Soon after I had started writing up the story of Ann Tennant, I received a telephone call from a freelance newspaper reporter who had been commissioned to write a series of articles on family history. She asked me if I had any interesting ancestors, so I told her of my recent discovery of my great, great grandmother being murdered. The result was that the story appeared in print on 5th February 2000 in the Daily Mail ‘Weekend’ magazine.
Within two weeks of the story appearing, I had seven letters forwarded to me from readers who read the article. Five were from direct descendants of John and Ann Tennant.
A year later I got a letter from Colin Ratcliffe who had just come across the story. He asked, was I by any chance related to his grandfather Fred Ratcliffe who was born in Long Compton in 1870? The resulting research led to the discovery of a tragic house fire in London in 1899, two bigamous marriages, several illegitimate births in the workhouse and a link to coprolite mining!
On receiving the letter, I checked my Ratcliffe Family Tree and quickly located Fred and his older brother Kent. I rang Colin to confirm that we were related and then asked him how could I help. Colin then told me an amazing story.
He had been told that Fred had run away from home as a boy, joined the Army, fought in the Battle of Omdurman and in the Boer War. After this he was discharged and joined the Metropolitan Police Force, got married and had five children and lived in Southwark. One night he came home from duty and found his home burnt out and his wife and four of his children had perished in the fire. Later he remarried and had four further children who were born between 1921 and 1928. The second of these children was named Fred Orlando Ratcliffe who was Colin’s father. Was there any way of proving that Fred’s story was true? Colin was unable to provide any further information except that Fred had died in 1959.
Proving Colin’s Story
The ensuing research procedure is too long to list in an article here, but it is attached as a PDF, as it may be of interest to other people doing their family history to see the process.
Having trawled through many sources, eventually I came across entries in the GRO Death Indexes in 1899 for three related children: a Frederick James Ratcliff (aged five), Reta Elizabeth M Ratcliff (aged three) and Dora Mabel Ratcliff (aged one). Had I found the references of Fred’s children who had died in a house fire? In great excitement, I ordered the birth certificates for both girls and all three death certificates. They confirmed my strong feeling:
1898 29th December at 29 Lonsdale Road, North Kensington.
Found dead – suffocation- through a fire in a room in which the deceased and the other 2 children were locked at the time when they were playing with matches – Accidental.
I located a report of the tragedy in the Kensington News dated Saturday, December 31st, 1898 on page five:
Fatal Fire at Notting Hill
A disastrous fire, which, while it did not result in serious destruction of the property, was unfortunately attended with loss of life of three little children, broke out last Thursday afternoon at 29 Lonsdale Road, Notting Hill… Soon after one o’clock in the afternoon, Mrs Ratcliffe left the house temporarily, while her three children, a little boy five years old named Frederick, a little girl of three named Rita and a baby daughter 18 months old named Dora remained playing in the room in which there was a fire.
About 20 minutes past one o’clock, the other inmates of the house detected a smell of fire, and almost simultaneously passers by noticed a blaze through the windows, and rushed to raise the alarm. Directly the door was burst open, dense volumes of smoke poured out of the room, and it was with the utmost difficulty that an entry was forced into the place. A period of intense excitement ensued, but without a moments delay several people dropped upon their hands and knees and proceeded to search the room, while messengers were dispatched for the firemen and pails and cans of water were requisitioned pending their arrival from Ladbroke Road. One by one the little ones were brought out. They were in an unconscious condition, and when removed to a local surgery, the medical men who were hastily called to the scene pronounced life to be extinct. In the meantime the mother had returned, and some heartrending scenes were witnessed.
In the official report it was stated that ‘Gallant attempts to rescue, successful as far as their immediate object was concerned, were made by Mr James Bregan who lives at 4, Lonsdale Mews; Mr George Williams and Mr Henry John Redmond. Each rushed into the room and succeeded in bringing out a child.’