In Search Of Grandfather Bennett

I have been addicted to family tree research since I started to look at it more seriously in early 2004. Even before that, I’d always nibbled away at the mystery over my paternal grandfather, with questions along the lines of “What was Daddy’s daddy like?” or “What did he do?”. Those questions had always been deflected by my father, who had clearly felt that his stepfather, who was a doctor serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War One and who was later involved in blood cancer research, was far more worthy of respect (and I have found nothing to contradict this view).

My mother would sometimes allow me a snippet. At first just that he’d gone off to fight in WW1, when my father was a babe, and never come back – in a tone of voice suggesting that he’d been part of the cannon fodder (in my parents’ marriage certificate he is named as Leonard Bennett, HM Forces 1914-1918, deceased). Later the tone changed to suggest that it was more that, “he’d never come back… to his family”. Eventually, I gathered that there’d been a rumour that he’d gone to the USA. In genealogy terms, that was clearly going to be a ‘brick wall’. Except that, when I was researching a maternal cousin’s death, someone steered me towards the United States Social Security Death Index (aka SSDI), and I twigged that it might be worth trying it out for my elusive grandfather.

I’d done the basic stuff – my father’s birth certificate had given me both his parent’s names and their address in Handsworth, near Birmingham. Their November 1911 marriage certificate had provided the information that he was 24 years old and a ‘motorman’ living in Handsworth at the time of the marriage. It also showed that his father was a George Bennett, corporation labourer (deceased).

Looking at the 1901 census, I’d found a plausible Leonard Bennett (age 14, born Handsworth) in nearby Aston, living with his widowed mother. I then found the same family living in Ladywood, Worcestershire, in 1891, and the father’s name was, indeed, George. I found a possible birth record for Leonard, and ordered a copy of his birth certificate. This Leonard was born on 6th March 1887, and his mother’s maiden name was Booth.

Armed with this, I searched the SSDI, promising myself that I’d allow a bit of leeway for any stated date of birth. I was just glad that, with a surname like Bennett, at least his first name was less common! Anyway, I suddenly realised that, as I trawled through a long list of entries, I was looking at one with a birth date of 6th March 1887. This had to be worth following up. Looking up just what I could get if I did, I found that the record was the gateway to two separate sets of information – a photocopy of the social security number application (SS5) and a death certificate. Click on this link for more information about the SSDI with links to various websites where it can be searched:  eogen – Social Security Death Records.

The SS5 would have a quantity of personal information and, like anything for which one has to apply on paper, it would have the applicant’s signature. But what did I have to match it with? I’d already paid my £7 for my grandparents’ marriage certificate, but it had been a transcription copy from the local registrar. It wasn’t a church marriage, so there would be no parish register copy from which I could get a photocopy. I wrote to the register office, explaining my dilemma. They wrote back, apologising that they did not have the appropriate equipment to enable them to make a photocopy of a certificate, but kindly attached a copy of just the bride and groom’s signatures.

I received a copy of the SS5 application and the information tallied with my speculative results (except that he’d shed 6 years of age to have a date of birth of 6th March 1893). Certainly, that Leonard was born in Birmingham, too, and his parents’ names (George Bennett and Hannah née Booth) matched my guessed-at history for my grandfather. And the signature, apart from a newly acquired middle name of Keith, was an excellent match for the signature on my grandparents’ marriage certificate.

I then applied for a copy of his death certificate. This reverted to the expected date of birth, and gave his last residence as Largo, in south west Florida, where he’d died on 5th June 1967… that’s when I would have been taking my ‘O’ levels. 

The local Pinellas Genealogy Society (PGS)has online searchable transcriptions of local cemeteries, and I found Leonard’s record there in the Largo Municipal Cemetery (as expected from the death certificate).

Our American friends, Tom and Emily, have been researching their own trees, too, and, occasionally, I’d been able to do this or that to help them with UK material. We’d first got to know them when they lived near us in south west Hertfordshire. Tom’s work had brought them to the area in the 1980/90s, and after they were posted away, we got to visit them a couple of times; once at their home in Virginia Beach, on the eastern seaboard of the USA, and once when we drove down through France to visit them in Naples for the summer half term (or what was left of it after allowing for the driving time each way!). Quite often, Emily would bring them over to Europe on a culture expedition, and we’d meet up to go around one of the London art galleries, or they’d come up to us for an evening meal.
They had been asking us when we’d be coming back to visit them in the USA. This year, they’d suggested that we timed our visit to coincide with their Mardi Gras party, as Tom comes from Mississippi. In addition, if we flew in and out of Tampa’s airport in Florida to reach them, we could travel back there together, as they made their regular trip to visit Emily’s ‘mom’ and sister, timed so that Tom could go to some of the pre-season friendly baseball games. As well as being able to accompany them to a game, they would be able to help me to see what I could find in the area about my elusive grandfather.

I contacted the PGS, and was delighted to find that one of their members was willing to go out of her way to ensure that I could make the best of my trip, making sure that I knew where I could find a cemetery map, along with name and number contact information. They told me that the Largo City Library had an excellent genealogy section which might have some useful material for me such as newspaper archive microfilms and old phone books.

So, we took the plunge – flying via Tampa, with an overnight stop, and on to Norfolk, Virginia, where they picked us up from the airport. That was just the start of a fantastic holiday with the two of them. We’d made it clear that we were anxious not to be entertained, preferring to fester a bit, muck in with whatever was happening, and do an occasional outing to something cultural/educational if it suited everyone. I went with Emily to her local library a couple of times and used their resources for her tree research. It was so pleasing to be able to use a few tricks I’d learned for searching (mainly ‘less is more’) to pull up a chunk of information she’d been looking for for ages, but had failed to find. She said that the combination of that research help, some help with the Mardi Gras decorations, and a bit of DIY stuff my husband had been happy to do (such as putting a new lock into a door) had more than justified our freebie holiday!

After the party, we all flew down to Florida. There, we were met by Emily’s sister Shielia [sic] who took us to her condominium in St Petersburg, looking out to the west, over the marina. It is difficult to express adequate gratitude to a couple who move out of their own bedroom to sleep on their boat in order to allow a couple of complete strangers to sleep in their bed!

Whilst we were in Florida, Emily and her ‘mom’ took me to St Petersburg’s city centre, and to Largo, where we collected a cemetery map from the City Hall (thanks to the PGS for the information and the contact name), and found our way to the cemetery. The markers had been painted, scratched and re-painted a number of times, and were less than clear. In the end I worked out where the memorial stone must be, but its location was just grass. So Emily lent me her mobile phone to ring the nice lady at City Hall and we confirmed the names on neighbouring graves, so I started prodding with a pencil. There was a smallish rectangular area where the pencil stopped abruptly, so we scraped away the tropical ‘grass’, recruiting one of the gardeners who were planting trees nearby to come over and help, and uncovered Leonard’s gravestone. My husband is inclined to refer to my hobby as ‘digging up dead bodies’, and in this case it was most appropriate!

From the cemetery we moved on to the City Library, where we found a very helpful official who gave us access to the local history resources which were locked away, and helped us trace some records. Emily trawled the microfilm of the ‘Largo Sentinel’ for June 1967, with no great expectation of finding anything about the death of a mere retired crane driver, only to find his obituary. It’s really hard being quiet when you want to shout with excitement! Sadly, the names it raised have proved uncontactable, but with the official’s help, I also found a telephone directory entry for both my grandfather and for his widow.

I now seem to know more about my elusive grandfather than I do about many other more accessible family members. Leonard seems to have left his young family by late spring 1916, which ties in with both his USA immigration records and the fact that my grandmother married again in 1923, allowing the required seven year interval before declaring him dead. Sadly she died in 1927, aged only 40.

Leornard was the youngest in his family with at least two older brothers who had soldiering experience. So far, I have found no trace of Leonard’s alleged army service, and quite a bit of circumstantial evidence to suggest that he evaded that particular burden. Leonard married at least once in the States – in 1937 to an Edith Louise (who was very much younger than he). Although he may have married twice more (apart from the possibility of a Canadian relationship – or two), as the US 1930 census shows his wife as a ‘Ruth’, and his widow in 1967 was a ‘May (or Mae) G’.

His 1924 US immigration record says that he’d travelled to Montreal aboard the ‘SS Metagama’ in May 1916, but I can find no trace of him in either the passenger records (searchable online, courtesy of the Library and Archives Canada), or the crew lists which proved to be amongst the 10% retained at Kew, in our own National Archives  (references BT 99 / 3269 and 3270).

I have actually ended up with a chart for Leonard Bennett, to try to see what matches and what doesn’t. I can say, with confidence, that I have the UK tree for the Leonard Bennett in the USA – a man who was pretty cavalier with his declared age. It is circumstantial evidence, but there’s the ‘coincidence’ of the family rumour that my grandfather went to the USA having been living in the Birmingham area, plus the failure of my attempt to find another compatible Leonard on the 1901 census and my opinion that the signatures matched on the documents, which is the basis of my belief that I have found my (late) elusive grandfather

Who knows, maybe I have some American cousins? Whatever else, we are fortunate in having such special friends in the USA.

Christine in Herts

© Christine in Herts 2010