Posted 17 July 2015 by Kirsten English
One thing I really love about the work I do is the feeling of helping our ancestors be remembered. That's partly why I called my business Forget Me Not (that, and I love the flower and they grow all over my garden!).
I walk through Christchurch cemetery regularly. I love it there. Not only is it a beautiful, well kept place, but it is so peaceful. I see a great variety of gravestones. From the very recent to very, very old. So old it's hard to read some of the words. I also see the variety of how these graves are attended. Of course the more recent ones have flowers and visitors, but the section where the gravestones are older is usually quieter and the graves are bare. This is, of course, normal and understandable.
We cannot possibly tend all our ancestors graves, it's not reasonable or practical.
But it does sometimes pass through my mind, 2 or 3 descendants down - will anyone remember me? Now this could turn into quite a depressing post so let's move on. I want to share with you some research I did where I felt I enabled an ancestor to be remembered to his descendants.
I was asked to research the biological father of a man who was adopted. The son had died about 10 years ago and it was his daughter who wanted to find out. Luckily she had her father’s birth certificate which told me his parents were: William Ratcliffe and Connie (nee Hay) and he was born in 1935. The stories that were passed down were that the child was adopted because his parents were in domestic service but they came to visit him on Sundays until he was about 4. The son must have kept in contact with his father because he attended his funeral in 1968 in London.
He had said him and his wife were of the very few in attendance. Now this isn’t much information to go on but it is the ‘right’ information.
As I knew the mother's maiden name I started by searching for a marriage record for them. I searched for Ratcliffe marrying Hay 5 years either side of the child’s birth. And I found them marrying in 1935 in Surrey, which is where the child was adopted and grew up. The only place to get copies of birth, marriage and death certificates is the General Register Office at a cost of £9.25 (correct at time of writing). I would always recommend getting certificates as there is so much more information on them than you find online (and buy them direct from the General Register Office as its the cheapest way!)
The marriage certificate gave me the following information: William Ratcliffe, a widower, age 54, butler, father: William Ratcliffe, Railway man - Married. Constance ER Hay, a spinster, age 24, cook, father :John Hay, a greyhound trainer. It also gave their address as Little Oaks, Tadworth, Surrey.
With this information I could work out their rough years of birth, William was born in 1880 and Constance in 1912. However, not knowing where either was born was going to prove difficult.
Sometimes we think our names are unique and then when we put them into the computer we realise just how many there are.
In William Ratcliffe, born 1880’s case 9,186 people who fitted those criteria came up when I searched on Ancestry. I tried to narrow down the search by looking on census records for William with a father also called William and there were 3,831. So I turned my attention to Constance. Constance Hay also turned out to be a popular name, but when I included the initials Constance ER Hay the first result that came up was Constance Eileen Rose Hay born in 1912 in Donegal, Ireland. I hadn’t been asked to research her so I didn’t delve further, but it seems very likely this was my lady.
So back to William. As I couldn’t find a birth, I tried to look for a death. But again there were too many William Ratcliffe’s who died in London in 1968. I was going nowhere fast.
I turned to the Electoral Registers. I had the address of the couple at the time of marriage. I took a trip to the Surrey Records Office in Woking and looked at their electoral registers. I found William Ratcliffe and Constance Hay before they were married, and then with their joint married name. They worked in the service of John Herman Teesdale, a London solicitor, but were only in the registers in Tadworth from 1935 to 1937. On their child’s birth record it stated that he was born in Marylebone in London so I wondered if they had had links in service in London before they came down to Surrey.
Looking at the dates of marriage and birth, Constance was already pregnant when she was married. Maybe they had to leave their last place of employment because of this? Did their new employers know of their situation when they took them on? Some questions we’ll never know. I found William and Constance Ratcliffe in the London Electoral Registers in the service of Leslie Marzetti in 1937, Cyril Eustace Douglas-Pennant in 1938 and Susannah Margaret Lawrie in 1939.
No Electoral Registers or census were taken during World War 2 so after 1939 I lose them.
I have no way of knowing whether they stayed in London, or moved with the family into the country. I certainly couldn’t find them as a couple from when records start again.
I went back to the death date of William and looked in electoral registers in London. One possibility I thought was of a man who lived in Cedars Lodge retirement home in Clapham. I ordered his death record and got lucky. The death record told me William Ratcliffe died age 85 in Clapham, his profession was valet, and the person present at his death was his son.
So I had ascertained William Ratcliffe’s marriage, the birth of his son, some of his employment and residences and his death. But the beginning of his life still eluded me. There was also the mystery of his first marriage. I bit the bullet and decided to go through the census records for 1911 one by one until I found him (or had had enough!) I struck gold with the third record. Believe me, that does not happen often!
I found a William Ratcliffe, butler, born 1880 in the service of Muriel Maud Stuart Watkins in London. His birth place was listed as Yorton, Shropshire, along with many of the other servants. Some research into the Watkins family told me that they owned the property of Shotton Hall in Shropshire. This would make sense if all the servants were from that part of the world. I expect in 1911 Muriel Watkins was staying at their London house.
I then went back to the 1881 Census, the first in which William would have appeared if he was born in 1880 to see if I could find him in Shropshire with a father called William who worked on the Railways. And there he was. His mother was Mary, his father, William was a Railway Worker. He had one brother and five sisters. He was the fourth of the six children. A search for a birth record confirmed his birth was actually registered in 1879 in Wem, Shropshire.
It felt so important to me to find his birth and his family.
The family line was being brought back to life. I followed William through the census records. It looks like he did quite well. In 1901 he was a footman at Church Castle, Chirk, Denbighshire.
I wondered about his first marriage. I did remember seeing a William Ratcliffe in the London electoral registers but always listed with a wife called Janet. In 1911 the cook in the household was called Janet Pitchford born in 1878 in Myddle, Shropshire. Could this be his first wife? I searched for a marriage between Ratcliffe and Pitchford and found them. William Ratcliffe and Mary Janet Pitchford married in 1912 in Kensington, London. I then went back to William and Janet Ratcliffe in the Electoral registers and followed them at various addresses but no longer in the service of the Watkins family. As William Ratcliffe stated he was a widow I needed to look for a death record for Janet Ratcliffe and found it in Kensington in 1934. William remarried a year later 1935.
I therefore have some of the facts in William’s life. When researching I often go to the newspaper archives to see if there is any more information on a person. This has proved invaluable and in several cases where I have been searching for missing relatives in recent years, I have found death notices giving me the information I need.
In the Times dated 1st November 1913, I found that William Ratcliffe, a butler, had been the victim of a fraud case. A man calling himself the Baron Roenne from Russia had promised that William and his wife could come into service with him. He was about to make a fortune on a airlift balloon invention and needed investors. William parted with £40 which, unfortunately he never got back. This man was proved to be a fraud and William was a witness in the case.
Now I know, we’ll never know what really happened but I dare to present this interpretation of events: William Ratcliffe rose through the ranks of domestic service to become a butler by the age of 30 for a family with several properties. He married the house cook, Janet Pitchford, but a year later he was defrauded by ‘Baron Roenne’ who convinced him it was worth investing in his project. On the promise of a position in the household, he handed over the money and left his employment. Unfortunately it turned out to be a hoax and he was left with no savings and no work.
From then on he and his wife found employment in much smaller households and only for a few years at a time. After his wife died, he found comfort with a much younger women and was obliged to marry her when she fell pregnant. They could not keep the child so he was adopted but they kept up the contact they could. The family story is that William Ratcliffe continued correspondence with his son, but his mother disappeared.
This is just my take on the facts, it could be an entirely different story but I prefer to give the deceased the benefit of the doubt and assume they were good people making their way through the world.
So the life and story of William Ratcliffe is now known to his family and also now published to the world online. And whether I have or not, I feel like I’ve helped a family remember their roots and helped this man’s life, and the part he played in the life of his descendants, be honoured through being known.