Why is Devon Research so hard?

In the world of Genealogy, most have what we refer to as “Brick Wall Relatives”. They are someone whom you just can’t get past, no matter how hard you try. Our collective trees are filled with examples, such as Phillip Babb of the Isles of Shoals. Regardless of all the effort that has been expended nothing has appeared that can give conclusive proof of where he was born in England. Hundreds of Genealogists have pondered this question for decades and theories abound. We have our own theory at the Babb Family Association about his origins, which seem to point to Devon. There is a record that makes sense. But there is another record in London that could be him.

Some things that I’ve learned as I have processed the Devon records, was a stark explanation that Birth, Marriage and Death registration was NOT compulsory. While many did, we can only guess as to what the percentage of participation was. So, the record of Phillip’s youth simply may have never existed.

But there is another answer that isn’t readily evident. Despite the enormous number of records still available for Devon, there is another equally enormous group of records that are missing. Why is that?

The Exeter Blitz

The reason is referred to as the Exeter Blitz, which were a series of air raids by the Nazis on Exeter during WWII. In April and May of 1942, Hitler’s Luftwaffe [Air Force] struck the town targeting cultural and historical landmarks instead of Military targets, which was the more traditional approach to warfare.

After a series of less effective raids, the Nazis returned on the night of the 3rd-4th of May 1942 about 20 bombers arrived over the town centre, and in 70 minutes devastated the town centre and Newtown area. Bombs fell in High St, Sidwell St and Fore St, starting fires in the houses and shops there, which were soon out of control. Fire brigade and emergency services struggled to tame the fires, under the threat of unexploded ordnance and despite strafing by German bombers.[1] Reinforcements from the fire services at Torquay and Plymouth arrived to help; eventually 195 appliances and 1,080 personnel were employed to bring the fires under control, which was largely achieved by 5 May, though sporadic outbreaks continued until mid-day of 7 May.[1] 30 acres of the city were devastated, 156 people were killed and 583 injured.

In the city centre, the whole of Bedford Circus, the top of High Street, and adjacent parts of Sidwell Street and Paris Street were destroyed. A second area at the top of Fore Street and much of South Street was also obliterated.[6] Between these two areas, the Cathedral was only hit by one high explosive bomb, which demolished St James’s Chapel on its southern side.[7] The City Library, with over a million documents and books was destroyed, as was the Vicars Choral College.

Exeter, Devon. Bomb damage on the north side of Bedford Circus looking towards Southernhay and the spire of Southernhay Congregational Church. The Margaret Tomlinson negative register records that the damage visible in this photograph was the result of a German air raid on 4th May 1942
Source: https://www.mediastorehouse.com

The Exeter Principal Registry was also amongst the casualties that night and was a complete loss. Its loss is incalculable. The registry is the equivalent to a County Courthouse in the US. This was from before a time when Microfilm was in wide use and the records are simply gone. Because of this loss, dozens of projects have attempted to gather, abstract, transcribe and index any wills which could be located from any source, including solicitors’ offices. Copies were obtained of any abstracts or transcripts made before the destruction of the records.

In all 1,500 of the city’s 20,000 houses were obliterated and 2,700 badly damaged. Also 400 shops, almost 150 offices, 50 warehouses and 36 pubs were also destroyed.[1]
Sources: Devon Probate Records • FamilySearch & Exeter Blitz – Wikipedia

See one of these Bombs Explode

As recently as last year one of the unexploded ordinances from that bombing was found and had to be detonated. This Video will give you a good idea of the devastation caused by just one of these bombs. They had to evacuate 2600 households and 12 University residence halls before the 2,200lb (1,000kg) bomb was detonated. debris was thrown at least 820ft (250m).

Exeter WW2 bomb: People not able to go home on Sunday – BBC News

Epilogue

We will never know all that we have lost, but you can have an idea by how cohesive the tree is in other counties. Take Somerset for example. We have more than 98% of the county lined up into a single tree. Across England roughly 85% of the people align to a known Genetic Lineage. Devon accounts for the Lionshare of the remaining people.

Alas, that isn’t our path. We have to work six times as hard to come up with our answers. It just makes the result sweeter when it comes. Y-DNA testing is slowly revealing itself in this search and is providing answers to long sought questions. So, I believe it is just a matter of time before we can begin to align these trees with a better understand. If I don’t find the answer, I’ll die trying!

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