The Lady with the White Handbag

This is not the woman in the story - we've kept her image private. This image by Sam Salt

This is not the woman in the story – we’ve kept her image private. This image by Sam Salt

As part of a nostalgia season we’re having in the bureau this month, I thought I’d revisit some of my more meaningful blog posts. I hope you enjoy them:

When Maria’s carer phoned us with this challenge, we thought it might be an impossible task.

Maria Stanislav, aged 53, was born in Staffordshire to Polish and Yugoslavian parents who had come to England during World War Two. Her mother, Anna, was a 28-year-old widow when she married Maria’s father, Jan, in 1950. Anna had a son called John from her first marriage, and was working as a canteen assistant in the Ordnance Depot in Bicester. After they were married, Anna and Jan went on to have three children, the youngest of whom was our client, Maria.

Because Maria was now severely disabled and unable to make herself understood easily, her carer, Brenda, called us to see if we could help. Acting as an interpreter, Brenda explained that Maria had lost touch with all her family members and desperately wanted to know where her mother was buried and whether we could find out anything else about her or Maria’s father. Most of all, Brenda explained, Maria just wanted a photo of her mum.

Finding photos of specific people is not an easy task. Sometimes you get lucky on Facebook. Occasionally, you will find one attached to a public family tree on Less often still, one appears on a website posted by a member of the same family. Given Anna’s nationality and the era in which she lived – long before social media had been invented – we didn’t hold out much hope of being able to help. But Maria and Brenda persisted. “She really wants this,” said Brenda. “Please, will you do what you can?”

Our starting point was to track down Maria’s surviving family members and try writing to them. Maria’s parents had both already died and we could find no trace of siblings for either of them on the British BMD indexes. Looking for cousins would have meant finding Polish or Yugoslavian records on-line, which, we knew from experience are few and far between. Maria’s older sister, Nadeja, had actively broken contact with her and had even refused to tell Maria where their mother was buried, so we didn’t think she would be open to communicating with us. Maria’s older brother, Henry, was apparently living in Sussex under a different name – unfortunately for us, it was an anglicised name which was far more common than his original Polish surname.

Using the marriage and birth indexes we found several people who we thought might be Maria’s nieces. We wrote to them but the letters were returned unopened. We wrote to all the men in Sussex living under her brother’s new name, but no responses were forthcoming. No-one, it seemed, would even respond to us, never mind send us a photo.

Our last hope was to look for anyone who shared the unusual Yugoslavian surname of Maria’s half-brother. There were a few individuals, but we couldn’t tell how they all fitted together. We decided to write to them all and, yet again, after three months we decided that our attempts had come to nothing.

Until . . . two days ago, one of our pre-addressed envelopes was pushed through the door, with an intriguing thickness to it. It had been sent by the ex-wife of Maria’s half-brother and contained a photo from her wedding day. “Maria’s mum,” the letter said, “is the lady with the white handbag.”

We phoned the sender of the photo and asked if she would mind Maria getting in touch, then immediately forwarded it to Maria with contact details. The next morning Brenda called. “You can’t know how happy this has made Maria,” she told us, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to her.”

Some days you simply can’t beat this job!

Finding Mother

June and Celia

June and Celia

As part of a nostalgia season we’re having in the bureau this month, I thought I’d revisit some of my more meaningful blog posts. I hope you enjoy them:

June and Celia are cousins. They had never met before this photo was taken and Celia had never seen photos of her mother before. Their meeting is the very happy ending to a complicated piece of research carried out by Family Detective on behalf of Celia’s nephew, Tony.

When Tony came to us, his first request was that we would help him get through a brick wall in the search for Fazal, his paternal grandfather. Fazal was a Bengali Stoker in the Merchant Navy who had left Tony’s father and aunt in a children’s home at the start of the Second World War and never returned. ‘What had happened to the children’s mother?’ we asked. Tony gave us her details but said he held out little hope of ever finding his grandmother, Freda, as she had disappeared without trace during the war.

We found records of Fazal and a very likely death for him on board a ship in Karachi which explained why he never returned to the UK for his two children. Never wanting to be thwarted, we then took on the quest to find Freda in that difficult period of time – the 1940s. The hunt was on and the territory was huge – we learnt from her marriage certificate that Freda was actually Olive Winifred. Which of her forenames was she using? Was she living under her married name, her maiden name or perhaps a new married name? Where in the country had she gone? Her family was from Bedfordshire, but she had married in London and her children had gone to a children’s home in Wales.

Our best hope was finding a death certificate for Freda and with a clever little research trick we found it on the death indexes under the name Frederica Olivia and with a completely different surname. When the certificate arrived the birth date and place were correct and we knew we had found the right woman.

From the change of surname we deduced that Freda had married again. However, no marriage certificate was ever found nor any birth records for other children. The only clue to finding out about Freda’s later years was the informant of her death, June.

We traced June back and forth, trying to find a link to Freda and our client but nothing matched up. Our only hope was to get in touch with June and hope that she would talk to us about Freda. When we send letters to possible living relatives less than half reply. Weeks went by and we heard nothing from June. We were about to close the file when she rang our office, apologising for the delay because she’d been on holiday! June’s father was Freda’s brother. June and Celia were cousins. The reason we hadn’t made the connection was that June’s father had taken on the surname of his step-father (another complicated story).

June agreed to pass on her details to Tony and very quickly the two families were reunited. June had photos of her aunt Freda and Celia was able to see them for the first time. There are still many questions, of course, answers to which probably went to the grave with Freda but also a great sense of joy at having helped Tony and Celia find a few missing pieces of their family history jigsaw. Tony’s letter to us is here: Thanks from Tony Hague

Discussion: Have you ever hit a brick wall like this? What did you do to get through it? Are you currently stuck and need some help? Drop us a line in the comments and we’ll be in touch.

Guest blog: A day in the life of a Family Detective


This is not actually a picture of Sarah!

This week our guest blog is from Family Detective researcher, Sarah La Nauze:

This ought to be, ‘Lives in the day of a Family Historian’, because of the people we feel we get to know each day, and the stories of each from cradle to grave. It can be very emotional: A family loses all but one child; a baby is born after the father died at war; orphaned siblings are split up and sent to the workhouse; a man marries the sister of his dead wife … we are often drawn into events that cause sadness, joy or even anger.

Doing this job, which must be one of the most interesting occupations ever, is a great privilege. We are trusted with the responsibility of piecing together a long line of real people, over a period of about 200 years, concluding with our clients, their children and grandchildren.

This brief description of what we do makes the job sound very straightforward, but it is usually far more complex, which is why it’s so interesting.

The key requirements for being a family historian are probably:

  • Patience
  • A naturally enquiring (nosey!) personality
  • An eye for detail
  • Being a stickler for accuracy
  • Recording lots of information in a coherent way
  • Having a disposition for long spells of silence and concentration
  • Taking pleasure in relatively small events – I always get excited when the certificates come in the post each day, as they are our key to unlocking the next step!

Our main concerns are that we:

  • Find the correct family!
  • Stretch as far back as possible with each chosen branch of the family
  • Collect as much information as possible about each generation
  • Present our findings in an easy to read, interesting format.

One of the more frustrating elements of the task is knowing when to finish. For example, having found Joe Brown as a middle-aged man on the 1841 census, with his wife and children, we want to know as much as we can about him. We may need to check his address and then find that his old cottage is still there, so we try and find a nice view of it to include in the presentation. There are some noticeably large gaps of time between his children, and we suspect there may have been more that are omitted from the census, so we search all the baptism records to find that some of Joe’s children were transcribed under the surnames Bown, or Brow, or Krown, because of the scrawly writing on the originals. Sadly, some of Joe’s children died so we look for their burial records. We like to include all these in every project if possible. Joe was a shoe and boot maker, and so we check old local directories of that time to see if he was listed in them, and perhaps find an advertisement of his. On the way we stumble across a newspaper article that suggests Joe spent some time in prison for bigamy. We don’t want to include this if it was not the client’s ancestor, but if it was, he may have another wife and more children that need finding! By now, Joe has probably had more than his fair share of research time but it would be a pity to leave all this out.

A typical complication that might arise would be that Joe Brown has three or four cousins who share his name, all of a similar age living in the same village. They all seem to have married women called Mary or Elizabeth, and they all have sons and daughters with the same names. We know our man is called Joe because he was named on the marriage record of his son, who is our link, but the son left home and does not appear with his father on the census, so which Joe was his father? It becomes necessary to trace each man back and forth and rule them out by a process of elimination and deduction.

Trying to stick strictly to the brief is always a challenge. A recent project involved a family who were clay pipe manufacturers. It was fascinating to learn about their business, the kilns, the factories, the people they employed, what happened to the premises after they moved the business elsewhere, finding photos of some of the pipes that have survived, discovering old newspaper advertisements – you can imagine how absorbing this can be – and distracting! Our role is to trace the family, so we sometimes need to exercise self-control to stay on brief and not become carried away. This sounds easy but most people were so interesting, from music hall entertainers, hop growers, bakers, jewellers, gypsies, immigrants from Norway, Russia, Holland etc, all are fascinating in their own way and leave you wanting to know more. Even the humble gardener, agricultural labourer and coal miner usually lived and worked in a beautiful part of the country and were employers in their own right or were employed by a local landowner. The environments they inhabited, from remote Scottish highlands to the fields of Peckham, are always interesting, some having altered unrecognisably and others not at all. Some lanes have become dual carriageways, some residential areas have become car parks or industrial parks.

The world is changing all the time, and each family has survived all these changes.

Posting each finished presentation is always a big deal for us. I just hope all our clients enjoy the projects as much as we do!

Guest Blog: 7 ways family research brings a smile

Fanny Cushion

Fanny Cushion

Thanks to one of our ace researchers, Kassie Foran, for this week’s blog post.

Aside from the sheer pleasure of discovering your family story, there are many ways that researching family history can bring a smile to your face. Here are my reasons to smile:

Unfortunate names

Alongside the plethora of Johns, Marys and Elizabeths, every so often I discover a real gem of a name which makes me chuckle. My favourite from last week was the young lady, unfortunately named ‘Fanny Cushion’.
For more smiles, check out our previous blog ‘Our Top Ten Fabulous Names’, as well as a trip around the UK in ‘Weirdly Wonderful British Place names’.

Marrying the boy next door

When looking at marriage certificates, I often wonder how the couple met, and it always makes me smile when I find a young couple who lived in neighbouring properties of the same road. It’s really sweet to imagine them kissing on the street corner.

Jobs which make me chuckle

We see a lot of agricultural labourers, but occasionally we find a job on a census which makes us smile. We are familiar with fishmongers but the other day I stumbled upon a man who worked as a cheesemonger and it sounded funny to me! Or how about clodhoppers (ploughmen), knock knobblers (dog catchers) or a saggar maker’s bottom knocker — you can click the link to read the article to find out what he did!


Pedantic form fillers

Our job is always made easier by people who were consistent and accurate in their form filling. Sometimes we stumble upon records which the individual has filled in pedantically e.g. a birth record saying “born in the back bedroom, 3 Spinney Terrace, at 3:26 in the afternoon”.

When a pedantic person crosses the path of a pedantic enumerator, the results can be amusing. A real battle of wills! Lots of information (perhaps too much?!) supplied by the form-filler, and lots of crossing out by the enumerator!
When the census becomes a political battleground, it becomes really interesting! Check out the findmypast blog on suffragettes and the 1911 census.

Familiar names

It always makes me smile when I read a familiar name on a census. My two children have names which appear all the way back to the 1841 census, and I’m always interested to read what they were doing back in the 19th century. We also find names of present day celebrities or household names – makes me smile to read what they were doing in another era.

Kate Middleton

Kate Middleton

Mistakes and errors

As frustrating as it is, incorrect information on old documents can sometimes be a source of amusement. Misspelt names and wrong ages can sometimes make us chuckle – but only if we know the actual truth. I recently found a marriage certificate, where the groom had merrily signed his name on the next couple’s marriage certificate, only for the vicar to have to cross it out. It made me laugh, imagining his bride hitting him with her wedding bouquet complaining that he couldn’t do anything right!

Happy endings

And lastly, one of my favourite ways to make me smile is to discover a happy ending. A sad tale of a widowed father left with his six young children meant he had to employ a housekeeper. Ten years later, the same family group were still living under one roof, although the spinster housekeeper had become their step-mother. Ahhh, happily ever after!

What things make you smile when researching your family history?