We’ve all come across it before haven’t we? That blank space on a birth certificate or baptism register: Father – unknown. DNA has been fantastic for smashing through these brick walls; but sometimes good old fashioned, traditional genealogy is needed. I’d like to share with you, my story of discovering the paternity of one of my ancestors, which I hope brings you some optimism when facing unknown parentage in your own family history.
It all started about 25 years ago when I was researching my mother’s branch of the family. I methodically filed colour-coordinated records for each of my grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents. I remember two of my great grandmothers fondly; and had apparently met two of my great grandfathers too, but they died when I was very young so I don’t recall. My grandparents were always talking about my ancestors, so I was pretty confident I knew a lot about them.
However, my mother’s paternal grandmother was proving tricky. I knew for a fact that Christina Margaret Vinton was born on 1st April, and was 99% positive the year was 1908. The family lived in the East End of London, and we were fairly sure Christina had been born there, but I could not find any record of her birth being registered. It was something that bothered me for years. I knew her name, I knew her parents’ names, but I just could not locate her entry in the civil birth indexes. I tried searching several years either side of 1908, variations of names/spellings, I even tried checking locations outside of London, but to no avail.
One day, whilst chatting with my maternal grandmother, she suggested I speak to my grandfather’s cousin, my Auntie Doris (actually, she was my 1st cousin 3 times removed, but we always called her Auntie). Doris Kinch, née Olsen, was Christina’s cousin; and my oldest living relative on that branch of the family – aged 93! During our telephone conversation, Auntie Doris revealed that Christina’s father wasn’t really her father! It had been a family secret that nobody had ever talked about. Christina only discovered it herself when she reached pension age. She was asked to provide identity in the form of a birth certificate, which she didn’t have. After visiting Somerset House to collect a copy, she learned her real name was Christina Margaret Wilkinson – she had her mother’s maiden name. It was all a huge shock, and Christina only revealed the news when Doris confronted her, concerned she was ill.
Why hadn’t I thought of that?! Why didn’t I check for an entry in her mother’s maiden name?! Oh well, they say hindsight is a wonderful thing (and in my defence, it was very early on in my genealogical journey). It had just never crossed my mind because I had no reason to ever doubt who Christina’s father was. In fact, my own grandfather died without ever knowing his grandfather wasn’t his biological grandfather.
This revelation was in the days before DNA kits had been introduced, so when I finally obtained a copy of Christina Margaret Wilkinson’s birth certificate, I thought her paternal line of my ancestry was closed forever. The space for ‘Name and Surname of Father’, was blank. That was it, there was no way of knowing who Christina’s real father was. No way of knowing any more about that branch of my family tree………… Or so I thought.
Disappointed, I decided I would have to make do with the little I did know, and set out to investigate my great grandmother’s maternal line. I started with Christina’s birth certificate, and the address listed as her place of birth: Maternity Hospital, 271 Mare Street, Hackney. Nothing out of the ordinary there – a maternity hospital is exactly where you would expect a baby to be born. However, when I Googled the address (curious to see how far away it was from the address of her mother), I discovered that the address was for Ivy House – a Salvation Army’s home for unmarried mothers.
A fantastic description of the building, and it’s use by The Salvation Army, can be found at The Hackney Society.
I have much more to write about Ivy House but, as you know, I like to keep my blogs short and sweet – something you can read whilst waiting for the kettle to boil. So for now, I shall leave you in suspense. My next installment of this two-part blog, will reveal the details of Christina’s start in life. However, I’ll give you a little teaser by saying that thanks to the wonderful people at The Salvation Army I was able to discover the name of my great great grandfather.
Never underestimate what you may learn from chatting to your relatives, always extract as much information from documents as you possibly can – and I highly recommend Googling addresses! Until next time.