In my recent 15 minutes of fame per The Grauniad I related my Eureka moment when after months of searching, I found the birth registration of Emma Joan Brunel, coincidentally on the birthday of my own daughter Emma.
But there have been other such occasions, and following far more abstruse research than for Emma Brunel. My first book was about Henry John Hatch, an unfortunate clergyman who endured six months’ chokey in Newgate. He and his wife adopted an orphan child, Lucy, and not knowing her surname, I wanted to trace her place of birth to see if it would be possible to identify her. For several reasons, only the 1861 census was appropriate, and I tried many times without success to locate the family.
All the census returns have now been transcribed and indexed, but as some of the handwriting in the original returns is truly dreadful, the quality of the transcriptions varies enormously. Nevertheless, it is possible to do searches on several words. Eventually, by trying different combinations of names, I found that ‘Henry John Hatch’ and his wife ‘Essie’ had been transcribed as ‘Henry J Watch’ and his wife ‘Elsie’.
Lucy was born in Goring in Sussex; there were only two candidates fitting the dates, and I knew she was one of five children. The census returns confirmed that she must have been Lucy Buckler, and I found out much later via an independent route that that was indeed her name.
But perhaps the most satisfying detection, which amply illustrates the unreliability of some of the official records, was finding my wife’s great-great-grandfather’s birth details. His name was Henry Thomas Doe, and he served in the Royal Navy all over the world, including a voyage to Australia, New Zealand and the South Sea Islands in HMS Basilisk. His story was published here. His naval record, recovered from the National Archives, stated that he was born in Great Bookham, Surrey, on 12 August 1853, but there was no corresponding record in central registration. This is unusual but not greatly so, so I looked at the parish records. There was no record there either, but what there was, was this:
Harriet Thomas Dow, baptised 13 November 1853 … Looking this name up in central registration yielded Harry Thomas Dow. The birth certificate when it came:
The date of birth was one day out, but the father’s name, profession and mother’s name tallied, so Harriet Thomas Dow had morphed into Henry Thomas Doe via Harry Thomas Dow. It remains the first time that such an investigation has yielded a sex change...
Isambard Harrison, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great nephew, was working as an articled clerk for a solicitor in Brighton in 1911, but in September 1918 he turned up in Minnesota City, USA, employed by a farmer. The event was recorded on a Draft registration form he was required to fill in.
Why was he there? If it was a ‘gap’ year, he was somewhat late in doing it since he was 33 years old. And solicitor's clerk to farm-hand? I suggested previously, perhaps a little uncharitably, that he might have been dodging conscription; the USA had come into the war in 1917, but he could have arrived much earlier. By September 1918 it was clear that the allies were going to win the war, so there was little danger that Isambard would be drafted; in any event he was required to register.
His full name appeared on the card – Isambard Joseph Francis Brunel Harrison – but he then proceeded apparently to provide a false next of kin: ‘John Brunel Harrison (Bro[ther]), 87 Kings Road, Windsor, London, England.’
But he didn’t have a brother. His father had noted on the 1911 census return – in which Isambard had been listed – that he had had only had four children, and that they were all alive – three girls and a boy. Also, his father’s name was just ‘John Harrison’ without the Brunel name.
It is possible that the registrar misheard the relationship and it is also just possible that Isambard was under the mistaken impression that his father’s middle name was ‘Brunel’ – like Isambard's sisters. However, in 1911 the family were living in Brighton, and when Isambard’s mother died in 1922, it was in Droxford, near Portsmouth.
Isambard did return at some point. His death at the age of 53 was registered in Builth Wells, Wales, in 1939. His youngest sister, Josephine Brunel Hensleigh Harrison, was granted administration of his estate which amounted to £206 19s 9d.
Isambard Joseph Francis Brunel Harrison remains a mysterious figure about whom I would be fascinated to learn more.
I find myself doing what I have never done before, turning the news off because it is so depressing. Of course a crisis is meat and drink to the news media, but I do wonder whether they are overdoing it; the ‘isn’t it awful?’ syndrome, ‘Let’s just have another look…’
It is a moot point whether we should maintain the scary news – deaths at a thousand a day and pictures of piles of coffins in temporary mass graves – in order to convince waverers or the bloody-minded that we must stick to the lockdown to save ourselves. But the downside of this is that we risk driving millions of people into clinical depression and paranoia.
On the other hand we could lighten the news, point out that while many are dying, very, very many more are recovering – the prime minister and the heir to the throne to name but two. The danger with that strategy, is that people stop taking the situation seriously, which it undoubtedly is.
On reflection, I think that I incline to a little more of the latter, and slightly less of the former for the sanity of all us all.
Emma Joan Brunel was three years and three days older than her illustrious brother, but whether by accident or design it is on the anniversary of her birthday, 6 April, rather than his, 9 April, that the rising sun penetrates right through Isambard’s wonderful Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway. The publicity attaching to this circumstance, following a recent article in the national press – based itself on an article I wrote for Genealogists’ Magazine in 2016 – led me to speculate on the possibility that Emma Joan might have direct descendants still living.
Emma Joan Brunel married George Harrison, a widowed curate, and in 1844 when George was the incumbent of the parish of New Brentford (coincidentally, where I went to school…), she gave birth to her only child, John Harrison. John enjoyed a privileged upbringing, initially having a nurse and then a private tutor. He attended Magdalen Hall College, Oxford, but there is no evidence that he took his degree. There is also no evidence that he ever worked for his living; every census record that I have found records that he was living on ‘private means…’
Nevertheless, he did get married; in June 1868 he wed the 17-year-old Lucy Maria Elizabeth Tucker. Their children were:
Rosa Lucretia Brunel Harrison, born 1870
Mary Emma Lucy Brunel Harrison, born around 1884
Isambard Joseph Francis Brunel Harrison, born 7 Sep 1885
Josephine Brunel Hensleigh (or Hemsleigh) Harrison, born around 1889
The 14 year gap between the first and second children is odd, but Harrison's declaration in the 1911 census states that they had only four children and none that had died.
Of those children, Mary and Josephine died spinsters. Isambard was in America in 1918, although he did return to the UK and died in Wales in 1939. He was a bit of a mystery; in 1911 he is listed as a solicitor’s articled clerk in Brighton, but in 1918, he was working for a farmer in Minnesota. Did he go to America to avoid being called up? There is no indication that he ever married; his sister Josephine was awarded probate on his death. Rosa is the real mystery. There is no obvious record of a marriage or death, and she seems not to have been included on the civil registration lists for births. Possibly she emigrated; after 1891 she just disappears.
And that is as far as I have got. If there are any intrepid Harrison genealogists out there who can throw any light on the mysterious Rosa, I would be delighted to hear from them. Ditto anyone in the USA who has ever come across Isambard Harrison. If Rosa had children, then there is the possibility that Emma Joan Brunel’s descendants might be alive today.
Post amended 24 April 2020, on receipt of Emma Joan Brunel's will, and the discovery that her eldest grand-daughter's name was Rosa Lucretia Brunel Harrison.
Those nice people at The Guardian newspaper have published a review of my theory that Brunel aligned the Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway such that the rising sun shone through it on the birthday of his sister Emma. You can read The Guardian article here, and my original piece here.
Added later: The story has now made it in an expanded version into the Daily Mail online here ...
These are scary times, and it is easy to allow anxiety to take over. Human beings are social animals; even during the darkest days of the Blitz when terror and death rained from the sky, the pubs and theatres stayed open.
But this is not the end of the world. It is temporary, and normal life will return soon as long as we all take the simple precautions advised by the government.
But we’re alive! And anyone reading this is certainly in sufficient possession of their faculties to recognize that fact. All crises bring out the best and the worst in people, but from what I have seen in the current situation, the former outweighs the latter by many times.
Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of people I pass during my walks outside – at least two metres distant – not only nod or say hello, but now ask ‘How are you?’, and seem disposed to pass the time of day. Is it possible that the silver lining in all of this will be the mending of the awful divisions in the country caused by you know what? I live in hope, and I am determined to be cheerful!
I have been trying to articulate my thoughts about Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt which I went to see yesterday. The action consists of scenes from the lives of two affluent and cultured Jewish families living in Vienna between 1899 and 1955 and their attempts to assimilate, some of them by marrying gentiles, some by converting to Christianity.
The one thing everyone knows about the period is what the Nazis did to the Jews, and the roll-call of those of the characters who ended their lives in Auschwitz formed the final scene of the play. An earlier scene, set in 1938, when the two families were evicted by the Nazis from the one unheated and unlighted apartment remaining to them, was really upsetting in its menace and vicious brutality. The more so because there was only verbal violence.
This is a play in which Stoppard attempts to come to terms with his Jewish background in Czechoslovakia before the war. Apparently he knew very little about it until he persuaded his mother, already in her sixties, to write down details of her family. It all has considerable resonances for me, because my own mother was born in Vienna – of Czech parents – and her adoptive mother was a secular Jew who had married a Catholic and fled to Britain in 1938 because of the rising persecution of Jews.
Ultimately though, the play was unsatisfying in spite of the usual Stoppard clever tricks. There were cultural references to Klimt, Mahler, Freud and Schoenberg, and one of the characters, a professor of mathematics played by Stoppard’s son, wandered around the stage worrying about the Riemann Hypothesis – an obscure problem in the distribution of prime numbers.
But for me, it wasn’t enough. Even the chilling conversation involving the central character who challenged a military officer to a duel for insulting his wife. The officer amusedly declines, because being a Jew his challenger is entirely without honour …
I am not, I hope, sufficiently naïve to expect answers as to why these appalling events took place. But when such things happen which defy all rational explanation and logic, we turn to our artists and writers to help us at least to understand the questions. This play had all the promise, and it was a beautiful production, but it failed to deliver.
I felt bereft leaving the theatre but not because of a cathartic experience. And it was with a sense bordering on despair that the first newspaper hoarding I saw while going home announced the murder of ten people in Germany by a Neo Nazi.
This is the slightly edited text of a communication sent to my MP, Vicky Ford, on the status of the BBC.
"I wish to express my extreme concern regarding the government’s apparent attitude to the BBC. News reports say: “Downing Street has told the BBC the licence fee will be scrapped.” I have no idea whether this is Conservative Party policy, I don’t think it is, but it is clear from the anti-BBC rhetoric in the right wing press – particularly the Daily Telegraph – that the BBC is in the firing line, and I wish to lobby you to represent my views on the subject.
I will say that the practice of sending people to prison who have defaulted on their licence payment should end forthwith. We abolished debtors’ prisons in this country in 1869, and it is a scandal that people are still being sent to gaol for debt – and this applies equally to defaulters on council tax. Also, I believe that the possession of a TV set should not be the determining factor in whether a licence is needed. Some sort of login system with a password ought to be perfectly possible to be implemented with the minimum of inconvenience - this could be easily automated as is the login to Netflix.
However to abolish the licence fee for the BBC and replace it with a subscription service would be an act of cultural vandalism.
The benefits that the BBC TV, radio, local radio, world service and website bring to the country – and the world – are incalculable; make it a subscription service, and the BBC’s revenue would nosedive, turning it into the sort of lowest-common-denominator broadcasting familiar to anyone who travels abroad. The BBC is the envy of the world and a lifeline too for many countries with totalitarian regimes. Most people – with the exception of some readers of the above mentioned daily newspaper – know that what is heard on BBC news and current affairs programmes is fair, balanced and unbiased, sometimes almost to a fault. The BBC speaks truth to power.
I suspect that there is a politically motivated move to punish the BBC for its probing, mildly anti-establishment stance during the debate on Europe, spearheaded by the Today programme. Anyone whose memory is capable of winding back 20 years, would know that it was equally probing and questioning towards the Labour Government of Blair before, during and after the Iraq invasion. That position cost the BBC their chairman and managing director.
We need a sensible and grownup public debate on the future of the BBC, not policy made on the hoof to garner instant approval from a minor section of the electorate."
No, this cannot be right; our Prime Minister assured us, promised us, that there would be absolutely no checks on the Irish border after B*****t.
But now, Gove and Javid tell us there definitely will be border checks, and industry will have to get used to it…
Did I miss something?
History gives those who study it the benefit of being able to weigh the significance of simultaneous, or near simultaneous, events. Thus in the early weeks of February 2020, historians will note, that the United Kingdom departed from the European Union, Sinn Féin polled the largest number of first preference votes in the general election in the Irish Republic … and Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, authorized civil servants to spend tax-payer’s money investigating the possibility of building a bridge across the Irish Sea between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Contemporary observers will note that Sinn Féin is committed to Irish reunification, Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted by substantial majorities to remain in the EU, and the ruling party in Scotland is determined to achieve independence from the United Kingdom.
One can conclude, therefore, that the prime architect of the UK’s departure from the EU, Boris Johnson, seems to be interested in spending upwards of £20 billions of UK money on a bridge between two countries which might very well not be part of the UK by the time that said bridge is built.
If bridge-building is needed, I would respectfully suggest that it needs to be conducted between the split and broken sections of the British electorate, not over 20 miles of stormy sea strewn with unexploded World War II munitions, where the demand for travel surely cannot ever justify such an expense.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs