This blog post, coming at the time of Remembrance (Poppy) Day, November 11, reflects on the enormous, beneficial attributes of the internet—when used for positive ends—but also on the costs of personal sacrifice embodied in the Remembrance Day ceremonies. It is the story of how I was able to pull back the curtains of time to learn more about a relative I had heard of only vaguely many years ago, my mother’s cousin (my first cousin, once removed), Geoffrey Boisselier Davies. It is also a story about how digital tools created by entrepreneurial web-based companies can help us unlock the secrets of the past.
The internet has changed our lives in many ways, for the better and for the worse. It has enabled online harassment and revenge porn but has also been the means by which people have connected, reconnected and fallen in love. It has provided the means for artists and creators to reach audiences they could only dream of pre-internet, but it has also been disastrous to many creators by enabling rampant digital piracy. It has extended the reach of medicine and education and expanded access to knowledge, but has also allowed the invasion of privacy, manipulation of emotions and the spread of misinformation through self-reinforcing algorithms. I have been as critical as any of the failings of the internet in terms of promoting abuse, but we also need to recognize its strong points and many contributions. Perhaps the answer to the misuses to which the internet has been put is providing sufficient oversight and responsible regulation where needed, while encouraging its strong points.
One area where the internet has been a game-changer is searching for ancestral family information. A whole eco-system serving this need has sprung up, dominated by Ancestry.com, a company with a number of spin-offs (Archives.com, which focuses on local history and census data; FindaGrave.com (self-explanatory), Newspapers.com, which contains over 20,000 digitized titles, WeRemember.com, online memorials, Genealogy.com, based on vital statistics, and some others that have changed over the years such as MyFamily.com and RootsWeb.com, both related to family trees. Ancestry is not the only game in town, with competitors such as MyHeritage.com and FamilyTreeDNA.com. Quite apart from these commercial services, there is a plethora of digitized information available through various websites, archives, and other public record offices that can be accessed directly.
In undertaking genealogical research, copyright issues will sometimes arise. You need to be careful if you publish the contents of copyright protected documents. Personal letters are almost always covered by copyright unless they were openly published or written so long ago that they are now in the public domain. The most recent example of this is the case brought by the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, against the Mail on Sunday, a British tabloid that published her personal letter to her father. The copyright on a letter belongs to the author of the document, not the recipient. Therefore, when publishing family research involving personal letters, care must be exercised. Obituaries are also subject to copyright protection as I pointed out in a blog posting I wrote a couple of years ago, “Obituary Piracy Punished: Has Infringement No Bounds?”
Even services like Ancestry.com have to deal with copyright issues. They catalogue vast amounts of publicly accessible information, plus they provide a platform for users to contribute their own information. In a recent case, Ancestry moved to dismiss a class action lawsuit brought against it for allegedly misappropriating information and photographs drawn from class yearbooks. Ancestry’s defence rested partly on the argument that material appearing in yearbooks is not private and is widely available, including in libraries. As for material that has been contributed by users, Ancestry declines to accept responsibility. Its copyright statement indicates that;
“Content which has been contributed to public areas of Ancestry sites listed above by users remains the property of the submitter or the original creator and we are a licensed distributor of such content. Occasionally, a person may feel that content submitted by another user is their property, or is covered by the copyright of someone other than the submitter. Please remember that we are only the distributor of user supplied content and the submitter, not Ancestry, is the one who has violated copyright if such a violation has occurred.”
While copyright guidelines need to be kept in mind when searching public databases and when using services such as Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com, both of which work on a subscription basis, many people have harnessed the power of the internet to research their family histories and have located documents leading to family discoveries that would have been impossible to access in a pre-internet era. I am no exception. Here is my personal story of discovery as a testament to the enormous power of the internet if harnessed for useful rather than destructive purposes. It is a story of discovery and finding information that was hiding in plain sight. It is also my way of highlighting the positive outcomes that the internet can provide.
Geoffrey Boisselier Davies
Recently, going through some old family papers, I came across a letter from the late 1980s written by my aunt, my mother’s sister. She was recollecting at my behest what she remembered of family history to try to help me to assemble a family tree, a project I had embarked on at that time. Her letter mentioned a Geoffrey Rees-Davies as she called him, who was the son of my grandmother’s sister, and thus a cousin to both my mother and my aunt. My aunt had written that her aunt and uncle had a son, Geoffrey, who had gone to Cambridge University to study (“read”) law. She said that when the First World War broke out he rushed off to volunteer and, like so many young men, was killed in the First Battle of the Somme (1916). She continues;
“When (Geoffrey’s father) Hughes Rees-Davies died he left most of his money in trust for a bursary or scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge. I don’t know if it was actually named after Geoffrey…Also, Geoffrey’s portrait and medals were handed over…I can also remember that painting lit up with the medals laid out in a glass case below…The next time you are over in England maybe you should visit Cambridge and see the portrait”.
I did not do so, even though I have been to Cambridge several time since. Frankly, I forgot about it until recently re-reading the letter. I was intrigued and wanted to find out more–about the painting, the scholarship and Geoffrey himself. What if there was a memorial to him at Selwyn College, Cambridge? Had he completed his studies? What did he look like? Etc.
So, I wrote to Selwyn and was put in touch with their very competent and dedicated archivist Elizabeth Stratton. Her initial reply was disappointing;
“…I can’t find any details for a Geoffrey Rees-Davies attending Selwyn and he’s not on the list of those who died in the First World War or included in any of the lists of College pictures. I didn’t recognise his name when I first read your enquiry but wondered if I had overlooked him. But by coincidence, there was a Geoffrey Boisselier Davies who came in 1912 and was killed in 1915 and so a year earlier than the other Geoffrey.”
Oh well, I thought. It was worth a shot. I did have a bit more information that I sent her regarding the fact that the family had lived in Eastbourne on the south coast, which prompted another response a few days later;
“Your latest information about the connection with Eastbourne was very helpful and I have now been able to do some more searching on the family history site, Ancestry and more importantly have solved the mystery (well at least part of it)! I have finally found the details for the family and it seems that there was a slight mistake with their surname. (It) was actually…Reid Davies”
She found Geoffrey’s father, Dr. Hughes Reid Davies by searching the English 1911 census documents online. It mentioned he had 2 children, one of whom was Geoffrey’s sister. He was not named (maybe because he had left home by then) but Ms. Stratton then went back to digitized baptismal records and searched for any Geoffrey’s born in London before 1900. She found a Geoffrey Banister Davies recorded but when she clicked through to the actual record, it became apparent that the handwriting was blurred, and the name could have been Boisselier. She then checked the information she had on Geoffrey Boisselier Davies and found a copy of his obituary mentioning his father, Dr. HR Davies!
Ms. Stratton continued;
“So I can confirm that Geoffrey Boisselier Davies, as that seems to be the name of your ancestor after all, came to Selwyn in 1912 and was in both the 1914 College football and cricket teams; he was then Captain of the Essex Regiment and sadly was killed in action on the 26th September 1915 rather than 1916”.
With this information in hand, I promptly googled Geoffrey Boisselier Davies and was surprised to find several entries, including one from Wikipedia. It turns out that Geoffrey was an amazing young cricketer who may have one day played for England had he not been killed at the Battle of Loos. ESPN’s Cricket Information page records that he hit 1487 runs in 90 innings and took 141 wickets during his brief first-class playing career (1912-14). He was a right-handed batsman and bowled “Leg-break, Right-arm slow-medium”. His last match was for Essex against Somerset on August 31, 1914, almost a month after the war had broken out. In that game, he scored 118 and took 4 wickets for 18 runs. Cricket record keeping is pretty impressive! (It has that in common with baseball, among other similarities). A bit more digging turned up a book published in 2015 entitled “Final Wicket: Test and First Class Cricketers Killed in the Great War”, by Nigel McCrery, a sad litany recounting the fate of literally hundreds of young athletes gunned down on the killing fields in France. Geoffrey’s image features on centre of the front cover.
But that’s not all I found on the internet. Because he was an officer in the Essex Regiment, he features on several websites that document regimental history, and on Facebook. The account of his final day, September 26, 1915, makes chilling reading;
“The Essex men were ordered forward at about mid-day, advancing in the direction of Stutzpunkt 3 from which both shell and machine gun fire began hitting the ranks as they crossed the Lens-La Bassée Road. Part of the Battalion suffered heavy casualties and was forced to take shelter in the outskirts of the village. The remainder of the Battalion went on towards Stutzpunkt 4 but was held up by the uncut German wire. There was little shelter and casualties began to mount until the order was heard to retire. Small parties fell back the way they had come but suffered further casualties as the Germans continued to pour fire into them from Hulluch.
A German officer of the 26th Regiment who were opposing the Essex that day wrote: -“The Battalion Staff was on the left flank…whence we had a wonderful view. The English attacked in whole hosts and with great dash. Our men fired standing up as fast as they could pull their triggers. No Englishmen got through the wire entanglement, and the ground in front was covered with bodies.”
The Battalion were to lose 18 Officers and 353 men that day including Geoffrey and their Commanding Officer. Twelve attacking battalions suffered 8,000 casualties out of 10,000 men in four hours. What a waste of human life. What a waste of youthful potential. Geoffrey had just completed his degree and had been admitted to the Middle Temple to qualify as a barrister. How many of the other almost 375 men from that one regiment on that one day in 1915 could have gone on to do great things, or at least lead normal lives. It is truly shocking to think of the pain so many families endured as their sons, brothers, and fathers were sent to the sausage machine.
I learned all this information with just a few strokes of the keyboard, once the mystery of identifying Geoffrey was solved by Ms. Stratton through her archival sleuthing. I was even able to find a headstone in Ocklynge Cemetery, Eastbourne of his sister Vera (who died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919) in which Geoffrey is also memorialized, through FindaGrave.com. The photo was added by a photo volunteer only in 2019. However, Geoffrey’s remains are not in Eastbourne as, along with many others, they were never recovered from the battlefield. His name is inscribed on the Loos Memorial, Panel 85-87, which commemorates 20,000 British soldiers who have no known grave, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
But what of the scholarship to Selwyn and the portrait? Ms. Stratton came through yet again, managing to locate a copy of the last will and testament of Dr. HR Davies, in which he bequeathed his estate to Rossall School, which Geoffrey had attended before going up to Cambridge. That document made it clear that the scholarship was not designated for a student at Selwyn College but rather for a student at Rossall in financial need, preferably one who was a sportsman, to attend Selwyn. The portrait of Geoffrey, painted posthumously, was also apparently given to Rossall School at that time.
The next stop was, of course, Rossall School, which is a noted “public” (i.e. private) school in Lancashire. I immediately corresponded with the School’s archivist. I would like to tell you that an illuminated portrait of Geoffrey, with his medals, still graces one of the “Hogwart’s” like halls at Rossall, and that the scholarship is still being awarded. Sadly, that is not the case. To date, Rossall School is not able to locate any reference to either the portrait or the scholarship. That is fully understandable as this all happened going on a century ago, but I had hoped that perhaps Geoffrey’s memory had endured at Rossall. That may not be the case, but it has endured on the internet, which to me is perhaps even more remarkable. With the right tools and the right knowledge, the amount of family information that can be located with just a few keystrokes is really quite amazing.
I am still hoping that I might be able to track down the elusive painting and medals as there is a portrait of Geoffrey on the internet (it’s not a very good likeness judging by the photos I have of him both in sports gear and military uniform, so I am assuming it is the posthumous portrait painting). It is attributed to the Essex Regiment Family History Facebook page so perhaps it is hanging in an officers’ mess somewhere.
Geoffrey Boisselier Davies was hiding in plain sight on the internet. Back in 1988, when I first got my aunt’s letter I could never have dug out all this information, photos, and records. Some people have made a very successful business out of retrieving family information, others contribute research as a hobby related to their interest in sports, or history, or just like trudging around cemeteries. This collectivity of knowledge is now widely available. My personal search has taken me from just a name in a letter to staring into the eyes of a young man who, like so many others, gave his life for his country, bringing both pride and grief to his parents. It is just one story, among many, of the lives cut short that we remember on November 11, and of the pain of parents who saw their hopes and dreams for the future evaporate as their children predeceased them.
I would like to extend my thanks to Elizabeth Stratton, Archivist at Selwyn College and Richard McDowell, Archivist at Rossall School for their kind assistance.
© Hugh Stephens, 2022. All Rights Reserved
As a postscript to the penultimate paragraph above, regarding the origin of the portrait of Geoffrey Davies posted on the Essex Regiment’s Family History site, I have been informed that it was taken from the Role of Honour page in the illustrated London daily, The Sphere, dated November 27, 1915. I found that page through the British Newspaper Archive (here). It appears to be a sketch based on a photo. So, I guess the mystery of the missing posthumous portrait remains unsolved.