Madame Guillotine – Who Do You Think You Are?!

23 September 2010

This post could just as easily be called ‘How to make a Ripperologist VERY VERY happy’ for reasons that will soon become clear.

As I have mentioned before, older members of my family talk about how the entertainment maestro Val Parnell was a cousin of one of my great great grandmothers and used to visit her frequently, which means that his father, the ventriloquist, Fred Russell was also related in some way. I’ve never had any reason to doubt this but thought it would be fun or at least interesting to dig a bit deeper into this story and see what the connection actually is, also I am always keen to learn more about my London family.

I was very, very lucky to be able to enlist the help of the amazing geneologist Luke from Kith and Kin Research, who set to work with astonishing cheerfulness and speed to trace my origins. It was enormous fun and also personally really interesting for as regular readers of this blog will know, I have always felt a huge connection to the East End of London and in fact consider it to be the place that I feel the most at home.

First of all Luke traced the family of my grandmother, who was born in Bermondsey in 1935 and who grew up in the East End during the Second World War. She had loads of stories about that time and especially the period when she and her siblings were evacuated to Woking and their mother moved out there too and used to host card parties for the German Prisoners of War who were set to work on the local hop farms.

My grandmother’s parents were Stanley Lee and Olive McDermott. I don’t remember Stanley as he died when I was a baby but I do recall Olive as we used to come down to London to visit her. There’s a story that I once, as a toddler, attempted to throttle her but I don’t know how true that is.

Olive’s parents were Frederick McDermott and Ivy Granger who got married in Bermondsey in 1910. I’ve heard lots of stories about Ivy, or Granny Mac as she was known to her family. She was apparently a terrifying redheaded woman who wielded a steel nit comb with appalling ferocity. Apparently she was also Irish but seeing as she was born in Deptford, I don’t think that can be right!

We then switched to the family of Stanley Lee, who lived around the Poplar area of the East End. Luke hasn’t been able to find the Parnell connection yet but apparently the Parnell/Russell family lived in the exact same area and in fact got married at the same church, Saint Saviours, as my family did which suggests that a my great great grandmother may have been an honourary aunt rather than actual one although we don’t know for sure yet!

Luke ended up looking more closely at the family of Stanley Lee, as I wanted to know where he lived and grew up. His parents were Alfred, who was born in Shadwell near Wapping in 1877 and Charlotte Elizabeth Morley, who got married at Saint Saviours in Poplar on 4th June 1900 before settling at 93 Sussex Street. Charlotte Morley was a local girl and had been born on 23rd March 1878 at 12 Sabbarton Street, Poplar, although her family seem to have originally hailed from Cambridgeshire.

Stanley was born in 1910 and a year later he appears in the records, living with his parents at 115 Croydon Road, Plaistow. I love this so much – this idea of my great grandfather, who I never got to meet being a baby himself. I can imagine him now dressed up in an elaborate white lace concoction with matching bonnet, frowning furiously at the census taker as his mother bounces him on her hip.

Sadly, Luke then found a record of Stanley’s father, Alfred William Lee dying on the 13th December 1918 at just 41 years of age. He died at home in London but the death certificate states that he ‘died of wounds’. He went out to France in 1915 with the Royal Field Artillery and presumably was grievously injured while there. His name is on a memorial in Woodgrange Park Cemetery, East Ham. I think I would like to see it for myself one day.

And this is when it got really exciting on Twitter!

KithandKinUk: And you may be interested to know that Stanley’s grandfather, David William Lee, appears to have been a police sergeant!

Me: Wow! But that would be back in um the 1870s? Oooh, maybe he was one in 1888?! PLEASE let him have been a police man then! Lie if you must.

Me: OMG I think I’ve found a mention of him on Casebook (JTR site) David Lee Police Sergeant H Division 1866!

Me: http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/h-division-personnel.html He was there! Oh my God. Am SO over excited. I may just actually faint.

KithandKinUK: NO BLOODY WAY!?!?!

It was all very tense as Luke checked the facts to ensure that the Police Sergeant David Lee of the infamous Whitechapel H Division of the Metropolitan Police, who had been working in the area during 1888 was the same person as the David Lee from somewhere in Norfolk who was my great great great grandfather.

Thanks to Casebook, we had a year of joining, 1866 and a year of retirement, 1890 as well as a badge number so Luke was able to check all the facts out for me. It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for:

Retirement of David Lee from the Metropolitan Police: born 2nd Feb 1842 in King’s Lynn, Norfolk.’

I have to say that I have rarely been so thrilled in all my life. Just imagine the excitement of  being an amateur Ripperologist and then finding out that your own ancestor had not only been a Victorian police sergeant, which is cool enough quite frankly, but had been working in Whitechapel in 1888 and had been part of the division at the heart of the Jack the Ripper case.

If David Lee joined H Division in 1866, then he would have known Frederick Abberline, who was transfered there from N Division in Islington in March 1873 after being made an Inspector. He would also have known Sergeant George Godley, who was transferred from the Bethnal Green J Division to Whitechapel in order to help with the investigation. It’s weird though – I’m really really excited about this discovery but am also very aware that it was probably really grim for my great great great grandfather and that as one of the forty four H Division sergeants, and especially as one who had had twenty two years of service by 1888, he may well have seen some horrific sights.

So what else do we know about Police Sergeant David Lee? Well, he came from King’s Lynn (I remembered too late that I had been told quite a few times that my family had connections there) and his father, John was a sailor! Once he moved to London he seems to have moved around the Whitechapel area quite a bit, being found at at 160 Commercial Street in 1883 (by the Ten Bells!) and then 60 Johnson Street, Shadwell (by St George in the East) in 1891, just around the corner from Cable Street, where in 1936, his grandson, Stanley Lee, by then a manager at the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane and a keen socialist, took an active part in the Battle of Cable Street – during which around 300,000 socialists, communists and Jewish groups among others came together to prevent a march by Oswald Moseley’s fascist Black Shirts and in doing so, clashed with 10,000 policemen.

David was married twice, firstly to Elizabeth, who was Alfred’s mother and then again to Harriet in 1883. Besides Alfred, he also had children called Mary, Eliza, Frances, Herbert, Walter, Beatrice and David as well as numerous step children by Harriet. No wonder they had to keep moving house! Either they were outgrowing them or their children were demolishing them! It’s also probable that at some point, David and maybe his family also would have lived in one of the H Division police stations as it seems to have been usual for policemen at the time to live above the office, as it were.

No doubt exhausted by policing and controlling his brood of children, David was to die in Whitechapel in 1906 at the age of 64. Apparently his retirement records will probably contain a description of him as well as a list of all his next of kin and other such information, so I am pretty keen to have a look at them!

I haven’t yet been able to find any specific mentions of him in relation to the Ripper case but this interesting article by Frogg Moody of The Whitechapel Society gives an insight into the life and times of a fellow sergeant, William Thick of the H Division during this dark time.  It’s going to make watching From Hell and similar seem really weird from now on, knowing that there is a high chance that my own ancestor was right there in the briefing room or walking the streets of Whitechapel during those long, gloomy Autumn nights, not knowing what to expect next.

If he worked in Whitechapel for over twenty years then he will have got to know the area really well and would have been familiar with the prostitutes, slum landlords, pimps and other such characters of the district. He probably drank in the Ten Bells or maybe even my favourite pub, the Princess Alice! He may well have known the victims, at least by sight. I’m definitely going to try and find out more about him.

Many, many, many thanks to the wonderful Luke for doing all this research for me and being so charming and helpful and lovely. You really should check out his website and also brand new blog as I am sure they will be of enormous interest to all history buffs. The thing that I liked best about his investigations is the fact that he genuinely wanted us to find something amazing and then, when we did, he was really thrilled for me (and proud of himself too, I hope!), which I think is fab. I’m also impressed by how quickly he worked – I thought tracing family trees was supposed to take years and years but he got through my lot in the space of maybe a few hours!

I’m definitely a convert to the whole researching the family tree thing but as the Ancestry website continues to give me palpitations of terror, I think I will leave it to a professional like Luke for now!

Postscript: I’m still none the wiser about the family connection with Fred Russell, the ‘father of ventriloquism’ but since posting this I’ve made contact with another descendant of Alfred and Charlotte Lee who remembers Fred Russell’s funeral cortège setting off from his parents’ house and Charlotte, my great great grandmother acting as his chief mourner.

We can’t find any genealogical link though and the connection between the families has lapsed so the whole thing remains a mystery for now!