Saturday, 28 January 2012

What's in a Name : Part Two

Last time, I mentioned there was a family name which was deserving of its own separate post. That is because it is a story worth telling in its own right; a World War One story with a bittersweet ending. A story of a HMS Cressy-Class naval ship in the North Sea. The year: 1914.

My great-grandfather had served with the Royal Navy from 1899 through to 1907. He later served with the Royal Fleet Reserve from 1907 to 1912, and again from 1912 to 1917. When World War One broke out in August 1914 he was posted to HMS Hogue.

HMS Hogue was a Cressy-class armoured cruiser built by Vickers Ltd., in Barrow-in-Furness, England in 1902. At the beginning of WWI she was assigned to the Grand Fleet's Third Cruiser Squadron. Along with two other cruiser warships - RMS Aboukir and RMS Cressy - HMS Hogue patrolled the Broad Fourteens off the Dutch coast about twenty miles north of the Hook of Holland. They were dubbed the "Live Bait Squadron" because of their vulnerability to German attack.

Although the patrols were supposed to maintain 12-13 knots and zig-zag, the old cruisers were unable to maintain that speed and the zigzagging order was widely ignored as there had not yet been any submarines sighted in the area. Much discussion at the time centred around the inclement weather conditions coupled with the widely-felt opinion that there were insufficient modern light cruisers available for the task.

At around 0625 hours on the 22nd of September 1914 a German U9 (Unterseeboot) fired a single torpedo at HMS Aboukir which struck her on her port side. Captain Drummond ordered her to be abandoned and she sank within half an hour of being hit. The U9 fired two torpedoes at HMS Hogue, who had stopped to pick up rescuers, that hit her midships and rapidly flooded her engine room. RMS Cressy had also stopped the ship to lower boats to rescue the crew of Aboukir. The U9 attacked Hogue from a range of only 300 yards and it only took ten minutes to sink as U9 headed for HMS Cressy. At about 0720 hours however, the U9 fired two torpedoes, one of the which hit Cressy on her starboard side. The damage to Cressy was not fatal but U9 turned around and fired her last torpedo which hit Cressy sinking her within a quarter of an hour. Survivors were picked up by several nearby merchant ships and a Lowestoft trawler.

Source: Collier’s Photographic History of the European war. New York, 1916
Sketch by US Navy artist, Henry Reuterdahl
According to one website I researched, Kapitanleutnant Otto Weddigen of U9 was awarded the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class and every member of his crew got the Iron Cross 2nd Class. Back in Kiel, U9 was sent on a lap of honour around the entire German High Seas Fleet. But what of the crew of the three RFR warships he sunk? More than 1400 men were lost in an hour, many of which were reservists or cadets. About 837 men were rescued, including my Great-Grandfather. He was helped to safety by his Commander, Reginald Arthur Norton.

And it's here we come to the family name. In November 1914, less than two months following the U9 disaster, my Great-Uncle was born. He was named Reginald Norton Humphries. I did not know anything about the namesake or why the Norton name held such significance until I made email contact with my second cousin in 2003. He is my Great-Uncle Reginald's grandson, and like his grandfather and father before him, he also carries the Norton name.

My Great-Uncle, Reginald Norton Humphries 1915

There are countless websites which are dedicated to the demise of the "Live Bait Squadron" and also, the Admiralty reports. The report of Commander Reginald A Norton, late of HMS Hogue, can be found at  and

Part of Commander Norton's report here follows:
"After ordering the men to provide themselves with wood, hammocks, etc., and to get into the boats on the booms and take off their clothes, I went, by Capt, Nicholson's direction, to ascertain the damage done in the engine room...While endeavouring to return to the bridge the water burst open the starboard entry port doors and ship heeled rapidly. I told the men in the port battery to jump overboard, as the launch was close alongside, and soon afterward the ship lurched heavily to starboard. I clung to a ringbolt for some time, but eventually was dropped on to the deck, and a huge wave washed me away...I was picked up by a cutter from the Hogue..."

Norton's report in its entirety makes for very interesting reading, as does all reports made by others such as Commander Bertram Nicholson, late of HMS Cressy, and the fascinating volume Source Records of the Great War.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

What's in a Name : Part One

The more I delved into my family tree, the more names I uncovered. These names swim around in my head constantly and I love boggling my family with lines like, "You know, Thomas. He was the son of William who was the son of Joseph; son of Thomas, son of Thomas..." You get the picture. Rifling through parish registers and civil registration I have spent countless hours eagerly looking up and discovering a myriad of names; some common and some not-so-common. Back in the heyday of baptising children with the names William, George, Thomas, Henry, John and Robert there were some ancestors who were keen to stand out and be different. They chose names like Josiah, Percy, Zachariah, Horace, and Barney. Or how about Japhet or Bussey for something even more original? My ancestry has those names too. Were they the historical equivalent of the twenty first century's Blue, Suri, Apple and Sunday?

Three names in my ancestry have struck me as particularly unique, and this blog (in two parts) is about those names. These are not just unique christian names, these are surnames given as middle names. I have uncovered each of their origins except for one: Goodall. This surname appears to be a more common surname in the county of Yorkshire. This ties all too perfectly with the fact that this particular ancestor was actually born in Yorkshire, as were both of his parents. But why he was given this name as a middle name has not yet been determined.

Then we come to the two surnames in my ancestry, given as middle names, which I have researched successfully. There is a fascinating World War One story behind one name, and it is rather powerfully detailed, so I have decided to honour it with a separate post. Part one therefore is for the name: Gowen.

In 1990 I remember visiting with my Mum who had just received her grandfather's birth certificate in the post. The middle name of the father was given as Gowing. We thought this name was very peculiar, but there it was on paper and in records so it had to be correct, right? Then my Mum ordered the marriage certificate of her grandparents and discovered that the groom's father's middle name was Goarne. We tried our best to pronounce it correctly but in the end we were convinced it had to be misspelt. Nobody would have the name: Goarne. Would they? It was shortly after this time that my Mum took an early retirement from genealogy and I was busy conquering the world of working, marriage, and paying off a mortgage.

When I came to my senses and matured rather more significantly, I took up my Mum's family tree challenge and I haven't looked back since (Ironic to say that really, considering that looking back is exactly what genealogy entails!). Subsequently, the names Gowing & Goarne challenged me, daring me to solve its indecipherable mystery. I looked up a marriage entry in the GRO indexes and found this time that it was spelt Gowen. I was so confused! His birth certificate proved the same: Gowen again! Okay, I said, where on earth does that name hail from?

As I progressed with genealogy and discovering all sorts of anecdotal titbits I found out that, among many other curious "habits", giving the mother's maiden name as the first-born child's middle name was quite a popular thing to do in Victorian times. So now all you genealogists out there are thinking that Gowen was this chap's mother's maiden name? Well, no it wasn't. Sorry, you're all wrong. It wasn't until many headaches later, when researching his mother's paternal side of the family in the census returns and parish registers that the name Gowen stared out at me from a dimly lit computer screen. There it was; the mother's paternal aunt! She had married a chap by the name of John Gowen.

Abit of mindless, trivial history for you: John Gowen was born in Yarmouth in the county of Norfolk (I have just looked up his baptism; he was baptised 240 years ago on January 10, 1772). In 1796 John Gowen married Sarah Bunnett and they lived in Holt, not far from Sarah's sister Eliza and family. John Gowen was a Bricklayer and Plasterer by trade and you can find his name listed in many Directories such as Pigot's & Kelly's.

The name Gowen has been passed down from my g/g/g-grandfather William Gowen Preston to his first-born son. This son died in infancy and so his second-born son was also named William Gowen Preston (a photograph of him is at the bottom of my previous post). This son grew up and named his first-born son William Gowen Preston...and so on, down the line.

Coming soon to a blog near you: part two of my mysterious middle name hunt...

Incidentally, John Gowen's father's name was William Gowen! :-)

Friday, 6 January 2012

Family Pets : Faithful Friends

Oliver 'Ollie' Twist
At this time of year I am reminded of my rescued pet, a cat I named Ollie, who came in to my life 16 years ago. It still chokes me up inside to think he came to me on the very same day I received the sad news of my grandmother Freda's passing. Still with us today, Ollie has been called all sorts of funny nicknames and every year he is given his very own Christmas stocking filled with new cat toys, an expensive cat food collection, and lots of  wrapping paper and plastic bags (Don't ask!). I couldn't imagine my life, my home, my family, without him in it.

The RSPCA annual reports show an alarming amount of pets, given as Christmas presents, abandoned in January each year. This number is on the rise, and the message still doesn't seem to get through. Please don't give pets as Christmas presents!! Ollie was a Christmas present for somebody who, in turn, left him abandoned in a cardboard box on a busy roadside. My friend at the time, was walking up this road to take her baby for a walk in the pram and heard meowling coming from the box. When she opened it, she found a under-fed flea-ridden kitten inside.

Pets have always played a key role in my life, since very early childhood. My first family pet was a Labrador called Sandy when I was a baby and my parents lived in Bungay. Then came a cat, another Labrador, another cat, a greyhound, two goldfish and two budgerigars, and yet another cat (but she was technically my mother's cat). I was given a kitten for my birthday one year. He was a fiesty black and white kitten I named Sebastian. Five years later, Ollie came into my life. I did have a Jack Russell terrier named Tsar but he proved to be too much of a handful so, eventually, he was adopted into a new home (with a more patient owner!).

My family have always been animal lovers and many photographs show a dog or cat sitting proudly on the lap, in the arms of, or by the side, of their proud owners. Growing up my father had a black cat, found amongst the dust at the Beccles Maltings which my grandfather brought home as a kitten and was subsequently named Dusty. My mother had a dog named Rover who was brought home from a nearby village after being mistreated by its original owner. My grandmother Lilian had a Jack Russell terrier (read my blog written exclusively about her. Lilian that is, not the dog!) she named Russ. My great-grandfather had a terrier which he took everywhere (including hunting) with him. My ancestors had dogs, cats, canaries, chickens, budgerigars and horses.

There is a great sense of pride attached to my family's ownership of pets and there are many stories (or should I say, tales!) which are still told amongst the family today which involve a dog or a cat. I even have a wedding party portrait from 1916 where one of my ancestors is holding a small dog (see below).

Greyfriars Bobby
I have long been fascinated by pet stories. Faithful companions who grieve when their owners die or disappear under mysterious circumstances. More recently, I have cried buckets over the Australian story of 'Red Dog' or John Grogan's famous newspaper column, turned novel and movie, about his clumsy, neurotic dog Marley. Then there are famous pets of the past, such as Dewey the library cat, Casper the commuting cat, Greyfriars Bobby, and come on, let's not forget Lassie. What has intrigued me is the large amount of notable rescue dogs and war dogs, in particular, those that are gifted with psychic abilities.

I read Michael Streeter's Psychic Pets with relish last year, during a period of research for my novel. I was struck by three accounts contained within Streeter's 2004 collection of true-life psychic pet stories. Bob, the collie dog, whose owner Roy was called up to fight for his country in World War One. Bob became increasingly morose in Roy's absence until one day he began howling and whining inconsolably. Four days later Roy's wife received the news that Roy had been killed in action.

A British Naval Officer (name unknown) had a pet Airedale dog who  always went to the quayside to say goodbye to the young officer who was, at the time, serving on board a minesweeper.  One day the Airedale became agitated and behaved strangely and the naval officer could not leave the quayside without having his uniform repeatedly grabbed by the dog. That same night, the Airedale suddenly began a piteous wailing and later, the officer's wife learned that the ship had been lost at sea that night.

The last story I want to share with you is about a grey tabby stray cat in Germany during World War Two who was befriended by a middle-aged German man who would pet the cat whenever he saw it near his workplace. One morning in 1944, the man was at home shaving when he heard loud meowing and opened the door to find the stray cat there. The cat would not stop meowing and scratching at the man's trousers until eventually, thinking the cat was trying to tell him something, they left the house together and walked the streets. After about a half mile the cat suddenly stopped walking and the now puzzled man, looked up to see RAF Lancaster bombers overhead. The man looked on in horror as the first of the bombs dropped, obliterating a row of houses, including his. The stray cat had saved his life.

W G Preston who is holding his dog for a
family wedding portrait!