This is the last in a series of four articles on lesser-known sources for British research. To illustrate the value of these sources, we are presenting a case study featuring the Heathwaite family. (Click here to read Part 3, Part 2 or Part 1.)
In trying to put some bones on the John Heathwaite story, I have been blessed. One lovely thing I have discovered in my research is that the British military kept fabulous records. This is certainly true for the Royal Marines. One of the best records to find are attestation papers (also known as a service record). These papers were filled out by all men who enlisted. The papers are held at the National Archives, which offers a table to help you find the time period under which your Marine ancestor’s forms will be filed. Because of the gazetteer we discussed in part 2, I knew that John was part of the Plymouth division of Marines stationed at East Stonehouse.
I haven’t actually been able to see John Heathwaite’s attestation papers yet (he is being annoyingly difficult in that regard), but I know what they would contain. They include physical description, occupation, previous military service in any branch, indiscretions, and overall behavior. For example, another Burnley boy that likely signed up with John named John Heaton (that name made me stop a moment before I realized it wasn’t Heathwaite) had problems waking up, so he had several marks against him for being late to relieve sentry and being regularly late for muster. These were minor infractions, but helped me to learn about the character of someone John Heathwaite knew.
The National Archives, among their other bounties of free online documents, provides Royal Marine records starting in 1884. It also provides other records, such as Chelsea pension indexes, several will indexes, and poor law records which can give valuable information and hints about character.
Character is part of what brings joy into family history. By looking at these more obscure sources I have learned to recognize their lives, their circumstances, and their losses. Studying the lives of the Heathwaites, I don’t see a dry stack of vital statistics, I see the couple at the mall trying to spend a normal Christmas before he gets deployed again. I see the mother sitting anxiously alone in the doctor’s office. I see a young man with a crew cut that hasn’t grown out yet waiting for his job interview. I see love and loss. I hope these articles have helped you learn about a family I’ve grown to care about and I hope my experience will inspire you to learn more about your own ancestors.