Sometimes, the sender of these old letters is self-explanatory. A clear signature on the page easily traced in the genealogy tree. A name and return address on the letter or envelope. Stories told that clearly establish the author's relationship to the recipient. But sometimes, you have to sleuth your way to the sender's identity.
Such is the case with Jim & Polly Witter.
The first letter I found signed by Jim & Polly was written May 30, 1923 and included six elaborately written pages detailing changes to buildings, people and life in Ipswich, UK.
You know how some historical letters are pretty easy to read, but occasionally, you encounter cursive that gets you cursing? This one had me cursing. I read the letter as best I could but stumbled into a few dozen streets, places, people and references that I knew I had to research in order to transcribe them correctly.
So I focused on a more simple task - who were Jim & Polly?
Jim & Polly did not sign their last name in this first letter I found, just "Your affectionate friends Jim & Polly." And the salutation of the letter, "My Deal Old Friends" implied that they were not relatives. I checked, and as suspected, they were not on the family tree. Luckily, I had some other clues to chase down - their residence, 14 Chenery Street Ipswich and a reference in the letter "We enclose you a photo taken in your old garden last summer. The little girl is Ethel..." There were also dried flowers in a small envelope that read "With fondest love from the Old Garden No. 14-"
Maybe this was too easy, but I felt the reference to "your old garden" implied that my great grandmother, Alice Vince Pinborough, had lived at the house on Chenery, and I guessed, maybe they sold the house to this couple? So I headed over to the census records on FindMyPast.com and searched for the address. I kept it simple - married last name of my grandmother, address, UK records. And voila! Just like that - 1901 Census showed my great-great grandmother (Hannah Maria Meachen Vince) along with my great grandparents (Frederick Pinborough, Alice Pinborough), my grandmother (Hilda) & her sister (Winifred) residing at 14 Chenery Street in Ipswich.
I checked the same page on the 1901 Census looking for Jim & Polly, hoping to find them as neighbors, not there. So I flipped to the next page and down at the bottom, 36 Chenery Street, James George Witter age 48 Town Sergeant born in Warrington Lancashire and Mary Ann Witter age 47 born Bure's Hamlet Essex.
It seemed too easy. Right?
Alice came to the US in 1906 so I jumped to the 1911 Census searching for James George Witter and found him over on 19 Alpe Street this time employed as "Sergeant at Mace and Town Hall Keeper" wife Mary Ann Witter (age 58). They were living with their step-daughter and her 4 grandchildren - Emma Salmon (36), Herbert Samuel (7), Norah Catherine (3), Ethel Mary (1), Ellen Maude (3 months).
FindMyPast.com also had the 1908 Suffolk Kelly's Directory where James was listed as "sergeant-at-mace Chenery Street"
Curious, I popped into FamilySearch.org (still free!) and searched for James George Witter born around 1854 in Warrington Lancashire. Results galore in seconds! With just a few strokes of the keyboard, the information available for family history is astounding.
- 1871 Census indicates his mother was Ann Witter age 59 born Tabley Cheshire, James was 17 and a clerk and there was a lodger in their home at 109 Sussex Street named Andrew G. Thompson age 30 building surveyor.
- Births and Christenings showed James was christened 18 March 1854 in Bolton-Le-Moors, Lancaster England. His father was William Witter, mother Fanny Witter.
- In the 1891 Census, James was a corset cutter and lived with his wife Mary Witter, son Herbert C Salmon (age 16 tailor's apprentice) and daughter Harriett S. Salmon (age 11) at 69 Tower Ramparts Ipswich.
- I found James's enlistment record - joined the British Army Dragoon Guards on the 26 July 1877, age 24. His trade at the time was Steward.
- And, I found that he passed away in 1937 sometime between Oct and December.
It is so easy to get carried away following someone's family history, even if not related to you.
I still haven't found how the Witters came to reside at 14 Chenery Street, former residence of my great grandmother. So dug through my boxes of letters and discovered 10 sent to my great grandparents by the Witters. On the last one, postmarked April 14 1937, someone wrote on the back, "Last letter from Mr. Witter." Perhaps, if I'm lucky, more answers will be hidden within these letters.
So, on to transcribing the Witters' cursive. And you read the title correctly, this is part One of Ten. Yowza.
Happy Genealogy Hunting!
Tip! If you like to see where folks used to live, like I do, you probably search Google Maps, like I do. I tried that for Chenery but the street no longer exists. So I headed over to Old Maps Online and located a 1909 Insurance Plan of Ipswich - that took me to a lovely overlay on the British Library's Online Gallery of today's Ipswich and the 1909 map (see above). Remarkable! I could not only see where Chenery was, but adjust the map overlay transparency to see the old and the new with all the town changes.