X marks the spot

Prime Minister from Liverpool to May

I have featured this coin before. These pictures were the first I took with a new lens that acts as a short range telephoto (90 mm) and macro, or close-up. But what was going on when it was minted two centuries ago?

As mentioned in my blog about the year without a summer, 1816, the country was suffering. Wages were in decline, harvests failing, the price of grain rising and with it the cost of daily bread. There remained a surplus of labour following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Continue reading “X marks the spot”


Private James Onion – Remembrance

War Graves at Etaples, via Find A Grave

ONION, Pte. J., 18020. 7th Bn. S. Staffordshire Regt., attd. 33rd Bn. Machine Gun Corps. 14th Oct., 1916. Age 26. Son of James and Annie Onion, of Bishop’s Wood, Brewood, Stafford. VII. F. 3. (From 1914-1918, War Dead of the Commonwealth, Military Cemetery Etaples, France, Part 5.

Like many of those young men who perished in France and Flanders in World War I James Onion had little time or opportunity to make his mark. All that remains are a few sheets of paper and a lump of white stone near Etaples-sur-Mer, on the north coast of France. And maybe three medals and their bright ribbons.

James was born in 1891 at White Pump Farm, on Watling Street, a short distance from Bishops Wood, Staffordshire. His father, also James, was an agricultural labourer, but by 1901 had become a roadman, working for the County Council, filling potholes and resurfacing local roads. At that time they lived close to the Royal Oak pub, which is now in the centre of the village. Back then there were few houses.

Bishop’s Wood.  Ordnance Survey 1900 Revision.  Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The 1911 census records James at the Star & Garter Hotel, Victoria Street, Wolverhampton, employed as a billiard marker. Apparently, the hotel was quite luxurious and I imagine James in some splendid, crisp livery, shiny shoes and white gloves attending to his duties in the billiard room. Still, it probably seemed like a dead-end job and when the call came for young men like him to join the army that is what he did. Whether through some sense of duty or the promise of adventure, or just swept up by the propaganda, and misguided excitement that brought wave after wave of raw recruits, he was never to tell.

James joined the local South Staffordshire Regiment and its 7th Service Battalion. Earlier, I blogged about Private Joseph Adams, who is commemorated on the Ogley Hay Cenotaph and who served in the same battalion! They may have served together, but James was attached to 33rd Battalion Machine Gun Corps and I have not been able to trace his whereabouts or how he came to be fatally wounded.

The wounded James would first have been treated at a casualty clearing station before being moved along the evacuation chain to the General (Base) Hospital at Etaples. These hospitals, hurriedly constructed of wooden huts and tents, were staffed by the Royal Army Medical Corps, nurses from the Queen Alexander’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service. Auxiliary support was from the Voluntary Aid Detachments of the British Red Cross Society and Saint John Ambulance Brigade. In addition to providing unskilled nursing support, the VADs also provided domestic staff, chefs, administrative and quartermaster’s personnel. VAD and a few First Aid Nursing Yeomanry ambulance drivers also played an important role in the evacuation of soldiers to and from the hospital. The intention was that wounded men would be transferred to the United Kingdom for longer term treatment. Sadly, James didn’t make it and died of his wounds on 14 Oct 1916.

This next picture I find quite moving. True, it is a set piece occasion with everyone in clean, smart uniforms. There must be thousands of people, but they are a tiny fraction of those engaged through four years of destruction. And the living are greatly outnumbered by the “crosses row on row”. I wonder if one of these marks the last resting place of Private James Onion.

Scene of the great memorial service held in a British military cemetery in Etaples, France commemorating the fourth anniversary of World War I. Many of those attending line the war graves there. A contingent of nurses is visible. Civilians are also present. Photograph taken 4 August 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Credit: Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Effects £9 14s. 2d. War gratuity to father Jas. £7.

Awarded BW & V and 1915 Star.

As I wrote: all that remains are a few sheets of paper and a lump of white stone and maybe three medals and their bright ribbons, but add to that our undying will to remember Private Onion and millions like him.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow …


The Farmer’s Boy


Just like most folk a substantial proportion of my nineteenth century kindred worked the land, mainly in back-breaking drudgery, and pretty much until they dropped. Some managed to scratch a living on farms even into the twentieth century (perhaps even into this one, though I don’t know of any). But what of those whose livelihoods were displaced by advances in technique and technology?  Where did they go? Continue reading “The Farmer’s Boy”

When the pieces don’t fit

Tracing family history is sometimes like completing a jigsaw puzzle without the box. To make things more difficult one sometimes encounters the equivalent of a patch of sky where there should be part of a bowling green or a circle of standing stones resting on a cloud. No matter how hard you try it just won’t make sense. It also casts doubt on things that seemed to be undeniable truths. Peeling back the layers of my Onion pedigree has not yet brought me to tears, but I am unable to let the incongruities go unreconciled. Continue reading “When the pieces don’t fit”

Don’t tell

Everyone of us has been in this situation. Usually, it is something from the school playground, but in times of war, especially when it is in your own country, it can be more serious, fatal, even. “Be like Dad, keep mum” was a World War II poster. Toadying up to the enemy might save you in the short term, but it might not save you from your “friends” later. In a land ravaged by almost a decade of war this is what some of my ancestors faced.

White Ladies Priory, near Tong, Shropshire, via Geograph, copyright Richard Croft, creative commons.

On 30 January 1649, King Charles of England was executed. From that point his son, also Charles, pursued his claim to the throne on the battlefields of England and Scotland, the monarchy having been abolished by Parliament on 17 March. The final defeat came at the battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651, when Charles was forced to run for his life. Continue reading “Don’t tell”

Getting to know my Onions

When I found this news clipping about Thomas Onion, I thought he must be related, but the connection was not as straightforward as I had hoped. Once again this would take me back to country lanes in southern Staffordshire that I had travelled many times.

Staffordshire Advertiser 25 Sep 1948

Historically, the area is famous for supporting the Catholic monarchy, helping King Charles II to flee the country after defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1851, the final substantial act of the English Civil War. As as child I was taken to Boscobel House to learn about King Charles and the Royal Oak, the inspiration for many pubs named the Royal Oak. This local quirk would make things difficult. Continue reading “Getting to know my Onions”