Gloucestershire Heritage Hub

Family History

A mystery solved

How did a Russian toddler come to be buried in Stow-on-the-Wold in November 1909? 

 This was the question one of our volunteers asked when she found this entry in the Stow parish register (P317 IN 1/30).  This was absolutely not what she was actually looking for but she couldn’t resist digging into the online sources available in our Family History Centre. 

The rector, who conducted the burial service, added some extra information:

 *Died in the train in his mother’s arms.  The mother, two other children, a woman and three more men were on their way from America to Hamburg - emigrants.  The dead child’s father is awaiting them in New York

Fortunately for us, despite the very unusual circumstances, the local Coroner decided to go ahead with a formal Inquest to establish the cause of the child’s death.  No original records have survived but unsurprisingly the Inquest was reported in all the local papers. Putting these accounts together, we can understand much of what had happened.  Mrs Howman of the Elms School, Stow acted as an interpreter for Mrs Witkowsky so we have a vivid first-hand account of the tragic reality of the situation rather than just a more neutral official account.

 The German speaking Mary Witkowsky with her children was on her way home to New York from northern Germany.  She had met the other adults, who were Russian, on the voyage from Hamburg to Grimsby.  This was the first stage of an established emigrant route from eastern Europe which included a train journey from Grimsby to Southampton and then another ship to New York.

The Coroner was very thorough so we can understand exactly how the tragedy unfolded.  The first leg of the journey had been especially rough so everyone had been very seasick.  Then the group failed to change trains in Banbury as timetabled.  The Guard arranged for them to get out in Stow so they could take the next service back up the line and then catch a train to Southampton.  This was the point when Mary Witkowsky realised that her young son Leon had died and the Stow authorities stepped in.  Leon’s death was attributed to ‘shock following seasickness’.

 Mary Witkowsky also explained the reasons for her journey.  She’d left her husband in New York two years earlier for ‘a holiday’ with her own family in northern Germany and their son Leon was born during this time.  This seems an unusual decision given her circumstances but she’d also travelled from New York with two stepchildren which raises even more questions.  Therefore when they arrived in Stow the Witkowskys were on their way back home to New York so not Russian emigrants at all. 

 We’ve found a lot more about this family in passenger lists and other US sources online but that is another story.

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