Henry Thomas Underhill is one of those people whose lives are lost to time. Details of his early life were difficult to track down, but snippets helped unlock some of the mystery.
In late October 1914, a number of Somerset newspapers gave the following report:
Soldier’s Sudden Death
The West Somerset Coroner held an enquiry at Taunton Barracks on Saturday afternoon relative to the death of Private Henry Thomas Underhill, aged 44, of Street, which took place on Wednesday [14th October 1914].
Deceased was talking to Private TF Davis on a landing in the barracks, when he reeled and, throwing up his arms, fell heavily to the ground, his head striking the floor.
Major Stalkartt, RAMC, was at once summoned, but he found that life was extinct. He afterwards made a post mortem examination, which revealed fatty degeneration of the heart, with a fracture of the bae of the skull. The doctor considered that death was due to heart failure, and that the skull was fractured in falling to the ground.
The deceased was accorded a military funeral at St Mary’s Cemetery the same afternoon. He was an old member of the Somerset Light Infantry, which he recently re-joined on account of the war.Wells Journal: Friday 23rd October 1914
Private Underhill’s pension record confirms that he was married to a woman called Mary Ann and that the couple had had a daughter, Beatrice Kate Lavinia Underhill, who had been born in December 1906. While searching for Henry directly drew too many variables to provide any certainty, his daughter proved the key to unlock his story.
Henry Thomas Underhill was born in the summer of 1860. One of nine children, his parents were William Underhill and his wife Elizabeth, who was also known as Betsy. William worked as a clerk for a button maker, and the family lived in Birmingham, which, at the time, was in Warwickshire.
When he left school, Henry found work as a ‘brass tube drawer’, making the metal tubes, using a die. He found love too, and, on 13th March 1881, aged just 20, he married Emma Howner. The couple went on to have a son, Ernest, in 1889 although, from the documentation about him, it seems likely that he passed away when only a toddler. Further tragedy was to strike Henry, when Emma also died in 1890, aged just 30 years old.
It may have been around this time that Henry found a focus in military service; he does not appear in the 1891 census and the next set of documentation for him dates from 1900.
It’s at this point that Henry married for a second time. Mary Ann Kelly was seventeen years younger than her new husband, and was the daughter of a carpenter from Solihull. Her father, Michael, had died when she was only a teenager, and she lived with her mother, Lavinia, helping to support her.
Henry’s previous experience with metalwork – and probably his time in the military – found him employment making gun components. The 1901 census finds him and Mary living in Yardley, to the east of Birmingham, with Lavinia and Mary’s younger brother William.
This was obviously a suitable and convenient arrangement; the next census, in 1911, shows the family still living together. By this time, Lavinia was still the head of the household, and shared her home with daughter Mary, Henry and four-year-old Beatrice; son William, his wife Ada and their new-born son, William. Making up the household on Census Day was a visitor, Amy.
War was on the horizon, and this is where we return to the initial new report about Private Underhill. It is likely that Henry had re-enlisted – or at least been called back up – as soon as hostilities broke out. Sadly, his service was not to be a long one, as he suffered the fatal heart attack within a couple of months of the start of the war. Private Underhill was 54 years old at the time of his death.
Henry Thomas Underhill’s body was buried in St Mary’s Cemetery in Taunton, Somerset.