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The Curious Case of the Man Who Wasn’t Born



I’m travelling this summer in time instead of space.  Cheaper, less strenuous, and totally addictive.  I have a six-month subscription to, and I can’t tear myself away. With four separate family lines to explore, one for each grandparent, it makes a lot of people. And of course they’re all dead.  After a couple of hours, it starts to do your head in.

Sometimes you can piggy-back on to family trees created by other people, and then it goes fast.  You enter the data for, say, your grandmother, and if you’re lucky a little box will pop up next to her that says “Potential mother,” and there it is, you’ve got a great-grandmother too.  On particularly good days, this can go on and on.  Today the little boxes bore me all the way back to 1699, to a lady called Caroline Birchall, who may have been my great-great-great-great-great grandmother.  That’s five greats, yes, and I’m feeling a bit weird.

Of course, this may not be true.  Mistakes can be made.  At some point, I’ll have to go back and check, but I’m learning that you need to focus on one person at a time, otherwise it gets confusing.  Especially as there seem to have been only about a dozen first names in common use in the strait-laced God-fearing working-class circles my ancestors frequented, which means that everyone tends to have the same name.  If a daughter or son died, they sometimes gave the same name to a child born later.  Families of fourteen were not uncommon, though a lot of the children did not survive.  In those faraway pre-television days, entertainment would have been limited.  (When I use the word “entertainment” I suspect I’m referring to gentlemen only.  I’m not sure how the ladies felt when they realized they were embarking on their tenth or so pregnancy.)

And in any case, there’s a missing link in this particular chain: my mother’s father, John Valentine.  He died in 1947, and while we must have briefly crossed paths – I was born at the end of 1946 – I have no memory of him at all.

John Valentine first appears as a grandchild, aged five, in the 1871 census, living in the household of William and Catherine Valentine.  Or so I thought.  Later cross-checking showed that the head of the household was actually called John.  The handwriting of the census takers leaves a lot to be desired, as does their spelling.

So if John and Catherine were his grandparents, who were his parents?  Where were they living?  Why weren’t they with John?  Where, for that matter, is young John’s birth certificate, which would show the names of his parents?  Coming at the available data from different angles, I’ve been unable to locate one.  He is a man who was never born.  Either his birth was not declared, or he was registered under a different name.  None of John and Catherine’s other children seem likely parental candidates.  They’re all too young.

In England, the census was taken every ten years in April.  Respondents were listed by age rather than date of birth (not helpful). John, as I finally found out from data from 1939, was born in September 1865.  In the April 1881 census, aged 15, he’s listed as an Apprentice in what looks like “Engine Fitting.”  The elder John has died, Catherine is listed as head of the household, and he appears as her son.

Biologically, this could be possible.  Catherine would have been about 46 at the time of John’s birth in 1865, and it seems it was not uncommon for women to go on bearing children well into their forties. Like I said, lack of entertainment. But she already had a son called John still living at that time.  Surely they wouldn’t have called two brothers by the same name?  Young John is looking more and more like a changeling.

Fast forward ten years to 1891. John is 24, unmarried, working as a “Slotter Iron Foundry,” living as a boarder in someone else’s home. This seems strange. Entries for other families often show sons of his age still living at home. Did Catherine throw him out?  Or was it he who decided to leave?  Did he march out and slam the door and never speak to his family again?   In 1901, aged 34, he’s a “Steam Engineer Metal Planer,” still unmarried, boarding with a different family.

Not until 1911 does he finally appear as Head of Household, 44, a “Colliery Engineer Planer,” with a wife and three children.  Records show that he was married in Atcham, near Shrewsbury, in the third quarter of 1903.  My grandmother, Ellen Tomlins, a Shropshire girl, was married in the same place at the same time.  Hopefully they married each other.  I would need to order their marriage certificate to be sure.  Even then I would have no clue as to how a Lancashire metal-worker hooked up with a country lass several counties away.   People didn’t move round much back then.  Ellen and her family rambled through the villages around Shrewsbury from census to census, and John seems to have stayed in Haydock most of his life.

I never knew John, but based on the behaviour of the family he left behind, my theory is that John was rejected by his birth family because he was someone’s illegitimate child, and that he transferred the strained relations he had known in his youth to the family he eventually founded in his 40s.  My mother and her siblings didn’t like each other. There were an awful lot of strange undercurrents that as a child I couldn’t interpret (not that I tried. I just thought all families ignored each other like that.)  Also interesting are the names he chose for his offspring: Edna, Nora, Eric and Harold.  A complete break with the multiple Catherines, Elizabeths, Johns and Williams he grew up with.  When I unwittingly chose Catherine as the second name of one of my own daughters, the poor guy must have turned in his grave.

There is no one living that I can ask about John.  Of course, I left it much too late.  My mother is dead, and so are her three siblings.  I lost touch with their children, my cousins, years ago.  They were all older than me: they might well be dead too.  When I occasionally asked my mother questions about her childhood, she wouldn’t answer.  “What do you want to know about that for?”  To avoid leaving my own descendants in this kind of fog, I’ve started writing a memoir for my grandchildren.  Sadly, I haven’t worked on it much lately.  I’m having too much fun with the ancestors.



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