In 2014 I decided to take advantage of my Ancestry.co.uk subscription and expand my research area beyond my own blood-relatives to collateral lines and families who intermarried with my own. By doing so I knew I would probably hit a lot of blanks and, more often than not, uninteresting or irrelevant stories – you can’t invent an interesting story out of a few names, a couple of census entries and a couple of records here and there… Or can you?
Among the targets of my broader research field was my grandmother’s brother-in-law. The man, whom I shall refer to only as Uncle Billy to protect his real identity, died in his mid-50’s over six decades ago, leaving my great-aunt Phyllis to care for their only son – who happens to be my father’s first cousin. Phyllis would later remarry, but had no more children.
From the little information I had about Uncle Billy (my father, being a small child at the time, remembers him only vaguely) I was able to draw up a picture of a man who was born in the mid 1890s in rural Herefordshire. His mother Fanny was unmarried, and therefore both Billy and his only, elder brother James were born “illegitimate”. The identity of both James and Billy’s father (or fathers!) remains a mystery; all I know is that their mother later remarried and had four sons. As Billy and James did not adopt their stepfather’s surname, I can only deduce that he was not their biological father.
Upon the outbreak of WWI, both Billy (19) and James (21) were called up, as so many other young men were in 1914. It has transpired that on 3 November 1918, just eight days before the Armistice was signed in the forest of Compiègne, bringing the Great War officially to a close, Billy’s 25 year-old brother was killed on active duty in northern France.
In view of his huge personal loss, for Billy death in the Great War was probably a very narrow escape. To escape from the horrors of the trenches and the battlefield, Billy would have received occasional permission to go on leave, and thus would have been able to hop across the Channel and visit his mother and her family. His surviving war record, which by itself recounts his experience at the front, also sheds light on a very intriguing fact which to my knowledge has been kept secret for the best part of the last century: in 1917, by order of the Magistrate’s Court, Billy was ordered to pay two shillings and sixpence per week for the upkeep of his illegitimate child!
Upon making such a fascinating discovery, I immediately sought out the child’s name on the war record. Oddly, Billy’s file fails to mention the child by name, or even to disclose its sex, and therefore it is impossible to know who the child was. There are, however, some very fortunate clues which make the research more promising: the child’s date of birth (26 February 1917) and place of birth (Little Dilwyn, Herefordshire) are mentioned. Perhaps even more helpfully, the name of the child’s mother is also included: Edith Jane Brown.
I duly looked up Edith Jane on the 1911 census, only to discover she had been born in or around 1898, and would therefore have been of a very similar age to Uncle Billy (and considerably older than Billy’s future wife, my Auntie Phyllis, who was born in 1911). Edith Jane was the daughter of a farm labourer called Alfred Brown and his wife Jane, who were originally from Bishop Frome and Ivington, respectively. By 1911 the couple had had nine children, one of whom had died by then, and of whom Edith Jane was the eldest.
Unfortunately I haven’t found any documents which would indicate that Uncle Billy and Edith Jane were ever married, or that their child was legitimised. In fact, I was able to find a marriage for Edith J Brown to a Thomas Chambers in 1920 – why, if they have a child together, were she and Uncle Billy never married to each other? Whatever the reason, Edith Jane seems to have led a long life (she died aged 87 in 1983), leaving a son called Thomas Joseph Chambers and her sole (legitimate) son.
But what of her first child, the one fathered by Uncle Billy in 1917? As I didn’t have a name to follow up on, my first port of call was FreeBMD, where I first tried to find a birth for a child of unknown sex with Uncle Billy’s surname and Brown as its mother’s maiden name: zero matches.
I then turned to a more likely scenario, given that Uncle Billy and Edith Jane Brown were not married at the time of the child’s birth, I searched for a birth of [blank] Brown, registered probably in the first quarter of 1917 (remember that the child was born on 26 February 1917), with both its surname and that of his mother listed as Brown. The results seemed quite promising: Edwin C J Brown’s birth was registered in the March quarter of 1917 in Weobley registration district. This seemed to be the only candidate who seemed to fit the bill: he was born in the right time-frame and in the right area, and a possible illegitimate birth at that. Surely these were too many coincidences!
My search for a baptism in Little Dilwyn around the right time proved inconclusive, but at least I now had one option open before me: to order a PDF copy of Edwin’s birth certificate. I logged into the General Records Office and searched for the right birth – I seemed to be going in the right direction: unlike FReeBMD; illegitimate births on the GRO index indicate “-” under the mother’s maiden name column. Edwin’s mother had no maiden name at the time his birth was recorded.
Today, at length, the birth certificate arrived: Edwin Charles John Brown, son of “blank” and Edith Jane Brown, a servant, was born in Little Dilwyn on 26 February 1917, and the birth was recorded by his mother about a month later. Jackpot! I had found the true identity of Uncle Billy’s illegitimate son!
Before contacting my dad’s cousin (i.e. Uncle Billy’s second, legitimate son) I wanted to make one last attempt at locating Edwin in subsequent sources. The 1939 UK Register proved useless, in that his mother is recorded with her husband (Thomas Chambers) and two other individuals who, having been born within the last century, are redacted from the page. Could these possibly be Edwin himself, and his mother’s son from her second marriage to Mr Chambers?
Subsequent searches for an Edwin, Charles or John Brown born on the said date in 1917 have either proved fruitless or too generic to make an educated guess as to what may have happened to him. I think it is unlikely that Edwin was given up for adoption, as his mother would have received maintenance for his upbringing (until the age of 14), and furthermore, it was she personally who registered his birth at the Registry Office.
Edwin’s younger half-brother Thomas Joseph Chambers seems to have been easier to track down: an online death notice published in June 2010 sadly confirms that he passed away in the city of Hereford aged 89, leaving two sons called Gerald and Colin Chambers. Would they, if they ever read this, have any idea about what became of their father’s older half-brother Edwin? Time will tell, I suppose!