A chance encounter in New Zealand led to a family discovery 111 years in the making.
Choosing a window seat towards the back of the bus, I placed my tote bag beside me and readied my camera for action. There would be plenty of breathtaking scenery to capture as soon as we were underway. I loved not having to share my space with anyone, just spreading out my belongings for easy access.
Our tour group had gathered at a resort west of Christchurch, New Zealand, because that city was still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2011. Once all 33 of us were aboard, our Maori guide (who was a court judge during the off-season) welcomed everyone and described our morning route west on the South Island. Then he began passing around his mic asking each person to briefly introduce themselves.
My heart started noticeably pounding while I figured out what to say. I wanted to be friendly, a little bit humorous, but not too long-winded. I’m always inclined to talk too much.
Within the first few speakers the pattern evolved that only one member of a couple would introduce both of them. The only problem with this method of getting to know one another was the fact that when you are sitting on a moving bus listening to a disembodied voice, you haven’t a clue about the speaker’s appearance. How can you possibly connect a brief spoken introduction with a face?
Minutes later I heard a pleasant lady’s voice with an English accent announce, “Hello, we are Heather and Norman Grant from England. We live in a village you will never have heard of — Sutton Coldfield — a suburb of Birmingham.”
My heart leapt!
My late father was BORN in Sutton Coldfield in 1900 — a fact I had only learned after his death when examining his birth certificate, which had yellowed with age. I briefly stood up to peer at Heather so I could later make contact and share this astonishing fact.
Connecting With Strangers
As the tour progressed, we soon became friends. One of the benefits of travelling solo is the ease with which you form new relationships with people you find interesting (and the ability to avoid those you don’t). Heather, Norman, and I ate meals together a few times and found we had much more in common than just a connection to a small English village in the West Midlands. All of us were now retired — she from Information Technology; he from Accountancy at a brewery; I from Training Consulting; our kids were of similar ages and stages.
As we checked into our hotel near the Franz Josef Glacier, we found we had been assigned adjacent rooms. They invited me to join them for dinner again and we found our senses of humour and views of the world enjoyably congruent.
When our tour was ending in Auckland, we exchanged contact information. One of the great joys of retirement is international travel and we fully expected our paths to cross again. They’d heard about my having lived in England in the 1980s and still having plenty of contacts there. They planned to visit Canada someday soon.
Having been divorced two years earlier, I reveled in the freedom to plan exactly where I wanted to go without consulting any travelling companion. After spending three weeks during the previous autumn visiting friends and family in England, I decided that I would LIVE in England for one month a year. Why on earth shouldn’t I?
I’d met the Grants in February 2012, and vague thoughts of an October UK travel itinerary began to percolate only months after I got home. I wrote to them to assess the sincerity of their invitation to visit. We barely knew each other and perhaps they were just being polite.
“We’d love to have you! Tell me your dad’s full name and birth date and I’ll do some research before you arrive,” read part of Norman’s reply. Being newly retired with time on his hands, he liked the challenge of chasing down minutiae, I suppose.
Within a few weeks, he sent me an excerpt from the 1901 census of Sutton Coldfield. In spidery early 20th-century handwriting I read the names of my grandfather, grandmother, aunt, and father plus a nurse! The house address was written as “Oak House, Station Road, Sutton Coldfield.”
Norman explained that houses of that era still had only names without street numbers, so he had been unable to pinpoint the exact house in which they had lived. Today every house has been assigned a number for GPS purposes.
Goosebumps swept over me as I viewed this census entry about my very own family while sitting in my Canadian home. Yes, it’s likely they would have had a baby nurse or nanny. The grandfather whom I’d never met was then treasurer of a brewery, so they could likely afford the luxury of help. The Grants and I settled on an October date for my short visit.
Arriving in Sutton Coldfield
Alighting from the train from Derby, I spied the couple wearing broad grins as they waited for me on the platform. What fun to be greeted so warmly by people I’d only met months before, on the other side of
the globe! The day was crisp and sunny. Heather explained they planned to take me to the important-to-me Station Road first to see if we could find my ancestral home. Then to a pub for lunch.
Given that the street’s name indicated proximity to a train station, I expected the neighbourhood to be a little seedy or commercial. Not the case. The detached and semi-detached houses still maintained an upper middle-class aura more than a century after being built.
Having been an architect, the design of beautiful buildings was Dad's life’s work, specializing in houses and churches. I'd heard him say he'd been born in Birmingham, and immediately categorize it as “a dirty, ugly, industrial city.”
He neglected to mention that when he came into the world his family was living in delightful Sutton
Coldfield about 15 km from central Birmingham. It’s quite possible he never actually visited the suburb himself, having moved to Repton, Derbyshire, at the age of two. The family emigrated to Canada when he was 13, where he lived to be 101.
Strolling the Street of Dad's Birth
Norman parked the car and the three of us began strolling along the residential portion of Station Road. Trying desperately to channel my deceased relatives (“Did you live here?” I’d murmur under my breath), I paused in front of any house that remoted resembled Grandfather’s taste in houses.
I’d seen photos of two large mansions he’d owned — one in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, one in Westmount, Quebec. Both were built in half-timbered Tudor style. As I walked, I snapped photos of five houses to at
least have some record of my search.
So near and yet so far…it was tantalizing to walk on this lovely street with such significance to my own heritage, without definitive knowledge of which house had been lived in by the Wilson family.
The next few days I spent with the Grants sped by with relaxed conversations and visits to fascinating places. Our friendship is still intact, marked by a 2013 dinner in our Toronto home with my new husband, and regular cards at Christmastime.
The Exact House
Two full years after my 2012 trip to Sutton Coldfield, an email from Norman appeared in my Inbox. He and Heather had been to a party at which they chatted at length with the Mayor of Sutton Coldfield,
meeting her for the first time. At some point they described my visit from Canada, and my foiled attempt to locate the house where my father was born. The Mayor offered to put them in touch with someone at the Town Hall who could match up the former “Oak House” with the current street number. Before going any further Norman wanted my permission to do this investigation.
“Of course! How exciting it would be to know the actual house. Please send me a photo of it, if it’s not too much trouble,” I wrote back.
It turned out to be 48 Station Road. He didn’t need to send me a photo, because I’d already taken one of that very house - shown at the top of this essay.
This essay was originally published on medium.com