ELLIE JANE WILKINS HAS BEEN A MYSTERY for years, staring out from the only photo I have with an enigmatic expression that has gotten under my skin. Born December 9, 1890 in Ashford, Kent1 she was the illegitimate child of my great-aunt Bertha, eldest daughter of Amos & Eliza Wilkins. When Bertha died two years later from complications of typhoid fever Nellie was raised by her grandparents.
The 1901 England census recorded her living with Amos & Eliza in Southborough, Kent2 but from there she vanished — no sign of her in the 1911 census nor on the passenger list when Amos, Eliza and the their youngest daughter “Queenie” immigrated to Canada later that same year. Did she marry? Did she die? Or something else?
The trail had gone cold but as sometimes happens her story, or at least the next chapter of it, was unexpectedly revealed while researching another ancestor.
Breaking Through Walls With Collateral Relatives & In-Laws
The bricks began to tumble while putting together the post for Annie Rebecca Wilkins (Nellie’s aunt) and her husband Frederick Ashwood. In 1910 Frederick’s brother Charles had immigrated and joined their household in Calgary, Alberta3 and I was taking a closer look, hoping he might shed more light on Annie and Frederick’s story. This led to Charles’ World War I attestation papers where two things popped out — he’d enlisted in St. John, New Brunswick, not Calgary, and his wife was named Nellie Jane.4 Could this be my Nellie Jane?
A search of the online databases of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick confirmed it was with a Late Registration of Birth for Murray Charles Ashwood — parents Charles Ashwood and Nellie Wilkensen.5 Exactly when and where Charles and Nellie had married isn’t known but it’s an educated guess that when he left Calgary for St. John it was to meet Nellie on her arrival to Canada and for whatever reason they remained in New Brunswick. After receiving a copy of Charles’ service record from Library and Archives Canada that’s when the next, and very sad chapter, was revealed.
Charles was working as a jeweller and had spent 7 months with the 3rd New Brunswick Regiment, CGA in St. John before enlisting with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on October 25, 1915.6 When he embarked for England in April of 1916 Nellie was eight months pregnant with their only known child. She began receiving a separation allowance of $20.00 a month7 at that point but even so it’s not difficult to imagine how fearful and vulnerable she must have felt over her husband’s departure. After training in England Charles embarked for France on July 31, 1916.8 Just three months later, and exactly one year to the day of his enlistment, Nellie’s worst fear was realized — Charles was killed in action during the third phase of the Battle of the Somme. He was laid to rest in Bertrancourt Military Cemetery, France.9
Though she was now a widow with a baby Nellie’s separation payments ended with Charles’ death.10 However anxious and worried she’d been about his going off to war, the future must have now looked even darker. She would eventually receive a war gratuity of $180.00 but not until 1920,11 four years after Charles died and two years after she’d remarried to Leason Kierstead on August 5th, 1918.12 Leason was a policemen who’d also lost his first spouse and, like Nellie, brought a young child to the marriage.
From there the trail gets murky once more. I still have no death date or place for Nellie, nor do I know if she had any children other than Murray. The New Brunswick archives has a marriage certificate for Nellie Ashwood and Leason Kierstead (where she names her grandparents, Amos & Fanny (Eliza Fanny) Wilkins, as her parents) but a similar document for Nellie and Charles remains elusive as does the date of her immigration. Clearly Nellie isn’t ready to give up all her secrets just yet but, of course, that doesn’t mean the search won’t continue.