26    Apr 20131 comment

Our Stories: Hidden families and an opera singer

We never know what our unique family histories may reveal, and MyHeritage member Kathleen Whitfield, 60, of the UK, is no exception.

Her childhood was spent in the UK with her parents and older brother, who lived some 250 miles from any blood relatives. Neither of the siblings ever met their father’s family or had any living grandparents they knew about.

Although they occasionally visited their mother’s sister and family in Lancashire and another sister in London, the only details they were told about their father’s family was that his Irish father was an opera singer, their father was born in London, that he had siblings, but he had lost contact with his family. Kathleen was told she was named for her father’s mother. Further, she discovered that her paternal grandmother was really Kate Constance, not Kathleen!

William C. Green, Kathleen’s paternal grandfather (Courtesy Photo)

Kathleen got “into” family history because her husband’s niece conducted fascinating research into his family.

I watched “Who Do You Think You Are” on television and decided to try to research my family as I knew so little and my parents were dead. I aimed to finish within two years, in time for my brother’s 60th birthday to surprise him. With some pointers from our niece, my search began via the Internet and the 1901 census.

During my research, I have unraveled the secret past of my father and his father. My mother had a dark family secret herself. I am sure I have found far more about both their lives and our heritage than they ever could have imagined possible.

Although Kathleen was not aware of MyHeritage until very recently, she is looking forward to uploading her Gedcom and following up on her Smart Matches.

Her wider circle of maternal cousins are very interested to learn what she has found.

My brother, who was amazed with the findings of his birthday surprise, has funded my worldwide research since then, which has led to many more amazing revelations and connections with my father’s family.

Kathleen has 463 people in her tree, which includes successive generations and siblings from her maternal and paternal lines from 1780-1950s, but not the living generations. She’s discovered new relatives in Somerset, Yorkshire, Scotland, Australia and the US, all of whom were unknown; she’s met some of them, and phoned and emailed others as they share photos and information.

Among her “finds,” Kathleen writes, she discovered that she and her brother had three half-brothers and half-sister. They met the son (of one of the half-brothers) and his family. Sadly, she learned that this half brother had been abandoned at age 4 by her father and his first wife. Two children of this first marriage had died young, one at age 6 (diphtheria), and the other in WWII. A Halifax bomber rear-gunner, he is buried in Leeming, Yorkshire in a Commonwealth War Grave.

I have yet to trace the youngest half-brother whom I discovered emigrated to Canada in the 1960s with his wife and child.

During her research, she discovered that her father’s first wife was in fact one of her mother’s older sisters (an aunt Kathleen never knew existed), so their children were also her first cousins!

Last year, a new match revealed the aunt had secretly gone on to have another child in Scotland and she also abandoned him shortly after birth.

Kathleen has spoken on the phone to the wife of that “secret child” in Scotland:

The wife was intrigued to find our father’s name listed as “husband” of our aunt (which our father was, of course) on her husband’s birth certificate. Complex or what?

And what about that Irish grandfather? Well, he was really a famous American baritone opera singer, Signor Guglielmo Verdi, known also as “Baltimore Bill.” He was not born in Ireland. Kathleen discovered he traveled the world with many well-known opera companies and sang in Italy, South Africa, Ceylon, Australia and New Zealand in the 1880s. Ironically the singer’s grandfather was from Ireland, born there in 1774 before emigrating to the USA.

Newspapers are a great resource for family history researchers, and Kathleen found this story:

Melbourne Gossip, Hawke's Bay Herald, Volume XXI, Issue 6746, 3 January 1884, Page 4 (New Zealand)

He was bit of a rogue, by all accounts. He had two or possibly three wives, the last being our grandmother. He was the eldest of eight children born in Baltimore, Maryland USA and appears to have been left by his first wife and child, who returned to America from Australia (where the child had been born) and where “Verdi” was singing. Granddad then lived a nomadic life, pursuing his operatic career around the world, eventually retiring and becoming a singing teacher and starting a second family with our grandmother in London (unknown, I believe, to his first family). His opera career is well-documented in books, newspaper articles and court cases published in Australia in the 1880s, which I found online. I eventually discovered, after five years of searching, he had registered the births of my father and his five other children born in London, under his professional surname which his wife, my grandmother, was known by until his death.

Kathleen offers four important tips to beginning researchers:

  • Keep an open mind and be prepared to find things that contradict what you may have been told.
  • Don’t judge your ancestors too harshly. Times were very different, and they must have had reasons for living the life they did.
  • Find the documents and certificates that prove the facts, then search the historical background at the time, to place your ancestors in context.
  • Enjoy the journey with all the twists. Embrace your heritage whatever it turns out to be.

Thank you, Kathleen, for sharing your story with us.

Did you enjoy Kathleen’s journey? Let us know in the comments below.

Have a story to share? Email it to stories@myheritage.com

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Comments (1) Trackbacks (0)
  1. lovely story well done

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