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: https://whoamifamilytreeresearch.co.uk/2021/10/01/father-unknown-part-1/ )

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 ChildrensHomes.org.uk 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 ChildrensHomes.org.uk, and it’s sister website Workhouses.org.uk. 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.