9 November 2010

Remembrance: An Ordinary Life

The man above is my Great Grandfather Frank Keys. Frank was born on 13th November 1885 in a back to back house in West Bromwich. He was the third child of William and Martha. William had been born in Adstock in Buckinghamshire, a place where once the Keys had been a prolific family and had owned nearly all the horses in the village along with decent parcels of land. Over the 19th century the Keys family gradually left their Bucks roots and dispersed around the globe searching for work and a better life than the awful agricultural poverty that had become the norm in places such as Adstock during that century. William went with his parents to the Black Country and followed his father into the brewing world and worked as a malster, as Frank later did too.

Frank's mother was Martha. From what I have discovered her life was full of misfortune. She had been born in Evesham Workhouse, the second illegitimate daughter of a single woman who died when Martha was just 10 years old, not that Martha had really known her Mother because she had been sent to West Bromwich at a young age to live with an Aunt. Her elder sister died before Martha's first birthday.

Martha was just 18 when she gave birth to her first son, Frank's eldest brother William. Nearly three months later on New Years Eve 1882, William made an honest woman of Martha and married her. There soon followed Frank's one and only sister Charlotte. Frank never knew her though because she died a year before his birth.

Throughout his childhood Frank would have got used to the regular arrival of a new brother. Eventually Frank became one of seven brothers. He would have known pure, grinding poverty. These were mean streets of the worst kind of back to back housing but the poverty would have been through the low wages paid by the local main employers involved in iron making, steel spring manufacturing, glass manufacturing, mining at Sandwell Park Colliery, chemical production ironically owned by a different Keys family one of whom became the Mayor of West Bromwich and the eight breweries. Labour was cheap because it was so freely available.

By 1906 Frank had met Ellen Smith who worked as a hand gummer in a printers. Ellen herself had roots in Buckinghamshire. Ellen found herself pregnant in early 1907 and at the end of March that year she and Frank married. Their first daughter Doris was born later that year and she was later joined by a sister Edith and then Daisy. Shortly after Edith's birth, Frank and his family moved from West Bromwich to Aston, possibly the prospects in brewing were better there than West Bromwich where breweries were closing.

In 1906 Frank had lost his father William who died at the age of 42 in the month of June through cystitis pyelitis; an acute bacterial infection of the bladder and kidneys possibly caused because William was diabetic or had renal failure. In 1913 Frank's mother Martha died. She had just about made her fiftieth birthday. Frank's brother Harry had left the UK the year before in October of 1912 to seek a new life in Canada.

In January 1915 my Grandmother, Gladys was born. She was Frank's last child and she never knew her father because shortly after her birth The Great War became reality and Frank enlisted in Birmingham in the regiment of the county of his birth; The South Staffordshire Regiment. According to records Frank was attached to the 1st battalion but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission say he was in the 12th. I suspect he was in the former because the 12th although formed in Brocklesbury in June 1916, did not arrive in France until October 1916 and by then Frank was dead.

Whatever battalion Frank served in what is clear is that he was in France on 1st July 1916 when The Battle of the Somme began. Frank died of wounds on Friday 14th July 1916. He left behind his widow Ellen and four daughters whose ages ranged from 8 to 18 months. He was just 30years old. An ordinary man who had lived an ordinary life.

Frank was eventually buried in Serre Road Cemetery No.2, Beaumont-Hamel. This simple fact was not know about by my Grandmother until 1989 when I wrote to the CWGC and they kindly supplied the information. In 1990, nearly 75 years after Frank had died a family group including my Grandmother and myself visited his grave for the very first time. It was an emotional day. We remembered this man who had lay for so long in a foreign land along with all his comrades, who also were ordinary men with ordinary lives, all of whom left behind people they loved to die within the slaughter of their generation.

We cannot know precisely what Frank encountered and what horrors he may have witnessed but because of the experiences of others we can guess. We remember them all and the sacrifice that they and their families made.

This photograph is of Ellen Keys and of her and Frank's daughters.


  1. Interesting and moving piece.

  2. Really Interesting history. This reminded me of a very similar family history of famous writer Barbara Taylor Bradford which I had read recently in a book about her.

  3. 10 out of 10 mate xxx