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Genealogy's Hidden Histories: Silly Talk and the Unexplored | Tracing Our Roots

Updated: Jun 8

While visiting my parents after my daughter's birth, I casually remarked to my mother that our families were the same size. She had a family of two - herself and her elder brother, my Uncle John - and I had a family of two - my son, the eldest, and my daughter. It was a silly comment, and I knew it as soon as I had said it, I was one of three boys, and no sisters. My comment would have made sense if I had said that my grandparents' family and mine were the same.


I was prepared for my mother to correct me, but what came next was quite a surprise. My mother told me that she had three siblings. How many, I asked. Three, she answered. I already knew about Uncle John, who lived across the street from us, but I wondered who the other two were and why my mother had never told me about them.


Eric Fred Bradbury Jonhson


Eric Fred Bradbury Johnson was born in Willesden, located in the northwest of London, on October 16, 1917. Eric was the beloved child of Fred Bradbury and Lily (Lines) Johnson, who had him three years before they got married. My mother's oldest sibling, Eric, died while serving in World War II. She still missed him a lot and treasured his memories. Eric was an absolute comfort to my mom after her mother, Lily, passed away. At that time, Eric was eight years, three years older than my mom. They had a lot of fun together until Eric started straying. My mother knew very little about Eric, but my genealogy research helped fill in some missing pieces.


Missing Pieces:


I started my search with the 1921 Census of England and Wales, a significant historical record and an exclusive resource of FindMyPast.

That information led me to search, Ancestor's resource for researching military ancestors. It provides access to over 500 million indexed and digitized original military records, including personal documents, photos, and stories.

Eric's Father A Patient in a Staffordshire Hospital:


In WWI, Germany's trench warfare, bomber planes, and chemical weapons meant that injured soldiers needed a long time to recover. Convalescent homes were set up in big buildings to help the soldiers. In England, the War Office didn't realize how many wounded soldiers there would be. So, there weren't enough military hospitals to take care of them. In just one year, 23,000 more injured English soldiers showed up than anticipated. Many fancy manors were turned into convalescent hospitals to give them a place to get better. In late 1920, Fred Bradbury Johnson, Eric's father, injured during WWI, was admitted to Canwell Hall.

Eric's Mother, Lily, Living and Working in a London Hospital:

Meanwhile, with no source of income, Lily, Fred's mother, ended up living and working at the South London Hospital for Women on the south side of Clapham Common, a notable institution in London’s medical history. The hospital was known for its all-woman staff and served as a general hospital treating women and children.

Eric Living in a Foster Home:

As a result, when Eric was just three years old in 1921, he and his younger brother became foster children under the care of M.A. Treadway. They resided at 2

6 Albert Terrace in Middlesex, England. Once Fred had recovered, the entire family moved to a new home in London.


 Mother's Death and Legal Trouble:

Lily died on June 21, 1926, at age 30, at the St James' Hospital, 46 Ouseley Rd, Balham, London, England. She died from Acute Endocarditis. Eric took the death hard, and by the time he was 17, he had spent six months at Padcroft Boys Home for stealing. He was in court again in May of 1935 for stealing a bicycle from the Regent Cinema in Hayes along with Kenneth Robbins. While acquitted of stealing the bike, Eric was found guilty of receiving the stolen bike. Kenneth Robbins was convicted of stealing a bicycle.


The Army Life:

On May 9, 1935, the same month as his bike trial, Eric enlisted at the age of 17. He served as a Private in the East Surrey Regiment, a line infantry regiment of the British Army that existed from 1881 until 1959.


​The Fall of Singapore: 


The fall of Singapore, also known as the Battle of Singapore, occurred during the Southeast Asian theater of the Pacific War. The Japanese Empire captured the British stronghold of Singapore, with fighting lasting from 8 to February 15, 1942. Singapore was a crucial British military base and economic port in Southeast Asia, and its capture resulted in the largest British surrender in history, including Eric Fred Bradbury Johnson.



The Death Railway Camp


Eric was a prisoner of war in Thailand's Camp 4. Camp 4, also known as a Death Railway camp, was situated in Kanburi (also spelled as Kanchanaburi), Thailand. The notorious Death Railway was constructed during World War II by Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and Asian laborers under harsh conditions. POWs at Camp 4 were forced to work on the railway, enduring extreme hardships and brutality.


Final Resting Place:

After surviving the camp for two years, Erik was transferred to Japan when, tragically, he lost his life at the age of 26 on September 21, 1944. The transport ship he had been on was torpedoed and sank. He is honored at the Singapore Memorial in Kranji, NW Singapore. The memorial honors the men and women from Britain, Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka, India, Malaya, the Netherlands, and New Zealand who died in the line of duty during World War II.


Eric Fred Bradbury Johnson Remembered
Eric Fred Bradbury Johnson Remembered

Constance Annette Charlotte Johnson


What I Knew:


My Aunt's story was different; she had been given up for adoption. My grandfather, Fred, could not take care of my Aunt Connie after my grandmother, Lily Johnson, formerly Lily Lines, died a few months after having her fourth child. My mother last saw her sister when she was five, and Connie was three.


My mother only heard of her sister once more when her stepmother, Elsie, gave her a photo of Connie around 14. She had sent it to her Aunt Charlotte (one of Lily's sisters) and Uncle Dick; they had given it to Elise, knowing that my mother still wondered about her sister. No one ever spoke of Connie again or told my mother or uncles where Connie was.


Nowhere To Be Found:


I always remember that afternoon for the shared family stories and because my mother told me I was the only one she ever told them to. When I asked her why, she said no one ever seemed interested. A few years later, both my mother and uncle were gone. When I decided to begin my genealogy adventure, I looked at what was already out there. My mother and her brothers were on everyone's tree, but my aunt was nowhere, not even at the FamilySearch site. It was as if she did not exist.


Proving The Story:


All I had was a name, Constance Johnson, a date, around 1926, and a location, London, England. The trouble is that London is enormous, and Johnson is England's 11th most popular surname; over a hundred Constance Johnsons were born around 1926 in and around London. I had subscriptions to Findmypast, Ancestry, MyHeritage, and a Tree on FamilySearch in hopes of finding her.

I kept looking everywhere I could think of that might have any information. After a search that lasted for months, I finally came across Constance A C Johnson on Findmypast. Since my mother and Uncle had two middle names, and this was the only Connie with two middle initials I had seen, and her mother's maiden name was Lines, I sent off to the British General Records Office (GRO) for a certified copy of her birth certificate.

Here At Last:

When the document arrived, I eagerly read it. Here, at last, was my Aunt Constance Annette Charlotte Johnson. She had even been given Charlotte as a middle name, a family name dating back to the 1700s.  


Hunting for Connie: 


The task now was to uncover what had happened to Connie. As my mother suspected, was she given to one of Lily's siblings? The easiest way to find that out would be to ask one of their descendants. Unfortunately, all of this branch of the Lines family had died out, except for Lily. They either did not get married, got married but had no children, or had one child who married but also had no children.

That left the 1939 British Register, a substitute for the destroyed 1931 UK census, as the most promising source. I checked the 39 Register for Lily's siblings but could not find Connie. If Connie was not living with the siblings in 1939, where was she, and what was her new last name? Even my cousin, who had researched our family's genealogy for over thirty years, could not provide any insights.



The Romani Connection:

When the Romani share stories about their ancestors, they carry a rich heritage and a sense of connection to their past. Some believe their ancestors look over their shoulders as they recount their history and experiences as they tell the story. Maybe Connie’s Romani ancestor could point the way to finding her.


According to my mother, Connie's great-grandmother, Jane, was a British Romani, also known as Romanichal in Britain or Gypsies. I had spent a considerable amount of time trying to prove the authenticity of this story, but it was a pleasant distraction from not finding Connie. Jane was almost as elusive as Connie, but after gathering all the relevant records and with the help of DNA, I could confidently say that she was indeed a Romani.

I possessed all but one of Jane's records, her death certificate. After another request to the GRO, I received Jane's last record. As often happens with records, it answers one question and raises another. Lily and her grandmother Jane both died at a young age, as did Jane's mother, Sarah. Sarah died before the causes of death were registered. Jane and Lily, however, both died due to heart-related issues. It remained unclear whether Lily and Jane had an inherited heart condition as the causes of death were not definitive enough to answer that question.


Sarah Ann:


The only one that might shed some light was Sarah Ann Lines. Sarah Lines was Lily's mother and Connie's grandmother. Sarah Ann lived to the ripe old age of 79. Still, she should be able to answer this new question. A few days after my latest request to the GRO, I was looking at her cause of death: no genetic heart conditions. The big surprise was who had reported the death, L. Henwood, her daughter. If that was true, it meant that Sarah Ann's daughter Louisa Lines had married, but according to records from over fifty Lines Family researchers, Louisa had never been married. The 1921 UK census has her living with her parents at the age of 27. The records after that, including the 39 registers, showed Louisa lived alone but near her parents until she died in 1967.


Could we all be wrong?

If we were wrong, I hoped it would be easy to prove. I looked to see if any of the Louisa Lines had married anyone named Henwood between 1921 and 1939. The 39 register was my only chance of finding Connie; she would have been 14. I found one and only one, Louisa Lines, who had married a Henwood. This Louisa married Horace Cecil Henwood in 1923, two years after the 1921 census and six years before the 1939 register.

If this was right, then the records of Louisa Lines after 1921 were wrong. I quickly started scanning for Louisa and Horace's 1939 Registry. At last, I found her. Constance Annette Henwood, age 14, was living with the Henwoods. I found my aunt. My mother was correct; Connie had been adopted by one of Lily's siblings.


Now, the rest of Connie's story could unfold. Connie was diagnosed with Colitis when she was 10 or 11, and by the age of 14, she was listed as incapacitated on the 1939 register.

At the age of 22, in 1948, she went into the hospital for an Ileostomy operation, a standard operation to treat the symptoms of severe Colitis at the time. Unfortunately, something went wrong, and she died on the operating table from a pulmonary embolism.


Closing Thoughts:

The lesson I took from the conversation with my mother that day was that when it comes to our family history, there is no silly talk or dumb questions. I have also learned not to overlook any of my ancestor's records; I could have found my Aunt Connie months before if I had gotten Sarah Ann's death record, but at the time, I did not think it would give me any useful information.

If those Romani are right in the belief that our ancestors look over our shoulders as we recount their stories, and I like to believe they do, then Connie, Eric, their mother Lily, and her sister Louisa can finally all stand together.

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