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March 17, 2017

Elsie Markham, A Courageous Woman Whose Secrets Were Revealed with DNA

Elsie on her way to Canada 1913
Elsie Phyllis Markham had no idea of the tragedies she would experience when she was born 27 February 1898 in London England. On October 19 when she was just 8 months old, her 32 year old father Albert died. Her mother Edith (nee Finch) was 28 years old, a widow with three children under the age of 8. Sadly, Edith too died just one month later on November 27, 1898.

The orphans were then separated. For a brief time a neighbour tried to care for them but soon found it too much. An aunt took the children in but her husband objected so little Albert, 8 years old, was admitted to Barnardos Homes in February 1899. Although Albert Markham was not his biological father, the name and whereabouts of his actual father were not known. He had no one to care for him.

His younger brother Frederick, 4 years old, was sent to Miller's Orphanage and Elsie, not quite one year old, was taken in by an older Scottish couple.

Albert, Elsie's half-brother, was sent to Canada as a Home Child when he was 11 where he was very unhappy. He was treated like an indentured servant in his placement with an older couple on a farm. He ran away many times but was always found and sent back. Eventually he was sent to live with a family in St. Mary's Ontario - and there he was treated as a son.  With hard work and by saving every penny he made, he was eventually able to save enough to send for his two siblings. Young 15 year old Elsie arrived in Canada in September 1913 and several months later, Albert was able to be pay for Frederick's passage. Frederick arrived in May 1914.

Albert, illegitimate son of Edith Finch before her marriage, in Barnardo's Homes England
Elsie soon found work as a servant in a local home and four years after her arrival she found herself pregnant and unmarried. A few months later she married a local farmer Bristol Holden. But there was more sorrow for Elsie. On 7 April 1918 her brother Frederick was killed in action in France during WW1. 10 days after her brother was killed a boy was born to Elsie and named Herbert. Herbert, aka Bert, was my husband's maternal grandfather.

Frederick Markham in WW1
We had no idea that Bert's father was not Bristol Holden until my husband and his mother had their DNA tested.  It was then that we learned Bert's biological father was another man. Then the pieces began to fall into place. There had been a persistent family rumour that Elsie had been "fooling around with the handyman Cooper". Sure enough the DNA match that showed Bert's dad was not Bristol Holden matched a man named Cooper. His ancestry was also from St. Mary's.

After several months of intensive research, and matching DNA to another Cooper descendant, we were able to narrow the search for "the handyman Cooper" to one of two men - with the likely culprit being Gordon Alfred Cooper who lived next door to Elsie's brother. He was remembered by those whose parents knew him as a bit of a scoundrel. And that fit very well with poor Elsie getting pregnant and perhaps being deserted by her lover. In fact records indicate that Gordon did leave St. Mary's for several years. In fairness to Gordon however we don't know the facts - perhaps Elsie never told him she was pregnant.

Whether or not Bristol knew that Bert was not his son is not known. Did Elsie tell him or did she trick him into believing Bert was his? We will never know and it really doesn't matter because there is no judgement on Elsie no matter what the story was. Elsie and Bristol had, by all accounts, a happy life, and Bristol and Elsie went on to have five children - one son and four daughters.

The past is the past and the only thing I find a bit sad is that poor Elsie probably never wanted anyone else to know about her circumstances. But genealogy research is all about the truth, whatever it may be. 


Jan P said...

Thank you for sharing this amazing story Lorrine. The stories and twists and turns of real people's lives reveal so many heroes. Albert and Elsie and Frederick all seem to be able to fit that category.
I also love how you give life and meaning to their story.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Thank you Jan. I hesitated to write this story as some of Elsie's descendants did not like what my research found. But I believed that Elsie's voice needed to be heard.

I do plan on writing some other stories of individuals whose research I have been sitting on for some time. All of our ancestors deserve to have their voices heard so I will do what little I can to accomplish that.

Marianne Perry said...

Just wanted to say how much I always enjoy your blogs. Learn so much. This one was particularly interesting. Thanks for all you do. Take care.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Thanks Marianne! The kind comments encourage me to carry on.

Unknown said...

I recently submitted an autosomal DNA test to see if I could find any clues as to my maternal great grandfather's parentage. According to his daughters and granddaughters, he said he was adopted and never knew who his parents were. I am sure I will have no problem accepting whatever I find. I believe in the old adage, "The truth will set you free."

Anna Matthews said...

Very interesting post. Everyone in this family went through hardship and in the end, Elsie's story just shows that she was human. The truth is the truth even when it is uncomfortable.

hapycookr said...

I'm so glad you have photos of the three of them too! Having the photos makes you look into their faces, trying to see what they are trying to convey to the world. I'm glad you shared your story.