British Home Children: The Story of an Investigation (episode 1)

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The Quest of Therese

Therese was born in Montreal, not long after World War I. She was already 90 years old when she asked for my help concerning the mystery of her mother's English origin.

As far as Therese knew, her mom was born in Bristol, in southwestern England, daughter of Walter R. and Mary Jane W. Our English girl's father would have died shortly after her birth. She immigrated to Canada at age 10, without any siblings, with her mother and stepfather—Therese didn't know his name—, and they settled on a farm in Prescott, Ontario. The mother and her husband then had to go back to England having some business to attend to, leaving the child under the care of the village Catholic convent. The couple never returned. After years at the convent, our English girl moved to Montreal alone where she lived off several odd jobs until her marriage. No family, no pictures, no objects would tell the story of her youth besides some fading memories of the farm and of a cruel and mean stepfather.

Therese's dad coming from Rimouski, they would both go over there during the summer. She then gathered with aunts, uncles, cousins; visited houses; looked at photos—in a nutshell, she now had a family. Her father was wounded during World War I, directly exposed to mustard gas. He returned as a broken and handicapped man. He later met our English girl in Montreal and married her. He was 44 years old, she was 38. Therese lost her father at a very young age.

As an only child, Therese lived alone with her mother. If her father had left her a brief family history, her mother would remain silent on the subject. Invariably, all her questions would be answered by a laconic, "What's the point of you knowing all this?" Young Therese grew up with her questions still unanswered. "Is it possible that adults would abandon a child?" "Did the ship they embarked on sank like the Titanic?" "Have they died in England from the Spanish flu?"

It's in the eyes of this 90-year-old woman that I understood the importance of a genealogical investigation, the vital need we have to learn about our own family's history.

"We might not be able to find what we are looking for. So much was lost during the bombing of England."

Let's proceed step by step. Before trying to explore the unknown, the genealogist must rely on known facts. The new information must match the proven facts.

"Let's start with this—your birth, your parents' marriage."

"I have no idea of when and where my parents got married. And at no time I happened to see their wedding pictures. When they met, they were no youngsters. Maybe they just lived together and didn't marry after all."

I am pleased to see that Therese is open-minded about all this. We never know what secret our investigation might reveal.

"When my mother died, I found this document in her personal papers."

I look at it—the paper is worn out but it is still legible. It is the Birth Certificate of Lilly R., delivered by the General Register Office, Somerset House, London, England, referring to the volume from which it was extracted. A sure lead!

"Parents' names are not indicated, but there is a date and a place of birth. That is a good start. I'll get back to you next Saturday."