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.

“You found my last living relative!”

Old man using telephoneAs 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:

Earlier this year a new client approached us to do some research for his wife, Jenny, as a gift. Before she was born, Jenny’s natural father, Michael, had been killed in a car accident and her mother had never spoken about either the tragedy or her late husband. Jenny was desperate to find out anything she could about her father from certificates and documents or perhaps from someone who knew him.

Our work began by ordering in as many certificates as we could, to give Jenny some information about Michael’s life. However, as it was fairly recent history there was not much detail and we felt it was not enough. So we set about tracing Michael’s family to see if he had had any siblings or cousins who might remember him. Tracing families forward to find living relatives is a tricky business as we become so reliant on certificates which need to be ordered in, and it can be a slow and painstaking job. There were no certificates relating to Michael’s only brother and we very quickly lost the trail of his cousins on his father’s side of the family. However, on his mother’s side, we were able to find one solitary name, a cousin of Michael’s, 78 year old Sidney, who appeared from the electoral rolls to be living in Norfolk. We wrote him a letter.

Yesterday we received a phone call from Sidney who quickly confirmed his connection to Jenny and was pleased to say that he had known her father, Michael, right up until his death. What was more, Sidney told us that only two weeks before, he had been talking to his wife about how alone he felt in this world, having had no children of his own and no other living relatives that he knew of. His wife reminded him that Michael’s child was still “out there somewhere,” although they had no idea where.

When our letter dropped onto the mat yesterday morning, Sidney was taken aback at the co-incidence, which he put down to a gift from God. After a long and gleeful conversation with Sidney he asked us to pass on his details to Jenny and encourage her to get in touch, which we did later that same evening via an emotional phone call. Jenny was lost for words and clearly couldn’t wait to phone Sidney herself. For her, we gave a long-hoped-for chance to hear all about her Dad and for Sidney we put him in touch with his last living relative. Needless to say there were a few tears of joy shed in our office too – poignant stories like this one give us such satisfaction in our work!

Life was hard as an unmarried mother


I’ve been catching up on Call the Midwife this weekend and, in usual BBC style, it has been haunting my thoughts all week. Following the nuns and midwives of Nonnatus House, Poplar, it’s an extraordinary series that highlights the perils and challenges faced by pregnant women over the decades. We’re up to 1961 now but elements of the storyline still seem archaic. Fathers were excluded from the births of their children, outbreaks of devastating diseases such as typhoid still made unwelcome appearances, and contraception and formula milk were only just becoming available to young women. In the last episode I watched, a young female teacher became pregnant following an affair with a married man and, because of the judgmental attitudes that prevailed at the time, ended up losing her home, her job and almost her life, as she attempted to terminate the pregnancy herself.

The family histories I research are filled with similar stories, and today I found myself working on one that got more and more tragic as I traced each generation back. It began with my client’s great-grandmother, Isabella Connor Brown, born 1879 in Paisley, Renfrewshire. The family believed that Isabella had been adopted by the Brown family, which always raises a red flag for me, as more often than not in those days, the idea of adoption was introduced in order to cover up another story.

As suspected, little Isabella Brown was found, aged 2, living in a lodging house on Back Sneddon Street in Paisley. In the same property there were several other lodgers including a baby called James Brown and a single woman aged 24 called Mary Ann Connor who was a hawker. This was the only time little Isabella could be found living with her mother. Ten years later she was a 12-year-old boarder with a family in Paisley. The words ‘No Relation’ were written next to her name.

Having found Isabella and her mother on the census together, the next job was to piece together Mary Ann’s story. It was even more tragic than her daughter’s, as you will see.

Mary Ann Connor was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire to parents Daniel Connor, a general dealer from Glasgow and Isabella McFarlane, who had been born in Ireland. At the time of the 1861 census the family was living in Abbey Burgh, Renfrewshire and Daniel was a furniture broker. Mary Ann was 7 and had two sisters – Ann, 3, and Catherine, who was only 3 months old. This is the only snapshot we have of the family living together. Four years later, at the age of only 37, Daniel Connor died of alcoholic poisoning, leaving Isabella to look after their young family.

Ten years later there was no trace of daughters, Ann and Catherine, who would have been 13 and 10. Mother, Isabella, was working as a washerwoman on Quay Lane in Paisley. Her 17-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, was a wincey weaver, working on a steam-powered loom with string cotton thread. The hours would have been long and it was dusty, dangerous work. Within another five years, Isabella had also died from bronchitis, aged only 42. Her daughter, Mary Ann, registered the death.

So Mary Ann, in her early twenties, was seemingly all alone in the world. An orphan without siblings she found work as a lithographer’s hand and moved into a boarding house on Back Sneddon Street. At some time in January 1877 Mary Ann allegedly met James Brown, a fitter’s labourer, and she became pregnant. We know very little else about James, if he existed at all. Mary Ann may have fabricated his name, and their marriage, in order to cover-up her illegitimate pregnancy, in any case no marriage record has ever been found.

Mary Ann’s daughter, Isabella, was registered under Mary Ann’s maiden name of Connor and the word ‘Illegitimate’ was added to the record, just in case there was any doubt. Even if Mary Ann had definitely known the identity of her baby’s father, she would not have been able to add his name to the certificate without producing a marriage certificate or the man himself. James Brown, it seems, was not willing to claim the baby as his own. The most likely match we have found for James was a single distillery labourer who was about 10 years older than Mary Ann and living on Castle Street, Paisley.

Nevertheless, it seems that Mary Ann and James continued their relationship after Isabella was born, because in December 1880 another illegitimate child was born to Mary Ann, this time a little boy called James Connor.

The following April, at the time of the 1881 census Mary Ann Connor, still single, was living at 57 Back Sneddon Street and working as a hawker. Perhaps the lithographer had let her go after finding out that she wasn’t married. Her two children were with her: Isabella Brown, 2, and James Brown who was less than a year old. There was no sign of partner, James, but Mary Ann had obviously used his surname on the census for her children. Perhaps she’d been holding out hope that one day James would marry her. However, in another tragic blow, Mary Ann died on October 11 that year, from ‘brain disease’ and a high fever. Her death was registered by ‘an acquaintance’.

There being no social services at all at the time, Mary Ann’s two children, Isabella, 2, and James, 9 months, were completely defenceless and alone. Baby James died two months later of marasmus – malnutrition due to starvation. We don’t know if Mary Ann’s partner, James Brown, had tried to look after their children after Mary Ann died, but we do know that he also drank himself into an early grave and was dead from alcoholism by 1885 when Isabella would have been just 6 years old.

We will probably never know how Isabella was cared for during the rest of her childhood or how she ended up living with a family of strangers by the time of the 1891 census. Perhaps she forgot herself. She remembered the names of her parents when she was asked on her marriage day, so must have known something of her story but to say that she was ‘adopted’ was probably the simplest answer to give.

I wonder if my client is ready to hear all this heartbreak. It certainly rivals any fictional story for plot-twists and tragic irony.