Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Aunt I Never Knew

This is a blog post about asking the right questions. As a child I always knew my dad had a sister who had died long before I was born, but for years I knew almost nothing about her, she was just a name. It wasn't that Gladys was a black sheep in the family which meant she shouldn't be mentioned, it was more the case that my dad never spoke about any of his family. Or rather he never volunteered the information though he would happily talk about them if you asked. When I was young, and not interested in my ancestry, I didn't have the right questions in mind so never expanded my knowledge of what Gladys was like. It's only since I began investigating my family tree, using a combination of the available records, and pinning my father down to ask those all important questions, that I've managed to piece together Gladys' short life and put some flesh on the bones.

Gladys c.1920

Gladys was born on 14th July 1916 in East Finchley in North London, the first child of Joe and May Stracey. The world was embroiled in the Great War and so for the first few years of her life she would see little of her father who was away serving his country in Mesopotamia and India. For the duration of the war, Joe would carry a small photo of Gladys and her mother in his wallet.

Gladys and her mother - the photo
that Joe carried in his wallet
When she was six, Gladys was joined by a younger brother, Roy, and then ten years later my father completed the family. I know very little about her early years, however judging from the wonderful family photo albums that I have, it was a happy time, full of games, family occasions and childhood scraps.

From this point onward until her death, her life was a blank. I knew she had died at a fairly young age but my dad was not forthcoming with the cause. It was time to delve deeper and start asking questions.

So on a visit to my dad a couple of years ago, we were talking about family history and I casually asked him whether she had ever been married, expecting the answer to be in the negative as there had never been any mention of a husband or children. "Oh yes", replied my dad, "she married a POW". I was quite dumbfounded. After several years of researching my family tree and interrogating my father about his family and Gladys, he had never mentioned that his sister had been married. I don't blame him however, after all, I hadn't asked the pertinent question!

Samuel and Gladys McNairney
It turns out that Gladys had married a gentleman by the name of Samuel James Woods McNairney, in London, in 1951. He was, indeed, an ex-prisoner of war. Ancestry's British Army Prisoners of War dataset revealed that he had spent most of the war in a POW camp in Poland called Stalag XX-B. Further research on the internet explained how his battalion in the Royal Scots Fusiliers had been fighting a rearguard action during May 1940 to ensure the safe evacuation of troops at Dunkirk and that subsequently he had been captured. Gladys met him after the war when she was working as a cashier in a butcher's shop in Golders Green. My dad didn't particularly like him very much, describing him as "not a very nice man". That makes me feel quite sad as it has somewhat tainted my view of Samuel. I asked my father whether they had had children. I think I already knew the answer to that one, but it couldn't hurt to ask. "Oh no" replied my dad "she was much too old". She was 35 on her wedding day!

Samuel wasn't Gladys' first love however. At some stage, most likely in the late 1930s, she met a young man called Donald Gabriel. He was a constable and they met one day on the East End Road in East Finchley. By all accounts he was her first serious relationship as they were engaged for a time. However, for reasons unknown, she broke off their engagement. Donald was a former pupil of the renowned Haberdasher Aske's Boys School in Hertfordshire and went on to join the army at the outbreak of the Second World War. Sadly he was not to survive. Dad thought he was in the Grenadier Guards and that he'd died in Burma but the only Donald Gabriel that I have found, via the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is a Lieutenant in the Royal Indian Army Service Corp who died in 1943 and is buried in Baghdad. Donald and Gladys' relationship is the sort of information that would be almost impossible to find anywhere except through the recollections of a family member. Their romance would have been lost forever if my father had not recounted it to me.

But back to her marriage. Gladys and Samuel set up home in East Finchley just around the corner from the house in which she grew up. Sadly, however, they were only to be married for about eight years as in February 1959 Samuel died. Gladys moved back to live with her parents and brother although widowhood was to last just a few months. Later that same year, in early November, just months after the death of her husband, tragedy struck. Gladys had walked a fair distance from the local tube to her home and apparently walked into the house, sat at the kitchen table and had a massive heart attack. Her death certificate shows she had congestive heart disease and hypertension. But I was shocked when I noticed the date of her death. She had died on the 5th November on my father's 27th birthday.

Learning about Gladys has made me realise that it's the little details which can really make a person's history come to life. And these details so often come from a relative rather than an official document. They can also be found in newspapers, especially the splendidly written articles from the 19th century which never shied away from telling it how it was, full of juicy detail and commentary. But nothing beats the titbits you get from a relative as you then find out what they thought of the situation, or the person. That can only add flavour to an account of someone's life. So don't hesitate, quiz those relatives now, don't leave it until it's too late.

Gladys Stracey 1916-1959


  1. What a great story and some lovely pictures too, i am going to enjoy following your blog.

  2. Thank you so much! It really makes writing this blog worthwhile when I get such lovely comments as that. I'll have a wander over and check out your blog too. :-)

  3. Hello Cousin,
    Your Samuel James McNairney was my uncle, the brother of my father, Thomas, who was killed in WWII. You have added details that I did not know about an uncle who, for most of my life, I only knew of as I am named after him.

    1. Well hey there! Great to hear from you. I have to admit I've not done a huge amount of research on the McNairneys. Plus I really need to dig deeper into Samuel's POW experience. I regularly peruse websites with images of the camps to see if I can spot a familiar face. If I ever find anything out I'll be sure to write a blog post. I'm so glad you were able to gain a few details about Samuel's life.