Father Unknown – Part 1

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.

Christina M Perry (née Vinton) 28th July 1951

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.

Deliverer and Record of Salvation Army Rescue Work – published Thurs 01 May 1913

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.

The Destiny of Jennie Louisa Perkins

Many of my past blogs have concerned my father’s maternal line of ancestors, yet I would like to speak again about this side of my family – as a few days ago, my paternal grandmother Jenny Gray (née Perkins) celebrated her 93rd birthday.

Jennie Louisa Perkins was born in Bethnal Green in 1928, to Ernest Charles and Jennie Louisa Perkins (née Lee).  My Nan was the eldest of three girls.  Her sister Lillian was born in 1931, and the baby of the family – Maureen – was born a few years later in 1938.  Nan and Maureen both had four sons each; so when I was born in 1978, I was the first girl to be born in the family for 40 years! 

My Great Grandparents – Jennie Louisa Perkins snr (née Lee) & Ernest Charles Perkins

“I’m a great believer in fate. I think our lives are mapped out before we’re born.”

Jennie Perkins grew up in a large extended family, and was extremely close to her aunts and cousins.  She performed very well at school, and had dreams of becoming a Teacher.  She won a scholarship to attend Park Modern High in Barking; but unfortunately, her hopes were dashed when World War II broke out, and she ended up going to the local Bifrons School.

We all know that the war turned lives upside down for many people. For Jennie Perkins, it meant that after leaving school she went to work making military uniforms in a factory called Mills Equipment, in Oxlow Lane, Dagenham. A few years later, Nan worked in an office for Perkins Dry Cleaners (later to become Dyson Cleaners). She laughs at the memory of her first day. When she reported in, stating her name, the staff thought she was a relation of the owner, so treated her VERY well. She kept quiet that they were not actually related at all! Whilst working here, Nan stayed with her aunt Lizzie. Lizzie’s husband Bert was stationed abroad with the RAF, so it was a mutual convenience, as Nan helped aunt Lizzie with the children.

Although Nan sometimes wonders how her life might have been if she had become a teacher, she doesn’t regret a single thing. She told me “I’m a great believer in fate. I think our lives are mapped out before we’re born.” I don’t know whether that’s true, but I do believe that what will be, will be. We often make our own choices in life, but sometimes there’s a bump in the road that throws us off course and down a different path to what we’d originially planned. Maybe if Nan had become a teacher, she wouldn’t have met my Grandad.

My Grandparents – George Gray and Jennie Louisa Perkins jnr.

You can read more about my Nan and Grandad’s first meeting, in my blog ‘Chance Encounters of the Past Generations‘ here: https://whoamifamilytreeresearch.co.uk/2021/03/05/chance-encounters-of-the-past-generations/

You may have spotted that throughout this article, I have referred to my Nan as Jennie Louisa Perkins, yet in the first paragraph her name is written as Jenny. The reason for this is that Nan has spelled her name ‘Jenny’ for all of her life. In fact, when she married George Gray in 1950, Nan recorded her name as Jenny Dorothy Perkins (believing that Dorothy was her middle name). It wasn’t until much later in life, when she came across her birth certificate, that she realised she’d actually been registered at birth as Jennie Louisa! So for any future genealogists researching the Gray/Perkins line – YES, Jenny Dorothy Perkins and Jennie Louisa Perkins, are indeed the same person!

Happy Birthday Nan. Thank you for all you have done for me throughout my life, teaching me values of kindness and respect; but most of all, for inspiring a love of family history.

More Than Just Names and Dates

There are many sources available to the family historian today, but many of us, particularly when we are starting out in the hobby, are guilty of sticking to the main genealogical sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past. It’s very tempting to rush ahead to the next generation, collecting names and dates for your tree, so you can tell the world you’ve managed to research back 200 years; but our ancestors were real people, with real lives. They had their own daily routines, their own interests, and stories way beyond simple births, marriages and deaths.

I must note that Ancestry and FindMyPast offer a plethora of collections besides the usual censuses, birth/baptism, marriage and death/burial records. I certainly couldn’t conduct my research without these core databases; but I’d like to bring to your attention some of the under-utilised websites out there, which can also help you gain a greater understanding of the lives your ancestors led.

It’s always best to visit archives in person where and when you can, but that’s not always possible, and with more and more records being digitised, you can access much from the comfort of your own sofa. Here are some of my favourite websites that help add flesh to the bones of your family history (pun intended).

Well, where do I begin with TNA? I think this site warrants a blog entirely for itself! For now, I shall just touch upon a few of the wonderful benefits the home of our nation’s historical documents has to offer. The main website provides a fantastic selection of Research Guides with tips and advice on how to search collections within different subjects. There’s everything from Land Records and Maps, to Criminals, Courts and Prisons.

If you struggle with reading old handwriting (as I often do) the tutorial on palaeography is very handy. Then we have the online catalogue known as Discovery. You can search for records all across the UK, and the database will show you where the documents are held, and how to access them. You can filter your results to show records located at TNA or ‘Other Archives’, refine date ranges, even specific collections if you know what you’re looking for. It might seem a bit overwhelming at first, but once you become familiar with the site, you will find it invaluable.

The British Newspaper Archive is an absolute treasure of a site. Searching your ancestor’s name can bring up all sorts of stories from marriage announcements and obituaries, to criminal activities (yes, we all have a rogue or two in our family tree).

I’ve come across mention of people in sporting events, church celebrations, even names of winners of the weekly crossword! All these details give us an idea of who our forebears were as people. The website for British Newspaper Archive includes lots of tools to filter your results and bookmark articles. The OCR (Optical Character Recognition) can be frustrating at times when it doesn’t recognise the words/names you are searching for, so I don’t recommend you filter your results too strictly. You can always use the wildcards of ? and * to help look for variations.

Genuki is another go-to site for me. If I’m researching a location I’m not familiar with, I simply type the name of the village/town in Genuki’s search bar, and it brings up the history of the area.

You can learn about the community in which your ancestor lived, what the local industry/employment was, the distance to nearby towns, population statistics, or even discover the history of churches in the area. There are categories from Folklore to Probate, Schools to Directories. By clicking on each heading, you will see which records still exist, and where you might find them. It really is a very useful site.

Similarly, the Family Search ‘catalog’ is an excellent resource for finding out what collections are available for certain locations. The website is run and funded by the LDS church, offering free access to a wealth of material.

FamilySearch.org not only has this brilliant ‘catalog‘ which is searchable by Place, Surnames, Titles, Author, Subjects or Keywords; but many of the records have been digitised and are available to view online or at one of the Family History Centres. Family Search also has a subscription-free database, where you can search for the standard census returns and civil registration records (amongst other collections). Their ‘mapp‘ facility, whilst occasionally problematic, is fantastic if you are examining pre-1837 records. The map allows you to view the jurisdictions of a parish, and has links to the records associated with that place. If you are happy to share your findings, there is a single-worldwide family tree that has been constructed with the collaboration of thousands of family historians. You can search for your ancestors, submit data to their profile, or even create new ones if they don’t already exist. It’s an extraordinary project, with people across the world coming together for the love of genealogy.

Last but by no means least, I’ve picked local family history societies. Family History Federation has an A-Z list of groups, with links to their websites. Lots of wonderful FHS members across the UK have transcribed documents relating to families/businesses/churches etc. which can be accessed if you become a member.

You don’t necessarily need to live locally to join. If you have ancestors from a far away county, becoming a member of the relevant Family History Society can open up a trove of records that may contain information about your family. Many FHS’s have their own websites, some even digitising their transcriptions, photos and stories. During the pandemic, lots of groups held talks/presentations via platforms like Zoom and, due to their success, have decided to continue them in the future. Check out which online events are being held by your society.

It’s been difficult to choose my top five, I could easily have suggested a further dozen sources that are beneficial to genealogical research. Social media mustn’t be underestimated – Facebook groups for local communities can reveal all sorts about local families/occupations/photos. All these sources can be used in conjunction with each other to enrich your family’s story.

Discovering who our ancestors were, learning about their ups and downs, loves and losses, is far more rewarding than just marking out their life-span. It’s our duty to remember their existence as a whole, not just a label on a branch.

Gone ‘opping

During the 1930s/40s, in the East End of London and Essex suburbs, my family lived just above the breadline.  Holidays by the coast were an inconceivable dream, but they did manage to escape the smoke and grime of the overcrowded streets by going ‘Hopping’.

The women and children would pack up for the summer, leaving the men behind to work.  My Nan (Jennie Louisa Perkins) would be joined by her younger sister Lil, her mother (also Jennie), her aunts Lena, Joyce, Rosie and Lizzie; and her grandmother (my great great grandmother) Nanny Lee.  She remembers many of her cousins too, but there are too many to mention here!

‘Hopping boxes’ would be filled with clothing, cooking utensils and provisions, and would later double-up as tables.  Nan remembers they would each have a palliasse to sleep on – a sort of sack that they filled with straw (which sounds awfully scratchy and uncomfortable).

The Kentish farms weren’t too far away, so the men regularly joined the families at weekends.  Uncle Bert (aunt Lizzie’s husband) used a work’s van to transport the gang down on a Friday night or Saturday morning. 

Someone might have an accordion, another might play the mouth organ, and they’d all have a good old sing-song.

Every year, Nanny Lee (centre of picture above) would choose which farm the family would visit for the working-holiday; often changing locations for better money or conditions.  However, most hopping farms had a similar layout – a cook hut, surrounded by several hopping huts.  The cook hut usually had some sort of cooking facilities, but mostly the families would cook on camp fires.  There would be huge hopping pots for stews and boiling water, and my Nan remembers cooking potatoes, wrapped in foil, on the edge of the fire amongst the embers.

‘Lousy Hoppers’ were often looked down upon for being poor, yet my Nan loved it.  Hopping was hard work, but being together with her family, in the fresh air, was wonderful.  You would have to pull the hops off the vines, and drop them into a ‘bin’ – a canvas bag that was held by two long poles crossed at each end with shorter poles.  The tally-man would use a bushel basket to count how much you’d picked, and you’d get paid by the bushel.

Courtesy of Kent Archives

In the evenings, the children would go scrumping in local fields, trying not to giggle whilst hiding from the gamekeeper.  Nan reminisces how she would always keep the largest apple to take back home to her teacher.

When the men arrived at the weekend, they would frequently hold a dance in an empty barn.  Someone might have an accordion, another might play the mouth organ, and they’d all have a good old sing-song.

I’m not too sure my sons would have the same delighted reaction if I told them we were going on a working-holiday, but Nan’s stories of her hopping days always sound wonderful to me.

Many thanks to Kent Archives for the use of their image of the Hopping Postcard. You can read more about the history of hopping in Kent in their fantastic article here https://www.kentarchives.org.uk/hops-in-kent/

Another World

I’m very fortunate to have both my Nans still alive today.  I love talking to them about their early years, and I’m constantly curious to hear about the lives that seem very different to the one I’ve known. One particular story I am always happy to hear my paternal nan retell, is about her moving to a new home.

She’d never seen anything like it, it was utterly breathtaking.’  ‘…had they suddenly become Royalty?’

Jennie Louisa Perkins (my paternal grandmother) spent the first few years of her life in ‘rooms’ in Bethnal Green.  She, her parents and baby sister lived on the top floor of a three-storey house.  They had two rooms – the main living room (which served as a kitchen/lounge/dining room) and a bedroom.  The bedroom had two beds, one for the parents, and one for the two sisters to share.  There was no bathroom.  A galvanized iron bath hung on a nail in the main room, and was used to wash the laundry……..and the family.  The ‘privy’ was outside in the yard, and was shared by all the residents in the property.  There was no running water; Nan remembers her mother (my great grandmother) carrying a large white enamel jug downstairs to the outside tap, heaving it up and down the stairs to refill several times a day.

In January 1934, when Nan was around 5 years old, the family moved from Bethnal Green to Becontree.  She remembers vividly, walking into her new home for the first time.  It was like a palace!  She’d never seen anything like it, it was utterly breathtaking.   There were electric lights, and Nan remembers being able to turn them on and off ‘like magic’ via a switch on the wall.  Taps in the kitchen had not just cold, but also HOT running water!  It was so posh!  The enamel bath in the kitchen, had a copper at one end (used for boiling water).  Her father covered the bath with a wooden board, so it could function as a worktop when not in use.  They even had a garden!  In Bethnal Green, they’d shared a small, paved yard.  In Becontree, my great grandfather grew vegetables and kept rabbits (to eat of course).  Nan recalls how everything was brand new, even the local school.  Reminiscing, she laughs at a thought she’d had at the time, ‘had they suddenly become royalty?’.

Photo from Historic England Archive. Part of Becontree Estate under construction in 1927.

I asked Nan if it was lonely being in a new town, and whether she had missed her friends from Bethnal Green, but she replied no.  Many family members and old neighbours had also moved out to Essex; her mother’s friend ‘Aunt’ Lou and her two daughters (Lou-Lou and Rosie), had moved to Becontree too.  It was like a home from home.  She describes the houses as being in a ‘banjo’ layout; they had their own sort of micro-community where everyone looked out for each other.  My great grandmother ran a kind of savings club.  She would collect money from each household every week, then a name would be pulled out of a hat.  The lady whose name had been picked, received the money-pot for that week.  The lady’s name would then be discarded so she wasn’t picked again, ensuring everybody had their turn in ‘winning’.  Nan says that this money was often used to buy new clothes/shoes for the children.

Jennie Louisa Perkins circa 1938

Nan’s ‘palace’ in Becontree seems basic compared to my childhood home – with a fridge-freezer, vacuum cleaner and television; but it’s all relative isn’t it? My great great grandmother Eliza would have thought Nan’s simple rooms in Bethnal Green were luxurious!  After Eliza’s parents died of TB, she and her siblings were sent to an orphanage. Privacy was unheard of, so the idea of a bedroom for just four, or a dip in a galvanized bath in her own personal kitchen, would have been a dream.  I wonder what she would think of my life today, with the world at the touch of my fingertips?

Science and technology has progressed exponentially in the last hundred years, creating another world that would be unimagineable to our forebears. But like many of you, I owe much credit for all the things I have today to my ancestors. Each generation in my family worked hard, fought and strived to make a better life for the next, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Huge thanks go to Colin Pickett for use of the photo of the Becontree Bus (circa 1934).