This post has been generously contributed by recent client, Christine Glover, who we have helped to trace the life of a grandfather she never met. If you would like help exploring your own family stories, please contact us for further information.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been curious about my paternal grandfather, William, a British citizen living in Egypt, who was expelled during the Suez crisis in 1956. He left behind my grandmother and their two young children; my father, aged ten, and his five year old sister. Already in his late fifties at the time, and having lived abroad for all his adult life, he returned to England, where he lost contact with the family. They eventually heard of his death in 1965.
My grandfather was born in 1897 in Yeovil, Somerset. I had been told that he was an only child, orphaned at a young age and raised by an uncle. He left England as soon as he could, and after travelling the world, settled in Egypt, at that time a colonial outpost. I knew from my father that my grandfather had been previously married to an Italian lady, and that they had a daughter before divorcing. My father didn’t know his half-sister’s name, though, or what had happened to her after her parents’ divorce.
Wanting to find out more, I had at various times tried to look for official documentation relating to my grandfather and his parents. Despite having the details of his date and place of birth on my own birth certificate, I could never find any trace of a birth certificate for him, or anything confirming the existence of his parents, whose names I’d been told were Walter and Hilda. When public records including census returns started to be made available online, I searched again, but still nothing appeared. I wondered about his mysterious daughter, my father’s elder half-sister who had disappeared without trace; what had happened to her, and whether she had any inkling that she had other family. She could be anywhere in the world, and I had so little information about her that I had no idea where to start the search.
Occasionally I made some headway, but every time I found some information that I thought might lead me to my grandfather, the link was too tenuous. I suspected that he was illegitimate; in my over-active imagination, I toyed with the idea that he was a bigamist, perhaps even a criminal, an elusive character hiding a dark secret, who escaped all my efforts to track him down. I eventually realised that I would need professional help to dig deeper, but work and family commitments meant that I kept postponing looking into things further.
At the beginning of this year, I heard that Naomi Leon, a former colleague, had set up Research Roots. This spurred me to renew my efforts; I spent the morning typing up everything I had ever been told about my grandfather, and emailed it off to Naomi, not expecting to hear back for a few days. I’ll always remember the moment I emerged from the darkness of the tube station on my way home from work that January evening; the most incredible email from Naomi flashed on my phone screen, outlining the first twenty or so years of my grandfather’s life in amazing detail. Since then, I have read and re-read this document too many times to count.
My grandfather’s story
Naomi confirmed what I suspected; the reason I had never been able to find a birth certificate for my grandfather was because he was born under another surname, the illegitimate son of a 21 year old glove maker. A year after my grandfather’s birth, his mother married his step-father, a railway platelayer, with whom she went on to have eleven more children. Walter was my grandfather’s step-father, and presumably the only father figure he had ever known, but for some reason, my grandfather had concealed the first name of his mother, who was not called Hilda, but Jane. Hilda was actually one of my grandfather’s younger sisters; strangely, despite the confusion about her first name, Jane’s maiden name was correct.
At some point, my grandfather had informally adopted his step-father’s surname; he used both his first and second names, William and Reginald, interchangeably, so he was known by a combination of four names. No wonder I had found it so hard to track him down. I had chanced upon this family in my previous census searches, but too much differed from what I had been told, so I had never made the connection. The key had been in his army records; Naomi had managed to put the next-of-kin information from these together with census information and birth and marriage records, to corroborate that she had found the right family. With eleven half-siblings, my grandfather was obviously not an only child as we had been led to believe, and he was not orphaned young either; he was a grown man serving in the army when Jane died of heart disease in 1918 shortly after giving birth to her twelfth child at the age of 41. Walter lived to quite an old age, dying in 1945.
I had suspected that my grandfather might have been institutionalized as a child, as I could never find any trace of the uncle he said had raised him. But what Naomi uncovered in the 1911 census was even more shocking. At the age of nine, with his mother and step-father living in Yeovil with their other children, my grandfather was in Bath, detained at an industrial school, a semi-penal institution set up to take in children who were destitute or in danger of falling into bad ways. I wondered what terrible deed a child of nine could have committed to be sent away to such an institution. Had he been abandoned by his family?
With Naomi’s help, I wrote off to the Somerset Archives for the school’s records, and spent several weeks anticipating the worst. When the records arrived, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. His character was described as “good” and his “sentence of detention” until the age of sixteen was for “non-attendance”. I obtained a copy of the school rules; discipline was harsh, and children were allowed little contact with their families. My grandfather was an inmate there until the age of fifteen. He was released early, with a much better education than he would have received otherwise, and a glowing reference (“he should do well in life”) to join the army as a boy soldier in 1912.
This could have been the best thing that ever happened to him; he escaped the horrors of the trenches, having been already stationed in India and China when the First World War broke out, and was eventually posted in Cairo. Army life was not for him though; a series of incidents including “improper behaviour before the band president” and kit going missing, culminated in him being court martialled for going AWOL. He eventually bought his way into a civilian job with the Cairo police for £35 in 1920, and settled in the country that was to be his home for the next thirty five years of his life.
Now I knew that my grandfather’s first marriage probably took place in Egypt. After doing some more research, Naomi managed to locate the marriage in 1921; the information about his first wife being Italian proved to be correct; her name was Maria, and I was shocked to see that she was only sixteen at the time of her marriage to my twenty four year old grandfather.
Finding Aunt Nelly
Then followed a period of tracing different leads; after a couple of false starts ordering birth certificates of girls with the same surname born in Egypt, Naomi found the birth certificate of their daughter, my father’s half-sister, Nelly, who was born in 1922; strangely, her birth was only registered when she was thirteen years old. My father then remembered that following their divorce, my grandfather’s first wife had subsequently married an RAF pilot before leaving Egypt, so we tried to find this marriage certificate in the hopes that this would lead us to where Maria and Nelly had eventually settled.
Naomi managed to locate Maria’s second marriage to a pilot called Jim, in of all places, Barnsley, Yorkshire. But Jim’s job meant that they moved around, and it was tricky to trace them. Naomi made some contacts from Jim’s family through a genealogy website, and was told that he and Maria had moved to Wales. In August this year, Naomi told me that she had traced Nelly. Sadly, we were too late as she had passed away some years ago. However, Naomi had made contact with Nelly’s daughter, my first cousin, Lydia, who now lives in Canada.
Approaching my relatives
I wondered how Lydia would react to my contacting her. After all, I didn’t know under what circumstances her grandparents’ marriage had broken down, and what she had been told about our grandfather. I had nothing to worry about, as Lydia was delighted to hear from me and fascinated to hear all about the information Naomi had uncovered. She also had some amazing stories of her own to share, including how Maria had married our grandfather to get away from her controlling father, and how after their separation, our grandfather had taken Nelly away, and she was found several days later in an Arab tent. Apparently, the disappearance even made the press!
Aside from Lydia, I have made contact with several other cousins, the children of our grandfather’s siblings. Poignantly, the first cousin I made contact with, told me that his mother Lillie’s last memory our grandfather, her elder brother, was of her running in the field waving goodbye as his train pulled out of the station to take him to join up. Apparently, he kept in touch with Lillie for some years, but the letters eventually petered out. After their mother’s death, Walter didn’t remarry, and Lillie raised the remaining younger siblings. My grandfather never returned to Somerset, settling in Portsmouth when he was expelled from Egypt in 1956.
I’ll never know why he lost contact with all his family, but exactly a century since he left, it has been an incredible experience for me to connect with them. I now know the names not only of my great grandparents, but also of my great-great grandparents, what they did for a living, how many children each generation had, and where they are all buried. I hope to visit Somerset soon to see my new-found cousin Ann, who will be the first member of my extended family on my grandfather’s side I have ever met in person.
Photos reproduced with thanks by kind permission of the family.