Researching the lives of our military ancestors can be difficult at the best of times but when it comes to retelling the stories of the seven million men and women who served in the British Army during the First World War, there are significant obstacles in our way.
In September 1940 a German bomb hit the military repository in Arnside Street, London, instantly destroying well over half of the main series of First World War army service records stored there. Roughly a third of the records were saved from the fire that followed and another set of records recording the service of around 750,000 men who had been discharged as a result of wounds or illness has also survived but your chances of finding a surviving service record are still no greater than 40%.
A few months ago I was searching for a man who, it was believed, had seen active service in the First World War. His army service record, it seems, was amongst those that were lost in 1940, but I was able to uncover a remarkable story and, although this man clearly survived the war, I thought it might be appropriate to mark Remembrance Sunday by writing about his life.
Edward Frederick Goodwin was born in Bristol on 14 March 1881, the oldest child of Edward Goodwin and his wife Rosina Caroline (née Rodda). Later records give his date of birth as 15 March but this was undoubtedly the man I was looking for.
Just two weeks old, he appears in the 1881 census (as Frederick Goodwin), living with his parents at 5 Lower Church Lane in the parish of St Michael, Bristol, in the west of the city. His father, Edward, a Londoner by birth, was a French Polisher and seems to have returned to London soon after Edward Frederick was born; their second child, Rosalia Clara, was born in Islington in 1884.
The family were soon on the move again, and by the time of the 1891 census the Goodwins were in Middlesbrough, some 215 miles to the north. A third child, Oswald, was born the following year with the family now firmly settled in the North East. The 1901 census finds them living in Billingham, County Durham.
Rosina had died in 1897 and it may have been this event that caused Edward Frederick – or Frederick Edward as he routinely called himself from this time onward – to leave home and seek a new life for himself. He had served an apprenticeship with Craig, Taylor & Co., shipbuilders based in Thornaby-on-Tees but it seems that this was not where his future lay and by the summer of 1900 he had moved south again and was living in Southwark – at 7 Poplar Road, to be precise, the home, in 1901, of a Bristol-born man called Henry Bachelor, perhaps a friend of the family?
Whether or not this had been Frederick Edward Goodwin’s plan when he set off for London, on 17 July 1900, aged 19 years and 3 months (a remarkably accurate age for army service papers!) he signed up with The Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment of Militia. The military life must have appealed to young Frederick, as within a month, he had joined the regular army.
On 14 August 1900, Frederick Edward Goodwin, now aged 19 years and 4 months, enlisted in the Liverpool Regiment, giving his next-of-kin as his father, Edward Goodwin of 27 Middle Bank Street, Stockton-on-Tees. Three months later, on 21 November, after completing his basic training, Frederick was posted from the regimental Depot to join the 2nd Battalion which, at the time the 1901 census was taken (on 1 April), was stationed at the Curragh Camp, 25 miles to the west of Dublin.
Private F Goodwin, aged 20, is listed amongst the men of the 2nd Battalion “The Kings” Liverpool Regiment. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly, but on 29 May he was marked as absent from the regiment, and three weeks later, on 20 June 1901, he was declared a deserter.
We don’t know why Goodwin decided to desert from the Liverpool Regiment but it clearly wasn’t anything to do with a dislike for army life. Because, just six days after deserting, Frederick enlisted, at Dublin, in the 99th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, under the assumed name of Frederick Edward Palmer. This time he gave his next of kin as his father, Edward Palmer, of New-bank Street, Glasgow!
Despite his attempted subterfuge, Frederick’s previous life didn’t take long to catch up with him. After serving 7 weeks in military prison between 1 November and 27 December 1901 for an unspecified offence, his ‘fraudulent enlistment’ in the Royal Artillery was discovered. By 21 March 1902 he was awaiting trial and he was convicted of the offence on 15 April, his period of imprisonment lasting until 15 August 1902.
On 4 June 1902, presumably while he was still in prison, Frederick was officially discharged from the Royal Artillery, described by the authorities as ‘Incorrigible & Worthless’.
Had Frederick learned his lesson? Had he decided that army life wasn’t for him after all? Well, no…
Back in London, just 11 days after being discharged, Frederick enlisted for the third time. His unit of choice this time was the 53rd Battery, Royal Field Artillery. He reverted to his real name and gave his age as 21 years and 5 months old (which was true!) but claimed to have been born in Islington. He was posted from the Depot to the 53rd Battery on 5 November 1902 (was anyone suspicious of how easily he must have completed his ‘basic’ training?).
This time his deception lasted three months before being discovered. On 8 February 1903 he was awaiting trial, having been found to have been discharged (as Frederick Edward Palmer) from the 99th Battery, Royal Field Artillery the previous June. He was sentenced on 23 February and was finally discharged ‘with Ignominy’ on 4 March 1903. Frederick was released from prison on 22 February 1904, with all previous service towards pension forfeited.
Surely this would be the end of the road for Frederick as far as military service was concerned? Well, yet again, the answer is no…
Less than a year after getting out of prison, our serial enlister was at it again. On 3 January 1905, Frederick Edward Goodwin enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment. Unfortunately, the record covering this fourth spell in the army hasn’t survived – the date of his enlistment is taken from a later document – but this time, his service was an undoubted success.
Without a full record it’s difficult to say too much about the details of Frederick’s time with the ‘Green Howards’ but we know that he saw service overseas (we find him in the British Barracks at Khartoum in the 1911 census) and that he was part of the British Expeditionary Force, travelling to France in October 1914. He was also promoted to the rank of Acting Corporal before being discharged on 5 October 1917, having been wounded at the Somme in 1916.
And that, surely, is the end of the story. Well, not so fast…
On 31 January 1918, Frederick Edward Goodwin joined the Royal Navy Air Service as an Aircraftman, 1st Class (AC1) and was still in active service two months later, when, on 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force was formed.
Frederick Edward’s Royal Naval service paper records his conduct as ‘Very Good’ and he clearly continued to impress after joining the RAF. On 31 July 1918 he was promoted to the rank of Corporal. His RAF service saw him in Lerwick, Shetland and in Ripon, North Yorkshire and it was there on 1 March 1919 that Frederick was transferred to the RAF reserve before being finally discharged on 30 April 1920.
As always, there’s more to be discovered. Frederick’s pension record card includes a reference to service in the Shropshire (or Somerset) Light Infantry but it’s difficult to see how he would have had time for service in another regiment. Unless, of course, this was after 1920 – he wasn’t yet 40 when he was discharged from the RAF so perhaps he fancied one last blast!
And the story doesn’t end there. We find Frederick in London in 1939, on the outbreak of the Second World War, working for the City of London Corporation, ARP Demolition and Rescue service. What happened to him after that is, sadly, currently unknown.
What we do know is that he ended his life a decorated ex-soldier, having been awarded the 14 Star, along with the British and Victory Medals and the Silver War Badge. He had attained the rank of Acting Corporal in the Army and was later promoted to the rank of Corporal in the RAF. Not bad for a man who had been written off by the authorities as ‘Incorrigible & Worthless’…
Thanks to John Sly for giving me the opportunity to tell this fascinating story.
Further reading: Army Records: A Guide for Family Historians by William Spencer (2008)
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 14 November 2021