The internet makes family history research about a million times easier than it must have been in the past. Not only are many publications, newspapers and documents digitised and searchable, but family historians can create (free) websites (like this one), which over time show up in search and help connect people with similar research interests. Similarly, researchers can post messages on genealogy forums, and connections are often established this way.
In fact, it was through an online forum that I got a message from Gerry Cockburn a few years ago. A keen genealogist, he told me that Minnie’s brother, Maurice, is his paternal grandfather. However, Gerry did not share the fascination that I have for the Cockburn’s colourful story. In fact, he warned me about ‘skeletons in the cupboard’.
Gerry told me that after leaving India, Maurice lived in the UK where he married Amelia Wells (1877-1908). They had two children – James Ulick George (b. 1899) and Herbert (b. 1901, d. 1933). James/Ulick married Violet Button, and Gerry is one of their children.
However, Gerry explained that his father grew up in miserable poverty because Maurice effectively abandoned Amelia and the children. They lived with Amelia’s mother – but it was a tough and impoverished childhood.
Maurice, meanwhile, made a living by ‘borrowing’ money, jewellery and other valuable items from women he had liaisons with. At times he used false names, such as his deceased brothers’ or father’s names – and made false claims about his rank in the army.
In 1908 Maurice (going by his father’s name, James) was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for those crimes, which included bigamy.
Gerry recalled that after Maurice came out of prison he adopted another false name – Jack Haydon Hadow – and married a wealthy woman called Maggie Jane Paterson (Amelia, his wife, having died in 1908). Maurice travelled extensively around the world, and visited Minne in New Zealand at least once.
The existence of this letter indicates that at this point in his life Maurice had contact with his children: when the letter was written, James/Ulick would have been about 22.
When Maggie died in 1928 at a hotel in Lyon, France, she left a will that amounted to £41,963 net – nearly £2 million in today’s money. She left a considerable amount to charities and £1000 a year to Maurice.
Gerry discovered that within 2 months of the estate being finalised Maurice married again, using his proper name. He died in 1941 from a heart attack brought on by coal gas poisoning.
Circumstances, choices and integrity
In India, Maurice had known a life of privilege and fine living – and undoubtedly he expected to live in a similarly fine manner in England. He seems to have got off to a very good start there: the Old Bailey record tells us that he arrived in England at the age of 19 (so, in 1890). He joined the King’s Royal Dragoon Guards and by 1901 had attained the position of riding master – with a commission and the rank of lieutenant – and was considered one of the smartest cavalry riders in the Army.
However, his dishonesty ruined it all: he got into trouble by passing dishonoured cheques and there was a further charge of having lodged a Government horse in payment of a private debt. He was court-martialled, found guilty, and ‘cashiered’ in July, 1903.
Maurice went with Amelia and the children to Sheffield, where they lived with her mother. He was appointed a sub-agent of the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada in 1904, but this may not have provided much income. Later in 1904 he went to London and, according to Old Bailey: “seemed to have given himself entirely to getting into the company of young women with means”.
The investigating officer noted that, judging from what he had heard and from Maurice’s appearance, he had “a fascinating way with ladies” – while a witness described his flat in Hanover Square as “rather fashionably furnished”.
Another descendant of Maurice, Ashlee Brandon, made contact in 2016. Her grandmother, who lives in Auckland, NZ, has two photos with Maurice in them, which Ashlee copied for me. Ashlee’s grandmother said that James/Ulick – Maurice’s son – was her grandfather.
If you have Cockburn family connections, do get in touch using the contact form on this site so we can share information and further build the story of this interesting family.