In this guest blog post, David Underdown from The National Archives tells us how he’ll be using Lives of the First World War to further his research on members of the Surrey Association of Church Bell Ringers who served in the First World War.
Ever since I first heard of the Lives of the First World War Project a year ago it seemed likely to be one of the most important projects to come out of the centenary. By then I had been working on my own project researching the roll of honour of the Surrey Association of Church Bell Ringers for some time.
Since (coincidentally) I work on digital preservation at The National Archives I had come to know the sources for UK service personnel, but during my research I had also come across the Australian project Mapping our Anzacs (now soon to be replaced by Discovering Anzacs), New Zealand’s Cenotaph database (also involved in Discovering Anzacs), and the Canadian Virtual War Memorial. It had seemed a shame that there was no real equivalent in the UK that would similarly allow a wide variety of sources to be connected together.
Making the connections
I had started a blog to publish my own research, Halfmuffled, and this helped make some additional connections as I could publish some of the basic details of the identifications I had made of the men named on the roll, so if others were searching for the same names they might find my site via a web search. Also, if I found by the same route that someone else was researching a man I was interested in, I could try to contact the owner of the website I had found and give them the link to my blog to make it easier to exchange information.
Uncovering their stories
One thing that slightly surprised me as I researched was just how much some people had moved around a century ago. I had tended to think of populations being more static a century ago, with most people probably not moving far from where they were born.
However, I soon found men born in a variety of places outside Surrey, or on the other hand, had actually moved away from Surrey before the outbreak of war, but were still recorded on the Surrey Association’s roll of honour.
Perhaps the most extreme examples are Charles Herbert Varo and Ernest James Hamblin. Varo was originally from Brent Eleigh, Suffolk and in 1911 was still living in the neighbouring village of Chelsworth. He is listed on the roll as a Burstow ringer, but a web search also revealed that he appeared on the war memorial in Bledlow, Buckinghamshire.
Piecing it together
There did not seem to be time for Varo to have lived in both these places between 1911 and his death in 1917. Searching through the bell ringing newspapers eventually showed that he had been gardener to the Vicar of Chelsworth, who then became Rector of Burstow, and in 1917, Bledlow. Hamblin, whose Life Story should be available on Lives of the First World War when more New Zealand records are added to the site, is listed as a Hersham ringer, despite the fact that he and his family moved to Woking around 1907, and then emigrated to New Zealand around 1911.
He was conscripted and returned to Europe in the uniform of the 3rd Auckland Regiment. Sadly, he would never see New Zealand again. By the time of his death, it was 10 years since his family had lived in Hersham, yet his photograph hangs in the bell tower there even now.
Less extreme in his movements, moving only between Surrey and East Sussex (before the war at least), was John William Russell (although his father was form Lincolnshire and his mother from Scotland). His, though, is probably the most important story from a military point of view that I’ve uncovered.
He became a signaller, and from 1915 onwards was successively Mentioned in Despatches, awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Military Medal, commissioned and awarded the Military Cross.
Remembering their lives
All these stories and more will be added to the Community page I’ve created on Lives of the First World War. At the moment Hamblin’s story cannot be included, since New Zealand records are not yet available. As the Community functionality is only in its early stages, how I use the Community may well change, perhaps splitting it into sub-communities representing each of the places with which individuals were associated.
I think these Communities may well prove to be the most important part of this very important project, throwing up some of the unexpected links that I’ve mentioned here, which will help people researching from very different angles to realise there are important aspects of someone’s life of which they were not aware.
Have you used Lives of the First World War to contribute to your research?
If you’ve used Lives of the First World War to make connections and further your own research project we’d love to hear from you. Could you create a Community page that highlights your project?
- David Underdown is Senior DBA, Digital Archiving Infrastructure at The National Archives.
- View David’s Community page for the Surrey Association of Church Bell Ringers
- Browse all of our featured Life Stories