Monday, 2 February 2009
Building a mystery in family history
I used to describe the Resident Fan Boy's paternal grandmother as "the woman with three maiden names whom nobody wanted to talk about". When she was mentioned, the words seemed rushed, confused. My late father-in-law told me her maiden name was Roberts*, that she was born in Ireland, that she had five brothers all killed in the Dardanelles during the First World War. His birth certificate gave her maiden name as Valentine*, which turned out to be his paternal grandfather's middle name. His brother (whose birth certificate gave her maiden name as Reynolds) filled out her death certificate as Susan Jane*, where all other records give her name as Sarah Susannah*. We figured he'd never called her anything beside "Mummy", so had made a mistake. Vague stories from her surviving daughter-in-law (who had met her) and her granddaughter (who hadn't) indicated a crisis or a breakdown. One son sent away, the other sent to live with relatives. "Very middle-class," said surviving daughter-in-law. "That B****" reported the unacquainted granddaughter.
And no marriage certificate. I've been doing serious online family research for six or seven years now. Every time FreeBMD updated their data base, I would scour for new entries. No dice. Was this why my father-in-law came out to Canada to study for the Anglican priesthood? The 1911 census went online last month, and, expensive as it is, I invested in downloading the entries connected with the more immediate ancestors of my daughters. I learned that my husband's grandfather's widowed sister had moved to the district of Blean in Kent. Two days later, I noticed a FreeBMD entry for a marriage with my husband's surname in Blean. Fourteen years after the birth of my father-in-law. The marriage certificate arrived Friday. Sure enough, the witnesses to this church wedding were the widowed sister and her eldest son. The groom gave his address as a local hotel. The bride gave her address as the family home in South London. Evidently, the Resident Fan Boy's grandfather had stayed in town long enough to establish residency for purposes of obtaining a marriage license. Then two big surprises: 1) the bride gave a maiden name that none of us had heard of; 2) both bride and groom listed themselves as widowed.
I photographed the marriage certificate and the Resident Fan Boy sent the image off to his sister and Sagittarian Cousin (who is still not speaking to me), and a hail of speculation began. Both my sister-in-law and estranged cousin wondered who the previous spouses were. We replied (I, the family historian, dictating to Resident Fan Boy who, as a blood relative, is presumably seen as having the right to comment) that we doubted Grandpapa had married before, that he was saying he was to explain the existence of a fourteen-year-old and nine-year-old bearing his surname. Then, after a quick search of the censuses and FreeBMD, we found Grandmama's first marriage, four years before the birth of her first child with Grandpapa: to a fellow named Roberts*, the name my father-in-law had volunteered when I first began making inquiries into the Resident Fan Boy's family history. She had not been born in Ireland, but the East End. Presumably, my father-in-law thought (quite correctly) that would put me off the scent. And she did have five brothers surviving infancy, one of whom died in the Dardanelles...
It sounds very much like an old story: newly married gal gets pregnant by wealthier lover, moves in with him, and waits for first husband to die. The "witness protection" aspect of creating a completely different identity for her with several different names is quite a twist; I'm not sure if she was hiding from society or from first husband, or both. Haven't found a death record for first husband yet, but there's someone with his initials dying out in Egypt just after the first World War. But all this is speculation too.
I was always a bit bamboozled by the Mormon passion for genealogy, the idea of marrying and christening people in the afterlife who had not got around to it in this life. The idea seemed both creepy and presumptuous, although the pamphlets handed out by the Church of the LDS at our family history society meetings carefully explain that permission needs to be obtained from the dead souls first. However, I do feel an affinity with the idea of reclaiming and remembering those who have gone. I don't know if my husband's grandmother was a harridan or not. Frankly, if my posthumous reputation were in the hands of my in-laws alone, I shudder to think how I'd be remembered. But not to be remembered at all is surely worse. So, even though I have changed the names for this post to protect the Resident Fan Boy's privacy, I'm slipping in a photo of the woman whose DNA lives on in my husband and daughters. In my family data bases, she is now named. Reclaimed. Not shamed. In that sense, I think the Mormons have got it right.