Difficulties when ancestors share similar names

I have to say this revelation surprised me!

Sometimes we think we know everything about an ancestor, we have their birth details and have bought the birth certificate. We trace them to their marriage and then their death, adding the proof of these vital events into our family tree. We then flesh out their story by finding some interesting facts about where they went to school, what they did in the war and so on. But sometimes we can get the story wrong when we jump to conclusions or listen to faulty accounts.

This week I was checking a fact about a person in my own family tree, a man who had been born in 1886 and married his first wife in Richmond, Surrey in 1909. I have vivid memories of him from my childhood as my to me he was known as “Grandpa”. In reality he was my step-grand father, having married my grandmother after WWII when they had both lost their respective spouses.

It was while I was trying to find out some more about his time as an architect, in pre and post-war Singapore, that I came across a conundrum. It was a newspaper cutting announcing his wedding to a Monica Mary Evans in 1921 at the Presbyterian church in the British colony. My childhood recollections were that he had divorced his first wife and then, having had a change of heart, remarried her. I never registered that in between this he had been married to another and so the faulty account that I was listening to was my own, internal, telling of his family story!


By the time of the Second World War Grandpa was married to his first wife again. In the escape from Singapore I knew that he had managed a perilous journey as a 56 year old civilian, his ship having been sunk by the Japanese. Somehow he got ashore in Sumatra and from there he escaped to India.

Japanese March in Singapore

Mary Ellen Brewer, his wife, however, was not so lucky.

On being ordered to leave Singapore, before the fall, she had joined a ship containing women and children which was sadly sunk. She too made it ashore and with others set out on yet another ship only to be sunk by the Japanese enemy on the night of the 17 February 1942 and so lost her life. If I think really hard, as to what I overheard as a small boy, I do recall him mentioning a Monica in small talk with other adults. The conversation being none of my concern, I just thought that Monica was his first wife’s nickname. My recent research, however, has disproved my previous belief.

Frank Brewer’s first wife had the Christian names of Mary Ellen while my grandmother’s were Mary Helena. I was therefore confused by this marriage to Monica Mary.

At first I wondered if Monica was a pet name, as he always called my grandmother “Nell” and so it would not have surprised me if “Monica” had been a familiar nickname as well. But now I was being presented with the full name of Monica Mary Evans and from my earlier research I knew that he had married Mary Ellen Cousins, not Evans, in England back in 1909. Thus this was not the remarriage I had heard mention of.

Despite some research to try to find the second time round marriage announcement in the Straits Times, I have not yet come up with the date for his remarriage. But now I have found some explanation in a report that I found on the internet about the sinking of the S.S.Tandjong Pinang this was the ship in which his first/third wife Mary Ellen was on board when she lost her life.

The document makes it all more clear when it states in the list of passengers who were lost was one “Mrs. Mary Ellen “Nell” Brewer who married Frank Brewer [born 1886] in London in the early 1900s [ he then appears to have married a Monica Mary Evans in Singapore in 1921 but she died in 1925 – source ‘Straits Times’ – and by 1929 passenger lists show him again married to Mary Ellen, they had a daughter Eileen who married in Singapore in 1933, after the War Frank married again to a Mary Helena according to 1960 passenger lists – source JM]”

I then had an a-ha moment. Mary Ellen was also known as “Nell”. So when I had seen reports of Nell Brewer in Singapore these referred to the first Nell and not the second. Likewise I had thought that some confusion had crept into newspaper reports with the similarities between the names Mary Ellen and Mary Helena, but it was my wrong assumptions!

The first lesson that I have learnt is never assume that a family story is a hundred percent correct, as my own jumbled recollection of my grandfather’s story shows.

Secondly, just because you see one person appearing in reports with the nickname  you expect do not assume that this is the person you think it is as it is perfectly possible for two wives to share the same pet name and even the same, if very slightly different, first names!



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