Inspired by Who Do You Think You Are?

Although currently away from the library our colleague and genealogist Elizabeth is still providing lots of support for our WW1 queries and has even found the time to write this post – all about the resources shown on a recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are.

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? -- Pictured: "Who Do You Think You Are?" Logo -- NBC Photo

Were you inspired to find out about an ancestor after seeing Cheryl in Who Do You Think You Are? She spent part of the episode following the story of her Great Grandfather, Joseph Wilson Ridley, who was in the thick of the fighting for nearly four years.

This post looks at the documents she viewed on the programme and how you might locate equivalents for your own ancestor. It finishes with a few documents and resources that would have been used but were not shown on screen.

Cheryl’s journey started with the 1911 census. We need to remember that soldiers in the Great War were very likely non-soldiers before it, and the census contains a ‘lost generation’ as well as men that came home. In Cheryl’s case the census showed Joseph as 29, a grocery warehouseman, married to Mary Ann for seven years with three children born and surviving. The census also includes his birthplace – Beamish, West Stanley – and his address, 44 Towneley Street (sic). All of this is useful information to take forward into military collections.

Next, she was able to view his army service record from the National Archives’ WO 364 collection, the First World War pension claims (referred to in the programme as his service record, the record set title rather than the series). Several pages are available covering his admission, discharge, postings, leave, address, next of kin, and more. Around 40% of service records survive for soldiers below officer rank, so Cheryl’s ancestor was one of the four in ten.

Both of these types of records can be found and viewed from Norfolk libraries through the service’s subscription to FindMyPast. They are also available on several other websites, including Ancestry, which is available at Norfolk Record Office along with FindMyPast.

The next record Cheryl viewed was a letter written by another descendant of ‘Old Man Ridley’ which gave a very personal insight into his character and circumstances. Similar information for your own subject might be found by tracing forwards from the 1911 census and identifying cousins that could help you. Perhaps they might be researching too, or they might have access to medals (with that all important regimental number) or other ephemera that could help you. To find relatives, you might like to try online family trees, the Lives of the First World War website, genealogy fora or even the local newspaper.

Cheryl was also given a photograph at the same time. If you find other descendants, they may be able to show you an image of your ancestor if you don’t have one already. In Norfolk, don’t forget to search Picture Norfolk’s incredible collection of brave boys, collected by the library in the 1920s.

While not a document, Cheryl was shown a Pioneer’s collar badge. Cap and collar badges and other insignia visible in photographs can be extremely helpful, especially where a service/pension record no longer survives. The library has several useful titles that could help you identify the rank and regiment of your ancestor. Try typing ‘cap badge’ into the library catalogue to find available titles, and then place a reservation to order one to your local library.

Finally, a diary entry was also found. This was a prime example of how the writings of another person can shed light on the experience of your own ancestor. As with letters, where diaries survive, they could be in several places. Perhaps you are lucky enough to have one in your possession, or know a family member with access. If not, you might find personal letters and diaries in Record Offices, Regimental Museums or town archives.

Behind the scenes, Cheryl’s story must have involved other reference material, very likely including battalion war diaries (many of which can be browsed on Ancestry or downloaded from the National Archives) and regimental histories. If you know which battalion your ancestor served with you are all set to find relevant diaries online and search catalogues for books written since the end of the war. If you only know the regiment, reading about its history may help you pinpoint the battalion by cross referencing with a certain place that you know your ancestor served in, or a particular battle you know they fought in.

As a final note, it’s important to say that there was more to the story than documents. While we may not all get the celebrity Who Do You Think You Are treatment, many of us now have opportunities to visit relevant places. Cheryl’s story was brought to life by visiting the battlefields and seeing not just where Joseph spent part of the war, but the sorts of trenches he was digging. She was also able to visit the memorial at Pozieres to pay her respects to those that never returned. I speak from experience when I say that nothing has such an impact as visiting the areas where your ancestors fought and died. The scale is astonishing, heartbreaking, and sombering.

For more on researching a First World War soldier, see the research guide (created by myself and colleagues) available in Norfolk’s museum shops, libraries and Norfolk Record Office or visit your local library and ask for help.

Good luck with your research!

This epsidode of WDYTYA will be available on the BBC Iplayer  until about the 15th January 2017.


First names inspired by the First World War

Elizabeth, 2nd floor manager at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library has shared this fascinating piece of research with us:

First names inspired by the First World War.

I once researched a family tree that included three sons by the unusual names of Foch, Joffre and Petain. Some of you will know at once that these were Marshals of France either during or immediately after the First World War.

Last night I got to thinking which other names might have been relatively common during and after the Great War specifically because of the War, so I’ve just spent a little time on FreeBMD to get some figures.

I’ve generally used the time period 1914-1920 in all districts in England and Wales, and first names only as birth indexes during the Great War do not list middle names. Figures are correct at the time of writing but as sites are constantly being updated they may be wrong tomorrow! I should also say that I have only searched for correctly transcribed names (the Foch above is wrongly listed as ‘Fock’ for instance so is not part of the count below) and have not checked every single entry to make sure it has not been double keyed – this is an interest post, not a scientific experiment.

Meet the Fochs – and other well-known people

Going back to the original trio, searching all transcribed records, there are three Fochs, all registered in June Quarter, 1919. Five Petains were registered between June Quarter 1916 and December Quarter 1938, three of them in 1916. Finally, Joffre proved particularly popular with 295 registrations, especially in 1915 and 1916 which saw 234 of those registrations. Numbers tailed off quickly from 1917. All three of these names were unknown in the registers prior to the Great War. [Since Game of Thrones, the similarly spelt name ‘Joffrey’ may represent too much of a baddie to have a similar impact!]

Other well-known individuals and their impact on later birth registers is sometimes more difficult to monitor as they may well have had names that were already popular. The number of Ediths registered in Norfolk actually fell from 144 registrations in 1914 to 114 in 1916 and was still lower – at 126 – in 1920. However, across the Country, 27 ‘Cavells’ were registered, the highest number in a quarter being six in December 1915 – the same quarter in which she died. I was surprised to find none of these were registered in Norfolk though.

So how about battles and famous places associated with the First World War?

As expected, ‘Somme’ appears in 1916 with 14 registered births between 1914-20.

An early ‘Arras’ was registered in 1842, but the name appears relatively frequently from 1915, with 43 registrations during the war years. Interestingly there are also a couple of registrations which may be female variations – an Arrasina and an Arrasy both registered in 1918.

Only four ‘Flanders’ were registered during the war years, and other entries appear now and again both before and after the war – perhaps family surnames recycled as first names.

No one was registered with the first name Gallipoli but four ‘Dardanelles’ were registered in 1915 only.

There are no Marnes or Passchendaeles at all, but a staggering 923 Verduns between 1914 and 1920 alone. Two in 1914, three in 1915, 668 in 1916, 145 in 1917, 51 in 1918, 31 in 1919 and 22 in 1920. Unlike the other names there were then a few Verduns registered most years until the 1960s.

As for Jutland, there are four in currently transcribed indexes on the site, three of them during the war years.

Ending with Ypres, there were 75 indexed in total, 65 of them during the war years. The name first appears in December Quarter 1914, and was most popular in March Quarter 1915.

I suspect most of these children were boys, but the registers do not distinguish – do you have any female Arras’ or Sommes in your family tree?

I’m sure these figures are dwarfed by the number of children with middle names related to battles and places. Perhaps these children were ‘battleborn’ or perhaps their fathers were involved or died there. Did the name itself have an impact? Perhaps ‘Verdun’ was similar enough to ‘Vernon’ that it was easier to use day-to-day than ‘Passchendaele’? I’m sure there are family stories out there, but I’m sure the outcome of the battle and where it appeared on a scale of Allied success/failure also had an impact.


And what of the symbol of the poppy? Is the graph below coincidence, with the name rising in popularity from the end of 1921, the same year that Anna Guerin’s idea was adopted by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, one of the founders of the Royal British Legion? Consistently, December Quarter seems to have a higher number of registrations, perhaps children born on, or close to, Armistice Day, the phenomenon appearing from 1921 onwards.


Your turn!

I’m sure this is just a start – there must be lots of other First World War names out there, whether connected to people, places or battles. I’ll leave that searching up to you…


This post first appeared on Elizabeth’s own website where you will also find many more fascinating genealogy posts, although not all are WW1 related.