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10 Jan 2022

Favourite find: my maternal grandfather

Freda with George and Alice
What a wild goose chase that was!   Family stories, handed down third hand can do that.

My mother, Freda learned at age 18 that she was adopted.  Well, sort of adopted.  There was no such process in New South Wales until 1931. However, as a six-week-old baby she was taken by her birth mother Kitty to the small country town of Dunedoo in the Central West to be brought up by an impulsive woman called Alice Smith and her much steadier husband George, a small farm holder. 

Kate (Kitty) in England
Alice and Kitty had met when Alice had given birth to a stillborn child in the Paddington Woman’s Hospital run by the Benevolent Society. Kitty had been referred to the Society when a kindly old gentleman found her crying in Belmore Park, obviously pregnant.  Kitty was a stranger in town.  She had arrived in Sydney in late February, having been gifted a passage on the Freidrich der Grosse from Antwerp.  She had been escorted there by ferry, possibly by the father of her child.  She told my mother that he had promised to follow her out after tying up his business affairs.

The baby had been conceived in Seal, Kent where Kitty had been working as a parlourmaid - the senior female servant - in a stockbroker’s house where staff were required to live-in.  Her mother, stepfather, and four half-siblings lived in the same village.

In her late 80s, Freda had told me that she wished she knew who her father was but had been too embarrassed to ask her birth mother who had kept in touch with the Smiths.  Kitty had been known to us our whole lives as a family friend.  

Kate Palmer's marriage 1918
In 1918 after working for the family of a footwear manufacturer, Kitty married a returned soldier who was a shoemaker and like her, came from Kent.  In 1922 a second daughter, Peggy was born.  Kitty died in 1970 aged 89, before I knew that she was my grandmother.

In semi retirement, about 2005, I commenced researching my father’s ancestry.   So it was 2008, planning an overseas trip, before I started researching Kitty’s life, building on the research my mother had commenced years earlier.  I presented my aunt Peggy with a 12-page story with the facts, based on records

found on Ancestry, Find My Past, and the North West Kent Family History Society.  I don’t think she was much impressed to find that not only was her half sister illegitimate but so was her mother and maternal grandmother Annie (Ashby) Palmer 1855-1935.  In fact, her mother Kitty was the product of a liaison between Annie and her half nephew!  A bit too close for comfort.

Peggy’s reaction, just months before her own death was to write thanking me in a roundabout way, saying well, it must be so since I was a qualified researcher, and passing on the information from her English aunts that my mother’s father was the “young man of the house”.

So I was keenly awaiting the arrival of the 1911 census which was for some reason made available in 2009, knowing Kate’s full name and place of birth.

1911 census at Godden Green

And bingo.  I thought I had my answer straight away.  Kate, aged 29 was working for a family called Forbes in Godden Green, a hamlet just one mile from the village of Seal.  And for whatever reason, the stockbroker’s son Nevill, aged 28 and a reader in Russian at Oxford University was at home with his parents on census night.

A Google search for Nevill was very productive.  He had written books on topics as diverse as an English-Russian dictionary, Russian textbooks, a book of Russian fairy tales, and scholarly tomes on the history of the Balkans.  He was listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography which included the information that he had studied a Ph.D. in Leipzig, Germany, and was the second Professor of Russian at Oxford from 1922.  He was also a well-known homosexual and dressed colourfully.  One could be a homosexual without fearing the consequences in the intellectual circles of Oxford and Cambridge.

Was that a possibility?  That he might father a child?  Why not, I thought.  His sister’s husband, a Cambridge-educated architect was also one but produced four daughters before he gave up all pretense of hiding his sexual preferences.

That same day, I entered his name into Genes Reunited, a popular database in 2009.    Immediately I found an exact match.  I wrote a very circumspect email stating that I thought we might be related.  Within two hours I received a response from an English-born New Zealander saying he thought Nevill was his grandfather.  His grandmother, a widow had been the longtime charwoman in Nevill’s University-leased house in Oxford.  His mother Rhoda had told him one day whilst walking past that she had lived there as a child.  Nevill had bequeathed Mike's grandmother £50 and some paintings when he died in 1929.

To Mike in New Zealand and myself, this seemed to be more than a coincidence.  Mike had been in touch with Nevill’s sister’s descendants and one was happy to reach out to us. Mike and I kept corresponding and eventually met up four times both in New Zealand and Australia over the years since.

The house post WW1

The English “second cousin”, on hearing I was planning an English solo trip wrote to the current owner of the house at Godden Green and arranged for both of us to visit.  She kindly picked me up at my second cousin Linda's house in Horsham and drove me to Godden Green.

Post 1940

In 1940 after Nevill's sister inherited the house, her architect husband removed the Gothic features including the roof.

In the meantime, I had found that Nevill's private papers had been bequeathed to the Taylor Institute at the University by his niece Felicity in 2008.

So Olivia and I caught the train from Guildford to Oxford where we examined the papers and found some of them oddly disturbing.  It included his suicide note and distressed letters between his friends and sister. He had been found bleeding in the bathtub by his servant and the summoned doctor decided not to keep him alive.  Distressing indeed.

By 2015, many family historians were taking an interest in DNA for genealogy.  Although AncestryDNA was the biggest company it had not yet rolled out its service to English or Australian clients.  So I tested with Family Tree DNA’s family finder.  Not much success there but I encouraged Mike to do a test, and paid for Olivia to test.

Guess what?  Neither of them matched me and Mike didn’t match Olivia. DNA experts state that second cousins always match, but not necessarily more distant cousins, even third cousins.  Mike and I should have had Russian cousins like Olivia did because Nevill’s grandmother was born in Russia to Scottish parents but his uncle William married a Russian journalist and had offspring.

So despite the similar stories from 1911, it was simply a coincidence. Had my birth grandmother led her sisters deliberately astray?  Neither was it beyond the realm of possibility that she thought it was Nevill.  Someone had escorted her to Antwerp at four months pregnant and had given her a travel trunk with her initials inscribed. 

So now I had to start again. I decided to look at every potential young man in the village.  The house in Godden Green was opposite a large pub so I thought she might have met a likely lad there.  Not that she was a young maid anymore.  She was 29.

I found a family with three sons of the right age.  They lived in Godden Green where their father was a bailiff but had been born at Lamberhurst, also in Kent. By this time I had uploaded my DNA to Gedmatch and found plenty of matches with ancestry from Lamberhurst.  However, although I built a mirror tree, nothing stood out to confirm a relationship.  Both my mother and grandmother were deceased, as well as my aunt so I had no one to ask.

I also built a mirror tree for the household butler who was the right age but married but because he had the highly common name Jones, I discounted that.  It didn’t occur to me to research matches with his mother’s far less common surname Windebank.

By 2017 I had tested with AncestryDNA and proved many records on my father’s side with DNA matches.  I also found many cousins on my birth grandmother’s side. Although I had only one first cousin who died childless in 2007, previous generations were well-stocked with siblings.

I have many second and third cousins on four continents and we have exchanged photos and other information to create a much more rounded picture of our ancestors' personalities, migration histories, and occupations.

It was not until 2020 that my mystery was solved.  A match popped up with 139cM in common.  It had no other common matches, unusual for that close a match.  Could it be on my maternal grandfather’s side?  However, there was no tree attached.

I sent her a message on AncestryDNA asking her if she would let me know the details of her most recently deceased ancestors on both sides of her family and giving her my email address and Facebook name.  After what seemed like an eternity, she responded with the details.

Within five minutes. I realised that her great grandfather was the butler, Henry Edward Jones, a married man, aged 28 and a father of two including a newly born daughter.  His pregnant wife and older son were living in Seal when the 1911 census was taken.  It would have been just as great a scandal in the village as it would have been for a socially mismatched pregnancy.

No wonder Kitty was persuaded to travel to Sydney, boarding the Friedrich der Grosse on Christmas Eve 1911.

It didn’t please me to find that the culprit was a married man with a young family who didn’t take much if any responsibility for Kate’s predicament.  Mind you, she would have known he was married. I later found from my newly found half first cousin once removed, Catherine that he had banished his own daughter to another county when she got pregnant outside marriage. Her son, born in Somerset was Catherine’s father.

So a hypocrite at well!  I think I would have preferred a homosexual Reader of Russian at Oxford or an unmarried banking clerk son of a bailiff as my ancestor.

Cousin Alyssa with John and me
However, my new DNA match who although English lives in the United States is a very interesting and friendly person.  I hope to meet her post-pandemic because her American-born daughter Alyssa lives here in Sydney with her Australian partner and is a part-owner of a bookshop.  We met Alyssa for lunch at Barangaroo - here is a photo.

At last I have completed my major four branches of my family and have completely filled out at least five generations of my ancestors.  However, with Jones being such a common name in Liverpool in Lancashire, I am having trouble finding my sister’s Welsh connection.  Ancestry allocates her 2% from Wales but me, not a skerrick.

So whilst Henry was not my favourite person, his tree branch is definitely my favourite find.


  1. I love all the photos! Especially that the Kate Palmer's marriage 1918 photos he is smiling! :)

    My 52 Ancestors posts are over on WordPress:

    1. thank you Anna. I too use WordPress - love it. I use both its blogging facility and its web design for my website, to which I have attached this particular blog. My last challenge was the AtoZ in April. I will check out your ladyannak blog. Margaret in Oz.

  2. Congratulations on an amazing piece of sleuthing! Very impressive; what a tangled web to unweave. It has given me hope that I may one day unravel the truth about my great grandmother's true parentage. I though I had the answer but the latest DNA match has thrown an extra spanner in the works. I agree with Anna -the photos are excellent. Well done!

    1. Many thanks Rosie. Great to get the encouragement. Margaret in Oz