The lure of family history

August 25, 2009

To be perfectly honest, I’ve virtually mined all the seams of my family, gone as far back as I care, come forward as far as I need. I have a couple of postscripts, however, to my earlier sequence of posts about searching for Frank Frail. I found his children, who have been living about ten miles from where my mother lived since about 1931, and they were as welcoming as you can’t imagine. So now I have two more relations: two who never expected to meet anyone with their surname, Frail. It turned out that Frank Frail, who had married in India, and come back to this country with his children and wife (a wife who had never been out of India) went back and forth to work in India until 1940, when he made a very risky sea-journey home to the North-East. He died in 1956.

About two years later, my own grandfather, Frank’s cousin, died, and there was an obituary in the paper which gave the address. Frank’s son spotted this, and went over to where my grandfather had lived, looking for the house. He couldn’t find it. So he wrote a letter instead. It was never acknowledged. Presumably the wall of privacy my family had built up around themselves by then had grown impenetrably tall. Anyway, it’s an irony: Frank’s son looking for my grandfather, when I was only six. Fifty-one years later, I go to see him.

Frank Frail in about 1950

Frank Frail in about 1950

For some people, family history is alluring because it involves detection: find that name, and file it. There is a bit of that in me, I admit, but the bigger treats are always the conversations. On my way back from the North-East to Devon, I stopped off at my third cousin’s house. Her grandmother kept a cache of photographs – we’re talking about 500 – and some of them are very rare, including the only pictures of three of my great-grandfather’s siblings. When I started, it was a case of photocopying (even colour photocopying was then very rare). Now I decided to try digitising the images, but I would have had to have been there a week, so I’ve borrowed them. Many of the pictures are of a Sunderland family called Stack, to which I am not strictly related – my great-grandfather’s brother married one of four sisters called Stack in the 1890s. And I know one of the descendants of one of the other sisters, who is in fact my third cousin’s third cousin, but not mine. (This is perfectly feasible if you will only put your mind to it.)

The pictures at my cousin’s house are startling, including one of her (Stack) great-great-great-grandmother. So I have had a shot at putting the Stack family tree together. In 1994, when I started, this would have entailed several costly visits to London, not all of them successful. I’ve put almost the whole tree together in a day (rather a surprise to have a tree which includes not only Pat Phoenix’s boyfriend, but also Simon May (the composer of the ‘Eastenders’ theme), and also the current commander of the British forces, but there we go.

Pat Phoenix (Pilkington) and my father's second cousin, early 1950s

Pat Phoenix (Pilkington) and my father's second cousin, early 1950s

Suddenly there are little additions to my own family. Today I’ve talked to someone who knew my third cousin’s grandmother and her Pat-Phoenix-inamorata friend, and I’ve discovered that Helen Greenwell, as she appears on my tree, was always known as Auntie Nelly. I’ve also started to put names to faces in the photos (Nelly’s daughter, their owner, did sometimes write on the back of them), and work out who is whom.

If you are the descendant of either Margherita Isabella M Harnet Stack later Newman, or Florence Evelyn Marjorie Harnet Stack later Bowden, let me know. I have some photos to share!

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Still on the Frail trail

July 14, 2009

It is very hard to stop pushing to see if you can get any further with puzzles like Frank Frail. As I said at the outset of this little family cruise, I like to find descendants, not ancestors – because descendants have tales to tell. Is there any chance that I will stumble on Frank’s?

Well, maybe. To my astonishment (family researchers live on a diet of astonishment), I have found the manifests of two ships on which Frank travelled, in each case from Bombay, firstly to Plymouth, in 1931, and then again to Liverpool in 1940. The first contains a terrific new piece of information. Frank has married a woman called Norah – from London, in India – a decade or so younger than him, and he has two very young children, Dennis and Enid. Is this a journey home to his roots? Has he brought them back to England for safe-keeping? The second journey, undertaken during the war, gives me a Newcastle address as well.

It is not at all hard to find people, unless their name is Lucan or Bin Laden, of course, because they leave a paper trail behind them. And I have already found a possible marriage for Frank’s son, and even a possible address for him, current within the last five years. He would be 80 years old. Is it conceivable that I’ll find him, and that I’ll manage to discover what became of Frank? Is it possible that he will say Yes, if it is him, to my intruding on his life? Sometimes it isn’t. Two or three times I have been turned away, and who can blame them. I could be some nutter – I am some nutter – with an outsize bee in a garish bonnet.

The lucky break will be if he – and his sister – are alive, and have photos they will let me copy, and tales they will be able and willing to tell. The unlucky break will be if they were there, but are no longer with us. Or – and of course, any family historian will tell you this – it will transpire that I have completely the wrong man. There is nothing like a set of tenterhooks. If someone came to you and said, ‘You know what, I have a photo of the grandfather who abandoned your father, and even a picture he painted?’, what would you do? Slam the door?

You might.

There are many worse things to do than to track down relatives. I don’t know why, staring at this screen, I suddenly feel like a criminal…

The one surviving Frail picture

The one surviving Frail picture

Almost certainly taken by my grandfather, and probably taken in 1913, the year Dick Frail copied ‘The Last Match’, this picture features, from left to right (back row), my great-grandfather, James Buskin Frail jr.; my grandmother Annie Frail (nee Maxwell); Dick – Richard Broom – Frail, Frank’s father; Ena (‘Jamesena’ – guess what name they’d hoped to give her if a boy) Frail, my grandfather’s sister and left to right (front row), Emma Frail, Dick’s second wife, and finally, looking utterly fed up, Eleanor (Whayman) Frail, my great-grandmother. There are no other photos of which I know with James or Dick Frail in them.


Finding Frank Frail (5)

July 13, 2009

(continued from yesterday)

It turns out that Frank Frail has not spent his entire career in India. During the period of the war itself , during which he is promoted from private to sapper, and by the end of which he is a skilled locomotive driver, he has spent a considerable period of time in Iraq – yes, Iraq. For most of that time, he has been stationed in Basra, as part of the army deployed against the Turkish allies of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In October 1918, he is in Baghdad. (It seems to be during this period of active service that he is transferred to the Oxon & Bucks Light Infantry, and also to the Royal Engineers.)

What is clear is that, minor infractions notwithstanding, he has found a vocation, and been recognised as a man with a talent for operating trains. It is not surprising that, having reached the end of his compulsory service (extended by the war) he is discharged ‘for the purpose of taking up employment in civil life’ – in India. He is about to be part of one of the busiest periods of railway expansion in India, a period which will last until almost the end of the twenties. He is 33 years of age. He has received no injuries whatever. He gives his next of kin as Tom Bernardi’s wife. Against this column he has also written ‘Father – Richard – Address Unknown.’ By a weird irony, and unknown to him, his father Dick Frail has in fact died in Liverpool only weeks before he has written the words. But an equally painful irony is that Tom Bernardi’s wife is also deceased: she died six years earlier, in 1913 (it is possible that he is naming a cousin, and not Tom’s wife, but it seems to me that, during his time in India, he has lost all contact with the Bernardis – why would he otherwise name a Mrs. Bernardi, when all his female Bernardi cousins were unmarried, or had changed their names because of marriage?)

Not that this would have made any difference. Did he, I wonder, maintain any contact with his brother? (He continued to live with his stepmother, known in my family as ‘Aunt Emma’. She survived until the end of the 1920s, and certainly visited Sunderland, where she appears in several photographs. When she died in 1930, someone – presumably her stepson – wrapped up a number of chess-pieces and sent them to my mother’s brother. They arrived, smashed.)

There is a small batch of later correspondence. Frank, settled at the Loco Dept of B.B. & C.J, Railway, Bandikui, Rajputana, has been irked in 1920 that he has never received what is rightfully his, a medal, the 1914-15 Star. The letter is shuffled about until 1923, at which point one imagines that Frank has written a further letter of complaint. (The switch between regiments looks to be the cause of the bureaucratic foul-up.) There is no record of whether 149047 Sapper Frail, F., received his medal. One assumes so.

And at this stage, just as my mother is born, and just as his cousin, my grandfather, moves from one house to another in Cleadon, Frank vanishes back into the darkness. Did he stay in India? Did he marry? Did he have children? Did he enjoy the freedom to have a drink or three in the evening without being confined to barracks? That will be hard to discover. But at least I have moved him on 22 years.

As for the Bernardis, it seems plain simply by scanning the birth records for Sunderland, that many of Tom’s descendants still live there. Perhaps they too represent an avenue to explore. I will need another rainy day.


Finding Frank Frail (4)

July 12, 2009

(continued from yesterday)

There’s no getting away from it: there’s a buzz, a big one, when you find someone you’ve been looking for, for a bit. That’s why there are so many family historians out there, all shooting up with adrenalin, even if I admit my real pleasures are meeting the living cousins, and hearing their stories.

Once you’ve come across something like Frank Frail’s army records, and you see that there are fifty pages of them, you know you are in for an odd ride. To remind you: he was my grandfather’s first cousin, a little younger. Under the rather odd rules governing these things, it makes him my first cousin twice removed.

However, the moment I saw that he’d joined up in 1905, when he was 20, it was impossible not to dread the worst. He’d have been 29 in 1914. My family – in its really broadest sense – has a sensationally lucky record in The Great War. A few were injured, and one was torpedoed three times but survived. Only one, an Australian, had been killed – see the last chapter of ‘A Fish In A Tree’ here. It looked to me very much as if my new-found Frail would be amongst the lost.

What happened to Frank (he never filled in any form, as requested, with his full Francis Robert Bernardi Frail) was this. He enlisted on October 9th, 1905, for a period of 49 days drill, at the end of which, it would be decided if he was (literally) fit enough. His complexion was fresh, his eyes were hazel, and his hair was brown. He had a small scar outside his left elbow. He weighed in at just over nine stones, despite being just over 5ft 8, and his chest size was 34 inches. By the end of December, according to the records, he had put on 2 stones, and gained 2 inches in height: which suggests at the least that he had been living a lean existence. Quite what one makes of the fact that, in those seven weeks, his eyes had turned from hazel to grey, I do not know. He was fit; he was in.

There appears, for what reason I can’t quite fathom, to have been some switching of his post between the Durham Light Infantry and the Oxon & Bucks Light Infantry. The terms of his engagement fox me a little – he appears to sign up for 3 years in the Colours and 9 years in the Reserves, with a mandatory extra year at least if (a big ‘if’) there is a war on at the end of his twelve years: which there will be. In the event, however, Frank is not transferred to the Reserve for 7 years, at which point, he agrees, in 1912, to be transferred for the remaining five. To India. It transpires at this point that he is being transferred to serve the army as a locomotive engineer, or a railway fireman (in which he has passed a course). From the vantage-point of the present, it is impossible not to sigh with heavy relief. When trench warfare breaks out, he is going to be working on the Indian railway. It turns out that he is actually in India when he agrees to the transfer to the Reserve, and has probably been there almost from the outset in 1906, but the transfer is specifically from the start of 1913 to the end of December 1917. Not only that, he has opted to reside in India. He has no interest in returning to Sunderland.

At the time of his transfer to the reserve, Frank is described as steady and sober. He will get 3 rupees a day. There are formal notes of his hard-working and reliable nature. Bizarrely, one of the signatories is a 2nd Lieut. Greenwell. However, Frank  tests the system just a little when he enters the Reserve (where he is stationed in Nowshera, in the north). In December 1915, he is found to be drunk in his barracks; in February 1916, found to be slack at his post, and in March he is “careless of arms”, while in June he fails to “enter up his score-book when at musketry”. On each of the occasions in 1916, he is confined to barracks for three days. In 1917 and 1919, he is given five days for each offence – “falling out without permission while on running drill”, and (vaguely) “conduct to the prejudice of good order”. You sense that Frank is gradually getting sick of the army.

But he has survived the war.


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.


Finding Frank Frail (1)

July 9, 2009

My mother’s surname was Frail. She believed (having no Frail cousins, as she believed, or certainly no male ones) that her brother was the last of the line, since he had no sons. It is certainly true that it is a rare name. Only one hundred show up in the English census of 1901, and a disproportionate number are women (this is not a criticism, it’s the rarity of the surname that interests me!); by 1911, the number has dwindled to 75. Certainly my mother had met no-one outside her own family called Frail, although one night, leaving a restaurant with my father, somewhere in the Home Counties, she spotted that guests booked in later that evening were called Frail. (There is also a footballer turned coach called Stephen Frail, but I also have met nobody with the surname, other than relatives, when they were alive.)

But then my mother knew nothing really about either her mother or father, who had cut themselves loose from their original families, almost completely. There were one or two stray aunts and cousins, and they got an occasional mention. Apart from the mysterious re-discovery of my mother’s aunt in 1970 (she died a few years later),  the end as far as relatives were concerned had come in about 1960, with the death of her father (1958) and her mother’s cousin shortly afterwards. And anyway, she had, as the youngest sibling by far, no real idea of where these relatives had come from, or gone to, and had more or less been taught not to care.

But her father, as it happened, had not been quite so lacking in the family department as she might have imagined. Although he was himself farmed out by his father and mother to his mother’s sisters (while they kept the two girls – quite an odd arrangement), his father, my mother’s grandfather, was actually one of five. Two of the other four made it out of childhood; but not for long, in one case, after my grandfather’s birth. By the time he was six, my grandfather had one uncle, a Richard Broom Frail, known as Dick, a man only a few years younger than his father. One – and only one – photo survives of my great-grandfather Frail and his brother Dick, taken I’d guess in 1913, and when both men are in their fifties. They are hard to tell apart.

I love rescuing the past, and I have managed to do it with one individual, so I’ll see what I can do with his story. But first of all, I need to tell you what little I know about Dick Frail, who was born, in Sunderland, on the north side of the river Wear, in 1861, the son of a master-mariner, and the grandson of a master tin-smith and wire-maker, who had moved north some twenty years earlier from Camberwell. He may have come north because of the burgeoning ship industry; or he may have had relatives (there are one or two other Frails recorded as living in or near Sunderland at the time); or maybe it was both. Dick was an engineer, and worked on ships (unlike his brother James, my great-great-grandfather, who was an unemployed master mariner at a time when master mariners ought to have had little difficulty in working).

There is no doubt that Dick Frail was a more cultured man than his brother. He had certainly visited galleries, and he was a keen, and not entirely unproficient amateur painter. What he liked to do was to copy contemporary paintings, and one of his efforts survives, a curiously unfinished copy of ‘The Last Match’, painted by William Small in 1887. It’s in the Tate, and it looks like this:

William Small's 'The Last Match'

William Small's 'The Last Match'

Dick Frail’s version (which I have, and which it was thought fit to frame in my grandfather’s house) omits the sky, and you can see the cheap brown paper on which he was working. But we know that he was impressed by what he’d done, because he’s signed it, proudly, ‘Richard B. Frail’. What’s more, he had a sketch of it (and at least two others he’d done, i.e. I know of two others) turned into postcards. It is dated (I think) 1913, so presumably, if my instinct is correct about the photograph of Dick Frail and his brother James Buskin Frail (more to come on this odd middle name), and it here it is:

Dick Frail's copy of 'The Last Match'

Dick Frail's copy of 'The Last Match'

I’ll pick the thread up tomorrow.