By Gilly Carr
Thomas Patrick Nelson was born on 12 January 1907 in Kobyboyn, in the state of Victoria, Australia – or so he claimed. It has recently been discovered that this man was living under an alias. His real name was Thomas Frederick John Nanson, and he was born on 12 January 1907 in Devizes, Wiltshire, to William Henry Nanson and Emily Andrews. But why had he lied about his identity?
Surviving documents allow us to build up a timeline for Thomas Nanson. His birth certificate makes clear his real place of birth. According to the 1911 census, the family (listing seven children, including four year old Thomas) was living in London. In 1920, most of the family moved to Seymour in the state of Victoria, Australia; Thomas was now 13 years old.
In 1924, Thomas Nanson returned to the UK alone. He joined the Royal Artillery as a Gunner, lying about his age by one year, but was invalided out owing to deafness in 1931; apparently a bomb exploded close to him which caused his condition. He wore hearing aids after this. In September 1925 he went absent without leave from the army, returning in January 1926 to be convicted of desertion and theft (the loss of his equipment after absconding). He was given a sentence of 84 days detention and his pay was stopped to make good the amount lost.
In 1928, and still at this point in the Royal Artillery, Nanson married his first wife, Irene Florence Warne, in Alverstoke, Hampshire. The couple had three children: Thomas (born 1929), William (born 1931) and Noreen (born 1936).
In November 1930 he was transferred to the army reserve and in April 1931 he was discharged from the army as medically unfit. He left with the following testimonial: ‘Can work well and conduct himself satisfactorily when he likes. He has learned a lot in the army.’
The period of Nanson’s life after leaving the army was a turbulent one. At the age of 26, in 1933, Nanson (described as ‘of no fixed abode’) was living in Portsmouth and was convicted of stealing a wrist-watch. In 1934, he was sent to prison for three months for larceny. In 1935, aged 28 and now working as a cook, he was convicted for theft after breaking into a shop and stealing food. There were also two outstanding charges against him at this point: one of breaking and entering a house, and another of stealing a bicycle. He was given a sentence of six months’ hard labour. By this stage in his life, his wife and children were living apart from him (although the age of his youngest daughter indicates that the relationship was not entirely over), which had clearly caused him to experience extreme financial hardship. The story within Nanson’s first family is that he left when his youngest daughter was very young (indicating 1936 or 37) and nobody knew what happened to him.
Between 1935/36 and 1940, we cannot account for Nanson’s movements. He told his children that during this period he joined the Australian merchant navy and went to the Middle East, where he was hired as a rebel to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Although no records have been found to confirm this, we cannot rule it out entirely.
He told his children that the ship on which he was sailing got caught up in the evacuation of Dunkirk and he was captured by the Germans and held until the end of the war. This second story can be proved as false – at least partly. He was indeed a prisoner of the Germans, but the circumstances of his capture was quite different. Because this story is demonstrably false, as we will see below, it casts doubt on the first story about the Spanish Civil War.
At this point in the narrative of Nanson’s life, we must move to documents in Jersey Archives to learn more. Although Nanson had been living in Portsmouth in 1935, by 1940 (aged 33) he was in Jersey. Why he moved to the Island, we cannot say. Was he trapped unintentionally? Perhaps he managed to secure a job there and wanted a fresh start after the breakdown of his first marriage. In any case, his change of name and place of birth indicates to us that he wanted to hide who he was. Was he fleeing more criminal charges in the UK, or did he simply want to start his new life with a clean slate?
Now living as Thomas Nelson, a surname probably inspired by Nathaniel Nelson who married his sister, he was compelled to fill in new documentation after the arrival of the Germans. Why he didn’t choose to evacuate before their arrival is another mystery. Had he found a new sweetheart in Jersey, or was he scared of facing justice in the UK for another criminal offence? Having been invalided out of the Royal Artillery, joining the armed forces for a second time may not have been an option for Nanson / Nelson, even though he could still have been conscripted at that age. Perhaps his criminal record would have prevented him joining up.
Nanson / Nelson indicated on his Jersey registration forms a new place of birth, in Kobyboyne, Australia, just a few kilometres from where his family settled in Seymour, in the state of Victoria, in 1920. For this to be believable, it seems likely that he still had an Australian accent. He indicated that he had previously served in an Australian Light Horse unit (which he would have probably had to have done before the age of 17, when he returned to the UK, which seems unlikely, unless he joined for year at age 16). He also stated that he had been in the British Royal Garrison Artillery as a gunner, which we know to be correct. He stated that he left the army in December 1930.
Nanson / Nelson further claimed in his identity forms that he was ‘single’ (although his only options were ‘married’, ‘single’ or ‘widowed’). Although a pre-war photograph shows him selling ice creams in Jersey, he struggled to find work after the arrival of the Germans (describing himself as ‘on the parish’, meaning needing to seek financial help from his parish officials), but found work as a hotel worker in April 1943. His later record from Jersey Prison describes him as a ‘sawyer’, i.e., someone who sawed wood for a living.
Nanson / Nelson comes to our attention because, on 4 March 1944 he was taken to Jersey Prison. On 7 March 1944 he was sentenced by the Court of Field Command 515 to five months and two weeks’ imprisonment for ‘larceny and misappropriation’. Strangely, Jersey’s political prisoner logbook indicates that he was liberated after his court appearance. This was not correct. Nanson / Nelson was deported to face yet another period behind bars.
We can’t be sure when he was deported, but we know that he was sent first to Saint-Lô Prison. On 13 April 1944 he arrived at Fort de Villeneuve-Saint-George Prison, Paris, from where he was liberated on 17 August 1944.
A little more colour can be added to this account by that of Geoffrey Delauney, who was deported on 29 March 1944 to Saint-Lô Prison followed by Fort de Villeneuve-Saint-Georges Prison on the outskirts of Paris. It is entirely possible that that the two men were deported together; they certainly moved from Saint-Lô to Paris together. About this journey, Delauney wrote in his memoirs that:
The prisoners had to march on foot from St-Lô to Paris with only cabbage soup and bread to eat. We slept in barns or out in the open. Luckily I was young and fit but some of the old, sick and weak men died along the way and were just left where they fell; they were French and English POWs. Two weeks after I left the St-Lô prison it was bombed and razed to the ground; everyone was killed.
While at Fort de Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, Delauney had to carry out forced labour, as did the other men in the prison with him at this time. We can assume that Nanson / Nelson also had to carry out the same forced labour. Delauney described this work as follows:
There was a huge railway junction and it was getting bombed night and day and there were lots and lots of unexploded bombs. They made us dig up the bombs. There were four people to each bomb … We would dig down about six feet in steps. On one occasion the gang I was in was sent to an area just below a large fort in the town which was where a lot of the bombs had been dropped. We were then redirected to another area. The gangs digging up the bombs in the first area were all killed when one of the bombs exploded during the digging. Although French prison officers looked after the prisoners, the Germans had taken over control of the prison. The German guards used to stand about 50 yards away with their guns and dogs. They weren’t front line soldiers, but probably fought in WWI.
Geoffrey Delauney dug up unexploded bombs in Juvisy (another suburb of Paris a few miles away) for ‘quite a few months’, but on hearing that the Allies were coming, the guards left and the prisoners walked back to Villeneuve. However, there was still a German garrison controlling the town, who opened fire on the group of prisoners, killing those in the front. Fortunately, Delauney was at the back and was able to run back to the prison with his friends until the Free French arrived. His prison record notes that he was officially liberated on 17 August 1944 – the same date as Nanson / Nelson. After this, Delauney wrote that he and ‘an Australian prisoner’ (quite probably Nanson / Nelson) were invited to march into Paris with the Free French the day before de Gaulle arrived, which dates this event to 25 August 1944. A photo exists (provided on this website) of Nanson and Delauney with another prisoner in Paris at this time.
After this momentous day in the life of both Geoffrey Delauney and Thomas Nanson / Nelson, it seems that he was repatriated to the UK. He told his children that he returned to England as a displaced prisoner of war, suffering from memory loss. Indeed, while he could have been categorised as a displaced person after his release from Villeneuve, the stress of his experience could have caused memory loss. He told his children that he was placed in a home of a Mrs Parr-Oakden, and her name survives in an old address book owned by his family.
In 1945/46, Thomas Nanson took up his old identity and returned to Australia, no doubt needing the comfort of his family after his traumatic wartime experiences. There, he met Mary Lawless and married her in May 1948. He was 41 and she was 26. On his marriage certificate, he claimed not only that he was a bachelor, but that his date of birth was 12 January 1911. As Mary was 14 years his junior, he perhaps wanted to make himself appear younger. The couple settled in Benalla, about 100km from Seymour, and went on to have six children. He did not tell Mary about his first marriage, as she was from a strict Catholic family.
Thomas Nanson died in January 1972 in Benalla, in the state of Victoria, Australia.
Gilly Carr wishes to thank the grand-children of Thomas Nanson for contributing much information and sharing many family documents for this article.
Thomas Nelson’s Occupation registration card, Jersey Archives ref. D/S/A/11/A2347.
Thomas Nelson’s Occupation registration form, copyright Jersey Archives ref. D/S/A/11/B2347.
Thomas Nelson’s record, political prisoner register copyright Jersey Archives ref. D/AG/B7/7.
Thomas Nelson’s court records, Jersey Archives ref. D/Z/H6/7/53.
Thomas Nelson’s records from Fort de Villeneuve Saint George Prison, Val de Marne Archives, ref. Registre d’ecrou 500W 9 and Repertoire 500W 3.