Edinburgh archivists in search for stories of First World War heroes who worked for Register House

IT was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, "the war to end all wars" and men from all walks of life were recruited to fight and die.

Tuesday, 3rd November 2020, 12:30 pm
Walter Urquhart Picture: Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland

The contribution of Scottish servicemen and women in the First World War was recently explored in a series of talks and exhibitions staged by the National Records of Scotland (NRS) to mark the centenary of the 1914-18 conflict.

But now archivists at the NRS are asking for help to find out more about members of their own staff who served in that war.

They want to compile a complete record for their Roll of Honour and find out the stories of the men and women who swapped their desks for dugout and their pens for rifles.

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William O'May Picture: Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland

The roll already has the names of 14 serving and former members of staff who died and 50 more who fought on various fronts and survived. But the information which the archivists have managed to discover is often sparse, and they are now appealing for help to find out more about the lives of those who served in WWI.

NRS outreach manager Jocelyn Grant said: "It gives you the framework for someone's life - we hold the registers of births, death and marriages, we can see where they were employed in the building, we can find from war records whether they have passed away, where that might have happened, what battalion they might be part of and so on but the more personal details, the human stories, are obviously missing because the records we have are quite official - they're not letters or personal correspondence."

The archivists are keen to discover more details to help present a more complete picture. They hope people in Edinburgh may remember grandparents or know of great-grandparents who worked in Register Houses and served in the First World War.

They are appealing for information, stories or pictures of staff who joined the armed forces from what were known as the Register House Departments which then occupied General Register House on Princes Street, and New Register House next door. The departments were the General Registry Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland), the Record Office (later merged as National Records of Scotland), and the Sasine Office and the Deeds Office (now Registers of Scotland).

Ernest Downing Picture: Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland

Anyone who can help is asked to contact [email protected].

Among those already entered on the Roll of Honour are Ernest Thomas Downing, a second division clerk who worked on the 1911 census in the General Registry Office, born in Brighton on 29 April 1892, son of Philemon Downing, billiard marker, and his wife Mary Elizabeth Richardson. He began government service in 1907 as a boy clerk in the GPO in London, then transferred to Edinburgh. He served on the census staff from April 1911 until October 1913, then transferred to the Fishery Board, Edinburgh. He enlisted in the Royal Scots, and was later transferred to 1/5th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). He was killed in action, shot by a sniper at the Somme on 30 October 1916, aged 24.

William Shields O’May was a boy clerk in the General Registry Office, born 12 January 1891, Falkirk, son of Daniel O’May, glass merchant, and his wife Maggie Shields. Before 1911 he worked in the Registry of Deeds in Dublin, then joined the staff of the 1911 census in Edinburgh, transferring in 1913 to the Prison Commission, Edinburgh. O’May was mobilised with his Royal Scots Territorial Force unit in 1914, received a commission in the Highland Light Infantry, August 1916, and was promoted to Captain. He was fatally wounded in action and died on 3 April 1918, aged 27. He was awarded a posthumous Military Cross.

Messenger boy Walter Urquhart, who also worked on the 1911 census staff, was born on 7 June 1897 in Leith, son of Walter Urquhart, journeyman flour miller, and his wife Eliza Jane Bonar, and joined the General Registry Office straight from school aged 14. As a messenger boy Walter earned 7 shillings per week until 13 January 1912, when his wages rose to 9 shillings. In October 1913 he left to become a packer at Jenners, A pre-war Territorial in 1/5th Battalion, Royal Scots, he went with his battalion to the Dardanelles and was killed on 28 June 1915 aged 18. By the early 1920s his parents had emigrated to Canada.

Alexander Sked Picture: Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland

Alexander Sked, born 30 January 1894 in Peebles, son of David Sked, railway porter, and his wife Agnes Dick, served briefly in 1911 as a boy clerk in the Post Office in London before moving to be a temporary boy clerk on the 1911 census staff in Edinburgh. In 1912 he was appointed an assistant clerk in the index branch of the General Registry Office. He saw military service in 1918 with the Labour Corps at Catterick, Yorkshire. After the Armistice he was retained in 522nd Company in the Catterick Reserve Centre and appointed acting corporal because of the increased work and responsibility connected with demobilisation. He returned to the registry office in April 1919, married Jessie Howitt on 23 February 1922 and died in Peebles on 22 April 1968, aged 74.

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