My Great Grandfather, William Henry Heeks (1872 – 1918)

On my 40th birthday, three and a half years ago, I felt a sudden need to find out more about my Heeks ancestors. My grandpa Charles Heeks (1911 – 2006) had been dead a few years and his son, my dad, Gordon Heeks (1942 -), was struggling with CPD and was needing to take oxygen through a canula just to breathe. Having just turned 40, I felt that time was upon me in some important way and that the older generations of men on the Heeks side of my family were either dead or dying. I wanted to find out more about who my ancestors were. And I knew pretty much nothing about my grandpa Charles’s dad.

So, for the last three years or so, on and off, I’ve been searching the internet, contacting relatives, and doing all I can to find out more about my ancestors.

My great grandfather, the man I began my search with, turns out to be William Henry Heeks (1872-1918). And this morning (19th March 2017) I get a lovely breakthrough. My aunt, Diana Heeks (1944-) emailed me the thing I’d been hoping for all along – a photograph of my great grandfather, William Henry Heeks!

W H Heeks

After reading so much about him for the last few years, seeing his face for the first time is a strange experience. I knew, for example, where he was baptised, what regiment he served with, when his children were born, the occupations of his brothers and sisters, where and when he died etc etc. But what I really wanted was to make a connection with him. Seeing a photograph of him is the most I could hope for in this sense of a connection. Photographs! The magic power of photographs! Freezing a moment in time forever! Because there he is, just sitting there, somewhere in time, over a hundred years ago, looking straight at me!

What I’ve learned about William Henry Heeks (1872-1918) over the last few years has been a mixture of legend and rumour. Then there’s the more factual details I’ve found from his military record and from historical records such as censuses, birth records etc.

(n.b. I’ve also covered some of the following in my broader family tree blog post)

First the rumours and legends!

A rumour or ‘story’ is that William was illegitimate; that his father was not actually Charles Heeks (1845 – ?), but ‘a member of the Lea and Perrins family’. This rumour of illegitimacy has been raised by members of my family, but I can’t yet find anything substantial to corroborate this story. William’s parents on the census records, Fanny and Charles Heeks, were married in 1870. William’s birth and baptism are recorded in early (Jan-Mar) 1872. His parents’ names are included on his baptism record, and he is listed as ‘Son’ on their 1881 census record. So there’s nothing suspicious there, in  terms of William being born before the marriage of his parents, or of his named father not acknowledging him. But then again, a rumour of illegitimacy can’t easily be disproved either.

A legend is that William had a reputation as a drinker and a fighter. A story that has attached to his memory is that he once jumped out of a bedroom window to fight another man on the street. This one is easy to believe because both of his sons, William (aka ‘Uncle Bill’ 1903-1978) and Charles (1911-2006), both enjoyed fighting in one way or another. They both boxed as amateurs. ‘Uncle Bill’ (1903-1978) served in the military and would later tell stories to my dad about how he would box in the Far East. Bill would make money from boxing by deliberately looking bad in early fights so that he could then, later on, put in better boxing performances to surprise the betting odds. He and his friends would then put bets on him to win, knowing that the odds were in their favour. Charles (1911-2006) also boxed as an amateur. I can remember asking my grandpa Charles about his boxing. He told me that he enjoyed boxing and playing various other sports, such as cricket. He had been, I think he said, an area boxing champion at heavyweight. That probably meant that when serving as a policeman, he was one of the best heavyweight police boxers in Birmingham in a particular year. So when I hear that their dad, William Henry Heeks (1872-1918), had a reputation for fighting, it’s easy to fit this into context; to imagine that his sons were carrying on in their father’s footsteps.

Now for the more factual stuff!

William’s army record tells a sad story of illness. His army and burial records list his cause of death as phthisis, in 1918, aged 46. According to what I can find on the internet, phthisis is a form of pulmonary tuberculosis or similar progressive wasting disease. From what my dad has told me, William suffered from ‘grinder’s rot, which is a lung condition that is caused by breathing in the fumes from a grinding machine. His army record bears out that he had worked as a grinder, as he lists his profession, aged 42, as that of grinder. This is near the end of his life, in 1914, where he enlists for at least the second time in his life. He is discharged in 1917, ‘no longer physically fit for War Service’. So, he enlists in 1914, at the start of WW1, and is considered ‘fit’ for service. But he is then discharged in 1917, near the end of the war, and is considered to be ‘no longer … fit’. A year later he is dead.

So, when my dad says that William died of grinder’s rot, the above information seems to bear this out. But…!

William had also enlisted earlier in his life, in 1890, aged just 18. According to his military record, he is then ‘transferred’ to the reserves in 1897 and is then ‘discharged’ in 1899. Interestingly, the reason for his discharge is given as ‘discharged in consequence of having been found medically unfit for further service’. So, at this point in his life, aged only 27, he is already considered ‘medically unfit’. And, as far as I can imagine, he has spent a good deal of his working life in the army. This has me wondering what was wrong with him aged 27, whether he was already suffering from phthisis, and whether his time in the army has any bearing on his illness. Perhaps he had been a tool grinder in the army, if that is possible. Or perhaps he had contracted TB in the army. Perhaps he was a smoker, perhaps he led an unhealthy life. In the above photo, his right thumb looks brown. Perhaps that’s from handling a smoking pipe. Upon enlisting aged 18, he gives his trade as ‘Engine Driver’. So, presumably, he has already spent a few years working around fumes and dust before he enlists aged 18. So there’s a good chance that his life has been unhealthy before the age of 18.

I don’t know where William was stationed in the army and whether he saw any active service. I do know that he was in the Royal Scots Fusiliers from 1890-1897 and again from 1914-1917.


I’ll add more here as I get time….







About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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