Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Your ideas, com­ments and ad­vice

Linda Ham­mond’s in­ter­est­ing ar­ti­cle in the June is­sue dis­cussing re­for­ma­tory school records prompted me to look for records con­cern­ing my pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther. Pa­pers found and re­turned to the fam­ily in­cluded a good char­ac­ter ref­er­ence writ­ten in 1907 when Grand­dad left Kingswood Re­for­ma­tory School in Bris­tol, which named him Wil­liam Simp­son.

Grand­dad was born Wil­liam Ge­orge Ashby Bent­ley. His mum left my great grand­fa­ther shortly af­ter Grand­dad’s birth in 1890. Her sub­se­quent re­la­tion­ship with James Simp­son lasted from around 1895 to 1915, and the 1901 cen­sus shows that the whole fam­ily used the name Simp­son.

Kingswood Re­for­ma­tory School records are held at the Bris­tol Ar­chives, and are re­stricted. I ob­tained per­mis­sion to see Grand­dad’s records, and dur­ing my visit was shown the two pages con­cern­ing his ad­mis­sion on 23 Oc­to­ber 1903 and his dis­charge on 11 Oc­to­ber 1907. He was there for a “Felony” with “Bad” pre­vi­ous char­ac­ter. There was an ob­ser­va­tion “f.d.s. the sum of 9 shillings”, which I did not im­me­di­ately un­der­stand. He was only 4 foot 7 inches tall although the birth­date recorded was 12 Oc­to­ber 1888, sug­gest­ing he was 15 years old. He had been tried at Wool­wich Po­lice Court. The dis­charge record did fol­low some of his army record, not­ing his good char­ac­ter and men­tion­ing the loss of his right arm in ac­tion on 4 Septem­ber 1918.

Briefly dis­ap­pointed at the lack of de­tail, I re­alised the same evening that hav­ing the dates and court de­tails made a spe­cific search of news­pa­per ar­chives pos­si­ble. I was de­lighted to find an ar­ti­cle in the Ken­tish In­de­pen­dent on 23 Oc­to­ber 1903 en­ti­tled ‘A bad lad’. This showed that he took 9s from a hand­bag at home and ran away. The com­plainant was his step­fa­ther James Simp­son.

I also re­alised that the date of birth given at the trial was wrong. Birth records are clear that Grand­dad’s ac­tual date of birth was 12 June 1890, mak­ing him 13. Why his step­fa­ther would try and make him ap­pear older I can only guess. Grand­dad used 12 Oc­to­ber 1888 as his birth­date for the rest of his life, pre­sum­ably be­liev­ing it cor­rect.

Four years in a re­for­ma­tory school for tak­ing money at home to try and run away seems harsh, but Kingswood Re­for­ma­tory School might have had ad­van­tages over home. A let­ter writ­ten by James Simp­son to Grand­dad’s mother af­ter they parted in 1915 apol­o­gises for what hap­pened to her dear face. I sus­pect there may have been do­mes­tic vi­o­lence at least at that stage if not be­fore.

Grand­dad dropped the name Simp­son and re­verted to Bent­ley be­fore 13 Oc­to­ber 1908 when he joined the 2nd Hamp­shire reg­i­ment – still, judg­ing by his photo, look­ing younger than even his ac­tual age of 18. Janet James, by email

Ed­i­tor replies: Thank you for send­ing this in Janet, I’m de­lighted that the ar­ti­cle led to some new dis­cov­er­ies. What an as­ton­ish­ingly young-look­ing man your grand­fa­ther was when he signed up. It seems hard to be­lieve that they didn’t ques­tion his age!

Janet’s grand­fa­ther Wil­liam (above) re­ceived a glow­ing rec­om­men­da­tion from his re­for­ma­tory school (left)

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