Who, what, when, where, why.
Of these, ‘Why?’ is the hardest question to answer in genealogy.
Questions whose answers are considered basic in information gathering or problem solving. They are often mentioned in journalism, research and police investigations.Wikipedia
In our genealogy research, we are used to answering the who, the what, the when, and the where.
Consider the facts I know about my grandfather’s birth.
I was originally given this information from my grandmother verbally. Some years later, I obtained my grandfather’s birth certificate which was evidence that this information was correct. But only when I began working on a novel about my great-grandmother’s life did I think about the “why?”
Why was my grandfather born near Covent Garden in the west end of London?
Less than a year before my grandfather was born, his father, my great-grandfather, took his discharge from the Royal Artillery at Gravesend. The family moved to London and my grandfather was born at 25 Maiden Lane in the Stand at the beginning of November 1890.
Maiden Lane is near Covent Gardens and the Adelphi theatre in what is now the City of Westminster. It was a nice neighbourhood by all accounts. Number 25 Maiden Lane was at the cross street of Bedford Street which consisted of ‘a broad street of eminent houses built in the early years of the seventeenth century’
Only a few weeks after my grandfather’s birth, however, my great-grandfather was admitted to the Raine Street Workhouse in St George of the East as a destitute man. The following month, on Christmas Eve day, my grandfather’s three older siblings also entered the workhouse because the family was destitute.
Although Raine Street is less than four miles from Maiden Lane in the Strand, in socioeconomic terms, they are much further apart. What happened to the family in November 1890 to change the family fortunes so dramatically?
My first clue came from a history of the area around Maiden Lane where I found that the building currently at 25 Maiden Lane was built in 1912-1913. According to the British History website
Nos. 41 and 42 Bedford Street and 25 Maiden Lane
This building was erected in 1912–13 on the freehold of the Corps of Commissionaires, to accommodate a ground-floor shop with flats above
Who were the Corps of Commissionaires?
A little more online research told me that Captain Sir Edward Walter (1823-1904), a retired officer of the 8th Hussars, founded the Corps of Commissionaires in 1859 as a way to provide gainful employment for ex-servicemen on return from the Crimean War.
This was interesting. My great-grandfather was an ex-serviceman. Could he have been employed by the Corps of Commissionaires after his discharge? Luckily, the company still exists today as the Corps Security and has retained 160 years worth of records. I quickly sent an inquiry to the company archivist. I received the following reply.
William Bond (as recorded in the log book): succession number 7462 of the Royal Artillery, Corps No. 751. He joined The Corps of Commissionaires on 4th February 1890 and is listed as having been dismissed on 4th October 1890. During this period, the Corps of Commissionaires held a substantial property portfolio in London and owned the Old Barracks (21/22 Maiden Lane) as well as numbers 23, 24 and 25.
And there it was, my WHY.
My great-grandfather had been employed by the Corps of Commissionaires immediately after his discharge. He would have been placed in a position as a door-keeper, a messenger, a reception or inquiry clerk, a gatekeeper, a store-keeper, a factory or dock police, a time-keeper, a bank or stockbrokers’ messenger, a resident caretaker, a club steward, a porter, a liftman or a watchman.
The Corps had a strict policy against alcohol use, and although the reason for my great-grandfather’s dismissal in October 1890 is not recorded, it seems likely to me that he was dismissed for drunkenness. I know from other research that he had a problem with drinking to excess. With only my great-grandfather’s small army pension to rely on, it is no wonder that the family found themselves destitute and in the workhouse.
When doing your family research, don’t stop at who, what, when and where.
Don’t forget to ask