Hunting for the Missing Hemmings: a genealogical adventure (1942 – 2010)


I’d always had an instinctive realisation that my family was somewhat different. As cultural Protestants, we were among the minority on our 1960’s Dublin suburban street. Different also, my English-born parents: textile entrepreneurs and enthusiasts for all things craft. My mother was a colourist and clothes designer. My father was unorthodox business director, one-time-weaver. Both parents were from aspirational working class backgrounds.

After Sunday church services, my father would play jazz on the upright Bechstein piano, in our sitting room. His overweight frame would seriously threaten the joint-squeaking piano stool, as his rollicking rhythm-shook in time to the tune being played. He hardly ever played with others, and never in public (once, briefly at my wedding dance).

Each Sunday mid-day, my mother would ring a large brass ship bell in the kitchen, to signal “dinner ready”.  BBC Long Wave was the wireless audio back drop to our meals. Slap-stick Clithero Kid, or The Navy Lark, followed by Desert Island Discs’ lonesome seagull-cry, crashing waves and lush mournful orchestra.

Family Tragedy Recalled

During one particular Sunday dinner, a Desert Island Discs interviewee’s musical choice greatly upset my father. Was it Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Childhood’? Something very poignant exploded in him. My father was sobbing so deeply that he started hyperventilating. I had never seen such a dramatic outburst from him previously. After I insistently asked what was the matter, my father tearfully told my siblings and I about his family murder / suicide. I was eight at the time, my middle brother ten, and my older brother, twelve.

On Easter Monday, 1942 my paternal  grandfather “mercy killed” his younger son,  and then committed suicide that night. Rare then, that type of “red-top” newspaper news, based on the coroner’s report, in the Derby Telegraph. The following double funeral had the pastor appealing for some sense of decency among the curious crowds milling outside his Baptist church.

There is a (possibly apocryphal) parallel story that adds extra drama to this shocking scenario. My grandfather had worked as forge hand, in The Midland Railway Locomotive Works. My father conspiratorially maintains that his father was asked by his bosses to spy on the powerful railway union, and he refused.  Due to that apparent insubordination, my grandfather was supposedly forced to change from working in a draughtsman’s office, to lifting heavy metals in the hot and noisy foundry section. Thus shafting his career prospects (or possibly mere dreams), which were technical design.

Leading up to the murder / suicide drama was the fact that my grandfather had also been ill, apparently with epilepsy, and ulcers. Family myth and historical reality got quite mixed up in my father’s mind. His teenage sense of shock, and possessing a vivid imagination unwittingly distorted facts. Police and Coroner reports printed in the newspaper were trumped by my father’s personal version of events…

Family Roots Reconnected

To compound the family shame my paternal grandmother also took her own life, in 1957. Naturally, there was little contact with any remaining relatives. My father had become an adult orphan. Over the decades I spent many philosophical moments trying to make sense of the little that I had been told. Even insignificant questions were stonewalled. My father never attempted counselling, even later in life.

Fast-forward to the year 2000. I discovered and read a history of Pear Tree Baptist Church, Derby, my father’s family church. It had been written by the current minister. I wrote to him, as some of my family were mentioned in his text. He kindly replied and informed me that some of Hemmings cousins were still involved in that church.

He forwarded my letter to a second cousin. In turn, that cousin sent me a letter, which I read it with interest, then filed it away. I wasn’t curious enough then about my genealogy. Other than initial contact, did any relatives want to  stay in touch with this distant Irish cousin?

Ten years later, in 2010, my wife came across that correspondence, as she was sorting through papers. She re-initiated contact, this time through his wife. Both wives’ got very excited about us all meeting up. Both blood cousins were more reserved…

In February 2010, my wife & I made a day-visit to Derby and meet a few cousins. We were shown the original family grave, an apologetically-small, square stone marker inscribed: Frank Hemmings, on one side, and Ronald Hemmings, on the other. Their singularly significant same date of death was slightly disingenuously stated.

I was told that my grandmother was also buried there. She had remarried but wasn’t able to shake off depression and committed suicide in 1957. Her presence had not been stated on either sides of the original modest grave stone. When I got home that night and examined smartphone photos I saw the well-meaning but non-scriptural phrase under my grandfather, stating: “Jesus has him in a better place”. I don’t have that certainty for him after his cruel deed. Who decided that such a presumption should be placed under his name? I was outraged…and so, I later proposed to my father that a new gravestone be made. I would commission and pay for it. My father agreed. The names of all three people and truthful dates would be clearly stated. The below illustrated grave stone was made and placed in 2011.

gravestone hemmings 17 (1)

I thought it fitting that the child victim should get front setting, so to speak. Each troubled parent is placed either side. My father was pleased with the outcome of the new gravestone.

grave doris may

During our brief visit we were told of four other paternal cousins related to my dad, two of whom were “whereabouts unknown”. One of those “missing” cousins was my father’s favoured first cousin, Gordon, six months younger than my dad, who in childhood lived around the corner. He was a scholarship boy, became a scholarship collegian. Neither cousin had exchanged either letter or phone call in over sixty eight years. Neither knew where the other lived, nor seemed exercised enough to resolve their familial disconnect.

Serendipity or something more…?

Liz, my wife, had worked hard on my family tree, the first time that one had ever been compiled. I decided to see could I find Gordon, the significant missing link. If nothing else, it would possibly fill in a few gaps, were he still alive… After a few days of endless searches online, I almost gave up my quest. My Google search hadn’t exactly been helped by my father. He mistakenly thought that Gordon was a headmaster. In fact, Gordon was merely an excellent English teacher in Grammar schools, with a penchant for Shakespeare, and ran the school drama society…

Then bingo! After three days doing online searches, I stumbled on one vital lead. One “Gordon Hemmings” had given an address The Grammarians, an Old Scholars association. Perhaps we might be related? I emailed that old scholars’ secretary, asking about that Gordon Hemmings, giving pertinent detail.  The secretary emailed back within a day, positively identifying our “missing” cousin. I was very moved at such serendipity.

And if that breakthrough were not enough, Gordon’s address was highly significant: Winchester. Our eldest son had recently started an Animal Management degree at Sparsholt College….located in the Winchester city area. In fact, we had already made plans to visit Lawrence, prior to finding that Gordon also lived there. To say that my jaw dropped would be an understatement. Believing in the biblical narrative of unexpected miracle, and awkward family histories, this dramatic co-incidence was hardly surprising.

With much encouragement from my wife, and no little trepidation on my part, I dialled Gordon’s Winchester phone number. I waited nervously for an answer. What would I say? What might he say? The phone wasn’t answered by Gordon but a request to leave a message. I mumbled some garbled introduction and quickly put down the phone. I had tried, and possibly failed. At least I had tried.

Doubts quickly took root about this family endeavour that my wife was pursuing like a relentless terrier. She was charting the first ever attempt at my paternal family tree. Such cousin detail was pertinent to her goal. She was as excited as I was subdued.

I let a day or two pass, before putting myself through the emotional grinder a second time. Liz suggested that if the conversation stalled, I should consider asking offspring names and dates, explaining her work on the Hemmings family tree.

This time I got through to Gordon’s, his kindly voice answered. Bona-fides were quickly established. We then briefly conversed about our respective children’s names & ages etc. He was so, so grateful to reconnect.

The “Missing” Cousin Met

Gordon lived in a centuries old alms-house, called ‘St. Cross Hospital’, in Winchester city. He was in the company of a couple of dozen other bachelors and widowers – “Christian men of noble poverty”. A few weeks after our phone call we walked through the arched, castellated gateway of that one-time medieval monastery.

Liz and I walked the quadrangle that led to Gordon’s modest dwelling. He greeted us warmly, and was truly grateful for our effort in tracking him down. We stayed two days in that locality, eating and drinking in his favourite pub, exchanging much genealogical information, newspaper clippings, photos and chat. We introduced him to Lawrence, our student son, so they could acquaint themselves with each other.

On our way home to the Irish ferry, via south Wales, we briefly visited my father and his third wife. It was a pleasure to give him lots of photos and family material, as no official documents survived from the 1942 murder / suicide, and the subsequent 1957 suicide.

Further Family Clues

Most of my remaining older relatives from that war-time period were either dead, or had dementia. As a last shot, to try and discover pertinent missing details, I emailed DERBY BYGONES, an online local history forum, connected to The Derby Telegraph. The editor, knowing my family story, agreed to publish my appeal for any details about my family.

By the following weekend an email arrived from Derby. That man’s mother was a next-door neighbour and close contemporary of my father.  Crucial, missing domestic detail from his family and relatives gave me a fuller picture of my grandparents.

Two Cousins Reunite after Sixty Eight years Silence

In June 2010, I accompanied my 84 year old father on the six hour train journey from Wales to Winchester, to visit his first cousin, Gordon. When we got to Gordon, he was sheltering from rain, just inside his ecclesiastical-looking porch, at his antique wooden front door. From the distance across the quadrangle he waved.

Finally, after sixty eight years of silence, these cousins firmly and emotionally shook hands. They both nervously laughed….What do you say after sixty eight years!!? Would my father behave, and keep any minor disagreements to himself? I had wrapped this ambivalent pilgrimage with much prayer, and a small dose of pessimism. There was much catching-up to be accomplished in under two days. Both probably realised that such a meeting may not be repeated at their ripe age.

The following day I left the two of them alone once more. They talked and walked along the water meadows of the Itchen River, both in cloth caps, with wooden walking sticks. The two “greybeard cousins” came closer to each other over those two days. On the morning of our departure, we three Hemmings’ stood, holding hands in a circle, and gave thanks in our different ways.

Unexpected Funeral

Gordon died nine months after that meeting, just before a family-wide reunion. At his funeral things were cultural misunderstandings. In Ireland, funerals are almost a social occasion. In England, that seems not to be so. We were not permitted to briefly meet with his family, prior to the funeral. As it turned out, both families ate lunch in the same local pub, just in different rooms. I accidently bumped into unknown male relatives… in the pub toilet!

An Unusual Coda

At the funeral tea and scones afters, someone spontaneously connected with us strangers. He was the old scholars secretary contact who had supplied me with Gordon’s phone number, nine months before. A few weeks later he emailed my wife to some pertinent information. To her amazement that man connected my wife with five  previously-unknown “missing” cousins of hers! Liz has since had very happy times meeting up with them all.

God looked down kindly on my emotionally battered family, and redeemed it in such a meaningful way. And Liz discovered five Irish relatives that she never knew she had, all through a “missing” cousin’s funeral in England.

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