It wasn’t until I moved away from the village I grew up in that I realised that other people didn’t do Remembrance Sunday like we did. Other people didn’t have maroons fired off the hill behind the Fire Station every November 11th morning. Other people didn’t have the police come and shut the road for a village length procession. Other people didn’t have the Silver Band march. It was something of a shock to realise this. In fact, one year during my postgrad days, I was so angry at what I perceived to be the total lack of recognition at the war memorial that I cried. Hot angry tears for wont of any proper ceremony. Wotton has a sizeable war memorial in the centre of the village, and a gilded, framed Roll of Honour in the town hall. We didn’t just commemorate the dead, we commemorated all the men who served. There was even a memorial outside the staff room at school, and a memorial history prize (which I’m pleased to say I won) – the Wellicome Memorial Prize no less. Commemoration of service in the First World War permeates the core of the village, to my mind.

It isn’t just that the names on these different lists were the same names as those in my classroom, though this goes some way to explaining it. It wasn’t just, as the 1990s and early 2000s wove their way through, that I too had friends and schoolmates serving the world over in the Armed Forces. We are very lucky that the War Memorial hasn’t had to be reopened since the end of the Second World War. The sense of loss pervades even into modern times because of the grossness of it. The scale and the hideousness. If that’s a word. On average, around 1 in 10 British men (of eligible age) served in the First World War. In Wotton, half of the men did. And only half came back. In five years, an eighth of the population was lost. One family sent five sons and two grandsons away to war. They got one of each back. A local man wrote an eloquent play, based on the letters that family received. I vividly remember sitting on the cold hard floor of the Green Room reading those letters. I was perhaps sixteen. Only a year or two younger than the brothers who had penned them some ninety years previously.

I did the sound for that play. But it gave me much more than I gave to it. I came away with a clear sense of the people in the history. In the midst of my A-Levels, and hating every single moment of modern history, I found the stories in the horror, the people in the madness. And it was both dreadful and brilliant. Mr Griffiths, my geography teacher, researched all the men on the war memorial. He wrote a book about them, told the story of each and every one. I in turn wrote my extended essay in the Upper Sixth about the impact on the village. And although I read Medieval Studies at university, and now work at the very forefront of the modern public records systems, my interest in the First World War, more specifically the people in the First World War, has never waned

I’m very lucky because I love my job. And on those days when I don’t love my job, I can console myself with the fact that I love where I work. I love what we do, and the people I work with are amongst the most splendid human beings I’ve ever been privileged to call colleagues. But what I love the most are the treasures which lurk amongst our holdings. And it isn’t necessarily the pretty things, the famous things, of which there are many and various. I think that when you’ve worked in archives for a long time, much as any profession where you’re surrounded by such a multitude of interesting things, you can begin to lose your sense of wonder. 

When I was on maternity leave last year, at home with our baby daughter, for the first six months or so, I couldn’t begin to contemplate leaving my blue eyed girl with someone else and going back to work. I knew I’d have to at some stage but for that time I’d put work well and truly to the back of my mind. In truth, by the time I’d been away from work for some eight months I was beginning to wonder how on earth I would find my way back in. It wasn’t that my love of archives had disappeared but it was certainly well buried. It was at this stage that I came across someone who wanted to know more about her family history, and seemed genuinely astounded by the basic details I was able to impart using my iPhone and some borrowed wifi. What to me seemed like the work of a few moments was to her beyond exciting.
I should reassure you that my subsequent research has expanded beyond the wonders of FreeBMD, but her emotional reaction to cold hard GRO indexes was something of a surprise to me. For me, fond of them as I’ve become vicariously, they are just names. Names with stories to tell, but still names. I didn’t know them. When I’m lucky, I come across photographs but for most of the names in the tree I’ll never know what they looked like. I’m digressing a bit, but I suppose my point is that we are very privileged to have the tools and skills to be able to access this sort of information with relative ease. (No pun intended.) For other people, new to archives and far less experienced in research, the ability to access this sort of information is thrilling, fascinating. But working alongside such people, it’s reminded me of something that had gone a little cold over the last few years working in archives, and it is that sense of wonder I mentioned earlier. I may feel a sense of satisfaction when I track down an elusive individual but I have stopped squeaking in excitement at a find. Perhaps that’s something I should be sadder about?


Pte. Edward Ford

And finally, I left off this one until last because, to be honest, I wasn’t much looking forward to researching a name as common as Edward Ford. But here we are. Sometimes life throws us a curve ball in the shape of terribly common names. I am in no way looking pointedly at two of my current family trees in progress.
Edward has, as I expected, been a little tricky to pin down. I looked up his number in Paul Nixon’s brilliant website which tells me that Edward enlisted at some point between 1898 and 1899. Indeed he is in military barracks in Aldershot in the 1901 census. By the 1911 census however, he’s (at least, I am as confident as I can be that it is indeed our Edward) with his big brother George on Millbank Street in Southampton where all the men of the family are working in the local foundry. Edward was awarded the Victory and British medals, and the 14 Star and Clasps. These latter two were applied for by his sister in law Annie in 1919 and the address given is still that of Millbank Street. I’m still working on his family, but there’ll be more.

Lance Corp. Arthur Ernest Rousell

Arthur Ernest Rousell was born in the summer of 1874 in West Wittering, Sussex. Slightly confusingly, he is listed as a resident of Catford, South London but enlisted in Sunderland, Co. Durham. He was a Lance Corporal when he was killed in action with the aforementioned men of the 1st. Hampshire Regt., and although he was awarded the Victory and British medals and the 1915 Star, his Medal Rolls Index Card notes that his medals were returned. [The annotation reads "medals returned 1743 KR 7998/adt] I also note from the same card that he had arrived in France on June 2nd 1915, so he survived barely six weeks at war.
Arthur was the youngest of at least ten children belonging to James Rousell and Charlotte Napper, born some 20 years after their marriage! In the 1911 Census, he is married with a son, though I deduce his son is more likely to be a stepson as their surnames are different. Once FreeBMD gets it’s act together, I’ll pursue details of his marriage(s) a little further. He lists his occupation as a domestic groom, and was a resident of Camberley.

Lance Corp. William Banfield

So, carrying on from yesterday, W. Banfield is Lance Corporal William Banfield (no. 6946), latterly of the 1st Hampshire Rgt but formerly of the Royal Field Artillery. He enlisted at Greenwich and was in France by 21st September 1914. A shoeing smith (or farrier and blacksmith) in civilian life, he was the third son, of nine children, of a John Vincent Newman Banfield and Eliza Seal, both natives of Kent. William, born in 1882, had married Jane Ethel Stanley in 1905 and the 1911 census shows no issue from the marriage. As per most of the others, he was awarded the Victory and British medals, and the 1914 Star. He was killed in action on 6th July 1915 and is buried in Flanders.

Pte. Richard Partland

And in a similar vein to my previous two posts, I’ve been able to summise a little bit of Richard Partland. He’s listed in both the British and Irish lists of war dead, and I know from those that he was born in around 1887 in Boyle, Co. Roscommon in Ireland. I’ve not yet tracked down his birth, but I will. In 1911 he was serving with the 2nd Hampshire Regt. in South Africa. More to follow later, once I’ve tracked him down further. As chance would have it, I’m actually in Dublin on Monday and Tuesday with time to spend in the archives over there. Watch this space…

Pte. Alfred Ernest Unwin

So, following on from my earlier post about CSM William Yates, I then shifted my attention to the rest of the list. AT Unwin was actually AE Unwin, more specifically one Alfred Ernest Unwin, a native of Ryde on the Isle of Wight. He was the sixth child of eight, belonging to George Edwin Unwin and Emily Mary White, both natives of Ryde. He was still living at home in the 1911 Census, aged 14 and working as a news boy. His medal card shows that he arrived in France on 12th January 1915 and was killed in action on 6th July the same year. He was posthumously awarded the Victory and British medals and the 1915 star. It seems that he too was unmarried, and sadly his younger brother Frederick was killed on active service during the Second World War.