Monday, 27 May 2013

My new book brings old family back to life!

Regular readers may have noticed a longer-than-usual gap between posts recently, for which I apologise, but I do have a good reason - I've taken on another book! It's called 'Bristol In The Great War' and while I carry out research, I've put 'Letters From The Trenches' on hold until the autumn. Both books are due out next year.

Bristol is of particular interest to me, not only because I live near, but also because three quarters of my family were living in the city at the turn of the last century. My research into the social history of that period has proved a real eye-opener because it has allowed me to understand my forebears' lives in terms of what was going on at the time.

Great-grandfather No1 moved from the countryside
and established himself as a haulier
For example, my Great-grandfather No1 originally came from a family of agricultural workers in Wiltshire, but he abandoned the countryside in the 1880s and moved to Bristol to work in a glue factory, which always puzzled me.

I now realise that his move coincided with the industrialisation of the North Somerset coalfields at a time when the countryside was severely depressed. The mines attracted many new industries to the southern fringes of Bristol, and glue manufacturing was one of them. I'm pleased to say that in the following years Gg-No1 acquired a horse and established himself as a haulier in the St George district of Bristol.

Great-grandfather No2 (with pipe) and friends,
one of Bristol's many bootmakers
Great-grandfather No2 lived at Easton and worked as a bootmaker. I now know that he was one of many thousands of bootmakers in Edwardian Bristol because the city was a huge manufacturer of boots and shoes. His father, too, had been a shoemaker. However, his son did not follow in the family footsteps - he became a clerk instead. In the early 1900s, improved education and an expansion in city offices meant that white collar work was now an alternative to traditional manual work.

Great-grandfather No3 'at the wheel'
with his wife outside the Cooper's Arms
Great-grandfather No3 was a publican who ran the Cooper's Arms at Ashton Gate. His three sons all played for Bristol City Football Club which was (and still is) on the pub's doorstep. Mostly they played in the smaller competitions, but one brother had just started to make an appearance in the first team when the Great War broke out.

Quite how promising their footballing careers would have been I will never know because the Football league was brought to a halt by the war in 1915, with only regional and friendly matches permitted. The brothers all served in the army and although they survived the war, their names were never mentioned on team sheets again.

Great-grandfather No4,
a Liverpool lad
My Great-grandfather No4 was a northern lad and came from Liverpool, but there is still a Bristol connection through one of his sons, also a footballer, who joined Bristol City as captain in the 1926 and helped them win promotion in the league.

All this just goes to show that although family historians have never had so much information at their fingertips, a study of local and social history will help make sense of it all and bring it alive.

And finally...even though I've got two books to work on now, please let me reassure you that I will be continuing this blog as usual using letters and themes from the First World War - and now including a few from Bristol.

'Letters From The Trenches' and 'Bristol In The Great War' are being published by Pen and Sword Books; both are due out next year.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Warm wishes from a 'munitionette' in Scotland

Georgetown munition workers take a break for a snapshot

This week I received a delightful letter which was written in 1917 by a girl who worked in a Scottish munitions factory during the Great War. She was replying to a soldier in France who had got in touch after discovering a note from her in a box of shells she had packed. 'Munitionettes', as they were known, often tucked away notes to bring a smile to the faces of soldiers in the trenches.

There is plenty of interest in the letter, which was passed on to me by the soldier's daughter-in-law. There is also a little sadness and some nice humour too, all of which will be revealed in my book so I won't give any more away here!

It was interesting, though, to discover more about where the young lady worked. Her letter mentions 'Houston', west of Glasgow, but there is no record of a munitions factory ever having been there. It's likely she worked a short distance away at Filling Factory No 4, as it was officially called.

The site consisted of a shell-filling plant, a railway station and a 'township' of wooden huts to house the (mainly women) workers. It was later renamed Georgetown after a visit in 1915 by David Lloyd George who was then Minister of Munitions and later Prime Minister

At its peak, between December 1916 and August 1917, some 12,000 people were employed there filling shells with explosives to be shipped off to France. Georgetown did not manufacture its own explosives so these materials were delivered by rail, along with shell cases to be filled.

The factory had a lively social life with its own magazine, the Georgetown Gazette, which published the above photo of its workers. It closed in 1919 and today there is nothing left except the Georgetown Road which still runs past the site.

At work inside a Government WW1 shell-filling plant