Researching the First World War using new digital content

On Thursday 28th November 2013, the Welsh Government Minister for Culture and Sport launched “The Welsh Experience of the First World War” website. This rather passed me by so I am grateful to a post on the Rootsweb forum for the news.

The website address is http://cymru1914.org/en/home which is where you’ll find a brief description of the objective of the project. A useful blog accompanies the site and this includes a full list of the primary sources that will eventually be published on the site. Whether you have local and/or family history interests for the First World War period, this site should prove a good resource.

I say ‘should’. Currently the technology for viewing on-line content is flaky but, with the excellent pedigree of the Welsh Newspapers site behind it, this should only be a temporary inconvenience.

As ever, we want more digital material. While the Haverfordwest & Milford Haven Telegraph has been digitised, the two papers local to the Saundersfoot area, the Tenby Observer and the Narberth Weekly, have not. A quick search of the Telegraph’s content suggests that its coverage of Saundersfoot events and people is limited. For example, we’ll miss the in-depth reporting of the Narberth Rural Military Tribunal, a key feature of the Narberth Weekly.

Putting this to one side, we have much to be thankful for especially as access is free.

Living On An Army Pension

The ongoing release of Chelsea pensioner records on Findmypast offers great potential for research for both local and family historians. The collection comprises an index together with digital scans of original papers for those soldiers, mostly ordinary soldiers, entitled to a state pension on leaving the army after 12 years’ service. Currently the collection covers much of the Victorian period.

As the records include year and place of birth there appear to be many lines of fruitful research. For example, for the local historian of the Saundersfoot area, understanding trends in enlistments by local men might throw more light on employment opportunities in the local pits. For family historians, finding missing ancestors or adding more colour to those we already know about are obvious boons.

Does the collection live up to the potential?

The answer is “no” for local historians. Findmypast has come up short in providing useful data in the index to help identify groups of men from one locality. There is one key reason for this:  while the original records do include year and parish of birth, these important data have only been transcribed by the company in less than 10% of the small sample of records I viewed. This is disappointing. Maybe Findmypast’s aim in creating this online collection was limited to the family history market.

The picture for family historians is conversely more positive. I was aware that 2 Begelly men from my extended family had served in the army in the mid-1800s: William Phelps and Isaac Nash (aka Bowen). I found their records easily, both containing new information about them. Phelps had been gaoled for desertion but then pardoned. I have doubts over Nash’s parentage which I had hoped would be erased by his records but unfortunately this was not to be.

In lieu of a search by place of birth, I then looked for what were common local names but rare nationally like Hilling and Gunter. While neither of these 2 names showed up in the index I did find several other entries for local St Issells names such as (Benjamin) Absalom and (Benjamin) Brinn. Brinn had an exemplary record serving 21 years as a trooper in the Life Guards. Absalom was a Royal Artillery gunner stationed in Malta, Canada and India (during the Mutiny) but his record was less exemplary having been court-martialled 7 times during his 11 year term. He spent over 6 months of this in various garrison gaols. What Absalom did to deserve this is not described in his pension documents but I assume the courts martial records held at The National Archives will throw light on his many misdemeanours.

I have yet to uncover how much the pensions were worth. No doubt these depended on criteria such as length of service and rank. Whatever the values were, both Brinn and Absalom spent time in the Narberth Union workhouse after their discharge, Brinn dying there in 1906.