Family tradition holds that Frederick Turner, my British Great-Grandfather Leonard’s only brother, was killed in action in India during World War I. Adding charm to the story that I heard frequently as a child was the idea that Leonard, distraught over his brother’s death and wishing to honor his memory, decided to drop his own given name and assume his dead brother’s, both in day to day living as well as on legal documents. Although my Grandfather and his sisters never knew their Uncle, they did know the story of his heroic death and grew up thinking of their father as “Frederick” L. Turner.
The notes from my earliest attempts at recording my British genealogy reflect this family lore, however as my own research began to reveal more of the details of the Turner brothers’ lives, the accuracy of the story came into question.
I knew from my grandfather’s personal knowledge that his father was born in 1878, but his uncle’s birth date was not known. The 1881 U.K. Census records [Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire] suggest Leonard’s older brother Frederick had been born several years earlier in 1875, and a subsequent search of the General Records Office (GRO) birth index confirmed his birth took place during the third quarter of 1874. Church records from Caversham, Oxfordshire show Frederick Henry Turner, infant son of Henry and Louisa Turner of Caversham, was baptized at St Peter’s Church on 12 August 1874. Knowing his birth date, I was then able to search the GRO marriage index, but found no marriages for Frederick. I found it odd that he wouldn’t have married as a young man and it seemed unlikely, although certainly not impossible , that he went off to fight in World War I in his forties. I needed to find proof of his service.
Frederick is notably absent from the family’s 1891 census page [Caversham, Oxfordshire] and doesn’t appear in the census records of any neighboring towns. However a Frederick H. Turner, born in Caversham, does appear in the 1901 census records for the Aldershot Royal Field Artillery Base [Aldershot, Hampshire], as a member of the Stanhope and Wellington Lines, substantiating the idea that he had been a British soldier.
Recently, the Ancestry.com website has made available the “U.K. Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919″ database. Although there were many Frederick Turners who were killed in action in WWI, none proved to be my Frederick. But, it is known that these records had been badly damaged in a fire, meaning some of the dead are missing from this database and therefore I couldn’t consider the absence of his record as conclusive proof that he hadn’t died in action.
However, the item which casts the most significant doubt on this family tradition is the marriage certificate for Leonard and my Great Grandmother Lorrie Esther Baker. Leonard and Lorrie were married in 1908, six years before the start of Britain’s involvement in the Great War. The groom’s name on the marriage record appears as “Frederick Leonard Turner,” suggesting irrefutably that his brother Frederick died well before World War I. With this new fact, I turned to the history books and considered the possibility that Frederick had died in another, earlier conflict. Military records show battalions from Aldershot did see action during late 1901 and early 1902 during the final stages of the second Boer War but while troops had passed through India, the fighting actually took place in South Africa.
Interestingly, a search of the newly released “British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920″ [www.ancestry.com] created from the War Office: Soldiers’ Documents, First World War ‘Burnt Documents’ held by The National Archives in London, showed my Great Grandfather “Frederick” Leonard Turner had in fact voluntarily enlisted in 1915 and served in WWI with time spent fighting in India, suggesting that possibly my Grandfather and his sisters had confused Leonard’s service with his brother’s and over time this family tradition had evolved into a confused melding of two separate stories.
Then, with the recent addition of over 7,000 previously missing British serviceman records to the “Chelsea Pensioners British Army Service Records 1760-1913″ database [www.findmypast.co.uk], the mystery of what happened to our Frederick Turner was finally solved. Service records reveal that he, Frederick Turner son of Henry Turner of Caversham, enlisted at Aldershot as a 14 year old, embarking a year later on a ten-year tour overseas in India, from 1889-1899, which explains his absence from the 1891 U.K. Census. Upon returning to Aldershot in 1899, he re-enlisted for another seven years, however he remained stationed at Aldershot and did not participate in Britain’s Second Boer War. Records further show he died of a ruptured spleen at Aldershot on 26 December, 1904.
He was 30 years old. There is no indication of the cause of his injuries, but what is clear is that, while he’d served his country proudly and honorably for 16 years, he was not killed in action. And in this instance, family tradition got it wrong.