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The new IWM London revealed

Karen Clare gives a glimpse behind the doors of the newly-transformed IWM London ahead of its reopening to the public.

Imperial War Museums London

Imperial War Museums London.

The Imperial War Museums’ (IWM) flagship London branch in Southwark reopens tomorrow (Saturday 19 July), a year after closing for a hugely impressive £40m redevelopment in time for the centenary of the First World War.

Officially launched by the Duke of Cambridge and Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday, it is a remarkable and poignant memorial to our ancestors who lived through and died in the Great War.

This major revamp has included the building’s Atrium which, redesigned by Foster + Partners, houses nine of the IWM’s most iconic large objects, including a Spitfire and V-1 rocket. It is a breath-taking introduction to the museum’s treasures. Each object in ‘Witnesses to War’ tells a story in this bright, white new space, but it is the museum’s ground-breaking First World War Galleries that really take your breath away.

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WW1 whistle stop

The August issue cover of Family Tree showing a 1914 whistle.

The August issue cover of Family Tree showing a 1914 whistle.

When we were wondering how to illustrate the cover of August issue of Family Tree, a trench whistle seemed to be the perfect image – evoking those last sunny, sporting days of our ancestors of 1914, before the First World War obliterated their era of innocence, as we often view it.

The shrill call of the officers’ (and NCOs) whistles urging the men over the top through the clamour of battle is a ‘memory’, handed down, that we’re all familiar with, and the whistle we show is a typical example. Stamped ‘J Hudson & Co’ it was made by the principal manufacturer of WW1 whistles for the British and Commonwealth forces (De Courcy being another popular supplier). If you look carefully you might be able to see that ‘NZ’ has been scratched out, showing that it was decommissioned, as whistle guru Leif Bailey explains. And there also seems to be the ‘broad arrow’, indicating that it was used by the military. The addition of the date, ‘1914’ makes this a particularly appealing example – as a quick look at ebay prices will demonstrate:  undated Hudson whistles go for just a few pounds, but add the WW1 military aspect and they are heavily sought after.

In the trawl for a suitable whistle, it became clear that they were used in all sorts of environments – the police and scouts, for instance, as you’d expect. But if you find a whistle stamped ‘MH’, just reflect again on the age of ‘innocence’. MH stands for mental hospital. And quite what whistles were used for in that environment is a thought-provoking thing for sure. But that’s the thing about history and family history there is always something new to learn – if you’re stoical enough for the journey into the past.

The whistle on the cover of the August issue of Family Tree is from whistle enthusiast Leif Bailey’s collection on Leif was a police officer for 30 years mostly in uniform duties and carried a whistle in his tunic pocket, but it wasn’t until around 25 years later that he began collecting them.

“With regards to WW1 whistles, my interest stems from a grandfather who served in the Great War,” said Leif. “So I took it upon myself to get one from each of the years during the war. Dated whistles go back to the late 19th century therefore another project is to try to find one for each year. This is a difficult task because a few dates have either not been made or have not yet surfaced amongst the collecting world. To date I have many of the years from as early as 1889 until around 1970. In WW1 the whistle was used to ‘Command men to go over the top’ from the trenches, and is often referred to as the Trench Warfare Whistle.”

Find out more about your First World War ancestors in the latest issue of Family Tree: Click here.

From the Family Tree archives

Family Tree is celebrating its 30th birthday this year! With the November 2014 issue Family Tree will be 30 years old and by some margin the oldest national family history magazine published in Britain. Michael Armstrong, the founder of Family Tree, has been delving into the archives, recalling some of the treasures we’ve published, many of which were sent in by our readers over the years…

Divorce, always an expensive business, is considered by many to be an indulgence of only the rich in years past.  Barbara Marlow proved otherwise in an article she submitted to Family Tree and which appeared in the July-August 1985 issue.

Divorce was not only for the rich, judging by the case of Biggins v Biggins in 1862.  The Marriage broke down in 1857, the year that divorce proceedings left the Ecclesiastical Courts and divorce required an Act of Parliament.

In 1851,  Robert Biggins and his wife Margaret were living together over a fruiterer’s shop run by his parents in Queens Street, Devonport.  Mr Biggins was a smithy in the dockyard.  In terms of mid-Victorian society, they were of artisan class.  Reading the following report one wonders if Mrs Biggins realised the impact of the new law.

‘Council for the petitioner is Dr Spinks of Messrs Beer and Rundle.  The petitioner resides at Devonport and is employed in HM Dockyard.  It appeared from the evidence given by Mr Petherick and Mrs Wilcocks that in 1857 while the petitioner was absent from the yard, his wife received visits from a person named Soper.

‘It further appeared that, upon Mr Biggins being informed of these visits, he charged her with familiarity with Soper and refused to live with her.  He sent her away and made her a weekly allowance.’

From the further evidence of Mr Henry Bryant, an inspector of the police, and Mrs Cocker, it appeared that the conduct of Mrs Biggins since her separation from her husband left no doubt of her having been guilty of the charges.  The court, after hearing the evidence of the witnesses, awarded a decree nisi for the dissolution of the marriage.

The new law allowed the husband to apply for a divorce if his wife had committed adultery. A wife could obtain a divorce only if it was coupled with desertion and cruelty. Bigamy was also grounds for divorce.

In 1937, divorce was legalised in Britain for grounds other than adultery. In 1970, the breakdown of a marriage could be the sole grounds for divorce in Britain.

Families did not usually discuss these matters.  Such an incidence might be at the root of your genealogical problem. A look at the indexes of the Public Record Office (now The National Archives at Kew) will assist you.

For files of proceedings of divorce you need to refer to the Principal Probate registry, divorce file ref: J77 1858-1934.

By the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873,  the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Cause was absorbed by the Probate Divorce and Admiralty Division. The files preserved in this class contain minutes, pleadings and decrees in alphabetical order. Index reference number J78.

One should bear in mind that many of the articles in this series appeared nearly 30 years ago and before going to Kew it will be worth checking what’s now available online. A useful starting point would be The National Archives’ guide to divorce records at

Researching a war memorial & writing a book!


Aldeburgh war memorial.

Aldeburgh war memorial.

Starting a research project of your own can sound a bit daunting: you might feel you don’t have the expertise or the time. However, in the interview below, researcher and author Simon Last shows how you can begin small and then work up towards something bigger. Simon Last’s three-year research has ensured that personal sacrifices made during both world wars will not be forgotten. His careful and thorough investigation of the local people named on war memorials has helped write an important part of the history of two nearby Suffolk towns, Framlingham and Aldeburgh, and he has now published three books and used them to raise a significant sum for charity. Interview by Simon Wills.

How did you get started with your war memorial project?

Simon Last: For my postgraduate certificate in genealogy we had to carry out a research project of community value. I picked 10 names from the Framlingham war memorial in Suffolk, where I grew up, and placed an article in the town magazine asking for information about them. The chair of the town council contacted me asking whether I would research all the First World War names, which I did, and I sold a book about it to raise money for the Royal British Legion. This led to me researching the Second World War Framlingham names, which I also published as a book.

After this project, you investigated the Aldeburgh memorial. How did that come about?

The East Anglian Daily Times ran articles about the Framlingham books, and as a result I was contacted by Lamorna Good. Her husband, Michael, had started researching the Aldeburgh War Memorial in 2006, but he had been sadly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was unable to finish the project. Lamorna asked if I would review Mike’s military research and add family details from census records etc to produce a book like my Framlingham ones. I agreed and the Aldeburgh First World War book was launched in March this year. Aldeburgh was different to Framlingham – being a coastal town there were far more Navy men on the memorial.

Were there individuals that you had difficulty finding, and how did you overcome this?

There were one or two names that were hard to trace, but I retrieved basic details for most from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and from this I ran newspaper articles, as well as coverage in the Suffolk Family History Journal, posted on Great War forums, searched all the names on Ancestry and Genes Reunited websites, and eventually discovered more details. I also joined the Western Front Association at WDYTYA Live in 2011 and regularly attend the monthly Southend Branch meetings.

What interesting stories did you uncover?

I discovered lots of interesting stories. Unusually, I found a woman on the Aldeburgh First World War memorial: Christina Jay was a nurse in the Royal Alexandra Nursing Corps who died at sea on a hospital ship. And one man on this memorial was shot down by the Red Baron.

Do you have any tips for other researchers on how to organise yourself and your data?

I used a large folder and put all the names in order of date of death. This was helpful as it helped to suggest the major battles in which men had died. An important tip is to carefully record the origins of information. You get so much data that you must do this methodically.

Did you manage to get in touch with relatives of anyone on either memorial?

I did make contact with descendants and some attended the book launches. The feedback has been really positive; relatives are pleased that their ancestor’s name will live on.

Has this research made you a better genealogist?

Yes. The research has given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of military and family life for the period 1900-1920. I’ve also learned to organise a very large amount of data, and how to publish.

How can people see your research for themselves?

The books are for sale locally, but people can email me if they’d like to buy copies:


From football to Flanders

From football to FlandersAs excitement about the World Cup 2014 reaches fever pitch, we delved into the Family Tree magazine archives to find features on footballing ancestors – and this is one of our favourites.

Published in our July 2009 issue, author Peter Holland revealed how he traced the story of his footballing relative Wilfred Bartrop, who played for Liverpool FC (including in two FA Cup finals) before his career was tragically cut short on the battlefields of the Western Front just four days before the Armistice.

Read Peter’s story by clicking the link below. His book, Swifter than the Arrow: Wilfred Bartrop, football and war, is published in paperback by Troubador (RRP £7.99).

From football to Flanders

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