Are you going to THE Genealogy Show 2020? Because I am!

UPDATE: This event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in 2020. Check the website linked below for further information and updates about the next edition.

This is definitely the week of announcements! OK, this may no longer be actual news to some of you – I fully realise the talk I’m going to tell you about now was already announced a few weeks ago – but following the huge success of 2019 edition of THE Genealogy Show, I can’t really see the old year out without talking about next year’s edition – and yes, you’ve guessed it: I’ll be there again with a new talk!

As many of you know by now, THE Genealogy Show was conceived through the enthusiasm and vision of the Show’s director Kirsty Gray, who turned it into a reality thanks to the help of a wonderful international crew of volunteers – among whom I am privileged to include myself. Most of us, having been regular attendees at Who Do You Think You Are? Live in preceding years, acutely felt the sting of losing such a fantastic event on this side of the Atlantic.

The first edition of THE Genealogy Show took place last June in Birmingham’s NEC, and will return again to the same venue on 26 and 27 June 2020. While undeniably retaining some parallels and similarities with WDYTYA LiveTHE Genealogy Show is different from traditional genealogy events and trade fairs in the UK because of how it has been conceived and executed: based on a solidly international basis, with an incredibly democratic outlook and a unique grassroots attitude which allows new ideas to just materialise, to the delight of attendees. One of the many surprises in store for you in 2020 will be… An Escape Room Experience!

Some very fond memories of the 2019 edition…

In 2019 I spoke at THE Genealogy Show on Spanish genealogical research. My talk for the 2020 edition (scheduled to take place on Friday 26 June) will shift to a much more personal story, titled Finding Paul: How I discovered a cousin I never knew I had. It will be a first-hand account which will cover a wide range of areas: genetics, family history, ethics…  But I’m keeping the biggest of all surprises until the very end of my talk, so why not join me in Birmingham? You will find further details about my presentation on THE Genealogy Show‘s website.

I can’t close off without mentioning the other speakers on the programme. For the first time a genealogy event of this size will have an all-female cast as its keynote speakers: Celia Heritage, Roberta Estes, Maureen Taylor and Fiona Fitzsimons. In addition, I am truly honoured to share the speaker programme with some of the most amazing names from the genealogical world: Jonny Perl, Michelle Leonard, Les Mitchinson, Nathan Dylan Goodwin, Robert Parker, Dave Annal… The list is practically endless!

Remember that tickets for THE Genealogy Show are already on sale (check the website for current offers and discounts), with early bird fees applying until 5 January 2020!

Crowds of enthusiastic genealogists arriving at the 2019 edition last June.

Posted in Birmingham, Events, Genealogy, THEGenShow2019, THEGenShow2020 | Leave a comment

Family Tree Live – here I come!

Family Tree Live returns in 2020!

UPDATE: This event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in 2020. Check the website linked below for further information and updates.

This is definitely the week of exciting announcements (and this may not be the last – hint hint), for today the organisers of Family Tree Live 2020 have finally released their programme of lectures and workshops for next year! Oh, and yes, you’ve guessed it: I will be there!

Family Tree Live is a relatively new event – the first edition only took place earlier this year, after Who Do You Think You Are? Live was discontinued in 2017. In fact, 2019 saw the celebration of three brand new events: THE Genealogy Show in Birmingham, RootsTech London at the ExCel, and Family Tree Live in Alexandra Palace. For the moment only THE Genealogy Show and Family Tree Live have confirmed their dates for 2020, while RootsTech is yet to confirm whether it will hold its European event every year or every other year – I’m told that the location is also subject to much speculation.

Workshops were a very popular feature at Family Tree Live 2019. Photo credit: Family Tree Magazine.

The 2020 edition of Family Tree Live will take place on 17 and 18 April 2020, and will once again be hosted at Alexandra Palace. I was unable to attend the first edition last April, so I confess I’m quite excited to visit this new event in what for me is a new venue – I’m only familiar with Alexandra Palace through the WDYTYA episode when Julian Clary visits to learn more about his grandfather’s military experience during the First World War.

One of the characteristics of Family Tree Live is their workshops – groups of up to ten participants around a table to learn about a specific topic. I will be leading a workshop, set to take place on 18 April at 1.30PM, on Spanish genealogical research, with a special focus on online resources which anyone with an interest in this particular country should consult. There are a number of other workshops, sorted by category, which you can consult here. Remember that all lectures and workshops are included with admission, but booking is required.

Posted in Events, Genealogy, Spain | Leave a comment

See you at the Salon de la Généalogie Paris 15!

I am extremely pleased to announce that I have been invited to talk at the next edition of the Salon de la Généalogie Paris 15. The event, the largest of its kind in the French-speaking world this side of the Atlantic, will be held as usual in the town hall of the French capital’s 15th arrondissement and within easy distance of the city’s main historical landmarks.

The Salon will officially kick off on 3 and 4 March 2020 with activities exclusively reserved for children, to encourage the younger generations to take an interest in genealogy and family history. There will also be children-only activities on the morning of 5 March, followed by the launch of the programme for adult attendees. This year’s edition saw a huge affluence of genealogy enthusiasts (7,000 adulthood participants and 300 children, according to the event’s website), and it even got a significant amount of press coverage – so I’m doubly excited to be taking an active part in 2020!

The Salon puts a strong emphasis on educating children and encouraging them to take an interest in genealogy and family history. Photo credit: Salon de la Généalogie Paris 15.

The details of the full programme will be announced in upcoming weeks, although sessions about genealogical research in a number of countries (e.g. Belgium, Germany and Switzerland), as well as France of course, have already been confirmed. Access to the Salon is free of charge.

My talk, given in collaboration with Eric Jariod from the French association Gen-Ibérica, will take place on Friday 6 March, and will focus on ancestral research in Spain (further details will also be announced in due course). This will not only be my first time at the Salon, but the first-ever talk I give  in French! So you can definitely expect a few beads of sweat before my talk! 🙂

A glimpse of a prior edition of the Salon de la Généalogie Paris 15. Photo credit: Salon de la Généalogie.

The event is organised by local association Archives & Culture. For more information about this event, please visit the event website and keep an eye open for further updates!

On se retrouve à Paris!!!

Posted in Archives, France, Genealogy, Spain | 1 Comment

Happy Birthday, DNI!

Front of an example of a modern-day DNI card.

One of the least-used resources of family research in Spain, and yet perhaps one of the most valuable, is the DNI, the acronym of the Documento Nacional de Identidad (National Identity Document). This small piece of plastic, which nowadays features not just the bearer’s name and surnames (remember that Spaniards usually have two surnames), but also their address, date and place of birth, parentage, and of course a photograph, has a very interesting history – one we should bear in mind considering the DNI’s value to any family historian.

The DNI was created 75 years ago this week by decree of Spain’s military dictator, Francisco Franco. Until then, Spaniards had no way of legally proving who they were, unless they produced a copy of their birth or baptism certificate – which could entail an obvious risk of committing fraud by assuming someone else’s identity. Spaniards would use other, less orthodox methods of “demonstrating” they were who they said they were: membership cards, letters issued by local authorities, and so on.

General Franco was issued with the first ever DNI card.

The order to create the DNI was given in 1944, a mere five years after the end of the cruel Civil War which tore Spain into two rival factions. However, it would not be until 1951 when the first DNI was issued – apparently the effects of the war made it impossible for the state to fund the launch of such a costly administrative procedure.

As each card has a serial number, the first one was issued in favour of Franco himself, while the second was given to his wife, Carmen Polo, and the third to their only daughter, Carmencita. Numbers 4 to 9 have never been used – and are likely to remain so. The next sequential numbers up to 100 are otherwise reserved for members of Spain’s Royal Family. Former King Juan Carlos I bears DNI number 10; his wife, Greek-born Queen Sofía, number 11; their eldest daughter, the Infanta Elena, number 12, and her sister Cristina number 14 (for superstitious reasons number 13 was omitted). Spain’s current king, Felipe VI, bears DNI number 15; his daughters, the Princess of Asturias and her sister the Infanta Sofía, bear numbers 22 and 23, respectively.

The first three DNI numbers were used by General Franco and his immediate family. Those between number 10 and 100, except number 13, are reserved for the Spanish Royal Family.

Numbers are otherwise assigned not in order of issuance at national level, but by region; therefore, depending on which area a new bearer is issued a card for the first time, he or she will receive a higher or lower number than would have been the case elsewhere in the country.

Naturally, the physical appearance of the DNI has changed over time. At first, given that many Spaniards were illiterate, adding the bearer’s fingerprint was compulsory. Photographs were stapled on, and then stamped over to try and avoid counterfeits. The information about the bearer was also modified over time, while those DNI cards issued in the Sahara (a Spanish colony until 1975) were issued bilingually in Spanish and Arabic. Nowadays DNI cards issued in Spain’s bilingual regions (Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque Country and Valencia) are also in the two respective languages of the area. A person’s marital status and profession, once featured on the DNI, are now no longer reflected in the modern version.

The leader of the Spanish Communist Party Santiago Carrillo had at least three fake DNI cards during Franco’s dictatorship.

Having a deceased relative’s DNI card can give a Spanish genealogist a wealth of information – not just the ever-solicited photographic portrait of the bearer, but an exact date of birth, and the parents’ names – all of which is essential information if we need to order the person’s birth certificate.

Who knew that such a small piece of plastic could bear so much interesting and useful information?

Posted in Genealogy, Spain | Leave a comment

Discovering a new Italian family mystery… down under!

Lately my family research has mainly focused on my Italian ancestors, and I’ve been extremely busy adding every single birth, marriage and death recorded in my great-grandmother’s village under the civil registry collection on FamilySearch, which covers the period 1866 (when civil registration began in Italy) to 1910. By doing so, not only am I “growing” my family tree exponentially, but I am also discovering links to many other families I had no idea I was related to.

Yesterday, while I was taking a break from this fascinating but time-consuming task, I decided to try a new resource which I occasionally dip into, just to see what results may come up: Google Books. I typed in the name of my Italian ancestors’ village, San Marzano Oliveto, and my great-grandmother’s family name, Amerio, and pressed search. My eyes immediately focused on an extract of a book called No need to be afraid: Italian settlers in South Australia between 1839 and the Second World War, by Desmond O’Connor. This is the intriguing result I got:

My interest was instantly piqued. Someone from my family’s home-town with my great-grandmother’s surname living in Australia in the 1920s and active in right-wing politics? I just had to get to the bottom of his story. And he had to be a relative, right? Well, not necessarily. Amerio is a fairly common surname in the village, and the surrounding area, so the chance of Giuseppe Amerio being a direct blood relative was no means guaranteed. However, thanks to my ongoing efforts to chart not just my family but all families in the village would, I hoped, make it easier to locate who this man was, and determine if he and I were actually related.

Like in all other locations across Italy at the turn of the century, many inhabitants of San Marzano Oliveto chose or had no alternative but to emigrate abroad. Many, of course, went to Argentina, while others, like my great-grandmother, went to the United States. But some, I have recently discovered, also settled in Australia, and this made me wonder if I could trace Giuseppe Amerio’s story down under any further. After all, there is no shortage of Giuseppe Amerios in my family tree file (56 to be precise), and a substantial percentage of them could have been the individual who became so enamoured with Mussolini’s politics…

A call from help on Twitter yielded some very good advice: try searching on Trove, Australia’s national library search engine, which is free and includes newspapers as well as a number of other printed resources. In went the words “Giuseppe Amerio”, and lo and behold came a torrent of results, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, when Giuseppe would of course have been politically active. I was lucky enough to find an article penned by him in 1928, where he compares Benito Mussolini to Italian national heroes Mazzini and Garibaldi. The article not only gave me a clearer picture about my potential cousin’s political views -I think the least said about that the better, by the way-, but astonishingly it also included an actual photograph of Giuseppe himself! Trove truly is a genealogical treasure trove!

Giuseppe Amerio, Italian Consul in Adelaide.

But could the newspapers reveal anything else about Giuseppe’s background? Well, nothing is mentioned about his year of birth, which would have been very helpful, or his parentage, which would have allowed me to pin-point him on the tree immediately, but there was a very useful entry which unlocked the mystery definitively: his marriage announcement!

It turns out that in April 1927 Giuseppe married fellow Italian Vincenzina Amerio, who had arrived in Australia barely a fortnight before. The marriage announcement, and subsequent reports about the wedding itself, included a reference to Vincenzina’s father, a man called Achille Amerio. With such an unusual name, I scoured my family tree file for anyone who fitted the bill – and voilà! Achille Amerio, born in San Marzano Oliveto in 1875, the son of a local veterinarian, had married Leonilda Giulia Asinari, and had had three children called Luigi Francesco, Remigio and (drum roll please) Vincenza! I freely admit I was slightly disappointed to observe that this branch of the family does not belong to my own lineage – not as far as I know anyway – which made me suspect that Giuseppe too may well have belonged to a different family from my own.

I decided to try yet another online resource: I typed Giuseppe and Vincenza’s name in Ancestry to see if I could get any additional information about them. The only helpful record I was able to retrieve was a passenger list from 1934 showing Vincenza travelling to Adelaide via Melbourne, accompanied by Luigia Leonilda Amerio.

The passenger list for the SS Viminale, showing Vincenza Amerio travelling from Genoa to Australia in 1934.

Luigia Leonilda Amerio was a new name to me, and for a moment I thought this might be Vincenza’s mother coming out to Australia to visit her daughter and son-in-law. But the name was not exactly right: Vincenza’s mother was Leonilda Giulia, not Luigia Leonilda.

Ah, but of course, once again Trove had the answer: a short article from 1934 (in Italian) stating that the Consul’s wife and their little daughter had recently arrived in Australia from a trip to the motherland. Well, well, well! Giuseppe and Vincenzina had a daughter called Luigia Leonilda Amerio. And that got me thinking: following tradition, could the daughter had been named after her two grandmothers? Leonilda was obviously her maternal grandmother’s name – was Luigia her paternal grandmother?

It was clear I was onto something, although so far I had basically only managed to find information on Giuseppe’s wife. His origins were still a question mark. I then had one of those wonderful eureka moments that unravel a mystery in an instant. Vincenza’s birth certificate, to which I had access thanks to the collection on FamilySearch, stated that she died in 1976 in the Italian city of Verona – a fair distance away from sleepy San Marzano Oliveto.

Vincenza’s birth certificate, with a marginal note stating she died in far-away Verona in 1976.

Now that seemed to be a clue. It seems natural to assume that Giuseppe would have died in the same city as his wife, so I checked my records again, this time looking for a Giuseppe Amerio whose mother’s name was Luigia. And would you believe it, I only found one possible candidate who ticked all the boxes: Giuseppe Amerio, born in 1895 to Gaetano Lorenzo Amerio and Luigia Pelazzo, passed away in Verona in 1981, five years after Vincenzina. At last, I had found Giuseppe Amerio!!!

Giuseppe’s birth certificate, with a marginal note stating he died in Verona in 1981.

I don’t really think I need to continue my research into this couple to prove that Giuseppe Amerio (1895-1981) married Vincenzina Amerio (1905-1976). All evidence points in the right direction – but just to be sure, I may apply for their death certificates in Verona, or I may reach out to the Australian authorities to see if there’s a way of acquiring their marriage certificate in Adelaide, though I am satisfied to have unravelled my latest family mystery by simply typing in their names in a handful of online resources at my disposal.

And what of the other mystery? Is Giuseppe actually related to me, or, like Vincenzina, does he belong to another family which, despite the identical surname, is not connected to me? Actually, Giuseppe is indeed my blood relation. His paternal grandfather Giuseppe Amerio (they weren’t very adventurous when it came to choosing names, were they?) was the grandson of Pietro Francesco Amerio, my 5x-great-grandfather, making Giuseppe Amerio my great-grandmother’s third cousin and therefore my third cousin three times removed.

It truly is a small world, isn’t it?


Posted in Australia, Emigration, Genealogy, Marriage, San Marzano Oliveto, World War II | 1 Comment

William Samuel Morris (1925-1941)

Some of the stories in my family history are so graphic, so poignant, that they will always remain a fixture of my mind and my imagination. Such is the case of my grandmother’s cousin, William Samuel Morris, who died in the Second World War at the tragically early age of sixteen.

I first found out about William Samuel’s existence many years ago, when I began researching the English side of my family tree. My grandmother had by then passed away, but luckily her cousin Joan was still alive, and I was able to ask her questions about her side of the family. In doing so, Auntie Joan told me that her father, William Morris, a farm labourer from Herefordshire, had been married twice, and that she and her younger brother William Samuel were both born from the second marriage. Joan knew her father’s first wife had died young, and that there had been a child, whose name and sex she could not recall – and she added, perhaps somewhat dismissively, that the child died young anyway.

Tracking down someone with a relatively common name like William Morris was no easy task. It would be years before I was able to locate my great-great-uncle William Morris on the 1911 census, which showed him living with his first wife Emily (née Price) in the small village of Whitney-on-Wye, near the Welsh border. William worked as a wagoner on a farm, while Emily probably looked after the home. I was also able to find the birth record of their only child, a boy who was named William Grenville Morris. But as I knew, the little boy died soon after – aged 28 days, as it happens – having been born premature. Emily herself suffered from heart disease, and a few years later her delicate constitution gave in when she came down with influenza at the end of 1918, during the pandemic commonly known as the Spanish Flu.

My 36 year-old great-great-uncle William was left a childless widower, but a few years later he managed to overcome his grief and remarried, this time to a woman called Flossie Theodora Hopkins. Flossie and William had two children, the aforementioned Joan and her younger brother William Samuel, whose first name he was given in honour of his father and in memory of his late older brother.

The family lived happily at the foot of the Malvern Hills during the interwar years. William Samuel left school at a young age and as early as 1939, when he would have been only fourteen, he was working as a garage employee, near the town of Ledbury.

William Samuel, his mother and sister, circa 1930. Author’s collection.

The outbreak of war that same year would have stirred in many men across the country a great sense of patriotism, and William Samuel, caught up in the excitement, wished to enlist. He was, of course, far too young to join the army, but he was able to be recruited in the Merchant Navy.

William Samuel was engaged as a mess room boy (i.e. someone who waits at table on ships, maintains the officers’ quarters, works in the ship’s kitchen…). It would have been very hard physical work, but in view of his enthusiasm to fight for king and country, I am convinced that William Samuel would have been very proud of the modest role he had to play.

By 1941 the war had entered its third year, and submarine warfare was at its height. By spring and early summer the amount of British ships sunk by German U-boats had increased exponentially. William Samuel and his fellow crew would have been acutely aware of the dangers that lay ahead of any crossing.

And yet, duty called. William Samuel began working as a mess room boy on the Merchant Navy’s SS Embassage, a relatively large cargo steamship that had been built in Sunderland in 1935 by J.L. Thompson & Sons Ltd.  In August 1941 the Embassage was commissioned to take cargo to Bathurst and Pepel, in Sierra Leone – then a British colonial protectorate – as part of convoy OS-4. The convoy, which left Liverpool on 23 August, was formed by a total of 33 vessels, some of which would have travel over the course of three weeks from Britain to the Protectorate.

The SS Embassage. Photo from City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 447-2184. Credit:

Four days into the voyage, about 100 miles west off Achill Island the convoy came under attack by German submarine U-557, commanded by 26 year-old Oberleutnant zur See Ottokar Arnold Paulssen. In the dark of night, the Norwegian Motor merchant Segundo sank will the loss of seven men. Almost simultaneously, the British steam merchant Saugor was also hit and sunk, leaving 59 dead and only 23 survivors. Less than an hour later, another British steamer, the Tremoda, was torpedoed, leaving 32 dead and 21 survivors. Just before half-past-four in the morning, Paulssen ordered a new attack, this time with the Embassage as his target.

Given the string of attacks perpetrated in the preceding hours, it is hard to imagine that William Samuel and his fellow crew members would not have been alert to a possible attack. And yet, despite their efforts, a German torpedo pierced through the hull of the Embassage, which began to sink quickly. Of the 42 men on board, only five made it to an overturned lifeboat – miraculously, William Samuel Morris, who survived the explosion and the actual sinking, was among them. Among the other four were boatswain William Garbutt Magrs, from South Shields, and a young apprentice called William Kelsey, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The story related by Magrs to his family after he was rescued was that both Kelsey and William Samuel Morris, who were only 17 and 16 years of age, respectively, were weakened by the lack of food and water. They were told not to drink sea water, as it would make them ill and delirious. William Samuel obeyed, but the ordeal was too much for the young lad, and he died the day following the sinking, on 28 August 1941. His comrades had no choice but to bury him at sea.

Position where the Embassage was sunk.

William Kelsey did not pay heed to his colleagues’ advice and began to drink seawater in order to alleviate his thirst. Within hours he became delirious, and often dipped into the sea from which Magrs or one of his other colleagues had to jump in and reel him back onto the lifeboat. On one such occasion, Kelsey managed to slip away, and drowned on 31 August.

The surviving three crew members, including Magrs himself, were picked up by the Canadian destroyer Assiniboine, and taken to safety. Magrs would later meet with William Samuel’s parents, and tell them of their son’s final hours.

William Samuel’s entry on the Grave Registration Report. Credit: CWGC.

Ottokar Arnold Paulssen, the commander of the U-boat responsible for the Embassage sinking, was promoted to the rank of Kapitäleutnant a few weeks later, and then made a Korvettenkapitän in December 1941. He was transferred to the Mediterranean, where on 15 December he ordered the sinking of the HMS Galatea, killing 470. The day after, near Crete, Paulssen’s U-boat 557 was accidentally struck by an Italian torpedo boat, the Orione, causing the submarine to sink. Paulssen and all of his crew died in the sinking.

As William Samuel Morris was buried at sea, he does not have a grave. His name is commemorated on Tower Hill (Panel 37) and on Colwall War Memorial near his family home.

William Samuel Morris was only sixteen when he died. Like most deaths during WWII, his was a senseless, unnecessary death, and yet for all his enthusiasm and courage to go away to fight, his name was almost forgotten -even by his own family – for decades. Until today.

Lest we forget.

Colwall War Memorial. Credit: Colwall Church.

Posted in 1911 Census, 1939 UK Register, Death, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Ships, World War II | Leave a comment

The San Marzano Oliveto war memorial

The 21 May 1915 edition of “Il Corriere della Sera” announcing Italy’s declaration of war.

When my 17 year-old great-grandmother emigrated from Italy to America in late 1912, she could hardly have imagined that in less than three years her homeland would take part in the First World War – a conflict which was to claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of her fellow countrymen.

When I first visited her home town of San Marzano Oliveto, in Italy’s north-western region of Piedmont, I walked around the small village centre and took photos of the war memorial – a simple obelisk in white marble with the chiselled names of 38 soldiers who died as a direct consequence of the First World War – and 14 others who died in the Second World War. The memorial stands on a small green patch at the entrance of the town, at the very top of a road that leads down to the local cemetery – where my own great-great-grandparents are buried.

It only struck me recently how little I actually knew about Italy’s involvement in WWI – the Kingdom of Italy, as it was then, did not enter the war until May 1915. Self-interest was very much at the core of Italy’s decision to abandon its prior neutral status: if they were victorious, the Italian government and much of the country’s population expected to gain considerable portions of territory in Africa and Europe, particularly in the Balkans, which explains why most soldiers saw action on the home front, along the Austrian border.

San Marzano Oliveto’s war memorial lists the names of 38 soldiers who died as a direct consequence of the First World War – that is to say, either killed in action or in hospital due to their wounds or an illness contracted at the front. Only a small minority of them, who were probably injured during the conflict, died in San Marzano Oliveto shortly after the end of the war, where no doubt they had been sent to spend the remaining days of their lives.

Like in so many other cases when studying casualties of the First World War, what strikes one most is the youth of the majority of soldiers. The oldest was 52 years old, the youngest had just celebrated his 18th birthday.

One important remark I should make is that not all of these young men were born in San Marzano Oliveto; some were born elsewhere, as noted under each section. Some moved to the village when they were young, while others settled there after they married local sanmarzanese girls.

I have noticed that the list of soldiers on the memorial falls short by nine names. For unknown reasons, Giacomo Amerio, Emanuele Caire, Alfieri Dante Caligaris, Mario Fiorito, Giuseppe Icardi, Giovanni Liberti, Pier Luigi Pattarino, Giuseppe Pescarmona and Alfredo Solito were not included among those of their comrades in arms – however, they may be featured on war memorials elsewhere. Nevertheless, in view of their association with the town, I have thought it only right to include their names in this list, duly marked with the symbol . In addition, those names marked with a double asterisk (**) indicate which soldiers are directly related to me by blood (that’s a staggering 12 out of 47). Another curious statistic is the fact that six soldiers died in 1915, sixteen in 1916, twelve in 1917, seven in 1918 and three in 1919, with a further three – Giuseppe Bologna, Giovanni Bussi and Edoardo Lovisolo – being unaccounted for.

The list below includes only the soldiers who died during the First World War. I have not analysed the lives of those who died in the Second World War (that will be for another article). Gathering the information contained in these brief accounts of their lives has been made possible thanks principally to two sources: the Albo d’Oro dei Caduti della Grande Guerra and the civil registry of births, marriages and deaths for San Marzano Oliveto (and other surrounding towns) which are available on To all those who have collaborated in the preservation and digitisation of both resources, I am most sincerely thankful.

  1. ALBENGA Giuseppe (1886-1916)
    Giuseppe Albenga was born on 13 October 1886 in San Marzano Oliveto, the son of Luigi Albenga and his wife Maria Tuzzo, both of whom were agricultural labourers. After the outbreak of war, Giuseppe joined the 2nd Alpine Regiment, being sent to the front along the Austro-Hungarian border. He tragically lost his life on 12 March 1916 following an avalanche in the mountainous region of Carnia, close to what is now the frontier with Slovenia. He was 29 years old.
  2. AMERIO Giacomo (1885-1916)
    Two sanmarzanese soldiers who died in the war bore the name Giacomo Amerio, but only one of them is listed on the memorial. The eldest of the two was born on 19 April 1885, the son of Giovanni Giuseppe Amerio, from San Marzano Oliveto, and his wife Rosa Legnano, who came from the nearby town of Calosso. Giacomo joined the 28th Infantry Regiment, and died at the 107th field hospital on 9 August 1916 while being treated of the wounds he received in action. He was 31.
  3. AMERIO Giacomo (1888-1916) †
    The younger Giacomo Amerio was born on 31 January 1886 to Rocco Francesco Amerio (1838-1910), an agricultural labourer, and his second wife, Cristina Arcangela Rabbino (1834-1910), who came from the town of Calamandrana. After he joined the army, Giacomo was promoted to Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st Alpine Regiment and saw military action in the Battle of Asiago, in Veneto, but he died of an illness in a field hospital near the front on 19 September 1916. He was 28.
  4. AMERIO Giovanni Battista (1894-1915) **
    Giovanni Battista Amerio was born in San Marzano Oliveto on 27 August 1894, the son of Giuseppe Amerio and Maria Teresa”Marietta” Capra. He was the youngest child of his parents’ large family. Giovanni became a soldier when he joined the 66th Infantry Regiment. He was killed in action on 26 November 1915 in the region of Tolmino, in present-day Slovenia. He was 21.
  5. BALOCCO Ernesto (1883-1917) **
    Ernesto Giuseppe Balocco, who was born on 8 September 1883, was the son of Francesco Balocco, an agricultural labourer, and his wife Margherita Vallino. He joined the 127th Infantry Regiment, and died on 17 May 1917 of wounds received in action during the Tenth Battle of the River Isonzo, while Italian troops tried to capture the city of Trieste from the Austrians. He was 33 years old.
  6. BALOCCO Giovanni Teresio (1899-1917)
    The son of Francesco Balocco and Anselma Reggio, Giovanni Balocco was born in Canelli on 2 November 1899. His links to San Marzano Oliveto, which would justify his inclusion in the village war memorial, are unclear, although he may have lived there for a part of his life. Giovanni joined the 14th Regiment of Sharpshooters before going to the front. He was killed in action on the Altopiano di Asiago, approximately half way between Trento and Treviso, on 6 December 1917, just over a month after his 18th birthday.
  7. BARBERO Giovanni (1897-1916)
    Giovanni Barbero was born in San Marzano Oliveto on 2 January 1897, the son of Giovanni Battista Barbero (b.1869), an agricultural labourer, and his wife Angela Maria Baldizzone (1872-1902), who came from the village of Bistagno, in the province of Alessandria. Giovanni was a soldier in the 2nd Alpine Regiment, and died on 19 November 1916 in Cuneo, not far from his home town, due to an illness he had contracted at the front. He was only 19.
  8. BIANCO Francesco (1888-1917) **
    Francesco Luigi Dante Bianco was born on 14 December 1888, although his birth was not registered until a month after his birth. His parents were Marziano Bianco, a local landowner, and Maria Caligaris. Shortly after his own sister’s marriage to Pietro Chiappone in 1912, Francesco married Pietro’s sister Maria Chiappone in the village of Castelnuovo Calcea. Francesco joined the 145th Infantry Regiment, and died on 18 June 1917 of wounds received in combat while fighting on Mount Zebio, an important Austrian stronghold in the region of Veneto. He was 28.
  9. BIANCO Secondo (1886-1915) **
    Secondo Bianco was born on 25 February 1886 to Pietro Bianco, a tailor from San Marzano Oliveto, and his wife Rosa Musso, a seamstress from Agliano Terme. On 2 July 1912 Secondo married Luigia Olivero in San Marzano Oliveto. He was a Corporal-Major of the 38th Infantry Regiment, and died on 2 November 1915 in the 15th field hospital of wounds received in combat. He was 29.
  10. BOLOGNA Giuseppe (?-?)
  11. BORRINO Giuseppe (1893-1917)
    Giuseppe Borrino was born on 10 September 1893 to Giovanni Borrino and Angela Carolina Cimossi. The family resided in a newly-built house in the regione Mariano area of San Marzano Oliveto. Giuseppe enlisted in the 5th Alpine Regiment, and died of wounds on 25 June 1917 on Mount Ortigara, which was the scene of fierce fighting between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces as each tried to reach the mountain’s summit. He was 23 years old.
  12. BORRINO Giuseppe (1898-1918)
    Giuseppe Borrino (not a close relative of the previous soldier on this list) was born on 9 April 1898 to Antonio Borrino and his wife Maria Domenica Bianco, both agricultural labourers. Giuseppe was a soldier of the 157th Infantry Regiment and was killed in battle in the Altopiano di Asagio area in Veneto on 31 January 1918. He was 19.
  13. BRANDA Domenico (1876-1919)
    Domenico Branda was born on 9 December 1876 in San Marzano Oliveto, the son of Pietro Branda, an agricultural labourer, and of his wife Rosa Laiolo. He was a corporal in the 225th Regiment. Although he survived the war, his inclusion in the Albo d’Oro delli Caduti della Grande Guerra suggests that his death was a direct consequence of the war. He died in San Marzano Oliveto, due to illness, on 25 August 1919. He was 42.
  14. BUSSI Giovanni (?-?)
  15. CAIRE Eligio (1892-1916)
    Eligio Vincenzo Caire was born on 27 March 1892, the son of Pietro Caire, an agricultural labourer, and his wife Luigia Merlino. He joined the 2nd Alpine Regiment, and saw action in the Plezzo valley, in present-day Slovenia. He died there, of wounds received in action, on 4 May 1916. He was 24.
  16. CAIRE Emanuele (1889-1915) †
    This name does not appear on the war memorial, but according to the Albo d’Oro, a fallen soldier called Emanuele Caire was born in San Marzano Oliveto on 1 July 1889 to Ilario Caire. In fact, Emanuele’s full name was Emanuele Pietro Bue Caire – Bue Caire being his family name, adopted at some point during the middle of the 19th century. Emanuele’s father Ilario belonged to the large Caire family. His wife, Emanuele’s mother, was Luigia Maggiora. Emanuele (Bue) Caire  joined the 155th Infantry Regiment early on in the war, and died on 6 August 1915 on Mount San Michele due to wounds received in combat. According to the Albo d’Oro he would have been 26 years old.
  17. CAIRE Ermenegildo (1899-1917)
    Ermenegildo Caire was born on 28 January 1899, the son of Tommaso Caire and his wife, Rosa Seconda Turello. He was a soldier in the 5th Alpine Regiment. On 11 December 1917 he died of wounds received in combat on Mount Grappa, in the region of Veneto. He died one month short of his 19th birthday.
  18. CALIGARIS Alfieri Dante (1893-1916) † **
    The splendidly named Alfieri Dante Ippolito Plinio Caligaris was born on 15 April 1893, the son of landowner Antonio Caligaris and his wife Marta Alessandria. Alfieri Dante Caligaris reached the rank of corporal major in the 55th Infantry Regiment. The 23-year-old soldier was lost in the sinking of the troopship SS Principe Umberto on 8 June 1916, when the ship hit a mine in the Adriatic Sea. The disaster claimed the lives of 1,926 men – the worst naval disaster in WWI in terms of human loss.
  19. CALIGARIS Bartolomeo (1895-1916)
    Bartolomeo Francesco Caligaris, so named in honour of both his grandfathers, was born on 4 May 1895, the son of agricultural labourers Giovanni Battista Caligaris, of Loazzolo, and his wife Maria Giulia Poggio, of Agliano. Bartolomeo joined the 2nd Alpine Regiment. He died of wounds on 17 June 1916 in the 110th field hospital. He was 21. He was a first cousin of Giovanni Ghignone (see below).
  20. CAPUSSOTTO Edoardo (1891-1916)
    Edoardo (registered as Giovanni Odoardo) Capussotto was born on 8 January 1891 to Lorenzo Capussotto, an agricultural labourer, and his wife, Cristina Lovisolo. Edoardo joined the 79th Infantry Regiment and saw action on Mount Pasubio, where he was killed in action on 12 July 1916. He was 25.
  21. FACCIO Davide (1895-1917) **
    Davide Faccio was born on 27 September 1895 to Guido Faccio and his wife Vincenza Terzano, humble labourers who belonged to San Marzano Oliveto’s small but tight-knit Methodist community. Davide was a soldier in the 1st Regiment of Mountain Artillery. He became ill during the war while fighting on Mount Pasubio, in Veneto, and died on 6 April 1917. He was 21. His remains now lie in the Redipuglia War Memorial. Two of his first cousins, Erminio and Eliseo Terzano, were also killed in the war (see below).
  22. FERRERO Ernesto (1894-1916)
    Ernesto Ferrero was born on 6 November 1894, the son of Giovanni Battista Ferrero and his wife, Marianna Bianco. He had a twin sister, Giacinta, who would outlive him, dying in Calamandrana in 1960. Ernesto joined the 94th Bombardier Battery; he was killed in action in the Carso region between modern-day Slovenia and Italy on 18 September 1916. He was 21.
  23. FIORITO Mario (1895-1915) †
    Mario Francesco Fiorito was born on 9 April 1895 to Giuseppe Fiorito, an agricultural labourer, and his wife Cristina Zanelli. After the outbreak of war, he joined the 9th Bersaglieri regiment in Casale Monferrato. He was killed in action on 21 November 1915 in Oslavia, in present-day Gorizia. He was 20.
  24. GALLO Giuseppe (1887-1917)
    Giuseppe Carlo Gallo was born on 15 March 1887, son of Domenico Gallo and Luigia Pesce. On 27 April 1908 he married Giuseppina Caire (cousin of Ermenegildo Caire, see above). The couple had at least one daughter, Armida, who sadly died aged one. Giuseppe joined the 2nd Alpine Regiment, and was killed in action while fighting during the 10th Battle of the Isonzo on 24 May 1917. He was 30.
  25. GHIGNONE Giovanni (1888-1916)
    Giovanni Bartolomeo Ghignone was born on 17 July 1888 in Canelli, but was raised in San Marzano Oliveto. His parents were Giuseppe Ghignone and Cristina Caligaris. On 28 March 1913 he married Virginia Tavasso in San Marzano Oliveto. During the war he joined the 144th Infantry Regiment, but was later wounded in action, dying in a field hospital on 15 October 1916. He was 28. Another San Marzano Oliveto soldier, Bartolomeo Caligaris, who also died in 1916, was his first cousin on his mother’s side.
  26. GRASSO Giuseppe (1882-1916)
    Giuseppe Grasso was born to Andrea Grasso and Cristina Filippone on 21 December 1882. He had at least one older sister called Maria Giacinta Giuseppina Grasso, who married Francesco Amerio. Giuseppe himself married Angela Catterina Spertino in 1906, and the couple had at least a son, Andrea, born in 1908. Giuseppe joined the 77th Infantry Regiment. He went missing, presumed dead, on 3 November 1916 while fighting in the Carso region. He was 34. His wife’s brother Vittorio Spertino was also killed in action (see below).
  27. ICARDI Giuseppe (1896-1917) †
    Giuseppe Icardi was born on 23 August 1896 to Guglielmo Icardi and his wife, Carolina Bertello. He joined the 3rd Alpine Regiment. He died in military hospital number 28 on 29 August 1917 due to wounds received in combat less than a week after his 21st birthday.
  28. IMERITO Candido (1884-1916)
    Enrico Candido Imerito was born on 22 July 1884 to Stefano Imerito and Catterina Berta. He joined the 2nd Alpine Regiment, and was seriously wounded while fighting in the Plezzo Valley, in modern-day Slovenia, where he died on 29 April 1916. He was 31.
  29. IMERITO Davide (1889-1917)**
    Davide Imerito, who was named after an older brother who died the year before, was born on 2 July 1889 to Giuseppe Antonio Imerito, of San Marzano Oliveto, and Luigia Barbero, of Canelli. He joined the 88th Infantry Regiment, and was seriously wounded while fighting. He was sent to the spa town of Acqui Terme, near San Marzano Oliveto, to convalesce, but he finally died on 7 November 1917. He was 28.
  30. IMERITO Silvio (1891-1918)
    Silvio Imerito was born in Calamandrana, but may have spent a part of his life in San Marzano Oliveto. He joined the army as a soldier in the 155th Infantry Regiment. He was taken prisoner at some point during the war, when he became gravely ill, and he was still being held a prisoner when the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918. He died exactly a week later. He was 27.
  31. LEONZINO Carlo (1882-1919)
    Carlo Leonzino was born on 8 August 1882 in the village of Santo Stefano Belbo, the son of Bartolomeo Leonzino. He married Catterina Ghignone and settled in San Marzano Oliveto, where his son Battista was born in 1910. He joined the army as a soldier in 154th Infantry Regiment, but became seriously ill and was sent back to San Marzano Oliveto in order to convalesce. He died there on 3 July 1919. His younger brother Pasquale Leonzino (1892-1915), who is not recorded in the San Marzano Oliveto war memorial, would also lose his life due to military action during the war. He was 36.
  32. LIBERTI Giovanni (1886-1917) †
    Giovanni Luigi Liberti (or Libert) was born on 14 June 1886 to Ottavio Liberti, a labourer, and his wife Rosa Rinaldi. After the outbreak of war he joined the 257th Infantry Regiment. He was later taken prisoner and died due to illness, while a prisoner of war, on 26 December 1917. He was 31.
  33. LOVISOLO Alessandro (1886-1918)
    Alessandro Lovisolo was born in Calamandrana on 9 October 1886. His connection to San Marzano Oliveto is not known. He joined the 68th Infantry Regiment. During the war he became seriously ill, and was taken to Milan, where he died on 3 November 1918, near the end of the war. He was 32.
  34. LOVISOLO Edoardo (1878-?)
    Edoardo Giovanni Lovisolo was born in Nizza Monferrato in or around 1878, the son of Luigi Lovisolo and his wife Clementina Viazzi, both residents of San Marzano Oliveto. Edoardo’s name is included on the war memorial, but is not featured in the Albo d’Oro. It is not known when or where he died.
  35. OLIVERO Francesco (1887-1915)
    Francesco Carlo Olivero was born on 28 January 1887 to Battista Primo Olivero and his wife Teresa Borrino. On 29 November 1910 he married Ida Asinari. He joined the 155th Infantry Regiment. He was killed in action fighting on Mount San Michele on 26 July 1915. He was 28.
  36. OLIVERO Michele (1889-1917) **
    Michele Lorenzo Olivero was born on 5 February 1889 to Giuseppe Olivero and Luigia Pesce, who died in childbirth when he was only thirteen years old. He joined the army as a soldier of the 2nd Alpine Regiment, but was later taken prisoner by the enemy to Breslau (present-day Wroclaw, Poland). His health worsened during this period, and he died as a prisoner on 25 October 1917, and his remains interred in Wroclaw. He was 28.
  37. PATTARINO Pier Luigi (1866-1918) †
    Pier Luigi Pattarino was born in the house of his paternal grandfather on 6 August 1866 in San Marzano Oliveto, the son of Giovanni Pattarino, a landowner, and Teresa Giolito. He later became a veterinarian. In 1892 he married Angela Gurgo-Ara, the sister of his own sister-in-law. He joined the army as Veterinarian-major. Towards the end of 1918 he became ill and was taken to Alessandria, near his hometown, where he died on 5 November a few days short of the end of the war. He was 52.
  38. PESCARMONA Giuseppe (1897-1917)
    Giuseppe Pescarmona was born on 30 September 1897 to Luigi Pescarmona and his wife Felicità Lipani, both of them agricultural labourers. He joined the 2nd Alpine Regiment after the outbreak of war, and saw action in the Vicentine Alps. He was killed in action on 25 June 1917 on Mount Ortigara. He was only 19.
  39. POGGIO Enrico (1885-1918)
    Enrico Giuseppe Poggio was born on 16 November 1885 to Luigi Poggio and Francesca Giuso. He joined the 2nd Alpine Regiment, but towards the end of the war became gravely sick, and died in field hospital number 171 on 18 November 1918, a week after the end of the war and just two days after his 33rd birthday.
  40. POGGIO Francesco (1895-1918)
    Francesco Antonio Poggio was born on 19 February 1895, the son of Andrea Poggio and his wife Isabella Morando. He joined the army as a soldier of the 2nd Engineers Regiment. He became ill during the end of the war, and died on 23 November 1918, shortly after the armistice was signed, in field hospital number 69. He was 23.
  41. SCAGLIOLA Giovanni (1893-1919)
    Giovanni Pietro Scagliola was born on 17 January 1893 to Giuseppe Scagliola and his wife Petronilla Bielli. He was named after both his grandfathers, Giovanni Bielli, of Rocchetta Palafea, and Pietro Scagliola, of San Marzano Oliveto. He joined the war as a soldier in the 79th Infantry Regiment, but his health suffered during the war. He survived the conflict, but died in San Marzano Oliveto on 19 May 1919. He was 26.
  42. SOLITO Alfredo (1888-1916) †
    Alfredo Solito was born on 8 April 1888 to Luigi Solito and Rosa Terzano, agricultural labourers. He married in 1912, and three years later, following the outbreak of war, he joined the 2nd Alpine Regiment. During the war he became gravely ill and was sent to the town of Alessandria, where he died on 13 July 1916. He was 28 years old.
  43. SPERTINO Vittorio (1890-1915) **
    Born on 4 July 1895, Vittorio Luigi Erineo Spertino was the son of Domenico Spertino and his wife, Cristina Terzano. He joined the 37th Infantry Regiment. Vittorio died due to illness contracted at the front while being treated in field hospital number 73, on 3 September 1915. He was 20. His sister’s husband Giuseppe Grasso (see above) was killed a year later.
  44. TERZANO Cesare (1893-1915) **
    Cesare Giuseppe Terzano was born on 25 March 1893, the son of Giuseppe Terzano, of San Marzano Oliveto, and Catterina Terzano, of Nizza Monferrato. He joined the 55th Infantry Regiment and saw military action on Monte Piana, in the Dolomites. He went missing in combat, presumed dead, on 20 July 1915. He was 22.
  45. TERZANO Eliseo (1899-1918)**
    Eliseo Dante Terzano was born on 10 December 1899 to Stefano Terzano and Marta Pons, agricultural labourers. He joined the 7th Alpine Regiment, and was later taken prisoner, where he died of illness on 29 August 1918. He was nearly 19. His brother Erminio Terzano (see below) and his first cousin Davide Faccio (see above) were both killed in action in 1916 and 1917 respectively.
  46. TERZANO Erminio (1893-1916) **
    Erminio Davide Terzano was born on 22 April 1893 to Stefano Terzano and Marta Pons. Like his brother, he joined the army, becoming a corporal of the 1st Mountain Artiliery Regiment. For his efforts he was awarded the Silver Medal of Military Valour. He was killed in action on 11 September 1916 while fighting on Mount Pasubio. He was 23 years old. His younger brother Eliseo and their cousin Davide Faccio (see above) were also casualties of the war.
  47. TORELLO Pietro (1894-1916)
    Pietro Torello was the son of Pasquale Torello. He was born in Canelli on 14 June 1894. He joined the 2nd Engineers Regiment, and was later wounded while fighting in the Carso region, dying of his wounds on 21 September 1916. He was only 22.

Front of the San Marzano Oliveto war memorial, taken in 2012.

Side view of the war memorial.

Another side view of the war memorial.

Posted in Death, Genealogy, Italy, Killed In Action, War, World War I | 1 Comment

Victorian mourning

Queen Victoria and her daughter Alice, both in deep mourning, beside a bust of Prince Albert.

We are all familiar with the quintessential image of Queen Victoria in her widow’s weeds, dressed from head to foot in deep mourning for her beloved Albert, the Prince Consort. “Why may the earth not swallow me up?”, wrote an anguished Queen to her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, in her first letter after her husband’s unexpected passing.

Queen Victoria’s grief was genuine, but in hindsight one can also feel a bit of theatricality in the obsessive, even exaggerated way she came to display her very real bereavement. Naturally, the Queen was no ordinary woman because of her personality as well as her station, but her long reign left an indelible mark on the way society perceived death – a society which, we must remember, changed radically during the six decades she sat on the British throne.

We tend to think of Queen Victoria as the prime example of the moral norms that governed society in the 19th century. In fact, society took a very different view on death – and mourning -, and in many respects behaved in a much more self-restrained way than did the sovereign. And when we talk about society, we actually refer to upper and middle-class society, who would have had the financial and material means to address social mores much more strictly than their socially lower contemporaries.

For all our evolution, nowadays the subject of death is almost taboo. It is best not spoken about, almost as if in some way it is not going to happen. Victorians, however, took a decisively different view. We must remember that death was much more common in the Victorian era, with people dying at a much younger age than today – and infant mortality being especially prevalent in all strata of society.

The way we mourn our dead today has also changed radically. Dressing up in black after a close relative’s death is almost unheard of among the younger generations, and no one, rich or poor, observes an official period of mourning – except in political contexts (i.e. national mourning following the death of a head of state or government). Today we still express our loss quite openly, but we’ve changed our black mourning clothes for messages on social media, or leaving out candles and flowers near local landmarks when a tragedy occurs, or someone famous dies.

Members of the Royal Family were almost unique when it came to wearing mourning clothes after Princess Di’s death in 1997. Members of the public, though very much moved by the event, did not necessarily alter their way of dressing for the occasion.

Victorians were also quite outspoken when it came to expressing their personal loss, but the way they showed it was very different from ours. Death was accepted as a part of life – and for most, it was a manifestation of the will of God – so one had to unprotestingly accept it. Only a minority thought it best not to tell the dying of their impending demise, an enterprise in which many doctors collaborated if they didn’t wish to make their patients feel anguished or depressed. Those who were especially devout would prepare for the inevitable by tying up loose ends, paying off their debts and, very importantly, leaving a will, even going as far as arranging their own funerals – which were thought to be necessarily extravagant, lest neighbours should thing the family meagre or lacking in resources.

Attitudes towards infant mortality, which is rare in Western societies these days, were also very different during the 19th century. Victorians half feared, half expected some of their children to die young, and so were psychologically prepared to face the facts when they came. This does not mean that they did not grieve over their losses. For years English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote in her diary about her young son Willie, who died in infancy. Marion Sambourne (the wife of cartoonist and illustrator Edward Linley Sambourne) was less sympathetic to those who experienced such cruel losses – one day after her sister Tabitha lost her baby, Marion wrote in her diary “Tabby came to tea and dinner – seems to feel her baby’s loss v[ery] much. Very happy quiet day.

As soon as the initial shock of death was over, the official period of mourning began, and it applied to everyone inside the household. Painting by Jules Charles Boquet.

While black and other dark colours were invariably used to signify the death of an adult, white was consistently used as a funereal colour for children. In 1903 the Grand Duke of Hesse’s only daughter, Elizabeth, died of typhoid fever while holidaying with the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia at their hunting lodge in Poland. Little Elizabeth’s funeral in her native Darmstadt (Germany) was, at her father’s behest, a large display of white fanfare, including a white coffin, white flowers and white horses.

But black was and still is the colour of mourning in the West. As soon as a member of the family died, the body would be left either in a parlour room or a bedroom to be prepared for burial, which could take place as soon as the day after (in southern European countries) to two or three weeks later (in Nordic countries). Meanwhile, windows and shutters would remain closed and mirrors would be covered in black crêpe. Servants would be given black armbands as a sign of mourning, while every-day appliances and utensils would be touched up in black or otherwise replaced given the circumstances: in Federico García Lorca’s theatre piece The House of Bernarda Alba, the bitter and recently-widowed Bernarda reprimands her daughter Adela for giving her a coloured fan, instead of a black one, to bear the excruciating heat.

Businesses specialising in mourning wear became popular during the Victorian era.

Following the death of a close relative, there was to be no socialising for an extended period, which meant that, aside from very close family members and friends, no visitors would be received by the mourning family, and their venturing out into the street would be frowned upon by good society. Friends and family were expected to pay calls within two weeks of the death, but would not be received by anyone except perhaps a servant – instead, they would leave calling cards as a way of transmitting their condolences. Again, The House of Bernarda Alba exemplifies this when Bernarda literally locks herself at home after her husband’s death, not realising that her five daughters, all of marriageable age, crave nothing else but to escape their mother’s home and get husbands of their own – with catastrophic consequences for the family.

Writing to one’s friends and relations after the passing of a relative had to be done on formal writing paper with a thick black border – and the thicker the better! Obituaries would also to be printed and handed out at the funeral, often depicting a photo of the deceased. The Victorians adapted quite well to technological advances that were at their disposal when it came to mourning their dead: post-mortem photographs were extremely common, even among the poor. Equally popular was taking a cast in plaster of the deceased’s face, hands and even arms, which would later be displayed in the household as a memento. Locks of hair were taken from the dead before burial, often kept in bespoke lockets – it was even common for the family to bury locks of their own hair with the dead!

A Victorian mourning locket turned into a brooch.

Clothing was of course the easiest and most visible way of telling the world of one’s bereavement, and so black clothes became an indispensable item in the Victorian household. Many retail businesses began to specifically cater for their mournful clientele during the Victorian era, selling all sorts of articles and accessories in black, grey and other dark colours. But purchasing new clothes was not a luxury everyone could afford, so many resorted to dyeing their casual daily clothes in black. Again, this was something which could be done in a specific establishment, or more cheaply at home (but note that underwear was the only part of a person’s wardrobe that was kept white, as the black dye’s pigments would have been too aggressive on the wearer’s delicate skin).

But even the subject of having to purchase black clothing for mourning purposes was criticised by many, as this curious and ironic extract taken from Crinolines and Crimping Irons shows:

LADY: I wish, sir, to look at some mourning.
SHOPMAN: Certainly; by all means… How deep would you wish to go, Ma’am? Do you wish to be very poignant?…. We have the very latest novelties from the Continent. Here is one, Ma’am, just imported – a widow’s silk – watered, you perceive, to match the sentiment. It is called “Inconsolable”, as is very much in vogue in Paris for matrimonial bereavements. And we have several new fabrics introduced this season to meet the demand for fashionable tribulation.
LADY: And all in French style?
SHOPMAN: Certainly – of course, Ma’am. They excel in the funèbre. Here, for instance, is an article for the deeply afflicted. A black crape – makes up very sombre and interesting. Would you allow me, Ma’am, to cut off a dress? Or if you would prefer a velvet, Ma’am –
LADY: Is it proper, sir, to mourn in velvet?
SHOPMAN: O quite! – certainly. Just coming in. Now there is a very rich one – real Genoa – and a splendid black. We call it “The Luxury of Woe”… Only 18/- a yard, and a superb quality – in short, fit for the handsomest style of domestic calamity.
LADY: And as to the change of dress, sir; I suppose you have a great variety of half-mournings?
SHOPMAN: Oh! Infinite – the largest stock in town. Full, and half, and quarter, and half-quarter, shaded off, if I may say so, like an India-ink drawing, from a grief prononcé to the slightest nuance of regret.

How one should go into mourning was, of course, dictated by a strict moral code that most, but not all, would observe. It largely depended on one’s social standing, gender and the type of loss. Mourning periods also varied greatly, depending on one’s closeness to the deceased – even a husband’s second wife would be expected to go into mourning after the death of his first wife’s parents! A widow was expected to be in full mourning for a whole year and one month, wearing bombazine (a fabric of silk or silk and wool) covered with crêpe, lawn cuffs and collars; then a second mourning (in which the poor woman would lose the crêpe but retain all other elements) for six months; this would be followed by ordinary mourning (six more months) in which she would not wear any crêpe and replace the bombazine with simple silk or wool, adding jet jewellery and ribbons during the last three months, if so desired; finally, the widow would go into half-mourning for an additional six months, being allowed to wear grey, lavender, mauve or black-and-grey, but no other colours.

A post-mortem photograph of Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich, taken in 1870.

Mourning a spouse according to social etiquette implicitly meant that a widowed man or woman should not expect to marry for as long as the period of mourning lasted – if they wished to remarry at all! But as we all know, many men rushed to remarry within the year, especially if they were the sole breadwinners in the household and therefore had young mouths to feed, while women, who had very few legal rights, would often have no choice but to remarry if they were to avoid falling on hard times. Even today many people of a certain generation express surprise when a widow or widower decide to remarry – surely a remnant of this strict Victorian code!

While church funerals were often attended by everyone who knew the deceased, the actual burial was an affair usually reserved only for the men – it was feared that women, overcome with grief, would become hysterical. But there were exceptions, as we see in Cranford, when, against all social norms, Miss Jenkyns heroically accompanies Miss Jessie to the funeral of the latter’s father, being the only person left to mourn the deceased: “It is not fit for you to go alone. It would be against both propriety and humanity were I to allow it”, Miss Jenkyns retorted. Even women of my maternal grandmother’s generation, born well into the 20th century, would not ordinarily attend burials, as it was not thought proper!

Attitudes towards death changed radically after the First World War. The sudden realisation of the cruelty of death in such a violent and industrial scale made most Europeans realise that death was not the romantic, social element of their imaginings, but a cruel and often unfair blow that would sooner or later come to us all. Deep mourning was significantly reduced by the late Edwardian period, and the interwar years saw the end of materials such as bombazine, which had been so popular just a generation earlier. No doubt our way of mourning will continue to evolve in subsequent generations, though there is little chance – I am relieved to say – of us going back to the strict moral codes of our Victorian ancestors.

In the first season of the hugely successful series Downton Abbey we witness how Lady Mary Crawley (played by Michelle Dockery, left) is reticent to wear black for a third cousin – who also happened to be her fiancé – because “after all, it wasn’t official”.

Posted in Death, England, Genealogy, Marriage, Royalty, Women, World War I | 1 Comment

Finding missing children on your family tree

Next to tracing our ancestors, finding our ancestors’ children must be the hardest thing a genealogy researcher can be faced with. There is no shortage of records that will often point us in the right direction as to who our ancestors’ parents were, and their parents before them, and so on – but finding sources that will actually list our ancestors’ children all at once is slightly trickier.

There are two obvious sources we can use to try to solve this problem: wills, which will often mention the children of the testator by name, and census returns, which again will individually list your ancestors’ children. But genealogical research isn’t as straight-forward as we’d sometimes like: neither of these sources offer any guarantees to discover all of our ancestors’ progeny. For instance, if the ancestor who made his/her will did not want all of their children to inherit their money and property, they may have literally left one or several of their own issue out of the will deliberately. And of course, census returns should – ordinarily – only list children living with the parents at the time the census was taken. Any children who were absent or may have died previously should not be recorded on the census.

If you’re fortunate enough to own a family bible, then chances are you will also have a full list of children born to a specific couple in your family tree. And even then, try to locate supporting documentary evidence to back up all your findings!

But let’s face it: most of the time, finding those missing children in your family history will require patience and step-by-step research. First you’ll have to find a set of parents, hopefully locating the mother’s maiden name in the process, and thereafter see if you can pin-point all the children they had by combining census returns, BMD indexes, baptismal records, and so on.

Genealogy is often compared to a jigsaw puzzle, and indeed, the analogy is easily made. However, there are two essential differences between researching your family tree and the well-known board game that keeps us all amused on rainy days: unlike jigsaws, genealogy will not provide you with a preview of the end result, and therefore you will not be able to tell which pieces are missing until you actually find them; secondly, it’s fairly easy to tell when a jigsaw is complete – you’ll literally see the full picture. Not so with family tree research, which will go on and on as far as you’re willing to take it (why would anyone want to stop at one’s direct ancestors when you can explore multiple collateral branches!).

I was recently pondering on a little tip I’ve used for years when looking for my ancestors’ children, especially whenever I visit archives or have full access to online baptismal records – only now I’ve decided to start implementing it with every single couple that I unearth in my research: calculating how much time passed between the birth of one child and the next. Silly? Obvious? Time-consuming? Perhaps, but you’ll find it’s incredibly effective.

King George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte, had 15 children over a 21 year-period. Source.

Years ago, when I was still living in Spain, I became obsessed with my maternal great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s family. He and his wife had a staggering eleven children! I was fascinated to find many legal documents which revealed a huge family row that resulted in my ancestor throwing most of his surviving progeny out of the family home. (Yes, he wasn’t a very nice guy.) But what struck me most was that one of these records revealed the name of another daughter I had no previous knowledge of.

In the past I had combed the pages of baptismal records to the point where I had memorised the dates of birth, and yet I seemed to have missed one of their many children. Unable to visit the archives in person, I asked someone to look up a possible baptism for the missing daughter. Knowing when to look for the baptism proved key: the parents had married in 1787, and almost immediately they started churning out children: the first son was born a mere two months after the wedding, followed by more boys and girls in February 1788, August 1789, August 1791, January 1793, February 1794, July 1795, August 1796, September 1797, November 1798 and March 1800.

Assuming that all eleven babies were born at full term, I was able to learn that there had only been a space of two or three months between the birth of one child and the presumed conception of its next sibling. But I knew that one additional daughter was missing, one who could have only been born between two of the others (assuming she was born in wedlock and before the last sibling). I basically needed to find a gap of at least 19 months (9 for the girl’s conception and pregnancy and 9 for the next pregnancy to develop, plus some weeks for what is known as “birth spacing“) and there was only one possible “slot” that could fit the bill: between August 1789 and August 1791. That was the time-frame I asked the research to focus on, and sure enough, in a matter of minutes we found the daughter’s baptism in August 1790!

By calculating the estimated period that each pregnancy usually lasts, and by giving the mother a few weeks or months to recover from her  previous pregnancy, we can make very educated guesses at when she may have given birth to additional children.

Obviously, not everyone had children every year, not every pregnancy lasted nine months, and not every birth or baptism was recorded. Miscarriages, stillbirths and abortions may not have necessarily left a paper trail for you to research, so occasionally you might need to assume that, where there’s a considerable gap between the birth of two siblings, an additional pregnancy may have taken place.

One final word of caution: don’t assume that a break between births necessarily means the premature death of a child or a mysterious pregnancy yet to be revealed. That same ancestor I spoke about before – the one with the eleven… sorry, twelve, children- had a son who married in 1823, and he and his wife had three daughters in quick succession (1823, 1825 and 1827), but the next child was born seven years later, in 1834, being followed by five more children in subsequent years. Of course I asked myself why there was a seven year-gap between the birth of the third and fourth child, especially considering that the couple were obviously still in their child-bearing years, and very much sexually active by the look of things! Well, additional research revealed that the father, who it turns out was politically active, actually spent a certain amount of time living in exile, first in different places throughout Spain, and later in neighbouring Portugal, where he was later informed that the Crown had pardoned him, and he was finally allowed to return to Spain – and to his wife, with whom he resumed his happy and fruitful marital life!

To conclude, remember to include previously-unknown pregnancies when looking for the children your female ancestors may have had, and consider both biological as well as historical reasons that may explain otherwise inexplicable gaps between births. I’m fairly certain you’ll unearth some pretty amazing stories in the meantime! Happy hunting!


Posted in Birth, Genealogy, Marriage, Spain | 1 Comment

The mysterious origins of Auntie Ivy

When I first began researching the English side of my family tree, I would occasionally ask my relatives to name my great-grandmother’s siblings as I’d try to figure out who was who among the mound of aunts and uncles that seemed to be coming out of the woodwork. Invariably, someone would end up adding “oh, and there was Auntie Ivy too… but she was adopted”.

Author’s private collection.

It took me a long time to include Auntie Ivy on the family tree, perched as she was on the same branch as my great-grandmother and her other (biological) siblings. This was not due to any sort of aversion towards any adoptees on my family tree, nor any attempt on my part to erase this mysterious Auntie Ivy from my family’s history. The reason, I’m ashamed to admit, is much closer to home: there is no shortage of family relationships in my family tree where there is an emotional, religious and even legal link between relatives who are not necessarily a person’s parents or children. By not including Auntie Ivy as my great-grandmother’s sister – this was reasoning at the time – I was being truly faithful to my family tree’s biological history. And then I stopped, reconsidered, and realised that what I was actually doing, albeit unconsciously, was obliterating Auntie Ivy from my family’s real history!

For years thereafter, Auntie Ivy hung from the same branch as my great-grandmother. Not long ago, I decided it was high time to look for her own origins, and see if by establishing her parentage I could figure out why and how she came to be adopted by my great-great-grandparents, Samuel and Elizabeth Morris.

There were two vital clues I knew about Auntie Ivy’s life, other than the fact that as an adult she lived up in Ludlow, Shropshire. One was her married name, Nash, and the second was that she came from (of all places) Worthing, the well-known Sussex seaside town which is, for all its merits, wholly unconnected with my own lot, who seemed quite content to live in the rural valleys of Herefordshire for centuries on end.

Searching on FreeBMD for a marriage between a Mr Nash and someone called Ivy, at some point between 1890 (when my own great-grandmother would have been a young girl) and 1960 (when my own relatives knew Ivy as an elderly lady) seemed a good starting point. As soon as I pressed the search button, limiting my search area to Herefordshire, I came up with a very likely candidate: the marriage of Lancelot Nash and Ivy Thornton in Ludlow registration district in 1917 – that definitely sounded right! Lancelot was a name that definitely rang bells with my own family, so on I went searching for an Ivy Thornton living in Herefordshire before 1917, the year she was married.

Of course, it wasn’t hard to find Ivy living with my own relatives, the Morrises. It was with them that she appears to have made her first appearance on the census in 1901: Ivy Thornton; 9 years of age; relationship to head of the household: “adopted daughter”; birthplace: Sussex Worthing. This not only confirmed the family story that Ivy came from Worthing, but also gave me an additional clue: an approximate year of birth: 1892.

Off I went, expecting to find Ivy’s birth just as easily as I’d found her marriage to Lancelot Nash. Surely there can’t have been that many Ivy Thorntons born at the right time in Sussex, could there? Well, two results do not qualify as many by any stretch of the imagination, but one was born in East Preston in the September quarter of 1891 and the other in Brighton in the December quarter of the same year – and that was enough to throw my investigation into chaos. This was going to be a case of prove or disprove. So on I went.

Source: FreeBMD.

I decided to first try my luck with the girl from Brighton, who was actually registered as Ivy Maud Thornton. No death came up between 1891 (when she was born) and 1901 (when I know my Ivy was already living with her adoptive family in Herefordshire) so chances were that if this Ivy Maud wasn’t my relative, she’d probably be lurking elsewhere on the 1901 census.

Aha! I must have exclaimed in my head, when I found Ivy Thornton, aged 9, born in Brighton but living in Deptford (London) with her father and an older brother. This girl is clearly not my Auntie Ivy because Auntie Ivy was already in Herefordshire at the time. Can I track Brighton Ivy on the 1911 census, to be doubly sure of my conclusion? But of course, there she is, Ivy Maud Thornton – full name and all! – aged 20, born in Brighton and now living in Greenwich with another brother and his family. So we’re clear: Auntie Ivy was not Ivy Maud Thornton – she must therefore be the other Ivy Thornton, whose birth was registered, as I would have expected, in East Preston, which of course includes the town of Worthing.

The fact that Ivy’s birth was registered just after the 1891 census was taken means her name will not appear on it. Rotten luck! But surely a quick look on the GRO Index, which now provides the mother’s maiden name, can tell me more about Ivy’s parents?

Insert the details I know for Ivy’s birth, and bingo! Thornton, Ivy, mother’s maiden name: Pearce. Not a family name I can claim a connection to – beyond my great-great-great-great-aunt Sarah Mound, who had married a Henry Pearce in 1854, but that’s too far-fetched to make an immediate connection. But hey, at least I can try to find Ivy’s parents’ name and marriage – and more importantly, what became of them and what made them give Ivy away for adoption.

Finding the right marriage between a Mr Thornton and a Ms Pearce in the right period would not be an easy task, particularly as none seem to have taken place anywhere near Worthing: Gateshead, Islington, Bradford… Hang on! Ludlow! Surely not… Could Ivy’s parents have married in the very place where she would end up many years later? Worth checking, anyway!

Richard Thornton and Elizabeth Pearce married in early 1880. On to the census again: if they are indeed Ivy’s biological parents, chances are they at least made it to the 1881 and 1891 census, when Ivy would have been on the way! On to Ancestry, and up pops Richard Thornton, a groom, from the village of Richard’s Castle on the Herefordshire-Shropshire border. His wife Elizabeth is even more interesting, because she too came from Herefordshire, only she is from Aymestrey, a place I’ve come across in my earlier genealogical research. This is turning into a very productive research!

By 1881 Richard and Elizabeth had a daughter called Margaret (registered as Margaret Jessie); living with them was a boarder called Benjamin Pearce – surely a relative of Elizabeth’s. Can I now find them on the 1891 census?

Ten years on, and here are Richard and Elizabeth, and their growing brood of children: Margaret Jessie (10), Sarah Ellen (8), Thomas Henry (7) and Elizabeth Annie (5). Obviously Ivy isn’t on the census because Elizabeth would have been pregnant with her at the time. By then the family were living at the stables on New Street, Worthing, where the younger children had been born – slowly, a picture of a tight-knit family moving from their native Herefordshire to Worthing, following the father’s profession as a groom/domestic coachman, starts to appear in my head.

With these connections to Herefordshire, it seems likely that, for whatever reason, Ivy was sent early on to live with acquaintances of her parents in their native Herefordshire. All very well, but that still doesn’t tell me why she ended up being adopted by my great-great-grandparents!

Rather unsurprisingly, Richard Thornton fails to appear on the 1901 census, but if Ivy had been adopted by then – as I know she had -, maybe she’d been fostered away after her father’s untimely death? Happily, her mother appears to be alive and well, still living in Worthing with her four eldest children, and now earning her way in life as a lodging housekeeper. Ivy, who we know was with her adopted parents by then, is obviously not living under the same roof.

Photo credit: Worthing History.

The temptation of learning about Richard Thornton’s early demise is too tempting to resist, and I have such a penchant for death certificates, that I sent for Richard’s own, expecting to learn more about the circumstances that led him to an early grave. At that point someone in the family told me that they seemed to remember Auntie Ivy’s father had died in a fire in the stables where he worked… Could this unfortunate coachman have died in the same stables on Worthing’s New Street? Alas, no. His death certificate, dated 1892, clearly states that he actually died of blood poisoning caused by meningitis, an illness which can still be fatal even today.

So it seems that Ivy lost her dad when she was not quite a year old. Perhaps her mother was unable to care for herself and her five children, and so decided to send her youngest away – though how she was able to dispense of her child’s company so soon after the loss of her husband is lost to the pages of history.

Ivy’s mother Elizabeth Thornton (née Pearce) certainly seems to have lived a longer life than her husband – dying in Worthing in 1927. I felt like her story was yet to be told, so I decided to dig a bit deeper before closing Ivy’s chapter. And wasn’t my curiosity rewarded…!

Elizabeth Pearce had been born in around 1861 in Aymestrey, Herefordshire. It was fairly easy to locate her baptism, which of course gave me her parents’ names: Henry and Sarah Pearce.

Hang on. Surely… Henry and Sarah? The same Henry Pearce who married my 4x-great-aunt Sarah Mound in 1854??? I quickly turn to the GRO index and look for Elizabeth’s birth. Mother’s maiden name: Mound. All of a sudden, the pieces fell into place. I had to shout out EUREKA!!! Sarah Mound was my great-great-great-grandmother Ellen’s younger sister. Ellen married into the Morris family, while Sarah married Henry Pearce. So, in other words, this meant that Ellen’s son Samuel Morris, who adopted Ivy in the 1890s, was actually Elizabeth’s first cousin!

Of course, it all made sense now: following the death of her husband, Elizabeth probably thought it wiser to send her infant daughter to be raised by her own family back home in Herefordshire – where, incidentally, her own mother Sarah was still living. This also means that my great-grandmother and her adopted younger sister were actually second cousins, a relationship they surely would have been fully aware of! Then why was such a close family link not spoken of a mere two generations later? I suppose we’ll never know… But if anything, this story was proven to me that sometimes it pays off to just persevere a little longer – am I right?



Posted in 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census, 1911 Census, Adoption, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Shropshire | 5 Comments