Tracing the birthplace of

Edward Archibald Groves


In 1988, during a 4-month European sojourn, I made an attempt to trace the birthplace of my father in Lesbury, Northumberland, without knowledge of any specific location, and was able to do so within a matter of days. I found the people of this area to to be extremely good-natured and hospitable. Allied to the fact that this region is blessed with rugged, immense beauty, I felt pride in knowing that he had been brought into this world in such tranquil surroundings, against a backdrop of a Europe in a state of terrible turmoil and upheaval at the time. My father was born on the 24th March 1917. He was baptised Edward Archibald on the 15th April 1917 in Lesbury. The family's stay there was somewhat short-lived, owing to the nature of of my grandfather's duties, being in the military and consequently always on the move. My father passed away on the 25th August, 1985, after a lengthy illness. It was borne almost out of an obsessive sense of duty that I therefore undertook the arduous task of tracing his roots, though at the end of it all I felt a wonderful sense of achievement.
With the very kind assistance of two friends from London, Marek and Kim, we journeyed by car to Alnwick, Northumberland, from London via the M1. After a quick look at Alnwick Castle and a cup of tea in Narrowgate, we were told that a number of the houses in that area in fact formed part of the property of the Castle. According to the memoirs, the family had relocated to Narrowgate after having lived in Lesbury initially. Descriptions clearly indicated that the rear garden of the house adjoined the Castle's rear boundary wall, so we presumed that this might assist us in identifying the exact location of the house in Narrowgate where they settled. In a local pub we sampled the local Alnwick Rum, along with the traditional fish and chips, the English contribution to cuisine, according to some! We were running short of time and called the nearest Youth Hostel to enquire about accommodation and then went on there soon after, booking a room at 3.50 per night plus 6.50 for the meal. A crowd of 6th Formers were staying there on a school botany educational. At a local pub we had drinks and met their teachers, before turning in for the night. The arrival of Edward Groves at Alnwick Camp is documented as follows:

"I drove to camp, and was deposited at the guard room, which was occupied by a Corporal and several men, I introduced myself, and gave my kit to one of the men to take to the staff quarters. On arrival at the huts, I had one of the biggest shocks of my life - the room was filled with the wildest, most uncouth lot of soldiers I had ever seen outside a battlefield - most of them were drunk, some were singing, other were cursing. A horrible collection of the dregs of all regiments in the Scottish command. I felt at that moment that I wished it was only a dream. I was taken to another hut where the sergeants and colour sergeants were congregated, and it was almost as bad there, for there were whisky and beer bottles all over the place. I called for the Senior Col. Sgt., and an old hand of the Black Watch came forward, and introduced himself as Col.Sgt. Major James Pont. I told him who I was, and then said I would see everybody on parade at 8.30 a.m. next day, with a complete nominal roll. This order was passed around and I spent an hour talking with the few who were not too drunk to converse, and meanwhile, a bed was being prepared for me in another hut where I slept peacefully."

We made an early start and had breakfast in Alnwick itself. On the advice of the Information Centre, we ended up at the Fusilier's Northumberland H.Q., who in turn recommended that we locate a Mr Hewittson in the Castle Military Museum and call on the Registrar's Office in the Town Hall as well. In the meanwhile it began to rain heavily. In the Registry Office we saw the original Birth Certificate but with no given address. Aware of the fact that George and Tom Groves were enroled at the Duke's School, Northumberland, at a later stage, after having been at school in Dunblane, Scotland, we acquired a photocopy of their entries on the school roll. Back at the Alnwick Castle archives, run by Dr Colin Shrimpton, as well as in the Alnwick Castle Estate Office, manned by Sybil, our research continued. Here details came to light of Mrs Riddell's rental, in 1917, of Lesbury House, cottages and land, after her husband died. She was a prominent figure in Alnwick at the time and involved to a great extent with Alnwick Convalescent Camp, its many functions organised for the troops and its beautification. According to the memoirs of Edward Groves, she had rented property in Lesbury, including the house in Lesbury (see photograph), where the Groves family had stayed, after their arrival there. And so began the process of reorganising the camp, which required somewhat of a shake-up:

"Up at dawn, I found an elderly man standing at the door of my bunk with a steaming mug of tea, and a tin of hot water for shaving - time 6 a.m. After dressing, breakfast was brought to me straight from the cookhouse and by the same man, whose name was Watson, and who stayed with me as my batman during the whole of my time in Alnwick. When I left my bunk for the first time that morning, I looked across the pastures at Alnwick Castle, the seat of the Duke of Northumberland - a truly wonderful sight standing as it did on top of a hill.

The camp had been the training ground of the Northumberland Brigade, and consisted of four distinct and separate camps, each one containing the various messes, kitchens and recreation rooms, and after a casual walk round, I made my way to the parade ground where I found a number of men already gathering. I went into the orderly room, and from the orderly room Sgt. I obtained the several lists of names of the men who had joined the camp, and I met the Adjutant, who was pleased to know I was a regular serving soldier. So far, all those already on the staff, were Territorials and crocks.

The Thompsons, residents of Rose Cottage, Lesbury.

Though no actual historical record of the Lesbury rental was found, there was indeed an indication that a Mr and Mrs Thompson had rented Rose Cottage in Lesbury, along with a joiner's shop, the significance of which was revealed, when Sybil, I think it was, recognised Meldon Cottage, also in Lesbury, from an old photograph, taken by my grandfather. Details were also found of a coach house and cottage rented to the Secretary of State for War from 04/11/1915 to 27/12/1918, on Narrowgate Eastside, Alnwick.
I paraded the men, eighty in number, called the roll, and noted the trade and calling of each one, and whilst doing this, I was being watched by the Commandant, Col. P. Broome-Giles. When I had finished he came over to me and said "Good Morning, Sgt. Groves. I am the Camp Commandant, and I must tell you that I am pleased with the way you have managed to get this crowd together. We have tried for three days to get them on parade, but could never find them". The Colonel was an old Medical Corps man, and his adjutant also, and neither knew the least thing about discipline. I asked whether he would mind my taking the men on a short route march, to which he agreed, but asked me to stay, as he wanted to walk round the camp with me.

Colonel P. Broome-Giles, Commandant of Alnwick Convalescent Camp.

Sybil suggested a visit to Miss Balcillie, who used to work at Lesbury House and had lived in Lesbury for about 85 years. There was also the question of the mythical "Fred". Before he was revealed to us, we were apprehended by Mr Jack Marnes, Steward of Alnwick Castle, who showed us the precise location of Military Camps 'A', 'B', 'C' and 'D' , as they were then located across the river Aln from Alnwick Castle, referred to in the memoirs and photographs of Edward Groves. He recommended a visit to Mr Petit, senior partner of the Alnwick Registry Solicitors, who would prove a valuable source of information. I placed the Company Sgt. Major in charge of the parade, told him how far to go, and marched them off. Three men fell out, saying they could not march! The Colonel took them into the office to examine them, found nothing more than a hangover wrong, and turning to me asked what he should do with them. I at once suggested that they should be returned to their own regimental depot, and agreeing to this he had rail warrants made out and they were sent back the same day. This had a steadying effect on the remainder who when they returned from their march, were given a good talking to by the Colonel. I was told that the camp had to be prepared in a month to receive two thousand convalescents."


Back at Narrowgate, the Auctioneers thought that Wilson's shop "Robertsons" (as it was now known) or Black's, had belonged to the Duke (later confirmed by Mr Petit himself, the latter until 20 years before). Both were therefore possible candidates in terms of where the Groves family may have stayed. He was extremely helpful and showed us Bow Alley, leading off from Narrowgate and up to the rear Castle boundary wall. The memoirs mentioned that the kids Tom and George often played in the back yard of the Narrowgate House at the rear of the Castle, while baby Edward Groves crawled in the mud. In Narrowgate we had lunch in the Baker's Oven.

Edward Groves then made arrangements for the family to join him and for their accommodation in the nearby town of Lesbury:

"Together with two Company Sgt. Majors, Mathison and Pout, we went through the central camp with the Colonel, and made notes of the duties that had to be provided such as cooks, batmen, police, barbers, etc. That afternoon, I ordered another parade and detailed the men for the various jobs, and put the remainder on general fatigue, cleaning up the barrack rooms, kitchens, etc. The Colonel was great on entertainment for the convalescents, and found well-known local ladies to furnish and run the recreation rooms and it was this that led me to become acquainted with Mrs. Riddell, a widow of General Riddell, recently killed. I gave her six fatigue men to help her preparing her recreation room, and in talking to her, when she learned that my family was anxious to join me, she offered me the use of a cottage in the small village of Lesbury, four miles from Alnwick. I told her I would write my wife and let her know as soon as I had a reply.

Aerial view of Alnwick, Northumberland, showing Alnwick Castle, with the river Aln beyond. Crossing the image, from right to left, is Bondgate Without, which becomes Bondgate after the intersection of Fenkle Street, and finally, Narrowgate (partially just out of picture). Bow alley leads off to the right towards the rear of the Castle, virtually at the bend. In the top left hand corner Lion Bridge can be seen straddling the river Aln.

In the meantime, she had her gardener tidy up the place, and I sent a telegram to my wife, who replied that she would leave Glasgow the next day, but I wired her again telling her to wait my arrival and I obtained two days leave, and brought the crowd along. They all fell in love with the quaint old-fashioned cottage with its candles and lamps and outside water pump, and it was not long before we had Tom and George back from Dunblane."

At the Registrar's Office, an appointment at a nearby tea shop was struck with Mr Petit, which led to a later invitation to his house at 4h30 to view some period newspaper articles! He pointed out that one of the remaining huts from the Alnwick Camp was located up on the moor. This we went to search out, chatting to the resident in the process, who claimed to have known my grandfather, a strict disciplinarian, by his account.
Entertainment was then organised for the convalescents:

"For several days I was unable to visit my family, owing to stress of work in camp, where thing were moving fast. We were converting two long rifle ranges into a fair sized theatre, and when nearing completion we heard of a one-time cinema in Hoole, Yorkshire, which had been closed some years and was advertising tip-up seats and scenery for sale. The Colonel decided to buy the lot if he could, and we both went along. We had much difficulty in locating the place, which had been out of action for some time, but a local policeman led us to it. After examining the things, we asked what was wanted for them, and the man in charge said "Make an offer". The Colonel took me aside and asked what I thought it was worth and I told him to offer 30 pounds. But the Colonel said he thought 50 pounds would be nearer. Then I said to make the thirty offer and see how he reacted to it, and this we did. He accepted, and we then offered him another five pounds if he would get the lot on rail. There were three lovely sets of scenery each one of which cost more than 50 pounds, and more than six hundred seats in first class condition, so we did very well.

After photographing the hut, it was off to Mr Petit's home this time, for tea. While scanning through the newspaper articles, loads of references to my grandfather were found! This excited me in the extreme, which consequently led to a further invitation for 9h30 the following morning, at which time we could examine the articles in more detail, with a view to making photostat copies later! Mr Petit took us on a campsite tour, revealing precisely where the guard house and sentry hut, referred to in the memoirs, were located. These are clearly indicated in a set of photographs which Mr Petit had of Alnwick Camp, taken a year or two prior to my grandfather's arrival, copies of which we he forwarded to me at a later date. In exchange, I passed on photos I had of Harry Lauder's visit to Alnwick, for which I believe he was particularly thrilled. For someone to have suddenly appeared out of nowhere from a far-off continent with photos such as these, must have been quite unexpected. The day's good luck was celebrated that evening in a local pub.

The appointment with Mrs Petit the following morning was kept, though she had to pop out on business for a while. Displaying such kind hospitality, she prepared tea and laid on biscuits for Marek, Kim and I, who remained with me until 11h00, marking the sections we wished to photocopy. This done, we ventured into Alnwick to take photographs, the light being in our favour. Popping in at Black's shop in Narrowgate, the owner very kindly presented me with a brass button cleaner and clay pipe that he had previously found under the floorboards. To whom these objects may have belonged shall remain a mystery forever.

I bought my first motor bike for 20 pounds, and was able to go home every evening, and several times I borrowed one of the camp cars and brought the family into town, down to the famous Lion bridge, overlooking the camp. And now that the theatre was nearing completion, we decided to make application to the Whitwork council at Armstrong, the big Armament Factory in Newcastle to meet their committee members with a view of obtaining as a gift a complete cinematography set, with engine to run it, and an appointment was made for the following week, when we went to Newcastle, and were sympathetically treated. They ordered a complete new set, and sent their own engineers to fit it up, and after one or two failures, we eventually had it running beautifully. I found a man, Will Spivey, who had owned a cinema of his own in civil life, and engaged him to select the pictures and generally run the show, and in a very short time, we were banking hundreds, though the entrance fee was only three pence. We could pack in fifteen hundred, and were full up almost every night.

Meldon cottage, Lesbury, circa 1917. Along with the eldest of the family, Margaret Groves, and Joan Groves, are the six boys from Queen Victoria School, Dunblane, Scotland, these being Alfred Osborne, George Groves (front, extreme left), Thomas Groves (back row, second from right), Alfred Tout, David Mitchell, and George Mitchell. The Roman water pump, a listed building, lies to the left of the cottage, while Rose cottage adjoins on the right. View images of Meldon cottage as it is today.

The end of our first month, found the first two camps taking in men by the hundreds, and we had to commence getting the other camps ready, so that when full up in all camps, we carried four thousand men, and these were classed in three categories for training."

We then drove to Lesbury to meet Miss Balcillie, who proved somewhat of a disappointment as a source of information. The significance of the fact that the Thompson's had rented Rose Cottage and that a family photograph that I had in my possession, that had been taken outside Meldon cottage, was the following. These two cottages, along with Jasmine Cottage, made up a row of three semi-detached cottages! In fact two surviving sisters of my father's at the time of my investigation had confirmed the Thompsons as having been neighbours, he being a carpenter by trade. It was therefore quite amazing to me that none of the cottages had changed in name and little in terms of form. After having taken photos of the local church in Lesbury, which my aunts recalled for its distinctive gargoyles, we went on to Meldon Cottage. While wandering around to the back via a small section of grassland adjoining the property, we encountered the neighbours, who showed us an outbuilding that quite obviously was once the joiner's shop! They kindly took us along to introduce us to the current occupants. The final proof that I had indeed located my father's birthplace, was the discovery in the field next to the house, of the old Roman water pump, as referred to in the memoirs, and now a listed building! It was in a buoyant mood that I returned to Alnwick and the offices of Mr Petit at 5.00 p.m., where I completed the photostat copying, while Kim and Marek went on a trip up the coast. We arranged to meet later at 7.00 p.m. at the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick.
Edward Groves made the necessary arrangements to have Tom and George Groves visit the camp, along with four other boys from the Queen Victoria military school in Dunblane, Scotland, during which time they engaged in concert activities at the camp:

"I asked the Colonel's permission to bring six boys from Dunblane for a holiday camp, first having obtained permission from the Commandant of the school, and he placed a hut at their disposal, with a full blown Sgt. to look after them, and the boys had a great time, paying an occasional visit to Lesbury. They also put on a rather good show at several concerts, when they did physical drill, boxing and wrestling. It was shortly after this holiday that Tom and George returned home for good, and they were not sorry! They were both taken into the Duke of Northumberland's school, which school, until then, had admitted boys of the country, but with a little help from Mrs. Riddell and the Duke's Chaplain, Canon Mangin, the crusty old Duke was persuaded to break the rule, and both Tom and George did very well there."

An interesting feature of the hotel is the Olympic Suite, made with the hand carved panelling from the SS Olympic, sister ship to the ill-fated Titanic. We had a drink there before returning to the Rock Pub for a steak dinner and chat with the teachers from the Youth Hostel. The following morning we drove into Alnwick and took some spectacular shots of the Castle from Denning Bridge. En route to the M1, we gave a lift to a Belgian hiker and made a detour via York on our way back to London.

This was, indeed, not the only instance where I had attempted to delve into the family history. In November 1979, while still a student in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cape Town, I applied for 3 months of vacational employment at Siemens in Erlangen, Germany. Though I had to brave the harsh European Winter, I experienced the warmth and magic of Christmas in the medieval city of Nuremberg. I travelled for three weeks on a Eurail ticket through central Europe, with London as the ultimate destination, staying at St. George Memorial Youth Hostel. I made my way down to Park Road, Purbrook, Portsmouth, where I had arranged through prior correspondence, to meet my Uncle George, then almost 80 years of age, and Aunt Violet, for the very first time. When Edward Groves retired from the military and eventually settled with the family in Elgin, Cape Town, South Africa in the early 1920's, it was George and Tom who remained behind in the United Kingdom. They had decided to leave home to join the service. Tom chose the R.A.F. and George the Royal Navy, and both had passed their entrance examinations some time previously.


Having taken the Waterloo train via Cosham and Southampton, it was a cold wintry Friday evening that my Uncle George, with whom I would spend the weekend, fetched me from the station. I recall that moment vividly. As he spoke, it struck me just how much he reminded me of my own father, with a similar slight lisp and similar mannerisms. While in service of the Royal navy as an engineer, George paid the family in South Africa a visit in the early 1930's, this being the last opportunity that he was able to see the family. For me personally, it was difficult to imagine that Uncle George and my father had not seen one another four decades or more and even more strange to hear him recounting tales of my father, as a kid, playing in the snow in Chester, England. Uncle George willingly showed me Portsmouth's pride and joy, Nelson's Victory Museum, in the harbour, on the Saturday. All good things come to an end and it was with some sadness that we hugged and parted company on the station platform, as I headed back to London and South Africa in February of 1980. In 1988 I was able to return to the United Kingdom to pay Violet a visit in her apartment in Ryde, Isle of Wight, where she had moved after George passed away.

Prior to the departure of Edward Groves and family to South Africa in 1921, Janet Lawson's mother passed away. Archie "grandfather" Wyllie, as he was known, joined the family in South Africa, where he died on the 23 June 1939 at 85 years. He is buried in Somerset West along with his daughter, Janet Lawson, she having died on the 23 May 1930 at the tender age of 49. Her brother, also Archie Wyllie, perished in the First World War. It was with the kind assistance of Aunt Violet that I learnt of the whereabouts of family of Janet Lawson Wyllie in Glasgow and Kilmarnock, Scotland and struck up correspondence. Some time later I received a phone call from Archie and Madge Wyllie in Glasgow, this Archie the nephew of Janet Lawson. He was only one year old at the time his father died on the battlefield. So it came to pass that I decided to pay them a visit on my last European Tour in 1998, travelling by train from London to Glasgow.

Archie and Madge Wyllie, Glasgow University, Scotland. Archie's aunt was my grandmother, Janet Lawson Wyllie.

There is still much that needs to be explored, regarding the ancestry of Edward Groves and the existence and whereabouts of any other family descendants. The memoirs of Edward Groves accounts for brothers Tom, Andrew and Bill Groves, one of whom emigrated to America, and sister Margaret. For whatever reason, Edward Groves was never close to his own father, who was associated to some extent with the stage and theatre in London. This undoubtedly must have had an influence on Edward Groves' subsequent involvement in organising events of a theatrical nature, as is evident in the activities at Alnwick Convalescent Camp.

George Hugh Groves, brother of Edward Archibald Groves - photograph taken in 1980, Purbrook, Hampshire;

My father, Edward Archibald Groves, born Lesbury, 1917;

Mag, sister of Edward Groves. Photograph probably taken in London.

Arrangements were then made to have the family transferred from Lesbury to a house in Narrowgate, Northumberland:

"As I was beginning to find myself tied to the camp, and not being able to get to Lesbury as often as I wished, I began to look for a suitable house in Alnwick, and found a satisfactory one in Narrowgate, which would become vacant at the month end. I broke the news to Mrs. Riddell, who was pleased to have the cottage which she wanted for her coachman.

Our youngest daughter Mary, was taken suddenly very ill with severe bronchitis, and a Capt. McGill of the R.A.M.C. came out by car to attend to her. It was snowing heavily at the time, and he rigged a steam kettle beside Mary's bed, and the doctor, with Mum and I, sat through the night at her bedside. The following day saw a decided improvement and Dr. McGill considered she could be left with safety in her Mother's good hands, and returned to camp. He visited us daily for several days, but Mary never looked back, and when we moved to our new house, she was as fit as a fiddle.

Our move proved as source of wonder to the children, who had no end of fun exploring the strange rooms of this very old house, with its crinolines, hanging on the rafters, and a well preserved horse sledge still in its stables. The back garden led right down to the castle walls over which Tom and George would often climb. When the weather became fine the whole family often walked down to the camp and attended many of the concerts and bioscope shows."

Prior to the family leaving Lesbury, there was a new addition to the fold:

"I had almost forgotten to mention that before leaving Lesbury our youngest son elected to be born there! He does not remember anything about this beautiful old-world village, but I can assure him that if ever he has the good fortune to visit it, I am certain he will fall in love with it. He was christened inside the cottage from a large cut glass bowl by the local Padre and named Edward Archibald Groves. And what a load he was! He could never be carried anywhere by his mother, and I as a soldier, was not allowed to carry a baby through the streets. We had no other means of taking him out, and so Edward Archibald was allowed to grub about the backyard, which was a very long and muddy place, and in consequence was always covered from head to foot with thick sticky mud. I was allowed to leave camp every night to go to my home, after handing over to my assistant, and ofter took several of the children to the camp cinemas, and concerts." 


William 'Bill' Groves was married to Louie. I understand the mother of Edward Groves to have been born in Ireland. At some stage she had lived in London in Cornwall Road, a short distance from Waterloo Station. A greengrocer business was sold, that led to the purchase of a pub known as the Vine Hotel in Goudhurst, Kent. I have no knowledge as to whether this building, located in the vicinity of the Three Bells, where they spent the night while concluding the transaction, is still in existence. Research via the Public Records Office in Kew, United Kingdom, will undoubtedly reveal further information, especially regarding war and long service medals awarded to Edward Groves.


Ed Groves and what was possibly his first motorcycle, Alnwick, circa 1916. Purchased in order to visit his family in Lesbury, while being stationed at Alnwick Convalescent Camp.

Even though Lesbury was barely four miles from Alnwick, the family had felt somewhat isolated. They therefore later moved to Narrowgate, a suburb of Alnwick.



Archie's father, killed in action during the First World War.

The following obituary to my late father, Edward Groves, was extracted from an a South African Weather Bureau news letter, edition no. 437, of March 1985:

"We learned, with regret, of the death of Mr Ted Groves on 25 August. he retired as Officer in Charge at DF Malan Airport.

Born in England in 1917, he came to South Africa when his parents emigrated to this country in 1921. He joined the SAAF Meteorological Section in 1942 and served as an observer in North Africa and Italy. In 1946 he joined the Weather Bureau and started working in the Durban Office at Stamford Hill Airport. From 1946 to 1953 he was stationed at the Kimberley Weather Office. He was transferred to Wingfield Airport in Cape Town, and later moved to DF Malan Airport, where he remained until he retired. In 1973 he was promoted to Control Meteorological Technician and Officer in Charge.

Ted will be remembered for his devotion to duty and his fine sense of humour. He was a talented cartoonist and many of his drawings helped liven up the pages of the Weather Bureau News Letter. His ex-colleagues in the Weather Bureau wish to extend their sincere condolences to his wife and family."



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