Illegitimacy is a curse.

In search of my grandfather

For the seeker of family history illegitimacy is a curse. In these more enlightened times, the lack of wedding vows before the birth of a child is no big deal but in the 19th and early years of the 20th Century it was considered an evil which was rarely spoken of.

It wasn’t simply the child of these liaisons who was blighted. Those further down the bloodline wishing to discover where their own 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.

My mother and I are nothing like anybody else in the family both in looks and temperament. Both of us has a lazy left eye – as does one of my children. And those teeth! Now in my 67th year, I’d never met anybody with teeth even close in appearance to mine.

And that temperament? Standoffish – arrogant even, dismissive, with a strong dislike of unfairness and privilege; where did it all come from?

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 has continually bemoaned, blaming many of the unfortunate happenings in her life on this simple fact. Yes, you could say she is 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 stum. Never telling Edna even her father’s name.

I resolved to see what I could find out. This is 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 city 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 8 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. This meant that I would not be able to see this information until 2020. I asked if they could check if it was there as I didn’t want to wait until 2020 only to find the cupboard was bare.

The wonderfully helpful man in the records office went off for a few minutes returning to tell me it 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, 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 had been involved in working with the Web more or less since it started. I was then ‘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, written to hundreds of people, answered hundreds of questions, 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 would 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 a number of 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 pool that is the genealogy ocean.

And then on the 13th June this year I got this.

“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 mother’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.

Later 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 yesterday with a positive result for half sibling.

My mother now has 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.

And now I know where the bits of me that didn’t fit in my family come from. They come from William Charles Brown. A blacksmith. Born in Gloucester in 1896. That’s who.

And what does mother think? Underwhelmed would best describe it. Perhaps it just has not sunk in yet. Maybe at 93 it never will.

The final great sadness of this story isn’t 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 only lived 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. Simply brilliant.
I added a further blog post here showing my mother and her newly found half-brother and sister.

P.S. Edna Barton died April 2016 aged 96. In her documents, I discovered a request to me to find, at all costs, who her father was. Of course, I managed to do that before she was gone.

P.P.S November 2016. We have now moved forward with research on the Browns. If you are interested you can see the results here…

Yet another update. May 2017. I had my DNA tested and logged on the system and very useful it has been too. In addition, my mother’s half-brother, my uncle Tony, had his done too.

I don’t suppose this is unique but having these 2 slightly different DNA tests completed has been truly enlightening. Let me explain.

All of our DNA comes equally from our mothers and our fathers. 50 – 50. What this means is Tony and I are able to clearly see who is from the Brown side (my mother’s long lost father) because those individuals are in both of our Ancestry DNA listings.

Any others who are in one listing or the other are not Brown’s at all. Those people on Tony’s listing are from his mother’s side and mine are from my fathers or from my mother’s maternal side. This split analysis has proved very useful in focusing our efforts on the Browns.

So far so good. But it get’s better.
We recently had an individual appear on both our lists. He was shown to be as near to Tony as I am, genetically speaking, with just as much certainty of the result.
To all intents, he is a related to Tony exactly as I am. He could be me.

We were a little shocked by this. Looking at his tree we could recognise nobody. There appeared to be no connection at all and yet DNA showed him to be VERY strongly connected indeed.

As we peered back into his history (from his tree) we could see his grandmother lived close by William Charles Brown and at the exact same time. Looking at birthdates, conception dates, and marriage dates – his grandmother married before his mother was born – it’s clear his mother was conceived between his grandmother and William Charles Brown (my grandfather and Tony’s father) exactly as my mother was. DNA PROVES the link.

We have tried a couple of times to make contact with this person so far to no avail. He obviously doesn’t want to know. I understand and respect that but, why have your DNA test done if you don’t want to know about your family?

A couple of things spring to mind here:-

  1. That DNA testing works. It REALLY works and helps clear up areas in your family search that would otherwise have remained a puzzle. If you haven’t been tested yet, and you are more than casually interested in your family history, then it’s a must.
  2. It shows William Charles Brown to have been a serial philanderer with offspring from three relationships that we know to so far. And only one of those relationships legitimised. Perhaps DNA may throw up other?

The search continues.


11 thoughts on “Illegitimacy is a curse.

  1. Peter, after many, many tries, I’ve begun to do genealogy research into my family. My mom told me 20 years ago, after visiting some cousins in Arizona, about family in South America. She was told about a cousin Pedro Wegbreit, my mom’s maiden name. I promised myself that before she passed, she’s 91 and very sharp, that I would find him. Well, after beginning a new search after many years of frustration, I found direct family in of all places Bruno’s Aires. BTW, my mom has a great memory, but doesn’t remember telling me about Pedro. Well Pedro is found. The son’s son of a great uncle. Unfortunately he is passed. On the way of research, I discovered cousins in Virginia and my famous cousin Harry Wegbreit. He was a jazz trumpeter and composer. I have picture of him playing with Frank Sinatra in 1952.

    I guess the moral, never give up. My mom is happy, my son knows his link to the past, and the world is infinitely larger. As long as we can remember and can pass it on, we can live forever.

    I am waiting for my DNA kit to be delivered.

    1. “As long as we can remember and can pass it on, we can live forever.” What a great quote. It sums up my thoughts on Family history research.
      Thanks, Keith.

  2. Your story is much like mine….my mother was born in 1925. She was also “illegitimate.” That was a very tough time to grow up with that label. Her mother never told her who her father was, he may not have known he fathered a child. I have done a DNA test to see if I can find his family. Wish me luck!

    1. Thanks for your reply Gail. Much appreciated. It’s a hard and daunting task but occasionally doors open and the light that shines through is wonderful. Well worth the effort. Best of luck.
      Peter Barton
      Lincoln UK

  3. really well-written fascinating story .My illegitimate grandmother was given her fathers surname as a middle name Our search took 10 years . a suggestion from Genes reunited led us to find the affiliation order (a beautiful document from 1900) for maintenance. We then traced her birth father back to Russia via census + trade directory information. we also obtained photos of him from his alien registration documents and asylum hospital admissions . Good luck to all those on a similar search .

    1. As you can see I don’t get around to this blog very much. I’m too busy with the research. I know, excuses 🙂
      Thanks for replying Brigid. I really appreciate it.
      Yours seems a very interesting story.
      Thanks again.
      Peter Barton
      Lincoln UK

  4. I am very glad you found your lost family. I can appreciate your wondering who you really are! Our grandfather came to fight in the South African war under an assumed name but never told anyone. It took 7 or 8 years to find all the pieces.

    1. Jenny,
      I’ve just been reviewing the comments on this blog. I know, very late. Apologies.
      There seems to be a running theme through the replies – that is one of effort and persistence. And, it’s clear the hard work and patience is worth while.
      Best regards,
      Peter Barton
      Lincoln UK

  5. Stumbled across this whilst starting to think how on earth I am going to look for my illegitimate grandfather’s (b. 1891) real paternal family! An enlightening blog, thank you so much for sharing. Inspiring and so interesting, thank you. Susan D.

    1. Susan,
      As you can see from others who have replied the effort is worthwhile.
      Best regards,
      Peter Barton
      Lincoln UK

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