National Memorial Arboretum

We have no known family connections with the National Memorial Arboretum, but it is somewhere that you catch glimpses of on the TV and so we thought that, being in Staffordshire for a few days, we would seek it out.

It is really well worth a visit!  The visitors’ leaflet describes it as “the UK’s year-round centre for Remembrance” and the 150+ acres contain more than 300 memorials for both military and civilian organisations.  Entry is free and the facilities are excellent, with good parking and a lovely visitors’ centre with shop and café.  For the less mobile there is a land train to take you round the key memorials.

I had read in advance that there is a daily act of remembrance at 11am, so on arrival we headed for the beautiful wood and glass chapel for this and for the Welcome Talk, which was a great introduction to how the Arboretum came about and its development.  Most of the staff are volunteers and were very helpful.

The Armed Forces Memorial, on the central mound,  honours those killed whilst serving since the end of WWII, with striking sculptures.  We were struck by how different all the memorials were – some large sculptures, some set in lovely gardens, some featuring buildings (such as that for the Far East Prisoners of War).  New memorials are being added all the time.  There are wildflower meadows and maturing woodland and a lovely riverside walk.

Armed Forces Memorial
Armed Forces Memorial
Armed Forces Memorial
Armed Forces Memorial






I thought I’d write of this in a family history blog for two reasons:  firstly because you may well know of a recent family member commemorated there by name and secondly because, even if you don’t know of anyone, there are computer touch-screens inside the visitor centre where you can search for names.  This is definitely a name-rich site and you may well learn of someone connected to you.

Women’s Land Army memorial
Christmas Truce memorial








You may, in addition, have a personal connection with a particular regiment.  We found the memorial for the Staffordshire Regiment (of which Edmund Oldrieve Greenhill, who I wrote about last time, was part).  You can find a list of all the memorials here

Staffordshire Regiment memorial

It really was a good day out – we walked miles, enjoyed the peace and beauty of the location, and were moved by the commemoration of so many on one site.


Remember remember

Bonfire Night is a big date in the UK cultural calendar.  The Fifth of November this year falling on a Saturday, almost all the firework displays round here are happening tonight.

Whilst a big part of me is appalled that so much money quite literally goes up in smoke on Bonfire Night, still it’s an altogether much happier event than the worrying growth of Halloween and its associated commercialism.  Except, of course, that the event it commemorates – the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 – was hardly a happy event for those involved.  So why on earth do we continue to commemorate it? Maybe we’re really no longer remembering anything, but just taking the opportunity to enjoy bonfires, fireworks and funfairs at a time of year that is otherwise dark and chilly.

As a child, my recollection is that fireworks were only ever let off on 5th November.  Nowadays there are fireworks after music concerts and at birthday parties, not to mention New Year’s Eve.  Bonfire Night brings back memories of, unsurprisingly, a bonfire of garden prunings in the back garden, needing to keep the cat indoors, and retreating inside for bangers and mash.  Local lads (mostly lads, I think) would position themselves with their homemade ‘guy’ outside the local shops, to ask for “a penny for the guy”, or would sometimes wheel it from house to house in a wheelbarrow.  Presumably this was to fund fireworks.

I don’t remember ever going to a an organised firework display as a child, but you could buy fireworks singly at the newsagents for a small backgarden display.  There was the ‘Witch’s Cauldron’, a conical shaped firework, and the ‘Roman Candle’.  Occasionally we had a rocket, which was placed in a milkbottle prior to lighting.  My favourite firework was the ‘Catherine Wheel’, which Dad would nail onto the wooden rose arch.  The trick was to nail it securely enough that it didn’t fly off, but loosely enough that it actually span round and round once lit.  Often it didn’t, but it was lovely to watch when it worked.  And then there were the sparklers – always packets of sparklers – and we would have fun trying to write our names in the darkness, as my own children subsequently enjoyed doing.

In 1605 Roman Catholics wanted freedom to practise their religion after years of persecution.  Thankfully today we enjoy religious freedom in this country – a blessing not everyone in this world shares – so maybe if we should be remembering anything this Bonfire Night, it should be the fact that some in this world are still persecuted because of their faith.

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November” – enjoy your Bonfire Night!

Bonfire night


Where there’s a will…

We’ve heard a lot about Will recently – William Shakespeare, that is.  The 400th anniversary of his death has been a wonderful opportunity to celebrate his creativity and I very much enjoyed watching the ‘Live from the RSC’ performance (though unfortunately I wasn’t actually able to watch it live!).

Today, however, I was privileged to be able to view his will, as part of the exhibition ‘By me William Shakespeare, a life in writing’ at Somerset House,  This exhibition, which runs until the end of May, looks at the documentary evidence for Shakespeare’s life in London, from his share in the theatre company The King’s Men, his court testimony regarding some people he lodged with, through to his will which was proved in London in June 1616.  His will, with various crossings-out and additions, shows how Shakespeare sought to provide for his two surviving children Susanna and Judith and their families.  His sister and nephews and nieces were also included, as were friends and fellow actors and the poor of Stratford.  Reading the transcript of the will I was slightly surprised to see wording which I have seen on much later wills from my own family.  I suppose it shows that the legal terminology (“lawful English money”, “messuage or tenement with the appurtenances”, “All the rest of my goods, chattel, leases, plate, jewels, and household stuff”) stood the test of time.

The second will that I viewed today was that of Dr Samuel Johnson (who also, of course, has a connection with Shakespeare in that he edited ‘The Plays of William Shakespeare’, published in 1765).  This was at his house in London Without any direct heirs, Dr Johnson ensured that his loyal servant Francis Barber was a beneficiary, among other friends.

Having mostly ‘ag lab’ ancestors, I unfortunately have found few wills of my direct ancestors.  However, when you do manage to track one down they can be such a blessing to a family historian in terms of working out family relationships, can’t they?  I have looked at a number which have been helpful for being able to rule out the family connection in this way.  And once you begin to get your eye in with the writing and begin to recognise the familiar legal language, wills can be surprisingly satisfying to read.

I would recommend searching The National Archives  , where wills up to 1858 can be downloaded for a small fee.  You can also find wills on The Genealogist site

Where there’s a will, there’s a lot more information to add to the family history….

Genealogy MOOC

Are you a fan of MOOCs?  (Massive Open Online Course).  These free courses are run by a number of providers, including a number of UK Universities, and are gaining in number and popularity.

As I write this I am half way through a six week course on Genealogy.  So far the course has looked at the nature of documentary evidence and has been a useful reminder of what primary and secondary sources are and the possible pitfalls of transcriptions and indexes.  Week two looked at research strategies and the use of wildcards in online searches.  It also tackled the issue of name changes.  This last week has given an overview of both civil and church records and the use of genealogy databases.

This course (as with most MOOCs I think, and this is my fifth) uses a mixture of short videos, articles to read and quizzes.  Discussion is invited and information and links shared by other participants can be very useful. The lead educator of this course is Tahitia McCabe, from the University of Strathclyde’s Postgraduate Programme in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies.

You can access the material whenever you wish during the week, so it’s very flexible and with most of them you can spend as much or as little time as you wish, depending on your time commitments.

It’s not too late to start this course now, or you can register your interest for the next one at

Genealogy MOOC



Christmas Past

We are told that, in the past, 25 December was a popular day on which to marry, it being a holiday.  I decided to go through my various family trees on my RootsMagic program and create lists for the 25 December:  there were a number of deaths occuring on that day,  but I was quite surprised to find only three weddings.

On Christmas Day 1836 David George and Mary Burrell married in East Dereham.  In 1871 Henry Wakefield married Elizabeth Coleman at St Mary’s Finchley, and in 1890 George Wakefield married Sally Smith at Holy Trinity East Finchley. None of them would have experienced the weeks of commercial build-up that we have to endure these days!  I wonder what Christmas presents they gave and received?

I remember the year I had a scooter for Christmas:  it seemed huge, shiny and red and was parked just inside my bedroom door when I woke on Christmas morning.  Perhaps I was 6 or 7 years old?  There was always a Blue Peter annual to look forward to.  Sometimes a new game or doll.  I still have my Tiny Tears.

We never had a big Christmas tree, but two decorations on it always fascinated me:  a bell and a pink bird.  They had come originally from the ‘big house’ where my great grandfather worked – West Grinstead Park in Sussex.  I think the family occasionally gave their employees items they no longer required.  These two decorations are on my parents’ tree again this Christmas.  They must both date from around the 1890s and are made from painted glass.

Glass bird tree decoration
Glass bird tree decoration


Glass bell tree decoration
Glass bell tree decoration




One more item from Christmas Past is the Father Christmas  figure which is always on Mum and Dad’s Christmas cake.  He is as old as my Mum as he came on a Christmas cake which my granny bought the year my Mum was a baby as she didn’t have time to make one.  He had a coat of paint the other year, but is otherwise still going strong.

Father Christmas cake decoration
Father Christmas cake decoration

It’s good to remember that the simple things can be the most enjoyable at this time of year, and it’s a time to create good memories as well as remembering Christmas Past.

Happy Christmas!


Ancestral pub number 2 – The Leather Bottle Lewknor


The Leather Bottle, Lewknor

When we drive north on the M40 I always look out for the Red Kites.  I love seeing these majestic birds, and just where the concentration often seems greatest – just after the Chilterns – is junction 6.  If you come off at this junction you quickly find yourself in Lewknor –  a lovely little Oxfordshire village.

This pretty little village has a Church, a school and a pub, and that pub is the Leather Bottle.   Sophia Neighbour, my 4 x great grandmother, was for many years the landlady of this pub.  I feel that Sophia must have been a woman of some stamina and resilience.

Aged 19 she had an illegitimate son Richard in 1805.  However, five years later she married one James Hawkins with whom she eventually had four more children.  By 1841, aged 55, Sophia was running the Leather Bottle pub in Lewknor together with James, but  my examination of the Licensed Victuallers Records within the Quarter Sessions Records at Oxford History Centre (QSD/V/1,2,3 and 4) for the period 1753 – 1822 have revealed that a Hawkins was running this pub from as early as 1758.  The licence was held by a Richard Hawkins, and then his widow Hannah Hawkins, and then their son William Hawkins.  William’s widow Alice in turn was then the licencee from 1786 – 1790, before their eldest son Richard then ran the pub from 1792 to at least 1812. His brother William took over the running of the pub around 1816 and held the licence until at least 1822. There is then a gap where I don’t know for certain yet who ran the pub, but by 1841 the licence had passed to James Hawkins.

Lewknor; Leather Bottle
Inside the Leather Bottle

The relationship between James and the Hawkins family mentioned above is unclear, but there has to be some familial connection I feel sure.

The ten yearly census returns then help to fill in the picture and we see that by 1851, aged 65, James was additionally farming 70 acres.  It was quite common for a pub to have land attached, and small-scale farming would have supplemented the family income.

James Hawkins died in April 1860, and the next census shows Sophia, now aged 75, still running the pub (!) and her son John running the farm.  Two of her daughters, Sophia and Louisa, are both living with her, and Louisa is herself a widow.

Amazingly, in 1871, aged 85, Sophia is still the innkeeper and son John is still running the farm.  But four years later, aged 89, Sophia died and was buried at Lewknor church, with James.  Their grave can still be found on the south side of the church.

Lewknor; Hawkins; Neighbour
Grave of James and Sophia Hawkins

At this point Louisa Guy, the widowed daughter of James and Sophia, took on the running of the Leather Bottle, as seen in the 1881 and 1891 censuses.  Louisa had a son Thomas, and when he died in 1880, his widow Eliza Annie and their 2 year old son James came to live at the pub too, and lo and behold the 1901 census shows that Annie Guy is now the publican – making her the third widow in a row to hold the licence! The 1907 and 1911 Kelly’s Directories for Oxfordshire indicate that Richard Whiting took over the licence and the 1911 census confirms this, showing Richard and his wife Ellen at the Leather Bottle. I have no evidence that they were related to the Neighbour/Hawkins/Guy families at all.

Today the pub sign says “Leathern Bottle” rather than “Leather Bottle”.  I’m not sure when the change in name occurred, or whether in fact it had always been somewhat interchangeable.  The pub sign also gives Brakspear as the brewery, but apparently that brewery was taken over by Wychwood in 2002, brewing at Witney.  (Brakspear ales were originally brewed in Henley).  Unfortunately Brakspear have failed to reply to my emails asking if they hold any additional information.

Leather Bottle pub sign







Continuing to take advantage of my subscription to the British Newspaper Archive, I found this wonderful snippet on goings-on at the Leathern Bottle in 1839:

Leather Bottle


Oxford Journal – Saturday 21 September 1839


These photos were taken on our visit to the ‘ancestral pub’ just over two years’ ago.

Lewknor; Leather Bottle
The Leather Bottle, Lewknor
Lewknor Church

Artificial limbs, Netley and Bert Mitchell

Among the small, sometimes faded, photos in my Granny’s photo album are some taken at the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, near Southampton, towards the end of the First World War.  One of the photos shows her brother, Bert Mitchell “in theatre”.  Further research this year has unveiled more of what happened to Bert in WW1.

Albert Henry Mitchell (Bert) was born on 1 Aug 1892 to William and Mary Mitchell at Buck Barn, Shipley, West Sussex.  Family tradition has it that his parents were so pleased to have a son after 3 girls that they hired a carriage to take them to Shipley church for his baptism, on 4 September 1892!

When he was four the family moved to Steyning Lodge in West Grinstead, his father William working as a ‘Houseman’ at West Grinstead Park House (now, sadly, no longer standing).  The family banner photo at the top of this blog shows Bert aged 15 with his parents and sisters.

West Grinstead
Steyning Lodge, West Grinstead

Before WW1 he worked for a wheelwright and coachbuilder on the old Worthing Road.  It would seem that at the outbreak of war he was a volunteer with the Red Cross, and used to cycle off to meetings for medical instruction.  Among his medals, still held within the family, is a badge that states ‘On War Service 1915’, which was presumably issued for his Red Cross work during this period.  

On War Service
On War Service


Red Cross
Bert Mitchell – Red Cross Volunteer







However, later that same year Bert enlisted as a Private in the Machine Gun Corps, on 2 December 1915. No WW1 service record for Bert appears to survive, but, having found Bert’s regiment and service number on his medals, I was able to find the matching Medal Index Card which helped to piece together his movements to a certain extent. We unfortunately do not know where exactly Bert served with the British Expeditionary Force, and it is apparently notoriously difficult to trace the movements of someone in the Machine Gun Corps.  What we do know is that he was overseas when he sustained a head injury and was evacuated back to England to the Royal Victoria Hospital for treatment and recovery. Bert was discharged on 4 April 1918 due to wounds rendering him unfit for further war service.

I was most grateful to the photo experts at Forces War Records  who were finally able to identify from the uniform in the “Bert in theatre” photo, that he was then working for the Red Cross. 

Royal Victoria Hospital
Bert in theatre (at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley)

I found on the Red Cross website that it was possible to make enquiries about relatives’ war service.  I did this, and received a very prompt response. The Red Cross personnel records reveal that Bert started work as a Red Cross orderly at the Royal Victoria Hospital on 11 June 1918.  He made and fitted artificial limbsBert’s son recalls that his father was asked to make an artificial limb for the Imperial War Museum  – I sent an enquiry to the Museum some time ago to attempt to verify whether they still have this limb, but I have yet to receive a reply.  The photos of Netley that we have from this period suggest that his family visited him there.  It was while he was working there that he met his future wife, who was also working at the hospital.   Bert worked there until 5 June 1919 and subsequently went on to work for Pedestros Limbs Department in Southampton.

Bert was awarded the Victory and British War medals and the Silver War Badge and his British Red Cross Medal for War Service also survives.  As a member of the Machine Gun Corps he was lucky to have survived the war at all, and I’m sure that his skill in making artificial limbs helped to make life slightly better for those whose injuries were, as they say nowadays “life changing”.

Red Cross; Netley
Red Cross medal