Friday, August 30, 2013

George W Lillies: The Rest of His Life

Last time out, we started on the life of great great grandfather George William Lillies, who followed his father, George, into the medical profession and the Royal Navy. We don’t know when GW left the navy (he joined in 1845 – see previous post), but probably some time in the early 1850s, when he married and started having children.

George William was both a surgeon and a physician, usually two different professions before this time. Physicians were trained at university, surgeons – sawbones really – apprenticed as tradesmen. I wasn’t sure when writing last time whether GW had received his physician training (at the University of Edinburgh) before or after his stint in the navy. It turns out it was before.

We know this from his listings in The Medical Register. The Medical Act of 1858 established The General Council of Medical Education and Registration of the United Kingdom, today the General Medical Council. Part of its mandate was to “distinguish qualified from unqualified Practitioners” – weed out the quacks in other words. One instrument for doing that was The Medical Register, a master list of qualified, licensed practitioners. To be “struck off the register” later came to mean losing your right to legally practice.

The Medical Register, 1859

The first Register appeared in 1859. George William is in it, the location of his practice given as Chudleigh, Devon. His list of qualifications: “M.D. Univ[ersity of] Edin[burgh] 1844; Mem[ber] R[oyal] Col[lege of] Surg[eons] Eng[land] 1844; Lic[ense of the] Soc[iety of] Apoth[ecaries] Lond[on] 1844.” George William continued to appear in the Register until 1899, the year of his death at age 76.

Given that a medical education at this time took about four years, George must have been a precocious lad. To finish by 1844, he would have had to start when he was only 17, or possibly even 16. As the son of a surgeon, he would likely have had a head start on his medical education. Still, by today’s standards, it’s remarkable.

The fact that he already had an MD when he joined the navy would also explain why, despite his youth – not even 21 yet – he was commissioned as a surgeon, an officer, rather than serving first as an assistant surgeon. Note also that by 1844, he was a physician, a surgeon and a pharmacist. Three income streams: GW would likely be well off in later civilian life.

Chudleigh, where George William apparently stayed and practiced for the next 30 years is less than 10 miles from Kenton, his ancestral home. It’s further from the water, north and west from Exmouth, almost on the edge of Dartmoor. It’s surprising perhaps that a nautical man would move in this direction, but it may have been the nearest place he could find a practice to purchase when he came out of the navy.

Kenton Church, mid 1800s

His marriage was registered in 1851 in the St. Thomas district (which took in Kenton), and probably celebrated at All Saints Church, Kenton. George and his bride, Charlotte, appear next in the census of 1851, living at 47 Fore St., Chudleigh, both aged 27, with one “house servant.”

47 Fore St., Chudleigh, Devon as it looks on Google Street View (the yellow house)

It took awhile for George and Charlotte – one of a few Charlottes in the family after whom our Aunt Char might have been named – to start pushing out live babies. First to come along was Herbert, great grandfather to the baby-boom Blackwells (and Breens, etc.) He was born in 1857. George and Charlotte ended with five children who survived to adulthood: Herbert, Arthur (1859), Leonard (1861), Mabel (1863), Ethel (1868?)

George William clearly did do well in Chudleigh, as predicted. By 1861, he had moved down Fore St. to number 36. The first three children were counted in the census that year. Two of George’s sisters, Fanny, 40, and Charlotte, 26, both spinsters, were living with the family – which we begin to realize is rife with Charlottes. An aged great aunt, also Charlotte (surname illegible), 88, was living at number 36 Fore St. as well. If GW could afford to keep all these poor relatives, he must have been doing well.

I can’t find an 1871 census record for George and Charlotte. In 1881, they were still living in Chudleigh, still on Fore St., though in a different house again. Only Herbert, 24, appears to have been living at home at this time. As the Lillies appear at the very bottom of the census taker’s ledger page, it’s remotely possible the people who digitized and indexed it failed to include household members who were recorded on the following page.

On the other hand, Leonard, 20, and Arthur, 22, might well have already gone off to London to pursue their theatrical careers (more about them in a future post). The girls, aged 18 and 13, could have been away at school. We have an 1871 census record showing both Herbert (then 14) and Arthur (12) as pupils at a residential school in Honiton, Devon, some 30 miles away. So it was something of a family pattern to send the children away to school – but would girls also have gone away for their schooling?

In any case, Herbert evidently followed in his father’s and grandfather’s steps. He is listed as a “general practitioner,” with the initials MRCJ (Member Royal College of Surgeons) after his name. He first appears in The Medical Register two years later, listed as “Lic[ensed] Roy[al] Coll[ege of] Phys[icians] Edin[burgh], 1882.” He does not appear to have earned an MD, or it’s not listed after his name, as it is after his father’s in the same Register. Yet Herbert was apparently licensed to practice as a physician.

By 1891, the next census year, everything had changed for the Lillies. The family was living in London by then. George William, 67, had retired. Besides George and Charlotte, the household at 14 Brook Green, Hammersmith included the two younger sons, listed as “theatrical proprietor” (Arthur, 32) and “acting manager” (Leonard, 30). Mabel, 28, was a “governess – school,” and Ethel, at 23, had no occupation. Two visitors were staying, Charles D Burleigh, a 24-year-old actor, and Harry Chilcott, 20, a “merchant’s clerk.” Rounding out the household were three servants, a cook, a housemaid and an under housemaid.

Arthur Chudleigh Lillies in later life by Harry Furniss (1854-1925) (c) National Portrait Gallery

Whither Herbert? Gone to Australia! Stay tuned.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Poet Betty Smith: Truly?

We take this short break from the Lillies narrative to bring you an intriguing update on an earlier post. (Well, not so short, as it turns out.)

Back in June, I blogged about life in wartime London from the perspective of my non-combatant parents who were office workers there from 1943 to 1946. In particular, I wrote about the German doodlebug (V1 and V2 flying bomb) attacks on London in 1944. As children, we heard stories about the terror they inspired.

I included in that post the text of a poem, a bit of doggerel I recently found among papers left by my mother Betty Smith, a sergeant in the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division. Betty was working at RCAF headquarters in London as a stenographer in 1944.

The untitled doodlebug ditty was included in a sheaf of six typed poems on yellowing paper, held together with a rusty straight pin. Most are humorous and relate to military or wartime matters. I assumed Betty had written them all. Now I’m not so sure.

Yesterday, Marek Dojs, left this comment at the original post: “I stumbled on your blog while doing a search for a few lines of a poem. Was this Doodlebug poem written by one of your family members? Just wondering because I just purchased a copy of it on ebay:

When I followed the link in Marek’s comment, I found an ad for a typescript of the poem that I thought my mother had written. The ad was placed by Brandt Rowles of Lovedale, Ohio, a collector of “paper ephemera” who is selling off part of the collection he assembled over 40 years.

Image of typescript sold on eBay

In the ad, Brandt writes, “I recently ran across paper souvenirs saved by a USA WAC [Women’s Army Corps] Lieutenant/Captain Virginia Shewalter; she was stationed in England and France during and just after the war. She travelled extensively on the continent and saved souvenirs from those travels.”

Intrigued, I sent Brandt a message, asking for more information. He replied that he had bought a lot of paper souvenirs saved by Captain Shewalter. “I assumed that she wrote this – it definitely was part of her WW2 souvenirs – but maybe not.”

So we have a mystery. Who wrote the doodlebug poem?

I’ve attempted some CSI-style forensic analysis, comparing the two typescripts. The one in Betty’s possession appears to be a carbon – the letters are a little fuzzy and faint. This is typical of carbon copies, made by rolling multiple sheets of paper into a typewriter with carbon-coated sheets between them. (I explain for the benefit of anyone under the age of 40.) The script in Captain Shewalter’s possession, on the other hand, appears to be an original or top copy. The letters are, relatively speaking, crisp and black.

Are they possibly from the same typewriter? I’m no expert, but I’d say no. The typeface and point size might be the same, but any two typewriters of the same make and model would have had the same typeface. There are differences in letter spacing. Look, in the first lines, at the word “night,” for example. In Betty’s typescript, the ‘g’ is jammed up closer to the ‘h’ than to the ‘i’. In Virginia Shewalter’s copy, the letters are evenly spaced.

Could this be a discrepancy caused by the carbon copying process? Maybe. Could different typists on the same typewriter or the same typist typing at different speeds produce slightly different spacing of letters. Possibly. But Betty’s is certainly not a carbon of Virginia’s, and I doubt they were made at the same time. While both are on 8x5-inch note paper, the Shewalter copy is typed in landscape orientation, ours in portrait mode.

There are also slight differences in the wording, spacing and punctuation. Most notable is the addition of a title on the Shewalter copy. And the line “Stay up, doodle bug in the sky” becomes “Stay up doodle in the sky” in Betty’s version. Since the latter scans better, it’s tempting to think it might be a later revision.  

Three possibilities: Betty wrote the poem, Virginia wrote it, an unknown third-party was the author. In either of the first two cases, the question arises, how was the poem transmitted from Betty to Virginia or vice versa. Did they know each other?

I haven’t been able to discover much about Virginia Shewalter, but I did find a record of her enlistment. She joined on 22 August 1942 at Fort Hayes, near Columbus, Ohio, nine months after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. She was born the same year as Betty, 1916, in Ohio. She went to college for four years and had worked as a teacher in civilian life. Like Betty, she was single, without dependants.

I also found a death record for a Virginia Shewalter – the name is not common – which suggests she died young, in 1978.

None of which settles any of the questions the poem raises.

Brandt Rowles suggested a Google search to find out more, which I did – on lines in the poem, as Marek Dojs had done, and on the search terms doodlebug and poem together. I didn’t find any other references to our poem, but I did find another doodlebug poem written by a British soldier, Fred Deakin. Here it is:

To The Doodle Bug

Doodle doodle doodle bug,
How I hate your ugly mug,
Flying high in the sky,
Telling some-one they must die!

Fatser! Faster! Faster still,
As we all run up the hill,
Standing at the shelter door,
Hear your noisy engine roar

When we hear your engine stop,
In the shelter we must pop,
But with our jet propelled flame
We shall send you back again.

When we see the damage done
Then we think it’s time to run
Lots of us evacuate
When to others we relate.

Not as good as our poem, I’d say.

The latest, just this morning, was another comment from Marek Dojs, who lives in the U.S. This was in response to my comment on his original. 

He writes, “That is fascinating. I haven't been able to find the text of the poem anywhere else online except your website – so perhaps your mother was the author… I'm working on a film about my grandfather – who was a prisoner at the Dora concentration camp. He was forced to build components for both the V1 and V2 rockets. Here is some information about him:”

Follow the link. It’s a great story. Marek’s granddad was a teenage Polish resistance fighter, captured and sent to work at a secret underground slave labour camp. He and his comrades tried to sabotage the rockets during manufacture, including by pissing in the fuel! Not so funny for the many saboteurs at the factory who were executed by the Nazis.

Workers at Dora Concentration Camp building V2 rockets, by Walter Frentz, Hitler's photographer

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Passing the Lillies Torch

George Lillies, triple-g grandpa to the baby-boom Blackwells, retired from the Royal Navy, as we saw last time, in 1835. He was 57. Although he had a reasonably generous pension, it probably wasn’t enough to support a young family, which George by then had.

He’d married Fanny (nee Collyns) on 14 July 1819 at Kenton, Devon, near Exeter, where they were both born. This was at the beginning of a period in which George was on light military duty, posted to yachts, and probably sticking fairly close to home.

The newly weds didn’t waste much time. Daughter Fanny came along less than a year later. She was christened on 16 June 1820 at Ottery Saint Mary, Devon, a town about 20 miles from Kenton. Were the Lillies living there then? Hard to know. Three years later, on 17 Aug 1823, George’s first and only (surviving) son, and our direct ancestor, George William Lillies, was born in Kenton. This appears to be the extent of George and Fanny’s family.

So what did George do in retirement to support his family? We don’t know for sure, but it’s a good bet he practised medicine. Such as it then was.

George was always a surgeon only, not a physician. He would have been licensed to saw bones, bandage wounds, etc. – treat anything to do with the outside of the body. He may also have been licensed as an apothecary; many surgeons were. Surgeons were considered skilled tradesmen and apprenticed as such. Physicians had to go to university, for about four years in this period. Physicians could only examine and diagnose illness, they couldn’t operate.

I did find two references to a George Lillies, surgeon, in Poole, Dorset, which is about 100 miles east of Kenton on the coast. A listing appears in the 1837 directory for Poole, under Surgeons. The same listing appears again in 1844 for Poole. His office was on West St. Given how few Lillies there are in general (with that spelling), it seems unlikely there were two surgeon George Lillies in the west country at the same time. But it’s not impossible.

Print from painting by GMW Turner of Poole, Dorset and Corfe Castle

George’s obituary appeared in Volume XXI of The Gentleman’s Magazine (January through June 1844), in a round-up of recent deaths of note. He passed away on 19 March 1844. The obituary reads, “George Lillies, Esq. of Kenton, a retired Surgeon of the Navy.” (The Gentleman’s Magazine, the first periodical to use the term magazine, was launched in 1731 and ran for almost 200 years.) These details of George’s death are borne out by the official record, to the extent it's available. It shows his death falling between January and March of 1844.

The next we hear of the Devonshire Lillies comes less than a year later, when George William, not yet 21, joined the navy as a surgeon, on 8 January 1845. In later years, GW appears with “MD Edinburgh” after his name. The University of Edinburgh Medical School is one of the oldest in the English-speaking world, established in 1731. Would young George already have earned his degree by then, or had he just apprenticed with his Dad or another surgeon? It seems to me more likely to be the latter, given his age. In which case he must have gone to university after leaving the navy.

There are two navy enrolment records for George W in the National Archives online database. One shows his rank as “assistant surgeon,” the other as “surgeon.” He may have been retroactively promoted when the navy realized he was already skilled at his trade despite his years.

I don’t know much yet about his naval career. But he does appear in a list of officers who served with William Loney, also a surgeon. (An amateur naval historian, apparently a Loney descendant, has compiled comprehensive information about Loney’s career using National Archives data.) George William appears as a shipmate of Loney’s on the HMS Pantaloon, a 10-gun brig, where he (GW) was posted from 13 May 1846 to 28 April 1847.

HMS Pantaloon, about 1831

The Pantaloon was involved during this period in policing the east coast of Africa, catching slave traders. Slavery and slaving were illegal in Britain (and in its colonies) by then, but the industry was still going strong, supplying American and other markets. A summary of Pantaloon’s activity compiled by Paul Benyon (ubiquitous amateur online naval historian) shows no actions of note during George W’s tenure, though.

The Loney information says GW came to the Pantaloon from HMS Styx, and went on to HMS Tortoise. Styx, a first-class sloop with 6 guns, was also involved in blockading slavers off Sierra Leon. Here, courtesy of Benyon again, is a summary of some of the activity during part of the period our man was likely aboard:

22 Oct 1845 having observed at day light, off Badagry, a strange brig, the Styx, with the Albatross in company, pursued and detained at 9 o'clock the Brazilian slave brig Regenerador, of 241 tons, Antonio da Cunha Bitencourt, Master, following which we took the crew and 11 passengers to Lagos and on return sent the prize, under the charge of Lieutenant Wood and a prize crew, for adjudication to the Vice-Admiralty Court, at Sierra Leone, where she was condemned on 5 Dec 1845.

27 Oct 1845 detained the Brazilian slave brig Isabel, with 352 negroes on board, in lat. 5° 21 N. long. 4° 20' E., in the Bight of Benin, Antonio Joaquim Tiburcio, Master, following which, she was subsequently sent, under the charge of Lieutenant Burroughs and a prize crew, for adjudication to the Vice-Admiralty Court, at Sierra Leone, where she was condemned on 5 Dec 1845. Regarding the Isabel, she was understood to have been Greek built, and was only on the coast for 3 hours, during which time she embarked the negroes.

27 Oct 1845 chased another vessel, thought to have been the Brazilian slave brig February Third, but it being late in the day, and the breeze getting up, she was eventually lost in the dark of the night.

1 Dec 1845 detained in lat. 6° 21' N. long. 2° 43' E., the Brazilian slave vessel Espeija, Joaquim Antonio Pereira, master, which was sent for adjudication to the Vice-Admiralty Court at Sierra Leone, and on 24 Jan 1846 sentenced to be condemned.

The Tortoise had been built for the East India trade in 1805. Later, as a naval ship, it made one trip to the antipodes, in the early 1840s, to deliver convicts and collect wood for spars in New Zealand. But this was all before GW joined. HMS Tortoise does appear in the record in 1847 when it burned after its cargo of coal caught fire. It was anchored at the time at Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic, where it apparently was based. According to one uncoroborated source, it was burned badly enough to be of no further use. (But another says it wasn’t scuttled, at Ascension, until 1859.) If young George joined Tortoise in 1847, he was likely aboard when it burned.

British stamp showing HMS Tortoise at anchor off Ascension Island

And that’s as far as I can go with George William’s naval career. At this point he’s still only 24 and some years from marriage and family, so he may well have served quite a bit longer.

More about George William next time.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sawing Bones on the Seven Seas

Back to George Lillies, triple-g grandfather to baby-boom Blackwells (and Lillies and Breens.) He is arguably our most interesting ancestor.  

When I left off last time, George, a Royal Navy surgeon, was on the HMS Severn, a serious war ship (an Endymion-class frigate, to be exact) with 50 guns. Severn saw action in North America during the War of 1812, and later on the other side of the Atlantic. George’s next two postings may have been half-steps to retirement, reward for long service. In December 1820, he joined the William & Mary, a “yacht.”

His Majesty’s Yachts (HMY) were lightly armed naval vessels similar in design to modern-day pleasure and racing yachts, and often used to move important people around, including, as with the 20th century HMY Britannia, the royals. According to a Wikipedia article about Sir John Phillimore, who took command of the William & Mary the same year George joined as surgeon, the yacht was at this period used as a conveyance for Earl Talbot, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

Earl Talbot, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 1817-1821

An online biography of a previous W&M captain, Thomas Francis Freemantle, who commanded the yacht ten years earlier, suggests his appointment, which came at the end of his career, “allowed him to live in semi-retirement for three years.” The William & Mary would have spent long periods in port, would not often have strayed from European waters, and was probably rarely if ever in harm’s way.

George may have been similarly rewarded with a soft posting. After all, he had been sawing bones on war ships since 1805, the year of his first appointment as a surgeon. And before that, he had been an “acting mate” on HMS Stately, and who knows where else previously. He had also married the year before, in 1819, and was by now 42, practically elderly for a man of his class in that period.

His captain on the William & Mary, Sir John Phillimore, was an old pal. The two had served together early in their careers on HMS Belette, Phillimore’s first command in 1807. George joined Belette on 24 April 1806. It was a brand-new 18-gun “Cruizer-class brig-sloop,” launched just the month before. He was on Belette until his posting to HMS Antelope in 1809. So he would have known Phillimore well.

Not the Belette, but a similar Cruizer-class brig-sloop from the period

This is an episode from George’s early career that I omitted earlier. It’s worth a flashback. The Belette was active under Phillimore’s command during the Napoleonic wars, capturing enemy merchant ships. It was credited with grabbing three or four. And it also participated in the successful attack on Copenhagen in 1807.

Copenhagen? Why would the British attack those nice Danes, you might wonder? Perhaps revenge for past Viking atrocities? Nope. Denmark was a sometime ally of Napoleon, or perhaps more accurately, it was Nappy’s lickspittle. The Brits were afraid the Danes might help close the Baltic to British shipping. So they shelled the crap out of the capital until the Danes said uncle and meekly handed over their entire navy.

Copenhagen on Fire 1807, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

The Belette as a result had a share in prize money realized from the ships and provisions the British seized. What share would a surgeon have received? According to one uncorroborated online source, the total amount of prize money was significant, an estimated £700,000, a fortune in today’s currency. Another uncorroborated source says petty officers received £22 11/- each, about 40 times the average weekly wage of a labourer. Surgeons were warrant officers, higher ranking in other words, so presumably got a larger proportionate share.

Okay, back to 1820.

As far as I could make out from the contemporary naval records I found online last year, the William & Mary was George’s last posting. But apparently that was not the case. I recently found some documents left by my father, John Blackwell. He too was interested in family history and covered some of the same ground I did, only without benefit of Internet. John had to go to records offices when he was in the UK and sift through paper documents. This was in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Among his papers are two photocopied pages from what appears to be the same handwritten log of naval surgeons I found online, but they're two pages I hadn’t seen. They summarize George’s late career. He spent time on another yacht, the Royal Charlotte, starting in 1826. It too was used by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, although a different one by then. 

My father's documents show George going on "half pay" in 1828. This is the pay officers in the Royal Navy and British Army received when retired or not on active service. (Many settlers in Canada in this period were half-pay officers who needed to supplement their meagre pensions.) But the line in the ledger referring to George's half-pay status was later crossed out, with the annotation, “Warr! [sic] Cancelled.”

Which war? Excellent question. The only war mentioned in Wikipedia’s “Timeline of the British Army 1800-1899,” is the First Ashanti War 1823-1831, a minor scuffle pitting the British against the Ashanti Empire in present-day Ghana. But it had been ongoing for five years in 1828 and doesn’t appear to have had a naval component. So, it’s a mystery.

Especially so since it doesn’t look as if George ever went to sea again, warr or no warr. His postings after that are in Portsmouth. In 1832, according to documents available at the National Archiveshe was appointed Surgeon of the Ordinary for Portsmouth, whatever that means. I'm assuming it means he was responsible for medical care of sailors in the port. Portsmouth was a major naval base. He is also shown as going on half pay again in 1832. 

And then on 12 January 1835, George was “placed on the retired list at the rate of 10/- [ten shillings] a day.” This is not a bad pension: over £180 a year (£1 = 20 shillings), which would have given him the same buying power as over £20,000 ($31,000 CDN) in today’s money.

The document above is the second of the pages John had photocopied. It appears to be an of accounting of George's pay during the period he was on half pay. If anyone was patient enough to decipher the handwriting in the Remarks section on the right hand side, that would be helpful. (Hint, hint.)

George had a late-life career as a village physician in Devon, where he had been born, and also found time to sire a family. (Good thing too, because otherwise we wouldn't exist.) So more Lillies to come. Stay tuned.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Lillies of the Sea, Part the Second

I started to tell the story in my last post of our paternal grandmother’s ancestors, the Lillies. 

Before I go on with it, I want to blather for a second about the male-line bias in genealogical research, the instinct to only pay close attention to ancestors with the same surname as yours. I suppose this is a carry-over from a time when only males had legal succession rights in a family, and when the culture was generally more patriarchal.  

But genealogy isn’t really about legalities anymore, is it? It’s just about finding out where you came from, for interest’s sake. And if you ignore the female lines, you ignore half the gene pool, half the social historical background, and possibly miss finding out about some illustrious, interesting or infamous forebears. Vera changed her name to Blackwell when she married Matthew in 1916, but her Lillies ancestors are just as much our ancestors as the Blackwells are.

All of which might be blindingly obvious, but you never know, maybe not to everyone. 

Where was I? Oh yes, the Lillies.

George, the naval surgeon I wrote about in the last post, who was born in 1778 in Kenton, Devon (near Exeter) and died there in 1844, is the earliest we know for sure. 

Tracing the line further back is complicated by uncertainty about spellings. Our particular spelling is fairly unusual, but is close to Lillie, which according to several online sources is the same name, or perhaps more accurately, could be the same, name as Lilie, Lilley or Lilly, the latter in particular being more common, and distinguished. And some sources pluralize Lilly as Lillies, which might be the origin of our spelling.

The Lilly name is very old, dating back, in England, according to some sources, to well before the Norman Conquest. But there is also a Lilly line, with branches in North American, descended from Swedes. So not every Lilly/Lillie/Lilley/Lilie is necessarily a long lost cousin. There are Lillies, with our unusual spelling, very near us in Ontario, by the way. (Note to self: explore.)

Explanations about the name's origins are all over the map. It’s a diminutive of the forename Elizabeth, meaning my God is my oath. It’s a reference to fair-haired people. It derives from place names, including the French city of Lille, Lilley in Hertfordshire and Lilly in Berkshire. There was even, according to House of, a noble Lilly family in Worcestershire, from very ancient times.”

Wow! So our noble lineage may not just be moderately or slightly ancient, but very ancient. 

None of this helps us move back in time past our naval sawbones, though. We can rewind another two generations in the family tree of George's bride, Fanny Collyns, who is of course also an ancestor. According to personal family trees published by subscribers at, Fanny's Mum and Dad were born in the 1760s, and their parents in the early 1720s. But this is uncorroborated information for now. 

1797 print showing instruments that George Lillies might have used

So I’ll concentrate on George, and move forward to Australia and the inevitable intersection of the Blackwell and Lillies gene pools. Except, oops, my time is up. More GL next post.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lillies of the Sea

Warning: of minimal or no interest to non-Blackwells – unless you’re into British naval history.

Blackwells, from an early age, heard stories about a fabled ancestor who had been a surgeon on Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. Trafalgar, fought on 21 October 1805, was a pivotal sea battle against the French during the Napoleonic Wars.

This mythic personage – mythic for all we knew – was a forebear of our paternal grandmother, Vera Isobel (nee Lillies), who married Matthew Drummond Blackwell in 1916. (Matthew was one of two sons of Richard Henry Blackwell who emigrated to Australia from England in the late 1800s. Richard and Matthew were both entrepreneurs in Melbourne.)

Last year, when I started researching family history, one of the first things I went looking for was our naval surgeon. I discovered contemporary records, logs of Royal Navy ship’s surgeons from the period, online, and found our man. His name was George Lillies. What I did not realize until quite recently is that our Dad, John Blackwell, had tracked George down years ago, without benefit of the Internet. 

George Lillies first appears in the log as a surgeon in February 1805. This means he could have been at Trafalgar. But in fact, it’s almost certain he was not. George joined HMS Explosion in 1805, before Trafalgar. Explosion was a bomb vessel with specialized mortars for lobbing explosives at fixed defences. As Trafalgar was a pitched sea battle, it would not have been useful, and does not appear in the surviving order of battle.

Page from British Navy log showing George Lillies first posting as a surgeon on HMS Explosion

The British Navy kept detailed records of where its ships went and what they did. Some of this material is available on the Web. We know George was posted to HMS Antelope between December 1809 and July 1813, for example. And according to P Benyon's Naval index, an exhaustive but largely anonymous online source of naval historical information, Antelope spent time in Newfoundland on a couple of occasions in the lead-up to the War of 1812. So there’s a previous Canadian connection for the Blackwell-Lillies line.

George spent a fair amount of time in North America during this period. He was on his next ship, HMS Severn, a 50-gun frigate, from 1813, the year it was launched, until 1820. Severn was active during the War of 1812, blockading the Americans. It captured “privateers” – usually perfectly legitimate merchant ships – off the the U.S. coast on a few occasions. It also participated in an aborted sea attack on Baltimore, sailing up the Patapsco River to bombard the city.

"...bombs bursting in air..."

The Battle of Baltimore, a combined land and sea action, which the British lost, inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” That poem later provided the lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Severn was also involved in the Battle of Algiers in 1816, a bombardment by an Anglo-Dutch force of the north African port, aimed at shutting down the trade in white Christian slaves in the Ottoman Empire.

Bombardment of Algiers by Anglo-Dutch force, 1816

George Lillies spent another 15 years in the navy, during which time he married Fanny Collyns and started a family in Devonshire. I’ll have more about George and his descendants, and maybe more about the life of a naval surgeon, which is fairly well documented for this period, in future posts. 

I'll also come back to our father’s previously lost research on the Lillies. Preview: we have theatre moguls in the family too.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Fateful Month

Sharp-eyed regular readers (ha!) will have noticed that two almost completely different avenues of investigation in this blog have dovetailed.

Last week, I wrote about how family history provides a way into the larger history of the times. That post revolved around a picture of my mother, Betty Smith (as she was then), sitting in Victoria Park with our future Aunt Ollie, holding a newspaper with part of the front page legible. “Besieged,” the headline reads. The picture was taken in May 1937.

Then yesterday, I revealed that it was on the 17th of May 1937 that grandpa Tom H Smith was sentenced to 60 days in jail for fraud.

Pure coincidence, of course. But what was it about May 1937?

A lot was happening in the world that month – in the Smith world and in the bigger world. I’ve been looking at newspapers from the period, trying to find the edition my mother was reading that day. I’ve now checked all the May editions of The Toronto Star, The Toronto Telegram, The London Free Press and The Globe & Mail. Or at least all the editions available on microfilm. No luck.

But I did do a keyword search of Globe & Mail front pages for that month, using the term, “besieged.” In all but one of the several passages in which the word appeared, it was used to describe the northern Spanish city of Bilbao, which was under attack by Nationalist (fascist) forces during the Spanish Civil War.

Civilians in Bilbao waiting for the bombs to fall Robert Capa, 1937

Outnumbered and outgunned the Basque Republican stronghold fell on June 19. Which led, at least indirectly, to the Nationalist victory in the war two years later and the establishment of Francisco Franco’s repressive right-wing dictatorship – a dictatorship that survived until 1975, causing untold misery for the Spanish people.

So I’m pretty sure the headline in the newspaper my mother was reading that day in the park referred to Bilbao. But much else was happening in May 1937 that we still remember.

King George VI was crowned – and just like the recent royal baby hoopla, the coronation dominated news pages, with day after day of adoring stories and photos. Wallis Simpson’s final divorce decree came through that month as well, paving the way for her to marry the abdicated Edward VIII.

The Hindenberg, the German airship, crashed and burned in New Jersey after an Atlantic crossing, killing 35. Herbert Morrison's recorded radio eyewitness report – “Oh, the humanity…!” – was the YouTube video of its day. It went viral, and it’s still viral 75 years later. (If you're one of the small number of adult North Americans who has not seen the famous newsreel footage and commentary, see below.)

And the British and French were warning Hitler in May of 1937 that he was perilously close to crossing a line that would lead to open conflict. The situation in Europe, the British prime minister said, was “grave.”

Meanwhile in little London, young Betty Smith met up with pal Ollie, now her sister-in-law, down for a visit from Timmins. On a brisk spring day, they strolled through Victoria Park with another friend, Jean Clement. Betty is clutching a newspaper. Her heart must have been heavy that day with the knowledge that her father was awaiting sentencing – or perhaps was already in jail. It was an event that would bring shame to the family and cast the Smiths onto harder times than they had ever known.

Betty Smith (right) with Jean Clement, Victoria Park, May 1937

Was there any common denominator in all of this?

Well, economics. If not for the depression, would our grandfather have been tempted to step outside the law? If not for the depression, would Europe have unravelled the way it did, providing an opening for the Francos and Mussolinis and Hitlers?