Finding Frank Frail (3)

July 11, 2009

(continued from yesterday)

Two motherless children, then: Richard and Francis Frail, both under two years old. For their grandfather, Francis Bernardi, the blow of losing his only daughter and a grandson was to be compounded by the death of his wife, only four years later. By 1891, a year after her death, he was working as a church caretaker, and living with Tom, his surviving son, who had at least a promising career as a draughtsman. (Francis Bernardi eventually died in 1901.) Richard and Francis are to be found, like my grandfather ten years earlier, with their Frail grandparents, with whom they may have lived in the interim in any case. For Dick Frail, who may have wanted to put some distance between himself and his double-tragedy, the option was to seek work as an engineer. In 1891, he is a second engineer on the S.S. ‘Connemara’ in Liverpool (where he was to settle for the rest of his life).

At some point in the 1890s, the time for new decisions must have occurred. In early 1894, Dick Frail married again, in Liverpool. His new wife was called Emma Duncan. The prospect must therefore have opened up of his sons joining him. But at this point, the sons went their separate ways. Richard joined his father; Francis – or Frank, as he was almost certainly known by now, stayed with his uncle Tom, by now married, and father to three children by the turn of the century. His wife (1896) was Elizabeth Coreni, herself the daughter of an Italian, Augustin Coreni, a moulder like Francis Bernardi, only from Genoa (how he had come to Sunderland is also a mystery: his wife was from Belfast, but had had a child by an already-dead first husband in Dublin, not long before they married). It was to be Elizabeth [Coreni] Bernardi to whom Frank would refer to as his next of kin.

Did my grandfather know all this? Of course he did. Did he ever mention it to his three children? No – although my uncle, who died last year, was conscious that ‘Uncle Dick’, whom he knew of but could not have remembered personally, had a son (Richard). About Frank, no-one in my family knew anything after my grandfather’s generation. The waves close up around his memory. It’s the way it was.

Frank, having opted for the Bernardi side of the family, took up an apprenticeship as a glass beveller. His grandfather had worked with glass. There would have been openings. What is clear, however, is that it did not suit him. And, at this point, the internet comes into its own, and starts to tell us something more about him: because, in 1905, plainly frustrated and certainly rootless, he joined the army, specifically, the Durham Light Infantry. And the army records, and it is still astonishing to me, only fifteen years after starting these kinds of trails, are available, digitised, online. There are fifty pages on Frank (I should just say that his brother Richard is nowhere to be found after 1911, although I haven’t looked very hard).

More tomorrow.


Finding Frank Frail (2)

July 10, 2009

(continued from yesterday…)

My mother’s childhood was spent in the company of the phoney ‘The Last Match’, since her father and mother had it on display, perhaps one of only two Frail mementoes (the other being a pipe that her father’s father had made). She had no idea until two or so years before she died that it was a copy, and she barely saw it between 1958 and 2005 or so, when she asked me to recover it from one of my cousins. (Bizarrely, a valuer rated its worth at £25, when even I can see that it is an unfinished amateur attempt.) Having it in her home was some strange link with her childhood. But she knew nothing else about her father’s uncle, Dick Frail, at all.

But I do. To get this straight, I have to go back to the 1850s, at the end of which two brothers, John and Francis Bernardi, both in their twenties, can be found lodging with an elderly bricklayer called Kemp in Darlington (on the border of Durham and Yorkshire). They are Italian, specifically from a small village in northern Tuscany called Valdottavo. They are both working as engine fitters – although the word ‘plaster’ is added, which implies what is later confirmed – that they were moulders. (As far as I can tell, there are still Bernardis in Valdottavo, which even now has a population of only three figures.) Whether there is any other reason for their arrival in, of all places, Darlington, other than to find work, I don’t know. It is possible that they were refugees: after all, the late 1840s and 1850s were a time of turmoil and revolution, invasion and counter-attack, in what became modern Italy.

By 1863, Francis Bernardi was in Sunderland, where he married Margaret Cowan (from Newcastle originally). They settled in Nile Street, where they had two children, Annie and Tom (Thomas William). Annie was probably born in 1863. She wasn’t registered; or she was mis-registered. This may well have been because the couple did not marry until three or four years after Annie’s birth (they married in 1867). It must have been a tough life, since, on the 1871 census, Francis Bernardi’s occupation is given as ‘none’, just four months after Tom’s birth. By 1881, Francis Bernardi is working as a moulder in a glass works (Sunderland having a strong tradition of glass-making at that time). Two years later, he describes himself as a ‘chimney-piece’ maker.

And now the happiness begins and is eaten almost immediately by tragedy. Annie Bernardi, still only 20, met and married Dick Frail. We don’t know how they met; we don’t know if the fact that the Bernardis were Catholic was of any consequence. It was the summer of 1883 (the year of the Victoria Hall disaster which claimed the lives of over 170 children in Sunderland, and my grandfather’s earliest recollection – he was in a horse-drawn something-or-other, and witnessed, aged three-and-a-half, the distressed crowd of parents). Dick’s brother James and his wife Eleanor, my great-grandparents, had already married, and had their first two children – Ernest, my grandfather and his first sister, Nell. They had already given Ernest up, too. Two children was one too many.

In 1884, Annie [Bernardi] Frail had her first child, Richard. (One side-mystery here is the birth, a couple of months later, of a Margaret Maud Frail in Sunderland, who survived only three and a half years. Whose child was this? James and Eleanor’s? As always with this kind of research, the closer you look, the more you find you have missed.) It seems likely to me that Richard, Annie and their new child lived with one of the sets of grandparents, but this will be almost certainly impossible to prove.

It is the summer of 1885, a year later. Annie Bernardi Frail is pregnant again. By Christmas of that year, she has grown large. It is probable that she did not know she was carrying twins. Early in 1886, she gave birth to two sons: William Pollock Frail and Francis Robert Bernardi Frail. The first child died. And so, aged only 23, did Annie Bernardi Frail. At the age of 25, Dick Frail found himself a widower, with two surviving sons, both infants. Once again, it would have been the grandparents who stepped in, although, from here on, things became more complex. More tomorrow.