Bob Smith’s

It must have been a combination of Diane Lindsay’s talk at Family Tree Live and then watching Gardener’s World in the evening which led to the stirring of distant memories overnight.

I was thrilled to hear Diane Lindsay in person on Friday 26th April at Alexandra Palace:  I have long been a fan of her regular column in Family Tree Magazine and enjoy her style of writing.  Her talk was entitled “Telling Your Family Story in Column Inches” and by way of encouraging the audience that everyone has something to write about, she shared a number of anecdotes.  One was a snatched, half-remembered memory of shelling peas with her grandma.  I’m sure we all have those sort of recollections:  we can’t quite place them in time, but there is a sudden vivid memory where sights, smells and sounds long-gone are suddenly re-kindled.

And then later in the day we were watching Gardener’s World and there was a chap doing his bit to reduce plastic use at his nursery by selling plants in cardboard ‘noodle’ pots and selling other materials loose, weighing with old-fashioned scales.

As I say, it must have been a combination of the two which brought to my mind a memory of visiting a nursery with my Grandad Wakefield, back in the 1960s.  We didn’t really have garden centres back then as we know them today, did we?  Grandad Wakefield (Jack) really loved his garden.  Perhaps it was when he was able to buy his own home in 1936, a semi with a decent sized garden, that he really got into gardening.  By the time he retired from his billposting job he was both growing vegetables and producing a reliably stunning floral display in the front garden.  My memory is particularly of the standard fuchsias, but the colourful bedding was immaculate.  Mum tells me he used to propagate plants and sell to friends and neighbours too.

Grandad’s front garden

But for his plant requirements his go-to nursery was Bob Smith’s at Mayford near Woking.  My snatched memory is of going there with Grandad and probably Dad too and of Bob Smith finding the plants Grandad required. Bob Smith had an intriguingly high-pitched voice and I picture him with a round, rosy, friendly face, calling Grandad ‘Mr Wakefield’.  They did Customer Service in those days!

I couldn’t remember where Bob Smith’s nursery was, but Mum was able to tell me that it was in Saunders Lane.  She remembered that in addition to the greenhouses there was also a shed where you could buy your compost, fertilisers and pest control products.  I suppose that’s how the garden centres began.

Well I googled the nursery, and lo and behold it is still there and still operating, albeit in a more limited way!  It would appear that the family business is still going, trading under the name of Briarwood Nurseries, and selling bedding plants for a short period from around now till they sell out in early June.  The nursery’s website says that Mr Smith developed the retail business after the Second World War, so maybe Grandad was a customer from very early days.  Interestingly, I found a George Smith on the 1939 register at Briarwood, Saunders Lane, a nurseryman – own account. Perhaps he was a father or grandfather of Bob.

Well there we are – a snatched memory that sprang seemingly from nowhere.  Maybe those early horticultural encounters helped to nurture my own love of gardening.  But certainly Diane Lindsay is right – let’s not underestimate those slightly hazy snapshot memories for telling our family stories.

PS you can find handouts from Diane Lindsay’s talk at  

Jack Wakefield in his greenhouse

Lives of the First World War deadline

It was reading that the deadline for submissions to the Lives of the First World War project is fast approaching that spurred me on to at least make one New Year’s Resolution.

Launched in 2014, Lives of the First World War is a centenary project of the Imperial War Museum.  Its aim is to capture facts and life stories of the 8 million plus men and women who were involved in that war with a view to preserving them as a permanent digital memorial which will be free to access.  So far over 130,000 members of the public have contributed information with over 7 million ‘life stories’ added.  But the deadline for submissions is 18 March this year, so time is running out.

My resolution is therefore to upload the war records of all those I have researched before the deadline.

Quite early on in the project I uploaded details of my Grandad Jack Wakefield and his brother William, but despite researching the war records of a number of other relatives I had not so far got round to contributing to their records on this site.  So I made a list of those who were outstanding and decided that last Saturday I really would sit down and make a start.

I remembered finding the uploading a bit tricky before, so I read the instructions before attempting to do anything else (always a good plan!).  Basically, having searched for and found the person you wish to commemorate, you then need to upload or create a link to ‘evidence’ about them before you can add facts.  Though it feels a bit long-winded, I do appreciate that they need water-tight proof of the facts that are being claimed.  You do need to create a free account before you can upload anything.

Finding the right person is a challenge in itself, but is greatly helped if you have the soldier’s regimental number to hand.  I started with William Sayers, who I wrote about here in December.  I discovered that I needed to put # in front of the service number.  Once you have found the right person, it helps to click on the large ‘Remembering’ button near the top straight away.  That way, the individual will be added to your ‘dashboard’ making it easy to go back and add more later.

Clicking on the ‘Evidence’ tab enables you to get started with adding information.  I found myself mostly using the ‘Add External Reference’ button.  With Ancestry open on another tab I was able to go to a previously found service record, medal index card or census return, copy the web link and paste that in together with other information about the evidence.  You can also upload an image in this section (photo or scanned images of letters, for example).

Once you have uploaded the evidence you can then click on it to ‘Add facts from this evidence’.  You now have to think carefully about what that particular piece of evidence really tells you.  For example, a census image does not give a date of birth, but does indicate an age on a given date.  Having added all the facts you can, you then might want to visit the ‘Add to Life Story’ tab and choose to ‘Share a story’.  This is where you can write what you want of family anecdotes or research findings.  You can write up to 5000 characters, but there is the option of adding another ‘story’ if that is not enough.

It did take me most of the morning to upload everything, but I feel that, for the chance to record these family details for posterity, it is worth it.  Later that day I uploaded information for Frank Bookham, the husband of Grandad’s older sister Annie Wakefield.  There are two more I particularly want to do:  Edmund Greenhill and Bert Mitchell, both of whom I have blogged about previously, so I definitely need to schedule some time very soon to do them.

The weblink, if you would like to make your own submissions, is  But don’t forget the deadline of 18 March.

Jack Wakefield
War Memorial Church Leigh
War Memorial Leigh
Alfred George
Frank Bookham
Frank Bookham
Bert Mitchell
Bert Mitchell
William Neighbour Wakefield

Get plenty of grub in

Finally,  on 22 November 1918, Grandad was on his way home.

At 19 years old Jack Wakefield had been a Prisoner of War in Germany for 7 months, endured meagre food rations, illness and no letters or parcels from home.  At long last the Armistice had happened and the prisoners could go free.

Sarah Paterson, in her book ‘Tracing Your Prisoner of War Ancestors, the First World War’ is very informative on how repatriation happened.  She describes the situation in Germany following the Armistice as “extremely chaotic”.  With transportation in a dire situation and soldiers taking matters into their own hands to try to make their way home, the Red Cross no longer knew who was where. Furthermore, the men were weakened by lack of food which hampered their efforts to get to a channel port.

My understanding is that Grandad and those with him were pretty much left to their own devices to find their way home.  His postcard home postmarked ‘Dover 22 November 1918 5.30pm’ bears a picture of Balatre – La Place.  L’Ecole des Filles.  Grandad wrote at the top “this is my last internment camp” and he has pencilled a cross on the right hand side of the building.  This would seem to indicate that he had been there as a POW – whether he had been moved around frequently during his time in captivity we shall probably never know, but the fact that by this stage he was close to France would have aided his journey home.  Those who were stuck in the heart of Germany had a long wait.

Balatre is today in Belgium, very near the French border.  This spring, on our tour of the battlefields and memorials, we also had time to visit this tiny village.  I had wondered whether any evidence of the school building might remain.  Unfortunately not, but we sat in La Place with its church on one side and war memorial on the other, and took in the fact that Grandad had been there 100 years earlier.  I wished that someone might appear who I could talk to, but the village seemed shut up and asleep.  Then finally an elderly woman emerged from a house.  I rushed over to approach her in my best French.  She was lovely – and most interested in my story.  I showed her the picture of the school and she was able to indicate where the building had been.  She knew people who had been in the village longer than she had and promised to see if she could find out more, so we exchanged addresses.  Subsequently we have corresponded, though she has not been able to find any additional information as yet. But I was so thrilled to have made a personal connection.

Balatre, Belgium
Balatre – La Place

How did Grandad get a postcard of the school?  Did the locals give the soldiers postcards as they left?

Grandad wrote on the card  “Dear Mother, Just a few lines to let you know that I am in dover and shall be home Saturday do not no (sic) what time”.  The aforementioned book describes how POWs returning through Dover went to a Reception Camp at Waterfall Meadow.  They were given a packet containing a pipe and tobacco, cigarettes, toffee, chocolate and biscuits in addition to a hot meal on disembarkation.  Once at Dover, provided the men were medically well enough, they were given their ‘leave and duty’ ration books, a message from the King and a rail warrant to travel home for two months’ leave.

Richard Van Emden, in his book ‘Prisoners of the Kaiser’, says that “by the end of November, fewer than ten per cent of POWs had reached England”.   Grandad was, indeed, fortunate to be among them.  How did his family react when he got home?  There must have been such a feeling of relief to get their son back, but mingled with the grief for the elder son who would never come home.  And quite possibly Grandad did not know of his brother William’s death until his return to Woking.

Did he get the cake that he had been so desperate for in those last seven months?  I hope that, despite the food rationing, the family were able to feed him up.  His final words on the postcard are “Get plenty of grub in for I been starved.”

L'ecole des filles Balatre 1918
L’ecole des filles Balatre
POW postcard WW1
Grandad’s final postcard home
Letter from the King



It would be nice to get a line from dear old Woking

Grandad’s last full letter home from his prisoner of war camp is postmarked Gustrow 14.11.18.  The top of the letter, and therefore the date he wrote it, is missing and I strongly suspect that it was written a good bit before 14th November, especially since all the other letters have a postmark sometime after the date of the letter.

Grandad (Jack Wakefield) says “we are having some lovely weather out here now”, and that it is now 6 months since he was taken prisoner, so I’m guessing it was written in October.  Additionally, my understanding is that once the Armistice had been declared the Germans often just left the POW camps, leaving the prisoners to their own devices.

Grandad obviously had an inkling that the end might come soon as news of the war’s progress filtered through:  “the war seems as though it won’t be long before it is all over.”  Interestingly, he also says “I think I have got over the worst of my prisoners life now”.  We know from the previous letter that he had had a spell in hospital, but surely at this late stage of the war the food shortages would have been at their very worst?

We learn in this letter that he has received no letters or parcels at all from his family while he has been a prisoner.  His early letters were insistent about wanting cake and cigarettes.  I should think it highly likely that the family did send letters and parcels but that the chaos in Germany by this stage of the war meant that nothing got through to him.  He says “It would be nice to get a line from dear old Woking.  I have not had a word since I was taken prisoner 6 months now”.  Despite the cheery tone of the letter, Grandad must have wondered whether his letters had reached home and how his family were faring.  Presumably he still had no idea at this stage that his older brother William had been killed in Belgium back in April.

Jack Wakefield
Jack’s letter home Nov 1918

“Hoping to see you all soon”, he concludes.  And in fact, possibly around a month after writing this, he would, indeed finally be on his way home;  returning to a nation that was reeling from the loss of a generation of young men.  He was a 19 year old, returning home emaciated from months of starvation and having witnessed the most atrocious things.  No wonder he didn’t want to talk about it.

But tomorrow, on Remembrance Sunday, I will be going to “dear old Woking” and, as I lay a wreath in memory of Jack’s brother William, killed on 12 April 1918, I will be remembering too the ordeal Grandad endured as a POW.

We will remember them.

Jack Wakefield

With love these few lines trusting they find you in the pink

“With love these few lines trusting they find you in the pink”.  So begins the third letter which we have which was written by my Grandad while a POW in Gustrow, Germany, in 1918.  The previous one was written on 11th June, although the postmark was a month later on 10th July.  This one was written on 29th Sept and again there was a month’s delay before the postmark of 30th October.

There may have been other letters written in July, but then a big gap, which Grandad explains:  “Well Mum, I have not been able to write for the last 2 months as I have been in hospital and am pleased to say that I am much better now”.  He gives no more details of the reason for his hospitalisation.  It is possible that it was due to dysentery or a condition related to the general starvation of prisoners and the poor sanitation arrangements in captivity.  Equally it could be that he contracted flu.

The so-called Spanish flu is widely known to have affected young adults more than the elderly or the young.  With no reporting restrictions in neutral Spain, the spread of the epidemic was known about in that country, but in fact it was widespread.  In Richard Van Emden’s book ‘Prisoners of the Kaiser’ he writes “the flu epidemic that was sweeping Europe was killing off prisoners at an alarming rate, as most were too weak or sick to put up any resistance”.  Whether it was flu or not, Grandad was fortunate to make such a good recovery.

Now that he has the opportunity to write home again, Grandad wishes to remind his Mum to send the parcels of which he wrote in such great detail in his first letters, and he sends his love to all at home.  His optimism at soon being home again (“cheer up, shall soon see you all again”) possibly indicates that he was aware of the regular rumours reaching the POW camps at around this time of the Allied advances.  The knowledge that the Germans were definitely retreating by this stage must have given many of the prisoners the mental strength to hold out for an eventual release.  Those last weeks must have been some of the toughest, though, with provisions at an all-time low and many food parcels never reaching their destinations.  “It was just a matter of hanging on until peace was declared” writes Richard Van Emden.

POW letter
Jack Wakefield’s letter home 29 Sept 1918


Happy Anniversary!

Well today is the third anniversary of my family history blog!  I can’t quite believe that I’ve been doing it for so long, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to look back over the subjects I have written about during that time.

My computer records tell me that this is my 88th blog post.  From the outset I wanted to write about thoughts that occurred to me both while making progress with my family history research and in just normal everyday life, since the topic of family history is never far from my mind. So what subjects have I tackled over these three years?

I’ve written, unsurprisingly, of trips I’ve undertaken with primary research very much in mind.  I started out three years ago writing about our trip to Norfolk to research both the George family of East Dereham and the Muskett family of various locations in that county.  I talked about visiting Norfolk Record Office and the Norfolk Family History Society’s research base at Kirby Hall as well as our tour round a number of villagesI’ve subsequently written about visits to West Sussex Record Office, researching the Mitchell family and The Keep in Brighton, looking at Combridges and Bryants.

There have been other opportunities to undertake what you might call ‘family history tourism’:  visiting West Grinstead in Spring 2017, Staffordshire in May 2017 and Chalvey in the summer of 2017.  More recently there has been our memorable trip to France and Belgium this Spring, marking the centenary of William Wakefield’s death.

I have written about types of resources often used in family history:  wills, newspaper archives and inquests, for example.  Then there have been artefacts which have proved a trigger for a train of thought:  buttons, a doll’s house, Christmas toys, old photos, memorable trees as well as the ‘mystery object’ of early 2017.

A couple of authors, namely Jane Austen and Flora Thompson, have been the inspiration for blogs and I have dipped into a couple of antiquarian books on Sussex, too.

Whilst ancestral occupations is an area that I think I could explore more fully in the future, I have frequently written about other family activities such as gardening, marmalade making and picking winterpicks.

Overall I’m pleased with the eclectic mix and I hope that you, too, have enjoyed the variety and will continue to post your comments.

Now, what shall I write about next….?

The Wedding Day

It’s always exciting to be able to add another name to the family tree, but usually this is a name of someone long deceased.  However, this week I have the thrill of adding someone who is very much alive – my new son in law!

The much anticipated wedding day of my daughter has come and gone and what a joyous occasion it was!  The sun shone (well, let’s be honest, it has for most of this summer) but with air con at the reception venue it was quite comfortable, even if the Church was a bit on the warm side.  It was fantastic to have so many family members and friends there to celebrate with us and has created many memories to treasure.

One of my lasting memories will be my 88 year old Mum standing up to join in with the final dance of the evening – a Circassian Circle!  Fortunately my brother kept a close eye on her.  It was great to be able to catch up with members of my wider family and to be able to note down the names of a recently-arrived little twiglet to add to the tree.  Lovely, too, to see both sets of families mingling and getting to know each other and discovering things in common.

In these days of family members often living a long way from each other, events such as a wedding are important in strengthening the bonds which would have been more naturally there when families lived in much closer proximity.

I thought I’d check through my family tree software for other August weddings, but it seems that this month has not been particularly popular.  However my own parents married in August as did my Great Great Grandfather William Wakefield in 1857.

I don’t have that many wedding photos for ancestors, but there are some lovely ones of my maternal grandparents’ wedding in September 1924.  This one shows the family group, and apparently my Granny (Emily Mitchell) was a little cross that her mother planted herself in the middle of the photo when she felt that was the place of the bride and groom!

Alf and Emily George Sept 1924

No such problems on Saturday – it was all very organized – and though eventually we shall see the official photos, in the meantime it’s great to have so many sent to us electronically.



The small baby in this one is my grandparents’ niece, Mary.  Her granddaughter has just had a baby of her own.  And so life continues and the tree grows!