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Friday, 7 December 2018

A Wartime Winter's Tale: 52 Ancestor’s Theme -Week 49

It was winter 1944-45 and my father John P. Weston was in Luxembourg.

During the Second World War, Dad  served in the RAF Codes & Ciphers Branch and was indoctrinated into the mysteries of Enigma and the One-Time Pad code, with training at Bletchley Park and Whitehall, London. He then became part of the Special Liaison Unit, in a team of analysts to scan, digest, and file the messages, and   forward key messages to the appropriate field commands. 

Dad   was seconded to General Bradley’s US 12th Army Group HQ. He landed at Omaha beach just after D-Day and advanced via St. Mere Eglise, Avranches, Versailles, Paris, Verdun and Luxembourg through to Wiesbaden in Germany. 

Here is his story of that winter 1944-45, told in his own words that he wrote down for me. 

"We arrived in Luxembourg.  General Bradley's Hotel Alpha was opposite the badly damaged railway station.  We had a good hotel at the back and were able to buy some very good cakes in the town.

I became friendly  with a former member of the government [Mr Battin]  and was invited to his house. He produced champagne from his cellar and served them with lovely cakes with kirsch in them".
 A rare chance to sample some home life in time of war!  Dad on the right with the Mr Battin's daughter. 

Dad (left) with Mr Battin and his daughter - 1944 

      A picturesque scene of  Luxembourg, found in Dad's album.
Dad maintained contact with the Battin family for a long time after the war, exchanging Christmas cards etc.  In 1961  we moved to York and he named our new house  "Arlon" after  a place  in Luxembourg which obviously held fond memories for him.
His story continues..... 

"It was now December 1944 and bitterly cold, with snow and ice. Out of the blue at 4a.m. on December 16th came a major attack on the American front.  It was pandemonium, as the Germans broke trough the US lines, troops retreating and the population streaming back from the German advance.  The GIs ran out of ammo. and threw their rifles away.  Some 8000 were taken prisoners of war.   

This was the Battle of the Bulge.

The Battle was the last major offensive by the Germans in the war, fought in the dense forest of the Ardennes, on the border of Belgium, northern France and Luxembourg. Initially the Americans in particular suffered heavy  losses.

Dad's account continues.....
"We carried thermite bombs in a safe in our operations vehicle to be used to destroy our codebooks and machines. We had rifles fully loaded with us at all times.......There was trouble with our supply lines with food, ammunition and petrol not getting through to us, and planes were fog bound, due to the awful weather.  At one point we were given five boiled sweets for one meal." 
This meal of five boiled sweets became an, often repeated,  apocryphal family story.  It was only much later that I came to realize it masked the dreadul  scenes Dad must have witnessed.  We were hearing a sanitized version of what war was really like. 

In the Ardennes, the weather improved, Allied planes launched a major attack and dropped supplies to their troops. The Germans had few troop reserves and fuel and ammunition supplies were at a critical level.  The German advance was halted.

By chancethis week, I saw on television a repeat of the much acclaimed series "A World at War", with narration by Sir Lawrence Olivier.  That particular episode focused on the Battle of the Bulge.  With my personal interest, it made for gripping viewing and gave me a graphic picture of what Dad had experienced. It was a life defining moment for him.

Adapted from a post first published in 2014.  

Postcript:  When I first published this post, it sparked off a number of questions from  my American readers - "what are boiled sweets" -  the answer:  hard sweets (candy) made from boiled sugar. with natural flavourings and colours added. Lovely to suck, but not recommended if you value your teeth!

Copyright © 2018 · Susan Donaldson.  All Rights Reserved


52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

A Pocket Watch Accessory - Sepia Saturday

A miner, a ship's riveter, a general labourer, two business men, a group of schoolboys and a station bookstall manager - all feature in my post for this week’s Sepia Saturday challenge.  What is the link?   They are all wearing pocket watches on a chain. 
This week's Sepia Saturday  prompt photograph shows a large man on a bicycle, looked on by two friends, date c.1920s.   My eye caught the pocket watch chain that he was wearing, so I turned to my family collection to see what I could find.  

Pocket watches were invented in the 16th century and were the most ocmmon type of wtch until the First World War and the introduction of wrist watches.  They  generally had an attached chain so they could be secured to a waistcoat, lapel or belt loop.  The casements varied from brass to gold, so they appealed to a range of budgets.  Pocket watches were often a prized family possession, passed down through the generations.   I remember my grandfather wearing one on a Sunday with his best suit - but unfortunately I do not have any photograph of him wearing it.  

From the extended family of my cousin:

Edward Henry Coombs(1857-1922) was the great grandfather of my cousin' s wife.  In 1879 Edward  married 19 year old Ann Elizabeth Shaw and in 18 years, they had a large family of 10 children.   He was founder of Coomb Bros.  - a wholesale grocery business and manufacturer of sweets and jams in Essex.

The period 1917-1918 was a tragic time for Edward,   with sons Percy and William killed in the First World War; the death of his wife  and of his daughter Lilian.  Edward died in 1922, aged 65. 

As you can see from this photograph, Edward was an extremely big man, said to take up two seats on a bus - and his pocket  watch and chain are very evident in this photograph.

Anna Holt and Charles Oldham (c.1861-1937)  
Charles Oldham was brother of my cousin's great grandfather Joseph Prince Oldham (1855-1917).  Born in Blackpool, he joined the family business and in the 1891 census was described as a self-employed coal merchant. But by 1901 he had had a complete change of both address and occupation, setting up a mineral water manufacturing business in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. Looking here very much like a serious businessman, and wearing his pocket watch and chain. 

 Wiiliam Dower (1837-1919) and his wife,  Jesse Edward. 
Jesse  who was sister to my cousin's great grandmother, married William Dower, born in Banchory, Aberdeenshire. William   worked as a joiner before training as a minister of the church.   He was appointed as a Wesleyan Missionary in South Africa and he and his new wife Jesse set sail there  in 1865. 
In March 1870, William and Jesse set out on an ox wagon journey to East Griqualand and the town of  Kokstad, where he was asked to take on the role of pastor.  William helped build both his own home and the church there.  He went on to write a definitive history of the area in "The early annals of Kokstad and Griqualand East".

The photograph above of  William Dower and his wife Jesse was taken in 1913 when they visited Jesse’s sister in Blackpool.  

William Dower died in Africa on died 21 December 1919 at  "Banchory", - his home named after his Scottish birthplace.  He left behind a legacy in the country he came to love and a family who made their mark in many different fields.  

 William Bailey Bastow - my mother's second cousin.
Elizabeth Bailey born in Poulton-le Fylde, Lancashire  was William's mother. She married Peter Bastow, a Blackpool stone mason, and they had three children.  But Peter could not have survived much beyond the birth of his youngest son in 1882, as by 1890 Elizabeth married her second husband Henry Robinson.   In the 1901 census William was described as stepson, 20 years old and a general labourer.

Here he is dressed formally in the traditional style of waistcoat and pocket watch.

From my husband's family:

Alice Armitage and Matthew Iley White  - 
my husband's grandparents of South Shields, County Durham

Matthew (1886-1956) and Alice (1888-1967) married in 1908 and this photograph is thought to  mark their  engagement, with Matthew wearing a watch chain with the watch itself hidden in his waistcoat pocket. 

The couple had a background of mariners and miners.   Matthew, a ship's riveter,   was named after his father  Matthew Iley White;  his mother was  Louisa Moffat,and both came from a family of seafarers. 

Alice hailed from South Kirby, Yorkshire where her father Aaron Armitage (1851-1889)  was a miner, the eldest of a family of ten children born to Moses Armitage  and Sarah Galloway. 

Aaron aged 36 married  19 year old Sarah Ann Cuthbert in 1887 but within two  years he was dead,  leaving fatherless his infant only daughter Alice.   His widow Sarah remarried a year later another miner George Hibbert and the family moved to the Durham minefields, settling in South Shields.  The 1901 census saw the family there, with Alice now 13 years old with a step brother Robert and step sister Violet. The two half-sisters remained close throughout their lives.

 Moses Armitage, (1824-1878),  Alice's grandfather 

 I was lucky to get this photograph from an Ancestry contact and it is the oldest photograph we have of my husband's ancestors. 

Moses was a Yorkshire miner  and in 1844  married Sarah Gallaway (1826-1896)  and in the next 20 years between 1845 and 1868  they had 10 children  in Barnsley.

And Finally - photographs from my Danson family collection  of my great uncle George Danson (1884-1916).

Young George Danson, my great uncle is on the left of this group of  boys and  three of them are wearing watch chains, yet they look  only around 12-13 years old.

George has featured many times on my blog.  He was the youngest of eight sons  of William Danson and Alice English,of Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire and worked on railway station bookstalls, run my W.H. Smith.  He served as a stretcher bearer in the First World War and was killed on the Somme in 1916.

This is not a great photograph, but it  does show very clearly the pocket watch and chain that he was wearing.

                      Is this the same watch  - found in a box of Danson memorabilia?


Sepia Saturday gives bloggers an opportunity
to share their family history through photograph

Click HERE to see more of this week's blogger tales


Thursday, 29 November 2018

A Librarian's Life - Anything but Dull: Sepia Saturday

This weeks Sepia Saturday prompt features a man in very formal wear ( c.1910's?) working in a library.  A century on, here are the ten stages of my life as a Librarian -

LIBRARIES  have played a large part in my life. From an early age, after school visits to the local library, I played at being a Librarian. I remember one Christmas being delighted at getting in my stocking a date stamp. I made up issue labels for my books, and dragooned my family into being customers, so I could enthusiastically stamp away. 

So what did I become? A Librarian - and yes I did conform a bit to the stereotyped image - the glasses did it!

Does anyone remember the Smirnoff vodka advert where the librarian (dowdy clothes, hair in a bun and of course wearing spectacles), whips off her glasses, loosens her hair shaking it into a tousled look, pulls up her skirt to shorten it,  undoes her top buttons - and gets a new look and new life?

 I can't say that was me, though I did have a spell at wearing contact lenses. Instead, I spent my time trying to counteract the image that all librarians did was a boring task of stamping books!   The following experiences come to mind.

1.  Stuck in a Snowstorm - As a student I had various Saturday and holiday jobs in Edinburgh City Libraries, most memorably getting stuck in a mobile library on a hill in a snowstorm!   Not that I was driving!

2.  An American Adventure - After graduating in history, I was lucky enough, to join of a year-long exchange scheme for trainee librarians with my placement at Radcliffe College, the sister college to Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. USA, in a lovely setting across the river from Boston


I loved New England, and took advantage, with another British girl I met, of taking the Greyhound bus offer of "99 dollars for 99 days of travel" around the States - a wonderful time, before it was back to Scotland.

3. Information Officer - My first professional job after a year at Library School was back in Edinburgh where my task was to set up an resource centre for a small organisation involved in youth and community work.   After two years, it was time to move on and widen my experience.
4. Reference Librarian at the Cutting Edge - My second professional job  was at  Moray House, Edinburgh's College of Education with a remit to set up a Modern Studies Information Resource. This was long before the Internet, and involved setting up project files of ephemera for use by students and staff - mainly press cuttings, and compiling source lists for students. I got to look through all the quality daily papers - a great job and nothing boring about it.    I had always fancied working as a newspaper librarian, or as a BBC researcher, though jobs were few and far between, so this was coming close to it. 

5.  Dumbo to Dinosaurs  - I was a stay-at-home Mum, living in the  rural Scottish Borders, when a newsletter from my daughter's primary school announced that a school auxiliary had been asked to set up a library in the school. My professional hackles arose - obviously a job that the head teacher felt anyone could do! So I got in touch, took on the role,  and I was back classifying the school collection, creating a catalogue and guides for use.  As it was a voluntary task, I could take my time and have a good look through all the books, with dinosaurs seeming to be the most popular topic - not one I could relate to. 
6.  Information Assistant at Hawick Tourist Information Centre - when I saw this part-time seasonal post advertised, I knew it was right up my street, though I I couldn't have done it, if my husband had not been a teacher to look after our daughter.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

“Next to the Last” - Frank Danson: 52 Ancestors - Wk 48

My great Uncle Frank Danson  (1892-1977)  was the next to the last son born on 26th August 1892  to James Danson, a joiner journeyman and Maria Rawcliffe of Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire.  He was baptised on 16th October of the same year in St. Chad’s Church, Poulton.

Frank joined a large household that comprised his parents and brothers Harry 15, John 13, Robert 11, William (my grandfather 7), Albert 4 and Tom 2, living in a row of terrace houses  on Bull Street, Poulton.  It  must have been very crowded, especially when last son George was born in 1894 and only daughter Jennie in 1897.

In the  1911 census Frank was described as an Apprentice (Painter) aged 18.

Five of the Danson brothers served in the First World War, though Frank's  service record has not been traced, with many destroyed in bombing in World War Two.  He must have been 23 when conscription was introduced in March 1916.

In August 1916,  Frank received a letter from his young brother George.

It read
 "Dear Frank, Just a few lines to let you know that I am at present in France  where I expect to be some time, unless omething serious happens, such as the ending of this war  How would that do down, eh?  

The letter concluded  "Well,  Frank, don't forget to to let me have a few lines as soon as poss.  as I'm longing to hear how you are getting along.  Yours sincerely, brother George."

Three weeks later George (below) was killed on the Somme. 


Back home in Poulton,  Frank's sister Jennie (right) worked  in the local post office Post Office  and she recalled when a war telegram came through for her widowed mother, Maria Danson.   Fearing the worst, Jennie was allowed to run home with it.  Fortunately it was not the worst of news - but that Frank had been wounded and was in hospital in Malta.

 Photographs found in Jennie's collection  revealed more about Frank's time on the island.

 On the revere in Jenny's handwriting, she identified ank as on the back row right.
The reverse of the photograph with Jennie's writing identifying Frank

This  photograph seems to be some kind of celebration.  Frank is front row left,  dressed formally in his uniform and cap, but what about those two fellows on the  back row in what appears to be their pyjamas and beanie hats. 

This photograph was unfortunately unidentified, but I think Frank could be on the right of the front row.  In hospital, wounded soldiers, fit enough to go out, wore a distinctive uniform of blue flannel suits with white revers and a red tie.

Jennie inherited her mother's jewellery  which included this brooch and bracelet that Frank brought back from Malta.

Back home, Frank resumed his job as a painter/decorator.  Like many of his brothers, Frank married late in life at the age of 46  Grace Ann Bee, a nurse in Poulton.  Witnesses at the wedding in 1938  were Frank's brother and his wife Robert and Ann.  There were no children of the marriage. 

Interestingly the 1939 Register has Frank's date of birth as 29th July 1893- at odds with the date on his birth certificate of 26th August 1892.  

Frank and Grace  lived on Station Road, Poulton, and I have memories as a child  of being taken there with my mother and aunt, who kept in touch with all their uncles and aunt.

Frank died  in 1971 at the age of 79.


52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Sunday, 11 November 2018

How One Village in 1918 Marked the Armistice and its Aftermath.

Few communities and families could have escaped the impact of the First World War.  Here is how the village of Earlston in the Scottish Borders greeted the news of the Armistice in November 1918, and witnessed its aftermath  - replicated in events across the land.

The end of the First World War came at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – 11th November 1918.

“The Southern Reporter” of  November 14th  shared the good news: 

“The Berwickshire News" gave a much fuller report of the celebrations in Earlston:

“On Monday the news came though that the German delegation had signed the armistice. The first indication of the news was the sounding of the factory buzzer – a sign that something unusual had happened. Then closely followed by the bell of the Parish Church and the Corn Exchange, the raising of the flag at Rhymer’s Mill and the display of flags and bunting throughout. Factory workers were given a half holiday and the whole place was moved and stirred by the welcome news.

Between 12 and 1pm, a thanksgiving service was held in the Parish Church Hall conducted by the Rev. Walter Davidson in a manner highly acceptable to the large gathering of men and women. Groups of people gathered on the streets to discuss the joyful news.

In the evening there was an impromptu concert in the Corn Exchange with money raised going to the Earlston Comforts Fund".



1918 - The Spanish Flu Epidemic:   During the pandemic of 1918/19, over 50 million people died worldwide and a quarter of the British population were affected by this deadly virus, which was first reported from Spain. It hit people who had endured austerity and food shortages due to the war, and it was before the advent of antibiotics and anti-virus medicine.   The death toll was 228,000 in Britain alone.

"The Southern Reporter" of 28th November 1918 reported on the fourth week of closure of the school due to the influenza epidemic, with the church also closed for the previous two Sundays.  

1919- Peace Celebrations: These were held across Berwickshire  on 19th July 1919.  In Earlston  a grand picnic and sports day was held at Cowdenknowes, courtesy of Colonel Hope, followed in the evening by the lighting of a beacon on the Black Hill and a grand display of fireworks which excited the crowd.
                                           Berwickshire News:  15th July 1919

 1920 - Welcome Home Dinner: "Welcome home to the returned soldiers, sailors and women's auxiliary of Earlston parish and district". 

This was the greeting on  the 23rd of April 1920, when Earlston paid tribute to its serving men and women of the First World War, by hosting a dinner in their honour in the  Corn Exchange.  Chairman for the occasion was Colonel Hope of Cowdenknowes, and the dinner  was followed by the toasts and a programme of musical entertainment, with cigarettes provided by Mrs Mitchell of Carolside. 

This souvenir programme is in the collection of the Auld Earlston Group.   

This particular card bears the name of H. R.  Aikman, 2nd Lieut. K.O.S.B.  i.e. Henry Aikman who also gave a reply to the toast to "The Boys who Fought and Won", and was on the  Earlston War Memorial Committee. 

Henry had a very close' personal  connection with the occasion.  He, his twin brother William  and older brother James  all served  in  the First World War with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. William had worked at Rhymer's Mill, served in the Earlston Territorials as bugler, was a renowned shot and  an active member of Earlston Rugby Club, Golf Club and Bowling  Club.   But he  was presumed killed on 12th July 1915 in the Dardanelles Campaign.  He is remembered on  the Helles Memorial in Turkey and on Earlston War Memorial.  

Women were also included in the event, but unfortunately  we know nothing about the women from Earlston who served in the First World War, most likely as nurses.  

1921 -Unveiling of the War Memorial

In the 1911 census,  Earlston's  population stood at 1749,  with 801 male and 948 females. The First World War saw forty-nine men losing their lives in the conflict  - their names recorded  on the War Memorial, unveiled on Sunday 13th  November 1921.   In a service of dedication in the square, it was unveiled by Mrs Hope, wife of Colonel Hope of Cowdenknowes, who was chairman of the War Memorial Committee,  
Earlston War Memorial, November 2017

November 2018 - Earlston's Fall of Poppies
in commemoration of the end of the Great War one hundred years ago.
Created by members of Earlston Parish Church.  

 Primary 6 & 7 pupils gather for a short ceremony at the War Memorial
7th November 2018.


Newspaper extracts sourced on Find My Past - British Newspapers
A post that first was published on the blog of the Auld Earlston Group