The information we have for many of our sitters is so limited that we quickly draw a blank when trying to identify them. In other cases the trail is not cold, but more complicated than it should be, and for an experienced researcher this can raise alarm bells. In addition, while sometimes having just a photo to go by is not really that useful, in other cases it can provide the one invaluable clue which helps to piece the puzzle together.
The baby-face of J.A. Boyd Esq. immediately raised comment from archives assistant Sue Giddings as she set out to investigate his background, and ultimately this observation would prove to be the key to unlocking his history.
Sue began her investigations by searching military records for mention of this individual and quickly found him listed as James Arnold Boyd, a Private (army number 354050) in the 3rd East Lancashire Field Ambulance Corps, Royal Army Medical Corp.
This information ties in with records we have for regiments posted in the area at the time and seemed a likely match. J.A Boyd had enlisted on 31 Mar 1913, aged 18 years, 6 months; height 5ft 3 3/4 inches; a semi-skilled apprentice fitter, working as a tyre man for C. Macintosh & Co. He gave an address in Moss Side, Manchester. He was first posted to Egypt and later to France and his military character was described as ‘very good, solid and reliable’. He was discharged as medically unfit on 6 May 1918 due to epilepsy and sent to the Wharncliff War Hospital in Sheffield.
Boyd’s army records listed his father’s name as James Rutherford A. Boyd and gave his street address in Manchester. Armed with this information, and an approximate birth year of 1894, calculated from the age Boyd gave on his attestation papers, Sue set out to find his birth or baptism. She easily found a James Rutherford H. Boyd at the address given and made a educated guess that the middle initial was mis-transcribed (A and H sounding similar when spoken). James Rutherford Hood Boyd was married to Edith Annie Trimble, but Sue could find no children born to the couple in 1894. What she did discover was a baptism record for 1896.
The record shows a son born to the couple, baptised with the same name as his father, two years later in Oct 1896. Sue had her suspicions at this point that James Boyd may well have enlisted underage, with a false name, but with no obvious way of proving this it seemed that the trail may have gone cold.
Sue decided to follow her hunch and in an attempt to see if she could be right she began to follow the trail of the young James Rutherford Hood Boyd. She found him, married to a Nellie Langley in 1922, and fathering twins, James Eric and Joyce Nellie, in 1924. Sue tried a number of other searches in his name to no avail, until a last ditch search under his wife Nellie’s name uncovered a Territorial Army (TA) record. Sue discovered that Boyd had served in the territorial army for eight years from 1927-1935 (Army Number 401217). The TA attestation papers for James Rutherford Hood Boyd list his wife’s name, which is how he was located. They also ask for any previous service record. Sue found that the army number given here was 354050, the same as for James Arnold Boyd in 1913, making the two men one and the same. More revealingly, the birth date given on this paper is 27 Sep 1896, meaning that the original enlistment had indeed taken place when Boyd was just 16 years old, and underage.
Despite the law stating that boys had to be 19 to flight, as many as 250,000 boys under the age of 18 served in the British Army during World War One. This BBC article explains just how so many teenagers made it to the battlefield. It would have been easy for James Boyd to present himself without a birth certificate (not uncommon), as 18 and a half years of age, fit and eager. With a height of just 5ft 3 3/4 inches and a chest breadth of 34″ when fully expanded, James Boyd passed the minimum requirements (5’3 height & 34in. chest) by the hair on his head. By the time his training was completed he would have been eligible to join the front. When we see him signing up for the TA in 1927 he has grown another 4 inches to his full adult height of 5’7 showing just how much growing he had yet to do.
Happily James Boyd survived the war and went on to live a full life. Uncovering the truth behind this individual is incredibly satisfying but demonstrates how sometimes, as a researcher, you have to follow a gut instinct and think laterally about how you might find an otherwise ‘invisible’ person. In this case, having a photograph of the individual in question was the key to uncovering his identity. These kind of visual clues can range from a person’s age, to their military rank and even to their marital status or social standing. While we may sometimes bemoan the lack of information we have on the individuals in this collection sometimes, it seems, we need very little to go on but for our eyes and a hunch.