Saturday, September 29, 2012

Using University Libraries for Family History

Using University Libraries - how I discovered Great Uncle Rex was a Gun Runner

Harvard Library's Reading Room 

When you think of a library for family history research, undoubtably your Local, State and National Libraries will spring to mind. Most, if not all, family sleuths will have visited in person, or made use of the excellent online search facilities of a library.  University Libraries, however, are possibly not as widely availed upon as other libraries, by family historians.  Yet a search, of the vast collections of books and journals in university libraries can  yield results which would be found no where else. 

University libraries collect journals, articles, documents, theses and artifacts on specific areas of study which relate to the academic areas associated with each university. Because of the academic and therefore 'research' nature of universities, these libraries have built up huge collections of material, including a wealth of original documents. The Oxford University in England possesses original volumes of Shakespeare's plays for which there are plans for digitisation. (I have written an earlier blog which promotes the use of literature to research the life and times of ancestors.)

You can donate to help the Oxford Library digitise Shakespeare's plays

Universities today are have a very international focus with regard to both their student population and areas of teaching.The McGill University in Montreal, Canada, for example, has a mandate to 'build closer relations with international institutions' and as part of its international approach, embraces an Institute of Islamic Studies. It therefore has holdings which otherwise might only be found in the holdings of a university in an Islamic country. There are many other universities world wide which build collections of international  records and for this reason their libraries can be a treasure trove of information for historians and family historians. The inter-national sharing of information between universities, means for researchers, that one can expect to find the unexpected in a University Library. 

When researching ancestors I often conduct a google book search. Of course, obviously, not every ancestor is going to be mentioned in a book, however you might be surprised by how many ARE mentioned in  journal articles. ( although I DID find my convict 2 x great uncle, Laurence Frayne in Robert Hughes 'A Fatal Shore' through a google book search so give it a try if you haven't done so already.)

My first astounding discovery about my great Uncle Rex, through the use of a google book search, was a mention in the 'Guy Liddell Diaries, 1942-1945,', page 163. Now this might appear a seemingly insignificant mention on one page of a diary, however, when a further search revealed that Guy Liddell was MI5's Director of Counter-Espionage during the World War II years, I was somewhat taken aback.  As Managing Director of Cunliffe-Owen Aircraft Company in Southampton during the war, Rex Hoyes, had, I knew, built a secret airstrip on his Hampshire estate, Marwell Hall.  Complete with hangars and a crew of almost entirely female pilots, Seafire aeroplanes were converted to Spitfires at Marwell Hall, near Winchester, and test flights were safely conducted far from the constant enemy bombing in Southampton. I had until this moment deemed my great uncle a hero, however, now the possibility loomed largely, that my great uncle had been a spy during World War II. As compelling a story as that is, it is best left for another blog post.... 

Marwell Hall, once owned by King Henry VIII 

A view of where the secret airstrip was at  Marwell Hall

The second result of my google book search was the 'Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society- Volume 42', which presented the following intriguing excerpt from page 195 - 'Rickets introduced me to another Englishman named Rex Hoyes, whose activities seemed to be along the same lines as that of his friend. Hoyes had served in the British Royal Air Force during the war. He owned a company called V.I.P. Air...'  

A snippet from page 197 offered the following tantalising morsel of information '...Rex Hoyes was formed to smuggle arms into Hyderabad to beat the embargo imposed by India. Cotton came to see me at my home along with Hoyes...'

Something more than a niggling feeling told me that I had stumbled upon something extremely paramount. The connection between my uncle and World War II aircraft, left me with little doubt that the man mentioned in the Pakistan Historical Journal, was indeed my own Rex Hoyes, great uncle seemingly extraordinaire.  It was also line of investigation which I was immediately compelled  to continue investigating.

A further search within the journal, revealed more information, still condensed and out of context but none the less beguiling. 
Page 197... 'consisting of Sidney Cotton, an Australian pilot, William Ricketts and Rex Hoyes.'

Page 196...' I went again to London via Karachi. In London I met Hoyes and arranged to buy a converted Halifax bomber for Rs 350,000. This aircraft was in serve for the...'

Page 195...'Hoyes, who was promised a share in the 20,000 pounds, started contract with a South American embassy in London.' 

Each fragment of information was a piece of a puzzle which when brought together, I was certain would become an enthralling narrative. I also knew that the integrity of the story would only be realised by reading the entire journal article. As I searched, my frustration grew, as one google search after another  revealed nothing about the whereabouts of Volume 42 of the Journal of Pakistan Historical Society. Nor did I have any idea from what article in the journal  the excerpts originated from.

Rex Hoyes, far right

I returned to Google Books and searched the contents of the Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, Vol 42,  this time employing different search tactics. For anyone unfamiliar with google book searches, there is a search box, usually below the illustration of the book or journal, which is headed 'FROM WITHIN THE BOOK'.  If you type relevant search words into this window, quite often you will be rewarded with far more results than your original search produced. I decided to search for other names mentioned alongside my great uncle in the journal in an attempt to discover more about the origins of the article. I typed in the name Sidney Cotton and my results showed that I had found the source immediately. Excerpts from pages 197 and 205 were entitled "Memoirs of General El-Edroos". 

My search result for 'Sidney Cotton'

General Syed Ahmad El-Edroos, I soon discovered, was the Commander in Chief of the Hyderabad State Forces. General El-Edroos led the stand against India for the last Nizam of Hyderabad, in 1948 before Hyderabad surrendered to the Indian Army. 

Sidney Cotton loading the last flight out of Hyderabad

A search for the Memoirs of  General El-Edroos, found a copy in the McGill University Library in Montreal, Canada as well as in several university libraries in the USA, including the Library at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. Serendipity stepped in to assist me fortuitously since at that time I had an Australian cousin who was working as a Professor at Harvard University, and family who where planning a trip to the USA to visit him. Since they also descend from the Hoyes family, they were eager to obtain a copy of the El-Edroos Memoirs. It is not usually difficult  to order copies of journal articles from university libraries but in this instance good fortune availed itself of me. 

Front cover of the photo-copied Memoirs of General El-Edroos

In his memoirs, El Edroos  outlined a brief history of Hyderbad leading up to the the troubles with India. He claimed that the Government of Hyderabad, obviously anticipating problems with India, had placed a large amount of money in London banks during World War II. After the war, 'I was instructed to travel abroad along with a technical advisor to the Government to purchase what was called 'machinery', but what really meant arms and ammunition.' wrote El-Edroos in his memoir.

It was whilst in London that general El-Edroos met with William Rickets and Rex Hoyes, who he described as both being 'middle aged'.  My great uncle was to supply aircraft for the Government of Hyderabad and according to El-Edroos, Rickets 'introduced me to an Iraqi named Haydar Pasha who promised to obtain arms via Iraq.' 

During his visit to London, General El-Edroos was advised by a British General, with whom he discussed his mission,  'to be very careful, otherwise I may land up in Dartmoor prison breaking stones.'

On a second trip to London, General El-Edroos again met with Rickets and Rex Hoyes.. 
'I met Hoyes and arranged to buy a converted Halifax bomber for Rs 350,000. This aircraft was to serve as a specimen for the approval of other purchases. We enlisted a crew of former Royal Air personnel, along with Hoyes to accompany me to Hyderabad.. We flew from London into Karachi, from there we wanted to fly direct to Hyderabad. Apparently the Indians were able to detect our plans and asked us by signal to land in Bombay which we did. The customs searched the aircraft at Santa Cruz and found a Louis gun in the possession of Hoyes. This was seized by the customs police, after which we were allowed to proceed to Hyderabad.'

General El-Edroos had returned to Hyderabad to find that the chain of command above him had changed and that his orders were  altered. He was now instructed to 'keep out of this matter and concentrate entirely on the armed forces and the defences of Hyderabad.'

El Edroos wrote that 'During this period, a trio consisting of Sidney Cotton, an Australian pilot, William Rickets and Rex Hoyes was formed to smuggle arms into Hyderabad to beat the embargo imposed by India.'

The Halifax bomber was eventually abandoned in favour of a fleet of Lancasters. A fleet of Lancaster planes departed England, regularly, bound for Hyderabad via Karachi carrying arms under the guise of consignments of nuts and medical equipment.

A Halifax bomber

The Lancaster Aircraft

I  plan to tell this entire story in much more detail in the future when my research is completed. My great uncle  was in the employ of the Nizam of Hyderabad as an Air Advisor during this period of 1947-1948. There was a plan formed for the Nizam's escape on the last plane out of Hyderabad, however, the story has been told that he missed the flight because he refused to leave without all of his jewels and riches and slowed down by the weight of the many jewels he insisted upon taking with him, the flight took off without the wealthiest man in the world. El-Edroos described in his memoirs an incident which occurred whilst he was attending a function in London with Lord Mountbatten who knew of his mission for arms and who 'winked at me.'  It appears that although the British Government publicly disapproved of this secret activity, it may have privately turned a blind eye to the illegal aid given to Britain's war time ally, Hyderabad. 

General El-Edroos

None of this story would have been possible to construct if not for finding the Memoirs of General Syed Ahmad El-Edroos  amongst the many treasures in the holdings of a university library. The memoirs, written just prior to the death of Syed El-Edroos, is  an etraordinary document and in all likelihood is the only source of the tale of my great uncle Rex Morley Hoyes' involvement in smuggling arms to Hyderabad. I have not found the Memoirs of general El-Edroos in any other library or archive.


Since discovering the memoirs of General El-Edroos,  I have gone on to use other sources to piece together a more in depth account of this story, however without this unique and  invaluable source I would never have constructed my great uncle's astonishing tale of adventure. Queensland born Sidney Cotton wrote his own account of the Hyderabad affair, and for obvious reasons omitted the names of his accomplices. From all accounts, it appears that neither man received payment from the Nizam of Hyderabad as Sidney Cotton died penniless and Rex Hoyes was arrested not long after the fall of Hyderabad for failure to pay his hotel account at the  George Cinq Hotel in Paris, where he was residing. In his court case held in London, his defence claimed that he was awaiting 'a large payment'. When asked who owed him money he refused to answer, saying that 'I would prefer to go to jail than reveal names.'
Rex Morley Hoyes was sentenced to three months imprisonment and remained silent about his involvement in smuggling arms to Hyderabad.

On a good though puzzling note, great uncle Rex appears to have bounced back from this setback, however, as he died in the 1980's under the illustrious title of Viscompte Fessenden C. R. Morey-Morley De Borenden. But that is also another story......

My copy of Sidney Cotton's account of the Hyderabad mission


  1. What an amazing story. Your research is so interesting! When I was doing the Grad.Dip. Local and Applied History, I often visited the libraries at the University of Queensland, Griffith University and the Mount Gravatt campus of Griffith University (formerly Teacher's College), but I'm ashamed to say that I have neglected them as a source for my personal research.

  2. Fantastic discovery Sharn! I'm so glad you've written about this great resource -like you I love university libraries helped along by having a staff card for years. Hence why uni libraries were one of my "Beyond the internet" strategies. I was working for Flinders Uni when I did my ADLH online and their library staff were fantastic! Sadly no great family history discoveries about specific people like this but they rock just the same!

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  5. Hi
    thanks for sharing these informaion