In a matter of days I will stand next to my great-grandfather’s grave in a quiet churchyard on the Wirral. He disappeared in 1920, just months after returning from the war, and his Canadian family never heard from him again.
The road to the Wirral has been long and winding but like any worthwhile journey I’ve learned a lot along the way. In 2012 I published his story as a two-part article on another blog but with the final chapter about to be written I thought it fitting to post it here, especially as my interest in family history and the First World War is a direct result of my search for this man.
Next week I’ll share my thoughts and a photo or two from my visit to the churchyard.
On a bitterly cold January day in 1920 my great-grandfather Herbert Clifford left his young family in southern Ontario and was never heard from again. My grandfather George, the eldest of three children, had just turned seven years old.
I asked my grandfather about him once and I remember it vividly. It was early one morning as he was enjoying his first coffee and cigarette of the day. The look on his face was one of bewilderment rather than sadness. He shrugged his shoulders and simply answered: “I never knew him”. We never spoke of it again.
My family knew remarkably little about Herbert. He was born in London in the late 19th century and somehow made it to Canada where he met and married my great-grandmother Annie in 1910. We also knew that in 1914 he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and headed off to war. The family possessed but a single photograph of Herbert taken with Annie and her family shortly after they were married. There was also a tiny scrap of paper containing a scribbled note mentioning he had lived with a relative named Mrs Ackland before coming to Canada.
As a teenager I had a passing interest in family history but it wasn’t until my late 20’s that that my curiosity grew, fuelled in no small part to the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather’s disappearance. The story that follows was pieced together from research conducted between 1996 and 2012.
Herbert was born in Hackney on October 5 1890, the illegitimate son of an 18-year old domestic servant named Sophia Harriet Clifford (1872-1942). Sophia married William Dobson in 1893 and raised a large family that did not include Herbert. He was left with his grandparents, William Henry Clifford (1844-1914) and Emma Harriet Lewis (1843-1904) and sometimes with his Aunt Priscilla Beatrice Clifford (1876-1937) who married Edward Ackland in 1897.
William Clifford was a gardener and his family was always on the move, in search of work or possibly to stay one-step ahead of the rent collector. By age 10 Herbert had lived in Hackney, Cricklewood and Islington, and although I’ve no record of him living in the workhouse, the Clifford and Dobson families were no strangers to them.
On Palm Sunday in 1904 Herbert’s life took a turn for the worse when his grandmother Emma passed away. With the one stabilizing force in his life gone he spent several months living with his aunt Priscilla and his mother, although I firmly believe that Sophia’s illegitimate child was a family secret that was not shared with anyone, including Herbert. Late one night in early June he was picked up by the police for “Wandering”. He was described in the police report as an “Illegitimate Waif” and he soon found himself in the care of Dr. Barnardo.
Seven weeks later Herbert was on board the S.S. Southwark and sailing to a new life in Canada. He was one of over 100,000 British children sent to Canada by various organizations between 1869 and the late 1930’s. It is estimated that 10% of Canadians are descendants of these children.
Barnardo’s kept extremely meticulous records from which I was able to chart Herbert’s teenage years spent on various farms in southern Ontario. He had difficulty settling in and ran away on several occasions but he did seem genuinely appreciative of the opportunity he was given. Nevertheless his restless nature was always surfacing and when, at age 16, he expressed a desire to join the navy he was instructed in no uncertain terms to stick to farming.
In 1907 Herbert began working on the McElroy farm in Stapledon, Ontario, 25 miles south of Ottawa. It was here that he met his future wife, a farmer’s daughter named Annie Ellen Lewis (1884-1970). My grandfather George Robert Clifford (1913-1989) was born in January 1913 and his younger brother James Herbert Clifford (1914-1972) in the following year. Despite his young family Herbert answered the call to arms and joined the First Canadian Contingent at Valcartier, Quebec in September 1914.
Herbert joined the 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment and headed overseas on September 29th. It would be nearly five years before he set foot in Canada again. It was on the evening of April 22 1915, during the first chlorine gas attack, that he was shot and captured while on patrol. Herbert’s war was over but he was to spend the next three and half years as a prisoner of war. These prisons were notoriously harsh places but being taken prisoner likely saved his life. He was released on December 28, 1918 and spent the next nine months at military camps throughout England and northern Wales. This blog includes a timeline, photographs and a story of Herbert’s participation in the Second Battle of Ypres.
He returned to his family near Richmond, Ontario after being de-mobbed at Montreal in September 1919. On January 19, 1920 Barnardo’s reported that he had purchased a place 8 miles southwest of the village and was settling in well. Within days of this report Herbert was gone.
No reason was ever given for his abrupt departure but Annie described him as a “a worthless kind of fellow” when Barnardo’s visited in 1921. But of course every family has its secrets and ours was no different. The secret came from Herbert’s eldest daughter, my great aunt, who was also the family historian. It wasn’t something she told me but rather her birthdate that held the clue, September 8 1916, sixteen months after Herbert’s capture and over two years before his release.
No one’s left alive who can confirm my assumption but I suspect that Annie was waiting for an opportune time to reveal her secret to Herbert. I imagine this took place shortly after January 19 and that he didn’t take it well. While it’s hard to excuse a father for abandoning his family I do feel his memory has been harshly dealt with considering his troubling childhood and recent experiences overseas.
There was a rumour that Herbert headed west but it wasn’t long before I found a passenger list showing a ‘Herbert Clifford’ disembarking in Liverpool on January 29th. I couldn’t be 100% certain this was him until the day I discovered a British Army Medal Rolls index card that included Herbert’s Canadian Regimental Number alongside a British one. Herbert had joined up again.
His British Service Record showed he joined the Cheshire Regiment within two weeks of his return to the UK. Tellingly he listed his marital status as “Single”. From what I can tell Herbert spent his entire four years in Cheshire and when discharged he received a very complimentary review on his Character Certificate. His discharge papers, dated January 28, 1924, indicated he was leaving the service to become a Butler and that his address was on Neston Road, Willaston, near Birkenhead. And this is where the trail of hard evidence ends and speculation begins.
I recently learned of Thornton Manor and it’s very intriguing to think that he may have worked in the household of the famous industrialist and philanthropist William Lever, creator of Port Sunlight. This is nothing more than a hunch but it is a lead I am pursuing.
Another promising clue was uncovered last autumn when I found an entry in the London Gazette for a Herbert Clifford joining the Post Office at Heswall Hill in July 1928. Heswall Hill is less than 3 miles from Neston Road near Thornton Manor (and oddly 5 miles from another Neston Road near Willaston) and so I’m very hopeful this postman is my great-grandfather. In 1938 he moved to Windsor where he delivered the post until his retirement in 1945. Unfortunately the British Postal Museum & Archive could not provide any information to confirm that this postman was my great-grandfather, nor could they give an address in Windsor for me to follow up.
Note: this is the second article written after a trip to the UK in 2012.
One of my first stops in London was the British Postal Museum and Archive where I hoped to find a mention of Herbert in the Postal employee magazines. Unfortunately several hours of digging, even with the assistance of the helpful Archives staff, turned up nothing and so I left London empty-handed and on foot.
After several days of walking I found myself in Windsor, where the postman I was tracing had moved to in 1938 and retired to in 1945. I spent part of my rest day in the Reference Room of the local library. As I explained on my Walking Blog I was very disappointed to discover that the only Herbert Clifford in the city directory was for a Herbert Leslie Clifford. My great-grandfather never had a middle name, nor does the name Leslie have any family connection. Tellingly this Herbert Leslie Clifford, living at 4 Riverway on Barry Avenue, did appear for the first time in 1938 and so I left Windsor with the distinct impression that this postman was not my great-grandfather and that I was no closer to solving the mystery.
My Thames Path walk ended on May 6 and afterwards I spent some time in Gloucestershire where I researched Herbert’s grandfather and made discoveries that resulted in the pruning of an entire branch on my family tree. It just goes to show how important it is to do your own research and not to rely solely on information in other Ancestry family trees.
The last port of call on my visit to Britain was Chester, a beautiful little city which I had visited very briefly on two previous occasions. Back then I had no idea that Herbert had spent 4 years at the Cheshire Regimental Depot near the castle. On this visit my B&B was located 200 feet away from the barracks that Herbert called home in the early 1920’s.
My first stop was the Cheshire Archives where I quickly filled out a request slip for the 1924 Electoral Register for the Wirral (the peninsula just north of Chester and across the Mersey from Liverpool). When the book was retrieved from the vaults and handed over I was keenly aware that this was quite likely the best and last hope of solving the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather. I eagerly scanned the entries for Neston Road and when my eyes fell on an entry for Bethel’s Cottage I was a little taken aback. Not only was it the residence of Herbert Leslie Clifford, but Herbert wasn’t living alone.
In retrospect it should have been a triumphant eureka moment but at the time I was dumbfounded. I knew this had to be the postman but who was Christina Clifford and more to the point who was Herbert Leslie Clifford?
I quickly found a 1922 marriage entry in the indexes for a Christina Alice Jones and a Herbert Leslie Clifford in nearby Neston, but I also found a birth and death entry for a Herbert Leslie Clifford in Birmingham. The waters were further muddied when I found that the newlywed couple was living at Bethel’s Cottage in 1923, a year before Herbert left the army. I spent the next couple of hours searching through other electoral registers and found that the couple moved to Heswall in 1928, the year a Herbert Clifford joined the post office at Heswall Hill. I also discovered that Christina Alice Jones had been living in Bethel’s Cottage on Neston Road for several years prior to her marriage and that there were two men living with her. A small notation in the electoral rolls indicated that one of them was a serviceman.
I retreated to a pub to think (it worked for Morse and it works for me). On the face of it I knew that there couldn’t be two Herbert Clifford’s living on Neston Road in 1924 but I couldn’t get past that middle name. I decided to spend some time researching Christina Alice Jones and I found her in an Ancestry family tree, married to Thomas Jones and the mother to three young children. It turned out that Christina’s maiden name was also Jones and so initially I had problems keeping up with all the Jones’s.
While the circumstantial evidence was building I needed a smoking gun … and I found it. Thomas Jones died in 1920 after serving in India during the First World War. Christina applied for a widow’s pension and so Thomas’s 52-page service record included a lot of valuable information. It turned out that Thomas and his two brothers (the two men who lived with Christina after Thomas died) were all in the Army. Thomas and one brother were in the Royal Garrison Artillery but the other, Charles Whitehead Jones was a drummer in the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment and based at the Depot in Chester at the same time as Herbert. Furthermore the owner of this very helpful tree had transcribed the names of the witnesses from Charles’s 1922 marriage certificate, one of whom was Herbert Leslie Clifford.
Herbert Leslie Clifford had to be my great-grandfather and so the following morning I marched down to the Chester Register Office on Goss Street to order a marriage certificate. One hour and £10 later I quickly scanned the certificate to confirm the groom’s age, 32 which lined up with my great-grandfather’s birth in 1890. His occupation was listed as “Soldier” but the icing on the cake was the signature which I recognized from his attestation papers. Herbert had invented the middle name and a stockbroker father, likely to throw off anyone who might try and connect him to his other wife in Canada.
With a decided bounce in my step I spent the following day walking across the Wirral peninsula, from Hooton to Willaston, Neston and Heswall. At Willaston I stopped in at a local estate agents and asked if they had heard of Bethel’s Cottage. There was no sign of it in their listings database but a couple of other cottages from the electoral rolls did turn up. I located the stretch on Neston Road where Bethel’s cottage had likely been, now the site of a much newer home.
I carried on to Neston where I visited the Parish church of St. Mary and St. Helen in which Herbert and Christina were married. From there I walked to the strangely landlocked former port of Parkgate and then on to Heswall where the couple lived from 1928 to 1932. While in Heswall I visited the local library and uncovered that the post office Herbert worked at in the late 20’s was on Pensby Road. I was struggling to find the Post Office when I spotted a postman peddling his bike towards me. I flagged him down and he informed me that the former post office is now a Blockbuster Video but that a postal sorting facility still exists at the back of the building.
The final piece of this puzzle did not fall into place until the morning I was due to return to London. Although I had found a death index entry for Christina in 1958 I could not find one for Herbert, whose last known address was in Windsor. Neither Ancestry or Cheshire BMD had any record of Herbert’s death but when I checked FreeBMD I found an entry for a Herbert L Clifford who died in the Wirral in 1960. I quickly tried to re-arrange my travel plans but in the end there was no way I could obtain a certificate before I returned to London.
I had one day left in Britain and I decided to return to Windsor to visit 4 Riverway, Barry Avenue and to research the electoral rolls. The latter were in Reading but within a couple of hours I had confirmed that Herbert and Christina had lived together at this address from 1938 to 1957. In 1938 Christina’s oldest child James Edward Jones and his wife Viola Emily were living with them but I’m confident that Herbert and Christina had no children of their own. In 1934 Christina’s daughter Doris named a son Clifford so she must have had some affection for her step-father Herbert.
Shortly after I returned home I received copies of their death certificates. I was surprised to learn they had both died in Neston. Had I known earlier I could have spent some time searching the local cemetery but it seems this will have to wait until my next visit. Christina Alice Clifford (nee Jones) died April 21, 1958 and Herbert “Leslie” Clifford on February 25, 1960.
Although I may never know for sure I would like to think that Herbert’s last 37 years were far better than his first 32. I can’t imagine this would have been of any comfort to my grandfather and his siblings who grew up without a father, but on balance I don’t believe Herbert was “a worthless sort of fellow“.
I’ve made contact with others researching the Jones family tree and I hope to connect with the descendants of Herbert’s step-children. A marriage of 36 years must have produced a few photographs, and perhaps there is someone out there who remembers Herbert when they were growing up. Only time will tell.