Absent without Leave: the search for Herbert Clifford

Herbert Clifford

Herbert Clifford in 1910

On a bitterly cold January day in 1920 my great-grandfather Herbert Clifford left his young family in southern Ontario and was never heard from again.  My grandfather George, the eldest of three children, had just turned 7-years old.

I asked my grandfather about him once and I remember it vividly. It was early one morning as he was enjoying his first coffee and cigarette of the day.  The look on his face was one of bewilderment rather than sadness. He shrugged his shoulders and simply answered: “I never knew him”.  We never spoke of it again.

As a teenager I had a passing interest in my family’s history but it wasn’t until my late 20’s that that my curiosity grew, fueled in no small part to the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather’s disappearance.

My family knew remarkably little about Herbert.  He was born in London in the late 19th century and somehow made it to Canada where he met and married my great-grandmother Annie in 1910. We also knew that in 1914 he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and headed off to war.  The family possessed but a single photograph of Herbert, taken with Annie and her family shortly after they were married. There was also a tiny scrap of paper containing a scribbled note mentioning he had lived with a relative named Mrs Ackland just before coming to Canada.

It’s been nearly twenty years since I began my search.  It’s been a long journey with many twists and turns, and the occasional moment of elation when another piece of the puzzle snapped into place. While I can’t tell the whole story (yet) I have pieced together the first 34 years of Herbert’s life.

Herbert was born in Hackney on October 5 1890, the illegitimate son of an 18-year old domestic servant named Sophia Harriet Clifford (1872-1942). Sophia married William Dobson (1873-?) in 1893 and raised a large family that did not include Herbert.  He was left with his grandparents, William Henry Clifford (1844-1914) and Emma Harriet Lewis (1843-1904) and sometimes with his Aunt Priscilla Beatrice Clifford (1876-1937) who married Edward Ackland (1873-) in 1897.

William Clifford was a gardener and his family was always on the move, in search of work or possibly to stay one-step ahead of the rent collector.  By age ten Herbert had lived in Hackney, Cricklewood and Islington, and although I’ve no record of him living in the workhouse, the Clifford and Dobson families were no strangers to them.

Herbert Clifford in 1904

Herbert Clifford in 1904 (courtesy of Barnardos)

On Palm Sunday in 1904 Herbert’s life took a turn for the worse when his grandmother Emma passed away. With the one stabilizing force in his life gone he spent several months living with his aunt Priscilla and his mother, although I firmly believe that Sophia’s illegitimate child was a family secret that was not shared with anyone, including Herbert.  Late one night in early June he was picked up by the police for “Wandering”. He was described in the police report as an “Illegitimate Waif” and he soon found himself in the care of Dr. Barnardo.

Seven weeks later Herbert was on board the S.S. Southwark and sailing to a new life in Canada.  He was one of over 100,000 British children sent to Canada by various organizations between 1869 and the late 1930’s.  It is estimated that 10% of Canadians are descendants of these children.

Barnardo’s kept extremely meticulous records from which I was able to chart Herbert’s teenage years spent on various farms in southern Ontario. He had difficulty settling and ran away on several occasions but he did seem genuinely appreciative of the opportunity he was given.  Nevertheless his restless nature was always surfacing and when, at age 16, he expressed a desire to join the navy he was instructed in no uncertain terms to stick to farming.

In 1907 Herbert began working on the McElroy farm in Stapledon, Ontario, 25 miles south of Ottawa. It was here that he met his future wife, another farmer’s daughter, Annie Ellen Lewis (1884-1970). My grandfather George Robert Clifford (1913-1989) was born in January 1913 and his younger brother James Herbert Clifford (1914-1972) in the following year.  Despite his young family Herbert, like so many other young men at the time, answered the call to arms and joined the First Canadian Contingent at Valcartier, Quebec in September 1914.

Herbert joined the 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment and headed overseas on September 29th.  It would be nearly five years before he set foot in Canada again.  I’ve detailed his experience on my First World War blog, Doing Our Bit, and have included a timeline, photographs and a story of his participation in the Second Battle of Ypres.  It was on that fateful evening of April 22 1915, just after the first chlorine gas attack, that he was shot and captured while on patrol. Herbert’s war was over but he was to spend the next three and half years as a prisoner of war.  These prisons were notoriously harsh places but they likely saved his life. He was released on December 28, 1918 and spent the next nine months at military camps throughout England and northern Wales.

He returned to his family near Richmond, Ontario after being de-mobbed at Montreal in September 1919.   On January 19, 1920 Barnardo’s reported that he had purchased a place 8 miles southwest of the village and was settling in well.  Within days of this report Herbert was gone.

No reason was ever given for his abrupt departure but the general consensus was that he was “a worthless kind of fellow”. But of course every family has its secrets and ours was no exception. The secret came from Herbert’s eldest daughter, my great aunt, who was also the family historian. It wasn’t something she told me but rather her birthdate that held the clue, September 8 1916, sixteen months after Herbert’s capture and over two years before his release.

No one’s left alive who can confirm my assumption but I suspect that Annie was waiting for an opportune time to reveal her secret to Herbert.  I imagine this took place shortly after January 19 and that he didn’t take it well. While it’s hard to excuse a father for abandoning his family I do feel his memory has been harshly dealt with considering his troubling childhood and recent experiences overseas.

There was a rumour that Herbert headed west but it wasn’t long before I found a passenger list showing a ‘Herbert Clifford’ disembarking in Liverpool on January 29th. I couldn’t be 100% certain this was he until the day I discovered a British Army Medal Rolls index card that included Herbert’s Canadian Regimental Number alongside a British one.  Herbert had joined up again.

His British Service Record showed he joined the Cheshire Regiment within two weeks of his return to the UK.  Tellingly he listed his marital status as “Single”. From what I can tell Herbert spent his entire four years in Cheshire and when discharged he received a very complimentary review on his Character Certificate.  His discharge papers, dated January 28, 1924, indicated he was leaving the service to become a Butler and that his address was on Neston Road, Willaston, near Birkenhead. And this is where the trail of hard evidence ends and speculation begins.

I recently learned of Thornton Manor and it’s very intriguing to think that he may have worked in the household of the famous industrialist and philanthropist William Lever, creator of Port Sunlight. This is nothing more than a hunch but it is a lead I am pursuing.

Another promising clue was uncovered last autumn when I found an entry in the London Gazette for a Herbert Clifford joining the Post Office at Heswall Hill in July 1928.  Heswall Hill is less than 3 miles from Neston Road near Thornton Manor (and oddly 5 miles from another Neston Road near Willaston) and so I’m very hopeful this postman is my great-grandfather.  In 1938 he moved to Windsor where he delivered the post until his retirement in 1945.  Unfortunately the British Postal Museum & Archive could not provide any information to confirm that this postman was my great-grandfather, nor could they give an address in Windsor for me to follow up.

I’ve shed some light on the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather but I won’t be satisfied until his entire story is told.  Not surprisingly I’ve grown quite close to Herbert over the past two decades. Not only have I inherited his genes but also his restless and nomadic nature. If nothing else I hope to prove that he was anything but “a worthless kind of fellow”.

If you have any information or tips that might help me with my search I would be most grateful if you would contact me.

Read Part 2 – Finding Herbert – Solving a 92-year old Mystery!

This entry was posted in Berkshire, Cheshire, Great-Grandfather, London, Ontario. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Absent without Leave: the search for Herbert Clifford

  1. Interesting, very interesting! Good read!

  2. lorio2 says:

    My Grandfather, also a Dr. Barnardo child, shares a story which echo’s your Great Grandfather. It so wonderful that finally Herbert’s story is told and his tarnished memory fixed. My heart breaks for a lot of these children and their families. Excellent work and story Steve.

    • lejog2010 says:

      Thanks Lori! It was a rewarding experience and I encourage others in similar circumstances to make the journey in their ancestors footsteps. Thanks again, Steve.

  3. Fascinating story. It suggests to me that your great-grandfather was probably a victim of what they used to call ‘shell shock’ or what is today known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many WWI veterans came back with this and were never able to ‘fit in’ as a result. Until people like Annie Garland Foster (a war widow) campaigned for veterans’ benefits, many WWI vets ended up on the streets, hence the “useless” stigma they acquired. For more on the ‘home children’ you can check out my blog at http://www.chameleonfire1.wordpress.com under the ‘history’ tab. Take care and good luck with your research.

    • lejog2010 says:

      Thanks very much. Herbert also spent 3 1/2 years as a POW and from what I read being a prisoner in the First World War was a harrowing experience. I will definitely check out your blog. Thanks again, Steve.

      • A huge number of the Canadian soldiers who went to fight in the First World War were former ‘home children’ or ‘child migrants’ sent to Canada by Barnardo’s and other agencies. I write about this topic in several articles on the blog.

  4. Connie says:

    This is quite an interesting story. Again my heart goes out to these poor unfortunate young fellows. It so sad that they had to deal with so much rejection at such a young age. I hope you find the rest of his life’s tracks. I know how you feel as I am still looking for the few years of my father’s life that are missing. Like I always say, “one of these days” it will come together.
    All the best and happy hunting. Also I can’t wait to read the rest of it.

  5. Martin Davis says:

    Steve, this is a wonderful description of a time and story that must have been harrowing for everyone involved. I’m always amazed to read of the many deeply traumatic experiences that our ancestors experienced as a matter of course during their life. We have come so far from that we have no idea of the kind of resiliency (or not) it would have taken to survive them! (And let’s hope that continues to be the case – although I fear that we may have lived through the best times possible for the human race…)

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