Blaxhall, Suffolk: The 30-year quest to explain the mystery of little Albert’s father
LITTLE Albert Jex had the kind of start in life you wouldn’t wish for a child. The product of a mysterious and hushed-up liaison, he was taken under the wing of the Dr Barnardo’s charity at the age of three because his mother was blind and had no way of earning a living.
Very quickly he found himself welcomed by a lovely foster family and enjoying a happy childhood deep in rural Suffolk. But, just before he turned 14, came more upheaval. Albert was among the 30,000 or so British youngsters dispatched to Canada between 1880 and the Second World War to work on farms and forge a new life for themselves.
There was, it’s true, a sense of adventure about leaving. His mother was on the quayside to bid farewell and a band played Till We Meet Again – a popular song whose chorus finished with Every tear will be a memory, So wait and pray each night for me, Till we meet again.
It was the last time he saw his mother.
And what of his father? Though Albert overcame prejudice on the other side of the Atlantic, married and raised three children of his own, he died never knowing the identity of his father.
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It was a mystery that niggled at daughter Dorothy, who was an adult before she realised there was this gaping hole in her dad’s family history. For 30 years she painstakingly pieced together the puzzle – banging her head against the brick walls of ignorance, deliberate silence and institutional obstruction. Finally, one day, she was able to sit back and see the full picture.
This, then, is the story of Albert George Jex.
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ALBERT’S mother, Alice, was born blind and lived with parents George and Lydia north of Norwich. She had brothers and sisters close by, and a sister – Minnie – in Essex. But then life became turbulent.
“One relative told me they thought Alice went to visit a sister and help when she was having her baby. There were more children in this family, so Alice would help look after them – also, that her sister died soon after,” says Dorothy Shier, Alice’s granddaughter and Albert’s child.
“When Alice returned home a few months later she was pregnant. Alice, her parents and close family members helped to raise Dad, but Alice’s mother died and her father became ill and also died.
“Alice had no income; she was totally dependent on her parents – thus had no way of caring for my father.”
The family helped arrange for Albert to be taken in by Barnardo’s, aged just three and a quarter years. “He was there two days and then sent to live with a foster family named Row, at Blaxhall.” It’s a spread-out village in the wilds between Wickham Market and Snape, in east Suffolk. “They were kind to Dad and treated him like their own.”
Alice went to live at an institute for the blind. Her relatives would collect her and take her back to Norfolk at Easter, Christmas and other occasions.
When Albert was 12, Barnardo’s wanted him to get ready to go to Canada, but Mrs Row somehow got the trip stopped.
But, approaching the age of 14, he was again called. “Mrs Row wrote a letter telling the organisation how very much she wanted to keep Dad but they thought it was for the best for him to leave the country and start a new life.”
Along with more than 100 boys and 60-70 girls Albert boarded the SS Melita with his Barnardo’s trunk, Bible and clothes, and left England, landing in Canada on his birthday – April 15, 1923.
He went to Jarvis Street, Toronto, and was collected by Talmage Bryan, who took him to his farm in Brock Township, “where Dad was to do his indenture for the next three years. Talmage kept dairy cows and was one of the first farmers to start shipping and hauling milk.
“There were many Barnardo boys in this area and they all became good friends. Dad went to school and really resented being called a ‘Home Boy’.”
Whereas some new arrivals were apparently ill-treated or even abused over the years, Albert fell on his feet. He stayed with the farmer until he was 16 and then did two more years simply because he liked being there.
Talmage enjoyed showing cattle, Jerseys, and trained his English worker in the art. “At one competition he gave Dad the money he had won, and Dad said he had enough to buy himself a new pair of overalls!”
Later, Albert moved perhaps five miles north and got jobs on other farms. He fell in love with Marion Wood and married in 1934, against the wishes of her father and the whole neighbourhood: Don’t marry him, he’s just a Home Boy.
“In this neighbourhood all the girls were given a quilt when they got married, but not my mother; for she was marrying a ‘Home Boy’.”
Dorothy tells the EADT: “That really bothered me when Mum told me. I didn’t believe a community could be that cruel – especially when Mum was an only child. Her mother had died in childbirth with her sister, and they didn’t really have very much, but they didn’t want her marrying Dad and the community did not give her a quilt.”
The newly-weds bought a farm of 50 acres and Albert had a variety of jobs, including driving a big truck. They had a son and two daughters.
“I always asked questions of my father, trying to find out about his family, but he never said very much,” says Dorothy, who was born in 1945 and lives in the Canadian province of Ontario.
He did, though, often muse “I want to go back home . . .” so in the early 1970s Dorothy and her father flew to England. It was Albert’s first and only trip back to the land of his birth. They visited Jex relatives in Norfolk and also went to Blaxhall.
It was only after returning to Canada that Dorothy – herself an adult –realised her dad had no idea about the identity of his father. She began writing to Barnardo’s.
“I was really discouraged. They said it was in our best interest if we did not know, but after many, many tries in 1991 I got the information I was seeking. By this time my father had passed away (Albert died in 1987). Still, I was very grateful for what they sent me’ I had information on ‘My Family’.”
Actually, it was some information – not the full story – and still there was the mystery about Albert’s father.
A lady called Collette Bradford had become head of Barnardo’s After Care and it was under her guidance that papers were finally being released to families.
There was a surprise for Dorothy nearly a decade later when, in the early summer of 2000, she met Collette and showed her what she had been given. “She said that I had not received the original papers which I was entitled to.
“She called Barnardo’s while still in Canada, telling them to send all the original papers on my father. I was again surprised there was more information: three pictures of my father – one when he was admitted, another when they shaved off his hair, and the third when he sailed for Canada – plus more personal information and his health record.”
Amazingly, there were details about Albert’s father, “telling his name and (that) he was of bad character”.
Dorothy probed for more, even hiring people in England to do some digging, but largely drew a blank. Then she received a letter from a distant relative in England who was interested in Jex family history.
These relatives spent hours searching for information, and just before Christmas, 2001, Dorothy received an astounding email: her Dad’s father was Minnie Jex’s husband Walter – meaning that Albert’s father was technically also his uncle, by marriage.
Alice had become pregnant by her brother in law.
“I was happy and sad at the same time. I did not want to believe this but when I held their marriage certificate in my hands (Walter’s and Minnie’s) I knew it was true.”
Further digging showed Minnie had died in 1907, two years before Albert was born, which meant at least that Alice’s baby hadn’t been fathered while her sister and Walter were together.
It also emerged that Alice can’t have been looking after her dead sister’s children, since there were no surviving offspring at that time.
Albert, it appeared, was Walter’s only living child, though for some reason he did not want him or want to take care of him.
“There was a court case,” Dorothy reveals. “Alice was trying to get help to look after Dad but I don’t think she understood everything in the court case. She couldn’t read, but she signed a form saying she had given consent for the sex act. More than likely she didn’t know what she was signing, but as soon as she signed that, well, it was thrown out of court and Walter didn’t have to support his son; he didn’t have to pay anything.”
It appears Walter was airbrushed from history and the Jex family never talked about what had happened.
“When Dad and I came over in the ’70s I asked a couple of the older ones that remembered him as a little boy, but as soon as I asked they clammed right up.
“It wasn’t until I got back home that I realised Dad was using his mother’s surname. That’s when I realised and asked him, and he told me he didn’t know. Up until then, any time I asked about his father, he told me he’d died at sea. I just accepted that – until I realised he did not know who his father was.”
As a girl, she’d seen his trunk and knew he was a Barnardo’s boy. “He talked about it a little bit. I knew he’d come from England, but it wasn’t until I realised that he didn’t know who his father was that I became almost obsessed with finding the family.”
For Dorothy, then, the mystery was finally solved. For her dad, the last piece of the puzzle had arrived too late.
Albert had been happy for her to dig, and was interested in the snippets that emerged from time to time, “but we just didn’t get enough quick enough”.
DOROTHY Shier is content in knowing her father enjoyed a good life in Suffolk with Ephraim and Jane Row, and later in Canada. She has letters sent back and forth between Albert and his mother, and correspondence from Blaxhall, that tell how it was.
During his one and only visit back to Suffolk, in the 1970s, Albert and his daughter found Acorn Cottage, the Blaxhall house where he lived as a fostered child.
“On that trip he was really happy. We just let him walk around, and he’d talk a little bit; put his hands behind his back the way Englishmen walk, and walk around the church.”
Albert said the cottage hadn’t much changed in nearly 50 years. “He talked about the barn, about a rooster that gave him a hard time, and he talked about the farmer. I think he had a real good childhood.”
Young Albert had liked to draw and remembered going to a farm, where the farmer gave him paper and crayons to use.
Dorothy has been in Blaxhall herself this past week, during a busy nine- or 10-day stay in England that saw her based in Norfolk with relatives. It was her fourth visit over the years and allowed her to experience once more the rural landscape where her father spent most of his childhood.
So what was Albert like?
“Dad was happy. He loved to sing. He really liked his cattle; he didn’t care too much to work the ground with horses; he had a tractor really early.
“He worked hard. He could fix anything. If something went wrong with the car he would bring all the parts in on the kitchen table and make up anything to get it going. He was just a happy person – a great dad. And he loved his grandchildren. He would take them to soccer practice and steam shows.
“I don’t think he was ever sad. I think he had a good life with the Rows. The picture I have of him as a little boy, when he was put in Barnardo’s, you can see he was frightened – he’s wondering what’s going to happen – but when he’s coming over to Canada you can see he’s happy. He doesn’t have a smile on his face, but he doesn’t have that scared look in his eyes.
“The neighbours, if they talk about him, will say they’d hear him whistling out in the yard. When he passed away, one of the neighbours said ‘I’m really going to miss that whistling as he went to the barn.’”
DOROTHY doesn’t blame Barnardo’s for sending children to Canada – there was the prospect of a better life than England could in many cases offer.
“It’s wonderful they’re still doing so much good work for children who need help. And I have to keep saying: if it hadn’t been for Barnardo’s, my father would not have been alive. There’s no way. She (mother Alice) was blind and he was just a little baby. They would have been in a workhouse or on a street corner.
“The thing that upset me is why did they pick some (information) and send to me, and not all of it? What right did they have to hold some back? Anyway, that was the way it was. I don’t know how they picked what to send.”
Dorothy’s well aware of the comfort that the charity’s subsequent openness from the 1990s onwards has brought to other “home children”. The quest for information became a hot issue as many of them reached retirement age and wanted to claim pensions, but did not have birth certificates or other key details.
The efforts, commitment and empathy of Collette Bradford, from Barnardo’s, really helped unlock the door, says Dorothy. People were able to get their records and move forward.
She remembers Collette noting information about a neighbour, who was looking for details about his mother. “This was probably early in the spring, and he called me at the Christmas-time and said ‘Dorothy, I’ve got the best Christmas present I ever have received.’” It was a package of information from Barnardo’s about his mother.
Some people, she says, had for years known nothing about their background. “They’d been put into Barnardo’s care as babies and the family never got in touch again.”
She herself assists where she can. “I’ve helped some. I helped put a brother and sister together. They hadn’t seen each other in 80 years. It’s such a tremendous feeling to bring them together and see that – something I’ll never forget.”
Today, she points out, it’s reckoned that one tenth of the Canadian population is descended from “home children”.
“It’s a miracle that so many home children survived, but they did survive. We need to give thanks to them and tell them how proud we are of them. They helped to make our great country what it is today.”