The Story of a Post Card – the Brewster Family

On 2nd November 2016 I received this postcard and message in my email.

Hello, I am a collector of postcards and recently purchased one of Matlock, on the reverse was the following enclosed message. I thought it may add to your excellent web site. Why they were in Matlock I do not know, neither do I know where 5 Dale Road is, or at least what it is today.

I wonder if Aleck died on the 22 of Jan from his wounds while at the hospital. The letter written by Hetty was only 25 days before he died, and the remark to “keep smiling” seems even more poignant when you know what was to happen just a few weeks later. Of course he could have been sent back to fight and was killed on the 22 as his gravestone indicates.

What happened to little Muriel, after her mother was sent to an institution which is so sad. Would love to know. I can’t believe how one post card can reveal so many events from one tragic event.

Please let me know if you have any more about Muriel.    


This postcard is almost 100 years old. It was sent on 28th December 1916 to a soldier dying of wounds or infection in Bicton Hospital in Devon. Private Aleck (aka Alick) Howard Brewster died on 22 January 1917.

It had been sent to me as Mike had discovered my 20C Diary website with the stories of my ancestors, amongst whom are all those named on the card - Hetty and Flo (sisters to my paternal grandmother) and Flo’s husband Howard Brewster and daughter Muriel.

These people are not in my direct line so I had not researched them in any detail but the postcard inspired me to do so.

This is the family story of one young soldier who lost his life in WWI.

Birth of Aleck Howard Brewster

Howard was born in the first quarter of 1888 in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

His parents were Robert Brewster (b1847) and Kate (nee Cripps b 1847) who had been married in 1868 and Howard was the 11th (and probably the last child) in their substantial family.

Although the youngest 3 children were not yet born in 1881 the census record from that year shows the extent of the earlier family. The original document is shown below the transcription.

The family had lived in Warwick Buildings at least since 1869 according to the baptismal records of the eldest three children, Robert Harry, Ada Jenny, and Hilda Nellie. I cannot find baptismal records for the other children but there are birth records for them all. In fact there are 20 Brewster births recorded in Cheltenham between 1868 and 1888. The others (marked C) are all cousins to Alick - the children of William Brewster who is Robert senior’s elder brother (b1843). (Warwick Buildings does not seem to be in existence today.)

In 1888, the year of Alick’s birth, his father, Robert Brewster set up his own business having been an assistant to the Palmers for 25 years. (All reports below from the British Newspaper Archives.) Sadly, however, he did not make a go of it as only a few months later he filed for bankruptcy.

There was a creditors meeting in April and the announcement of the bankruptcy in May gave a little more information about the circumstances.

The Cheltenham Chronicle also has a number of other announcements about the Brewsters including the birth of two of Alick’s siblings, the death of his sister Ada in 1889 aged 18 and the wedding of his sister Katie in 1896.

The birth on June 17th 1882 would have been Arthur Granville Brewster and that in August 1883 could have been Albert Campbell Brewster. There is no sign of Albert on the 1901 Census, however I cannot find a death that would fit and had assumed Albert was a cousin (see above). 

This second birth is interesting though for the new address – in 1883 the Brewsters were living at Bournemouth House where Robert would later set up his dentistry practice. The report of the 1889 death of Ada gives the same address.

Alick Brewster Childhood

I cannot find any record of the family in 1891 but the 1901 census record shows them still in Cheltenham living at 17 Marle Hill Parade. The eldest 5 children have now left home but Hubert, Frank and Ralph are all still at home and here now are Arthur, Edgar and Alick. (The missing 1891 record is most likely because of a mis-transcription of the surname in the online searchable database. I looked at the Warwick Buildings address – by finding a near neighbour – but the family had left there by 1891. I looked also at 17 Marle Hill Parade but this is recorded as empty in 1891.)

I wonder what life would have been like for Alick growing up as the baby of such a large family? His oldest sisters would have been almost of a different generation. All had left home by 1901 and may indeed have had their own children when Alick was quite young.

This is 17 Marle Hill Parade currently (green wash) – these houses probably date back to Victorian times and it is thus likely that the Brewster’s lived in this 2 bed, 2 reception terraced house with a basement. With 6 boys to house, the back reception room was doubtless used as a bedroom and perhaps 2 of the lads slept in the basement. The house currently has a back extension housing a kitchen on the ground floor and bathroom upstairs. That may not have been there originally.

1906 Alick is witness to a suicide

At the age of 17 Alick had a terrible experience when he discovered his employer who had hanged himself. This report is from the Gloucester Citizen of 24th March 1906.

Marriage of Alick Howard Brewster to Florence Sparkes 1910

We can know nothing more of Alick’s childhood as the next record of Alick is his marriage to Florence Sparkes in the first quarter of 1910. (The marriage of Edith Beard and George Dakin is recorded on the same page.) The marriage took place in Flo’s home town of Derby as tradition usually dictates. One wonders how Alick and Flo came to meet as they lived some distance apart and mobility was not very great at that time with the majority of people living the whole of their lives within a fairly small area. There may also have been a traditional resistance to “outsiders” within the community at large and the Sparkes family in particular. When, a generation later, my father told his parents he intended to marry my mother (who came from Yorkshire) his mother (nee Margaret May Sparkes, sister to Flo) berated him, asking why he could not have chosen a “nice Derby girl”.

1911 Census

In the 1911 Census Alick and Flo are not together. Alick is staying at 10 Princes Street Cheltenham with his married sister and her husband Thomas Ernest Andrews and family. He is recorded as a “visitor”.  

Alick’s choice of profession is interesting. Aleck came from a large family and had 7 older brothers. There is powerful evidence from research that boys with a large number of male older siblings are very likely to be gay – which fits very well with the stereotypical view of an “outfitter’s assistant”, for example “Mr Humphries” from Are You Being Served? Could this have been Alick?

The fact that he married Flo is not evidence to the contrary as homosexuality was illegal at that time and so many gay men suppressed their sexuality and married. However, Alick’s sexual preference may explain why there were no births after Muriel.

Meanwhile Flo is staying with her married sister Annie in Grosvenor Street, Derby.

The record for Florence reports that she had had one child who had died. This appears to be Eric Brewster whose birth and death are recorded in 1910. This fits well with the marriage of Flo and Alick in the first quarter of 1910. At that period, before widespread accessible birth control, most births were very soon after the marriage – often less than 9 months after. Although both the birth and death are recorded in the third quarter of 1910 the census record shows that Eric was not a still birth – he is recorded as “born alive”. The September quarter covers July, August and September so he may have lived up to 3 months. The full birth and death certificates will give details.

The 1911 Census was taken on Sunday 2nd April 1911. It is very likely that Flo would have known that she was pregnant again by that time and perhaps her sister was looking after her during a period of morning sickness. It is also possible that Flo’s mental problems were already apparent – possibly exacerbated by the pregnancy and the loss of her previous baby – which is another reason she may have needed her sister’s care.

Birth of Muriel Brewster

Muriel Brewster, only surviving child of Flo and Alick was born in the final quarter of 1911.

The photograph below shows several members of the Sparkes family and was taken outside their house, 82 Clarence Road, Derby around 1916.

Back row: Arthur Sparkes, Bertram Mountford (husband to Nance)

Middle row: ?Nell Abbott or Flo Brewster, Fanny Sparkes, Fanny Rankin, Gordon Rankin (7), Nance Mountford - with dog

Front row: Connie Rankin (8), Maurice Mountford (2), Margaret Rankin (5)

The date of this photograph is not known but the children especially Maurice Mountford look a couple of years younger than in the 1918 wedding photograph of Margaret May Sparkes and Tom Swinburn so 1916 fits. Certainly most of the men are missing so it could have been in the war years. Bert Mountford is not in uniform - perhaps he did not serve for some reason. I had been told that the woman to Fanny’s right is Nell Abbott but this seems unlikely as the Abbott family lived in Worthing and if Nell were here surely her children would be too. It could well be Flo who no-one saw much after 1918 when she was committed. However, if it is Flo where is her daughter Muriel, who would have been aged 5?

Death of Alick Howard Brewster

Online research has no further records to offer before the death of Alick Brewster in 1917 – which brings us back to the postcard.

The postcard was sent on 28th December 1916 so Alick must have been injured and returned to England in the final few months of 1916.

His military record shows that the injury occurred on 25th October 1916 – gunshot wounds to his forehead, feet and hip. At that time the Worcester Regiment were fighting in trenches at Cuinchy.

The entry below in this register of his effects shows that he died on 22nd January 1917 (3 months after the injury) in the V A Hospital in Bicton – the address on the postcard. He was 29 years old.

V A Hospitals were Voluntary Aid Hospitals, set up by the Red Cross in response to the urgent need to care for injured soldiers – a need far greater than the existing military and civilian hospitals could meet. Many such hospitals were based in large residential houses loaned to the Red Cross or public buildings such as church halls or schools. They were largely staffed by Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) who were mainly local women who were unqualified and not paid for the work. The hospitals received wounded men sent straight form the battlefield often with terrible injuries and having received no treatment other than a basic field dressing. Complications and infections from wounds were rife.

The date of death is verified by this entry from the Find a Grave Memorial site which also shows that he was buried in Nottingham Road Cemetery, Derby. 

This obituary in the Cheltenham Chronicle tells a little more of the circumstances.

If the initial injury to his forehead had been so severe as to render him permanently brain damaged/unconscious there would have been little likelihood that anyone would have sent him a postcard. The more likely scenario is thus that he developed infection in his wounds and died of septicaemia.

I do not know why he was sent to a hospital so far from home but it would have been difficult for his family to visit him there.

The obituary also tells of five of Alick’s brothers. 

1918 – Golden Wedding of Robert & Kate Brewster

Alick’s parents celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1918 – although that would probably not have been much of a celebration given the circumstances.

1919 – Death of Kate Brewster

Kate died the following year aged 71.

1918 The Committal of Flo Brewster

Flo had suffered the death of a child in 1910 and that of her husband in 1917 when she was left with a 6-year-old child. This had a serious effect in her mental health and on the marriage of her sister Margaret May to Tom Swinburn on 1st August 1918 she broke down completely and refused to attend the wedding, staying at home singing hymns.

Flo thus is not present in the wedding photograph below, but her daughter Muriel Brewster is there, sitting with the other children, third from the left with a big white bow in her hair.

A doctor was called for Flo and she was sectioned and spent the rest of her life in a mental institution. Thereafter, her daughter, Muriel Brewster, was brought up by her grandparents, Fanny and Arthur Sparkes.

There is no further record of Flo until the 1939 National Registration. This was a full registration of everyone resident in the United Kingdom at the outbreak of WW2 so that they could all be issued with identity cards.

Flo’s registration shows her to still be an inmate at Borough Mental Hospital Derby. She would have been 50 years old at this time having spent almost half of her life in an institution.

Flo’s death is registered in Derby in 1941. 

Her age  is given as 59 which does not fit with the date of birth recorded on the 1939 registration but this is the only available death record.It is probable that she died in the Borough Mental Hospital.

Muriel Brewster


When Flo was committed in 1918 her daughter, the 7-year-old Muriel, went to live with her grandparents - Arthur & Fanny Sparkes at Shelton Lock. 

The photograph below, taken in the garden there, c 1926, shows Muriel with two of her cousins Dave and Ray Swinburn

Muriel married Eric Ball in 1934 but I cannot find them in the 1939 NR.

They had two children, Brenda born in 1937 and Eric born in 1947.

There is a gap between the marriage and the first birth and also a substantial gap between the two children. However, the latter encompasses the war years when Eric presumably would have been away. I looked for a military record but there are over 100 Eric Balls with WW2 service records and I have no way of choosing between them.

The registration of Eric junior's birth indicates that the family moved to Wolverhampton at some time between 1938 and 1947.

1972 – Death of Eric Ball

I have found a death for Eric Ball in 1972. This death record does not record the age at death as earlier ones do but appears to show the date of birth 16th September 1912. Although I have no independent confirmation of this date of birth it would make him of an age with Muriel which would fit.


2002 – Death of Muriel Ball (nee Brewster)

Free BMD records of death are only available up the 1984 and there is no record of Muriel's death up to that time.

However this record shows that she survived until 2002 when she would have been 91 years old.

This record also gives her full date of birth 27th August 1911.

I know nothing further of this family but would be very interested to hear from anyone who can add to the story. Please contact me at 

Many, many thanks to Mike who sent me the postcard that inspired this investigation:-)
And to my friend Angella Streluk who helped with the research:-)