Christmas Memories

Growing up, I was surrounded by family.  We would visit grandparents every Saturday, and my Godparents on occasional Sundays (when my dad would stop off to buy some shellfish for our supper that evening).  It seemed like there was a birthday party every other week for one of my many cousins, and each Christmas (my favourite time of year) there would always be huge gatherings.

My paternal grandparents would always play host on Christmas Eve, with at least thirty relatives crammed into their tiny two-up two-down house.  Looking back now, I am bewildered at how we all squeezed in, but at the time I thought it was just wonderful.  My Nan would put on a spread of sandwiches, cakes, mince pies and sausage rolls; all of course home-made.

I remember every year, anxiously waiting to see if I would receive a gift; recalling all the moments from the previous 12 months that might have been considered ’naughty’. 

The older children (aged about 5 years upwards) would sit on the cold stairs, chatting and playing games.  As the eldest grandchild I would be there with my first cousins once removed, that were just a little older than me, whom I held in absolute awe.  There were no hand-held electronic devices then (unless you count my prized Major Morgan), but we were never bored.  We’d spend half an hour or so on the steps, allowing the adults time to natter, moving aside every now and then as an aunt squeezed by to use the upstairs loo.

Once the grown-ups had finished chatting, us children would be called into the room where we would all cram around my Nan’s feet.  Once we were sitting quietly she would produce a magic snowman, no bigger than 12 inches tall, that held inside it’s hollow tummy a gift for good little boys and girls.  One by one, each of the children’s names would be called out, and a gift would be presented to them.  What made the snowman ‘magic’ was the fact that it contained around 8-10 gifts, each at least 4 inches wide.  We would marvel at the Snowman’s astonishing, Mary Poppins’ carpetbag-esque characteristic.

Nan revealed in later years (after incessant questioning), that she would sneak the next present (hidden beside her armchair) into the snowman’s tummy, whilst we were all distracted with the present being unwrapped by the most recent recipient.

I remember every year, anxiously waiting to see if I would receive a gift; recalling all the moments from the previous 12 months that might have been considered ’naughty’.  Luckily, Mr Snowman must have calculated that my good behaviour outweighed any bad behaviour, as I always received a present.

Christmas Day was always special in our house, just the five of us: my parents, myself and my two siblings.  It was lovely to spend some quality time together, my dad having a few days off work.

Christmas Day was always special in our house, just the five of us: my parents, myself and my two siblings.  It was lovely to spend some quality time together, my dad having a few days off work. We would have home-cooked ham with eggs for breakfast, followed by turkey and all the trimmings around 1pm.  My mum and dad always went out of their way to ensure we had a magical time with lots of surprises. We’d play with our toys, eat far too much chocolate, and go to bed exhausted.

Christmas 1985 – My brother obviously found all the excitement a bit too much.

On Boxing Day, my Godparents (my father’s paternal uncle Bernard and auntie Linda) would hold a party for about 30/40 people.  It was magnificent!  The whole extended family would be there.  My paternal grandfather was the eldest of 10 siblings, so there were many great aunts and uncles, and even more cousins and first-cousins-once-removed.  I would dance and dance until I crashed out, and was laid to sleep across a wooden dining bench.  They were some of the best times of my life.

When I reminisce about these family gatherings, I understand how lucky I was to be surrounded by so much love and happiness.  I’m extremely appreciative for the childhood I had.  I wonder what memories my children will cherish in future years, and hope they remember happy times with our family.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy and Healthy New Year.

Father Unknown – Part 2

So, where did I leave you last time? Ah yes, I had discovered that the address given as place of birth on my great grandmother’s birth certificate, was for a Salvation Army’s home for unmarried mothers.

(If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please go back and read part 1 of this blog: )

Ivy House was opened in 1894 by the Salvation Army, in a bid to help the ‘..plight of ‘fallen’ girls and women.‘ Peter Higginbotham’s brilliant website has a detailed description of the property’s layout: ‘..the basement of the building contained a kitchen, dining room and bathroom for the domestic staff.  On the ground floor were a dining room for midwife pupils and for nursing staff, also used for lectures, together with offices and a convalescent ward.  The first floor housed four lying-in wards, a day nursery, and the Matron’s bed-sitting room.  The toilet, also used as a slop sink, was on the half landing below this floor.  Hot and cold water sinks, used only for soapy water, were fitted in the first floor passage and second floor landing.  On the second floor were the labour room, night nursery, a further lying-in ward and an ante-natal room, also used as a receiving room.  The six wards provided a total of 22 beds plus 12 cots.  The building was lit throughout by gas.  There was no bathroom for the inmates, who made use of moveable baths in the ante-natal room and in the lying-in wards.

Ivy House circa 1900. © Peter Higginbotham / Mary Evans Picture Library

If you haven’t come across Peter Higginbotham before, I urge you to check out, and it’s sister website They are invaluable sources for information on such establishments (as are Peter’s many books).

I decided to chance my luck, and contact the Salvation Army to find out whether they held any records from around 1908 (when Christina Margaret Wilkinson was born).  To my delight I received a reply from a wonderful man by the name of Kevin Pooley, of The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre in London.  He had discovered three separate records relating to my great great grandmother, Florence Wilkinson, and the birth of her daughter Christina. The Applicants’ Secretary Interview Books recorded notes of interviews and correspondence received.  The entry in Book No. 31 (General), 22 Nov 1907 to 17 Mar 1909, Page 173, told me that Florence Wilkinson (aged 25) had telephoned for a form to apply for admission into the home.  She states that she had been led astray under a promise of marriage by Benjamin Hooker (aged 24) of Kingsland Road!  I had found my great great grandfather – and his address!

Florence stated in her telephone interview, that she would like to be fixed up in ‘situation’ (a job) following the ‘illness’ (pregnancy); and has previously worked in factories, earning between 2-3 shillings a week.  This was a pittance of a wage – far below the average weekly income for women employed in factories at the time. I made notes to follow up researching Florence’s employment history (if any records still existed), and also to investigate Benjamin Hooker, but for now, I wanted to discover as much as I possibly could about Florence’s time in Ivy House.

The Ivy House Maternity Register (1904-1910), which lists basic details of the births, stated that Florence was in labour for 10 hours, and gave birth to a girl at 12.45pm on 1st April 1908.

The two nurses present were Musker and Edwards. Florence’s entry was the first in the register to record the name of a nurse (N.N. Holmes) in the ‘Remarks’ column, but it’s not clear why.  There were some clinical notes about the birth, but I shan’t go into those here. The third record was from the Girls’ Statement Book No. 8, (London), Page 373.  The title is a little misleading, as some of the ladies in Ivy House were actually in their thirties or forties, and some even married. 

It states that Florrie (Florence) Wilkinson, had been admitted to the receiving home (Brent House, Devonshire Road, Hackney – pictured here) on 10th February 1908.

After being assessed she was transferred to Ivy House, and following Christina’s birth, she departed the home on 27th May 1908, taking up a position in service at 1 Park Mansions, St Paul’s Avenue, Cricklewood. The Girls’ Statement Book has a column titled ‘Satisfactory or not at Departure?’ – the comment for Florrie’s entry was ‘Yes!’. This question was typically answered ‘Satisfactory’, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. The addition of the exclamation mark suggests that the officer completing the form thought Florrie was much more than just satisfactory.

The book goes on to detail that the baby’s father, Benjamin Hooker, could not be traced, and was therefore not supporting the child. My great grandmother Christina Margaret Wilkinson was sent to a ‘Nursing Mother’ (a sort of wet-nurse cum foster mother) called Mrs. Shivers of 3 Anns Avenue, Old Kent Road, at a cost of 5 shillings per week. The amount was paid in full by Florence, which suggests she was receiving a good income from her position in Cricklewood.

Kevin Pooley told me that it was common for most of the babies born in these homes to be adopted. The Girls’ Statement Book even has columns specifically for recording details of the adoptions. The fact that Florence worked hard to keep her baby, fills me with immense pride.

From other research I’ve conducted, I can reveal that Florence met a widower, Harry Vinton, who had two daughters of his own, and they married in 1909. Florence and Harry went on to have 7 more children together, and my great grandmother Christina, grew up believing Harry was her father.

Here is one of Florence and Harry’s children, Harry jnr, holding his nephew (Christina’s baby), Harry Alfred Sydney Perry – my grandfather.

I’ll be forever grateful to the Salvation Army, not only for keeping such wonderful records (which allowed me over a century later, to discover the branch of my family tree I thought was lost forever), but for taking care of Florence in her time of need, and helping her find employment which made it possible for her to keep her baby.

With exception of the Ivy House image and the photo of my grandfather, the pictures are from the Salvation Army’s periodical The Deliverer, accessed via the British Newspaper Archive. ©The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre.

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:

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. 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.