The mystery of the missing grandmother – or ‘O Bessie. Where Art Thou?’

Bessie Addison nee Hardiman at my parent’s wedding 1960

I wrote this post last year and although I have recently discovered a little more about the strange dynamic of the Hardiman family I still cannot trace my Grandma. There are hints that as ‘Bessie’ she might be the daughter of her much older half-sister Jessie who was only about 21 in 1897 and who remained unmarried for at least another 15 years. But it is all conjecture and as I seek to write up and publish the family story I wanted to send this out there one more time in the hope that someone might have another line of enquiry to suggest….

I have been inspired to write this post by Debra, a great person to chat to on twitter and the author of a new blog at A Pocket Full of Family Memories. She has dedicated her first blog posts to her grandmothers, bringing them to life through biographical detail and, movingly, by listing memories that spark emotions often pushed to the back of our minds as we move from our initial grieving at the loss of someone close. It got me thinking about the only grandmother I knew (my father’s mother had died long before I was born) – a woman who was not only the keeper of family secrets, but something of a mystery herself.

My mother is alive and well, aged 82. She has all her proverbial marbles and enjoys chatting through the history of her family. As I am a very amateur genealogist and a social historian in training I was initially just a willing listener, fascinated by what she could tell me of her mother, Bessie Addison, née Hardiman and the Hardiman clan in general. If you have read my family history and mental health blog posts before, you will know that from listener I became detective and uncovered some family secrets that in turn my mother listened to with astonishment and not a little disbelief.

My grandma was always known as simply ‘Bessie’. Born on the 24th June 1897 she was known to mum as the daughter of George and Clara Hardiman, nee Bennett, and sister to George Jnr (‘Tump’), Edith and May. Mum knew of another sibling, Alfred, who had died before  she was born, but he was never spoken of except in hushed tones. In 1923 Bessie married Arthur Addison, a gas fitter and it was 1929 before my mum, Stella, was born.

The Addisons, like the Hardimans, had moved from the slums of St Pancras and Clerkenwell to north London suburbs such as Holloway and Hornsey.  Bessie and mum spent a lot of time with Clara in the ’30s and ’40s but George Hardiman, a silversmith, was long dead.

Herne Bay Pier, the sea frozen around it in 1963. Two years later I started my regular visits with grandma…

My memories of my grandma are of an old lady (she was 65 when I was born) and are, I feel, only linked to homes, or holidays. I can vividly recall details of the flat she and grandpa occupied above a dry cleaners on the Stroud Green Road, North London. It had a large sash window on the landing,  out of which grandma leant to hang out the washing on a pulley system seemingly miles above the ground. And I remember the sea at Herne Bay where she took me each year until I was about eight when I told her I didn’t want to go any more. It made her cry.

However, I don’t actually remember her as a person at all.

My mum describes her as an energetic young woman who, before her children came along had worked on the buses as a clippy during the First World War and had run a cafe used by working men – including her husband to be.  Bessie’s mother, Clara, had come to London as a domestic servant having apparently taught herself to read from the sacks her father carried in his work as a carter in the village of Great Rollright in the Cotswolds.  Her father, Bessie maintained, was a silversmith who had chased the silver trowel used to lay the first brick of the Royal Albert Hall.

Clara Hardiman enjoying a cockle or three..

Family stories were told with pride. Photos show the women of the family dressed smartly, posing for studio shots or, in the case of an elderly Clara, chomping happily on a plate of cockles at Leigh on Sea. The family was a model of what my grandpa termed ‘upper working class’ respectability, especially after they moved to Hornsey Rise in the London Borough of Islington. But following a conversation in which my mother used the intriguing phrase ‘there was always some mystery about them though’ I decided to pursue Bessie and her family through the generations. After all, this was a branch of my family tree that at the time was un-researched.

I have discovered many interesting things about the Hardimans over the past five years. George Hardiman Snr was actually married to Sarah née Withall, with whom he had two daughters in the 1870s.  From the 1881 census it is clear that Clara Bennett went to live with the couple as a servant.

During the 1880s, George fathered children with both Sarah (described as a’lunatic’ in the 1881 census) and Clara. Sarah disappears from all official records and Clara assumed the surname Hardiman sometime after the 1891 Census although there is no evidence of Sarah dying or of a marriage. Clara had Helena May in 1896.

But there was no trace of Bessie, supposedly born a year later and there are no photographs of her before her marriage.

At first I thought little of this. She would be there somewhere, mis-transcribed or mis-spelt. I moved onto the years after 1914 and was soon absorbed in the story of Alfred which I have written of at length on this blog and in articles. He murdered his young ex-girlfriend and then killed himself at the end of 1922, in front of Bessie who had to give evidence at the inquest. My mother knew nothing of this horror, but the discussions about Alf’s mental health issues prompted her to recall similar problems experienced by Bessie’s siblings.

Bessie Hardiman marries Arthur Addison 1923

Then the daughter of a cousin of my mum got in touch and it transpired that her mother had always been told that Bessie was ‘not a proper auntie’. Could this explain why I had never been able to find a record for a Bessie Hardiman born 1897? Was she a cousin or even unofficially adopted? I went back to my mum, who was bemused. Are you sure, I asked, that her name was Bessie? Was it not short for something? What was her middle name? I had always thought it odd that after giving other children in the family quite grand Christian and second names, Bessie was just that – Bessie. However, Mum was convinced and indeed ‘Bessie’ is all that is shown on her marriage certificate and on the 1911 census.

I have now exhausted all avenues I have ready access to. I have asked more experienced genealogists for ideas, but there is no trace in any record – BMD or Parish. I have searched Hardiman, Bennett, Hardiman-Bennett, all variants I can think of. I have gone through lists of Bessies of all surnames but none fit. I am going up to London later this week in the hope that some small snippet of information in the Islington Family History Centre will offer a clue.

Bessie was a lovely grandmother, a good mother and a strong hard-working woman. She witnessed a shocking event and never spoke of it. She saw siblings experience significant mental health issues, but apparently remained unaffected herself. There is nothing very mysterious about the way she lived her life. She died in 1972 whilst I was at primary school and entirely unaware of how important the history of the family would become for me.

So where do I go now? What can I check? Who can I go to? Will I ever know who ‘Bessie Hardiman’ actually was?

For me it all goes to prove that as children we don’t even know everything of our mother’s history, let alone our grandmother and beyond. It is great to ask the questions whilst your relatives are still alive. But for now, unless someone reading this can help, I can’t think of any new questions to ask…

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2 Responses to The mystery of the missing grandmother – or ‘O Bessie. Where Art Thou?’

  1. Suzie, I ,too, have a grandmother with no birth record, although I do have a copy of her (Catholic) baptismal record. I have pondered for many years why her birth was not registered, while those of some of her siblings were. Also, why the family is missing from the 1881 census (she was born in 1886). I have also toyed with various scenarios about her not being the child of the parents she is found living with in both 1891 and 1901, but in the end rejected all of them.

    I knew this lady very well, she has been my maternal role model in life and in the end I just need to trust that she is who she said she was. Times were different then, paperwork was not quite so important, and I suspect that some parents just “forgot” to register their children. At least that’s how I like to think about it.

    I know your case is not quite so straightforward, but even so, I’d like to think that your grandmother was indeed the person she thought she was.

  2. Pingback: Telling ‘Sarah’s Story’ – finding truth in family history | No more wriggling out of writing ……

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