Poster: How to join the Army

When my maternal grandfather Thomas Jones (1905 - unknown) was demobilised from the British Army in early 1946, he was provided with a testimonial that read: "A good worker under supervision. He is honest." (That was the second attempt at a testimonial; first time around, the officer responsible tried to refuse to write one).

I suspect that what they really meant was (1) they'd learned the hard way not to take their eyes off him while he was in Britain; and (2) they had no reason to believe that he was a thief.

His military career was chequered, to say the least. He enlisted in the Essex Regiment on 31st May 1928, telling his first set of lies: he claimed to be single and without dependents. Married men could not enlist, so he had to deny the existence of his wife Margaret Ellen Roberts (1897 - 1931) and his young daughter Agnes Margaret (Peggy) Jones (born 1925).

Why did he enlist? Who knows... By 1928, the coal-mining areas of South Wales were in deep distress and he may simply have needed the money to support his family (although for reasons that will become clear, he did not earn a lot in his time in the Army and multiplied his dependents). Or he might have had enough of married life and wanted to get away; a cousin from Margaret Ellen's family told me that her brothers 'never liked him' as Thomas was abusive towards her. And I can only speculate why he went all the way to London to enlist. He did name a Miss Ellen Jones ('sister') as his next-of-kin, and it's possible (given later behaviour) that he was naming his wife; I haven't found a sister called Ellen yet.

Whatever his reasons for enlisting, he quickly decided that military life was not for him. He deserted on 6th August 1928 and 'surrendered' on 28th May 1929. After a brief spell in the Glasshouse at Aldershot, the Army took their eyes off him, and he bolted again on 4th August 1929. On 17th October 1932 he 'rejoined', and was sent to the Glasshouse for a longer spell. Upon release, he was shipped swiftly overseas and served as a Signalman in India (1933-1935), Egypt (1935-1936), Sudan (1936-1937) Palestine/Egypt (1937-1940) and Sudan again (1940-1941). He returned to Britain in February 1941... and deserted on 26th July 1941.

'Apprehended in Liverpool' on 25th July 1942, he was sentenced to yet more time in the Glasshouse and released in February 1943.  Two months later — yes, you've guessed — he went AWOL but was swiftly recaptured and transferred to the East Surrey Regiment, who immediately shipped him to North Africa. (At some time between 1932 and 1943, he started naming Miss Alice May Louisa Vincent, his 'sister-in-law', as next of kin — more of her later).

He served in the North African and Central Mediterranean Theatres of War until November 1945. Upon return to Britain he was demobilised in April 1946, giving his address as the place in Birmingham where his parents were living with his daughter Peggy and her 2-month old daughter.

And there the paper trail ends — except for a letter from the Army to Winchester CID outlining his military service in response to an unknown query in February 1954. Was he being a bad boy again? It does seem likely. When the Army did have their hands on him, he was regularly found guilty of misconduct, drunkenness and disgraceful conduct, and there's a family story (unverified) that he died in a Hospital or Asylum in London from the effects of alcoholism. He isn't buried in the grave in Merthyr Tydfil shared by his wife Margaret Ellen and his parents Thomas and Agnes (who died in 1946 and 1951 respectively). And in September 1954, his daughter Peggy reported him deceased at her wedding, but that's no guarantee that he was dead.

Do we know what he did while he was a deserter? There are no relevant Army records... For a while, I thought the period from 1929 to 1932 might have seen him go home to Merthyr Tydfil because his wife was dying of tuberculosis.  But it turns out I was very wrong.

His 'sister-in-law' Miss Alice May Louisa Vincent was a puzzle; I couldn't work out where she fitted into the family picture but I discovered that she had married twice in the 1930s. The first time was in October 1930 to a Thomas George Jones. There were two children born to this marriage who I won't name (because of my privacy policy). She then married a second time, still using her maiden name, to Sydney W. Elson.  So any link to my grandfather was probably via her first husband Thomas George Jones, but how could she be his 'sister-in-law' when he didn't have a brother with the same name as him? And why was her second marriage in her maiden name? I had a sneaking suspicion I could guess...

So I went looking further and found an online family tree for Alice which confirmed her first marriage was bigamous! I made contact with the researcher (carefully, because it might be a sensitive subject although it was mentioned in a publicly-available tree online).  She explained that a Welshman, Thomas George Jones, was lodging with John and Jane Vincent (Alice's parents) in the early 1930s while working as a sawyer on the new roads being built around Guildford, and when young Alice fell pregnant at 16 she and Thomas George were rapidly married off. He shaved some years off his age to reduce the age differential (which was actually 9 years) and she added one year to hers. He added a middle name and changed his father's occupation from Miner to Mining Contractor and perhaps — given the distance they were living from his first wife — that should have been enough to conceal his bigamy before a pesky descendant started poking around.  The marriage lasted until Thomas was arrested and sent to prison for desertion (in 1932), and Alice was left alone with a toddler and a babe-in-arms.2

I'm not clear (and nobody who knows is still alive) how 'Thomas George' was identified as a bigamist, freeing Alice to marry again.  Did he tell her himself? By the time he was arrested, his first wife was dead; perhaps he hoped they could marry again legally. Or did he decide that he didn't want the responsibility of another wife and two children? We'll never know. And I'm glad that Alice found a new husband with whom she lived until his death in 1987; Thomas was as bad a husband as he was a soldier and from everything I know, she was well rid of him.

So back to that question of definition. Was he honest? He may not have been a thief, but he lied like a rug: to the Army (on enlistment); to Alice when he married her; quite possibly to his first wife and parents about his Army career; and maybe also to his oldest daughter about what he did in the Army. In later years she told her daughters that he'd had a lot to do with the Military Provosts.  Well, yes, he did, but not in the way we all thought.1 He was probably still lying in 1954 when he came to the attention of the Winchester CID. And I'm sure he's lying in his grave, even if I don't know where.

1 One more connection with the Military Provosts — which shows he had a lot of nerve — his father-in-law John Vincent was a retired Military Provost Sargent who had worked in the Glasshouse.

2 We have proven the connection using DNA, just to tie up the loose ends.

Nov 28, 2016 By ColeValleyGirl


Linda Stufflebean said:

Aren't black sheep in the family the most interesting to write about? My husband's 2x great grandfather is my favorite writing subject. I was lucky enough to meet one of his grandchildren when she was in her 90s and she had a few memories of him to share.

ColeValleyGirl replied:

Yes, the black sheep are the most interesting. I've plenty of ancestors who lived blameless quiet lives, and it's good to know about them, but the bad boys and girls are much more fun to write about.

Jacquie Schattner said:

This is a GREAT story! And you told it so well. Thanks!

ColeValleyGirl replied:

Thank you for coming over to read it.

Mary Rohrer Dexter said:

You found a really interesting story with this guy. Very cool. I came here looking for your Saturday Night Genealogy Challenge post and I believe I found it. Nice job.

ColeValleyGirl replied:

Thanks for coming to look.

Bill Rayner said:

Thank you Helen for sharing your Grandfather's story so eloquently. My wife had a cad for a 2nd Cousin, whom bankrupted his Father by his 1st Wife sueing him and my 4 times Great grandfather being prosecuted for wife beating! Oh the webs we weave! Happy hunting and good health.

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