" In family history, there is always more to learn. "
I write this sentence on the end of every cover letter I send to clients with their finished work. I write it because I firmly believe that it’s true; that however much you think you already know about your family tree, however many stories your relatives have told you, it is only ever part of the picture. The very nature of historical research, with all its fallible memories and incomplete documents dictates that there are always more stories, more intrigue, more skeletons just waiting to be discovered. So, I wanted to share with you the story from my own family history adventures that originally convinced me of this fact, and continues to convince me every time I uncover another part. This is the curious and ever-evolving biography of my great grandfather, Tommy.
Over the following years, I filled in some more details. Obtaining Tommy's birth, marriage and death certificates clarified dates my grandmother had forgotten. The 1891 census revealed that he had spent his childhood in London where his father had been in the Metropolitan Police. Sending for his army service records, using the service number from his medal certificate, illuminated Tommy's time in the war and the various battles in which he had served. Apart from these small embellishments, however, Tommy's biography remained unaltered for more than a decade. Then, in 2009, the 1911 census was released online, much to the excitement of many a genealogist. I, along with thousands of others, rushed to find my relatives amongst the new records and one of the first people I looked for was Tommy. There he was, aged in his mid 20s, living with his widowed mother and siblings at a familiar address in Manchester. All was as expected in fact, except one thing: Tommy was listed as married, some four years before he met Mabel at a horse guards' parade in Oxfordshire.
My first thought, of course, was, could this be a mistake? I had come across many enumerator mistakes in census records before but the 1911 census was different. These entries were filled in by the householder themselves, in this case, Tommy's mother. It was unlikely that she would have gotten such a detail wrong. So the fact remained: Tommy (who was listed as a bachelor on the marriage certificate I'd purchased years before) had actually been married before. But to whom?
I trawled through the marriage indexes, online by 2009 but not yet fully searchable, looking for Tommy's name between the year he turned 16 and 1911. The list of possibilities was long so I tried to narrow it down, eliminating those couples I could clearly find elsewhere on the 1911 census. This laborious process left two possibilities, both with variations of Tommy's name, so I decided to buy both certificates to see which, if either, might be correct. Ten days later, the certificates arrived in the post and I opened them with excitement and a little trepidation. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw that both grooms were the correct age, and both listed the correct father's name and occupation; the addresses on both certificates could also be linked to the family. It now seemed indisputable. Not only had Tommy been married before he met Mabel, he had (at least) two former wives! This opened the door to a LOT of questions. What had happened to these wives? Had he had any other children? Had Mabel or her children known about any of this?
Further research revealed that neither wife had died in the UK before Tommy's marriage to Mabel and no divorce had ever been served. Instead, it looked for all the world like Tommy may have been a bigamist (trigamist?!). To try and unravel the story further, I began researching Tommy's mystery wives. Wife number one was Edith. Married when they were both 18, their daughter, also Edith, was born the following month; the scenario is not difficult to imagine. By 1911, Edith (senior) was living in South Manchester with another man, John, alongside her daughter and a son, whom she had had with John in 1907. John and Edith never got married and tragically John was killed in the First World War. Edith married again, under John's surname, in 1919 and had another son. She and her family, including Tommy's daughter, Edith, lived in South Manchester for the rest of their lives. Edith died in 1948.
Meanwhile, by 1905, Tommy was on to wife number two, Annie. Born illegitimately under one surname and later changing it to match her step father's, Annie's story was difficult to trace. Like Edith, she had one child with Tommy, this time a son, Albert. Also like Edith, by 1911, Annie had moved on to a new relationship, having gone back to her native Nuneaton and married Edward in 1909. She lived there for the rest of her life, having no more children but looking after her orphaned nieces and nephews whose surname she eventually adopted. It was under that, fifth different surname that Annie's death was registered in the early 1970s.
It was somewhat reassuring to see that Tommy and his exes all went on to have new, long-lasting relationships. Although all technically bigamists, this was probably due to the expense and difficulty of formally ending a marriage in the early 1900s, rather than any prolonged, secret polygamy. However, the discovery of Edith and Annie made me question the rest of the neat biography I had been given on Tommy. As I set about researching newspapers, military records, electoral registers and every possible angle I could think of, more skeletons began to march out of the cupboard.
First of all, it transpired that Tommy, the decorated war hero, had actually had a much longer military career than I had first believed. Rather than joining up for the first time in 1914, he had originally joined the army in February 1901, serving with the Royal Field Artillery for seven months before deserting. In 1904, he joined the army for a second time, this time choosing the Royal Garrison Artillery (Lancashire Militia). He claimed he had never before served in the army, slightly altered his name, but listed his parents' real address. Over the next few years, he served in the Manchester Regiment and as a Driver in the Army Service Corps. When he finally joined up for World War I, he altered his name again and claimed no previous service so, although the records don't survive, it looks like he might have deserted a second time. As well as courts martial for desertion, Tommy also got into trouble with the law in 1903 when he spent three months in jail for stealing cutlery and tools from a train.