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.

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