Regular readers of the blog may have stumbled across the ‘Family History’ section of the site, where I have attempted to outline areas of research of various lines of my ancestors. However, I always find the pursuit of genealogy a tough one; like many other family history enthusiasts, there is never enough time and more pressing matters tend to get in the way.
However, over the past weeks the itch has returned once more. I thought that rather than plough ahead down another unexplored line I would try to uncover more of what was already available. Which leads us to the ‘Trail of the Wildmen’, an attempt at piecing together names of the Wildman line across the centuries.
I thought a good place to start would be charting out the life of Sidney Levi Wildman, my great-grandfather, who lived from 1872-1951. The reason as to why it is a good place is due to the abundance of records available for viewing on Ancestry, all of which provide rich colour to Sidney’s life. As with the majority of other genealogists, I’ve been repeatedly disheartened to find a lack of evidence when chasing through the lines of ancestors; however, the ones uploaded to Ancestry (by the kind and skilled researcher Kelly Prior) has enabled Sidney to be fleshed out in more detail.
Sidney was born on 19th February 1872 in Bedford. 1872 was the year of the very first FA Cup final, whilst Queen Victoria was into the fourth decade of her reign, and William Gladstone was Prime Minister. Sidney’s parents were Henry Wildman and Harriet Sinfield, and he was a middle sibling in a large family; George was the eldest (born in 1862), while Henrietta was the youngest (born in 1879). Sidney was baptised at Holy Trinity Church in Bedford, a church that was constructed in the early half of the 19th Century to provide for the expanding population of the town. However, by the second half of the 20th Century the church building itself had been utilised as an additional space for a local school.
One of the first official records of Sidney comes in the form of the 1881 census, when he was a boy of nine years old, listed as a ‘scholar’, living in the St. Paul parish of Bedford:
Other records note that Sidney attended Harspur Trust Boys Elementary School. In many ways, Sidney was lucky to have been born when he was; in 1870 the British government created an education act that brought about a wave of elementary schools in the country. The school itself was created by Sir William Harpsur, a local man from the Tudor period who rose from ‘humble beginnings’ to make his fortune as a merchant tailor, before becoming mayor of London in 1561. Harspur was a big influence on the locality of Bedford; not only was a school provided for, but additional money was provided for dowries for the ‘poor maids’ of the town.
Only the wealthy could pay for education beyond elementary age (it was not until the 20th Century when additional educational opportunities were created), and so it is probable that Sidney left school after the age of ten or eleven. After that point, children in the Victorian period were expected to find work. Sidney appears to have worked as a mechanic, however, the other career that offered opportunities for further development was the British Army.
Although the British Empire was the superpower of the world, the army was weak in comparison to the might of the navy. By the time of the Crimean War in the 1850s problems within the army had been exposed, resulting in a need of reforms. In 1870 the government attempted to make the army more attractive, allowing men to sign up for twelve years, rather than for a couple of decades as had been the norm for a century. The twelve-year sign up is exactly what Sidney agreed in 1887, when was the young age of fifteen years and nine months old.
Sidney’s army records reveal a lot about his appearance. He is noted as having a fair complexion, with blue eyes and light brown hair. The most surprising thing is his height and weight: he was a mere five feet (and a half-an-inch) tall, and weighed only 87 pounds (just over 6 stone!). Furthermore, his chest measurement was a tiny 29 inches. Yet, despite this, he was considered fit to sign up to the army, joining the second battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. The history of the regiment stretches back to 1689 when the men of Edinburgh came together to fight back the threat of the Jacobites (the supporters of deposed Catholic king James II).
He served in the army for a handful of years, until turning the age of eighteen in 1890. The most notable event of this period was serving in Cairo in Egypt between July 1888 to December 1889. This was the era in which Britain politically ran the country of Egypt, a duration that last from 1882 until the last British advisers were expelled in the 1950s. Of key importance to the empire was the Suez Canal, the link that allowed the navy to easily connect between the Mediterranean and the Indian territories. The regiment was based in Egypt to maintain British control, with the battalion fighting against the Dervish army under the Khalifa. Despite not seeing action in any meaningful sense, the Egyptian climate and cuisine appears to have disagreed with Sidney; his army medical notes are a long list of complaints of diarrhea and dysentery. However, overall, his commanding officer has written that Sidney’s conduct was ‘very good’.
On returning to England in the 1890s, Sidney met Alice Davis, his future wife, whilst living in Kent. In 1892, when Alice was seventeen, the pair had their first child, Claude. This son was the first of fifteen children, stretching from 1892 all the way to 1915. It was only after the birth of their second child, George, that both Sidney and Alice married in 1895, in Deal, Kent.
The town of Deal has not been positively portrayed by writers; early in the 1800s William Cobbett noted that the town was:
‘a most villainous place. It is full of filthy-looking people. Great desolation of abomination has been going on here…everything seems upon the perish. I was glad to hurry along through it, and to leave its inns and public-houses to be occupied by the tarred, and trowsered, and blue and buff crew whose very vicinage I always detest.’
Later in the Victorian period, Charles Dickens wrote of Deal in the novel Bleak House:
‘At last we came into the narrow streets of Deal, and very gloomy they were upon a raw misty morning. The long flat beach, with its little irregular houses, wooden and brick, and its litter of capstans, and great boats, and sheds, and bare upright poles with tackle and blocks, and loose gravelly waste places overgrown with grass and weeds, wore as dull an appearance as any place I ever saw.’
However, both Sidney and Alice did not remain in Deal for long. The young family soon moved to Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Tragedy struck the young couple whilst there; in 1897 their new six month old baby, Sidney Thomas, died. The incident was reported in the local newspapers, with an inquest declared due to the ‘fact that the child was under two years of age and was insured’. Insurance was an intelligent precaution during the period, especially due to the lack of a National Health Service to help care for the young; however, the Victorian era saw its fair share of scandals about insurance scams. One such scandal involved a group of women who took out insurance on a lodger or relative (without the victim knowing), before then murdering the person in order to obtain a bumper pay-out. The inquest outcome declared that the baby died ‘due to convulsions’.
Interestingly, Sidney’s occupation after leaving the army was a musician. This job raises many questions, particularly in how he obtained this skill and how he was able to make stable money. It is likely that this pathway developed whilst serving in the army with the Scottish Borderers, as the photograph of the regiment above illustrates, they were a regiment that took pride in their musical displays. Such a musical link is rooted in the regiment’s beginnings in 1689, when the men of Edinburgh came out in support of the Earl of Leven ‘by beat of drum’. Furthermore, Sidney was signed up in 1887 by a bandmaster, which also adds more credence to this theory.
But what type of musician was Sidney? Unfortunately, we do not know, but we could make an educated guess. The late Victorian and Edwardian periods were boom times for music, with each of the classes engaging with a different format. Opera and classical music was for the higher classes who preferred highbrow genres, whilst the lower-classes were hooked with music hall theatre. Perhaps Sidney made his living by moving around as part of the music hall circuit, playing music in old skits and revues. However, another probable genre of Sidney’s could be that of military and brass bands which played in parks across the country.
Sidney’s career as a musician could explain the reasons for moving around the country; each of the children appear to have been born in different locations. Claude and George were born in Kent, whilst poor Sidney Thomas was born in Cheltenham. Sidney and Alice did not stay long in Gloucestershire, by the time of the next children – Winifred Nora, Phyllis and Nora – in the early 1900s, they were living back in Kent. However, in 1904, Leslie (my grandfather) was born in Plymouth, although the later children over the next decade appear to have been born back in Kent.
This career could also explain the lack of any census detail relating to Sidney during the period: there is a complete blank from 1881 (when he was a child) until 1911, by which time he was forty years old. His location on the night of this census raises more questions that cannot be answered: he is noted in Willesden, London, along with the majority of his children (but minus his wife). Again, perhaps the reasons is rooted in his job, with the need to move about in order to obtain money to provide for a regular income for the family.
Although Sidney himself did not serve during the First World War, the decade after 1911 was littered with personal tragedy. In 1916 his daughter Mertle (born 1909) died, followed by his toddler son Thomas in 1917, and then five-year old Hugh in 1920. In 1921 this period of mourning continued when Sidney’s wife, Alice, died. After this point, the trail becomes cold until Sidney’s own passing in 1951, at the age of seventy-nine, in Kettering, Northamptonshire.
The void of the final three decades of his life suggests that there is more to come in finding out about the final years of Sidney’s life. The aim is to discover out more about the man who is a great-grandfather of mine, and his life provides other possible opportunities to explore further. In particular, his career as a musician suggests that there is more to find out, particularly in the reasons for his constant moving about the country. Hopefully more will be unrevealed.