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Adopted? Starting the Search for Your English Birth Ancestors

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Written by Nikki Paine

I was born in 1962 in London and placed with my adoption family six weeks later. I was told I was adopted when I was 5 and my adoptive mother was pregnant with her second natural child. As I got older I began to think more about my birth parents, picturing them in their mansion with a swimming pool, just waiting for me to knock on their door. With adulthood came the strong desire to find out about my heritage. Who was I really? Where did I come from? What were my roots? I had wanted to be a nurse and live in Ireland, why was this? This is the tale of how I became addicted to genealogy.

In my late teens, with my father’s support, I contacted the Catholic adoption agency that had handled my adoption and was given brief details about my birth parents. I was told their names and that my mother was unmarried, resulting in my birth mother being admitted to a Catholic mother and baby home. I was informed she had no family support in England as she was born in Ireland and her parents had died when she was young after which she had been brought up by family friends. She had then gone on to be a nurse! A coincidence? Who knows. I was also given my original birth name, the first name of which is too horrendous to tell, but the surname was O’Brien, not exactly rare.

Armed with these details I obtained my birth certificate and also that of my mother’s. Two surprises, firstly, although the adoption agency had given me the name of my birth father, he was not listed on the birth certificate (I should have realized this would be the case, but I was younger then and naive) and secondly my birth mother was also illegitimate, and that from the information the certificate provided she was probably born in a mental institution outside of Dublin where many single mothers were admitted in the 1930s with little chance of being released. Accepting the facts that my birth grandmother’s name was just too common to trace at the time, I focused on my birth father’s family. I accepted he was my father as I saw no reason for my birth mother to lie; she had informed the agency of being in a relationship with him for about six months.

I started with his birth to discover the maiden name of his mother and proceeded to find the marriage of his parents. I went on to uncover a family history that contained no mansions or palaces. Instead I discovered a long line of coal miners, on the backs of whom Industrial Britain was built. Rather than a palace my great grandfather lived at Number 6, Bog Row, in Houghton-le-hole in County Durham and I am proud of him, his/my coal mining ancestors and my northern roots. My adoptive story currently finishes with the discovery of two pictures of my birth mother. Each year I do a Google search with her name and town. For many years there were no results but in 2013 the search returned a news story on a council run winter warmer event. With shaking fingers I clicked on the link and then scrolled down the article. Not only did it mention her name but it also included a picture. I sat staring at the screen with tears running down my face. This was my mother!

A year later following what appears to be an annual event, a newspaper article held another picture. I look nothing like her and can now look at the picture dispassionately. I just wish I had a picture of my birth father. So what lessons have I learned that I can share. Firstly, don’t believe everything you are told, secondly double check the facts. Ensure you source original documentation where possible. Know that most adoption agencies will only give records pertaining to you, not to your mother. If the adoption agency that handled your adoption has closed, turn to the local county council to see if they hold these records. If they don’t they should know who does.

A second port of call is the courts. Try the courts that were close to the adoption agency or close to where your adoptive parents lived at the time of your adoption. Thirdly in the UK there is an Adoption Contact Register held by the General Registry Office; a quick Google search will give you information on how to register and the small costs involved. This register was designed to put birth families back in touch with each other, should they wish to make contact.

Fourthly, take your time. Each step can come as a shock and needs to be accepted. It can also be upsetting at times as you start to piece the story together. For instance, discovering a maternal grandmother who might have been alive at the time in a mental institution, posed me the question of was I morally responsible for her? Lastly, if they are still alive, do not approach your birth parents independently. Go through an intermediary.

My county council did this for me and contacted my birth mother on my behalf. She did not want to know anything about me or to have contact. Was I disappointed? No. I received the call in the middle of a field outside a zoo park. I looked down at my year-old grandson and realized I was starting a new dynasty of my own, one that will go on and be part of building the Britain of the future. In the meantime, I have gained a knowledge of genealogy and a love for research that will last the rest of my lifetime. I have found ancestors to be proud of and know the importance of treasuring my own family. So has adoption been good for me? Of course it has. Next step, DNA testing, but that will be another tale.


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