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Family history: the power of the note

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 10:00 UK time, Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The variety of topics and queries in my research is one of the things that makes my job so special and stops me from ever getting bored.

Recently I've been trying to help find a photograph of a RAF service man who died in 1944 on the outskirts of the Althorp estate in Northamptonshire. Patricia Betts is writing a book about the crash of a Wellington bomber with the tragic loss of all seven crew members.

Wellington bomber

Sergeant Thomas William Jones came from Roath in Cardiff. He is buried in Cathays cemetery in the same grave as his little sister Gloria. Details were kindly confirmed by the staff in the Bereavement Services office in Thornhill.

Their parents were Thomas William Jones and Ethel Reeves who kept a corner shop in Cyfartha Street in Roath. I was pleased to quickly establish that he also had a younger brother, John born in 1931, but looking for a John Jones in Wales is not an easy task and I quickly decided that alternative methods would need to be employed.

Changing tack I approached the RAF Museum and learned that although it would be possible for me to apply for his service records, because over 25 years had passed since his death at the age of just 19, there would be no photograph of him held in his service records unfortunately.

But it was just possible that a group photo may have been taken before the fateful flight. The archivist at the RAF museum told me that Sergeant Jones served with 85 operational training unit and encouraged me to try the Imperial War Museum, so I sent them an email and waited patiently. Two days later the answer arrived with usual military three letter abbreviations; no photographs were held of 85 OTU at IWM.

Another thought occurred to me while out walking one day. Some time ago, as part of BBC Radio Wales' Look Up Your Genes family history series, we met a man who incredibly had found all the members of his long lost family with the help of just one sticky note.

Thomas William Jones

Thomas William Jones

Being a lover of graveyards and a hater of litter I'm not suggesting a new line in products for placing notes on the headstones of our ancestors, but sometimes a discreetly positioned card is the only way to make contact (with others who visit the grave and not the deceased obviously!).

A quick visit to the cemetery (which required the help of staff to locate his grave amongst the 50,000 spread over 84 acres) revealed that Sergeant Jones had a standard Commonwealth War gravestone in Portland stone.

The words at the base of the headstone were individually chosen, I imagine by his grieving parents. They read: "A daily thought, A secret tear, And an everlasting memory".

More relevant to the search though was the granite vase "From Neighbours" at the foot of the grave, which contained evidence of recent flowers being placed there by someone who cares. Perhaps someone who knew Thomas, perhaps his brother, a cousin or even a nephew or niece.

In December I was invited to appear on Roy Noble's BBC Radio Wales afternoon programme along with Patricia to talk about the search for Sergeant Thomas William Jones (service number 3031716).

And our prayers were answered! His cousin Jacqui Burridge rang in to say that she had a photo of Thomas as a young boy. Jacqui also had some last known contact details for her first cousin once removed, also called John Jones, but he too remains elusive.

So in the meantime perhaps I should nip along to Cathays cemetery and check that the note is still there after all those strong winds we've had this winter.


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