I’ve always been fascinated by the people who once lived in our house: who they were, how they lived, what their stories were. Thanks to our elderly neighbour, who sadly died last year, I was able to piece together at least some of that. [The image above shows the back of our house in the 1960s, when it had already been abandoned for some time. It was restored in the 1970s.]
The records of births, marriages and deaths (BMD) kept by every commune since 1793 are digitised online by the Archives Départementales (county archives). They are not easy to decipher, being written in old-fashioned and not always very legible script. The parish records, kept by the priests up till 1792, are even worse, and some priests were clearly barely literate, but their records go back to 1610. One day, I might try to get into those, but it takes a certain stamina!
The M family
However, I persevered with the BMD and worked out the story of the M family that lived here in the late 19th century (see part 1). They had six children, only two of whom survived infancy: Charles Lucien (born 1886) and Ernest Gaston (born 1889). Both lived to good ages, Charles to 79 and Ernest to 92.
We left the M family in Part 1 in 1926, the most recent census available online. Although the BMD up to 1932 were online, I could find no further record of anyone with their (fortunately unusual) surname. The only way to get hold of the later records would be a trip to the Montauban archives. For the moment, access is very restricted.
In 1926, Charles Lucien was living here, and so was his stepmother Marie Anaïs, whom Charles’ father, Jean-Guillaume, had married in 1910. She was now a widow for the second time, Jean-Guillaume having died in 1924.
In an idle moment, I went back online hoping to find more info. I was in luck. First, I had overlooked the war records from World War I, now digitised, in which every Tarn-et-Garonne individual’s military service record was available. Second, the 1946 census was now available online, 75 years on. There was no record of any census for our commune between 1926 and 1946.
World War I service
Often written hurriedly, crossed out, written over, faint or just ambiguous, the military records are very hard to decipher. They did yield some results, though.
Neither man was tall: the elder, Charles Lucien, was 158 cms; his brother was 151 cms. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but the average height of men in France in 1914 seems to have been around 165/6 cms, both men being much shorter than that. A law of 1901 had done away with the minimum height requirement for military service of 154 cms.
Charles Lucien, had some slight, unspecified infirmities, but nothing that disqualified him from military service. It’s impossible to tell where he was deployed, but he was wounded twice: once in 1915 by shrapnel and again in 1916, when he sustained a fractured skull and an arm injury that left him with limited movement in one hand.
His brother, Ernest Gaston, was réformé (rejected for military service) for toxicologie chronique (ingestion of small amounts of poisonous substances over a long period). What could that be? Overuse of certain agricultural chemicals? Or just over-imbibing? He also suffered from hyperidrose (hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, maybe related to the toxic substances). Eventually, though, he was deployed, since the army was desperate for men, but again it’s not clear where.
So both men fought in, and survived, World War I. Ernest Gaston never seems to have lived here again after that, but his elder brother did, as the 1926 census shows.
Post-World War II census
By the time we get to 1946, no one with the surname M is listed here in the census. Up to 1921, three households were listed; now only two houses are mentioned, only one of which was occupied. The other was listed as “vacant”. Could that have been our house? It’s known that it was abandoned at some point.
And what became of the third house? We know there was originally a house next to our barn, since one wall still stood when we moved here. The rest of it had collapsed into a heap. Rural depopulation was happening with a vengeance.
And what happened to Marie Anaïs, the stepmother? In 1946, she would have been 80, and therefore it’s not impossible that she was still alive. Maybe the family decided to mettre la clef sous la porte (put the key under the door), i.e. to abandon the house. Perhaps Charles Lucien’s war wounds made it too difficult to farm the property, and I know his brother had moved away.
So many questions. And no one is alive now who would remember these people. But some of the answers may be lurking in the archives, when I can get there.
Happily, our house was rescued from oblivion in the early 1970s, otherwise it would by now have joined the countless others that are simply heaps of stone. People were born, married, worked and died in them, but they are long gone and forgotten, except as faceless names in the archives. With a bit of detective work and imagination, though, one can breathe life back into them. I wonder what they would say, if they knew?
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