Note: read Part One of this story here
The search for my great-grandfather Herbert Clifford is over. I’ve been chipping away at this 92-year old mystery for over 15 years and the last brick wall finally came tumbling down on my recent trip to the UK.
I had known for several years that Herbert had joined the Cheshire Regiment in 1920 and had given an address of Neston Road, Willaston on his leaving papers in 1924. I also had a hunch that he joined the Post Office in 1928 but could not confirm that the postman I was tracing was in fact my great-grandfather.
One of my first stops in London was the British Postal Museum and Archive where I hoped to find a mention of him in the Postal employee magazines. Unfortunately several hours of digging, even with the assistance of the helpful Archives staff, turned up nothing and so I left London empty-handed and on foot.
After several days of walking I found myself in Windsor, where the postman I was tracing had moved to in 1938 and retired to in 1945. I spent part of my rest day in the Reference Room of the local library. As I explained on my Walking Blog I was very disappointed to discover that the only Herbert Clifford in the city directory was for a Herbert Leslie Clifford. My great-grandfather never had a middle name, nor does the name Leslie have any family connection. Tellingly this Herbert Leslie Clifford, living at 4 Riverway on Barry Avenue, did appear for the first time in 1938 and so I left Windsor with the distinct impression that this postman was not my great-grandfather and that I was no closer to solving the mystery.
My Thames Path walk ended on May 6 and afterwards I spent some time in Gloucestershire where I researched Herbert’s grandfather and made discoveries that resulted in the pruning of an entire branch on my family tree. It just goes to show how important it is to do your own research and not to rely solely on information in other Ancestry family trees.
The last port of call on my visit to Britain was Chester, a beautiful little city which I had visited very briefly on two previous occasions. Back then I had no idea that Herbert had spent 4 years at the Cheshire Regimental Depot near the castle. On this visit my B&B was located 200 feet away from the barracks that Herbert called home in the early 1920’s.
My first stop was the Cheshire Archives where I quickly filled out a request slip for the 1924 Electoral Register for the Wirral (the peninsula just north of Chester and across the Mersey from Liverpool). When the book was retrieved from the vaults and handed over I was keenly aware that this was quite likely the best and last hope of solving the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather. I eagerly scanned the entries for Neston Road and when my eyes fell on an entry for Bethel’s Cottage I was a little taken aback. Not only was it the residence of Herbert Leslie Clifford, but Herbert wasn’t living alone.
In retrospect it should have been a triumphant eureka moment but at the time I was dumbfounded. I knew this had to be the postman but who was Christina Clifford and more to the point who was Herbert Leslie Clifford?
I quickly found a 1922 marriage entry in the indexes for a Christina Alice Jones and a Herbert Leslie Clifford in nearby Neston, but I also found a birth and death entry for a Herbert Leslie Clifford in Birmingham. The waters were further muddied when I found that the newlywed couple was living at Bethel’s Cottage in 1923, a year before Herbert left the army. I spent the next couple of hours searching through other electoral registers and found that the couple moved to Heswall in 1928, the year a Herbert Clifford joined the post office at Heswall Hill. I also discovered that Christina Alice Jones had been living in Bethel’s Cottage on Neston Road for several years prior to her marriage and that there were two men living with her. A small notation in the electoral rolls indicated that one of them was a serviceman.
I retreated to a pub to think (it worked for Morse and it works for me). On the face of it I knew that there couldn’t be two Herbert Clifford’s living on Neston Road in 1924 but I couldn’t get past that middle name. I decided to spend some time researching Christina Alice Jones and I found her in an Ancestry family tree, married to Thomas Jones and the mother to three young children. It turned out that Christina’s maiden name was also Jones and so initially I had problems keeping up with all the Jones’s.
While the circumstantial evidence was building I needed a smoking gun … and I found it. Thomas Jones died in 1920 after serving in India during the First World War. Christina applied for a widow’s pension and so Thomas’s 52-page service record included a lot of valuable information. It turned out that Thomas and his two brothers (the two men who lived with Christina after Thomas died) were all in the Army. Thomas and one brother were in the Royal Garrison Artillery but the other, Charles Whitehead Jones was a drummer in the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment and based at the Depot in Chester at the same time as Herbert. Furthermore the owner of this very helpful tree had transcribed the names of the witnesses from Charles’s 1922 marriage certificate, one of whom was Herbert Leslie Clifford.
Herbert Leslie Clifford had to be my great-grandfather and so the following morning I marched down to the Chester Register Office on Goss Street to order a marriage certificate. One hour and £10 later I quickly scanned the certificate to confirm the groom’s age, 32 which lined up with my great-grandfather’s birth in 1890. His occupation was listed as “Soldier” but the icing on the cake was the signature which I recognized from his attestation papers. Herbert had invented the middle name and a stockbroker father, likely to throw off anyone who might try and connect him to his other wife in Canada. And for 90 years it did!
With a decided bounce in my step I spent the following day walking across the Wirral peninsula, from Hooton to Willaston, Neston and Heswall. At Willaston I stopped in at a local estate agents and asked if they had heard of Bethel’s Cottage. There was no sign of it in their listings database but a couple of other cottages from the electoral rolls did turn up. I located the stretch on Neston Road where Bethel’s cottage had likely been, now the site of a newer home.
I carried on to Neston where I visited the Parish church of St. Mary and St. Helen in which Herbert and Christina were married. From there I walked to the strangely landlocked former port of Parkgate and then on to Heswall where the couple lived from 1928 to 1932. While in Heswall I visited the local library and uncovered that the post office Herbert worked at in the late 20’s was on Pensby Road. I was struggling to find the Post Office when I spotted a postman peddling his bike towards me. I flagged him down and he informed me that the former post office is now a Blockbuster Video but that a postal sorting facility still exists at the back of the building.
The final piece of this puzzle did not fall into place until the morning I was due to return to London. Although I had found a death index entry for Christina in 1958 I could not find one for Herbert, whose last known address was in Windsor. Neither Ancestry or Cheshire BMD had any record of Herbert’s death but when I checked FreeBMD I found an entry for a Herbert L Clifford who died in the Wirral in 1960. I quickly tried to re-arrange my travel plans but in the end there was no way I could obtain a certificate before I returned to London.
I had one day left in Britain and I decided to return to Windsor to visit 4 Riverway, Barry Avenue and to research the electoral rolls. The latter were in Reading but within a couple of hours I had confirmed that Herbert and Christina had lived together at this address from 1938 to 1957. In 1938 Christina’s oldest child James Edward Jones and his wife Viola Emily were living with them but I’m confident that Herbert and Christina had no children of their own. In 1934 Christina’s daughter Doris named a son Clifford so she must have had some affection for her step-father Herbert.
Shortly after I returned home I received copies of their death certificates. I was surprised to learn they had both died in Neston. Had I known earlier I could have spent some time searching the local cemetery but it seems this will have to wait until my next visit. Christina Alice Clifford (nee Jones) died April 21, 1958 and Herbert “Leslie” Clifford on February 25, 1960.
Although I may never know for sure I would like to think that Herbert’s last 37 years were far better than his first 32. I can’t imagine this would have been of any comfort to my grandfather and his siblings who grew up without a father, but on balance I don’t believe Herbert should be remembered by his Canadian family as “a worthless sort of fellow“.
I have made contact with others researching the Jones family tree and I hope to connect with the descendants of Herbert’s step-children. A marriage of 36 years must have produced a few photographs, and perhaps there is someone out there who remembers Herbert when they were growing up. Only time will tell.