Genealogy: The past is a foreign place

Genealogy and pondering your ancestry


This post is something of a ramble, one more likely to interest friends and family than folk looking for more authoritative articles on the subject. It’s one of those “I was pondering this while doing the dishes” sort of things.

While the focus is on my family tree it’s a reminder that our past is lost with each generation. The heroes and knaves that shape us, influence us, and in turn influence those who follow us fade and vanish with each passing generation, each broken family. Each unmended or unmendable relationship fractures our past. Maybe it’s best, but sometimes, generations later, people want to look back and say, “I’m actually related to …”

Some people go looking to find their roots, others to look for skeletons, others hoping for a claim to fame. Mostly it’s just regular folk, but there have been TV series on the matter. For instance, a few years back I read that actor Benedict Cumberbatch is related to Richard III. Me? I’m distantly related to the Duke of Westminster, apparently! But if you go back far enough, we are all related, so it’s a moot point.

Wedding group, 1960
{ Family wedding, 1960 }

So what prompted this discourse?

It was an old photo. Well, several really. We have few pictures or connections to our family, most are estranged by actions, time, and distance, scattered to the four corners of the world. From Perth to London to Winnipeg. Many – almost all in fact – I haven’t seen or spoken to in nearly 50 years, so many are long gone.

I was thinking of my own boxes of photos, going back decades. People, friends, relatives I don’t even remember the names of anymore.

My aunty has looked into the maternal side in some depth, using ancestry sites, while I glanced towards my paternal side out of morbid curiosity, using half-remembered events and stories. My family then includes authors, war heroes, royalty; one, by marriage, even used to stand guard outside 10 Downing street! After that comes a parade of dysfunctional ne’er-do-wells my ancestors disowned!

Once in a while, an old family photo album pops up. In the movies, in dramas, it’s all, “And look, this is my great aunt Clara, I remember when…” [cut to 1920s scene]. Real-life, I suspect, is more like my experience: a parade of meaningless pictures and the occasional vague discomfort or nagging recollection.

I have no idea who these people below are, other than relatives of my grandparents (fathers side). You get to a point in your life when there is nobody left to ask. When you left it so long that they all died of old age generations back!

I can’t put a name to the faces below, though one or two feel familiar.

old sepia photo lady and child, Ackerley side
old sepia photo genteman, Ackerley side
old sepia photo woman, Ackerley side

Digging into the past: Ackerley / Phelan side

The author J.R Ackerley is a close relative of mine, apparently. He was a somewhat (in)famous writer and was noted for being openly homosexual and promoting gay rights at a time when it was a criminal offence. He worked for the BBC too, but I won’t hold that against him.

Besides being a namesake, corroborating the link gets a bit tenuous, and the further you go back, the murkier it gets. Even by the time we get to my great grandfather (dad’s side), I’m limited to an anecdotal vision of my great grandfather Harry as a one-legged coal merchant that came from money and squandered it on drink, women, and gambling. He had three sons by three women and was “a complete bastard”. However, he does seem connected to and either a brother or cousin to another of the Ackerley’s, Roger.

It’s still not a common name, and 150 years back, given they both lived in the area, they will have been related, especially given my grandad recognised him. Anyway, Roger Ackerley, also from money, was co-founder of the fruit importers Elders & Fyffes. (Yes, as in Fyffes bananas).

I tried to find out more back in the 1970’s and 80’s and got stonewalled. Last time I asked I took a copy of one of JR’s books. My granddad took one look at the photo on the back and said, “We don’t talk about that dirty bastard!” and threw the book in the bin. My nan, present, said, “Just drop it, don’t get him worked up. Let it be.”

So, how close, I don’t know, nor do I have evidence (and can’t be bothered searching further), but I got the impression Roger Ackerley was or may have been my grandad’s uncle. Not immediate family, but close. Still, IF that’s true, and following the family history for less than gentlemanly behaviour, Roger Ackerley, ‘the banana king’, had an extramarital daughter with Muriel Perry, whose daughter, Sally, later married Gerald Grosvenor – the 4th Duke of Westminster.

So, if I have the connection right, JR Ackerley may well have been my granduncle and by extension, his half-sister Sally Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster would have been my great aunt. A rather grand aunt.

As for my grandmother’s side, I have almost nothing. I know she was from Dublin and her family raced greyhounds, but little else. I understand she didn’t get on with her father and moved away to Glossop, later meeting and marrying my grandfather. I did meet one or two of her sisters when I was younger, but they moved to Perth, and I haven’t seen or heard of them since they last visited in the 70’s.

So, these days, that entire side of my family is down to one cousin.

Maternal White (MacLeod) / Percival side

My aunt knows this side a lot better, but I remember scraps, made a few notes over the decades. But again, the story is the same.

On the maternal side, I know absolutely nothing about my great grandfather and all I know about my great grandmother is she had a lot of kids, and neither she nor they were very nice people. The story I have is they were originally French (or living there) and a century or two back fled persecution in France, settling in Ireland for a spell, then moved to Flint, Wales, then to England around the early 1900’s -ish.

My grandfather died before I was born, so I never met him, though I have connected with a few of his (my) relatives in Canada. Bit hazy here, but either he (or his parents) were originally Scottish, and of clan MacLeod. As my nan’s family were migrating from France to England, his were moving from Scotland to Ontario, Canada.

Of all the many relatives on the maternal side, at least at the grand level, I have only met one, ‘uncle’ Bill, or more correctly granduncle. I remember he played chess with me when I was a toddler, but the rest is muddled.

Most of the rest are either disowned a century gone, or scattered across Canada.

My grandmother was an author, pianist and songwriter. Notably, she told me, she sent one of her songs to a then-unknown South-African (Roger Whittaker), who promptly stole it and released it as a hit single, claiming he wrote it. Others did the same, sadly. I still have her book and some of her poems, some of which are poignant and remain relevant generations on.

Sheila White, Thats how it was

One of her tales – not fully told in her book – was a story of love, loss, and conspiracy level government cover-ups. My grandfather, pictured below, was an ‘ace pilot’. A Canadian assigned to the Halifax 100, he flew in the Battle of Britain. Later, he went on to be a test pilot for the Canadian Airforce. And it killed him. But it’s never that simple, is it? The version I was told went like this:

A Dutch diplomat was visiting the base (Claresholm) and while there his son was caught ‘tampering’ with one of the jets. It was checked out, cleared and … the next time out it stalled while on approach over the town. My grandfather had two choices: eject and live but watch the experimental(?) plane crash into the middle of town. Or remain in the cockpit and try to miss the town. His best friend and mechanic (a sergeant) was blamed and court marshalled, and to keep it quiet, to their shame, the RCAF bundled my nan, mum and aunties on a transport plane and deported them, dumping them in a RAF base near Manchester, England and left them to manage on a widow’s pension.

The cruel irony? Because it was all covered up, they never officially arrived here and had no papers. Some years later the Home Office tried to deport one of my aunties as an illegal immigrant.

{ RCAF Flying Officer William Frederick ‘Chalky’ White (Grandad) }

{ Grandad ‘Chalky’ White (original lost) }

And here we are!

Author, Penticton, 1986
{ Thanks for dropping by! Cheers ~ Ack }

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