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Genealogy: Finding out About my Grandmother’s Family in British India

Daisy, Joseph and the Girls

On December 12, 1904 my 19 year old great grandmother Daisy, married my 34 year old great grandfather Joseph at a Methodist Church in Lahore, Pakistan. Daisy’s family had been living there but just a few years earlier Joseph had been in Yangon, Myanmar. On his marriage certificate Joseph is listed as a millwright. He was an engineer who worked for various railway maintenance shops including North Western Railway. The most likely scenario is that work brought Joseph to Pakistan. 

daisy joseph marriage cert-2

Just over 9 months after the wedding my great aunt Alice Sylvia was born on September 23rd, 1905 in Lahore, Pakistan. Finding her registered as such was a bit of a surprise to me as we always called her Sylvia, not Alice. Next on April 1st, 1908 great aunt Phyllis Marjory was born in Hinthada, Myanmar followed by my grandmother Audrey Pheobe January 8th, 1910 in Yangon, Myanmar. Finally was Heather Adair was born around 1916.

The birth records for the sisters are a bit confusing. Sylvia was born in 1905 but baptized in 1932. This may be a reissue of the original baptismal. I was speaking to a volunteer at FIBIS recently though and it may be that this was her first issue. A birth certificate was not required in British India at the time but either a birth certificate or a baptismal record would be necessary to acquire a passport. This new document in 1932 may have been so she could get her passport issued. Sylvia’s father is listed as Joseph Plato CASPER. Phyllis’ record have her father listed as Joseph PLATE Cooper as does Audrey’s. In fact Audrey’s name is spelt without an “E” as well. Transcription errors were common all around. I can find no birth or baptismal record for Heather at all and different records from her adulthood work out to have her birthday be 1913, 1916, 1918, or 1919!

August 7th, 1932 my great grandfather Joseph died from pneumonia in Mandalay, Burma leaving Daisy as a widow with 4 daughters. It was originally thought that Daisy got a teaching job to help support the girls after Joseph’s death and to give them a good education. But by 1932 the ages of the older girls were around 27, 24 and 22 and they were either in the process of or finished their nursing training. Only Heather would have still been at home. We are not exactly sure when Daisy started to work but on Sylvia’s reissue of her birth certificate around 1932 Daisy’s place of residence is recorded as being St. Mary’s School in Mandalay, Burma. Daisy worked as the school matron there until sometime between 1938-1940. She was working there around the time of Joseph’s death but whether she got the job because of his death or before is unknown. 

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Great Grandmother Daisy at St Mary's School

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During her tenure at St. Mary’s school Daisy adopted a girl. Before I started this search I was completely unaware of this adopted great aunt. Some of the family knew about her, others didn’t. She is present in family photos from the 1940’s and is still living but I have no contact. When I was 10 years old my family and I traveled to England with my grandmother. She was getting older and this was her last visit to see her sisters. I remember spending time with both Heather and Phyllis’ families but I did not meet her adopted sister. Perhaps they met privately but I do not believe I was ever introduced for some reason.

My grandmother and her sisters all did their nursing training in British India and worked as nurses there. My mother recalls that my grandmother ended up doing some nursing in Calcutta while she lived with friends (possibly the family name was Chip) who may have owned a sugarcane plantation. While there she was reprimanded for going to visit a helper from the hospital that was sick because that helper was Indian. At some point she also traveled through the Suez Canal. That is pretty much the extent of the stories from that time.

Around 1935 Sylvia went alone first to England where she did her UK re-registration for her nursing qualifications at Guys Hospital in London. In 1939 both Heather and Phyllis are listed on ships headed to London from Calcutta. One traveled in April and the other in March but the address that they were heading to in England was the same. Heather traveled on the ship named Domala which was in the British India Steam Navigation Company's fleet. Ten months after Heather traveled to England the Domala was requisitioned to the company's Liner Division. The following month the Domala was the first air attack by German aircraft on English Channel shipping as the ship was bombed and 108 lives lost.

Once in England, the 3 younger sisters also did their re-registration for their SRN badge form the General Nursing Council for England. Eventually Phyllis, Audrey and Heather all married and had children. My grandmother Audrey married a Canadian soldier named Stanley Simpson (Jr.) and made her way to Brockville, Ontario, Canada around the end of the war as a War Bride with my uncle who had been born in England.
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Audrey's SRN badge issued in 1940.

 So far in our search for the family history, no major scandal or reason for not talking about the time in British India has been found. Joseph’s first marriage may be a sensitive topic but without anyone in more recent times knowing about his first daughter, this is likely to have not been an issue. I can find no records of Heather before her adulthood but that may just be because of poor recordkeeping. There is one point though that should be mentioned as other people researching the family history may come across it. After moving to England one of the sister’s and her family returned to Myanmar for around 4 years in the 1950’s. The reason for this is currently unknown and as it involves people who are still alive, I am not digging into it further if they do not wish to share. 

The most likely cause for the silence of my grandmother and her sisters is that they were probably met with prejudice when they first came to the UK. Though British by nationality my grandmother and her sisters had only been to England for a few short visits over the years. They were not Indian or Burmese nor were they really English. They were unfamiliar with British life and those around them could never really understand the life their family had been living in the colonies. Consequently they denied being anything other than English or Scottish, didn’t speak of their time in Burma and lead even their children to believe that they had spent the majority of their lives in England. My grandmother spoke about the war in England with her English friends in Canada regularly giving the impression that this was a time in England that she really enjoyed speaking about. In fact, it was the ONLY time in England that she could talk with them about. In total, my "English" grandmother Audrey only spent about 5 years of her life in England.

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