18 January 2022
How can a hundred-year-old full stop give you a lump in your throat?
How can a tiny, pressed, precise circle of ink say more about a family than the entire household census schedule?
When you know the feeling behind it.
When the 1921 Census was released on January 6th there were two people I wanted to look up above all others:
My lovely nan, who was 13 years old when the census was taken on June 19th 1921, and my husband’s grandfather John James Murphy, aka ‘Jim’, who was just three weeks old.
It wasn’t without some anxiety that I searched for baby Jim, as we knew he was adopted. In fact, we know from his very own hand that he believed he was adopted shortly after his birth; from a cherished set of memoirs that he started to write to his grandson in 1999, but sadly never finished.
Would I find him with his birth mother? Would I find him in the care of an institution or a church? These were the days before formal adoption and we didn’t really know the full story. Indeed, neither did he.
You see, Jim had been told all along that his adoptive parents had met his birth mother on a ship travelling to the UK from Ireland. The implication was that she was a young girl who had got herself into trouble and so, desperately wanting a child themselves, they offered to adopt the baby. It was only when Jim sent for his birth certificate when he was in his 70s that he found it contained his birth mother’s name – Edith Mary Pike.
I spent years searching for Edith. How many hours, days, weeks did I spend scouring Irish census records, passenger records, any records, looking for a young Irish girl who had got herself in the family way? We even named a rose in our garden ‘Edith Spike’ in honour of this elusive lady.
Having finally persuaded my husband to take the test in 2016, we huddled together on my desk chair to look at the results when they came through. My wildest hope was perhaps to find a link, however small, to the Pike family. And maybe some Irish in the DNA ethnicity estimate. The Irish was there, all 8% of it, and the top match looked to have a common ancestor. “Oooh,” I said, “you share an ancestor with this person! Who could it be?” and clicked the link.
Up popped the name Edith Mary Pike.
You know that feeling when time stands briefly still? We both stared at the screen in shock.
Then I became aware of a loud screaming.
It was me.
I’m really not exaggerating when I say I spent at least 48 hours shouting with joy, exclaiming ‘I can’t believe it!’ like a younger, happier and female Victor Meldrew. I phoned everyone I knew to tell them. O joy unbounded!
We hadn’t just found Edith Mary Pike, but several messages to the genetic match revealed a whole set of lovely half cousins for my mother-in-law!
What was odd was that Edith was not Irish in the slightest. She wasn’t even young. She was 39 years and 9 months when she gave birth to Jim in 1921. Not only that, but she had had several other children previously, all illegitimately.
So what did I expect to find when I searched for Jim on the 1921 Census? I half thought he might be with Edith still, but he wasn’t. At just three weeks old, he was already with his adoring adoptive parents, Mr. and Mrs. Murphy; a childless couple in early middle age.
But childless no more.
On the 4th census of his life, at the age of 43, James Murphy was able to write that he had a child.
Just one. But what a precious one.
So precious and wanted, that you can feel the pride as he wrote 1 in the ‘total number of living children’ box and followed it by a full stop.
It was a mike drop right there. How incomplete must they have felt up to that point? Now it was a case of, go on then, ask me again how many children I’ve got. One. I’ve got one. Boom. Period.
I really hope in my heart that they didn’t then witness the savagery with which the jobsworth enumerator ruined the moment by crossing out that special number one, because technically Jim wasn’t their natural son or stepson. But they had their moment of pride and I’m immortalising it right here on this page.
What was Edith doing as this significant moment of chirography played out a few London streets away? I found her living alone in the address she gave on her son’s birth certificate: 9 Emmett Street, Poplar, where she worked as a caretaker for Messrs G. J. Holloway & Co, consulting metallurgists and assayers.
Jim had a very happy childhood with the Murphys, though it wasn’t without tragedy. His adoptive mother Isabella Murphy sadly died when he was 10 years old, after which his adoptive father James Murphy had to go to court in order to legally adopt him. Fortunately, it was successful, and the adoption order was made on the 16th May 1933. I like to think of the fight he was prepared to put up in order to keep his only child.
As for Edith’s other children, all of whom were under 16, they were scattered across several homes at the time of the 1921 Census. She had had seven children in total, yet for reasons known only to herself, she just put a 3 in that box for the total number of children. No full stop this time. And in the ages row, she selected 6, 8 and 12. No mention of the son she had given birth to only three weeks earlier and whose birth and absence she must have still physically felt in many ways.
One could be tempted to dismiss this as heartless, but was the truth just too painful? Or was she being honestly practical – some of those children now belonged to other people, perhaps she felt she didn’t have the right to claim them as hers.
We have wondered over the years whether Edith and the Murphys had come to some sort of surrogacy arrangement. Pondered indeed whether James Murphy was in fact the natural father, but the DNA of my mother-in-law (who has since tested) currently shows no evidence of this.
A final point of interest on the Murphy’s 1921 household census schedule is the column where they were to write if the child’s parents were still alive (the government was interested in how many children were orphaned or who had lost a parent in the recent global conflict and flu pandemic). The Murphys had left this blank, but the cold, hard, calculating enumerator, who crossed out the 1 and its full stop, wrote ‘both dead’.
I suspect this was a later assumption on his part, as the Murphys always told Jim they’d met his mother. I can’t imagine they would have overseen the enumerator writing ‘both dead’ in that column, which makes me feel better about the crossed-out number 1.
I like to imagine the document left their hands and their house in the original state it was filled in.
With that glorious full stop.
John James Murphy (1921-1999)
Ancestry. Shared Matches. https://www.ancestry.co.uk/dna/ : accessed 18 January 2022.
Census records. England. Poplar, London. 19 June 1921. MURPHY, James Charles (head). RD 22/2. ED 17. SN 183. https://www.findmypast.co.uk/ : accessed 18 January 2021.
Census records. England. Poplar, London. 19 June 1921. PIKE, Edith Mary (head). RD 22/3. ED 10. SN 391. https://www.findmypast.co.uk/ : accessed 18 January 2021.
National Archives (Great Britain). What’s interesting about the 1921 Census? https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20s-people/the-1921-census/whats-interesting-about-the-1921-census/ : accessed 18 January 2021.