Sunday, 18 August 2013

Strangers in a small village

During a trawl through the British Newspaper Archive on Find My Past the other day I came across this wonderful little cutting from the Luton Times and Advertiser. I was searching for anything to do with Tempsford, the small village in Bedfordshire where my paternal grandmother hailed from. This article, dated 6 April 1894, recalls the occasion that two strangers were spotted in the village and the misconception that these two gents, being outsiders, were up to no good.

Luton Times and Advertiser, 6 Aprl 1894

It's probably a good thing that these two young men weren't apprehended. The idea that their assailants intended to 'break every bone' in their bodies is rather disconcerting.

Tempsford has always been a small village. In the 1891 census the population was recorded as 492 people. By 2011 the number of residents had increased by just 100. Even though the village is cut in half by the Great North Road (now known as the A1), its size meant that all the inhabitants in the village would have known everyone else. They would have farmed the same fields, lived side by side in their small cottages and married into each other's families. I've discovered in my family history that during the 19th century, my ancestors from Tempsford, the Cullips, were connected to virtually all of the main families of the village by marriage alone.

So two strangers in the village stood out like a sore thumb, as they would have done in a thousand other villages of this type throughout the British Isles. It's a shame it was not reported who they were visiting, where they were from (a large town or city perhaps where strangers could easily disappear into a crowd) or why they did not respond to the many curious enquiries made toward them regarding their intentions on that Good Friday eve. Still, if they had put the people of Tempsford out of their misery and revealed they were visiting friends, it's likely that this article would not have been written. Many years on, the curious reader would have been deprived of a fast paced and exciting account, which, although somewhat a let down at the end, provided a snapshot into the mindset of a small Bedfordshire village at the end of the Victorian era.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Voices from the Past

A few days across I discovered the British Library's website of accents and dialects. This is a wonderful find for me as it has added a whole new level of insight into my long ago ancestors. (Visit the British Library's website here.)

I was particularly charmed by the recording of an old gentleman, Mr Simons, from Great Barford in Bedfordshire. This lovely piece of audio immediately evoked the images and sounds of my ancestors who also came from this part of the world. Great Barford is, as the crow flies, about three miles from Tempsford, the small village where my paternal grandmother was born and where her father, and his father, and his father before him lived, married, worked, played and died. It's quite difficult to understand what he's saying as the dialect is so strong, but his tale of a runaway bull and mention of cobs (horses), calves, fields and 'cow-hovels' conjures up visions of life on the land and in the farmyard.

My family in Tempsford were predominantly agricultural labourers and would have been familiar with the villages Mr Simons mentions and the life he describes. I immediately imagined I could hear the voice of my 2 x Great Grandfather, Thomas Cullip, who was born in 1827 in Blunham, the next village down the Great North Road from Tempsford. Blunham is one of the villages that Mr Simon's mentions in his anecdote. Thomas' father, Joseph, was born in 1803, most likely in Roxton, just two miles up the Bedford Road from Great Barford. All these villages were within a few miles of each other and I've found in my research that the lives of my ancestors took them from one village to the next. For instance Thomas was born in Blunham, lived for a time in Roxton, yet married, lived and died in Tempsford. For this reason I can only conclude that the dialect spoken by Mr Simons in Great Barford would have been shared by my ancestors in this small knot of villages.

Map of Bedfordshire showing Great Barford, Tempsford, Blunham and Roxton.
1898-1901  (scale 1:50,000)

Of course it's entirely possible that Mr Simons did not come from this part of Bedfordshire at all. However, this recording, made in 1958, forms part of the Survey of English Dialects, a project undertaken in the 1950s by the University of Leeds to capture, as the website states, "traditional dialect... best preserved in isolated areas". It is unlikely the researchers would have travelled to this village to record someone who came from another place entirely.

Being able to hear Mr Simons' voice speaking of life in rural Bedfordshire has helped to bring my Tempsford ancestors to life and added a whole new dimension to my perception of their lives. I heartily recommend that everyone should take a look at this website and see whether a voice can be heard that helps to bring their ancestors just that little bit closer.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

My Family During the War

My mum and dad were both children in 1939 when war was declared against Germany. I had never really understood what life was like for them during this period of history so I decided it was about time I found out. My mum is no longer with us, but her sister, my Auntie Trixie, has provided me with a wealth of information. My dad could also be relied upon to share his memories. In both cases, once the box was prized open, the stories poured out. Much laughter ensued as incidents and anecdotes were recalled for the first time in many years and I scribbled frantically to write it all down.

My dad on the left with a pal
Both my parents were seven years old at the outbreak of war. My dad lived with his family in East Finchley, north London. He wasn't evacuated but stayed at home for the duration. He has vivid memories of watching the Battle of Britain take place in the skies above him and for an eight-year old boy, with no real conception of life and death, this must have been one of the most exciting events to witness of his life so far. He can also recall the red glow in the sky as London burned during the height of the Blitz.

Small boys feel no fear. When the air raid siren sounded my father recollects sauntering down the road with a pal in no immediate hurry to get to the safety of the shelter. It was only when the air raid warden blew his whistle and shouted at them in no uncertain terms that they would make a dash for cover, most likely with a clip around the ear for punishment. Craters in the street and bombed out houses were a common sight, though luckily my father's road and its immediate surrounds were not hit. Dad remembers walking down a street one day and coming across a crater where a doodlebug had hit the day before. These sorts of happenings provided endless fascination and excitement. The exhilaration of London at war was not to last however. Tragedy struck the family when my dad's older brother, Joseph Roy, was killed whilst serving on HMS Hermes in the Indian Ocean. My father was only 10 but suddenly the reality of war was driven home.

My mum, Uncle Ernie and Auntie Trixie
(with uncontrollable red hair!)
There were no such tragedies for my mother and her family, though there was a very near miss! When war broke out my mother was living in Chelsea, in the heart of London, with her parents and two of her siblings. Her youngest brother was in Ireland with my grandfather's parents. When the family had come to England from Ireland in the late thirties it was decided to leave my Uncle Noel, then a toddler, behind, until the family were settled. Unfortunately the outbreak of war meant he was not able to join them until 1944 when he was nine years old. My aunt recalls going to collect him from Ireland and being aware that German U-Boats still patrolled the waters of the Irish Sea. But, being children, submarines were exciting rather than something to be scared of. I imagine my grandparents had rather different feelings on the subject during that crossing.

My mother's oldest brother, my Uncle Ernie, was also separated from his parents for a time. At the start of the war he had been sent to stay with his Grandma Lawton, my great-grandmother, in Sutton-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, to convalesce following an illness. My great-grandmother was adamant that my mother and my aunt should join them to get them away from the dangers of the London blitz. My Nan however wanted her girls close and refused to let them go. It was only when my great-grandmother threatened to come down and collect them herself that my Nan relented and took her two daughters on the train to Nottinghamshire.

Life goes on in wartime London, 1940 © IWM (D 1303)
And it's a good thing that they left that day as on that night in 1940 a bomb hit the block of flats where my family were living. It destroyed about a quarter of the building, unfortunately the quarter where my family had their home. My grandfather, who was now the only one at home and who had been asleep in bed at the time, dropped three floors. He survived because somehow his bed turned over in the fall and shielded him from the falling rubble. My poor Nan returned from Sutton-in-Ashfield, having left her daughters with her mother, to find her home destroyed and her husband in hospital. Luckily Grandad made a full recovery from his ordeal. But he was not the only one injured by the bomb. The old lady who lived across the hall was woken by the noise although her flat was not damaged. However, hearing the commotion she opened her front door to see what was going on and promptly fell three stories down. The hallway was no longer there! My aunt believes she survived. The bomb had fallen through my mother's and aunt's bedroom where they had been sleeping the night before. Did Grandma Lawton have a premonition that something was going to happen which is why she was so persistent that the girls be evacuated? We'll never know. But it's lucky she did as I would not be here today if it wasn't for her insistence.

Grandma Lawton
Grandma Lawton decided that she couldn't look after all three siblings herself so my aunt was sent to live with another relative a few minutes walk away whilst my uncle and mother stayed with their grandmother. Grandma Lawton was, by all accounts, quite a strict lady. The children would be told off for staring at themselves in the mirror. And my aunt recollects how, because her grandmother struggled to get a comb through my aunt's unruly mop of curly red hair, she was sent down to the hairdressers to have it all cut off. Of course, it grew back as curly as before.

After a year in Sutton-in-Ashfield all three children returned to London. All seemed quiet but the attacks weren't over as it was not long before the infamous doodlebugs were to inflict their particular brand of terror and destruction on the populace. But for the children it was still a time of excitement. Back home in Chelsea, they returned to a new block of flats looked after by a warden who insisted all the children were home by 9pm. The children and their little gang of friends would have great fun running away from him when he was trying to get them inside. He would go and knock on Nan’s door who would deny all knowledge of her children still being outside and claim they were safely in. My naughty Nan! Bombed-out houses were sources of great adventure. The children would clamber over the wreckage, balancing over shattered floorboards through which they could see the floor and rubble beneath.

It was a time of danger and fun, excitement and tragedy. These were lives being lived and appreciated to their fullest extent. My auntie will be 82 this year and my dad will be 81. It's hard to imagine the child within, but just get them talking and the child soon returns.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

A Witness to History

Family legends are wonderful tools for the family historian. How often do they turn out to be real and how often complete fiction? It's usually the case that a story started out truthful but, through Chinese whispers, ended up somewhat different. Through careful probing and research, it's possible to get to the root of the matter so that the actual facts emerge. One of our family legends is that, as a young woman, my paternal grandmother, Esther May Cullip, observed a little bit of history as it happened. The story goes that, in 1916, Esther May witnessed the first ever shooting down of a German airship, watching it fall out of the skies. That year there were two incidents involving airships being shot down, both happening within a month of each other and in the same area. Family legend says my grandmother saw the first airship be destroyed, but whether or not this is the case, I do believe that Esther May witnessed one of these incidents in the autumn of 1916.

A Zeppelin airship

The Zeppelin Raids had begun a year earlier when Germany's ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, gave his approval for airships to cross the English Channel and target military establishments in places such as East Anglia and the south coast of England. He initially forbade the bombing of London due to the risk of killing a member of the royal family! King George V was his first cousin after all. However by the end of the year, raids were being carried out over the capital city.

The airship falling over Cuffley
The first airship to be shot down over British soil happened in the small hours of 3rd September 1916. Lt Leefe Robinson spotted the ship whilst on night patrol in his fighter plane. Approaching the airship from below he emptied his machine gun first into one the side of the ship, then the other, before firing shots into the rear. The back of the ship burst into flames resulting in the Schutte-Lanz SL11 ploughing into the ground in Cuffley, Hertfordshire. A dreadful choice had to be made by the crew. Should they jump or await the horrible fate of burning to death. Whatever their decision, the commander of the ship and his 15-man crew all perished.

As the crow flies, Cuffley is about eight miles from East Finchley and judging by newspaper accounts of the day, the event was witnessed by thousands of Londoners:

"The most amazing fact in connection with the downing of a Zeppelin on Saturday night, was the immense number of people who witnessed the spectacle despite the lateness of the hour. Warning of an imminent raid was given out early, and spread with astonishing speed by hundreds of channels which each fresh raid increases. Thus many thousand Londoners remained out of their beds out of curiosity awaiting development, in the hope that, if the raid materialised, they would see what was to be seen.
When the raiders approached the capital, the firing of guns and the dropping of exploding bombs seemed to wake up half London. Thus the actual burning was witnessed from every suburb and almost from every street. The Zeppelin's height enabled the watchers for miles around to gaze at the awe-inspiring spectacle, and its absorbing brilliancy as the airship fell."
(The Great War in Europe, Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 12 Sept 1916)

Esther May and Gladys, c.1917
My grandmother lived her entire life in East Finchley, north London, and by the beginning of September 1916 she was a new mother with a six week old daughter on her hands. Perhaps the crying of a small baby meant that Esther May was awake at 2am in the morning, or maybe it was the sound of gun fire and explosions that woke her up and drove her outside to watch this extraordinary event take place in front of her eyes. For my grandmother, a little bit of the war had come to her doorstep.

The Zeppelin L31 falling
over Potters Bar
The second airship was shot down less than a month later. On 1st October 1916, 2nd Lt Wulstan Tempest was responsible for the destruction of Zeppelin L31. This ship crashed into an oak tree in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. Again, the whole crew died and their death was witnessed by thousands of Londoners who watched as the burning ship crashed to earth.

I'll never know which airship Esther May saw falling from the skies. I like to believe it was SL11, the first and most famous of the airships shot down over Britain. Either way, my grandmother did witness a bit of history in the making. But we mustn't forget that even though a burning airship would have been a dramatic spectacle to watch, it was also a tragedy, as all the German airmen died in horrible circumstances. The Zeppelin Raids aren't well remembered due to the overwhelming horror of the Blitz and the destruction wrought on Britain by the German air raids of the Second World War. So let us not forget the 500 civilians, all over the country, who died when a bit of World War One came to their shores.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Levi Alfred King 1892-1954

It's been nearly two months since I last wrote on my blog. Not good, slapped wrists! So I've made one of my new year's resolutions for 2013 to blog more. To start things off here is a post about an ancestor whom I have chosen completely at random (I closed my eyes and picked his name off a list!).

Levi Alfred King is a fairly distant relation, the husband of my second cousin twice removed on my father's side. However he's one of the few people whose First World War service record survived the bombing during the 1940 Blitz in London and so I've got a pretty full account of his wartime experience.

But I'm jumping the gun. As Julie Andrews would say, let's start at the very beginning...

Levi was born in the first months of 1892 in Hadley Wood, Barnet, in what was then the county of Middlesex. This was a quiet, rural part of the world where his father, Alfred, was employed as an ostler at a local inn and his mother, Edith, was a dressmaker.

I'm quite curious as to why he was baptized Levi. His siblings all had more traditional Victorian names such as Henry, Arthur and Florence. Interestingly though, in a survey of the top 1000 names in the 1890s in the US, Levi was number 207, so by no means an unpopular name.

Life was ordinary for the first years of Levi's life. He was to be joined by five brothers and sisters, all of whom survived childhood, and with 13 years separating the eldest from the youngest, it must have been a noisy and chaotic household.

By 1914 the 22-year old Levi had reached the height of 5 ft 11 inches and at 121 lbs must have been fairly tall and thin. He was employed as an Emulsion Washer in a photographic studio. I'm not quite sure what an Emulsion Washer did but I'm thrilled to think he worked in what was still a pioneering industry, even though his job may have been quite menial.

His work in a photographic studio wasn't to last for much longer however, as in August of that year Britain declared war on Germany. Levi was the perfect age to sign up and serve his country and enlistment was to follow a year later on 23rd October 1915. At the age of 23 years and 10 months Levi enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). He stayed on home soil until August 1916 after which he was posted to France and Flanders.

The job of the RAMC was to provide medical backup to the front line troops. They operated the Field Ambulances and the Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) where injured men were sent to be treated before returning to the trenches or before being moved on to one of the Base Hospitals which were also operated by the RAMC.

The RAMC at work on World War One battlefields

Levi was initially posted to the 70th Field Ambulance in September 1916. A couple of months later in November he was posted to Casualty Clearing Station 17 at Remy Siding, near Poperinge in Belgium where he was to spend the remainder of the war. He was even admitted a couple of times to his own CCS suffering from ailments such as influenza which laid him low for six days.

The buildings at Remy Siding in 1920

Remy Siding was so named because of its location next to the railway line which linked the CCS to Poperinge. The town itself was close to the battlefields of Ypres, Messines Ridge and Ploegsteert Wood, and as can be seen on the map, there were trenches situated fairly close to the CCS. Although Levi wasn't a fighting soldier, he would have witnessed more than his fair share of appalling sights. One can only imagine the atrocities that he would have seen: dreadful injuries, death and anguish on a far too common basis.

Trench map showing the location of CCS 17 at Remy Siding

Nevertheless there was some relief from the war for Levi, for in December 1917 he was granted 14 days leave to return home and marry his sweetheart, Emily Esther Cullip. They were married in Christ Church, Barnet with their family and friends around them.

But this was only a short respite as, too quickly, Levi had to return to the war. He would be away from home until February 1919 when he was demobilised and able to return to his new wife. His time in the RAMC had been exemplary with no misdemeanours to blight his service record. He was rewarded with the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

As is so often the case in those years following the 1911 census and World War One, the story of Levi's life goes cold. However I do know that he had at least one daughter, Gladys, born in 1924 and that he died in 1954 at the age of 62, still resident in Barnet. He left a grand total of £376 14s 4d in his will, a tidy sum in those days.

Writing a blog about a randomly selected ancestor brings them to life. I'd not really thought about Levi much before (no disrespect intended), but looking back over his life and looking at the surviving records which tell us the dates and facts about his existence he has become real to me. I now picture a fairly tall, skinny man, conscientious in his work, honest and law-abiding, and for some strange reason, dark haired and with a moustache! I can't back up those last details but I'm sure I'm right about the rest...