Saturday, 3 October 2015

Be careful what you wish for ............... on discovering the darker side of family history

POW Admission record 1942
Now researching family history can be a cosy almost nostalgic activity but because we all have those ghosts sitting somewhere in the past there are moments when it all jumps up and bites you.

Years ago I came across the newspaper report of the death by suicide of a brother of my great grandmother made all the more horrid because of the manner of his death and the fact that I hadn’t expected it.

And for a while I felt that I had intruded on something very personal.

In the same way I have always shied away from researching the death of my uncle who died in 1943 aged just 21 in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

Uncle Roger and mother, circa 1940
It is a story I have lived with but one which was rarely spoken of by mother or my grandparents.

His picture sat on a shelf in our house and when my grandparents died a lot of their documentation came south where it sat in a suitcase for nearly 40 years until I brashly waded in to make sense of it.

Amongst the pictures, letters and other bits and bobs we all accumulate were a collection of material about Uncle Roger.

But for years it was the one set of documents I found hard to look at and even now I reluctantly go to them which seems to continue the family’s collective and un spoken wish to leave him alone.

Telegram, 1945
And there is a lot to look at from photographs to a long 26 page handwritten letter smuggled out of Basra in 1941 recounting his adventures from seeing the Manchester Blitz to a convoy journey to South Africa, the fall of Greece and much more.

Added to this there are Nana’s letters which were returned unseen and a shedful of official correspondence from the telegram announcing he was missing to the one that he was a prisoner of war and finally his death.

Nor did they stop there and letters from the Air Ministry continued into the years of peace.

Uncle Roger, 1999
Most poignant are the replies from men she wrote to who had also been in the same camp.

So they are a very personal set of records I find hard to read and yet every so often I am drawn back and today because findmypast have released the records of World War Two Prisoners of War I found myself looking for my Uncle Roger.*

And what I found unnerved me and I am not sure why.

Here was the admission card filled in when he was captured in 1942, which was archived back in Britain in 1947.

Detail of POW admission record, 1942
There is nothing here I didn’t know already but it is seeing the document especially with the Japanese characters which brought home our family loss.

If you ask me why this piece of his family history and not the others I can’t say, other than that it is something I haven’t seen before.

Perhaps the Japanese script brings home the enormity of what had happened and takes me directly to that camp in Malaya.

After all we have only one other document from the camp which is a much damaged postcard from the Red Cross.

And so I come back to the POW record and reflect on what was to happen to him during the next year and wonder if I should have left well alone.

Pictures; photographs and other documents of Roger Hall, 1940-45 from the collection of Andrew Simpson and the POW record from findmypast.co.uk

*findmypast.co.uk, findmypast.co.uk/prisonersofwar

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