Henry Oscar NELSON
Eyes grey, Hair fair, Complexion fair
The Search for Henry
This is one of those stories which best epitomises the “highs and lows” of our search for DNA donors. For nearly 10 years and an incalculable number of hours, various members of this Association have canvassed every record, enlisted the assistance of likeminded volunteer groups, used crowd funding to hire an overseas based researcher – and to this day, we have not succeeded. We do “think” that the name “Martin Nelson” (the soldier’s father) is likely to be an assumed “English” name, taken on so as to blend into a new country. A plea for assistance follows this article, and we desperately need help from family or, in fact, anyone who has evidence of this family, to contact the FAA or the Australian Army.
Private Henry Oscar Nelson – Killed in the Battle of Fromelles
Enlisting in July 1915, Henry Oscar Nelson (19) and Frederick Andrew Nelson (23) were brothers who were allotted consecutive service numbers – 728 and 727 respectively – and were assigned to the 30th Battalion. Both lived in Ryde and were employed as wood working machinists and both were born in Wellington, New Zealand to a Swedish father and an Irish mother. Being only 19, Henry required parental consent.
The two brothers departed Australia as part of C Company in the 30th Battalion in November 1915. After six months in Egypt, they headed for the trenches on the Western Front where Henry was killed on 20 July 1916 at the Battle of Fromelles and his brother Frederick wounded.
Initially reported as missing, Henry was eventually found to have been killed in action after his name appeared on the German Death List and his identity disc was returned by the Germans. No other details as to his fate are known.
Henry’s brother, Private Frederick Nelson – wounded at Fromelles.
Five years older than Henry, Frederick Nelson enlisted in 1915 with his brother and together they served with C Company, 30th Battalion. During the Battle of Fromelles, Frederick was injured with gunshot wounds to the thigh. He would have been aware that his brother Henry was one of the many listed as missing, later found to have been killed in action.
Frederick was able to re-join his unit in December 1916. He survived the war but was wounded a second time in October 1917 and also suffered illness requiring evacuation to England during 1918 where he met his bride-to-be during his convalescence. Frederick married English-born Beatrice Louisa Owen in Surrey in September 1918.
The young couple returned to Australia in 1919 and settled in Bowden Street, Ryde, in a house they named “Amiens” where they lived until at least 1933. Frederick and Beatrice had a son, also named Fredrick Andrew Nelson in 1919. Sadly, he was killed in 1945 aged 25 whilst a prisoner of war in Sumatra, Indonesia.
The Nelson family story
Swedish-born Martin Nelson married Elizabeth McCracken of Ireland, in New Zealand in 1887. They had seven children, all born in New Zealand, with two dying in infancy.
New Zealand born children of Martin NELSON and Elizabeth Jane McCRACKEN
1) Charles Leonard 1888-1946
2) Alfred William 1889-1890
3) Frederick Andrew 1891-1969
4) Emily Jane 1894-1977
5) Henry Oscar 1896-1916
6) Agnes Maria 1899-1992
7) Mauritus 1904-1904
The Nelson family lived in Mitchelltown at the upper end of Wellington’s Aro Valley. The Nelson children appear to have completed their education there before the family moved to Australia in 1915 where they established a new family home in Parkes Street, Ryde in the north-west of Sydney.
Martin Nelson – presumed to be an anglicised version of a Swedish name – was a labourer born in about 1857 in Varberg, Sweden. He was killed in a fall from a tram in April 1917, about the time that Henry’s death was officially confirmed by authorities. A tragic time for the family.
Elizabeth Jane McCracken was born in Dublin in about 1864. At 19, she emigrated to New Zealand in about 1883, marrying Martin Nelson in 1887. Elizabeth died on 8th July 1934 at her daughter Emily’s home in Ryde and is buried beside her husband, Martin, in the Presbyterian section of the Field of Mars Cemetery.
The three sons who survived to adulthood all worked as woodwork machinists, and apart from Henry, the four remaining Nelson children all married. Charles is believed to have had no children while Frederick had one son who died as a prisoner of war in World War II. Henry’s two sisters both married – Emily to Edward Symonds and Agnes to Henry Jackson.
The Search by Family
Henry’s mother and brother were very active in searching for him right through 1917 as a photo of prisoners of war in Stuttgart appeared in the Daily Telegraph and a fellow soldier was identified as the missing Henry. Elizabeth (as did many, many mothers) hoped and prayed that her son may still be alive but have a head injury or shell shock perhaps, with loss of memory.
In March 1917, the Red Cross wrote to Henry’s family advising them that Henry’s name had appeared on a list, given to them by the Germans, of men that they had buried close to where they fell.
Elizabeth wrote back immediately seeking more information and stating that:
Our poor lad may be suffering from an injury to his head or shell shock, and may have forgotten who he is. We all have the feeling that he is not dead.
His brother, Frederick, still serving with the 30th Battalion also wrote seeking more information about Henry and the Red Cross agreed to conduct further enquiries but did not hold out great hope. They replied to Frederick as follows.
The Red Cross made enquiries including with Private Hammond who had sent the prisoner of war photo home to his mother. Sadly, they confirmed that the soldier in question was a Private Gribbon rather than the hoped-for Private Henry Nelson.
The Search in Australia
The search for current family in Australia and elsewhere has been carried out by many researchers over many years. One goal was to identify family who may share DNA with Henry and so help with his identification by following the family lines within Australia and to understand links beyond our shores to New Zealand, Ireland and Sweden. This search for DNA links has led to tracing of descendants of Henry’s siblings but as yet a positive identification remains elusive.
Another search arose in a different context. Firstly, research was conducted by the Ryde District Historical Society in a project named ‘Ryde Goes to War’ which aimed to document the stories of all First World War soldiers with a connection to the Ryde district - which included the both Henry and Frederick Nelson who enlisted whilst living in Ryde. And, secondly, to return to Henry’s family his Dead Man’s Penny. Henry’s mother, Elizabeth, had received the memorial plaque (known as the Dead Man’s Penny) in August 1922 but in the intervening decades it had been lost to current generations.
For more than twenty years, the plaque had been in the care of Lynne Crawford who found it in a box she had bought during the 1990s at a garage sale in Bingara, northern New South Wales. Keen to find Henry’s family and return the plaque, Lynne sought the help of her neighbour and researcher, Helen Cornish, who made contact with the Ryde Library and various others, including the Ryde Goes to War project team. Eventually, the Ryde District Historical Society contacted a great niece of Henry Nelson’s, Judy Hanlen and in March 2013, more than ninety years after its issue, the Dead Man’s Penny was presented to Judy as a representative of the broader Nelson family.
The Search in Sweden
Frustrated with dead ends and brick walls, the FAA put out a call for crowd funding and received a wonderful response enabling us to hire a Swedish genealogist. In 2018, armed with just the information from his death certificate, she began her search for relatives of Henry Nelson’s father, Martin.
The genealogist’s search in Sweden for a Martin Nelson with a father named Sven Nelson or Nilsson and a mother named Anne Ivanson came up with nothing.
She broadened her search to a 15-year period in Norrala parish (Varberg is located in this parish in Gävelborgs län (county)). She changed the variables – any boys called Martin, boys of any name with parents called Sven and Anna (and variations to those names), all those emigrating from Sweden and the like – but still nothing. The search broadened to the whole of Sweden but still no Martin, Sven or Anne could be found.
Perhaps the death certificate details are incorrect or made unrecognizable by the anglicisation from Swedish to English or just the passage of time. We still hope we will have a breakthrough one day and find the links to Henry’s Swedish family.
The Search in Ireland
The search for earlier generations on Henry’s maternal line are hampered by the limited information known and the fact that his mother was born prior to compulsory civil registration in Ireland.
From Australian records, we are told that Elizabeth Jane McCracken was born in Dublin in about 1864. The year 1864 was the very beginning of compulsory civil registration in Ireland and the inability to find her birth registration suggests she may have been born a year or two earlier than this. Her parents were stated as being John Charles McCracken, a schoolteacher, and Margaret Henderson.
The Search in New Zealand
In 2019, two New Zealand-based FAA researchers published an article describing the intersection of searches for a H. Nelson commemorated on the First World War Wellington War Memorial and the Henry Nelson serving with the Australians and killed in action Fromelles in July 1916. Extracts are reproduced below:
“The Wellington War Memorials Project was set up to research and publish the stories of 97 men listed as killed during the First World War and remembered on five Wellington War Memorials. One of those memorials, now partly hidden in a grove of pohutakawa trees, was the one that was erected by the Mitchelltown Welcome Home Association in 1920, at the upper end of Aro Street.
Completion of the project for this memorial stalled for well over 12 months because of difficulty tracking down one of the soldiers remembered there. The missing man, listed as ‘H Nelson’, could not be found in any of the Army personnel files held by Archives New Zealand, nor did he appear in newspaper reports of the time or civil records such as school enrolments and birth, deaths and marriages.
The project team discussed where he might be found and concluded that perhaps he had enlisted outside New Zealand. ‘Where’, was the question. We had no idea. We had struck what genealogists call a brick wall, and H Nelson became what could be called a cold case, put aside in the hope that a breakthrough would appear.
On the other side of the Tasman the Australians have been working for ten years to identify the bodies found in a mass grave outside the village of Fromelles in northern France
James Tait, a Wellington-based genealogical researcher, began working with the Fromelles Association in 2018 to learn more about the New Zealanders who had been involved at Fromelles. His research took him to the Aro Valley Memorial and the War Memorials Project website where he saw that H Nelson was the one soldier we could not trace. The person he was researching was Henry Oscar Nelson, and James wondered if he was also the H Nelson who had been so elusive for us.”
They had stock gold! With further research and comparison of information, their lost man had been found – much to the delight of both the New Zealand and Australian research teams. Everyone was chuffed - and as one of Henry’s extended family wrote:
"It is good to see the recognition of Henry’s service by his home country. A true ANZAC!"
The Search continues
Thus ends this chapter of an ongoing story of a most difficult search, and one where we would dearly love to have a positive conclusion. Obviously, we have searched every avenue, and every clue to date, but with not a glimmer of a result.
Any resolution of the search for DNA donors must clearly now originate with family of both Martin and Elizabeth. Please contact us if you think you may be able to help.
DNA is still being sought for family connections to
|Soldier||Henry Oscar NELSON 1896-1916|
|Parents||Martin NELSON 1857-1917 born Varberg, Sweden|
|and Elizabeth Jane McCRACKEN 1864-1934 born Dublin, Ireland|
|Paternal||Sven NELSON and Anne IVARSSON, Sweden.|
|Maternal||Margaret Sarah HENDERSON and John Charles McCRACKEN of Dublin, Ireland|
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