My father claimed he was born in Australia and was brought up near Orpington in Kent. My father was a liar. I’m beginning to find out why.
One obvious reason was that when my mother tried to divorce him she found that you can’t divorce people you’re not actually married to, which came as some surprise to her as she’d been to the church and wore the dress and everything. He was a bigamist, running two parallel families. According to her, anyway.
I started to look into the truth or absence of it back in the 1980s and got as far as establishing he wasn’t born in Australia at all. That took a good half-hour; in those days you just walked into Somerset House in the Strand and looked in the big books, gave them some money and they gave you a copy of the birth certificate.
The 1980s, people keep insisting, were a long time ago. They probably still are. One good thing that’s changed since then is more and more genealogical websites make it far easier to check who was where and when. I’ve just discovered something that ties up. I think I might have discovered something quite odd, as well.
Odd things have happened throughout my life to do with my appearance. It’s not normal. So I’ve been told, anyway, meaning my face is let’s say, distinctive rather than having, for example, an unusual number of fingers for Suffolk. Someone who I’d thought was a great friend once spent an evening wondering out loud how I always got such attractive girlfriends, musing “because you’re not.” Actually, I am of course, and in any event, you can often get to go to bed with very attractive albeit slightly unhinged women just by listening to them droning on about their boyfriend or husband for a bit. Allegedly.
Why any of that matters is because of something that happened in the town I grew up in, Trowbridge in Wiltshire. In those days you insured a car by going to the insurance broker’s office. I NAY! Amazeballs, yah? But everyone did. Including me, one day, trying to insure some Sunbeam Rapier or VW Beetle. The insurance broker asked me what I’d done with the car I insured last week. Which was odd, because I hadn’t. And people don’t look like me. They just don’t.
Be that as it may, today’s discovery is a bit unsettling. Either my paternal grandfather married a woman with the exact same name as his sister, the two of them in the middle of a string of eight children on a farm that’s still there in Kent, or I don’t really want to consider the alternative. I think it has to be the former, not just because I’ve got the right number of fingers, but because the two Kate Bennetts, despite being weirdly the same age, were born in different places, one in Mitcham, Surrey, one in St Paul’s Cray, Kent.
Kate Bennett, born 1877, is the mystery figure in all this. She produced my father at the age of 43, the youngest of three children, two of which I’d never heard of until this morning. But those were the children who survived – I’d discounted her as too old to have children in those days, thinking there was only one, but my father was the last child or the last child that didn’t die before being registered, at least.
The other big mystery is the place. It doesn’t exist. The Urban District Council changed and changed again between 1920 and now, which really does not help track down addresses. A map puts the family of five at a Vachard Place, near what’s now Orpington, in 1921. And it’s massive. The farm the man who appears to be my paternal grandfather came from is still there, a couple of miles from the 1921 address, but he had moved to Mitcham then back again; I’d guess his father died and he either inherited some part of the farm or felt he had to go back to help. But this Vachard Place place is a mystery. It fits with things I remember my father telling me – he grew up in the countryside, there were trees and fields all around, it was beautiful. It’s a country park now so presumably, it hasn’t changed much in the past hundred years and more. But the house is massive. Extremely expensive-looking. Unlike the farm, which according to Companies House has assets of £20,000, or at the least the company registered at that address does.
He was dead by 1939. Or at least he isn’t living with my father and Kate, who was by then widowed and ill, as people often were in their sixties back then. There was another unknown girl living in the same house by then, although whether she was a servant or someone taken in from charity I don’t know – she was never mentioned.
But so much wasn’t.
If I’m honest, this has been an unsettling morning. Either my father’s father shagged his sister, which for obvious reasons I’d prefer not to believe, or there were other relatives I’ve never heard of. I accept that my mother probably didn’t have the wherewithal to go and check the 1921 Census. But she could have walked into Somerset House the same way I could and did. She could have seen or asked to see my father’s birth certificate in the same way my partner and I have that on the list of stuff we’ve shown each other. I can’t think of a reason why we wouldn’t. She was disconcerted to find she had Irish ancestors not that long ago who she’d never heard of. I’m disconcerted today finding ancestors whose existence was denied by omission and collusion.
People tell lies. They tell lies for a reason. People cover-up lies too. I don’t know the reason for that.