The Rediscovered Family by Corin Mills 10th May 2003
When I was young and my Grandpa (William George Mills) was alive, many enjoyable school holidays were spent at his house in Spring Garden Lane Gosport and I paid no real attention to the past. He told me that his father (Thomas William) had died when he was only two years old and that his mother had also died at a fairly young age. The only other thing that I remember him telling me was that when he died he was the youngest Staff Sergeant in the British Army.
As for memorabilia; in the house at Gosport, very few items existed. During the war the family’s effects, which were in storage at Pickfords in Plymouth, were destroyed in an air raid. What survived was presumably with my Grandpa while he was abroad serving with the Royal Engineers or kept in the then family house at 45, Peel Road, Gosport, which was mainly full of the property of the other side of the family; the Francis’.
A silver topped walking stick inscribed with the monogram TWM, an Army pay book (now lost), five photos, one purporting to show Thomas William with his brother Jesse taken in Plumstead, one of TW as a soldier in the R.E, two of his wife Eva Annie nee Williams taken in Pembroke Dock and a small photo of the elderly father of TW, James Mills, were the only items remaining.
There was no written history of the family, no family Bible, no photograph album, nothing, except a few verbal snippets.
These snippets amounted to the following:-
1 James Mills was Scottish and had come down from Glasgow to live in Plumstead and work at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.
2 He had a son called Thomas William who was in the R.E and was possibly stationed in Jamaica, Pembroke, Chepstow & Gosport.
3 He was thought to have had another son called Jesse who was also in the R.E and attained the rank of Colonel.
4 Thomas William was known to have lived with his wife at Clayhall, Alverstoke in the same road as his wife’s relations and was thought to have died in 1900.
Jump forward to May 1975.
My parents had moved to Pratts Bottom near Orpington. I’ve no idea now what prompted us but my wife and I decided to research our backgrounds so we stayed with them and went to St. Catherine’s House in London to consult the Births, Marriages and Deaths indexes for our respective forbears. I found the marriage details of Thomas William, which confirmed what I already knew. His father was James Mills; a fitter, but the certificate gave no clue as to where he was born or where his father lived. That is as far as I managed to get because the Birth Indexes showed any number of Thomas or T Mills’ all over Britain for the year in which he was born - 1874. Which one was the right one? The same applied to the Death Indexes. We didn’t have the money to buy all of them so I gave up.
Jump forward again over twenty years to November 2001.
I had recently managed to get out of the rat race that was running a small family business and had joined a hardwood conservatory company in Witney as Technical Director. I invited an old acquaintance Derek Stocker, a representative for a sealed unit company, to visit me but we ended up talking about genealogy. He told me that the Latter Day Saints had a huge worldwide online database and had also produced a complete transcript of the 1881 Census on 26 CD’s available to purchase for just less than thirty pounds. I ordered it and began searching. The same problem was evident; too many identical names, but I printed out the most likely ones which included a family in Ashford, Kent. The father though, had been born in Barton, Lancashire and this didn’t fit with the story that he was Scottish or lived in Plumstead. The online database of the LDS wasn’t any help. I searched the Scots Origins database on their web site but there was no trace of anybody that I could firmly identify.
At this time I was travelling round the country troubleshooting as part of my job and one of the places I had to go was Richmond. While I was there I decided to visit the Public Record Office at Kew and signed up for a Readers Ticket. In the hour or so I had available I picked up a pile of information leaflets on what to search and how and resolved to spend some more time there.
Shortly afterwards, the conservatory company went bankrupt and I went back to fitting windows on my own without the baggage of premises, employees etc. I found that I actually had time to spare and could indulge the growing thirst for knowledge about my background.
The PRO was in the process of digitising the 1901 Census and I was really looking forward to this being made available online. I was probably partly responsible, along with several million others for overloading the site and causing it to crash. There was nothing else for it but to visit Kew in person. But, there was a problem. The microfiche records of the 1901 Census don’t include a name index so you have to know the road where an ancestor lived in order to get any information. I went next to the Civil Registration Indexes and searched for the death record of Thomas William. I chose what I thought to be the most likely ones and ordered the certificates. There were two. One had the wrong parentage but the other recorded the father as being James Mills, present at the death and even gave his address; 98, Robert Street, Plumstead. At last, a breakthrough. Thomas William died 25th May 1901in Barracks No.2 Newcastle upon Tyne of typhitis and peritonitis, which must have been exceedingly painful. The date, coincidentally, was his son’s third birthday – how tragic.
The morning that TW’s death certificate arrived (28th May 2002) I decided that I just had to drop everything and go immediately to Kew as I now had two addresses.
I couldn’t find anything at all in the 1901 Census for Newcastle, as the address wasn’t specific enough so I turned to the microfiche for Robert Street, Plumstead. There he was, James Mills with his wife Sarah and a daughter, Sarah A.
He gave as his birthplace; Barton upon Irwell, Lancashire and his daughter had been born in Ashford, Kent. The implication didn’t hit me until I went back to my car for a break and looked through all the other papers I had accumulated. The family in Ashford in 1881 was the same one! I rang my Dad on the mobile phone to tell him in a state of emotion that his Grandfather, Thomas William really did have a brother called James Jesse and that there was another brother, Edward and two sisters, Louisa and Sarah as well. Writing about this now in May 2003 still brought tears to my eyes.
A further search of the 1881 Census came up with yet another sister, Ellen, who was in service as a Nanny for a family back in Eccles, Manchester, which is very close to Barton. Her birth certificate proves the relationship.
Shortly afterwards I learnt that the PRO were going to put the digitised version of the 1901 Census on their internal network as a trial. I went to Kew like a shot.
Whilst waiting for a computer to become available I went to the rack of shelves holding the Army Lists to look for James Jesse Mills. Sure enough, there he was, his Army career documented in black and white. Not in the Royal Engineers but in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. I followed his progress round the world up until 1935 by which time he had been promoted to the rank of Colonel – with an O.B.E to boot. He was also a Member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.
Getting onto the computer was memorable. To have the ability to do a name search amongst so many millions is truly mind blowing. I found Thomas William living with his wife Eva Annie and their son William George in Coburg St., Tynemouth. This was recorded just two months before he died. James Jesse was staying at the Royal Hotel, Devonport, presumably having been posted there. Edward was married and living in Greenwich. Of Louisa and Ellen there was no trace as they were probably married. I have since found various links but have yet to follow these up.
I made two trips to the Family Records Centre in Islington where the Civil Registration Index is kept in huge bound volumes and by June I was in possession of birth certificates for all the children of James Mills. I also got a birth certificate for his wife Sarah but despite all attempts – even going to the Local History Centre in Manchester and searching burial records at Shooters Hill, Woolwich with my father Ron – I could not find any record of James himself; birth, marriage or death.
Ron had been trying for some time to get the M.O.D, in the form of the Army Personnel Centre in Glasgow to produce the army records for TW and JJ. As Thomas was a non-commissioned officer, his career does not appear to have been documented, but as JJ was an officer his should have been recorded in quite some detail. On the 4th December 2002 the typewritten transcript of his dossier arrived. The only thing missing was his marital status; it seems that this crucial piece of information was irrelevant in Army thinking.
Ron provided the impetus for the next piece of research. He had remembered that JJ was a Member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and as such would have had to apply for Membership. A phone call to the Institute at Bird Cage Walk in London got us an appointment to search their records. We came away with photocopies of his original handwritten applications; of which there were two – July 1903 and February 1921. Most importantly, there was a note of the date of his resignation – 29th January 1937 and his address – “Bourneside”, Gomshall. There was still no clue as to whether or not he had married.
The house in Gomshall was visited in November; it is now an art gallery and wine merchants but the owners had no knowledge of any previous occupants. I searched the net and came up with a phone number for the Shere and Gomshall Local History Society. Ann Noyes directed me to the electoral registers held at the Surrey History Centre in Woking. My Dad and I duly travelled to Woking and we found JJ in residence at Bourneside together with a Maud Mary. Was she his wife? Were there any children? The registers stopped in 1939 due to the War and by 1950 when they started again JJ had disappeared.
After having travelled numerous times to the PRO and the FRC I finally discovered that Oxford County Library held a complete copy of the Civil Registration Index on Microfiche. I wish I’d found that out a lot earlier – it would have saved a lot of time and money being only ten miles away.
First of all I found his marriage to Maud Mary Murphy in 1910 in Woolwich but I couldn’t find a record of her birth. Looking at the Army dossier I saw that he was stationed in Ireland at the time and as Maud’s (apparent) maiden name was Murphy there was a possibility that she was Irish. The marriage certificate later showed that James Mills was still alive and living in Charlton and that Maud’s father was called Hayes. Her status was that of a widow so this was a second marriage.
I tracked down a number of deaths of a JJ Mills and on the 17th December the right certificate arrived which recorded his address as 2, Ethel Road, Broadstairs and the informant was A. Mills – daughter in law of 110, Lauderdale Mansions, Maida Vale. So he must have had a son – but what was his name?
I wrote letters to both the London and Broadstairs addresses asking for information. On the 28th December, Tony Royse, the current owner of the Broadstairs house replied by e-mail to say that he had looked up his Deeds and the Land Registry details which showed that the house had been bought in April 1959 by Maud Mary Mills whose previous address was 7, Bowling Street, Sandwich. They also showed that a Vivian Hayes Mills of 110, Lauderdale Mansions, Maida Vale had bought the house from Maud in June of 1959. I now had the name of JJ’s son.
I sent another letter to the owner of the house in Sandwich and on the 15th January 2003 received a reply from Keith Wells together with two histories of the house and a set of photographs. One of the histories confirmed that JJ had bought the house in 1938 so he must have moved there directly from Gomshall.
There was now a very good chance that there were relatives alive and kicking. Had Vivian and his wife had any children?
The net again pointed the way forward. The London Metropolitan Archives, very near to the FRC in Islington hold the electoral registers for the London Boroughs. Off I went to do some more digging. It was most fortuitous that the three children I discovered, Sean, Vivien and Michael, were all living at home when they came of age and were recorded as being eligible to vote. Things were getting scary – the three children would now be respectively 62, 59 and 55 and they were of the same generation as my father.
Back again at Oxford County Library I couldn’t find a record of Vivian’s birth and surmised that he may have been born in Ireland. I applied to the Office of the Registrar General in Dublin for a birth certificate that arrived while we were on holiday in New Zealand.
I turned to the current electoral registers, courtesy of an Internet subscription with www.192.com. I found two SAH Mills’- one in Ireland and one in England. I wrote letters to them both but never received a reply. There were 42 MJ Mills’ so I concentrated on Vivien instead. At Oxford Library I found her marriage to Peter Graville in 1964. Back on the net the electoral register recorded them as living in Leominster. What should I do next – phone? What would be the reaction? Discretion being the better part of Valour, I wrote a letter and enclosed various documents proving our relationship. I sent it by Recorded Delivery and waited. After two weeks the package was returned to me, as it had not been collected. I took the plunge, telephoned and left a message on an answering machine. I reposted the package with a postscript to phone my father as my wife and I were taking a five-week break in America, New Zealand and Australia.
On the 21st February 2003 Lynne and I flew to Los Angeles to stay for two days with my Uncles, Fred and Ron Billson who had emigrated after the War. Things started badly when some idiot mistook my suitcase for his at Los Angeles Airport. Virgin staff tracked him down to Beverley Hills and organised a courier to collect and deliver it to Thousand Oaks. It arrived well after midnight! The next morning though, there was a telephone call from my father to say that he had had a call from Vivien. My heart went out to him – I was so proud that I had been able to achieve so much from so little and put two people in touch from a family that had lost all contact over a hundred years ago. The incredible bonus of finding out that Sean’s children, Selina, Jessica and Jacqueline and his wife Barbara were in Sydney (which we were due to visit for a week towards the end of our holiday) was just stupendous.
Needless to say we spent a very happy evening with them all. Selina and her son Noah saw us off from the airport on the following day – an emotional parting.
Whilst we were in New Zealand I couldn’t stop researching. My Great Aunt Beatrice Billson was supposedly buried at Purewa Cemetery in Auckland. We found the family plot with a headstone, which we cleaned. Three other older relatives were interred there as well and I telephoned my mother from the graveside to let her know that her side of the family was just as important.
Despite all the successes there is a huge amount left to do. Many questions have been raised – some I shall be able to answer in time – some will remain without answers, such is the nature of family history.
It must be recorded! Please pass on anecdotes, potted histories, snippets about the past, anything – you never know what might be useful. New arrivals, marriages, changes of address - let me know.
Corin Mills – Great Great Grandson of James Mills.