer Jason Cobley's new blog (and book in the making) on his distant relative, Robert Gooding Henson of the Somerset Light Infantry, who was killed at the Battle of Arras on 22nd April 1917. Jason's just been out to Arras to see his gravestone.
I have a number of relatives who were involved in various bits of action, and I'm currently aware of three who died. These were Thomas Sherriff (age 31, Lancashire Fusiliers, killed on the first day of the offensive, his interesting story is detailed here); Arthur Meffan (age 19, Highland Light Infantry, wounded on 16th July at Longueval, and died on 27th July); and David Howarth (age 36, Manchester Regiment, killed on 7th July when his regiment lost nearly 600 men to German machine-gun fire).