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


I’d always had an instinctive realisation that my family was much different to that of friends. 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 colour and clothes designer. My father was unorthodox business director, working class made good. He had recorded his own privately pressed jazz 78 record, in the Forties, a wax disc mounted on a bronze platter.

After Sunday church services, he 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 played self-composed blues tunes, haunched over the keyboard, playing tributes to revered American jazz and blues musicians: Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman. No doubt, he wished to be among their number, when the roll was called Up Yonder!

Around mid-day my mother would ring a large brass ship bell in the kitchen, to signal dinner was ready. On the radio, tuned into BBC Long Wave. The slap-stick Clithero Kid was followed by the lonesome sound of an orchestra, back-dropped by seagull-cry and crashing waves: Desert Island Discs. These were two Sunday wireless staples for my family dinners.

Family Tragedy Recalled

One particular Sunday dinner time, some music heard on Desert Island Discs upset my father. Was it Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Childhood‘? Anyway, something poignant for him…My father had experienced a private, war-time tragedy in his family.  The melody heard resurrected a remembered moment and pent-up emotion spilt out. Did someone switch off the radio, while the heartbreaking Hemmings history was tearfully told to my siblings and I? I was eight, my middle brother ten and my elder brother 12. 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 were told the paternal tragedy that my mother had long known about. My young uncle, also aged 8 when he died, had Bright’s Disease. That was an apparently-incurable, serious kidney condition.  My grandfather killed him & later on that same day, drowned himself in a local canal. Death and dread dominated that sunny Easter Monday, in 1942. This scene of despair was ironic, for a man who confidently sang of both Bach’s, and Handel’s biblical hope, in various choir-sung Oratorios.

There is a parallel, possibly apocryphal, story that adds a sense of drama to this shocking scenario. My grandfather had worked as forge hand, in The Midland Railway Locomotive Works. Apparently, he refused to spy on the powerful railway union, or so my father dramatically maintains.

Frank, my grandfather, was a slightly built man. My father claims that he was forced to change, from working in a draughtsman’s office, to lifting heavy metals in the foundry section, through his refusal to spy. If this is an accurate rendering, it effectively shafted his career prospects in his gifting, technical design. Apparently, my grandfather had also been ill, possibly with epilepsy, and also ulcers.

Family Roots Reconnected

To compound the shame and psychological violence of that murder / suicide, my paternal grandmother also took her own life, in 1957. Naturally, there was little contact with any of his remaining relatives. He had become almost an adult orphan. Very occasionally in the 1960s, my family visited Derby to visit a few relatives. Both my parents had grown up there.

Some decades later, 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 and was published in 2000. I wrote to him, thanking him for his history. I stated that some of my family were mentioned in his text. He kindly replied and informed me that some of my family members were still involved in his church.

He forwarded my letter to a second cousin of my father’s, who was a Pear Tree Baptist member. That cousin sent me a letter sometime later in 2000. I read it with interest and then filed it away. I wasn’t curious enough about my genealogy to chase up this contact. Anyway, how did I know that any of my relatives wanted to hear from this eccentrically-related cousin? My minimal contact in the year 2000  then led to a long silence.

Ten years late, my wife came across that correspondence again, as she was sorting through papers. She re-initiated contact, this time through my cousin’s wife. Both wives got very excited about us all meeting up. Both blood cousins were far more circumspect…

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

We were told of four other paternal cousins, two of whom were “whereabouts unknown”; one of whom was my father’s favoured first cousin, Gordon. He was a scholarship boy, a scholarship collegian, and graduate teacher. My father was very close in aspirational spirit and actual age to him, mere months separated them. My father & Gordon had not exchanged either letter or phone call in 68 years. Neither knew where the other lived. Neither seemed exercised to resolve this familial disconnect, either.

Serendipity or something more…?

As Liz, my wife had worked so hard on my family tree, I decided to see could I find him. If nothing else, it would possibly fill in a few gaps, were he still alive. After a few days of endless and vain Google search results, I almost gave up my quest. I hadn’t been helped by my father’s exaggerated and inaccurate job designation. He had thought that Gordon was a headmaster. However, education, of some sort, was the correct key to his profession, as it turned out. Had we even known where he lived, it would have helped…

Then bingo! I stumbled on one vital lead. One “Gordon Hemmings” had addressed The Grammarians, an Old Scholars association, in the  school he once taught in. I wrote to the old scholars webmaster with the vital family information, as to why we might be related. This retired teacher was indeed my long-lost relative. I was emailed his phone number and address. The address was highly significant: Winchester.

Our eldest son had recently started his Animal Management degree ….at Sparsholt College, in Winchester. In fact, we had made plans to visit him, prior to finding that Gordon lived in the same area.  To say that my jaw dropped would be an understatement. But then, believing the biblical narrative, of unexpected miracle, and awkward family histories, this dramatic co-incidence was hardly surprising. To those whose hope is heaven, it represents the redeemer’s smile…

It was with much encouragement from my wife, and no little trepidation on my part, that I dialled Gordon’s phone number. I waited nervously for an answer but instead got a message minder. Drat! I mumbled some garbled explanation and quickly put down the phone. I had tried and possibly failed. Was the anasphone a foil to discourage contact?

Doubts quickly took root about this family tree endeavor. Was the attempt to reconnect a big mistake? Who’s to say that such my call would even be welcomed?  My wife was writing & charting the first ever attempt at my paternal family tree. Such cousin family 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 I consider moving the conversation to offspring names and dates, should the exchange get awkward.

This time Gordon’s kindly voice answered.  Was I the person who recently phoned from Ireland? Quickly, bona-fides were established. We then conversed about our respective children’s names & ages etc. He was so grateful that even now, as I recall that dialogue, I weep…at such deep mercy springing from a very unpromising family murder / suicide saga.

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 that one-time medieval monastery,. We walked the quadrangle that led to Gordon’s modest dwelling.

He greeted us warmly, was truly grateful for our effort tracking him down, and for visiting him. We stayed two days in that locality, exchanging much genealogical information, photos and poignant chat. We introduced him to Lawrence, so as they could acquaint themselves with each other. There were so few relatives communicating with each other in my family.

We returned home, via Wales, where my father lives with his third wife. We gave him lots of photos and family material. Little official records survived apart from lurid newspaper reports. I had been trying to get any official documents, concerning the coroner’s or police reports about my family saga. One Derby council officer told me 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, were by dead. As a last shot, to try and discover pertinent missing detail, I emailed DERBY BYGONES, an online local history forum, connected to The Derby Telegraph. 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 father’s family. He filled in crucial detail, that he had obtained from his family relatives. A timely Good Samaritan, if ever there was one. More evidence of God’s care and mercy to me and mine.

Two Cousins Reunite after Sixty Eight years Silence

In June 2010 I accompanied my 84 year old father on the six hour train journey, to visit his first cousin. 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.

We eventually arrived at St Cross Hospital, Winchester. Gordon was waiting just inside his ecclesiastical-looking porch shelter, at his antique wooden front door. From the distance across the quadrangle he waved. Finally, after sixty eight years of silence, these cousins shook hands firmly. They both nervously laughed, probably lost for appropriate words….

The following day I left the two of them alone. They talked and walked, both with sticks, along the water meadows of the Itchen River, which led towards Winchester Cathedral. There was much catching-up to be accomplished in under two days. They both probably realised 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. We held hands in an unbroken circle, and prayed in our different ways, formal and informal. 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 allowed to have a brief meeting with Gordon’s family, prior to the funeral. As it awkwardly turned out, both families had lunch in the same local pub, just in different rooms. 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. We had travelled in hope. Weren’t we 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 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! Liz has met up with them all. One of them died a few years later. That’s her story to tell, one day.

You couldn’t make up such an unusual turn of events…How strange these two connected genealogical sagas intertwining. Both are almost biblical-like family dramas with such generously redemptive backstories…Simple accidental serendipity or something designed by a creator? You be the judge. I believe that God looked down kindly on my emotionally battered family. He brought top-up blessing also, by letting Liz find relatives that she never knew she had…



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