Actor Lawrence ‘Larry’ Lamb finds it easy to up sticks. “There’s a real wanderlust in me,” he says. “It’s like, what’s on the other side of the hill?” His mother Jessie shares this “move-on, gypsy” quality. Little does Larry realise how his next journey, into the past, will reveal others with the same restless spirit.
Larry wants to learn more about his mother’s side of the family. Jessie was adopted in 1930 at a time when this was a process shrouded in secrecy and it’s only recently that an adoption support agency has gathered together documents related to what happened. On a visit to his mother in Eastbourne, he even sees the note where her mother, Catherine Walker Burns Rose, confirms that she’s giving up her daughter for adoption.
First, Larry wants to know more about his maternal grandfather, Albert Day, who worked on fairgrounds. At the Black Country Living Museum, which counts old-fashioned rides and stalls among its exhibits, Larry meets historian Guy Belshaw. The Days, Larry discovers, were a well-known, prosperous fairground family.
Albert’s father, also known as Albert, was a “menagerie proprietor”. At the National Fairground Archive in Sheffield, Larry learns more about the Days. Albert’s brother, James ‘Jimmy Wildbeast’ Day, with whom young Albert lived following the death of his mother from TB, was a famous lion tamer. “He knows how to strike a pose,” says Larry as he sees a picture of his great-great uncle.
With help from the Showmen’s Guild, Larry’s able to find a branch of his family still involved in the business. In Devizes, Wiltshire, Larry meets John Joseph Day, Jimmy’s grandson, who’s able to show him a picture of “Little” Albert Day Junior in a World War One uniform. Sadly, the family don’t know what happened to Albert. A “restless” man, he disappears off the radar after 1926, the year Jessie was born.
Still, Larry’s delighted with what he’s found. “This life would certainly suit [Jessie], that’s for sure, constantly moving on,” he says.
Larry next turns his attention to tracing his grandmother, a woman that Jessie vaguely remembers from a single childhood visit and whom she’s long dreamt of meeting. Marriage records reveal that Catherine re-married in 1932 (although the certificate says she’s a spinster…) in a civil ceremony, to Louis Rosen. In 1938, the two got hitched again, in a religious service at Walford Road Synagogue in Stoke Newington, a gap explained by Catherine going through the long process of converting to Orthodox Judaism.
Just in time, because she was four months pregnant at the time of the second ceremony, with Jessie’s half-brother, John Michael Rosen. Here the trail runs cold until Larry checks passenger liner records. In February 1953, the Rosens emigrated to Los Angeles.
On the west coast, Larry finds traces of Catherine’s new life. In 1962, she became an American citizen. Louis died in 1967 and Catherine remarried in 1971. Sadly, Jessie’s dream of seeing her mother again isn’t to be. Kay Rosen Levitz, as she was known at time of her death, passed away in 1991.
But there’s a final twist. Her son, John, is alive and lives on the outskirts of LA. On a rainy day, Larry goes to meet his uncle, who at the age of 72 has suddenly discovered, like his sister, that he’s not an only child.
Larry reflects on the way he’s gradually built up a picture of the lives of Albert and Catherine. “You’re just part of the journey yourself,” he says. “Now that I have an understanding of those two other grandparents, I feel stronger.”