Part 3: Mysteries and mystranscriptions, a genealogical case study

Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal in 1895, a few years before Walter and Maria Dunn arrived in the city as home children. © McCord Museum

A few posts ago, I started piecing together the back story of a WW1 veteran named Walter Dunn, whose daughter Elsie died in a tragic accident just after the war. In the first post, I tried to untangle Walter’s two wives, Blanche and Myrtle, and never really got to the bottom of it. I found out that Walter had married Myrtle in 1912, and that they’d had Elsie shortly thereafter. But by the time Walter enlisted in 1916, his wife’s name was Blanche, and I could never figure out what had happened to Myrtle. I’m happy to say that that mystery has now been solved, and that many other pieces have fallen into place for Walter’s story, including details about his life as a home child, which were still puzzling me in the second post.

For now, I want to travel back to 1912, when Walter married Myrtle Bishop in Montreal. The wedding took place in April, right after Myrtle had been baptized and converted to Catholicism. Then in May, little Elsie was born. When she died in 1920, her death record clearly stated that her mother’s name was Myrtle Bishop. But Myrtle had disappeared, and subsequent records consistently showed Walter’s wife’s name as Blanche. Try as I might, I could not find a death record for Myrtle or a marriage record for Walter and Blanche. But today I found both — simply because I took away detail from my search criteria.

I considered the possibility that Walter and Myrtle had simply parted ways, and that he and Blanche had never officially married. But I thought that pretty unlikely, so I kept on hunting. Having seen so many poor transcriptions on my travels through genealogical records, I figured it was most likely that the records weren’t turning up because the names had been twisted somewhere along the line. So today I searched Quebec death records between the years 1912 and 1914, and entered only the name Mirtle (I had seen it spelled that way on other records). Up popped a record for someone who’d died in 1912, and whose first name was apparently “Epse Dunn mirtle” and whose surname was “Pearl.” Right away I knew this was her. A closer look at the handwritten record shows her name scrawled in the ledger as “Mirtle Pearl epse Dunn” — epouse meaning her spouse’s name, but the transcriber must not have known that, and also made the strange error of inverting her given and surnames. The record doesn’t say how she died, but perhaps there were complications following Elsie’s birth. In any case, now I knew that Walter really was widowed, and that Elsie never knew her biological mother.

I was all the more determined, then, to find a marriage record for Walter and Blanche, and again I decided to remove details from my search criteria rather than adding everything I knew. I’d done this already, but I hadn’t gone far enough. I plunked in “Dunn” and searched Quebec marriage records between 1912 and 1916, and once again met with success. There they were, marrying in 1913 in an Anglican church, at a ceremony witnessed by Thomas and Sadie Woollands. So now I knew that Elsie was still a baby when Walter and Blanche married — and I had an aha moment when I saw the names of Thomas and Sadie.

I’ll backtrack a bit more: in my previous searches a few weeks ago, I had been frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find Walter’s wife-to-be, Blanche Poidevin, on the 1911 census, even though I knew that she’d come to Canada around 1908. You might remember from the first post about the trio that I used a roundabout way to discover Blanche’s background — the daughter of a French-from-France egg sorter who’d come from London, England, to find a job in Quebec as a domestic worker. It’s very common for uncommon surnames to get muddled, and I eventually found her passenger ship record by removing her surname and searching only for Blanches who’d sailed the seas from England to Canada at that particular time.

Since that had worked so well, I decided to try it again to find her on the 1911 census. I searched for Blanches, born in England, living in Quebec, and having immigrated at that time. Thankfully that’s one of the boxes that was requested on the 1911 census, so it really narrowed things down. The first person who came up was “Blanche Bidwin.” And yes, it was her, lost in a poor transcription. All the details fit — and on top of that, she was living with a couple named Thomas and Sadie Woollands.

St James Street, Montreal, 1910, a couple of years before Elsie was born to the newly married Walter Dunn and Myrtle Bishop. © McCord Museum

Transcription errors have actually eaten up much of my research time in the case of Walter Dunn. For weeks I couldn’t find him or his sister Maria on the 1901 or the 1911 census, and only when I loosened up birth dates and spellings to a ridiculous degree did any possibilities begin to appear. I’m pretty sure I’ve found Walter in both years now: in one, he’s been labeled “Walter Dum,” and it’s impossible to resist adding that that’s just dumb on the part of the transcriber — although I know myself how hard it can be to work out the loops and swirls of penmanship from days gone by.

I’ve found Maria too. The 1911 census shows her living as the “adoptive daughter” of a “voyageur” for a shoe factory. Yet another poor transcription had aged her by ten years, so she hadn’t turned up on my previous searches. In another aha moment, one of the men listed at the address — the voyageur’s wife’s brother — turned out to be the man Maria marries in 1917.

The stories of home children are often heartbreaking — Walter’s certainly is, having left home at 11, and later lost a wife and a child and gone to war, where he was gravely wounded. His sister Maria seems to have fared better. She lived to be 104 years old, and her 1994 obituary remembers her as “a very good and caring mother who had a generosity of spirit and certain joie de vivre.” The notice lists her loved ones, including brother Walter and various members of her husband’s family — and also two younger sisters in England, the girls born in the years before Walter and Maria were sent away. I’ve since found a 1959 obituary for Walter, too, and his also mentions the sisters. I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of it yet, and I might be wrong, but I believe these sisters may also have left the family home and lived in institutions within England. I wonder — Walter’s service record in 1916 states he doesn’t know if his parents are dead or alive, but his wounds brought him to a Liverpool hospital. Did he find his sisters then? Did he ever find his parents? Did he want to?

There will always be lingering questions with this type of work, but it’s amazing how one little find can uncover another, and before you know it, a story has formed.

Kate’s Story

When you sit down to write a book like The Cowkeeper’s Wish that spans generations and decades, it’s inevitable that some details and characters will have to go by the wayside. As difficult as that culling is for those of us who love a big story, and as tantalizing the detail or interesting the character being omitted, in the end the edit usually makes the narrative tighter and tidier and more enjoyable for the reader. One of the characters left out of our story was our great grandfather’s sister, Kate Sarah Deverill. It’s never nice to exclude a sister, so this post is meant to remedy that.Forget-Me-Not Flowers

The third child of William Henry Deverill and Mary Margaret Taylor, Kate was born in Uxbridge on February 3rd, 1872. Her sister Ada was three years older, and her brother Harry, our great grandfather, two. All three children had been baptized in the so-called non-conformist (meaning not Church of England) Providence Chapel, the same church where their parents had wed in 1867. How William Henry and Mary Margaret came to meet is an interesting tale, full of speculation, but for now suffice to say that William was in the grocer’s trade, and Mary, daughter of the resourceful Mary Anna Bell-Taylor, had inherited her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit and ran a toy shop.

William grew up in Uxbridge, a small community 25 kilometres from the centre of London, located on the main road between that city and Oxford. Throughout the 18th century, travel along the route was steady with some 40 stage coaches a day stopping to change horses and rest passengers, and dozens of inns, alehouses and breweries did a brisk trade. Because of the traffic, the area was rife with highwaymen, and several were said to have lived openly in Uxbridge, lending the village a reputation for dishonesty. Apart from the coaching trade, an agricultural industry existed in Uxbridge, centred on corn and flour, market gardens and greenhouses. In the 1830s, brick-earth, a kind of loam that only needs baking to form usable building bricks, was uncovered nearby, and became a major source of local employment. When the main railway line from London was laid through another community and Uxbridge received only a branch line, its industries quickly declined, and throughout much of the 19th century, when our William Deverill lived there, first as a lad, then as a young husband and father, Uxbridge remained a sleepy market town.

Kate lived there with her parents and siblings until she was six or seven years old, old enough to be aware of the most likely reason for the family’s move, her father’s bankruptcy. A notice in the London Gazette recorded William’s misfortune, directing that “at three o’clock in the afternoon precisely” on January 20, 1876, he appear at the offices of Messers. Woodbridge and Sons, Solicitors, for a meeting with his creditors. His days as a grocer weren’t over, but he’d no longer be a business owner, and by 1878 he’d moved his young family to Greenwich, settling near a snarl of railway lines and close to his wife’s relatives.

There are no known photographs of Kate, either as a child or an adult, so we don’t know if she shared her brother Harry’s dark eyes or sister Ada’s round smile.

Jack and Ada maybe
A later photograph of Kate’s younger brother Jack and older sister Ada. Did she look like either of them?

Presumably she learned sewing skills from her dressmaker mother, since on the 1891 census she and her sister Ada, then 19 and 22, still lived at home sewing shirts for a living. At some point between 1891 and 1897 Kate moved out on her own, and from this point on, her story, like that of so many women, meshes with that of the men in her life, and Kate fades into the background. We do know that she took a flat on the north side of the Thames in the Covent Garden area near Buckingham Palace. Despite its proximity to the royal palace, the inhabitants, according to Charles Booth’s London poverty maps and notebooks, were “mixed. Some poor living … but not rough.” Part of a street improvement plan implemented in 1880, Kate’s address, 7D Block, Bedfordbury, was most likely the Peabody Buildings, tenement structures with “luxury” features like outdoor recreation space and laundry facilities, although the flats did not have running water. Presumably, these were happy days for Kate, given the presence at 10B Block of a young man with the unusual name of Frederick Gaughan Burnett. If we were to try to characterize Fred based on the few details we know about him, it would be tempting to imagine him as a carefree charmer with an easy laugh, happily fabricating the facts of his past. Certainly he is an enigma for us, more than a century on, trying to make sense of the few perplexing clues left behind. On one record, his father was called Frederick, an Indian Commissioner; on another, William, a knight; on a third, Sir William Gaugan Burnett, I.C.S. (either Indian or Imperial Civil Service). Yet Fred himself worked as a railway porter, and later a commercial salesman, neither job plausible for the only son of a man with a knighthood. These oddities didn’t matter to Kate, or perhaps she knew the true story we’ve been unable to find. Whatever the case, she married Fred in July, 1897, a few weeks after the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The register shared a few more surprises: the wedding occurred at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square, a grand and historic Church of England place of worship, though Kate had been baptized as a Methodist, and Fred’s “Rank or Profession” was reported as Soldier, R.H.A., or Royal Horse Artillery.

It’s possible that all this is fact. Perhaps the initial recording of Fred’s father as another Frederick instead of William was a clerk’s error; perhaps Fred’s father had indeed been knighted for his service to the crown as a member of the civil service in India, and any record of him has simply not survived. Perhaps Fred was the illegitimate son of this knighted man, which would explain the difference in their stations – the father a person of some means and accomplishment, the son carting other people’s luggage for a living, and taking in boarders to help pay the rent. It’s even conceivable that Fred was indeed a soldier in the Royal Horse Artillery, and that as a very young man he’d worn the crisp blue uniform with its rows and rows of gold braid adorning the chest and cuffs, although any accounts to prove this remain elusive, as do any records at all of Fred before he married Kate.

waterloo station 1902
Waterloo Station in 1902, where Fred may have worked as a railway porter.

So Fred is one of those frustrating and fascinating genealogical brick walls, although once his story joins Kate’s, it is not so obscure, but no less interesting. The couple settled at first in the Waldeck Buildings on Windmill Street in Lambeth, a “superior, improved dwelling” where the flats boasted their own sink with running water and “plenty of shelves and good cupboards.” The buildings were situated close by Waterloo Station, a likely place of employment for Fred given his work as a railway porter. Waterloo had become quite ramshackle, with platforms added willy nilly since its opening in 1848, and by the time Fred worked there it was considered the most perplexing station in the city, and was the butt of jokes and music hall gags.

coffin ticket
First, second and third class coffin tickets, ensuring that no body, whether dead or alive, need rub with another of the wrong sort.

In addition to being a snaggle of disorganization, Waterloo also had a spur line to the dedicated station of the London Necropolis Company, which ran funeral trains daily to Brookwood Cemetery. These trains carried not only the coffins of the dead, but the mourning parties as well. Different classes were available on the trains for both the living and the dead, so an upper class corpse did not have to travel with a poor man’s corpse, or put up with his relatives.

The Waldeck Buildings where Kate and Fred lived was chock full of police constables, the lowest rank on the force, and who were paid a relatively low wage. Why so many police in one place? One explanation may be the floating police station constructed in 1900 at the Waterloo Pier, home to the Thames River Division of the Metropolitan Police Force. The River Police, as they were known, had a long history of patrolling the Thames, and in fact had existed well before London’s Metropolitan force was formed, and with which they’d amalgamated. Once, smugglers and cargo thieves had been the division’s main focus. Now, at the end of the 19th century, their floating station was as well known for its pots of geraniums outside as it was for missions of recovery. The Waterloo Bridge where the division floated was the most popular spot on the Thames for suicides, and during patrol while the men watched for cargo thieves they scanned the water for bodies too.

thames river police
Thames River Police patrolled the river watching for cargo thieves and suicides.

Living amongst so many police officers meant Kate and Fred surely knew several personally, and it may be why, in 1911, having moved back north of the Thames to St. Pancras in the area of Gray’s Inn, they took in Arthur Steggals as a boarder. Arthur was a member of Central Investigations Division of the London Metropolitan Police, described as having brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. He’d joined the force in 1900, and had progressed through the ranks, becoming a detective with some experience, and a sergeant. Searches of newspapers and police court records return Arthur’s name repeatedly, and give us a flavour of the kind of work an Edwardian-era policeman did, and some insight into Arthur’s character. An article from 1908 recounts the arrest of a man who stole several pairs of boots, including Arthur’s, from the police station. Encountering the man on the street, Arthur recognized his own boots, and took the fellow into custody. At his court hearing it was reported that the man was a workhouse inmate but that he sometimes worked at the police station doing odd jobs. In the past Arthur had helped him out by giving him a jacket and waistcoat. The magistrate was lenient by Edwardian standards, and told the accused he would not send him to prison this time, but placed him under probation for a month. Another newspaper item tells a rougher story, of Arthur and a second officer in a “desperate fight” with two men caught burgling a warehouse. One of the perpetrators escaped, and the other was arrested, but not before injuring Arthur and his fellow officer so badly that they were unable to appear in court to testify.

What Kate and Fred thought of these kinds of stories, if Arthur shared them, is unknown. Nor is it apparent the circumstances that led to the break-up of Fred and Kate’s marriage, but some time after the 1911 census, when the three were recorded as living together – man, wife and boarder – Fred left the flat in St. Pancras, and in 1914, without a divorce from Kate, married Kathleen (Queenie) Bell from Leicester, at St. Stephen’s, Putney, south of the Thames. Their daughter was born in 1918.

At what point in this tale did Kate and Arthur progress from landlady and boarder to something more? Arthur’s 1915 pension record when he retired from the force at age 36 shows that he was single, and living at an address in West Kilburn. Of Kate there is no trace until, disregarding the law and chancing a charge of bigamy but perhaps encouraged by word of Fred and Queenie’s bigamist union, she and Arthur married in 1920 at Kingston, Surrey. Unlike Fred, Kate remained childless, but she and Arthur lived close by Kate’s sisters and their families, sharing happy, sad and ordinary days. Arthur died first, likely of heart or kidney problems, just before Christmas, 1940 at the age of 64, and Kate four years after, when she was 72. But for the curiosity of searchers like us, coming to the story decades later, Kate’s existence might have passed into obscurity, gone and forgotten. And while there is so much we do not and cannot know about this other Deverill sister, at least part of her story is now resurrected.thinking of you postcard.jpg

Sources

Old Bailey online

Thames Police Museum

British Newspapers online archive

London Gazette online

Ancestry

British History online