In what was my first glimpse into the world of genealogy I remember a school assignment that required us to draft our family tree as far back as we could go. At the time, I only knew my grandparents names. And, considering that one side is Ukrainian and the other side is Polish, I was drowning in long last names with lots of consonants that just didn’t belong together.
I recruited my grandmother to help me figure out the Polish side. She didn’t just tell me birth dates and names she also wove wonderful tales of heroism and bravery about my ancestors. One story in particular caught my attention. She said that her grandfather, William, was born at sea because his father, James, had been a ship’s captain in the Royal Navy! How had I never heard this before? I was gob-smacked!
At school the teacher wrote down a list of countries on the blackboard and we were instructed to write the names of our ancestors who emigrated from that country. I remember adding “At Sea” to the list and putting William Gilmore (left) as its only entry. (Yes, I have a freakish memory. But trust me, you’ll want to be my partner for Trivial Pursuit!) My classmates thought that was pretty cool. My teacher wasn’t sure. She asked me if I had proof. Um, no.
Over the next few years I consulted several books at the local library about naval officers’ and pensions. I went through all of the Hart’s Army Lists. (I’m sure I went through other books, but as a teenager I didn’t know about such things as genealogy standards, so I did not keep a record of resources that generated zero results.) The bottom line was that my great-great-grandfather, James, was not listed in any of the books. Disappointed, I had to ask myself “Had he even been in the Navy? Or military service of any kind?”
Not knowing where to turn or who to ask I realized, many years later, that his obituary might reveal something about his navel experience. The local paper had the 1913 issues on microfilm. This was my first experience with microfilm and the reader. I remember feeling a bit like a geeky Indiana Jones. Sure enough, I learned that James was a veteran of the Crimean and Turkish wars, he served as a gunner in the coast brigade of the Royal Artillery and he had received a Sebastopol Clasp. Suddenly, the floodgates opened! I was elated to have an answer to my question. Where would my search take me next?
Unfortunately, I had no idea how to proceed with this information, so I turned to Internet forums on the Crimean War and asked for advice. The good folks all suggested that I search the catalogue at the Public Records Office (PRO) in England which is now the National Archives. I located a set of documents that highlighted service pensions (WO97). As the records were only available at the PRO office, and I wasn’t going to England anytime soon, I commissioned a local researcher to photocopy the record that I wanted. A few weeks and a few dollars later I received a large envelope in the mail. The birth date, regiment, rank, war service and awards matched the info I already knew so it had to be James’ record. This report chronicled his entire military career, including the fact that he was underage (17) when he enlisted. (How cheeky, I thought.) There is a physical description (bonus!) and – even better – the details of where he enlisted, right down to county, town and parish! I had just found a golden egg!
Using this as a springboard I checked the UK census for the year when his son, William, was born. I was ecstatic to find the record for the birth of William at the Newhaven Battery in 1860 where James was stationed. But at the same time I was disappointed to finally prove that I did NOT have an ancestor who was born at sea. It would have been very cool.
This is just one of my ancestors that I’m researching. In what may sound like an episode of 'Desperate Housewives' there are stories in my family about oppression, courage, abandonment, sacrifice, moonshine, and the occasional baby born on the wrong side of the blanket. Stay tuned.