Going Back

Family history research has become a bit of an addiction over the years, taking hold with varying intensities since I was a teenager. In recent years, that interest has become a bit of a comfort blanket, taking up ever increasing amounts of my time, with more of a passion for the human stories, and the possibility of making connections.

Converting this passion into some kind of writing project has proved a real block. The book I promised myself I would write from the variety of threads I had been picking at has just never materialised despite a great deal of background effort and energy. Thankfully, ‘Janealogy’ (Jane Harris, a Scottish Family History researcher I met when I dipped my toe on Mastodon) recommended I try #52ancestors, introducing me to the initiative of Amy Johnson Crow.

Johnson Crow sets a different theme each week, through which participants can write about a new ancestor using any inspiration it provides. #52ancestors gives an opportunity for all that accumulated research to breathe, for stories to be told, and potentially, connections to be made. Participants can use the initiative however they choose – they can keep it private in a journal; they can post blog entries; or they could share it more widely using their social media platforms – and they can interpret themes in any way they choose.

#52ancestors Week 1: I’d Like to Meet

The theme for Week 1 of #52ancestors in 2023 is “I’d Like to Meet”, so let us begin. Let me introduce Charles William Holland [11th August, 1879 (Dublin, Ireland) – 4th October, 1924 (South Warnborough, Hampshire)]. Charles was my great grandfather – my Mum’s, Dad’s, Dad – and he’s top of my ‘to meet list’ for a number of reasons.

Charles William Holland (1879 – 1924)

The more lurid family testimony, that Charles William Holland had died following a fall from a church steeple, or into a threshing machine was never really something that I believed. The death certificate reads that he died at a relatively young age (it says 42 years, but his birth certificate would suggest 45 years) from pulmonary tuberculosis, and haemorrhage from pulmonary vessel (or bleeding in the lungs). His wife Ellen was just 26 years old at the time. His son Frank, my granddad, was not yet three years old, so hardly knew his father.

For many years, a clear lack of any direct relationship with Charles William Holland from any of my living relations was a real stumbling block to making any progress on his life story, or that line of my family tree. This was particularly irksome for me as his son Frank was my final surviving grandparent. I felt very close to him, and great affinity for the ‘Holland’ name.

Mistakenly presuming he would be Hampshire born and bred was not clever on my part. It was easy to set the default as being that everything on my Mother’s side of the family tree was set to be pretty straightforward – from Hampshire, and of agricultural labouring stock. I thought my tree would be extremely boring, and that the ancestors would not have strayed from the fields they had been working in over the generations. It was finally being able to identify and tell Charles William Holland’s story that blew apart all those assumptions, and proved a gateway to intensifying my genealogical addiction.


It transpired that he was born in Dublin, Ireland, even if it was to English parents. They appeared to be living there for around ten years, at Mount Drummond Avenue when he was born. His father was a ‘Coachman Groom’. It is not clear why the family were in Dublin, although it does not appear that Charles William’s father was in the Army. Charles William was baptised on 1st October, 1879 at Portobello (now Cathal Brugha) Barracks in Rathmines in the south of the city.

Was Charles William’s father a civilian working for the army? Was his role related to looking after horses (as both his son, and grandson would go on to also do?). Or could his job have been related to the stagecoach service?

Charles William was the third eldest of nine children. After his parents married in Lewisham, SE London in 1874 (Joseph, whose family hailed from Derbyshire, and Julia, whose parents hailed from Suffolk – more about them in future weeks), the first four of their children were born in Dublin – Jessie Louisa (1875); Amelia Elizabeth (1877); Charles William (1879); and George Henry (1882). Rosetta (1884) was born in Greenwich, SE London, and Census Returns in 1891, 1901 and 1911 all show the family living in either Deptford or Greenwich. Despite this, the next, Edith Jane (1886) was born in Hockliffe, Bedfordshire – a village on a main crossroads of the A5/Watling Street Roman road. It is likely that stagecoaches would have used this route between London and Dublin via Holyhead or Liverpool, so she could have been born in a coaching inn! Pure speculation on my part. The final three of Charles William’s siblings were all born in SE LondonFrederick John (1889); Edward Maurice (1891) and Frank Stephen Francis (1892).

South East London (Deptford)

The first reason I would like to meet him is to ask about life in Deptford, SE London as a child. The 1891 Census shows him living in an address given as ’51 Regent Street’.

A black and white photo of Deptford High Street, looking north around 1910. There is a pub on the corner on the right which is the Prince Regent, and that street going off on the right is Regent Street, where Charles William Holland was living as a young boy in 1891. Plenty of hustle and bustle of a busy shopping street.
Deptford High Street, looking north around 1910. The pub on the corner on the right is the Prince Regent, and that street on the right is Regent Street, where Charles William Holland was living as a young boy in 1891.

By some quirk of fate, before I ever knew of the family links to SE London, I ended up spending almost 20 years of my adult life living and working in New Cross and Greenwich. I would very often find myself walking through Frankham Street (which is what Regent Street is now called)  and Deptford High Street on to which it connects, as a walking cut through from my place of work at the University of Greenwich, to my home on the other side of Deptford. This very area was coloured on the Charles Booth Poverty Map of that era to denote ‘lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal’ and ‘very poor, casual, chronic want’ and I now discover this was my ‘ancestral’ playground!!!

Charles Booth's famous coloured poverty map from the late 1800s, showing the dark blue/black colours denoting deep poverty on Regent Street, off Deptford High Street running across the page (marked in red).
Charles Booth’s famous coloured poverty map from the late 1800s, showing the dark colours denoting deep poverty on Regent Street, off Deptford High Street.

Army & Navy years (incl. WWI)

By 20th October, 1899 at the age of 20, Charles William is recorded as making his first move away from the family home, signing up for service with the Royal Navy. In the ‘Register of Seamen’s Services’ he is recorded as serving between then and 25 November, 1909 – a period of just over ten years. The first ship was HMS Pembroke II, and the last, HMS Implacable, with at least another ten postings in between. The record gives his height as a mere 5 foot  2 ½ inches, with blue eyes. Maybe there is a family resemblance!

In the 1901 Census, he was recorded as being on board as a member of the crew of HMS Royal Sovereign (1st Class Battleship), stationed in the Mediterranean in Grand Harbour, Malta.

In the 1911 Census, Charles William, aged 32 was living back at the family home, by now in 6 Morley Road, Charlton, SE London. He was still living with his parents, and his younger brother Frank (aged 18), and they shared what must have been a rather a crowded property with his sister Edith who was by now married with three young children.

By 19th January 1915, WWI meant 36 year old Charles William was signing up for service in the Royal Army Service Corps. His records give his trade or calling as ‘Stableman’.

By the Summer of 1916, Charles William was stationed in Aldershot, and within four months of living there, he was marrying my great grandmother, Ellen Eliza Sawyer (1898-1953) on 26th June 1916. According to the Service Records, they were married in Farnham Register Office and had to seek the permission of Ellen’s father because she was below the age of consent. There is an official copy of the marriage certificate which shows they married in Christ Church, Church Crookham. Although ages vary on the certificates, Charles William at 36 years old, was marrying Ellen at 18 years old, someone approx. half his age. Testimony from family members more recently suggest that Ellen’s Mum was more keen for her to marry him than she was! It may also have had something to do with the fact that their first child, also called Charles William was born a few months later on 25th October, 1916 while his father was serving overseas in the war.

His Service Records show that during WW1, he had served in Russia, and in Salonica, and spent some time on base local to where I live and grew up at both Deepcut and Aldershot. The records state that he served for three years, and that his specialist military occupation was as a driver.

‘Civvy Street’

A black and white photo of Stockton House, Fleet, where Charles William and his family were somehow living in 1921. A small mansion house estate with grounds, yet my ancestor was a sewerage company labourer!
Stockton House, Fleet, where Charles William and his family were somehow living in 1921. With thanks to ‘Fleet and Crookham: A Pictorial History’ (1994), Stan Knight, Peter Pimm, Percy Vickery & Tony Wright.

Family life resumed after the war. The small Holland family unit were living with his in-laws, first at 2 Chestnut Cottages, Fleet Road, Church Crookham Hampshire, but then by the 1921 Census, Charles William (39 years 10 months), his wife Ellen 23 years 3 months), and their two children Charles (4 years 8 months) and George (10 months) were still boarding with the in-laws (Ellen’s parents and 6 siblings) but in some kind of staff quarters of a huge property called Stockton House in nearby Fleet – a small mansion estate. Since Charles William, and a number of Ellen’s family were all employer as general labourers for a sewerage company, it may have had something to do with the big housing estate/property building explosion going on around there at that time. Charles William’s son Frank (my granddad) was born in Stockton House 23rd November, 1921, and they had one further child, Ellen Beatrice on 16th April, 1924.


Despite being a lot older than his wife Ellen, Charles William died in South Warnborough relatively young later that year in October 1924, in his early/mid-forties. Ellen went on to have a second family, moving gradually towards Yateley, Hampshire, where I live today. More on that in future weeks I’m sure.

There are plenty of other reasons I would like to meet Charles William, to pose questions that remain in addition to the one about life in SE London, largely due to the fact that his son (my grandad) did not know him. These are;

  • I’d love to know more about the link with Ireland. Did he consider himself Irish? Why were his parents in Dublin, and was it permanent for those ten or so years, or backwards and forwards? What was the nature of his Dad’s job? Stagecoach, or Army related perhaps?
  • His son was named after Charles William’s brother, Frank Stephen Francis Holland, who was on board the ship HMS Vanguard which sank on Scapa Flow when it exploded on 9th July 1917. He signed up for service in 1908, following in his older brother’s footsteps. He would have been just 16 years old at the time (despite it saying 17 years on the paperwork). When he eventually signed up for the Royal Navy in 1916, the first ship he served on was the Pembroke II – the same as his older brother years earlier. My Granddad had his uncle’s ‘Memorial Plaque’ given to all those who died in WW1 – but did not know what it was, or why he had it until I did the family history research. I would love to know more about the relationship between Charles William, and his brother, Frank Stephen Francis. Was there any guilt about him following his military record so closely from such a young age?
  • How did he meet his wife, my great-grandmother, Ellen Eliza Sawyer. Did the age gap cause any problems for them at that time? Did they ever spend any time together in SE London, however fleeting? She died much later in 1953, so I already feel a lot closer to her.
  • Did he have his photo taken? I don’t have any photos of him – I would love to be able to find one.
  • Were any of the lurid stories of his death true, or did he catch TB? How long had the family unit been living in South Warnborough?

Apologies if I have ‘gone on’ a bit in this first #52ancestors post. Future weeks will give me an opportunity to refine my style, and hopefully, brevity. They will also explain why for a longtime, I had no interest at all in my Dad’s side of the tree. Thankfully, I’m over that now.

In the meantime, a huge ‘thank you’ to Jane Harris, and to Amy Johnson Crow for finally getting me to do something with all the research I’ve been immersing myself in. If anyone feels they can correct anything I have been able to scratch together, please feel free to get in touch. I am a complete amateur, and you may know a great deal more than me. Similarly, if you can help with connections, or have any information, or questions, please do contact me.

If not before, see you next week, with more about my genealogical journey, as well as another individual ancestor inspired by next week’s theme.


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