Archive for the ‘Family History’ Category

Social History: George Olliffe at Fort St George, Madras, India

July 27, 2015 3 comments

In 1905 (100 years ago) my grandfather George Olliffe was serving with the British army in Madras (now Chennai) at Fort St George in India. I have blogged his story here. He was a bandsman in the Leicestershire Regiment (1Bn) and was posted to British India in 1903 at a time when the Raj was at the height of its powers on the sub-continent. He left India in 1906.


Lt-Colonel Webb’s 1912 ‘ A History of the Services of the 17th (The Leicestershire) Regiment’ records, ‘The regiment sailed from Durban on the 7th November 1902 for Madras (from fighting in the South African Boer war), and arriving on the 30th, disembarked on the 1st December and proceeded to Fort George‘. Bandsman Olliffe arrived in Fort St George from Britain four months later on 6th March 1903.

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In October 2014, I went to Chennai. One of the highlights of the trip to southern India was to visit the Fort St George military compound, some of which still houses units of the Indian military.


It was thrilling for me to walk through part of the Fort where Grandfather must have drilled, to view his old parade ground and perhaps even to look at one of his old barrack blocks.


This is a photo record of my visit to this evocative place within our own family history:


The Parade Ground and Drill Square at Fort St George


Some of the vast walls and ditches surrounding the Fort.



Another part of the compound adjacent to St Mary’s Anglican Church, the first English church built in India (1678-80).


The thought that Grandfather may have set foot, perhaps for a parade service, in this very same church was very moving.




Social History – Alfred Thomas King in August 1914

August 22, 2014 1 comment

The BEF during August 1914: In at the start

My Grandmother, Ethel J. Kerry lost her first husband, Alfred Thomas King during the Great War. He was 32. Alfred deployed with the BEF at the outbreak of the Great War, leaving for France from Southampton on 22nd August 1914. He was a Driver in the Royal Field Artillery, 32 Brigade RFA, 4th Division Ammunition Column. This comprised originally numbers 27, 134 and 135 Batteries RFA.

The Divisional Ammunition Column (DAC) was responsible for transporting munitions from the divisional parks to the brigade dumps. The Brigade Ammunition Column (BAC) then moved the ammunition forward to the horse lines and gun batteries.  The DAC and the BAC were amalgamated in May 1916.

The Ammunition Column (w/c, gouache & chalk on paper)

In 1914 the Regular British Army was made up of six Divisions and one Cavalry Division. Four were sent to France in early August along with the cavalry but two divisions (including the 4th) were kept back on the southern coast of Britain for fear of an invasion.

The 4th Division eventually sailed to France between 21 and 25 August and joined the BEF at Fontaine-au-Pire. It came under the III Corps on 31st August. It fought at Le Cateau but without the DAC and other support units which were still en route from England.

The 4th Division sailed from Southampton to Le Havre on the SS Rowanmore, a steam transport cargo ship built in 1900 on the Clyde.  This ship was eventually torpedoed 128 miles off the west coast of Ireland on 26th October 1916 by the German U-boat U57.

The SS Rowanmore is also mentioned in Sydney Giffard’s, ‘Guns, Kites and Horses’, a book of three war diaries mirroring much of Alfred King’s experiences in the Royal Field Artillery, in particular the retreat from Mons in some detail (p 44-49).

Guns, Kites and Horses


Extracts from War Diaries 1914

4th Divisional Ammunition Column

Source: National Archives WO 95 / 1468 – Closed until 1965

This is the official army record of these events, copied from the hand-written DAC WW1 War Diaries, now housed in the National Archive at Kew, London. I read the diary of the actual day the 4th Division (including the Ammunition Column) left for France from their barracks in London. The numbers of involved are staggering – note how many horses they took with them to the western front.

All place names were printed in capitals. The diaries were all written in pencil by an officer.

DAC War Diary 22 Aug 1914

Saturday 22 August 1914

Strength: 15 Officers, 557 other ranks, 728 horses, 110 four wheel vehicles, 8 two wheel vehicles and 6 bicycles

Between 5.45pm and 3.45am on 23rd August

Eight trains conveyed IV Div. Am. from Park Royal Station to SOUTHAMPTON – last train arriving 0.50am

Sunday 23 August

HQ + 4th Sect (Heavy portion) embarked on S.S. Rowanmore

9pm sailed for HAVRE – delayed by fog off ISLE OF WIGHT

Monday 24 August


12 noon Arrived HAVRE – Infantry kit unloaded all day

12 midnight Personnel and horses disembarked and remained on wharf – unloading of vehicles commenced

Tuesday 25 August

2am Vehicles unloaded on wharf

4am Entraining commenced. Very heavy work, manning vehicles up ramps from the level of the rails and then cross lifting them on the trucks. No assistance from railway staff. Took four hours to entrain HQ + 4th Sect (heavy portion)

8.30am Train left HAVRE

12.45pm Arrived ROUEN. Watered horses. Coffee provided for men.

6.30pm Arrived AMIENS

11pm Arrived ST QUENTIN and detrained

Wednesday 26 August

4am Marched through ST QUENTIN to bivouac at the Couvent de la Croix Rouge, in a stubble field

7am Orders received to move onto the ROUTE NATIONALE 44. Moved there and formed up vehicles on both sides of the road under the trees, picketing horses between them. Here the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th (How) sections all joined up.

3.30pm Marched for HAM

9pm Arrived HAM. Bivouacked on road south of railway station. Damp night.

Thursday 27 August

6am Marched for NOYON. Heavy thunderstorms on the road. Got into communication with the 4th Div. Am Park.

3pm Marched through NOYON to SEMPIGNY, bivouacking there in a field

8pm HQ of 3rd Div Am Col arrived

Friday 28 August

9am Marched for COMPIEGNE, bivouacking on the road south of the town, near the new barracks on the RUE DE PARIS. A comfortable bivouac for men and horses. Water in the village

Saturday 29 August

10am Went into GHQ at COMPIEGNE and motored out to BEAURAINS getting in touch with the 4th Division.

Major Smith posted to 14th Brigade RFA via England, killed

Sunday 30 August

11am Received orders from the 4th Division to move at once to EMEVILLE

12 noon Marched via ST JEAN AUX BOIS. No water on the way.

6pm When a mile short of EMEVILLE, received orders to go onto PIERREFONDS.

Marched via TAILLEFONTAINE and (10pm) bivouacked on road south of PIERREFONDS.

Horses exhausted. Heavy portion of 4th Sect got detached and went to EMEVILLE

Monday 31 August

10.15am Marched with the 4th Division via ST JEAN AUX BOIS and ST SAUVEUR up on the high ground south of that town and (9pm) bivouacked in the field.  Water at LAPERRINE.

Retreat from Mons 1914


BEF Retreat 1914 Map

Social History – Alfred Thomas King: National Roll of the Great War

August 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Whilst engaged in further research of my Grandmother’s first husband, Alfred Thomas King’s service during World War 1 with the Royal Field Artillery, I came across this fascinating entry (below) from the National Roll of the Great War.

I didn’t realise it immediately, but I am told that we are indeed fortunate to have found such an entry as they are quite rare in the case of those who perished during the war.  The entry simply confirms many of the details already known, but one interesting fact did emerge that adds to our knowledge, that of the confirmation of his mobilisation with the army reserve in August 1914.

The entry also makes it clear that Alfred did indeed die as a result of German aerial bombing in June 1917. When he left Britain in 1914, it was still the era of the cavalry regiment, but by the time of his death only three years later, tanks and flying machines had taken over as the future instruments of death and destruction.

Alfred King witnessed first-hand that extraordinary change in modern warfare that has carried on until today, one hundred years after he left these shores for the uncertainty of life (and death) on the Western Front.

You can read more of Driver Alfred King (RFA) story here.

I’ve uploaded much of Alfred King’s story to the on-line Lives of the First World War project

The National Roll of the Great War

Section 1: London – South West and North

Top Left on page 95

King, A. T., Driver, Royal Field Artillery

National Roll of the Great War AT King downloaded 08 2014

What was the National Roll of the Great War?

Here is what I’ve pieced together from various sources:

‘Shortly after the cessation of hostilities in 1919, the National Publishing Company sought to publish a brief biography of as many of those participating in the Great War as was possible. The vast majority of entries refer to combatants who survived the World War 1 and the National Roll is often the only source of information available. The scale of death and destruction of World War I was terrible and unprecedented: claiming the lives of over a million British and Commonwealth servicemen.

The National Roll of the Great War was published in 14 regional volumes. The volumes themselves are very rare and now command high prices. The valuable information stored within them is not widely available. Although the publication profiled ‘only’ around 100,000 of the people who served in World War I, of these approx 16% were participants who died. This would be one of the motivating forces behind the project, to precisely record the contribution of those who survived, with many entries referring to injuries sustained and men discharged early.

This is one of the most sought-after sets of reference books of the First World War and the Naval & Military Press has reprinted the complete work of fourteen volumes. The National Roll makes no claim to being a complete book of reference – in fact such a record could not be compiled. Yet, if you are lucky enough to find that your relative is among these, you will find a fascinating snapshot of their experience of the war which might not be readily available elsewhere.

The format of an individual record is fairly constant. The header line gives the surname, the person’s initials and their rank and unit, or other qualification for being included. After the header line, there is a paragraph of on average eight or nine lines of text summarising the individual’s contribution to the war (often giving a potted service history and mentioning wounds, medals and/or demobilisation) and closing with an address. Finally, each entry has a reference number. The significance of this reference is no longer clear but presumably referred to a card-index or other filing system used by the publishers to track contributions to the book and published entries. It is thought that the information came not from official sources but from the subjects themselves or their families’.

Social History – Alfred Thomas King: Driver, Royal Field Artillery (RFA)

June 10, 2014 5 comments

My Grandmother, Ethel J. Kerry tragically lost her first husband, Alfred Thomas King in 1917 during the Great War. He was 32. My father was born in 1920 following Ethel’s later marriage to George Olliffe.

Alfred Thomas King RFA

The Coincidence

For three months in the spring of 1979, I lived in the Foyer de Jeunes Travailleurs in Arras, the Pas de Calais in Northern France. This is just two miles from the small British military cemetery at Ste. Catherine.

I never went there.

Unbeknown to me, grandmother’s first husband, Alfred King is buried there, a casualty of the fighting near the River Scarpe, north of Arras in the June of 1917.  He and I – separated by over 60 years – had lived for a while, in admittedly dramatically different circumstances, just a few miles apart in the same town in northern France. However, I came back to England; he did not.

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My family had kept his medals, a few postcards, a brass box and a photograph of Alfred from this era. Beyond that not much else was known. Maybe they wanted to forget. My father told me a story of Alfred having being killed in a rest area, but otherwise he too knew very little. I became absorbed in all this but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to piece together his story with the help of the National Archive at Kew and other sources via the internet.

Alfred Thomas King was an ordinary British soldier caught up in the terrible conflict of World War One in Flanders; the start of which in 2014 we commemorate in this, the centenary year.

I now know where Alfred King served, where he died (even down to the exact location) and where he is buried. Intriguingly, I also discovered that he had a rather chequered start to his army service and seems to have been in trouble for various misdemeanours.

Dvr Alfred T. King RFA

Alfred King’s Background

Born in Q1 1885 and from Harlesden in London, Alfred Thomas King went to sea on the S.S. Delphie. His three younger brothers (Harold, George and Henry) are listed as living in a Boy’s Home in Bristol, Gloucestershire. (I’d be intrigued to know if this was one of the Muller Homes). An elder brother, William, is recorded as living at 9 Hanley Road, Harlesden. On 29th April 1902, Alfred joined the Militia (3rd The Queen’s) at age 17, signing a 6-year attestation. He completed 49 days drill and went on to the Royal Fusiliers on 12th August.

From his army record, it seems he deserted 2 days later on 14th August. I wonder why? What was the cause? I guess we shall never know. On 16th August, he fraudulently enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery for a term of 12 years; 3 years active service and 9 years on reserve. On 24th September 1902, Alfred is awaiting trial. He does becomes a Driver with the RFA, but then faces four further trials and periods of imprisonment for ‘fresh offences’; in June (14 days), July (57 days), October (20 days) and November 1903 (1 day). His last entry is ‘returned to duty as a driver’ on 21st November 1904.


There are records of two marriages. The first wedding took place in Q2 1907 in Greenwich to Caroline Harriet Sophia Jenkins. After 4 years and in the 1911 Census, a Daisy Ivy King aged 9 months is also recorded. By then, Alfred is aged 27, living at 57 Chubworthy Street, New Cross, (Deptford/Greenwich) London, and his occupation listed as ‘Stoker’. What happened to that marriage or the baby, I do not know but Alfred went on to marry my Grandmother in Q3 1913 in Essex, just one short year before he went away to the war as a British soldier.

I have not been able to match up all the records to fully get to the bottom of quite all that happened. It must, however, have been the reserve term of his 12 year enlistment that led him to go to war with the BEF in August 1914. Suffice it to say, Alfred served there for almost 3 years, dying in France in June 1917. There is some moving artwork and poems from that era depicting the work of the RFA.

The Ammunition Column (w/c, gouache & chalk on paper)

War Diaries – First Impressions

In order to be able to read the original documents at the National Archives – the war diaries and the trench maps – I registered for a reader’s ticket. I was able to pre-order the appropriate files and then spent a couple of days going through the various boxes and files. Tracking down all the information would take up another blog post, so I will not cover that process here. Suffice it to say that it was an accessible process, the NA staff are very helpful and it’s fortunate in that I live relatively close to Kew.

The WW1 war diaries and the huge trench maps – obviously all original – are thrilling to the touch.

As I opened the boxes, I had this immense sense of excitement and anticipation as to their contents. What would they tell me about my unknown relative? What detail would it add to our limited knowledge of what had happened? Opening the brown boxes, I soon realised that I may be the very first person in 100 years to handle these papers, possibly since the end of the war in 1918. The sense of history was palpable. As a longstanding personal diarist, it underlined clearly to me just how important it is to record events and to write in detail for posterity.

The WW1 war diaries are archived in heavy brown card document boxes with original war office stickers on the edges. Inside each box, carefully stored, are the brown paper files containing the individual war diaries, often with rust marks marking the spine. Each month of the war is collated within a separate paper folder. These files contain the original handwritten documents – all written in pencil – with each place name printed in CAPS, Sometimes the papers are annotated in blue official pencil. The header sheets are invariably written in ink; beautifully handwritten and frequently printed in block letters. I discovered some fascinating appendices, many marked ‘secret’ and typed (often) with a blue ribbon on original typing paper. It’s almost worth ordering these boxes from the archive simply to experience this frisson!

National Archives WO 95


The Western Front trench maps are quite simply huge documents – in size, scale and number – and printed in various versions. I was interested in Map 51B NW and so ordered that particular folder. It came packed full of many, many maps of this one area in Northern France. Before I had arrived at Kew, I knew exactly the area on which to concentrate my search. This proved just as well as there were so many sheets to look through. The documents ranged from large maps on heavy card to smaller maps printed on flimsy paper. Many maps had been written on in coloured ink and some were annotated for a specific campaign battle. The trench lines depicted were colossal; like a sweeping and impenetrable spider’s web. The cartographic effort that went into the fighting on the Western Front was quite simply enormous.

Maps - Arras - Red trenches 2

Maps - WW1 portfolio

Maps - Trench Maps numbering

The BEF: in at the start

Alfred Thomas King was a Driver in the Royal Field Artillery (of the 32nd Brigade, 4th Division, Ammunition Column). The most numerous arm of the artillery, the horse-drawn RFA was responsible for the medium calibre guns and howitzers deployed close to the front line and were reasonably mobile. Albert deployed with the BEF at the outset, leaving for France in August 1914, at the outbreak of the war.

I found the actual record of the day the brigade left for France from barracks in London. The numbers are staggering and note how many horses the brigade took with them to the front.

DAC War Diary 22 Aug 1914

Extracts from War Diaries 1914

32nd Brigade, 4th Divisional Ammunition Column

Source: WO 95 / 1468 – Closed until 1965 

August 22  

Eight trains conveyed IV Div. Am. from Park Royal Station to Southampton

15 Officers, 557 other ranks, 728 horses, 110 four wheel vehicles, 6 two wheel vehicles and 6 bicycles

August 23

Embarked on S.S. Rowanmore – delayed by fog off IOW – on to Le Havre,

Then Rouen – Amiens – St Quentin – Route Nationale 44 – Ham – Noyen – Emeville

The Great War (1914-1918)

‘The experience of the Somme caused the Germans to reconsider their strategy on the Western Front. They constructed a formidably strong defensive position many miles in the rear, and withdrew to it in early 1917. The British called the part that they faced the Hindenburg Line. A large French offensive, supported by a British attack at Arras, withered against the new German defence and many French units had had enough. Many of them mutinied. From this moment in May 1917 the British army had no choice but to take the lead role while the French stood on the defensive. The main British effort of the year was the costly and depressing Third Ypres, while at Cambrai a significant new tactical approach pointed the way to ultimate victory. The Great War was finally to end in November 1918’.

Extracts from War Diaries 1917

32nd Brigade, 4th Divisional Ammunition Column

Source: WO 95 / 1468 – Closed until 1965 

March 1917

Bray-sur-Somme, Vaux-sur-Somme, Coissy, Talmas, Aubrometz


Laressset, then to a previously occupied camp at Maroeuil (Sheet 51C, F27, C42)

April 10

Marched to a new camp in a snowstorm, 3 kms NW of ARRAS on the ARRAS – SOUCHEZ road

June 2

Came under control of 9th Division Artillery at noon.


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The weather on the Western Front in June 1917 was ‘fine and warm’.  This period of the war was known as the Arras offensive and ran from early April to Mid-June. In mid-May, a particular action on the River Scarpe had been fought leading up to the attacks on the Hindenburg Line. Driver King would have been part of this offensive.

Following a bombing attack by the German air force, Alfred died of his wounds in a Main Dressing Station (MDS) run by 104th Field Ambulance on 4th June 1917, aged 32 years, He’d come the whole way through the war, only to be killed some way behind the lines. The date was particularly noted by my father, as it was later on the same date in 1941, that the German architect of WW1, ‘Kaiser Bill’ died in Holland!


Extracts from War Diaries 1917

32nd Brigade, 4th Divisional Ammunition Column

Source: WO 95 / 1468 – Closed until 1965

June 3

At 11-12pm an enemy bomb exploded on the ARRAS-SOUCHEZ road at G8 b8b (Ref Map France 51B 1/40,000) causing the following casualties: 2 dead, 10 wounded including 36857 Dvr. A. King.

All the wounded were admitted to the 104th Field Ambulance with the exception of Capt. JWJ Knight, who was only slightly wounded and remained with the unit.

June 4   

No 36857 Dvr. A King died in the 104th Field Ambulance shortly after admission.

Capt GH Belas, 2Lt JB Craik and 36857 Dvr. A King buried at 2pm at G14 b95 (Map 51B NW)


German Air Power

Wikipedia’s entry on the Royal Flying Corps is interesting for this period:

As 1917 dawned the Allied Air Forces felt the effect of the German Air Force’s increasing superiority in both organisation and equipment (if not numbers). The recently formed Jastas, equipped with the Albatros fighter, inflicted very heavy losses on the RFC’s obsolescent aircraft, culminating in Bloody April, the nadir of the RFC’s fortunes in World War I.

To support the Battle of Arras beginning on 9 April 1917, the RFC deployed 25 squadrons, totalling 365 aircraft, a third of which were fighters (scouts). The British lost 245 aircraft with 211 aircrew killed or missing & 108 as prisoners of war. The German Air Services lost just 66 aircraft from all causes.

By the summer of 1917, the introduction of the next generation of technically advanced combat aircraft (such as the SE5, Sopwith Camel and Bristol Fighter) ensured losses fell and damage inflicted on the enemy increased’.

The war diaries of the Field Ambulance corps bears out the German air attack on this date and record the subsequent arrival of the casualties.

Extracts from War Diaries June 1917

104th Field Ambulance / 34th Division

Stamped: Committee for the medical history of the war (7 August 1917)

Source: WO 95 / 2453 – Closed until 1965


Jan 16                    SUTTON VENY, WILTSHIRE

No 104 Field Ambulance marched out of camp just after midnight.



Summary sheet

Western Front – Battle of Arras 1917

April – attack on Vimy Ridge

May – capture of Siegfried Line


Title page marked Confidential

War Diary of 104th Field Ambulance RAMC

By Lieut. Col E. Beverley-Bird RAMC (TF)

From 1st June 1917 to 30th June 1917 (Volume XVII)


May 27  

Fine weather continues …. Proceeded to ARRAS to take over Main Dressing Station (MDS) at HOSPICE DES VIEILLARDS from 52nd Field Ambulance

May 28    

Fine weather continues. Remainder of Unit embussed at 9am at crossroads north of N in BERNEOIL (Sheet Lens 11) and proceeded to ARRAS where they disembussed and marched to HOSPICE DES VIEILLARDS

 June 1  

Fine day. Very hot. Work on cleaning up and preparing HOSPICE DES VIEILLARDS as a MDS continued. Rev Hinchclille C.F. attached for temporary duty.

June 2   

Fine weather continues – very warm. Enemy shelled ARRAS in the morning. None fell near MDS. About 11pm, enemy aeroplanes passed over ARRAS dropping bombs, some of which fell near the MDS. No damage done to MDS.

June 3

Fine warm day. Brilliant sunshine. AM: ADMS 34th Division visited MDS, inspected the work that had been done on the buildings and surroundings. PM: DDMS and DADMS XVII Corps visited MDS.  6pm: attended conference at SDMS office when arrangements for dealing with the wounded during the coming offensive were discussed. A number of hostile aeroplanes came over the town about 10.20pm and dropped a number of bombs. After passing over, they returned and dropped more.

June 4 

Fine day. Very warm. Brilliant sunshine all day. Work on dressing rooms completed. A large hall on the ground floor has been divided into receiving room, dressing room and evacuation room by screening off the middle portion. The whole place has been cleaned and whitewashed and the dressing room is fitted up to deal with 4 stretcher cases and a similar number of sitting cases at one time. Commenced to build stretcher shoot down to car stand. Town again bombed by hostile aeroplanes about 11pm.

June 5  

Fine weather continues. Bearer party left at 8.30am to report to OC ADS (102nd F. Amb) at BLANGY. Bearer party left at 9am to report to OC WWP (103rd F. Amb) at ST NICHOLAS.

104 FA June 1917 Deaths 3

Admissions and evacuations sheet

104 Field Ambulance – for June 1917

Total wounded 589

CCS                        558         (Casualty Clearing Station)

CRDS                     4              (Corps Dressing Station)

Return to Duty 12

Died                      16 (including Dvr. A. T. King) – my italics.



Extracts from War Diaries June 1917

103rd Field Ambulance / 34th Division

Stamped: Committee for the medical history of the war (10 July 1917)

Source: WO 95 / 2453 – Closed until 1965

In the Field

June 1                   Bright sunshine and warm

June 2                   Continued bright sunshine

June 3                   Continued bright sunshine

June 4                   Warm, sunny weather continues

June 5                   Continued brilliant sunshine

03 Cemetery 7

ATK’s War Grave

Driver A. T. King is buried in Ste Catherine British Cemetery (Grave Ref No E7) in the Pas de Calais alongside 334 other BEF Old Contemptible casualties. The white CWG stone is engraved enigmatically with some words from the Bible, ‘All seek their own’. His Commonwealth War Graves Commission website record also notes: Husband of Mrs. E. J. Olliffe (formerly King), of 54, Denbigh Rd., Church Rd., Willesden, London.

03 Cemetery 8

03 Cemetery 2

Ste. Catherine is a village in the Department of the Pas-de-Calais, adjoining the city of Arras on the north side. Ste. Catherine British Cemetery is on the left of the road to Therouanne (the Chaussee Brunehaut [D341]), not far beyond the Church, then along a side street. Ste Catherine British Cemetery contains 339 First World War burials and was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield’.

‘From March 1916 to the Armistice, Ste. Catherine was occupied by Commonwealth forces and for much of that time it was within the range of German artillery fire. The cemetery was started in March 1916 and used by the divisions and field ambulances stationed on that side of Arras until the autumn of 1917. The cemetery was enlarged after the Armistice when graves were brought in from the surrounding area.

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Medals and Memorabilia

Driver Alfred Thomas King was awarded the three British WW1 Campaign Medals, affectionately known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. These were the 1914 or Mons Star (Pip), The British War Medal (Squeak) and The Victory Medal (Wilfred). These medals clearly demonstrate that Alfred served in France from the very start of the Great War through until his untimely death there in 1917.

02 Medal 2

02 Medal 7

The August to November 1914 Star Medal (Pip) was awarded only to those who were in action during those dates. Alfred’s details are clearly engraved on the back: 36857, DVR: A.T. KING. R.F.A.  The recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres.


WW1 War Medal Roll 1

Alfred was also the recipient of 17 year old Princess Mary’s Christmas 1914 Brass gift tin to the troops which remains in the family.

01 Tin

WW1 Postcards

I also have four beautifully embroidered postcards sent by Alfred from France to my Gran. He writes in pencil, in a formal style with a flowery hand. Unsurprisingly, hints of issues in their marriage come through in the text. Family events are alluded to that, frustratingly, I will know nothing about. There’s no one to ask now, so I guess this aspect of his life will always remain a mystery?

Earlier records in the NA point to an earlier marriage (and of a child?), but it’s been hard to match these up conclusively. The thought passes my mind that he may well have preferred army service to marital life, hence the strain clearly present in this correspondence.

Whatever the truth of Alfred’s early years, here is a man who left England to do his duty to his country, and like so many others of his generation, did not return. My own Grandfather also had an army career, but his was in India, sandwiched between the Boer War and the Great War and so he did not see hostile action but lived until the 1960’s. I’m not sure that my Grandmother said much about Alfred to my brothers (all of whom are older than me), but to my knowledge not much else is known of him or of their marriage.


On the day I finally completed this research, the army’s guns at Longmore Camp in Hampshire (near to where I live) were firing with a deep ‘boom, boom, boom’; a fitting artillery tribute to my Grandmother’s first husband.


Social History: George Olliffe – Victorian army bandsman, British India

August 22, 2012 7 comments

Just 100 years ago in 1912, my Grandfather was one year away from the end of 12 years with the Colours and his discharge from 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment (The Tigers).

This is Part 2 of his story …

I have looked up the 1901 and 1911 UK Census documents and found that my Grandfather is listed in both archives as part of the British army records of the day. 

1901 Census – at Glen Parva Barracks, Leicestershire

In the 1901 census, Grandad was at Glen Parva Barracks (Headquarters, 17th Regimental District), nr Leicester. On the night of Sunday 31st March 1901, he is listed (pg 12, Line 5) as George W Oliffe (note spelling) of Acton, London, (London then crossed out, Mdx added), Single, Age 16, Private, Leicestershire Regiment.

1911 Census – at Talavera Barracks, Aldershot, Hampshire

In the 1911 census, Grandad was based at Talavera Barracks (Part area 11C), Wellington Lines, Aldershot, nr Farnham. On the night of Sunday 2nd April 1911, he is listed (pg 7, Line 27) as George Oliffe of Acton Middlesex, Single, Age 26, Private, 1st Leicestershire Regiment, Occupation Musician. The commanding officer is recorded as Major General H M Lawson, GB.

The Leicestershire Regiment was formed as the county regiment on 1 July 1881. It had first been raised as the 17th Foot in 1688. The regimental depot was at Glen Parva, and the regiment consisted of: The 1st and 2nd Battalions (formerly the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 17th Foot), 3rd (Militia) Battalion (formerly the Leicestershire Militia) and 1st Leicestershire Rifle Volunteer Corps, redesignated as the 1st Volunteer Battalion in 1883.

Prior to 1881, the 17th Regiment of Foot did not have a depot in Leicestershire. Under the prevailing brigade system, regiments shared a brigade depot. However, with the army reforms of that year, the 17th became the Leicestershire Regiment and the 27th Brigade depot was abolished. The army was reorganised along territorial lines and each county regiment was to have its own depot. That of the Leicestershire Regiment was the newly built Glen Parva barracks near South Wigston. 

1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment deployment:

1899 South Africa (heavily involved in the Boer War)
1902 India: Madras
1904 India: Belgaum
1906 England: Shorncliffe, Kent
1910 England: Aldershot, Hampshire
1912 Ireland: Fermoy

I recently located Grandad’s Long Service Attestation in the National Archives at Kew. He signed up for 12 years, not the 21 years my father had previously suggested. His army record is fascinating and runs to four pages (I have the A3 photocopies of all four). I also found a George Olliffe (right spelling, wrong person) b. 1856 in Stow-on-the-Wold, who joined the Grenadier Guards!

1901 Long Service Attestation

British Army Service Records (also available on

1760 – 1915 (Held at National Archives, Kew)

Record Number – WO97 5621 5 (Chelsea Hospital)

Front page

Oliffe (note spelling) George William (not James as per his later marriage certificate).

Born: 1885 Acton, Middlesex (a Birth Certificate records his actual birth date as 11th November 1883)

Attestation: 4th February 1901

Soldier Record Number: 6050

Grandad joined the Leicestershire Regiment (the Tigers) at Hounslow Recruiting Office. It’s clear that he was previously from the Brentford District Schools (Percy School) at the time of joining. He stayed for 12 years ‘with the Colours’, spending almost a third of his service in India. He left the Army on 5th February 1913 (as a ‘time expired’ soldier, so was not called up for WW1).

The second page of the army record is telling and records his description:

Age: 15 years, 11 months

Height: 5 feet

Weight: 93 lbs (just 6 ½ stone which seems shockingly underweight?)

Chest: 31 / 32 inches

Complexion: Medium

Eyes: Blue

Hair: Brown

Religion: Church of England

Next of Kin: Father, William Oliffe. Brentford Union

This section of distinguishing marks also concerned me – does this record instances of workhouse abuse?

Tattooed on both forearms

Scars: back of right hand, knee, back of head, left elbow, right buttock, front of chest

Page three – ‘Statement of Services’ of 6050 George William Oliffe (italics mine)

Posted to Leicester Depot on 5th February 1901 (for recruit training)

Attained 3rd class Certificate of Education 16th April 1901

Granted 1st Good Conduct Badge 4th February 1903

Attained 18 years old on 4th March 1903 (date and age possibly suspect?)

Granted Messing Allowance (Bandsman) 4th March 1903

Transferred to India 6th March 1903 (probably to Fort George, Madras)

Appointed Bandsman 1st November 1903

Elected Service Pay 1st April 1904

Granted pay as a 1st Class soldier 4th March 1905

(1st Bn transferred from Madras to Belgaum on 16th January 1905)

Granted 2nd Good Conduct Badge 4th February 1906

Advanced to Senior Private 1st March 1906

(Left India on HMT Dongola Thursday 17th October 1906 (see details below)

(Arrived England 9th November 1906 in ‘cold and very wet weather’)

Serving with ‘C’ Company, 1st Bn in 1909

(In the UK – at Shorncliffe, Kent and Aldershot, Hants – through to February 1913)

Discharged on the termination of his first period of engagement 3rd February 1913

Signed by: R.S Dyer-Bennett Lt for Captain Adjt Leicester Regs.

Footnote: ‘Troopship HMT Dongola was built for the P & O Shipping Company by Barclay, Curle and Coy in Glasgow. She was launched on 14th September 1905 and saw service on the company’s Far East services. From 1906 she was taken up for seasonal trooping by the War Office between England, India and Hong Kong. In 1915 she was requisitioned and used as a hospital ship at Gallipoli. She was sold for scrapping to T W Ward Ltd of Barrow in Furness, in June 1926′.

The fourth page – the dates of Grandad’s military service:

Home:  4/2/1901 to 5/3/1903 –  2 years in UK (presumably Glen Parva Barracks, Leicestershire)

India:     6/3/1903 to 9/11/1906 – 3 ¾ years in India (at Madras and Belgaum, south of Goa)

Home:  10/11/1906 to 3/2/1913 – 6 ¼ years in UK (first Shorncliffe, Kent and then Aldershot)

BELGAUM, a town and district of British India, in the southern division of Bombay. The town is situated nearly 2500 ft. above sea-level; it has a station on the Southern Mahratta railway, 245 m. S. of Poona. It has an ancient fortress, dating apparently from 1519, covering about I 00 acres, and surrounded by a ditch; within it are two interesting Jain temples. Belgaum contains a cantonment which is the headquarters of a brigade in the 6th division of the western army corps. It is also a considerable centre of trade and of cotton weaving. There are cotton mills. Pop. (1901) 36,878.

Grandad joined the British army in the same year that Field Marshall Frederick, 1st Earl Roberts 1832-1914 (author of 41 Years in India: 2 vols) became the last Commander-in-Chief of the Forces. During Grandad’s time in the army, British power in India was at its height and as an Army Bandsman – a clarinetist – he would have been at the centre of its pomp and ceremony.

The regimental music of the Leicestershire Regiment, which my Grandfather would have played can be heard here.

To my mind, the British Army seems to have been the making of Grandad. Essentially he escaped to another world, but one which he presumably understood well; yet another institution as it so obviously was. Perhaps he simply swapped one set of known rules for another?

The garrisoning of India and the Colonies was a priority for the British Imperial army. Rudyard Kipling wrote ‘The Absent-minded Beggar (1899); a jingoistic poem about the role of the ordinary soldier in defending the Empire. Grandad came into the army in this same late Victorian period. My Father remembers him reminiscing happily about India; he obviously enjoyed his experience and talked about ‘having a servant and keeping a monkey’.

Barnes in History of Regiments and Uniforms of the British Army (Peacetime soldiering, p223) records something very similar:

In India, the private solder of the period lived a Gentleman’s life. He had native servants to do all the dirty work and could even get the ‘nappy’ with his little lamp and portable kit to come and shave him whilst he lay in bed. Various pets were kept. Barracks were spacious, the country itself was full of interest with fishing and shooting for all who desired it and there was sport, dances and the social life. From this period came the Hindustani words: Cushy, Blighty, Chit and Roti’.

Grandad’s Sporting Record 1907 – 1911

(Source: Green Tiger Journal)

The Green Tiger Journal contains many references to Pte. Oliffe playing Cricket and Hockey for the Regiment.

Playing Cricket for the Regiment in 1907 and 1909

P40: ‘The cricket season has now commenced, though no regimental match has yet been played. On the 11th May the Band (Lewis 21, Hinch 20) beat a local team, Holy Trinity Church, by an innings and 34 runs, 95 to 21 and 40, Oliffe performing the hat-trick’.

Played 27th May Shorncliffe, Kent – win for the Regiment by 19 runs: Pte. Oliffe. B Bush 6

Played 31st May Shorncliffe – match abandoned due to heavy rain: Pte. Oliffe, not out 5

Played 10th June Shorncliffe – met their first reverse at hands of Royal Scots: Pte. Oliffe, not out 1

1st Royal Scots: Capt. Drysdale, c Challenor, b Oliffe 1

Played 14th June Shorncliffe – win by Leicestershire Regt by 8 wickets:

Ptes.Wilkes,Daft and Oliffe did not bat

Played 17th June Folkestone – lost by 4 wickets:

Pte. Oliffe, c Payne, b Goodsell 2

A.C. Edwards, c Nott, b Oliffe 31

Capt. A. I. Paine, c Oliffe, b Green 52

Played 26th June Shorncliffe – the Regimental team were beaten by 80 runs:

Pte. Oliffe c. Tawney, b Audsley 0

May 8th 1909 Played at Folkestone, won by 80 runs: Pte. Oliffe (batted last) not out 6

May 12th Played on Garrison Ground v 11th Hussars, won by 120 runs: Pte. Oliffe 2 for 7, did not bat

May 13th Played on Garrison Ground v 5th Battn K.R.R., won by 76 runs and 3 wickets:

Oliffe took 4 wickets for 37, did not bat

May 21st Played on Garrison Ground v N. Staffordshire Regt, won by 186 runs: Pte. Oliffe, not out 7

Playing Hockey for the Regiment in 1909 and 1911

Army Hockey Tournament (Aldershot, March 1st) Leicestershire Regt v Bedfordshire Regt

‘We started by pressing, and a good deal of loose play in front of the Bedfords’ goal resulted in shots from Oliffe and Cunningham which just went wide … our forwards were constantly pressing. The home team was: Daft, goal; Capt. Challenor and Nott, backs; Gandy, Richardson and Brookes, half-backs; Capt Creagh, Pepper, Cunningham, Lieut. Yalland, and Oliffe, forwards’.

Army Hockey Tournament (Aldershot, November 20th) Leicestershire Regt 2 v Bedfordshire Regt 0

Bdsmn. Daft; Capt. E. L Challenor and Corpl. Nott; Lance-Corpl Brooks, Sergt. Richardson, and Capt. F. Le M. Gruchy; Lieut. E. S. Tidswell, Lieut. T. Prain, Sergt. Cunningham, Sergt. Pepper, Bdsmn. Oliffe.

Army Hockey Tournament (Aldershot, December 14th) Leicestershire Regt 5 v Lancs. Regt 2

Reserve: Pte. Oliffe

Reading Grandads’ army record and these numerous sporting entries in the Green Tiger Journals, I have the sense that his life significantly improved and that he never looked back. He spent 12 years in the army and whilst not rising in the ranks, (he remained a private to the end), kept his head down and was awarded several ‘Good Conduct’ badges. He had joined just after the Boer War (1899-1902) ended and when he left the army in 1913, aged 28 (or was he possibly 30?), he was a ‘time-expired’ solder and as such legitimately avoided being called up for the Great War.

I only wish that I’d had the chance to have heard more about his experiences from him when I was growing up in the 60’s. He died in 1969. My memories consist mainly of an elderly, blind man in a dark suit wearing spectacles. He was clearly so much more than that!

He’d had quite a life, not all of it pleasant but he had obviously made the most of the hand he’d been dealt.

George (and Ethel) Olliffe are buried in the Backwalls cemetery at Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire.

Footnote: For a very good history of the 17th Foot and the Leicestershire Regiment, I recommend the following volume: The period of my Grandfather’s service is covered between p224-234.

Social History: George Olliffe – Victorian Pauper, Brentford Union

April 10, 2012 1 comment

Just 100 years ago in 1912, my Grandfather was one year away from the end of 12 years with the Colours and his discharge from 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment (The Tigers)

This is Part 1 of his story …

In 1885, William Gladstone was Prime Minister for the second time, General Gordon had been killed by the Muslim Mahdi in Egypt and Imperial Britain was at the very height of its colonial power. Queen Victoria then ruled over the largest Empire the world has ever known. Yet whole sections of the British population were desperately poor and, unbelievably, were considered by the ‘Poor Laws’ as being responsible for their own plight.

This hugely unjust and unequal society was held together by the thin veneer of deference and Victorian Christianity. Mrs Alexander’s well known hymn, ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ summed up the social dogma of the time: The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and orders their estate’. That particular stanza is always omitted now!

In either 1883 or 1885 (depending on the record), my Grandfather was born to his father, William. From what we know, he appears not to have known his mother. At age 6, because it ‘all became too much for his father’ (my own father’s words), he was one of many thousands incarcerated in that terrible human dumping-ground for the Victorian poor; the Union Workhouse. In Grandads’ case, he lived at Percy House, Isleworth, the school attached to the Brentford Workhouse, now the site of West Middlesex University Hospital.

The Brentford Poor Law Union included 10 Middlesex parishes of which Acton was one. 

The threat of the Union workhouse was intended to act as a deterrent to the able-bodied pauper. This was a principle enshrined in the revival of the “workhouse test” — poor relief would only be granted to those desperate enough to face entering the repugnant conditions of the workhouse. If an able-bodied man entered the workhouse, his whole family had to enter with him. Life inside the workhouse was intended to be as off-putting as possible. Men, women, children, the infirm, and the able-bodied were housed separately and given very basic and monotonous food such as watery porridge called gruel, or bread and cheese. (Source:

When Grandad joined the British army on 3rd February 1901, my Great-Grandfather, William Olliffe’s address was listed as Brentford Union, so he was obviously an inmate of the Victorian Poor House.  When William eventually died, the question arises: did he actually pass away in the workhouse?

I’m told William was buried in Acton Cemetery, Grave no. 82.

The Percy House Schools, lent by the Brentford Board of Guardians, were located to the west of the Brentford Union workhouse. Opened in 1883 by the politician Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (1843-1911), the Brentford workhouse school had been enlarged in 1901 and renamed Percy House after a local landowner, the Duke of Northumberland. The two-storey central administration block fronted onto Twickenham Road and contained offices, a chapel, a dining hall, the kitchens and storerooms. Flanking it were 3-storey wings containing accommodation for 280 children (boys in the north wing and girls in the south). The Building was demolished in 1978. (Source: )

Grandad stayed there for at least 10 years and I can’t think it did him much good other than possibly keeping him alive. He left just before his 16th birthday to join The Leicesters; he was only 5 ft tall, weighed less than 7 stones (95 lbs) and his army medical lists a horrifying catalogue of scars all over his body. I couldn’t help but wonder just how these injuries were inflicted?

I have studied the 1891 UK Census documents and these confirm that my Grandfather was indeed a resident at Percy House.

On the night of Sunday April 5th 1891, Grandad is listed (Pg 8, Line 14) at Percy House (part of the Brentford Union Workhouse); Male, age 6, ‘Scholar’ (or more likely today, Pauper), born Acton, Middlesex. His name is spelt: George Olliff.  The census is headed ‘Return of all persons who slept in the Institution on night of etc’ and Page 1 is clearly marked, Percy House. Sadly, there is no mistake!

I suspect that Grandad remained at Percy House School from 1891 until 1901 when he joined the army, as many poorhouse boys then did.

Many District Schools had a school band through which, for boys with a musical aptitude, could lead to a career in the army as a military bandsman. 

On page 1 of the census the staff of Percy House are listed as ‘Officers’: George and Sarah Williams, age 33 & 34 from Esher, Surrey (respectively Superintendent / Headmaster and Matron of the School), followed by 7 single officers of the school and 14 servants including cooks and housemaids, aged from 16 to 51 (Jane White, a widow and infants attendant). Of these 23 officers and servants, only 5 were male including the Head, two schoolmasters and two stokers.

Kay proposed a grandiose scheme for establishing a hundred similar “District” schools across England and Wales each accommodating around 500 children who would be separated from what he saw as the polluting association with the adult workhouse inmates. In such institutions, he claimed, poor law children “would not be daily taught the daily lesson of dependence, of which the whole apparatus of a workhouse is the symbol… the district school would assume a character of hopefulness and enterprise better fitted to prepare the children for conflict with the perils and difficulties of a struggle for independence than anything which their present situation affords.”  (Source:

I’ve pieced together the main events of Grandfather’s life but was hampered throughout by the various official spellings of his surname, a difficulty that persists even to this day for the rest of us!

George Olliffe

Born: Acton, Middlesex, 4th March 1885  (but a Birth Certificate records his actual birth date as 11th November 1883)

Died: Stow-on-the-Wold, Glos, October 1969

Pauper / Scholar, Percy House School, Brentford Union, age 6 – 15

(At least 10 years in this institution)

British Army Bandsman (clarinetist), 1st Bn, Leicestershire Regiment, age 16 – 28

(12 years ‘with the Colours’ – his clarinet remains in the family)

Time-expired Soldier during the Great War.

There is confusion over George Olliffe’s second name. His entire army record notes it as William whereas by the time of his marriage and on my own parents marriage certificate, George’s second name is recorded as James. I suspect that it always was James but that at his enlistment he gave his Father’s name as his second name, either out of confusion or ignorance?

On leaving the army, George played in a Dance Band and got a job as a high level crane driver at the London Power Company (then a private company) at Acton Lane Power Station. He had a head for heights and got the job as it involved walking along a girder to the cab of the crane. He fell once. My Father remembers walking to the Power Station with his mother at the week-ends with his father’s lunch. My eldest brother remembers being taken by his Grandad there at two years old and riding on the foot-plate of the steam engine whilst it shunted backwards and forwards with the coal!

Grandad was originally dead set against Christianity but turned to Christ during this period, influenced by the prayer and Gospel meetings of the Early Plymouth Brethren and by the Christian witness of his Parents-in-Law, Samuel and Julia Kerry.  

Grandad had married Ethel J. King, nee Kerry in 1918 following the wartime death of her first husband, Alfred King. They lived at 54 Denbigh Road, Church Road, (Taylors Lane), Willesden, NW10. Grandad became a father at the age of 35. My Father was born in September 1920 during the final years of the last British Liberal PM, David Lloyd George.

54 Denbigh Road, Willesden was an upstairs flat. In 1920, the weekly rent was 11 shillings (60p). The Downstairs neighbours were the Hortins. My Grandmother and Mrs Hortin were pregnant at the same time. The midwife suggested the babies’ names (Douglas and Ronald) and so my father – who came along first – was actually named by the midwife! Ronnie Hortin went to Malaysia and died under the Japanese. He never came home.

My own parents were bombed out of London in the late 1940’s, courtesy of one of Hitler’s ‘Doodlebug’ rockets. They moved in with my Grandparents who by then had moved to 258, North Circular Road. Eventually they all moved to the Cotswold town of Stow on the Wold in the 1950’s.  Grandad died in East View Old People’s home (a previous Union Workhouse) in Back Walls in October 1969. By then he was completely blind.

To me it feels somewhat sad that Grandad started and ended his life in two Union Workhouse buildings.

In part 2 of Grandad’s life, we shall take an in-depth look at his life in the British Victorian Army.

I am most grateful to (Mr Peter Higginbotham) and the staff of the National Archive at Kew for such helpful information.

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