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Sunday 1 February 2009

Great Grandfather James - lost and found

Virtually nothing inside our family was known about my great grandfather, James, except he moved from Liverpool to the south of England circa 1898. By coincidence, some 54 years later, my parents, sister and I moved south also, when my father's business was relocated . Two years ago I became interested in researching my family tree and was astonished to discover that James, his second wife, Elizabeth and their two sons, actually had lived in my home town until 1905.

I found James on the 1901 census living in a lovely 17th century cottage on a hill which I had been passing back and forth for years, little realising who the occupant used to be in one of a row of cottages I had often admired. The 1901 census revealed that James indeed lived there and his occupation was "soap boiler". So I made it my business to research where he might have worked and discovered a soap works built in 1881, near the bank of a river, again in my home town.

I wondered how James might have died so I found his death record on the Birth, Marriage and Death register and then sent away for a copy. I was very shocked and saddened to discover that James committed suicide on 2 January 1905 by hanging himself in one of the lofts whilst at work - he was just 57. Further, I discovered on that day, his father John also had committed suicide a few months before James was born. After my initial jubilation at finding James it was a huge let-down to discover the sad demise of him and his father and I was determined to find out more information. I found some newspaper articles covering James'  death in the central reference library. Apparently James was suffering from severe depression after a bout of flu. The last time his wife, Elizabeth, saw him was at 6 am when he set off for work. He was factory manager at this time and after issuing orders to the men for the day he could not be found until the caretaker discovered a set of keys to one of the lofts missing. They later found him hanging and dead, with a rope wrapped twice round his neck and the other end attached to a nail in the wall. What a shock for me to discover this! I was now very fond of my great grandfather. The inquest was held at a local pub which I knew well and had visited often - how peculiar and uncanny!  There is no way of knowing why his father John took his own life.

I sent away for a copy of the coroner's report but alas Somerset records Office no longer hold any records prior to 1921. I cannot imagine just how unhappy James was to do such a thing. I know his first wife, Emma (my great grandmother) was lost to him through cancer when she was just 37. But this was in 1880 and now he had made a new life for himself. He married Elizabeth in 1891 and had a new family with all his eldest children all grown up and in living in the north of England, his eldest son being my grandfather. The photograph dated about 1896 shows him quite happy, so what went wrong? Sadly, we will probably never be able to find out - this side of the grave anyway.

The soap works is now let out as various commercial engineering units and I started to visit the site. The first occasion was one day on my way to ambulance duties, wearing full uniform. Brian and Dave at the site were very interested to hear my story which was new to them - they had no idea what had occurred in 1905. They showed me inside the buildings and pointed to the oak beams which still had a coating of white soap residue. They pointed out the door to the loft where the incident must have occurred and said they could get the key to it if I wished - to date I have not done so. They did remark that the building was a bit 'eiree' on occasions at night. Humorously, I remarked that I had arrived with all my ambulance gear 102 years and 3 months late. I chuckled to myself that this was not quite as bad as Great Western Ambulance Service. But deep down I was very sad.

I wondered if James might be buried in our local cemetery and I contacted the authorities. I was delighted to learn that he was buried there and they gave me the plot number. I found the grave attendant at the cemetery and he was able to locate the exact spot, under a large fir tree. I was saddened to see that James is in an unmarked grave situated at the extreme edge of the cemetery. I learned that suicides in those days were usually treated in this way as it was regarded a sin within the church to take one's own life. I resolved to try to put things right with James. Firstly, I made a wooden cross with a plaque giving his full name, birth date and death date plus a large RIP. At least he had a name now and not just forgotten in the ground.

And then a distant memory came to me about the soap works. Some 20 years ago, long before I knew anything about James, my wife and I were walking along the riverbank path past an old Victorian building dated 1881, which I now know to be the soap works. Unknown to me at that time the path on which we walked used to be a tow path for shire horses to pull barges containing raw materials up river to the factory. That day, I remember, was particularly hot and into view came a man in his 50s, dressed completely out of period, wearing a peaked hat. I cannot today recall his features exactly and could not say whether he resembled my great grandfather in any way. However, he pointed to the building and spoke in a northern accent. He said that the factory manager had killed himself there. I looked across the river and then back at the gentleman but he was nowhere to be seen - he had simply disappeared. I tried to dismiss the incident as just rather strange and asked my wife what she thought about it. She said, "What man? I didn't see anyone!" Was this a trick of my imagination? I mean, had events discovered recently somehow become confused with an earlier experience of what I thought I saw 20 years ago? Or perhaps I didn't see anything at all but today thought I did. Or was this perhaps James in some unexplained way sowing the seeds for my big discovery about his demise? Who knows? The mind sometimes plays tricks.

After making the wooden cross I contacted the church and asked the vicar, known to me very well, if we could organise a service at the graveside for James just in case he had not had a full burial service. We prayed for James and arranged the service. Also a mass was said for him and his father at the local Catholic church. It feels as though a dark cloud has been lifted at last and James and his father are now at peace. I get a much better feeling about it all now.

We wondered what became of the boys, Alexander and Joseph. I found their records at the infant school during a very rare open day, when the attendance books were open to view by the public. Another coincidence, I wondered? It was the 150 th anniversary of the school. When I found them I discovered that Elizabeth and the boys held on until June 1905 when we presumed they returned to Liverpool. The eldest boy, Alexander as new head male of the family, undertook hard manual work to keep the family afloat financially. This enabled Joseph to gain a much higher education which served him very well in later life.

We knew the boys were of prime age for World War 1 and we tried to find details of how they died. We could not find any natural death for either boy on the BMD records. Nor could we find killed in action records on the War Graves Commission website. They certainly could not possibly be alive at 113 and 111 years respectively. So I placed a message on the Ancestry on-line website, "I am looking for details of Alexander George ******, can anyone help please?" Two days later I was astonished to see a reply, "I think he is my father, but he had a brother called Joseph". Staggering! We were over the moon to make contact with Alexander's daughter, Esme, and we correspond with her regularly by email. I asked her if she had a photograph of James and you can imagine my joy when the photograph (above) came as an email attachment.

Alexander was indeed called up for WW1 and was in many of the big battles including Ypres and the Somme. He had many 'near squeaks' but came through safely, with only a bit of shell shock and hearing loss. Joseph somehow was not called up and later became a big shipping magnate in Liverpool.

There are a series of huge coincidences here which are truly uncanny. I just wonder if I was 'led' to do the research so that James may be helped spiritually. I really do wonder about this. Silvery linings indeed because after the church services I feel more at peace about James and John. May God bless them and one day I look forward to meeting James in particular. Naturally, I do have a few questions for him. Why did you do it James?


  1. Sorry I am bit busy but I will add your post soon and notify you.
    Your Online Fan

  2. I have added your blog Eddie. Its always a pleasure to read your bog, although you don't write often. Please notify me when ever you write again.

    Your Online Fan

  3. You asked me "Any ideas how I can reach a wider audience?" I think if you have time join and their take part in discussions, start discussions, am sure your blog will get good readers. It deserve more than it is getting now.

  4. Thanks Narendra. I'll have another post ready soon. Please keep in contact. Eddie

  5. A very interesting story Eddie. I think God was guiding you to find out about your relatives.
    I also tried to do a family tree and found out some fascinating facts that really intrigued me.
    I am going backwards through your blogs. So far so enjoyable... I do like a chap to have a good sense of humour in life.
    Love Granny

  6. Hi Granny
    Thanks for flogging through my blog and for adding comments.
    Yes, I have a good sense of humour and I love making people laugh.
    Now I've met a few of you I have an idea for a potentially funny future blog.
    I love doing work on the family tree.

  7. Hi Eddie - what a wonderful post - telling us more of those days and those times. Your encounter with perhaps your grandfather appearing ... strange, but very possible - I'm sure we have more dimensions than we know or understand.

    What a delightful family post - sad, but you've made amends and now in 2015 - revered them even more .. thanks for sharing with us .. cheers Hilary


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