Sunday, 22 June 2014

Ernest Addington Pitts: A Genealogist's Dream

It was his name that attracted me. Ernest Addington Pitts. Not quite double barrelled but still with an air of gentility to it. As it turns out, Ernest may have started as a young man living on independent means but he didn't necessarily end up that way.

He was a dream ancestor to research - I found him on every census; there were migratory records; divorce records; he's mentioned briefly in a book; he appears on electoral rolls; in prison records; his WW1 service record survived the destruction of so many others during WW2; and to end the story of his life, he had a brief obituary in his local paper.

Ernest is my third cousin, three times removed. So he's fairly distant. Our shared ancestor is my five times grandfather, Luke Addington, a Bedfordshire ag lab through and through, who was Ernest's two times grandfather.

Ernest's grandfather, Isaac Pitts, is listed on the various census records as a slater, a masoner or a bricklayer. On one census he calls himself a proprietor of houses which I believe means he owned and rented out homes. He had clearly found himself in the property business and although living apart from Ernest's grandmother for most of their marriage, he was able to put his children through boarding school and leave £300 to his wife in his will.

Ernest's father, also called Isaac, lived by independent means or as an annuitant all his life. So in 1873 Ernest was born into a comfortable home in Chawston, Bedfordshire, a small hamlet eight miles north-east of the county town of Bedford.

Chawston, late 19th century

At the age of 7, in 1881, he was living with his parents in his grandmother's home, Box Cottage, in Chawston. The family must have been living comfortably off of his grandfather's pension as his grandmother and parents are listed as annuitants, and Ernest is a scholar. Ten years later, Ernest and his parents are still living off their own means, helped along by the £450 that his grandmother had left in her will, having died eight years previously. Ernest's father Isaac describes himself as a gentleman in the probate records.

Isaac died in June 1891 leaving a substantial sum behind him. But how much of this money made it to his widow and son needs to be ascertained as by the turn of the century they were both living in central Bedford with Ernest making a living as a commercial traveller.

At some point on his travels, Ernest met Edith Heydon and they were married in August 1901 in Marylebone, London. Edith was the daughter of a coal merchant from Devon. Ernest's address at the time of his wedding was the rather impressive sounding 292 Regent Street, London. A grand thoroughfare today, at the time of Ernest's residence it was being substantially rebuilt, taking on the appearance we see now, so it may not have been quite as grand as one imagines.

It is around this time that Ernest starts to stray from his hitherto good reputation. Quite unexpectedly I came across a prison record for him! In the first decade of the twentieth century, Ernest had been making a living as a 'stationer and fancy goods dealer' in Clapham Junction, London. However, in 1907 he was sentenced to 12 months in Wormwood Scrubs for obtaining property by false pretences, unlawfully obtaining credit, common law forgery and uttering. His citation states that he'd been up to no good since at least 1903. It appears my Ernest was a bit of a forger. Thankfully, on release from prison he was able to continue his stationer's business for a few more years.

In the clink

But it's also around this time that Ernest's marriage to Edith starts to look a little unsettled. On the 1911 census, Ernest is living in Sherborne, Dorset and states his occupation to be an organist. Edith meanwhile is living with her mother in Woking, Surrey, along with John, her three month old son by Ernest. Had she left him because of his criminal activities or for other reasons, yet to be discovered?

In 1914 with the outbreak of war, Ernest immediately enlisted. However as he was 41 in 1914, and also said he was a dairy farmer on his enlistment records, he was assigned to the 447th Agricultural Company in the Labour Corps, and consequently did not see military action overseas. He would have worked on the land ensuring food production was kept up at a time when there were major labour shortages. He began his Labour Corps career as a private with the Royal Bucks Hussars Reserve Regiment, but steadily rose up the ranks until, in 1917, he was promoted to Company Quartermaster Sergeant. He did well during the war years though he believed that the rheumatism that he developed in his feet was due to his war service. Was he not used to being on his feet all day? The army were having none of it though. They rejected outright his claim for a war pension stating his symptoms appeared to be 'subjective'.

Between his demobilisation in 1919 and 1925, Ernest appears to have continued his occupation as a dairy farmer. He co-owned a business in Islington, London called "E Jones: Dairymen, Cow-keepers and Provision Merchants". Whether Edith is with him I cannot tell, but I think it is unlikely. Most of her life from 1911 onwards appears to have centred around Woking.

In March 1925 Ernest's life was to change forever when, aged 51, he boarded the S.S. Ballarat, destination Australia. He settled in New South Wales and initially made his living as a driver. His wife and son did not emigrate with him and in 1935 Edith filed for divorce. Interestingly, within two years both had remarried. It's clear that new prospective marriage partners had prompted the need to separate offiicially so that both could marry again. In Ernest's case he married Beatrice Wyatt in 1936 in Sydney, citing 'organist' as his occupation.

SS Ballarat

Ernest as an organist is one side of his life which crops up time and again. He gets a blink-and-you-miss-it mention in a book by Anthony Paice called 'The Professional Beggar' (about the life of a Surrey clergyman) where it states Ernest was the organist at St Nicholas' Church in Pyrford, Surrey. And in a June 1895 issue of the Northampton Mercury, Ernest is mentioned as the organist at the wedding of a Miss Tyringham and Captain Cookson at Turvey in Bedfordshire. He states on the 1911 census that his occupation is organist, and likewise on several Australian electoral rolls.


Beatrice and Ernest lived together until his death just two years later in 1938. His brief obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald says simply: "February 27 1938 at the Masonic Hospital, Ashfield. Ernest Addington Pitts, dearly loved husband of Beatrice M. Pitts."

I loved researching Ernest. Records for his life seemed to be falling around my ears. Perhaps it's because he has a fairly unique name, and one that not many transcribers stumbled over, that the available records were easily found and accessed. There were so many different types of records available too - migration, census, prison, bmd - that his life became well rounded and interesting. He definitely seemed to have two sides to his nature. He was not averse to trying his luck for his own ends, whether it be through forgery or attempting to weasle a pension out of the army. And yet he was also a church musician, a passionate organist. Was this where Ernest's true vocation lay? He was relatively young when he died, only 64, but his life was packed with incident and variety. I think he was a real go-getter, not afraid to try new things. For some reason I visualise him as a tall man with glasses. But mostly I picture him as seated at a church organ, lost in the music he is making, serene and content, if only for just that moment in time.

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