Friday 29 August 2014

The Game of the Name

Yet another subject where there is little or no agreement. Let me try and explain some of the many issues with personal names, and with other types of name, and then present my own approach to handling them.

This is probably one of the most likely areas for trapping the unwary with insular attitudes or limited knowledge of other cultures. We so desperately want to record our names as we know them rather than as we see them that we may fail to consider the bigger picture. Most people reading this will have names consisting of one or more given names (the parts chosen to distinguish members of a family) and a single surname (the inherited part).

English-speaking people sometimes select one of their middle names as their preferred given name, rather than the norm of selecting the first one. However, this is far from unusual in, say, Germany where one of the given names (the Rufname, or “call name”) — which may be the second or third one — is identified as the primary one. Hence, the concept of a first name and middle names is inappropriate for them.

If we’re lucky then we may have Honorifics expressing esteem or respect. In English-language names, these may be academic titles (e.g. Dr. or Prof.), honorific prefixes (e.g. the honourable, or his holiness), honorific titles (e.g. Sir, Lord, Dame, Lady), or post-nominal letters (e.g. VC, OBE, PhD). These are mostly either prefixes or postfixes[1]. Another type of postfix is a generational title (e.g. .Jr, Sr, I, II, III, etc), although the Irish equivalent is actually infix as opposed to either prefix or postfix (e.g. Seán Óg Ó Súilleabháin).

Spanish-speaking people often have two or more surnames, but even English-speaking people may have double-barrelled or hyphenated surnames. In German, a family may have a second surname, preceded by the word vulgo (meaning “so-called” or “also known as”), in order to show their association with a farm or other property. Such a vulgo name may change, therefore, when that family moves.

While there is a lot of variation so far, it’s still possible to describe distinct cultural patterns. Every so often, someone suggests having the flexibility to store the precisely categorised parts of their (usually Western, English-speaking) names, and of “foreign names”, together in their software. If they have some knowledge of software development then they may be suggesting that Object Orientation (OO) can help to treat those different patterns in a consistent way. However, let’s look at some more variations.

Traditional Chinese names can use something called a Generational name to identify members of a particular generation, including siblings, cousins, etc. There is no Western equivalent of this custom.

Many cultures employ ‘name particles', analogous to grammatical particles, to separate the various parts of their names. For instance: “von”, “van”, “der”, “de [la]”, “d′”, “the”, “[son] of”, “mc”, “mac", "Ó", "Ní", "Nic", "Mhic", "Bean", "Ui", "y", etc. These may occur almost anywhere, and their behaviour under case conversion and sorting is culturally dependent.

Then there’s the important case that all genealogists should be aware of: the patronym and matronym[2]. These are surnames based on the given name of a male of female ancestor, respectively. For instance: son of William (now Williamson, or Wilson), van Dijk, Nic Dhòmhnaill, Nikolayevich.

The OO advocates would suggest ‘no problem’, but what is the practicality and the ultimate goal of categorising every single token in a personal name, and then rigidly representing that classification in digital storage?

Personal names, as described here, haven’t always existed. At one time, people would have been given an epithet based on their occupation (e.g. William the thatcher), their origin (or topoanthroponym, e.g. Robin of Loxley), or some other attribute (e.g. Little John). Even now, we may encounter epithetic titles such as Earl of Huntingdon, or Henry VIII. This is where many software schemes start to break down, and these cases are usually given scant consideration on the basis that few researchers can trace their lineage back that far, or can reliably identify titled ancestors.

Indeed, an ancestor’s identification may have been just a single-word mononym, as opposed to a multi-word polynym, so how can you categorise that? I have pointed out previously that Native Americans typically have unstructured names, and that they may have different names assigned at different phases of their lives. My point, here, being that the particularly diverse cultural origins within the US are not simply the product of latter-day immigration, and that they will eventually affect many researchers.

What I’ve briefly described here are structural differences in personal names. These may vary from those name structures that we take for granted in the West, through other structures that we’re less familiar with, to having no discernable structure at all. Little wonder that the design of STEMMA® makes a case for handling names as simple, uncategorised sequences of tokens — multiple names being just alternative sequences — but more on that later.

In a previous post, One Name to Rule Them All, I explained about the many types and forms of name that a person may be identified by in practice, and how that is a different set to their preferred identifications. It also explained the relationship to evidential forms (with their possible misspellings, transcription errors, and informality) and to the labels that we, as researchers, want to identify them by in our reports or charts.

In contrast to the purely structural differences, there are a number of considerations that might be described as processing differences, including the following:

  • How they’re sorted.
  • Behaviour under case-conversion.
  • Behaviour under capitalisation.
  • How they’re compared.
  • Handling of initials.
  • Handling inheritance.

In the West, we commonly replace middle names with their initials, and sometimes our forenames too, but this is not a universal option. Initials are not applicable to logogram (or ideogram) based languages. Also, whist we accept their usage in some modern Latin-based languages, it would be a gross generalisation to assume that all Latin-based languages, or indeed all alphabet-based languages, modern and ancient, use this custom in personal names. Even people of other cultures who have adopted Romanised versions of their native names may not use initials.

Another issue with initials involves the case where we know an initial but not what it stands for. As with any abbreviations, these must be represented with a trailing period in order to prevent ambiguity, even in the single-letter case. There are common cases where a name may contain a single-letter non-initial, such as the Irish Ó (or O-fada, meaning from) and the Spanish y (meaning and). An English-speaking example would be the renowned geologist J Harlen Bretz whose first name was “J” and not a “J.” initial.

If we were searching for Frederick and some text contained frederick or FREDERICK then we would still expect a match; this is called case-blind. If the text contained Frédérick then we may still expect a match; this is called accent-blind. These are quite common ways of performing a textual match in software, but lesser-known is that Unicode makes specific recommendations about which composed and decomposed forms should be equivalent: A composed form involves one Unicode character and a decomposed form involves two or more Unicode characters. For instance, the Angstrom sign (+U212B, Å) should match the combination Latin-A (+U0041, A) plus Combining-ring-above (+U030A, °), as well as a Latin-A-with-ring-above (+U00C5, Å). This is normally achieved by normalising each piece of text to its lowest common denominator (e.g. lower-cased, no diacritical marks, and decomposed forms) and compare those using a standard match.

Now if we’re sorting a mixture of text from different locales then we have another problem that tends to get ignored by software people: culturally preferred sort orders. Although there is an international sort order, it is basically just a convenience for software people as it relies on the numeric character codes. However, different cultures want to sort their characters in slightly different ways. This issue was encountered by the SQL standard when Unicode text columns were introduced since it made its column-specific “collation sequences” all but useless. In effect, sort orders should be selected by the application, dependent upon the current end-user, and not implied by the data itself.

Sorting and collation are troublesome in many ways. For instance, some cultures sort on their given names rather than their surname, and the position of those parts is similarly dependent upon culture. When a name includes multiple surnames, as in the Spanish-speaking world, then the sorting may attach priority to either of them depending on the person’s location. Also, any name particles may be considered significant (i.e. involved in the sort) or ignored during the sorting. Finally, the ideographic characters in Japanese names can be pronounced in different ways, and if the sorting is to reflect the way that the name is spoken then additional information is usually required to assist the sorting. In summary, there are two pieces of information required for correct sorting: the sorted representation (e.g. ‘surname, given-names’ in English) and a possible overriding “sort as” instruction when one-or-more tokens do not sort according to simple text rules.

Case conversion is not something I recommend — despite it being commonplace —since the specific choice of character case may be important in a given language (e.g. Irish), or there may be no duality for a given character (e.g. the German eszett, ß). Even capitalisation — normally considered to be the uppercasing of the initial letter, as with English proper nouns — is problematic. Sometimes it may be the first two characters (e.g. O’Connor), or the second character (e.g. the Irish hUiginn), or something more exotic such as deShannon, deSouza, or diCaprio (all of which may incur an unwanted initial capitalisation). See Letter Case and Capitalisation, respectively.

Lastly, there is name inheritance. In cultures where there is an inherited part of a personal name — which isn’t true of all of them — then it may be via the father’s line (patrilineal), or the mother’s line (matrilineal), or both in the Spanish-speaking world. The inherited part may be a surname or a given name (as in patronyms) but in Russia it is common to have both a surname and a patronym. Even in cultures where we think we recognise a simple case of a name being inherited from the father, the way in which that name is represented may depend on the sex of the child. In other words, we can never assume that it is simply tacked on. In marriage, it may be normal in some cultures for the woman to not take the man’s family name, but this has also become a life-style choice in many Western cases. The man may take the woman’s name, or they may both take a hybrid name. The essential fact here is that there are no rules. There are just conventions, and these will depend on the culture or social group involved.

As well as wanting to adopt a portable approach to personal names, and so avoid trying to taxonomise the non-taxonomical, I also wanted STEMMA to adopt the same approach for both place names and group names. This isn’t as wild as it first sounds. If you abandon any formalised structural differences, then you find that all of the processing differences except ‘inheritance’ (see below) are also common. I take it as obvious that all of these entity types also share the common requirement of supporting alternative names — possibly in different languages — and linking the name changes to specific dates or events.

In order to describe the STEMMA approach — which is still evolving[3] — I want to avoid simply showing code and use a schematic representation instead. Personal names are represented by a series of time-dependent descriptions for each distinct name, as follows:

The optional From and To fields may be dates or Events at which the name came into use or was (officially) no longer used, and the Name Type field may be something like “Maiden” or “Adopted”. More important are the Canonical Names section, which contains the preferred renderings of this name, and the Match Sequences section, which may contain additional matching instructions.

Note that this same structure is also used for the names of places and of groups. The only difference is the vocabulary used for the Name Type field.

The mode of usage for the first three canonical names is fairly obvious. The Listing mode is used for ordered listings of names, and may be supplemented by a separate “sort as” instruction for the problem cases mentioned above. The match-sequences may specify very simple parsing instructions for accepting name variants beyond the canonical ones. This will use the following notation here:

 Name[i]           - simple name token, e.g. Tony.
{name, ...}[i]    - mandatory selection from alternative tokens.
[name, ...][i]     - optional selection from alternative tokens.

The optional ‘i’ superscript indicates that initials are appropriate for the respective tokens.

Let’s look at a trivial example:

Now STEMMA’s name handling has been accused of being cumbersome and verbose but let me explain its layered approach. At run-time, when the data is loaded, the name information is used to create a simple parse tree using the normalised (see above) tokens. Developer Note: It turns out that this can be stored economically by using token indices, into an “atom table”, but a local table (for the current person) is just as effective as a global table (for the whole tree). Despite the commonality of surnames, etc., the shorter local indices take up considerably less space and may be packed more densely without data alignment issues. The match-sequences section feeds the generation of the parse tree, but note that it is a simple representative form and so not significant in terms of repetitions or parse efficiency. The canonical names are also part of this feed, in conjunction with the match-sequences, and so if we know the relevant personal name style (see below) then the match-sequences are only required to express cases beyond the canonical ones. The above example can be simplified, therefore, by omitting all the explicit match-sequences.

Furthermore, each of the main subject entities (Person, Place, and Group) has a shorter mechanism for specifying a Semi-Formal canonical name in the very simplest of cases: PersonalName, PlaceName, and GroupName, respectively.

In other words, the STEMMA approach has been designed bottom-up; starting with what is required for the in-memory parse tree, and then working up to a simplified and practical representation within the data files. The intermediate representations are not always required but their availability gives the flexibility and power of expression when it is needed.

I have mentioned a name style in this article, but I am still looking for an acceptable vocabulary. The style of name (and hence the rules for sorting, initials, inheritance, etc.) obviously depends on the relevant culture or social group, but these must include historical ones as well as modern-day ones. The computer locale is inadequate for this, as is a simple language identifier (ISO 639) or country identifier (ISO 3166). My own name style, for instance, is very common but terms such as English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon, or Anglo-American do not adequately describe the group using this style, or the actual conventions associated with the style.

GEDCOM also handled names as unstructured lists of tokens, albeit with the family name enclosed between slashes. It supported multiple names per person, and even a NAME_TYPE record to categorise them, e.g. as maiden, married, or immigrant. V5.5 introduced an optional PERSONAL_NAME_PIECES description to allow the individual name tokens to be typed, e.g. as given name, surname, etc. However, V5.5.1 — the last official specification — contained a warning that this wasn’t portable. The STEMMA approach is considerably more powerful than either of the GEDCOM schemes, but has a certain level of compatibility with its original scheme. I hope that my research has indicated how that general direction is the more portable, both between different name styles and between the names of different entity types.

[1] Although suffix and postfix are usually treated as synonyms — both as nouns and as verbs — I prefer to use the less-common postfix as it was directly modelled on prefix and so more accurately expresses the opposite condition.
[2] The Oxford English Dictionary (and many others) declares patronym to be a noun, as expected, but patronymic to be both a noun and an adjective. Interestingly, it presents a similar dual usage for matronymic but doesn’t list matronym, despite it being in common use and listed in other dictionaries. I do not know the etymology of this but using the –ic derivation as a noun really grates on the ear. I make no apologies, therefore, for reserving the –ic forms as adjectives, and thus being consistent with words such as: acronymic, toponymic, antonymic, eponymic, metonymic, and homonymic.
[3] This presentation involves changes that will be published in STEMMA V3.0.

Monday 18 August 2014

Time-dependent Attributes

The subject of time-dependent attributes is not one that I’ve seen discussed very often. I want to illustrate how easy they are to handle when the underlying data model is event-orientated.

To most readers interested in this issue, the subject will be interpreted in the context of personal attributes; those relating to a person. Although in STEMMA® it equally applies to the attributes of a place, or of a group (including families, organisations, regiments), I will focus on personal attributes in order to keep things relevant to family historians.

By time-dependent, I mean those attributes that may change over time, and which we are likely see progressive variation of in different sources. Obvious examples would be height and weight, although such items are rarely recorded in our data. A more familiar example might be a person’s residential address. Time-dependent attributes contrast with those fixed ones, usually attributable to our birth, such as our biological parentage, birth sex, date of birth, and place of birth.

The only in-depth presentation on this subject that I’m aware of is the paper submitted to FHISO by Richard Smith: Expressing time-dependent personal attributes. This paper comments that the GEDCOM way of handling them, by attaching a DATE tag to an item, doesn’t cope with all possibilities, including a personal name and someone’s effective sex. Unfortunately, since GEDCOM is primarily a lineage-linked representation then the temporal nature of the attribute has to be added as an afterthought, and the relationship to other attributes for that person, the date or event that they pertain to, attributes of other people associated with the same event, and the sources supporting that event, are uncoordinated at best.

The proposal in the aforementioned FHISO paper works for a representation involving people and their lineage (e.g. GEDCOM), and any representation where people must have attributes directly associated with them, but would be unnecessary if there was a natural representation of time and events. The core concept that is missing, and which would automatically unify those uncoordinated items, is the Event entity — a representation of a moment in time, or a span of time, for which source information exists.

Let’s pick a really obvious case to illustrate the event-based approach. A person’s age is time-dependent, and we won’t see the same value in all the sources we consult. We would never think of associating all these variant ages directly with a Person entity, and the same approach should apply to other time-dependent attributes. In the case of age, we usually calculate an associated date-of-birth from the contextual date of the information and record that instead. The ability to do this calculation is specific to this particular attribute, and it could not be applied to, say, a residential address, occupation, or military rank. It’s also a conclusion derived from information. We’ll continue to take the simplistic view of the age attribute, though, in order to explore the general case.

Every source of information has a temporal context; a date, or range of dates, to which it pertains. That source information therefore supports the concept of an event, and can be represented by an equivalent Event entity to which those sources are connected. If the source information mentions specific persons (or places, or groups) then their associated entities can be connected to that Event. Any attributes — or what STEMMA calls Properties — given in the information are then associated with the corresponding connections between the subject entities and the Event.

Using this approach, those attributes are now associated with the Person (or other subject entity), the relevant date(s), the relevant place, the relevant sources, and any other Persons (or subject entities) mentioned in the same source information.

Someone’s recorded age should be monotonically increasing with time but that’s not what we see. We will encounter values that do not progress smoothly, and may even appear contradictory by remaining static or running backwards. The importance of this is that what is written cannot be treated as fact, and may need some clarification, correction, or other annotation. The general Property mechanism in STEMMA allows such annotation, as well as adding conclusions about their interpretation such as the identification of a place. This is discussed further in Evidence and Where to Stick It, and in Is That a Fact? (which also mentions some coding examples).

One last consideration: the aforementioned FHISO paper introduces a complication in the form of:

Consider a letter written in 1821 that says “In 1799 I was living in Shrewsbury where my father was a schoolmaster”.

This indirect documentation of attributes may be a complication for GEDCOM but not for a representation that fully embraces events. I have already defined an Event entity as a representation of a moment in time, or a span of time, for which source information exists, and this particular source simply has information supporting multiple events to different degrees. This is no different, say, to a military enlistment record from 1899 that mentions a marriage occurring in 1870. The source directly supports the enlistment event but also supports the marriage event to a lesser extent. The same applies to a census. The information, as given to an enumerator on census night, directly supports the census event, but a recorded age doesn’t support a birth event to the same degree. In other words, a source as a whole may contain information supporting multiple events to different degrees.

Thursday 7 August 2014

A Life Revealed

This post recounts some recent research that started with the mere mention of an unnamed person, and eventually revealed the rich life of a very notable lady. It’s always nice when pieces fit together but the speed at which the tessera formed their historical mosaic took me by surprise in this case.

A distant relative of mine called Clarence Sydney Hubert Ashbee (b. 28 Dec 1882 in Islington, London) sailed for Quebec on 10 May 1900 on board the SS Tunisian from Liverpool. His border crossing to the US was recorded at St Albans, Vermont, on 19 May 1900 with his final destination stated as St. Louis, Missouri, to join an “uncle”. He also stated that his fare was paid by a “brother”. Identification of the uncle, who turned out to be slightly more distant than a traditional uncle, and of the brother may be the subject of a later post. However, this connection with Missouri was the starting point for a separate quest.

My father’s cousin, Dorothy Gill, was a genealogist well before I entered the field. She was also custodian of some fabulous family photographs going back as far as my g-g-grandparents. Dorothy was already on this case when we first met, and she explained how she had established contact with a Ruth Morris, the niece of Clarence’s first wife, Romona Hausman. Ruth had written Dorothy an email explaining about her family over there and filling in many of the gaps in Dorothy’s knowledge. In that same email, though, Ruth said that a cousin of Clarence visited when she was a teenager, and that she remembered her lovely English accent but not her name. I just had to try and identify this unnamed person.

The obvious information given by Ruth was that the person was a woman, and that her visit was during the 1940’s — based on Ruth’s birth year of 1930 which she also gave in the email. It was implied was that she was a visitor from England, but somewhat less obvious was that she didn’t mention a husband or anyone else accompanying her. Did this woman visit by herself? That would have been a long trip to have undertaken on her own, and it would have been pretty expensive too. My first step was to look at the passenger lists for ships travelling between England and the US during the 1940s. This was relying on the fact that Ashbee isn’t a particularly common surname, that it wasn’t mis-recorded as the more common Ashby form (I could envisage her taking a pride in the uncommon variant, and ensuring that it was recorded correctly), and that she wasn’t married of course. I was also hoping for a bit of luck too.

On this occasion, lady luck happened to be on my side. One of the entries immediately leapt out at me: a Mary P. Ashbee, aged 41, who sailed from Southampton to New York on 2 May 1947 on board the Queen Elizabeth.[1] The reason that this leapt at me was that my family tree already had a Mary Phyllis Ashbee of the same age, and who was a niece of Clarence, although I knew almost nothing about her. My data basically recorded that she was born in 1905 in Bradford, Yorkshire, and that she made an appearance in the 1911 census of England and Wales. I never did find any record of a marriage or a death for her and so her adult life was a mystery. Furthermore, none of the public trees I’d glanced at online showed any further details either.

The only other reference to Mary Phyllis Ashbee that I’d recorded was that she was administrator for the Will of her uncle, John Robert Ashbee, who died in 1945. This suggested that she was competent, trusted, and in touch with her aunts and uncles, and presumably their children too.

The passenger list did contain a couple of vital clues. Her occupation was recorded as “Matron”, and her address as “Metropolitan Hospital, Kingsland Rd, London E8”. Her age was in the column marked “Not accompanied by a husband or wife” which simply substantiated that Ashbee was her maiden name. What I didn’t notice straightaway was that this voyage had rather a large number of unaccompanied matrons and nurses; more than I could explain at that time. Maybe she wasn’t travelling alone after all.

In order to confirm that this Mary P. Ashbee was the same Mary Phyllis Ashbee I had in my data, I looked at the Electoral Registers for London.[2] The woman appears consistently as “Mary P.” except for 1950 where she was recorded as “Mary Phyllis”. These records yielded the following timeline for her residence:[3]

Metropolitan Hospital, 828 Kingsland Rd, Hackney.
85 Makepeace Mansions, Makepeace Av.
1953–54, (55), 56–59, (60), 61–65
37 Clissold Court.

As well as these registers confirming that the middle initial stood for “Phyllis”, the hospital address in 1947 confirmed that it was the same lady who visited the US. These online electoral registers stop at 1965 and so offer no clues as to whether she moved after that or not.

Interestingly, in every one of these years from 1954, the same address was shared by an Elsie E. Emms. During the earlier years of 1946–47, (48), 49–52, these registers gave Elsie’s address as 91 Makepeace Mansions, i.e. three doors from Mary’s address in 1950.

Going earlier in time in the electoral registers, there was a “Mary Ashbee” (no middle name or initial) at the Nurses Home on 70 Huntley St, London, in both 1928 and 1930.

Turning to the British phone books[4] confirmed the details found from the electoral registers:

M. P. Ashbee address
E. E. Emms address
1946, (47), 48–49
91 Makepeace Mansions (Mountview 2636)
85 Makepeace Mansions (Mountview 4439)
As above
37 Clissold Court (Stamford Hill 4619)
As above
1953–54, (55–56), 57, (58–59), 60, (61), 62–65
As above
Unlisted. Presumed the same as Mary based on electoral registers

The British phone books extend to 1984 — further than the electoral registers — but Mary’s location could not yet be determined with certainty beyond 1965. There was a strong possibility in the Bristol area and another in the Kent area — both well outside of London.

A search in the London Gazette generated a couple of hits showing that Mary served in the Army Nursing Service during WWII:

  • “Miss M. P. Ashbee to be Matron (14 May 1939)”.[5]

  • “Sister M. P. Ashbee (282575) relinquishes her commission on account of disability (19 Oct 1946)”.[6]

At this point, a simple Google search turned up an unexpected find at This Web site records the history of the National Children’s Home (NCH) — now called Action For Children — and its staff and children. It not only mentioned her being on the executive committee, at their chief office, 85 Highbury Park, London, but it also had a photograph of her.

Mary Phyllis Ashbee (front centre).[7]

This research was now well within the memories of living people. That’s good from the point of view of getting possible recollections and stories, but bad from the point of view of reliable sources. As research gets more recent then we find that the relevant data sources are quite different, and we frequently fall foul of data privacy concerns.

At the time of writing, the British Newspaper Archive had digitised as far as 1953 (dependent upon location) and this threw up a couple of hits from 1939 that matched the context known so far.

  • The annual pound day in aid of the new Sussex Hospital for Women and Children will be held to-morrow, Saturday. Members of the Council of Management will assist the Matron (Miss M. P. Ashbee) to receive the gifts of provisions and money. The wards will be open for inspection.[8]

  • Sir, - I should be most grateful if you would allow me, through your columns, to express my sincere thanks to all those patients, friends and supporters of the New Sussex Hospital, Brighton, who responded so generously to my recent Pound Day Appeal. Up to the present I have received £127 10s in cash, 2,259 lbs of goods and 924 eggs. The figures are not yet quite complete as there are still several Pound Day boxs [sic] to come in. This acceptable collection of goods and cash is very much appreciated and I am most grateful to all who helped the hospital in this practical manner. M. P. Ashbee. Matron.[9]

Although the NCH archive couldn’t find anything specifically about Mary, I received enthusiastic help from Clive G. Williams who previously served on the NCH General Committee, the Advocacy, and the Finance and General Purposes Committees. From his own collection of material, he showed that Mary was on the General Committee by 1944, appointed to the Executive Committee in 1949 from her previous office (“Ex-Officio”), and elected back to the General Committee in 1965.[10] He also found a couple of mentions of her in the NCH General Reports to the Methodist Conferences:

[1964]: In March, Miss Mary Ashbee (Staff Secretary to the Home) visited the two Rhodesias at the invitation of the Methodist Missionary Society to advise on child care and to make recommendations about the possibility of further collaboration with the Home.  Miss Ashbee's Report is now before the Missionary Committee.[11]

[1966]: The retirement of Miss Mary Ashbee in October last has meant the loss of a most valuable member of the Executive who gave herself with great ability and devotion to the service of the Home.[12]

The most important find, though, came from The Times. This provided a very detailed obituary from 1984:

Miss Mary Ashbee, who died on June 13 while on holiday in Switzerland had a distinguished nursing career holding a major matronships in peace and wartime, and latterly devoted herself to the work of the National Children’s Home.

She trained at University Hospital in London and, after a period as Deputy and then Superintendent of the Alverstoke Branch of the National Children’s Home in the 1930s, she 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 1940, at the height of the blitz in London, she applied for and was appointed to Matronship of the Metropolitan Hospital in London’s East End, where she remained until, as a territorial member of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military 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 Palestine, Greece and Italy, at one time having a field hospital of 1700 beds under canvas in the desert. 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 organise a hospital in a former Jewish orphanage, and later in a war-damaged tobacco factory. She was there for the Communist uprising and, after most of the nursing staff had been evacuated, she volunteered to carry on the hospital with a handful of nursing sisters.

Later she returned to the Metropolitan hospital to take up her former appointment as Matron. In 1947 she went to America to undertake a comparative survey of nursing training at the invitation of King Edward’s Hospital Fund for London.

In 1948 Miss Ashbee left the Metropolitan hospital and was appointed the first woman executive of the National Children’s Home and travelled extensively throughout the United Kingdom, as well as visiting Rhodesia. Kenya and Uganda to assess the position in those countries with regard to orphaned children. In 1965 she retired to live at Hythe in Kent.

Very soon she was asked to take over in voluntary capacity the Directorship of the South East Coast Division of the British Red Cross Society in which capacity she was very active for several years. She was then made a Vice President of Kent Branch of Red Cross. Her association with that Society had extended over many years as she was awarded the Badge of Honour in 1940 for her services in lecturing and examining.[13]

[© The Times, London <4th July 1984>][14]

This obituary confirmed her trip to the US, as well as explaining who funded it and why there were so many nurses and matrons travelling with her. It explained why none of the trees I’d checked recorded where and when she died. It also confirmed her later address as Hythe in Kent so, on returning to the British Phone Books, it was now possible to complete her residential movements up to 1982.

M. P. Ashbee years
E. E. Emms years
13 Twiss Av, Hythe (Hythe 68548)
1 Godwyn Ho, Godwyn Rd (Folkstone 54355)
1971–73, (74), 75–76
(1971), 72, (73–74), 75–76
Seacroft, Church Hill, Hythe (Hythe 67744)
(1977), 78–80, (81), 82
1976 , (77), 78, (79), 80, (81), 82

So, Mary was still with her companion of over 30 years, Elsie E. Emms, but who was she? A check in the GRO index of births and deaths only gave one real possibility: Elsie Evelyn Emms, born 16 Feb 1913 in Wooldridge, West Ham, Essex; died 2003 in East Surrey.[15]

Having made such great progress, things then suddenly slowed down. I wanted to know where she died in Switzerland, and whether her remains were repatriated. I first consulted the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). They informed me that I would need to know the region where she died because there was no central civil register back then, but even if I knew it then data protection law would prevent the municipality from giving me a copy of her death certificate. Usually, the details of a British subject who died overseas are returned to the General Register Office (GRO) on a yearly basis. Findmypast holds a searchable collection of these ("British Nationals Died Overseas 1818-2005") but Mary was not listed and so I was slightly confused. I approached the British Embassy in Switzerland but received virtually no help. One telephone call and three emails later gave me the impression that they weren’t equipped to handle this sort of enquiry.

Out of desperation, I searched the findmypast collection again for anyone with a surname beginning with ‘A’ but none were shown for the whole of 1984! At that time, it wasn’t possible to browse this collection but searching for the first person with a surname beginning with ‘B’ showed it to be on “page 2”. Hence, “page 1” was either lost or its contents were unindexed. Applying to the GRO for a copy of such a recent death certificate, and without any reference code or certainty that it existed, sounded like a shot in the dark, but it worked. The certificate came through and confirmed the location of her death as Park Hotel, Ingenbohl, Canton [Kanton] Schwyz, Switzerland.[16] The cause-of-death field simply indicated that a local death certificate was produced, and so I would have to try again to get a copy in order to find that out, but it also gave the informant as “Elsie Evelyn Emms”, thus confirming her identification above.

The death certificate furnished her exact birth date (28 May 1905) so it was now possible to confirm a potential match in the school admissions register for St Thomas's Ardwick Girls School, Manchester. She was admitted 19 Aug 1912 and left on 19 Jul 1913 with a marginal note "Gone to Yorkshire". Her address was recorded as 2 Nicholson Sq.[17]

I have written up what I have so far but I may do a follow-up article. Further avenues I’m investigating include:

  • Getting a copy of Mary’s will. Although virtually none of my distant relatives ever produced a will, I am confident in this case because she was organised and handled the administration of her uncle’s will.
  • The site has a forum where I’ve asked for recollections of Mary.
  • I contacted her local parish, in Hythe, to see if there was a local burial, and to place a request for help in the local parish newsletter.

A sad part of this research, and of solving the mystery and revealing a very interesting life, is that neither Ruth nor Dorothy are still us; both having passed away in the last few years. I am sure they would have greatly enjoyed this journey.

[Preserved Google+ comments] WSA Membership Chair: My mother (Ruth Hausman Morris), mentioned in the article, would have really enjoyed reading this, as did I. Your research is amazing.
WSA Membership Chair: So, Clarence Sydney Hubert Ashbee is my great uncle (by marriage), and Mary Phyllis Ashbee is my great uncle's first cousin.
Tony Proctor: Thanks so much +Barbara C Morris . I really wish that Ruth and Dorothy could both have read this. I certainly intend to do a follow-up on Mary soon, and then I want to return to the life of Clarence over in Missouri.

[1] "UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960", digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed 16 Jul 2014), entry for Mary P. Ashbee, age 41, departing from Southampton, England, for New York on 2 May 1947 on the Queen Elizabeth; citing BT 27 (Records of the Board of Trade: Outwards Passenger Lists), The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
[2] "London, England, Electoral Registers, 1832-1965", digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed 16 Jul 2014), entries for Mary P. Ashbee; citing Electoral Registers, London Metropolitan Archives; the multi-column format for these lists caused the Ancestry transcription to regularly select the wrong address, and each image has to be viewed explicitly.
[3] For clarity, I am using parentheses to explicitly mark those years in a list where she was not found.
[4] "British Phone Books, 1880-1984", digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed 16 Jul 2014), entries for M. P. Ashbee and E. E. Emms; citing British phone books 1880-1984 from the collection held by BT [British Telecom] Archives, London.
[5] "Territorial Army Nursing Service", The London Gazette (9 Jun 1939): p.3891, Issue: 34634.
[6] "Territorial Army Nursing Service", The London Gazette (18 Oct 1946): p.5198, Issue: 37764, Supplement 22 Oct 1946.
[7] Cropped from group photograph taken on the Frodsham Convocation, 1964 ( : accessed 21 Jul 2014). Reproduced by kind permission of
[8] "Pound Day for Sussex Hospital for Women and Children", The Sussex Express & County Herald (Friday 5 May 1939): p.1, col.2.
[9] "New Sussex Hospital Appeal", The Sussex Express & County Herald (Friday 30 Jun 1939): p.6, col.5.
[10] "II. Elected Members" in Methodist Conference 1944 Agenda (NCH, 1944). "I. Ex-Officio Members" in 1949 Agenda. "2. Elected Members" in 1965 Agenda. Digital scans emailed to me by Clive Williams, 21 Jul 2014.
[11] NCH General Report to the Methodist Conference for the year ended 31 March 1964; transcript emailed to me by Clive Williams, 18 Jul 2014.
[12] NCH General Report to the Methodist Conference for the year ended 31 March 1966; transcript emailed to me by Clive Williams, 18 Jul 2014.
[13] "Miss Mary Ashbee", The Times [London, England] (4 Jul 1984): p.16, Issue: 61874; transcript reproduced by permission of News UK. A slightly cut-down version of the same obituary also appeared in the NCH Our Family News publication, winter 1984; digital scan emailed to me by Clive Williams, 21 Jul 2014.
[14] Newspaper copyright doesn’t work quite the same way in the UK as in the US. Whereas much has been written about US newspapers owning the copyright on obituaries, in the UK copyright on such submitted material is “shared” between the newspaper and the original author. In order to reproduce this transcription, they had to make an effort to consult the original author in order to obtain their permission in case there were revenue issues or it was to be used in a manner unacceptable to them. Part of the deal for obtaining this permission was that I display the ‘Times’ copyright notice, and that I do not disclose the name of that author. Although they weren’t allowed to tell me who this is/was, it would not be hard to hazard a guess.
[15] Transcribed GRO Index for England and Wales (1837–1983), database, FreeBMD ( : accessed 5 Aug 2014), birth entry for Elsie E. Emms; citing West Ham, 1913, Mar [Q1], vol. 4A:642. "England & Wales deaths 1837-2007", database, FindMyPast ( : accessed 5 Aug 2014), entry for Elsie Evelyn Emms; citing East Surrey, 2003, Mar [Q1], district number 7551B, register number ESB5, entry number 184, date of reg. 0303.
[16] England, death certificate for Mary Phyllis Ashbee, died 13 Jun 1984; citing location Switzerland; Death Abroad Indices (1966 to 1994), General Register Office (GRO), Southport.
[17] "Manchester School Admissions Registers", database, FindMyPast ( : accessed 7 Aug 2014), entry for Mary Ashbee, b. c1905.