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  JULIA MARIA HOLT (Nee Verstraete) - WARTIME HEROINE

 

It was in October 2016 that we were first contacted by a member of Julia Verstraete’s family who had discovered an article that was first published on our website back in 2010 and made a passing reference to Mrs.Holt and her husband Tommy. The article had been written by Sue Rowley (nee Money) and it recalled her childhood memories of growing up in Nelson Road,Tottenham.
Here is the extract from Sue’s memories that caught the attention of Sylvie Blondez Verstraete at her home near Dunkirk in France.

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In her very first message Sylvie Verstraete explained that she was writing on behalf of her mother who was trying to conduct some of their family history research. They knew that Julia Holt was a member of their family who had apparently met her husband during the Second World War in Dunkirk. He was an English soldier at the time of the wartime evacuation of troops from Dunkirk and they later married and lived in London.

All they had was an old address card that gave their address in Nelson Road, Tottenham and the Verstraete family were seeking any help with information about her life story, date of death and also that of her husband,Tommy Holt. They explained that they would welcome any photographs, letters, newspaper articles or any information that would help with their dates of birth and deaths.

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CHANGE OF ADDRESS CARD - JULIA & TOMMY HOLT

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SUE & SISTER PAM OUTSIDE THEIR HOME IN NELSON ROAD

 

INITIAL RESEARCH
With the help of Sue Rowley and her sister Pam Gillespie, we attempted to piece together some of the sketchy information that had been provided by the family of Julia Maria Verstraete. Much of the correspondence had been in French so we had to translate the information as best we could.

Sylvie Verstraete had elaborated a little on their knowledge of events. She further explained that her great Aunt, Julia Maria Verstraete, had been born in Belgium in 1896 and she had been a volunteer nurse. It was during the 1939/1945 war during ‘Operation Dynamo’ (Dunkirk Evacuation) that she had met the British soldier, Tommy Holt.

This prompted Sue and Pam to further recall their memories. Pam was able to recollect that the Holts were a lovely couple and very good neighbours. When her Dad ( a Far East Prisoner of War) suffered a bad bout of malaria about 1957/58 it was Mrs.Holt who nursed him back to health, so she wasn’t surprised to learn that she had once been a nurse. Mr.Holt (Tommy) sadly died in the mid-late 1950s but he had once been a Lollipop Man on the crossing on West Green Road, close to Braemar Road.

Clearly Mrs.Holt made a lasting impression upon both girls as they still crochet and the smell of coffee always reminds them of Mrs Holt. Pam also said that she still has a set of coloured pencils from the Eagle Pencil Factory that Mrs.Holt had given her over 60 years ago.

 

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THE ORIGINAL PENCILS GIVE BY MRS HOLT

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It was also intriguing that Sue had recalled Mrs Holt claimed to have known Charles de Gaulle from before the war. Of course during WW2 General De Gaulle was the leader of the Free-French, and post-war was later to become the President of France

Sadly Mrs.Holt was killed when knocked down by a truck in Tottenham High Road in 1974. Pam recalls that by this time she had moved to Bedfordshire and just happened to turn on the radio when news of the tragic accident involving Mrs Holt was announced.

We were quickly able to discover that Tommy Holt had sadly died in 1958 at the age of 69. We further discovered that shortly after WW2 they were to be found on the Tottenham Electoral-Roll living at 24 Dongola Road,Tottenham. They had not moved to Nelson Road, Tottenham until about 1956 so Tommy Holt was only to live at this address for a very short period of time.

MAJOR DISCOVERY
It was only when we decided to look for any newspaper reports on the tragic death of Mrs Holt in 1974 that a most surprising and indeed fascinating piece of information came to light. We had searched the archives at the Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham and unearthed an article from the ‘Tottenham & Edmonton Weekly Herald’ dated 13th September 1974, with the stark headline ‘War heroine dies in Road Accident’:

 

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The disclosure that Julia Maria Holt had been a wartime heroine making secret flights in Belgium, coupled with her connections to Charles de Gaulle and her involvement with ‘Operation Dynamo’ and the mass evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, had suddenly turned this initial enquiry into a very exciting story indeed. We had now learnt that Julia had worked as a secret agent and operated in missions in occupied Belgium

There was, however, still one piece of information that had evaded us and that was where and when had Tommy Holt and Julia Maria Verstraete been married? We could not find the civil marriage registration from the period after the Dunkirk evacuation, where we understood they had first met, and the post-war period up to the late 1940s. We therefore assumed that perhaps they had married in France, although Sylvie Blondez Verstraete and her family had no knowledge of this marriage.

It was thanks to the perseverance of Sue Rowley that we were then able to resolve this particular difficulty when she discovered a notification of Marriage Banns for the couple being announced for the church of St. Thomas, Hammersmith, West London. However, having resolved one difficulty, it then created another because the banns were dating from September, 1919 which of course was well before WW2 when we had been led to believe the couple had first met.

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DISPELLING THE MYTH
We were now faced with the dilemma of dispelling the myth that the family of Julia Maria Verstraete had lived with for many years. Clearly Julia and Tommy had not met at ‘Operation Dynamo’ in WW2 but had actually met much earlier in WW1.

A further search disclosed some very interesting information concerning Tommy Holt’s military career. He had actually signed up in 1909 prior to the commencement of WW1 and was living at the time in Goldhawk Road, West London which would have been quite close to where Tommy and Julia were later to be married.

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We further discovered that during WW1 Tommy Holt had served as a driver for the Red Cross Society and had been based in Dunkirk. With the knowledge that Julia Verstraete had once been a nurse it now it reinforced the likelihood that Tommy and Julia had first met in WW1. We later discovered further evidence of Tommy’s Army career with his ‘Medal Awards’ when serving with the Red Cross Service.

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THOMAS EDGAR HOLT - ARMY SERVICE RECORDS - WW1

 

Having established Tommy and Julia had meet during WW1 and had married in London in 1919 we revisited the Tottenham Electoral Rolls and discovered that they had in fact lived at 24 Dongola Road from at least 1928. They also appeared on the 1933 and 1936 Electoral Rolls. On closer examination we also discovered that Mrs Emily Beames and her husband Sidney had lived at number 11 Dongola Road, Tottenham throughout this time.

We had found an earlier Electoral Roll for a Thomas Edgar Holt living at Lordship Road, Stoke Newington, London, in 1925. Only Tommy was listed so we can only presume this was indeed the same Tommy Holt and perhaps Julia was either not yet qualified to vote or not registered to vote on this occasion.

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We now had evidence that Tommy and Julia had lived in Dongola Road from at least 1926 until 1956 when they moved to 11 Nelson Road, Tottenham. When we had first read the newspaper report of Julia Holt’s death in 1974 we could not understand how their former neighbour, Mrs Emily Beames, could have known them for over 35 years because this would have dated back to before the war. With the new discovery of the marriage in 1919 and electoral rolls from Dongola Road dating back for over 30 years all suddenly became very clear.

Before discovering that Tommy and Julia had actually met prior to WW2, we had received from Sylvie Verstraete an old family photograph that she believed had been taken in Nelson Road, Tottenham. This showed a young Julia Maria Holt alongside her brother Emile and his wife. We had immediately realised from the architecture of the houses that this could not have been Nelson Road and subsequently realised these houses were indeed in Dongola Road, Tottenham.
 

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FAMILY PHOTOGRAPH: JULIA VERSTRAETE (Right) ALONGSIDE BROTHER EMILE AND HIS WIFE.

When sharing this photograph with Pam Gillespie she remarked “I wouldn't have recognised Julia from the photo, when we knew her she was older and always seemed to be wearing black, but that could havebeen after Tommy died. I don't know how good the records are at Tottenham Cemetery, but I suppose both Tommy and Julia could be buried there? I remember her sitting with her coffee grinder placed between her knees. If we were good, we were allowed to turn the handle for her. She used to give us biscuits in little packets which I guess came from the Eagle Pencil factory where she worked as a cleaner. They always seemed to be digestives. She started teaching us French but that was short lived”

 

DONGOLA ROAD V.E (Victory in Europe) DAY – MAY 1945
We had previously shared with Sylvie some photographs of the V.E Day celebrations taken in Dongola Road Tottenham, not knowing at the time whether Julia and Tommy Holt were yet living there. This was in the belief that they had only met during WW2. As we have subsequently discovered, they had lived there since at least 1926 so there is every possibly that they may have been pictured among the group of residents looking on at the children’s street party.
 

 

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INFORMING THE VERSTRAETE FAMILY
Having made this most unexpected discovery we now had the task of breaking the news to Sylvie Verstraete and her family. As anyone who has conducted their own family history research will know, you can often be surprised to discover that information handed down from within a family can sometimes be incorrect or distorted and cannot always be believed unless you have absolute proof.

Sylvie was quick to acknowledge that this information confirmed the fact that Julia and Tommy had met during WW1 and had obviously lived in Tottenham for many years before the outbreak of WW2. In her reply Sylvie had said:

“You are right Alan, I always hear Daddy tell me that his aunt Julia had met her husband during the re-embarkation of the troops in 1940. As he would have been happy to learn all this, the story is even more beautiful.
Julia was born in Belgium on 14 August 1895 so 24 years at her marriage in 1919 and 44 years in 1940.
However, according to the testimony of the neighbour Emily Beames, she said that Julia was going back in Belgium as an interpreter. What period was she talking about ?
Julia might have been activities in 1940, her mother lived until May 1945 in Adinkerke Belgium”

Note: We have retained Sylvie's reply exactlty in the spirit as it was translated from French to English although we are aware there are some grammatical errrors.

WARTIME HEROINE – JULIA MARIA HOLT
Although it now seems more likely that Julia served as a wartime agent in the First World War and perhaps was never involved in ‘Operation Dynamo’ in WW2, there is of course every possibility that she may have returned to Belgium during WW2. At the time of her death in 1974 her former neighbour, Emily Beames, said that Julia had worked as an interpreter so perhaps she did serve again in WW2 but clearly we and her family would need to find documentary evidence to support this.
We are still hoping to search the burial registers at Tottenham Cemetery to find whether Julia, and possibly her late husband Tommy, were interred there and hopefully find details of the plot number that we can share with Sylvie and the remaining members of the Verstraete family.

TOTTENHAM CEMETERY - CHAPEL

WEDDING PHOTOGRAPH
We have recently received from the family a copy of Julia and Tommy’s wedding photograph:

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A rough translation of the captions read:
Julie and one of the sisters what resemblance -Sisters of Valerie my paternal grandmother
Julia and Tom (Angletterre)

 

CONTINUED RESEARCH
We are pleased to learn that Sylvie and her family will continue their research to try and discover more about the fascinating life of Julia Maria Verstraete who clearly left a lasting impression upon the people who once knew her in Tottenham and who was indeed a war heroine of whom the family can be most proud.


We leave to last the very moving words that Sylvie had shared with us:

Julia has one last little nephew alive (82 years), the brother of my Dad. ( My Uncle)
My dad died in 2011 he asked me three days before his death to learn about Julia and family.
I do heartily in memory of Julia and my Dad”


I think that Sylvie and her family have come a very long way towards accomplishing her Dad’s final wishes!

 

FOOTNOTE


USING THE CROCHET SKILLS LEARNT FROM JULIA HOLT
PAM GILLESPIE RECENTLY CREATED THIS WREATH ON ARMISTICE DAY
ON THE MEMORIAL TO COMMEMORATE THE 'FAR EAST PRISONERS OF WAR'

In a similar vein her sister Sue Rowley had mentioned that Julia had instilled in her a lifelong interest in the French language which she still has to this day.

These comments in themselves are a wonderful testament to the impression that Mrs Holt made on both Sue and Pam in their young lives in Nelson Road, Tottenham.

Alan Swain- November 2016

Background Image- Early postcard picture of the port of Dunkerque

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