April 1917 was a busy month in the prosecution of the First World War, with the Battles of Arras and Vimy Ridge in full swing, the declaration of war by the United States on Germany on the 6th, not to mention the death of writer Edward Thomas on the 9th. Not as significant as the military and diplomatic endeavours, but of huge significance personally, 11 April 2017 marks the centenary of the death of my paternal grandfather, George Harry Ruffels (sic). My father was not quite four months old, and he became an orphan when his mother Lucy died in the influenza pandemic towards the end of 1918, leaving him to be brought up by relatives.
George was born at Palgrave, a village close to Diss just inside the Suffolk border; that much is certain. When he was born is less clear. I have not been able to find a firm date of birth for him and there is a possibility the birth was not registered. His parents’ census returns indicate he was born in 1867, or possibly the previous year, but he may have been born in about November 1865 according to information he supplied to the army. He was baptised on 21 April 1867, but it could have taken place well after he was born, and his parents may have made an effort to obfuscate his true age in census records in order to conceal his illegitimacy – Thomas Ruffels and Elizabeth Firman married only in the first quarter of 1867.
In the 1871 Census the family is listed as living at Holly Cottage, Palgrave, though by the 1881 one they had moved to 40, St Andrews Street, Bury St Edmunds, and George’s occupation is given as errand boy. His father’s census returns for 1871 and 1881 states George’s age as 4 and 14 respectively, and in the 1911 Census George gives his age as 44, putting his year of birth as 1866 or ‘67.
In 1881 or 1882 he enlisted for 12 years’ service in the First Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment. During 1888-90 he was a private serving in India, according to the Campaign Medal and Award Rolls. By 1893 he was back in England because on 12 August of that year he married Lucy Ann Gibson and was living at The Camp, Colchester. According to the marriage certificate his occupation was lance corporal (bandsman), Suffolk Regiment. He gave his age as 26, which again chimes with an 1867 date, while Lucy’s was 19.
At some point they moved to Liverpool, though why is unclear. There is a Findmypast record of soldiers who died in the Great War which says of him that he was ‘Formerly 2/613, King's Liverpool Regt.’, so he may have transferred regiments prior to discharge; I have not seen any primary documentation for this. He left the army sometime in late 1893 or 1894, after he had completed his 12 years, and became a goods porter on the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, living in Toxteth Park. This doesn’t seem to have worked out because by 1899 he was working as a dock labourer.
His movements and changes of occupation can be tracked by examining the birth certificates of his and Lucy’s children. The couple had 12 over a 21-year period, only 3 of whom made it to adulthood, while the rest had mostly appallingly short lives, as can be gauged by this table. Their early deaths cast a grim light on condition in working class households of the period:
13 October 1895 Birth of Ellen Elizabeth (1st child)
22 March 1897 Birth of Sarah Ann (2nd child, died 1990)
13 February 1899 Birth of Albert Edward (3rd child)
1st quarter 1900 Death of Albert Edward (aged c. 1 year)
30 September 1901 Birth of Lucy Pretoria (4th child)
1st quarter 1903 Death of Lucy Pretoria (aged c. 16 months)
1 January 1904 Birth of Laura Marion (5th child)
20th October 1905 Birth of James Harry (6th child)
2nd quarter 1906 Death of James Harry (aged c. 6 months)
16 February 1907 Birth of Lucy Ann (7th child)
3rd quarter 1907 Death of Lucy Ann (aged c. 6 months)
3rd quarter 1908 Death of Ellen Elizabeth (aged 12)
18 December 1908 Birth of John William (8th child)
1st quarter 1909 Death of John William (aged c. 2 months)
8 July 1910 Birth of Alice Louise (9th child)
2nd quarter 1911 Death of Alice Louise (aged c. 9 months)
2 January 1912 Birth of Annie Ellen (10th child)
4th quarter 1912 Death of Annie Ellen (aged .c 9 months)
22 February 1914 Birth of George Edward (11th child, died 1973)
15 December 1916 Birth of John Harry (12th child, died 1995)
September 1918 Death of Laura Marion (aged 14)
This is a shocking mortality rate by any standard. Their mother Lucy only had four children alive and at home between 1905 and 1908, and never more than that at any one time. In 1913 she only had one, Laura (Sarah had disappeared from the household by the 1911 Census).
The birth of Lucy Pretoria in September 1901 is noteworthy because of her middle name. The city of Pretoria had been captured by the British in June 1900 during the Second Boer War, and there is a celebratory aspect to the name, one that enjoyed a vogue at the time. More to the point, George had re-enlisted in the 8th Royal Reserve Battalion on 17 March 1900 for a year’s service, and Lucy was born in Colchester, with Georges’ occupation as musician on her birth certificate. George’s attestation form still exists, and here he gives his age as 34 and 4 months, which would make his birth date November 1865. I think this is a possibility for his birth, rather than early 1867, as he would have provided this information himself, assuming he a) actually knew the date and b) was telling the truth. He gives his place of birth as Palgrave, near Diss, and again states his ‘trade or calling’ as musician. He does not appear to be in the 1901 Census, taken on 31 March, presumably because he was still abroad, though oddly neither do Lucy and the children, Ellen and Sarah, as far as I can tell. The stay in Colchester was short-lived because by the time Lucy Pretoria died in 1903 the family was back in Liverpool, living in Kirkdale, and he was again working as a dock labourer.
It is possible the age on his 1900 attestation form and his RDC application is wrong and the 1867 date is correct. We essentially have his word against his parents’, but the apparent lack of a birth record is suspicious. One piece of evidence for the earlier date is that when he joined the army in 1881-2 he would have been only 14 or 15 according to his parents’ date. However, he may have lied about his age to join up, adding a year or so enhance his chances if he had only been 14. Without a birth certificate this seems an issue that will not be easy to resolve.
As well as a certain disdain for consistency in birth dates, there was also carelessness over the spelling of names. Between the birth of Annie on 2 January 1912 and young George on 22 February 1914 the name changed from ‘Ruffels’ to ‘Ruffles’, which was how he and the last baby, John, were registered, though George Snr retained the original spelling in his own name, as did Lucy; at some point in her long life Sarah’s name was changed to Ruffles even though that spelling is not on her birth certificate. There are other inaccuracies in the records: When George registered Lucy Ann in 1907 he was put down as simply ‘Harry Ruffels’, while the 1911 Census form gives his middle name as Henry. George was not alone in having a relaxed view about such matters: in the 1871 Census his father is recorded as Thomas Ruffells.
But George was not the first to change the children’s names from Ruffels to Ruffles. His younger brother Thomas joined the army, at the age of 15, in 1893. His attestation form is also existent, and he signed up as Ruffles. Initially in the Suffolk Regiment, he transferred to the South Wales Borderers. Despite enlisting for 12 years, he was only discharged in December 1918. His entry in a 1919 list of soldiers entitled to the War badge still has him listed as Ruffles (it notes overseas service in South Africa, so he may have been there at the same time as George). One gains the distinct impression that these were people not too bothered by bureaucratic niceties. Thomas, it may be added, lived through yet another world war, dying in 1946.
At the time of his son George’s birth in February 1914, George was still working as a dock labourer, but at some point after its formation in March 1916 he joined the 123rd Company, Royal Defence Corps, with the rank of corporal, Regimental no. 37536. He was serving in that capacity at the time of his death in an auxiliary hospital, Shornells, at Bostall Heath, Kent, on 11 April, 1917. He died of pneumonia and syncope, by which was presumably meant he had a heart attack. The age of 52 on his death certificate is in line with a year of birth of 1865, and this is probably also the date given when he joined the RDC. (Actually the age on the death certificate is still wrong if he was born in November 1865, as in April 1917 he would have been 51, but it is a reasonable error if the person recording the information only looked at the years 1865-1917.) The information he gave at the time of his third enlistment in the forces may support a year of birth of 1865, or it may be wrong but given to maintain consistency with her previous military records. He is buried in a grave, plot F.601, in Woolwich cemetery with 13 other service personnel. Remarkably, the register recording his effects at death has been preserved. Referring to Shornells as Erith Hospital, the sum of £17/16/10 was authorised to be paid to his widow Lucy.
My father wasn’t told much about George, who was considered a black sheep with a reputation for having engaged in immoral behaviour in India. There is certainly something unpleasant in fathering so many children even when it was apparent their life expectancy was low. As a mark of this reticence about George, Dad knew nothing of all the children who died young – as far as he was aware there had only been three children, Sarah, George and himself, and he was astonished when I did some family research in the late 1980s and presented him with a set of birth certificates. He had had no idea his mother had had nine other children, and that he wasn’t even the first child in the family to be christened John. His elder sister Sarah had been institutionalised at an early age, and while she had made vague references over the years to other siblings, he had not taken them seriously. Uncle George presumably knew as little as my father, and they were not particularly close; George stayed in Liverpool while my father made a new life in London as soon as he could. It is surprising, considering the fractured nature of the family history, that a photograph of my grandfather in uniform has survived.
The centenaries of my parents’ births in 2016, and the centenary of my grandfather’s death this year, have given me a renewed interest in my family history. I appreciate that this sort of thing is of little interest to others, on a level with hearing about someone’s dreams, but I think it worth recording my findings, and I shall add to them should more information come to light. If anybody can establish the precise date of my grandfather’s birth, I shall be grateful. As well as thinking about my grandfather on the centenary of his death, my thoughts are with the many aunts and uncles I had who never made it to adulthood.