Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lest we forget. Memoriam eorum retinebimus. We Shall Remember Them.

A genealogist always has something new to discover. In an effort to break down the brick wall blocking access to my mother's paternal-line ancestry, which ends in London's Spitalfields district in 1818, I have redoubled my efforts. These have been greatly helped by the recent (15 September 2009) addition on of many hundreds of thousands of baptism, banns and marriage, and burial records for the London area, not just the City of London itself, and surrounding parishes in Middlesex, but for places south of the Thames in Southwark and Lambeth, and other Surrey parishes.

Why the push now? My mum, Marion, is 84, and a veteran of WWII, in which she served King and Country in the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service as a signalwoman and secret-cypher clerk in Prince Rupert, B.C., and Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is in good health now, but since her parents died at 54 (Herbert Chatteron ROBERTS, 1883-1937) and 78 (Beatrice Florence Elizabeth LARGE), she doesn't always think I can dawdle over the task of tracing her father's lineage before she leaves us...which Heaven delay.

To complete this task, I have been reviewing all my earlier work hoping to turn up that key lead I may have missed that will help me get past the 1818 barrier. In tracing the origins of the London ROBERTS line, I started naturally enough with my grandfather, Herbert. He started his career in London with the London and County Bank, main office, Threadneedle street, in about 1903, and came to Canada in April 1905 to join the Bank of British North America (merged with the Bank of Montreal in 1918), I have been going over the ROBERTS family tree with a fine tooth comb. H.C. ROBERTS was the son of James ROBERTS (1854-1890), who worked as a clerk, later cashier, with the same bank's Hackney branch. His death notice in the London Times shows that he served as a private in the Honourable Artillery Company, arguably the oldest military organisation in the World. His father, James ROBERTS, Sr (1829-1896), lived at 195, Shoreditch High street, right opposite the London terminus of the Great Eastern Railway, where he was a newsagent, tobacconist, printer, publisher, stationer, and representative for the Times (hence the appearance of family hatches, matches, and dispatches in that paper from the 1860s onward, for which I thank my lucky stars!). He, like his son, was also a member of the Honourable Artillery Company, though how the ROBERTS connexion with that estimable military outfit began, I still don't know. James ROBERTS, Sr's father Thomas ROBERTS (ca 1786/7-1838) was a carpenter, later builder, living latterly in Fort street, Old Artillery Ground, an extra-parochial place and one of the Tower Hamlets. He is supposed to have arrived in London from Cornwall to seek his fortune after the bottom fell out of the family business, tinmining, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815). Whether he had any connexion with HAC other than living in a house built over their old parade ground, I do not know, but it makes for interesting speculation given the involvement with them his son and grandson had...

My grandfather H.C. Roberts, however, was not a military man so far as I know. After being educated at Gainsborough Grammar School in his mother's home county of Lincolnshire, he lived for a time in Ireland, where, as he said with a twinkle in his eye after winning the boxing title for his weight in Ontario between 1905 and 1910, he had learned to box in his boyhood. You see, in Ulster (now Northern Ireland), where his mother lived with her third (and last) husband, Samuel FERGUSON, my grandfather, Bertie, was Protestant boy among the majority Irish Catholics so he had to learn to defend himself! But as an English lad in Ireland, being a Protestant didn't offer him much protection, for he had to take on all the rest of the Irish as well! I guess more than just boxing rubbed off from his stay in Ireland...blarney, and, of course, a love for the horses, but that is another tale!

My grandfather volunteered for military service in WWI but was refused due apparently to his having flat feet. I guess I can credit my existence in part to that! His younger brother Owen Howard ROBERTS (1888-1935), who had joined my grandfather in Canada about 1906, was accepted to serve in WWI, and went overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. There he was badly gassed and shell-shocked, and came back to Canada a changed man. My mother thinks it may have been Great Uncle Owen whom the young Edward VIII as Prince of Wales told my grandmother, his sister-in-law, and a registered nurse, to take good care of when he visited Great War veterans on his tour of Canada in 1919. Owen later recovered enough to marry and start a family. He received Veterans' Land around Pleasantdale, Saskatchewan, but that was taken away from his widow and children at the height of the Dirty '30s when, still suffering from shellshock after so many years, he went into the barn one day and shot himself. Suicide was then a crime felo de se against the State, and so, hard as it seems from our vantage point today, the land he had been granted by the Crown for his war service reverted to the Government of Canada. My grandfather tried to help his sister-in-law and her children, but two years later he succumbed to a heart attack and died aged only 54. My Great Aunt Elizabeth Beatrice "Bea" (née EASTWOOD) ROBERTS eventually raised her three children with her relatives at Lac Vert, Saskatchewan.

Another of my grandfather's relatives who served in the First War was his first cousin, 2nd Lieutenant Charles Henry Hill ROBERTS (1888-1916), of Lambeth (part of London, but south of the river Thames, so in Surrey). He was a member of the education department in the London County Council, and was the only son of my grandfather's paternal uncle, Charles Thomas ROBERTS (1856-1892), a publisher, who had died, like his elder brother, James, my great-grandfather, while still in his 30s. His son Charles H.H. ROBERTS grew up with his mother, sister Ruby, and schoolmaster stepfather, Jonathan CHARLESWORTH. He probably followed his stepfather's footsteps into the teaching profession. His mother, Sarah, née BRAGG, had been born in New Zealand to Henry BRAGG, a London builder, who eventually returned to England with his family, and built many houses in his native Lambeth, including the one in which Charles had grown up at 110, Stockwell road, Brixton, London, S.W.9. One of his sons, Charles's uncle, served as mayor of Lambeth in the early part of the 20th century. His teacher nephew, Charles Henry Hill ROBERTS, joined the 21st (County of London) Battalion (First Surrey Rifles) as a corporal. He was promoted from corporal even before he entered the war theatre in France on 15 March 1915. According to the Times, Friday, 26 Feb. 1915, Cpl. C.H.H. Roberts [was] to be Sec. Lt. (Feb. 26.). [that is, second lieutenant]. Part of this must have been due to the loss of so many of the regiment's officers in the carnage of the battlefields of France, though it was likely also down to the fact that he was an educated man. Charles himself was killed in action in France on 15 Sept. 1916 having been awarded the Military Cross (M.C.) for his bravery. He is buried in Warlencourt British Military cemetery in the Pas de Calais region of Normandy. Because he was a bachelor at his death, his branch of the ROBERTS family has died out, except for the descendants of his younger sister, Ruby Mary ROBERTS, who married (1) William James OSMOND and (2) Leonard BOLTON, and died in 1929, leaving children by both husbands. Charles's medal card shows that his grieving mother, Sarah CHARLESWORTH, still at the Stockwell road address where her son Charles had grown up applied for his service medals on 27 October 1920. I am now making efforts to obtain a photograph of Charles, and hope some day to visit his grave in France to lay a wreath and pay my respects.

Alma Victoria Rattenbury: Setting the Record Straight

On Guy Fawkes Night this year, I watched the 1987 film version of Sir Terence Rattigan's last play, Cause Célèbre (1977), about the famous Rattenbury murder trial of 1935. Dame Helen Mirren played the murder victim's wife, Alma Victoria Rattenbury, and David Suchet of Poirot fame, played her learned counsel, T.J. O'Connor, K.C., M.P.

Alma was a Canadian who had married the famous English-born, British Columbia architect, Francis Mawson Rattenbury (1867-1935) in Canada before they moved to Bournemouth on England's Dorset coast with two young sons, Christopher (born to the second of Alma's three husbands) and John (the child of her present union). Alma, who had been a musical prodigy in her youth in British Columbia, was of a passionate nature, and as her much older husband Rattenbury (Ratz to Alma and their circle) grew morose and incapable, she took a much younger man, a teenager, aged barely 18, as her lover. One thing led to another, and the verdict in the joint trial of Alma and her young lover, let her off, but found him guilty, and bound for the high jump.

Consulting the historical accounts available, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which includes a biography of Alma, I was struck by just how vague and imprecise every one of them seemed to be about Alma's background: where and when she was born, who her parents and family were, and when and where her three marriages (and one divorce) had occurred. Even her name was a source of confusion as I examined the books by F. Tennyson Jesse (The Trial of Alma Victoria Rattenbury and George Percy Stoner, 1935), Terry Reksten (Rattenbury, 1978, rev. edn, 1998), A.A. Barrett and R.W. Liscombe (Francis Rattenbury and British Columbia: Architecture and Challenge in the Imperial Age, UBC press, 1983), and Sir David Napley (Murder at the Villa Madeira, 1988). So, as someone well-versed in British Columbia genealogy, history, and the how-to's of research, I set about to clearing up the unnecessary mystery about Alma's background, perpetuated as recently as this decade by Elizabeth Murray, a former assistant to Sir David Napley, in her entry on Alma for the new ODNB (2002) put out by my alma mater's famous publishing wing, Oxford University Press.

So watch this space as I progress with my work on uncovering Alma Rattenbury's true origins.