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!