Madame Guillotine – Who Do YOU Think You Are?!

10 September 2011

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, while she herself fell madly in love with a handsome young German pilot. Her stories were amazing – they used to dress up as film stars (in their mothers’ purloined silk nightdresses) and put on shows in the streets of Whitechapel and she even remembered a plane being shot down into the garden of the stately home in Surrey that she was evacuated to.

My favourite story though is the one about how she and her friends decided that putting a stone through the letterbox of the front room (which was rarely used) would give them a whole day of good luck. After a while everyone in the neighbourhood was doing it with her mother (who may not have been particularly house proud) not realising until one evening when she happened to look into the room, saw the immense pile of pebbles blocking the door, with another just coming through the letterbox to join it.  Apparently she gave a shriek, sprinted around to the front of the house and caught a shamefaced US airman and a local girl caught in a passionate embrace on the doorstep. ‘I was just trying to be lucky, ma’am,’ he mumbled as she shooed him away. I love that story. I may have to put it in a book.

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. On the other hand, I’ll forgive her anything as she taught me loads of traditional Knees Up Mother Brown type songs when I was a little girl, complete with a rousing Cockney ‘Oooohhhh’ at the start. I think it’s thanks to her that my accent has always been more Victorian Mudlark than Aberdonian, which by rights it ought to be. Weirdly, she was also such an immense West Ham supporter that they sent a wreath to her funeral. I hope she doesn’t mind that I support Arsenal…

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 so a lot like me, then (weird fact: both my parents and then pretty much all their ancestors appear to have had red hair. Doomed, I was). Apparently she was also Irish but seeing as she was born in Deptford, I don’t think that can be right! I’ve traced her family back to the 18th century now and they all lived around the Whitechapel area, with the exception of one of her ancestresses who apparently was born in a warship off the coast by Bristol and was landlady of a pub in Bread Street in the city centre before moving to London.

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! I’m very interested in Fred though – he came from an Irish family, the Parnells, that were heavily involved in the music hall and vaudeville world but went off to become a journalist instead of following in the family trade. He eventually became editor of the Dalston and Kingsland Gazette before jacking it all in to become a ventriloquist.

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. Although I didn’t find the connection between Charlotte and Fred Russell but it seems that they must have been very close as Russell’s funeral cortège left from Charlotte’s house, with her as his chief mourner and his showbiz son, Val Parnell, who is credited with having ‘discovered’ Julie Andrews, was a frequent visitor to her children and grandchildren, who called him ‘cousin’.

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 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 although he’s considered to be a bit of a Black Sheep in our family as until very recently everyone thought he’d died in the trenches but actually he’d been injured, been sent home and then promptly went off with another woman, only to die with her at his side. His family decided to put it out that he’d died in the war and after a while no one remembered anything other until, of course, we started looking into our family history a bit more!

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: 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 living with his family in the H Division police station at 160 Commercial Street in 1883 (a wander around on Google Maps reveals that this has now vanished completely, alas) 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 and highly involved in trade union type stuff, 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 odd that David and his family lived in one of the H Division police stations but it seems to have been usual for policemen at the time to live above the office, as it were. If he was listed as living there in 1883, was he still there in 1888 I wonder?

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.

I was telling someone about the hideous embarrassment of my husband’s first cousin being some big shot music producer who wrote a lot of the Spice Girls’ first album and all of Geri Halliwell’s first solo effort as well as other things too terrible to be mentioned but which you’ve probably heard and thought ‘What is this awfulness?!’. ‘What did your family give to the world?’ the other person asked with a satirical glint in their eye. ‘Ventriloquism,’ I replied promptly (ignoring a former Prime Minister, Edward I, Robert the Bruce and the ancestor who was best friends with Bonnie Prince Charlie because, frankly, they all pale in comparison to VAUDEVILLE SUPERSTARS and 1888 coppers) before taking a slug of gin. ‘I might have known,’ was the reply.

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!

Now that I am starting work on my apparently much anticipated Jack the Ripper novel, would it be very terrible to put David and Fred into my book?

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