Sussex Family History Group Annual Conference

This year’s Annual Conference of the Sussex Family History Group happened to be on the first Saturday of my Easter holidays, meaning that for once I was free to attend.  Haywards Heath is over an hour’s drive away, but it was a beautiful morning for driving through the Sussex countryside and therefore a pleasurable journey.  Unfortunately the local Park Runners had done a take-over of the car park adjacent to Clair Hall, which meant getting my head around the rather hi-tec car park machine across the road.  However, that hurdle over, I made it in plenty of time for a coffee before proceedings commenced.

Well I can tell you that it was worth the long drive just to experience Andrew Thatham’s presentation.  If you ever get the chance to hear him or to see his exhibition, then grab the opportunity with both hands!  (You can find his website at  His talk, entitled ‘A Group Photograph – Before, Now and In-Between’ was definitely more of an experience than a standard talk.  Basically he has spent over 20 years researching the lives of the 46 men depicted in one particular WW1 photograph.  The photo of officers of the 8th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment was taken while they were training on Salisbury Plain in 1915, and included Andrew’s  great-grandfather, their commanding officer.  The material he collected resulted in an exhibition at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres in 2015, a book of his research and an extremely moving animated film.

We viewed the half hour film, which, without words, conveys the lives of the 46 men.  The concept is extremely clever.  There is a continually changing visual representation of the birth and death of the men and the growth of their families, with music clips throughout the period and photographs of them, their parents and then their children and grandchildren, together with constantly changing images of iconic news and happenings of each year.  It felt an immersive experience and I could feel myself relating the constantly rolling date counter to the lives of my own ancestors, hearing the music they heard, and wondering at the inventions that were news for them.  It was truly moving. An extaordinary achievement.

Later in the day we heard very good and comprehensive talks from Sue Reid on the British Newspaper Archive and from Chris Heather of TNA on records for Railway Ancestors.

I patronised the book stall and sought advice on the best way to conserve our various WW1 family documents.  I also found out about the SFHG My Tree project, where members are being encouraged to send in their trees, ideally in GEDCOM format.  This will definitely be added to my ‘to do’ list as it is another way of preserving for posterity the research I have undertaken.

Altogether a very worthwhile day out and well done to SFHG for their excellent organisation.

SFHG; Andrew Tatham
SFHG Conference



Surrey In The Great War

So I’m making progress with the New Year’s Resolutions!

Some weeks ago I uploaded the stories of brothers William and Jack Wakefield to the Surrey In the Great War website, and I am happy to say that they have now been moderated and are available to view online at  Click on ‘People’ and you can then search for both of them.  I didn’t find it the most intuitive of processes, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to upload any images for Jack at the time.

Surrey In The Great War

However, I had a lovely and very detailed email back from Dr Kirsty Bennett, Senior Project Officer.  She wanted, quite rightly, to check a number of sources with me and the ownership of the images I did send.  I have now sent her a photo of Jack Wakefield (my Grandad) and hope that this will appear as his profile photo in due course.

She also wondered whether I had digital images for the POW letters from my Grandad to his parents, written in 1918.  This led me to double-check what I already had images of and which I had merely transcribed.  Over the last couple of weeks I have photographed all the documents I could find:  the POW letters, the letters from the War Office and from the North Staffordshire Regiment subsequent to William’s death and many other family birth, marriage and death certificates that  I don’t think I’ve ever seen before (and at least a couple that I paid good money to get hold of from the GRO some years ago, not knowing that they were already in the family’s possession!  There’s a learning point there!).

Letter from William Wakefield while in training 1917

I am now in a position to send in a number of items for Surrey History Centre’s digital archive of WW1 material so that they are preserved for posterity.  Just a little more work to do there, and then I will perhaps pluck up courage to take another look at the IWM Lives of the First World War.  I uploaded information on Grandad’s WW1 service a couple of years ago, but I remember it being a tortuous process, with text boxes being not nearly big enough so that I had to break it all down into a number of sections.  I know I’ve been putting off tackling another submission – I wonder whether the process of uploading will have been streamlined at all?

The other ongoing question mark is over tracking down the grave of William and Jack’s parents in Brookwood Cemetery.  We found their burial numbers easily at Surrey History Centre back in February and went straight to the cemetery office, where a very helpful lady was able to identify broadly which plots they might be in but said that finding the precise location would take a little longer.  She took my email address to get back to me….and nothing has been forthcoming.  I have since emailed them twice, but no response whatsoever.  This is disappointing – so near and yet so far.  Never mind – onwards and upwards!



When West Grinstead Went To War

Over a year ago I wrote of what I knew of Bert Mitchell’s involvement in the WW1.

He was my great uncle, born on 1 Aug 1892 in West Grinstead, and I remember him as I was 7 when he died.  It was an interesting challenge to research him as his is one of many service records that has not survived.

His ‘On War Service 1915’ badge was probably issued for his Red Cross volunteer work during the early part of the war  and finding Bert’s regiment and service number on his medals enabled me to find the matching Medal Index Card. Bert enlisted as a Private in the Machine Gun Corps on 2 December 1915.  Although I do not know exactly where he served, I do know that he was overseas when he sustained a head injury and was evacuated back to England to the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, near Southampton, for treatment and recovery.

Following his discharge in 1918 Bert worked as a Red Cross orderly at the Royal Victoria Hospital, making and fitting artificial limbs. Photos in my Granny’s photo album are a tantalising glimpse of his work there.  Later he worked for Pedestros Limbs Department in Southampton and subsequently at Roehampton.  I was intrigued to watch a recent episode of Call the Midwife showing families of children affected by Thalidomide receiving help with artificial limbs at Roehampton.

Having discovered that the West Grinstead Local History Group were putting together a publication on the role of people from that parish in WW1, I submitted to them what I had researched of Bert Mitchell’s life.  This weekend I had the joy of attending the group’s exhibition to mark the launch of the book ‘When West Grinstead Went To War 1914 – 1918’.

An excellent display with photos and commentary was complemented by various WW1 artefacts.  All those mentioned in the book were plotted on a large map of the parish.  I enjoyed chatting with several members of the research group, showing them my tree and my Mitchell write-up.  I also discovered a link with a lady who had travelled all the way from Cumbria to be there.

When West Grinstead Went To War
Displays at the Exhibition ‘When West Grinstead Went To War’







As well as service outlines of the men from the parish who served, there are articles in the book on Aviation in West Sussex during the war period, on the 4th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment and on Food and Agriculture.

Many congratulations to Dorothy, Norman, James, Colin, Mike and all those who brought the book to fruition – an amazing achievement!

Copies of the book can be ordered by contacting



The Battle of the Somme

The recent commemorations of the start of the the WW1 Battle of the Somme, both in France and elsewhere, have deservedly had a lot of air-time on TV.  I found it very inspiring in particular to watch the ceremony held at Thiepval and to see that so many people cared enough to make that journey and to be there to mark the occasion.

We were fortunate enough to be able to visit Thiepval a few years ago.  It was very moving to see for the first time the name of my great-uncle, William Neighbour Wakefield, inscribed on the huge Lutyens memorial.  This was, of course, built to commemorate the missing of the Somme.  Ironically, my great-uncle was nowhere near the Somme when he was killed in action on 12 April 1918.  He was in Belgium at the time and it was an administrative error which led to his name being on the Thiepval Memorial rather than on the Menin Gate at Ypres (which we have also visited).  Nevertheless, on our return home I submitted information and a photograph to those who compile the information for the database available in the Thiepval Visitor Centre and felt pleased that I had been able to contribute in this way.

Of the many projects underway during these years of commemoration of the WW1, the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War   is a fantastic initiative.  Over seven and a half million life stories have now been uploaded to the site by members of the public.

Many projects are also underway at county level, and Surrey has recently launched Surrey in the Great War . When I first met the enthusiastic team behind this project I was inspired to send them some information on the Woking Wakefield brothers.  Unfortunately the total lack of acknowledgment rather dampened my enthusiasm for sending in anything further, but I should probably now put that setback behind me and see what else I can share now that the website is up and running.  Perhaps I’ll make that a summer project!

It is many years since I last visited Surrey History Centre, but we did so on 2 July for the screening of the film ‘The Battle of the Somme’.  This film was hugely popular when it was shown in UK cinemas in 1916:  many watched it in the hope of spotting a loved one.  Now the film has been remastered by the Imperial War Museum, with a new music score by Laura Rossi which works incredibly well with the silent film.  The screening was preceeded by a talk by Dr Emma Hanna of the University of Kent and the Gateways to the WW1 project , in which she gave very useful background to why and how the film was created and how it was subsequently viewed.  Although some of the scenes were staged before or after the event, the scenes of wounded men and German prisoners cannot fail to have an impact.  Despite the fact that we know it is a sanitised version of conditions, the film nevertheless conveys something of the life of the troops both behind and on the front line and is therefore of great interest to those of us with personal connections to those who fought on the Western Front.

I would certainly recommend seeing the film if you can – you can find out more at

Thiepval Memorial
Thiepval Memorial

Going to the Fair

Don’t you just love going to a fair?  No – not the kind with bumper cars and candy floss, but a Family History fair, with the excitement of new resources to browse and buy and Useful Conversations to have!

Back in November I’d been to the West Surrey Family History fair in Woking, but this was a much smaller affair – the Sussex Family History Group ‘Family and Local History Day’, held at the Steyning Centre in, er, Steyning.

When I got to Steyning it was obvious that something else was happening in the town that day, with road closure notices abounding.  I made it to the Steyning Centre car park just before some sort of procession started, I think, securing the last space in the car park and then only because I have a very little car!

Heading first to the Sussex Family History Group stall I was able to purchase the CD ‘Sussex Poll Books and Directories’ which I had seen advertised in the journal and thought would be a good resource to have.  They seemed to be having a good clearout of old booklets, so I had a good rummage and came away with a number in exchange for a donation.  They may be dated, but background reading on, for example, Quarter Sessions, Victorian Censuses and English Noncomformity are often invaluable to dip into I find.

Moving round the hall I was surprised but pleased to see that the Quaker Family History Society had a stall.  I stopped to have a chat with them, since the Musketts were some of the earliest Quakers in Norfolk.  The Society’s next London meeting is coming up on 9 July.

Staff from The Keep and from West Sussex Record Office seemed to be very busy on their stalls .  I had a browse of the postcard stall, but without success.  However, I did have a lovely chat with the lady on the West Sussex County Council stall and bought a copy of the book they have produced in conjunction with the Record Office:  ‘ West Sussex Remembering 1914 – 18’. W S Remembering

I had not seen this advertised anywhere, but looks a useful book, with chapters covering aspects such as Women at War, The Local Economy and Invasion Threats.  On this stall I also learned about West Sussex Past Pictures.  This was not a site I had known about previously, but on looking it up when I came home I discovered that it is “a free to access online database of the best scanned photographs and pictures, with detailed descriptions, owned by the County Library Service and seven of the County’s museums”.  It offers free downloadable images for use in private research, so looks a very useful resource.  I quickly found an image of the interior of West Grinstead Park house, which I had certainly never seen before.

Before leaving I had a look at the WW1 display set out in the adjacent room, put on by the Sussex branch of the Western Front Association.  I was particularly fascinated to see the photos from what looked to be a reenactment day, with mounted soldiers pulling equipment and supplies and horse-drawn ambulances.

My exit from Steyning was scarcely less eventful as it coincided with a wedding party leaving the church opposite, unfortunately under umbrellas, but they seemed a very happy party.

All the fun of the fair!

Sussex Family History Group
SFHG Family and Local History Fair May 2016 – photo from the group’s facebook page

The West Surrey Family History Society Fair

West Surrey Family History Society
Photo from the WSFHS facebook page

I hadn’t been to a Family History Fair for some time.  Despite not particularly having Surrey ancestors, the Fair being organised by West Surrey Family History Society at the end of October promised to be the biggest in the South , so I thought I’d go along.

It was a grand day out and very worthwhile.  The ‘Ask an Expert’ tables were a good idea, and I queued to speak to someone regarding dating an old photograph.  He was able to give me some ideas to pursue.

Two of the three family history societies that I belong to were there (Sussex and Oxfordshire), so it was good to have a chat with them and peruse their publications.  I was pleased to be able to buy a copy of the CD of the first 40 years of Sussex Family Historian, the journal of the Sussex Family History Group.  Dipping into that should keep me out of mischief for a while!

On the Oxfordshire stall I found a booklet ‘Abandoned, Apprenticed and Boarded Out’, containing details of Neighbour ancestors from Lewknor.

I was most interested to chat with the very enthusiastic people on the ‘Surrey in the Great War’ stand and will definitely be following its progress and sending them the information on the two Woking brothers (see the last two posts).

I spoke to the people at the Guild of One Name Studies and at the British Association for Local History, before heading to the talk entitled ‘Breaking down brick walls’.

This talk turned out to be less about breaking down brick walls than about getting the most out of The Genealogist program, but it was useful nonetheless.  Mark Bayley definitely knows his stuff and was very clear in his delivery and I made a note of a number of things to follow up.

I would quite like to have known about the car parking charges beforehand and I do think that WSFHS missed a trick in not being more proactive about promoting membership of their society to the many visitors to the fair, but I came away with a number of purchases as well as new lines of enquiry. A grand day out – thank you WSFHS!

Two Woking brothers go to war – part 2


“Do your best to send me a parcel as soon as you can”

On the day that his brother died (see last week’s post), Jack was probably digging a support line somewhere south east of Hazebrouck in France, near the Belgian border, having experienced heavy enemy attack all day.

My Granddad, John Henry Wakefield, known as Jack, was born on 18 February 1899 in Brixton.  He would have been about 9 when the family moved out of London to Woking, and his first job was minding bikes at Woking station.

At the outbreak of the First World War Jack was keen to be in on the action like his older brother William.  He joined the Royal Sussex Regiment in October 1915 (aged 16!),  but was discovered to be underage and was discharged seven days later in Chichester, his  papers stating that he was “well conducted during his seven days service”.

John (Jack) Wakefield and his father William

Less than 18 months later he successfully re-enlisted to the 21st Training Reserve.  He also served in the 51st Battalion Royal West Surreys (Queens) before joining the Royal Fusiliers.

The Medal Rolls indicate Grandad’s rank as Private GS/75946 2nd London Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers, and this was part of the 86th Brigade, 29th Division.

In the spring of 1918 the unit war diaries indicate that the battalion moved from Hazebrouck across the Belgian border  to Brandhoek –  “Billets good”. Whilst in Brandhoek blankets and great coats were disinfected.  The weather was fine and warm and there was a football match and voluntary Church parade.

Towards the middle of March they marched via Ypres to a line east of Passchendale. This area was shelled with gas on the 18th and 19th, with the Battalion returning to California Camp on the 20th “after much enemy action”.

California Camp was itself shelled the following day, early in the morning, and one man was killed.  In spite of this, here the men were able to have baths.  On the 22nd all the companies were working on the Gravenstafel defence line, which is just south west of Passchendale, very near the Tyne Cot cemetery.

By the 29th the weather had turned cold and wet and the following day they moved to Brandhoek by train, where they were supplied with hot tea. Here the War Diary notes:  “weather fine…rifle inspections.  An enemy aeroplane flew over the camp and was shot down…Battalion deloused and bathed at Laiterie”.

On 4th April the Battalion relieved the 4/Kings Liverpool Regiment near Zonnebeke.  The instructions noted “rations will be carried on the man, including one Tommies cooker.  8 tins of water per company.  All water bottles to be filled before leaving camp.  Blankets rolled in bundles of ten and labelled with company label, packs and great coats.  Tea and rum will be issued before leaving camp.”  The instructions also included a note on Trench Feet:  “dirty socks can be exchanged at Divisional Baths Vlahertihghe.  Powder can be obtained from the foot baths at Irish Farm.”

After a few days on the front the Battalion was relieved and returned to Brandhoek.  Just as the situation was becoming critical for brother William on the front at Messines, just a few miles away, Jack’s regiment was moved south, across the French border, to the Merville area.  They saw the Battle of Estaires and the Battle of Hazebrouck. The casualties were heavy:  the 13th April saw 23 other ranks killed, 156 wounded and 145 missing.

Following a retreat, a composite Brigade was formed of the survivors.  Lewis gun classes were held on the 16th and the following day the Battalion moved forward to reserve positions at Le Peuplier (west of Caestre) and on the 19th April they moved to billets around Hondeghem, the Brigade being “under half an hour’s notice to move by day, and one hour’s notice by night”.

The next three days were spent trench-digging and wiring.  On the 24th April, 12 days after his brother William’s death, Jack was captured by the Germans.  The Battalion seems to have spent the day on trench construction and there is no mention in the diary of soldiers missing, nor in the subsequent few days, though on the 28th one man was missing after a reconnoitring patrol unexpectedly came upon an enemy outpost and had to retire, leaving one Lewis Gun behind.

Less than a month later he was able to write a letter home from his POW camp The letter is marked ‘Gustrow’, but by this stage of the war many POWs were actually held much closer to the frontline.  Gustrow may have been the ‘parent’ camp, but Jack may not have actually been held there.

18 year old Jack writes:  “don’t worry about me for I shall look after my-self while here”.  It must have been painful for his family to read “all I hope is that Will is safe”, since by then they knew that his brother had been killed in action.  He goes on to say “I should like something to eat, you know a good big cake and some tobacco” and tells his mum that she can find out what to put in a parcel at the post office.  However, the letter must have taken at least 2 months to reach home (the postmark is 10th July), before which he had written again.  He is still hopeful of a parcel (“do your best to send me a parcel as soon as you can”) and still hopeful of a good big cake.  This letter is also postmarked 10th July.  We have a postcard written at the end of September where he says he has not been able to write for the last two months because he has been in hospital, but is “much better now”.  “Please don’t forget the parcels”.  This card was postmarked 30th October.

A letter postmarked 14th November reads “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.”  Whether letters and parcels were indeed sent from home or not, we shall never know, but Jack obviously did not receive anything, possibly because he was not actually being held at Gustrow, or possibly because the situation in Germany was by this stage of the war so chaotic.

“The war seems as though it won’t be long before it is all over”, he writes.  The date he wrote this is missing, but of course by the time of the postmark it was indeed all over.  A postcard postmarked ‘Dover 22 November 1918 5.30pm’ is of Balatre – La Place.  L’Ecole des Filles, and Grandad writes “this is my last internment camp”.  “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.  Get plenty of grub in for I been starved.”

Grandad was awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal.

Wakefield; Woking
Jack and William reported missing in the Woking News & Mail