The greatest man I have ever known was my grandfather, Alfred. A northern Englishman to the core, he wore a flat cap and grey cardigans and regularly asked me if I was ‘courting’ anyone (which seems a bit silly now as I was 10 years old at the time). He was a warm, funny and a quintessential gentleman. I remember that he always had a little white paper bag with a selection of chocolates that he would give to us whenever we saw him. He made up his own lyrics to different songs, my favourite being ‘Me Grandfathers Clock’, and had sayings like “Eeh, put skin on yer back like velvet” every time he ate custard. My sisters and I adored him and would look forward to his visits. He had a hard life, he and my grandmother were poor, but my mother’s memories of her own childhood were filled with happiness, kindness and love, and she never wanted for anything. He put his family first, working manual labour jobs and even becoming a a coal miner at one point, but he never talked about himself.
Unfortunately, he died when I was 16 years old. He developed senile dementia and I witnessed him deteriorate from a healthy, intelligent and witty human being to the point where he didn’t know where he was or who we were, in an awful hospital that has since been closed down. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t take the time to get to know him properly.
A few years ago I had a little bit of time during a holiday, and so I decided to trace my family history. Growing up I had just my parents and two younger sisters – my mum didn’t keep in touch with any of her distant relatives and was an only child, and my father’s family disowned him when he married my mum and so it was just the five of us. I had virtually no information to start my research aside from a single photo album. I spoke to my mother and asked her for any details, but my grandfather had always remained reasonably private about his early life and so she could only give me vague memories of things that he had shared during her childhood.
It turned out to be a fascinating experience. My grandfather, born in 1919, was living with Frank and Margaret, and took their surname until the age of 14. When he left school he was given his birth certificate so he could find a job. He discovered that his mother’s name was actually Emily, and so he adopted her last name from that point on. My mum told me that he knew a woman called ‘Big Emily’, who he assumed was his mother, but he never knew for sure.
I signed up to Ancestry.co.uk and obtained a copy of his birth certificate, and written on there was ‘Emily…’, but had no father registered. By sheer luck I found Emily – one of her other children, my grandfather’s half-brother, was researching his family history and had posted a picture of her (looking like my grandfather in a wig) and this led to quite a fascinating set of discoveries.
Emily was living with her Auntie Margeret and Uncle Frank in 1911, and according to the census she was working as a belt maker in a factory. Her mother, Mary (Margeret’s sister) had committed suicide in 1905 by swallowing nitric acid after losing a child at the age of just a few months and her father, Frederick died in 1898 from TB. My grandfather was born out of wedlock in 1919, and he continued to live with Frank and Margaret, which makes me think that Frank was the father. I remember my grandfather once told me that Frank was an abusive man, recounting a memory of a clock being thrown into a fire, and my mum added to this that he died of diseases brought on by alcoholism in the early 1940’s. Margaret never liked my grandfather and was quite openly hostile towards him, but he never understood why. It makes sense that her dislike of him could have been caused by her husband’s infidelity with her niece.
Emily went on to marry a man named Charles in 1927, eight years after my grandfather was born, and NEVER told anyone in her family that she had another son. It was only when I contacted them that they were aware of his existence and after I explained to them my findings and emailed them my pictures of him they accepted it without question. I then discovered that Emily lived in the next town to my grandfather and she died in 1989, only eight years before him. She is even buried just a few plots away in the same cemetery. How heartbreaking – they could have passed each other in the street on a number of occasions and wouldn’t have known.
Yet despite the obvious sense of abandonment he must have felt, he was a hard-working, kind and generous man, and I was very lucky to have him in my life, even if it was just for a short time. It’s amazing how resilient some can be in the face of adversity.
I learned a lot during the process, particularly in the fact that I have a strong working class northern English bloodline that is extremely evident in mine and my sisters characters even to this day. What I found most fulfilling about the experience was being able to share my findings with my mother. She was astounded at the photograph of Emily, who was her grandmother that she had never met, and I was delighted to reveal a family history that she would never have known about. We’ve agreed that we are going to visit the graves of our ancestors to pay our respects.
Now I have a little bit of history that I can tell my own children…
What about you guys? Do you have interesting stories in your family history?
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