SCA Blog: People Without Provenance

SCA Blog: People Without Provenance

17 September 2019

Our final event in our Why Archives Matter series will take place in Spring 2020, and will focus on why records management matters. In the lead up to this event, we will be posting a series of blog posts exploring some of the areas and concerns of the sector. We begin by examining the impact of archives and records on the lives of adults adopted in the UK during the post-war era, with Susan Beckley, formerly archivist at Highland Council.

Susan Beckley

A chance encounter with a social worker from the local authority where I live, has resulted in my becoming involved in tracing ancestry and living relatives for a number of adults adopted in the era of the ‘closed adoption’ system from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.  From the 1970s onwards adoption practice became more open, with the development of ‘letterbox’ contact between adopted children and birth parents, and the introduction of life- story books for adoptees.

Children adopted at birth in the closed adoption era in many cases lost their biological family, their name, their lineage, culture, and heritage, and their medical history. They grew up seeing no one whom they resembled, or with whom they shared traits and abilities. Very often an atmosphere of secrecy prevailed, and questions about origins were not welcomed. Many adopted adults experience an underlying sense of sadness, and any further experiences of rejection in the course of their lives can feel devastating. Adoption, although it was intended to bring a positive outcome for all concerned, was almost invariably based on loss for all sectors of the adoption triad, the birth parents, the adoptive parents, and the adopted child. In writing about children adopted at birth, psychologists talk about the concepts of ‘genealogical bewilderment’, being ‘a lack of knowledge of one’s real parents and ancestors’ (B J Lifton, 1994), and ‘disenfranchised grief,’ defined as ‘grief connected to a loss which cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported’ (Kenneth Doka, 1989).

As someone who was adopted during the early 1950s, and having searched at intervals throughout my adult life, for information about my origins, I have been privileged to assist a number of people in their search. Two recent examples make an interesting comparison. Both of these individuals already knew the name of their birth mother, but very little else.

A woman in her mid- fifties, adopted at birth in 1963, wanted to find her birth mother, whom she knew to have been aged 21 when she was born. Sadly, a search of the statutory registers revealed that her mother had died, at the age of 52, back in 1994. This experience of ‘finding a grave’ happens quite often in adoption searches, and feelings of secondary rejection can arise. Having had a similar experience myself, I sought to support her, and continued to search for other biological relatives. The Ancestry website proved helpful and resulted in the discovery of a half -sister, who, when eventually contacted, was unaware that she had an elder sister, having grown up as an only child. Information from census returns, the 1939 Register, and the electoral registers, have provided family information about grandparents and great grandparents, all contributing to a sense of identity and context.  The sisters recently met for the first time, and the email below speaks for itself:

‘Hi Susan,

Just had the loveliest day!! We got on great, blethered endlessly!

My sister gave me a book of photos of the family…the picture of my granny as a young woman says exactly why I am the way I am…. (The sister) describes mum as unconventional, loved gardening, and artistic…It was like a huge relief to hear, even though I hadn’t realised I needed to hear it…if that makes sense!

None of this would have happened without you…Can’t tell you how grateful I am’.

The second example was a man in his late sixties, who wanted to know about his family history, and although he had been given the name of his birth mother, he had never searched. He had no expectation of finding living relatives, his mother having been born in 1925, almost a century ago. To his astonishment the search revealed that his mother, now aged 94, was alive and resident in a care home near London. Following the birth and relinquishment of my client, this lady had married and had two further sons. All three are now in contact, and my client has visited his mother who had not kept his existence a secret from her family as is often the case.

Much of this work centres around online resources such as the statutory registers, and electoral registers, but the use of more historic collections in a variety of repositories can help to flesh out a family tree and give an adopted person a sense of identity and context. Because of the need for confidentiality, it would not be appropriate to provide more specific details about these two examples, but my own experience illustrates how historic collections can be so beneficial.

I was adopted in the south of England and grew up assuming that I was English. It was only when, in the 1970s, I applied for my original birth certificate and saw my mother’s original name, that I realised that she was probably Scottish, and, after many years of searching (in the pre-Internet era), I located the family croft near Kingussie, Inverness-shire. The census returns and valuation rolls brought generations of the family to life in Badenoch, and the records of the Kingussie and Abernethy Parochial Boards held at the Highland Archive Centre record the break -up of my grandparents’ marriage and subsequent applications for poor relief. As life became more difficult, and with the support of the landowners (the family were tenants of the MacPherson-Grants of Ballindalloch) four of my mother’s older siblings were admitted temporarily to the Aberlour Orphanage in Banffshire in 1905, and I have viewed the original correspondence relating to this at the headquarters of the Aberlour Trust. Moving forward, I have been able to view records of my birth mother’s training as a psychiatric nurse at the former Royal Liff Hospital, Dundee, during the 1920s-30s, which are held by the Dundee University Archive Service.  Information about other family members emerged from archival sources, for example one of my grandfather’s brothers kept the Temperance Hotel in Aviemore during the early years of the last century, and my great-great grandfather, was at one time the inn-keeper at Dalwhinnie, and during the 1820s was coachman on the Inverness to Perth mail coach. There is no doubt that archives can make a significant contextual difference to people who have no history or information about their origins and culture.

But good Records Management practice is important too. One of the most difficult practical issues about which many adopted people complain, is their lack of medical history. The various closed on-line forums which exist nowadays for adopted people, often include comments about visits to the GP’s surgery where they are asked  ‘is there a history of x… y…or…z in the family,’ and the feeling of shame, and of being ‘less than’ which they experience when having to admit that they don’t know.  This issue was brought into focus for me in recent years when I developed a chronic neurological condition which can have a genetic connection. I was asked repeatedly by neurologists about my family medical history and I was unable to help them.

This led me to do two things. Firstly, to take a DNA test as sometimes these can help, though not in my case. But a bi-product of taking the test was that my genetic heritage was found to be 100% Scottish and Irish, thus debunking any notion that I might have had previously that I might be at least half English!

Secondly, I applied for my original adoption file. There is now an established procedure for this, and, subject to a requirement to have prior counselling with an adoption social worker, it is possible to apply for one’s own file from the local authority involved at the time. The local authority in which I now live, sent off their standard ABR (Access to Birth Records) form to the local authority where I was born. They received a reply indicating that I was not listed on their database of children. The applicant council then replied enclosing a copy of my original birth certificate indicating the location of my birth. The adopting authority conceded that they would need to search their paper files, but stated that these were stored off-site in departmental storage and so this might take some time. After a number of attempts to access the storage, involving difficulties with keys and alarm systems, they indicated that they had retrieved what they described as a ‘skinny file’. After some further delays, the file was posted directly to me. It consisted of four documents, and included no medical information. The four papers had been removed from the file cover, so any contemporary annotations on the file are lost. Even small snippets of information such as this are so important.

The whole process was quite demoralising and dehumanising, even for someone accustomed to the vagaries of local authority record keeping in the past.  Searching very often involves the discovery of difficult and sometimes distressing information, but generally people would prefer to know, rather than remain ignorant of their origins. It is very encouraging to learn of the work currently being undertaken at University College London by the AHRC- funded MIRRA project (Memory-Identity-Rights in Records-Access), which seeks to highlight and improve record keeping practice and access to records for care leavers.

Susan Beckley

(retired Highland Council Archivist)