3    Jun 20111 comment

User Story: Court Photographer to the Royals, A Hero at Dunkirk, and Other Amazing Finds

WWI photographs by Julian's ancestor, Ernest Brooks

This week we have a story from Julian Hall, whose family history research led to him finding some extremely interesting characters in his family tree.

Some facts remain unknown, but since embarking on his family history journey Julian has made some amazing discoveries, such as:
• Finding his ancestor was the Court Photographer to the British Royals, who also became the most prolific war photographer of World War I and was awarded an OBE
• Discovering the tale of a relative who was a policeman, and who died in mysterious circumstances while on the job in London in 1908
• Tracing a great-uncle who served in World War II, who the family stories suggested died at Arnhem, but whose records indicated something else

Here Julian tells some of his stories – as well as how he originally got into family history – in his own words.

My interest in family history was first sparked many years ago when my late father's uncle Merlin (a great name for a Welshman!) sent us the genealogy he’d done of Dad's side of the family. All of this was compiled prior to the Internet. I was working at the time so didn't immediately do anything with it, but some time later when I had a baby niece I decided that, as well as my own personal interest, I'd like to show her when she grows up where her roots are from.

So I got great-uncle Merlin's records out and hit my first tiny hitch. Rather than a family tree he'd drawn up separate lists of families we were related to. I got started with research online, and before long I had a fairly substantial tree. Having done this and checked Merlin’s names and dates, despite one or two wrinkles it was remarkably accurate. The basic tree was then complete, but I wanted to take things further.

Among Great-Uncle Merlin's documents was a letter from a relative who related two, to me, fascinating snippets of information.

Firstly a reference was made to a distant relative being connected to the royal household. This was a tenuous relationship but it piqued my curiosity. After a search on the Internet I found contact details for the Royal Archives at Windsor and I inquired with them as to whether there was any truth to the tale. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email back the same day from a lady who was archivist for the Royal Photographic Collection stating that not only was his name known to her, but she knew some of his work was in the archive.

It transpires he was Ernest Brooks, Court Photographer to Queen Alexandra, wife of George V. During his service he became the most prolific war photographer of World War I and was awarded an OBE. However, in 1925 the OBE was revoked and he left the royal household. Despite much research I have never been able to discover why his OBE was taken from someone who up until that time seemed to be highly regarded. I have looked at the online London Gazette and found the announcement of the revocation but no reason given. This is an enduring mystery that may never be solved but I would like to someday.

The evacuation from Dunkirk in WWII, an operation that Julian's ancestor helped to make possible

The second reference was to a relative who died as a policeman, at a railway station in London. No more reference was given of him other than his name and where he died, so of course my interest was once again piqued to discover the circumstances of his death - for instance was he killed in the course of his duties or was it natural causes? This one took quite a bit of digging, and it was not in fact until I started matching my relatives with those on other family trees that I encountered a lady in Canada with the same relation in her tree. She had more success than I had in her research and emailed me a copy of his death certificate. John Pittiwell was a serving Policeman when he died in Dec 1908 in Ealing Broadway Railway Station. From his death certificate it would appear the Post Mortem declared natural causes 'Syncope from Kidney and Liver disease'. Doubtless a relatively common cause of death in those days and I assume given that the police station he was based at was very close to the railway station, that it was part of his beat and he simply collapsed whilst doing his rounds.

We had a third family tale, that of my great-uncle who served, and was killed, in World War II and as the family tale went he was at Arnhem. I was discussing this with a cousin one day and she mentioned the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website so, knowing he was killed in WWII I entered his name to search. I wasn't in all honesty surprised to find the family tale was incorrect. Alfred James Ditch was a gunner in 1RHA (Royal Horse Artillery) and died 28th May 1940 in France. Clearly as Arnhem - Operation Market Garden - took place in Belgium in November 1944, and didn't include the RHA, the tale could not be right and I now had clear proof. Although I never knew him of course, I was saddened by the realisation he died on the second or third day of the retreat to Dunkirk, presumably as part of the rearguard covering the rest of the British Expeditionary Force. Knowing now his place of rest I would like one day to visit his grave as a mark of respect.

To date then I have several irons in the fire with regard to family history and genealogy research and hoping to push back further, particularly the my direct branch on the male side (Hall) to find out where the name originated; were we always in Wales, do we link at some point with the large collections of Hall family in Scotland or Northern England? I hope to find answers to these and other questions in due course.

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  1. "This is an enduring mystery that may never be solved but I would like to "



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