Identifying the unknown souls

 

At the cemetery, the grave of the ‘Unknown Souls’ holds one coffin; it was buried on 29th November 1940, eight days after the air raid. In it is an unidentified man of about 65 years, presumably not from Kenilworth as he would have been known, and most likely a person displaced from Coventry due to the air raids; he was found at the rear of 1-5 Abbey End.

Buried with him in his coffin are “Unidentified remains”, all that was recovered of a victim or victims also found at the rear of 1-5 Abbey End; there was no chance of certain identification, it was not even possible to tell if they were from a male or female.

It was of course always possible that these remnants could be from known victims whose bodies were not discovered; in a time of war the tying up of such loose ends was not always considered.

For my part, some years ago I set about trying to find evidence as to whom the remains may belong. The obvious starting point was to discover the graves of all those who died at Abbey End, and thus revealing those who were never found, a task more difficult than it sounds this many years since, in some cases surviving relatives did not know the answers.

Also, the remains were certain to be of someone close to the point of the explosion, so locating just where the detonation took place would also provide clues.

I did have one important lead, discovered in a Leamington Courier in about 2010. A year after the explosion, an inquest was held into the “disappearance” of two Abbey End residents, George and Nellie Webb, who had not been seen since the landmine fell. Wartime reporting restrictions revealed few details of the explosion or details of the inquest. I knew there were 5 other victims in their house, 5 Abbey End, that night; three members of the Snape family (all buried at the London Road cemetery, Coventry) and Mr & Mrs Glennie (buried together at Kenilworth cemetery, not far from the grave of the ‘Unknown Souls’). That same address was also, I estimated by studying photographs and victim locations, the probable centre of the explosion. And with this my investigation pretty much ended whilst I concentrated on other research subjects.

I managed to persuade the Cemetery Supervisor that the grave should be marked for the 70th anniversary of the landmine falling, and it was with a plastic marker for the occasion, but as the 75th Anniversary approached, I persuaded the Town Council that the event should be properly commemorated, and that the grave of the unknown souls should be more permanently marked. To the credit of all concerned, both happened, a splendid temporary wooden marker being placed at the grave on which the Mayor placed a wreath.

The two events were covered in the KWN, and a few days later I had a phone call from Doreen Lewis who lived in Farmer Ward Road, she said she knew who the unidentified remains belonged to - George and Nellie Webb; Nellie was her grandmother’s sister. She invited me to her house and there she told me how the family had always known this. Her father, Thomas Insall (who had won the MM in the Great War), had made trips to London as well as locally to have them declared as deceased for insurance and other purposes, to allow the family to move on, and it was his efforts that resulted in the inquest a year later.

I decided to re-open my investigation and belatedly realised that as an inquest had been held, the records of it may survive, and they do, at the Records Office in Warwick, but they were subject to a 75 year closure order beginning at the start of the year following the inquest; ie, were not to be in the public domain until 1st January 2017. With the process to mark the grave of the ‘Unknown Souls’ already underway, it was clearly necessary to see the papers before any stone was placed; with the permission of Merima Hadzic at the records office and current Coroner Sean McGovern (by way of former Coroner Michael Coker), I was allowed access to the inquest papers, provided none of its content was made public. To this of course I agreed, but now the papers are available for public viewing, the content can be revealed.

It must be remembered that the inquest was to confirm the deaths of George and Nellie Webb and not that their remains are buried in the cemetery, and this is done in some detail with statements from a number of witnesses that throws new light on the events of that night.

As I mentioned, the grave was in the process of being marked as that of ‘Unknown Souls’; should the names of George and Nellie Webb have been, or be, included? Although there is now a high degree of circumstantial evidence that the grave is the final resting place of George and Nellie Webb, I understand that the grave could only be marked as such if identification could be officially established and that would require a new inquest, and all that that would involve. Even if one day a small plaque displaying their names is included on the grave, the current new stone would still be a memorial to at least the 65 year old man, who will forever remain unidentified.

Sadly, Doreen Lewis died during 2016 before my investigations were complete, and before the grave was marked; her husband Eric had died just a few months before.

 

The documents consulted at the County Records Office, Warwick, are: CR 1769/13/456  and  CR 1769/13/357. Particular thanks are due to Heritage and Cultural Services Manager Merima Hadzic for her interest in my research, and for allowing online publication of extracts from the documents.