Patrick Gray: Using Newspapers for Genealogy

Somewhere in my family tree files there’s a sepia-toned newspaper cutting that belonged to my grandmother and my mother passed it to me. On reflection it was probably my grandfather’s and he died in 1941. It was his father’s obituary from 1919.

While away from home I decided to have a search on the British Newspaper Archives website to see if I could find it. It’s an Irish newspaper and I thought it unlikely, but gave it a go.

Whilst I didn’t find the obituary, I did find two small ads that a Patrick Gray posted in a newspaper searching for work. I cannot guarantee that these are my great-grandfather’s personal ads, but I think the evidence points to him.

Freeman’s Journal Tuesday 1 June 1886
‘Situation wanted by Military Pensioner who lived as a Butler and General Servant; Understands gardening, horses, would act as porter in business house or hospital. Address Patrick Grey, Mall, Drogheda.’

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Freeman’s Journal Thursday 5 October 1905
‘Employment wanted as a Gardener or Caretaker; understands servants’ work; nine years in last employment; army pensioner; car[t] horse and trap, make himself generally useful; good reference. Patrick Gray, Mall, Drogheda.’

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Fast forward a few days I was able to search my family tree files at home. But rather than the newspaper cutting I found a photocopy of the obituary that a cousin gave me.

My great-grandfather Patrick Gray [note the spelling of Gray was interchangeable during this period] died on 10 December 1919. In his obituary entitled Drogheda Citizen Passes Away, he was described as ‘an old and widely-known Drogheda citizen’. He was a military pensioner, according to the obit, repeating the ‘military pensioner’ and ‘army pensioner’ from the earlier small ads. The report stated that Patrick had ‘long since passed the allotted span and in his declining years the evening of his life was well spent in the grounds of the Convent of the Sisters of Charity, where he was employed as a gardener’, this echoes skills listed in the second ad. He was also named as a ‘persona grata’ with the good Sisters and patrons of the institution that he kept so ‘spick and span’. In death, he was notable enough in Drogheda to have a tribute paid to him at a branch meeting of the Discharged and Demobilised Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Federation.

He was given a semi-military funeral at St. Peter’s Catholic Cemetery where his coffin was escorted by an estimated seventy ex-servicemen. The Last Post was sounded as he was buried. Chief mourners were his widow Mary, his son William and his wife of six months, Anne, my grandparents.

Patrick lived at 16 Singleton Cottages, Mell, Drogheda, County Louth, Ireland. I visited Drogheda in the summer of 2005 and again during spring 2008 when I escorted my mother and her brother to Mell to show them where their father and grandparents had lived. I had started researching his family around 2001 and had managed a solo trip to Dublin in the early noughties for research.

The obituary discusses two sons of Patrick and Mary ‘who did their bit for the Empire and the Great War’. James Gray, the report revealed, died of his wounds received in action in Salonica, having fought with the Royal Irish Fusiliers. My grandfather William, joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force during WWI and was said to have ‘distinguished himself on active service’. My grandfather, it appears, did not talk of his family to his children and so his descendants are left to search official records to locate antecedents, not the easiest thing to do when you live in another country.

My grandmother had her own secret that she didn’t like to share and an uncle once described my grandfather as ‘a very secretive man’. I don’t know of any particular reason why my grandfather was reticent to discuss the past with his older children but maybe it was in defence of my grandmother who hid her suspected illegitimacy until her 80s.

The obituary doesn’t mention the other children of the marriage that I ‘discovered’ sitting in the General Register Office research rooms; here, for a small fee you could search the indexes and request photocopies of entries that may be of interest. If the entry was found to be a family member you could then order the full certificate. I took advantage of this and learned that John Joseph was born on 4 December 1871, ten months after Patrick and Mary’s marriage. Then Mary Anne arrived on 26 April 1873, Margaret on 17 September 1877 and Catherine on 26 January 1881. My grandfather, William James, was born 29 November 1885. Occupations listed for the father on these documents are ‘butler’, ‘servant’, ‘pensioner’ and ‘draper’s porter’ – all skills noted in the two small ads that piqued my interest.

Entries of four of Patrick and Mary Gray’s children in the Birth Registers

But I didn’t find a James in my General Register Office search. Did I miss James from my trawl through the indexes? I would hope not – I have have enough photocopied pieces of paper with ‘Gray or Grey’ to think I exhausted the indexes, but without verifying I can’t be sure. Coupled with this, James’ record on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (CWGC) could not be located.

I asked a cousin who has delved further into the military records than I have if he had found a record of ‘James’. He had managed to locate him; listed as J Grey and a member of the 5th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, he forwarded me a copy of his death certificate. Private John Grey died of malaria 23 September 1917 – not quite the ‘wounds received in action’ of the obituary. But also, from the CWGC we learn that J Grey was my grandfather’s older brother John Joseph. But in this we are left with more questions as John’s age at death, 41, does not tally with his birth date. Could he have enlisted with a false age as he was too old to fight? And did the obituary make a simple mistake writing  his name as James and not John?

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Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

John Joseph is buried at Mikra British Cemetery, Kalamaria, Greece. He was attached to the Royal Flying Corps when he died. His mother was consulted about his grave and gave the quote for his inscription ‘In Heaven We Hope To Meet Again His Affectionate Mother Mary Grey’. Possibly the hunt for James was a wild goose chase.

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Source: CWGC
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Source: CWGC

There was a further obituary when my great-grandmother Mary Gray died in April 1924. It revealed more about Patrick: he was ‘employed for many years at Davis & Co. as a porter and gardener’. In the advert in the Freeman’s Journal dated June 1886, the employment-seeking Patrick Grey said he would act as a porter for a business or hospital. It’s nice to think that my Patrick, if it was him, was successful in his search for work.

The Gray family, according to the 1924 obituary, came from Loughcrew, where they had been in the service of the Napper family before Patrick’s father was ‘employed for many years by the Primate in the Fair Street house in Drogheda as gardener and stable attendant’. It was noted that some of his descendants remained in Drogheda but others could be found ‘across the Atlantic’. His son appeared to have followed in the path of his father working as a servant/gardener after his military career had ended.

Would the Patrick Grey in the newspaper adverts have learned his skills from his father? It’s highly probable and I am fairly confident that the Patrick in the small ads is my great-grandfather Patrick, for his details neatly dovetail with the obituary information and correlate with the ‘father’s occupation’ column in the birth registers.

The obituary for my great-grandmother, Mary Gray, nee Hand, revealed just a little more information to keep me on the hunt for her family. It stated that she was a ‘native of Pilltown’ and her people were employed by the Brodigan family whose 17th – 19th century family and estate papers can be found archived in the National Library of Ireland. I sense a little trip coming on…



16 thoughts on “Patrick Gray: Using Newspapers for Genealogy

  1. My mum was Irish and my dad was trying to find birth records in Ireland for a genealogy project. He says they have terrible record keeping there and a lot of lost records so I know just how hard it must be for you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting. Genealogy is like a jigsaw puzzle, fun when the pieces fit, frustrating when it’s not. I researched my Irish ancestorsback in 2003 when there was not much online, but I am working on a post for St. Patrick’s Day, so doing that little bit of research did revive my interest. I remember spending hours in the Dublin Library? in the mid-80’s viewing rolls of microfilm with little success……I wish you luck. When I visited the church in the area I thought they were from, Leitrim county, the priest told me all the records had been burnt in a fire.

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  3. I recently upgraded my Ancestry account to be able to search in greater detail the potential data for my Hungarian Grandfather. In doing so, I received free access to the site. I did a search on his name (Taraczkozy – makes my searches rather easy, really) and I found an article regarding shoe rations and his take on the matter as he was a shoemaker at the time. My Grandfather passed away in 1985 while I was between my Junior and Senior year of high school. That newspaper clipping was like a bit of treasure for me. Words that belonged to my Grandfather, things I did not know about, and I was discovering them 33 years after his death (and decades more since the interview).

    What a great story about a piece of your personal history. Thank you for sharing it.

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      1. It is, I agree. I am trying to find genealogy blogs to follow because I love the hobby but realize I am doing it all on my own. I think it will be nice to read of the experiences of other researchers and hopefully learn some “tools of the trade” as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. We have to be methodical detectives when looking for family history. I also believe we need to take comfort that despite our ancestors having a truly difficult life, they lived their lives as best they could and are an example to us.

    Liked by 1 person

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