Finding Uncle Malcolm

A newly-discovered uncle reveals a sad premature infant death, and a quest to locate his unmarked burial plot.

Six months ago, as I walked with my mother from the freshly dug grave of my paternal uncle, and the funeral party began to disperse, my mother told me that this was not the first uncle buried in that particular cemetery.

I was confused.

Lawn Lane Cemetery, Little Downham
Little Downham Cemetery has seen burials since the 1870s, and lots of my family are here.

She went on to tell me that my aunt (her sister-in-law) had been on the phone from the US, and had talked about how there was another sibling, a little boy called Malcolm, who died when he was young, and she was just a teenager.

This was the first time I’d ever heard of such a person, and I’d researched for years to find generations of relatives, and didn’t really know how to feel about having one so close, yet so ‘lost’.

The following day I checked for baby Malcolm in the GRO indexes, which handily now include the mother’s maiden name. Sure enough, there he was – Malcolm Paul Martin, born 5th April 1958. I realised that without this maiden name, I’d never have spotted him.

Unlike the rest of the siblings, I’d never have independently spotted him without that maiden name, which in turn led me to see that Malcolm was born in a different district – rather than in Ely, he was born in Newmarket. An odd choice for a family living within 5 miles of Ely.

Whilst there’s little else of interest on the birth certificate, the death certificate reveals much more.

Again, I would never have spotted him, as this time he’s registered as having died in Cambridge… and not just that.. Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge.

The death certificate goes on to say that he died aged 2 weeks, and gives the cause of death as “1(a) Pneumonia, 11. Prematurity congenital abnormalities Hair Lip.”

Cause of death of premature baby in 1958
Malcolm’s death certificate reveals he stood little chance at life.

This was my grandparents’ final child. They were now in her early 40s, and their oldest child had been born almost 21 years previously. With his prematurity, his cleft lip (as it’s now called), and the striking blow of pneumonia, it meant that poor little Malcolm stood no chance. Being born prematurely in 1950s would have been hard enough, but not being able to take in those vital early nutrients due to problems with his cleft lip would have made him weaker, and he’d be weakened enough to stand no chance against pneumonia.

Premature baby care has advanced dramatically since, as has cleft lip surgery, and I know that the NHS deal with cases like Malcolm’s over and over again, and I’m sure that the outcome is more favourable these days. Malcolm never came home, and so my father’s memory of him is missing. I find that very saddening.

My aunt’s phone call, which is ahead of her visit in June, prompted me to try to locate his burial. She thought she remembered that he was buried in Little Downham cemetery, and so I decided to find out.

I made contact with the team at St. Leonard’s Church (the cemetery is attached to the church), and they were able to put me in contact with the Clerk of the cemetery records. I’ve been in this cemetery a lot. There’s loads of my relatives there, many with headstones, and many without. I knew I’d not seen a headstone for a Malcolm Martin, as I’d have noted it down – and at that time, the attitude to infant deaths was different even then, and the cost to erect a headstone would have been a chunk of the family’s much-needed income.

On Saturday I met with the Clerk and he, with the burial book in hand, led me to where he thought the grave site was. Whilst the cemetery had originally started recording burials in the 1870s with a nice plot map and clear notes (like Ely cemetery a few miles away), apparently they soon gave up, and reverted to a list. This means some detective work was needed in order to work out the most likely location.

After looking at the burials listed before and after Malcolm’s, we felt that we’d found the plot, particularly as the burial immediately before his had a headstone still standing.

Child gravestones at Little Downham
The most likely location of Malcolm’s grave – to the right of the low-lying middle grave by the path.

So, as today would have been the 59th birthday of my Uncle Malcolm (still feels weird saying that), I feel that I can put him in my thoughts and welcome him into my family where he belongs, and kind of wish him a Happy Birthday too.

My Grandmother’s Century

In the midst of the First World War, on 11th November 1916, my Great Grandparents Alfred Newman and his wife Clara (née Gilbert) became parents again for the fifth time. This time they welcomed another daughter – Edna – my Grandmother, to their little Ely family.

Today, in 2016, marks what would have been her 100th birthday.

2016 has been a hard year, although I’m sure that 1916 was harder. However, partly as a result of the four family funerals I’ve attended so far this year, I’ve found myself in what was once her family home, and for the first time seeing the mass of photographs, keep-sake tins of bits and bobs, letters, a passport, and other ephemera.

My grandmother would certainly know hard times too – witnessing her older brother Wilfred being sent home to die in 1929 after exhaustive treatment in hospital for septicemia and tuberculosis when he was just 16yrs old, and hearing the news that her little brother Owen had died on a Japanese hospital ship after it was struck by a torpedo off Singapore. There would be more.

In particular, these photographs are letting me see my grandmother for the first time in her younger years. So far, the youngest photo I have found of her is when she was bridesmaid for her older sister Phyllis, and she stands beside her, and their brother, in 1935. This is my grandmother at 18/19yrs old – just a teenager – but to me, she’s unmistakeable.

Phyllis Newman and Sidney Fitch wedding group in Ely, 1935.
Phyllis Newman and Sidney Fitch at their wedding in Ely, 1935. My grandmother is second from right, with their brother Leslie Newman on the far right. Photo: Andrew Martin.

Within two years she would walk down the aisle with my grandfather Percy Martin, although perhaps somewhat hurriedly, as my uncle was born just 6 months later.

Their family grew in Little Downham, a village near Ely, but it wasn’t without difficulties.

Until a fortnight ago, as I had watched her oldest son’s (my uncle’s) coffin be lowered into his grave, and eventually turned to walk away, my mother tells me that this uncle was not the first to be buried there. This confuses me, but she relays the snippets of information that my aunt has told her and my father over the phone just days beforehand. There was another sibling – Malcolm – who my aunt (being his sister) believes is buried somewhere there too.

Edna and Percy, my grandparents in happier times. Probably Hunstanton during the 1950s.
Edna and Percy, my grandparents in happier times. Probably Hunstanton during the 1950s. Photo: Andrew Martin.

It was a shock. I thought I knew all my aunts and uncles, how had I never known about this one, and how had I not just spotted it anyway in the records? So I’ve set myself the challenge of identifying his burial plot. That’s in progress, and will need my detective work to find the cemetery plot map.

The next day, I searched through the birth and death indexes at freebmd, and sure enough, baby Malcolm Paul Martin was there. His birth in a neighbouring county hospital, his death in the hospital at the city of Cambridge – away from where the family’s other children had been born, and far outside of where I’d suspect him – if I’d ever suspected there was another child to find!

The sadness of spring 1958 was revealed.

This must have been so very hard on my grandparents, with my grandmother, now in her early 40s, giving birth prematurely to her final child. He hardly stood a chance – not just because he was premature (there’s no indication of by how much), but he would have been struggling to feed and grow strong due to having a cleft lip, and his weakness meant he stood no chance against the pneumonia. He was just 2 weeks old. My father hardly recalls him (as he was only young himself), my aunt remembers only a little more. My uncles never said a thing.

After the breakdown of her marriage to my grandfather in the early 1970s, she remained living with my uncle, and was already a doting grandmother to my aunt’s children, but clearly missed them dearly as they were based in the USA. As my sister, my UK-based cousins, and I came along, she proved to be just as doting to us.

I remember staying with her and my uncle on a few school holidays and playing with the kids next-door. I remember where my grandmother kept the sweets (in plain paper bags on the tray on the sideboard) which caused me to develop my light-footedness in aid of the liberation of countless aniseed balls.

Edna with Claire and Andrew, circa 1984.
Edna with my sister and I, c.1984. Seems the Christmas excitement turned me into a demonic child that year. Photo: Andrew Martin

I remember (and still have) a couple of the Christmas toys she saved up to buy me in my childhood – and I found a letter just last week whilst clearing my uncle’s house, where my mother is explaining to her what the toy was that she’d paid for in 1983. That was quite a lovely little find.

My parting memory of her is sleeping in a hospital bed. The same hospital where she’d had Malcolm almost 40 years earlier. I didn’t understand what was happening as an 8yr old in 1986, but my memories can take me right back there in an instant.

I wish we’d known each other for so much longer, but I cherish the memories of the time we shared.

Happy 100th Birthday, Grandma.