Saturday, 4 October 2014

More of a Life Revealed

In A Life Revealed, I showed how the mere mention of an unnamed person had unfolded into the description of a rich and notable life. I now want to follow that up with the results of further research that helped to fill in some missing pieces in the life of Mary Phyllis Ashbee, and which go some way to explaining how she became the woman she was. I’ll present these events in reverse in order to emphasise the investigative process.

Mary’s will arrived in the post shortly after writing the first part of this article. This was very useful because her stated wishes were to be cremated rather than buried, and so it was then possible to focus further research accordingly. It also identified her two sisters and their respective children. Using the GRO index of civil registrations, it was possible to complete more of her father’s family tree in order to find his living descendants. Social networking sites allowed me locate and to make contact with the descendants of Mary’s sister, Patricia Ashbee. After having read my previous article, they were kind enough to invite me over to show me her photographs and medals, and recount stories of Mary.

Figure 1 - Mary Phyllis Ashbee.[1]

Although I knew from Mary’s death certificate that she died on 13 Jun 1984 at the Park Hotel, Gersauerstrasse 8, Ingenbohl, Canton Schwyz, Switzerland, I didn’t know whether her remains were repatriated or not. The graveyard at her local parish of St Leonard’s, Kent, has been closed to burials since the late 1950s, with only the occasional interment of cremation ashes now taking place. By contacting each of the local crematoria in Kent, I was able to show that she wasn’t cremated there. The British Embassy in Switzerland furnished me with some helpful booklets that they normally provide to friends and relatives when a non-national has died there. I was surprised to find that most of the work is handled by international undertakers. I contacted Rowland Brothers International Ltd, Surrey, and although they had no record of Mary’s death, they did put me in touch with the Bevölkerungsamt Zivilstandsamt Zürich  (the registrar in Zurich). In my best German (learned just 5 min. beforehand), I told them the address that I had and they helped me to locate the local register office — who by then were closed early for the weekend.

About the same time, I was contacted by a Mrs Gwyn Batchelor, a local genealogist in Mary’s parish, who had seen my message in the parish notices. She checked the newspaper archive in the local library and found a mention of a service of thanksgiving for her life, held at St Leonard’s Parish Church Hythe on Saturday 7 Jul 1984, and conducted by their previous vicar, Canon Woods.[2] The article gave no mention of any prior or forthcoming funeral.

Through the local Swiss register office, I eventually reached the crematorium for the canton of Schwyz but they informed me that back in 1984 cremations would have occurred in either Lucerne (canton of Lucerne), who didn’t respond to my query, or Rueti (canton of Zurich), who had no records from that period. This avenue of research was fading fast but the Ashbee family later confirmed to me that she was, indeed, cremated in Switzerland, although they couldn’t recall exactly where.

The Ashbee family also recounted a story that Mary had been nominated for a New Year Honour, which was probably an OBE, but that she died before anything came of it. I contacted the relevant government department to see if this could be confirmed but they pointed out that even if such records were preserved all nominations were made in confidence. This query is still pending.

Figure 2- Mary's medals and awards.[3]

In 1970, Mary attended a reunion of NCH friends and colleagues when it was heard that Mrs. Dorothy Kinsman — daughter of a former Principal, the Rev. John Litten —was to visit England that autumn. Mrs. Kinsman worked for Mr. Litten until emigrating to Australia.[4]

When Mary retired in 1965, the NCH ran an article celebrating her life and achievements. This text is obviously an earlier source of that used in her final obituary but it contains some important finer details:

IT WAS WITH much regret that the Home said goodbye to Miss Ashbee last September. Since 1948, Miss Ashbee had been a member of the Executive of the National Children’s Home and had reached retirement age.

After a period as Deputy and then Superintendent of the Alverstoke Branch of the National Children’s Home in the 1930s, Miss Ashbee was appointed Matron of the New Sussex Hospital for Women and Children, Brighton, and so became, at 29, the youngest hospital matron in England.

In l940, at the height of tile blitz in London, she applied for, and was appointed to, the Matronship of the Metropolitan Hospital, in London’s East End, where she remained until, as a member of the Territorial Army Nursing Service, she was called up to be Matron of Military Hospitals at home and abroad. She saw service with the Eighth Army in Tobruk, then on to Egypt, Palestine (as it then was), Greece and Italy, at one time having a field hospital of 1,700 beds under canvas. She had an adventurous time in Greece, being the first woman to be flown into Salonika after the Germans were driven out, and there she had to organize a hospital in a Former Jewish Orphanage, and later in a tobacco Factory. She was there For the Communist uprising and, after most of the nursing staff had been evacuated, she carried on the hospital with a handful of Sisters. A period of ill-health owing to war service caused her to be Invalided out of the Army Nursing Service, after which she returned to the Metropolitan Hospital as Matron.

In 1947 she went to the U.S.A. and undertook a comparative survey of nursing training at the invitation of King Edward’s Hospital Fund for London. Later she was made an Honorary Life Member of the British Red Cross Society.

Miss Ashbee returned to the National Children’s Home in December, 1948, and has since given distinguished and effective service. She will be greatly missed. If any of Miss Ashbee’s friends wish to write to her we will forward letters.[5]

A very pleasant surprise was to find that Mary was interested in her genealogy. The Ashbee family showed me a letter that she had written to a Captain Guy Langham on 11 Apr 1963.[6] They had met on a cruise and, after realising that they both had Ashbee connections, they compared their lineage to ty and find how they were related — which they ultimately couldn’t determine. In Mary’s letter, she included an extract from an earlier letter written by her uncle, Clarence Sydney Ashbee — the same uncle she visited in Missouri in 1947 — which described aspects of the early family:

“Dated 11th February 1941”.
The old Ashbee home was in Tetbury. I am sure it is still there as my brother, Bert [Albert Edgar Athelstan Ashbee], visited it a few years before his death. I believe he said it was called ‘Ashbee House’. Our family should be well known in Kent and go back to the year 1100 - the Crest is a shield with two leopard heads above and the motto is ‘Be Just and Fear Not’. There is a Charles R. Ashbee of Kent who is a member of the Royal Arch. Society of London and who laid out the City of Jerusalem after the last war. The original name of the first Ashbee was spelt ‘Ashbye” and he was a yoeman. A John Ashbye is recorded under the list of landed gentry in Kent in the year 1492. There was a Roger Ashbee who started the branch in Gloucestershire, but there was evidently some family trouble causing disinheritance and transfer of the old Manor and Estates to a second son. My Uncle John died in Kent, leaving what was left of left of our ancestral paintings and heirlooms to his daughter who evidently married and in her change of name destroyed the record of family connection.

With more help from Clive Williams, using his personal archive, it was shown that Mary was actually elected to the NCH General Committee in 1942.[7]

In order to understand more about her life, though, I wanted to look at her childhood and the life of her parents. Mary’s father, William Henry Ashbee, was originally married to a Helenor Gertrude Norton in Chorlton in 1893[8], but she sadly died on 7 Dec 1902 in Barton-upon-Irwell, Lancashire, aged just 35 of ‘pulmonary tuberculosis 10 months, exhaustion’.[9] The informant was William who was present at her death. There were no surviving children from that marriage. Interestingly, though, in the 1901 census — from just March of the previous year, but before Helenor’s TB symptoms were diagnosed — is recorded a daughter called Evelyn Ashbee, aged 17 (b. c1884).[10] Since William and Helenor had only been married for about 8 years then this could have resulted in a wild goose chase looking for further previous marriages. However, it was almost certainly the Evelyn A. Graham whom William later married at Sale St Anne, Chester (currently in Greater Manchester), on 1 Aug 1904.[11] William is recorded as a bachelor in that marriage, but this may simply have been a clerical error.

My justification for this Evelyn Ashbee actually being Evelyn Graham, other than the first-name match, and the age match, is that they were both born in Leeds, Yorkshire, outside of the current county (Lancashire). Using negative evidence, Evelyn Graham was not visible as such in the 1901 census. The only close match being an Eveline Graham, born c1884 in Leeds, and living Essex, but she was the daughter of a William Graham rather than the George Graham indicated on Evelyn (Graham) Ashbee’s later marriage certificate. It’s tempting to think that at just 17 — half of William’s age in 1901 — that she was helping with his ailing wife. Helenor’s TB wasn’t diagnosed until about February 1902 — although she may have suffered her exhaustion for longer —and Evelyn was recorded as a worker with the occupation ‘Factory Hand (Electrical)’ so she couldn’t have been housebound.

William fought in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 in South Africa.[12] Although the online information doesn’t include the dates of attestation and discharge, it does include the notes “Discharged Time expired” (as discharge following expiry of the current engagement occurred, prior to the introduction of conscription in 1916), and “The Queen's South Africa (QSA) Medal Clasps: Relief of Kimberley, Orange Free State”. He was obviously home by Dec 1902 as he was present at Helenor’s death.

In June of 1900, while still in South Africa with the 14th King’s Hussars, William wrote the following letter which appeared in the local newspapers. This was extolling the virtues of a popular embrocation of the time called Homocea. This was advertised as helping with almost everything including aches & pains, sore eyes & throats, chilblains, and bronchitis:

Gentlemen, — I think it is only right that credit should be given where It is due, and I think Homocea deserves all credit. Before we left Aldershot we were served out with a tin of Homocea each, and I don’t think a man in the regiment has not found the benefit of it. When we came here first the heat affected our lips; they cracked and were very sore, we could not enjoy a smoke or our food, but rub Homocea in over night, and you would be all right in the morning; and the relief that it has given to men with rheumatism, brought on by sleeping on the veldt, would surprise people. In fact our regiment swear by it, and use It for every ache and pain; ask any of our fellows what they think of it, and they will tell you it is "Champion.” Lots of my chums say you ought to be told about this, so I have taken on myself to let you know.

Faithfully yours.
2761 Pte. W. H. ASHBEE. 14th King’s Hussars.
Donkershoof, near Bloemfontein, 26th April, 1900[13]

This sounds like a canny way of getting money from the manufacturers through advertising linking it to the war. If that was his goal then it worked because Homocea Ltd was using his letter in several advertisements later during that year.[14]

Whatever the reason for Evelyn being in the household in 1901, William married her in 1904 and they had three daughters:

Mary was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, but Evelyn and Patricia were both born in Chorlton, Lancashire. The family appear to have moved between the Manchester and Leeds/Bradford areas multiple times, possibly because of family ties.

Incredible as it may seem, William enlisted again in 1915, at the grand old age of 49 (although his service record says 46), to serve during WWI. His online service record is split into two because of a transfer from the Army Service Corps (ASC) to the Labour Corps. The first copy of his service record is effectively the main one as it contains some additional letters and acceptances of medals[15], while the second copy only contains doctored versions of the first two pages from his original record[16]. The transfer is also confirmed by his medal rolls index card which records him receiving the British War Medal 1914-1920, the Victory Medal 1914-19, and the 1914-15 Star.[17]

Collectively, the different editions of his service record, including the sundry letters, paint quite a detailed picture of circumstances and events that must have impacted Mary greatly.

William enlisted into the ASC on 14 Oct 1915, and was promptly posted to France on 23 Oct 1915. His record indicates that he was previously discharged from the 14th Hussars “T of E 1901”, where ‘T of E’ means ‘Terms of Engagement’; effectively the same as ‘Time Expired’ (as normally indicated by TE or T/E). His address was 31 Dingle Rd, Upholland, Wigan, Lancashire, and his occupation was given as “Draper and Grocer”. The next-of-kin was originally his wife, Evelyn, but this was subsequently changed to his daughter, Mary, as well as the address being adjusted from ’31 Dingle Rd’ to ‘Dingle House’.

On 8 Sep 1917, William was transferred from the ASC to the Labour Corps due to an “impairment” suffered whilst in service.[18] On 30 Sep 1917, he was posted to “653 H.S. [Home Service] Emp. Coy. [employment company]” in Newstownards, Co. Down, NI. On 29 Jun 1918, he was further posted to “542 H.S. Emp. Coy.” in Dublin. Army form B.103 for this transfer records his age as 53 — a little closer to the truth this time — and his occupation as “optician”. The occupation is unexplained as an earlier B.103 form records “Draper’s assistant”. Although difficult to read, there is a casualty form which records “Disability Rheumatism & Debility. Permanent due to A.S. [active service] during present war”. It would seem that he was in poor health, and that they struggled to find some service that he could be put to.

In Aug 1918, his commanding officer received notification of the death of William’s wife (Evelyn), and details of his new next-of-kin were requested. This was his eldest daughter, Mary, who was just 13 years old. The death certificate for Evelyn[19] gave the cause as ‘Influenza. Broncho-pneumonia. Heart failure’. William was present at the death, and so must have been given compassionate leave. His occupation was given as ‘542 Home Service Employment Company (Optical Salesman)’ — thus explaining the ‘optician’ reference above, and suggesting that this was a use the army had put him to — and his address as ‘Island Bridge barracks, Dublin’. Form W5010 signed by the O.C. [office commanding] Transfer Centre, on 29 Oct 1918, recommended ‘discharge’ rather than further duty, and William was sent to the Irish Command Transfer Centre, Dublin.

William was finally discharged on 31 Oct 1918. A letter from the Ministry of pensions to his commanding officer confirmed that he was given a pension but do not record any disability. A letter from the Pensions Issue Office, dated 3 May 1922, records William’s death on 13 Apr 1922 at the St. David’s Care Home, Castlebar Hill, Ealing, London. In the next-of-kin section, it records the following:

Name: Mary, Evelyn, Patricia (Wife Deceased)
Address: Princess Alice Orphanage
            Erdington B’ham
Relationship: Daughters

This small transcription is more important than it looks because the Princess Alice Orphanage was run by the National Children’s Home (NCH)[20] — the very charity that Mary later worked for on their executive committee.

An ‘Access to Records’ application was made to Action For Children and they provided me with the dates of admission and discharge of Mary and her sisters to that home.[21]

25 Jun 1920
1 Sep 1924
25 May 1920
1 Sep 1927
25 May 1920
1 Jan 1929

Mary — who had just turned 15 by then — was admitted a month later than her sisters; possibly so that she could help settle her father somewhere.

The St. David’s Care Home still exists, and they confirmed that William was admitted on 6 Jan 1922 but died on 13 Apr 1922 of a cerebral haemorrhage; his stay having been funded by the Ministry of Pensions. His next-of-kin was recorded as an unnamed daughter living at 6 Finsbury Park Rd, London.[22] This must have been Mary as she was a just few weeks shy of 17 by then, and so there was a slight discrepancy between the next-of-kin addresses held by the home and by the ministry. William’s death certificate[23] gave the full cause as ‘1: Cerebral Haemorrhage. Hemiplegia [paralysis] 1 year 6 months. 2: Cerebral Haemorrhage 4 hours. Syncope [unconscious]’, his occupation as ‘Optician’, and his address as 6 Finsbury Park Road.

It turns out that 6 Finsbury Park Rd was actually another National Children's Home & Orphanage building (Chas. Barnes, sec.).[24] A subsequent discussion with Action For Children over whether this meant Mary had been transferred or not was enlightening. They suggested that the dates in the database would not have reflected any such movement, but that a transfer was very likely for all of them so that they were nearer to their father. The home would probably have instructed Mary in a trade, too, at that age, and this was very likely nursing as she was in a nurse’s home by 1928.

Here’s a summary of these events in her early life:

21 Jul 1918
Evelyn (Mary’s mother) died.
31 Oct 1918
William discharged from army.
25 May 1920
Mary’s two sisters admitted to orphanage.
25 Jun 1920
Mary admitted to same orphanage.
Oct 1920
William’s first cerebral incident (according to death certificate).
6 Jan 1922
William admitted to St. David’s Care Home.
13 Apr 1922
William died, basically of a stroke.
1 Sep 1924
Mary discharged from orphanage.
Nurse’s Home on 70 Huntley St, London. See previous article.

To me, at least, it is clear that Mary would have been greatly influenced by her father being away so much, and by the illnesses that befell both of her parents. It is highly likely that she was involved in their care during those periods. Her career in nursing, and later on the NCH Executive Committee, speaks volumes for her upbringing in those children’s homes.

[1] Mary in the uniform of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service during the 1940s. Picture reproduced by kind permission of the Ashbee family.
[2] Hythe Herald (Friday 13 July 1984); summary details provided in email on 13 Aug 2014 by Gwyn Batchelor.
[3] Mary’s wartime medals and her Badge of Honour from the British Red Cross Society. Picture reproduced by kind permission of the Ashbee family.
[4] Our Family News, NCH, Aug 1971; digital scan emailed to me by Clive G. Williams, 13 Aug 2014, and reproduced here with his permission.
[5] Our Family News, NCH, Spring 1965; PDF copy emailed to me by Action For Children archive, 1 Sep 2014, and transcription reproduced here with their permission.
[6] Two-page typescript letter, written by Mary Ashbee on 11 Apr 1963, from 37 Clissold Court, and directed to Captain Guy Langham OBE, RN, of 14 Winn Rd, Southampton. The letter acknowledged receipt of Capt. Langham’s family tree (hand-drawn, copy available) and mentions inclusion of Mary’s tree (no copy available). Original held by Ashbee family, Norfolk.
[7] "II. Elected Members" in Methodist Conference 1942 Agenda (NCH, 1942); digital scan emailed to me by Clive G. Williams, 28 Aug 2014.
[8] Transcribed GRO Index for England and Wales (1837–1983), database, FreeBMD : accessed 20 Aug 2014), marriage entry for William Henry Ashbee and Helenor Gertrude Norton; citing Chorlton, 1893, Dec [Q4], vol. 8c:1128.
[9] England, death certificate for Helenor Gertrude Ashbee, died 7 Dec 1902; citing 8c/440/111, registered Barton-upon-Irwell 1902/Dec [Q4]; General Register Office (GRO), Southport.
[10] "1901 England Census", database, Ancestry ( : accessed 20 Aug 2014), household of Wm. Henry Ashbee (age 34); citing RG 13/3708, folio 33, page 30; The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
[11] England, marriage certificate for William Henry Ashbee and Evelyn A. Graham, married 1 Aug 1904; citing 8a/377/440, registered Bucklow 1904/Dec [Q4]; GRO.
[12] “Anglo-Boer War records 1899-1902”, database, Findmypast ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014), entry for W. H. Ashbee, Pte. 2761, 14th (King’s) Hussars; the information is described as a transcription but only includes summary details of his service; the database is compiled from several different sources, but the “Copyright Jones (UK) Ltd” notice on this particular entry suggests it came from HM & MGM Jones, A Gazetteer of the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 (Military Press, 1999).
[13] “Correspondence: TOUCHING THE SPOT AT BLOEMFONTEIN”, Lichfield Mercury (15 Jun 1900): p.8; letter also appeared in Burnley Express (23 Jun 1900): p.2 and Bucks Herald (23 Jun 1900): p.8; original publisher of the letter is uncertain because Homocea Ltd, London, were already using it in an advertisement in the Sheffield Independent (8 Jun 1900): p.8;
[14] Evening Telegraph (18 Oct 1900). Sheffield Independent (19 Oct 1900). Evening Telegraph (18 Oct 1900).Western Times (13 Dec 1900).
[15] "British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920", database, Ancestry ( : accessed 18 Aug 2014), entry for William Henry Ashbee, Pte. 18765, Labour Company; citing "British Army World War One Service Records", Series WO 363 (War Office : Soldiers’ Documents, First World War 'Burnt Documents'), The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
[16] "British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920", database, Ancestry ( : accessed 18 Aug 2014), entry for William [Henry present in image but not in index] Ashbee, Pte. 305459, Labour Company; citing WO 363, TNA.
[17] "British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920", database, Ancestry ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014), entry for William H. Ashbee, A.S.C Pte. SS/18765, Labour Corps. Pte. 305459; citing “WWI Medal Index Cards”, Army Medal Office; in the care of The Western Front Association website.
[18] Relevant paragraph of the King’s Regulations cited: “Being surplus to Military requirements (Having suffered impairment since entry into the service) Para 392 (XVia) K.R.”.
[19] England, death certificate for Evelyn Ashbee, died 21 Jul 1918, age 34; citing 8c/135/55, registered Wigan 1918/Sep [Q3]; GRO.
[20] The first home was opened in 1869 and it became known as The Children’s Home. With the opening of The Princess Alice Orphanage, New Oscott, Sutton Coldfield, in 1882, the charity became The Children’s Home and Orphanage, but the ‘Orphanage’ part was controversial because not all the children were orphans. The ‘National’ prefix was added in 1908. Although there is evidence that ‘Orphanage’ was removed from signage as early as 1954, it wasn’t until 1965 that the Charity Commissioners agreed to its official removal, having previously advised against it during the 1940s. It is now known as Action for Children. Information from (accessed 22 Aug 2014) and by email from Clive G. Williams.
[21] Access to records, Action for Children (Stockwell, SW9 0QT), 4 Sep 2014, database search, extracting dates of admission and discharge for Mary, Evelyn, and Patricia Ashbee, all of Princess Alice Orphanage; PDF copy of letter received by email same day.
[22] St. David’s Home, Castlebar Hill, W5 1TE ( : inaccessible at time of writing); phone conversation with Ms. Elizabeth Edwards on 22 Aug 2014.
[23] England, death certificate for William Henry Ashbee, died 13 Apr 1922, age 56; citing 3a/153/255, registered Brentford 1922/Jun [Q2]; GRO.
[24] Post Office London County Suburbs Directory, 1919, p.103 (image 111 of 811), online PDF, University of Leicester, compiler, Historical Directories ( : accessed 4 Sep 2014), entry for Finsbury Park Road, WEST SIDE.