Wednesday 22 August 2012

Who do you think you are? - Samantha Womack's military ancestors

Military genealogy is not really my speciality, but I was intrigued by some of the details of Sam Womack's soldier ancestor. Alexander Cunningham Ryan's story was fascinating in itself, but it was an odd little detail that first caught my eye. Because he was in a Guards regiment, the record of his First World War is held at the Guards Museum, and not at The National Archives; so far, so good. Then it was revealed that he had served in the Highland Light Infantry before the war, so off she went to Glasgow to find out more, and was filmed there looking at a copy of his service in that regiment. I thought it was rather odd that they were looking at a black and white printout, when pre-First World War service records on FindMyPast were scanned in colour - nerdy, or what?

The next twist in the story was that he had transferred from the HLI to the Royal Garrison Artillery, but had not mentioned this when he joined the Scots Guards. Living up to my earlier post 'You know you're a genealogist when...' I was of course typing furiously on my laptop while watching the show. I found his Royal Garrison Artillery record on Findmypast easily enough, but there was no trace of his service in the HLI, which I had seen Sam Womack and her expert looking at on TV.

One of the perks of my day job is working in a room full of records specialists, so I asked William Spencer, our senior military specialist, for his advice. He suggested I look in the First World War service records on Ancestry, and, lo and behold, there it was. Or, to be more precise, they they were. In theory, a man's pre-First World War military service records should be found with his First World War records, even if he had left the army, and then re-enlisted at the outbreak of war in 1914. Since his service in the RGA was on Findmypast, and his First World War records were at the Guards Museum, it would not have occurred to me to look on Ancestry for any of his records. I found them in the database which is wrongly described by Ancestry as 'Pension records'. They are not pension records. They are the duplicate records collected by the War Office, from a variety of sources, to replace the First World War service records destroyed by fire during the Second World War. So the three records covering the whole of his military service are all in one place, and I now knew why the record they were looking at in Glasgow was in black and white, and not in colour (the First World War records on Ancestry are in black and white because they were scanned from microfilm; they were only ever released on microfilm because of the fragile state of many of the originals)

Incidentally the nice man in Glasgow rather undermined his 'expert' credentials by suggesting that the wonderful photograph of 'J Ryan' aged about 15, in HLI uniform might be Alexander's younger brother, on the grounds of having the same surname and serving in the same battallion. There's nothing wrong with speculating, and he conceded that he had no evidence, but if he had looked at the third page of the record he was holding he would have seen the names of Alexander's three brothers - Michael, Peter and William.

Duplicate copy of Alexander' attestation for the Highland Light Infantry in 1895, aged 14

Alexander's attestation for the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1903, aged 22

Duplicate of Alexander's attestation for the Scots Guards in 1914, aged 33

But I was still interested in possible family connections, since Alexander's records all showed that he was born in Maryhill, and Maryhill Barracks is the home of the Highland Light Infantry, so I wondered if his father might also have been a soldier. Throwing caution to the winds, I used a few of my ScotlandsPeople credits to look at his birth entry, and, sure enough, his father was John William Ryan, sergeant in the 74th Regiment of Foot - ie the Highland Light Infantry. Better still, since he was born in 1881, I was able to find him with his parents in the 1881 census. By this time my profligacy with ScotlandsPeople credits knew no bounds, and I lashed out a few more on the marriage of John William Ryan and Jane Mitchell in 1880. This showed that John William's father, William Ryan, was also a soldier, not in the HLI but in the 33rd or First Yorkshire West Riding Regiment.

The 1881 census showed that John William was born in about 1850 in Sunderland, again obligingly close to a census, and the family were found in barracks in 1851. I was not at all surprised to find that William Ryan was born in Ireland, given his surname and the large number of Irishmen in the British Army at that time. There is no service record for him on Findmypast, and I couldn't find the family in the 1861 or 1871 census in England or Scotland. So I consulted the very useful 1861 Worldwide Army Index, also on Findmypast. This confirmed what I had suspected, that William's regiment was overseas, in India to be exact (TNA Ref: WO 12/4849, Muster book and paylist, 1st Battalion 33rd Regiment of Foot, 1 January 1861-31 December 1862).

Most families, celebrity or otherwise, have more potential leads than can be followed up in a single episode of Who do You think you are? So I have no complaints that this area wasn't explored, since the story that was told was also interesting. I'm not sure why I took such an interest in this one, since military research isn't usually my thing. Maybe it's because I had an uncle in the Scots Guards, another in the Highland Light Infantry, and one of my grandfathers served in the Royal Artillery.


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