Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Family Felon: Is that all there is?

The official government oracle has finally divulged hard information about our felonious forebear Tom H Smith's crimes and misdemeanours. You’re not going to like it.

First, let's recap. According to family legend, Tom H, grandpa to the baby boom generation, went to prison for some fraud-related crime in the 1930s or 1940s. According to stories the Yulls heard from their mother (Tom H’s second daughter, Kay), he was imprisoned at a federal penitentiary in Kingston, which suggests a serious crime.

Betty and her fraudster Dad (probably early 1940s)

Not much else is known. There was a story about Tom writing to tell Edith when he was getting out of gaol to say when his train would arrive in London. He is supposed to have told her that if she didn’t want him back, she could just stay away from the station and he’d keep going. She went to meet him, and the rest is family history. 

To me, this always sounded a little too suspiciously like the plot of the 1970s Tony Orlando and Dawn Hit, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Old Oak Tree.” But it made a great story.

In earlier posts, I indulged in much useless speculation about when the blot upon our family's honour might have occurred. I tried to trace Tom H’s whereabouts during the 1930s and early 1940s using a few sources, but mainly Vernon’s London Directories. It is clear that the man lived apart from his family at various times, but it begins to appear that little of that time living apart actually had to do with being incarcerated.

A few weeks back I made a second application to the Archives of Ontario under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, asking for any criminal records related to Tom H Smith between 1934 and 1946. Today I received a thin sheaf of photocopied documents in response.

It transpires that on 19 November 1936, a complaint was brought against Tom H Smith and Eric W Chapman, alleging that earlier that month, the two had “by misrepresentation and fraud obtained from W. J. Manning, the sum of One Thousand Dollars ($1,000.00), contary to the Criminal Code, section 405.”

The wheels of justice, at least by modern standards, ground very quickly in this case, mainly because the defendants pled guilty. They were initially put on probation until a sentencing hearing, and had to report to the court every week. Then, after several adjournments, they were sentenced on 17 May 1937 to 60 days in “Common Jail” – where they would, according to the Conviction, be “kept to hard labor [sic].” The Archives of Ontario also sent a photocopy of a London Jail register, listing Tom H and giving bare details of his incarceration. 

And that's about it. No court transcripts, no police notes, no inmate records. Nothing juicy. 

Anti-climax? You could say.

It also leaves a few questions unanswered. For one thing, how exactly did Tom H and his henchman defraud poor Mr. Manning of his $1,000? The numbering of sections in the Criminal Code has apparently changed since the 1930s. The current section 405 (acknowledging instrument in false name) doesn’t seem to relate. And I’m not sure how I’d go about chasing down the section 405 that was in force in 1937.

And then there’s the question of how such a penny-ante crime and punishment got blown up in family mythology into detention in a federal penitentiary and high marital melodrama?

Of course, it’s just possible that old Tom was a recidivist, re-offended later and really did go to the Big House the next time. But then why wouldn’t that show up in the public records held by the Archives of Ontario?

I will check the London Free Press for the date of the conviction and sentencing, but it's hard to imagine a newspaper bothering to report such a case. And I will try to track down the Criminal Code section cited. But I think we have to face it, the Ballad of Tom H has just about been sung.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Living Through History

I heard a writer say on the radio the other day that history stops when we are born. Everything before is history, everything after is just our lives. He meant, obviously, that this is how we feel, not that it’s true.

Part of what I’m enjoying about researching our ancestors is the way it opens a window on the larger history of their times. It helps bring that history closer, makes it more real. This is true even when the window isn't readily apparent from the slender information available.

Take those pictures of my mother and her friends cavorting on the beach at Grand Bend in the summer of 1936. (See the first post in this blog.) Consider: while Betty and Ollie and their pals were being young and silly – in precisely the ways we might have at the same age – Spain, 4,000 miles away, was about to be convulsed in a vicious civil war.

We know in the hindsight of history that this nasty little conflict (1936 - 1939) was a precursor to the larger one to come. And we were reminded recently by newly released documentary recordings from the CBC that many Canadians fought in that war in the International Brigades and died. And the ones who came back were often blackballed and branded as “commies” because they took a stand against fascism. The same stand, the government took only a few years later.

(For clips from those recordings and a timeline of the Spanish Civil War, go to this page at the CBC website. Also highly recommended on the subject: Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls.) 

Consider this too: very soon after the pictures were taken, some or all of these beachboys would be fighting far from home, and some might not make it back. They were future canon fodder. Did they have forebodings of what was to come?

Another picture in my mother’s album brings the conflict in Spain even closer. According to the inscription on the album page, it was taken in Victoria Park in London in May 1937. The occasion was a weekend visit home by Ollie who had recently moved up north with Jack. Betty and Ollie and another friend are sitting on the edge of what looks like a fountain.

It may not be clear from the small version of the picture here, but Betty is holding a folded newspaper. And the headline on the newspaper is partly legible. In bold caps, it reads, “Besieged…” The rest is obscured. I’ve been trying to find the newspaper she was reading that day – and wondering what she might have felt, if anything, about the news from Spain.

For the headline must have been referring to Spain, either the ongoing siege of Madrid by Franco’s forces, or possibly the siege of Bilbao.

The task has turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would be. I had assumed it was either the London Free Press or the London Advertiser, both newspapers with which Betty and her family had connections. (She was working as a stenographer at the Free Press by then; her father had worked for the Advertiser years before.) But the Advertiser had stopped publishing the year before, and it’s not a front page from any May issue of the Free Press – I checked the microfilm at the library.

My next guess was The Globe & Mail, although I’m not sure that in those days it had quite the profile as a national organ that it does today. In any case, it’s not the Globe either. The university library has a subscription to an online archive of the newspaper and I went through the front pages of every May issue. I’m going to try The Toronto Star and the The Toronto Telegram next.

We in the blog scribbling business typically like to write posts with a beginning, a middle and an end. But as regular readers may have noticed – and the two of you know who you are – many of my posts, including this one, are without a proper ending. That’s the frustration of genealogical and, I’m guessing, historical research in general: too often you can’t find the answers. 

Or not right away. So stay tuned; I will return to this. (Okay, I may return to it.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

End of the line in Wales

Bad news: I’ve hit a roadblock tracing the Smith male line in Wales.

As outlined in a recent post, I have a fair amount of information about Thomas, our great great grandfather, including his date and place of birth (1798, Abergwili, Wales), occupation (inland revenue agent) and father’s and mother’s names (John and Bridget). But that’s as far as I can go with assurance.

I do have a baptismal record for a John Smith also born in Abergwili, in 1761. He’s in the right place to be Thomas’s father. People didn’t often move far from where they were settled in those days. It would not be surprising if John the father of Thomas had stayed most of his life and sired a family in the place he was born.

Detail of page in Abergwili, Wales parish register

This John Smith is also the right age, or at least a plausible age, to be Thomas’s Dad – 37 in 1798. And Abergwili is a tiny place. The population today is under 600. It may once have been somewhat bigger since it was a bishopric. (The palace, dating from 1542, survives.) Still, is it likely in a place so small that there would be two John Smiths in the same generation?

Not likely, perhaps, but unfortunately possible. John Smith is a very common name – although this being Wales, perhaps less common than Richard Evans, say.

The fact that John was an “excise officer,” an employee of the central government in London – he’s listed as such in Thomas’s baptismal record – also means he may have been posted to Abergwili, rather than having been born there. (It’s the fact that John is listed as an excise officer that makes me certain I have the right baptismal record for Thomas. We know for sure Tom was a revenuer, and sons were very likely in those days to follow the same profession as their fathers.)

The Exciseman and the Countryman, Woodward & Cruikshank (Lewis Walpole Library)

The excellent National Archives (of Britain) website has a surprising amount of historical information about the collecting of taxes, excises and duties and the people, like our ancestors, who did it. The first instruction on how to use the site’s resources to search for ancestors is, “Try to find out…in which county the person was posted.”

I think there’s still a pretty good chance the John Smith born in Abergwili in 1761 is our great great great grandfather. After all, Inland Revenue must have sometimes hired locally. If this is our guy, then we also now know the name of our 4X great grandpa: John Edward Smith (see page from parish registry above).

I can’t find any other very likely hits for a John Edward Smith in the available online resources, though, so I’m still at a stand still. I may have to go over there one of these years and root around in undigitized records.

Bostonians Pay The Exciseman, 1774, attributed to Philip Dawe

Footnote 1 Excisemen, like our ancestor John Smith in Abergwili, were apparently not held in high regard in the 18th century. They were considered avaricious, dishonest and unfeeling – especially, of course, in America. The two cartoons illustrating this post give you the idea. On the other hand, the Scots poet Robbie Burns earned his living as an exciseman, at about the same time as John Smith was working in Wales.

Footnote 2 Searching in the National Archives database of historical records related to Inland Revenue, I found one for a Thomas Smith working as an “Excise man” in Scotland in 1826. The chronology works. Our Thomas would have been 27 or 28 that year. Was he posted to Scotland for a period before making his way to Gloucestershire in time to retire in the 1840s or 1850s? Possibly. Maybe I’ll send away for scanned copies of the handwritten documents to see what other details they provide.

But no, he wouldn't have been a colleague of Burns, who died two years before Thomas was born.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wartime Swimming

My search for great-great Smiths is on hold until I can get to the library to search (Yes, I could subscribe and get access from home, but it costs $25 a month, and I’m now a poor pensioner – also cheap.) In the meantime, I’m returning to my parents’ war years.

London, 1944 or 1945 - Roehampton Pool

I was intrigued by some pictures in my mother’s collection showing known and unknown figures cavorting in swimming costumes at “Roehampton pool.” There is at least one featuring Betty and her girl friends, and one in which John Blackwell appears. (He was unrecognizable at first, probably because I’d never seen him in a bathing suit before.) It’s not clear if these are the same occasion or different.

On the back of the one with John, Betty has written, “We are thinking of sending them on tour with this act – Pat [Hillis, Betty’s room mate] & I have hysterics every time we look at this! [J]ill, John, Richard & Pat at Roehampton pool.”

The Richard in this picture is elsewhere identified as “cousin Richard.” He looks to be somewhere between 10 and 13. Betty seems to have made a bit of a pet of him. My third cousin Mort Smith in England, who knows the Smith family tree well, could not place him, which suggests Richard was a Gladwell (grandmother Edith Smith’s family.)

Roehampton Pool, it turns out, was a very popular cooling-off place for war-weary Londoners – as the crowds in the background of the picture of Betty and Richard (above) suggests. A Google search turned up a fabulous British Pathé newsreel clip about the pool, made in 1943, probably the year before Betty’s pictures were taken. (It wasn't possible to embed the video in this blog, so you'll have to click on the link and go to the British Pathé website – it will open in a new window.)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

In search of great great Smiths

I have a short attention span. So my focus has changed somewhat since the last post.* I’m still tracking Smith ancestors but I've moved back in time about 140 years.

Our forebears came, as I already knew, from Wales. The trail back to Wales begins with great grandfather George Smith, the royal reporter. In census and other records, George’s birthplace appears as Stroud in Gloucestershire, his birth date as 1863.

Online searches at and FamilySearch, an excellent free online source for genealogical information, turned up a birth record for George, dated 19 January 1863. I sent away (by snail mail) to the General Registrar Office for a certified copy of this “entry of birth.”

George's father was Thomas Smith, listed in the entry as a “Retired Inland Revenue Officer.” This is an important detail because it distinguishes him from the gazillion other Thomas Smiths in Britain. His mother was Mary, neé Jones. The family lived at Walls Quarry, Minchinhampton, a village in the Stroud district.

So far, so good. Next I went looking for more about Thomas, my great great grandfather. He appears in the censuses of 1851, 1861 and 1871, with a wealth of interesting, sometimes surprising, information.

At the time of the 1871 census, the first I found, the family was still living in Stroud, but now at 26 Church St., Avening (Tetbury today): Thomas, wife Mary and a pile of kids, including George, aged 8. Under “rank, profession or occupation,” Thomas is listed as “superannuated revenue agent.” So no question, this is our guy.

26 Church St., Avening, Stroud (Tetbury)

The real shocker is Thomas’s age. He was 72 when the census  takers came calling that year – with a family of six kids ranging in age from 12 years to 7 months! Mary is 41.

Old census records also show birthplaces of respondents, and Thomas gave his as Carmarthen, Abergwilly (Abergwili, Carmarthenshire, a village about 30 miles north west of Swansea in Wales.) With that information, I was able to find his birth listed in an online index to the Abergwili parish records, which was in turn linked to an image of the handwritten page at a third online site,

Thomas was born 21 August 1798. The entry reads, “Thomas the son of Jno. [a short form of John] Smith Excise Officer by Bridget his wife.” So his Dad was a revenuer as well.

I only recently unearthed the 1851 and 1861 census records for Thomas. In 1861, Thomas and Mary were living in Minchinhampton (where George would be born two years later) at 129 Walls Quarry (an address that no longer exists). Thomas is listed as “retired inland revenue officer,” aged 62. Mary is 32. Elizabeth, the eldest child, is 2, and baby Thomas is 11 months. No surprises, all the dates and ages jibe with what we already had from the 1871 record.

Then comes the census of 1851. We’re still in Minchinhampton, Stroud. At this point, Thomas Smith, 53, from Abergwili, was living at 58 Walls Quarry. And he was listed even then as “retired inland revenue officer.” (Apparently civil servants retired early in those days too.) The surprise is that his wife is listed as Elizabeth, also 53.

Image of page in 1851 census book

So Mary was Thomas’s second wife. Did he have a first family with Elizabeth? Given that they were 53 in 1851, their kids could easily have all grown and moved away. Or maybe they never had any. Note that Thomas’s first-born with Mary is named after his first wife.

Next task: find more about John Smith  I already have a record  for a John Smith born in Abergwili in 1761 – then push back and back…to the dawn of time! Stay tuned.

* I do have a short attention span, and my focus has changed, but I have also made a fresh enquiry with the Archives of Ontario for information about Tom Herbert Smith’s criminal conviction. And I made corrections in the previous post.