Thursday, 9 June 2016

How this blog helped solve a 100-year-old family puzzle!

'Yours to a cinder' - Joe Coulton's message to his sweetheart in May 1916
Writing this blog and sharing my interest in the Great War with other like-minded people is rewarding in itself. But every now and again something happens to make it doubly worthwhile, like this email I received recently from Steve Coulton...

'May I thank you sincerely for your blog which has helped solve a family puzzle,' he wrote. 'I have a love lettergram from my grandfather Joe Coulton to his sweetheart Annie Miller, sent in May 1916 when Joe, an Australian, was in Egypt serving in the merchant navy.' Steve wanted to publish the lettergram on Facebook for his extended family to enjoy. 'What brought me to your site,' he continued, 'was a word I couldn't decipher until I asked a colleague to look with fresh eyes. He promptly googled what he saw and up popped your blog with the phrase "I remain yours to a cinder". This turns out to be a lovely (but unknown to me) Australian phrase.' The post Steve's friend found was one I had written about an Australian serviceman called Jim Granger (read it here) who signed cards to his sweetheart 'Yours to a cinder, Jim'.  This is also how Joe signed off:

23/5/1916 Egypt
Dear Ann
Just a line to let you know how I am getting on. I am in the best of health hoping you and all are the same. Well love I had a letter from Bill Day he told me him and Grace was up to see you and all, he said we were going to be married when I come, he said Mar said that I have to write a letter to him now. I remain yours to cinder. Remember me to all with best love Joe
I turned 20 today and I have give up smoking now Ann

'Being able to accurately transcribe the beautiful letter will be a joy and I look forward to the reaction from my very large family who have never seen this treasure,' wrote Steve. The letter has now appeared on Facebook and it has been a pleasure to be of service to Steve's family.

Pages from Joe's 'love-lettergram'

Joe's story is an interesting one, and very much one of its time. He was born in 1896 in Rockhampton, Queensland, but left home when he was about 12, apparently after a family dispute. He found work on ships, starting out as a cabin boy, and once at sea he never returned home.

Records show that during the First World War Joe was employed by the Liverpool-based Fred Leyland shipping line. He sailed on the SS Devonian between July and October 1915. This was followed by a spell on the SS Nubian during October and November 1915, when the crew list shows his rank as 'lamp and sailor'. When the conflict was over Joe was awarded not only the British War Medal for his services during the war, but also the Mercantile Marine Medal, presented by Britain's Board of Trade to mariners of the Merchant Navy who had made voyages through war or danger zones.

He met Annie, his crew mate's sister, on a visit to Liverpool and the couple were married in May 1919. Joe and Annie lost their first two sons, Joseph Henry and Thomas Francis, as infants, and sadly their daughter Joan Emily died, aged five, of pneumonia and whooping cough in 1941. But seven children survived: James, Henry, Mary (Elsie), Thomas, Edith, Kathleen and Joseph. They all married and provided Joe and Annie with 40 grandchildren!

After war, Joe was employed as the Dock Master at Liverpool's Albert Dock. He and Annie lived in the Dock Master's house (now demolished) on the quayside at 42 Canning, Pier Head. This is where Steve's 85-year-old father, Tom, was born. In 1941 the threat of bombs forced the family to leave their home and they re-settled in Kirkdale.

Memories of Joe in 'Working the Tides'
'Australian Joe' was a well-known character on the docks and was remembered, right, in a book about the gate men, 'Working the Tides, Gatemen and Masters on the River Mersey' by Alan Johnson. Stories told to Steve by his father reveal that Joe was a man who lived life to the full...

'In the 1930s Joe, an accomplished sailor, skippered racing yachts for owner Judge Jardine and took part in the annual Isle of Man Midnight Race from Liverpool to Douglas, aboard the Cymro,' wrote Steve. 'On one occasion a film producer on another yacht saw Joe swimming when becalmed and, due to his ability, physique and large tattoo of a three-masted sailing ship across his chest, offered him a part in a film. Annie put her foot down as she "hardly saw him" as it was!

Back at the docks, Joe carried out repair work as a diver, clearing obstructions from the dock gates. He witnessed tragedy on 1 June 1939 when the submarine HMS Thetis sank in Liverpool Bay during sea trials with the loss of 99 lives; Joe was aboard the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board salvage vessel Vigilant which attended the scene. And in full dress uniform, Joe formed part of the 'welcoming party' for captured German U-boat commander 'Silent' Otto Kretschmer when he disembarked HMS Walker at Liverpool's Princes Landing Stage in 1941.

In his spare time, Joe ran a football team at The Peacock pub in Kirkdale, with matches held at Orrell Pleasure Playing Fields in Bootle. Towards the end of the Second World War, the changing rooms were used to house interned German nationals and Joe arranged football matches with them. He also used to cut the Germans' hair - another of his many skills!

The life of Joe Coulton warrants a book of its own. But until it's written, why not enjoy the letters of his fellow Aussie Jim Granger - and many others who lived through the Great War - in my own book Letters from the Trenches

Joe and Annie in later life, at their
daughter Elsie's wedding


  1. This is a great fun blog. Very cool. I went ahead and followed so I can see your updates! I stumbled upon the blog while looking up material on an old letter that I an actually researching for my own blog. It's an old Civil War letter that I've done a lot of research on and found more information about that I thought possible. I too was able to get in touch with the family of the people referenced in the letter to let them know it existed! You can check it out if you want...might be up your alley.

  2. Great to hear from you and so glad you like my blog. Yours looks pretty good too and I love the name! The Civil War is fascinating for my British perspective, we've got nothing quite like it in our recent history