When I began researching my family tree, I assumed that my ancestors came from Somerset. When the official certificates began arriving, it turned out I was barking up the wrong tree. My family’s roots were firmly planted in London — but the discovery that my grandfather had a “secret” middle name came as a complete surprise and has prompted a number of tantalizing questions.
I was so convinced that my grandfather was the Frank John French who had been born in Pendomer in Somerset, where he spent his early life with his Game Keeper father, his mother and siblings in a house adjacent to Coker Wood, that I even arranged a day trip out with Marcy so we could try to locate the house. We were successful, too — and the present owners were kind enough to invite us in for a coffee and a look around the old homestead — but when Grandfather Frank’s marriage certificate arrived a week later, it turned out that all the initial research I’d done into “Yeovil” Frank (as I’d come to call him), based purely on the birth and census records, was misguided. He wasn’t my grandfather after all.
(To find out why I’m tracing the family name of French rather than Kingsley, read the first post in this series: My Family Tree.)
Dated the 1st of August 1914, the certificate confirmed some things I already knew — that he was a Pine Worker, that when he was 25 years of age he had married 20-year-old Elizabeth Eleanor Lewis, and they were already living together at the same address in Church Road, Leyton, London. The new information it provided was that Elizabeth’s father (one of my great-grandfathers) was Alfred Thomas Lewis, a Scaffolder. It also showed that my grandfather Frank John French’s father (another of my great-grandfathers) was also named Frank John French — and it listed his occupation not as a Game Keeper, as I’d expected, but a Pine Worker, like his son after him. Both my great-grandfathers, Alfred Lewis and Frank French, were deceased by the time their offspring were wed.
What this certificate proved was that “Yeovil” Frank couldn’t be my grandfather because his father had been a Game Keeper, not a Pine Worker. It also confirmed what I’d figured out previously: that my father, Frank John Edward French, born on the 3rd of January 1915, was conceived out of wedlock. He’d arrived barely six months after his parents married.
It was time to go back almost to square one. I looked again at my notes on the birth records, where I’d listed all Frank French births between 1887 and 1889. Only one now seemed to fit the bill for my grandfather Frank: Frank John S French, born Jul-Aug 1888, registered in Holborn (now in London). But I wondered about that middle initial “S” — there hadn’t been mention of a name beginning with “S” on any of the other documents referring to grandfather Frank, and its inclusion in this particular entry in the register of births had previously led me to ignore it. Still, I took a chance and ordered the birth certificate, prepared to lose another £7 if it proved to be another red herring.
My sister Jean had previously said she thought our family had its roots in London rather than Somerset, and I now had to admit that she was probably right. I made another search of the 1891 Census (conducted on the 5th of April), looking for a three-year-old Frank French living in a London area — and found the right one: the Census has three-year-old Frank French, born in St. Luke’s and living at 63 Stonebridge Road, Tottenham, Edmonton (the blue marker on the map — click for larger image), with his father Frank French (33), a Pine Worker born in Clerkenwell; his mother Elizabeth French (36), born in Berkshire; brother Louis French (13), born in Islington; and sisters Elizabeth French (10), born in Hoxton; Nora(h) French (8), also born in Hoxton; and Florence French (5), born in St. Luke’s, making five children in total. There were also two young boarders: William Lec (11?), born in Islington, and Timothy Thurgood (11), also born in Islington.
(Today, Hoxton is an area in the London borough of Hackney. Islington is close by -– and St. Luke’s is an area in Islington. Tottenham is an area a little further north. In those days, these areas were in the county of Middlesex.)
The place names suggest that when great-grandfather Frank married great-grandmother Elizabeth, they lived in Islington, where eldest son Louis was born; then they moved for a time to Hoxton, where middle sisters Elizabeth and Norah were born; a further move to St. Luke’s was made, and the youngest children Florence and Frank were born there.
By the time of the 1901 Census ten years later, (conducted 31st March), they had moved to 7 Stoneley Road, Tottenham (the red marker on the above map). Head of House (great-grandfather) Frank French was 44 and listed now as a Jewel Case Maker; (great-grandmother) Elizabeth French was 46 and now listed as being born in Brampton, Suffolk, rather than Berkshire, as in the previous Census; (grandfather) Frank was 13; brother Louis was not listed; sister Elizabeth was 20 and an India Rubber Worker; sister Nora was 18 and also an India Rubber Worker; sister Florence was 15 and a Whalebone Worker. A visitor, Furniture Salesman Edward Benson (21), born in Holborn, was also present.
With the eldest son Louis French no longer at the family home in the 1901 Census, I located him, 23 years old and a Cabinet Worker, living at 44 Antill Road, Tottenham (the yellow marker on the above map), with his wife Jessie French who was 21 years old and from Darwen, Lancashire. They also had a new-born son, Louis French, born in Tottenham.
Grandfather Frank’s birth certificate arrived. He was born on the 27th of June 1888. His address is given as 27 Waterloo Street, St. Luke’s. First surprise: his father’s name is given as Frank Robert French, not Frank John French as listed on his marriage certificate. But his father’s occupation — Fancy Cabinet Maker — proves it must be the correct birth certificate for my grandfather Frank. It also tells me my great-grandmother’s maiden name: Foster.
Surprise number two explains the middle initial “S” in the birth register, though it creates another mystery: grandfather Frank’s name on his birth certificate was written by the Registrar William Squire as Frank John Robert French, but then the Robert was struck out with a single line and the name Secker added. Squire added an annotation: “23″ — which presumably refers to a footnote somewhere in the register which I’ve yet to investigate.
Secker? What an unusual name! And isn’t it also unusual that the name “Robert” — one of his father’s forenames (and, as I was later to discover, his grandfather’s first name) — was rejected in favour of such a name? It sounds like a surname. What’s the implication of this change? Why was the name Secker — or even the initial “S” — never used on any of the other documents I’ve seen?
The birth was registered just over a month after the event by his mother, Elizabeth. It’s quite possible that she was on her own when she went to the Register Office. Without her husband being aware of what she was doing, could she, at the last moment, have decided to substitute one of her son’s names — his father’s middle name, significantly — with the name of someone who meant something special to her — who had a connection, also, to the child?
I believe it’s quite possible that Secker was the surname of my great-grandmother’s secret lover. The inclusion of this name on the birth certificate could have been Elizabeth’s way of indicating, in coded fashion, that he was my grandfather Frank’s real father. The fact that she chose to remove the name “Robert” — her husband’s middle name — rather than “John” (which wasn’t one of her husband’s names) seems to add weight to my supposition. She couldn’t change his first name, Frank, because that would be too obvious to his father. She wanted to make sure her son carried his real father’s name in some form. This would also explain why the name Secker doesn’t appear on any other documentation: it was a secret name.
If all that is the case, then some of the genes I’ve inherited come not from the paternal side of the French family line at all, but from a mystery man bearing the family name of Secker, about whom I know absolutely nothing.
Here’s the detail of this part of the family tree as it stands, from grandfather Frank French — the blue entry at the right-hand end of the children — and back one generation to great-grandfather Frank and his wife, Elizabeth Foster (click for larger image):
One other thing I’ve discovered: I’d been trying to locate the births of grandfather Frank’s brother Louis and sisters Elizabeth, Nora and Florence in the register and had some success with the daughters (about which more in a later post), but the eldest son Louis proved elusive — there were no Louis French births registered around the appropriate date (1877). I’d received grandfather Frank’s birth certificate, which gave me his (and Louis’s) mother’s maiden name of Foster, and I’d also received the marriage certificate for great-grandfather Frank and great-grandmother Elizabeth, dated 8th February 1880. I surmised that Louis could have been born out of wedlock and tried looking again under the surname Foster. And there was one — Louis Foster, born in Islington and registered Oct-Dec 1877. So Louis was born about three years before his parents married.
There seems to be a pattern developing: my father Frank was conceived out of wedlock and was born only six months after his parents married; my grandfather Frank’s eldest brother Louis was born three years before his parents married; and it’s quite possible that my great-grandmother Elizabeth had an affair with the mysterious Mr. Secker and had a child — my grandfather Frank — by a man who was not her husband.
My family’s roots are turning out to have given rise to quite a tangled knot of branches.