Living in South Africa, with parents whose near and far roots were firmly planted in English soil, was always going to be a bit of a schizophrenic upbringing. An old boyfriend once asked me, “are you English or are you South African?” I would answer that I was neither and both.
I am however, the product of two exceptionally strong grandmothers.
My mother’s Mum raised her virtually alone after her husband was taken ill, a result of being gassed in the trenches of two world wars and spending most of Mum’s childhood in and out of hospitals and homes. A gentle man in every sense of the word, he also managed to cram in some work, was fluent in Zulu and taught my Mum everything she knew about plants and animals before sadly succumbing to his illness when she was 10.
My father’s Mum raised her illegitimate boy in 1930’s London, with all the stigma that was around at that time.
It was always a wonder to me that (a) Millie was able to keep her boy (the clues only becoming evident with a lot of digging) and also (b) that the father’s family supported in her a way that was simply unheard of at that time (sadly, something that I only now have a clue on, years after my Dad passed – he would have been fascinated at what I have discovered).
I am a useless family researcher. Everything else seems to take up my time and it gets pushed back to the outer boundaries, the hours I spend sleepless at silly o’clock. A very good friend, so close she is family to me, is a thoroughly competent and able researcher and it is thanks to her I recently found yet another missing piece of the puzzle.
I am never going to cram all I have found into one blog post so I think I will start at the very beginning …
Frederick James Dalrymple Jenkin was born on the 27 July, 1933. His Mum, Millie Rogers, was unmarried and had been having a relationship with a married man, one Frederick William Dalrymple. Mr FWD was a pilot, with the Fleet Air Arm and he died when my father was three years old, in a crash at Biggin Hill airport, when the student he was teaching landed badly.
The Dalrymples are a well known British family, upper class, with military and navy backgrounds and privately educated. Despite this huge blot on their family name, not only did they pay for my father’s schooling, but he also spent a great deal of time with his paternal grandmother.
Millie’s background could not have been more different. She was an orphan, her parents dying in WW1, her father on the front and her mother two weeks later, of pneumonia contracted when she travelled to London to buy Christmas presents for the children.
Her father was a cobbler, attached to the army and she was born in Woolwich. Nothing is known of Millie’s life from the point her parents died to when she fell for my grandfather, except that she worked as a shoe saleswoman, and also as a stand-in model for a silent movie actress, where her hands and feet (size 3 – she was tiny) were used for close-ups.
Millie gave birth to my father at a private nursing home in Penge, South London.
It was only later that we discovered that the salient parts of this were lies.
My father had always been slightly troubled by his background. I suspect that living with a single Mum on one hand and being privately educated on the other, spending time in a large house with his grandmother and her second husband, must have been quite enlightening. It never bred any sense of entitlement in him or envy. Quite the opposite – he was a champion of people’s rights and felt for the underdog, always.
He did have some eccentricities and a taste for whisky which were hilariously and completely out of the upper class milieu in which he was partly raised and you could certainly have plonked him straight into the middle of a stately home and have him look and act completely at home.
When Dad and I attended the 90th anniversary of the founding of his school, he was like a duck in water, paddling serenely amongst all the upper class toffs whilst I got into and won an ill-advised argument about fox hunting and went to stomp off my temper in the woods attached to the school. He was very amused.
When my father was 16, Millie married and Percy Jenkin formally adopted my father. My Dad’s birth certificate was altered, according to the law’s of that time and it simply looked as if Percy had been his dad all along.
Around 2001, the laws around the secrecy of adoptions records changed and this, along with Dad’s undercurrent of unease set me off to do some digging. Dad had been in contact with the Fleet Air Arm and, by sending them photos and a precis of what he knew, had been able to confirm his father’s real name. Unfortunately, he also discovered that his Dad had been asked to leave the Fleet Air Arm, the first indication that things may not have been quite as protrayed.
This was not entirely a surprise. Millie was an adept coverer-up of the truth – she was a persistent blonde for all of her years (her natural colour was dark), my step-grandfather only discovered that she was several years older than she had said when they applied for passports to come to South Africa for a visit, in 1974, 5 years after they had married.
Always a very glamourous and dignified woman, Millie had a wild side which occasionally came out at inopportune moments. She was a smidgen under 5 foot but really did not like dustbins. On the way home from the social club she and Len helped found, a few drinks in her, she would push over all the household bins. Len would have to get up a few hours later, running around the neighbourhood, righting them all.
A stultifying day at the births, deaths and marriages section up in the City and I had found and ordered both my Grandmother’s and Grandfather’s birth and death certificates. Millie’s birthday was indeed several years before she had said and this meant hours scanning through the years, backwards from what we thought her original date had been. I admit sending a few choice words in her direction once I had found her.
Ten days later, I opened the envelope and sat down with a rather loud thud. Grandfather FWD had died at the tender age of 36, not the result of an heroic air crash at Biggin Hill during which he had tried, in vain, to wrestle back control, but of myocardial infarction brought on by syphilis.
I am not sure how I got the courage to phone Dad and tell him that his hero Dad was in fact, probably some upper middle class serial shagger.
My Dad was completely deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other. Telephone calls were okay provided the line was clear but occasionally the satellite would play up and it would sound like we were on the Titanic, post-iceberg.
This was one of those times. Dad was so excited to hear the truth and I was mortified. Eventually, because he could not understand my garbled voice from the Titanic, he yelled “a myo-what? I don’t know of any aeroplanes of that type!” I roared with hysterial laughter at that point, had to go and wipe my eyes and blow my nose and then calmly, explain what was on the death certificate.
There was a small silence on the line and then Dad said “Ah well, now we know where your brother gets his compass from”. It was a family joke that my brother’s life was directed by his “compass” – depending on which was it pointed, my brother followed.
But, seriously, how awful must it have been for my great-grandmother to lose her son at such a young age? My grandfather died on 12 July 1937. His son, my father died 12 July 2005. One of those times when I could feel the tremor of grief travelling all the way back in time and forward again.
It felt even worse when later I discovered her real identity and found that she had lost all her other children in infancy. No wonder she doted on her grandson, no matter which side of the blanket he was born.
The trail then went cold for a few years and after my Dad’s death, my grief prevented me from doing any more. I still had loads of unanswered questions, however.
We were a very eccentric family, something that only became apparent when I left home and viewed us with a clearer eye – my parents were both enormously talented. I had a complete passion as a child for Indian fabrics and culture, once exchanging some very nice clothes for two pieces of sari, to my Mum’s complete bewilderment.
We did not behave like a middle class family. My parents were ardent anti-apartheid activists in a country whose rulers loathed them. They tripped through years of harassment and fear with incredibly whimsical humour. We staged little shows for the police who filmed us, including raising our glasses at them when they parked outside our house and we happened to be having a barbeque. This normally ended with Mom and I baring our breasts.
My Mum once conducted a funeral on the roadside for a dead bed, the bed being my original childhood bed which had then been given to my brother and then my sister. She firmly believed that we should pay tribute to it. So we did. In full view of the neighbours. Yes, I filmed that too.
When I came overseas, I brought a video with me which included viginettes of our life in South Africa and ended with us all dancing on camera, the finale a can-can.
In a way, we just couldn’t have made it up. Nor could I have truly imagined what we would uncover next although there had been enough clues along the way …