Sepia Saturday – Letters from the H.M.S. Birmingham

Sepia Saturday provides an opportunity for genealogy bloggers to share their family history through photographs.

My first thought upon seeing today’s prompt was of a Christmas card sent from the H.M.S. Birmingham to my grandmother, Eveline Coates.

I thought I had a scan of the card or maybe the card itself, but unfortunately, all I have is a Xerox copy. Drat.

I’m going with it anyway.


The Christmas card, featuring a Navy vessel, was sent by this handsome young man.

George Elgey

George Elgey was my grandmother’s cousin.

George signed his name on the back of this photo. Eveline added his surname.

Eveline in brother John's WW1 uniform

George was born in Easington Lane, Durham, England on June 10, 1899. Eveline was born in Mystic, Appanoose, Iowa, USA, on February 15, 1901. Although first cousins and close in age, they never met.

George’s mother, Jane Ann (Jennie) Coates, and Eveline’s father, Joseph Coates, were siblings. Joseph boarded a ship as a young man sometime around 1889 and made the journey across the Atlantic. As far as I know, Joseph never saw his parents or siblings again.

George joined the Royal Navy sometime before August, 1918. Eveline graduated from Mystic High School in 1918 and entered normal school in the fall in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Both away from home for the first time, but under very different circumstances.

Eveline corresponded with her Aunt Jennie and several of Jennie’s children for many years. I am fortunate to have copies of a few letters sent to Eveline. It is one of my fondest wishes to find an “English cousin” in possession of the letters Eveline wrote.

I have a copy of one other bit of correspondence from George to Eveline, sent from the HMS Birmingham in August of 1918.

Friday Aug. 30th 1918.                                                         H.M.S. Birmingham,
C/o G.P.O. London
Dear Cousin,

Just a few lines – hoping this finds you in the best of health as it leaves me in the pink at present. I think sister Lizzie will have sent you word by now to let you know I joined the Navy a good while since well I can assure you it is a healthy life besides that we can learn a good deal which will be very usefull to us after this war is over. I meet many of American Sailors while I were down the south of England 400 miles away from my home called (erasure) a very beautifull place to. By the time you receive this I will be some where on the mighty ocean hunting for fishes which have done damage during this great war but now we have got our friends the Americans to help us it should not be long before it is finished let’s hope so. Can you remind of the time you sent me a letter calling me for not writing to you well I will excuse you for that as I know you did not mean it. I would have wrote to you sooner only I did not know your address untill I went home on leave. I suppose you will often hear from sister Lizzie as I think she does a great deal of writing but not so many as her brother George not by a good deal. Before I joined up I never wrote above two letters in all my life and now I do nothing else in my spare time. Please give my best love to all at your home also to Cousin Mr. and Mrs. Carl Coates. I have sent home to tell them to send you one of my photoes taken while in civil life and will do my best to send you one I have had taken in my sailors clothes. This is my address,

G. F. Elgey, Stoker II
SB. No 9213
H.M.S. Birmingham
C/o G.P.O. London

Eveline had a strict policy regarding correspondence. She promptly answered letters she received. In turn, she expected a reply within a reasonable amount of time. If one of Eveline’s letters went unanswered, she would write to you again, but with an admonishment and possibly a note that this would be the last letter you received until she heard from you. I know this from personal experience. The letter above confirms that grandmother instituted this policy early in life – evidenced by the scolding previously delivered to George. Now aboard ship, George had plenty of time for writing letters.

The cousin, Carl Coates, referred to in the letter is one of Eveline’s older brothers.

H.M.S. Birmingham 1916

George’s signature indicates his rank as Stoker II. The little research I have done informs me that stokers were in charge of generating steam for the turbines that powered the ship. The HMS Birmingham carried both coal and oil as fuel. Young George may have spent many hot and dirty hours shoveling coal into the boilers. Or he may have done maintenance on the engines. In any case, he made no complaints about his duties, assuring Eveline of his healthy life aboard ship.

Although the H.M.S. Birmingham was involved in several battles during World War I, most famously for being the first cruiser to sink a submarine, the time George spent on the Birmingham seems to have been relatively uneventful.

I wonder if George prepared his Christmas cards before the war ended on November 11?

I still have a lot of research to do regarding George and his service in the Royal Navy. In fact, I still have a lot to learn about all of the “English cousins”.

Lastly,the prompt above suggests not only ships, but crowds and travel. As I am posting this on Friday Oct. 5th, I’ll finish with something completely unrelated to George, the Navy, or ships and pay tribute to the British invasion that began 50 years ago with the release of this song:



Joseph Coates Born 145 Years Ago Today

Joseph Coates and Mary Harris Coates

My plan was to write a post that detailed everything I know, or think I know, about my great-grandfather, Joseph Coates, and post it today. It didn’t happen. I spent too much time looking up information about Durham, England and Brancepeth Colliery and coal mining and watching youtube videos, so I’ll be brief.

Joseph Coates was the father of my grandmother, Eveline Coates Hoskins.

He was born at Brancepeth Colliery, in the County of Durham, England, 8 June 1867 to John Coates and Ellen Richardson Coates. His father worked as a colliery joiner (carpenter at a coal mine). Joseph had an older sister, Nellie (Mary Ellen), and later another sister, Jennie (Jane Ann).

Joseph completed 8 years of education and learned the carpenter trade. At the age of about 21, he left England for the United States (in 1888 or 1889) and settled in Mystic, Iowa about two years after his arrival. He traveled alone, as far as we know, and never saw his parents or siblings again. Once settled in Mystic, he worked in the coal mines there, possibly using his carpentry skills as had his father before him.

The Nicholson family introduced Joseph to Mary Ann Harris. As a young girl, Mary had immigrated with her parents from the same area of England. Joseph and Mary were married in Centerville, Iowa on 7 November 1891. They had 10 children, 9 of whom grew to adulthood.

Joseph was injured by a fall of coal on his back while working in the mines in 1927. In a letter to me, my grandmother said about her father:
….Don’t think I ever told you, he worked in a coal mine in Mystic, IA. Had a fall of coal on his back and they said he would never walk again but he did. I remember watching him crawl from room to room and then he started pulling himself to chairs, also higher places until he could stand alone. Then with God’s help he learned to walk. I loved my Dad and I don’t think I’ll ever forget his memories. 

Joseph was unable to return to the mines or other employment after his injury, but did some carpentry work as he was able. Joseph had a large garden and loved growing roses. As far as I know, he retained his British citizenship.

Joseph died at the age of 71, after being ill with a kidney ailment for several months.


Notes to Self

Could a blog post function as a lazy person’s research log/research notes?

There wouldn’t be any papers or notebooks to lose.
If I tag well, I could find notes about individuals or places or sources easily.
Somebody reading my notes might have some information I need.

Think I’ll give it a try. I’ve been working on a few things.

* Uncle Don sent me a brief biography Aunt Wilma wrote about Joseph and Mary Harris Coates. One bit of new information I need to research – she said that Mary’s uncle, Matthew Harris, traveled with them from England to the U.S., but he left and went to Australia. Thanks, Uncle Don!  :)

* Cousin Wilda sent a link to an article about the Hatfield family. We have Hatfields way back on my Webber side. The TV show about the Hatfield and McCoy feud prompted the article here.  Thanks, Wilda!

* Heard from a new cousin – grandson of Joseph Robert Coates. Prompted me to get in touch with the other grandchildren of Eveline’s siblings that I have had contact with in the past. Want to collect death records for all Eveline’s siblings.

* The anniversary of Joseph Coates’ birth is coming soon and I want to do some blog posts about him. Need to email family for any stories they might have.

* Found images online of St. Stephen’s Willington Church in Durham, UK – where Joseph’s parents John Coates and Ellenor Richardson were married.

* Received letter from USCIS stating that my records index search request for Joseph Coates came up with 0 results.  :( I was hoping to get info that would lead to date of immigration, ship, etc. Dead end.

* Checked for more records for John Coates. Found 1911 census I had not seen before. Actual image! and it looks like he even signed it – so I have an image of his signature, address, etc. The next image shows that he is living with daughter Nellie (Mary Ellen), her husband and their children. There are separate entries. John has a page to himself and lives in one room. The family is the next image 5 people in 3 rooms (4 crossed out).

* The census find led me to check google maps on a whim and see if I coud get something from their address.  Sure enough, from the street view it looks like the house is still standing. Couldn’t read the house numbers and not sure exactly which was theirs but picked one that looks most like a photo I have. I had assumed that this house was where John Coates lived in Durham, UK, but it isn’t identified. Now I’m pretty sure.

* Looked up a bit more about jobs in mining.  Joiner. Cartwright.  = Carpenter. Cart Maker

* Tried to find John Coates in 1861 England Census. Found a boarder the right age in Gilesgate, St. Giles, Durham, born in Willington, working as a Journeyman Cartwright (at least I think that’s what it says.) Another John Coates the right age living as a boarder in Hartepool, Durham. The one in Gilesgate seems more likely?

* Ellenor Richardson. Where and when was she born?  Who are her parents? From marriage record, her birth would be 1845. Census records confirm that. But location varies with each census. 1881: Fitches, Durham. 1871: Willington, Durham. I also have an IGI record from FamilySearch that has an Ellen Richardson b. 21 Feb. 1845 in Brampton, Cumberland, England, parents William and Jane. Looked up Cumberland and it is adjacent to Durham, so possible. ???

* Google search for Fitches doesn’t come up with much. Finally concluded that it might be Fitches Grange – located near Witton Castle in Bishop Auckland, County Durham. Not that far from Willington, I guess. I’m a little confused by the place names in England. Maybe a census that says Fitches and one that says Willington could mean the same general location?

* Christina says I should probably rescan all the old photos I’m wanting to preserve/archive as tif files.