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

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I’d always had an instinctive realisation that my family was different from many. As Protestants, on our 1960’s Dublin suburban street, we were in the minority. Different also were my English-born parents: unique mohair textile entrepreneurs and enthusiasts for all things craft. My father had recorded his own privately pressed jazz 78 record, in the Forties, a wax disc mounted on a bronze platter.

After Sunday church services, my father would play jazz on the Bechstein upright piano in our sitting room. His overweight frame would seriously threaten the rhythm-shook, joint-squeaking piano stool. He haunched over the keyboard, recalling war-time American jazz and blues tunes: Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman.

Around mid-day my mother would ring a large brass bell, to signal dinner was ready. On the radio, usually tuned into BBC Long Wave, the lonesome sound of an orchestra, back-dropped by seagull-cry and crashing waves signalled Desert Island Discs.

Family Tragedy Recalled

Something upset my father one Sunday dinner time, some music heard on that weekly radio show. Was it Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Childhood‘? My father had experienced a private, war-time tragedy in his family. In that remembered moment the pent-up pathos spilt out. Did someone switch off the radio while this heartbreaking Hemmings history was tearfully told? He was sobbing so deeply that he was out of breath. I had never seen such a dramatic outburst from him previously.

A shocked silence reigned. We three children, aged 12, 10 & myself, 8 years, were told the tragedy that my mother already knew about. My young uncle, aged 8, had Bright’s Disease, an apparently incurable kidney condition. On Easter Monday in 1942 my grandfather killed him & later on that same, drowned himself in a local canal. When did I find out that my very depressed paternal grandmother took her own life, the year that I was born, 1957?

There is a parallel, possibly apocryphal, story that adds a sense of drama to this shocking scenario. My grandfather had worked in The Midland Railway Locomotive Works. Apparently he refused to spy on the powerful railway union in the 1930’s. He was a slightly built man and was forced, through his refusal to spy, to change from working in a draughtsman’s office to lifting heavy metals in the foundry works. This effectively was a dis-ingenious shafting of his prospects in technical design. Apparently, my grandfather had been ill with epilepsy and also ulcers.

Family Roots Reconnected

When my parents came to Ireland, in the 1950’s, there was little contact with any of his relatives. Occasionally my family visited Derby in the 1960’s. Some decades later, in 2000, I read a history of Pear Tree Baptist Church, Derby. That was my father’s family church. This church history had been written by the current minister.

I wrote to him, thanking him for his history & stated that some of my family were mentioned in his text. He kindly replied & informed me that some of my family members were still involved in his church. He forwarded my letter to a cousin of my father’s, who was a Pear Tree Baptist member. That retired cousin sent me a letter sometime later in 2000. I read it with interest & filed it away. I wasn’t curious enough to chase up tis contact. How did I know that any of my relatives wanted to hear from me? There had been minimal contact in the 1960s and then a long silence.

Ten years after that kind letter from the Baptist clergyman, in 2010, my wife came across it again, in a drawer. She re-initiated contact, this time with my cousin’s wife. Both wives got very excited about us all meeting up. Both cousins were far more circumspect…

In February 2010, my wife & I made a day-visit to Derby. That second-cousin of my dad’s showed us the family grave. Its small, concrete square marker was inscribed: Frank Hemmings and Ronald Hemmings with dates slightly disingenuously stated. I was told that my grandmother, who committed suicide in 1957, was also buried there, though not named on the modest stone. No tears welled in my eyes, nor were any prayers uttered.

That cousin told us of four other of my father’s cousins, two of whom he had never been in touch with; one of whom was a first cousin, Gordon, a one-time secondary school English teacher. My father would have been very close in age to him. My father & Gordon had not exchanged either letter or phone call in 68 years. Previously, there was no known address for him.

Serendipity or something more…?

After a few days of endless and vain Google search results, I stumbled on one vital clue. A “Gordon Hemmings” had addressed The Grammarians, an Old Scholars association in the  school he once taught in. This vital piece of information led me to getting his phone number.

It was with much encouragement from my wife, and no little trepidation on my part, that I dialled his phone number. I waited nervously for the phone to be answered but instead got an answerphone. Drat! I mumbled some garbled introduction and quickly put down the phone. I am great for getting myself into (and sometimes out of) tight corners!

Was the attempt to reconnect a big mistake? Who’s to say that such a phone call would even be welcomed?

I let a day or two pass before putting myself through the emotional grinder a second time. This time a kindly voice answered.  Was I the person who recently phoned from Ireland? Quickly, bona-fides were established. He was indeed my long-lost relative. We then conversed about our respective children’s names & ages etc. He was so grateful that even now, as I recall that dialogue afresh I weep…at God’s wringing deep mercy from a very unpromising family murder / suicide saga.

My wife was writing & charting the first ever attempt at my paternal family tree. Such cousin family detail was pertinent to her goal. We exchanged a few more phone calls before we met a few weeks later.

At that very same time, my wife and I promised to bring our eldest sons belongings to where he attended college in England. It just so happened that Gordon lived in the same geographical location – Winchester, in the south of England. How spine-shivering spooky is that co-incidence? To those whose hope is in heaven it represents a redeemer’s smile…

The “Missing” Cousin Met

Gordon lived in an alms-house called ‘St. Cross Hospital’, in Winchester city. He was in the company of a couple of dozen other “Christian men of noble poverty”. A few weeks later we walked through the arched, castellated gateway of the one-time medieval monastery, that led to Gordon’s dwelling.

He greeted us warmly and was truly grateful for our time and effort tracking him down and now also for visiting him. We stayed two days in that locality, exchanging much genealogical information, photos and poignant chat.

We came home to Ireland, both exhausted and exhilarated. I had been trying to get my hands on any official documents concerning the coroner’s report or police reports. I had heard, from one Derby council officer, that all coroner’s reports from this period had been disposed of….

Further Family Clues

It was going to be difficult filling in the gaps. Most of my relatives from the 1930’s period of my family history were by now either dead or “address unknown”. As a last shot to try and discover pertinent missing detail, I emailed DERBY BYGONES, an online local history forum. The editor kindly agreed to host my appeal for any details about my family’s dramatic history.

By the following weekend an email arrived from Derby. My email correspondent’s mother was a next-door neighbour of my family, at that tumultuous time. He patiently answered my many email questions, filling in crucial detail. A timely Good Samaritan, if ever there was one.

Cousins Reunite after Sixty Eight years Silence

In June 2010 I took it on myself to accompany I my 84 year old father on the six hour train journey, to visit his first cousin. Would my father behave and keep any familial prejudices to himself? I had wrapped this potentially over-ambitious, ambivalent pilgrimage with much prayer and a small measure of pessimism.

We eventually arrived at St Cross Hospital, Winchester. Gordon was waiting just inside his open porch, sheltering from rain at his ecclesiastical-looking, wooden front door. He waved from the distance. Finally these cousins shook hands firmly after 68 years of silence. They both nervously laughed, probably lost for the appropriate words….

The following day I left the two of them alone. They talked and walked, with walking sticks, along the water meadows beside the Itchen River, towards Winchester Cathedral. There was much catching-up to be accomplished in just two days, both probably realising that such a meeting may not be repeated, at their ripe age.

The two “greybeard cousins” came closer to each other over those two days. On the morning of our departure, we three Hemmings’ stood in Gordon’s dwelling, holding hands in an unbroken circle and prayed in our different ways. When it comes to slipping the mortal coil, my father might just go a little happier into that “gentle night” than previously…

Unexpected Funeral

My father still lives but Gordon died nine months later, just before an all-family reunion. At his funeral things were made quite awkward by his family. There were deep cultural misunderstandings. In Ireland, funerals are almost a social occasion. It seems that in England, not so. We were not encouraged to have a brief meeting of Gordon’s family, prior to the funeral. As it awkwardly turned out, both families had lunch in the same local pub. I bumped into un-named, unknown male relatives in the toilet…To say that was embarrassing would be an understatement…

After the funeral there was further etiquette awkwardness. We had wanted to be welcomed, especially with us being the family members who actively re-connected the long-lost cousins. Wasn’t I the person who had re-introduced the long-lost cousins, much to their father’s relief and delight?

Some of Gordon’s grandchildren kindly interacted with us after the funeral. Only one other person spontaneously connected with us over tea and biscuits. He was the old scholars web-site contact who had supplied Gordon’s phone number to me, nine months before.

An Unusual Coda

That man was the key speaker at Gordon’s funeral. And what’s more, he introduced my wife to some pertinent contacts a few weeks later. Those significant contacts would incredibly connect her with three of her previously-unknown “missing” cousins! You couldn’t make up such strange happenings…

Liz has met up with them all. One of them died a few years later. That’s her story to one day tell.

How strange these two weirdly connected genealogical sagas. They are both almost biblical family dramas, with such generous redemptive backstories…Serendipity or predestined? You be the judge. God, or circumstances, looked kindly on my emotionally battered family and brought a top-up blessing by letting Liz find relatives that she never knew she had…

 

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