If you can’t believe your father, who can you believe?
Bessie Estelle (my grandmother) and her younger sister Lily were orphans from the poverty-plagued east end of London. Their mother died when Bessie was eight, their father abandoned them when she was ten. The sisters were left adrift in a world where even their identities were illusionary, as it turned out. As a result, probing Bessie’s history was a challenge.
I had a note from my father showing that Bessie’s mother was Sarah Billingshurst, who’d had children by her first husband Mr. Hutchins as well as with her second, William Estelle. The Billingshurst name was confirmed by Lily’s marriage license which showed her mother’s maiden name.
I found Bessie and Lily’s arrival cards to the U.S., dated 1911, in which Bessie and Lily identified the orphanage they came from in Canada. That too was useful information. The cards also identified their “race” as French. I remembered that Bessie, many years later, told me that her family was from France.
So that was a start:
✔ Merry orphanage in Canada
✔ Father an Estelle
✔ Mother a Billingshurst
✔ Family from France.
However, like a driver in winter, I couldn’t find traction with the information and was spinning my wheels trying to research the family on line. Finally, out of desperation I wrote the Barnardo’s organization, who’d inherited the Merry orphanage records, to ask if they had any information on Bessie Estelle. Their answer was yes, they have a record of Bessie Estall. And that was when the wheels finally hit pavement.
Apparently some time after arriving in Canada, Bessie’s surname evolved from Estall to Estelle. That’s not unusual, as many European names were changed when they landed on North American ears. Estall (‘es-til) and Estelle (es-‘tell) are quite similar.
But I was still stuck on the Billingshurst and the French heritage angles until my sister found an Estall family tree on line and suggested I look into it. That proved to be a turning point, thanks to the amazing work of Mark and Kim Baldacchino.
So where did Bessie’s mistaken ideas about her origins come from? The only way I can account for them is that Bessie’s father likely lied to her.
Kim Baldacchino told me she thinks Bessie’s mother was a prostitute. Given that Bessie’s mom had three children out of wedlock before marrying William Estall and that she frequently changed residences around the east end of London — making stops in the poor house to have her children — is pretty convincing evidence for the argument. Bessie’s mother turned out to be Sarah Hutchings, and she had her first three children under her maiden name, which was Hutchings, not Billingshurst.
I can only guess Bessie’s dad suggested the Billingshurst maiden name to the kids to hide the fact that Bessie’s half-siblings were illegitimate. Or maybe he said it jokingly, giving his down-on-her-luck wife a name that had a ring of class to it. Whatever the reason, the naïve children took it as truth and believed throughout their lives that their mother was a Billingshurst.
And the idea that the family was French? Well, there’s a story that may or may not explain the notion.
Before William Estall married Sarah Hutchings he lived with a married woman named Sarah (nee Whitmarsh) French. French had two young children by her husband, to which William Estall added a pair for good measure. William, however, didn’t stay around, leaving his two children for Sarah French to raise when she reunited with her husband.
William Estall and Sarah Hutchings had eight children to raise and were eking out a living in the slums of the East End until Sarah was killed by meningitis at age 39, and William turned to the poor house for help. When he and the children got out a couple of years later, it appears William took his kids to live with their half-siblings in the Sarah French household. I can almost hear him now, “C’mon, kids, I’m takin’ ya to live with yer French family.” How was a ten-year-old Bessie to know that this referred to their name and not their nationality? But that wasn’t the worst part. William apparently abandoned the children there as they ended up at the neighborhood poor house. Bessie lived eight of her formative years in London workhouse schools and infirmaries.
The moral of this story is that fathers harm their children when they lie to them, whether intentionally or out of sarcastic humor. When parents lie they steal their children’s innocence, and in this case, their identities as well.