History & Culture

Finding grandma: why Canadian David Blake-Knox is on a quest

Nearly a century after his grandmother passed away in Madras, Canadian David Blake-Knox is on a quest: to find her gravesite

It maybe holiday season for most of the world but Canadian David Blake-Knox and his wife Eva do not look at their current trip to Chennai as one of leisure. There’s a deeper purpose to their visit... one that’s also shrouded in mystery.

They are here to find the missing gravesite of Blake-Knox’s grandmother, Annabelle Watling, who passed away in 1923, long before Blake-Knox was even born.

On an earlier trip to India, they were able to locate the grave of Blake-Knox’s grandfather, Lt Col Ernest Blake-Knox, a doctor with the Royal Army Medical Corps. One of the pioneers in treating tropical diseases in the country, he took care of several people suffering from ‘black fever’. Ironically, it was malaria that led to the passing away of both grandparents.

Finding grandma: why Canadian David Blake-Knox is on a quest

“Back in January, my wife and I managed to find my grandfather’s gravesite in Yercaud. It wasn’t in the best shape so we cleaned it and planted a few flowers around it. That’s when we were able to access the burial records of my grandfather and the baptism records of my father, Peter Ernest Anthony Blake-Knox. This also led to finding the date and location of my grandmother’s death.”

They went back to Canada, promising to return later to find the grandmother. This December, the couple is back in Chennai on that mission. “Very little is known about my grandmother because she passed away just a year after my father was born,” he says.

But these records say that Blake-Knox’s grandmother passed away in Madras and that’s made the search more difficult. “There were a few letters missing from the inscription at Yercaud but thankfully, the gravestone is still intact.”

Finding grandma: why Canadian David Blake-Knox is on a quest

But Chennai’s tropical climate doesn’t help his current quest. “We walked past several gravestones here where the letters have either disappeared completely or the stone itself has sunk. One of those could have even been my grandmother’s.”

This resulted in the couple from North Vancouver directing their search towards record books. They spent a week examining burial records, starting from 1923, at St Andrew’s ‘Kirk’, St George’s Cathedral, St Mary’s, Egmore Wesley Church and Kilpauk Cementry... all to no avail.

A detailed search on the Internet, however, led to the records of a Mabel Watling, born in 1894 who passed away on May 20, 1924. “It didn’t seem like a coincidence. Annabelle could easily have been misspelt as Mabel.” And that resulted in a further search to find Mabel. “It does not say where she was buried. This may or may not be my grandmother.”

On Christmas day, earlier this week, the couple called off their quest and planned to return home, albeit disappointed.

But why would someone take so much trouble to find a relative they hardly knew? Blake-Knox ponders, “I believe in family. It’s important to respect one’s predecessors. It’s also important to keep family ties alive.”


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Printable version | May 28, 2020 1:43:16 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/why-a-canadian-travelled-to-madras-to-find-his-grandmothers-gravesite/article22296241.ece

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