I’m always compelled by genealogy when it put stories and faces to names. And it being 100 years since WWI, I wanted to write something in memory of my two great-uncles who died in that War. One of them was the reason I got into genealogy in the first place. I was going to keep it simple and just post photos, maybe names and dates. But that seemed inadequate in the year that’s the hundredth anniversary of the start of WW1.
If you follow this, there are tips on how to trace your WWI relatives. As a lasting tribute to my own family’s lost loved ones might be someone else being able to find out about their’s.
William Boothman was my grandmother’s older brother. William was born in Leeds, oldest son to my great grandparents, Tom Boothman and Annie nee Hemingway, in 1897. He first appears on the 1901 Census, at 70 Bayswater Row, in the Potternewton district of Leeds. William (always called ‘Willie’ by the family) lived with his father, Tom, a 33 year old Milk Dealer born in Coulton (North Riding), and Annie, also 33, born in Hensall (East Riding). Like the vast majority of 1890s’ Loiners, they had come to the city from outside. William’s older sister, Nellie was 6 and born in Leeds. The first Leeds-born Boothman!
Tip: Check out your ancestors’ birthplaces on Genuki. It’s a free site and has great info about the places your family originated. Sometimes, it even has things like transcriptions of 19thC Trade Directories where you may find your ancestors but if not, will get a sense of place.
Software like ‘Family Tree Maker’ will take you to your ancestors’ addresses via Google Earth. It’s surprising how often houses still stand, over one hundred years on.. .
I find Census Returns using Ancestry.co.uk – FindMyPast is another useful site. I stick with Ancestry as it has a broader spectrum of records and I find transcriptions to be accurate, on the whole. FindMyPast used to be easier than Ancestry to search just addresses and there are times when that can be really handy. But you can do that on Ancestry easily enough, now. Tip for using the Census on whichever site – I always have a good look at neighbours and neighbouring streets, as you can tell a lot about the context your ancestors lived in, from the neighbourhood.
Tom Boothman was later to have a couple of houses built, one of which became my grandparents’ home, and he also owned a fair bit of property – including the small terrace of stone cottages off Roman Avenue in Shadwell, where my dad was born. He also owned a large, Victorian house at the top of Roman Avenue which he rented to my other great grandad! But 1901 was before he had built his business and we had not previously been aware they had lived at Bayswater Row. It was a working class street – neighbours were bricklayers, fitters, decorators and machinists. Most of the street were classed as “Worker” although several were listed as “Own Account” (ie: self-employed), one of which was Tom.
Only two households on this page of the Census had servants – Tom and Annie had a 16 year old Pontefract girl, Kathleen Brent as “Servant – Domestic”. By looking at the others on the street, and the context of a Census, you can learn a lot more about your ancestor, than just the bald facts. Years later, my grandparents – Tom and Annie’s youngest daughter and her husband, my grandad – were to take over the business. And I remember dad saying that grandma worked very hard in the business and she too, usually had a servant. This would not so much be in a ‘Downton Abbey’ kind of way but just a girl to do the everyday cooking and cleaning, to free up the woman of the family to actually work in the business. Even though ‘occupation’ was often left blank next to the names of tradesmen’s wives on Censuses, the reality was they worked. My grandmother – and presumably Annie before her – made cheese and butter for the dairy. Later, she learned to drive so she could help with deliveries.It always intrigues me how women’s lives are sometimes submerged in the Censuses – occupations left blank; work unacknowledged.
One note of caution re. Censuses – Tom Boothman gave himself a new and different birth place for every census he is listed on (as did his parents before him – seems to be a tradition). As his father was a carrier, travelling between Lancashire and Yorkshire, Tom’s siblings were born in different places so looking at their birthplaces on Censuses gave me no clues, either. People did pull the wool over the Enumerator’s eyes and were self-reporting. 1901 is the last census that was filled in by the Enumerator, not the general populace.
Ancestry are digitising more and more parish records and it is always worth looking for your relative’s birth, marriages and death also. I was unable to find a baptism for William Boothman. But I knew Tom and Annie married in a Methodist church,
Nellie (left) and Lillie, post WW1
and Non-Conformist records are a bit patchier, in terms of what was kept and what has survived to be digitised or transcribed. Ancestry does have Non-Conformist records and if you can’t find your ancestor in the Church of England parish records, they are always worth a look. Another resource for Births, Marriages and Deaths is Free BMD which a quick Google can pull up. Ancestry also has FreeBMD. There is a William Boothman born in the last quarter of 1897, Vol 9b page 570. And he was born in Leeds. That may well be my great uncle. Especially as when I run a Census search – he is the only William Boothman I can find in Leeds, born in 1897… An example of how you can use one record to verify or shed light on, another. To be sure, I would have to send off for William’s birth certificate. It is a terrifying thought, to look at the pages of boys born around 1897 and realise how many of them must have ended up dead in France or Belgium, within twenty years or so of their birth. An entire generation of young men in Europe were obliterated. My grandfather was lucky to survive WWI and said that when he returned to Leeds, he was, quite literally the only young man of his age for streets around. And those streets had been densely populated, with back-to-back houses. I don’t know how typical my dad’s family were but of the three teenagers who went to War, only one returned.
William (standing) with Nellie (seated), my grandma Lillie and Leslie. Leeds, probably around 1915
Like so many men killed in WW1, William is only to be found on the 1901 and 1911 Censuses.
1911 found him living with the complete family; older sister Nellie, born 1895; my grandmother Lillie – born 1902 – and the youngest child of the family, Leslie, born 1908. 1911 is the first census that records the number children born to a family, who had died. Tom wrote “1” in that column. That’s a birth certificate we may have to search for as my dad had no idea his mother lost a sibling in infancy.
This time, Tom gave his ever-moveable birthplace as ‘Harding’. Tom filled in this return for himself (1911 is the first place you can find your ancestor’s signature; bottom right). This is the closest he gets to accuracy. He was born in a village called Arden, near Helmsley. ‘Harding’ may well be his own rendering of it as Yorkshire dialect often adds an ‘h’ in front of an initial ‘A’! Their address was now 116 Bankside Street; the house in Harehills Tom had built, moving his dairy business closer to the city centre, although they still continued to be supplied by milk from his father’s farm, near Roundhay Park. Had he lived, Willie would have taken over the family business. The result of a generation of young men being slaughtered was a change in the fortune of some women. Much is written about the changing role of women post WW2 but WW1 had an effect, too. My grandmother was eventually to inherit the dairy and 116 Bankside St.
In 1911, William would have been 13 and probably about to start working in the business. Tom Boothman was well off by this time; but an ‘education’ would have been out of the question. Another William – my grandad – was eventually to run and then own, Boothman’s Dairy – and he was an unusually intelligent boy who won a scholarship to the best school in Leeds. His father refused to let him go – he’d have a family business to run, one day. What use was an ability to parse Latin verbs? My grandad, like Willie Boothman, also ran away aged only 14, to join the Army. His first action was as a bugle boy. On the First Day of the Somme. Underage for conscription, William ran away repeatedly to join the Army. Whenever he was brought home, he’d take off again. I have the draft of a letter Tom wrote, to his regimental H.Q, demanding that William was sent home. (I thought I had scanned this, but it appears not!) Conscription was at age 18 which meant Willie would not be able to join the Army legally until late 1915. The fact he ran off more than once in the year before, shows how determined he was. It is the only piece of correspondence I have ever found, from any member of my family. Letters are a rare resource for the family historian – as they got sent. And often, read and then used as kindling.
116 Bankside St. Willie Boothman lived here 20 years before this picture was taken.
Ancestry will yield you a variety of Military records and probably has the best coverage for the genealogist. I found William Boothman on the ‘UK, WW1 Service Medal and Award Rolls’ – these record the ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ medals everyone got. This gives his rank (Gunner), Regt (Royal Artillery) and Regimental Number (107649 – this would have been on his dog tag). Sometimes, to this day, dog tags are found with bodies. More often than not, they aren’t as ground was fought and re-fought over; blown up time and time again; sometimes behind enemy lines, sometimes not. In other words, even bodies in the ground were blown to smithereens. The record also tells me that he was previously a Gunner in the Royal Field Artillery with the same service number. My dad remembered anecdotally that Willie had run away to join the Army and been recalled for being underage on more than one occasion. It is thought that he was always a Gunner – we know he was in the X Battery of the trench mortars , a group of men called ‘the Suicide Squad’ as their chance of surviving even one action was almost zero. And he survived years. This was a dangerous battery to belong to, as trench mortars were loathed by both sides, and became prime targets.
William Boothman – spot the cigarette!
I’m lucky to have more than one photo of William. In the first it looks like he is a young 18, so allowed to join up officially. I take it this time was ‘legal’ as his brother and sisters appear in the photo with him. My grandma, the younger sister, was closest to him in the family. In the first picture, he looks pretty well a child. The second photo, he looks cynical, tough, middle aged. He’d be about 21. You can see the cigarette jammed behind his ear. This second photo has been edged with an oval of wonky pin-pricks – presumably done by Willie himself, when he was bored in the trenches. Maybe he intended to tear it at the perforations. When they went over the top, men often handed their photos and other personal possessions, in for safe keeping. If they died, the belongings were sent home and cash might be divided between surviving friends. Not that William ‘went over the top’ the day he died, as it appears the Germans took the British by surprise that morning. But the story in the family was this photo was taken off his body. It is entirely possible as there is a big smear of something that looks like blood on it. It is one of my most treasured possessions. It came to my grandma, presumably, as the sibling closest to him. I can’t imagine how she must have felt every time she looked at it. There are no anecdotes about comrades coming to Bankside St with stories about what happened to William – but then, it’s entirely possible the entire Battery were wiped out as the artillery bombardment was so relentless, the day William died. RFA also had recruits from all over the UK, unlike the Pals Battalions, where they all came from the same few streets. William survived several years in X Battery, before dying on 27th May, 1918. This was the first day of the Third Battle of the Aisne. That morning the Germans carried out a massive bombardment followed by a drop of poison gas. It looks likely most British casualties’ bodies ended up behind enemy lines which may explain why Willie’s body was never found. Around 127,000 men in Allied forces lost their lives over that week and 130,000 Germans. 29,000 of the Allied dead were British. Gunner William Boothman is commemorated on the memorial at Soissons Cathedral.
Reverse of William’s photo. Probably not his writing. An officer’s or friend’s?
Once you pull up one War record, Ancestry has a link to search for your ancestor across all WW1 records. The British Army Service (enlistment) Records had a link to a William Boothman from Leeds who enlisted but that turned out to be Willie’s uncle as his address was the Homestead Farm – our family farm at Roundhay, Leeds. The record is heavily charred (a lot of Army records were destroyed in the Blitz – looks like Willie’s uncle’s record survived; his didn’t). Be aware if you’re researching for the first time, there are gaps in the record for this reason. William’s name does appear in the ‘UK Soldiers Killed in The Great War’ list. If you know little about your ancestor, this may be useful as it gives the usual regiment/regimental number info but also Place of Birth. And Enlistment Place. This often varies as men – especially those joining underage – often went to a different town where nobody knew them, to enlist. William enlisted in Leeds but of course, this might just be his final and legal enlistment…
The reason I got into genealogy was my great uncle, Norris Charles Lister. He was my grandad’s brother. Again, I don’t know how statistically typical it was, but each of my paternal grandparents lost a brother.
Emily and John Lister with Billie (left) and Norris. Probably 1916.
Norris was born in Leeds. On the 1901 Census he lives at 4 Bath Rd, Holbeck, Leeds with his wife, Emily (nee Stephenson) and sons Norris (1897) and Willie (1899). Willie was known as ‘Billie’ later on. He was my grandad. All four were born in Leeds. John was a Printer’s Machine Ruler, and a ‘Worker’ (employee). I only recently got this photo, and it was taken in bad light on my iPad so very blurry, but shows John, Emily, Norris (on the right) and Billie. I suspect this may be Billie’s ‘joining up’ photo, as his uniform looks pristine – Norris’s doesn’t. They were in different regiments, so Billie may have joined up when Norris was on leave. Norris already had two stripes – their younger brother, Uncle Jack, once told us that he had been offered a commission not long before he died. He turned it down as he wanted to stay with his comrades. As the War progressed, and more and more of the ruling classes died – and young commissioned officers were famous for being easily picked off by snipers – working class men were more likely to be commissioned. Again, as oldest son of the family, had Norris lived he would have had the family business.
Despite John Lister’s fancy appearance in the photo, he was also a businessman. He had a small printing firm. Seeing WW1 on the horizon, it is said he bought up Leeds’ paper stocks then sold it back to other printers at an extortionate price. This was actually an imprisonable offence. John Lister brought his kids up to be strong and resourceful. My grandad used to say his dad taught them to swim by chucking them in the deep end of the Leeds Olympic pool. John started life as a mechanic (as the 1901 Census shows) but suddenly, mysteriously, “had money”. His entire life, he told people his name was not Lister but he had randomly chosen that name aged 19. He said he was an orphan, dumped at an orphanage then brought up and later adopted by a family called Gillespie. My grandfather, Emily and his four brothers believed this their entire life. They knew his ‘foster sister’, Florrie Gillespie who backed him up in the story. In fact, the 1901 Census puts him on Bath Rd, Holbeck.
His mother, daughter of a Huddersfield mill-owner, Hannah Smith had married Tom Lister, a cropper at a wool mill, and John was a late child they had when middle aged. When John was a toddler, Tom Lister died. The widowed Hannah remarried a Birmingham born blacksmith, Charles Dealey. This is where it gets interesting.
On the 1901 Census, whilst John Lister is living with his two oldest sons and wife on Bath Road. Also on the 1901 Census, the mother he always claimed never existed – is living with her second husband at Bath Villa, on Bath Rd… We had always wondered why Norris’s middle name was Charles, when there were no Charles’s in the family… John called his firstborn son after his stepfather. Despite claiming he had no family.
Billie, just after WW1
My great grandmother Emily was adamant that she believed John’s story about being a foundling was true – so much so she went to a solicitor in the 1920s, to check she was legally married as Lister might not be John’s real name. In the 1911 Census, John and Emily were still at 4, Bath Rd. John mis-spelled Norris’s name as “Norriss”. John described himself as a “Bookbinding Paper Ruler and Manufacturing Station” [sic], and as an “Employer”. We know over the years his print shop was located at one point on Kirkgate, opposite Leeds Market (same road as the old Leeds Cloth Hall). Another time it was on Bond Square. Norris lived with my grandad, Billie, and also his brother Jack, and twins Clifford and Mary who were under one month old on Census night. John and Emily were to have one more son; Jeffrey. Mary died aged ten. An obit published in the local papers mentioned Norris worked for his father’s business. Norris is listed in the WW1 Service Medal & Award Rolls. He was in the 1st 5th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He is listed as Killed in Action on 9th October, 1917 and his name also appears in ‘All UK Soldiers Died in the Great War”.
In the 1980s, we visited the last surviving brother, Uncle Jack and he told us some really interesting things. Apparently, they were so close in age, Norris and my grandad, Billie, were like twins. When Norris joined up, Billie thought if he joined up too they’d at least be together. Only grandad found himself in the West Yorkshires and Norris was in the KOYLIs.
Like William Boothman, my grandad was underage when he ran away to War. He was 15. Uncle Jack said his two older brothers were both very musical and played the viola. In later life my grandfather played the piano – he only had to hear a piece once and could play it note perfect, from memory. At the start of the War he was a bugle boy.
Jack also told us that when Norris came home on leave in 1917 – just a few weeks before he died – he was so yellow from the mustard gas that the family insisted on taking him to St James’ Hospital in Leeds. The worthies at ‘Jimmy’s’ took one look at him and accused him of ‘swinging the lead’ – trying to get a ‘Blighty wound’ – Jack said poor Norris was mortified as he was devoted to his men and determined to go back and had been forced by the family to go to hospital.
September 1917, fresh from the sensitive and caring medics of St James’, it is thought he passed through Etaples camp. Around the week of the infamous mutiny. (The British Army’s only known mutiny during WW1). It is thought that the Army could effectively ‘bury’ the events at Etaples, by making sure the men who witnessed it were at Passchendaele. (When Gove made his offensive remarks trying to do a bit of revisionism vis a vis ‘lions led by donkeys’, I was particularly disgusted. I’d imagine his ancestors were the bloated officers safely behind the lines). Either way, Norris had told his family back in Leeds he was turning down the offered commission to stay with ‘his men’. And he was to die with them at the Battle of Poelcapelle.
After the War, my great grandmother, Emily was visited by some of Norris’s surviving comrades. They told her the story comrades often told grieving mothers: that Norris had died trying to pull a friend off the barbed wire in No Man’s Land. My dad used to say he was told about this many times (presumably by Emily herself) but once he was a soldier himself, in World War II, he could no longer believe it. Norris’s body was never found, and after the War the War Graves Commission told the family Norris had been commemorated on the Tyne Cot memorial. The family believed them. Well, you would. No-one had the money to go to Flanders, anyway.
Uncle Jack said that his mother left the kitchen light on at night, for the rest of her life – in case Norris was ‘missing in action’ and came home one day. She wanted the house to be welcoming. I think, as long as that light was burning, she felt her hope was alive. Like many loved ones of men killed in WW1 whose bodies were never identified, she must have felt that to accept that he was dead was a bit like writing him off. Emily’s expression in the photo with her two soldier sons, is hauntingly sad. I can’t even imagine how she coped with Billie still being at War, or how Billie first heard his much loved brother was dead – presumably whilst he was still in a trench himself.
By 1917, grandad would have been 18 years old and had gone straight back to the Front the moment he could. Essentially my grandad had been soldiering three years, on and off, in the Front Line, when he was underage.
In the 1980s, I got interested in finding out more about my uncles who died in World War 1, and so the odyssey into genealogy began. As we researched Norris, it became apparent that his name was not on Tyne Cot Memorial (we found a transcription of the memorial at Birmingham Reference Library). We contacted the War Graves Commission and they put that right. For a while, his was the last name on the Memorial. More have come to light since.
A KOYLI officer’s log we read told us that he died along with his men – all of them, probably not long after the KOYLIs went over the top, that day. There probably were no surviving direct witnesses to come home and tell Emily about his heroic death on the wire as the men under his immediate care, as a Corporal, died alongside him. (Telling mothers their son was sniped was probably perceived as an act of kindness). I have no reason to doubt Jack’s memory of his mother being visited by comrades. They may have been survivors from his battalion; many of the KOYLIs were from Leeds, after all. If not a Pals’ Battalion, exactly. Of the missing KOYLIs who died at Passchendaele, Norris was the only one omitted from the memorial. And the only one who it seems passed through Etaples. Which always struck me as suggestive.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website has a useful ‘Find War Dead’ data base you can search and from which you can download a certificate of commemoration for your relative.
Having Norris added to the Addenda Panel of the Tyne Cot memorial was my first achievement as a genealogist. We were pleased to go and visit Uncle Jack and tell him the news. He was very grateful. But it must also have been upsetting, knowing his parents and the entire family had gone to their graves believing he had been commemorated at Tyne Cot. In the 1990s, my dad went to Tyne Cot and discovered that Norris did have a grave – but was one of six ‘Unknown Soldiers’ – all six found together in a collapsed fox-hole, probably in 1921 when the War Graves Commission started sorting things out. They were known to be Norris and his comrades, but there was no way of knowing which man was which. The others’ names all appeared on the memorial. Dad was taken to the six graves known to be the KOYLIs who died that day. One day I hope to go there, too.
I always had a soft spot for Norris because, in the photos I have, he looks so much like my dad. Dad was born 9 years after Norris died and looked more like him than he looked like his dad. I also found my grandad, the lone survivor of his generation who went to War, on the Ancestry WW1 Medal and Award Rolls. Which told me that at the end of the War, he was still a Private. He must have become a Corporal in the Territorial Army between the Wars as he was a Sergeant in WW2. The same record tells me he entered the Reserves in 1919. As did almost all his colleagues from the Leeds Rifles who are listed on the same page. I have grandad’s original dog tags. In the Medal Rolls, he had the usual ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ medals. But the Leeds Rifles had the rare honour of winning the Croix de Guerre and wore its insignia afterwards
Only surviving wedding photo Lillie and Billie, Leeds, 1925
Billie, my grandad, survived the War and married my grandmother, Lillie Boothman, in 1925. He often said he had the pick of all the women in Leeds and could choose the most beautiful – because he was the only young man his age for streets around. My grandad eventually ran Boothman’s Dairy which in the 1930s became Lister’s Dairy. Dad said his father would have preferred to be a printer, but after the War, his doctor said the outdoor life of being a dairyman would be healthier for him.
My grandad, Billie, in WW2
On the day WW2 broke out, my grandad – who was in the Territorial Army and now a sergeant in the West Yorkshires – went to War a second time. His unit was in the Blitz doing fire watch, apparently then later amongst the first British troops to get to Belsen. (The West Yorkshires now a Leeds-based anti aircraft battalion of the Royal Artillery). So long as he lived, my grandfather refused ever to speak about what he saw in Belsen. He was a chain smoker – ever since the trenches. He died of lung cancer in 1971 so WW1 did kind of get him in the end. I was a child in the 60s, and many of my school friends also had grandads who were WW1 veterans. We felt we grew up with it. Grandad once incurred mum’s wrath by teaching us the words to various ‘soldier songs’… Towards the end, Billie came home to die at our house, my parents looking after him as he literally stood up and walked out of hospital, refusing to die there. Right at the end he went into a coma, but it looked more like a prolonged nightmare – not the peaceful thing you’d imagine a coma to be. I was only nine but I was convinced my grandad was back in the trenches, in his mind. Or maybe – worse still – Belsen. When my dad returned from the War in 1947, now an experienced paratrooper himself, his dad didn’t talk about it with him. It is rather incredible to think of this ordinary Leeds dairyman being at the First Day of the Somme, the Blitz and the Liberation of Belsen. But he was.
By Tijl Vercaemer from Gent, Flanders, Belgium. “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow”, via Wikimedia Commons