Just a few images in the spirit of the day. Love these mothers, one and all!
One hundred years ago, when the Armistice agreement was signed on November 11th ending World War I, Kenneth Oliver, my grandfather, was serving as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, headquartered in Dunkirk. He had arrived in France the previous year, a baby-faced eighteen year old, and had undoubtedly experienced enough of war to last him a lifetime.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Ken and his brothers, Doug and Hugh, were students at the Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia. They were sons of British Quaker missionaries in Lebanon, raised and educated in a pacifist tradition. Joining the military would not have been an option for them, yet like many young men and women raised in the Society of Friends, they must have felt a strong need to be of service during the terrible war.
In response, the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) was created by British volunteers in 1914 as a way for Quakers and others to provide medical aid and other assistance to civilians and members of the military during the war without compromising their commitment to non-violence. Over 1000 volunteers served in France, Belgium, and England between 1914 and 1919, driving ambulances, assisting in hospitals and providing aid for civilians evacuating the war zones.
Following his sophomore year at Haverford College, Ken left to join the FAU. He departed New York on the RMS Aurania, arriving in Liverpool on September 2, 1917. (Incidentally, a few months later the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Northern Ireland on February 3, 1918, heading from Liverpool to New York). It was customary for new volunteers to spend a month at an FAU training camp in Birminghamshire before being assigned to a unit.
Ken arrived at FAU headquarters in Dunkirk on October 10th. His personnel card lists a variety of assignments and job titles—chief orderly, chief clerk, stores buyer, and primarily driver. He served as a driver in an ambulance convoy like the one pictured here, and he was listed as being based in Dunkirk in August 2018, when the FAU headquarters were bombed. Family lore has it that one of my grandfather’s assignments was to inspect the sanitary conditions of French military brothels, but of course this doesn’t appear on his personnel card…
FAU headquarters, Dunkirk, after bombing, August 1918 (Image from Cadbury Research Library)
Uncle Doug, Ken’s elder brother, left Haverford and joined the FAU in May 1918, nearly a year after Ken’s arrival. He sailed to Liverpool on the RMS Carpathia, renowned for having taken on passengers from the sinking Titanic in 1912. Like the Aurania, the Carpathia was torpedoed by a German U-boat, and sunk off the southern coast of Ireland just two months after Doug’s arrival.
Both young men remained in France for several months after the armistice, with Doug departing in January 1919 and Ken following in February. They rejoined their classmates at Haverford for that spring semester and both graduated the following year.
I never heard my grandfather speak of the war, but surely it had to have changed the course of his life. I have to believe it played a role in his choice to become a doctor. He went on to medical school at Johns Hopkins University and then a career practicing and teaching medicine in Lebanon and the U.S.
I like my family history tangible. I want to see the places where my ancestors lived, learned, worked, and worshiped. I need to know what their faces looked like, read their very own handwriting, surround myself with their art, and if possible, I want to touch their stuff. Or better yet, wear it!
This month I joined in an Instagram “genealogy photo a day” challenge, and today’s theme was “my favorite heirloom.” Well! I picked one, but it was hard, and left me wanting to share more, so I think I’ll revisit this topic again soon.
This image of my maternal grandparents, Elsie Mills (1899-1993) and Kenneth Oliver (1898-1975), was taken before they were married in Baltimore in 1925, and has always been one of my favorites. He was 26 and a young doctor, and she was 25, a talented painter, and daughter of one of his medical school professors. I remember her regal bearing and sometimes haughty expression, but I don’t ever remember seeing him with such a dreamy expression.
This engagement portrait hangs in my house and Granny’s spectacular jacket hangs now in my closet. The cloth beneath the metallic mesh (which is very heavy!) is gray blue with a black lining. Very 1920s, very Art Deco, and very Granny. My favorite heirloom. At least for today…
Today would have been my Dad’s 85th birthday. I wish I could write about our long years together, the joys we shared, his interests and accomplishments, but at 28 he died in an accident. I was four and a half. That’s not a lot of time to build memories of a parent, and I want to remember more than I do, but here are some random thoughts:
Happy birthday, Daddy. Love you.
When I visited Baltimore in April, exploring the places where my mother’s family lived, worshiped, studied, and worked, I hadn’t yet discovered the wedding announcement that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on June 1, 1898. What a gem! So today I remember my great grandparents, Mary Carroll Hill and Dr. James J. Mills, married 120 years ago today and return to two of the places I visited last month.
The wedding in the grand Baltimore Cathedral is described in exquisite detail in the article below, so I’ll stick to a few highlights.
Major Nicholas Snowden Hill, father of the bride (my 2nd great grandfather) walked Mary down the aisle. Oddly, there is no mention anywhere of the mother of the bride, Mary (Cocke) (Johnson) Hill.
The large cast of clergy was led by the eminent Cardinal James Gibbons, a close friend of Major Hill. With four priests officiating in red and white vestments embroidered in gold, it must have been quite a spectacle.
I’m loving the detail in this article, with vivid fashion descriptions, down to the orange blossoms fastening the bride’s veil and her bouquet of white sweet peas, a description of the church decorations, and an account of all the music.
Seeing the names of the bridesmaids, ushers, and a long list of guests invited to the wedding breakfast at the bride’s parents’ house got me curious, and I’ve been down the rabbit hole looking up bridesmaids, ushers, and wedding guests. No big surprises, but I found a few entertaining tidbits and a photo of bridesmaid Nanine Brent. Caton Mactavish, the ribbon boy, grew up to become a Baltimore newspaper journalist and close friend of Ogden Nash and H.L. Mencken.
My visit to the Cathedral in April was a thrill. The building, described as America’s first cathedral, is glorious and was beautifully restored not long ago.
Following the wedding ceremony, guests joined the family at Nicholas and Mary Hill’s home just a few blocks away at 813 North Charles Street for a breakfast. I had the thrill of being able to visit this house. The first floor now houses a vintage clothing shop (The Zone), so I popped in and got a look at the parlor, which still retains a bit of original detail.
The newlyweds, James and Mary, returned from their wedding trip and lived here with her parents for the first year of their marriage, which meant that my Granny, Elsie Mills, was probably born in this house.
And the article from the Baltimore Sun, June 1, 1898:
Historic view of the Cathedral and photo of Cardinal Gibbons are from the Library of Congress collections.
Major Nicholas Snowden Hill (1839-1912) and Mary Watkins Cocke (1834-1903) – 2nd great grandparents
Dr. James J. Mills, Jr. and Mary Hill (1875-1937) – great grandparents
Elsie (Mills) Oliver (1899-1993) grandmother
I just found this fabulous yearbook picture of my great uncle Damon Willbern (1900-1985) at age 16 at Llano High School in West Texas. He looks just like the successful Kansas banker I remember in his last decades. He was married to my Aunt Margie (Marjorie Miller), sister of my grandmother, and I adored them both.
One of my favorite memories of Uncle Damon was seeing him sitting in his Cordoba red leather reclining chair in their house in Coffeyville, Kansas, with his favorite Spanish peanuts, holding a fussy baby granddaughter in his lap. In his gravelly voice, he’d tell this tiny baby, “Give ’em hell, honey!”
From the yearbook I learned that Uncle Damon was born in a place called Baby Head, Texas, now a ghost town. For real!
After an eighteen-month hiatus from blogging due to the chaos of work and family life, I retired last week. So…I’m taking a deep breath and jumping back into blog life and family exploration.
Post-retirement getaway number one will include a quick family history stop in Baltimore next week. No research, but a 24-hour pilgrimage to visit five generations of houses, work, school, and worship places, and a cemetery. I lived in Baltimore until I was five, and with no family there after we left, have never really explored the family sites.
A big part of my love of genealogy (and of history in general) is about putting people in the context of their places–geographical genealogy. I want to be able to visualize where they lived and what they did there. Placing Granny in her childhood home–an urban row house on Park Avenue, Baltimore, full of children; picturing the 1912 funeral of her beloved grandfather, conducted by his lifelong friend, Cardinal Gibbons, at the Baltimore Basilica; walking the Johns Hopkins University campus where my dad studied and my parents strolled with me as a toddler, all keeps their memories alive and vibrant in a way that mere names and dates never can.
And then there’s my inner architectural historian at work. To see these buildings that are so evocative of their time and place–the Italianate row houses in the Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill neighborhoods, the 1920s apartment building near Hopkins, the spectacular, high Victorian Johns Hopkins University Hospital. These places would speak to me even if they weren’t tied to my family, but those connections make them especially dear.
Step one in my geographical genealogy research is to figure out where my people lived, most often through census records and city directories. According to these records and the deeds for the property, my great grandparents, James and Mary (Hill) Mills moved to their home on Park Avenue in 1900 with my grandmother, Elsie, age 1. They had been married two years, and rented the house for five years before Mary bought it in 1905. They remained on Park Avenue for the rest of their married life. James, a physician and medical professor at Hopkins, ran his practice from home, and he and Mary raised their four children here. By the time James died in 1925, the children were grown, and Mary sold the house and moved in 1927.
After identifying the locations of family places, then comes the fun part–seeing what they looked like. Through the wonders of Google maps street view I’ve figured out which of these homes and related places are still standing (happily, most of them), and found current images of the ones that survive.
My pilgrimage will include a few sites from my own early childhood, including a peek at one of my earliest homes.
And for extra thrills, real estate websites have even provided interior views of the Park Avenue house (now apartments, but a few original details survive), and some beautiful 19th century interior features of the Eutaw Place house where my grandfather was a tenant while he attended medical school at Johns Hopkins. Seeing the very rooms where my family lived a century ago takes my breath away.
Of course, public buildings are easy to find, and I’m headed to see a few of those as well. James Mills, my great grandfather, taught at the Hopkins medical school, where my grandfather, Kenneth Oliver was his student in the 1920s. One thing led to another, and Ken married Dr. Mills’ daughter Elsie in 1925.
Elsie was a student at the beautiful, Renaissance Revival style Maryland Institute College of Art, and I’ll be headed there too.
I’ve also found images of buildings that haven’t survived. The two below were both victims of the Great Baltimore Fire in 1904.
Much to see and much to enjoy during next week’s adventure!
Ackworth, Beirut, Brummana, Caithness, Family history, geneabloggers, Genealogy, Lebanon, London, Missionary, Oliver, Quaker, Ras el Met'n, Scotland, Stoke Newington, Thurso, Wedding anniversary, wedding ring, Wright, Yorkshire
My great grandparents, Daniel and Emily, have always been the most colorful and compelling characters in my family history. I am lucky to have grown up on their stories, to have photos of them, and to have found a rich trove of their papers. And yet, there are so many unanswered questions…Today I wish them happy anniversary.
Daniel Oliver (1870-1952), an adventurous young Scotsman, left Thurso in Caithness in the northernmost part of the Scottish Highlands when he was a teenager. He was the youngest of three brothers, and came from a family of farm laborers who moved south to work on the docks in Edinburgh after Daniel left Scotland. He travelled to Morocco, where he did missionary work, and then in the early 1890s to Palestine and Beirut, where he studied Arabic. Soon he made his way to Brummana, Syria (now Lebanon), where he taught at the Quaker mission school that was founded there in the 1870s.
What ever possessed him to leave home so young? How did he become a missionary? His family was not particularly religious. What were those years on the road like? Did he travel alone or with companions? And how did a boy from such a modest family grow into such a commanding figure of a man? He didn’t speak to his children or grandchildren of his background. Did he cut off all ties with his family? Why?
Emily Wright (1865-1954) was born in Ackworth, Yorkshire, and was an adventurous young woman in her own right. She was the daughter of Alfred Wright, a Quaker missionary, and came to Syria with him when she was in her 20s. I don’t know where Alfred went from there, but Emily stayed to teach in Brummana, finding a calling that she would continue for the rest of her long life.
What must it have been like to leave England at 25 and start life on an unfamiliar continent? The school was supported by Quakers from England and the United States. Did she know any of the faculty when she arrived? Were there friends of her father’s? Teachers from home? Did her father stay there with her for long, or did he continue on with his travels soon?
I wish there were letters or clues to Emily and Daniel’s courtship, but I don’t know of any. In my imagination I see two young, idealistic people with a deep commitment to making the world a better place through their faith and their teaching. Daniel was a strong and perhaps blustery man with an iron will and a powerful ambition. Emily was unwavering. She was his partner for sixty years, first at the school in Brummana, where he eventually became principal, and then at the Daniel and Emily Oliver Orphanage and School in nearby Ras el Met’n. There they supported, educated and provided work skills for hundreds of children through two World Wars and beyond.
On September 19, 1895, one hundred twenty-one years ago today, Daniel and Emily were married at the Friends Meetinghouse at Stoke Newington, London. I wish I knew whether they had any family or friends with them that day. Their parents were all still living at the time. Were Alfred and Mary Ann Wright there? Emily was close to her sisters and brothers, so I picture them with her at the meetinghouse. David and Esther Oliver, along with Daniel’s older brothers, John and David, were living in Edinburgh. Did they make the trip?
Daniel and Emily had been married for 57 years when Daniel died in 1952. Emily’s death followed in 1954. They had four children, (including my grandfather, Kenneth), seven grandchildren (including my mother, Celia), at least four great grandchildren, and eight great great grandchildren. They also touched the lives of untold numbers of children they taught and cared for during their sixty years in Lebanon.
Daniel’s wedding ring is inscribed D + E 19th Sept. 1895. My husband wears it now with the added inscription KW to LJB 1-2-82.
And a very happy first anniversary today to another Emily–Daniel and Emily’s great great granddaughter–and her husband Matt!
I’ve just returned home from a mini-vacation that included family history research, visits to special places holding a century of family experiences, along with lots of museums, catching up with friends and relatives, and eating good food. Phew! As a result, there has been no blogging and my whirring brain is processing lots of impressions and information.
So, while the next family stories are percolating, here are a few highlights of the places we visited, in no particular order.
My college thesis was on the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and Memorial Hall is the only surviving exhibition building from the extravagant world’s fair celebrating the United States’ 100th anniversary year.
It now houses the Please Touch Museum, and is full of life, inside and out. It’s easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of the fair, displaying the latest and best of America’s arts manufacturing, agriculture and so much more.
There was the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with assorted gems large and small:
And Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library was spectacular, in all its facets:
Not to overdo it on the museums, but…we were bowled over by the Barnes Foundation. Spectacular building and an even more spectacular collection.
Magill Library at Haverford College was a special pleasure. I did lots of family research there and inhaled the place where my grandfather went to college 100 years ago.
More when the percolating is done…
Happy birthday to my lovely grandmother, Elsie (Mills) Oliver.
There was a news story last week about a woman in Italy, (I think), believed to be the last living person who was born in the 19th century. How can that be? Well…Granny was born on May 23, 1899. She would have been 117 today.
I took this photograph in about 1977 as my mother and I took her to lunch at a waterfront restaurant in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She must have just had her hair done–it looks just the way she liked it–and her lipstick was freshly applied. I know just how she smelled, too. Her favorite perfume was 4711 Eau de Cologne, which had a distinctive fresh smell that I always loved, and it still makes me think of her.
Granny was a talented painter, passionate lover of dogs (I got those genes), fabulous baker, voracious reader, and at her best had an almost giddy enthusiasm about the people she loved.