We are always being told to ‘kill off’ our relatives, if only to avoid spending months researching what turns out to be the wrong line because the poor chap wasn’t really your great great grandfather but someone of the same name who died in infancy. It’s a slightly different matter when you know that you have the right person, you have their birth and marriage certificates and they are all present and correct on all the censuses they should be. Getting the death certificate and locating their final resting place then brings a sense of closure.
Recently I have been trying to fill in a few gaps in my husband’s tree. I must confess this is something I’ve been putting off, as names like Smith, Taylor and Hunt are as rare as nutty slack in the middle of the Lancashire coalfields. After hours trawling the BMD indexes we had managed to find most of them but one great grandfather, John Hunt, was proving rather elusive.
John was born to John and Catherine Hunt, Irish immigrants, in Blackrod, Lancashire, on 3 October 1875. By 1881 the family had moved to Westleigh (now part of Leigh) where John followed his father down the pit. He married Mary Gaskell on 14 July 1900 at St Joseph’s RC Church in Leigh, and on the 1901 census they are living just round the corner from both sets of parents.
From family recollections we know there were at least 6 children born between 1902 and 1914. I checked the BMD indexes and located all of them. Mary remarried in December 1918, saying she was a widow, but as we hadn’t been able to find John’s death we were wondering if there was a slight hint of a skeleton rattling here.
Given the likely dates for John’s death, it was possible he had gone off to war, despite being almost 40 with 6 children. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website had no obvious matches, just a couple of possibles with no date of birth or next of kin details. We reluctantly shelved further research until we could get sight of any attestation papers which might show whether any of these otherwise unidentifiable entries could have been our John.
Only a couple of weeks ago, we finally made contact with a great-aunt, who well into her 90’s is still as sharp as a new pin. Another lesson learned – we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and trouble by talking to her in the first place. She cannot remember her father at all, but did volunteer the information that he went off to Canada to seek his fortune, and he did serve in WWI with the Canadian Army.
Armed with this new information I set out to investigate this Canadian connection. First I checked the electoral rolls for Leigh to try to establish just when he left. He disappeared from his last known address in 1910. As Mary would not have been listed on the electoral registers of this period there was no way of knowing whether she was still at the old address or whether the whole family had moved house, but it was a starting point. I then started investigating the Canadian records available on the internet. I drew a blank with passenger lists and immigration information as the online records for Canada start a little later than the period I was looking for. I did however come up trumps with the 1911 census, finding a chap in Macleod, Alberta, who fitted his details perfectly – except that he claimed Canadian nationality despite also giving a date of immigration of 1911! Still no proof it was our man of course.
I finally located John by examining the attestation papers in the ‘Soldiers of the Great War’ collection on ArchiviaNet. There was an entry for a John Hunt with the same birthday as our John, but 5 years younger. My heart skipped a beat when I opened the document: place of birth Blackrod; Unmarried; Next of kin – C Hunt, mother, with the same address I’d seen on his father’s death certificate from 1908. So John had told a few porkies in order to join up! However we now had proof that he HAD joined the Canadian Army. The attestation papers also showed his service number, so we could finally confirm he is one of the hitherto unidentified J Hunts listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. He died on 2 June 1916 and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres along with 43 others from his battalion who died on the same day.
Armed with the information about his battalion and date of death, I could then discover the circumstances surrounding his death. Here the excellent website ‘The Long, Long Trail’, dedicated to WWI, proved invaluable. He was most likely killed at the battle of Mount Sorrel, which took place between 2-13 June 1916, on high ground a couple of miles to the east of Ypres. This area was very important strategically, as it provided an excellent observation point. A ferocious attack by the Germans on 2 June resulted in many fatalities including the Major-General in charge of the Canadian division. Under a new commander, the Canadians mounted a successful counter-attack on 13 June which resulted in the position being regained, and it was subsequently held by the Allied Forces for the rest of the war. Here the Canadians gained a reputation for their courage and tenacity, but it cost them the lives of 8430 men.
John is the only relative either of us has in our direct lines who was killed in action. This year, Remembrance Day will be all the more poignant for knowing that, for the first time for decades, there is someone who will be thinking of this particular soldier.