Philip Holmes – photographic evidence

To go to the beginning of this story, which is spread over several blog posts, click here.

It’s pretty frustrating to have a pile of family photographs and have no idea who the people are. In the case of Philip Holmes, Carol had an old photograph reputed to be of him. So here we had the opposite – a photograph with a name, but little information on the person.

In some cases old photographs do yield clues  – it can be possible to get an idea of the year/era that a picture was taken by the photographic technique used or the clothes worn by those pictured. Carol had already done some of her own research trying to date the picture.

Philip Holmes reverse of photo Solio crop

The stamp box in the top right is bordered by the word “Solio”. Solio was a photographic paper introduced by Kodak in 1908 and sold all over the world until the 1920s. The photographs were developed directly onto on the photographic paper which was the size and weight of a postcard and had a divided back – one space for a message, the other for the recipient’s address. Philip’s photograph was an example of a “Real Photo Post Card”.

The front of the card is of course where most of the clues lie and we’ll come to that. The back of the card had an oddly worded message which Carol and I discussed at length. It wasn’t going to offer any clues about the identity of Philip but we looked for clues in anything that we could.

Philip Holmes reverse of photo with message

I think we tore apart this message looking for some hidden meaning about the relationship between Philip and his dad. On the one hand, “Dad” was a very informal salutation. It didn’t carry the slight emotional distance of “Father”; nor was it as working class as something like “Da” or as pretentious as “Pater” . The sentiment of “Fondest Love” seemed a little stiff and awkward from the relaxed-looking young man in the photograph. The handwriting looked as if it had been written painstakingly by someone unused to writing messages. And we wondered why the card was written out to “Dad”, not “Mum and Dad”. Had this card, with its very personal family message, ever been given to Philip’s dad?

Philip Holmes part 2. Could it be Phillips Holmes, Hollywood star?

For the first part of this story, follow this link.

When working with DNA, we always say “follow the DNA, not the name.” But when you don’t have any decent DNA matches to work with and you do have a name, it’s extremely tempting to run that name into the ground and come up with theories – some quite wild – about who your mystery relative was.

In her search for her mother’s biological father, Carol had been given a name by her grandmother. This man had been “in the theater”, her grandmother claimed, and his family was quite well-to-do. It turned out that there was someone who fitted the name and some of those details – a Hollywood actor named Phillips Holmes.

Phillips Holmes.

Phillips Holmes was born in 1907 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His slightly unusual first name was actually his mother’s maiden name. It would seem like a big leap to believe that Phillips Holmes could have been Carol’s grandfather, yet the anecdotal information from her grandmother and a few other biographical pieces of information began to add up.

Carol’s mum was born in London in 1930. This meant that the father had to have been in London before that, for obvious, biological reasons. There was plenty of documentary evidence to show that Phillips Holmes had visited London several times in the years before 1930. Passenger lists also show that he was in the UK after 1931. One shows him returning to New York from Southampton in 1934.

There was, however, no way to prove that Phillips Holmes had been in the UK and met Carol’s grandmother. The photograph of “Philip” in Carol’s possession did not look at lot like the many images of Phillips Holmes on the internet. We even compared their handwriting – Carol’s photograph of her Philip had a message on the back, supposedly Philip writing to his father. We compared it to an image of Phillips Holmes’s signature – they didn’t have a lot in common.

After investigating the parents and ancestors of Phillips Holmes, it didn’t look like Carol, her mum and the actor were connected through DNA either.

There are many ways that we can try to twist details to fit our purpose. Intriguing though it was to find a Hollywood star with the same name as a missing grandfather, it became clear that it was simply a coincidence. There was nothing to connect these two men other than their (almost) identical names.

Philip Holmes – part 1.

Over a year ago I posted a photograph in a blog post about one of my first DNA searches to identify lost family. I promised to write the story of Philip Holmes and the steps we took to identify him – both conventional genetic genealogy steps using DNA and family trees as well as a few more unconventional methods. A few mysteries still remain, including being unable to find any living descendants of Philip – or at least any who will answer our messages on Ancestry. There’s a little more information in this post from last year if you want to read it to get a few more details.

We often remark in DNA searches that you should “follow the DNA” rather than a name. People often have a name to work with. Names can be changed, made up, mis-remembered. DNA cannot be faked or changed. In this case we did have reason to believe that the name of the person we were looking for was indeed Holmes. That’s because it was on a birth certificate.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 10.59.31 AM

Myrena or “MPH” as I have always known to her or even “Carol’s Mum” was born to Ethel Marena French, formerly Ethel Marena Stevens. At the time she had Myrena she was married but had disappeared for a while – possibly a couple of years – and then resurfaced with a new baby in 1931. She always claimed that Mr Philip Holmes was the father of her little girl. The birth certificate reflected the name Holmes although she was not married to him. The baby’s name was also recorded in the birth register under two different surnames – French and also French-Holmes . It’s not often that there is any paperwork connecting the name of an otherwise unknown father to the birth of a child to an unmarried mother. This appears to be a case when it was allowed – or Carol’s grandmother, Ethel, just made sure it happened. Carol did some research and gave me this information:

“The ‘French’ bit was because it was my grandmother’s legal married surname at the time.  Interestingly, there were 2 birth entries; one that says Holmes-French & one that just says French.  I looked into this & apparently it wasn’t that common but was usually when the parents weren’t married but the father was present when the birth was registered & consented to his name being on the birth certificate/entry.”

So it seems in this case there was some further confirmation that we were looking for a man called Holmes. But who was he? DNA at this point had not revealed anything closer than 4th cousins who could be from Carol’s missing maternal grandfather’s side. This did not make it easy to “follow the DNA”. A lot has changed in 18 months of DNA matches on Ancestry. Mainly, though, Brits still face the same issues in that matches are generally US- based and reflect a connection to an ancestor possibly back in the 1700s. So whilst we did do a lot of tree-building and match-connecting, Carol also took the less-favored road:  simply researching men of the same name who would have been around the right age in 1930 to have been her grandfather. She mainly used voter registration lists from London for this, generating a list of around 100 people to work with.

There was reason to believe that Philip Holmes may have spent time abroad. The photographed that sparked my involvement shows a man standing next to a mule in an environment that certainly does not look English. It was this idea of a possible overseas involvement that led Carol to briefly investigate a movie star of the 1930s as her possible grandfather.

Philip Holmes


Ayr Sheriff Court proceedings, 1909.

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t read this story from the beginning then start with this post here and read through the subsequent ones concerning DNA and document discoveries that helped solve the puzzle.


I didn’t expect to find anything else concerning Mabel Earley and John “Jack” Stevenson. I had several DNA connections to John’s mother, Alexina. I had proof that Mabel’s son Douglas knew the Stevenson family from Barrhill; evidence that he decided to adopt the Stevenson name as his own; and a version of the story of events between Mabel and Jack from Stevenson cousins.

Then I discovered a set of records I hadn’t heard of previously: Sheriff Court Paternity Decrees.

Sheriff Courts are unique to the Scottish legal system. They handle both civil and criminal cases and the “Sheriff” presiding over the court is legally qualified and appointed to the position.


In April of 1909, Mabel Earley brought a case for paternity payments against John Stevenson. The case went in Mabel’s favor and John Stevenson was ordered to pay the following amounts to her:

At Ayr the Twenty fifth day of February and the Twenty third day of March both in the year 1909, in an action before the Sheriff Court of the County of Ayr, at Ayr at the instance of Mabel Earley, daughter of George Earley, Coachman and Overseer Drumlanford, Barrhill, Ayrshire Pursuer, against John Stevenson, Carrick Mill, near the Knowe by Newton Stewart Defender the Sheriff Decerned the Defender to pay to the Pursuer the sums after-mentioned, in respect he was the father of an illegitimate male child of which the Pursuer was delivered at London on the Twenty first day of December 1908 viz:- Two pounds for inlying charges and Eight pounds per annum for seven years as aliment for said child, payable said aliment quarterly in advance and beginning as from said date of birth with interest thereon from the respective dates of payment; and Six pounds eleven shillings and threepence of Expenses.

This was a significant win for Mabel – unfortunately we can assume that shortly after this, John left for New Zealand because he did not want to pay or take responsibility for the paternity. The act of not paying the amount decreed could lead to further action in the Sheriff Court. By going to New Zealand, John was beyond the reach of the law.

This record only shows the decree – it does not give any further information about any evidence brought to court to prove paternity. The National Records Office says that the records of the court proceedings, which would have included more information and evidence, were mainly destroyed after 1860. Not all single mothers took their cases to court – possibly only 10 – 15% of illegitimate births have a record amongst the cases.

Some of the Sheriff Court records are available at Not all of the records are indexed – or at least indexed properly. It may be that the record set at FMP is incomplete – when I searched for this case, it didn’t return any results. I then used the index at this website and found that there was a record. The original records are held by National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh.



It was all in the letter…..

Late last year I was able to confirm the missing part of the story of Mabel Fanny Earley, the housemaid from Barrhill, Ayrshire who was my husband’s great-grandmother. I’ve blogged about her several times, here and here as well as the DNA match that lead me to a family of 4 brothers, with one of them being the potential father.

Finding descendents of those brothers and seeing photographs of them went a long way towards solving the story. Despite that, I thought I  would never truly be able to figure out which brother was the father of Mabel’s son. Even if I was able to trace descendants of the other brothers and DNA test them, the passage of time was not on our side. The amount of DNA shared between my husband and any other grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the brothers would be inconclusive. Why is that?

As every generation goes by, we lose some of our ancestors’ DNA. You get 50% of your DNA from each parent. On average, a grandchild compared with a grandparent would show on average around 25% shared DNA. In reality it could be anything from 18% to 32% according to the chart that I often use, put together by Christa Stalcup. DNA is passed down randomly rather than in precise measurements.  Your sibling may share more DNA with a grandparent than you do. It’s all very confusing when you first delve into it.


(Chart created by Christa Stalcup/ DNA Detectives showing the ranges of shared DNA for common relationships).

The analysis of DNA involves drawing a lot of charts and knowing the ins and outs of “relatedness.” You have to be sure that you know the difference between a first cousin and a first cousin once removed, for example. Or what makes you a half-aunt not an aunt? Why are you twice removed from this person rather than once? All of these relationships will put you at a different place on a family tree, and each different level of relatedness may mean a change in the amount of DNA shared.

I keep a public tree on Ancestry for the my husband, and I had added the  4 Stevenson brothers from Barrhill to the tree along with their dates of birth, indicating that paternity was unresolved. I had also seen that a few DNA matches had appeared for my husband on with the last name Stevenson. They appeared to be descendants of at least one of the brothers in question. I resolved to contact them and see if my story made any sense. Time passed and I did not get round to that.

Then one day at the beginning of November, another Stevenson contacted me from New Zealand. He had seen the tree and was wondering how he was connected to my husband. So I explained Mabel’s story, unsure whether I would get any response.

But this Stevenson cousin magically produced the other half of the story from his family documents, in the form of a letter written by one of his uncles, relating some family history to another family member. Here is the extract from the letter that tied everything together and gave me the name of the father of Mabel’s baby:

Stevenson letter

​So…in a word, he scarpered, rather than stay and do the honorable thing. “Lord Beale”, wasn’t just Mabel’s employer (possibly also John Stevenson’s employer) – he most likely also owned a lot of the land and dwellings around Barrhill and his word would carry considerable sway. On top of that, he was also the MP for south Ayrshire. It seems he was a force to be reckoned with. John (aka Jack) made a hasty departure, which unfortunately makes him look very much like the guilty party.
In terms of “absolute proof’, I would be on shaky ground here. The letter was written several decades ago; the story itself was hearsay from way before that. There are many apocryphal stories in family recollections. The DNA at this point cannot separate the descendants clearly enough to decide one way or the other. I do know that Mabel’s baby grew up using her maiden name – Earley – yet changed his name to Stevenson in later life. The 4 Stevenson brothers also had a sister, Annie. One of her children was a witness on the marriage registration for Grandfather Earley/Stevenson. So clearly the families knew each other. It seems likely, then, that Mabel was sure who the father of her baby was, and always made sure that her son knew too.  The story provided in the New Zealand letter makes sense. John didn’t have any more children and was quite young when he died in New Zealand. The remaining brothers joined him a few years later. They married and had children. Their children had children. This is the generation currently turning to DNA testing for use in genealogy.
There is one more mystery to the story of John Stevenson yet to be addressed. More of that next time.

Peter the dog – a eulogy.

My great-grandfather, David Stephen (1869 – 1946), kept a diary about his life in Scotland for many years. The volumes cover his life from before WWI to a few weeks before his death in 1946. I’ve have previously written about his time at Skibo Castle playing organ for Andrew Carnegie – you can read about that here.

The diaries covered his daily life and work, often mentioning visits with his children, outings with friends and his opinions on music.

This entry about the death of the family’s small dog is touching. The evident care taken to record the event in between the original lined pages; the insert edged with black ink; the inclusion of a photograph of Peter; this was a very special member of the family.

Peter the Dog Memorial insert

“Our wee dog, Peter, died on the morning of Thursday, 2nd June 1921. He had not been well for a day or two before, but we thought it was just a touch of sickness. On the Thursday morning however we saw he was worse, and before breakfast Margaret carried him to Mr Storey, the veterinary surgeon, who said he was suffering from acute gastritis. His only hope for him was that being a young do he might be able to pull through.

When she brought him back I could see that poor Peter was dying. Unfortunately I had to go off to Glasgow on examination business, but he was never far from my thoughts.

He never rallied, in fact I think he was more or less unconscious, and about 11 o’clock he passed quietly away. The vet came up later, but alas! too late.

He took him away to have him nicely buried, and he lies at rest at Leckerstone.*

We have had him for a little over two years and it is only his loss that brings home to us what he was in our household life.

Peter was not a pedigree dog, but he was better, he was a lovable one. Always on the look-out for us when we happened to be out, and on our return after a day or two always, always waiting to welcome us back.

Poor wee chap, he is sorely  missed, but we have the consolation that he died without undue suffering. His life has been a short one (not quite three years) but I think it has been a happy one right up to the end. I can hardly get reconciled to his absence, and I know we all feel what a bright element in our home life has been taken away.

“Rest in peace, dear Peter! I think you were conscious in life that we all loved you, and if there be an after-life for animals, you must know that you are mourned as a true companion and a faithful servant, and that your death is felt deeply as a great loss by all the members of this sorrowful family.””

*Leckerstone is near Dunfermline, Scotland, where he was living at the time. 

Below, the picture of Peter the dog that has been preserved between the pages of great-grandfather’s diaries for nearly 100 years.

Peter the dog photograph - Edited

George Noble, art student and conscientious objector in WW1.


Some years ago a friend was visiting his parents in Nottingham when he noticed a neighbor throwing out an old art portfolio – the sketches were dated from 1909 to 1916 – which she said was the work of her uncle. He had been an art student at Leicester School of Art. My friend, also an artist, liked the sketches and asked if he could have them, rather than them being thrown away.

About a week ago he posted some of the sketches on Facebook and pondered the fate of this young artist in World War I. There was no other information to go on other than “G. Noble” and the knowledge that he had been an art student in Leicester around 1910 – 1916.

George Noble courtesy of Ben Morris

(Photo courtesy of Ben Morris)

He contacted the De Montfort school in Leicester (previously the Leicester Municipal Technical and Art School) to discover more about the artist. The school had little to go on but was able to provide Ben with a ledger entry showing that the student was George Noble and that he paid his student fees in 1913. They also provided a small but significant piece of information (from an unidentified source) that opened up the story of George Noble and highlighted a significant group of men in World War I  – the conscientious objectors. Along with another of Ben’s friends, I went through British records from that period and was able to piece together some more of George’s life and what happened to him during the war.

George Noble was born in Hawick in Scotland on 19 May 1885 to Thomas and Jessie Noble. His father Thomas was a hosiery framesmith – someone who knew how to set up and repair the wooden knitting frames used to make stockings. Hawick had a long tradition at the heart of the textile industry. By the time the 1891 census was taken, the family had moved to Leicester, a city in the “Midlands” in England. Thomas was now described as an “engine fitter”. Thomas had been born in Hawick but his father was from Leicester. Perhaps they moved there for better job opportunities and to be closer to family.

In 1901 Thomas Noble’s occupation was clarified as “steam engine fitter” in the census. He presumably constructed, repaired and made replacement parts for steam engines. Son George, now aged 14, was listed as an “apprentice mechanical draftsman”.

By the 1911 UK census George was 25 and still living with his parents and siblings in Leicester, where his occupation was marked as “engineer’s draftsman.

George may have been studying part-time at art school as he probably had a full-time job.

In 1914 World War I started. The UK introduced military conscription in 1916 due to dwindling volunteer forces. Males aged between 18 and 41 had to sign up for service, unless they could already prove they were doing important work. Certain occupations were exempt from active service, including teachers and clergymen. Alongside this exemption, an important right had been built into the Conscription Act. Men had the right to object to conscription on moral or religious grounds.

16000 men tried to claim exemption. George Noble was one of them. The archivist at De Montford was able to provide the following snippet on George Noble:

George Noble…art student, not clear whether he appeared before the Leicester tribunal or in London, but was apparently allowed only an exemption from combatant military service, so was called up to the NCC (Non-combative corp), 6 Northern company, Leicester…

On 29 March 1916 Noble was called before one of the tribunals set up for COs to explain their reasons for seeking an exemption from active service. The tribunal panels were made up of local civilians with an army representative, and may not have been given adequate training or instruction about the task of vetting conscientious objectors. Noble may also have been an “absolutist” – a CO who would not work in any part of the military even if it did not involve combat. Having been granted an exemption from combat, he refused to take up his position in the NCC. He would not have seen combat in this corp, but would have had to wear uniform and be under army regulations. As a result of his disobedience, part of his army record goes on to show that he was arrested and tried at a court martial in Leicester on the 9th of August 1916. Here he was sentenced to 84 days imprisonment “for disobeying a lawful command given by his superior officer.”

Although the harshest sentence that could be meted out by court martial was death by firing squad, there is no evidence that any COs were killed.  Several received this sentence but had it commuted. Most conscientious objectors were sent to civil rather than military prisons. George Noble was sent Welford Road prison in Leicester for part of his detention. His sentence was commuted to 28 days, possibly for “good behaviour”. However he was still considered a conscript and would have to make a decision to either continue with the “cat and mouse” cycle of imprisonment that COs often endured, or compromise somehow.

It seems he did choose a compromise rather than return to prison. Several thousand fit young men had been imprisoned in 1916 for refusing to serve. Parliament introduced a scheme that it hoped would help divert some of these men from prison under what was termed “the Home Office Scheme”. Essentially the scheme was a number of work camps with hard labor considered to be “of national importance.” Often this was road building, agricultural labor or menial hospital work. The scheme allowed the men to wear civilian clothing and even to leave the camp for the occasional night out or day off. According to the information from the archives, George Noble accepted a transfer to a camp at Llanddeusant Water Works in Llangadock, South Wales. Around 200 COs worked there constructing the water works at Llyn Y Fan Fach, Carmarthenshire, to bring a clean water supply to Llanelli. Not a lot has been documented about this particular scheme, and much of the documentation was destroyed after the end of the war. A black and white picture posted on the site of a local archaeology group may show some of the COs in a group shot. They are dressed in “civvies” and flat caps for the most part, armed with only shovels, rakes and sledgehammers. Some of these men possibly stayed with local families for the duration of their “service”. The water works were constructed at over 1600 feet above sea level. The winter weather in particular was likely cold and very wet. Most men who worked on the schemes remained there until April 1919, when all but a few were released.

Without knowing anything more about Noble’s life, we can only wonder about the impact his moral choices had on the rest of his family. Some families were openly scorned and shunned for having a son who refused to go to the front. From other army records we know that George’s younger brother William served in the Post Office Rifles for 2 years before being discharged in 1918 and no longer considered fit for active service. The reason given was “defective vision”. It’s not clear from William’s scrawled, faded army record if he saw active service with this brigade, although it is know that the Post Office Rifles served at both the Battle of the Somme and Ypres. So the Nobles had one son in service and one in prison. Who knows if they supported one but not the other?

Some COs found it hard to secure employment after the war. The only other online record available for George Noble is from the 1939 “register”, a census-like “snapshot” of the adult population of England and Wales taken at the outbreak of WW II. George Noble was living in Leicester with his sister and his mother and was described as a “commercial artist (advertising and printing)”.  It seems he was able to continue making a living through art. Ben was told that the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a poster in its archive designed by him.

The stories of Conscientious Objectors and other opponents of war are now being cataloged by the CO project run by the Peace Pledge Union in the UK.

You can also read more about how COs were treated on the Imperial War Museum website.

Thanks to Ben Morris for allowing me to use one of his photographs of the Noble portfolio. And thanks for saving the portfolio!