In these more enlightened times the lack of wedding vows before the birth of a child is not considered anything special but, in the 19th and early years of the 20th Century, it was a rarely spoken of evil.
It wasn’t simply the child of these liaisons who was blighted. Those further down the bloodline wishing to discover where their peculiarities and idiosyncrasies came from – like where did I get these eyes, or in my case, teeth? They too had difficulty because, whether out of embarrassment or shame, things were covered up. Hushed up. Hidden. Locked away from public view making discovery nigh on impossible. And the lies! One thing family history research has taught me is most oral history doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny the Internet age provides.
My mother and I are nothing like anybody else in her previously known family either in looks or temperament. Both of us has a lazy left eye – as does one of my children. And those teeth!
Most people have a couple of grandfathers and grandmothers from whom they can get some idea of inherited flaws or ‘jewels’ in their makeup. I had only one grandfather. My dad’s dad.
My mother, Edna, never knew her father; something she continually bemoaned, blaming many of the unfortunate happenings in her life on this simple fact. Yes, you could say she was a ‘glass half empty’ person. Perhaps that’s something else I inherited? “If only I knew who my father was” she trotted out many a time.
In 1920, a time when ’bastardy’ was a taboo subject, Edna was born to a woman who was not the sharpest knife in the box and who was not going to tell her daughter anything. And she didn’t. She stayed shtum; she never told Edna even her father’s name.
I resolved to see what I could find out. We are living in the Internet age where all information is laid bare, isn’t it? And illegitimacy is not frowned upon at all these days. Well… yes and no to both of those.
Edna has recollections of going into the Birmingham to collect the maintenance payments made by her father to her mother – presumably ordered by the court. I thought this would be a good place to start.
Many years ago – perhaps 25 or more – I made a failed attempt to get this information from the courts in Birmingham. I was told the records for that period had been bombed out during World War 2. Deflated I left this issue alone for many years. And then perhaps eight years ago I made another attempt. This time with slightly more success.
I approached the City of Birmingham Central Reference Library asking if they had the information. I was aware there would be a ‘100-year rule’ on the data, assuming they had it at all of course. The 100-year rule meant I would not be able to see this information until 2020. I asked if they could check if the record did exist, as I didn’t want to wait until 2020 only to find the cupboard was bare.
The wonderfully helpful man in the archives office went off for a few minutes returning to tell me the record was there. Success! Well, sort of. There was just the matter of a few years to wait. I thanked him and turned to leave. He stopped me.
“Do you want to see it?” he said. I said yes of course. Then he told me how I could apply to the courts for the library service to make the information available to me. Shocked and delighted I asked him how much to do this. £100? £500? “How much”? It turned out to be the price of a cheap curry. Naturally, I applied, and some few weeks later I was provided with the name – and only that, just a name, as there was no other information on the file of my grandfather.
William Charles Brown was his name. Why couldn’t he have had a more uncommon name? Do you realise just how many William Charles Brown’s there are in census records of that time? And remember I didn’t even have his age, so I was unable to narrow the huge list to anything manageable. And even if I did narrow it down and pick just one how would I know that particular W.C.Brown was ‘THE’ W.C.Brown? You see my problem. There were no terms of reference and nothing with which to compare. I’d hit the proverbial brick wall.
Thus far, apart from searching, I hadn’t used the Web in any substantial way. So I turned to what I knew, after all, I was once involved in working with the Web more or less since its creation. I was ‘Head of Web and Information Governance’ working in a local authority and privately I had produced the first Internet site on the history of Coventry, so I was well versed in the World Wide Web, what it contained and what it could do. I had researched all of the information for the Coventry site, contacted hundreds of people, answered many questions, and even pontificated about it on local radio. I reasoned if I could research Lady Godiva and the town in which she lived, discovering facts from hundreds of years ago in the process, then finding my grandfather should be possible.
I seeded every family history bulletin board and website I could find. I wrote to people who had a William Charles Brown in their family asking if they had any knowledge of an illegitimate birth in 1920. I had some responses from folks who took umbrage at the question, but that’s all.
Nothing positive came back. So I just left it out there. Floating in cyberspace. Tagged and ready for Google or any other search engine to pick it up. A digital baited hook in the ever-deepening data pools that make up the genealogy ocean.
And then to my utter surprise, I received this communication…
“Hi. Charles was my grandfather. My mom and Uncle, I believe to be your aunt and uncle. Call me for more information.”
I happened to be sitting in front of my machine when this came in. I called the number within a minute. I heard Sharon, my cousin, tell me about how they knew about her grandfather having an illegitimate daughter before he married her grandmother.
I agreed to see them shortly afterward. I went to Birmingham and met my cousin Sharon and her daughter, Hayley, who had discovered one of my messages, together with Joan, Sharon’s mother, my aunt.
I confess I couldn’t see any family resemblance. And then my uncle Tony came in. He had my mom’s eyes. Breathtakingly familiar. I was ‘knocked back’. It became a blur from then on. I had a laptop and scanner. I scanned in pictures and text. I left a couple of hours later with my mind fizzing and popping.
When I got home I took a closer look at the pictures I had scanned. I was shocked. Tony as a young man had my teeth. Identical. Not pretty but unmistakable. For me that did it. I asked if they would take a DNA test sample for sibling/ half sibling comparison with my mother. They agreed. That went off to Vancouver and returned with a positive result for half-sibling.
My mother now had a new half brother and sister and at least one niece and I have a new uncle and aunt. And, of course, I have now found that missing grandfather.
The final great sadness of this story isn’t simply that Edna and her father could never have found each other before the Information age, that’s bad enough; no the tragedy is that, without knowing, they lived only a mile apart up until William Charles Brown died in the 60’s. And he lived no more than a hundred yards from my Dad’s brother where my mother must have been at some time. So near and yet.
Without Tim Berners-Lee the inventor of the World Wide Web who enabled the Brown family and me to find each other, and the discoverers of the double helix of DNA, James Watson, and Francis Crick, who enabled us in turn to ‘prove’ we are related none of this would have been possible. I thank them all.
Brilliant. Just brilliant.
Unbeknownst to me, my uncle Tony Brown spent years searching for information about his family. It is our common desire to know more about the Browns which has lead us to many discoveries about an ordinary family with a common name. Discoveries which enabled us to “see” them via the data they’ve left, their footprints on the genealogical beach, as it were, their tragedies, their joys, in short, their lives. These pages are the mapping of data about the real people who made us what we are today.