Friday, 30 September 2016

The Mystery of Mary Ann - secrets and lies

Mary Ann 2 years before she left home
As those of you who read this blog regularly know, one of my family mysteries is that of my great aunt Mary Ann Diggory, or Annie, as she was known.

Annie walked out of the family home in 1904, aged 16 and, it was alleged, never made any contact with her family until she was in her 90s when shortly before she died her local vicar tracked down her youngest and only surviving sibling, my grandmother, Edith Alice, ten years her junior.

The story has always intrigued me. Why did she go? Where did she go? And what happened to her in the intervening years from 1904 until 1982 when she sought out my gran. So since I began my family history research, it's been my mission to find out some answers.

It was no secret that Annie became a nurse, training at Reigate and Redhill Hospital, Surrey between 1912 and 1915.

In the previous post which I wrote about her, I said I'd learned that nurses were obliged to pay for their training and as Annie came from a family of six children and of modest means, I doubted it had been they who paid.

Annie had volunteered for the Red Cross during WW2 and I discovered that she'd given her next of kin, not as a family member but couple she referred to as "friends", Mr & Mrs Edwin F Murrell, of Shrewsbury, whom Annie had been living with in 1939.

Annie during her nursing years
I wondered if the Murrells had been Annie's benefactor and I sent away for Edwin Murrell's will, wondering whether Annie was mentioned in it. But, no. There was no reference to her at all.

However I have discovered something which blows apart the allegation that Annie had no contact with her family during her lifetime in previous years. recently added a database of nurses's registration. Details gave qualifications, where qualified and the entrant's addresses. Annie's name appeared several times over a number of years, the earliest being 1925 when the record shows that by then she had returned to Shrewsbury and was living at 34 Bishop Street.

I decided to check the 1911 census (the closest I could get to this date) to see who was then resident at that address. I discovered a widow, Mary Downes, born in Leebotwood in 1846,  was living there alone and "on own means". So who was Mary Downes, I wondered? A check back to the previous census showed her at the same address. In the census before, in 1891, her husband was still alive, though then they were living in Cannock, Staffordshire, where her husband was a grocer.

Ancestry likes to be as helpful as it can and often makes suggestions as to other records which fit the person being investigated. I saw that a Mary Downes had died in 1935 and that her will was listed in the probate registry. I clicked on the entry and bingo! One of her beneficiaries was none other than Mary Ann Diggory!

But what was the connection? I knew from the 1891 census that Mary's husband was Samuel Downes so I searched the marriages on FreeBMD for Samuel Downes in Shropshire hoping that would give me more information. There was a Samuel Downes who'd married a Mary Finch but that didn't ring any bells.

Then another of Ancestry's prompts pointed me towards marriages across the border in Staffordshire and I hit the jackpot. Samuel Downes had married Mary Roberts, father, Timothy Roberts in 1890, in Sedgely, Staffordshire, the same place where Annie's family lived. Roberts was the maiden name of Annie's mother, Eliza. Elisa's father was also called Timothy and her elder brother, Thomas, had been born in Leebotwood, like Mary. Got it! Mary was Eliza's sister and therefore Annie's aunt!

While it's comforting to know Annie wasn't completely estranged from her family, I'm curious about who knew that Annie was living with her aunt. Was it a secret between the sisters, perhaps? Or was Mary the only family member not to turn her back on the young woman?

That, sadly, sounds like the case given that Mary died in 1935 and if bridges had been mended during her lifetime, Annie wouldn't have cited the Murrells as her next of kin during the 1940s.

But I still don't even know what her connection was with the Murrells! As ever, the mystery continues and the search for the truth goes on.


I found Annie living with the Murrells on the 1939 Register. You can search the database via Findmypast website.

If you know when someone died, you can search the probate records and order a copy of a will via the government Probate website.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Mystery Medic - the trail begins

We all have them – photos of people of whose identity is a mystery. But this is a particularly interesting one.
Who is our mystery medic?
As you can probably tell from the image, it's a studio photograph, and is a good size at 8" x 6". We found it in a photo album of random, but precious, family photographs put together by my husband's mum.

This photo belonged to his grandmother, Caroline Matilda Saunders (nee Long) and has "Mrs Saunders" written on the back in a hand my husband doesn't recognise. Sadly though, it doesn't have the name of the sitter.

A browse online revealed that the gentleman's cap badge is that of the Royal Army Medical Corps,
an organisation formed in 1898.

An #AncestryHour friend identified the "pips" on his shoulder as those of a lieutenant.

I've also been told that most of the officers in the R.A.M.C. would have been doctors.
So, who is he?

The fact that Caroline was given an "official" photograph, and that she kept it amongst her most treasured possessions, suggests that he was significant to her. He would be a contemporary of her own daughter – so, a nephew, perhaps? The logical initial trail to follow, then, would be to identify all her nephews and establish whether any of them were in the R.A.M.C. or, indeed, if any were doctors. As it's a branch of the family I've not researched in any great depth, it could be a long job, particularly as Caroline had eight brothers and sisters.

But then, of course, he could be someone from the her husband's side of the family, Alfred Joseph Saunders, whose picture you can see below, left. Any family resemblance, do you think? Something about the nose, perhaps? (Sadly, Alfred died in 1929. I wrote about his sad story in my post, Tantalising Clues.)

Alfred also came from a large family. He was the youngest of eight, with five brothers and two sisters.

Perhaps, I wondered, our man was killed during WW2 and this was the reason for Caroline to have received his photograph?

So, on a whim, I went on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and put the name Saunders into the search engine, along with a reference to the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Up popped an Albert Henry Saunders, a lieutenant, serving in the R.A.M.C. who died in Italy in 1944. Could this be him?

But Saunders is too common a surname for such a scatter-gun approach. Besides, as Caroline had both sisters and sister-in-laws, the surname may not be Saunders at all. Time to get back to my systematic trawl and try and establish some more tangible links.

Surely someone as distinguished as this officer must turn up somewhere!


The Army Medical Corps has a museum in Aldershot. More about it, including advice on researching individuals, can be found on their website,

If you have medics in the family, whether nurses or doctors, military or civilian, Michelle Higg's book, Tracing Your Medical Ancestors, is an informative resource on the history of medicine practitioners as well as where to find their records. have just added to their website, a database of Nursing records, covering a period from 1891-1968. These include nurses registered with the Royal College of Nursing.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Insights from a postcard and a mystery aunt

The leaning tower of family postcards!

My dad was always complaining about the amount of old postcards my gran left which he said cluttered up his cupboards. While sorting through them recently, I can see what he meant! She must have kept every holiday postcard she'd ever been sent by holidaying family and friends.

Amongst the designated albums and neat overflow piles, some bound in thick elastic bands, I also found postcards from my mum's side of the family. A true written history of the places people went and what they did while they were there.

As well as those sent on holiday, the collection included postcards from the First World War, on which verses of Abide with Me were printed below images of soldiers in pensive mode, occasionally being comforted by nurses.

Letters and postcards from home were understandably of vital importance to the morale of the soldiers and you can read more about the subject in an online article called Tommy's Mail and the Army Post Office. Sadly, the ones I found were blank.

Many of the postcards in my family's collection are simply photographic records of places around the UK, often of locations I know well and have hardly changed over time, such as Clovelly in Devon and Porlock in Somerset.

But it's those with messages written on the reverse which fascinate me most. Several are of the "letter card" variety, allowing space for more than just a brief note.

If I was expecting something monumentous amongst these newsy scribbled messages, often written in pencil and difficult to read, I shouldn't really have been surprised to find their content dominated by - yes, you guessed it (We are talking about British holiday postcards, don't forget) - the weather!

The weather is good so far, although it's been dull this afternoon or ...not a lot of sunshine but not too bad and the weather today shown some improvement after being very rough and cool since last Friday. So - that's one myth debunked. Summers in the early 1950s weren't an everlasting sun-fest, after all!

Even so, the cards do give an insight into holiday life back then. Comments such as, I've let Dad do the writing so I can do a bit of knitting. The scenery is very nice. Another read, Tomorrow I am going to the Scarborough Folk Dance class and, Sat on pier this morning and watched the navy, submarines, M.T.Ps and the steamer going round the island. (M.T.Ps? Answers on a postcard... ?)

One letter gave a summary of the hotel guests. 3 honeymoon couples, 2 engaged couples, 3 single men & the balance of the usuals. Presumably the recipient was perfectly clear what constituted "the usuals"!

A card from Hastings in Sussex began, Having got over the wedding we are now having a good time. What on earth happened at the wedding, I wonder, to cause Sam & Elsie (whoever they were) such trauma that they needed a holiday to get over it?

There was the odd complaint, too. Don't think much of the shops. None had cream cakes. Another said (and my apologies to inhabitants of the Isle of Wight), Visited Sandown but it's not as nice as Shanklin.

One brief message, though, intrigued me. It was from my Great Auntie Hilda, written to her sister and showing a photo of Hyde Park. 4.30 In the train, it said. Have had a wonderful time and engaged every minute. Will tell you more when I see you. But what fascinated me most was a note on the top in a different ink, as though it was added later. Please let me know Aunty Sally's address. 

Aunty Sally? Who's she? Didn't even know there was a Sally in the
family. A quick check reminded me that Sally was often a pet form of Sarah. Hilda's mother was called Sarah but she obviously wasn't referring to her mother.  However Hilda's uncle, Jabez Griffiths, married a Sarah Ann Astley. Was she known as Sally, to avoid confusion in the family?

It so happens that I've not been able to track a Sarah Ann Astley before her marriage to Jabez. Perhaps I should have been looking for a Sally Astley instead? Now, there's a thought... Don't you just love it when a chance discovery sends you off on another trail!

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The mystery of Mary Ann

Mary Ann Diggory's story is one of those intriguing family mysteries about which no one ever spoke. And, of course, by the time I became interested enough to start asking questions, the main source of answers -  her younger sister, my grandmother - was no longer with us.

Mary Ann was the eldest child of Thomas and Eliza Diggory (nee Roberts) and was born in 1888. In the photograph below, taken around 1902, she's standing at the back, next to her sister Nellie (b. 1891). Her brother Tom (b.1893) is in the centre, twins Hannah and George (b. 1892) stand either side of the group and my grandmother, Edith (b.1898) is in the front.

Mary Ann standing at the back of the group.
Her youngest sibling, my grandmother, is beside their mother.

Walked out

As I've mentioned before on this blog, all I knew was that Annie (as she was known) walked out of the family home in 1904, aged 16, about two years after the above photograph was taken. That was the last anyone heard of her for almost 80 years, until my grandmother was contacted by the vicar of Annie's local church, shortly before Annie died in 1982.

Whether I'll ever discover exactly why she left all those years before, is questionable. I haven't been able to confirm the most obvious scenario, having come across no illegitimate babies with the surname Diggory, born within a few months of her leaving home, though, of course, that doesn't rule out such a possibility. At that time unofficial adoptions were common, so if Annie did have a child, he or she may be registered under a different name.

Lost in the census

Frustratingly I've not tracked Annie on 1911 census, either. There's someone of the same age recorded as Mary Annabel Diggory, who's a 'trained nurse' working as a servant in a care home in Hereford (as you'll see below, Annie did become a nurse so it's possible that her employer gave her that status and she called herself Annabel to disguise her real name).

Another possibility is a Mrs M Diggory, living in Kinnerley in Shropshire but she's only listed in a Summary Book, so there's no information about age. One other person, male, is mentioned as part of the household but I'd need more to go on to work out if it's Annie.

Nursing badges

One thing I did know, is that Annie was a nurse and had trained at Redhill Hospital. Recently, while sorting through my late Dad's things, I came across a little box of medals and badges, amongst which were three which had belonged to Annie.

In the left photograph is her S.R.N. (State Registered Nurse) badge, engraved with her name and registration number, dated 1923 when nurses were registered for the first time. On the right is an East Surrey Hospital Training School badge.

Another badge, beautifully set in enamel, has East Surrey Hospital's previous name, Reigate & Redhill Hospital around the edge, along with the date 1866. This is the year the original Reigate Hospital was established by Dr John Walters when money was raised to convert two cottages into a hospital. Five years later a new hospital was built on the edge of Redhill Common and the two names were combined.

I drew a blank searching for an image of this badge on the Internet so I consulted Surrey Archives. They believe it may have been produced as a commemoration piece for the 50th anniversary, possibly for fund raising purposes.

The Red Cross

Mary Ann Diggory 1888-1982
But why did Annie choose to train in Surrey when she lived in Shropshire? Perhaps it's tied in with an interesting fact I learned from  Michelle Higgs, author of Tracing Your Medical Ancestors (a copy of which I have on my family history bookshelf) who I often meet on Twitter's #AncestryHour.

Michelle tells me that nurses generally paid for their training. I can't imagine Annie's family having access to such financial resources, even if she had still been in contact with them, so my immediate thought was that she must have had a benefactor. And I have an idea who that may be. But more on that in a moment.

A few years ago I came across an article in a family history magazine about the British Red Cross. For a donation, family members could establish if their nursing ancestors ever worked with the organisation. I got in touch and found to my delight that Annie appeared in their records. These confirmed that Annie had trained at East Surrey Hospital between 1912 and 1915.  Also, they revealed that during WW2, Annie was appointed Sister in Charge at a Red Cross convalescent hospital in Childs Ercall, Market Drayton, Salop, serving for 2 years from 1941-43. Unfortunately, no one in Shropshire Archives is aware of the existence of such a hospital. It's possible Childs Ercall Hall may have been used for the purpose. Enquiries are underway...

Annie's British Red Cross records also noted that she'd worked at the Kent & Canterbury Hospital and the Princess Alice Hospital in Eastbourne. Although I haven't established exact dates as yet, I'm hopeful of tracking down staff records from the individual hospitals to learn more about her working life.

Secret sponsor?

But back to the mystery sponsor. On Annie's record notes was the name of her next of kin. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that no one in her immediate family was named but instead Mr & Mrs E F Murrell, Shrewsbury were cited as 'friends'. The Murrell family were well known in Shropshire as nurserymen and award winning rose growers, running the prestigious Portland Nurseries, founded by Edwin Murrell (father of this Edwin F Murrell) in the 1830s.

Interestingly, the 1939 Register, taken on the eve of World War II, finds Annie living in the Murrell's family home in Shrewsbury. Was Mr Edwin Foley Murrell the person who paid for Annie's nurse training? As as a enterprising businessman, did he have contacts in Surrey? And what was Annie's connection with the family?

And if that's not enough to be going on with, what about those intervening years from 1904, between when she left home and started her training? What was she doing then? Where did she go? Were the Murrell's involved then?

As ever, there is so much more yet to find out about Annie and her life before she was reunited with my grandmother. But I'm on the case!


If you've nursing ancestors there are several websites worth checking out:

The British Red Cross:

The Royal College of Nursing's archive:

Scarlet Finders has some very useful information on various sources:

The National Archives holds some records along with helpful research guides:

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Preserving the mysteries

My dad in 1956, aged 27
There's no easy way to say it, but 7th May 2016 saw the end of an era as my dear dad passed away, aged 87. When I stood up to speak at his funeral, my question was, "How do you sum up the life of 87 years in a few minutes?" The answer, of course, is that you can't. All you can do is share some stories which give a sense of the person the mourners are there to remember.

Some of those present had known Dad for many years, others for only a short time. But I wondered how many knew the full story behind an incident in Dad's childhood which had a profound effect on his rest of his life.

Dad and his brother with 'Paddy' the dog 
Dad was born on 12th February 1929, Shrove Tuesday of that year, in Tettenhall, Wolverhampton. When he was a few months old he and his family - my grandparents and Dad's elder brother - moved to the lodge of a large house called The Foxhills, near Wombourne, where granddad worked as the gardener.

The story goes that while playing with the family dog, Paddy, Dad got entangled in Paddy's lead, and fell off a wall, hurting his leg. Whether this was the accident to blame or another, when Dad got his leg trapped in his pedal car and ended up in plaster from his neck to his leg for many months, is impossible to estalbish - I'm not sure even Dad knew for certain - but it seems that at some point his hip became infected with TB, impeding the growth of his right leg.

Standon Hall Hospital
At the age of 7, Dad was admitted to Standon Hall Orthopaedic and TB hospital, in Staffordshire, some 40 miles away from his home. With buses the only form of transport available to them, my grandparents were only able to visit once a week, at best. 

Dad remained in Standon Hall for three years. As a child I often remember thinking I must have that wrong – surely he could have been in hospital for three years. But he was. 

You can see a photo of him below, flat on his back, grinning out from his hospital bed. 

Dad in bed August 1938 with my grandmother
and nurses from Standon Hall Hospital

I sometimes wonder how long he’d have languished there if the Second World War had not broken out. In 1939 the hospital was evacuated in preparation for the anticipated wounded soldiers and Dad was sent home. He told me recently about the feeling of claustrophobia at moving from a large ward with high ceilings back to the small lodge cottage.

But I suspect the move proved to be his salvation. He was now in the care of my grandmother, who made it her mission to defy the medics saying that Dad would never walk again. Her legacy was to instil in him his stoic disregard for what anyone else would call a disability and get on with life. He considered himself capable of doing what anyone else could, including, as he grew up, riding a motorbike. When he came off it, his doctor censured him severely, telling him the machines were not intended to be ridden by someone with a "gammy" leg!

With little education during those early years, it's to Dad's credit that he knuckled down at school, attended college, went to night-school, completed an apprenticeship and carved out a successful career in engineering as a tools designer. And while he could be stubborn sometimes to the point of exasperation, it's probably that stubbornness and determination which enabled him to achieve what he did. 

As family historians, we delve deep into the past to discover people's stories and, quite rightly, bring mere names to life, but it's equally important to record our memories of the family we've known well and to share those memories, so they don't get lost or, worse, become "brick walls" of the future.

In recent years Dad had responded to my suggestion that he should log his memoirs and I began transcribing some of the audio tapes he made, prompted by questions I set him. We went through some old photo albums and he identified those people he could. 

I've since discovered a few scribbled notes and a simple time-line he'd drawn of his life, the countries he'd travelled to and a list of all the employers he'd worked for. He'd kept every passport he'd owned, every driving licence and every Tax Code notification document from 1954! I think I'm going to be kept pretty busy going through it all!

P. John Shelley
12.2.1929 - 7.5.2016

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Secrets in print!

As you know if you've been reading this blog for a while, my initiation into family history was the discovery of an Australian death certificate for my husband's ancestor, Charles Gabriel Baker.

I've mentioned him and his sad story in one or two blog posts in the past, but recently I decided to gather all the information I'd collated and write an article about the long trail I followed to uncover the truth about what happened to Charles and his family.

Having completed the tale, I decided to submit it to Family Tree Magazine and I was delighted when they accepted it for publication.

So, I'm thrilled to announce that the article appears in May's issue of the magazine,
which is out now!

Here's a taster of the first page of my article, beautifully presented by the editing team across 4 pages.

If you'd like a copy of the magazine to hold in your hot, sticky hands, WH Smiths stores generally stock it, or you can download an e-version direct from Family Tree Magazine's own website.

Otherwise, you can learn something about Charles Baker's story from these previous posts:

  1. About the amazing information on his death certificate in Death and its secrets
  2. How he met his wife, Susan Sawyer, in Romance in the Records
  3. Speculation as to why he went to Australia in Ancestors in the Spotlight


So what's next...

Having concluded my 4 part story of The Shocking Truth about my wayward ancestor Thomas Shelley and his housekeepr, I've now got to decide what's the next family secret to uncover and share with you in future posts! Mmmmm..... let me see....

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Assault and Cruelty - the victim

The final instalment in the sad story of Martha Cotterill and Bessie Shelley reveals more tragic events in Bessie's life and her shocking death.

(If you have arrived here unaware of the previous posts in this tale, you can read them at A family secret - the shocking truth part 1, part 2 and Assault and cruelty - the perpetrator.)

Of feeble intellect

©Courtesy of British Newspaper Archive

Several times in newspaper reports of the magistrates' hearing, Bessie was referred to as being of "weak" or "feeble intellect". No mention is made of this on any of the census entries on which Bessie appears, though the actual term "feeble-minded" wasn't introduced until the 1901 census, over 20 years after her death. Could it have been Martha's treatment, firstly by the ignominious way in which she took over the household and then the physical abuse she inflicted upon Bessie afterwards, which caused Bessie to have a mental breakdown? Or was Bessie already suffering with a mental disability before Martha arrived?

Whichever it was, it could explain why Bessie seemed unable to defend herself against Martha's bullying, more so given Thomas's obvious acquiescence at Martha's mistreatment of his wife. What options did a woman have at that time, in such a situation?

Family despair

In one of the newspaper reports, it was suggested that it was Bessie's wider family who brought the abusive situation to the attention of the authorities. What did they make of the outcome? They must have despaired when Martha, despite having been found guilty, then returned to live in the household. Perhaps they hoped that Martha's behaviour towards Bessie would improve following the court action, aware that the family might instigate further action if she did not mend her ways.

Under the circumstances, it is perhaps significant and unsurprising, that the birth of Bessie's daughter, Joannah, in 1860, would prove to be her last pregnancy, at the age of 34. So, what impact did the arrival and subsequent adoption a year later of Martha's daughter, Mary Jane (who we can now be fairly certain was fathered by Thomas), have on Bessie, I wonder?

Further tragedy

Maybe, with the arrival of other babies in the household (daughters Emma and Martha Ann had 3 illegitimate children of their own, all of whom spent at least some of their early years under the Shelleys's roof) the impact was softened in some way.

But even if Bessie was able to come to terms with her feelings on the matter, it was unlikely to prepare her for further sadness ahead.

In 1858, two years after the court case, Joannah died of scarlet fever, aged only 7 years old. Then two years later, in 1860, another daughter, Mary Ann Holland, died of consumption, aged 16 years.

A shocking death

When Martha died in 1866, I wonder if Bessie felt any sense of release. If she did, she didn't have long to savour it. Barely six months after Martha's death, in January 1867, Bessie also died . 

But what I found particularly distressing was when the certificate arrived and I read the cause of death. Above the name of the certifying doctor was one word - "burning".

Hunt for the truth

But what did that mean? For a moment, I thought maybe Martha's maltreatment had escalated and I'd stumbled across a murder! Until I remembered that Martha was already dead.

I set off on a mission to discover the truth. At one point I feared I'd never find out, as the crucial years of the most likely newspaper to have published a report, were missing. Shropshire Archives made a search amongst their files of another newspaper, copies of which aren't yet available online, but found no mention of events. Neither did they find any record of an inquest. 

But just as I thought I'd tried every possible source, I was prompted by to use up some credits before they expired. I made a final half-hearted browse in the British Newspaper database, in which I'd supposedly already searched, and up popped a short paragraph in Eddowes's, Shrewsbury & Salopian Journal, entitled Sad death from burning at Claverley.

© British Newspaper Archive
Bessie's death appears to have been a tragic accident. According to the newspaper, Thomas was at church with his son, leaving Bessie at home with her daughter and "two children". Again the newspaper mentions Bessie being of "weak intellect".

It's believed that Bessie had fallen into the kitchen fire. Ablaze, she rushed into the passageway but by the time help arrived and the flames were extinguished, it was too late. She suffered severe burns and died soon after, attended by the village nurse, Ellen Braggen, who also registered the death. 

No inquest

The coroner was informed, but apparently took the view that as the cause of death was not in question, there was no need for an inquest. While that might be true, I found it a little puzzling given the report said the deceased "must have fallen in the fire", suggesting that the exact circumstances had not been established.

Thomas & Bessie Shelley's grave
in Claverley churchyard
Bessie is buried in Claverley churchyard along with her husband, Thomas. The headstone would have been erected after Thomas's death in 1881, perhaps paid for out of Thomas's considerable estate of £1,451 2s 2d, which, according to Stephen Morley's Historical UK Inflation calculator amounts to over £158,000 in today's money. 

The wording gives no clue as to Bessie's traumatic life and death (her name is spelled "Bessey" on the headstone), only that she departed this life January 7th 1877

May she rest in peace.