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Family Tree Detective

Updated on December 22, 2020

Ask Grandad

I have been mildly interested in my Family Tree since my early teens. I had the wit to ask my grandfather James about his life and family. Since his death I have discovered that there is a history of inaccurate documentation in the family, which means everything he told me may not be strictly accurate.Of course, this adds to the interest.

He told me for instance that he was born on the South Shore of the Lesser Slave Lake in the Canadian province of Athabaska in 1899. Apparently his parents were returning from the Gold Rush in the Yukon. His father was called Henry Edward James and his mother Elizabeth, His earliest memory was in London of being taken to see troop trains of soldiers going to the Boer War in South Africa.

He told me that the origin of the family was that they were market gardeners near Beckenham in Kent.

Being a busy young man I put the family tree research on a back burner while I followed a career and raised a family and was involved in politics. Grandad was long dead when I eventually started researching. The first step of course was to go to Beckenham. In Bromley Library I found the records for St George's Church in Beckenham. I knew grandfather had been a strong Church of England man all his life. I found only one family called James, which made life easy. In 1801 we had the baptism of Thomas, son of John James of Penge and his wife Elizabeth, He had a son called Henry. Henry had been 16 in 1841. Alas, this made him 72 in 1899, a little late to be starting a family.

I assumed there must be this Henry and then presumably he had a son Henry Edward. I just could not find any proof.

One of my cousins is a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They believe in retrospectively baptising into the true faith their deceased ancestors. I do not know what view my grandfather would have taken to being retrospectively baptised into the LDS. He would either have been furious or knowing the man he would probably just have laughed.

My cousin had used the LDS records system and the census records to trace Henry Edward back to a birth in London, but his father was Charles, not Henry. She could not trace further back. It seems that when the LDS researchers were transcribing church records back in the 1930s some Church of England vicars refused to allow their records to be transcribed.

I knew from the St Georges records, which are not on the LDS system, that Thomas had a child called Charles, an elder brother to Henry, who had left Beckenham before the censuses began. He was the right age to be Henry Edward's father.

The Beckenham Connection

Although there was a Charles born in Beckenham who was the right age to be Henry Edward's father, there was no backward link to prove that Henry Edward's father Charles is the same person. All we have is the information from my grandfather, presumably referring to his grandfather Charles originating from a family of market gardeners "near Beckenham". Penge is near Beckenham, and Thomas' father was "John James of Peng". According to a local history Penge only had five or six families in the 1840's, and they were market gardeners.

In the 1911 census my grandfather lived with Henry Edward and Elizabeth, and grandfather's two sisters in London. In the house that night was a "visitor" - a woman in her 40s, not called "James" - but born in.... Beckenham!

My cousin is tracing her back to see if she is related and how.

The Inaccurate Documentation

There are confusions and inaccuracies.

the easiest to deal with is Thomas who was baptised at Beckenham but said on the census that he was born in Sittingbourne. His mother was Elizabeth Brand from Sittingbourne, Kent, and it is entirely possible she went to Sittingbourne to have her first child. The child might well then have been baptised at Beckenham.

The census records show the ages given by Thomas's daughters to be a few years younger than their baptismal records would suggest.

The 1911 census says grandfather was born in Edmonton, London rather than Canada. However if he was born in 1899 this would tie in with his statement to me that he lied about his age to join the Army in May 1914. He was only 15 when he joined but by law had to be 16. When he married my grandmother in 1917 he was now 24, to her 28.

My cousin and I are still digging. Let us see what else may come up.

Further Developments!

I managed to locate Grandad James' military records. He served in both the Army and the Royal Flying Corps.

He did not join the Army in May 1914 as he told me but in November 1913. In 1913 he could at most have been 14.

I have grandfather's war medals from World War I and his Civil Defence Medal from World War II. According to the records there are two medals he was awarded after World War I which were sent to his parents address and which are not on his medals clasp. If his parents moved house the Post Office would have returned the medals to the War Office. One was a medal for having been wounded in action. Given that he was shot twice. gassed, and shrapnelled he richly deserved that. The other was a regimental clasp for the Middlesex Regiment.

The lady visiting in 1911 was not born in Beckenham with the surname she had in 1911. I have to assume that at some point she married. So I will have to trace the eight Emmas born in Beckenham around the right time, allowing for the flexibility around age exercised by other James ladies. I will have to find which if any married a Mr Wilson. Then when we have the right lady we can trace her family back to see how she links in.


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