Thursday 4 April 2013

We found him - "old" George Bird that is

We were about to go home after meeting up with our son in town yesterday, when out of the blue my husband suddenly suggested that we go to the Records office and see if we could find "Old George Bird" - his great grandfather.  For some reason he had been very elusive in the Death registry and we simply could not find him where we thought he ought to be!  Born in Herne Bay, Kent about 1848, by the 1861 census his parents had already relocated from Canterbury to Poplar in London.  There he was, aged 13, with one of his older brothers, Walter 18, parents Samuel (41) and Maria (36) and her brother George Brown, a painter.  They were living at 2 Elizabeth Terrace.

We had tracked him through until we lost him in the 1911 census, nowhere to be found.  My husband suggested that as he was a joiner, who usually worked on ships in the Dockyards, perhaps he had been taken on a voyage to do running repairs.  We will have to keep looking for those missing years.  In 1901 he was in Limehouse, lodging with Mrs Bennett and her husband (an Ironworker) and young family.  Family history has it that Mrs Bennett was a member of the Dickens Society and apart from his daughter, the only other person at George's funeral.  George was also listed as an Ironworker on the 1911 census, so he obviously turned his hand to whatever might earn him money.

He had married Emma Righton, in Scarborough, and they had a son (George Brown Bird) and a daughter, Maria Margaret.  She married him in Poplar, but couldn't live there (hated it).  They moved back to Scarborough, and apparently HE didn't like it there, but I think, looking at the photo, he was a fairly uncompromising personality and so perhaps the marriage failed and he went back home to Poplar.   Quite how they met I can't say, but she let rooms in her Oxford Street house and was a laundress, and perhaps he was following the work on the boats and they may have been dismantling them at Scarborough and he took a room with her.

Anyway, poor Emma continued to take in washing after George moved out, and unfortunately when she took in the washing from the travelling circus (which must have been a regular occurrence as Doodles the Clown once asked her to marry him, pre-George one assumes) it was infected with Smallpox and she caught it.  Family history tells of meals being pushed along the top of the wall with a pole, so that the family were fed.  This was due to the kindness of her neighbour, but the neighbour risked catching Smallpox too - perhaps they soaked the plates in disinfectant before they were returned for the next meal?  Emma died the following year, from kidney problems resulting from the Smallpox I believe. 

In 1916, his son, George Brown Bird was killed in the early days of the Somme offensive.  By this time Maria Margaret had moved to Manchester, as a Scarborough laundry owner was setting up a new laundry there and wanted her to run it for him.  Old George turned up on her doorstep, very upset over his son's death, and wanting to see his daughter (possibly one last time) before he went off to fight the Hun and avenge his son's death.  He looked younger than his age - he was 68 when he enlisted but took 10 years off (he was 70 in the photo above), and they obviously believed him as he was signed up as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers and sent out to Mesopotamia, Chronic Bronchitis and lack of stature (he was 5 feet and 1/2 an inch tall)  not withstanding.  He served with the Royal Engineers for 2 years before catching Malaria and being discharged on medical grounds and sent back to convalesce at Netley Hospital (a couple of miles from where I grew up and where I used to walk the dogs as it was demolished and the grounds turned into a park before I left Southampton for good).  Whilst at Netley Hospital he caught Scabies . . .  His initial Army pension was 27/6 (about £1.35) for just the first week, looking at his Army service record, and then 11/- (11 shillings - about 60pence these days) to be reviewed about 48 weeks.  Presumably that was enough to scrape by on.

We have assumed he went back to the familiar streets of Limehouse, and "got by".  Family memories say that Maria Margaret went to London to collect her brother's medals at the Palace (George had been a brave and capable leader of men - the Army was his career, and music his great love) and within a year or two she was back for her father's lonely funeral at Bow Cemetary.  My husband had always assumed that the medals were awarded a year of so after young George's death, but it is more likely to have been a year or so after the very end of the war.  Anyway, we had been looking too soon for Old George's death, and weren't sure if his age would have been put down as actual age or what-he-told-the-Army age . . .  In the event, we finally found him yesterday, George Bird, in the July-Sept. 1/4 of 1922, age 74, in Shoreditch.  Horrified to find price of his death certificate will be £13.99 (12 days before delivery).  If we want it by the weekend, it will only cost us £74.99!!!


  1. I read this, as you might imagine, with great interest--not just for 'Old George Bird's' story , but for the reassurance that sometimes persistence in family research can pay off--even after many years of dead ends. Maybe my William and Ann Lewis, basketmakers, born in 'England' will yet turn up as a recognizable pair.

  2. What a great story. I know Bow Cemetery well having worked at the Theatre Royal in Stratford for years. The figures, both pension and cost of certificates, are terrifying!

  3. How great to have finally tracked him down. He seems to have had a hard and rather sad life though. I agree with you about the price of certificates, it's hard to believe that they cost anything like that amount to produce even allowing for staff time etc. It's rather a racket as far as I can see - fthey must make money hand over fist from family historians.