Christmas Day: Expect the Unexpected!

I’m not sure what most people expect when they start on family history research. In my case there was a lot I already knew, and plenty of well-trodden ground, so I was fairly confident that except for ferreting out a few quirky details I would probably not make much new progress.

I had never in my life imagined that I would end up acquiring, and investigating, a whole group of distant (both in family terms and geographically) Chinese and part-Chinese relations, who would open up the hitherto staid and predictable landscape of yeomen and minor clerks to present me with gold miners, coal trimmers and market gardeners on the other side of the world.

I’m acutely aware that I haven’t yet produced a family tree so you’re going to have to take my word for this for the time being. However, let’s do it this way: Alec Atkins (1922-2001) was my father (I’m one of the awful manipulative children he complains about in his letters). Leonard Atkins (1897-1986) was his father. (Leonard has a story all his own; his diary of the First World War was featured in Michael Portillo’s Railways of the Great War.) Leonard’s father was Tom (1869-1941), who hasn’t appeared very much in these posts so far, and Tom’s wife/widow was the Emily of The Mother Problem.

Tom’s mother was Mary Jane (1845-1910). We don’t know who Tom’s father was, because Mary Jane was never actually married – although she did have two children. This was a surprise to me; I only found out accidentally that Tom had an older sister, Mary Maud, and whether my father knew or not is unclear. However Tom does seem to have been in contact with her until the end of her life.*

Mary Maud (let’s call her Maud, from now on) appears on the 1881 census living in Frome and working in a factory there. However by 1885 she’s in Australia, married to a Chinese market gardener, and having her first child – Violet. Maud married twice, in fact, both times to men of Chinese origin, and had two sons and two daughters. One of the boys died as a baby, and the other son remained unmarried, but in due course both daughters married (one twice within the Chinese community, one outside it) as a result of which there are numerous Chinese and part-Chinese second cousins of my father and third cousins of mine to be tracked down. I’m not including any names here, because (a) some of these people are still alive and (b) I’ve discovered through being in contact with two of Maud’s great-grandsons that they are a little bit reclusive and publicity-shy. I don’t know their reasons for this, and I’m not going to speculate; I’ll simply take them at their word. The family history information quoted above is a matter of public record, however, and if anyone else cares to spend time and money investigating they could easily come to the same conclusions as I have.

I mean no disrespect to people of Chinese origin when I say that, fascinating though it is, this is proving a very difficult area of research. Names have often been transcribed incorrectly, for example, and usually by people with little or no understanding of Chinese languages or naming conventions. Also, they seem to have considered ‘China’ to be sufficient description of where the individuals were born, whereas even a province name would have been more helpful; China covers 3.7 million square miles but has always had a very efficient bureaucracy – tracing these men’s exact birthplaces might almost have been possible if we’d only had a little more information to go on.

What’s puzzling me at the moment is when and how Maud travelled to Australia. (Her name does not appear on any of the passenger lists I’ve been able to consult.) It’s likely to have been as part of a charitable endeavour, with people from underprivileged backgrounds being recruited to start a new life on the other side of the world, not unlike the later Child Migrant Programme. Whether Maud was satisfied with her decision or not is impossible to say unless any correspondence from her comes to light – which could well happen, as there are family archives held by another second cousin of mine that I hope one day to be able to access. How Maud met either of her husbands is also a fascinating question; knowing where she landed in Australia – probably Melbourne or nearby – and what work she did after arriving might be useful in that respect.

I had only really scratched the surface of this investigation ten years ago when I suddenly found myself running a small business which proceeded to eat up most of my time. Now that the business is being wound-up, I’ve returned to the research with better resources and a clearer idea of what I’m looking for – but with much less energy. However, although I plan to continue sharing the letters, photos, clippings and diaries that I have in my extensive collection, I’ve decided to confine any future new research to those relatives on all sides of the family who went to live in Australia – including the one who eventually came back with his tail between his legs. If I ever get to the end of this line of investigation, I’ll return to the Huguenots on another branch – just as well-documented as the Chinese, but suffering from the same difficulty of being strangers in a strange land and often having their names transcribed incorrectly.

Watch this space, as the saying goes, for future updates as and when they become available!

*That correspondence between Maud and her brother continued at least until the mid-1920s (and probably longer) is borne out by two pieces of evidence. The first is that Tom and Emily’s bungalow in Exeter was named ‘Whittlesea’, the name of the town in Australia where Maud and her family lived. The second is that one of Maud’s great-grandsons sent me pictures of Leonard and Eva’s wedding and of Alec as a baby – the latter one that I had never seen before but of course recognised him instantly. This means that in about 1924-25 there was still an exchange of correspondence, and as Maud did not die until 1940 I can see no reason why it wouldn’t have continued for at least another decade. If the packrat tendency extends to the entire family, there may still be letters in an attic somewhere that could shed considerable light on some of these unanswered questions; if only my second cousin Sara would get in touch again, we might be able to join forces to find out!


Friday 4th December, 1959

Leonard to the family, once again on the reverse of Timetable 179, Leamington Spa, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bormingham, Stourbridge Junction, Kidderminster, Bewdley, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Wellington:

Dear Alec June Susan & Carol

Many thanks for your letter received on Tuesday and you should have had Mum’s the same morning. I see by date above it is five years ago today you were married. Congratulations to you both and very best wishes for the future. It’s also five years off the payments for house and although very little difference as yet in your pay packet it is that much further towards the place being your own. That was a splendid effort of Susan’s and the drawing shews she can put her ideas on paper. Noted they both keep you on your toes. They used to say “Boys will be boys” but we must alter it to “Girls will be girls”. Good job the hand bell was used in Sunday School as presumably she was not allowed to bring it home. Yes we heard from Geoff that you had called on them having lost your way when out in car shopping. They were pleased to see you and said “How the girls have grown.” Stella was apparently away working in Watford (query in Marks and Spencers). Geoff made his usual annual visit to Ireland last week* but crossed over one night and recrossed the next – cut the trip by two days this time. I also see British Railways dispensing with their Christmas [illegible] cards this year – about time too.

Thanks for information re your Parcels effort at Paddington – the electronic computer will save hours of calculating work by the sound of it. So manning has gone to Euston – query whether he would be an applicant to get back on WR when suitable sideways vacancy occurs. Don’t think I’m a Job’s comforter but things like this happen all too frequently. Note your remarks re garage and I agree the arrangement of the door on garage at Whittlesea is an ideal one but must obviously cost more*. I believe Don & Geoff fixed it between them but it’s a job I should not like to tackle.

Yes we heard Bill Harper had finished and am wondering how he will pass the time as he has no known hobby and no garden on house – he lives in Brislington not so very far away from the Newmans who we visit two or three times a year.

I nopte re: apples and will pick out some nice ones from the Bramley Seedlings [sic] and Jersey Beauty – the former are the best cookers and can be used from November onwards whilst the Jersey beauty is eater and cooker but must be kept for a while as at the moment they are very hard. Should keep until February or March in good keeping season but you must keep your eye on them as season not so good. Weather here has been pretty bad but not so foggy as in your area.

We went to Weston on Tuesday and although we came away again about 7.0 p.m. had to run through blankets of fog for most of journey.

Apart from sawing wood up for logs and chopping for firewood have not done very much out of door work since I last wrote because of wet state of ground. The pond filled with water overnight but soon returned to normal level (top of deep part) when it stopped raining – have not yet been able to mend leak although have had a couple of goes at it. House next door still empty and garden now looking like a piece of waste ground. I notice the broad beans Cornish put in for me on Nov 5th are breaking through the soil and about 25% of my spring cabbage plants look as if they may recover in due course. There is still a lot of white fly about in spite of frost and torrential rain and greenstuff generally is going to be scarce later on. We are using cabbage which normally would not be cut until towards end of January.

Am glad to say Mum is much better although still troubled with a cough – these appear to be very common at present – she will write to June in reply to her letter later. I’m still getting on alright but as mentioned above have not done any serious gardening yet – fortunately the weather would have stopped me in any case.

Shall be looking forward to seeing you next week and you must let us know time due Yatton or Clevedon.

No more now – all the best once more and lots of kisses for Susan & Carol.

Dad & Mum

*’Whittlesea’ was the name of the house in which Emily lived before she began her peripatetic lifestyle (see ‘The Mother Problem’). It was in the immediate vicinity of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital premises at Wonford in Exeter but I have been unable to establish whether or not it’s still in existence. The derivation of the name is an interesting one; it was named for the town in Victoria, Australia, where Emily’s sister-in-law Mary ended up living. Mary is an interesting character whom we’ll be meeting in more detail at a later stage. At any rate, it sounds as if a segmented sliding garage door may be what Don and Geoff installed on the premises, and what Alec was craving. When he did get one, many years later, he decided it was more trouble than it was worth.

Emily and Tom

Tom and Emily are the parents of Leonard, Donald and Geoffrey. (And therefore the grandparents of Alec and great-grandparents of Yours Truly.) It’s clear from the photos that Leonard took after his mother and Donald his father, in particular, while Geoffrey was a satisfying blend of both.

This is Emily (Beacham) Atkins, the focus of ‘The Mother Problem’ as described in the correspondence between her sons. This photograph was taken at Christmas 1946.
Here’s her husband Tom (front row centre). On the back of the picture are these words: For Alec from Grandfie Atkins taken on his retirement from the post of stationmaster at Cross Keys Mon. Oct 27th 1928. Alec would have been three years and four months old at the time.
And this, clearly, is Cross Keys station from which Tom was retiring, although this was taken slightly earlier in 1922. According to Wikipedia Cross Keys – near Ebbw Vale – was open in its original form from 1851 to 1962, and was presumably then demolished and rebuilt (on a slightly different site) in 2008. Take that, Dr Beeching!

Monday 25th May, 1959

From Don. Emily had died at Heavitree on 16 March – presumably at Fort Villa – and Don was clearly acting as her executor.


Monday 24th May, 1959 [sic]

Dear All,

A copy of this letter has gone to ‘Devonia’*, Headstone Lane** and Queen’s Walk***. It replies to Geoff’s letter, no date but postmarked 10/5/59 and two ex Leon – one dated 9/5/59 and the other 22/2/59.

Nothing has been decided to date regarding the investments ( in trust ) for Rebecca, Sara, Susan and Carol. The best effort forthcoming so far is National Savings Certificates which would be registered under the Holders Card Nos. already advised.

The certificates, if and when purchased, would be the 10th issue and held for 7 years when every 15/- would be worth £1 – not bad for a start – the snag being that a reinvestment would then have to be found by the trustee – the best available at the time – either say a 11th issue Trustee Savings Bank. If the trustee made a bad investment he would have to make good the loss. Now the point you all appear to emphasise is put the money in GWR Savings Bank @ 4.5% until they are 21. Good show, but tell me please under what rule a separate trustee account may be so opened for the persons concerned when as each becomes 21 the book may be given her on the day. You will appreciate, no-one, except the trustee may have access thereto during the intervening years. However. assuming such accounts may be opened, these would have to be closed by the trustee if either father passed away and the widow remarried outside British Railways. I hate to touch upon such a morbid subject but life is so uncertain apart from the age factor that some of us may not be around to see all the legacies paid out. If your replies on the GWR Savings Bank are negative ones have you any other ideas please on how the various sums may be invested to give the best return during the waiting period and at the same time protect the trustee from any loss. The question is on the table.

Headstone Lane: I note Geoff bought 500 bricks and hopes to brick edge some flower borders. Unless a low wall is required I prefer whole sleepers. Much quicker and a good one lasts about 15 years. Also not subject to frost eating bricks away.

Clevedon: Thanks for news re: S/M****s at Yatton and Highbridge. Both having a pretty rough time. Always someone worse than yourself. (I expect you know the Chinese story – the beggar grumbling because he had no boots until he met a man who had no feet.) However I should like to know how both are getting on now if not back to work yet. Am not too bad myself. Am please to say all your onions have taken root here. A lot of my similar ones keep throwing seed heads. Glad you and Geoff were able to have a look together at some of Mother’s treasures – also very pleased you were able to satisfactorily sort them out between you and that Alec came into the picture. Talking about pictures, the one I would like to have had was an oval one showing trees in a glade. It had no frame or glass. Strange no-one can say where it went. Like the jewellery must take it as read I suppose. No more for now.


*i.e. Leonard and Eva **i.e. Geoff and Stella ***i.e. Alec and June ****Station Masters

The Mother Problem – part ten

Geoff to his brothers again:

Paddington, Wednesday

Dear All

Many thanks for Leon’s letter letter [sic] to have returning the vacancy lists – another enclosed for his perusal.*

If Mother will only realise our efforts are for her benefit as much as everyone else’s I am sure she will thank us and not condemn us for what we are doing. Quite apart from all else the very fact that she will not have to be pulled around every so often (particularly in the winter) surely is a great blessing. Secondly the daily avoidance of stairs which are a nightmare to her and us will help her immensely and thirdly not having to go to and from a cold bedroom at night and morning shivering for the cold will save her much anxiety – to say nothing of numerous other advantages. Mother’s permanent comfort and independence with proper spiritual and medical care is the aim – the cost is our headache and not hers. Last time she came to London and more especially when she returned she had an awful journey and it was terrible even to witness it, let alone having to cope. So Mother is going to Lyng on Sunday and I hope to be one of her first visitors to Exeter to make sure everything is as it should be. I have in mind Sat. Nov. 22nd subject to tieing up [sic] with Don.

Was interested in Leon’s note to Mr Phillips and his reply. Should say he is a different sort to the rest and it is already clear Edwards intends stirring the mud. Heard John Saunders is a strong candidate for Exeter – fairly senior too. Also rumoured the Plymouth Chief Clerk’s job is likely to be readvertised under the new organisation – a different title with the same salary – but that suggests neither Collins nor Beer will get it.

No more now.

Love G&S

*Work vacancy lists, no doubt. It seems as if Geoff’s view has prevailed at last, and Emily is on her way to Fort Villa at the end of November. I have yet to confirm this, but she most certainly died at Heavitree in the March of the following year – a few weeks after her 87th birthday.

The Mother Problem – part nine

Geoff to his brothers:

Paddington, Thursday

Dear All

Leon’s letter safely to hand and I can only say when someone has tried very hard to find the right solution to all our problems it was very discouraging. Let us face facts – when we were small boys we were told “Mother knows best” and “It’s sometimes necessary to be cruel to be kind”. Surely now Mother is beyond the stage of control she should have confidence in her sons to know what is best for her. It is very clear the present moving around cannot continue and it is beyond the human endurance of any one of us to stay permanently at one place. Last time Mother came to London she was very will and when she returned I thought she was going to pack up before we reached Paddington. We cannot hope that it would be any better on another occasion and it is wrong – definitely wrong for her to be moved about in this manner quite apart from anything else. To have been able to find a spot in a Christian house where she is well known and near old friends which she could not hope to see again otherwise; also to have regular visits from us all including the little girls and away from all upsets and arguments surely Mother is something you should thank God for and not be ungrateful. No one wants you gone and no one thinks you’ve lived too long but you must help others to help you and I do hope you will see it in this light.

No more today.

Love G&S

It’s impossible not to feel desperately sorry for Geoff, who is doing his best in impossible circumstances – torn, as it would seem, between the demands of his wife and those of his brothers, and with Emily the unwitting cause of all the discord.

The Mother Problem – part eight

Geoff to Leonard and Eva:

Sorry you have been put to such trouble and it’s clear if we are to get any peace within our midst Mother must be guided by us and not us by her. It is wrong that you or any of us should suffer in this way – you have earned your rights to happy retirement & we need peace to concentrate on the lives to come. I cannot possibly cover my job and be in and out to Mother all night – it is wrong even to think of it.

Love G&S

P.S. Understand re: cash and tickets – I have offered Don £15 to cover to end of year when position will be reviewed as he says. This meets the points he made.

Clearly, nobody wants to deal with Mother themselves and everyone thinks somebody else should be doing it. Typical!

It also sounds as if Geoff’s wife, Stella – who may still have been working herself at this point – has put her foot down about night attendance, whereas the other brothers think that because their wives are willing to do it she darned well ought to as well. They’re all for compassion and self-sacrifice, as long as they can leave it to the women.

The Mother Problem – part seven

Don to both his brothers:


Dear Geoff and Stella

Thanks for Geoff’s letter to hand this morning. I think the first thing I should like to mention is that Joan and I are on our 8 weeks rest period but instead of being allowed to have that essential rest this correspondence has played havoc here.

Now can we have a spot of law and order. M is due here from Clevedon on Nov. 16th and on to London Dec. 14th but to the latter you say No.

You are going to Exeter this week to fix up for M at Fort Villa, but having satisfied yourself that it is suitable and that Mrs Searle fully understands Mother’s condition you should then go to Clevedon early next week and tell M all about it. After that a date can be made for getting M to Exeter via Lyng. Under no circumstances will she be taken to Exeter if after a few 24 hour periods Mrs. Searle is going to say – come and take her away, I cannot cope – because who will carry on from there.

Don & Joan

Addendum to Leonard and Eva:

Thanks for Leon’s letter to hand this morning. Perhaps Geoff will answer some of your queries after his visit to Exeter. I doubt if Mrs. Searle knows the present state of affairs.

It is a pity that Geoff did not visit Clevedon and tell his Mother that Headstone Lane* was off. She would not have gone there at all if Joan and I had not pressed the subject. It had reached the stage here that we would not let him visit her – have we to go through all that again.


*Headstone Lane was the name of the road in which Geoff and his family lived.

What’s disturbing here is the aura of distrust between the brothers. Nobody seems to consider Geoff capable of undertaking the negotiations with Mrs Searle, and as the youngest of the three this may be a legacy of their childhood. Nevertheless at this time he was fifty years old, married and settled and in a very good job; he was surely as sensible as either of the others, and probably more down-to-earth.

Why Don should have found it necessary to stop Geoff visiting his mother at Lyng, though, is anyone’s guess – unless the sight of him always made her think she was going to be taken back to London to see her grand-daughters, and she became upset when she found out that was not the case. It definitely sounds as if she had mental as well as physical troubles, however, and I’m astonished that they let the matter become this serious before they started looking for a solution. I can only imagine that they were more concerned about keeping their money in their pockets.

The Mother Problem – part six

Leonard’s notes:

  1. Cannot afford anything towards keep.
  2. Has the true position been put to Mrs Searle – I think not because I cannot see anyone taking Mother in her present condition which is deteriorating daily.
  3. What happens if Mother – for obvious reasons – cannot be kept in the Home – where does Geoff come into this.
  4. You* and I have almost completed our ‘shift’ for 1958.
  5. ? Night attention at Fort Villa.
  6. Mother requires everything done for her now-a-days – even to very often undoing and doing up her clothes for toilet purposes – who is going to do this in any Home.
  7. ? Visiting every third week – Geoff has an all stations pass and Eva and I will have to pay every time – either priv or petrol to get to and from Exeter.

*Presumably this is addressed to Don.

There’s a streak of absolute pig-headedness about this list, coupled with a complete absence of generosity and total unwillingness to see anyone else’s point of view but his own. It doesn’t seem to occur to Leonard that Mrs Searle knows her business, for one thing, nor that toileting and night attention are part of the service they would be paying for. Nor does anyone seem to have thought of consulting Emily’s GP for advice about placing her, nor indeed organising professional nursing attendance in the home. They’re all too focused on what a burden it is, and seem unable to accept that other people find solutions to these problems which are also available to them. “Poor Downtrodden Me” syndrome runs rife in the Atkins family, and the assumption is that Geoff is doing this *at* his brothers as some sort of Machiavellian ploy; rather than co-operating to find a solution for their mother’s well-being, they are turning it into a ‘who’s suffering most?’ competition – and the winner is, was, and always will be Emily.

The Mother Problem – part five

Leonard’s letter to his brothers:


Not a very good day here as you may imagine and I would that it had not fallen to me to tell Mother of proposed arrangements. Anyhow I waited until after breakfast and gently broached the subject and read out Geoff’s letter addressed to her. She was very angry and I had to listen to quite a lot. “She had lived too long and we wanted her out of the way” etc. etc.* “Under no circumstances would she consider it and Geoffrey must think again.” “She had been looking forward to seeing the grandchildren again.” Frankly I had no heart to pursue subject then and after Eva returned from shopping turned out to garage until lunchtime. I asked her in afternoon what reply had better be given as the vacancy at Fort Villa was imminent but the afternoon dragged on dismally until Mrs Marshall turned up for tea and that finished the matter for the day. I can assure you though she was very very down. I answered and tried to answer a great number of questions from her & endeavoured all ways to get her interested in life in the Whittlesea area but without result.

If Geoff is going to Exeter to see the place this week he must tell Mrs Searle of Mother’s physical and mental difficulties in fact she is now an invalid. I have to go into her bedroom every hour – sometimes more often night [sic] to get her on the commode – the former ‘potty’ arrangements now very much out of date as M does not know what to do with it. What are night nurse arrangements at Fort Villa? Will someone be always on hand day & night to help Mother with toilet requirements? Also what are sleeping arrangements, M must be accommodated so that she can be on her right side always. I feel some assurance is necessary on all these vital matters before having another chat with Mother. Another question where’s lavatory in relation to where Mother will normally sit. Strictly speaking it should be adjacent to avoid the walks to & fro.

It is most difficult to deal with – I wish it has never come to this.

So far as Don’s letter of 2nd is concerned we much appreciate suggestion for journey to be broken at Lyng for a night or two as presumably Don would take journey thence to Exeter, where without doubt he would have to arrange the financial aspects of the matter with Mrs Searle. Unfortunately I am not now-a-days in a position to pay anything towards Mother’s keep – quite enough to me to make ends meet here and you will all understand this.

So far as visits go, if Mother does go to Fort Villa Geoff’s suggestion appears to be the only one practicable & somehow we would make it although not in possession of pass.**

No more now.


*Leonard had a deeply hypocritical side to his nature. Thirty years later he used precisely these words to his daughter-in-law when she was no longer capable of looking after him – he had become increasingly demanding and unpleasant and seemed to expect five star treatment with no thought of the effect he was having on those around him. [And Alec, deeming it to be ‘women’s work’, took no part at all in either the emotional or the physical labour required.]

**Leonard pleading poverty is also very difficult to swallow. Of the three brothers, Don was the one with the most reduced standard of living – although he was still working, and his house was rented rather than owned. Geoff and his wife lived in London in very comfortable circumstances, and Leonard and Eva – with only themselves to please and no mortgage to pay – could hardly be said to be paupers, especially as they grew a lot of their own fruit and vegetables and so saved on expenses that way. They also sold their surplus at the front gate on an honour system, something that wouldn’t be possible in that particular neighbourhood today. Leonard’s assertion that he ‘doesn’t have a pass’ is mysterious, too, unless he’s distinguishing between an ‘all system pass’, i.e. free rail travel everywhere, and a ‘priv’, i.e. reduced cost rail travel for life. He most certainly had the latter.