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See boy, you know my Father ‘ad two brothers that were killed in First World War, didn’t ee..?
No, I didn’t know that. In fact, I knew very little about my Family Tree until my uncle told me I had two great-uncles (brothers of my paternal grandfather), that had died in the 1914-18 war. That was the catalyst for my investigations, investigations that dredged up many unknown facts and comprehensively debunked several accepted family truths.
I was also aware that a great many of my relatives were renowned storytellers. That’s been the main method of recording history in the family, as I imagine it is for many others. Some of the tales they told were so irresistible I had to get sleuthing.
What follows is not an extended outline or discussion of all facets and branches of my Family Tree. Although every closet (the Andrews, Williams, Coles etc) has the odd skeleton, I’ve plumped for the edited highlights of the Edwards line.
Of course, I knew the basics about my family. My mother was one of eight children, who grew up in Illogan – Paynters Lane End. My father, one of twelve, grew up in Laity Road, Troon. I have approximately thirty cousins, and God knows how many second ones. This often bewildering number of relatives always discouraged any familial research as just that – bewildering – until I realised that, nowadays, as genealogy is big business, you can unearth a lot sat at home.
Practically any historical document relating to genealogical research – census returns, prison records, army service papers – are available online, for a fee. (Some are mercifully buckshee too.) You no longer have to spend hours in libraries or archives, or go to evening classes, or take grave rubbings, to discover your ancestors. All you need is a laptop and a little expendable income.
That’s not to say finding out where you came from is any easier, it’s just that the approach has changed. Scrolling through page after page of countless hits on your browser is just as arduous and, yes, boring as squinting at a microfilm reader or leafing through those massive leather-bound indexes at the General Register Office. Online research has its own frustrations: clicking to view the record you’re convinced is the one only to be told you’ll have to get your wallet out first and gamble on your convictions, can make you sign out in parsimonious disgust. Plus, the deeper, or further back, you dig, you’re liable to discover records simply aren’t available online. For example, if you want birth, marriage or death records before 1837, you’ll have to check parish records. And that normally means visiting county archives. And that might mean the records simply don’t exist period.
If you do need to go further back, or dig deeper, contact me…
Let’s go back to my two great-uncles, as that’s where it all started. The family story went something like this:
See boy, George an’ John, they were two buggers, they ran ‘way from home, sailed t’bleddy Australia, an’ when war broke out they joined the ANZACS an’ got killed at Gallipoli…
Although it sounded a bit like that Mel Gibson film, I was hooked: two possible n’er-do-wells, redeeming themselves in service to the Empire, paying the ultimate price, romance and tragedy, irresistibly combined. I had to find out more – I had to prove the story true.
I didn’t. But what I discovered was no less fascinating. George first.
He was in fact William George. William George Edwards was born in 1885 in Sithney. In 1901 he was a farm labourer, living at home in Crowan. In 1911 he was a miner, again living at home, in College St, Camborne. In 1912, presumably in search of work, he sailed to Australia. His town address on one document was “Cobar Mine, Sydney”. In fact Cobar is 500 miles north of Sydney, in the Outback. George had swapped a rock for a hard place. Although Cobar had a suburb called “Cornish Town”, it was one of the toughest places on earth, a true frontier settlement. He would probably have lived in a tent and engaged in fistfights with his fellow miners over the best ore pitches. Philip Payton‘s book The Cornish Overseas (Cornwall Editions, 2005) describes Cobar as an “appalling environment”, with blazing heat, water shortages, and dust storms that could cause temporary blindness (p302).
Small wonder, then, that he signed up, joining the Australian Imperial Force in 1915. He was 5ft 6, with a broad chest, and dark-skinned. Not all the soldiers slaughtered in World War I can claim a resonant battle (The Somme, or even Gallipoli) in which to lose their life. George disembarked at Marseilles in mid-June 1916. On July 11, his battalion were in the front line, somewhere near Armentieres on the Western Front. On the 15th, the Germans shelled the line with high explosives all day. One of the soldiers killed was George. The battalion’s war diary notes that one soldier died of their wounds. I hope it wasn’t George. That said, I doubt there’s much of him buried in the cemetery at Rue-du-Bois.
These brief paragraphs took weeks of research. I discovered George’s enlistment and service records online at the National Archives of Australia, and it was truly eerie seeing his own handwriting, or the neat copperplate of his mother (my great-grandmother), or that there was practically nothing on his corpse save a pipe and a handkerchief.
What struck me most was the “KILLED IN ACTION” stamp hammered onto the cover-sheet of George’s documents: see the image that opened this post. In World War I death became mechanised, and so did the means of recording it.
John Edwards’ existence on paper is nebulous. I discovered he was a younger brother of George, that his full name was Edward John, and that he was born in 1891. He worked as a miner too. I had believed that, the more I uncovered about George in Australia, sooner or later his kid brother would also materialise. He didn’t.
John never went to Australia, and I went down several dead ends to assert this. I realised that John’s fate – whatever it was – had somehow become conflated with the romanticised version of George’s. I reasoned that maybe he joined the British forces, and then discovered that thousands of WWI service records for the British Army were destroyed by a German bomb in the 1940s. However, the list of soldiers killed are more or less intact. John signed up with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, and died fighting in what was then Mesopotamia in January 1916. His name is on a memorial in Basra listing those whose bodies were never recovered. There’s over 40,000 names on the memorial.
George is commemorated on the Australian War Memorial, and both his and John’s names are on the Memorial at Tuckingmill church. On August 3rd 1916, The West Briton ran the following brief note on page 5:
And there was another brother. He went to…
That’s Thomas Edwards (1889-1963), circa 1920. He’s just become a Master Mason. I got in touch with his son, Ed, in the States. Apparently, Thomas Edwards lived quite a life.
He left Cornwall in around 1906-7, sailing on the Lusitania, and alighted in Canada. For a time he lived in Cobalt. He hunted, trapped, and fished his way into North America, becoming a guard at Yuma State Prison, and then Sheriff of Bisbee, Arizona. He then joined the U.S. Army, and fought with General “Black Jack” Pershing against the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. When discharged, he was awarded American citizenship and settled in Pennysylvania.
Now that’s one hell of a story; all that’s missing is a wagon of stolen gold. I’ve never discovered exactly when Thomas left Cornwall, but it has to have been between 1911 – he’s living in Camborne, College St – and June-July 1918, when he joined the Infantry and gained citizenship. Ed was kind enough to send me images of Thomas’s papers.
He can’t have sailed to Canada on the Lusitania: the ship only ever docked in New York. And, alas, he never fought as a soldier in the Mexican Revolution: Pershing’s expedition against Villa took place in 1916. Thomas joined the Army in June 1918, and was discharged in December of that year. I doubt he even fired a rifle. I can neither prove, nor disprove, Thomas’s sojourns in Cobalt, Yuma or Bisbee however – the records that exist are incomplete, though he was definitely not Sheriff of Bisbee. Something tells me to err on the side of caution.
It’s curious, though, that the settlements of Cobalt, Yuma and Bisbee are part of Thomas’s story. Apart from Yuma, which has some popular notoriety as the location of a tough prison, Cobalt and Bisbee are relatively unremarkable and unromantic. The ship, Lusitania, was famously torpedoed in 1915. What I’m trying to say is, in the same way Gallipoli became the mythical resting place of George and John, Thomas’s story acquired a veneer of romance and resonance when becoming associated with Yuma and the Lusitania.
Cobalt, Yuma and Bisbee are all located in heavy mining regions, however, and Thomas Edwards was, 100%, a miner. Maybe, just maybe, he worked in these areas for a time. It’s equally likely however that he only left Cornwall in 1918. Who knows. When I contacted the library in Cobalt asking for assistance, the librarian all the way over in Canada told me her grandfather came from…Redruth. It is, truly, a small world.
I was interested to note, though, that Thomas had the same height, hair and eyes as his big brother, George, though with a paler, less tanned complexion. I have no photo of George, but the two brothers must have looked very similar. And, like George, and John, the realities of their lives bear little or no resemblance to the oral traditions.
I had one more myth to shatter.
The Welsh Connection
See boy, your great-grandfather was from Wales, either Pontypool or Pontypridd, I ferget which…an’ the bugger walked to Cornwall to find work! Bleddy hell…
For a long, long time I believed this one, and thought myself to possess a deal of – diluted – Welsh blood. I followed their national rugby team. I went to a Welsh university. I picked up a smattering of the language, more than I ever did of Cornish. I told a few mates about it. And then I read the 1901 census.
My great-grandad, Edward John “Ned” Edwards (1858-1932), was born in Wendron! Honestly! By all accounts a violent, unpleasant, mean individual (and here I actually spoke to relatives who knew the man), he lived his entire life on the right side of the Tamar. Here he is:
That’s him, at the back, menacing the photographer. I’ve no idea who the lad with the dog is. The younger Edward John? Thomas? Likewise the girl on the right. To the left is my great-grandma, Sarah. Her maiden name was spelt on various censuses as Cowls, or Cowles, before finally becoming Coles. The house was called Wheal Top, where my grandad, Frank, was born in 1904, and where the family lived in 1901, so presumably the photo is from the same period. Wheal Top is located in a field, between Carvolth and Treslothan – so between Praze and Troon. All that’s left of it now is a wall.
Maybe, then, Ned’s father, a George Edwards, was Welsh? He wasn’t.
George Edwards was, I discovered in the 1861 census, from Mawnan. Okay, what about his dad? It was becoming a minor obsession. I traced George Edwards right back to the 1841 census. All this told me is how poor the family were: Ned’s brothers were working at the mines from the age of 10! I got hold of his marriage certificate, from 1851, when he was living at Carlidnack, Mawnan. His father, my great-great-great grandfather, was John Edwards, a farmer. But where the hell had he been born?
(It may or may not surprise you, but George Edwards signed this certificate with a mark. Ned Edwards made the same moniker on his own wedding day.)
I realised that now was the time to shoot in the dark. The information I wanted – where this John Edwards came from – would not be available online. To discover anything relating to genealogy before 1837 (the year a central register of births, marriages and deaths became a reality), takes dedication. I took a punt on the parish of Mawnan, and volunteered to transcribe all their parish records for the Cornwall Parish Clerks Online database, in the desperate hope that, sooner or later, I would hit an Edwards.
This was a worthy, but onerous, task. The first year I transcribed was for 1678. I didn’t get an Edwards until 1729. George Edwards was born in 1819. His dad, John Edwards, was born in 1776, yes, in Mawnan. He married a Sarah Tranick in the early 1800s. John Edwards’ dad, another John, was born in 1744, and his dad, a William Edwards, died in 1753. All in Mawnan.
At this point I abandoned the project, concluding that, in all likelihood, my family is Cornish back to the Flood.
Reading back this post, I fear it makes me appear that I set out on some kind of zealous mission to shoot down my family’s fireside tales. But this really wasn’t my intention! All I wanted to do was ground these stories in fact, but, sadly, most of them turned out to be just that – stories. True history is always based on evidence, on facts. What kind of historian would I be if I didn’t adhere to this fundamental rule?
Thanks for reading, and, if you’d like help with your own Family Tree research, please get in touch!